“Shaping Our World” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – March 1, 2015
Call to Worship – from Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”
Reading – “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Sermon – “Shaping Our World” Mark W. Harris
Like any preacher, I want to convey truth. This is not like the famous Jack Nicholson movie quotation, where the soldier says he wants the truth, but Jack’s character says “You can’t handle the truth.” For us it is not so much handling truth, but finding it. Some UUs say it is difficult to find because we think there is no truth, or we simply make it up as we go along, or truth is elusive or keeps changing, or truth does not come from an omnipotent God, but from the spirit of love and compassion that grows in our hearts. The truths we hold must be conveyed in words, and so today, I want to talk about those words we use to shape our world, our faith, and what we believe about this community. Truth is as great as your imagination.
Last Saturday the stewards listed in your order of service went to a training session, where our UUA consultant spoke about the best practices to use in the process of asking for pledges. I attended one session. We began by relating a story about our experience at First Parish. The first story that came to my mind was about the chairs; that is the campaign to purchase the blue chairs you are sitting in today. The overriding personal factor was my obsession with getting new chairs. I don’t think there is anything I have wanted more in my almost twenty years here as minister. After the last Capital Fund Drive in 2003 we had accomplished a great deal in preserving the building’s physical integrity, and in transforming the space to become the beautiful sanctuary it is today, but we fell short of having enough money to buy new chairs. At the time we had three different kinds of chairs. There were the original red chairs, purchased in 1975 when the congregation moved here, and made this building into their sanctuary. There were sixty of these, because the congregation felt that 60 was the maximum number they could ever have in church. This wasn’t merely a matter of low balling the possibilities. After all, this was a congregation that had declined to only 12 members at one point, and they had just torn down their church due to a steady decline in membership. Yet in the wake of calling Andrea to the ministry of the church, things changed rapidly. The congregation soon purchased 44 new chairs with purple padded seats, and then supplemented those with folding chairs. Yet with three different kinds of chairs intermingled, with the red chairs clearly given the preferred seating class, I was continually longing for a uniform and attractive look. It seemed haphazard and sloppy to me. I also felt 136 nice matching chairs would symbolize how complete and beautiful it could look, but also our commitment to show we deeply cared about our space. This would not only make us feel good, but it would also be appealing to visitors. Now in retrospect I know there was some sadness in letting go of the old chairs, but I also know that an even more critical decision in this process was having the imagination that we could have more than 60 people on a Sunday. We could grow and expand and change. We could be more than we ever thought we could be. We could even dream of doing great things.
When I was five years old a brand new picture book called Harry the Dirty Dog was published, and it became my favorite story from childhood. Harry, is a white dog with black spots, who loves the world, but hates getting a bath. In fact, when he is called for his bath, he runs away from home. He has an absolute blast getting dirty – he runs through mud where they are fixing the street, cavorts in giant tunnels at construction sites and even slides down a coal chute, where he is transformed from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots. Then he wonders if his family thinks he has really run away. When he returns, his family does not recognize him. He tries to perform all his old tricks, rolling over, and playing dead, but they think he is a stranger, and continue to wonder where Harry is. “O no,” they say, “this couldn’t be Harry.” Finally he digs up the scrubbing brush, which he had buried before he ran away. He barks and barks. Then he grabs the brush, runs up the stairs, and jumps into the bathtub seemingly begging for a bath. The children oblige, and once they start to scrub, they soon realize it is their Harry who has returned. They shout, “It’s Harry, It’s Harry.” He soon returns to his comfortable life, and the story ends as he goes to sleep in his favorite place, on his pillow happily dreaming but, just to be secure, he keeps the scrubbing brush hidden under his pillow. While you might think I had a phobia about cleanliness when I was little, it is clear to me that this paranoia does not surface until boys are teenagers. Beyond the need for everyone to bathe, I think there are several truths to discover in this story.
