“Truth is Victorious” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 17, 2017
Sound Recording of Sermon – copy link into browser
Opening Words (responsive) (Upanishads, adapted)
We gather as a community of memory and hope,
On a journey that carries us from untruth to truth
From ignorance to wisdom,
From animosity to love,
From bondage to freedom.
We rededicate ourselves before this community to affirm and practice truth, wisdom, love and freedom today and in the days to come.
Reading from The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
The other night Andrea and I attended an event at Harvard Divinity School celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Many of us revere Thoreau for the inspiration he provided to today’s environmental movement. We love him for being someone who could at once see both the sacredness in nature, and record its scientific changes. We admire him for following the sounds of his own drummer, living without heed for the conventions of society. One of the speakers at the Harvard event quoted Thoreau’s approach to writing: “The one great rule of composition. . . is, to speak the truth, this first, this second, this third: pebbles in your mouth or not.” His eye was on truth not on the ornaments; reveal your own genius, he said. We hear echoes of: Speak your own truth, live your own truth, and don’t give in to the pressures of an acquisitive society or selfish people who would have you be or become someone you are not. But what is truth? I usually feel like the pebbles that are in my mouth get in the way of expressing or living any definitive truth, especially as a Unitarian Universalist for fear of offending someone else’s truth, or believing there are as many truths as there are people on the planet.
This is exactly the problem in our culture today. We are all pretty confused about truth, and where it is and what it means. One writer feels we have reaped what we have sowed, and tells that story in his book Fantasylands. Kurt Andersen says that America over the centuries has “nurtured a promiscuous devotion to the untrue.” He says we act as though fake news, alternative facts or post-truth are something new, but it has been going on all along, and President Trump is the predictable result of this history. Andersen traces the story back to the Pilgrims and Puritans. He says they developed a sense of self that was infused with entitlement and exceptionalism. Reality was theirs to be custom made. He cites Anne Hutchinson who rebelled from the Puritans as a perfect example of self-appointed prophet. She understood truth better than anybody, or so she thought, and there was no room for self-doubt. Fake news Andersen says, started with the myths about George Washington. He was mythologized as a Greek God like hero who could not lie about the cherry tree, and saved all his boys by praying at Valley Forge. History mostly tells us he lost a lot, and was darn lucky.
There are other aspects to this confusion about truth. We have the birth of conspiracy theorists. We often considered this fringe thinking by nut cases, but after the Kennedy assassination, those who employed reason became the oddballs. But it predates Kennedy. There are those who believe that Roosevelt conspired to arrange the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My biggest shock was when I was walking around a UUA General Assembly display area a few years back, and came upon a big presentation with pictures and video of the conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center. Did you know our government had planned this? This became a permanent feature of our mental landscape. And the problem is we never denounce these crazy kinds of pronouncements because we always say freedom of speech or people have the right to believe what they want to. Yet deeper than that are the national myths we convey about our history. Perhaps it began with Pilgrims purportedly playing nice with Native Americans, and enjoying a fresh turkey dinner, but it became especially pernicious with the reasons we affirmed for the cause of the Civil War. Somehow slavery became secondary to state’s rights, and white Americans begin to venerate the lost cause of the Confederacy leading to many of our problems with racism today, and the adoration of the flag displaying the Stars and Bars as mere history.
Another American tendency to manipulate truth has been seen in the propping up of magical thinking with scientific truth. While all of Europe gave up the idea of heaven and angels decades ago, the majority of Americans still maintain its validity. We also continue to see stretched claims in concerted efforts to prove that vaccines cause autism. These myths have had to be debunked, and more confusion was created when President Trump put his imprint on the validity of this falsified connection. Even some aspects of playing with truth are evident in our own Unitarian Universalist history. While it is generally not true for us today, heaven and angels were once a belief that predominated among UUs. Many Universalists and some Unitarians backed this in the mid-nineteenth century while embracing spiritualism. They attended séances and spoke to deceased spirits through mediums. When this occurred at such a gathering the table rappings and the like that they heard were affirmed as scientific evidence of truth. Unfortunately, (or not) most of the rappings around the table were hoaxes.
And in our tradition no one stretched the truth more than the circus impresario P. T. Barnum, who was a devout Universalist, who simply loved to fool people, and likewise knew that people seemingly loved to be fooled. This was verified by many of his exhibits at the Barnum museum, none more outrageous than that of the 161-year old nursing “mammy” of the infant George Washington. Joice Heth, was an elderly former slave who told stories about “little George” and sang a hymn, and apparently earned Barnun $1,500 a week, an incredible amount in 1835. His career as a showman took off after this, despite the fact that some doubts were raised about a person purportedly born in 1674. Many outrageous claims and stories followed, including that of a real mermaid. While Barnum probably never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” he more than likely said, “People love to be humbugged.”
You would not think that UUs like to be hoodwinked. Truth has always been claimed as a central declaration of ours. When I served the church in Milton, we recited a late nineteenth century covenant that once was the most commonly used affirmation in the entire association. It said: In devotion to truth, and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God, and the service of all. A variation of this begins: In the love of truth. Our own affirmation says that we will seek the truth in love. Unitarians and seekers once wandered into the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn to find, that while no creed was posted on the walls, a verse from the book of John, chapter 8 was: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” Even our principles and purposes have “the free and responsible search for truth.” But what do we mean by truth? The truth in the Bible is that Jesus Christ will make you free. Universalists are sometimes reputed to have followed a truth that you can find on the outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach: God is love. Is that the truth we seek? Is it God or Jesus?
One of the first sermons I ever gave was called “The Blinding Search for the Whole Elephant.” It was based on the Indian story about the blind men who are asked to touch part of an elephant, but then are asked to describe the whole elephant based on the part that they come to know and feel. Of course each is only able to explain their response to that particular part. The one who touches the leg says that elephants are like pillars, and the one who touches the tusk says that elephants are like tree branches. They had experiences of the snake like trunk, and the rope like tail, and the huge leathery body. The idea is that knowing the whole is a mystery, and we can only know part of the larger truth about life. This is a typical response that Unitarian Universalists make to the question about truth. Each blind man represents one religious tradition, and we respect each of their perspectives because none can know the whole truth, and each develops answers dependent upon time and place and culture. There are many truths.
