Show Me the Body
January 4, 2015
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
The First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words Marietta Johnson, describing the school she founded
Each child had a garden, in which he planted what he pleased and as he pleased; she cultivated it or not as she pleased; he did what he pleased with the product. Unless she asked for help, she got no help. He was not compelled to follow rules by fear of punishment, but you may feel quite certain that interest in learning grew with magical rapidity… Nothing was thrust on her, but she acquired all that she needed.
Reading First We Built the Sandbox, by Jane Rzepka
Our rental space didn’t exactly have rooms, just one big one for the service, two bathrooms, and a kitchen. My class — Stevie Rhodes and me — got the ladies room, where Mrs. Rhodes taught us to make Egyptian pyramids out of sugar cubes, after which the whole fellowship had choir, where I worked very hard to learn the words to “Waltzing Matilda.” The members were pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be singing “Ave Maria” or “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” so Waltzing Matilda it was.
I learned to do cartwheels during coffee hour; the annual Halloween parade was the highlight of my year; at Christmastime we sat around card tables — kids and grownups together — and wrapped presents for children who might not get any otherwise. After church every Sunday the five of us kids in my family got into the station wagon and tried to behave because we always took two other people home: a teenager who went to a boarding vocational school and a heavy older woman who smelled. This was what church was all about: the cartwheels, the parade, the presents for other people, the stinky lady.
Our fellowship moved to an elementary school, where in Sunday school we looked through microscopes and grew lima beans and planted daffodils. We read creation stories.
During the summer, the moms and kids all came to our house to swim in our grotesquely muddy pond: “Unitarian Wednesdays” we called them. I could tell the mothers were getting something out of their gathering — they talked and talked — in exchange for the muddy car seats on the way home.
I remember the first annual blueberry pancake breakfast, in my back yard in 1957. People talked about buying a building, looking for a minister, and mortgaging their houses to do it. Others talked about the service they had put together about Hinduism, and how moving it was (or wasn’t). One man, in tears, poured out his heart to some church friends. People passed around a petition. A small group practiced music for the Sundays ahead. Worker-types poured orange juice, found more plastic forks, and taught kids to flip the pancakes on the precarious homemade grills. Children tore around the yard, and the teens huddled near the pond, feeling obstinate about something. When it began to rain, the more muscular among us tried to push the first car (of a very long line) out of the mud.
As I got to junior high age, we played baseball on Sunday mornings, or we sat around… We took care of the babies, served tea, and helped with the younger kids. When we got older, when we weren’t at youth group rallies, we sat downstairs in the furnace room next to the old coal bin and talked about the God Is Dead movement, made long chains out of chewing gum wrappers, and listened to Bob Dylan, without any adults around at all.
Although there must have been a lot of things wrong with our religious education program, life at the fellowship had a coherence to it, a sense of good health where everybody was giving this Unitarian thing their best shot because they thought it was worth something and that it was good for their kids. There were no purposes and principles to default to, and no great-shakes Unitarian doctrine going on.
But I’m thinking it worked pretty well. And note this: First we built the sandbox.
Sermon Show Me the Body
Despite the fact that New Year’s is generally depicted as a baby, coming in to the world all clean and tidy, my mind is back with the banged up, used and familiar house of bones that I have always lived in. I saw some headline about the protests and die-ins that accompanied New Year’s Eve celebrations, and it said something about how we can’t really leave 2014 behind. It has always been this way. We carry the past with us, like the rings of a tree. The past is what gives us backbone; makes us who we are.
Early tomorrow morning, it will be a year since my step-father died. Although no one mentioned it, I was aware all through Christmas that it was my mother’s first without him. She arrived at our house early and stayed late, and has some freedom that she didn’t have last year, but it doesn’t feel like freedom. It feels like emptiness. Her life was so full with the physical details of his life – helping him to lift a foot that had stopped working evolved into getting him into the wheelchair; cutting up his food slowly turned into swallowing therapy; the stroke that made eating so difficult eventually required her to translate Russ’s speech, too. I don’t think she would say she misses any of the things that filled her days, but she misses her life; the one she shared with him. It was a profoundly earthbound existence, and now she is a bit unmoored.
Some of you may have heard that last month, our kids had a car accident on their way to school. No one was hurt, but the car was totaled from pretty much every direction. They hit the front, the back, the passenger side, and, when the car landed on top of the concrete barrier dividing North and South on Rte 95, the underside took a beating as well. Because my phone rang at 7:30 in the morning, and it was Dana’s voice, I knew instantly that there was a problem – he couldn’t be at school yet. But since he was on the phone, I knew he wasn’t seriously injured. Within seconds, I learned that Asher was also unhurt, and that no other cars were involved, but that the kids were stranded in the median and obviously distraught. I immediately went into rational leadership mode – everything will be fine, don’t worry, stay where you are, the police will come, do what they say, if no one’s hurt then nothing else matters. Behind the scenes, I was calling my sister, who lives right near where the kids were, to see if she could get to them. She was not home, and so the boys had to navigate the situation on their own. Eventually, we got through the rush hour traffic and by then Dana had called to say that they would be at a service station on Route I in Peabody, and about two hours after the accident, Mark and I picked the kids up there.
