Sermons are available in hard copy following the service and posted on this website shortly after.
“The Case of the Missing Car”
February 12, 2016
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words – from Coyote Wait, by Tony Hillerman
We have a legend about how First Man and First Woman had the stars in their blanket, and were placing them carefully in the sky. Then Coyote grabbed the blanket and whirled it around and flung the stars into the darkness, and that is how the Milky Way was formed. Order in the sky became chaos. Random… and yet, wasn’t there a pattern even in this evil deed; in the way Coyote behaved? …From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.
Reading “Nancy Drew: Curious, Independent, and Usually Right”
NPR Morning Edition, June 23, 2008, Renee Montagne
She was born in 1930, but she’s perpetually 18 — and always one step ahead of the adults: the iconic American girl sleuth, Nancy Drew.
“I’m pretty sure I started at the beginning, The Secret of the Old Clock,” crime writer Laura Lippman says, referring to the first of dozens of Nancy Drew mysteries. Lippman’s love of the girl sleuth put her on the path to creating her own best-selling series…
“One of the nice things about Nancy Drew books is that they validate curiosity as a virtue, which was not always the message that little girls were told,” Lippman says.
She does things she’s not supposed to do. For instance, her father is very often saying, “Nancy, this has nothing to do with you. Just stop.” In the old movies, she stands with her fingers crossed behind her back.
“But her father does encourage her to use her mind…. She’s really a free agent, and she’s very much an independent, autonomous person at the age of 16, and when you’re a little girl of 10 or 11, that’s really thrilling. ”
“I don’t think there is a casual reader of Nancy Drew,” says writer Fran Lebowitz. “There may be casual readers of Proust, but not of Nancy Drew.”
Lebowitz says she was obsessed with Nancy Drew and the entire cast of characters: Ned Nickerson, the sometimes useful kind-of boyfriend; Hannah the housekeeper; father Carson Drew; and Nancy’s adoring girlfriends, Bess and George.
“When I was 7- or 8-years-old, I had an operation on my eyes, and I was blindfolded for two weeks,” Lebowitz says. “[My mother was compelled] to sit by my bedside and read me Nancy Drew books all day long, because I couldn’t read myself. So even blindness didn’t stop me.”
Nancy’s appeal was her independence.
“Being a detective seemed to me like an excellent job,” she says. “It still seems like a pretty good job. And I still would like to have a roadster, a blue roadster. I still have not acquired one.”
Nancy drove her blue roadster everywhere, often recklessly, as she focused on the mystery at hand.
Over the years, Nancy Drew has evolved, but young readers appreciate the classic touches.
“In the newer books she wears more modern clothes but she always has a hint of vintage,” says fifth-grader Michaela Brown. “ It’s cool.”
Eleven-year-old Zoe Dutton says her mother handed her a childhood favorite of her own, The Bungalow Mystery, on a hot summer day before she started second grade.
“She’s constantly stumbling on smugglers and criminals and forgeries,” Zoe says. “It’s slightly unrealistic, but Nancy Drew can do this because she can sniff out a mystery like a bloodhound.”
Neither Michaela nor Zoe want to be Nancy Drew, partly because she’s a little too perfect.
“She’s always nice to everybody. She’s even polite to the criminal after she catches them and knocks them out … I mean slightly ridiculous, but it’s nice if you’re her friend.”
I loved Nancy Drew because of her curiosity, a fascination with assembling clues — or facts — into a story and her certain recklessness. For me those qualities add up what it takes to be … a reporter.
I didn’t know that then. I never imagined what I would become. I only knew that the moment I finished one Nancy Drew mystery, I couldn’t wait to plunge into another.
Sermon ” The Case of the Missing Car” Andrea Greenwood
A month ago, I left the grocery store and entered the parking lot with my impressive load of food and drinks. My neighbor was entering as I was leaving; I said hello and thought how odd it was that he was eating a hot dog. It was not quite ten in the morning. In addition to that seeming like a strange time for hot dog consumption, I wondered where it came from. He hadn’t gone into the store yet. There was nothing but a sea of parking — no street vendors, no food trucks. So I was puzzling over this when a greater mystery began to develop.
My car was missing.
I started off fairly confident that I had parked near a light post, and close to a wagon return cage. But the car was not there. So I had to rethink. Was I remembering a different shopping trip when I envisioned parking? Feeling a bit foolish, and worried about the increasing evidence that I really am losing my mind, I wandered about the huge lot, as if my car were a stray puppy that might return to my side. After a few minutes, I began to wonder, “Is this a joke? Am I on Candid Camera?” I was simultaneously counting my blessings – I had not bought ice cream — and wondering when I would stop feeling profoundly disoriented.
Then I spotted her. My van was innocently at rest in a space I had no memory of whatsoever. I kept pivoting around, waiting for something – who knows what? -to reveal itself – Then I started looking for damage – an impulse that was almost immediately followed by the desire to slink away before anyone saw me. There were no cracks or dents or car parts lying about; no sign of anything wrong at all, except my humiliating inability to keep track of my vehicle. So, I threw the food in the car, returned the wagon, and drove home, quickly, before anyone witnessed my confusion.
The car drove fine, although the driver was a bit rattled. As I concluded that the van had either been remotely controlled by aliens, or that my memory had succumbed to the ravages of time, I applied the logic of Sherlock Holmes, who said “the grand thing is to reason backward… In the everyday affairs of life it is more useful to reason forward, so the other comes to be neglected.”
I knew I had not really parked there. My car was resting at a slight tilt, the front tires against the concrete barrier at the top of a large drainage canal. The truth was that the car rolled across three full rows of the parking lot, seemingly without hitting anything, until it came into contact with the concrete. I kept wondering what it must have been like to watch. I picture a slow motion film, the sound track like the one from Jaws, my large van moving spontaneously and without a rudder, until it tipped into the drainage ditch. My neighbor’s hot dog seemed like a concession stand treat, something to chew while he watched the unfolding. But I couldn’t quite grasp the plot. Why did the car cross the road?
Last Sunday, while driving a friend in my new car, I told this story. Mary Katherine was completely freaked out. “But what happened?” she wanted to know. She said she was now going to live in fear of her car driving away on her. I had not expected this at all, but I should have. One hallmark of detectives – at least female ones – is that they love their cars. Sometimes it is obvious why – Maisie Dobbs’ spectacular 1928 convertible touring car, or Nancy Drew’s blue roadster, which Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor tells us she coveted, until she purchased a red Toyota Celica sports car herself, in a kind of homage, as a sign of her arrival. On the other end of the spectrum, Precious, the owner of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, drives a miniature white van that is a constant reminder of mortality. It is very clear that the mechanic’s ability to continually resurrect the little white van is what causes Precious to fall in love with him.
When I was a junior in high school, a wonderful teacher invented a course called Decisions, basically a combination of values clarification and life skills. We had careers and salaries and made budgets, and had to match up our desires with our dollars, and make choices. In one of the exercises, Ms. Sellers enumerated what cars might mean, and it strikes me still that she communicated very clearly that a car meant “freedom.” It was the 1970s and there was a gas shortage and people lined up by license plate number on odd and even days, and so mostly cars meant dependency –commuting; being locked in to this need and dependent on foreign oil. She had one of those egg-shaped cars that looked like an aquarium hurtling down the road; glass outfitted with maroon and chrome trim. And it represented freedom. Even then, I knew I was learning something about her, and life, not about actual vehicles. They don’t represent freedom so much as our need to escape; to go someplace where we are independent and not subject to being unfairly silenced and judged.
My big white van was purchased on my 49th birthday. It was something of an impulse buy – a doctor cancelled an appointment, I had a free hour and half that I wasn’t expecting, and the time management skill necessary to being a one car family with kids in three different schools was wearing on me. Plus it seemed to me that every single time we went to Maine, with our luggage on the roof of the car, it rained. The van was big enough for us, and our stuff. It was leftover from the previous year, so deeply discounted, and in the ads for it, Brooke Shields appealed to my husband. So it did give me a certain kind of freedom – though after a couple of years I realized that it had liberated me to say yes to many things that I would have previously said no to, and therefore I was spending my life driving around in circles. But that is a different sermon. This sermon is about the mystery in the parking lot.
