The Governor’s Tears

September 27, 2015

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

Opening Words: from Gate A-4,

by Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952

 At the gate to our delayed plane, an older woman was making people nervous. In full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, she was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.  I bent, and spoke, and the minute she heard any words she knew, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled and I explained the delay. We called the son planning to meet her and I spoke with him in English about the schedule change.She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out they had ten shared friends. Then I thought why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours. She was laughing by then. She pulled a sack of homemade cookies out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single one declined. It was like a sacrament.  We were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling.   

Reading:   From Lila, by Marilyn Robinson

In this section, Lila, who has been showing up at church for a week or two, stops by the minister’s house. John Ames offers her coffee.

She stood up. “I don’t even know why I come here.”

“Well, we could talk a little. Sometimes that helps. I mean, helps make things clearer –“

She said, “I don’t much like to talk.”

He laughed. “Well, that’s fine too. A lot of people around here feel that way. But they do enjoy a cup of coffee.”

She said, “I don’t know why I come here. That’s a fact.”

He shrugged. “Since you are here, maybe you could tell me a little about yourself?”

She shook her head. “I don’t talk about that. I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.”

“Oh!” he said. “Then I am glad you have some time to spare. I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.” … he began to tell her about the brother and sisters who died before he was born, and how his mother said once that the stairs were scuffed by children’s shoes because she could never keep them from running in the house. And when she found a scrawl in a book, she said, One of the children must have done it. There was a kind of fondness and sadness in her voice that he heard only when she mentioned them. So when he found a scratch or a mark on something, he still thought, One of the children. His oldest brother, Edward, was spared the diptheria that took the rest of them, so he knew the children. One, closest to him, was named John, a family name. Once he heard his brother call him Non-John, thinking he was too young to understand. Because Edward missed the brother he had lost; he always did miss him, and was loyal to him….

“There’s been a good deal of sorrow in this old place,” he said. “Some of it mine. Some I used to wish were mine. So I sort of live with the question. Why things happen. I guess this isn’t much help.”

She liked to hear people tell stories. The saddest ones were the best….of course, when people talked about themselves that way, they were usually trying to get you to talk about yourself in the same way. That would be what this preacher wanted.”

 

The Governor’s Tears

On August 31, at dinner, I said to my husband, “we need a third weird UU thing.” And about five minutes later, the phone rang, and my wish was fulfilled. That afternoon while in the aisles of Stop and Shop, my phone started making odd noises from inside my wallet. I glanced to see it was a text from my sister in Atlanta, with a message about media content. Later, when I got home, I checked, and I found no media, but there were six messages from various siblings of mine. Somehow we were all on a group chat but I had no idea how to participate, so I just read what everyone else was saying. It was the day our father died, a generation ago, and grandchildren he had barely met were all embarking on new, semi-adult lives. So that was one thing, but it didn’t really count. It was more of a prelude to the next events, which were Mark asking me, “Guess who I just spent the last half hour with?” I made my requisite failed guesses, so he could say, “Bruce Southworth.” Bruce was my internship supervisor nearly three decades ago, and he preached my installation sermon in this very spot in November of 1992. He lives in New York City, but happened to be in Cambridge, and in the same bookstore as Mark. They apparently had a nice chat about me and my various foibles, and I thought about pressing for details, but the phone rang. It was a woman I never heard of, but she spoke as if she knew me. She said she was a UU minister in Maine, and it turned out she was serving a congregation whose members included a family I had met a few weeks earlier.

One hot Saturday afternoon, my mother and I capped off a trip to the recycling center with ice cream, and after paying, we headed for the shade. There was a family at the picnic table there, and they were dressed oddly for ice cream – suits, ties, dresses. I wasn’t trying to listen, but I kept having this nagging sense of hearing the word “UU.” Finally, thinking of a sermon I had heard earlier in the summer, in which the minister spoke about our need to share our religion and not assume others hadn’t heard of it, I said, “I’m sorry, but are you talking about Unitarian Universalism? That’s my religion.” It turns out that they had just been at a bar mitzvah, and the girls in the family were examining what their friend was doing religiously versus what they were doing, and questioning the role of commitment in our faith. One teen said that the religious educator in their fellowship had said that if you grow up UU, as an adult you will either never set foot in a church again, or you will become a minister. I allowed as how that was a bit dramatic and harsh, and pointed to my mother – who grew up Unitarian and still attends, but is not a minister. All this led to nice chat and my mother said, well, if you live in Damariscotta and you are a UU, maybe you know my cousin Jonny, he was in Hawaii for a long time but is back here now; and sure enough, they did.