What this meant was that I never saw the car. I actually did see a few pieces of it on the highway – a shredded tire, a chunk of wine-red quarter panel – but I never saw the car. And so when the kids tried to process what happened, to create a coherent narrative out of something that they really couldn’t process, I couldn’t picture it. There was no sequence of events for the boys; there was just that horrible traumatic feeling of being controlled by some force you never saw entering the scene. So when it came time to write the accident report, I was stuck. Dana couldn’t tell me what happened, and I decided to wait – We were going to go visit the car in the junkyard, turn over the title, take the plates. I thought, well, once I see the car, I will be able to explain the accident. I was so sure of this that I didn’t even worry that I was running out of time. The police and the insurance company want everything complete within five days.
Interestingly enough, it didn’t help. After seeing the car, I still don’t have any clear idea of what led to what led to what. I don’t grasp why the boys weren’t hurt, either. But the whole experience made me think about how, on very basic level, concrete information and experience is what we need. Not ideas, or thoughts, or beliefs. It was a lot easier for me to resign myself to a state of unknowingness after I saw what there was to see.
It made me think about funerals.
I grew up Unitarian Universalist. I do not think I heard the word “funeral” as a child – we had memorial services. The way this was explained was that funerals were for the dead; a rite which ensured that the soul was where it should be; everything was done correctly. Our belief was that the service was for the living; to help them remember the person well, to lay the life to rest in our minds, and that everyone’s soul was just fine. No rites were necessary, because if there was literally a heaven, we are all going. It would not be heaven otherwise. And so after a death, a memorial service gave us back the whole life; recreated it and shone light on all the different facets; made it a star shining in our night skies.
Despite this background, when my father died, in 1999, we had a funeral; and when my brother-in-law died two and a half years ago, we had a funeral, too. I was confused by this – the suddenness, and the exhaustion, and the rush to get everything done – notices out to everyone, flights arranged, service planned; and the change in attitude – what we said we believed in, versus what we did. Yet one thing I noticed was that the immediacy of everything helped, and that standing with a casket unified us, too. We were driven to act together and there was no time to do anything other than what needed to be done. By contrast, one of the overarching memories of my grandmother’s memorial service was frustration – the relative who planned it, six weeks after the death – chose to hold the service in Maine on the very first preaching Sunday of the church year.
It really wasn’t my intention to talk about death today. What I perceive myself to be addressing is more about science and religion. Last year, Rachel Jones sent me an article called “This is Your Brain on Religion” and I saved it, thinking it was a good topic for a sermon. But it seemed as though the definition of religion excluded us. It explained how the neural pathways in our brains are wired to promote tribal identity, and thrive on interfaith hatred, with beliefs about God that presume exclusivity. I don’t believe any of those things, and even though I don’t necessarily want to be thought of as a church lady, I don’t like being told my religion isn’t real. I especially don’t like being told that by scientists! Last year, during the teenager’s Coming of Age ceremony, Max Sours talked about how beautiful science could be; how it inspired awe and reverence, and I felt that way, too. In her memoir about growing up Unitarian, Jane Rzepka mentioned growing lima beans and using microscopes, and I also remember that. Through that lens, I was able to see something invisible. It was astounding. One year we hatched eggs, another time we learned how to hollow them out, to make very delicate painted Easter eggs. Jane remembers building Egyptian pyramids out of sugar cubes, and I remember learning about Akhnaten and Ra, the Egyptian Sun God. We were learning about life, and it was amazing — magical, and powerful; religious and real.
The evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson once said that “religion possesses a primal power that science lacks.” He was explaining why religion would endure despite the void at its center; that people really would rather believe than know. This sounds like a set up for a debate about intelligence and faith, but it isn’t really what Wilson was talking about. He meant that the material forms of religion have a hold on us. The concrete experiences — the singing, the mud, the cartwheels during social hour; learning to flip pancakes and make long chains out of gum wrappers – this is what it’s all about. Theology won’t survive, Wilson said. Talking of God or not God will not sustain us. The theology of a conqueror becomes a sword; the theology of the defeated becomes a shield, and both lose their connection to reason, and the fullness of life. We can use theology to attack or defend, but it doesn’t help us grow or change. But religion, said Wilson, will continue. Religion is experienced in the body, and it shapes us. We build our lives out of the sugar cubes, the choir practice, the shared car rides, the memories of talking over pancakes.