Yet many of these truths found in different faiths are presented as THE one and only truth by others, but Unitarian Universalists refuse to accept any claim to absolutism. We question dogmas because while we believe that you can never know the whole truth, and there are many perspectives on truth, we also know that we are always learning new truths. We typically say in this context, that revelation is not sealed, or as our founder Francis David in Transylvania said, “The reformation continues.” So as life evolves, so too does our understanding of God or the divine and moral truths or understanding. I may believe differently tomorrow from where I stand today. And that is exactly what happened to me. As a young minister I strongly identified as a Unitarian Universalist Christian, but later found in my own searching that I adopted this identification because it was based on the comfortable and comforting traditions of my childhood, but did not correspond with my more humanistic and pluralistic understanding of the world now. So if truth and our understanding of it grows, then it is never static. We might change again. We might say that there are many truths within this room, and even more in the world that are constantly changing. How do we even begin to find some basis for agreement when we espouse so many truths?
I think some of the general anxiety we find in the world is based on the loss of the sense of an agreed upon truth about life. Some years ago Stephen Colbert spoke about “truthiness.” At the time he said, “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.” Our current political culture has given us a highly emotional and personal quality to truth. Something is true if I want it to be true, or feel it is true. Think of how we characterize President Trump. He invents the truth that satisfies his own sense of what he feels is the truth. He had the largest crowds of all time at his inaugural. Rational facts said that is not true. But his emotional fact to satisfy the needs of his large ego, and to prove himself right, is that he did have the largest crowd. He doubts scientific truths like global warming, but not the self. He also invents fake news, whether it is literally true or not to further his own goal, which is to prove the truth and worthiness of himself, and destroy someone else. Hilary Clinton is deathly ill. Obama was not born in the USA. Of course the ultimate danger in perpetrating fake news is that it will incite others to believe it and then act in response to the hoax. Wild claims of illegal voting lead to investigations that cost the taxpayers even if there is no evidence of wrong doing. So we may accept the irrational claims of someone who manipulates the truth, and we become totally confused as to where the truth lies. Where has truth gone?
We could attack the President all day as an easy target for the manipulation of truth, but the deeper issue is that we need a government we can trust, and not one that creates its own truth. I see a dangerous parallel here to what we sometimes promote as the Unitarian Universalist approach to truth. We usually see ourselves as the ultimate authorities when it comes to verifying what is truth for us. We doubt dogma but not the self, and embrace the truth that satisfies us. No authority but the self sounds like Trump. We often say that we want to be true to ourselves. Ministers who define their calling to this profession often feel they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. My truth is in serving others, or perhaps your meaning in life may be found in traditional success in business, as was true of my oldest son, who opted for burritos and tacos instead. The reading today from Elizabeth Strout’s novel The Burgess Boys is an excerpt about the character Pam, who is the ex-wife of Bob Burgess. Pam thinks about her feeling that she is living the wrong life, having given up the scientific research she enjoyed doing. She has remarried, has kids, and lives in Manhattan, not rural Maine. We hear her ask,” Am I living the wrong life?” Some of us are afraid to ask the question, and others of us reconcile ourselves to the choices we make, or best of all may affirm that we have made happy choices with the truth of profession or relationships we have.
Yet there is a danger of self-satisfaction in what we perceive as the truth we are living by. We may check off the boxes that say I am not making too many excess purchases and thus contributing to wastefulness, and causing environmental harm to the planet, I am volunteering to serve others, I live within my means, and I am trying to be a kinder person to others. I am living a good life, and that truth has set me free. Yet who is making that judgment? You cannot see the world as it is as an objective observer, you can only see the world as you are. For example, I have white skin. When I have interactions with people I do not have to think about the color of my skin. You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are, a white person of education and privilege, who lives in a predominately white upper middle class suburb. Your truth is your truth, but it is not the truth.
The truth that will set you free is going to be one that begins to deeply explore others truths in the context of community and relationship. If truth is a product of perceptions and experiences then you need more interactions with others to even begin to catch a glimpse of a broader understanding of truth. But the truth we construct is usually out of our experiences of events. There is a Zen Buddhist story about a wandering monk who passed by the courtyard of a monastery where he heard two groups of monks arguing about the temple flag fluttering in the breeze. “It is the flag that moves,” one group argued. “No, it is the wind that moves,” argued the other group. Back and forth they argued, responding to the logic of the other side, coming up with a new rationale for their respective positions. But it just came down to, “It is the wind that moves, it is the flag that moves.” After listening for a while, the itinerant monk interrupted them and said, “If you look more closely you will see that it is neither the flag nor the wind that moves — what moves is your mind.” One of the keys of Buddhism is to detach ourselves from our truth, so that the way to discover a larger truth is step back from how right you are.
Because our attachment to rightness damages so many of our relationships, we cast blame on others, refuse to accept our own responsibility, and generally end up not being very kind or understanding towards others. The poet David Herbert Lawrence writes:
Search for nothing any more, nothing
Be very still, and try and get at the truth.
And the first question to ask yourself is:
How great a liar am I?
As Unitarian Universalists we teach a faith that does not teach a truth, but rather teaches us to seek truth, to let go of our assuredness not only about dogma, but about other life truths we espouse. We speak freely of using reason, but all heart felt truths are based in emotion, and we humans express deep seated truths in how we cling to family, home and community. These are important loyalties, but they also inhibit us from fully encountering the truths of others. Our task is to see that our minds and hearts are moving, and to be more open to greater loving kindness we must do all we can to keep them moving. A true life is not about our feelings, it is about gathering the feelings of many and building a humane society and a more integrated self. Jan Hus, the Czech priest, who was martyred by the Catholic church in the 15th century for preaching that the cup of salvation should be offered to all, has a memorial in Prague. On it, it says, “Love one another. Always tell the truth.”
Closing Words – from Alice Blair Wesley
Be gathered into communities of love. Find, together, whoat is more meaningful, more loving, more worthy of your attention, and be empowered in devotion to these things. “Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. The truth will make you free.”
“Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti – May 28, 2017
From the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks… devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Excerpts from “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang
The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?
The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth. Humans call this the Fermi paradox.
One proposed solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid being targeted by hostile invaders.
Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.
It makes sense to remain quiet and avoid attracting attention.
The Fermi paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet.
Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct before they can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hush of the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.
Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Rio Abajo forest resounded with our voices. Now we’re almost gone. Soon this rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe.
There was an African Grey Parrot named Alex. He was famous for his cognitive abilities. Famous among humans, that is.
A human researcher named Irene Pepperberg spent thirty years studying Alex. She found that not only did Alex know the words for shapes and colors, he actually understood the concepts of shape and color.
Many scientists were skeptical that a bird could grasp abstract concepts. Humans like to think they’re unique. But eventually Pepperberg convinced them that Alex wasn’t just repeating words, that he understood what he was saying.
Out of all my cousins, Alex was the one who came closest to being taken seriously as a communication partner by humans.
Alex died suddenly, when he was still relatively young. The evening before he died, Alex said to Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”
If humans are looking for a connection with a non-human intelligence, what more can they ask for than that?
Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.
And humans create such beautiful myths; what imaginations they have. Perhaps that’s why their aspirations are so immense. Look at Arecibo. Any species who can build such a thing must have greatness within it.
My species probably won’t be here for much longer; it’s likely that we’ll die before our time and join the Great Silence. But before we go, we are sending a message to humanity. We just hope the telescope at Arecibo will enable them to hear it.
The message is this:
You be good. I love you.
SERMON “Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti
My dad and I like to go bird-watching in the area at least once a year. He goes more often than that, I just don’t always get it together to join him. My eyes and ears scan the treetops, I soak in my surroundings, I try to distinguish one birdcall from another and note the slightest movement.
I’m not particularly good at spotting and identifying birds, but I do completely lose myself in this activity. Though I have no idea what this kid will be like, or perhaps this kid will just think anything that mom is into is dopey; all the same, I hope to instill in my child the same love of nature that my parents instilled in me. It’s also what I learned growing up as a Unitarian Universalist – our seventh principle to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.
I came across an article in UU World that describes the genesis of our seventh principle. At the 1984 General Assembly in Ohio, UU’s gathered to adopt our statement of principles. According to the author of this article, James Ford, the discussion was winding to a close and they were coming to a vote.
Ford describes the events that followed with great drama:
Then the Rev. Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. People who remember the scene say he was lanky and bearded and that he stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard, and then addressed the proposed Seventh Principle, which was a call for “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. … Out of the silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.
Paul proposed new wording for the Seventh Principle: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the roof blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and other celestial beings from all the world’s religions—past, present, and future—descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe.
Why all the spiritual hyperbole here? Because this is a revelation. We are called not just to respect the Earth, but also to understand ourselves as one of its creatures. We are called not just to marvel at the cosmos, but also to find our place in the cosmos.
I’d like to tell you a story, one that I have already told you. I’m hoping it’s ok, because you might not remember it, considering I told it during the first sermon I preached here, in October 2015.
So anyway maybe it’s fitting to come full circle and end with the same story I started with.
I was in Ecuador, studying tropical ecology, and our professor told study abroad class that the only hope for species conservation was to fence people off of the land, creating different sizes of habitat preserves. I raised my hand to ask, is that the only option, we’re just choosing between creating corridors of lots of little human-free zones, or fewer large human-free zones? Isn’t there some model that acknowledges that us humans are also part of the landscape? He said no, we’d long since passed that point, the only influence people have on ecosystems is a destructive one. However realistic that perspective may have been, it bummed me out and seemed to doom conservation ecology to an antisocial corner of the sciences, forever pitting “nature” against “humans.” It also seemed to violate our seventh principle we are a part of the interdependent web.
We had to conduct different experiments in different habitats during that semester in Ecuador. For one of my experiments when we were living in the rainforest, I sat on a rickety old dock for hours at a time, watching russet-backed oropendolas weave their amazing hanging nests – which look like enormous macramé teardrops. I do not remember what my scientific question was – maybe I was asking, aren’t these nests cool? Or maybe it was, can you believe the sound these birds make? My best description is “electronic water droplet.”
Or there was the project when a classmate and I went on walks at twilight, following the paths that lead out from the research station, to look at spider webs. Again, what exactly were we trying to determine? I have no clue. But the webs we saw were utterly breathtaking. Intricate and perfect, stretching across multiple plants, with the sentinel spiders awaiting their prey, the jungle all around us raucous with the sounds of frogs and bugs and howler monkeys who sound like dinosaurs or monsters when they roar. I’m still not sure how we were not eaten by a jaguar while we were staring at spiderwebs. One final experiment I’ll describe to you folks is when we were living on the coast, and I sat high on a cliff along the Pacific Ocean for hours at dawn and at dusk, watching pelicans eat fish. This time I do remember my question: are young pelicans good at catching fish? The answer is, nope, they’re still learning. Not a terribly significant scientific discovery. But the birds and spiders of and all the proliferous life of Ecuador had a very important message for me: it called me to pay attention, to soak in all this beauty, to feel small but still held by this big and wild world. I felt immersed in this abundant life, baptized by it. I felt part of it.
Writer Annie Dillard agrees that listening and noticing are good for the human soul and for the soul of creation. She wrote:
We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.
There’s a difference between thinking our seventh principle is a good idea in theory, and truly experiencing it. Western culture has drawn a bright line between humans and nature, so it can be difficult to take this notion seriously, that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence. When we still our minds and open ourselves to the wonder all around us, the truth of our place in this web can be revealed to us. We don’t have to go to Ecuador and listen to electronic water droplet birds to fall in love with sitting quietly and letting nature flood our senses. We can do it in the park right down the street.
Have you ever gone very quiet down on the banks of the Charles? Have you felt the indescribable wonderment of being entirely surrounded by teeming and pulsing life? In such moments it bowls me over, the bewildering fact that we are here at all. The parrot applauds the radio observatory at Arecibo because it demonstrates our grand aspirations, the incredible lengths we will go to, to get a sense of our place in the universe. The parrot points out that, thanks to Arecibo, we have glimpsed the connection that is the very fabric of universe: the voice of creation that calls to us. Astrophysicists have dubbed the leftover hum from the Big Bang the “cosmic microwave background.” This energy from the Big Bang is always buzzing through the entire cosmos, a phenomenon elegantly reminiscent of “the reverberations of that original “Om” that created the universe according to Hindu understandings. But the parrot challenges us not just to listen across the universe to the sounds of the Big Bang, but to listen to and notice what’s right around us as well.
When we don’t pay attention, when we fail to heed the possibility of communicating with parrots, we miss out on key messages, like that we are just as much of the Earth as all the other beings on it. There is sadness in the story we heard – our narrator parrot contemplates the extinction of its species, that they will soon join the Great Silence, not because of humans’ maliciousness but because we haven’t been paying attention. We’ve forgotten our place in the interdependent web.
My memories of the Ecuadorian rainforest are bittersweet. Being the realist that he was, our ecology professor explained to us that the Amazon we were visiting was less pristine than the one that any previous group of students had visited, and that any subsequent students would be visiting an even further diminished Amazon. One night we stood up in the 200-foot tower above the tree canopy and saw a flame way in the distance – burning off excess gas from the oil extraction operation dozens of miles away. Chevron has been drilling for oil in this region of Ecuador for over 50 years. The Waorani, Kichwa, Secoya, Siona, and Cofán people of the Ecuadorian Amazon sued Chevron for poisoning their water supply, and won – Chevron was ordered to pay millions in damages and clean up the pollution their operation has caused. Predictably enough, Chevron countersued, and the suit has been tied up in court for years. The people continue fighting for clean water. Our narrator parrot explains that humans, perhaps not out of maliciousness but rather out of carelessness, and I would add greed and ambition, pillage these tropical – and indeed all – landscapes. So really, I would not argue against habitat preserves, rather, it appears we need them and we need to reintegrate ourselves with the Earth. We need to follow the lead of indigenous water protectors like the ones in Ecuador, at Standing Rock, and all over the world. We need to heed our seventh principle, because we need to drink water, and eat food, and live on this planet like the creatures that we are.
These are the lessons I take from this parrot: though we may not always remember it, we are indeed part of this Earth and we would do well to walk more gently on its soils. Since this is my final sermon, I’ll take the liberty to draw one last lesson from this story: we ought to say a good goodbye, like Alex the famous parrot’s last words to his researcher. Mark loaned me a book to use in a small group ministry I led here, and it includes a section on “blessings.” Here is what the authors of this book have to say about goodbye:
The most common blessing which we all participate in (often unknowingly) is the English “good-bye,” which is a contraction of “God be with you,” a reminder that we are held in mystery throughout our lives… There is something so especially fraught about partings that our language-molding forebears felt the need to give blessings, and we feel a need to keep saying them, even if we are usually unconscious of their full meaning.
So, just as we may be unconscious of our part in the interdependent web of all existence, we don’t usually think of “good bye” as the miniature prayer that it is. Indeed, it is the blessing of being part of the interdependent web, the blessing of our connections, that beg us to relish our time together, and say a good goodbye when we must. Let us mean it as a blessing when we say goodbye. I for one really like that parrot’s last words: “You be good, I love you.”
CLOSING WORDS “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
“Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front” by Jolie Olivetti, May 21, 2017
“To Savor the World or to Save It” by Richard Gilbert
I rise in the morning torn between the desire
To save the world or to savor it—to serve life or to enjoy it;
To savor the sweet taste of my own joy
Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor;
To celebrate life with exuberant step
Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden.
What am I to do when the guilt at my bounty
Clouds the sky of my vision;
When the glow which lights my every day
Illumines the hurting world around me?
To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!
No, you will not let me be. You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes to the sight of the afflicted.
What is that you say?
To save, one must serve?
To savor, one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me—in my preoccupation with myself,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.
Forgive me, God of justice,
Forgive me, and make me whole.
by Dr Yolanda Pierce
Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.
Let us not rush to offer a band-aid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.
Let us not offer false equivalencies, thereby diminishing the particular pain being felt in a particular circumstance in a particular historical moment.
Let us not speak of reconciliation without speaking of reparations and restoration, or how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.
Let us not rush past the loss of this mother’s child, this father’s child… someone’s beloved son.
Let us not value property over people; let us not protect material objects while human lives hang in the balance.
Let us not value a false peace over a righteous justice.
Let us not be afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together.
Let us not offer clichés to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.
Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.
Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.
Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.
Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.
Let us be silent when we don’t know what to say.
Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.
Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.
Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground.
Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard.
From “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” by Audre Lorde
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.
Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; Anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.
My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.
SERMON “Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front”
Last Sunday, I was on the bus getting shuttled from City Hall back to Fields Corner where the Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace had begun. I recognized the woman who I invited to sit beside me from previous years’ walks, but I had never really met her. She introduced herself and asked if I had lost someone – meaning, had I lost a loved one to homicide, was that why I was there at the walk? I told her I was there as a supporter. She said nothing. I asked her if she was honoring anyone at the walk, and she showed me the two buttons she wore – two of her sons were murdered. Also, three of her nephews – her sister’s sons. The bus rolled off City Hall Plaza and eventually we made our way onto the expressway. We passed billboards and navigated traffic in the rain and wind. I asked, tell me about your sons, what were they like? Her eyes lit up: “They were wonderful. They were amazing.” She showed me pictures on her phone. Pictures from a different peace walk, one that she organized in Upham’s Corner for 11 years. Pictures of her at a breast cancer walk, since she has also lost family members to breast cancer. She showed me pictures of newspaper clippings about her peace work. She told me about a place where she feels great peace, where she embraces forgiveness – at the four different prisons where she regularly works with people who are incarcerated for murder.
As I listened to her story, did I feel guilty that I’ve led a life with so much less loss than this woman? Yes. This word privilege is so loaded and so inadequate. As I sat next to her, I felt like my relative affluence and my whiteness glared like a neon sign, since I am so protected from the effects of a system that I ultimately benefit from, the very same system that means she as a working class immigrant woman of color is subjected to so much loss and violence. I felt guilty that my family, my circles of friends are shot through with vastly fewer holes than hers.