I decided I should also try for a connection. A few weeks earlier, I had been to a memorial service for my college advisor. David lived near Damariscotta, in a town I couldn’t remember the name of, and his last name was Smith, so I didn’t have much hope. But I mentioned him and it turned out that the father in this family was a doctor, and had been caring for David for the past ten years, and had been with him when he died. It was astonishing, and moving, and it was a great affirmation of the power of sharing our faith and afterwards I sent the family a card, offering to take the girls on a Coming of Age tour around Boston. They are the only teens in their fellowship, and had no program. So this is why their minister called me on August 31.

So those were my two weird UU things, and I was savoring them but waiting for the third, when the phone rang. Barbara Farrell wanted to tell me about a dream in which Charlie Baker came to our church on a day when I was preaching. She can tell this story much better, since it was her dream and I have to actually fit a sermon in here somewhere too, but the governor sat next to Barbara in church, and pretty much sobbed the whole way through– the hunched over, face practically between your knees, where all you can see is the heaving back kind of sobbing. Before church he had been enjoying talking with people; afterwards he was astounded by social hour and asked to take a cupcake home for himself, but in church, he cried. Barbara said to me that she knew I considered it a success if anyone cried in church, but all in all, she seemed a little disturbed by it. The poor man just could not stop crying. I of course had to go look up what religion our governor is, to see if there was any actual membership potential here.

I was intrigued by the premise of this dream. What moves the governor to tears? Why was he crying? In this world, at this time, it is not at all hard to imagine sobbing for hours on end. There are neglected children, refugees, angry and fearful people, and enough sadness to outlast us all. But it seemed that Barbara was offering me a story that was removed from all that – not a picture of Charlie Baker crying in frustration at the world, or at his responsibilities, but more sobbing with relief. It was something about the space; the air contained in our little parcel of the universe. Everything I try to write to explain that is wrong – not a meeting of the minds, not a sharing of souls… Something like that, but more like a passing touch; more like possibility, and hope, than anything realized. It is like Lila in the reading this morning, showing up on the minister’s doorstep saying, I don’t know why I come here. It is like those kids at the ice cream stand. They were climbing trees and looking down through the leaf canopy, asking without asking about being adults in this faith. It is a glance that contains so much more than the word implies. It is a taking in of what we really mean.

Towards the end of last year, I had asked in the newsletter for topics that folks might like addressed in sermons, and one of the responses I got was about Joys and Sorrows; the time of sharing we have during our services here. As with most issues, this one was layered. There was a specific concern, which was about the placement of this element. Should it be early in the service, or late? Should it precede the meditation, or is it wholly separate from that? There was also an underlying issue, which was a sense that there was a movement among some people to eliminate joys and sorrows from church altogether. And then, there was an element to all of this that was, to some degree, caused by raising those other questions. And this was about being heard – not about having control of decisions, but about speaking from the heart and being understood as a person rather than a problem to be managed. It was about the possibility of having a conversation rooted in faith. The topic of joys and sorrows can’t help but lead to a question: How do we embody our religion not just during the service, but all the time? This is not as simple as saying that we value listening to each other, or building community; implying that people who appreciate joys and sorrows care about others, and people who could live without joys and sorrows do not. There are competing values, and differing needs, and styles.

As it happens, this topic tapped into a source of anxiety for me. For better or for worse, I am actually the person who began the practice of including joys and sorrows in church here. One thing that tells us, rationally, is that what is now perceived as a longstanding tradition actually extends as far back as one minister. This is not an ancient practice. It started 23 years ago, when this congregation was very small and when there was a major disconnect between those with and those without children. There were some disagreements in the congregation that seemed to me superficial, or symptomatic, as opposed to bedrock problems. So instituting Joys and Sorrows was my attempt to work on that; to invite people to share their vulnerabilities and passions; to ask one another for help, or solace, and to place our lives in this context of being part of a sustaining and healing community. It was partially about creating a stronger community, but it was more about deepening faith; about learning to rest on those invisible ties that do, somehow, hold us up. I was aiming for something analogous to what, in a more traditional religion, would be called “Prayers of the People.” These combine gratitude – offering thanks for what is – with intercessory prayers, asking for help. I find it tremendously moving to be reminded of both those things – all that we have been given, and all of the pain and sorrow each one of us sometimes carries. It doesn’t always need words – silently lighting a candle before the community has its own language; and so do tears. But sometimes we do need words. Not monologues, not announcements or explanations; just a little prayerful practice to remind us of why we are really here. And, as Kathy Warren said, collective empathic listening is good for us, and allows us to be witnesses to poignancy.

