“Saying Makes it So” a sermon by Mark W. Harris
November 11, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to worship – from Carl Sandburg (adapted)
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and our endless human yearnings for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prisms of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
Readings – I Kings 10 – Queen of Sheba story
from Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
When I was minister at the First Parish in Milton we voted on Jesus. This was not your simple thumbs up/thumbs down kind of religious preference of “I like Jesus” or not. This had to do with the affirmation of faith we said every Sunday, and the reaction to it by those who wanted the church to be less Christian. The affirmation was: “In devotion to truth, and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God, and the service of all. While not as close as the Presidential voting in Florida in last Tuesday’s election, it was still tight. It was Jesus vs. Jesus Christ, and Christ won by two votes. It was not that the majority believed that we should be worshipping Christ rather than following Jesus. No, it was a feeling like it had always been that way, so why change it now. Then there were those uninformed folks who simply felt Christ was his last name, and just calling him Jesus was perhaps too informal. Only in a UU church would we vote on Jesus. But that said, the first line of the affirmation was completely ignored – “in devotion to truth.” What truth is it we are devoted to?
This devotion to truth reminded me that we also have our own Trinity. While not the Father, Son, Holy Ghost variety that we rejected long ago, it can be easily accessed by looking at hymn #113 – “where is our holy church, where race and class unite, as equal persons in the search for beauty, truth and right. Beauty, truth and right? Defining those terms almost makes the Trinity seem rational. Beauty is an aesthetic value concerning what we see in the world or create with our hands. In fact, Keats famously said that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, and that is all you need to know. Except that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Right seems to be about doing the right thing, like giving people a fair chance, and treating everyone with kindness and compassion. And finally, there is truth. We may say that truth is what we are devoted to, but how do we define it? Is absolute Truth the Ten Commandments that God handed down on Mt. Sinai, or is it the beatitudes that Jesus preached on the metaphorical mountain? Neither a belief in God, the worthiness of the Bible, or Jesus are things we could agree on as truths. We might say we believe in many truths, and that those come to each of us based on our own understanding of knowledge and experience of life. The hymn says we are equal persons in the search for truth. So rather than a defined truth, it is more about a free search, and in that freedom we have each taken it upon ourselves to be the ultimate arbiters of authority. What is true for me, while grounded in tradition, must be based in honest dialogue about we experience the world. Truth is neither absolute nor permanent, but to begin with, it would help if it were at least based in the facts.
I began the sermon by talking about voting up or down for perceived truths about the world. This was one continuing debate I had with myself as this election year unfolded, and was the genesis of this sermon. I often seemed to be asking myself, how can a candidate make such outrageous statements that seem to have little or no basis in truth, and then get away with it. Perhaps you are sick and tired of political discussions having been subject to countless television ads, but I am hoping this will be a post-election call for greater truth and integrity in our government and in our lives. How would you like to have everything you ever wrote, even fictional stories, be portrayed as gospel truth about what you stand for? In the 1930’s Upton Sinclair, who is remembered most for his novel The Jungle, published a fictional work called “I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty.” The book told how he was going to run for governor, be elected, and then proceed to eradicate poverty. It was a very popular work, and what was intriguing about it was his attempt to make fiction true. He fulfilled his prediction that he would win the party nomination, but he lost the election. Part of the reason he lost was that a new type of business, the first political consulting firm ever, was created to defeat him. Campaigns, Inc. employed a little army of researchers who looked up every thing Sinclair had ever written, and then fed quotes to the Los Angeles Times which ran a front page box with an Upton Sinclair quotation every day. For example, Sinclair wrote a novel about a man whose wife was having an affair, and the character wrote a heartbroken letter to his wife’s lover. The paper quoted this fiction as an accurate portrayal of Sinclair’s views of marriage: “The sanctity of marriage . . . I have had such a belief. I have it no longer.” Nothing, the New Yorker reports, has altered our political democracy so much in the last century as the creation of political consulting.
While politics as business may be new to the world, hiding or masking the truth, intrigue and manipulation of words are not new. They are all used to keep the office holder in power or help him or her take power. Our manipulations of truth or words may have personal implications as well. We all deal with politics in the various organizations we belong to or jobs we hold. What are you willing to say or not say to the boss? Or in a church, how do you handle a person’s feelings so they don’t threaten to quit if they don’t get their way? At work, do you tell the boss exactly what you think despite the possibility of termination? Do you tell the volunteer if they can’t abide by certain civil rules of conduct, then they should go ahead and quit? There is probably no more famous story about the confluence of politics, religion and marital infidelity as that of Henry VIII, and his attempt to woo Anne Boleyn. Hilary Mantel tells about Thomas Cromwell’s struggles in Henry’s court in Bring Up the Bodies, where Anne Boleyn meets her fate. Mantel asks the pointed question, “What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is blurred because of various rumors and twists, but truth more often than not is found whimpering at a back door if it is not pleasing to the ear. Who took Katherine’s virginity, the church asks? This is a fact they and we will never know, but a truth that was lost to political expediency. As they say, we all tend to believe what we want or need to hear.
Upton Sinclair was beaten by a manipulation of truth that he referred to as the Lie Factory. There was another Lie Factory centuries before, as described by Poggio, a secretary to the Renaissance Pope, Boniface IX. This scribe made an amazing discovery when he saved from oblivion a narrative poem from the first century called On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. This story was recounted last year in the book, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. Lucretius described a universe of atoms that were randomly moving through space. It was a universe without a creator where the main truth for human beings was to enjoy the pleasures of living. Imagine this truth vs. the truth that the church taught 2,000 years ago. The Lie Factory in 1430 was a room at the Vatican where all the papal secretaries would tell jokes, and the butt of these jokes was often the pope himself. To retain their sanity, these employees would reveal their gossip and snipes. Poggio told stories that may not seem unfamiliar to us. For example, you bring the boss a document, and he says fix it, it’s all wrong. Later you bring back the same document, and he pronounces it perfect. Most of the stories are about sex. He tells about monks who hear confessions from women who all report being faithful, and then confessions from men who have all committed adultery, and wonders who are the women these men have sinned with. Where is the truth? Who is boasting about what they have claimed to have done? Poggio wondered why churchmen were especially prone to hypocrisy. Is there a relationship, he asks, between religious vocation and fraud? Poggio wanted to know how to identify hypocrites. He concluded that they bear such attributes as being excessively pure, want to be called good without actually doing anything good, want to make sure you know how much they fast or pray, and especially be wary of those who seem too perfect. Who wants to be affirmed in his/her goodness Well, clergy want to please everyone, and politicians want to please everyone, too. They want to be loved and/or voted for, but when can they say what they really think without political ramifications? Is it about getting flies with honey rather than vinegar, but where is the dividing line between too sweet and reality? I’ll try to say what I think you want to hear.
What are ways in which truth is violated and how can we guard its sanctity? I think it is good to have memory invoked and also some sort of perspective on how things were. My colleague in ministry David Boyer recently said, “I am so old that I can remember when liberals were liberal.” While I am old and times have changed, I was often offended in this campaign when certain candidates in their efforts to woo the right wing referred to the President’s plans for America as a “hard-core left agenda,” that has taken the nation “very far left, very fast.” Since when have we lived under such a leftist? You would think Castro himself were in office. This President proposed tax rates on the wealthy and a health plan that were more conservative than what Richard Nixon once supported, and his radicalism is decried? When it comes to truth we always need some perspective. Having this perspective helps us say, that person is really not what you are calling him.
