“Walking Through Many Lives” by Mark W. Harris – January 25, 2009

“Walking Through Many Lives” Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – January 25, 2009

Call to Worship – The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Readings – from Listening is An Act of Love, edited by David Isay
from An American Requiem by James Carroll

Sermon – “Walking Through Many Lives” Mark W. Harris

I have been worried that you my parishioners might be getting tired of the personal stories that I use in many of my sermons to illustrate the topic of the day. You probably realize that I am a firm believer in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s preaching philosophy that the true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life; his life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, you cannot tell if he or she is married or single, a parent or not, has loved or lied and so forth. The goal of course is to use an example from my life, and try to universalize it, so that it has meaning for you as well, and does not just appear to be that I am merely talking about myself. How boring! It can be a thin line between meaningful self-revelation and narcissism. The problem is that I am now in my thirteenth year here, and as I sometimes write down a story about my love for dinosaurs or my father’s business, I humbly think, they have heard this story countless times before, and are probably sick of it. At the moment I have no computer search device for repeated personal stories. I sometimes think I am like that boring uncle who comes to Thanksgiving dinner, and retells the same stories every year, like the time his brothers were chased by the cops while driving go-carts, or when his sister snuck all the pies out to the barn and ate them all before dinner. These are true family stories. Maybe what we can do is something like the family joke system where they are numbered and don’t have to be retold. You just know them from repeated retellings. For example, I shout out “3” , and you know it is the one about Why did the UU cross the road? Answer: to help the chicken find her own path.” So with personal stories, I’ll now say dinosaurs is #1 or Dad is #2, and you will get it.

The sermon today serves as an introduction to a course I plan to teach in February and March. It is called Spiritual Autobiography. Don’t think this is a private chance for me to hold a group captive to yet another retelling of my stories. On the contrary it is a chance for you to reflect and write about your own personal journey toward wholeness. Part of the course is to reflect upon a mentor or friend who has inspired you. Perhaps that friend has shown you the path to forgiving another, or making the most of your talent or intelligence. From them we learn to stop being so judgmental or discover an ever renewing love for learning. What they gave us reflects those values we hold most dear. Who were those people for you? This journey may also include a road map of your life. Where did you begin this journey, and how did that inform who you are today? Where were the detours and the accidents, the true turning points? Did you ever have free and open highway? And where is that road headed now? What would your map look like? Get your kicks on Route 66. Another class asks you to draw your favorite childhood room. Which room in your childhood house was it? Do you find yourself in the solace of your own bedroom, or is it a kitchen table where people are together communicating support, fighting, eating. Which room is it? Who is there? And, what is there? Do you love the camaraderie of food and companionship or the quiet inspiration of a full bookcase.

Which room would it be for you? There is a famous passage from the Gospel of John that is frequently quoted at funeral services. Jesus is reputed to have said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” This is usually interpreted to mean that there is going to be a lot of room in heaven, and the deceased is going to be part of this diverse body of house dwellers. But it also tells us that are many different ways to be faithful people in this life. It also reflects the meaning found in our opening words. As we age, like Stanley Kunitz, we know we have walked through many lives, and like him we feel, “I am not who I was.” There are abandoned campsites. There are the true affections of our past. There are people we left behind as we moved on. A minister deeply feels these breaks in connections with people once he/she has left a parish. In life there are many mansions, and we are different in each of those times and places. We are changed by each of these mansions, or each of these layers, as Kunitz calls them. Each of those layers has brought something to us as we navigate the map of our lives, and recognizing that is much healthier than treating it all as litter we have thrown away. Life is these changing layers, these many rooms. In her book, Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup gives a good perspective on the need for building on these layers. In reflecting on a traditional view of an afterlife in heaven, Braestrup asks if we could imagine spending forever with ourselves. She believes none of us could stand it. Speaking of herself, she writes, “eternity is a long time to spend with someone who, for all her good qualities, talks a lot, is a compulsive knitter, and can’t keep track of car keys.” Then she goes on to reflect upon idea of being perfected in heaven. What good would that do us, she wonders. “If I’m perfect”, she writes, “I won’t be me.”

We build our self from the layers of struggle, the layers of both pain and glory, and each layer is a part of the story, not a rejected portion, but a building block to a fuller realization of the potential for love in each of us, and yet as Braestrup says, those nagging genetic failings, and those nagging traits of stubbornness or anger, or pride make it pretty unlikely that we will find a perfect soul waiting at the end of the line. The story of life is not so much the pure march to glory, but the coming back, the layers built on failure or the times to engage in what Mary Livermore calls the battle of life, and simply build layers that prove we have done the best we could have with what we have been given, and we must forgive ourselves for the perfection that will never be ours.