So, then, why did I say this topic makes me anxious? Well, there are the little things that make problems – the logistics and frustrations; not knowing when church will end so that people who have obligations can leave; so that the volunteers who work week after week in the religious education program don’t feel left out or taken advantage of; people using the time as a response to the sermon; the minister trying to surreptitiously drop a paragraph here or there so that we aren’t here until noon; deciding when to step in and end a sharing that needs to end. This congregation is about four times the size it was when joys and sorrows started, and that really does mean that some things are different. But these are all just minor issues. The real one is that a couple of years ago I learned that there was an idea going around that because I didn’t like joys and sorrows, I didn’t value what the congregation valued, and therefore maybe shouldn’t have a role here. I didn’t quite understand the assumptions at play here, or why I appeared to be someone who didn’t care about peoples’ lives, and since what I was hearing about myself didn’t match what I thought was true of me, I grew anxious. Of course, it then became true that I started to dread Joys and Sorrows. Each Sunday came with an increasing sense of panic that I must be doing it wrong, otherwise this characterization of me would not have developed. This quickly became about something more than joys and sorrows.   And so I greeted Kathy Warren’s request to talk about Joys and Sorrows as a bit terrifying. But I also knew it was an opportunity to speak for myself, and reclaim my voice a little bit.

Parker Palmer, in an essay about poetry, wrote of waking up some mornings and having difficulty disentangling from the darkness that enveloped him while sleeping. If he works at it, Palmer said, he can usually figure out what is weighing him down, troubling his mind – but that doesn’t free him. In order to move on, to wake up and come out into the world, what is needed is something sacramental; and for him it is often poetry. He quotes CS Lewis, saying “Poetry is a little incarnation.” I think that is what church is, too – an incarnation. We become as bread for a hungering world; nourishing one another so we can go out again and try to do better; try to keep on. The little morsels we pick up here can allow a shift that frees us, somehow. Barbara’s dream of Governor Baker crying through church and then heading home with a cupcake does it for me – a washing clean, making room for a bit of joy.

Over the summer, one of our colleagues whom I happened to like very much died. Terry retired last year, knowing that his prognosis was not good, and he had a few months at home before the end came. At his funeral, one friend talked about how much Terry liked sacraments, and that the time he spent visiting a monastery with all those brown-robed monks parading around chanting and swinging incense was just his idea of heaven. It stuck with me, how so many people I have loved really appreciate that kind of liturgy, and I do not. I really like the personal tale; the little quirky detail that makes someone unique and makes me connect. The flashing images offered – sugared faces of women stuck at the airport, as we heard in the opening words; the ghostly presence of missing children who scribbled in books and scuffed the stairs – siblings who have never been seen and who yet define John Ames – those are the morsels that feed me and bring life and wonder into my world. The imaginative glimpse into a life that is different from mine and yet is –right there — this is where I draw faith. I do not think we necessarily have to have a sharing of joys and sorrows during church services in order to have this sacramental experience of knowing and being known. Tinkering with the service, perfecting it, including this or that or removing that – none of that really matters very much and it is never going to be just right and stay that way anyway; not for all of us. And none of it matters at all if we don’t offer a space in which everyone feels blessed just to be here; to show up unsure of precisely why, just wondering about things, letting ourselves be known, and reasonably sure of being treated like a human being. We have to trust that we are all in this together; that there is not a right way to do things, but there are right ways to treat each other.

We are all looking for ways to move; to wake up and let the light shift so that we can see we are not one with whatever it is we find ourselves entangled with; the pains that haunt us and seep into our hearts. The burdens of yesterday and last night can be left back there. We are not made any stronger by carrying them around, and we are not made fragile by crying. The opposite is true. Our communion cup fills with each others’ tears, emptying us of some pain, and making us one.

 

So may it be.

 

Closing Words: from Landscape by Mary Oliver
Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive.