“To Hear the Music When Our Own Songs Cease” by Mark W. Harris

November 1, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship –

“When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver


When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness,

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,

“and you too have come

into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”



“When Death Comes” – A Poem by Mary Oliver


When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse


to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;

when death comes

like the measle-pox;

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth

tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


~ Mary Oliver ~



“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.


The title for my sermon today is derived from a prayer by A. Powell Davies. The word music does not refer to music literally, but rather the “music” that metaphorically provides the rhythm and meaning to our lives

Lead us, O God, to see a way where there is no path; give us to hear music when our own songs cease; and when the warm touch of life forsakes us and our courage melts away, may we stumble through the darkness unto You.



            When I was in seminary in the mid-1970’s death was a popular subject. I don’t mean that everyone wanted to try it out, but that there was an acknowledgement that there had been a consistent cultural denial of death, as evidenced by its removal from our everyday lives. Rather than dying among family members at home with life teeming all around, people increasingly died in the confines of a private hospital room in isolation. There was an entire movement to be more open about discussing our ultimate fate. This denial was also evident in the funerals or memorial services that were celebrated to acknowledge the loss of a loved one. Services where there was no body present were a reflection that there was no corpse to see or claim. If it’s not there, it didn’t happen. So, too, funeral homes had become places where the deceased appeared to be virtually alive adorned with perfect hair, makeup and dress clothes to look better in death than they had in life. The final part of this denial was an unwillingness to converse with our family and loved ones about death. We were silent.

In the last generation we have tried to be more open about discussing the subject. We have tried to encourage people to have conversations with family members so our personal wishes for wills, health care proxies and memorial services are expressed openly. Now when I perform a service where the ashes of the deceased are being committed to the ground, I ask the family if they would like to physically place the ashes in the earth. About a year ago The Atlantic published an article called “Burying the Dead Without Religion.” The article began by saying that bereaved people could take the ashes of a loved one and have a tattoo artist mix them into the ink that is used for a personal tattoo.  As ghoulish as this may sound, it is a way to keep this person’s presence alive in your life. The article was trying to express new 21st century ways to grieve for the dead.  Some religious faiths manage to recall the dead better than others, and we Unitarian Universalists are often thought of as being proficient at it, as we make our services very personal.   The idea of tattoos or physically burying our dead relatives, or even helping to prepare the bodies for burial is to suggest that many people want to become more directly involved in death, because our culture has professionalized it, and distanced it from everyday life.   People feel a tremendous sense of loss when someone dies, and we all need rituals to work that loss through, so even if we cremate our loved one, many people want to view the body first and say goodbye. We may want an old fashioned wake, or we may want to hold up something of significance from their life that brought meaning to them – a baseball hat or a guitar. This may be why UU services have resonance for people. They enact in words and rituals the music that informed this person’s life, and we want to remind others what this music was, and how it continues to play on in the lives of those who survive.

When I was in seminary the teachings of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross were in vogue. Kubler-Ross was the Swiss psychiatrist who popularized death and dying so that people would be less uncomfortable discussing the subject. Kubler-Ross theorized that there were five stage to dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It was also suggested that these five stages corresponded to grieving the loss of a loved one. The problem is that this was a very neat package to control a death and dying process where there is nothing very neat about it.

Kubler-Ross did a tremendous amount to open up this discussion, but she normalized grief too much, so that people who experience loss may expect a predictable pattern when that is hardly what the experience of grief provides us. We don’t know how long or how intense it will be. For many of us who have lost a child, a parent or partner there are intense periods of grief that come and go. Then even when we feel like our grief should diminish, it may be prolonged, or it may even return in an unexpected fashion. It all depends on the individual or the nature of the loss and how it occurred, but I am someone who believes that some grief, while its intensity may be dissipated by time, never goes away. There is often continuing sorrow after a loss, and we should be able to grieve as long as we need to.

It is like May Sarton describes in the responsive reading.- “What has been plaited, cannot be unplaited – – only the strands grow richer with each loss.” My friends Fred and Wendy had a still born son many years ago. Even though they now have two other sons who are grown men, the loss of Aaron is still present, and my ministry to them at that time, has fomented an enduring bond between us. In many ways Aaron remains their son who has brothers, and his life is the primary glue for our friendship. I am also fully aware that the older I get the more I physically see my parents each day of my life in me, but I also see their behavior in me, and realize that the grief I feel at their departure from my life is ever present and continuing. We do not get over the loss of a loved one, but carry on with a full realization that their music or their life’s meaning continues to play in us. As much as we once cried out, “I am not like my parents,” we suddenly become aware, “I have become my parents,” in many ways. No matter what our age, our parents were our moorings in the world.

