“Opening Doors” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown –  February 8, 2015

Call to Worship : from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

The whole creation will . . . appear infinite, and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt. This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment. But first the notion that [we have ] a body distinct from [our] soul, is to be expunged: this I shall do, by . . . melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to [humanity] as it is, infinite.

Sermon  –  “Opening Doors”

Emily Dickinson writes,


A door just opened on a street –

I, lost, was passing by –

An instant’s width of warmth disclosed,

And wealth, and company.


The door as sudden shut, and I,

I, lost, was passing by –

Lost doubly, but by contrast most,

Enlightening misery.

Emily Dickinson was an introvert, even a recluse, who spent long hours at the Dickinson family homestead in Amherst.  I have toured that home, and having grown up near there, either drove or walked by it many times.  Now I think about doors and what they symbolize. When do we go through a new door, and make a change in our lives?  When does a new door appear to us, but we are afraid to go through it? When does a door close on us, and what do we do in response?  Doors can symbolize a portal from this world to the next, from the living to the dead, from opening our eyes to the infinite, as Blake says, to closing ourselves off, so that we only see “narrow chinks of [our] cavern.”   How do we limit ourselves socially, professionally and spiritually, and when do we have the courage to risk ourselves beyond the safety of a closed door? Opening doors is the theme of our capital fund drive. We are planning to literally install doors at the end of our social hall with clear glass that will let more light into our building, and will also lead us out to a beautiful outdoor space. There we will hold community celebrations of one kind or another, and also commemorate those individuals who have been part of our community over the years, but have now passed from the scene.  The symbolism is about much more than pretty doors and patio parties.  It is about letting more light in, going out into the community, about sharing our faith, and once you open doors you give out a clear signal that you want people to come in, you want to grow in faith and numbers, and you want First Parish to represent an open door to the community.

In the poem, Dickinson describes a kind of personal awakening. We see a person who is walking, but is lost, when suddenly a door opens to her. This new open door seemingly invites her in, and represents “Warmth, Wealth, and Company.” She has this amazing experience, but then unfortunately, the door closes, and now, she suffers doubly.  She seems to imply that when she was lost, at least that was all that was on her mind. She was trying to find her way. However, when the door opened, she saw that someone was living in a manner that was quite different from hers. That way of living exuded warmth. For a brief second, she felt that she had found something or someone with whom she could share her thoughts. It was far better not knowing that such a way of life existed for it made her feel even more lost when she had to go back to her old way of life.  It is like finding the open fellowship and free faith of First Parish, and then having to give it up.  Someone wrote to me just this week, “First Parish is so very precious – the warm informality is so rare.”

Growing up in the shadow of Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, my conservative, fundamentalist church offered up a faith that attempted to close all the doors on my young, searching mind.  They said the dinosaurs you are so excited to learn about never existed.  The bones were planted to fool people.  They said I was a worthless sinner, and my body was prone to evil behaviors.  They said the Bible had every answer to life’s problems, and it was literally true, dictated from the mouth of God.  I needed to be saved by Jesus Christ to make all the sin go away, and assure me of a clear path to heaven.  Yet I felt more like Homer Simpson, when he is depicted in the Simpson’s movie, hurriedly scanning through the Bible, and declaring “there are no answers here.” Then a door opened. I became part of a church in Petersham, MA called the First Congregational Parish, Unitarian.   It offered me a faith that celebrated and affirmed my mind.  It offered me a realization that I was not naturally sinful, but moreover that I was a good person, who could make positive choices about life, relationships, education and opportunities that presented themselves.  It offered me a faith that equality and justice would bring about a better world, and that God, was another name for the love that all people are capable of giving.  For me Unitarian Universalism opened doors into life. It taught me that all things are possible if you believe in each other and all that you can do.

