“Is That All There Is?” by Mark W. Harris
September 28, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”
“Parents” by Frank Steele
I felt his death coming for years
The way you can be under
fluorescent light in a library
with no windows, reading
some bright page, and gradually
feel the sky outside
invisibly cloud over. But I remember
those last few times before his fall
how they would be standing in the driveway
waving goodbye again, how they lit up
for a moment, suddenly not old but just
themselves, his arm around her, cheering us on,
cheering for life itself as we drove away.
Second reading – from Off Course by Michelle Huneven p. 134-135
Her parents came up for a meeting with Rick Garsh and the finish carpenters to choose cabinet doors, banister styles, hardware, and tile. Cress retreated to her loft bedroom under the pretext of working. She sat at her desk and read the file for Chapter Three until she had to take a nap. She sprawled on the bed, then jerked awake to see herm other standing down at the foot.
“Sorry I thought you were working.”
“I bored myself to sleep,” said Cress. “It’s part of the drill.”
“Will you be done soon?” Her mother asked.
“Sure hope so.” She did hope.
“And what will you do then?”
“I don’t know Mom. Find a job”
“I’ll move somewhere. Soon as I save up enough.
“With the phone bills you’ve racked up, that won’t be easy.”
“I said I’d pay. How much?” Cress swung her legs off the bed. “I’ll write you a check right now.”
“I’ll look at the bills and let you know. Will you go back to Pasadena?”
“I don’t know, Mom”
“But you’re on track.”
Mmmm. The Track: degree, job, husband, babies, PTA president – or, given her credentials, treasurer.
The other day Andrea and I were over at Victory Field in Watertown getting in some daily exercise as we lapped the track a few times. As we headed towards home, we overheard a woman who was having an animated conversation with her husband. She was laughing at the insensitivity of a fellow nurse who had attempted to tell her how nice she looked, but the colleague framed the statement in a larger context of how astonished she was that she looked good, because only yesterday she had looked short and dumpy. This particular story led to another story where a patient had tried to compliment her on her lovely appearance, now perceived to have faded a bit. The patient told her: “You must have been beautiful, . . . when you were young.” When you were young – that is the time of vitality and beauty, right? Do you remember in high school or college when your parents said, “these are the best years of your life, “ implying that we should enjoy our youth because it is all downhill from there. These were our Glory Days. It is that time that Bruce Springsteen sang about in the hit song with that title. Springsteen recalls a friend who was a top athlete with whom he shared a few drinks, and all the friend talked about were those glory days that had passed him by. Then Springsteen goes on to sing about the beautiful woman who could turn heads, and now when she feels like crying, she talks about the old times. Then we visit the singer’s father who sits at the Legion and recalls the glory days he dreamed about, but never had. Finally, Bruce leaves us saying he hopes when he gets old he won’t talk about such times, but realizes he probably will. Do you repeat stories of glory days?
The idea of glory days came to my mind for two very different reasons this summer. First there was the decision to attend my 45th high school reunion. I enjoyed myself talking to old friends and classmates who I had not seen in such a long time. The hardest thing of all was recognizing people. We danced to the rock band that had been made up of several classmates then, and although some of their guitar playing fingers may be stricken with a little arthritis, and the voices now sound like Joe Cocker did then, they can still play an acceptable version of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Yet most of them never did leave the hill country of Orange, Massachusetts. Maybe they still dream of glory days. Even so, former athletic skills or physical beauty or even lifetime accomplishments did not enter our conversations much. It was the fun we had together and the relationships we developed. There was poignancy to this meeting of old friends only weeks later when in early September one of my best friends from high school died of a heart attack. It was sudden and unexpected, like life is some times. At the reception after the funeral one old friend became a little perturbed with me when I didn’t recognize her, as if to say, I want to be remembered.
Yet the glory of athletic achievement or winning a prom crown, or marching near the front of the line to reflect high grades are not the most enduring use of the word glory, a mostly neglected word now. Glory was once the perceived winning of immortal fame on the battlefield, or the ultimate reward of eternal life in heaven, and often those two were intertwined. This reflection all came about because I decided the time had come for me to read a book that always had a place on the list of books I hoped to read during my lifetime, my bucket list of literature. I had noted that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The book is The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, a Pulitzer prize winning account of that war that was suppose to end all wars, but instead introduced us to modern culture which seems to be marked by endless war or the militarization of life.
