“Rejecting Resolutions” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – January 2, 2011
Call to Worship – from Wendell Berry
Within the circles of our lives
We dance the circles of the years,
The circles of the seasons,
Within the circles of the years,
The cycles of the moon
Within the circles of the seasons,
The circles of our reasons
Within the cycles of the moon.
Again, again we come and go,
Changed, changing. Hands
Join, unjoin in love and fear,
Grief and joy, The circles turn,
Each giving into each, into all.
Only music keeps us here,
Each by all the others held.
In the hold of hands and eyes
We turn in pairs, that joining
Joining each to all again.
And then we turn aside, alone,
Out of the sunlight gone.
Into the darker circles of return.
Reading – from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Sermon – “Rejecting Resolutions”
As most of you know this has been a week when children have been home from school because of Christmas vacation. Andrea and I have tried to come up with activities that would keep the boys occupied once the excitement of the holiday began to dissipate. Asher has been participating in a mentor program, and he was scheduled to meet up with his mentor on Tuesday at the YMCA in Chinatown. We decided to make this a family trip where we would all spend a couple of hours at the Y, and then have lunch at a Chinese restaurant. During the two hours at the Y, I spent a few minutes shooting baskets with Levi, but mostly sat, waited and read one of the many new books I had received for Christmas, while the others were lifting weights or rowing. Finally, we began to walk to the restaurant. During the walk the boys talked about how tired they were from their vigorous workout, and wondered why I hadn’t done more lifting or exercising. I said I just wasn’t interested on this particular day. Finally, Levi commented that I was more of an intellectual Dad, who liked to sit around and read books. I momentarily felt bad because I have always been the Dad who played catch or went swimming and never shied away from physical activity. Yet now I was avoiding it, like many former jocks. The truth is I hate lifting weights because it reminds me of football training from days gone by, but it is also true that during the last year I have been less willing to swim or shoot baskets because of some shoulder problems. Nevertheless it felt like the perfect opportunity to make a New Year’s resolution and the timing was perfect as January 1st approached. As my sixtieth birthday loomed, I could lose some weight, and get in better shape. “I resolve to work out more at the gym.” Or do I?
One problem here is that I am like Atticus Finch. You heard in the reading from To Kill a Mocking Bird, how Jem and Scout felt about their “old” Dad. This has always been a dilemma for me, too. I am much older than most of the other parents of my children’s classmates, and was deathly afraid when the boys were little that I would always be called grampa at the playground by unsuspecting parents, as I once was. I am even older than Atticus’ fifty, but happily no one would describe me as feeble yet, as they do to him. Yet like Atticus, I did get started late, and do not want anyone tackling me any more in football games. It is also true that on the surface of things, I don’t do anything. I don’t drive a truck or work in a garage, and lord knows, I cannot fix computers. I can sit around and read books. I do wear glasses, and I am afraid to admit, I don’t like hunting. This subject actually came up with Levi, and I won his admiration briefly when I told him I once shot a gun, but I hated it, almost as much as I hate lifting weights, and so I was not the Dad who would take his son
hunting. Could I somehow improve on being a manly failure?
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie lists several things about Attitcus that should make Scout proud of her old Dad, but even though Miss Maudie, says “there’s life in him yet,” Scout remains unconvinced. Ministers frequently fall victim to this perception that we don’t “do” anything. Except, you know, sit around and read books. This perception that I don’t have a real job puts the pressure on when I am with the Greenwood clan who are mostly in the construction business. A typical week in Maine for the boys might mean jacking up a cottage and rebuilding the foundation. You can imagine that’s exactly what I have in mind when I am on vacation. But wanting to be manly, I usually decide I better haul rocks. I just carry fewer big ones, and leave those for Andrea’s cousin. I am mostly kidding here, and generally do feel respected for the amount of work I do. The problem may truly be that I am not respecting myself. This might be a concern for any of us if we plan on making New Year’s resolutions. Do you accept who you are before you make this elaborate plan to somehow be different?