Now, as mysteries go, this is not a very good one. It lacks that genuine element of surprise required at the END of a mystery; where you go “oh, of course” even though you never saw it coming. Arthur Conan Doyle announced that the ideal detective needed three qualities: the power of observation, the power of deduction, and knowledge. Even a little bit of information about cars lets us guess that in my case, the transmission was gone – even though the car drove fine, it would not stay in park, and the mechanic who looked at it was clear that it was only a matter of time before it refused to stay in Drive, too. The repair was too costly for a car with 100,000 miles, even if was free of dings and scratches, so we set out to replace the irreplaceable.
Thirty years ago, during my internship, I wrote to ten ministers, asking for sermons. I wanted to study how they were constructed; how they conveyed meaning. Gary Smith, who was then the minister in Concord, sent me one called “Father, Do You Have Another Car?” The mechanic evaluating his troubled vehicle knew Gary was a minister, which translated to “priest” in his mind. The mechanic did not know how to break the bad news to a man of the cloth. Not everything can be made right in quite the way you are hoping for. This car was not going to come back. Father, do you have another car? How do we help people ease into loss, or prepare themselves for the tasks ahead? We sent our van to automobile heaven, and with it went our big family years. The days of expansion, of never enough room or enough time, gave way to the time of growing independence. I often remember a beautiful, wistful chat with a young father here. We were watching his daughter in the moment she learned to ride a two wheeler, and it was so energizing and triumphant, and then he said, “she’s riding away from me.”
This year, it seems like every time it is my turn to preach, something devastating has just happened. Fires, shootings, elections, executive orders…. It has been a challenging year, when these public tragedies are added to all the personal afflictions we all bear. And since the first of the year I’ve been filling in a church with a very set order to everything, using lectionary readings planned approximately 1700 years ago. Even though many of the stories about believing yourself to be chosen by God; about coping with being in exile; about the need to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and greet life with an open hand instead of a clenched fist – even though so many of these ancient stories are incredibly and sadly painfully relevant today – this actually can feel depressing. When will this story change? Do we ever learn? So today is a tiny respite; an observation of trifles that can reconnect us to a sense of mystery while also granting a degree of control.
There is no real escape from the world we inhabit, but we do not always have to approach it all head on; even when there is a sense of desperate urgency to halting what is unfolding before us. Diversions — turning to small pleasures and permanent truths can give us strength, and peace. There is a kind of sanctuary in solving detective stories; knowing that we can make sense of things, that we are competent and powerful. But the real power of these stories is not so much in the solving, but the process. We are required to pay attention! We have to notice every little thing. We have to think. And we have to become aware of all the strange and amazing things that are happening around us, all the time. You can’t start solving mysteries without being embedded in sense of wonder.
As a kid, I read Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown; as an adult, Jane Langton and Rabbi Small and Tony Hillerman, and in doing so I learned about faith and religion, as well as how to think. A 1976 People magazine article begins, “Charlie Chan relies on Oriental inscrutability, Miss Marple on feminine intuition and Shaft on street savvy. But when Rabbi David Small is faced with solving a crime, he tracks down the perpetrator with the help of a curious weapon: Talmudic reasoning.” Later, Harry Kemelman, the creator of Rabbi Small, explains that he wanted to convey the Judaic experience in an entertaining way. . … An avid fan of G. K. Chesterton’s crime-busting priest, Father Brown, Kemelman said, “I got more insight into Catholicism from reading Father Brown than I got in most of my studies in comparative religion.” Like the rabbi, who solves crimes while embroiled in ethical disputes within his temple in a town suspiciously like Marblehead, Kemelman said that he spent most of his time pacing up and down, asking himself questions.
The Puritans were absolutely convinced that God uses the commonplace to accomplish his transformation of people, and this led to a belief in strict observation. I am sure it had less pleasant social consequences, too, but it seems as though this practice would contribute to a strong sense of mystery. The Rev. Richard Greenham, a 16th century Puritan in England, wrote, “Because we know not who is the man, what is the time, where is the place, which is the sermon that God hath appointed to work on us, let us in all obedience attend on the ministry of every man, watch at all times, be diligent in every place, and run to every sermon which we can conveniently, because though the Lord touch us not by this man, in this place, at this time, through such a sermon, yet he may touch us by another.” Leaving aside the part where he advises that you “run to every sermon”, isn’t that a plea to pay attention, to always be open to the idea that everything might suddenly change? Not knowing how or when keeps us interested; requires subtler, more numinous skills. We cast ourselves out into mysterious waters; the unknown, where our senses are more alive and our instincts more alert, so that we might unlock a way to make this world as it should be.
When we look at the world around us right now, could there be a more important or empowering message? Facts fail to persuade half so well as mysteries; as the idea of possibilities that WE have to unlock. Everything is not known, destined to unfold in some certain way. There is a moral story being played out, and we have a part in it: there is good and evil; right and wrong; and we have the ability to make the truth prevail if we keep asserting justice. In one of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, the detective stares at a rose, and then says, “There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,… Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
Mysteries and detective stories tell us that things can go right even after it looks like they have gone irrevocably wrong. Tolkein once described mysteries as “Christian fairy tales, with detectives in that are “classic Robin Hood figures, champions of the needy, bringers of merited judgment and merciful salvation.” I suspect adding the word “Christian” before “fairy tales” makes some people feel differently about the value of such stories, which existed long before Western faith traditions. Good and evil have been battling out around the globe for millennia, in no one religion’s name, and in stories we can learn new ways of seeing the world before our eyes. So much of what things look like depends upon where you stand. The quest to restore the world to goodness and justice… well, as Sherlock said, we have much to hope from the flowers.
About ten years ago, an artist named John Newling went to insurers Lloyd’s of London and asked them to underwrite him against ‘loss of mystery’ — to pay out if all mystery was lost from his life. It was a publicity stunt, prompted by Newling’s feeling that life had become too controlled, constantly surveyed and audited, and it advertised a year of what he called “mystery prospecting.” He set up a stall at a street market to collect people’s mysteries, and over three days was entrusted with 281 of them. They ranged from out-of-body experiences to uncanny coincidences, from lost red staplers to mothers who wake from comas to whisper ‘It’s Aspen’ — which turns out to be the crossword solution the whole family is puzzling over a week after her death.
We dwell in a universe we can never fully comprehend; a world filled with hidden connections and mysteries. They are the ultimate trail of breadcrumbs, and we may be plotting our safety even when we are being led into the treacherous forest.
Closing Words — Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. …. the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
“Saying Sorry” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 5, 2017
Opening Words – from Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The brain is connected to the heart and the eyes. – it’s all visualization, all of it!
– Want it, see it, take it. No apologies. I don’t apologize ever for what I want! But I see you – and I see that you spend your life apologizing! It’s like you’ve got survivor’s guilt or something! But we’re not in Bendigo anymore. You’ve left Bendigo, right? Like Baldwin left Harlem. Like Dylan left wherever . . . he was from. Sometimes you gotta get out —
sorry” by Ntozake Shange
one thing i don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry
i am simply tired
i didnt know
i was so important toyou
i’m gonna haveta throw some away
i cant get to the clothes in my closet
for alla the sorries
i’m gonna tack a sign to my door
leave a message by the phone
‘if you called
to say yr sorry
i dont use em anymore’
i let sorry/ didnt meanta/ & how cd i know abt that
take a walk down a dark & musty street in brooklyn
i’m gonna do exactly what i want to
& i wont be sorry for none of it
letta sorry soothe yr soul/ i’m gonna soothe mine
you were always inconsistent
doin somethin & then bein sorry
beatin my heart to death
talkin bout you sorry
i will not call
i’m not goin to be nice
i will raise my voice
& scream & holler
& break things & race the engine
& tell all yr secrets bout yrself to yr face
& i will list in detail everyone of my wonderful lovers
& their ways
i will play oliver lake
& i wont be sorry for none of it
i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself
Sometimes my work as a minister makes me feel like I am apologizing a lot. And it is often for things that I haven’t done. Some people may feel like they have been left out of a committee discussion, and so I must find a way to make sure their voice has been heard, or at least make them feel better that I have heard them, saying “I am sorry that you feel this committee neglected to listen to your input. I am sorry that person refuses to talk to you because they insist they are right, and have judged you in the wrong for their perceived personal upset.” Other times it seems to be me that has caused the hurt. It can seem like I have blasphemed the great Jehovah. These people may feel their religious sensibilities were ignored. They tell me my Sukkoth service was insensitive to Jewish tradition. My Thanksgiving communion was an insult to a real communion, or conversely was too much like one. So I end up saying, I am sorry that I offended you. As a minister I can offer to listen to their concern and try to take it into account in the future. Sometimes just listening is enough. And sometimes on those most glorious of days, a person may actually apologize to me saying something like “I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time.”