This is a faith that has been opening doors for people for a long time.  A young schoolteacher named Mary Rice was wandering around the center of Duxbury one Christmas Eve in 1844.  She was lost and alone.  She had left home due to a personal crisis caused  by the death of her fifteen year old sister.  Always sickly, Rachel had deteriorated and died with no assurance of God’s love. Mary was depressed and worried about what had happened to her sister. Because Rachel hadn’t been saved, Mary thought she might be feeling the torment of flames in hell.  As Mary wandered, she heard beautiful music emanating from the Universalist church. Suddenly, the sexton of the church opened the door, and she was invited inside.  The preacher Daniel Livermore spoke about how Jesus came to teach us to live moral, uplifting lives, and although we might suffer in this life, we are always loved and forgiven.  Mary, who had witnessed slavery first hand as a governess in Virginia before she moved to Duxbury, requested a copy of Daniel’s sermon, and eventually became a convert to Universalism. Apparently picking up that sermon copy was doubly beneficial, as she ended up marrying Daniel. That’s all it takes.  Pick up yours today!   As Mary Livermore, she became one of the most sought after speakers of the 19th century, “The Queen of the Platform,” advocating for women’s equality and the abolition of slavery because a door on a comforting faith founded upon equality, empowered by a God who loves and redeems all, had been opened to her, and she went inside.

The era when the open doors of Unitarian Universalism gave me a new faith in myself, was one of social upheaval – protests for peace, civil rights and human freedom and liberation.  It was a time when many people, including me, tried to open new doors to the soul, so that we might see through the facades of culture and tradition and touch the infinite. The Doors of Perception is a short book by Aldous Huxley, first published in 1954, detailing his experiences when taking mescaline. The title comes from Blake’s 1793 poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  Huxley’s experiences ranged from the “purely aesthetic” to what he called “sacramental vision.”  Then the rock band The Doors took their name from Huxley.  The wild, ecstatic experiences personified especially in the “Light My Fire” of their lead singer ended in tragedy, yet there was a deeper message echoing Blake that there are things we choose and choose not to see, based on our social and cultural origins.  When we remove these filters and see our prejudices, our judgments, our privilege, then we can begin to truly see one another for who and what we are.  When we come to know new people, new cultures, new experiences, we move beyond the dark caverns and crannies that we see from, and then we can truly see the vibrant colors of the world. When we see and know one another without wanting to alter or judge, then we can accept.   When we open the door on our perceptions of others, we are able to see things for what they really are.

One of the three themes of our Opening Doors campaign is commemoration, and remembering those who have bequeathed this community to us, especially in a memorial garden, is part of that vision.  We are grateful for this free faith that our forebears upheld.  We would not be who we are without them.  A second theme is comfort.  The literal vision behind this word is the warmth we feel from a new heating system. But comfort is much more than how warm we feel on a cold day, as vital as that is.  Comfort means do you feel safe and accepted and affirmed when you walk through these doors.  Are there people here who share your vision for a world made one through justice seeking ministries?  When we walk through these doors we want everyone to leave the daily threats of the world behind, and find a calm that centers and consoles.  We want to help each other understand that we all have different perspectives here, and we feel most comfortable, when we are given space to express our viewpoint, but also allow others to express theirs, and to remember that it is a community where we want everyone to feel accepted and heard, and that it is a democracy of true equals.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus says,  “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” (Revelation 3) We need others because we are most comfortable as people when we are not alone.  When I was in graduate school in New Hampshire, I was lonely and had no sense of direction. I found the Durham Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and encountered people who shared my view of the world, who became true friends. We did  things together, played together, and just found comfort in each other’s presence.  I helped found a young adults group that went to movies, went cross country skiing, baked bagels and hung out.  We were opening doors into each other’s lives. Meeting new people, and trying new things meant I moved outside and beyond the comfort zone of my life.  This is where I heard the call to ministry. Soon the young adults group began to organize fund raisers for needy causes.  We not only found comfort in friendships, we found strength and support from one another.  We were building a community.   In this group we were looking into the doors of other’s lives

Comfort for many of us may be defined as warmth from a good heating system, or layers of clothes, or it may be a comfortable chair or foods like mashed potatoes to remind us of childhood times when our parents took care of us.  It is all about the context or situation.  We want space. We want quiet. We want calm.  We want to be able to see and hear.  We want to feel safe, not threatened, and above all we want freedom from fear so that we can speak up to voice what we need to really feel comfortable, so we can build community. This is the third theme of our opening doors. You may have heard our children’s affirmation – minds that think, hands that help, and hearts that love.  We have seen the discovery of a free faith that is most nurturing when it is shared with others.  And that shared sense of togetherness runs deepest when it creates a community of open heartedness.