First, there is Harry’s appearance. It changes and the family does not recognize him. For a five or fifty year old, this affirms that appearance and reality do not always coincide. They think Harry is not Harry, but in reality he is. How often do we look and make judgments based on appearance even though we may not know the facts? It just shows how hard it is to think outside the box. Harry is a white dog with black spots. The family can only see him that way. My father once looked at me with my long hippie hair, and said “I don’t know who you are. You look like a girl.” Of course he did know me, but he wanted to make the point that there was a right way for his son to look, and this was not it. How often do we project our biases based on appearance. The response to the appearance of young black men, and the judgment of your average white American when the black man comes into your store or walks your street is instructive. The clerk and the property owner have trained their minds to be suspicious. What truths do you live by? I was recently reading an old American Unitarian Association report from 1835. The genius of the faith, they reported, is that we look at other human beings as part of one family. You do not look at a poverty stricken child, and say, “degraded or wretched.” Rather we see the child as our child, brother or sister, person with worth and potential.
I have been working with Will Twombly on a new historical exhibit for the social hall. It highlights the shutters from the old meetinghouse. The problem is we couldn’t figure out what part of the building they came from. How did my understanding of “shutters” pre-determine my ability to imagine their location on the building? For me the word shutter meant it must be a single piece that framed a large window. But the shutters seemed too small to have been attached to the large sanctuary windows. So I concluded they must have gone on a smaller window at the back of the church. Now, it seems we have solved the mystery. We believe the shutters went on the large windows, but were actually in more than one piece, and covered upper sections of the window itself, keeping light from coming in. This reminds me of the old stereotype of the traditional New England church on the green, which we have affixed in our minds as a white building with black shutters. The problem with this truth is that the Puritans did not paint their meetinghouses white, because they did not believe white was a color. Their meetinghouses were actually painted colors like blue and orange and yellow, a truth that might be impossible for many of us to grasp, because our truth is white meetinghouse.
How do we expand our vision of what our truth is? With Harry, the family has a couple of things to figure out. Harry seems to have changed, but the question becomes, has he really changed. He did become something else by changing color, but the story also shows us that he essentially remained himself, but they couldn’t recognize him. This might happen with a church, too. We become comfortable with chairs and numbers of people, and those whom we consider our friends. When we add new faces, and the appearance changes too, with the loss of red chairs and addition of blue, it no longer looks the same. Then we may ask, is it still my church? I don’t recognize it with the changes. The story is affirming here, because even though Harry appears to change, he is still himself underneath. While he may still be wary of baths, at least he knows his loved ones will still know him. Perhaps as a child the story told me that even though I managed to get dirty, my family would still love me.
Finally, what the story of Harry shows is that we long for a home which will accept us, and provide shelter. Harry leaves home, and when he returns they are unable to recognize the changes, and so there is a period of concern for the reader that he has changed so much, they won’t know him. Is there a time for any of us when we cease to be ourselves? Change is a large personal risk, and we all wonder if we leave home and go in search of things that will make us happy, can we still go home? Do we try to find those things that remind us of what a home should be, or do we try to discover what is most important to us in a new place?
About 75 years ago it was popular to think that the language we learned and used had a compelling power over our minds. That is, the language we use determines our sense of reality. Theorists at the time said that cultures like the Native American had a completely different sense of time because of their languages, and yet there was no proof for this. This kind of thinking fell out of favor, and people largely continued to believe that language does not prevent us from thinking anything at all. Now new research is showing that in learning our native language we acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience. The most compelling evidence comes from our understanding of the space around us. Say you want to give directions to your house. The quick answer these days is to use a GPS. Some of us do better with maps, and some with directions with landmarks like turn left at the gas station, and other still prefer to hear “travel for a half mile, and turn on Main Street.” Apparently there is a Australian aboriginal tongue which teaches its speakers to understand their place in the world based almost entirely upon fixed geographic directions, as opposed to egocentric coordinates. Egocentric means I say to you, turn left when the church on the green is right in front of you. In the geographic I say turn west at the southern edge of the green. This latter totally confuses me, but the aborigine would know exactly what I meant. Yet if I was taking a dancing class, and I was told, “take three steps east,” I would probably think the speaker was purposefully trying to confuse me.
This concept that language can determine our reality speaks to me. Do we experience the intensity of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers less if our language has no word for yellow? It is sometimes said we don’t really understand green until we see the fields of Ireland or England. Yet while green and blue are different words in our language, they are shades of the same color in many languages. In some languages, you need to be very specific in reporting information. In an article called “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” Guy Deutscher reports on a Peruvian tongue, “Matses.” He says that the people give evidence to confirm the truth of what they are saying. If I speak this language, and you ask me how my wife is. I cannot just respond “fine.” I say, “fine, the last time I saw her.” Even if it was only five minutes ago, she may have died or been taken ill, or run off with someone else. Does this help make a person more truthful, if they are more exact in their use of evidence? What is clear is that we all do not think the same way, but realizing this would be an improvement in helping us understand one another, instead of pretending we think all the same. We would begin to see that the other person might have a different way of seeing something than we do.
