“Number My Days” by Mark W. Harris
December 16, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from Marcel Proust
Come now . . . Were everything clear, all would seem to you vain. Your boredom would populate a shadowless universe with an impassive life made up of unleavened souls. But a measure of disquiet is a divine gift. The hope, which, in your eyes, shines on a dark threshold, does not have its basis in an overly certain world.
From Job 38
“Bone” by Mary Oliver 1.
Understand, I am always trying to figure out what the soul is, and where hidden, and what shape –
and so, last week, when I found on the beach the ear bone of a pilot whale that may have died
hundreds of years ago, I thought maybe I was close to discovering something – for the ear bone
is the portion that lasts longest in any of us, man or whale; shaped like a squat spoon with a pink scoop where
once, in the lively swimmer’s head, it joined its two sisters in the house of hearing, it was only
two inches long – and thought: the soul might be like this – so hard, so necessary –
yet almost nothing. Beside me the gray sea was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
unfolding over and over its time-ridiculing roar; I looked but I couldn’t see anything through its dark-knit glare;
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand is there at the bottom, though our eyes have never seen it, nor can our hands ever catch it
lest we would sift it down into fractions, and facts – certainties – and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know. Though I play at the edges of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving, which is the way I walked on, softly, through the pale-pink morning light.
~ Mary Oliver ~
Sermon – “Number My Days”
On the night that Andrea went into labor with Levi, we had a difference of opinion. I don’t want to call it a fight because like most couples, we never argue. She awoke in the middle of the night feeling frequent and intense contractions. I am the kind of guy who tends to go by the book. Andrea explained to me what she was feeling, and I failed to listen and believe her. I thought this could not be happening so quickly because it was not what it said in the book. I then turned to the Birth Bible, What To Expect When Your Expecting to find out what the gospel said. I read that early labor begins with contractions that are fairly infrequent in terms of occurrence and intensity, and will then become more active as time goes by before the mother transitions to the next stage of labor. Since the book informed me that it was impossible for this to be happening, I thought that perhaps we should wait before heading to the hospital. Andrea, however, knew what she was feeling, and could have easily screamed, “you idiot, go start the car.” Instead she calmly informed me that we would be leaving immediately for the hospital, as there were no more minutes to wait before this baby was born.
All the facts about the length of labor and how slowly things unfold were thrown out the window. A good lesson to remember: listen to what the person is saying and don’t quote the answer you want to hear.
Everything is supposed to happen according to plan, right? It sure seemed that way at Christmas time. As a child of upper middle class parents. I wrote to Santa, asking for the baseball glove, the ice skates, the picture book about the Civil War, and received exactly what I wanted. It all worked out. Ask and ye shall receive. But these gifts were really diversions from life. I quickly learned that I was not going to be immortal. That wonderful grandmother who came to live at our house and played endless hours of scrabble with me was not going to live much longer. And that professional baseball career just wasn’t in the cards. After all my eyesight was getting worse. I learned I wasn’t going to be able to control my life, and that death brought sadness and grief, and I had limited talents to achieve my dreams, and so would be subject to disappointment and failure. Life was not scripted, and in fact, I would learn some wisdom by realizing that even though there were times of darkness, all the lights in my life would not go out. Even though there were losses, I could reach out to other family members and make new friends. Even though there were failures, I could try new things and make the best use of my talents and skills.
Gertrude Stein once said, “counting is the religion of this generation. It is its hope and its salvation.” Counting is going by the book. It is a way of blindly accepting statistics without paying attention to what is happening in front of you. It was me saying you cannot be having those rapid contractions, it is too soon. Think about these crazy birth stories that the Bible provides as fodder for the mythic tale of Christmas. In Luke, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is told that she is pregnant, even though she has never had a baby, and she and her husband are really old. Zechariah is so devoted to the biological facts that the angel renders him unable to speak because he will not believe this insane idea that his wife is pregnant. Then Mary herself becomes pregnant, but she has never had sex before, a true test for our OWL class to prove the virility of the holy spirit. Mary decides not to protest, and tells God, let it be. I am going to go with the flow.
Mostly we find it hard to go with the flow. We want to know for sure, and so we live and die by numbers. If you are a baseball fan you are subject to the science of saber metrics. This is the new school that suggests you can prove the worth of a player based on the minutiae of statistics. Once upon a time we judged greatness by a .300 average for a hitter and a pitcher allowing fewer than 3 earned runs per nine innings. Now we think we can judge performance and contributions to a team from a statistical average. We have OBS, and OBP for hitters or OOOS for pitchers. I become dizzy with numbers that may not prove anything, or especially be a predictor of how someone will do in the future. Even if greatness seems predictable, that injury, the psychological loss of intensity and drive, a different environment or even that one opportunity to make the great catch or big hit that results in the sun in your eyes, all may mean failure. We think we can judge teacher performance based on how well their students perform on tests, or a minister on how much a congregation grows. But there are too many variables to think we can predict success with any kind accuracy.
