Monday, August 27, 2018

Surprised by Joy

Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E. B. White, may be best known as the author of Charlotte’sWeb and Stuart Little, or, by people of a certain age, the co-author of a little volume often called Strunk & White or, more accurately The Elements of Style.  (Some people shudder at the memory of it; others delight in its clarity and decisiveness.  Most are surprised to know that it was written by the same author who wrote Charlotte’s Web.)

For 50 years White was a contributor to The New Yorker, most often writing what the magazine calls "Newsbreaks" which are short, witty comments on oddly worded writing, under various categories such as "Block That Metaphor."  (I got some of my love of words from these pieces, which my mother delightedly shared with me.)  White won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for (in the words of the award), "his letters, essays and the full body of his work.”  He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.
In my research I came across this description of White that I just have to share with you all.  James Thurber, who also delighted my mother and me, once described White as a quiet man who disliked publicity and who, during his time at The New Yorker, would slip out of his office via the fire escape to a nearby branch of Schrafft's to avoid visitors whom he didn't know.  Thurber wrote:
Most of us, out of a politeness made up of faint curiosity and profound resignation, go out to meet the smiling stranger with a gesture of surrender and a fixed grin, but White has always taken to the fire escape. He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club [a trendy nightclub in Manhattan]. His life is his own. He is the only writer of prominence I know of who could walk through the Algonquin lobby or between the tables at Jack and Charlie's and be recognized only by his friends.
White and his family came to live full-time at their farmhouse on the coast of Maine.  By all accounts he loved his life on the farm, relishing the delights – and there’s that word again – of the natural world that surrounded him.  In fact, he once stopped in his barn, captivated, watching a spider spinning her egg sac.  That spider eventually became “Charlotte.”  The Newbury Award winning author Kate DiCamillo, in her foreword to Charlotte's Web, quoted White as saying, "All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world." All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
I tell you all of this to give you something of the background of the man who said the quote that’s at the heart of this morning’s service:
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
It’s also sometimes remembered as (and I prefer this version):
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
There’s a condition known as “compassion fatigue,” or, “secondary traumatic stress.”  I’d wager that many of us, maybe most of us here, know at least a little something about it.  I cannot tell you how many people have told me that they’ve had to stop watching the news because they just can’t take it (especially since the Presidential election this past year, but honestly, for years and years before that as well).  We see:

