“Living Gratitude” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – November 25, 2012
Call to Worship – from Harriet Kofalk
in a moment of peace
I give thanks
to the source of all peace
as I set forth
into the day
the birds sing
With new voices
and I listen
with new ears
and give thanks . . .
the dew drops
with the morning’s sun-fire
and I give thanks
you can see forever
when the vision is clear
in this moment
I give thanks
Readings – from The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell
“Fault Line” by Robbie Walsh
The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell
Life is a tragic mystery. We are pierced and driven by laws we only half understand, we find that the lesson we learn again and again is that of accepting heroic helplessness. Some uncomprehended law holds us at a point of contradiction where we have no choice, where we do not like that which we love, where good and bad are inseparable partners impossible to tell apart, and where we, heart broken and ecstatic, can only resolve the conflict by blindly taking it into our hearts. This used to be called being in the hands of God. Has anyone any better word to describe it?
“Fault Line” By Robbie Walsh
Did you ever think there might be a fault line passing underneath your living room: A place in which your life is lived in meeting and in separating, wondering and telling, unaware that just beneath you is the unseen seam of great plates that strain through time? And that your life, already spilling over the brim, could be invaded, sent off in a new direction, turned aside by forces you were warned about but not prepared for? Shelves could be spilled out, the level floor set at an angle in some seconds’ shaking. You would have to take your losses, do whatever must be done next….
When the great plates slip and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen to lie in what you trusted most, look not to more solidity, to weighty slabs of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered beam to save the fractured order. Trust more the tensile strands of love that bend and stretch to hold you in the web of life that’s often torn but always healing. There’s your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth, your room, your precious life, they all proceed from love, the ground on which we walk together.
Sermon – “Living Gratitude”
I was recently asked to join the advisory committee for a group that is planning the 250th anniversary of the landing of John Murray on the New Jersey coastline in 1770, when he first brought the message of universal salvation to America. If you are good at addition you will realize that that means a celebration that will take place in the year 2020. While I am all for planning ahead, this seems a little extreme, especially since the chair of the group is in her mid-seventies. Despite my skepticism I acquiesced, throwing caution to the wind that I would be blessed to be healthy in eight years, as would the chairwoman. Murray, who is often called the father of Universalism in America had a series of devastating life experiences in England, including the deaths of his son, his wife, and a period of time in debtor’s prison owing to the expenses he incurred trying to keep his loved ones alive. He left those painful memories behind, came to the New World and eventually settled in Gloucester. You can visit the Sargent Murray Gilman house there. If you do visit, the tour guides may show you a rather unusual feature. On the second floor in one of the closets there is a box filled with dirt. This dirt serves no apparent purpose. It is neither an ant farm, an indoor compost pile nor sunless raised garden plot. Researchers who were puzzled by it all, finally figured out that this was John Murray’s’ personal box of dirt, which he used during times when he was feeling depressed. It seems the dirt was soil he had brought with him from England. When he felt a great sadness come over him, he would go and stand on the box, so that he was literally standing on his home ground. We don’t know what tangible effect this had upon Murray’s troubled soul, but each of us knows the feeling of wanting the comfort and care of home that will ease the pain of trying times.