A traditionalist would base his assessment on feeling. It is time to have this baby. If I had tried to follow the book, then we might have had that baby along the side of the road on Mt. Auburn Street. Yet the desire to know or to be sure can easily convince us to follow the numbers. There is no greater sense of uncertainty than what we all feel about the financial well being of the country and by extension, ourselves. While media types write about going off the financial cliff, politicians swagger with a pompous arrogance and we quake not knowing if retirement will be put off for another five years. There was a recent advertisement in the New Yorker by a wealth management company that reads: No Risk? Know Risk. The message is that there is no way to avoid risk. In fact the company says that financial risks in investing are inevitable, and that today it is even harder to predict those risks, but that they can help you analyze those risks and navigate them to a successful future.
Know those risks. Well, in fact, most of us do. I know one of the reasons I love information or predictability is that it brings order to my otherwise uncertain world. Just this week I was driving back from a luncheon appointment in Arlington. I was sitting in traffic in Belmont Center when suddenly an auto parts company truck slammed into my rear bumper. I was startled and upset, but unhurt, and could find few dents in my otherwise beat up station wagon. The other driver immediately said, I am completely at fault. Yet the crash altered my day, and could have injured me or damaged my car. Who could have predicted such an event? He said it was his first accident in 40 years. Anyone of us can experience equipment failure, snow or ice on the road, or the other driver who makes a careless mistake. Perhaps we never asked that life would be perfect but we do expect people will drive carefully, not shoot others with guns in shopping malls or elementary schools, not sexually abuse children, and elect responsible leaders. So we try to protect our children by being more alert to predators. We try to once again institute gun laws to stem the tide of violence. We try to slow down our lives, and encourage others to do the same. And we work for peace, or pray for peace, or just try to be peaceful among our circle of friends, and light our own candle of hope in a world that is often uncertain, with moments of darkness and pain.
The timeless story from the book of Job is a reminder that the righteous and innocent will not be rewarded with the perfect life. This is what Job protests when all that he cherishes is destroyed, and he reiterates that he is a blameless man. He did nothing to deserve this. The passage from which I read is not meant to teach him the scientific facts, about snow and ice, but to know the greatness of God, or perhaps more relevant in this case, the unpredictable power of the forces of life. God is reminding him that he cannot explain snow and hail, and that human beings do not have power over the origins and destinations of things they cannot explain. Our Biblical birth story ends with the slaughter of the innocents, so much a symbolic reminder of what occurred with this senseless school shooting in Connecticut. The one new baby is born to give hope, even a small sliver of hope in the midst a terrible situation where so many innocents or mere babies have been killed because someone suffers from an unresolved trauma, or it is some vengeful, or power hungry ruler who fears the disruption of his control of others. How do we dream of new life, or new hope in a world where death and killing, poverty and hunger are so rampant?
In this unpredictable world, where do we find our new life, or our hope waiting to be born? We all want certainty whether it is being sure our children are safe at school, or that our money will grow enough so that we can retire. When we are preparing to have a baby, we know that it is a nine-month period filled with uncertainty. Last year my son and his wife lost a baby in utero. One can have test after test, and read book after book, or go to web site after web site, and not know why. Often information can lead to too much knowledge. We become paranoid. We make it worse than it is. We can always imagine everything that can go wrong, and this is even truer after they are born. None us knows the outcome of any trip we make. We may help ourselves by making a schedule or planning stops along the way, but every step can be fraught with a new development. We yearn for certainty because life itself is so uncertain. We want to know so badly, but to ensure our rate of success we may end up overanalyzing, when we really cannot know what is going to happen.