Did I feel guilty that I wasn’t sure what to say as she spoke about her unimaginable losses? Yes. People usually don’t want you to tell them you think they’re strong or brave, because they don’t want to be strong or brave, they would rather have their loved one back, or not have cancer. So I didn’t say much, just listened and asked questions and expressed my sorrow. And I sat with these guilty feelings that bubbled up in me, and then let them go, and made room for love instead. I made room to witness her story and be humbled by it, to feel grateful for what she was teaching me.
When I first started working at ReVision Urban Farm and homeless shelter in Dorchester almost 10 years ago, it was much harder for me to get past the guilty feelings. I didn’t even always realize I was feeling guilty when I’d act defensive or pretend to be someone I am not, trying to hide or downplay my relative privilege when I was talking to shelter residents or my coworkers. I would trip all over myself to say I had bought my clothes at the thrift store or to seem like I was a “good” middle class white person. I soon learned that everyone read me for exactly who I am and no one was judging me unless I was pretending. All my embarrassment and need to apologize threw up a wall between us. I realized that the point was not to feel guilty for being who I am, but instead to just be grounded in myself so we could all enjoy one another’s company while we ran a shelter and grew vegetables together. Guilt is a barrier to relationships; guilt gets in the way of the possibility that we can work together to break all these patterns that benefit some at the expense of others. If I’m too busy feeling guilty, I miss out on the fact that my humanity is wrapped up in everyone’s humanity. Guilt robs me of the knowledge that my own liberation is at stake too. We don’t work for change for other people, but for all of us.
I wanted to preach about guilt this morning because this is a common response to bringing up the topic of racism and white supremacy, in any setting, including at church. And I talk about this stuff a lot, in a lot of different settings, so I am wary of giving off the impression that I enjoy making all of us white folks feel bad about ourselves. I don’t. I recognize that it’s sometimes a byproduct, for myself as much as for anyone else. But it’s never the point to make anyone feel guilty. Also, this topic is timely because there is a lot of upheaval in the leadership of our Unitarian Universalist Association right now, in the wake of people calling out a persistent pattern of institutional racism, and as a result almost 700 UU congregations all over the US have agreed to devote their morning worship to learning about white supremacy and racism in the past month.
It’s often said that UU’s don’t “do” guilt. Don’t we, though? The paradox of our faith tradition is that while we reject original sin and we insist on the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we also sometimes leave our church buildings feeling worse than when we came in. We hear about an issue during the service, or during social hour, an issue like climate change or poverty or violence, and we are guilt-stricken, wondering whether we are doing enough, despairing that we can never do enough. Unlike, for example, Catholicism with its rituals for admission and absolution of sin and guilt, us UU’s recoil from words such as “sin” or “guilt,” but still we find ourselves steeped in culpability and disappointment at our inevitable human failings.
When I was an intern at the Peace Institute I learned an activity to talk about feelings. The activity is called “Feelings as Messengers,” and the basic premise is that it’s really important to feel our feelings because they often have crucial messages for us. If we are feeling angry, it might be because someone has crossed the line, has stepped over a boundary with us, and so we need to reestablish that boundary. If we are feeling sad, it often means we need some time to grieve and let go of something, to nurse a loss.
What about guilt? What message might it send?
According to Audre Lorde, in the piece I read from earlier, guilt can be a wake-up call, an uncomfortable but sometimes necessary starting point to transformation. Lorde writes, “Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.” To me, this passage means we have to face the great wrongs of our society and the anger of those who have been wronged, even if it makes us feel terrible at first. Instead of avoiding or ignoring these wrongs, let us be unflinching as we learn about them. We learn about oppression not because anyone benefits from our guilty feelings and our urge to apologize, but rather because knowledge is power. Ignorance is bliss only for those of us who have the luxury of choosing ignorance.
Perhaps something that can help us heed the messages that guilt is trying to send us is to not harbor the illusion that we are innocent. I sometimes catch myself feeling surprised that I’m not pure and exceptional. “But I’m one of the good ones!” I want to protest when I learn how racism is not just interpersonal but instead a widespread system of dominance and oppression that I am unwillingly complicit in as a white person. If I can let go of the idea of my innocence, then it’s easier to wrestle with the guilty feelings rather than be afraid of them and get stuck in them.
James Cone, the great Black theologian, speaks of the “myth of American innocence.” It’s true, we imagine we’re the good guys. The version of American history I was taught in school holds that the American experiment perhaps made some mistakes in the past but good progress is inevitable because we are the protagonists, this nation is ultimately noble and pure at its core. Trump winning the election threw into stark relief that we are not free from white supremacy. The litany that the group read to us earlier put it this way: we still “sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.” Not only is there now tacit permission to express outright bigotry the likes of which many of us have not witnessed in generations, but also we are reminded that this country was built on a particular narrative about whose lives matter and whose do not, and still, 400 years later, we have not yet replaced that story with a truer, more human one.
Victoria Safford, a UU author and minister, wrote an essay on Universalists that addresses the contradictions in Universalism – how can we all be good and yet still cause each other such harm? Safford wrote, “the early Universalists did believe that every person is redeemable, salvageable, possessed of worth and even dignity no matter what.” Safford qualifies that this is not because humans are faultless but rather because God is infinitely forgiving. She goes on to explain, “They held that we are punished not for our sins but by them, every day; that in the soul something shrivels, disintegrates, and starts to die when we collaborate with evil. Our wholeness, our holiness, is torn; our spirit becomes sick.”
If that’s the case, if we are punished not for our sins but by them, if something dies in us when we collaborate with evil, however unwillingly or unwittingly, then our souls call us to go right towards our failings rather than recoiling from them. We prayed the litany this morning not in order to make ourselves feel bad, but because we need spaces for lament in our worship, we need to cry out in anger and in anguish, we need to name what is wrong even if it hurts. Facing this evil together, lamenting it together is a tool in our spiritual quest for dealing with guilt and seeking wholeness.
As I come to the end of this sermon, and to the end of my internship, I want to say that we do good work, holy work at this church.
We take care of one another, because we care about one another. We do social justice work because we care about our community.
It can be hard to take a look at ourselves and say, yes we have beautiful intentions and yes we do good work, but to still ask, how can we truly honor our banner that says, Black Lives Matter? How can we truly honor that rainbow flag that flies on Church Street? How can we live into our affirmation that love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law?