Second, this also helps us to understand that a person’s truth may be calculated for effect. As we use to say, you are just saying that to get a rise out of me, or you want to provoke me for your own gain. The important lesson here is to call people on their methods, and say “stop that”, or I know what you are trying to do. This was not a good election for facts. Candidates said or implied things that had no basis in reality, or they said them as if their opponent had said something to the contrary, even if they had not. For instance one candidate said, I won’t take God off the coins. This implied that the other candidate had said they would remove “In God We Trust” from the coins. Was this ever said? No. But in making such a definitive affirmative statement you imply that you are responding to something the other said, even though they never did. What is so critical here is the need to stand up for truth, and keep calling the other on their deceptive methods. Two aspects of the Romney campaign shed light on this. First, the refusal to release tax returns. The refusal might have indicated that there was something to hide, but no one continued to indicate that this was a problem, and if they did, they soon found they were a lone voice crying in the wilderness. So the concern died out, and he never had to own up to this earlier refusal to comply with being transparent. The lesson is that when someone is lying; don’t let them get away with it, but instead insist that they be forthcoming.
The third aspect of this truth telling is not only speaking up, but also asking for more detail. When I was a teenager I tried to live my lies by being vague. I would say, “I am going into town.” This meant never really saying where I was going or what I was going to do. I was asking for trust and understanding where it was not really warranted. In this campaign, not only did Romney refuse to follow any kind of expected disclosure, he also refused to be specific about details. How could his tax cuts put the nation back on a sound economic footing? Vagueness means that you do not have to reveal specifics that would give others the information they need to base a decision on. This particularly became difficult to apprehend when we witnessed his transformation in the last month to someone we should believe in simply because he said so. This is what the New York Times referred to as a path to secretiveness. This is a way we lie by non-disclosure of facts, information or truths. I think my parents path made more sense. They were like Detective Joe Friday, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Tell us the truth. Where are you going, and with whom, to do what, and with politicians, just how are you going to do that? The bottom line here is for us to pay attention not necessarily to what is said, as it is to what is not said.
We all know that people manipulate data to serve their own truths. What was striking in the campaign was how the politicians were often in full attack mode, so that their opponents were increasingly villainized. They would have us believe that their opponent was going to drive us off the cliff they are so horrible and ineffective. When the attacks are so fast and furious it is hard to find objective truth about the other. It seems like it is all fabricated. Objective truth about the common good seems to be sacrificed for the personal truth of one candidate’s mission to be elected. These then are the things politicians do to establish the truth of their position and person with respect to their opponent. They lie by attacking the other, when they could be less vindictive, and more respectful. They lie by withholding the truth, when they could be more forthcoming. We help them lie by not holding them up to a forthcoming standard. They lie by misleading us as to reality, and we need to look back and have some perspective. They may persuade us that our situation is normative, when it is not. We could teach politicians a lot about how to live lives that reflect personal integrity – to be respectful, to be forthcoming, to be assertive, to have knowledge, memory and perspective on what really is true. As Emerson once said, “ Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth.”
Finding truth in this apprenticeship of life is not easy. People once believed that God established the ultimate truth, and the Bible contains the revelation of this truth. When people learned to read that book for themselves they saw there were different ways to understand that truth. Even as Protestantism flourished, and our faith was born, people were less and less likely to know a shared truth about the world they lived in. There was no longer one world truth to believe in. Historically we have believed in hierarchies of truth. As we learned about other religions we saw some as being more or less worthy than others, or even more full of the truth. People tend to believe that their faith is the truth that will save the human race. We have a different vision of truth, and it draws on some of those life lessons of creative interchange with the opposition that I spoke of earlier rather than vilifying them as an enemy or at best a perpetrator of false truth.
If you grew up in a traditional western faith you heard stories about the famous Queen of Sheba. She was the rich Queen from the book of I Kings who visits King Solomon. The story is typically used as a way to exemplify the greatness of Solomon, and yet Sheba is clearly shown to be a woman who is clever in word and deed, wealthy and powerful. In I Kings, they test each other, with hard questions, and both are proven worthy. She is also a figure who is mentioned in both the New Testament and the Koran as well, and so she appears in all three western traditions, one of the few women to do so.
Here one can see all three faiths coming together to reconcile difference and discord, rather than bullying the other to follow one truth over another, and or in deceiving one another with lies or with vagueness or withholding, which is often what we do in fear of expressing a truth that someone might disagree with. Interfaith reconciliation is a way to prevent mutual destruction, but is also a way for us to see that we must be honest with one another about our own personal experiences.. To find common truth that will allow the world to continue in peace means that we take the inner world that we have learned from our culture and family and journey to a new land, an outer world that will expand our horizons. We will not teach a truth that we demand the other will grasp, but rather we live a truth that allows us to learn from each other, listening and engaging, to understand what the other’s truths may be. Truth for us is based in the integrity of the person and the transparency of the relationship. Truth is not what I say, but who I am and who we are together. The truth in our hearts is not to conquer another, or to deceive another, or to withhold from another, but the heart’s journey is to go to the other, and share what is in our hearts, trusting our instincts that being honest and forthcomng with one another will lead us to something greater together. I want to listen to what you have discovered to be true, and learn how you live that truth every day of your life.
Closing Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson
Nothing is secure but life, transition, and the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath, no truth is sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope.
“Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist” – A Lay Service – November 4, 2012
First Lay Speaker – Molly Day
I have been coming to First Parish ever since I can remember. And honestly, I can’t imagine growing up in any other religious community.
I went through the religious education program here and although I don’t remember much about it specifically, it helped me garner a well rounded education of not just my religion, but others, and the values that are important to me now.
From watching the Simpsons to taking the OWL course, saying the program is not a normal RE program seems like kind of an understatement. I always resented having to wake up and go do things on Sunday mornings, but looking back, it was a valuable experience for me. I mean, it beats learning extensively about something I don’t necessarily believe in. And I made so many memories! Like being Clara Barton in the Christmas pageant, or helping write it, or this one time in OWL…
Maybe I’ll save that for another time.
I didn’t grow up learning that there is only one true religion, I didn’t grow up learning being gay is a sin, or that whether or not you get eternal happiness is whether or not you do a, b, and c on a daily basis, and I am grateful for that. I am not saying that gratefulness is true for everyone, im not saying that other religions are inferior, it is just the best choice for me.
I’m sure I’d be the same person if I didn’t grow up in this community, but getting to where I am today would have been a lot longer and harder process. Being UU has not only exposed me to amazing friends and experiences, as well as delicious food, but it also helped me develop a better understanding of others and I guess even myself.
Believe me, trying to explain to my friends what being UU actually is is HARD. Is not a very strict religion, and it doesn’t have a strict set of beliefs I can easily recite. I usually simplify it into “well you can kind of believe what you want, its more about peace and love and doing the right thing?” I guess that’s my interpretation of it. Then try to say the affirmation and doxology, because they explain it better than I ever could.
I don’t know all the UU principles, I don’t come to church every Sunday, but I do know that becoming UU was the best choice my parents ever made for me. Besides having me and my sister. And marrying.
What I love most about growing up UU is that I get to be part of a wonderful church community connected by similar set of values, but the community isn’t dictating what I should believe. Thankfully, I will never be under pressure to feign belief in some superior being, and I will always feel my personal belief is accepted. I got to form my own credo. That choice of belief, that encouragement to always ask questions, grow spiritually and to find out who you are on your own terms is what growing up UU has given to me.
I am UU because my parents are, but I will continue to be UU for the rest of my life for that unique acceptance and encouragement. I want my kids to experience the same benefits of choice and questioning that is part of UUism and part of me. I want to see what being a UU for my entire life is like, I want to grow and discover and share with my community. I want to drink some coffee and talk during social hour, I want to light a candle either for a joy, or a sorrow. Someday. Right now, I’m perfectly happy just helping out with the little kids, trying to fit youth group in, and pondering the existence of a higher being, in my own way.
Second Lay Speaker – Aaron Dushku
My name is Aaron Dushku and I’ve been coming here to First Parish with my family for about 2 years now. The ‘community’ of First Parish and of Watertown are huge reasons why I come here and in a way, those are HIGHLY spiritual things to me. However, I am leaving that out today because I want to talk from a more global perspective about my spirituality. Anyway, it will be hard to sum up ‘me and UU’ in 7 minutes but I’ll give it a try. First, a bit more about me.
Mom is a descendent of Idaho Mormons and Dad is a child of Albanian immigrants to Boston. The Albanian Orthodox church for us never extended beyond an annual Easter mass while a more concentrated exposure to Mormonism lasted up only up until I was 12. Raised our entire lives in Watertown, my parents divorced when I was 8 and we were one of 3 Mormon families in this town. We were also one of the few families in our large Belmont Hill congregation that was a single-parent household. Despite what I now consider a genuine effort to welcome us in their community, we never quite fit in with folks like the Romney’s. If you’ve read any of my mom’s writing on Mitt recently, you’ll see that her alienation from the leadership of that religious community went a lot deeper than that.
Mom is a poly-sci professor at Suffolk University and worked as the foreign student advisor there for almost 20 years. Through guests in our home or travel abroad, my mom, showed us the world from an early age. It was no surprise that after she took me to the USSR at 12, I enrolled in Watertown High’s USSR/China class and study tour. There, I read about Marx, Lenin and Mao and really started to understand the concept of religion being the opiate of the people. Then, she when I was 16, she brought me and a bunch of her students to Sandinista Nicaragua. We learned first-hand about their revolution and the trip gave me my first glimpse of the developing world -a place where I spent many years living and working since then.
When I eventually cashed in on my free tuition to attend Suffolk myself, I took full advantage of study abroad options by spending 5 of my undergrad semesters off-campus. I spent one on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation in South Dakota where I got a taste of the residual effects of what some call ‘religi-cide’. I also spent a lot of time traveling in the Spanish Empire and seeing what the Conquest and the Inquisition did and continue to do in those countries. For some added perspective, I am also married to an ex-Catholic from the Dominican Republic. ———-
After all of this, the chances got really slim for me to ever join any church.
The Mormons and the Catholics teach that we are excluded from the promise of an eternal salvation if we don’t adhere to their particular beliefs. That we’re lost from the start and it doesn’t even matter if we may never have had the chance to even meet a missionary. It doesn’t matter that for countless generations, a people may have worshipped another God with another tradition and with just as virtuous a doctrine. To me, that has always been the downfall of all religions –that they are ethnocentric and xenophobic. This runs contrary to everything that my mother ever taught me.
Yet, despite all my experiences with these faiths and disillusion with them, at some point in adulthood, I started feeling torn by something. I started losing my passionate rage against religion and realizing that I actually loved a lot of religious people. I started realizing that some of the dearest people in my life had bought into these things and that I actually admired them for it. I became a godfather of a catholic child while I was in the Peace Corps and I began talking to my wife and kids about God. We even started experimenting with some Mormon congregations. In a weird way, I started actually appreciating these faiths. So, before I walked in the door here, I think that I was starting to become a Unitarian Universalist without even knowing it.
Then, I got here and I started hearing Mark talk about the history of this faith. I began to realize that the first Unitarians who opened their eyes to a world of other ideas were really being guided by a higher power. I believe that these leaders and their successors were exhibiting in their teachings a beautiful culmination of religious thought. That where they were taking Christianity was part of a divine plan for humanity.
Pick up a UUA wallet card from Mark and you can read all about the core aspects of our faith. They are beautiful and they speak to my heart as being things I’ve believed in my whole life but without any structural framework or community. I believe that this approach to ‘religion’ -if you can call it that- is something special. I hesitate to talk about it sometime because it may come off as very cliché but inclusion and equality are two of the most important qualities and virtues that an individual and a society can possess. These are things that almost all religious leaders have taught about but that somehow in the collision of cultures on this earth, mankind has always lost focus on. We are imperfect and our egos always seem to get in the way. Even as members of this congregation we also sometimes make mistakes in our delivery of this message but when I look into each of your eyes, it is unmistakably there.
Sure, I traveled far to meet a lot of different people but this planet is actually a pretty small place. Sooner or later and even at a local level, acceptance and appreciation of our differences and the cultivation of a global community is the only way we’re going to survive on it.
Some websites from Aaron’s mother:
This one’s about the ‘Dushku Gerrymander’: http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/1111/A_complicated_Romney_family.html?showall
A Mormon Woman’s Manifesto
by Judy Dushku
Third Lay Speaker – Bobbie Brown
I wear the mantle of a life-long UU
Long enough to remember time before the union of Unitarians and Universalists
Moved to Salem, MA when I was a toddler
Soon joined the First Congregational (Unitarian) Society, founded in 1629
Christened in that handsome space with dark, carved wood and red carpeting
Above the pulpit, Beatitudes inscribed on glass panels
On each side, three stained-glass windows
In balcony at rear of sanctuary, the organ
Lord’s prayer recited at both Sunday School and at “big” church services
Communion served once a month
Church year from September to June
Year marked by church fair, Christmas pageant, annual meeting and supper, Children’s Sunday
Summer services shared with the Universalist Church
Sunday School classes
Emphasized Bible stories and Jesus’ teachings
Here I developed my image of one God who
Had flowing white beard, wore a long white robe
Later, one text was The Church Across the Street; the class attended service of several other denominations as well as the Jewish Temple
At end of each year a book awarded to those children who had met attendance standard
As a teenager, one year my book was the Bible; another year, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
Learned about the Service Committee
Which then supported Albert Schweitzer’s work on the Congo
Member of LRY for high school kids
Throughout these years felt supported by the stability of this church community
All this formed the prelude for my further UU experience and my expectations
- Early 1960s
- Newly wed transplanted to Albuquerque for my husband’s military service
- Found the UU church in the sprawling northeast section of the city
- Multi-use sanctuary with folding chairs
- Lecturn set before a mosaic panel with the symbols of the world religions; above, a view of the Sandia Mountains
- I was new to an homage to world views in a sanctuary; I found it inspirational, inclusive
- As to the service, also a new experience—like a speech or a lecture
- Was this “church”?