  • The seemingly constant shootings of unarmed black men by police officers who too often face no charges;
  • The obscene income gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – a gap that is growing, leaving far too many people struggling just to eke out the most basic level of living;
  • The rape culture in which we live and which is taken as the norm, apparently accepting (or ignoring) that a sexual assault occurs on average once every 2 minutes, and that one-in-five women will be raped at some point in their lives (a percentage that is significantly higher for women in LGBTQ communities);
  • The so-called school-to-prison pipeline, pandemic in communities of color, which can be argued to begin as young as preschool, where black children are roughly 3 ½ times more likely than white children to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions;
  • Environmental degradation so profound that many scientists think are nearing the point of no return, if we haven’t passed that already;
  • Utter disregard for any kind of civil discourse, or even belief in things like “facts;”
  • The intentional and explicit targeting of people in historically marginalized communities, rolling back any progress seen toward societal recognition of their full humanity;
  • The disintegration, here and abroad, of the building blocs of democratic societies;
Of course, I could go on (and on, and on), yet just hearing such a list threatens to burn out even more people.  I recently re-watched the movie Where the Wild Things Are, in which the wild thing Carol at one point angrily shouts a litany of things that are wrong on their island, among which he includes the fact that the sun is dying and will have essentially burned out in something like 5 to 6 billion years.  The point?  Live is hard.
And I haven’t even brought up all of the local, personal tragedies and traumas we face – people we know who have just received serious health news, or our own receipt of a serious prognosis; the death of loved ones; accidents with catastrophic consequences (and even not so catastrophic ones); job loss or insecurity; addictions; divorces …
I could go on with this list, too, yet the point is the same:  life is hard.  And there is so much that is wrong with the world that many of us wake in the morning desiring to save the world.  Or we go to bed nearly broken by the secondary traumatic stress we find ourselves having to endure.  It’s as if the world itself, as if life itself, is one of J. K. Rowling’s Dementors – creatures who drain “peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them.”  The world we live in threatens to such the joy from our lives, and has already done so in some cases.
There’s a story from the Buddhist tradition which tells of a mother who’d just gone through the death of her child.  Distraught, overcome, she seeks out the Buddha, whose teachings are said to be “medicine,” and begs him to bring her son back to life.  The Buddha tells her that she must bring him a mustard seed from a house that has known no suffering.  The woman goes door to door, asking for a mustard seed, but when she asks if there had ever been any suffering there, at each home she is told of some difficult thing the family had had to endure at some point.  After going to all of the houses in her village, the woman, undaunted, begins to visit neighboring villages, yet her experience is always the same.  Over time, though, the woman’s frantic desperation begins to be somewhat tempered by the kindness of the people she meets, the empathy and care she experiences, the evidence that even despite their sufferings the people she visits have gone on with their lives.  Finally, the woman returns to the Buddha.  “Have you found the seed from the house that has known no suffering?” he asks.  “I have found no such home,” she replied, “yet I now know that I am not alone.”  “That is good,” the Buddha said.  “I can not return your dead child to life, but I can return your life to you.  Go in peace.”
The Protestant theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:
"You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter. It is your birthday, and there are many presents to open. The world is to open."
“[T]here are many presents to open.  The world is to open.”
E. B. White was born in 1899, and died in 1985.  During those years he certainly saw how painful, how cruel, how hard life can be.  He saw wars, the civil rights struggle, the Great Depression.  He knew how much the world needed saving. 
And yet …  (Those who know me could have guessed that there’d be an “and yet” before we were through here, right?)
White knew how hard life in this world can be, and yet he also knew life’s wonders.  And so, he arose each morning “torn by the desire to save the world and to savor the world.”  For years I’d thought that it was this phrase, this seeming conundrum, that was the important point of thiS quotation.  I’ve lately come to realize that it’s actually what I’d thought was the throw-away that is the point.  I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”  This makes it hard to plan my day.  He is talking about making an active, conscious choice.  A choice he makes each day.  He knows the world needs saving – oh how we know that too, we know so, so, so many ways that our world needs us to work for its salvation.  He also knows how worthy the world is of being savored.  And he is torn, as so many of us are.  Yet he also knows that it is within his power to choose where he will put his focus.  He gets to plan his day; it isn’t planned for him by either the savoring nor the saving.  And so it is for us, too.
It’s not easy, but as Buechner said, nobody claimed that it would be “entirely painless.”  That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though.  And I’m going to tell you this morning — and remind myself — that it’s absolutely possible.  We … can … choose … day-by-day … whether we have the strength today to save, or whether we need to restore ourselves with a little savoring. 
One last thought:
While it’s true that we often need to make a choice, we don’t always.  Sometimes that savoring can be part of the saving.  In fact, you might say that sometimes the ability to savor the world saves the act of striving to save it from completely burning us out.
A few weeks back I told the story of the activist Emma Goldman, who is remembered as saying “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”  It’s more likely that what she actually said was something more like, “what’s the point of a revolution if you can’t dance?”  Either way, the point is the same.  When we’re involved in the work of striving to save the world, when we’re knee deep in the effort to address the ubiquitous injustices we can’t help but see all around us, it is essential that we take – that we make – the time to dance, sing, laugh, savor.  Rev. Alex put it really well last week:  “Pick your tool, if you have not already. And continue your work, side-by-side. And, sing some work songs while you are at it.”
Look around you.  The people you are sitting with, and most likely you, yourself, are people who are involved in the work of making the world a better place, have been involved in that work … some of you for a very long time.  Look around you.  [Seriously, look at the people around you.]  Drink in their beauty (remembering to remember your own, of course).  Let their commitment(s) inspire you.  There are so many good examples in this room of people committed to making this world a better, more just, more love-filled place.  Savor one another.  And then let’s back the work of saving this hurting, beautiful world.

Pax tecum,

On Falling and Rising

Her marriage had imploded, leaving her a divorced, single mother, dependent on welfare to get her from day-to-day.  She was severely depressed, and things felt so bad to her that she considered suicide.  To make matters worse, perhaps, she also was an aspiring author.  She said ever since she had learned what a writer was, she wanted to be one.  So she would take her baby and a number of yellow legal pads down to a local coffee shop, where the baby would sleep in her carriage, and the woman would nurse one coffee, and write.