Some of us may hope to replicate that feeling at holiday time. We eat comfort food, and spend time with relatives who evoke memories of family and home; some of us look forward to those times, others of us endure the time, and the rest of us experience some of both. Our parents, our siblings, assorted aunts and uncles and children are our own boxes of dirt with its mixture of nutrients and toxic soils. Like our friend John Murray, there is a folktale from the Talmud about King Solomon where he seeks a cure to the feelings of depression that come over him. He once told his wise advisors, if things go my way, I do not trust that it will last. But if things do not go my way, I fear my woes will never end. I have dreamed that there is a ring that contains the knowledge that will bring me peace of mind. Go and find it, as I wish to have it by Succoth, six months from now. So his advisors traveled over the countryside seeking this powerful ring. No jeweler had ever heard of such a inrg. The advisors even went to foreign countries and great cities such as Babylon to no avail. The king kept asking them if they had found the ring, but they always, said, no , not yet. His hopes were fading. On the eve of Succoth the advisors had nearly given up, all of them except the youngest one. Unable to sleep he walked through the city until he came to a street with the poorest houses. It was just dawn, and an old man was setting out his jewelry for sale. The young boy described the ring to the man. The old man was quiet for a time, and then went inside, only to return with a plain gold ring. He took the ring, and then engraved some simple words, and handed it to the boy. Once the advisor read what had been written, he knew he had the right ring. This is it, he said. That evening as the Succoth celebration started, the king interrupted the proceedings and called out, have you found my ring, yet? The youngest spoke up and said, yes, we have your highness. He came forward. The king looked at the words – “This, too, shall pass.” “This, too, shall pass.” As soon as he read the words, the king’s sorrows turned to joys, and his joys to sorrows, and he felt a sense of peace. He was reminded that everything was impermanent, and that he was blessed with a life that would bring him measures of both pleasure and pain, and although they might not always be equal, he realized that it was a great blessing simply to have known the gift of life. After this the king always remembered that his riches were impermanent, but also that his sorrows would pass with the seasons and the years. In both good times and bad, he remembered, “this, too, shall pass.”
Perhaps standing on a box of dirt, or fingering a ring seem like hollow ways to respond to times of difficulty in our lives, but they were ways these people found to ease their minds and remind them of being grounded in where they came from, what had nurtured them, and that they could come through a terrible turmoil knowing that it would pass from their lives. In the book, The Search for Meaning, Katherine Morrison recounts her own battle with suffering, placing it in the context of religious faith. Her eight-year-old son was very sick with a lupus like syndrome. For many months it seemed like she lived in the intensive care waiting room. There were times that seemed better than others, but overriding it all was the message that his brain condition seemed hopeless. She got tired of people asking her how she felt, when she believed the more pertinent question was how she was going to live. She grew tired of hearing what she called the 23rd Psalmers. Those who said it was going to be all right, even if the boys dies. And he probably won’t, they said, because I’m going to pray, and it’s all going to get better. She said she found the religious people irritating because the reality was more like the opening lines of the 22nd Psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Later the woman went to talk to a rabbi, who told her, “Religion is not a set of beliefs; religion is the totality of your response to life. It is what you do with what you’ve got. And you’re a religious person, because you spend all those days and nights at the hospital, and all that research time working on trying to save your child. The rabbi said, you are religious because you don’t feel sorry for yourself, and you don’t just sit there hoping for some miracle cure or savior. You do something about this pain by being present to it with body, mind and soul. The rabbi told her she was creating a religious response to life. She was using her full heart to create something integrated and worthwhile out of the chaos that had landed on. The rabbi eventually conveyed his simple message that such a trial didn’t mean she had to hate life or herself because it had beaten her up so much. The basic Jewish stuff, as she called it, was given what has happened, what are you going to do now?
Katherine Morrison spoke true words when she said she was tired of people asking her how she felt. It was much more meaningful when the rabbi pointed her in the direction of what are you going to do now? Surely wrestling with our fears, our mistakes, our regrets, brings out anger and disappointment, even self-hatred or self-pity. But the important thing about those feelings is for the first time we may not have to pretend that they are not there. This was Katherine Morrison’s discovery after her son died. She said she wouldn’t pretend anymore that she wasn’t furious; she wouldn’t pretend just to swallow what happened. But she would use that energy to do something with her life. She writes, you just say, “it happened and we’re here, and we know there was goodness in this life that we’ve lost, and we take a deep breath, and go on.” We build a new life. There is a Jewish prayer in which you say, “What is it for us to do? It is for us to heal the world.” The story behind the prayer is that there was an original great light, and it was divided and spread and cast all asunder, and it is for each of us (who has a part of the light inside themselves) to gather more, to gather the light back together, and when the light is all reunited, it will be the coming of the messiah, or we will have created heaven on earth. But our mission must be to gather the light.
