A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons with words from Mark Bailey
delivered on Sunday, January 8, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

“Positive Outcomes in a Precarious World” by Mark Bailey

John asked me to come up and talk about why I do this form of self-expression.

My work intends to challenge people to reconsider assumptions about what is possible, affirm the power of intention and positive thought, and play on the concept of ephemerality and permanence.

Balancing rocks is a meditative act for me, an exercise in the power of visualizing positive outcomes. The work requires strength, dexterity, and patience, but the real challenge is simply mustering and maintaining the belief that it is possible.
The image on the cover of the order of service was taken in Acadia National Park. This piece of granite weighed about 40 pounds. It was about an hour of careful positioning before I gently lifted my hands away.

The rock spent hundreds of millions of years lying in the bedrock. It shared an intimate hour with me on a calm July evening. Perhaps another hour standing there after I left, the best view of its life, bathed in starlight, before tumbling back down to the bedrock just feet from where I found it.

In concluding an interview in 1996, Steve Jobs opened up to a Rolling Stone reporter and said “I think that life is something that happens in a flash.” He snapped his fingers. “We have just a brief moment here, and then we are gone.”

That rock in Acadia will probably lie right where it landed for a long, long time yet to come. To the distant stars, the era of that rock is itself just a moment. Did I change it? Did my time with it, the successful application of my intention, matter?

When I’m out balancing rocks and people happen across me, I get some strange looks. Believe me, this isn’t as improbable as it looks. Is anyone really going to try to tell me that this (gesture at balanced rock) is crazy, and what happens out there (gesture at the world) is sane? What’s happening here is governed by very clear and simple rules.

Out there? (shrug)

I like to call them positive outcomes in a precarious world.

“Balance” by Rev. John Gibbons

Just by seeing the rocks balanced in front of this pulpit, I think you’ve already had your sermon for this morning. I first saw Mark’s rocks last May at our Plant Fair and I couldn’t believe my eyes; I’d never seen such things; I was startled out of myself! I figured he must have drilled tiny holes through these rocks and inserted titanium connecting rods, or maybe he is some wizard of Crazy Glue. But, no! Nudged not even by a breeze or a stomp or a perceptible vibration, I even saw one of them thud nonchalantly to the ground. Mark, you make it look as though this balance is natural – which I guess it is – but then, just as naturally, they fall. I suppose, though, you’ve probably seen that happen before…right? So have we all.

Folks, just seeing this improbable “positive outcome in a precarious world” is today’s sermon. “Preach the Gospel always,” so said Francis of Assisi, “and, if necessary, use words.”

In Buddhism, the lotus flower which is born in mud at the bottom of the pond rises and blooms at the surface, symbolizing enlightenment.

The rainbow represents God’s covenant with humankind.

Orthodox Christian devotion contemplates the holy mystery of the cross.

Unimpressed by the preaching from the pulpit, Waldo Emerson in his pew in Concord was transfixed by what he saw through the clear glass windows of that sanctuary, the changing colors of the leaves, the crystals of the snow – a realization that, unmediated by words and books and institutions, one can have an original experience of the divine. (Which is why our Transylvanian friends say they build the walls of their sanctuaries high, so your mind won’t drift from the palaver of the preacher!)

Experiences of the natural world give us glimpses of the miraculous. You remember, I trust, my demonstration that it is possible to have a knitting needle run through an inflated balloon without it bursting? The Buddha had his little flower and I my balloon.

And so, yes, just by seeing these rocks, you’ve had your sermon for today. The rest is commentary.

We could, just as well, have as our focal point Mark and Heather’s newest child Nora Jane, Lila’s sister, and Nora could have been the sermon: proof positive of the possibility of positive outcomes in a precarious world.

I remember a minister’s meeting years ago where we passed around a paper bag with random objects and were asked to preach mini-sermons on whatever we pulled out. A clock: “It’s later than you think!” An onion: “Life has many layers and often you cry.” I recall one of our most distinguished elder colleagues, Wallace Robbins, holding aloft a light bulb and in a basso-profundo voice pronouncing, “Many hands make light work.” I actually thought he’d said something eloquent and profound! Perhaps he had.

Today’s commentary is on the topic of balance. I’ll pull this together sooner or later, but for now here’s an array of thoughts about balance.

From the library, I borrowed their every book about balance. Which reminds me that, whenever my wife has more than a few books to carry, she has since childhood learned to walk while balancing these books on her head. She’s quite good at this. Maybe she’ll be our focal point one day.

I found a children’s book, Things That Balance, all about fork lifts and ladders and sawhorses. And another book: Balance, In Search of the Lost Sense: a tome that claims that – in addition to the work of our eyes, nose, skin, tongue and ears we possess a 6th innate sense of balance, operating autonomically, below the level of consciousness, that “intricately orchestrates our nerve impulses and allows us to dance with gravity.” Now that’ll preach! Ask any senior, ask me, staying standing on two feet without falling is a mental, physical, spiritual discipline.