She finally did finish the novel she’d been working on, but then couldn’t find a publisher.  Some say she was rejected 9 times, others 12, but it is certain that the head of the publishing house that finally did pick the book up never actually read the manuscript himself.  He’d given it to his eight year old daughter, who proceeded to nag him for months, wanting to know what happened next. 

As far back as the 5th century B.C.E., the Chinese Philosopher Confucius was teaching, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  Nanakorobi Yaoki is a Japanese saying that translates as, “Fall seven times; rise eight times.”  (This is metaphoric, of course.  It’s not the physical act of “falling” and “rising” that we’re talking about here, but the “falling” and “rising” of our spirits, of our courage, of our resolve, of our living.)

There are so many stories about people who proved that on that eighth time rising miraculous things can happen.  (A quick search turned up hundreds of such stories, and I’ve got tell you – editing them down to the one’s I’m going to tell you was really, really hard.)  Here are a few:

  • Harrison Ford was told by movie execs that he simply didn’t have what it takes to be a star
  • Before I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball was widely regarded as a failed actress, nothing more than a B movie star.  Even her drama instructors didn’t feel she could make it, telling her to try another profession.
  • Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”   But he went on to start … a number of businesses that didn’t last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure.
  • After an aspiring actor’s first screen test, an MGM Testing Director noted, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” He was talking about Fred Astaire.
  • Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1800 works, yet had fewer than a dozen poems published in her lifetime.
  • Madeleine L'Engle's, A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 26 times before it was picked up.
  • Early in Elvis Presley’s career, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry fired him after just one performance, saying, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”
  • William Golding’s book Lord of the Flies. — often included on lists of best novels ever written — was rejected 21 times.
  • Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times.  In his early days, King has said, he would take all of the rejection notes he got and put them on a nail in the wall.  Eventually there were so many that the nail fell down.  So, he replaced it with a spike and kept on writing.

Nanakorobi Yaoki Whether they knew the words or not, all of these people fell a whole lot more than seven times, and all of them rose at least one more time than they fell.

Three more stories.  (I can’t resist):

  • Ludwig van Beethoven’s teachers thought he was hopeless and would never succeed as either a violinist or a composer.
  • Thomas Edison’s earliest teachers thought that he was “too stupid to learn anything,” and he was fired from his first two jobs for not being productive enough. And you may have heard the famous story that when working to create the filament for his incandescent light, he made something like 1,000 attempts before finally getting it right.  When asked how he dealt with so much failure he said, “I never failed.  I successfully discovered 1,000 ways it wouldn’t work.”
  • This last story is one of someone who is perhaps best known for his starring role in the seminal film Space Jam, or maybe because he’s often referred to as the greatest basketball player who ever lived, Michael Jordan has said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

Look at it from either side: “I never failed.  I successfully discovered 1,000 ways it wouldn’t work.” or “I have failed over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”  It essentially comes down to Nanakorobi Yaoki and the promise that if only we can rise more than we fall …

I would wager that most of us haven’t faced situations as dramatic as these, yet I’d also bet that we’ve all had times in our lives when we felt as if the cards were stacked against us, as though nothing would – or could – go right, as though we knew that other shoe was going to drop pretty soon (and that there was an infinite amount of shoes after that one).  No doubt most of us have been knocked down more than once, and I know that in my own life there’ve been times when I thought I just simply didn’t have it in me to get up again.  Any of you been there?

Now keep in mind: the reason the stories I’ve just shared are so inspiring is that we know the outcome.  We know what the people in them didn’t know at the time, because at the time most of those people probably felt just as badly as we do when we’ve been knocked down (or out).   They did not know that success was around the corner.  After Carrie was rejected so many times, Stephen King gave up, and threw the manuscript in the garbage.  It’s a good thing that his wife fished it out and encouraged him to try again, because he’s now published more than 90 books. At the time, though, he had no idea of what lay ahead of him.  At the time, all of that rejection, all of that “failure,” all of that falling down was as devastating for him as it can be for us.

BrenĂ© Brown, who has her own story of falling and rising, has put it quite simply, “The truth is that falling hurts. The dare is to keep being brave and feel your way back up.”  There it is.  When you don’t know how things could possibly turn out okay in the end, all we know is that falling down hurts.  Because it does.  It hurts a lot. 