This is what it means to put Love Out Front, the other half of my sermon title and the name of the Social Action Committee’s initiative to talk about anti-racism as a church.
It means that we are not afraid to ask hard questions and listen to the messages that guilt sends us. It means we are not afraid of guilt because the benefits of understanding the roots of oppression far outweigh the cost of discomfort. Putting Love Out Front means we believe we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality that calls us to face all the harshness of reality, to witness others’ pain, and to keep on a spiritual quest for wholeness.
It is my prayer that the First Parish of Watertown continues this work, taking it on and making it your own, as though all our lives depend on it, because they do.
From “A Brave And Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every [person]
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
“Mindfulness and Music”
Homily by Guy Urban for Music Sunday at FPW May 7, 2017
A year and a half ago, I got hearing aids. My audiologist told me that I was border-line — my perception of higher frequencies was declining, as expected at my age, but probably not enough to require hearing aids quite yet. But I decided to try them out.
The main reason was my classroom teaching. My mild hearing loss mostly affected initial consonants in people’s speech. Usually this is not much of a problem: if you say “Zhee wiz, that was great!” or “I’ll zhee you tomorrow”, I have no trouble understanding, even though both of them sound like “zhee”. But I teach music theory. When I ask a student, “What note is this?” or what key, or what chord, and they say “zhee major”, I can’t tell if they’re saying B, C, D, E, or G. In the bland uniformity of the musical alphabet, lack of context is my downfall.
I went to the clinic expecting the hearing aids to sound hissy and metallic. They didn’t. In fact, it was like suddenly being transported to a new reality. The technician suggested I go out to the waiting room and see what it felt like. It felt like I was dropped into a great river of human conversation, moving air currents, shoes brushing against carpet. It felt like I had had a jolt of electricity shot through me; it’s not just that the world around me felt different; I felt different. I walked back into the technician’s office with a smile of beatific, wide-eyed ecstasy, and started to tell her the big surprise… but she had been doing this a long time, and, like Timothy Leary in the early days of psychedelic drugs, she gently urged me to get used to them gradually, and not turn them up too loud too soon. I guess she had seen it all before.
My ability to discern my student’s answers in class was not suddenly perfect (freshmen, especially, often mumble or speak meekly when called on in class); but there was a definite transformation in my everyday connection to my environment. My most vivid experience was walking down a sidewalk around my home in Watertown. The sonic environment was like a physical texture, a rich dough of sound with many individual particles of reality, and yet also like a single, organic, almost tangible ether surrounding me. I heard the leaves rustling in the wind (who would have thought that such a sentimental poetic cliché could actually be experienced!) I heard dogs barking, and people talking, somewhere far away; the slightest ripples on the cloud of sound, but definitely there! I heard birds, insects, and a kind of universal breathing; the breath of the world around me. A reservoir of memories flooded my emotions. I suddenly remembered lying in my back yard as a kid, with my eyes closed, and “hearing / feeling” this breathing of the universe. I remembered feeling that my own identity seemed both diminished and enlarged, as I merged with the world around me. I hadn’t remembered, or thought about, this kind of experience in decades; I had forgotten that it existed until this moment.
I want to stress that, what I was experiencing was not coming out of my imagination, or my thoughts, or from philosophical musings. It was coming from the physical sound I was hearing, the sound of the world around me. It was probably the most concrete phenomenon I’ve experienced in years. I was not thinking about it, conceptualizing about it, responding to it, extrapolating from it. Most certainly I was not “losing myself” in it. I was just experiencing it, and it bowled me over.
I’ve read, talked and thought a lot about mindfulness, about “being here now”. I think I understand the concept. But I had forgotten how concrete and physical “now” really is. I had thought (probably like most people) that being “in the moment” mostly meant shutting out distractions, making myself stop thinking about what I had to do later, turning off the “inner monologue” that is always piddling away in the background of my consciousness as I go through daily life. But these are all negatives: don’t do this, don’t do that. What I had forgotten—in the comfortable routines of what I charitably think of as “late middle-age”—was that the world right now is a real, physical thing; not a quiet time-out, but a sharp slap in the face. It’s not zoning out, it’s waking up! The closer I am to the physical reality of the world around me, as experienced through my senses, and not filtered through conceptions and assumptions, the more energetically alive I feel.
Although my experience outside with the hearing aids woke up something in me that had been lying dormant for quite a while, there was one part of my life in which I retained this connection to the physical senses: music. Although I love talking, theorizing and B.S.ing about music, ultimately the experience for me lies in the actual experience of musical sound in the moment. It’s not the ideas, judgments, or even emotions inspired by music that mean the most to me, but rather the mindful experience of the musical sound. Yes, there are many emotions that come along with the music, but these are a result, or product of the sensual experience; they come after the fact. The electric jolt of the actual sensation of hearing music is the fount from which flows everything else.
The musician who probably has delved more deeply than anyone else into “music as experience of the world”, is the composer John Cage. He was born in 1912 and died in 1992. He is famous for being in the avant-garde of 20th century modern art, and for the invention of mixed-media “happenings” — but I mention him here because he was also one of the most publicly conspicuous American apostles of Zen Buddhism during his lifetime. He studied with the Japanese scholar and author D. T. Suzuki, and applied Zen Buddhist principles to his musical composition, and to his life. And, he was the source of a lot of great sayings and aphorisms that vividly capture the mindful experience of music.
Cage believed that our conventional definition of music was much too narrow. “Every thing we do is music”, he said. Music, for him, meant mindfully experiencing sound in all its forms: natural, human, intentional and unintentional (although he considered “unintentional” music as less limited by human expectations.)
“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.”
His compositional process often utilized what he called “chance” or “indeterminacy”. He used musical forms generated by the I Ching, or by the pattern of textures in the paper he was writing on—not as a joke, but as a way to create music that transcended the composer’s intentions, and thus freed the listener to create any kind of meaning she wanted to. It’s like when I heard the sounds around me after getting the hearing aids: my reaction was not based on any large “meanings” or intentions, but on the tangible experience of sound in its immediacy.