- Unable to settle into this form of worship
- There was also the temptation to spend weekends exploring “The Land of Enchantment”
- With its Southwest culture, history, and geography
- Indeed, found spirituality in the landscape of New Mexico
- God’s creation, worthy of reverence
- Significant that on one of our bi-annual grandparent visits, my older son was dedicated in the Salem church
- On to Ithaca, NY
- Where my husband accepted a civilian position
- That fall began attending the Unitarian Church
- Victorian building
- Heart of downtown Ithaca
- Active congregation of all ages, many with academic ties
- Comfortable with a more traditional service
- Provided worship time enhanced with music
- Sermons emphasized social, even political, activism
- Anti-Vietnam war, pro civil rights messages
- Names mentioned were new to me
- Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, Tillich
- Expanded my world knowledge and concept of spirituality
- Social opportunities
- Social hour altho’ several weeks before I was comfortable
- Circle suppers
- For my family
- My younger two children dedicated here
- Sunday School program was enriching
- Along with this influence
- I taught my children the Lord’s prayer
- Valuable guidelines for getting along in the world
- Even if my image of a “Father in Heaven” was waning
- Half-hour drive from home
- Was worth it for worship and community
- To further my UU ties during these years
- My brother, Chan Newton, was ordained in the Church of the Larger Fellowship in 1969 at Arlington Street Church
- Family moved to Norton, MA
- UU Church at center of town
- Spare, simple building
- Proud history
- A five-minute walk from house
- Soon realized this church struggling to be relevant
- Sparsely attended
- Four ministers rotated Sunday services
- Later dwindled to a service once a month
- Continued for convenience and with a sense of obligation
- Despite sincere efforts of those involved
- Not a satisfying worship experience
- Regret that my children missed out on a full UU Sunday School
- Around 1990
- Newly single
- Eventually settled in Watertown
- Attended a few services at UU church in Harvard Square
- Service was fulfilling
- Social hour daunting
- With energy of a cause-propelled congregation
- Looking for community, not a cause
- There was the call of family, new job, resettling
- I abandoned any plans to develop deeper ties to a church
- For years, weekends filled with family, friends, chores
- September 11, 2001
- My naiveté that I lived in a well-ordered, safe world crashed
- Immediately realized a need to reconnect w/ a spiritual community
- I was vaguely aware of active UU presence in Watertown
- Very next Sunday, found a seat in this welcoming space
- Found solace that morning in Mark’s words and the disruption shared by those in attendance
- Thus began my association w/ First Parish
- Recognize here the message of faith in the greater good found in each person with sharing in worship, gathering, and activism
- Always Unitarian, I now understand that spirituality is a life-long process
- Shared worship here at First Parish both grounds me and lifts me
“Recovery and Unitarian Universalism” by Mark W. Harris –
October 28, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Kalidasa
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today well-lived, makes
Every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Reading – from Ironweed by William Kennedy
Sermon – “Recovery and Unitarian Universalism”
What is the relationship between recovery from addiction and Unitarian Universalism? Recovery can be a complex topic, as addiction takes many forms, not only alcohol and drugs, but money, gambling, sex, eating, and maybe even love can consume people, as Robert Palmer once sang in “Addicted to Love.” We may start out enjoying something recreationally, but then we begin to feel the hold this habit has upon us, and can’t shake it, and in the end, it may control us. We must have it, we think, or else we cannot get through the day or even the hour. Last Friday, Andrea and I saw the documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” It is not about the famed Marie Antoinette, who exemplified the luxury and extravagance of the court of Louis XVI. This new Queen is a contemporary consumer of all manner of clothes and furniture and ornamental baubles. The queen is Jackie Siegel, who with her husband David made a fortune in the time-share industry. This is luxury living in resorts for a week every other year that David’s company sells to those who cannot afford them. The real Versailles taught us that unchecked excess cannot last, but the Siegels didn’t understand that history lesson. They thought their flow of cheap money would go on forever. They wanted more and more. This addiction played out through their plan to construct the largest house in America, a replica of the French palace. Then the economic crash came when the house was only partly constructed. The business empire collapsed when people stopped paying for their condos. The Siegels had to fire their staff. The family’s economic fall means they can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart, but their Christmas shopping is still an ode to excess, as several shopping carts keep filling. She insists on buying multiple copies of board games so each child may have one, rather than purchasing just one for the family. She is out of control with only her desires to live by. We begin to see that this couple is the exemplar of a culture of addiction, where people are encouraged to want more, even if they cannot afford it. Will the Siegels see that they are addicted, or deluded, or do they believe that tomorrow it will all be better? The documentary ends with the addiction still raging, even though the money has dried up.
We see how an addiction can grip us and hold us slave to its desires. But perhaps your family has its own story, or tale of addiction. My own family stories are filled with many drunkalogs, and I readily admit that I have what might be called an addictive personality. My own story of addiction is most present when I recall my twenty-five years of smoking cigarettes. It started as something I learned from my father, which I perceived as a cool, and certainly manly thing to do. Even baseball players advertized cigarettes in those days. Slowly I smoked more and more, and soon all the time. While I smoked with the knowledge that it was bad for me, that was undergirded by the excuse that I would quit when I got older. I would do anything for a cigarette. If I ran out, late at night, I would drive to the store to get some, even leaving my son alone. If money was tight, it didn’t matter; there was always money for cigarettes. I even remember lighting butts that were already smoked because the need was so intense, for one little hit of nicotine. When I promised Andrea I would quit, I said it would happen as soon as we had children, implying that it was a bad example to smoke around them. However, my son Joel was 13 at the time I said that. I finally did quit after Levi was born. But it took a few false starts, a few times of sneaking cigarettes, some lying to myself, but finally the habit was kicked. Then one day a few years later, I walked up Marshall Street and suddenly no longer huffed and puffed. I noticed the terrible smell on the bodies and clothes of others for the first time. I thought to myself: I once smelled like that. I even tried a cigarette once. It was the worst thing I ever tasted. I was free.
Addiction is probably something most of us can identify with, because even if we don’t have an addiction in our own history, we all know a family member or friends who cannot control his/her habit. At some point we made a choice. I am going to do something about this. It may have been a small step at first, and we may even have done some backsliding, but we got there with no more excuses, no more lying and no more covering up. Some years ago when Levi was little, we visited Martin Luther King’s birthplace in Atlanta. During that visit, Levi took his first steps walking by myself, right up the front stairs of the birthplace, perhaps just as MLK did. Dr. King once said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Today I want to suggest that recovery in Unitarian Universalism is a journey of faith. How can we free a captive soul from its past, and from our tendency to go it alone in life? Perhaps we can see some of those first steps of freeing the soul in the novel Ironweed. Francis Phelan has returned home to Albany, New York in 1938. He has wandered from place to place shirking his family responsibilities and his violent past that includes the accidental killing of his son. The novel takes its title from the ironweed plant; a wildflower with a tough stem that is difficult to break. Francis wants to reconcile himself with his actions from the past. In the reading we meet Oscar an old bar tender friend of Francis.’ Francis recognizes that this is a blood brother, who like him had promises that were unkept. They have been drunk to the pain of their life, but now Francis returns to recognize the need to make amends, the need to see others as fellow travelers each carrying their own scars.
The first step of recovery in Unitarian Universalism has to do with discovering a faith where we are encouraged to define ourselves rather than be defined by others. There is a story about a fool who went to see the rabbi, and said: “I know I am a fool, rabbi, but I don’t know what to do about it. Please advise me what to do.” “Ah, my son, he said, if you know you’re a fool, then you surely are no fool.” But the man was confounded by this, and asked the rabbi, “Then, why does everybody say I am a fool.” The rabbi pondered this and said, “If you yourself don’t understand that you’re a fool, but only listen to what people say, then you surely are a fool.”
Throughout our history, Unitarian Universalism has been the sanctuary for those who have been spiritually damaged by faiths that tried to define them. Our ranks are populated by “recovering” Catholics and Protestants, all individuals who have tried to fit their experience of life and learning into the cup of salvation that these faiths imparted to them: believe this or do this, and you will please God. Unfortunately, those attempts to define us have made us feel guilty or shameful about the beliefs or identity that we came to believe were true about our life and nature. Recognizing that what others say as truth has damaged our ability to think, to love, to even see ourselves as worthy beings. But at least we have taken that first step of seeing it is false, and we left that religious faith, and found this one that says, come on, be a fool, but be your own fool.
But there must be more than a first step. Many years ago the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were in correspondence with the great psychologist Carl Jung. Although Jung rejected conventional religious expressions and beliefs, he believed there was an essential connection between recovery and spirituality. He said that the craving for a drink was the equivalent of a spiritual thirst for wholeness. Alcohol in Latin is “spiritus.” So it means the most wonderful spiritual experience, a union with God, is also a substance that will poison your system and destroy you. It is what we think will empower us to get through the day. It is that high. It takes away the pain of life. These are all the things we think alcohol will do for us. So how do we get in touch with that spirit? What UUism did for people initially was invite them to reject the authority of their old religions, and feel the power inherent in their own ability to search for faith. But the emphasis all too often was in the rejecting the old ways of God and Jesus by being angry or negative about the past. So they could not reconcile to it, forgive anyone who was part of it, or especially see what was good in it. They perhaps did not go back to the old faith, but they did not articulate any new one either. They were sort of like dry drunks. They had stopped drinking, but they were so hung up on the anger they felt at the dogma, the priest, the pope or whomever, they might just as well have remained Catholic. Nothing had changed.