So it’s no wonder that a whole lot of people simply stop daring, stop taking risks, stop … well … stop starting up again when all that we know has come to a grinding halt.  “The truth is that falling hurts. The dare is to keep being brave and feel your way back up.”

I recently read somewhere that that Japanese proverb has a second part.  Fall seven times.  Rise eight times.  Your life begins today.

That is why we are encouraged to rise that eighth time.  That is the reason we’re told to get up again even when getting up seems like the last thing we can possibly do, the last thing we can possibly want to do because the falling down has hurt so much and we really don’t want to get hurt any more.

The author, historian, and philosopher, Will Durant, collaborated with his equally impressive wife, Ariel Durant, in writing the 11-volume work, The Story of Civilization.  I’d imagine that after all that he’d know a thing or two about the human experience.  Here’s something he said:
“Forget mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you are going to do right now, and do it. Today is your lucky day.”
It is worth our continuing to risk falling, to actually experience falling, and failing, over and over again, because, no matter how many times we’ve fallen, when we rise again our lives can begin again.  Living this way is worth the risks because the promise of a new start, the promise of a new path, the promise of a (re)new(ed) life is waiting for us.  This is true whether we’re talking about individuals or a community like this.  Taking the risk – the risk of falling, the risk of failing, the risk of hurting is worth it because of what we can find on the other side.

Pax tecum,


Monday, August 06, 2018


Today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan 73 years ago.  At the time of the bombing the city's population was approximately 340,00 - 350,000 people.  It is estimated that the bomb directly killed 70,000 people, including 20,000 Japanese combatants and 2,000 Korean slave laborers. By the end of the year, injury and radiation brought the total number of deaths to 90,000–166,000.  About 70% of the city's buildings were destroyed, and another 7% severely damaged.  This was the first time an atomic bomb was dropped on a city.  

Two days later another bomb was, this time on the city of Nagasaki.  At the time, the population of Nagasaki was estimated to be about 263,000 people -- 240,000 Japanese residents, 10,000 Korean residents, 2,500 conscripted Korean workers, 9,000 Japanese soldiers, 600 conscripted Chinese workers, and 400 Allied POWs  Less than a second after the detonation, the north of the city was destroyed and 35,000 people were killed.

On August 12, 2007 I preached this sermon at the congregation I was serving in Brewster, Massachusetts.  While many of the specifics are clearly of the time, I think the message still has relevance.

Opening Words:  The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.

by Wislawa Szymborska 

(translated by Joanna Trzeciak)

Szymborska is a Polish poet and essayist.
She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. 

Reading:  “Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titantic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hand raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint- the man, the woman, the children, the ball- remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.”

From “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury.

