“Nothing Left Unsaid” Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 24, 2019
Opening Words – from Job 10:1-2; 11:1-6
And Job said: I will speak to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me. ; Then Zophar answered: Should a multitude of words go unanswered, and a person full of talk be vindicated? Should your babble silence others, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? For you say, ‘My doctrine is pure, and I am clean in God’s eyes.’ But oh, that God would speak, and open God’s lips to you, and tell you the secrets of wisdom.
Reading – Shoveling Snow With Buddha by Billy Collins
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?
But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.
Sermon – “Nothing Left Unsaid” by Mark W. Harris
We live in an age of excess verbiage. Do you know, for instance, a public figure who when someone disagrees with him or criticizes him is quick to mock, criticize, berate or humiliate the other? Perhaps the Presidential tweets are an extreme example, but nevertheless, excess words are everywhere. A Gag order was issued against Roger Stone the other day after he posted a picture of his lawyer’s face depicted in the cross hairs of a gun sight. The judge said Stone was well aware of the power of words and symbols. Words can hurt us and also confuse us. I listen to the weather forecasters who seem like they offer an effusion of countless words depicting highs and lows, fronts and storms, and I lose track of exactly what is going to happen except that it always ends up sounding a lot worse than it ever turns out. This may be a personal reaction because I make my living by using words. It can feel a little bit like listening to some preachers or teachers trying to disseminate their wisdom while we the listeners are feeling either bored or uninterested, and just wish it were over. Not that I have any particular preacher in mind. Yet this is the picture I recall listening to fundamentalist preachers in church during my childhood. Our First Parish kids have it easy. I went to Sunday School before church, and then had to sit through the entire adult service every week. Thank God for crayons and paper, and my Mom’s endless supply of life savers.
There is a stereotype that ministers talk endlessly. Preachy is a word that implies a highly moralistic tone, rather than mere length, but it also connotes being talked at rather than to, and hardly invites conversation. There is a story about the Russian Revolution in 1917 that depicts a preoccupation with self-involvement. Chaos was raging in the streets of Moscow, while in the meantime, the orthodox clergy were inside their sanctuaries arguing over the color of their vestments. Should I wear the purple robe during the riot or maybe the big pointy hat.? They were clearly out of touch with what was going on around them. Length of sermons has long been an issue in the Protestant tradition. The first woman to be ordained with full denominational authority was the Universalist Olympia Brown, and she is credited with being the first to say “You don’t save a soul after twenty minutes.” Whether I am preaching, teaching or even engaged in conversation, I try to be aware of what Andrea calls my lecture mode. Because I am so focused on facts and information as my preferred way of interpreting the world, I can easily go into endless detail about an issue without realizing that perhaps there is a larger point to be made that I want to convey. In lecture mode I can lose my listeners by giving them too much detail, when it might be better to simply shut up, and come to the point. The trend these days among new preachers is to try to be more extemporaneous, so the sermon appears conversational, but this is hard for an old dog like me who trained forty years ago with manuscripts. Besides, if there is concern about length, I know that I talk longer when I am not tied to a script because I want to be sure that I say it all.
Is too much talk a problem? We all have concerns about conversations where we either say too much or say the wrong thing, and the burden of that faux pas stays with us. We either can’t forgive ourselves or let go of what was said. Think of those startling moments when someone said something to you that continues to inflict pain upon your soul years later. I can still feel the elementary teacher screaming in my face, “you dirty, foul boy” in response to a spitting incident. Couldn’t he have found a more helpful way to express his dissatisfaction with me? We also have to be wary when we are touting our own experiences. Just this week, I was speaking to someone who underwent a medical procedure for the same issue that I have. There are two major ways to treat it. He chose a surgical route and described how this was the most certain way to make sure you were properly treated, and otherwise you might not have a good outcome. Unfortunately, he knew I was choosing the other treatment, and so his words called everything I planned into question. I was feeling confidant one minute, and paranoid the next. Did I need to rethink this? What if I am wrong? Even though my doctor had told me that either treatment was equally effective, the positive experience someone else had, threw everything in my mind into turmoil. What if he just said, I hope it goes well for you.