New Year’s resolutions always seem to be a list of those things we need to do to make ourselves better. In nine out of ten instances these are probably the flaws or imperfections we have that make us feel bad about ourselves. The underlying ethos is that we are trying to fix something that we perceive is somehow wrong with us. For me that has usually means weight, and so my New Year’s resolution is always to lose 10 or 20 pounds, and most years I have failed to do that. The problem is I resolve to do these things, by saying things like, I will work out faithfully, but in truth the reality of that happening is remote. I hate going to the gym. I hate working out, and that is not going to change. More exercise might be a possibility, but it is going to be the kinds of exercise I like. I do like turning the pages of books, but it probably needs to be more vigorous than that. I suppose there is the possibility of reading while walking, but the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker tried that once, and knocked himself out when he ran into a tree.
The problem is that we are not going to suddenly transform ourselves into a different person than the one we are. Kate Braestrup in her book Here If You Need Me, has a good perspective on imagining becoming the perfect person we long to be with our annual list of new personal goals. She speculates that in heaven, if such a place might exist, we are suppose to be perfect and perfectly happy. But, she goes on, “if I’m perfect and perfectly happy, I won’t be me.” She goes on to list her quirks and eccentricities, and thinks that spending eternity with someone who talks a lot, is a compulsive knitter, and cant’ keep track of car keys might be too long a time. Would she want to be someone who never knits a sweater with the sleeves that are too long, or is never crabhy, or idiotic or afraid? She wouldn’t be human, if she had not learned to tolerate herself and come to understand herself and her particular strengths and weaknesses as a person.
The idea of making New Year’s resolutions has a religious basis. It began with the notion that we are born sinful, and first needed God’s power, but then more and more our own will to overcome these human inclinations towards greed, anger, pride and all the seven deadly transgressions that conspire against us in our heavenly aspirations. While a positive human attitude towards changing
ourselves seems to have helped produce an onward and upward philosophy of everything getting better and better enabling us to improve our circumstances simply by the power of mind control, it is not helpful when things do not improve, or we are not perfect, which happens to be much of the time.
Last year Barbara Ehrenreich published, Bright-Sided, a look at how positive thinking has undermined us all. Her inspiration was a year of dealing with breast cancer. She found that support groups limited her ability to say anything that wasn’t cheerful, and when she expressed anger about the effects of chemotherapy and recalcitrant insurance companies, she was castigated by another cancer patient for a bad attitude that was “not going to help you in the least.” It seemed her fellow sufferers did not want to acknowledge the suffering, but simply preferred that she get happy, and use this experience for some positive thinking.
While most of us would acknowledge that positive thinking can help us get through difficult trials, we also know that if we do not share our own vulnerability and acknowledge our human weaknesses to one another, we will end up terribly alone in our failures and our flaws. If we have an idea that we can do everything right, we will inevitably end up unhappy. We need to discover a source of strength in ourselves, but before we can begin to change or improve anything, we must accept ourselves as we are, and that means acknowledging the pain of our failures, and losses. One of the things that seems to drive these New Year resolutions is that for a variety of reasons we believe that we are inadequate, and won’t be good enough until we do whatever it is we think we need to do to be ok. The problem this fails to address is the realization that we are perfectly good enough despite these inadequacies. Imperfection is the human condition. Sure we can resolve to be better, but we do so because we know that we are imperfect. Accepting who we are means we can enjoy ourselves today or celebrate the moment now because we are not forever waiting for something to be better about ourselves or in our lives that we are tasked to work on, or something to be different about us than what we are already gifted with. For each of us has wonderful gifts to impart to the world, and in fact, it is better for me to celebrate my own fact searching, detailed oriented non-fiction history loving reading, and be happy with it, than to wish I was someone who simply adores lifting weights. I am never going to be that person. Maybe we should be rejecting resolutions so that we are not forever feeling guilty about who we are not, but instead accepting who we are, that we might move forward to greater spiritual depth and concern for one another.
We will never reach concern for others, if we are forever trying to perfect ourselves. If we do that then we can only focus on the self. This is exemplified in a story the Jewish theologian Martin Buber tells. There was once a man who had profaned the sabbath unintentionally because his carriage had broken down, and he could not get home to observe this sacred day. He ran and ran towards home, but simply could not get there in time before sundown. Because of this desecration a young rabbi named Mikhal had imposed a very harsh and long penance upon the man. The man tried to conform but discovered that his body could not endure this kind of strain. Soon he became ill, and it even affected his mind. As he was reaching his limit, he learned that the great Jewish master, the Baal Shem Tov, was visiting nearby. He went to see him and begged him to absolve him of the sin he had committed. The Baal Shem told him, “carry a box of candles to the House of Prayer, and have them lit for the Sabbath. Let that be your penance.”