* * *

At 8:14 there was a clear blue sky.  Birds flew in the morning sunshine.  Children laughed as they made their way to school.  People were doing tai chi and calisthenics in a city park.  There’d been a scare earlier in the morning but it seemed now that everything was okay.  Even when the world around you seems to be going crazy, days like this can make you feel alive and grateful.  The air is clean; the sun, warm.  You can forget the insanity.  On a day like this.  For a moment everything makes sense.
And in that moment—31,000 feet above the birds, and the children, and the men doing tai chi—the bomb doors on the Enola Gay opened and let loose a metal cylinder.  Ten feet long and two-and-a-half feet in diameter, it would change the world.  Not just for the people below or the people in the plane, but for every man, every woman, and every child who lived or ever would.
Forty-three seconds after it was flung loose that metal cylinder was 1,900 feet above the ground and it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT.  The birds burst into flame in mid-air.  So did combustible things like paper—even as far as a mile away.  Instantly.
The people in the park right below turned to ash.  Instantly.  A woman sitting on the steps of her bank, waiting for it to open, was reduced to a shadow.  You can see it today in the Hiroshima Peace Museum where they moved the steps so that she might not be forgotten.
Next came the blast wave.  Moving at a rate of two miles a second, people were blown from their feet, buildings were blown to the ground, trolleys and cars were blown from the roads.  Glass shattered twelve miles away.  A boy was blown through the windows of his house and across the street; his house collapsing behind him.  Within minutes, nine out of ten people half a mile or less from ground zero were dead.
And the numerous fires that erupted around Hiroshima soon joined together creating a monstrous firestorm that engulfed nearly four and half square miles of the city.  In its heart it is estimated that this beast reached temperatures of over seven thousand degrees.  (For comparison, the surface of the sun is just under ten thousand degrees.)  An interesting fact:  a postwar study showed that less than 4.5 percent of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima suffered leg fractures.  That’s not, of course, because those injuries didn’t occur but because those who couldn’t walk died.
It’s estimated that somewhere around 100,000 people died as a direct result of the blast and the fires.  100,000 people. 
Yet these are just numbers:  15,000 tons of TNT.  Seven thousand degrees.  100,000 people dead.  60 million dead if you add in all those—military and civilians—who died during World War II. 
And wasn’t it World War I that was called “the war to end all wars”?
But it didn’t, did it?  And neither did World War II.  Or the Korean War.  Or Vietnam.
And now we’re embroiled in a war which we started without provocation, a “pre-emptive war” which it is clear that our leaders lied us into launching.  Over 135,000 people have died, and our country alone has spent roughly $451,345,000,000 on the war—that’s as of 9:00 this morning when I checked a running total on the web.  The money we’ve spent on the war in Iraq could have paid for 59,780,739 kids to attend Head Start, nationwide, for a year.  Or it could have built 114,832 additional units of affordable housing in Massachusetts.  Or it could have hired 7,170 new public school teachers in Barnstable County alone.  So, what is the cost of this war?
Yet even more important than that is the question, “what is the cost of war?”  Any war?  What do we loose—not just how many lives are lost but how much Life is lost—when nations take up arms against each other? 
How is it possible that we haven’t stopped fighting yet?  After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Pearl Harbor, the Congo, Korea, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sarajevo, Somalia, Northern Ireland, New York City, Bagdad—how can we still be slaughtering one another?  It’s been over thirty years since Edwin Starr shouted out, “War.  What is it good for?”  and answered himself, “Absolutely nothin’.”  How is it that we haven’t learned?
Maybe it’s because we keep talking about numbers.  Joseph Stalin said that the death of one person is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. But there are no statistics.  There is no such thing as “collateral damage.”  There are only people—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, grandchildren, neighbors, friends.  Strangers, even.  Enemies, even.  But no numbers.  Numbers don’t exist; only people do.  Until they don’t anymore.  Until they become shadows in a museum.
Or maybe it’s because we keep thinking that we can fight our way to peace, that the problem is some bad people over there and if we can just beat them into submission peace will prevail.  We believe that it’s in talking tough, acting tough, that we protect the peace.  We’re told—and many believe—that the best defense is a good offense and that while might might not make right, might in the hands of the good guys is there to be used.
Or maybe we’re still warring even with the mushroom cloud in our memories because we haven’t really explored an alternative.  One thing that gives me hope is the legislation currently before the U.S. House of Representatives to create a United States Department of Peace.  This legislation would:
l     Create a cabinet level position—the Secretary of Peace—who would be equal to the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State and would advise the president on peacebuilding needs, strategies, and tactics for use both domestically and internationally.
l     It would create a Peace Academy, on a par with our military service academies, which will build a world-class faculty of peacebuilding experts who would be able to analyze peacebuilding strategies at the highest level, advise other branches of government, and facilitate the training of peacebuilders for domestic and international service. 
l     This legislation calls for funds to create and expand proven domestic peace building programs in our communities.

In short, the Department of Peace would be dedicated to discovering, developing, and deploying methods to meaningfully prevent conditions of conflict before violence erupts—both abroad and at home.