I say this to recognize that having death present in our lives helps us live more fully. In the early days of our nation most everyone knew death often. Two years ago Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote a book about Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s younger and favorite sister. It was named Book of Ages in honor of an actual book Jane had assembled in beautiful calligraphy. Marking passages in her life, the book began with her marriage, and then named her first born, Josiah, who died less than a year after he was born. One in four children died before the age of ten in the 1700’s, and the children were taught not to fear death. Lepore asks the question, what remains of a life? Remains often is a phrase associated with what’s left of the body. But our remains are also our published and unpublished papers, our work, and also our descendants. Poet Anne Bradstreet, who came to America on the Arbella, wrote to her children, “my little babes, my dear remains.” This poem might be all those babes had left of her one day, and she wrote saying that if by chance they saw the verse, “kiss this paper.” The implication was that you could bring the mother child relationship to life by recalling that love and care and what it gave you in life, so that you might do the same for those who follow.

Jane Franklin continued to press her children between the pages of the Book of Ages, all twelve of them. Thirty years later her daughter Sally died, and Jane took in Sally’s children and two of them died, and then Jane’s husband died, and then her favorite daughter, too. In her book she wrote, “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” You might wonder how she could offer praise in the face of such overwhelming sadness. For one thing, she never wrote in the book again, and she wrote to her brother in deep despair questioning providence. How could a good God give her such sorrow? She began to wonder that perhaps some had died due to poverty or mental illness, or other disadvantages.

When Jane was seventy-four she read a book by the Welsh Unitarian minister, Richard Price. He wrote about providence saying that everything in life is fated; you will die. This is the covenant from the beginning, and many are nipped in their bloom. An elm tree produces 330,000 seeds a year, but very few of those seeds become trees. Some of us don’t make our full maturity, and die young. That doesn’t mean suffering is fair, or that we can’t protest it. We have lost wonderful people and it can be tragic. Some died by accident or illness, and some had no advantages and perished, but all who lived had profound impacts on others who in turn made a use of those lives by giving love to others and helping life go on. Jane Franklin believed in one truth: “The most insignificant creature on earth may be made some use of in the scale of beings.”

Time is often a consideration when we think about death. We count our years and want to add to our time, and so while my mother died at age 70, and that was once considered old, we now think of 70 as young. If a young person is killed or has to fight a serious illness, we may think how unfair life is that this could befall him/her at such a young age. But what is young? We may continue to think we don’t deserve such a fate no matter what our age. We may say I want to live to see my grandchildren grow up, or to get to do that grand trip I dreamed about, or see my retirement home built, and while it would be wonderful to get to do these things, there are always unfinished dreams and tasks that will elude us. Think of the Biblical story of Moses. He dies before he gets to the promised land, even as he is able to see it from the mountain top. He fights with God, and says how unjust it is that he cannot go with his people. Finally, he quits rebelling against his fate, and accepts his death as age 120. See 70 is young! Of course the point is that we cannot determine the perfect time to die. Projects won’t be finished. It hurts to let go of all we hold dear. Then in the end, we hope we will see how much we have been given that we did not deserve at all; this wonderful, amazing, miraculous gift of life.

Both of our poems today gives us some sense of feeling this gift in a profound way. Oliver wants us to understand how we are in this together looking to eternity as possibility, but moreover that we might live with amazement at what surrounds us, fully embracing all the world offers. Rather than wonder about what we missed, we rejoice in what we have had. Then Nye reminds us that before we can ever truly know the deep kindness of living, we must know sorrow as the other deep thing. Once you have known sorrow, then only kindness makes sense. Can you live with a heart of kindness, rather than a heart of regret or anger or fear? And then bring it everywhere, until it becomes you. One problem with the way we understand grief is that we are always talking abut letting go and shedding it. But many of us continue to have a relationship with the deceased. We do move on, but we keep their music playing in our lives. I must even suggest that their music makes our lives more full. We are designed to grieve, and so most of us can go on living fully even as we continue to grieve.   It is hard when so much of a relationship is tied up with the person you lost. A parent who loses a child wants to know what has become of their loved one. We cry out, where is he? Acute loss takes time, but there is no reason we cannot live fully even as pain persists.