Alcoholics Anonymous discovered many years ago that the best way to achieve recovery was to throw out the old way of living, and follow a new way of life. This was not easy for Unitarian Universalists because we tend to rationalize that we can control everything. I have seen with most of my relatives how hard it is to admit it when you feel bad. They drank so they would not have to feel the pain of sorrow or loneliness or failure, but they could never acknowledge the pain. The method of achieving spiritual wholeness in AA, is through telling your story. What did your life used to be like, and what happened? In the context of addiction, like Francis, everything went wrong, you could not handle your responsibilities, or you suffered job loss, terrible anxiety, or family pressures and you started drinking. It went out of control and spiraled downward.
Yet once we gain the courage to tell our stories we find that addiction is the great equalizer that UUs are not immune to. All our education does not keep us from wanting that next drink. The spiritual recovery begins when we truly leave the old faith or the addiction behind and resolve that we are no longer going to live in isolation. This comes with telling our story. When we are addicted to something. We try to reason our way out of it. We say I can keep it under control with just a few drinks. But trying to fight our addiction by ourselves is awfully isolating. So too our UU faith has promoted spiritual isolation because it has encouraged us to go it alone, or figure out faith for ourselves. We think we are strong, rational beings who can understand and overcome anything because we are such smart people. Recovery means we have an opportunity spiritually to reconnect with each other and the world. Whether in recovery from addiction or in UUism you cannot do this alone.
What we especially learn when we share our stories is that we are imperfect beings. Spirituality is not another name for becoming a perfect person who is immune from making mistakes or is holier than thou. We should never imply that you can achieve perfection. Like recovery, we can never say I am now better. Instead, we are always working on it, always struggling. Instead, the AA understanding of recovery and the path to spiritual growth is not a road to perfection. It is rather a way of life that accepts imperfection as imperfection. So no one is trying to prove to the other how much more they are doing to save the world, or how much greener they are than the next person. I am afraid that even here at First Parish we have sometimes appeared to be implying to you that you can always do more – give more money, reduce your carbon footprint, or change the world. One thing that AA can teach us is that spiritual growth is not about constructing a mutual admiration society of how great we all are. The members know that what they share is common weakness, and it humbles them, but also makes them more understanding, more tolerant and more forgiving than most. They know they do not have everything under control. If I have it all, all talents, all gifts, all skills, then there is nothing I can learn from you. But if each of us is flawed in some significant way then there is s an opportunity for us to learn from each other. I may learn from your sense of humor, or your ability to listen, or your talent for organizing things, but none of us has all these abilities because, if we are honest we realize our common flawed nature.
If anything prevents a UU from embracing the AA path to spiritual recovery, it is the notion of giving yourself over to a higher power. Many of us refuse to give any credence to the idea of there being any higher power. We react that this implies that you must give up your own power to some non existent God who is suppose to control everything, but in fact does not exist. It puts many of us right back where we started from with the recovering Catholics and Protestants railing angrily at the past. But I think this is a misunderstanding. We forget that AA says give yourself over to God, as you understand him or her. While some don’t want to think of God in any shape or form, the bottom line is simply the affirmation that it’s not me who is controlling everything. While all of us need to be responsible adults who use our skills, pay our bills and live lives with respect for others and the earth we walk upon, this understanding of God is that in our imperfections, we need others and cannot either go it alone, or live wholly unto ourselves always in control of everything, taking care of everything, and always being right and perfect. UUs often do not handle the concept of being powerless very well, but a little awe, wonder, and reverence for our smallness in the vast ocean of creation and time might offer us some spiritual humility rather than an extra dose of hubris.
When Lynn asked me to preach on the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and recovery as experienced in AA, I was not quite sure what I would say. In some ways it is a difficult subject for me because alcohol is always on my mind due to the large number of alcoholics who are members of my family, and my own struggles with how much to drink or not drink based in my fears of being like those who have gone before me. There is much to learn from a spiritual program that says slow down your yearning to do and be more all the time, and savor life’s beauty one day at a time. Slow down your urge to get it all right and have it all before you die, but instead find eternity in the grain of sand, and the magic of this moment together. I think part of our uncomfortable reaction to AA is that we are often stuck in an “I” religion, where we make everything self-referential.
When Lynn and I were talking, she defined God, or G – O – D as Group of Drunks.
UUs need to move from a religion that celebrates personal fulfillment and isolated religious journeying to celebrating a religion that sees God, not in a higher power out there, but as the inner power of the community that we give our hearts and souls to. Together we are a group of imperfect souls who when we find each other in community and share our common imperfections find a greater strength that is God, or the holy. Together we can do much, but alone we are powerless to control anything. I know Lynn has found meaning in Joseph Campbell’s ideas of heroic myths. Campbell drew on Carl Jung as well. Campbell discovered an archetypal journey, and would have us each find our story in the hero’s journey. That may sound like a self-involved search, but in truth, we find ourselves and our spiritual path in telling our stories to each other. But it requires “each other.” In the each other we see the pain of those journeys, and cry out from lonesome hearts to each other, hoping to find true intimacy that will take us home to a place where we are known and treasured. A couple of weeks ago we felt Margaret’s pain at being rejected by the fellowshipped committee. Last week I spoke about the pain of letting go of those we love. We each lose much during the journey because we are imperfect beings who make mistakes and ultimately die, but we create communities of compassion called churches where we tell our stories, and share the pain. Out of that pain we find meaning once again in a common strength we gain from the sharing. Perhaps we call that common strength G O D, or something like it. You are that community of recovery. You are that fellowship of imperfection. It is up to you to make G O D dwell in our midst.
Closing Words – from Miguel de Unamuno
Spiritual love is born of sorrow . . . For men and women love one another with a spiritual love only when they have suffered the same sorrow together, when through long days they have ploughed the stony ground buried beneath the common yoke of a common grief. It is then that they know one another and feel one another and feel with one another in their common anguish, and so thus they pity one another and love one another. For to love is to pity; and if bodies are united by pleasure, souls are united by pain . . . To love with the spirit is to pity, and he who pities most loves most.
When We Choose to Die” by Mark W. Harris
October 21, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “Late October” by Maya Angelou
the leaves of autumn
sprinkle down the tinny
sound of little dyings
And skies sated
of ruddy sunsets
of roseate dawns
cobweb greys and turn
see the fall
a signal end to endings
a gruffish gesture alerting
those who will not be alarmed
that we begin to stop
in order simply
Reading – from Learning to Fall by Philip Simmons
My sermon today is the equivalent of an election sermon, but I am couple of weeks early due to scheduling. “Death with Dignity” is question 2 on the ballot. Each of you also has an insert marked “Budget for All” asking you to consider a non binding referendum (Question 5).
Sermon – “When We Choose to Die” – by Mark W. Harris
This year Massachusetts voters have the opportunity to cast our ballots about a moral issue. Some of us might say that every candidate we vote for reflects a moral decision on our part, but I am not publicly going to suggest that we consider some aspirants for office immoral, and others more saintly. I am not about to tamper with the separation of church and state. Here in Massachusetts we will be voting in November on a bill called Death with Dignity, which will give persons near the end of their lives the opportunity to use prescription medications to hasten death. On Friday, Liz Walker, the journalist, and recently minted minister editorialized in the Globe against this bill, partly stating that she opposed it because a ballot question is no way to deal with such a difficult issue. But what is? Should we let the politicians or the courts decide? On this highly personal and private issue shouldn’t people have the choice, especially when many precautions are taken?