Perhaps Cage’s most famous composition was 4’33” from 1952, in which the performer sits silently for 4’33”, then leaves. The “idea” of this piece is so fantastical and weird that we forget that this is not “conceptual art”—where we read about it, and think about how clever (or possibly stupid) it is—but rather a real concrete musical experience, in some ways more vivid and engaging than a more traditional, “normal” performance. When we hear a pianist play a more conventional piece of music (especially one with which we are familiar), many things may go through our minds: did the player make any mistakes? is the piece “pretty”, or is it abstract? when it will end? is the player nervous? should I applaud now? should I go to the grocery store later?
Whenever I actually listen to 4’33” (as I do every time I teach my 20th Century Music course), thoughts such as these disappear; my consciousness engages with the sound of air circulating in the classroom, of distant police sirens, of traffic outside the window, of students breathing and shifting in their chairs. These “meaningless” sounds become meaningful because Cage’s piece has framed them and allowed us to experience them mindfully, not as background to something else, but as direct experience of and engagement with the world around us.
I don’t actually listen to Cage’s music very often, but his attitude towards musical experience very much defines music in my life. My goal, every time I perform for anyone, is to create a frame in which a listener can join me in living mindfully in the musical moment. In this way, I feel less distinction between performer and audience; —we are both sharing a moment’s experience that is unique, and not easily defined by words or “ideas”. Likewise for the notions of “active” or “passive” musical experience: my favorite moments as a performer are when I do not feel like I am “making” music happen, but rather experiencing it as listeners do. And I hope that listeners are not passively letting my performance “flow over them”, but are rather actively engaging with each moment of musical sound as it happens; not with a predetermined “correct” response, but with whatever unique configuration of meaning emerges from the moment. As John Cage also said, “The act of listening is in fact an act of composing.”
I want to end by sharing with you a piano piece by John Cage. Unlike 4’33”, it does consist of actual notes. It is an early piece (composed in 1947), called Music for Marcel Duchamp. It has an unusual sonority, because the piano strings are “prepared”, meaning that the typical piano “sound” is altered by means of physical objects placed between the strings.
It also has an unusual form, because its phrases and larger layout were determined by throwing the I Ching. I believe that the novelty of these differences do not draw attention to themselves, but rather help you to avoid preconceptions and assumptions about what a piano piece should sound like, and allow you, the listener, to engage with it simply as it is, without comparison to other musical experiences.
So as not to encourage the inner question: “is it ending now?”, I would like to leave you with one last quote from John Cage:
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all, but actually very interesting.”
(play Music for Marcel Duchamp…)
“Joy Infusions” by Jolie Olivetti – April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday
“i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
TIME FOR ALL AGES
“The reason I like chocolate” by Nikki Giovanni
The reason I like chocolate
is I can lick my fingers
and nobody tells me I’m not polite
I especially like scary movies
‘cause I can snuggle with Mommy
or my big sister and they don’t laugh
I like to cry sometimes ‘cause
everybody says “what’s the matter
and I like books
for all those reasons
but mostly ‘cause they just make me
and I really like
to be happy
“There is a gold light in certain old paintings” by Donald Justice
There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.
SERMON “Joy Infusions” by Jolie Olivetti
I have lots of trouble sleeping. And it’s not just because there’s two of me right now. For years I’ve been a finicky sleeper, often waking up in the middle of the night for a couple of hours to fret. One of the pleasures of springtime is that my fretting gets a soundtrack. At around 4 am, the robins start going. Their chirping is whimsical, like bubbles floating up in spirals. I imagine them tugging gently on the sun, lifting it with each cheerful note. To hear their birdsong, I’m reminded that early morning can be sweet and full of promise, and that probably the worst thing that will happen as a result of not sleeping is that I will feel sleepy. I’m reminded that soon the sun will rise and my problems will feel more manageable. I feel renewed.
Spring, especially Easter Sunday, is just the time for such renewal, for starting afresh even after a difficult night. Time to throw the windows open and wipe away some dust, time for the robins to tug us out of the darkness. Just like the perpetual cycle of night into day and day into night, we live our whole lives in these little circles. We go down, and then we come up again. We go through cycles of loss and gain, small deaths and miraculous rebirths.
We had some time earlier in our worship today thinking about what makes us happy, singing about joy. Now I’m not trying to bring you down in this sermon, I’m just trying to be real about something we all know: that it can be hard to feel happy on demand, even on Easter, surrounded by gorgeous flowers and eating chocolate. Celebration with no acknowledgement of pain can feel hollow or misplaced. Perhaps the two go hand in hand, joy and sorrow. As the Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran put it,
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
The title of my sermon today, “Joy Infusions” comes from one of my favorite divinity school professors. She explained to the Trauma and Theology class I took with her that previous years’ students had complained that the material was too depressing, that doing the readings and participating in the discussions took a huge emotional toll. So she instituted a practice called “joy infusions” where we signed up to offer the class something fun at the beginning of each session. We colored cartoon animals in coloring books, we sang silly songs, and perhaps most memorably we once watched a video of fuzzy young helper monkeys-in-training getting baths in the sink.
Of course, we also had to think deeply about hard stuff. We learned that trauma such as war and intimate partner abuse inflicts wounds that may never heal. We asked how a good and loving God could permit such evil as slavery and the Holocaust – or is such evil just within human nature? And what comfort is that? I didn’t mind the joy infusions – they were fun – but sometimes our efforts at levity seemed feeble. Does a pile of kittens provide any relief when we are faced with such suffering? Sometimes, yes. I’ll get back to why I think so later.
Last week, on one of those super warm and sunny days, I went on a walk to get some errands done. I ran into a friend as they were coming out of the post office. We got to talking and I explained that I was thinking about joy a lot in preparation for this sermon. This led my friend to tell me a story, explaining that they had been talking to an ex about a bunch of really tough stuff, about the hateful policy proposals coming down from the executive branch, about feeling helpless to do anything about our military dropping bombs on Syria and Afghanistan. My friend’s ex paused the conversation and said, wait, but tell me, what’s going on that’s good, what’s bringing you joy? My friend, who is just emerging from a couple months of depression, replied – joy is not exactly where I’m at right now. Right now I’m glad to say that I’m able to wake up each morning, and not regret it.