Mary Ashton Rice Livermore was one of the most famous women in the nineteenth century, and probably the most famous women lecturer in the world. Called the Queen of the Platform she gave her most enduring address, “What Shall We Do with our Daughters?,” a call for equal education for women, over 800 times. Her life was changed on Christmas Eve 1844 when she was out for a walk feeling lonely and adrift. As a strict Calvinist, she had been taught as a young girl to shun the wanton celebration of Christmas, but this night the music of the Universalist church in Duxbury drew her in, and she heard a message from the minister Daniel Livermore of God’s love for all. That one decision changed her life, as she went on to marry that minister and devote her life to greater service including the abolition of slavery, the care of wounded soldiers and finally, women’s suffrage. This last was not a battle she wished to lose, and she is probably most famously credited with this quote: “Whoever said, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts.’ probably lost.”   Livermore wrote about her experiences in the Civil War, concluding, “For humanity has moved forward to an era when wrong and slavery are being displaced, and reason and justice are being recognized as the rule of life.” Then near the end of her life, she wrote, The Story of My Life. She gives us some insight into our own reflections on spiritual autobiographies, when she wrote: “But it requires some courage to write one’s biography. Every human soul has its secret chamber, which no one is allowed to invade. Our uncomforted sorrows, our tenderest and most exquisite loves, our remediless disappointments, our highest aspirations, our constantly baffled efforts for higher attainments, are known only to ourselves and God. We never talk of them.”

Reflecting on the story of your life gives you the chance to talk about what has evolved in your soul, and hopefully continues to evolve. “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” is the title of Paul Gauguin’s most famous painting. It is housed at the MFA in Boston. He considered it his masterpiece; the culmination of all his work. His answers to these questions were embodied in a work of art. How would you articulate your answer? What are you doing to keep composing your masterpiece? About a year and a half ago, a colleague used those last words of the poem by Stanley Kunitz, “I am not done with my changes,” and implored a group of clergy not to be done with our changes, for he said once we ministers stop growing and changing, then the ministry in the congregation is over. It’s dead. The same is true of congregational life. I don’t mean in terms of numbers, as in drawing in more people, but rather that our purpose as a congregation must be spiritual growth for each and over member. Some of this is embodied in how we respond to our faith and go out and live in the world seeking justice and equality. For some this spiritual growth is fostered in public worship, as they find the courage to speak at Joys and Sorrows, and some of it may continue when you respond to a joy or sorrow and reach out to another person in some way, or it may be a quiet tear of resolve in the sanctuary, or the provocation to make the world a better place by giving time or energy to a cause or a program. Spiritual Autobiography may sound self-involved, but what it really means is that you find meaning in the experiences of your life, and greater understanding of your own strengths and weakness, talents and flaws that make what up what it is to be human – imperfectly human.

The story of our spiritual journeys starts for each of us in our childhood. For me, a crisis point was the rejection of the fundamentalist dogma of my childhood Sunday School that afforded me no place to engage in a free search for truth and explore those darn dinosaurs (that’s #1). This morning we heard a story from Listening is An Act of Love, about a man who was caught in a lie as a child. We saw how that lie was challenged and the great matriarch, shamed him a bit. While this might not be our stereotypical UU style of dealing with the lie, I kind of like the decisiveness of it. He never lied again, after she made him go to Sunday School in his pajamas. Most of us have these kind of indelible experiences in life that taught us something that is forever tattooed on our souls or psyches. Touching these stories of our lives reminds us of the powerful truth we each carry if given the chance to share that truth with others.

There is something powerful about sharing a story of your life. I was bemoaning the fact the other day that I did not get a chance to read or tell one Christmas story this year – no Polar Express, no Night Before Christmas, no Santa memory from my childhood dashing across the lawn. My boys are getting older and don’t clamor for stories much anymore. I still relish those moments when I get to read to them, telling a story, sitting close to them, watching for their engagement. James Carroll reminds us that the very act of story telling is holy, calling it a version of what God does. Telling your story is what brought you close to the person you love the most. And you tell them again as the layers grow, and the meaning deepens. The relationship falters when we stop talking and listening to one another. Carroll tells how another’s story became a resolution for him. Maybe we listen to another’s story and realize that is what I need to do. We often wait for others to tell us, you are real or or acceptable certified now. Ministerial students wait for the stamp of approval from some committee. But the truth is they become a minister in other ways. Perhaps it is as they sit with a family whose daughter has just died of cancer at the age of 34, for instance, and hear all about her life. That was the first funeral service I ever conducted. We hear of another’s pain or frustration or fear, and while we cannot give a answer of a perfect heaven waiting for all our loved ones and us, we can assure each person that they are loved, they are forgiven, and we are there to listen to their story.

James Carroll was already the real priest, but had to discover the vocation was in him. He didn’t need the pope. He needed the little child who he could anoint, and touch with a bond of eternal life. It was the little child’s story that gave him the strength to grasp his own spiritual power. That is why we need to listen, and keep listening, keep building new layers. We long to find a sense of our own spiritual vocation, and how we can fulfill it in the world.

One of the most effective books on we grow and compose new layers for our lives, is Catherine Bateson’s, Composing a Life. Bateson tells us it is possible to “create a context of sharing with very simple material cues.” She relates this to the traditional idea of sacrament. Many of us learned that sacrament is an outward sign of a deeper spiritual truth. Bateson says she prefers the idea that a sacrament effects what it signifies, so the lighting of candles, the giving of gifts, the preparation and sharing of of food, all refer to human closeness – warmth, what the other loves, and what we share together. They all have the potential to bring that closeness about. I invite you to take this class with me, or if not, then to share your story again with another, in the communion of the coffee hour even. Challenge yourself to return to that deep truth that is your story, someone is waiting to hear it.

Closing Words – from Mary Livermore

We may prove deserters or traitors, and struggle to the rear during the conflict, or go over to the enemy and fight under the flag of wrong. But the fact remains that we are all drafted into the battle of life, and are expected to do our duty according to the best of our ability.