When I was in college, one of my friends had a poster on her wall, which said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Many of you probably immediately remember this popular phrase from the book, and then movie, “Love Story,” released in my first year of college. At one point the Ryan O’Neil character, Oliver, says he is sorry for expressing anger, and another time says, “I’m sorry” after Ali McGraw’s character dies. Saying you are sorry when you spew anger at someone, and saying sorry when you want to tell a loved one that you feel badly for their loss seem like natural, appropriate expressions of this phrase, but then I hear that silly film cliché that love somehow exempts you from saying sorry. I don’t get it.
Our reading today gives the impression that Ntozake Shange is no longer going to say she is sorry, and moreover, that she never wants to hear those insincere words uttered again from the lips of someone who is not sorry. She represents some people, usually female, who seem to be apologizing all the time. We all know this perspective from people who feel like they are getting in the way, even if they have a perfect right to their spot or their share of the pie. They seem to be sorry that they exist, and that their very existence offends someone, usually a man, because they are occupying space. The lead character in the Zadie Smith novel, Swing Time, is the kind of person who always says she is sorry. She is a personal assistant to the pop star Aimee, from whom we hear: “I see that you spend your life apologizing.” But the pop star doesn’t apologize for what she wants. She seems to go and possess it. We hear the plea not to be sorry that she wants a life, and she should go and take what is her due. No one would argue with those who need to stop apologizing for themselves when they pursue what they want in life. We want to encourage this kind of assertiveness in some people.
But others? Not so much. Richard Nixon once said that apologizing was a sign of weakness. In theory, we may say that is not true, but how often do we express remorse for our failure to do as promised or the anger, self-righteousness or judgments we imparted to others. Why do most of us have a tough time saying we are sorry? We might begin with the most extreme example of anyone who cannot admit they are sorry for what they have done. This is of course, our new President. On the campaign trail he told Jimmy Fallon, “I fully think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong.” There you have it. Why would you ever apologize, if you are always right? Trump said that if he ever was wrong, he would apologize “sometime in the hopefully distant future.” He can say the rudest, nastiest, angriest things without fear that he might ever need to apologize because he is right. Therefore, there is nothing to be sorry for. So he can say, she is fat, ugly, stupid, or he is a drug addict, rapist, terrorist. Fortunately, we can all say, whew, glad I don’t suffer from that narcissistic personality disorder, but we could still learn a bit about the need to say I’m sorry.
No one says they are sorry as efficiently as the British. A couple of years ago there was a travel piece in the Boston Globe about London which summarized this. The writer noted that a bus that swiftly passed by, did not curtly note “Out of Service,” but instead said, “Sorry, I’m out of service.” It was personalized into an apology. By English custom, any intrusion, impingement, or imposition of any kind requires an apology. The English say sorry eight times a day on average. Now maybe it is merely a matter of following the rules of etiquette and polite behavior. Their manners reveal a readiness to apologize even for things they have not done. These codes of conduct are a bit different than ours, which are often characterized as rude and offensive.
When they say something that seems to have caused a major offense, the British know an apology is required. One of the most famous apologies occurred after John Lennon, when he was a young Beatle, ungraciously stammered that his rock band was more popular than God. Even this rebel acknowledged that he did not mean to say they were greater than the deity, but that people’s priorities were a bit mixed up in their fervor to lionize the famous musicians. He wrote: “I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing.. . I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.”
So we have run the gamut from those who refuse to apologize because they are never wrong or refuse because the apology has been used as a weapon again them to those who seemingly apologize all the time for lack of self-esteem to those who say sorry as part of national custom. Where do you find yourselves on the continuum of saying sorry? If you have ever felt love for another, you immediately notice the absurdity of never saying you are sorry. People in deep relationships say they are sorry quite often. We all do things that bother or hurt others. Just last week I felt mortified when I realized that I had suggested to Susan Flint that we cancel the Safe Congregation meeting because no one was coming. Unfortunately, our eager to learn intern is trying to attend a variety of meetings, and had told me she was coming. Once we cancelled the meeting all the members of the committee knew, but guess who was forgotten? Jolie drove over here from JP, and waited and waited, and finally called me to ask, what gives? I felt so sorry for forgetting, and making her travel and wait around for nothing. We all make mistakes. We forget. We make a mean comment. We ignore others. We make people wait. But if we cannot apologize or can’t bring ourselves to say I’m sorry, then even a minor offense will begin to erode the relationship. We may think he doesn’t care that he made me wait. She didn’t listen to what I asked for, and I feel like I am not important to her. But saying you are sorry acknowledges that you made a mistake and you want to restore goodwill between you.
If you never make a mistake that inconveniences or hurts someone, then you can leave now, because you must be perfect. Otherwise, let’s all think about how we apologize. It is important to feel some measure of contrition. This is often not the case with public apologies. Politicians specialize in the non-apology apology. They may say their behavior was wrong or it represented some kind of personal failure, but they never truly say, I’m sorry. Is there evidence that we feel bad about what we did? This reminds me of what it is like to try to convince a teenager to say they are sorry for making a parent worry that you do not know where they are, or what condition the car is in, let alone the youth. Perhaps you have had some experience with this. We may be on the receiving end of a sarcastic SORRREEEE! that has no element of actual contrition. Sure some people may need an explanation of what they did wrong so that they actually understand the offense. You say this is how what you did made me feel, and perhaps you can produce some measure of recognition. A little light goes off and the youth realizes they have done something wrong.
But it’s hard to apologize. It means we have to measure ourselves by our own failings. We have to process how guilty we feel or how we hurt someone else. The natural inclination may be to protect ourselves, and so we either avoid apologizing, or more frequently for me, I justify my actions or make excuses. I’m getting old and forgot. I wasn’t feeling well, and was under pressure. I was in a hurry. So the apology may become a way to justify your actions. It deflects the hurt you caused away from you, and sometimes you end up blaming the other person. I was only trying to help you, so I am not going to take the responsibility for breaking it. If you had looked both ways, I might never have hit you with my car. How often do we blame our spouse for provoking a reaction in us, for something we did that we should be apologizing or making amends for. Here’s a clue that when you don’t want to say you’re sorry, it is probably the perfect time to do so. You finally realize you did or said something wrong.
There is one caveat here, and that is the person who apologizes all the time to avoid actually confronting an issue. This may be the person who apologizes for existing, as I referred to before, but it may also be an avoidance mechanism, and so if you are doing it all the time to avoid confronting something important, then when you actually do apologize, it becomes meaningless because you may not be able to distinguish between a real and a fake apology. Perhaps a familiar fake apology is the one that is used for a preemptive strike. You apologize before you hurt someone. My most vivid memory of this was when my father was going to spank me. He would say, “this is going to hurt me more than it is you.” Remember that? Today, it may be less violent than the spanking, perhaps a grounding, or some kind of redress by working off your hurtful action.
I think the most common use of the pre-emptive strike occurs in a medical office. I remember once when my son Joel was little, and the nurse was very timid about administering a shot. She seemed to keep endlessly telling him how much it was going to hurt, as she brandished the needle in front of him. Yet she could not bring herself to actually administer the shot. He began to cry louder and louder, and she became more and more timid. Finally, the doctor could not stand the screaming any longer. She entered the room, grabbed the needle and gave my son the shot. The screaming ended immediately. If anything this illustrates the need to take the medicine. Sure we have to acknowledge that it is hard to say you’re sorry, but you need to do it for the hurt you are about to or have caused. Otherwise it lingers and lingers.
