“Ask For What You Want” by Mark W. Harris – December 13, 2009

“Ask For What You Want” – Mark W. Harris

December 13, 2009 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – “Channukah” by Lynn Ungar

Come down from the hills.
Declare the fighting done.
Be bold – declare victory,
even when the temple is wrecked.
and the tyrants have not retreated,
only coiled back like a snake
prepared to strike again.

Come down. Try to remember
a life gentled by daily acts
of domestic faith – – the pot
set to boil, the bed made up,
the table set in calm expectation
that when the sun sets
we will still be here.

Come down and settle.
Unlearn the years of hiding.
Light fires that can be seen for miles,
that dance and spark and warm
the frozen marrow. Set lamps
in the window. Declare your presence,
your loyalties, the truths
for which you do not expect to have to die.

It would take a miracle you say,
To carve such a solid life
out of the shell of fear.
I say you are the stuff
from which such miracles are made.

Sermon –

At Christmas time our boys always prepare a lists of items they hope to receive under the Christmas tree. I remember doing this myself every year as a child. My parents would ask me to write down every wish I had in a letter to Santa. I remember handing the list on to my parents with the hope that at least some of what I desired would be fulfilled by them, Santa, the Good Fairy or whomever might look favorably upon my requests. I don’t ever remember being especially disappointed with the major items I desired – books about the Civil War, toy soldier sets, baseball gloves and electric football games usually appeared when I asked. It was one instance where I was encouraged to express my wishes with the expectation that I would receive what I wanted. Ask and you shall receive. This was an idea I learned in church, too. After he cursed the fig tree, Jesus says that if you have faith anything can be accomplished. Then he goes on to say that “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive.” I was lucky as a child because I usually got what I wanted. Some children, because of financial circumstances may have lower expectations or none at all. Of course parents have limits. Children may ask for outrageously expensive items or too many gifts. We also knew that we were not going to get everything. Yet much of this gift buying obsession seems like selfish consumerism when our kids are surfing the web looking for the latest item, and we receive Macy’s Star Rewards cards in the mail telling us to “Be joyful, it’s that magical time of year . . .when you get everything you asked for (well, almost everything).” But do we actually get what we want, and do we really ask?

At first glance a sermon on asking for what you want might seem downright selfish, as it feels like positive thinking run amok. Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book called Bright Sided, on how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. Ehrenreich’s feelings on this first surfaced when she had cancer and was turned off by the dogmatic application of having the right cheerful attitude to banish all doubt so she could cure herself with happy-think. Underlying this philosophy was the idea that you should get what is yours. There are megachurch pastors who exhort their parishioners to visualize wealth. telling them it could all be theirs. This has a corollary in those who seem to believe that if you just think right, your illness, or job loss, or marital dis-ease will instantly be cured. Ehrenreich says there is a major difference between this naive belief that you can scare away things with positive thinking, and getting a grip on reality, realize the difficult circumstance you might be in, and still have the determination that you can try your best to overcome these very real obstacles.

So when I suggest that you ask for what you want I don’t mean accumulating goods, but rather speaking up for yourself when you come to a time when you have always been silent or reluctant or afraid to speak up. I admired a little girl I heard at the Karate studio just the other day, who despite the fear of reprimand that showed on her face, responded to her mother’s prodding to use her words. She looked her mother right in the eye, and said, “I don’t want to wear the baby shoes any more.” Her mother thanked her for sharing what she was feeling, and promised no more baby shoes. Expect that you will speak up. When I suggest speaking up for yourself it means to not let someone tell you in words or actions that what you have to say is stupid or irrelevant, but that it is an important contribution to a conversation where everyone should be heard. The other day I was speaking to a frustrated colleague who was dealing with a doctor who was seemingly dismissing her chronic pain. I encouraged her to keep pushing, and make him listen. If you have a question about something that was denied you, or you don’t understand, then ask that question. Expect that people will listen to you. In courtroom dramas the people swear to speak the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Anything less is a lie. Expect to tell the truth. See things for what they are, and not a photocopy facsimile.

One of the classic examples of asking for what we want occurs in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Even if you didn’t read this tale in your childhood, you probably learned about Priscilla Mullins famous retort to John Alden’s romantic inquiry on behalf of his friend Miles. Priscilla says, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John ?” While the historical veracity of this is dubious, it became a way for Longfellow to express the feelings of the characters in this love triangle. John had a certain loyalty to his captain Miles who was brave but inarticulate, but John also has romantic feelings for the young Priscilla. Longfellow has Priscilla speak her mind in revealing what she wants. Can John do the same?

Miles Standish provides a good prototype for the man who cannot speak up for his own feelings. I know from my own experience that regardless of asking for Christmas gifts, or even expecting as the youngest child in the birth order that I would be loved and lavished with gifts without asking, I still failed to live by the need to speak up so that others would know what I was feeling or wanting. This youngest child felt that any negative feelings could not be expressed in my family, as it would cause conflict, and so my usual approach was to hide saying what I wanted or felt if it seemed it would in any way upset the emotional equilibrium we had established based on not talking about issues or pretending they didn’t exist. As I matured this attempt to keep everything on an even keel meant that I usually had great anxiety in situations where it seemed like conflict would arise. I could speak effectively if it was a prepared talk that I had control of, but any discussion meetings where I might have to speak extemporaneously made me extremely nervous. It is also been hard for me to express what I want in relationships. Many men do not ask for what they want because they cannot articulate it, but also because we expect our loved one to read our minds, and know exactly what we want to do or have, even though we have not said a word. So the first lesson in asking for what you want, is to actually say what it is. Speak your truth.

It is also hard to ask for what you want if you are poor or in need of assistance. It is not just a matter of pride, but rather that our culture has labeled those who have problems as failures. Bureaucracies are often set up to make it difficult for you to receive help. There is so much paperwork, and so many legal snafus that many people simply give up because it is complicated, embarrassing, and humiliating. If you saw the PBS showing of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit last year, you know what I mean. The gentle spirit of Amy Dorrit is threatened by her lifelong confinement in Marshalsea Prison. For years she cares for her father, the longest serving inmate who is serving a term for debt. A possibility of freedom appears in the person of Arthur Clennam who is trying to unravel a mystery in the wake of his father’s death. Yet we see the bureaucracy as an endless abyss of paper work where there is no intention to help unravel the injustice of this debt. Then Clennam’s exhaustive search for answers leads him into a tender romance with Amy, but neither one seems capable of admitting it, let along saying anything to the other about their true feelings of love. Finally they are both able to hear the words Arthur had previously uttered to her “Seize your chance of happiness.”

In the call to worship today Lynn Ungar reminds us of the Channukah story where the Macabees are exhorted to – “Come down from the hills -Unlearn the years of hiding.- Declare your presence, your loyalties, the truths for which you do not expect to have to die. To carve such a solid life out of the shell of fear.” What we take from this story is that after we have asked for what we want, we expect that others will hear us. The great poet Emily Dickinson expected Thomas Wentworth Higginson to hear what she was asking for. This was for him to come visit her in Amherst. While most of us know Dickinson’s verse, Higginson may be unknown to us. Their relationship is chronicled in the book White Heat by Brenda Wineapple. Higginson was an abolitionist Unitarian minister who gave unswerving financial support to John Brown, tried to rescue fugitive slave Anthony Burns from jail, and commanded the first black regiment in the Civil War. He became Dickinson’s confidant in 1862 when she wrote to him after seeing an article of his in the Atlantic Monthly offering advice to young writers. After she sent him some verse, he responded positively, and eventually she referred to him as her preceptor, even implying that he had saved her life.

Higginson found it difficult to be spontaneous with Dickinson. In the correspondence, he said he wanted his responses to be written perfectly. When he didn’t answer her right away, she persisted. She wanted him to come and visit so she could thank him for actually listening to her, and giving her a chance to be heard. If he honored this request, she would consider it a success, writing him that “Gratitude is the timid wealth of those who have nothing.” Since their correspondence began she said that “To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests. The child that asks my flower ‘Will you,’ he says –’Will you’ and so to ask for what I want I know no other way.” While she was direct, the question was complicated for Higginson who did not want to antagonize his wife. She wanted to know why the insane were so attracted to her husband, and so it was hard to convince her to support a special trip to see a poet who she considered crazy. Yet Higginson saw the truth in what Dickinson wrote, and said that apostles of truth were often labeled fanatic or insane. He wondered if we silenced all those who we said had a crack in their brain if we would ever have a vision of the ideal.

In this relationship perhaps what was most significant is that he took the risk of actually listening to her, and not dismissing or rejecting her outright as unworthy or crazy. After her death, he help see that her poetry was published, and the rest of the story is eternal literary fame. She asked him to listen, and he said yes. So much of asking for what we want comes in the context of our relationships. Do we ask our spouses, our employers, our friends for what we need or do we keep silent, or even expect them to know without our verbalizing it? Being willing to ask for help when we need it, is difficult for many of us. Our Puritan consciousness seems to demand that we do it ourselves, and take care of our own problems when a visit or assistance or even a word of encouragement to seek help might make all the difference. Higginson did visit Dickinson twice in Amherst over the years while they maintained their correspondence. Because he listened to her, she trusted him, and continued to send him poems. He may not have realized what a great gift his response to her was. Being isolated and alone, he affirmed the one creative outlet of her life, and she was forever grateful for his listening. She once reminded him, “Of our greatest acts, we are ignorant.”

If we ask for what we want, if we truly listen to each other with open hearts, then we can expect to tell and hear the truth. When Higginson eventually published Dickinson he compared her to William Blake, and said, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” Asking for what we want may sound selfish, but it is really about having self knowledge and faithfully expressing that knowledge to others in direct truthful ways that build deeper bonds between us. Randy Paush, the author of The Last Lecture, who died young from a deadly cancer listed several lessons for living. One of these was “Ask for What You Want.” An example he listed was being at Disney World, and being desirous of where the driver sat on one of the rides. Rather than just being envious he asked if he and his son could sit there, too. The response was, “Sure.” Their wish came true. It was easy in fact. He mentions being anxious abut test results when we feel anxiety over a health concern. When the hospitals says it will take weeks, we can ask if we can get them sooner. Sometimes the answer is yes. As my parents used to say, “It never hurts to ask.” Once during my college years, I was in a record store, and saw a full size cardboard cutout of Mick Jagger promoting the Stones’ newest album. I wanted to have it to decorate my room. My request received an affirmative response. All it took was asking for what I wanted.

Need a friend to run an errand or listen to your concern? Want to return something? Just ask. We could probably think of many things we would like to do or places we would like to go, and we dismiss it as impossible because we never ask. We may assume , “oh my family would never go there, or we could never afford that, or that is just too crazy.” But we never know the answer unless we ask. If we want to climb that mountain or ride that ride, or go visit someone we owe our life to, we can just ask. The opportunity may not come again. It is an expression of the truthful longing or need we feel in our hearts. Higginson believed in women’s rights. He wanted Emily to be heard. Now the whole world hears her. In our reading today, you heard an excerpt from March by Geraldine Brooks. It is a fictionalized account of the father figure from the classic book Little Women. He is a chaplain in the Civil War. Mr. March is recalling all that he could not do, those he could not save, but his wife is reminding him of the effort. He acted on the truth. Even when we do so, there are many things that are hard to bear. In relationships we feel rejections. In jobs we can get fired, when we ask for what we want, and when we speak the truth. March’s wife reminds him that the effort is enough – that he acted upon his beliefs, and did not violate the truth he lived in his soul. That is why it is so important for us to ask for what we want, to tell our loved ones what we need, to find the truth together when we listen to one another. Then we know as Lynn Ungar implies, that we “are the stuff from which such miracles are made.”

Closing words – from James S. Curtis

I wish for you, all around you,
People who love easily and forgive quickly;
Whose eyes are stars when you are night;
Whose voices are trumpets when you are silence.
I wish for you
People about you who are gifts in themselves,
And whose presence in your life
Is an all year round present.