I’m telling you this story today because that’s the way it is sometimes, even on Easter. Sometimes our resurrections, when we rise from the tombs in our hearts, sometimes the springtime of our recoveries aren’t always pure glee. Instead we find ourselves in a slow, quiet return to life, to ourselves. The robins chirp us gently into the daytime, it feels OK that we’re sleep-deprived, but we aren’t necessarily awash in delight.
Easter is really the culmination of a whole season of holy days in Christian religious life. Perhaps some of you have observed Lent and Holy Week, which comprise more than a month of preparation including self-sacrifice and reflection, rituals of mourning and lament. I definitely did not grow up with these practices. For me as a kid, Easter was mostly about dyeing and finding eggs, eating chocolate bunnies, and wearing a pretty dress. So it’s been a good education for me to learn about how many Christians observe Eastertide. People give up something important to them for Lent. The cross in many churches may be draped in black cloth before Easter. Roman Catholics and others traditionally fast and observe a day of penance on Good Friday, and contemplate Christ’s crucifixion. Some have practices on Holy Saturday grieving Jesus’ death, including paying respects to a tableau of his tomb. This long series of rituals carries the faithful into a place of deep mourning. People descend to the depths, and then emerge to the exultations of Easter Sunday, proclaiming, He is Risen! Easter is an insistence on goodness’ triumph over evil, the return of life from the depths… but only after this journey through ritualized grief, entering into joy only after confronting and releasing deep sorrow.
I was talking to another friend about preaching on Easter. He told me that one year after the death of a close family friend, the Holy Week offerings at a Christian church in the neighborhood were particularly important to him. He is a lifelong UU like me, but he was at that church with numb devotion when they stripped the altar bare during a stark service on Thursday night, and he was there praying during the mournful Good Friday worship the following day. Then on the night of Holy Saturday, he gathered with others in the chill in front of the church to rekindle the Christ light. He told me he’d have done anything to protect that tiny flame and its promise of life and hope, wanting to wrap his whole body around it as it flickered in the March wind. He cried to remember his friend who he missed dearly, and all the preciousness of life’s persistence amidst loss seemed concentrated in that small candle and the circle of people who surrounded it. He began to feel his grief crack open, to feel the promise of healing on the horizon. Halleluiah, Christ is Risen! said the people in church the next day. Halleluiah for spring, for feeling better, for rebirth!
I stumbled across a poem when I was in high school and it caught my eye, the first four lines of it, really, because I had no idea what the rest of it was about. I’m talking about the poem by Donald Justice that I read earlier. I fixated on these first four lines:
“There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light…”
A warm glow of recognition filled me when I first read those words. I totally knew that moment when joy arrives, unbidden, and floods us with sunshine. I was so intrigued by this accurate account of fleeting delight that I needed to investigate this poem. Who are these soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross? And what on earth are the other stanzas about?
The poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross, according to the scripture, were the Roman centurions charged with guarding the crucified Jesus. The poem contends that they and the cross itself are bathed in the same gold light. Even upon the execution of Jesus, revolutionary prophet of love – for Christians, God incarnate and the savior of humankind – even at this moment of imperial evil and ultimate tragedy, there it is! There is utter happiness emanating from everywhere and nowhere at once, bathing everything from the crucified Lord to the Romans responsible for his death, in gold light. The promise of joy’s return, the rekindled flame of hope on the sorrowful night before Easter, the life that continues to dwell below the soil waiting to burst forth again, it surrounds us all in gold light.
The next stanza takes us to the underworld of Greek mythology, where Orpheus the musician was attempting to bring his beloved wife back to the upper world, the world of the living. The problem was he could not follow his only instruction, not to look back at his wife coming up behind him. He sang then, the poem reads. He sang, just as we may sing next to the deathbed of a loved one, “O prolong, now the sorrow, if that’s all there is to prolong.” This is part of Easter, too, the descent to the underworld, the longing to return, the knowledge that love that binds us together beyond death.
And the third stanza takes us to a kind of promised land, where out of the dusty world we may one day be led from sickness and suffering. As for me, I’m trying not to wait for that sweet by-and-by, for that promised land; rather, my religious quest is to encounter paradise here in this life, even amidst all life’s struggle.
So, back to the class on trauma. The thing that made it one of my favorite classes, rather than just overwhelming, was the relationships that we formed in the class. Together, we grappled with big questions about faith and suffering, we shared personal experiences, and we learned from one another. None of us had all the answers to these big questions but facing them together gave us a greater appreciation for one another. And really, this was the reason that the joy infusions were at all effective. Instead of any one of us alone trying to lift our moods watching clips of zookeepers wrestling with frolicksome baby pandas, it really did infuse some joy into our hearts when it was a classmate who we knew struggled with depression showing the whole class these videos. Our very last assignment was to present a “Hope Statement” that did not ignore the realities of a wounded world but that still offered hope. Everyone had something to share: stories of people who overcame their trauma as survivors of domestic violence through organizing to end abuse, stories of veterans and survivors of war advocating for peace, group games that had us all laughing belly laughs.
So my joy infusion is that I can share a laugh with a friend. My joy infusion is that I can still smile to hear the robins sing in the early morning. And that’s why I like chocolate, just like Nikki Giovanni, because licking my fingers makes me happy.
And my final thought for you this morning is that here at church, we have a practice that speaks to this holy tension between pain and celebration. We hold one another’s joys and sorrows each week, lifting each other up in prayer and love. Our sorrow does not diminish our joy, our joy does not trivialize our sorrow. Just like my friends in the Trauma and Theology class, we are here for one another for the full range of our experiences. Like my friend who attended the Holy Week services, sometimes we all want to cup our hands around the Christ candle, protecting that beloved flame of life and rebirth. It is amazing that we can move through such sorrow and still know such soaring joy, it is a blessing that we can truly say to one another, Happy Easter, Halleluiah, we are risen like the flowers in spring.
And so may the great source of our joy, which comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, bathe us all equally in the promise of life’s return, may it bathe us all in its glory.
CLOSING WORDS By Colleen M McDonald
Like jelly beans and chocolate rabbits, may each season’s special delights always bring you sustaining joy. Like the Easter Bunny’s hidden presents in the springtime grass, may surprises and unseen givers ever lead you to give thanks. Like cheeping chicks from eggs and opening crocuses, dewy fresh, may the miracle of life fill you with awe forevermore. Amen.
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