Words that hurt or confuse linger in our hearts. Most of us know the experience of when we have said the wrong thing, and regret it later. We don’t want to say something that will inflict pain or cause sharp disagreement. Years ago in a couples group discussion , I remember one of the men, fearing that his ill advised opinion could provoke a fight, said to his wife, and how do youwant me to feel? He was determined not to provoke any problems, and was ready to regurgitate exactly what she wanted to hear. There are other times where we do freely express ourselves, and find it provokes a negative reaction. This can result in those situations where we keep trying to explain ourselves, and the more we say the worse it gets. I have lingering memories of trying to explain once to my parents where their car had been until 3:00 a.m., and how it managed to smell so bad. The more I said the angrier they became. Sometimes we would be better off if we say we have made a mistake, vow to do better next time, and go to bed. Instead we try to explain it away, and make endless reasons or excuses for why something happened. We all have a hard time saying we are sorry and admitting it when we are wrong, and so we often endlessly provide excuses to justify our actions.
We all know that words have consequences. Sometimes the words we say to others are presumptuous. In a New Yorker article some years ago, Tina Fey wondered what is the rudest question you can ask a woman? Fey says the usual questions would be, how old are you? or how much do you weigh? But she feels the rudest question is neither of these. It is, “how do you juggle it all?” She then goes on to illustrate her own concerns about being a working mother coupled with her own projections. Her daughter brought home a book called My Working Mom, which depicted a witch on the cover. She thought this meant that any woman who worked full time was a witch who was depriving her children, and that her daughter was giving her this not so subtle message. Yet this turned out to be a totally erroneous presupposition. Because it had a witch on it, her daughter believed the book was about Halloween, and she asked her Mom to read it to her because she could not read. She had no idea what message it was conveying, and merely wanted to celebrate the holiday. Sometimes it is better to shut up, and not make presumptions, but instead enjoy what the other person wants to enjoy with you.
We all worry about the effect our words can have on others. As a minister I worry about what I say all the time. Clergy, as you know, are suppose to be all compassionate, supportive, helpful, kind and articulate in all settings. So if you are in crisis or need affirmation, they are trained to say the most pastoral, witty, intelligent and wise thing possible. And as you know, this never fails to happen. Well, almost. Of course we all want to say all the right things. We love the people of the congregations we serve, and we want them to endure a minimal number of emotional traumas, and yet we all know that our lives and our families bring heartache as well as joy. We want you to find love, live your passions, and enjoy a long life. And when something does not work out, we want to hear your sorrow and heartache to support you, and when joy occurs, we want to affirm your happiness. Yet we worry. What if I say congratulations on that third pregnancy and you have misgivings? What if I say, we can celebrate Mom’s long life or be thankful she is at peace,, and you are torn with grief.? Worst of all is if we try to rehearse a conversation. When I was a young minister working as a chaplain, I remember trying to create or rehearse what I would say in response to the hospital patient. I wanted my conversation to be scripted, so I could give the best, most compassionate response. The problem is I had no idea what they were actually going to say to me. We all have this problem where we are all ready to present our script, and fail to listen to the person before us.
Sometimes our own issues and presumptions and scripts prevent us from truly meeting and hearing others. Thinking words are the most important thing we can give to a relationship may mean we will try to fashion wise words that are not wise at all. Bellah English, a former Globe columnist, who was a parishioner of mine in Milton, wrote a Globe article a few years ago called: “Crossroads: A bike crash sends the rider on an unexpected course.” Describing her traumatic brain injury, Bellah talks about what was most helpful – food that people made, and items they brought to help her, and their mere presence for support. What didn’t help were the things well meaning people sometimes said. This included phrases like, “you look awful,” or “I heard you almost died.” They also wanted to hear endless detail. People want to be able to be supportive of each other, but what we forget is that it is often not what we say that truly counts. It is not our wisdom about their trauma, but rather about being present so that they know we care. In response to such a trauma, the person does not need our words, they need our compassion. We use words to grapple for answers, and meaning and problem solving solutions, but sometimes there is no meaning or answers. It is a look of love, and a listening ear of support, that count most. What is most important is to listen and be present and give time, and not words. We think what befalls people must have meaning, and we want to label the forces in the universe benign or fair, but sometimes tragic life events have no intrinsic meaning. They just happened, and we just need to be present to each other.