In our reading this morning, Philip Simmons asks us to reflect on those moments when we stand at the edge. He notes how fall is a season when everything is dying; leaves go out in a blaze of glory, and a killing frost covers the earth. He goes on to describe armed men roaming the woods, waking us with their rifle shots. Being an urban dweller now, I forget that this time of year once evoked near holiday elation for some family members and friends who would lace their boots, and don colorful hunting gear, red plaid pants and florescent orange vests, grasp their shotguns from the wooden racks, load them with lethal shells and trek into the woods to kill deer and pheasant. I grew up eating some of these delicacies, mostly killed by non-family members, as my father was a terrible shot, whom we would joke, “could not hit the broad side of a barn.” And I detested hunting, waiting in the cold, frozen underbrush to shoot something dead, while the recoil of the rifle gave me a bruised and sore shoulder, and the noise was deafening. This was not my idea of fun. I preferred the warmth of my mother’s kitchen, and not the cold brutality of hunting. Yet today some opponents of death with dignity consider it a cold brutal taking of life. One of the final straws for my mother occurred when my neighbor made rabbit stew, and she found hair floating in the broth. After that the practice and spoils of hunting lost its luster in my family.
Yet one hunting expedition indelibly left its mark on me. This painful episode occurred when I was on a hike with the wonderful dog, and sometime hunting companion, I grew up with, a black Lab named Sam. Sam had been a faithful childhood friend to me for many years; curled by the fireplace, or romping in the woods as he was this day. Much of western Massachusetts was once cleared for farming, and so what is now woods was once pasture land divided by old and decaying stone walls. As we walked along that day, Sam, who could not see or smell as he once did, spotted a rabbit, and took off in full chase. Going at break neck speed, he never noticed that the rabbit’s course was set to go through a small opening in one stonewall. The rabbit made it, but my dog did not. My old, frail but determined hunter crashed headlong into these unforgiving stones. He lay sprawled out on the ground. His bleeding head had a terrible gash, and the position of his body made it clear he suffered several broken bones. I called for my parents who came in a flash. Soon a warm blanket appeared and my Dad and my older brother rushed Sam to the vet. It was his final trip to the vet. While at the doctor’s, it was determined that, in light of his condition, the most humane thing to do would be to put him down. There was talk of chronic pain, and severity of injury and advanced age. My parent’s said, “it is for the best.” Sam’s death was a great sadness to us all. I cried and cried. We buried him behind the house, near those woods that once were his playground.
It may be that I began to form my views of death with dignity, or assisted dying, or even assisted suicide, if you will, on that day we said goodbye to our family dog. We all had a loving relationship with that animal, and could readily see that whatever life he had left, might be spent in terrible suffering. And so my understanding even then was that we helped him to die to relieve his own suffering, but also it was in response to the compassion we felt for him because of our relationship. While we place a higher value on human life than dogs, these kinds of situations give us entrée to an understanding of this issue, or at least remind us to begin to have or continue conversations with those we love about end of life issues.
Religious communities, a place where one would hope these conversations could occur, have sometimes made these difficult issues even more difficult, especially when they have said that life is a gift from God, and it is God alone who must call the soul back home, and any human interference denies God’s will. Yet increasingly in modern life machines, medicines and interventions can prolong life, thus giving humans and their medical professionals a much larger role in end of life questions. I noticed a few weeks ago, even with as simple a procedure as a colonoscopy, that I was interviewed by a nurse prior to the procedure to determine if I wanted them to take any extraordinary measures if something went wrong. Andrea knows how I feel, but does my 33-year-old son? What if I had a massive stroke, and he rushed into the hospital and said he wanted my life preserved at all costs? Are your wishes known?
Nothing is more important than to have conversations with loved ones, and yet it is a topic we like to put off to another day. There will be time and opportunity we say. One physician advised her family that if they were faced with a snap decision they should: “choose comfort, choose home, choose less intervention, choose to be together, at my side, holding my hand, singing, laughing, loving, celebrating, and carryin on.” Perhaps our parents never had these kinds of discussions with us, but that should help us see how necessary they are, especially if we end up making decisions without knowing what they wanted. Find out what matters to them, to you, and talk about it.
It is the dying who teach us how to die. I have had the privilege over the course of more than thirty years in the ministry to be let into the lives of people who suffered from life threatening diseases, and slowly have withered away. There was the lifelong smoker who came down with lung cancer in his fifties. He went through several rounds of treatment, felt sicker and sicker, and finally decided that he would end his chemotherapy and prepare for his final months, but it was only after many conversations with his physician, his wife, and his children. Each of us must use our sense of personal responsibility to choose what we mean by living life, and determine what we would choose for taking or refusing treatment. In moments of silence and sharing I witnessed his deep love for others, in the beauty of his smile, and in the strength of his hand. In a few short weeks, I had the honor of conducting Richard’s funeral. In that rural culture, it was a funeral service, where a last family portrait was taken around the open casket. I stood there, too.
For most of us, though it is our parents who will teach us how to die. Because both my parents died of cancer, I feel as though that, too, will be the disease that will afflict me. Cancer is often drawn out over months and years, and we may believe that because of that, it is a fatal disease that will provide the opportunity to say goodbye. Those whose parents suffered heart attacks, and went quickly, may affirm that that form of death is better because it seems quick and relatively painless, perhaps even easier on those who are left behind. But others would say they never had a chance to say goodbye. These are our teachers. Some who wanted more and more treatment, and others who said no extraordinary measures, but in each case, we hoped to listen to what they wanted, so they could feel some measure of autonomy and dignity in their waning days.
This is what the death with dignity ballot proposal purports to give each of us. The Massachusetts law would be similar to what is already legal in Oregon and Washington, and the Supreme Court has upheld. It offers a chance for terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to choose a painless death that will forestall needless suffering. It is not done in isolation. It is also not a death panel where someone determines who should live and who should die. In fact, it reflects that more and more people are taking responsibility for their own health. While opponents say there is room for abuse, there is little evidence that this occurs, and the ultimate decision is in the patient’s hands. One of the commonly quoted reasons for opposition to this law is that it does not protect life. There may be an assumption that it is always better to be alive than to be dead. I had a former parishioner who when I asked him how he was, would reply, “better than nothing.” But is that so? Is it the worst thing that can happen to a person that he or she should die?
Have we not somehow forgotten to affirm that death is a natural part of life, and so our culture often wants to stave it off at all costs? Sure we want, as Albert Schweitzer said, reverence for all life, but in the same breath, we also must have compassion for all life. Are we being compassionate for a hopelessly ill person or are we respecting their individual freedom to make choices abut their lives, if we keep them alive at all costs? Last spring my wife Andrea was spending long hours sitting with her brother-in-law as he died from throat and tongue cancer. One of the arguments against this law is that you cannot always predict if the person has six months or less to live. While that may be true in some instances, most of us who have been around terminal cancer patients know, at a certain point, it is clear that their life is ending. While in Tom’s case his treatments ended, and he was home, he continued to live for some time. What if he had requested a drug to end his life to lessen his own suffering, or to lessen the trauma on his loved ones, if it was done at his request after a conversation with a physician? While some religious leaders might say that enduring suffering is a way for people to emulate Jesus, I think Jesus himself, who had a compassionate heart, would have said no one needs unnecessary pain and suffering when they are terminally ill. The more drawn out a death is, the more traumatic it becomes. Everyone begins to wonder if this death is ever going to occur, which only adds to the terrible anxiety.
