“In the Presence of Absence”

“In the Presence of Absence”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered December 15, 2013
At the First Parish in Bedford, MA

Opening Words
Winter” by Greta Crosby

Let us not wish away the winter.
It is a season to itself,
Not simply the way to spring.

When trees rest, growing no leaves, gathering no light,
They let in sky and trace themselves delicately against dawns and sunsets.

The clarity and brilliance of the winter sky delight.
The loom of fog softens edges, lulls the eyes and ears of the quiet,
Awakens by risk the unquiet.
A low dark sky can snow, emblem of individuality, liberality, and aggregate power.
Snow invites to contemplation and to sport.

Winter is a table set with ice and starlight.

Winter dark tends to warm light: fire and candle;
Winter cold to hugs and huddles; winter want to gifts and sharing;
Winter danger to visions, plans, and common endeavoring —
And the zest of narrow escapes; winter tedium to merrymaking.

Let us therefore praise winter,
Rich in beauty, challenge, and pregnant negativities.

There are three stories that make much the same point. Perhaps one will resonate with you.

Story #1.
There was once a university professor who visited a Japanese Zen master. The professor wanted to learn more about Zen but he began by telling the master all that he had read about Zen and all the places he had studied and Zen’s place among world religions and all about why he was so interested in Zen.

After a while, the Zen master asked the professor if he would enjoy some tea and the professor accepted
The Zen master disappeared and then quickly reappeared with two cups and some steaming tea. The master smiled back as he poured tea into the cup. The professor watched the cup fill, and continued to watch as it overflowed. He put his hand up and exclaimed, “Stop! It’s overflowing. You’re wasting the tea and no more can fit in the cup!”

The Zen master nodded and calmly explained. “You are here to ask questions. Yet you come full. You have your own ideas and have no space. Until you have room for more, you will not accept new information.”

Story #2.
This story is about the 19th century Unitarian intellectual Oliver Wendell Holmes. (It was Holmes’ wife Fanny, by the way, who was once asked her religion and she famously responded, “In Boston everyone has to be something, and Unitarian was the least we could be!) Anyway, Oliver Wendell Holmes regularly had for his breakfast a daily bowlful of oatmeal porridge. Every day, invariably, without fail. When one day his cook reported oh-so-apologetically and with trepidation that she had run out of porridge, Holmes responded, “Why, that’s all right: I never really cared for it.”

Story #3.
Most days of the week I go to the gym and walk on a treadmill. There’s a TV monitor and there are channels we don’t get at home. Usually, I start with CNN. But after a while it gets repetitive and there are too many ads promoting pharmaceutical relief from erectile dysfunction or legal relief for sufferers of mesothelioma, not to mention Life Alert for those who have fallen and can’t get up. And so I surf the channels to Morning Joe or Good Morning America or Judge Judy or the Kardashians or Dr. Phil or ESPN or Sex in the City or Steve Wilkos…and then back again to Sex in the City or ESPN or Dr. Phil or the Kardashians or Judge Judy or GMA or Morning Joe…until eventually, sometimes I realize there’s another alternative: and that’s to turn the darn thing off!

Why, that’s all right: I never really cared for any of them!

What these three stories have in common, of course, is that human beings are creatures of habit. Habits can be very good. I once preached a sermon on spiritual discipline and illustrated it with dental floss. Flossing is healthy: we need dental floss and mental floss, too. There are healthy intellectual habits, financial habits, ethical habits, sexual habits, spiritual habits. There are healthy habits of the heart: among them generosity, honesty, forgiveness, compassion, humility.

And, of course, there are unhealthy habits, neuroses, addictions, self-destructive, abusive and just annoying habits. And as human beings we are uncannily expert at defending our habits and often we grow rather perversely fond of our neuroses.
Sometimes the only way to get fresh perspective is to have some kind of “time out.” Sometimes it has to be imposed, like we used to do with our kids when their behavior was disruptive: we’d give them a time-out.

