“Toughing it Out” by Mark W. Harris
November 3, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Thomas Wentworth Higginson – The Sympathy of Religion
The human soul, like any other noble vessel, was not built to be anchored, but to sail. An anchorage may . . . be at times a temporary need, in order to make some special repairs, or to take fresh cargo in; yet the natural destiny of both ship and soul is not the harbor but the ocean; to cut with even keel the vast and beautiful expanse; to pass from island on to island or to continents fair; or, best of all, steering close to the wind, to extract motive power from the greatest obstacles.
“Besides the Autumn Poets Sing” by Emily Dickinson
Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.
A few incisive mornings,
A few ascetic eves,
Gone – Mr. Bryant’s golden-rod,
And Mr. Thomson’s sheaves.
Still, is the bustle in the brook,
Sealed are the spicy valves;
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many elves.
Perhaps a squirrel may remain,
My sentiments to share.
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind,
Thy windy will to bear!
“To Fight Aloud is Very Brave” by Emily Dickinson
To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.
Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.
We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.
A couple of years ago my colleague Michael Schuler preached about an ordination ceremony where the charge to the minister included this admonition. “Never forget,” the seasoned minister said to the new minister, “never forget that to your congregation you wear the face of God. You wear the face of God.” It was her way of saying, pursue this vocation with the utmost integrity, for yours is indeed a high and holy office. Yet the implication is a little more daunting than that. While not exactly a challenge to wear the long beard like your typical Red Sox player, nor to take up domicile on a cloud, the charge to be the fount of all wisdom, the symbol of all goodness, and the example of all charity may be more than most of us can muster. Yet as Schuler said in his sermon, “fully half of those recently surveyed by Gallup expressed serious reservations about the morals and the ethics of clergy. So, what does that do to one’s motivation for the embracing the Godly vocation and one’s sense of self-esteem?
For generations many clergy have been depicted in both literature and visual media as weak, spineless, and sedentary. The juxtaposition to having the face of God became the depiction of a person who was somehow not quite fully human. In my congregation in Milton, Bellah English, the Globe reporter, apologized to me every time she said “jees” or “darn” as if approximating swearing in front of a clergy person was somehow a sin that would either hurt my delicate ears or result in her personal demotion. In response, I wanted to say, Damn it, would you treat me like a regular person? But I demurred and reminded her that I knew what swearing was, and it was okay.
People often feel that clergy are the ultimate party spoilers. A colleague in Petersham was once called in advance of a New Year’s party and asked by the members of his church if they could borrow his games like Pictionary and Twister for the party. But the people only wanted the games to come to party. If they invited the minister the expectation was that the party would be deadly – no fun with the stuffy do gooder. My sermon begins with the rejection of the clerical stereotype of the stiff, boring, spineless minister. While I know you might think it is about today, it really starts long ago with some frustrated clergy in the 19th century.
These ministers included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose fascinating career included service as a Unitarian minister and reformer, commanding officer of a black regiment in the Civil War, and amateur boxer. As a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, Emily Dickinson saw an article of his and wrote asking about the quality of her poetry, and he eventually introduced her to the world. He was an abolitionist who chose clandestine membership in the Secret Six, a group that financed and materially supported John Brown in his plan to foment a slave uprising.
Clergy in the 19th century were thought of as puny and sickly, and often this was true. Men needed jobs, and if they were not physically capable of manual labor then being a minister was a profession where one could earn a living even if they were not physically fit or in the pink of health. Higginson had observed along with many others including Channing, the leading Unitarian minister, and Emerson, our most famous minister, that this was true, but it also went much deeper. Channing who was small and sickly, did not like being called Reverend, and when he was once reminded that he was a minister, he said, “Yes, I know it, and always remember the disadvantage.” He once yelled at his secretary Elizabeth Palmer Peabody for treating him too formally.
Emerson, who was not small or sickly, quit the ministry, often we say because he refused to serve communion. But he also wanted to instruct people in what he would famously call the virtue of self-reliance, and one way to shut down the voice of self-contempt was to quit the ministry. He felt like a minister “could not be a man quite and whole.” He saw ministry as debilitating in terms of being respected, with limited options of expressing influence and skill. He could not be manly enough because it called for what were considered feminine virtues of being demure, timid, and kind, and not powerful, brave and courageous.