How soon we let go of grief is only part of the story. What Kubler-Ross helped us with was speaking openly of both death and grief and loss, and our culture still desperately needs that kind of honesty as we all face our mortality, and that of our loved ones. We need space to talk about it, and also space to say the grief often persists, and in fact, the loss helps us to love life and appreciate it more, even as we suffer. When we have a sense of life that knows death, we gain a sense of life’s preciousness, which can reawaken us to life’s beauty. This summer when I went to view the van Gogh exhibit in Williamstown, I noted a passage from a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. As you know Vincent suffered greatly from a variety of ailments. He wrote: “The painter may be in hell, but painting is still heaven. We all end our lives with a deficit, yet one feels a power seething inside . . ., one has a task to do, and it must be done.” Even though he suffered, he could still embrace the magic and wonder of painting. This was his gift, largely unappreciated in his life, for celebrating life.

How can we help make it so the music of life continues after death? I want to put this question in the context of other relationships. Life after death has been one traditional ways to assure people that the music of their life plays on after death. But whether we believe in that or not, it still does not mean that the love we felt from that lost relationship continues for us. In fact the music may die. With churches the music that gives them life is their continuing history and the relationships we nurture within the living community. I say this in the context of church because I have a friend and colleague who recently retired from his church. While he was there it was a thriving institution, but the church failed to keep the music playing by welcoming in new younger members with children. Instead it kept doing things as it had always done them, relying on the minister, and soon everyone began to age out.

The minister retired, and there was only a bunch of old people like him left.   So if the church lives with fear that things can’t go on without him, then they are denying the inevitable, and they will not hear the music of life and celebration after he is gone. They will only remember the good, old days. Its good to remember the past, and celebrate it, but we have to keep painting or hell will prevail. That church is now served part time by a student and has virtually no church school. I don’t share this as a warning about my eventual departure, but rather as a life lesson that we can grieve those who leave us, but we must keep playing the music that gives us life. I want to hear the music here after I am gone.

The other thing that was true of this church is that they made the minister the center of its life. Nothing happened without him. What institutions and people need is a new chapter after the minister or loved one is gone. This is not to say forget about them. You can hang my portrait, you are just not allowed to say Mark would have done it this way. In order to hear the music, you have got to balance memory and hope, and both must live in any person or institution. You can’t just live with memory or you will be like the church I am describing. Living on the past has killed the music, and they are hanging on. When we live with regret for what we lost, the past consumes us. It is like the famous Biblical story of Lot’s wife, who looks back and becomes the pillar of stone. We may say that was the only way the church should be, or that was my perfect job, or my perfect partner. Memory is precious because it gives us a center of meaning, but it needs to be informed by ever renewing passion. You must breathe new life into the institution or the self when the old music ends. Think about how that minister feels. The church was a reflection of him, and the memory is strong, but don’t you think he would want the music of the church to continue to resound reflecting less on his ego, and more on the loving energy they continue to build upon.

We are in the middle of the baseball World Series. It is a time of year when I think of my baseball loving father, but also of my own love for the game. Baseball players as you may know sometimes fall into tremendous slumps. They can’t hit, as we used to say the broad side of a barn. Sometimes it’s good to get away from the game for a few days, because often when we keep trying so hard the slump continues. Maybe this is analogous to when we feel grief acutely. When we come back we have not abandoned our wonderful skills that we learned about hitting, but often we have to tweak our style, trying something a little bit new or different. The old way of doing things is gone, and acceptance of the loss comes into play here. Then trying that new thing – a more open stance, or a more open heart to new friends or new adventures might mean we can hear the music again, and a new hitting streak begins. Of course there are many times in life when we can’t hear the music playing. We think life is over when we grieve, but also when we lose a significant relationship or job, and or even when something that was once meaningful feels empty, like when we lose touch with our partner, or there is a sense of sameness or boredom. It’s hard to come back to feel a “joie de vivre” when we feel so depressed. The music is still there, but you won’t hear it when you keep playing the same way. How can you return to life’s preciousness? How can you return to the magic of living, even as sadness still holds you? We can go back to those things that renew us, but it has to be in a new way. I think the most important thing is that feeling a loss reminds us how precious life is. It is a time of great possibility, or great failure. At funerals services I have seen some whose hearts opens wide, and some whose hearts turn to stone. In life and death, may we keep the music playing by drinking from the river of kindness. And when you live a life of kindness the music will keep playing after you are gone.


Closing Words

From “The Country of Marriage,” Wendell Berry


What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.