That book also told stories about Karl Wallenda and the Flying Wallenda’s, Karl having the “most perfectly honed balance of any human in the 20th century.” At the age of 67 “he walked a wire across the field at Philadelphia Stadium, entertaining Phillies baseball fans. A few years later he walked 750 feet above Tallulah Falls in Georgia, despite a vicious wind. He even did two headstands in midspan.” At age 70, Karl said, “I get so damn lonely on the ground.” “Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting.” That too will preach!

Apparently this can be taught, according to another wire-walker who says, “Ideally you’ll start with children or teenagers…You have to be willing to be alone. Kids just don’t want to practice because it’s boring. Walking the wire is sort of like playing scales on the piano. Most parents don’t force their kids: ‘Now get out there and walk five hundred times across the wire.’ It’s also frustrating because…when you first get on…all you’re doing is falling off, falling off, falling off.” Another teacher says, “It’s good to have an idea where your center of gravity is…” I think I’ll be speaking with our RE and Adult Education Committees…A low wire, perhaps, maybe from that balcony to that balcony?”

This book has very practical balance exercises to promote equilibrium. “Balance is the action of not moving.” Practice not moving. The instructions are a bit more involved but 3 times a week, spend 10 or 15 minutes standing on one leg.

Now this too will preach: Perhaps you recall the story of Shammai and Hillel, two contemporary teachers of Jewish law. Shammai was a strict constructionist, demanding and inflexible. Hillel was the more flexible constructionist, liberal and tolerant. Some provocateur came to them both asking them to teach the whole of the Torah while standing on one foot. Predictably, Shammai was provoked and whacked the man with a stick. Hillel, however, gladly cooperated, stood on one foot and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another.” Here, you can do this too so, as you’re able stand up. Now. Get on one foot; don’t lean on the pew; and repeat after me, “That which is hateful to you”… “do not do unto another.” OK, sit down, please. And then Hillel said, “This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary…now go study.”

Here’s also a Buddhist story about balance: “There was once a bamboo acrobat and his student who began going from town to town to perform some amazing tricks they had mastered so they could collect fees from appreciative crowds. When they arrived in the first town, the master set up his bamboo pole, and called for his student to climb the pole and then stand on his shoulders – “Come, Medakathalika, climb the pole and stand upon my shoulders.” The student did as he was bid and the master acrobat advised him “Now, lad, you watch out for me and I’ll watch out for you. And being thus careful for each other, we’ll perform our tricks, amaze the crowd, come down safely and collect a good fee.”

What this master said just makes good solid sense, doesn’t it? We do have to work together and watch out for each other. There can be some pretty nasty falls in life and it’s good to know that someone is there to catch us if lose our balance. Such altruism is such a noble thing.

But the pupil, Medakathalika, didn’t like this idea. “No, master, that plan will not work. Rather, you look after yourself – keep your own balance, and I’ll look after myself – keep my balance, and I think that will be our best strategy for avoiding a mishap. By keeping my own balance, I will, in effect, be protecting you. And by keeping your balance, you will, in effect, be protecting me. Because if you fall, I fall. If I fall, you fall.”

The Buddha noted: “The pupil, Medakathalika, had the right idea. If we, too, are mindful in the way we live our own lives, striving to maintain a balanced attitude, staying focused on the present moment with an attitude of patience and forbearance, loving kindness and compassion, we will be also protecting others because we are maintaining our own spiritual balance, and this will create a situation in which both you and others are protected.”

Oh yes, I left out one thing about Karl Wallenda: 120 feet above the ground in a 30 mile per hour wind in Puerto Rico, he fell to his death at the age of 73. As Mark knows, and all of us really, these things happen.

I tried, not very successfully, to read a philosophical treatise, On Balance and was reminded of the two inscriptions on the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself! And nothing in excess!

One other book I tried to read is titled In Search of Balance, Keys to a Stable Life. It has good advice about stress management, and boundary setting, and credit cards, seeking periodic technological solitude, workaholism, declining with gratitude, flextime… and there’s a whole section titled “Stay Off the High Wire.” All good advice, even if Karl Wallenda wouldn’t have liked it, but the essential issue is, I think, that balance is not learned from books.

Shakespeare, in As You Like It:

Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

My mentor in ministry was Gordon McKeeman, you’ve heard me speak of him before. On his desk were two objects and both bespoke balance.

The first was a gyroscope, like this one. Ministers, certainly, but all of us truly, aspire to stay aright, stay spinning, whatever the precarious angle. And, yet , even the best of gyroscopes stop and topple. Spinning, dancing with gravity, is nonetheless a worthy endeavor.