Perhaps the most crucial thing about saying sorry is an admission that you actually mean it. Over the years we have had a variety of admissions of wrong doing by the Vatican and Catholic dioceses all over the world, but how many of them have seemed authentic? Is there a sense that they feel they have done something terribly wrong in their failure to protect the children? How many of the victims felt like there was true sorrow about the actions, and that things could ever change? Sometimes one of these public apologies is merely a time to make the guilty party feel better about themselves, and does not change anything about present or future behavior. One such rare instance of public apology that seemed authentic occurred recently in LaGrange, Georgia. More than three quarters of a century ago a young Black man named Austin Callaway was dragged out of a jail cell by a band of masked white men, then shot and left for dead.
The New York Times reported recently that some people never forgot. The fear, the police malfeasance, and the pervasive racism long obscured the investigation of this crime. Then a week ago last Thursday, the police chief, who is white, issued a rare apology for a Southern lynching. “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” Chief Dekmar told a crowd at a traditionally African-American church. “And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
He also said that all citizens had the right to expect that their police department “be honest, decent, unbiased and ethical. . . There are relatives here and people who still remember,” he said. “Even if those people are not still alive, down through the generations, that memory is still alive. That’s a burden that officers carry.” Who knows what the future may bring, but at least publicly there was an honest admission of wrong doing, and a resolve to get it right the next time.
One ongoing ritual of any religious organization is how to cleanse yourself of wrong doing. How do you admit that you feel sorry for something you did? How do you atone? How do you move forward? Sorry’ is one of the most powerful words in the English language, provided one can feel and say it at the same time. It’s difficult because you sincerely need to feel the pain of the other person and rise above your ego to say it; it’s powerful because the other person feels understood. You feel shared pain. And when you admit wrong doing and have the courage to say Sorry, it acknowledges the human condition and allows us to move forward, and perhaps have another chance.
Someone once said, “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is saying ‘I love you’ with a wounded heart in one hand and your smothered pride in the other.” It means you care about the other, and are interested in their welfare. Saying sorry is more important than ever in this media age. We all send out emails that express feelings and opinions, but often there is no context to ascertain what the sender means. Tweeting seems even worse, as it presents an opportunity for some at least, to express anger and judgment without any means of remorse.
We all spend a lot of time justifying our actions, when that time could be better spent admitting we are wrong. What to do? Say you were wrong, explain what happened, not as an excuse, but to help understand, not deflect responsibility, have sincere remorse, and finally, think how about you can make amends or move forward. There is tremendous power in listening, and in feeling the pain of another.
Saying you are sorry means focusing on the feelings of the other person more than on your own feelings. Rather than echoing Love Story and never having to say you are sorry, love in a church, in a relationship, in a friendship should mean you should always be ready to say sorry with authenticity, and with humility in instances where you have insulted or hurt or neglected someone. Be ready in love to say I’m sorry, because you long for deeper relationships, caring hearts and compassionate arms. Saying you are sorry restores a frayed community, a shattered relationship, and a wounded friendship.
Closing Words – from Robert R. Walsh (adapted)
When the great plates slip
and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
to lie in what you trusted most, look not
to more solidity, to weighty slabs
of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
beam to save the fractured order. Trust
more the tensile strands of love that bend
and stretch to hold you in the web of life
that’s often torn but always healing. . .
The shifting plates, the restive earth,
your room, your precious life, they all proceed
from love, the ground on which we walk together.
Summer in Winter – January 29, 2017
Three Unitarian Universalist Camps and Conference Centers
Introduction by Carole Berney, worship associate
A few words about the subject of this lay service:
I was struck by a sermon Mark gave a few weeks ago—about how some may feel that what draws us here is our church community. But, he stated, our community crucially derives its identity, importance, and sacredness from the UU faith. We all gather here in UU spirit and values—on Sundays in the Worship Service, social hour, or religious education classes; and at other times in Committee meetings, workdays, and special events.
Well, our Worship Committee wanted to let you know, in this lay service, about some other very special UU places –out in the world, not far away–that are worth attending: Ferry Beach, Rowe Camp and Conference Center, and Star Island. So — we’ve invited 3 First Parish UU camp attendees to speak to us briefly about their experiences at each of these camps. We hope they will inspire you to appreciate the special spirit these UU places emanate. Also, we thought it might be refreshingly welcome on one of the last days of January, to imagine yourself in one of these beautiful natural settings in summertime, drinking in the warmth of such UU gathering places.
Introduction to Star Island
Star Island is one of the Isles of Shoals, ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire, a one-hour ferry ride out of Portsmouth. Since 1915 the mission of Star Island has been to maintain a center for religious, educational, and kindred purposes consistent with the principles of the UU Association and the United Church of Christ. For the last 100 years, it has offered an all-inclusive summer camp experience for families and hosted a wide variety of themed conferences on a range of subjects such as natural history, writing, photography, music, painting, ecology, matters of the spirit, yoga and more.
There’s a reason so many artists have been drawn to Star Island over the years. Beyond the aesthetics—the raw wind and sea spray, the pink blossoms of beach roses and the stately weathered architecture—there’s the gift of stepping away from the mainland, enjoying the sunset in a rocking chair on the porch, exploring Gosport Harbor in a kayak, or participating in innovative and wide-ranging programs.
Star Island is my Spiritual Home by Carole Katz
I first visited Star Island on a day trip put together by FPW sometime in the 90s. And when I learned there was a week dedicated to art workshops where I could practice painting watercolors I registered. It’s called the Arts conference. It’s always held on the 3rd week of June. It was 1996 the first time I attended. I didn’t know anyone. About a month before I arrived I received a thick packet containing pages of things I should know and plan for. I studied it closely and packed accordingly. I was paired with another first timer named Beth. She was a single mom too. We hit it off right away and talked late into the night about our lives and our kids. We are still good friends today, 20 years later.
There were several things that make the conference welcoming. Everyone is required to wear a nametag that includes the town and state where they are from. It is a great ice-breaker in the dining room. The island staff, called the Pelicans, also provide an extensive orientation for new comers that includes a tour of the island and the facilities.
That first week I was completely entranced with everything. The nineteenth century hotel called The Oceanic evoked powerful nostalgia though I don’t have a conscious memory of ever being in such a place. I think there is some truth in genetic memories.
The 200 year old stone chapel on the rocks was too perfect. Almost a cliché! Disney couldn’t conceive of anything as perfect. The stone cottages, the ocean vista from where ever you stood, the changing weather that would create dramatic new scenes –It’s all quite magical. Even after attending for the most part of 20 years I am still deeply moved by the setting.
But as wonderful as all of that is, it’s the guest ministers and lay services that have the most affect on me. The Arts conference has had extraordinary ministers as guests over the years: Reverend Maggie Rebman from Burlington Vermont is an amazing story teller. David Morrison can attest to that. I still have a few of her stories printed out to return to when I want to. The Reverend Nancy Crumbine is a poet who has an improvisational spirit to her sermons. Rev. Bill Clark has a fragile heart but doesn’t hold back with sharing his heartfelt emotions with us all. The most recent minister has been Rev. Kate Wilkinson whose wisdom and strength far surpass her years. You can see her sermons by visiting the Provincetown UU website.
The daily chapel services have become the most important reason I return to Star each year. To hear the wonderful ministers the committees invite to join us.
Spending the day among 150 people can be overwhelming to some of us. There’s plenty of opportunity to spend time in small groups or alone, but all the meals are communal and it can all feel a little too much sometimes. Fortunately the end of day ritual soothes the soul. Members of the conference can volunteer to lead a short service at the end of the day in the chapel. Those who want to attend gather on the large hotel porch and, when the chapel bell begins to toll, we each pick up a candle-lit lantern. People are asked to stop talking at that point and walk silently up to the dark chapel where our lanterns get hung on hooks inside to light the chapel. Quietly we sit and await an end of day service that includes beautiful music and some words of love and wisdom. At the end of the service we silently make our way back to the hotel. It’s a tremendous relief to have that quiet time each day. To be among people but quiet. The power of that surprises me every time.