Wallace Stevens tries to help us understand our perceptions of things, and how this governs our understanding of reality. Stevens might say there is no truth in any substance until we apply our imagination to it. We would say our usual objective understanding of winter is that it is snowy, cold, and awful, especially this year. Yet Stevens has the world look at winter from a different point of view. When we think of winter, we say “harsh storms.” Stevens wants people to see the opposite view. He wants the world to look at winter with a sense of optimism and beauty. He says our imaginations can take what we presume is reality, and transform it. So it is not merely the dull facts about meaning in the world, but rather we bring a perspective to it, which gives it meaning, but it is also my perspective, which may be different than yours. When we see something, do we presume its true or real? What if I say there is no room for anyone to sit in the sanctuary many Sundays? You may say, it is fine after the children are gone. But what does a newcomer see when they first come in? Do they have to search for a seat? How welcoming is that? The fact may be that we have 136 seats, and we never have that many on a Sunday, so I guess it is fine. Really? Perhaps we need to think what our perception of the congregation is. We may think we have enough people already. But is it enough people to financially support the kind of congregation we want to see here?
Stevens is telling us that reality is what you make of it. Here we have chairs, tables, a building, a lawn, a parking lot. No one would argue with that. But how you see them, what you bring to them, and how they are real to you is entirely up to… you.
You create the beauty around you. You have to be the one to envision it. Imagination is what makes dreams possible. At our cottage in Maine, my wife imagined turning the snarl of trees behind our cottage into a long tree lined driveway. I looked and said no way, but she dreamed it into reality. Who would have ever imagined in 1975 that the small sixty chair congregation would build an addition with an elevator twenty years later. But they dreamed it into reality. They were no longer the small group that couldn’t do anything. You gave money, but you first imagined you could do more. To be able to see beauty, we all have to use our imagination. Like the truth we bring with our different perceptions, everyone’s imagination is also different from that of everyone else. Some may see beauty in the engineering of a heating system that fills out need in the winter to be warm. Others may see beauty in the flowing lawn that surrounds an outdoor patio where we can play and sing and worship together. We are different. We don’t all have to see everything the same. But what we do need to see the same is that First Parish is a wonderful place we want to support. “The Snow Man” speaks of two realities—the harsh winter of facts, and the winter we create, or the reality we bring into being when we apply our emotions and imagination to it. A capital campaign, even an annual pledge drive is about bringing your emotion about this place to an old building, and a worn out lawn. Robert Fulghum once wrote, “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. . . .That dreams are more powerful than facts.”
To me a pledge drive, especially one for a capital campaign is about imagination, and how much you are willing to dream, to dare, to imagine who we shall be together, and what we shall do as a congregation. If we want to keep growing this faith here in Watertown, then we need to imagine new ways to bring more people into the fold. If we want to be a full service church all year round, then maybe we need to imagine what it would like to have air conditioning in this space. Harry’s family could not recognize a transformed Harry. They wanted the old one, but in fact he was the same loving dog underneath that change. And he showed them he was still Harry. The world is changing rapidly, and people sometimes want their church to be a shelter in turbulent times. Harry knew that, too. He wanted to get back home. Do you want more people to know this feeling of home? Do you dream of ways it could be more for you – programs, friends, support, social action, RE, where as part of this dream we see a longing to showcase our children’s activities, and to provide them with a firmer sense of UU identity. J. K. Rowling says, “Imagination is arguably the most transformative and revelatory capacity we humans have.” Part of imagination is the power to hear about someone else’s dream, and share your own. To see what you could not see before. You see with their eyes, you imagine yourself in their place. The success of our fund drive is born in the power of your imaginations to move beyond the comfort of facts to a new world, where your mind and heart is open, and as Picasso once said, “Everything you can imagine is real.”
Closing Words – from William Blake
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man (or woman) of imagination, nature is imagination itself.