Or there’s a day like today. Yes, snow can be an imposition and a hassle and work, but then there’s that Calvin & Hobbes experience when everything familiar has disappeared, the world looks brand-new, it’s a magical world, a world to explore.
Maybe you had the feeling this morning or maybe when you were a kid you can remember waking up in the morning and realizing – thank God – it’s a snow day!

There have been Saturday nights in my ministry when late at night I’d put my nose to the window pane and pray for just a few more inches of snow!

We crave times that the world may look brand-new and magical, a place to explore. Such times are uncommon, too few.
This relates, I think, to what Jennifer Roberts, a Harvard humanities professor, has written recently about the importance of teaching patience to her students, what she calls “deceleration” and “immersive attention.” A snow day, for example, teaches deceleration and immersive attention.

“I want to focus today on the slow end of this tempo spectrum,” Jennifer Roberts says, “on creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention. I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they simply are no longer available “in nature,” as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

Winter can be a good teacher of deceleration and patience, as in those words of Greta Crosby, “Let us not wish away the winter. It is a season to itself, not simply the way to spring….Let us therefore praise winter, rich in beauty, challenge, and pregnant negativities.”

I remember years ago reading those words as our opening reading, only to have our parishioner Ron Green come to the candle stand a few minutes later to unhesitatingly refute my opening words and saying, more or less, “Are you kidding? Are you out of your mind? Winter sucks!” Well, nobody says you have to agree with the preacher at First Parish.

Today is my last opportunity to talk with you about the sabbatical I will take for three months in January, February and March. I’ll be back on April Fools’ Day and then, again, I’ll be away October, November and December.

First Parish was one of the first congregations in the UUA to believe that sabbaticals are good for its ministers and good for the congregation. In the early 70’s, David Weissbard and his family lived in England for six months but while being away for six straight months seems a little long to me, I’ve been grateful to have the periodic opportunity to empty my cup, eat something other than oatmeal, turn off the chatter or even get off the treadmill altogether. A time to practice deceleration and immersive attention.

I hope to remain one of your ministers for at least a few more years but I also want our time together to be fresh and meaningful…for you and for me. There are ministers who have been known to stay too long, to “sit on the franchise,” and after 24 years, well, I need to pay attention, keep my ear to the ground, and keep my wits about me.

We’ve accomplished a lot over the years. Frankly, you have worked your tails off…and so have I. We get weary.

One of my colleagues who also serves a highly successful church in the Midwest once preached a sermon he titled, “Too Much of a Good Thing Is Wearisome.” He confessed, he said, “to having invested so much in my work that I now felt more oppressed than enlivened by it. Some listeners construed those remarks as a prelude to a formal letter of resignation, but the truth is, I was just venting – a self-indulgent strategy I do not recommend to similarly afflicted colleagues.”

I won’t vent but I know exactly what he meant when he said that too much of a good thing is wearisome. I know also what another colleague meant when he said that he had the most wonderful feeling when, late at night on Christmas Eve, he saw the image of his church in his car’s rear-view mirror as the church faded into the distance.

Now I am prepared to hear some of you say that, if I am so fond of the image of the church fading into the rear-view mirror, that can be arranged…for a period far exceeding 6 months!

You may have noticed on our email listserve I asked for your suggestions as to what I might do or think about on sabbatical, to which one of you helpfully advised:

“You could randomly pick 12 adult parishioners and give them each a two week sabbatical – you take care of their mortgage, cleaning, kid care, committee meetings and school/town volunteer gigs, jobs, snow removal, landscaping, home repairs, schlepping-to-soccer, homework help, caring for elderly relatives, music lessons, feeding, shopping…”
I know what she means!

Another parishioner, by the way, advised me to learn more about guns and possibly take up shooting. Another advised me to go skiing.

Another said I should do nothing at all.

Hmm. Keep those suggestions coming!

The truth is that all of us need a break sometime. For some marriages to survive, couples need time apart. Friendships, too, sometimes. To stay alive oneself or to keep a relationship alive, some people need time apart permanently! Everybody needs some way to help them stay fresh and keep perspective.

