“Nothing Left Unsaid” Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 20, 2011
Call to Worship – 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.
First 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.
Second Reading – “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead by Wanda Coleman
wanda when are you gonna wear your hair down
wanda. That’s a whore’s name
wanda why ain’t you rich
wanda you know no man in his right mind want a
why don’t you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
how come your feet are so goddamn big
can’t you afford to move out of this hell hole
if i were you were you were you
wanda what is it like being black
i hear you don’t like black men
tell me you’re ac/dc. Tell me you’re a nympho. tell me you’re
wanda i don’t think you really mean that
you’re joking, girl, you crazy
wanda what makes you angry
wanda i think you need this
wanda you have no humor in you you too serious
wanda I didn’t know i was hurting you
that was an accident
wanda i know what you’re thinking
wanda i don’t think they’ll take that off of you
wanda why are you so angry
i’m sorry i didn’t remember that that that
that that that was so important to you
wanda you’re ALWAYS on the attack
wanda wanda wanda i wonder
why ain’t you dead
Sermon – “Nothing Left Unsaid” by Mark W. Harris
We live in an age of excess verbiage. This may be a personal reaction because I am an introvert who likes a fair amount of silence in my life, and I have three teenage boys who talk excessively. I know more about the inner workings of computers and Japanese culture than I ever wanted to. It could be that I am a victim of my own medicine. I sometimes feel as though the boys are talking at me, and not to me, and perhaps it feels 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, like we see in the Middle East today in several countries, 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 not? 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 also say this about preaching length, “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 it appears spontaneous, and even conversational, but this is hard for an old dog like me who trained thirty-five 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, and in my anxiety tend to over compensate.
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. Just this week I wrote to someone to say that I was sorry for my ill advised response to a comment they made. I felt that it came out that I didn’t care what they had to say, but wanted to focus on my own issue. In response, the person recalled a time when she was in a meeting and said something she still regrets years later because she was focused on herself. 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 classroom infraction I made. And the football coach who said, “at the beginning of the season I said you would be the best player in Western Massachusetts. Well, you are the worst.” Couldn’t they have found more helpful ways to express their dissatisfaction with my performance? And others endure much more verbal abuse than these examples. The poem “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead” evokes this feeling. She depicts a life of hostile attacks where the words are an unending barrage of questions that don’t really seek answers. Her community is competitive and coercive, and her ability to aspire to doing something with her life is couched in terms of how she looks and who she is with. She needs to be fixed in order to make it in the world. What she hears is a continual yammering at her, and it is a wonder that she does not internalize all the demands, but somehow despite this repetition of words she endures and thrives. She is able to quiet the world by controlling what she lets in of all this endless language.
Words that hurt 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 you want 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, 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 know that words have consequences. Sometimes the words we say to others are presumptuous. In a recent New Yorker, Tina Fey wonders 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. In fact they are suppose to say all the appropriate things at all the right times. 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 child, and you didn’t want it? What if I say, we can celebrate Mom’s long life, 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.
This sermon was originally called learning to shut up. 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. I thought of this topic a few weeks ago when I was reading a piece in the Globe Magazine by Bellah English. Bellah is a former Globe columnist, who was a parishioner of mine in Milton. Her article: “Crossroads: A bike crash sends the rider on an unexpected course.” Describing her traumatic brian 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 about 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. Words search for answers, and meaning and problem solving solutions, but sometimes there is no meaning or answers. It is a look of love, a listening ear of support, and simple words of compassion that count most. What is most important is to listen and be present and give time, and not words.
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. Job tried this, 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 Friday’s Globe, Brian McGrory commented on Scott Brown’s revelations about childhood sexual abuse. I don’t think anyone would call into question the veracity of such remarks, but the question is, why did he make them? Is this suppose to give us an emotional connection to Brown, or will it help others to hear that he has risen above such trauma to survive and succeed in the world? Do we feel sorry for him, and will this sympathy help him win votes or support? These are complicated, and perhaps unfair questions, but does a politician who is seeking votes, and working to implement programs need to make such personal revelations? Or is it a manifestation of an Oprah world or a Facebook universe where everyone feels like they can just spill out more and more words of emotional content. McGrory asks, if we want to live in a world where nothing is left unsaid. 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 he 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. Many of us have experienced the religion of snow this winter, and the sunlight and geese, too. But the snow is more 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.
We want answers. Learning not to speak and speak and speak is tough. We all can’t be Clarence Thomas, who has gone five years without posing a question before the Supreme Court. Does his silence matter? 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, and raising children, or fixing potholes 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. During this past week Andrea has been away for only the second time in sixteen years. It was a massive challenge, at least for me, to try to work and cook and clean and do laundry and shop, and chauffeur and help three growing teenage boys. You must do what is in front of you. The tasks are not presidential, and we can easily forget that this work serves the purpose of trying to nurture three human beings and prepare them for life in the world. We forget sometimes that the person we hope will fill those awful new potholes will help save us from crashing on a dark rainy night. We need all those people who make the world work, and prepare it for a meaningful tomorrow. Being present to the work of the world before us, helps us be present to each other.
We need Buddhas to shovel snow with focus and intent. We find this path when we help someone or guide someone with our hands and our ears rather than merely with our lips, and the words we speak. Our action cannot be about our fears or our needs, but about the deeper truth that emerges in our engagement with one another, and so it must be for any of us who wishes to embark on a path to a deeper truth, a present, listening quiet beyond words. We cannot make the world shut-up, but we can quiet the world through the peace of a listening heart. So often there is 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 have already given witness to our ability to express this love in the world by listening ,by helping, by being present with, to and 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.