Now, of course, lots of individuals and groups think that that’s just a nutty idea.  But peace will never be found at the end of the barrel of a gun.  Remember the quotations from the first of our peace services last year:
l     If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
~ Mother Teresa
l     There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.  ~ A.J. Muste
l     Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people.  ~ Jawaharlal Nehru
l     Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace.  ~ Martin Luther
I think that it was Einstein who, after seeing the devastation of the atomic bomb, said that humankind had progressed so far technologically that we now needed an evolution of consciousness if we hoped to survive.  And Al Gore, in his film An Inconvenient Truth, made the point that when old habits—and he used the example of humanity’s penchant for warfare—are joined to new technology—and here he showed a picture of an atomic mushroom cloud—the results can be devastating and so we have to somehow learn to break our old habits.
This week saw the sixty-second anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  During the service I’ve had this metronome beating out as fast as it can, and if each beat represents one person—one mother, father, husband, wife, sister, brother, daughter, son who died from the immediate effects of the bombing on August 6th—then when our hour is up . . . at this rate . . .  we will be halfway through remembering them all.
But it’s not about numbers, and it’s not even about what has been done.  It’s about people, and about what we can do.  I’d like to see First Parish take its place as a leader in this work for peace.  We have strongly staked our place as an open, anti-oppression congregation.  I would like to see us take and equally solid stand as a place of peace. 
We are known for stands against the demonization of people because of their race, or their gender expression, or their sexual orientation; I would like us to become known for standing against the demonization of people because of their nationality or their ideology.  We are engaged with the work of ending violence in the home, let’s expand that to our world home.  Let’s build on the work we’re already doing—which so many of us as individuals are already involved in—and make peace one of our priorities.
Protests, vigils, letter writing, hosting community forums, working on legislation, running for office . . . we can do so many things.
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes.  Edward Everett Hale.  “I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything, I must not fail to do the something that I can.”

Closing Words:  Every Day

War is no longer declared,
only continued. The monstrous
has become everyday. The hero
stays away from battle. The weak
have gone to the front.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its medal the pitiful star of hope above the heart.
The medal is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the artillery falls silent,
when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for desertion of the flag,
for bravery in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the disregard
of every command.

by Ingeborg Bachmann, Austiran poet

Walking the High Wire

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, August 5th, 2018.

It was 7:00 am on August 7th, 44 year’s ago. A young man, one week shy of his 25th birthday,  stood with one foot on the edge of a building, and the other foot on a steel cable ¾ of an inch in diameter. The man was French wire walker Philippe Petit; the building was the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York; and that cable was about a quarter of a mile off the ground. (By the way, in case you’re interested, 3/4 of an inch is about the diameter of an average adult thumb.)

Petit has described this moment before his walk in his book Man on Wire (which was also the name of the award winning 2008 documentary about the walk, and which is actually what one of the police officers wrote on a form to describe the incident):

“I place my left foot on the steel rope.

The weight of my body rests on my right leg, still anchored to the flank of the building

I still belong to the material world.

Should I ever so slightly shift the weight of my body to the left, my right leg will be unburdened, my right foot will freely meet the wire.

On one side, the mass of a mountain. A life I know.

On the other, the universe of the clouds, so full of unknown that it seems empty to us. Too much space.

Between the two, a thin line on which my being hesitates to distribute whatever strength it has left.

Around me, no thoughts.  Too much space.

At my feet a wire, nothing else.”

He then did shift his weight to the left, stepped free of the building, and proceeded to spend 45 minutes walking, dancing, kneeling, and even laying down ¼ of a mile above New York City’s financial district, on a wire the thickness of your thumb.

Just as the circus art of juggling is often used as a metaphor — you know, “I’m juggling too much right now, I don’t know how I can keep all the balls in the air” — so is the art of the wire walker.  When things are hard, when we feel we need to especially careful, we might say that we feel like we’re walking a tightrope, and that one wrong step …

You often hear relationships referred to as “mine fields,” but its maybe just as often said that you’ve got to be able to walk a tightrope to be in a relationship.  On the one side, your needs and desires; on the other side, theirs.  On once side, being empathetic and understanding; on the other, asserting yourself.  Cap on, cap off, the toothpaste.  Toilet paper over or under the roll.  This is some serious stuff here.

Most Sundays, while telling you to feel free to do here what it is that you, specifically and particularly, need to do to feel fully present while being aware that the people around you may well have other needs that are different than ours, I say that you get to engage the “spiritual practice” of balancing your needs with the needs of someone else.  I’m not just trying to be cute; I mean it.  Balancing my needs with the needs of someone else is spiritual work, and like all spiritual practices it is both really simple, and deceptively so.

A few weeks back I was talking about that near universal deeply seated fear that if someone knew the full truth of who we are they wouldn’t like us anymore and would reject us.  It’s amazing how common this fear is.  If you really know who I am, you’ll reject me.  So most of us have developed a myriad of ways to keep someone from discovering the full truth of who we are.  We keep part of ourselves stashed away – “hidden” may be too strong a word for some of us, but certainly “out of sight.”  (And not in a groovey 1960s way.) 