After graduating from Harvard, Higginson’s first ministry was in Newburyport, but he was forced out almost as soon as he started because of his ardent sermons against slavery, while many of his parishioners were wealthy ship owners involved in commercial activity trading King Cotton. Fortunately, a group of political activists in Worcester created a “free” church especially for Higginson, and he served there for several years. But it was as a man of action that he wanted to assert himself, especially as it often seemed that the North could do little to stop the terrible sin of slavery. Higginson helped lead a raid on a Boston Court house to help fugitive slave Anthony Burns escape. Then he joined with others in sending guns and dollars to John Brown, first to aid the Free Soil movement in Kansas, and then to promote a slave rebellion. Higginson felt he had found the embodiment of militant activism in Kansas. He wrote, “I have been looking for men. I have found them in Kansas. The virtue of courage has not died out . . . It needs only circumstances to bring it out . . . In Kansas nobody talks of courage, for everyone is expected to exhibit it.” After Harper’s Ferry and the capture of Brown, he was appalled that no one stood up and admitted their involvement in Brown’s rebellious plan, except him. They fled or denied or avoided speaking the truth for fear of being incriminated. Once the war began he became the commander of a regiment of freed slaves who would eventually attack Jacksonville, Florida. He wanted to lead the charge, and physically do something about ending slavery, not be a chaplain. He did not want to pray over things, or talk about things, but rather he wanted to act firmly and decisively in the cause of justice.
When and how do we show courage? How do we stand up for what we believe in? Higginson asked these questions in the late 1850’s. The words he wrote in the Atlantic increasingly were linked to physical action. He said one cause of the alienation between clergy and community is that the clergy have the deficiency of a vigorous , manly life.” He wrote one article on “Physical Courage,’ in which he said “life is sweet, but it would not be sweet enough without the occasional relish of peril and the luxury of daring deeds. Perhaps every [one] sometimes feels this longing.” Do you feel drawn to swim, like Diane Nyad going from Cuba to Florida or to climb that Mt. Kathadin of oyur dreams, to test yourself physically? In our call to worship today Higginson implies that the best medicine for the soul is let the wind fill our sails, “to extract motive power from the greatest obstacles.” We will stand up to those things that challenge us.
The inspiration for what later came to be called the “Muscular Christianity” movement was an essay by Higginson called “Saints, And Their Bodies.” He came to believe that acts of physical courage and endurance were good for the soul. He was offended by the correlation between saintliness and sickliness or the denial of the body. He praised physical exercise as necessary to complete us as people. He said we presume the best preacher will make the worst bowler. Loving bowling and most sports has often made me feel I don’t fit with the passive, flabby stereotype of clergy. Higginson said we should be a nation of athletes. Going out to look at nature is tame, he said. Instead we need to “meet Nature on the cricket ground or at the regatta; swim with her, ride with her, run with her, and she gladly takes you back once more within the horizon of her magic.”
Being a nation of athletes or being physically fit, reminds me of President Kennedy and his campaign to make physical fitness a national concern when I was growing up. We were tested for push ups, pull ups and the agonizing rope climb. Kennedy was a veteran, and a war hero, and a man who exuded physical action. Remember the touch football games at the compound in Hyannisport? Now people are preparing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I think I first thought about what courage means because of President Kennedy. He wrote a book called Profiles in Courage. I remember the stories being dramatized on TV. I was intrigued by the story of Edmund Ross. It was 1868. Ross was a senator from Kansas, who had to choose between his career and his conscience. President Andrew Johnson had been impeached. He kept vetoing bills passed by the Senate that he believed were too harsh on the South. The Senate needed a two-thirds vote of guilty on any one of the eleven Articles of Impeachment. Even though Ross was a Republican and he disliked Johnson, he felt his trial was unfair. He became the only undecided Senator. The Republican party tried everything from threats to bribes to win his vote, but he stood up to the bombardment. He voted No. It did cost him his career. But he would not be coerced into acting against his conscience.
I probably read this when I was 12, a history story that brought one person’s courageous stand to life. I was forever impressed that under duress people can take action, can stand up for what is right. Fear of what might happen to a career or reputation does not prevent acting with courage. Not long after, Kennedy was killed. It was, my father said, the only time in his adult life that he had ever cried. He went to his beloved pea patch to shed his tears. He could not bring himself to cry in front of others. But then at dinner he told us how deeply affected he was to lose this man who was the symbol of action, of change, of hope for our country. Somehow admitting that he cried seemed courageous, too.
Over the last few weeks I have seen many baseball games. I am loathe, like Globe columnist Kevin Cullen said, to make baseball victories a salve of healing for Boston’s trials. Baseball is not life, but sports do provide lessons for many of us in being part of a team, or working together with dedication, or even overcoming pain and adversity and failure and keep on trying. Athletes like Red Sox players are sometimes chided for refusing to play when they suffer pain. One sports columnist implored a key Red Sox pitcher to suck it up, and play despite the pain in his shoulder. What does being strong or having courage really mean? I can sympathize with Higginson’s fear that he was not seen as a real man, as limiting social and emotional parameters have been placed on boys for centuries.
