“If Only . . . “  by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown,  MA –  May 20, 2012


Call to Worship – from e.e. cummings


in Just-

spring when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame baloonman


whistles far and wee


and eddieandbill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s



when the world is puddle-wonderful


the queer

old baloonman whistles

far and wee

and bettyandisbel come dancing


from hop-scotch and jump-rope and









baloonMan whistles





Reading – 


“Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

 Sermon –  “If Only . . . “

We live so much by “ifs.”  If only the captain of the Titanic had listened to the six wireless messages he had received about gigantic icebergs straight ahead.  Instead he entertained at dinner.  If only the student had been driving slower on the unfamiliar road, the crash might not have occurred.  Instead he sped along beyond the limit.  If only we had studied harder, not said what we did, spoken our love, things might have been different.  We take it so hard – regrets, mistakes, longings unfulfilled.  If only . . .  my life would have been different.

 This week one of my colleagues was describing a former parishioner who had once won the lottery. If you had all the money in the world, would things be different?  Perhaps we might say, if only I had chosen a different profession, or made different choices. In the case of the lottery, I have never even bought a ticket, but I sometimes dream of what I might buy if I had money.  It would be lots of travel for me, but others, pay off their debts, buy cars and houses, and then maybe baubles of jewelry and finally, even some degenerate to drugs. It can lead to disaster, or even can suddenly be gone, frittered away. My friend said there are two ways to respond to a sudden influx of wealth into our lives.  He described some people who feel as though they have done nothing to deserve these winnings. They feel some personal responsibility and thus guilt that they have done nothing to earn this fortune. Others of us, he said, are people who can simply say, I got lucky.  Some times good fortune comes to us when we earn it, but others times there are simply fortuitous happenings.  His UU parishioner was one of those who felt he did not deserve it, and having it made him miserable. If you won would you feel guilt about it, perhaps that you are undeserving because you did nothing to earn it.  Could you celebrate or rejoice in these winnings as a gift? This is an important lesson for those of us who feel like everything we receive in life must be earned, and every failure is entirely our own fault. If only, I were different, or I did something different we say. Sure we need to take responsibility when we break the law or don’t listen, but sometimes things just happen, and we should celebrate our good fortune, or cope as best we can with ill fortune, and not try to assign personal responsibility for the ways in which things unfolded.  If you find $20 in the street, do you say life has been good to me today?  I have a gift from the Gods.  OR do you knock on every door, and question every passer by – is this yours?  And then it will soon be in someone else’s hands.  Can you fix every little thing?  Here is a week in my life as celebrated by e.e. cummings, the son of a Unitarian minister who served the now defunct South Church, Boston.  What can he teach us about “ifs?”  Twenty-five of his poems began with “if.”  Today we will hear three, and part of a fourth.  

if seventy were young

and death uncommon

(forgiving not divine,

to err inhuman)

or any thine a mine


to say would be to sing


if broken hearts were whole

and cowards heroes

(the popular the wise,

a weed a tearose)

and every minus plus

–fare ill:fare well–

a frown would be a smile


if sorrowful were gay

(today tomorrow,

doubting believing and

to lend to borrow)

or any foe a friend

–cry nay:cry yea–

november would be may


that you and i’d be quite

–come such perfection–

another i and you,

is a deduction

which(be it false or true)

disposes me to shoot

dogooding folk on sight


What does he mean shoot the do-gooders on sight?  Isn’t that us? Maybe he wants us to grasp that we can’t make everything better or can’t fix it all. Things are what they are and November cannot be May or tomorrow today. There is  pain and sadness present, and if broken hearts were whole, we would not be human. There is a paradox of life he says – and perhaps we can actually do more when we recognize that all of us share the same fate, and nobody needs to fix anybody else.   Rather than fix what we see is broken, we might ask how do we bring out the potential that is present. I have a relative who is always ready to see a disaster lurking around the next corner   This is more than seeing the glass half empty, she is always ready for it to fall off the counter and implode.  This means that any pustule can be a life threatening cancer, or any cough means you should have a full medical makeover.  Generally speaking the next disaster is not lurking around the corner.  In the poem “It Could Have Been Otherwise,”  Jane Kenyon reminds us that while that disaster could be there,  more striking is the realization that, while I could be in a situation where I am disabled, hungry, homeless, or out of work,  I am not, and she invites us to celebrate the enduring small gifts of life.  It might have been otherwise, but instead I have the gift of legs that work, food on the table, meaningful work, and companionship,  and while one day it may be otherwise, it is vitally important that I not presume the coming of that infirmity or disaster until it is actually upon me. The important lesson is that while it could have been otherwise, and I should feel grateful it is not, at least yet, it still carries the lurking fear of impending doom when it could carry the lovely realization that this day, this life, this moment is a tremendous gift.  Instead of expecting disaster, what if we see the world, experience our relationships, understand our mortality in ways that embrace the vision of possibility, enduring love and unending beauty.

            On Wednesday I attended the annual meeting of the UU Urban Ministry.  All around was meetinghouse hill, the oldest wooden church in Boston, and a history that dates to 1631, but inside there are programs for young people from the neighborhood.  Many of us met Sean.  He is a young black man who is heading off to college. This ministry didn’t try to fix him, but instead allowed him to see that he could do something with himself.  All he saw was a life of hanging out and playing basketball.  He could shoot hoops until he was a young man, but what then?  Could he finish high school, or ever dream of college.  No, he said.  He couldn’t do any of that.  Just shoot baskets, hang around, head for trouble, nothing to do or be.  But his tutors said, stick to this work, do this work, and you can do this work, and he did.  And now his smile is as wide as the sky, and he just kept saying, I did this.  I did this. Down the road his opportunities may be limited, but what a moment to see this young man.  For today his universe is alive with the joy of who he is, and what worth he carries.