So it would really be enough for me to just go to Star Island each year to hear the services each morning and night. But the Art Conference also provides wonderful workshop leaders in the areas of photography, visual arts, theater, writing and dance. I used to stay in my safe place – painting workshops. But some of my best weeks have been when I stretched myself and tried the writing workshop or dance. In 2015 I took a course on American Haiku. It’s a little less strict than traditional Japanese Haiku. It was the right choice for me that year. It helped me to sit and be quiet and think and write using all of my senses. It made for an especially peaceful week.
I haven’t tried theater yet. But I look forward to trying it one of these years. You don’t have to have any previous experience or skill. The workshop leaders adjust to every level.
There are many other types of conferences throughout the summer. Carol Berney mentioned the natural history conference. There’s also an international affairs conference and several family conferences and more. On Darwin’s 100th birthday year they had a week-long conference all about Darwin.
Thanks to Star Island I’ve made UU friends from throughout New England, New York, DC and beyond.
Finding First Parish first gave me a wonderful place to be on Sunday mornings. It then provided wonderful friends, and a fascinating history. But it also brought Star Island into my life. Unitarian Universalism keeps bringing me gifts. I look forward to experiencing other UU retreat locales in the future.
I have a short video you can view downstairs after the service if you like. -And a book about Star Island’s history.
Introduction to Ferry Beach
First, we’ll be hearing from some of our young members who have attended Ferry Beach: Roane Morton, Seneca Hart, and David Ostfeld.
Ferry Beach is located in Saco, Maine, with beach front and woodlands lying to the south and west of Old Orchard Beach, along the east side of the Saco river and skirting upon Saco Bay. Founded in 1901 by a Universalist minister, Ferry Beach is a retreat community informed by the traditions of Universalism, including camp and revival meetings, and today, by the seven Unitarian Universalist principles.
As a respite away from the everyday world, it is a collection of meeting spaces, wide porches, an art and pottery studio, an outdoor chapel, a performance space, and a wonderful dining hall. It is a place of renewal and rejuvenation for families, couples, and individuals.
Roane Morton – Ferry Beach – coming soon
Introduction to Rowe Camp and Conference Center
Rowe Camp is a Unitarian-Universalist Center, a spiritual and educational organization folded into the slope of the gentle Berkshire Mountains at the edge of an old New England village. The Rowe campus offers such features as forested land and trails, an old millpond and waterfall, a labyrinth, a meditation hut and a sauna.
Rowe’s summer camps have inspired and delighted kids since 1924. Adult camps have developed over several decades into self-sustaining communities ready to welcome new members, and year round conferences with interesting facilitators offer alternative topics with a focus on self-discovery.
Rowe’s stated purpose, consistent with UU principles and values, is to provide opportunities, in a safe and supportive environment, for people to explore diverse, far-reaching subjects in order to learn about themselves, each other, other cultures and the earth, and go forth with new knowledge, insight, and courage.
Rachel Benson Monroe – Rowe Camp and Conference Center
My Experience at Rowe Camp
By Rachel Benson Monroe
At age 13, for reasons that are still unbeknownst to me (but I have ideas…) my parents told me they wanted me to attend Rowe Camp in Rowe, Massachusetts. I was pretty against the idea- summer was an ideal time to cement middle school friendships- plus I actually, despite how I may have acted, LIKED my parents and sister, and didn’t want to leave for 3 weeks. I made my parents promise that if I called and asked, they would come pick me up. Let’s just say that after arriving at Rowe, that call was never to come, and it would become my spiritual summer home for the next 10 years.
I have attended Rowe camps and worked on staff for the middle school and high school aged camps. I have served as Youth Ambassador to the Board, am a regular donor, and recently attended a conference.
At Rowe we describe something called the Rowe Spirit. For me, it is a love and appreciation for the magical quality generated when a group of people join together to learn, grow, play, love, feel, be in an environment of trust, kindness, respect, and safety. When a person, especially a young person, is in a place they know they are safe and supported, welcomed and trusted, they can be the best, kindest, most energized, most vital version of themselves. That phenomenon is Rowe Camp.
The majority of my experiences at Rowe were at Junior High Camp, designed for ages 13-15, a three-week long retreat for adolescents focusing on personal and spiritual growth, identity exploration, socio-emotional bonding, appropriate boundary setting, freedom of expression, and fun. We lived in rustic cabins, showered outdoors, and spent 3 blissful weeks away from screens of all kinds, phones, and parents.
At Rowe we were presented and asked to commit to community guidelines, emphasizing respect for ourselves, each other, the space, and the environment. Being entrusted with these guidelines and having their meaning instilled in us created a sense of ownership and responsibility for our actions within the community. Our decisions to act responsibly came from an internal locus of respect and ethics, as opposed to externally imposed rules.
Consent was highlighted- as teenagers we were treated as unique individuals with autonomy over our bodies and our decisions. We were given, with permission from our parents, frank, compassionate, developmentally appropriate information about sex, consent, and relationships. This is a refreshing and much needed element excluded from most education systems and was formational in creating in me a vital sense of respect and authority over my own body.
Campers are called by the names they choose and pronouns they prefer. There has been an increased emphasis on building diversity at Rowe in the last 10 years, so children from all backgrounds can experience the magic. At Rowe you can actually be who you want to be- and try on any number of identities to see what sticks, knowing you will be loved and appreciated.
Programming is totally diverse and aimed at cultivating creativity, weirdness, freedom of expression, and fun. There is an effort to include and create opportunities for all kids. Kids who may not “fit in” in mainstream culture are celebrated at Rowe. There is no dress code, shoes are optional (except in the kitchen, where required weekly chores build a sense of ownership and responsibility for the functioning of the space), weirdness is gladly embraced. There are games, sports, and activities for kids who need to run around- there are quiet spaces, art materials, hikes, and small group outings for kids who are more introverted.
Friday night dances are raucous, barefoot, and community based. There are no dates, no attire that is expected, and most importantly there is no type of dancing that doesn’t fit.
Nightly, we would meet at dusk and walk in silence down to a centuries-old one room chapel, stopping on the short walk to sit and reflect at the mill pond, where a chorus of bullfrogs greeted us. We would share our experiences in the chapel Quaker style, always beginning and ending with certain rituals meant to soothe and ground everyone in the room. This experience of chapel was positively transformative for me and I felt connected not only to myself and my friends but to something deeper and greater, something “magical”.
Food is plentiful, made fresh daily, mostly vegetarian, and absolutely delicious. Family style meals are fun, chaotic and community building. The background of the lush forest, mountains, and starry night sky are a welcome respite from the confines of school, cell phones and cities that many kids experience.
For me, Rowe was a place where I was respected and appreciated for the unique individual that I am. I was given space to grow, learn, make mistakes, and form bonds that defied the typical and prescribed social norms of mainstream adolescent culture. living together for 3 weeks each summer and engaging in bonding rituals and foundational experiences during transformative and identity building times of life left me with friendships that endure the test of time. At my wedding two years ago, 3 friends from Rowe were by my side, having known each of them for more than 15 years.
I am thankful for the First Parish community for instilling in me the foundational beliefs that grew at Rowe. I am thankful to Rowe for offering me a sacred and safe space to evolve. I am thankful to my parents for having the foresight to send me to this magical retreat, and for recognizing it’s importance to me and allowing me to return, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share my experience with all of you today.
The Big Chair
January 22, 2017
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words – from Shirley Chisholm
My God, what do we want? What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else. All we want is for that trivial difference to make no difference. …. You have looked at us for years as different from you that you may never see us really. You don’t understand because you think of us as second-class humans. We have been passive and accommodating through so many years of your insults and delays that you think the way things used to be is normal. …. All we want is what you want, no less and no more.
Reading A Vision of Beauty, by William Watterson, Brown Alumni Magazine Fall 2016
“None of my teachers believed I could get into college,” says Shruti Nagarajan. “My friends laughed. I don’t want anyone to feel that way. I hope that I can be that one person to tell a young person that they can do it.”