I grew up in, a large white colonial built in 1770 way out in the country.  The front door from the road appeared to be the very center of the house, but in fact this was only symbolic as we mostly did not use it.  Even in colonial times it may only have been the door that was used for weddings and funerals where the body entered and departed, or where the bride greeted her lover.  It was a symbolic passageway from one life to another. Of course we think of doors as giving great personal significance to our lives.  It is where we stop with our girlfriends or boyfriends for that stolen kiss of first relationship.  It is where we stop as a parent when our child goes out the door to step onto a bus, and leave home for that first time.  It is a doorway into growing up and leaving home.  I can see Mom waving goodbye. The door is all that home represents, as the sacred and safe center of our lives.

All of the churches I have served have had some discussions of doorways.  Here we sometimes talk about making sure they lock, but of greater significance is how welcoming are they.  Two of my churches changed the color of their doors.  In Palmer we went from dark blue to a light blue, and here we went from green to red.  While I am sure there are those who dislike the red, the idea behind it was to have a bright color to signify to the visitor that we want you to feel welcome.  We did not want to project that this was a dark and forbidding place that you would not want to enter for fear of getting the silent, cold shoulder treatment, but here you would find people who are lively and warm and even fiery.  Come on baby, light my fire!  Well, maybe not that fiery.  The idea was that we would be warm and welcoming here so that you would feel a connection.  Red doors like any front door were supposed to be a signal of welcome home.

In recent years the UUA has sponsored a campaign called Standing on the Side of Love.  Symbolic of the campaign are these yellow t-shirts that really stand out if you have hundreds, even thousands of them together in a crowd.  A few years ago when I was at the General Assembly in Charlotte I wore mine as I participated in a march in support of equal marriage.  After some demonstrations at the Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, where UUs demonstrated against immigration policies, the UUs came to be known as the Love people.  Back in the 1960’s this would have probably been a negative connotation, but today it indicates a call for justice in immigration policies and more. While it may seem silly to be called that, it is also a daunting challenge.  This is really what opening doors to have a heart to understand others really comes down to.

Many of you have heard me tell the story of my severe injuries when I was hit by an ocean wave 20 years ago.  At that same time Andrea was quite ill with her first pregnancy, plus she had just seen me, tossed out to sea, unintentionally surfing on treacherous waves. Usually when I talk about the incredible sense of community that emanated from this congregation at that time, I talk about six weeks of meals that were continuously delivered to our door. This was brought to mind recently when I heard that Gil Murray, a former neighbor and member of First Parish had died in Florida. During my convalescence, Gil came by the house, and offered to take me Christmas shopping. After a fashion,  I descended our steep hill to his car, and then we proceeded to Macy’s where he pushed me around in a wheelchair.  I remember being frustrated because all the clothes racks were so close together. It was totally inaccessible. This was something I never would have noticed if I were walking.  But you see I was in a wheelchair.  I was seeing the world from a perspective that I never usually did.  It opened a door on my life.  I walked in those other moccasins.  I bought Andrea an ugly bathrobe on that trip.  She still has it in Maine.  That trip gave me, a person who was temporarily disabled, a chance to see what it means to be feel welcome and included no matter who I am, or what station I hold in life or what condition.  Gil gave me a little taste of an open door.  Macy’s did not.

That opportunity is there for each of us, as we come together in this place with the red doors, symbolizing what we aspire to.  Each of us has something hidden behind our doors of self. We may have anxiety about our marriage, our job, our illness, or even the next snow storm, and we want to feel safe and comfortable and ultimately accepted and loved in this community, at least for the few minutes we are together.  We will soon begin a capital campaign, and I hope you will support it, not merely because you like our projects, but because you have found a deeper faith here, or friendship here, or a loving community here that reminds you weekly that you will be all right.  I want you to think about what the red doors symbolize, and if you really want to be one of the love people. Do you want to open doors to go deeper into your own spiritual longings, do you want to invite others to open these doors so that they might know how this faith allows you to grow spiritually to feel freedom and love.  A loving faith calls us to fling wide the doors to others, so that they might join us.  It is a risk each time we open a new door, something might change, but it is also an invitation to a new day. As Emily Dickinson once said, “Not knowing when the Dawn will come, I open every Door.”

Closing Words – “Doors”  by Carl Sandburg

An open door says, “Come in.”

A shut door says, “Who are you?”

Shadows and ghosts go through shut doors.

If a door is shut and you want it shut,

why open it?

If a door is open and you want it open,

why shut it?

Doors forget but only doors know what it is

doors forget.