At first the man thought that the master had not understood what he had told him, but the Baal Shem said he understood perfectly. He said this was an appropriate penance for the transgression, but then the man said he was confused because of the harsh penance imposed by the rabbi. Finally the master replied, you do just as I have said, and tell Rabbi Mikhal to travel to the city of Vostov, where I shall hold the coming Sabbath service. Knowing that it was a snowy mountainous pass from the Rabbi’s home to Vostov, the Master guessed that the over zealous rabbi would break a wheel, or fall into a ditch as he tried to traverse this difficult terrain. So the man did just as the master said, and his sin was forgiven. Meanwhile, Rabbi Mikhal did in fact break a wheel on the way to Vostov. He had to continue the trip on foot. While he hurried as fast as he could, it was dark when he entered the town, and when he crossed the threshold of the Bal Shem’s house, the master had already stood, raised the cup, and begun the blessing over the wine that began the day of rest. The master paused in his blessing to confront the speechless and numb young rabbi. “Good Sabbath,” and then mockingly invoked, “my sinless friend! You had never tasted the sorrow of the sinner, your heart had never throbbed with his despair – and so it was easy for your hand to deal out penance. “ Sometimes we forget that we are all flawed and imperfect, and that we build up community together by seeing our shared weaknesses. The rabbi would never have been able to care for anyone until he had a personal understanding that he was human, too, and quite capable of sinning. If we only strive to be perfect ourselves, we will lose the sense of honest vulnerability we all feel, and will be unable to speak it. We connect when we acknowledge our shared weaknesses, our imperfections, and the wonder that we all have different strengths to celebrate, not resent.
What we all want is not to be perfect or better than any body else with our lists of resolutions, but rather to merely accept ourselves, and do the best with can with what we are given. That six pack body of abs was just never in my plan, so why pretend that it was. The pressure to be perfect in body or mind or spirit, to court this kind of success leads to resentment, anger and irritation, while the acknowledgement of being overwhelmed sometimes, being tired, or even feeling incompetent, or downright stupid will unite us in the common human condition of being flawed, even I might add in a UU church, downright sinful. In her book, Nothing Was the Same, Kay Redfield Jamison, talks about her husband who was a doctor, dealing with a diagnosis of cancer that would eventually prove fatal to him, but also dealing with her own bipolar illness. They were both worn, and when she discovers he is carrying a vial of antipsychotic medication in his black bag, she feels betrayed. Finally, he confessed. “I don’t know what to do.” He was silent for a long while. “Medicine is imperfect” He paused again. I am imperfect,” he said. “You are imperfect.” He looked tired and sad as he sat down at his desk. Neither
of us said anything for a long time, caught in the cold realities of the choices we had. Then he added very quietly, “Love is imperfect.” It was the most true, most chilling thing I had heard about dealing with the uncertainties of an illness such as mine. Richard was doing the best he could; we both were. Love was imperfect, but it was what we had. After this night, Jamison realized a feeling of acceptance from her husband like she never had before. The acknowledgement of their shared imperfections were laid bare to each other. Acceptance was never completely total, but the vulnerability and imperfection of their love made the relationship that much deeper. So may we at the new year, be honest and accepting of ourselves, and with each other, as we accept the imperfect beings we are, who are walking together along snowy mountain passes trying to get home.
Closing Words – from Robert T. Weston
A year is gone.
It matters not when it began
For now it has ended.
There were other years,
And some began with a birthday
And some with a death;
Some with one day of the month and some with another.
Some began with a song and others with a lament,
But now we start another year,
It is what lies before us that concerns us now.
There will be decisions and tasks;
There will be drudgery, achievement and defeat;
There will be joy and grief,
All the raw stuff of experience
Waiting for us to shape, to fashion as we will,
And it will never become just what we planned.
However it may appear to others
We can turn it to knowledge and wisdom
If it be hard, we can make of it strength;
It may become bone, sinew and steel
Or ashes and waste.
Some one might say, “It all depends on what the year
But what we make of it depends on us
The beauty we see,
The love we give,
The compassion we show,
What we make of it depends on us.