A couple of days ago I was driving and listening to Santana’s album Supernatural.  I got hooked (as I always do) on the song “Smooth.”  And since during the week I’m generally writing and rewriting that Sunday’s sermon in my head, a part of the chorus jumped out at me.  (And don’t worry.  I’m not going to start singing it now.)  Rob Thomas, vocalist for Matchbox Twenty, sings, “I would change my life to better suit your mood (because you’re so smooth).” 

I would change my life to better suit your mood.  I would become who you want (or need) me to be to make (or keep) you happy.  This might be a little extreme for some of us – actually, I hope it is – yet don’t most of us recognize the impulse behind it?  Haven’t most of us, at some time or another, tried to morph ourselves into something else for the sake of someone else?  Laughed at a joke we really didn’t find all that funny?  Found delicious – or, at least palatable – a meal that we really didn’t find to be either?  Sat through the latest Marvel movie when we really wanted to be one theatre over watching the new romantic comedy? Listened to a story when we’re rather have been watching the game?

Does any of that sound familiar to anyone?  I’d think so, because the folks who gather in Unitarian Universalist congregations on Sunday mornings tend to be good hearted, caring folks. And if we’re at all evolved human beings – as I hope most of us are at least somewhat, and at least some of the time – then I know that you’re needs matter if you matter at all to me.  And being the caring person I am, I want to see that you get your needs me to the extent that I’m able influence that at all.  So while there’s an extreme form of this impulse, there’s also a more reasonable version as well – sometimes it’s good, it’s right, to put someone else’s wants and needs before our own.

At the same time, though, we UUs also tend to be pretty darned individualistic.  And we’re well aware of how easy it is to go too far in the direction of giving ourselves over to another person.  We know that it’s possible to lose ourselves in the process; that it’s not healthy to follow Rob Thomas’ relationship advice and change our lives to better suit someone else’s moods.  So, individualists that we are, we are likely to have in us a spark of assertive “You Can’t Tell Me What To Do.”  Yes, yes, yes, your feelings matter, but so do mine!  The majority of us UUs are part of the “baby boomer generation,” and we were raised knowing how important it is to be authentic, to be real, to be ourselves.  We’ve committed to memory saint Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey – or, at least its sentiment – that we have to leave behind us “the voices … that kept shouting their bad advice … ‘Mend my life!’ each voice cried. … [Nonetheless,] “[we] strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing [we] could do—determined to save the only life [we] could save.”  I can’t fix anyone else; I can’t “mend” anyone else’s life; I can’t change anyone except myself.  And since I can’t it’s important – essential, even – that I focus my energy working “my side of the street.”  That kind of game playing where I try to pretend to be who you want me to be is unhealthy – for both of us.  I mean, we’re not narcissistic or anything, but as Sammy Davis, Jr. used to sing, “I’ve got to be me!”


And, so, the balance.  On the one side, the oh so very human need to do whatever we can to deal with that deep, deep fear in us that who we are is not enough and that we need to show the world a more acceptable face than the face we fear will cause us to be rejected.  And there’s the mature and compassionate desire to be understanding of the person (or people) with whom I’m in relationship, to care about their needs as much as my own, to want to do for them what I’d want them to do for me (to coin a phrase).  To want to put their needs first – at least some of the time.  That’s on the one side.

On the other is the felt need to project – and, at the same time – protect my Self, to proudly proclaim my individuality, to declare “this is who I am!”  And there’s the mature and compassionate recognition that it’s unhealthy to collapse myself into another, to change my life so much for the other person (or people) with whom I’m in relationship, that it really is no longer my life.  

Between the two, a thin line on which our being hesitates.  At our feet a wire, nothing else.

I said a couple of times there “the person (or people) with whom I’m relationship,” because all of this is applicable to relationships other than the one-to-one relationships I’d wager most of us were thinking about.  All of this is true to some extent in our relationships with our bosses, our employees, our teachers, our students, our friends, our children, our parents, the people in our Covenant Group, the people on the Board (and vice versa), the people sitting closest to us this morning who might well have needs that are different than our own. 