Nagarajan, who is originally from the U.S. territory of Guam, won the Miss Rhode Island contest in May with a platform of “Upward Mobility: College Access for Low-Income and Minority Students” and a talent for Bollywood fusion dance. She is the first woman from Guam to participate in the Miss America Pageant.
The road from Guam to Miss Rhode Island started with a mango tree.
When Nagarajan was a high school freshman, her mango tree died. “I was very young and very upset that my tree had died. Guam problems.” She laughs. But she wanted to figure out what had happened to her tree. So, Nagarajan cut the mango tree open and found that it was hollow. This led her to discover that the problem was a borer insect infestation. She devised a novel pest management system that would control the borer population. Her system not only worked but was a finalist at the Intel International Science Fair in 2007.
For her college essay two years later, Nagarajan wrote about her mango tree. Brown was one among many colleges she applied to. “From Guam, all U.S. schools sound the same,” says Nagarajan, “and I couldn’t afford to visit.” The Brown admission officers were so taken by her ingenuity in fixing her tree that they wrote her a personalized acceptance letter. This impressed Nagarajan, and in 2010 she arrived on College Hill.
Nagarajan says it had been only by chance that she’d written about the mango tree. No one guided her to the topic. She had no college adviser and neither did her peers, most of whom would never leave Guam, much less attend an American university.
When Nagarajan started at Brown she was shocked by how far behind she was. She had achieved honor roll status at her high school on Guam, but there was no parity with her new classmates. She studied public policy and education because she “wanted to know why [she] was different” and why geography and socioeconomic status affect access to college.
After graduation Nagarajan took a job with an investment advising firm, but started to feel it was taking over her life. Struggling with a lack of balance and self-confidence, she needed a positive outlet, and went back to one of her favorite past-times – Bollywood dancing. She ended up jumping into pageantry after discovering that two Brown women had won the past two Miss Rhode Island pageants. With zero pageant experience, Nagarajan took the leap – and won.
She is using her platform as Miss Rhode Island to boost college acceptance of low-income students. She works with a nonprofit providing advice and resources to low-income and first-generation college-bound students to help them enroll and persist; to claim their place in the world.
Sermon – The Big Chair
If my grandmother had not died in 1986 – long before I married and had children — , she would turn 119 on Thursday. Lately, my youngest son has begun referring to her father as “the Evil One.” This was puzzling. My son did not know this man. In fact, I never knew him, and neither did my own father. Levi Greenwood died in 1929, while still in his fifties. We don’t talk about him, really, because the connection is tenuous. It consists primarily of a few visits to an enormous chair, sized for a giant of beyond Biblical proportions. Kids and other adventurers can climb the 21 foot chair, although it cannot be done alone. You need a boost up; some helping hands. But if you get to the seat, the name Levi Greenwood can be found; a commemoration of the family furniture business, of which he was the president when the chair was erected.
My oldest son, as some of you may know, is named Levi, and all three of my boys have Greenwood as a middle name. I liked the name Levi, which means “joined,” and of course the Levites are the priestly tribe. That seemed appropriate for the poor doomed son of two ministers! So I thought maybe Asher was referring to his brother. Why do you call him the Evil One?, I asked.
And Asher explained, well, Mom, the guy was a creep, he hated women, and that’s why he lost his job. Would that it all worked that way. So, we have Wikipedia combined with my son’s personal interpretation to thank.
There is more than a grain of truth to the characterization Asher gave us. Levi Greenwood was the President of the Senate in Massachusetts, back in the early part of the 20th century. Despite the fact that he seemed poised to rise in the ranks of government, he did not last long in that position. Because he was against women gaining the vote, suffragists organized in protest, got a rival candidate, and threw all their support to him. Mr. Greenwood lost his senate seat. Thus a new president had to be elected. That man was Calvin Coolidge, who of course went on to much bigger things. Not so for The Evil One. He went back to managing his banks and newspapers and his furniture company.
Since there was no such thing as Wikipedia 22 years ago, I did not know these details when Mark and I chose the name. Family lore passed down an edited version of the events. And even now, when I look at the entry, what strikes me are not the biographical details, but the picture. It looks exactly like my father, who also died while still in his fifties. When I first saw the photo online, I thought someone had made a mistake, and that it WAS my father. And what had seemed a distant and fragile connection suddenly is much more complicated. What do we inherit from the past? What do we carry forward without even realizing? The information we have, and our relationship to it, shifts. The grand story is never a straight road.
Last weekend, I was highly aware that it was the last Sunday of official public service for Barack Obama. The church where I am filling in for a colleague on sabbatical uses a prayer book, and among the rote words are prayers for the President of the United States; for our senators and the governor of the Commonwealth. I can’t decide how I feel about this. On the one hand, the new president most certainly could use some prayers. And I know that there are countless people who work for the common good all over our country – on Town Councils and School Committees and Commissions on Disability and as Library Trustees. These people deserve to be remembered, and held up. But there is something to be said for a sacred zone, too – a place not permeated with anxiety about a new world order, or dominated by a political talk that divides. So the key is learning how to talk about prayer as an activity that brings our deepest values to bear; as a way of building beloved community. Our prayers must not be limited to a protest against misogyny and racism and xenophobia. We have to live the unity and inclusion and peace that we claim.
Trump believes in the prosperity gospel; the idea that wealth is proof that God favors a person – which means that if you live in poverty, it is because God wants it that way; that you are not favored. Obviously, this means it isn’t likely that much change will happen in any power structure. And so my prayers for the good of the nation are directed not so much at the powerful, in hoping that they will open their eyes and hearts and become wiser and better; but instead are with those who have been disparaged and disenfranchised. We pray for inclusion, for empowerment, for the will and the strength and the might to cause change. We pray not to be reconciled to the way things are. We pray that a moral voice will matter as much as gold. We pray that we be guided not by fear or anger or hatred, but by love.
Although it was barely mentioned; given only a line or two, Shruti Nagarajan’s love for her mango tree completely captivated me. The point of the profile about her was giving kids from economically depressed and marginalized areas a real chance to go to college, but I loved how it also upended the assumptions of what Miss America contests are for. The article never once calls it a beauty pageant. There is no imagry of parading in a bathing suit and high heels, or leering judges. Instead it is about how Nagarajan felt a bit lost and disconnected, and went back to dancing to get out of her own head – to recover some of the sense of self she felt as a kid. And she was working in investment banking, but wanting to help other kids like the one she had been; one that no one fully believed in.
What propelled Nagarajan forward was love, and the recognition that something she loved was imperiled. There was no straight road from Guam to New England. But she loved her mango tree, and couldn’t just move on when the tree died. Love motivated her to dissect the tree; to cut it open and figure out what went wrong. Hollow at the core, she then wanted to know why – what caused the middle to be emptied out? Something had bored into the trunk of her tree and robbed it of life, and she was determined to learn how to make sure that did not happen again. Maybe along the way this work ended up meaning she got science awards, and accepted to college; she moved far away and became interested in public policy; that she got a job making lots of money, and was able to help other kids with backgrounds like her – but the thing that made her who she was and that carried her through all these experiences was that she loved her mango tree. Hollowness at the core doesn’t have to mean bitterness and emptiness. It can mean there is room to learn; room to grow and to change. But we have to understand and see the truth before that can happen. Laying reality bare is not about assigning fault or claiming blamelessness. It is about moving forward together.
Years and years ago, I remember my history professor telling me that Louisa May Alcott – whose mother once declared “I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me” — was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts. It was three years after her mother had died, and 35 years before my ancestor lost his job for failing to support woman suffrage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a law that allowed women to vote, but only in elections that had to do with children and education. Therefore, women were allowed to vote for local School Committee members beginning in 1880. Alcott seized the chance and tried valiantly to register other women. Who mostly had less than zero interest. In her journal, she wrote about trying to stir the women to action, but they were, in her words, “timid and slow.” She motivated them by scolding, and then almost forcibly corralling them into her carriage so she could drive them to the polls.
A total of twenty women voted that year. Once the women voted, the judge presiding motioned that the polls be closed, and so not only had these twenty women voted – they were the only ballots cast in that election. There were some men present, who had planned to vote, and were not necessarily happy to have been shut out of the process. Alcott responded that for nearly two centuries, men alone had been able to vote, and so one day in which the opposite was true might provide the beginning of a balance.
