Reflection – The Recipients of Care – Mark Harris
I would guess that most people in this room think of themselves as caregivers, and not receivers. The idea of someone helping us when we are in need is not something we want to contemplate. In our weekly supervisory sessions, Duffy asks questions relative to how I or any minister handles various situations in our ministries. He recently asked, what do you do when the minister gets sick? My response was that I didn’t think I could be of much help because my basic solution was to never get sick. And that is the advice I offered him, “I don’t get sick.” But I’ll bet that is the way many of you learned how to respond to illness or personal or financial need, too. We either make darn sure that we don’t find ourselves in that situation, or if we do, we don’t tell anyone. We’ll handle it ourselves. Many of us think we come from good Independent Yankee stock, or at least we act like it, and believe we can handle anything ourselves. We don’t need anyone else’ s help. We believe the typical words we associate with needing care as stigmatizing us. We think: I will appear needy, helpless, out of control, beholding to someone else. We don’t want to ever see ourselves in that way, and so we certainly don’t want to ask for help.
While serving prior parishes I have occasionally experience some hesitancy when I have asked someone if they wanted a hospital visit. They have said, “No, don’t come.” Now in most cases I would say that was not because they didn’t want to see me, or they didn’t like me, but they said no for other reasons. One parishioner once said, “I don’t want you to see me without my makeup,” Another said, “I won’t look my best.” Despite all my pleas that I didn’t care that they didn’t look their best, or that I wouldn’t have my makeup on either, they still demurred. They wanted to present an image of being together and healthy, and while ministers just want to offer care and concern to the person, to provide company or to cheer them up, the person who is ill may not only not be feeling up to visits, but moreover they may not want to be seen at this vulnerable, scary or weak time. They are just not themselves.
In her new book Alone Together. MIT professor Sherry Turkle asks if we have made convenience and control a priority in our relationships in our new computer culture, while diminishing our personal expectations of others. We are removed from the physical messiness of life, networked together, but not bringing a meal, holding a hand, or giving a hug. So if we have a personal heritage of being unable to let others care for us, and now have a culture where friendships and connections are increasingly electronic, how do we ever creating a truly caring network? In a few minutes I am going to ask for some of you to testify as to what it is like to receive care from others, and in the context of the creation of this new “Caring Heart Circle” here at church to encourage any and all of you to ask for help when you need it. But let me be the first to testify to how my family was cared for in an hour of need. Many of you know that more than seventeen years ago now, Andrea and I were struck by a rogue ocean wave at Pemaquid Point in Maine. I am not going to detail the injuries I received or the rescue and ambulance ride at this time. Needless to say, I returned to Watertown in a somewhat diminished physical condition. At the time I was the minister in Milton, and the husband of the minister here. In my controlling, I never get sick mode, I was soon planning how I would get to church and preach. My wife will honestly tell you that I was out of it, and she helped arrange for my absence from church that first Sunday after the accident. It remains the only Sunday I have ever missed in my career, he grudgingly says. I could not drive for a few weeks, but I received rides from both congregations to allow me to get to work. This was a great gift, but the more remarkable measure of the depth of care from this congregation came when we discovered that Andrea was pregnant, and that her pregnancy made her incredibly and continuously sick to the point of incapacitation. We were a pathetic pair of useless, helpless human wreckage. Then wonder of wonders. Dinners, wonderful sumptuous, delicious dinners soon began to arrive at our door on a daily basis. This advent of caring nourishment continued through the month of the traditional Advent bringing the greatest cumulative Christmas gift of all, a marvelous coming of love and support like I have never seen before or since. I knew the meaning of community. I was the recipient of a congregation’s love. What did I gain from this? Personally, I learned something about letting go of doing it all myself and control and becoming able to admit that I need others to help me steer through the trials of life, and facing those hurdles with others support sure helps. Allowing oneself to be cared for by others in many ways also enables us to understand and see life for what it really is.
Many years ago I was a student minister in Sheffield, England, and I began a sermon called “In All Their Affliction,” with these words by William Blake – “Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright In the forest of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” We heard that poem again today in song. At the time I had just come from a Blake exhibit in London, where this painting of Eloheim creating Adam was part of the show. The painting looks like there is a kind of violence that is occurring between the two, which perhaps reminds us of the afflictions we endure in our lives. When we think of the myth of the creation of Adam and Eve, we know they make a choice to gain knowledge of good and evil, but what the story simply reveals is that when we open our eyes to each other we know that human life brings pain and suffering sometimes, and ultimately death. Blake mused about a God who created both the tiger and the lamb. And my simple message is that you cannot and will not be tigers all the time and forever. It is not only physically impossible, but it is spiritually draining for us to always be the care givers. I think Unitarian Universalists sometimes fall into this trap when they attempt to do good in the world. We say we will help the downtrodden, but we of course believe we will never be that downtrodden. In the book, The Sea Captain’s Wife, the poverty stricken Eunice Connolly, who is widowed and poor, takes on a job as a seamstress, one of the lowest paying jobs possible, but she also wants to be a contributing member of the local Universalist Church in Claremont, NH in the 1860’s. She tries to join the Ladies Circle at the Church, but they won’t let her become part of their social group and give care, because she is also receiving food and firewood. Because she is viewed as a charity case, she becomes classified as a burden. Those who received alms could not join on an equal level with those who provided. In the context of care, there is a perception that if you are a receiver of help, then you cannot be a giver. Yet what makes a community dynamic and loving is not givers and receivers, but people who are both. As a minister there was no greater gift than feeling your love when the wave engulfed my life. We gain from both giving and receiving, and need both for our spiritual and emotional health.The world is a place where we can feel at home when we are both caring and being cared for. It becomes circular. My caring for others becomes my way of saying thanks for what I have received. In receiving from others I realize how dependent I am upon others, and it is only through receiving that I will know what love and care truly are. May we open our hearts to both give and receive.
Please join hearts in meditation and prayer
What makes us care?
Care when you hear, I feel lonely,
Care when you hear, I feel afraid,
Care when you hear, I feel unloved,
Care when you hear, I am hurting,
Care when you hear, I feel unappreciated,
Care when you hear, I am not heard.
Listen for those moments,
There are many times when we could care –
We see a look, hear a word, perceive a problem,
We could say, I know, I hear you, I believe you, I trust you.
Let caring NOT be something we “do,” but be the way we are with one another.
Let caring move us from being a group of people, to a community of love.
May we believe caring and being cared for can happen, even now, even here. Amen.
Closing Words from Gary Snyder – Lee Pierce
In the next century
or the one beyond that
are valleys, pastures.
We can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
Story for all Ages
Mokusen’s Hand – a Zen story
Mokusen was one of the teachers at a Buddhist temple in Japan. One of his followers was a woman who complained to him one day about how stingy her husband was. Mokusen said, let me visit him, and see how stingy (cheap, won’t spend money on anything) he really is. After talking with the man for a few minutes he realized there was a serious problem. Finally, he showed the man a clenched fist, and put it right up in his face. The man was frightened at first, and said, what do you mean by that? Mokusen replied, Suppose my fist were always like that. What would you call it? I would say it is deformed. Today we might say, he has a physical disability. Very well he said. Then he opened his hand flat, like this, and placed it right next to the man’s face. Now suppose my hand were always like that, what would you call it? Again he said deformed, or we might say, he has a physical disability. If you understand that much, said Mokusen then you are a good husband. Sometimes the hand must be closed and sometimes the hand must be opened. We must be able to both give and receive. After that the husband helped his wife to give as well as to save. Adults are reminded that canvass season is upon us, and you are asked to make a decision on how open your hand will be.