Some have argued that this choice to be autonomous in our decisions about ending life is too self-referential. One of Liz Walker’s concerns was that a person could end their life without talking to a spouse. But how likely is that to occur? A more legitimate concern has been voiced by disabled persons who say this proposal emanates from able-bodied people who are judging as unacceptable social and emotional issues of the disability community such as being a burden on others and losing control of their lives. Some proponents refuse to accept anything less than a fully functional body, and so they may want this kind of assisted death because they view this loss of autonomy as being a helpless dependent, who can’t do what they once did for activities. Are these legitimate reasons when some people live like this all the time? So, too the law limits who can take the lethal medicine, as those who are mentally ill or have a disease like ALS could not qualify. But we have to start somewhere. Having these kinds of conversations is more likely to deepen the relationships we have, and will broaden the possibilities in the future. We certainly must lessen any judgments that are made about the quality of life someone else lives with every day. Different people have different abilities to cope and work in relationship with others. Much of the decision-making is not simply about the person who is suffering, but acknowledges that we are caught in a web of relationships – parents, siblings, children, friends, and medical professionals. Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship, which continues on in the survivors’ mind and heart. No one wants to prevent the deepening of relationships in life – time with grandchildren or chances to see another sunset with a loving spouse, but when those become burdensome, painful and extremely difficult to experience for all involved, and make our memories only more painful, isn’t an agreed upon alternative worth considering?
In her editorial Walker also said people could receive the drug without being evaluated for depression, or without consulting with hospice. With the latter, studies show that those states that have this law have increased attention on better hospice and palliative care, and the care has improved. Most everyone in this position has this kind of care as an option. The idea of being evaluated for depression would be a thicket that might be hard to discern, because in my view it is quite normal to be angry at death, to deny its approach, and to be feel sadness at the thought of your own demise. Hopefully this law will begin to deepen broader conversations about death in our lives and in the culture. Most of the arguments about this law seem to center on the gift of life. Those against it may say ending your life with prescription drugs is denying life. Others may say that you are not accepting the changes in your life, and you could embrace them and even deepen your life experiences without having to end your life. But perhaps a deeper issue is that we never reflect that God’s gift of life is also a gift of death. This assisted dying can be a divisive issue. Having seen Tom and Richard and many others, I think the compassionate response is to be in favor of it. This is not active euthanasia, but a deeply human act to relive suffering in already desperate situations. But we also need to see how our culture for avoids death and refuses to embrace what is natural for all us. We also have a culture that values independence and individualism above all else, and what we gain from being dependent upon others, or asking for help, might help us grow spiritually.
We can all learn from each other. Dying is not about independence, but rather it is about being held in the arms of those who care. Dying is not about making decisions alone, but being with those we trust. While we do die alone, we also know that we lose a piece of ourselves when someone we love dies. Life cannot be tossed away carelessly. It is sacred. But upholding life at all costs, may also be a way to affirm a death denying culture, where death is always bad, and is to be avoided at all costs. We must have compassion in heart wrenching situations, and in those cases, reverence for life simply evolves into reverence for death. Dying is rarely easy, and talking about it is not easy either. As Philip Simmons says it is a time in our life when we stand on the edge. We don’t know where it leads. Other edge times like that are good moments to practice dying. Autumn leaves remind us that we fade as well. There is a season, for everyone, a time to be born, and a time to die. Simmons says that embracing death and the transitory nature of life will help us embrace the eternal that is possible in the moments we have together. This means seeing the love and joy in our baby’s eyes when we toss him in the air, or by crawling together on the floor. It means a hand to hold when we wait with anxiety for the results of a test, or a hand to hold as we coming into consciousness after an operation. Eternity may happen here at First Parish when you cry on a shoulder or just feel accepted for who you are. Sometimes our culture says, there is always something more that can be done. We say that sometimes that is not true, because what what must be done in some moments is nothing. Action and controlling fate become acceptance, and in that moment may we each know a reverence for death. It is not about life versus death, but about the manner of death. This is not a time for healing or for any more interventions, or a test of how much suffering you need to endure. We all need to be free to claim the moment of death, free from needless pain and suffering. The only thing that needs to survive at this point is love. That is why approving this law, is a loving act.
Closing Words – “Courage” by Anne Sexton
It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.
. . . (missing stanza)
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.
Coming Up Short
October 14, 2012
Reading: Hope, Not Optimism by Bruce T. Marshall
Optimism, as I understand it, is an attitude of expectation that a particular result will occur – that a person will recover from an illness, that we will achieve a specific goal, that the Publishers Clearing House will pick my number from among the billions submitted. The dictionary defines optimism as “an inclination to anticipate the best possible outcome.”Hope is less specific. It’s an attitude that looks for possibility in whatever life deals us. Hope does not anticipate a particular outcome, but keeps before us the possibility that something useful will come of this.
We are told that an optimistic outlook is a good thing, but I’ve rarely found it so. Optimism often leads to disappointment. When the best possible outcome doesn’t occur, we are let down, maybe even feel betrayed.
Optimism then may become its opposite – pessimism, an inclination to anticipate the worst possible outcome.
Hope is more resilient, more enduring, more helpful. In a serious illness, for example, there are often setbacks. In the face of these, optimism may wear down. But hope encourages us to move forward despite the setbacks.
As we pursue our goals in life, optimism may lead us to expectations that are unrealistic and ultimately hurtful. Hope advises us to look squarely at the realities that confront us while remaining aware of the possibilities.
Erich Fromm observed, “To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime. Those whose hope is weak settle for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”
It seems that I am in an age group that is fraught with weddings and babies. This past year alone I have attended half-a-dozen weddings, officiated one and welcomed babies galore into my extended circles of friends. It seems like everyone is fulfilling the same life goals, at least when it comes to family life. In many ways this is a time for joy and celebration as major life milestones are reached and life-long dreams go fulfilled.
What I find fascinating about this whole process is the planning. No sooner do I learn that a friend is expecting a baby, that people start unraveling their dreams for that child. What the nursery will look like, who the first grade teacher might be, and what position he’ll play in football. It’s amazing that within moments of seeing a sonogram picture there’s already a blossoming plan for this child and their life.
And with the weddings, the engagement ring hits that finger and they’re off! Making decisions about table runners and first-dance songs … ya know, the things that really make or break a marriage!
And then there are the friends who have not reached these life milestones they’ve set for themselves. Those who had planned methodically to be married by 25 and have three children in the following ten years …
These friends may have yet to find their perfect match, or have found that person and it didn’t work out … or are struggling with fertility treatments and realizing that their life plan might need to be reworked. After all, there are some things that are out of our control … some goals and dreams that really can’t be planned out. That reality can be so challenging, and we can end up feeling like a failure.
But what is this idea of a life plan? We all have one, really, or at least a rough sketch of what we would like to accomplish or do in our lives. A picture of what we hope our future might look like. An idea of how we can hope to be in the present so that those things can take shape in the future.
But there is another whole level to this life planning business. And it IS a business! There are life planning websites and seminars, life coaches, and conferences that guarantee to get your life on track and help you accomplish all of your goals, or your money back!
The process includes setting long- and short-term goals, working toward them in a diligent and methodical way, and reflecting on the process. These plans offer a way to stay on track and to be successful!
This might be appealing to some of us: those who are struggling to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, or want to move up the ladder at their company. It is appealing to think of a systematic way to achieve our goals. Just follow these eight easy steps and have the spouse of our dreams, the house of our dreams, and the 2.5 kids of our dreams.
These planning tools seem to have all the answers.
They even offer troubleshooting … ways to address our fears, how to deal with people who get in the way, and ways to pick ourselves up and brush ourselves off after failure or setbacks.