As I began to read the book, I noticed more and more how often the word glory appeared. It was another world from the one we know today, but it also created our modern Middle East, where so much conflict is now centered.. As the Belgian leaders contemplated the German army marching through their homeland on their way to subduing France, they realized they would just be fodder for the German guns. Should they yield, and be an accessory to an attack on France, or should they uphold their honor and fight against insurmountable odds? They concluded that if they were to be crushed, “let us be crushed gloriously.” Tuchman writes, “In 1914 ‘glory’ was a word spoken without embarrassment, and honor a familiar concept that people believed in.” The great tragedy was that glory was won by conquering others, by vicious belligerence, by so much hubris that even though the Germans recognized they were violating international law, they said “we will make good as soon as our military goal is achieved.” It was almost as if all the nations wanted war because an ultimate victory would show their greatness to the world.
It is easy to see the creation of our world in the terrible slaughter of World War I, the first total war of modern weaponry and devastation on land, sea and air. Perhaps this was the last time that anyone could write that war was ennobling to the soul. While the combatants may have believed that victory in war or at least fighting valiantly brought glory to the individual, and the mission of a nation to be the greatest on earth, there were those who could see that there was another path to glory. Although he was not to achieve his dream of America remaining a neutral nation, Woodrow Wilson said that America “stands ready to help the rest of the world,” and further that he believed “she could reap a permanent glory out of doing it.” And even as he lost a political grip on this perspective as fighting grew more widespread, he never, Tuchman says, abandoned this different view of glory that he held in his heart. He saw America as winning “great permanent glory” by playing the arbiter, or peacemaker. He said this was not the flag of America he waved, but the flag of humanity. Yet the theme of winning glory in battle or merely in male rivalries remained alive. In 1952 Jimmy Cagney starred in a film called “What Price Glory?”
We get the impression that glory is achieved in great battles. Only a few years ago the movie “Glory” depicted the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first black regiment in the Civil War. Unitarians have never been a people to particularly see glory in the killing fields of war, yet the American Civil War was a holy war for us. Our usual rational verbiage gave way to a kind of evangelical calling for God’s vision of a world where all people are freed from slavery, and given equal rights. The freed blacks of the 54th wanted to win eternal glory not in an afterlife, but by fighting for a world made fair, or a world made one in a glorious vision of hope. There is a bit of irony in that our Unitarian reformer Julie Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic with its refrain of “glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on,” is not included in our hymnal. I presume this is because it is too evangelical sounding for most of us.
I think one problem with the concept of glory is that it seems intended for larger than life heroes. It is our version of the Norse myths of Valhalla with Gods, like Odin and Thor. We envision Arthur’s Round Table, where all the heroes are recognized for their noble deeds and courage. It is about people who are larger than life. We try to envision glory in those who are immortal in word and deed. But the problem is that no one is immortal. The retiring Yankee Derek Jeter may be associated with glory because his team won a few baseball championships, and he seems to have been a relatively decent human being with a talent for hitting a baseball. We may associate winning glory with military veterans today, but certainly not with the fighting or winning of a war because
We know no hands are clean. So if no one wins glory on a battlefield anymore, where do they win it? Seeing glory in a sports or entertainment figure hardly seems a satisfying conclusion. Yet our problem may be in our attempt to define where we find glorious moments. The expectation seems to be that it is in the big events or in large defining moments of life, like winning championships or finishing the dissertation.
The movie “Boyhood” teaches us something about the nature of achieving glory in life. It is an unusual film in that the director Richard Linklater shot it over the course of 12 years literally chronicling the growing up years of the actor who plays the boy Mason. We see various relationships; a mother trying to fix a broken family with replacements, and sometimes not seeing the family she already has. We see the father as a buddy to his kids slowly learning to cultivate genuine relationships with them. We see children suffer humiliation and joy, find friendships, know sexual longing, and become interested in college. It is a bumpy ride as each person encounters the meaning of their life. The bumpy ride is found in a scene early in the movie when the kids are bowling, and Mason keeps rolling balls in the gutter and implores his father to give him bumpers, But his father replies. “bumpers? Life doesn’t give you bumpers.”
The movie begins as the six-year-old Mason contemplates the sky and you feel with him, what does life mean, and what is my place in it? Do I have some kind of destiny awaiting me? A year ago when I attended my 40th college reunion, I became dismayed when our president said that even a small liberal arts college such as ours had to consider itself a business. Students no longer had an education that focused on reading the classics, but instead were expected to learn how to apply themselves to get a job when they graduated. On one of my son Dana’s college tours this summer, this is exactly what we heard. Little was said about what life on campus would be like, but rather an assurance to parents, that our money was going to produce results. College was a good investment. It was a different track than the way I started out. I majored in history to learn about meaning in life, not as a career path. To be fair, I had to think at some point what I was going to do with my life. This is a question that is directed toward Mason in the movie. His photography teacher implores him, “What do you want to be Mason?