This should be easy for us. This is an argument that makes sense; it is religion without divisive theology; it is natural and inclusive and allows room for mystery and wonder. It is religion as practice instead of belief. Yet ironically, we are pretty bad at this. I think its because Unitarian Universalism tends to talk about itself as if everyone were a convert; as if everyone came to this faith as an adult, for completely rational reasons. We make religion of the head, when really it is fuller than that. It is showing up, body and soul; with voices and feet. It is a religion that makes sense, in the fullness of that word. There is a wonderful coherence to feeling something in your head and heart and fingertips all at the same time.
The distinguishing characteristic of God is that of a being with no body. Because of that, some religions have the idea that we are supposed to transcend the physical; that the spirit can be released if we are free of the body. We can be more like God if we are purely spiritual beings, not earthbound creatures. So you get things like ascetic monks and nuns, denying themselves any pleasure or material needs, and embracing physical suffering. It is a set up that values the mind and ideas and a kind of purity that makes it seem as though this world – with muddy ponds and coal bins and gum wrappers – is just some temporary and meaningless inconvenience, and not a place of wonder; not the setting for our whole lives.
Another way of looking at what it means to have a God that is pure spirit is that all of creation is God’s body. Playing in the sand box and pushing the cars out of the mud is experiencing the holy; a sparrow sitting on your shoulder is gorgeous and breathtaking because it is, not because it is symbolic somehow. If this world, and all that lives and breathes and grows and dies, is the embodiment of some vast spirit, then there is nothing to be released from. There is just this life to immerse ourselves in, to nurture and protect and mourn.
This is probably the kind of statement that makes scientists and theologians discount us as not quite real. Two years ago, an article in USA Today documented the growing appeal of Unitarian Universalism, mentioning that our faith has a bright future, and an important niche to fill. But the article concluded with a quote from the director of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “I’m sure these groups are made up of people who would be good neighbors,” he said, deftly avoiding calling us congregations. “Even so, their faith is wrong. Just because you are drawing a crowd doesn’t mean you are saying something that is true.”
You can’t really argue with that. But how do you evaluate whether or not what someone says about faith is true? This statement bears witness to E.O. Wilson’s point about the problems with theology. Why would you so easily discount the part about good neighbors? Isn’t that the embodiment of faith – treating others the way you wish to be treated? If the world is ever going to be transformed to something like heaven, won’t this be the way it happens – all of us living by the Golden rule?
When I was getting the house ready for Christmas, I cleaned out the giant crumpled mess of magazines and New York Times book reviews that sits next to my couch, and in the process I happened to open a Harvard Divinity Bulletin to a curious and moving set of pictures. The top one showed a large group of children, all clean and tidy and definitely dating back to the days before retail stores starting selling the kinds of clothes we are all used to seeing now. One face in particular stood out, white as the moon. All the other children had hair, or hats. He had neither, and he looked like a worried middle-aged man, even though he was about four years old. It was a photograph of children at a Unitarian Service Committee sponsored orphanage in Czechoslovakia during World War II. The other picture was of a crowd of people on one side of a large counter, and an officious looking woman in a hat and gloves showing lots of papers to a clerk. It documents people displaced by the war arriving in the United States with Martha Sharp, a Unitarian woman who left her own family in Massachusetts to help rescue people in Europe.
The pictures made me sad, but filled me with pride. They seem like proof of our legitimacy. This is who we are. This is what we do – we help people. We are good neighbors. In a world that has too much violence and suffering, we don’t wish it away or pretend that some God wills it to be this way.
Once I read about the narwhal, which for many years was assumed to be a mythological creature – the unicorn of the sea. In the past ten years or so, scientists have come to understand that the tusk of the narwhal has over ten million nerve endings. It can detect changes in water pressure, temperature, particles in the water, and much more. It is exquisitely sensitive, and more like a tooth with exposed nerves than a horn – but instead of being inside the mouth, the tusk protrudes through the jaw, into the frigid arctic waters where the narwhal lives, underneath the ice in Greenland and Russia. It is probably the least hospitable landscape on the planet – barren, frozen, bleak. I was captivated by the lead scientist’s brief sentence, as he reveled in understanding the role of that magical horn: “Of all the places you’d think you’d want to do the most to insulate yourself from that outside environment, this guy has gone out of his way to open himself up to it.”
There is much in our world that we would like to screen out; pain that we want to insulate ourselves from, and that we would protect others from, too. But this is the body we inhabit. Any transformation depends on us. I imagine the church as the tusk of the narwhal; the spire poking out ahead, open and seeking, and – even though we may be at sea, and in the dark – still somehow, leading the way forward.
So may it be.