“Mixed Blessings” by Mark Harris
First Parish of Watertown – November 26, 2017
Opening Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.
Readings from a memoir by Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice;
A shadow is never created in darkness. It is born of light. We can be blind to it and blinded by it. Our shadow asks us to look at what we don’t want to see. . .
My mother’s journals frighten me
Now, in a shift of light, the shadows of birds are more pronounced on the gallery’s white wall. The shadow of each bird is speaking to me. Each shadow doubles the velocity, ferocity of forms. The shadow, my shadow now merges with theirs. Descension. Ascension. The velocity of wings creates the whisper to awaken….
My mother’s journals are an awakening.
How shall I live?
I want to feel both the beauty and the pain of the age we are living in. I want to survive my life without becoming numb. I want to speak and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become the landscape where I dwell. I want to possess a light touch that can elevate darkness to the realm of stars. This vascular malformation could bleed and burst. Or I could simply go on living, appreciating my condition as a vulnerable human being in a vulnerable world guided by the songs of birds. What is time, sacred time, but the acceleration of consciousness? There are so many ways to change the sentences we have been given.
“The Guest House” by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The holidays can be a difficult time for people. This is true because they invariably remind us of times when our birth families were together or our parents or partners were still alive, or times were different. In my family of origin we always gathered as a family at Thanksgiving and Christmas until both my parents were deceased, and then it was never the same again. Most of us develop new family configurations, and holidays with extended family or friends often become meaningful. As I contemplate retirement and moving to the state of Maine, one thing I have considered is how we will celebrate the holidays. Our new home will be four hours from here, and I have wondered who we will spend time with if we make the trek back to Massachusetts. So one dilemma at holiday time is that things change; people move away, stay home, divorce, or die, and we have to figure out how to celebrate. Sometimes this makes us feel sad at holiday times.
The other dilemma at holiday time is that things don’t change. There is an expectation in the culture that we should be happy sitting around the Thanksgiving table, and that is not always the case. Mom or the designated cook is stressed out because she has had to prepare this massive feast. One brother is unhappy because his girlfriend has dumped him, and he feels all alone. Another has just lost his job, or has a diagnosis of a serious illness. This has happened to one of my closest friends in ministry recently, and I can’t get over how troubled I feel about her condition. But being sad at the Thanksgiving table seems out of bounds. We feel like we have to at least seem happy.
Then there is the behavior of all those people who we are supposed to be happy celebrating with. The one who drinks way too much, is still drinking way too much. The Trump supporters are lurking in the bushes, and so we have to talk about building projects and not racism, gun violence, or sexual harassment. But then there are those who can’t stop talking, and who relieve me of the burden of doing so. I am an introvert so talking to people, even extended family members at Thanksgiving, is a trial, and so when an extroverted talker takes over the conversation, I am happy. Sort of. I can relax, and nod occasionally, and not have to do any work at all, but when I begin to nod off it is a sure sign that maybe I should have been more engaged. This is the classic definition of a mixed blessing. It is something that seems favorable to us. The person talking all the time means we don’t have to talk because they fill up the space, but the blessing becomes mixed because we become stuck or bored or can’t get a word in edge wise, even if we wanted to. We were initially happy when they took over the conversation, but suddenly we want to get away. Time to find more turkey.
Now you are probably sitting there thinking, this guy is being a little mean spirited. He should be grateful that anyone is talking to him. I agree Great-full and Grateful are part of the problem. Sometimes people misspell the word “grateful” as “greatful.” They sound similar, and actually have the same letters, but in a different order. The linguistic roots are different, too.
The word great comes from the Old High German grōz (large), and we automatically think of big, awesome, wonderful. Grateful, comes from the Latin gratia (favor, charm, thanks) and from gratus (pleasing, gracious). It is the same root behind the word, grace. I think when it comes to celebrating holidays, and especially the one just past that emphasizes gratefulness, we often feel as though we struggle to live in a culture that only emphasizes great-ness. We have a President who speaks with these grandiose or large metaphors about things like the great job of hurricane relief that was provided in Puerto Rico, when in fact the actual relief effort was pathetic, or mixed at best. Perhaps the people should have been grateful that they had survived, but that is a different kind of great than what the President said. And so when our families get together we often feel like we can share what is great about what we are doing if we are successful or healthy, but are more reticent to speak about illness or sadness or failure when these are precisely the kinds of times when sharing would offer support or insight and help. I was recently at a family reunion, where I had a good time, but not one person asked me about my heart condition. I have both great and grateful news to share, and would have been happy to be asked. Health, and certainly aging are issues we shy away from, especially if we think the news might be bad. You can’t be grateful for your cancer diagnosis or rapid heartbeat can you? And so because we are trained to only say positive or hopeful things, we end up saying nothing.
Only being positive is an issue that confronts the church. My wife Andrea has been driving around a lot lately to Maine, to Lowell, to Westfield, to Salem, etc. It seems like every other day she has had to take care of a repair or pick up one of our kids. She asked Asher for suggestions for audio books that she could listen to in the car. He even picked up one for her at the library. It is called Going Bovine by Libba Bray. It is described as a surreal comedy novel that follows the experiences of a high school junior named Cameron Smith, who suffers from Mad Cow disease. I have listened to some of it, too. In one particular chapter, Cam and his buddy Gonzo are taken to a giant expensive looking compound which turns out to be the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack ‘N’ Bowl, or CESSNAB, which also sells merchandise with the CESSNAB imprint; mugs and t-shirts and the like. The name of the church reflects their theology, which is to make sure everyone is gratified and happy all the time. We’re talking no negative feelings ever. Does this sound like Thanksgiving dinner or the church you go to?
What happens if someone starts feeling sad is that they send in a SWAT team to try and get the person happy again. If the Happiness SWAT team doesn’t work, the solution is to go bowling. Now I love bowling just as much as the next guy, and I am fairly good at it, but when those gutters balls start coming one after another, it is hard not to express some degree of frustration. According to CESSNAB, however, if you “embrace the positive” you can bowl a perfect game and be happy all day long. But it turns out that the pins are magnetized, and therefore you can only bowl strikes. This prevents envy when other’s scores are higher than yours, and it also means that your self- esteem is never damaged by failure, or anything less than perfection. Cameron, who is tired of dealing with death and sadness is intrigued by this, but Gonzo, on the other hand, has an “Uh-oh” feeling about it.
He gets a clue from the beverages they are offered. They are asked if they would like a smoothie, and they each pick a flavor. In fact, there are many flavors strawberry, banana, and so forth. But when you order strawberry, it turns out to taste like vanilla. This is because they only make vanilla smoothies. The church leaders explain that it helps cut down on things like dissatisfaction or envy, but to any of us, and to Cam and Gonzo, that just sounds awful. But that gets us back to the negative feeling again doesn’t it? It sounds a little like what the preacher feels is his or her obligation. You can be negative, but you certainly can’t stay there for long. Yet if you don’t talk about failures and set-backs, you never learn to deal with them, or see how they can be used to build strength
One problem is that our liberal religious notion of salvation is based on merit. All religions, and Unitarianism is no exception, create an ideal world. Our faith was crafted in response to the ideal world created by John Calvin. For Calvin it was more than negative. Everyone was a sinner, and you could only be saved by the grace of God. There was nothing you could do about it. God would choose who was saved, and it had no relationship to merit. Some scholars have speculated that the Protestant work ethic was a result of people feeling so bad about sin knowing there was nothing they could do about it except depend upon God, that they threw themselves into their work so they wouldn’t have to think about sin and the likelihood that they were going to hell. Unitarianism in reaction to this rejection of free will and the ability of humans to craft their own salvation by doing good works and therefore winning favor in God’s eyes, emphasized the human role in salvation. They were soon saying that we have the ability to save ourselves which soon evolved again into the idea that we were born innately good, rather than innately bad, and that this goodness could be developed into what came to be called salvation by character.
This idea of human potential and possibility is what helped bring me to UUism. I began to feel good about myself rather than wallowing in the mire and muck of my own sin. This sounds great until you weigh it against CESSNAB, where everyone is gratified and happy all the time, and are forced to drink vanilla smoothies. It is bland and boring for one thing, but it also shields us from the difficult experiences of life. Have you ever noticed the culture of success around Unitarian Universalism? It has always been a learned and intellectual religion, but this has also meant the creation of a faith associated with the best schools, and the highest paying jobs. That may be fine as long as things go fine, but what happens when you fail, or do not live up to your own or your parent’s expectations. I have probably told this anecdote before in a sermon, but it is a truism that when a church member is ill or has experienced some kind of set-back, they tend to stay away from church. They feel like they will be embarrassed if they have to share this with others. From Concord to Lexington to Milton this is a common occurrence. You might think that this is the place where we are supposed to support one another in difficult times, but the reality is that with no concept of sin or evil, it is difficult to discuss painful experiences. This was what caused so many Unitarians to waffle on the issue of slavery in the 19th century. They wanted to see everyone develop to their fullest potential, so they despised slavery for what it did to the slaves. But too many Unitarians remained silent, partly because they made money from slavery, but also because they couldn’t name the slaveholders as evil. They couldn’t say out loud, what you are doing is evil.
Yet bad things happen to us, and are created, too, by the choices we make. I want to say my friend’s illness makes me sad. I want to say my heart ailment gave me a lot of anxiety. I was really worried. I want an acknowledgement in my Thanksgiving celebration that I am only human. I am subject to failures. I am subject to illness. I am afraid sometimes. And so Thanksgiving in the usual definition of great full ness is a mixed blessing. We often judge our blessings by job promotions and salary. We want to share the success of our children in school, but are more reticent to talk about a lay off or a failure. What kind of blessing is that we might ask? But these can be blessings in disguise as well. The lay off from a job might lead us to a new profession or job that makes us happier. We can learn as Rumi suggests to welcome this crowd of sorrows: “The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.” And so we learn great lessons from failures, when we have struggled in the past, and then work harder as a result.
Just the other day my son Dana came from school, and went from his mother to me, and back showing us the result of his microeconomics mid-term test. He received a 92, and couldn’t have been happier. It is his major. He had dropped the class once before when it was going poorly, and now circumstances have changed, and he can celebrate. Maybe that prior failure was a blessing in disguise. I think it gave him a greater sense of accomplishment, than if he had gotten A’s all along. In some ways it is unfortunate that so much thanksgiving is placed in the context of success or merit. Carl Jung once defined our shadow as our dark side, or what we might think of as negative things. We are afraid of our shadows, Jung said, but once we understand the shadow side, we have a better understanding of ourselves. Terry Tempest Williams reminds us in the reading that “A shadow is never created in darkness. It is born of light. We can be blind to it and blinded by it. Our shadow asks us to look at what we don’t want to see. I may not want to admit my shadow side – my judging side, my intolerant side, my selfish side, my hurtful side, but it is all a part of my life, my mixed blessing of dark and light. There is a tendency these days not to see our own shadows. We do see them in others.
We ask, what evil things did my ancestors do?” Martin Marty writes, “That’s a fashionable question to ask in order to get off one’s own hook. We can’t change the past, but we can beat up on anyone and everyone in the past, in which case we will always come off looking better than they do.” There is a lot of self-righteous judging, especially on Facebook these days. It is a place where we do not have to face our own selves, but can feel good about accusing others of their shortcomings. This is not to say that we should offer instant forgiveness to those who practice sexual harassment or assault, but that we should look at ourselves, too, and ask “what kind of person am I that I can do bad things?” All men need to take responsibility for the attitudes about women that continue to predominate in the culture. We are all just human. We all know the pain of not speaking up when we should have, when someone was being bullied or shamed. We all know the pain of failing a test because we didn’t study enough or perhaps were not smart in that way. Yet we would not be human really if we had not failed, not been rejected, or were not perfect at Thanksgiving or at any time. Each of us has forgotten where we put our glasses or the keys to the house, missed a shot or struck out, or even stolen or lied, or cheated. But if we had not done those things then we wouldn’t know the passion of trying harder or learning more, we would not know the joy of getting an A if we had not gotten an F, or even as a UUA official once said to me, you don’t really know what ministry is all about until you have been fired. Thank you, First Parish in Milton! Perhaps these are the pains in life for which we may later acknowledge a blessing, a mixed blessing to be sure, but a blessing nonetheless.
In fact, these blessings give us a deeper consciousness of the blessings of life. Perhaps it is because we are reminded of the true gifts we are given in life, all of which are unmerited. Your blessings in life are not the resume of the jobs you held, or the number of children you had, or even the books you wrote. The books or articles or papers or even your words are a reflection of the eloquence and depth of your speech, your knowledge, your passion for knowing more; all given unmerited. The children are not a reflection of their achievements, but how happy they are, or how much they give back to the world, how compassionate they are to others. The jobs are not how much money you make or what you own, but how much you love what you do, how it becomes a world of meaning, how much it reminds you of what is possible in you to give, to know, to realize. The beauty of the world persists in all that you make of yourself and give back to the creation, to make it a more beautiful and loving place. Help the love persist. Make the beautiful persist. God’s grace, or that for which we can be grateful comes to us unmerited. That is the true blessing of Thanksgiving that comes every day. These are the small things that are our true blessings, the people we love, and our world – the sunsets we see, the smiles we give, the walks we take, the people with whom we have shared this life, and how precious and short our time together is. As Thornton Wilder once wrote, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
Closing Words – Rabbi Harold Kushner
Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted–a paved road or a washing machine? If you concentrate on finding what is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.