No story conveys the fact that life can bring us tragic circumstances more than that of Job. Our call to worship today begins with Job’s complaint that his life is not fair, but his friend Zophar tells him that no one can fathom the mysteries of God or creation, and maybe he got off lighter than he deserved. His words end up confusing matters, for on the one hand he says it is impossible to figure things out, and on the other he has a pretty established system of divine rewards and punishments. Which is it? We live in a noisy world where we think we are suppose to come up with all the answers. While the deepest questions remain unanswerable, we still strive to tell more and more, thinking we will understand it all if we hear it all. And so when we have a medical issue, we often search endlessly on the internet for more and more information, but only make ourselves more anxious by doing so. Job tried to talk to everybody, and was not reconciled until he learned to be quiet before God. And yet people say more and more to try to convince, win sympathy, and make sure every detail is revealed. In the end do we become so saturated with words that we cannot make real connections anymore?
Dag Hammarskjold, the former UN Secretary General once said, “The best and most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life, is that you should be silent and let God work and speak.” While some of us might be uncomfortable with the idea of letting God speak, I think we could translate this to mean that we should let our lives speak and work. We can see with the poem “Shoveling Snow with Buddha” that our lives speak most truly with presence, not with words. The snow is the simple labor of making the driveway clean, of shoveling one heavy load after another, and finding the rhythm of hands and back and legs pushing off, and being utterly present for the act of shoveling. We are present to do what needs to be done, and there is little to say about it other than be grateful for the ability to act in the moment. We don’t have to analyze it or reflect endlessly upon or it or try to find its deeper meaning. The reward is doing the job, and knowing your lips on hot chocolate in the end is enough. You don’t need words, but you do need to be present to the act. Presence counts more than words. It is like the famous passage from Thich Nhat Hanh where he counsels us to wash the dishes to wash the dishes, and not to get on the next thing, or not pay attention, but to be alive in the moment. I sometimes say that Unitarian Universalism is about deeds not creeds, but we can be a wordy bunch that can talk something to death before we do it, voicing all our concerns about what could go wrong, or making sure that every last voice is heard., and every God invoked. It is like the old series of jokes about how many UUs it takes to screw in a lightbulb, or some equivalent task. The joke always included the forming of a committee to discuss the various options. We need doers of the word, and not hearers and speakers only.
We want answers. Learning not to speak is tough. Let’s consider our own lives, and the silence we need to cultivate in a world that beckons with endless words. There is a Zen story about the pupils of the Tendai school. Four of the novices there promise to be silent for a week to learn meditation. On the first day, they all did well until night fell, and no one had lighted the oil lamps. It got darker and darker until one of the students exclaimed, “fix those lamps.” A second student upon hearing this was surprised to hear the first one talk. “We are not suppose to say a word,” he remarked. “You two are stupid. Why did you talk?” asked the third. “I am the only one who has not talked, concluded the fourth pupil.” Well, not for long.
We all want to tell our story, but when we feel the need to comment on everything, or narrate every detail of our own lives, perhaps we lose the thread of what is important. We learn to be silent when we can listen to another’s story, and when we focus on what lies in front of us that needs to be done. Focusing on the labor of shoveling snow lets us all see the reality of the universe in the very flesh we bear – our shoulders ache, our arms flex, and we pay attention to what is in front of us. When we can truly pay attention to the person in front of us as well, we see and hear them, and begin to let God or a deeper truth speak and act in the world because compassion has been let loose. We wash the dishes to wash the dishes – doing what needs to be done. We need Buddhas to shovel snow with focus and intent.
You and I cannot make the world shut-up, but we can quiet the world through the peace of a listening heart coupled with compassionate actions. We often feel an anxiety in us reacting to how others define us. Our words then become a reflection of what we think they want to hear, or a projection of our own fears. Listening for the truth in another helps us find a truth in which we can rest. We then have no illusions, but becoming real to the other. Then the action we take is like a communion of souls. Compassion for another pierces the armor we have put on of what we should say to make them feel better or solve their problems, but we give witness to our ability to express love in the world by listening, by doing, and by being present for each other.
Closing Words – from The Letter of James 1: 19a, 21b
You must understand this my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger . . . and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.