But of course, that is not balance. It’s retribution. We have to learn how to include everyone. Justice does not mean going back to how it was, or asserting our power over others. It means we cannot stay broken and fallen; alone in pits of despair. We have to be gathered in. There is no winning or losing for sides or factions; there is only being whole, or being broken.
Three years later, only seven women voted – Louisa, her sister Anna, and five others. Alcott was bothered by such a poor show from a town so proud of its culture and intelligence, but she kept insisting on the importance of participation all her days. It is not clear that she ever connected her tactics with the response of the women.
The road is never straight. It is peopled with those who hold on to ideals, and who stick firmly to convictions, but it is not usually clear which of those we will come to see as right. We have to search our hearts, and lead with love –of truth, of justice, of each other – and then pray that sets us in the right direction. My youngest son asked me, “Can you imagine what Levi Greenwood would have thought about his great-granddaughter becoming a minister?” Well, no. I really can’t. But you know, it was completely normal in his day to think the way he did. Massachusetts was generally anti-suffrage – a 1915 popular vote on the subject was defeated, and that was the year AFTER Greenwood lost his seat. Voting was considered a responsibility that women shouldn’t burden themselves with; an imposition that they didn’t consent to, and a grand set up – if women were given the right to vote, and then didn’t, they could be called shirkers. Their character could be impugned. We can laugh at this now, and wryly note the various ways so many different kinds of human beings have been denied their full humanity, but while events are unfolding it is usually only the prophets who can point the way forward; who notice the perversions of justice.
I do not know why my forebear was against women getting the vote, except that most of the people around him felt that way. I like to imagine that there was something personal about it — he was from Gardner, and Lucy Stone famously first preached her women’s suffrage message from her brother’s pulpit in that town. The Reverend Stone lived on the same street as my ancestors, and maybe it was irksome that the Congregational Church – far more conservative than the Unitarians – was hosting abolitionist meetings and letting a woman preach. But I have no idea, really. Maybe he just didn’t think his wife and daughters would vote for him.
My grandmother once told me that when her father died, her hair turned white overnight. I always took that to mean she adored him; that grief hit her at the root. But maybe that is not what she meant. She did not seem the type to put up with anything less than full freedom for herself. She was what most people described as a formidable woman; independent, quirky, smart. But who knows when she became that way? She was 31 when her father died; still living at home, taking music lessons and drifting about the rooms. She was in her 80s when she told me these stories. It strikes me now that she grew up in a country and a family where she had no expectation of ever voting, and then suddenly, just as she turned 22, all that changed.
And, in fact, in a way we can credit her father for that fact. It isn’t because he changed his mind. Rather, his stance on suffrage invited organized resistance, and the Boston Equal Suffrage Association formed in order to oppose him, and this association evolved directly into the League of Women Voters. Perhaps a similar change is happening right now. Last week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that they have formed a new working group to advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees. Revealing the hostile environment; exposing the hollow core allows us to start treating the disease.
The grand story is never a straight road, and the servants are often unlikely. Humility comes in many forms, as we serve purposes that we might never have intended. Let us pray that this be true for those with great power, and let us also remember to lead with love and kindness, to show the way.
Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America. It’s not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. It is the struggle of a lifetime, more than one lifetime.
Young people can understand, and must understand, that we had success, we had failures, but we never gave up. We never gave in. We never became bitter. We didn’t hate. We continued to press on. And that’s what we’re saying: There are some ups, there are some downs, and when you’re not down, you must have the capacity and the ability to get up and keep going. – John Lewis
“Risky Business” by Jolie Olivetti – January 15, 2017
OPENING “The Only Ones Who Ever Win” by Eileen B Karpeles
Out of our separate lives we come,
to walk this path together for an hour or a day,
for a week or a month or a series of months and years.
For this space of time we travel together,
making much or little or nothing at all of the fact
that another walks beside us.
We can keep our eyes cast down
protecting ourselves from the pain we risk
whenever we allow another human being to touch us,
living safe little lives inside our sterile wrappings.
Or we can reach out,
risking a little or a lot or every coin we have,
because we believe that loving and being loved
is the only game in town.
The choice is ours.
Those who risk much lose much.
But they are also the only ones who ever win.
READING from “Against Innocence: A Dispatch from the Political Wilderness,” by the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt.
I have come to the painful realization that we sometimes conflate our dreams of the Beloved Community with the difficult and grueling work that might lead to its achievement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” It isn’t hard to notice that power without love surrounds us in this country today. But think too of the extent to which we live our lives amid expressions of love without political power. Think of the countless acts of mercy with which each of us may have aligned ourselves: We work with Habitat for Humanity, we volunteer at shelters and mentor children, we testify before hostile legislators unwilling to extend human rights to the whole human family; we lobby for an end to punitive drug laws that target people of color; we do a thousand things in an effort to make our love visible. And yet, if we had power, real political power, would not the hungry already be fed, those children already joyful? Would not Habitat be out of business and our legislators obsessed with supporting human dignity rather than denying it? Would not captives of every variety already be freed? If we had real power, is it not possible that our work would already be done? . . .
This is the hardest essay I have written in some time, and it took some time for me to discern the reason. I wanted to be triumphant, filled with hope, or at least optimistic about our common lives and future. Being a cynic is frankly against my religion, and a betrayal of my religious heritage as an African American that includes knowledge of a God that “makes a way out of no way.” But this reflection is, in fact, a dispatch from the wilderness. Religious leaders loathe being called to the wilderness—despite the fact that it really does come with our territory. But the wilderness is precisely where we are. …
I believe that many Unitarian Universalists are serious about creating a world of justice and peace; that is, I think we think we mean it. What I believe we are less serious about is what it will take to create that world, particularly in a society filled with people and circumstances actively opposed to a whole and holy life.
Our troubled world is filled with difficult and dangerous people who will not always respond to kind, thoughtful words and good intentions. A time may be coming when the love we hold dear will require a more practical expression. It may no longer be enough simply to counsel peace in a world where there is no peace; as the life of this world grows more violent and dangerous, perhaps the time is coming when we must give up our culture of witness and pick up the heavier burden that the twentieth century Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called discipleship. It may not be long before we risk becoming aimless hypocrites if we are not willing to put our own bodies and lives on the line to protect those who stand in harm’s way. . .
We are unfit for this wilderness; we could have used more time to get ready, more time to think of the perfect strategy and learn the right words to change the world. But like it or not, the wilderness is where we are.
None of us can ever really be innocent again, and frankly, innocence is overrated. But we can be givers and receivers of a more demanding love and a more focused power, starting with one another in the religious communities that shelter us and support our lives… We feel betrayed and doubtful and disappointed too much of the time. … We are failed and imperfect and not at all pure. But in the gathered religious community, we are given the gift and the opportunity to pledge ourselves, to offer our very lives, not simply as witnesses, not just as sacrificial symbols of love or power alone, but as true agents of Creation.
SERMON: “Risky Business” by Jolie Olivetti
Perhaps you’ve heard by now: I’m pregnant! I’m preaching about risk today. I’ve never been a parent before but I get the sense that there are some risks involved. I’ll get to that later. Actually maybe not till the very end. I just didn’t want you to be distracted the entire sermon wondering if I was going to bring it up.
Instead, I’m going to start in a very different place: my own adolescence. When I was a freshman in high school, I had a crush on one of my best friends. I kept it to myself for two whole years. I recall during our junior year, driving in his parents’ minivan, when the crush was finally loosening its hold on me, he was flabbergasted when I offhandedly mentioned that I had like liked him for our entire friendship thus far. He asked, “How was I supposed to know, if you never told me?” The thought just hadn’t occurred to me. What held me back? I wasn’t brave enough to disrupt things. I felt more comfortable with the status quo of our friendship. I couldn’t risk being that vulnerable and exposed.
Last spring, I was sitting on the floor of the lobby in the Mayor’s wing of Boston City Hall. I was following the lead of a group of young people who were calling Marty Walsh out because he was going back on his promises to fully fund youth jobs programs. It was a sit-in. We were singing and chanting and taking up space until Marty agreed to meet with the young organizers. Youth of color from Boston’s working class neighborhoods led this protest. They know these jobs can help their families out financially, build skills and resumes, and are part of breaking the cycles of intergenerational poverty and institutional racism that feed interpersonal youth violence.