A fear of failure can paralyze us from doing anything, but doubt about what is going to happen has to be part of any journey. Doubt can lead to uncertainty and anxiety, but it can also be a stimulating power that leads to growth and opportunity
One thing that is true is that even sure things are leaps into the unknown. We know the terrible side of this. A Sunday morning service or a typical day at school can be interrupted by the gunfire of a disturbed person. Once a tragedy occurs we can show our strength and empathy by renewing our claims of love and support for others, or by making plans in our own community to prevent tragedies from occurring. Tragedies do occur and we may make personal leaps of faith in response by reaching out to others. Those sure things that are leaps into the unknown may be the everyday commute to work or the trip to the grocery store that do not end in tragedy or mishap. We forget that these are sometimes gifts of opportunity where, because of construction we go down a road we never travel in our usual routine, and we end up seeing the house of our dreams, or meet a person who wants to work where you do, and she becomes the love of your life. In effect, all our choices, become leaps into tomorrow, with opportunities for dreams to experience someone or something anew.
A second thing that is true is that we are always acting without knowing the results. Many years ago I agreed to write an historical dictionary of Unitarian Univsalism. At the time I was on the board of the UU Historical Society, and an invitation from the publisher came to us. A colleague said none of us should take on the project because there was too much prelinary research that had not been done. Because he was saying that countless articles and decades of research had to be done, it amounted to a denial that such a project could ever be done. He said forget about it, and I would be a fool if I said yes. Well, thanks to Andrea, I decided to become that fool, and ten years after the invitation, the book was published. Now I am working on a second edition. If we predict something can’t be done, then it will never be done. We can gather as much information as possible about any project, and perform due diligence to try to ensure positive results, but at some point we must make the leap into doing a project, or we will certainly ensure its failure, since we never tried in the first place.
A third aspect of not knowing is that even though we take a path, we must always leap again. Coming up with problems or finding more questions can prevent a project from happening in the first place, but we also must realize that any leap of faith we make will also mean that further paths will have to be taken along the way. We may take the road, like my son, to open one restaurant, but then we may be challenged to try yet another. One project may open new avenues, new books, and new jobs. Yet it is always a risk. Maybe the result is not what we wanted. Or perhaps some part of it is a failure. We realize that no decision is final. Anything we do is temporary, and new decisions will have to be made. This also helps us understand those who make different decisions in their lives.
It is clear in the last generation that religious fundamentalism has risen because of great uncertainty in the world with irrefutable answers put forth in response to this unrest in our lives and in the world. On the other hand, I believe our obsession with scientific answers, and medical truths serves this same human need. We are so uncertain about government, finances, jobs, and the safety of children that we try to provide certain answers to quell our fears. After events like the one in Newtown, we want to do everything to keep our children safe. We become afraid and anxious. We cannot imagine the pain those parents feel, and our hearts go out to them. I would not argue with the need for planning, but we sometimes do so with the unspoken hope that this will make us immune from uncertainty, or from knowing that everything will be all right. The simple message to Job is that he cannot know what will befall him in an unpredictable life. He is not God.
So the final thing that is clear is that we don’t have all the answers. What we try to do is find the right path and do the right thing on that path when we are there. What is the human need in this moment? With Andrea the right path was not tell her some absolute answer from a book, but to listen to what she needed, and trust her to know what was right for her and our baby. We may want to know this is exactly what is going to happen, but we can’t know. We may try to ask a doctor how soon our loved one is going to die, but we cannot say. My wife’s brother in law was dying last spring, but he was strong, and no answer could be made. He died when he was ready. And no amount of predictable information could change that. How do we listen and respond to the other, and not always try to provide the right answer?
We do not have the certainty of final answers. But we do have the certainty of our own capabilities. Jesus is not going to save us, but his teachings help us to know that we can be more understanding towards others. The Bible does not give us gospel truths to mouth to others, but we can find teachings that will instruct us to build stronger communities where equality and justice are valued and made manifest in the world. There is not one truth that comes from on high, but rather the many truths we share with each other to build insights into creating a more compassionate world. Mary Oliver exhibits our certainty in the words of the poem “Bone.” We only play at the edges of knowing our own souls, and especially at times of tragedy, it may seem small and capable of evil. We never really arrive at full knowledge, for we are not Gods, as Job knew. Yet Oliver reminds us, “I know our part is not knowing, but looking, and touching, and loving.” We feel the pain of loss, but we also know the depth of love. That is the call of our community not to know the answers with certainty, but to find certainty in the love we express, the help we give, the community of joy and support we build. Certainty will not come in answers we give that this is true or that is eternal, but that, despite our tragedies and failures, we have a faith in each other to find hope in tomorrow. Christmas and Hanukkah both remind us that there is darkness all around, but we can always remind each other that together we can start a fire in dark times or we can light the lamps of hope when innocents are killed. May we each kindle a flame in our hearts, touching the soul of love and compassion that dwells there, and share that warmth of heart with a grieving world.
Closing Words – from Franz Kafka
If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always-unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.