Sometimes it’s hard to think of how we could gather the light. We may feel like the world is not blessing us with exactly what we wanted. We worry about the future of our job, or we feel like failures as parents. How can we feel blessed when illness weighs upon us, or we have bills we cannot pay? Religious traditions responded to seasons of darkness like the coming winter, or even those we face in our lives, with visions of how we might make light come into the world. Susan Schnur wrote a column in the New York Times over a decade ago where she described a Holocaust survivor who many years after his ordeal would ritually kiss a piece of rye bread and then eat it with great, almost holy delight, calling out between bites the word for bread in every language he knew. His experience had brought him a tremendous sense of gratitude. He knew what it meant to have a piece of bread that would sustain him. Schnur also wrote of her own suffering, which in her case was a spinal disease that woke her every night in terrific pain. After she was well, she continued to wake up expecting the pain, and then would fall asleep again relieved that the pain was gone. In time though, she wrote, “ it was the relief itself that woke me, a gratitude so sharp it felt almost physical.” One can affirm the goodness of life when a time of great travail has been lived through, when there are moments of thankfulness or just simple relief.
How do we transform that energy of pain into healing? We somehow get through. We work at it. We endure, and then when it is over, we feel a blessing that we have survived. Each of us must find a magical ring to help us understand that this too will pass. We get through with a joyful time, with a friend to lean on, by working hard to understand or find solutions, or simply by knowing there will be the other side. If we spend our lives pretending that the pain isn’t there like Katherine Morrison, then perhaps a difficult time will teach us that we can no longer pretend. If we spend our lives shut off to what we want and need, then perhaps after a difficult time, we will no longer be silent. Or if we have never truly been thankful, we will praise that bread, or rejoice that the pain is gone after the difficult time is over, and consequently will learn to feed others, and support others in their pain.
My colleague Gary Kowalski retells a story he heard from his grandfather about a cowboy who had just lassoed a steer with a lariat tied to his horse’s saddle. Suddenly he noticed a big tree in front of him, and the horse and the steer were headed for opposite sides of it. Figuring it was time to say his prayers, the cowboy recited the only one he knew. “Lord, make us grateful for these blessings we are about to receive.” Who in their right mind would think of this as a blessing? Perhaps it emanates from an overall attitude that all of life is a blessing, and that despite the bumps and bruises we experience along the way, it is a great ride for which we can feel truly grateful. I have always appreciated what, UU lay preacher Peter Fleck said about the Pilgrims. He noted that they were not thankful that they had survived, but rather they had survived because they were thankful. They had an ability to always uphold the blessings of life itself and go on living appreciating whatever they received, and this attitude of gratitude allowed them to gain the strength to go on. My son Levi had a refreshing sense of gratitude when he was little. One gift at Christmas or even one piece of candy would be enough, and rather than quickly looking for what was next, he would cherish whatever he received.
In the reading Robbie Walsh found the fault line underneath his life, and his life was set off in a new direction. Years ago I remember standing along the San Andreas fault line, and seeing a symbolic reminder of the results of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The movement of the earth was graphically depicted by a picket fence that split, and the gap from one end of the fence to the other was twenty feet between ends that were once connected. It is hard to feel blessed sometimes when jobs and children and relationships threaten to split us asunder, and the lassoed steer goes in a different direction from the horse. We need that ring to tell us, this too will pass. All I have been given has blessed me. We must take our loses, and then do whatever is to be done next. Walsh would have us trust the web of life that is torn, but always healing, especially when we ask what is to be done, and answer like Florida Scott-Maxwell, “we take this tragic mystery called life, and we take it into our hearts. We take this tragic mystery that makes us sometimes moan why am I forsaken or I am not blessed. But then we go find a new home to stand on in the web of life. There is a box of earth that will hold us up. When we look to the strength of our own hearts, and the gift of resilience we find there, we realize the enduring power of the web of life and light we each can give to one another. The Advent season affirms that even in darkness there is always the promise of light; that in despair, there is always hope. Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet, writes in his poem, “Until We are Free” “let’s all brandish our heart, never fearing that it will burst, for a heart the size of ours, resists the cruelest tortures, and nothing can placate its devastating love, which grows, beat by beat, strong, stronger, stronger.”
Closing Words – from Rainer Maria Rilke
O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but those dark, deadly and devastating ways,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze, how summon it,
how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillness and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.