Once security arrived, I got nervous. I caught myself inching away from the center, as if I was unwilling to be identified as one of the protestors. I wanted to shrink to the side, maybe sit in one of the chairs along the wall, as if I was an orderly adult who just happened to be in that lobby at the same time as these protestors. I took a deep breath and re-committed to being there. I kept chanting. I moved back into the crowd. Why did I almost let myself back off of this very moderate form of civil disobedience? It’s hard to be brave enough to disrupt things. It’s easier to be comfortable with the status quo. For me, the status quo as a white middle class adult is comfortable. It’s hard to risk being vulnerable and exposed.
When I was a teenager, George W. Bush was elected president. Some of my classmates slept on the steps of the Supreme Court when they were reaching their decision about the vote recount, but I didn’t even risk asking my parents if I could join them. I have some friends now who as young people were very politically active: protesting the Iraq war, and participating in the anti-globalization movement, which included the powerful disruption of the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Unlike those friends of mine, and unlike the youth chanting in the lobby of the Mayor’s office, my teen risk-taking was pretty limited and my political engagement was mostly nil. My status quo was comfortable, like I said. I don’t think I yet understood how my own worth and dignity is wrapped up in the worth and dignity of others. I thought the UU principle about the interdependent web was just about the environment, I didn’t realize it also includes the whole human family.
Perhaps it’s a bit strange to have shared a story about a high school crush in a sermon that will shift to focusing on considerably higher-stakes risks. But there is a connection there:
The same reluctance to speak my personal truths to the people I care about for fear of disrupting things can also be a barrier to speaking truth to power, because it’s scary to disrupt things.
Friday is Inauguration Day. I am afraid of all the bad things that will be made worse under this administration. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. MLK’s rhetoric, his lived example, the legacies of all the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, and the ongoing brilliance of the Movement for Black Lives and so many other freedom struggles strengthen me to action, call me to take risks, to defy and deny the hate that the coming administration intends to turn into policy.
Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the early 20th century. While he began as a nationalist who supported Hitler, he underwent a conversion and became part of the anti-Nazi German Confessing Church, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who came up in the reading. Niemöller and Bonhoeffer were both imprisoned in the concentration camps for their role in this movement. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Niemöller survived those years, and he later lamented not doing enough to resist the Nazis. After that, he became a lifelong anti-war activist. He preached the words that have been altered and adapted to create this familiar refrain:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
In his situation, it was dangerous to speak out against persecution of the Jews, the Communists, and so many other groups targeted by the Nazis. What about in our time? What about the dangers of speaking out against the persecution of Muslims? What about the dangers of speaking out against the oppression of Black people, the devaluing of Black lives? Against the demonization and deportation of immigrants? Is it risky to speak up against homophobia and transphobia? To insist upon reproductive justice, and refuse to be silent in the face of violence done to women’s bodies? Isn’t it worth the risk?
It can be daunting to speak up, let alone to know how to do it so that anyone will heed our words. Rosemary Bray McNatt challenges us to consider speaking out in such a way that goes beyond acts of mercy and witness, and that truly disrupts the forces of evil. To throw a wrench into the machine of hate. The political wilderness she addressed 15 years ago is the same political wilderness we face today. The brambles alternately clear and thicken over the years, the beasts that stalk these forests are beaten back and then return, but we remain in the wilderness, and a new wilderness is imminent.
McNatt writes, “We are unfit for this wilderness; we could have used more time to get ready, more time to think of the perfect strategy and learn the right words to change the world. But like it or not, the wilderness is where we are.”
She calls upon us to recognize our situation, however difficult, and suggests that “the love we hold dear” may “require a more practical expression” She invokes Bonhoeffer and ventures that it may be time to pick up the “heavier burden… [of] discipleship” It’s a brief mention, but Bonhoeffer’s reference calls to mind the incredible risks that Jesus’ disciples took, as did the early Christians, persecuted by the Roman Empire. It’s time for us to take some risks.
And I have to admit, I am still afraid of taking risks. I absolutely still harbor the same reluctance to be vulnerable and exposed, the same instinct to hold back, to not make waves. The first sermon I preached here, I told you about my personal journey away from cynicism and towards faith in humanity. I have gained much of this hope in our ability to take good care of each other from community organizing. I have received an education in solidarity from people dependent on public transit fighting fare increases, from tenants fighting no-fault evictions, from youth of color subjected to stop-and-frisk searches demanding an end to racist policing, and especially from all the ways that these different groups with their seemingly different issues support one another, come together to fight.
I am learning there is a difference between safety and comfort. Safety is not a guarantee for anyone, but my access to the comforts of class and race privilege makes me disproportionately comfortable, safe from harm. So I can risk a little discomfort for the sake of justice.
These 10 or so years of this work have released me from lonely and hopeless individualism, and dared me to believe that I am part of a community, really many intersecting communities. I am called to believe that all of our destinies are shared, that none of us is free until all of us are free. Even after a decade supporting and participating in these struggles, in my more cynical moments, I ask myself, what good can it do to go against the grain, especially when the grain is so ingrained in our political order? It can feel futile at best, and frightening at worst.
Even though “it’s against my religion to be cynical,” as McNatt said, it is very hard not to be cynical. But I am fortified by the strength of my convictions. I’m not here to claim I am an awesome risk-taker – far from it! It can still be intimidating to take a public stand, or potentially endanger myself. I sometimes catch myself wondering, “What will my father say if I end up in the paper?” Who will judge me or reject me if I speak a controversial truth? Will I get harmed if I try to put my own self on the line for the cause of justice and peace?
We may all be asking ourselves such questions. What if we feel too tired, too sick to march in the streets? How do we take risks when it’s hard enough to just get through the day?
Risk is relative. We are all of us needed, to offer whatever gifts we have, in the best way we can. We need to begin with that that very recognition: that all of us are needed. We all have something we can share, something we can risk giving of ourselves.
As our opening words noted,
“we travel together,
making much or little or nothing at all of the fact
that another walks beside us.”
We can tell ourselves we’re safe in our own personal bubbles,
“Or we can reach out,
risking a little or a lot or every coin we have,
because we believe that loving and being loved
is the only game in town.”
This what Unitarian Universalism calls us to believe: “Loving and being loved is the only game in town.” It has been said that love is a verb. That’s what can help with the shift from sentimentality to powerful love that King was concerned with, if we live love as a verb. Mark declared that UUism is “deeds, not creeds” in his sermon last week. To me this means, we can best discern our faith through action, through engagement with the world. Mark said – can I quote him? – “your faith journey is a process of living into the truth, and not a wordy definition of the truth.” And I believe what we are striving to live into is the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King so often preached about.
I have been afraid to bring a child into the world. I still am. (See, I promised to come back to this at the end.) Because precariousness is inherent to our existence. I can scarcely fathom that I will be responsible for introducing a new being into such turmoil as is this life. I know there will be nothing I can do to fully protect this child from the world. But it’s worth the risk. Perhaps parenthood will be heartbreak in the sense that, for me and Adam, this child will break our hearts wide open.
I have this idea that parenthood will bring a truth into sharper relief: the truth that we are all in this together. That especially as we continue to face the wildernesses of vested interests that calculate war to be more profitable than peace, a warming planet, the shape-shifter white supremacy’s voracious appetite for domination, especially as we face all this, we need to find ourselves in the inescapable network of mutuality that King so often preached about. It’s true regardless of if we are parents: We are in this together. And we must risk connection with one another in order to face this wilderness. We can’t do it alone. And our inherent interconnectedness calls us to take risks for one another. Parenthood in precarious times, all human connection in the face of cynical, inhumane drives to power, requires love. Defiant love, risky, difficult, powerful love. We are facing the political wilderness, a retrenchment of wilderness. Let’s take some risks for each other.
CLOSING WORDS by Anne Braden
In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed. Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come. And living in that world that is working to make it happen lets us know that our lives are worthwhile.
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