The second object that Gordon kept on his desk was, indeed, a stone and it was a reference to Sisyphus whom this day we may also remember. Now Sisyphus was not an admirable character in mythology for he thought himself more clever than Zeus. When it was proven otherwise, Zeus displayed his own cleverness by binding Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration of rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only for it to roll down every time he neared the top. Pointless or interminable activities are often described as Sisyphean, but then again – just ask Mark – such is the fate of all who roll with boulders.

I have another thought about balance and perhaps it goes back to the book about the “lost sense.” I believe that in each of us there is a profound and innate inner sense of balance, a center of gravity, but also a sense of incredible possibility, the possibility of positive outcomes in a precarious world.

This is a social sense as well as a personal sense, a moral and spiritual sense of balance, uprightness, rectitude, right and wrong.

I don’t know what to think of the Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston and all the other global occupations. “Abolish Money” screamed a placard photographed in a recent newspaper. Now I’ve had some experience as an activist, I know some strategies and tactics but abolishing money has never been a likely outcome, you know what I mean?

But when you hear, as we did this week, that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office notes that “between 1979 and 2007 income grew by 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households, 65 percent for the next 19 percent, just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent and just 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. Moreover, the report notes that more concentrated sources of income such as business income and capital gains grew faster than labor income.”

In the last 27 years, the income for the wealthiest Americans has grown 275% while it’s grown 18% for the bottom 20%???

Now I know we glaze over with these statistics. Megan rattled off some similar ones in a recent sermon. But, you know, we all know…this is not just out of balance, it is wrong.

I don’t know that the occupy movements will change a thing, but they are a visible visceral demonstration (I’ve always liked it that in Spanish the word for political demonstration is manifestacion)…occupy is a manifestation of an economy outrageously out of balance.

In the 5th chapter of the Book of Daniel, verse 27: “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.”

We have an inner gyroscope – in our social and personal lives – can stay upright and spin despite great vicissitudes but when we lose our balance we are made nauseous and, indeed, topple.

One thing I have learned in therapy and which I try to teach is that, as individuals, we too have this sense of balance, this inner awareness and conviction that positive outcomes are indeed possible in an invariably precarious world. Like the acrobats about whom Buddha taught, we are not well advised to keep one another upright but rather to hone our own sense of our center of gravity. Several weeks ago I preached about peer pressure and I believe we are encouraged in community and relationship, but each of us must find that center-point of balance for him and herself.

I’ve gone all this way in this sermon and I see that I still have yet to say a promised word about flubber. Or my dreams of flying. Do you remember an NPR program some time ago that asked people what super-power they most would want? Would you want to be invisible? Or would you want to fly? It was quite interesting and both would have their advantages but, basically, it was sneaky people who wanted to be invisible. Spies, cheats, snoops. Intriguing, for sure; but most people as I recall wanted to fly. I have since I was a child.

In the 1961 Disney movie The Absent-Minded Professor, Fred McMurry cooked up a batch of anti-gravity flubber. The movie was so popular it was followed by Son of Flubber and a later remake with Robin Williams. And so it was that, as a 9-year old in 1961, I filled our house with smoke (this was before smoke detectors) and narrowly averted catastrophe when after school, on the kitchen stove, I melted down a special concoction of rubber balls, golf balls, ping pong balls and every other bouncy thing I could get my hands on. This experiment was not especially successful. But how cool would it have been had I succeeded!!!

Fortunately, some time later I had a nighttime dream in which, if I got on my tippy-toes and launched myself in a way just right I could indeed fly. I could soar, I could swoop, I could glide. You saw on the news the other day that some guy – Brandon Mroz was his name – for the first time in ice-skating history, he flawlessly launched, landed and nailed a quadruple lutz. Well, I’m telling you, compared to what I could do in my dream, that lutz was a klutz! No, he was very very good and I don’t mean to diminish his accomplishment…but I could fly!

That dream has recurred not frequently but occasionally (I have my nightmares and anxieties and tossings-and-turnings too) but that dream is a great dream. Not only that, but sometimes, even when I am awake, there is something deep inside me that is convinced (now I don’t want you to think I’m bragging; I really don’t think I’m better than anybody else) but I think that, if the circumstances were right and required it, well, I could get on my tippy toes and launch myself into flight. This may be my last sermon before you haul me off, but I really do believe I can fly. Here I fly; I can do no other.

This morning, Mark has preached a beautiful sermon. As he quoted Steve Jobs, “…Life is something that happens in a flash. (Snap fingers) We have just a brief moment here, and then we are gone.”

Is anyone really going to try to tell us that this is crazy, and what happens out there is sane?

Here may we imagine and make real positive outcomes in a precarious world.

This sermon comes, just like Cracker Jack, with a prize, a bonus, a lagniappe, a little treat:

A poem by Barbara Crooker, titled “Sometimes, I Am Startled Out of Myself”:

Sometimes I am startled out of myself
like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

May we be startled out of ourselves. May dreams and visions of wholeness and that which is possible in our precarious world come and come again, and again. May it be so. Amen.