Because let’s be honest … failure happens! We can’t possibly achieve every goal we set, or realize every dream we have! It is simply not possible. Unless of course we never set any goals or dreams in the first place.
According to one website I found, one of the ways to bounce back from failure is to have a solid brand.
Now in our consumeristic culture we are familiar with brands. We use terms like “brand new” and have been convinced that a “brand name” is better than the generic version.
A brand name, we are taught, says a lot about the product.
Branding is packaging the way you present yourself to others, what they expect of you, and your consistency in delivering good …. product.
The idea of branding is also sometimes used for churches, or denominations. For instance, Unitarian Universalism is often thought of as the social action church, while the Catholic church is most well known for its charity and care in helping those who need food, or helping them find shelter. A brand is what people expect when they think of you.
So I wonder, what’s your brand?
Are you a person who’s on time? Are you reliable? Are you a good listener? Do you run a great committee meeting, or bake a mean batch of brownies?
Maybe you are none of those things, and that’s your brand. Maybe there are times when you feel more generic than brand-worthy.
In some ways, your brand is who you consistently are in this world and what you bring to it.
I would say that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brand was based in inspiring preaching and activism for equality and justice. While Buddha’s brand was one of compassion and mindfulness that inspired freedom from suffering.
What about Moses? What was his brand?
Are there any ideas that come to you? Go ahead, shout them out.
Well, when I think of Moses I think of leadership, courage, and prophetic words. I think of a prophet from the Bible who was sent on a mission by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, complete with the parting of the Red Sea that left the chariots and the armies to drown in dramatic waves of water.
That’s a brand.
In the book of Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites thru the desert and they travel for forty years until they reach the land of Canaan … the Promised Land.
There are two remarkable aspects of that story that stand out for me.
First, it takes them forty years to reach their destination! Forty years! Can you imagine wandering in the desert for forty years?
What’s interesting is that the geographic region where this took place was actually quite small, and could have been crossed in a much shorter time period. But God wanted to send the people another way, in a strategic manner, so that they would continue their journey toward their goal.
And God enlisted Moses to lead the Israelites through the wilderness.
Now Moses seemed like a logical choice. He was intelligent and from a good family. People seemed to like him, and aside from his stuttering problem, people tended to listen when he spoke.
But really? It had to have been a little disappointing that he took all of those people on a 40 year hike through the desert. There are jokes out there about why it took so long. Jokes about the lack of a GPS, and the fact that Moses, like most men, was too stubborn to ask for directions.
But God wanted to avoid any run-ins with armies that would scare the Israelites and have them running back to the slavery they fled in Egypt. God knew that issues like that could be enough to have a group of people give up on their goal. God also knew that it was necessary for the group to grow more cohesive and established as a tribe. God wanted them to solidify their identity as a group, with established food and marriage practices, and methods of prayer and worship. So that when they entered the Promised Land, they would do so as a united front, with a solid identity and ready to face the challenges there.
Whether Moses was aware of this plan or not remains somewhat unclear. But regardless, Moses followed whatever map or directions made sense to him at the time. I’m sure this was frustrating to him and to his followers.
Moses was questioned by them about the plan, and it’s pretty clear he didn’t always have a solid answer for them. The journey was unknown, even to him, and still he had to lead them through it. That sounds like a pretty difficult task to me and a pretty tough goal to reach.
Which brings me to the second remarkable part of that story. Just before the group is about to reach their destination, they look out over the valley toward the land of Canaan. They’re there! They’ve reached the Promised Land!
And Moses dies. So he never sees his people living in the Promised Land. After forty years of wandering with them in the desert, Moses never fully sees his goal realized.
If the goal was for him to join them in Canaan, he doesn’t accomplish his goal.
But, if the hope was to help the Israelites establish those practices that would set them apart from all others. If it was to establish an identity for those people as they journeyed to a strange land. Then his goal was accomplished, and the proof of that accomplishment is the still vibrant and very much alive Jewish faith that remains to this day.
In some ways, the accomplishment of the goal is all in the perspective. It is in the difference between optimism and hope. Because the goal was the establishment of hope for a tribe of people to survive, not for the specific plan Moses set out to accomplish. The goal was not based in optimism that everything would be okay and things would go smoothly … I think that probably became clear to the people somewhere at the twenty year mark of wandering! But the goal was based in the hope that something useful would come out of this.
Of course this makes sense now, thousands of years later, as we have seen the result of that story, and the continued livelihood of Judaism to this day. We have that perspective by virtue of time and space.
It is necessary to look at the possibility presented by a situation … even one that seems like a failure. Perhaps if the Israelites were to have entered the Promised Land after journeying only five years, they might have been killed. Perhaps they would have split up, and not stayed together as a cohesive whole. This would have been a disaster in the long run and created fragmentation and disruption. So, perhaps it was best that they had to wander so long … forced to bond together.
Now this sounds a little like I’m saying that God has a plan for us, or that everything happens for a reason. I’m not sure it’s that simple. But I am sure that things happen … good things and bad things, challenging things and affirming things. Things happen to me and to you, and because of me and because of you. And how we react matters.
Last month I met with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which is the credentialing body of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This meeting was the next step in my journey of becoming a fellowshipped UU minister. It was a meeting with very high stakes. If it went well, I would be fellowshipped and would enter into search for a congregation to serve as their minister. If it didn’t go well, I would be put on hold.
Well, as many of you know and as I wrote about in my column this past month, the meeting didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I received a Category III, which essentially means that I will need to meet with the committee again before being granted preliminary fellowship.
As you might imagine, this was not what I had planned. If I had mapped out my life and written a strategic plan for myself and my ministry, this would not have been a part of it. It was a detour, a speed bump, and by some definitions a failure to meet my goal.
After the meeting I felt a lot of emotions and had lots of reactions: anger, frustration, and regret. Sadness, exhaustion, and questioning of my abilities. But my response that surprised me most was none of these …
It was embarrassment.
I was mortified. I didn’t want to speak to anyone or tell them about the interview. I didn’t want to go through the details or talk about the answers I had given that weren’t up to par. I didn’t want to face my colleagues, classmates of mine who had soared through their interviews with flying colors and were eagerly awaiting the moment when they could officially enter into search for a congregation.
I wanted none of that. I felt so embarrassed to have come up short on my goal.
I flashed back to being the captain of my high school soccer team, the one that lost every single game for two seasons. We were 0 and 36. Game after game we would walk off the field, with our heads bowed, another one for the books.
And I remembered a conversation with the Athletic Director, where he insisted that this experience was “character-building.”
I knew that this experience with the Committee could be viewed in that same way, as a character-building experience, one that humbled me and would help me grow.
But in that moment I didn’t want to grow … I wanted to be fellowshipped!
I was disappointed.
And an experience can only really be character-building if we are actively and consciously working to make it so. Feeling knocked down, stepped on, over-looked, doesn’t build our character. But focusing on and remembering those who lift us up and brush us off does build our character.
And so I came to church the following Sunday. I helped to lead worship and I gained some perspective. I love this calling of ministry, and that is my goal: to love Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalism and this world. And that meeting was just that, a meeting. A snapshot in time that shapes my experience and helps me to grow into my ministry.
But it does not define me.
My friends, that is the beauty of religious community. When we come together each week for worship, and during the week for meetings and projects, we help one another. In our traveling together, we help build courage to take risks, to be bold, and to set high goals. But perhaps more importantly, as people of faith in religious community with one another, we create a space to lift one another up and brush one another off.
We are called to travel together, to plan together, and to cry together when those plans fail.
May we journey together in a way that fosters hope, so that in our times of struggle we see the possibility in a situation.
We may not know what the future will bring, but we must bring ourselves to the present and to the future.
Amen. Blessed be.