Where is the balance between fulfilling a commitment to work and showing our true dedication to what we are doing, and instances where we are hurting ourselves emotionally or physically. I reflect now upon the dangers of football quite a bit, as more and more is known about permanent damage from concussions. At my college reunion in June, a friend who is trying a law suit against the Patriots, told me that every time a person is hit, and knocked silly, we suffer a concussive event. Playing with pain where there is the possibility of permanently hurting yourself is foolish, and should not be done. But I also know that giving in too quickly because we don’t feel our best is not very helpful in dealing with the difficult trials life will confront us with. Some of us played sports to prove ourselves, test our physical limits and become skilled, but the most courageous were often those who realized little recognition, but continued to show up every day, and didn’t complain, but wanted to be part of a team, and know friendship.
Not long ago I saw the movie “Rush.” It is the story of two famous race car drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda and how they challenged each other to be world champions in 1976. Although never a fan of racing, it was an interesting film in the context of what Higginson seems to have been longing for in his life, that rush or feeling of really being alive that race car driving can provide. My family had its own rush from white water rafting last summer. Rushing to our destination in rural Quebec, we were lost looking for the rafting headquarters on the Jacques Cartier River. Suddenly, as if on cue, a para-sailor dropped out of the sky. He spoke English and soon turned us around and pointed us in the direction of our intended destination. Once we arrived, we squeezed into wet suits and helmits, a sight not to be missed, and learned how to master the river, with a caring guide to help us over the falls and through the rushing waves. The training alone nearly did me in, as we had to jump in the rapids to simulate what might happen if we fell out of the boat. I ended up getting swamped, swallowing too much water, and then was snatched to safety by a rescue rope. I hadn’t even hit one rapid yet nor jumped off the 30 foot cliff. Yet each of the nine rapids we encountered in our little boat ended up being exhilirating and exciting. I understood what Higginson was trying to convey about feeling alive in the soul. There is a time of witnessing calm beauty on the water, but everything suddenly becomes a rush of speed and fear as you fly forward, as the rapid engulfs your boat, trying to swallow it whole. Nature, we realize, has no intent, and yet it feels as though life will consume you in a snarling swallow; in a challenge like you have not encountered heretofore.
This is also helpful in understanding the rush people feel in going to battle, and why they may return to a war zone, including not only soldiers, but reporters, too. They feel a kind of being alive that has an undercurrent of intense trial and trauma. There is also the feeling of being involved in the action that makes a difference. Emerson once said, Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.”
This is not to imply that one needs to go to battle, or hold a gun to prove you can be brave, or that life has to be a thrill a minute ride. . It was Higginson’s fear that life might be passive. He did not want to sit idly by and do nothing, but talk about what needed to be done, rather than just doing it. If you are going to do something in life, you will succeed only if you take it up wholeheartedly and with passion. Plunge in, he would say. But it also means that you must stick with it. One does not quit when the first pain comes, or criticism from others, or the first Sunday when you have nothing to say. One will lose the times of golden summer, as Dickinson says, and must remember them when the blustery and windy cold of winter arrives, and people reject you, or a project fails.
In the second poem Dickinson reminds us all about the bravery that we do not see. While we recognize the bravery of the battlefield, we fail to see the secret pains or the silent fight we each feel in our breasts. Like the poet, we carry this battle against the onslaught of woe as an invisible medal. How many suffer in silence when depression strikes or when we feel like a failure or friendless? The brave ones, she says, carry much of this worry and fear with courage. So today in that time of year when we acknowledge the closeness of death, we invoke the names in our prayer of those in our lives who have shown great courage on the hidden battlefields of life, and few people ever noticed. We remember those who suffered from mental illness, and still went on to run a successful business; we remember those who went to work even though debilitating headaches plagued them day after day. There are Edmund Ross’s of the world, and my Aunt Calie, too, all of whom had the courage to stand up and speak for what they believed was right. They also had the courage to listen to others, too. Do we have the courage to save ourselves?
Higginson wanted to make a difference in the world to transform it from slavery to freedom, and later he became an advocate of women’s rights. He was frustrated with talk and inaction and failure, as we all are some times, but we also have to acknowledge as Dickinson does in her poem, the even feet of the angels. There is equality in the procession of saints. We see courage every day with those who keep trying, those who win small victories and carry out their tasks, even when their pain and the details of their struggle are hidden. It is often a private, lonely battle to fight the good fight, to have integrity, to not give into peer pressures or the consumer culture. It is good to test ourselves. It is good to plunge into nature, into work, into love with our whole hearts, bodies and minds. We must fight the river that often tries to overturn us. We fight it best when we refuse to give up, when we keep on trying despite adversity. “Though many have suffered shipwreck”, Margaret Fuller said, “still beat noble hearts. Always the soul says to us all: Cherish your best hopes as a faith, and abide by them in action.”
Closing Words – from “The Journey” by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.”