Mason’s life feels real because he comes to his sense of himself in fits and starts and not in some great revelation. The film reviewer Richard Brody says that the struggles of a boy or girl growing up are not the Wordsworthian unfolding of what the poet called “the glory and freshness of a dream.” It is more like the movie scenes where a sibling hits you with a pillow, or wakes you up with a scream. And then your mom yells, “get back to sleep.” Life is not revealed in glorious events like a Harry Potter Quidditch match or Tri-Wizard Tournament where you win the championship and all the other wizards hail your greatness, but rather it is measured more in low lights like a whiffle haircut that sears your memory and you never forget the humiliation. Even so, hair grows back, and we grow up. We become who we are not in moments of great glory, but in small events that teach and affirm compassion, forgiveness and love. The reading from Michelle Huneven’s novel Off Course, reminds us that we often can go off course from the plan we have made, or our parents have made for us, to fulfill a certain destiny or course of life. In the novel Cressida Hartley is a talented Phd. student who goes to a mountain retreat to finish her dissertation. Her achievement track has already been derailed by relationships, especially one that puts her on a new, truer path in the world. This book and the movie both tell us to choose our own destiny as we see parents or mentors try to turn children into reflections or extensions of themselves. Yet we also see that imperfect parents can produce good kids. At one point Mason’s Dad, reflecting on all the mess-ups and derailments of life reveals his best advice: “We’re all just winging it.”
We all know that life is marked by big events –school graduations, championship games, science fairs, loving relationships, weddings and divorces, jobs gained and lost, births of children and so forth. They all bear their mark on the unfolding of our lives. But think about what is most enduring, and it is usually something quite insignificant, but it impacts us more than a glorious victory or achievement. In ministry, moments that might seem glorious would be an ordination service or installation at your first church. But those big events that were supposed to be amazing may pale beside a moment when we gained a special insight or connected deeply with another. My predecessor at my first church was being harassed constantly to the point he had to resign, yet he told me: “A church is a church is a church.” I had asked him about why the congregation had a bad reputation, and I was being told not to go there. Even though he was in crisis, he told me not to listen to the supposed authorities that label churches good and bad. There is no perfect congregation, which consists of all loving people who are always caring, compassionate and just. Each congregation has people who want to build the beloved community despite whatever personal failings we each possess, and others who want their own personal fiefdom. He taught me more about the understanding and forgiveness that is needed in church than any ceremony could ever have.
Sports have always meant a lot to me. I was once a star baseball player, but no headline meant as much as something which happened only a week ago. I was walking up Marshall Street towards my house. A neighbor was out tending her garden. Her younger son, Ben played on the baseball team I coached four years ago. We had a terrible team. I don’t think we won more than two or three games all year, and we didn’t make the playoffs. I love the game of baseball and enjoyed coaching the kids – helping them learn the fundamentals of the game, and having fun being together. I walked past this mother, saying hello as I have done countless times. I was already a few paces beyond her when she spoke up saying, you know, you were the best coach my son could have had. You encouraged him to just enjoy playing the game, and not worry how he did. It was great. Why she said that then, four years later, I don’t know. But it gave me a glorious realization that I had made a difference in a child’s life, and her life.
During her ordination I had a friend who worried during the entire ceremony about her baby crying, as he was left with a stranger for the first time. The glorious moment was not the service itself with its flowery words. She just wanted to get through that, and be reunited with her baby. She learned she said, about “the power of caring, the wrench of separation, the ambiguity of responsibility, and the joy of reunion.” These were much more powerful lessons of ministry, than any formal ceremony. Did you expect God to speak from the whirlwind, and you ended up with a still, small voice like Elijah heard? Did that lead you to use the refrain from the old Patti Page song, “Is that all there is?” You expected more out of some big moment, but life unfolds in meaning through those small, quiet moments. That is where the glory and the lessons and the meaning lie.
Finally, the glory of life is that it is not confined to the vitality of youth where we bask in our great achievements, and then slide downhill. We can’t measure in big events, because all of life brings us opportunities for coming to ourselves and realizing our true capacity for love and care. The poem “Parents” helps us see this. Frank Steele says when his parents stand on the driveway to wave goodbye, they light up again for a moment, as mine did, too. They are not gloriously young wasting away to being old, but they come back to themselves to love, parent, and cheer on those who follow. Whatever our hope for the days to come, we also know there is a glorious destiny that can unfold in our hearts now. We are aware that we can live each day fulfilling that yearning to learn, to forgive, to cheer on and forever find deeper love with each other. We are ordained not in one big event, but to all of life, so that we might taste its joy, its beauty and its wonder each day in the little infinity we are granted. Woody Guthrie told us “This train is bound for glory; Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy. This train is bound for glory, this train.” The train we ride on finds glory in the everyday when we mend brokenhearted love, work together with compassion, and remember with gratitude all we are given on this wonderful ride.
Closing Words from Psalm 90: 12, 14-17 ;
Teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart. . . .Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!