It’s true, too, in our relationships with whole groups – theists and atheists; parents with young children and retirees with more time for volunteering; people who want more music, people who want more words, people who want more silence; people who want things the way they were and people who want things to be the way they could be; people who want the same thing yet see different ways of getting there; people who want donut holes during coffee hour and people who want only healthful snacks.

In each of these relationships, in all of our relationships, we can see at least something of the dynamic I’ve been talking about – the one side, the other side, and that thin tightrope down the middle.

I want to say something about tightropes:  they’re not really tight.  They’re not as loose as a slack rope, of course.  Nor as tight as a solid rod.  What we call a “tightrope” has to have a little play, a little give, a little “life” to it.  

Does that remind you of anything?  I’ve told many times before the story from the Buddhist tradition (but a good story always bears repeating, and not everyone has been here when I’ve told it before).  Siddhartha Gautama was involved in extreme practices of austere self-denial, when he overheard a sitar teacher talking to her student about the necessity of tightening the strings on the instrument just the right amount. (It’s coming back to some of you now, right?)  Too loose, and they won’t make any sound; too tight, and they’ll snap.  If you tighten them just right — neither too loose nor too tight — the music they make will be perfect.  The Buddha-to-be realized that he, too, needed to tread “the middle path,” between a too harsh asceticism and a too wanton hedonism.  The Middle Way, the Middle Path, that’s what the Buddha called his teachings of the Four Noble Truths which make up the heart of Buddhist teaching to this.  Not leaning too much to one side or to the other.

I want to say something about tightrope walkers, too (both literal and metaphoric).  Actually, I’m going to quote Sgt. Charles Daniels, a member of the New York City Port Authority Police, and one of the people who tried for over half an hour to get Petite off that wire 44 years ago.  When being interviewed soon afterward he said, “Officer Munoz and I observed the, uh, … tight rope dancer … because you couldn’t call him a walker.”  Those people who mount the wire don’t so much walk – at least in the plodding, pedestrian way we usually think about walking.  They dance.

I want to squeeze one last drop out of this metaphor – it doesn’t really matter how high the high is.  In fact, four years ago, for the 40th anniversary of what I call “the dance between the towers,” Petit celebrated by doing a walk at the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, New York.  The wire would be only 25 feet in the air – not the 1,400 feet it was in 1974 – yet Petit said that in many ways he was more nervous about this anniversary walk.  Not because he thought his skills had in any way deteriorate – in fact, he said at the time, “I am better at 65 than when I was an arrogant little bastard at 18.”  Rather, this seemingly far simpler walk – dance – was worrying him more because the wire would go over a pond, and he hates water because he can’t swim.  You see?  It doesn’t matter how high or how low the wire is, what matters is that we walk on it, dance on it, lightly.

This all may seem too simplistic, too … airy? (pun intended).  It may seem to have too little substance for a Sunday morning.  Yet spiritual teachings quite often look like that.  At least that’s what I’ve generally found.  And as I said about spiritual practices, the teachings of the great spiritual leaders of the world’s great religions are generally both really simple, and deceptively so.  And one of my mentors often says that what we preachers do here in the pulpit on a Sunday morning is really just the beginning of the sermon – what we do with it during the rest of the week is where the heart of it lies.

So I’m going to encourage each of us, and all of us, to spend some times this week we look through this lens at our relationships -- relationships with individuals in our lives, in the groups we belong to – to look at all of our relationships in all their varied permutations.  Use this metaphor to ask:
  • Am I leaning too far to one side or the other here?  Am I off balance?
  • What is the wire beneath my feet?  Where do I find a healthy equilibrium between this and that?
  • How tightly strung is that wire?  Too loose?  Too tight?  Just tight enough that it’ll hold me up yet still have play?
  • And, perhaps most important of all:  am I simply walking through this relationship, or am I dancing?

Pax tecum,


Note:  If read the book, watch the documentary, or see the more recent fictional film (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt), you are getting what Petit’s friend and collaborative partner Jean Louis Blondeau has called, “the fairy tale.”  I have had the privilege of corresponding with Jean Louis, and he has reminded me that there is always more to the story of the singular hero.  It took many people to make Petit’s walk possible; they were not simply his helpers or assistants.  In a very real way it was their walk as well.  It was Petit, alone, who danced on that wire that day, but he could not have gotten there without the collaborative relationships that are usually glossed over in the telling of “the fairy tale.”