If there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself)have

one.  It will not be a pansy heaven nor

a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but

it will be a heaven of blackred roses

my father will be(deep like a rose

tall like a rose)

standing near my

(swaying over her

with eyes which are really petals and see

nothing with the face of a poet really which

is a flower and not a face with


which whisper

This is my beloved my


(suddenly in sunlight

he will bow,

& the whole garden will bow)


I have a great sadness in my life right now.  My wife Andrea’s sister’s husband is dying. His days are few.  Cancer has returned for the third time, and now hospice visits, and he has gone weeks without food.  It will be time soon.  I think of the people who have gathered around him – siblings and friends – wondering if this will be the last time I see him, or what do I say? Children come home to be near by.  There is the existential angst of facing this so alone.  But there is also the garden that is growing.  For years this is what he tended with loving care.  Now his asparagus has gone to seed, but lettuce is growing, and peas, too.  Growth came early this year.  Life will go on, but he wants things settled, the business he and his wife shared, is up for sale.  They always worked like dogs.  She tries to work, sits by his side, moves in and out, it is all too much.  Lovers since they both were young, he rowing the boat across the bay to see her.  How much we need companions, lovers and friends, marrying our fortunes together.  Our journey consists of encounters with others –all those who help us, and hold us along the way.  How hard it is to say goodbye.  It is not a time to say “if” I had done it another way.  It is a time now to forgive all the hurts we cause to one another, and all we did not say.  It is a time to celebrate and affirm what we have or had.  We hug as we say goodbye, and he looks at her and remembers how he has always looked, as we might see each other with eyes that are petals. “I lay down with my mate,” remembering the little heavens we have tried to create with each other, and in the end, may we have the grace to say thank you, and see that the whole garden will bow.


if up’s the word;and a world grows greener

minute by second and most by more-

if death is the loser and life is the winner

(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)

-let’s touch the sky:

with a to and a fro

(and a here there where)and away we go

in even the laziest creature among us

a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir

now dull eyes are keen and now keen eyes are keener

(for young is the year,for young is the year)

-let’s touch the sky:

with a great(and a gay

and a steep)deep rush through amazing day

it’s brains without hearts have set saint against sinner;

put gain over gladness and joy under care —

let’s do as an earth which can never do wrong does

(minute by second and most by more)

-let’s touch the sky:

with a strange(and a true)

and a climbing fall into far near blue

if beggars are rich(and a robin will sing his

robin a song)but misers are poor

let’s love until noone could quite be(and young is

the year,dear)as living as i’m and as you’re

-let’s touch the sky:

                        with a you and a me

and an every(who’s any who’s some)one who’s we

Words ignite memory and take us places.  This week we have borne witness to blue sky days.  I saw a book review of a new biography of Greg Allman, and suddenly the Allman Brothers band was playing, “Blue Skies” on my college room stereo, and the whole building was swaying. Blue skies always take me back to warm summer days on my parents wide expansive lawn of endless green, an expanse I mowed so many times.  Laying there and looking up to endless blue sky.   Do you remember touching the sky in spring?  Did you think it possible that you could reach out and actually feel it?.  To lay so gently on the green carpet that caressed your body, to fold your hands so gently together, and caress the back of your head and hold it in comfort and care, to gaze on floating white cumulus puff balls scurrying across the sky. Suddenly we see all the shapes of creatures that make up a fantastic world. They romp and play in the ocean sky. Part rabbit, and lion and horse There was no fear of wild things there.  There were part of the scenery with cavernous mouths with teeth so sharp, and planet sized eyes that burrowed deep within folds. And soon you were floating among these creatures, keeping them under your watch and guard, and were they keeping you?.  Faster and faster you moved in the sky running for the horizon. They were your companions all the way to the edge of the sky.   Oh I loved the world then, and everything was possible, and it was yes, and infinite, too.

No, we live with the wild things, and cannot fix all the failures and losses. We must move on and through saying, I tried my best. The blue sky clouds are a respite, inviting me to love the world. May we live not by “if only,’ a world of regrets and remorse, focused on how it might be otherwise, having to work every minute to feel we deserve anything, but instead ask ourselves what if, what if we celebrate our life, our loves, our very being’s place walking in beauty.   


if everything happens that can’t be done

(and anything’s righter

than books

could plan) . . . 


(and birds sing sweeter

than books

tell how) . . .


there’s somebody calling who’s we

we’re anything brighter than even the sun

(we’re everything greater

than books

might mean)

we’re everyanything more than believe

(with a spin


alive we’re alive)

we’re wonderful one times one


In these few moments we have, we are alive to see the beauty, and follow it on our journey, to find companions, and love and support them on the journey, to give a gift of affirmation to each other, that we would know acceptance on the journey.  As Emily once said,  If I could stop one heart from breaking,  I will not live in vain. The if in life is not the thnigs we did not say or do that makes us lie in pity or remorse.  The if, is what if we see the sky, be our love, feel our worth.  If you could be all of you, you might just reach the sky.


 love is the every only god


            who  spoke  this  earth  so  glad  and  big

            even  a  thing  all  small  and  sad

            man,may  his  mighty  briefness  dig


            for  love  beginning  means  return

            seas  who  could  sing  so  deep  and  strong


            one  queerying  wave  will  whitely  yearn

            from  each  last  shore  and  home  come  young


            so  truly  perfectly  the  skies

            by  merciful  love  whispered  were,

            completes  its  brightness  with  your  eyes


            any  illimitable  star



Closing Words – from e.e. cummings (unison)


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)