As minister and congregation, I do hope for us to stay together a while longer. This means not only that I need some time away from you but you need some time away from me. You may have noticed that my fingerprints are evident in many far corners at First Parish and I have even been told that I can sometimes be a micro-manager! You are, I know, shocked! Shocked! Sacre bleu!

Micromanaging is OK sometimes, even good sometimes; but it’s also good for you to remember who you are when I’m not around. I am not indispensable. Maybe you’ve heard the doggerel:

Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You’re the best qualified in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.

While I am away, Megan (and Laura and Lisa and Brad and Jen and Joan and the Parish Board and all the others) will need your help and they will do just fine but things will be different…and that’s good. You may discover sometimes that “you never really did like that oatmeal.”

The intent is not for this time to be seamless or for the congregation to hardly know that I’m gone. The intent is to find new and likely different ways of doing things, ways that may be better and over time may be even more sustainable.

Greta Crosby called winter a time of “pregnant negativities.” And it was the German theologian Martin Niemoller who spoke of “the presence of absence.” In my absence, you will nonetheless be very present for me, as I hope to be for you as well. I will not be on vacation; you will be with me.

And so you ask, What will I be doing on my sabbatical?

One thing I’ve wanted to do and deferred and procrastinated about is to make my will, do some financial planning (and make a bequest to First Parish so that I may haunt you forever!). I told this to Libby, our bookkeeper, and she said, “Oh, so you’re going to put your affairs in order!” Exactly.

One thing I will not miss for a few months is deadlines: sermons to be written and commitments to be fulfilled. Ah, to wake up in the morning without a sense of dread. Death, you know, is really the only deadline worth noticing. I won’t be at all morose about it; I’ll be jolly enough; but I want to do things that I’ve put off, to thin out my possessions, declutter, clean my closets, simplify.

There’s a collegial retreat I’ll attend in January, and an international conference of Unitarians and Universalists in New York. Late in February I have plans to go to Transylvania. I’ve bought a new on-line program of Hungarian language study. (Yesterday I even learned, in Hungarian, The Twelve Days of Christmas, including 10 Lords A’leaping…tiz ugrabugra ur! I can work that into my conversation!

I’m trying to arrange for the reprinting, in both Hungarian and in English, of a first edition of a travel book titled Travels in North America by a man named Sandor Boloni who came to America in the early 19th century. Like deToqueville, whom he actually met on his travels, Boloni was a keen observer of our new nation.

It also will be pig-killing season in Transylvania (families do their own butchering and these are all-day celebrations and rituals, ending of course with a fresh feast). I’ll visit friends, including those in our partner village of Abásfalva.

I’ll read books, fiction especially, something I haven’t much done in years. Cover-to-cover, I hope.

I’ll go to museums, quirky ones, perhaps. In Boston, there’s the Warren Anatomical Museum (where they keep the skull of that fellow whose head was pierced by a spike…and he lived! That, too, will make a good sermon some day! And then there’s the Plumbing Museum, the Waterworks Museum, and who knows what else.

I want to go to the theatre or to a comedy club. I’ll work on my timing.

I’ll go to church on Sunday, someplace where maybe I can learn something.

I’ll look at my email and all those important messages in my inbox that I flagged so that I’d look at them later…and never did. Maybe I’ll get around to looking at all those flags. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll get an iPhone. Maybe not.

It is reported of a Zen master that he had done a painting in the king’s palace, and the king was asking again and again, “Is it complete?”

And he would say, “Wait a little more, wait a little more.”

Years passed and the king said, “It is taking too much time. You don’t allow me even to enter the room” — because the Zen master would lock the room and then paint — and the king said, “I am getting old. And I am getting more and more excited as to what you are doing inside the room. Is not the painting ready yet?”

The master said, “The painting is ready, but I am watching you — you are not ready. The painting was ready long ago, but that is not the point. Unless YOU are ready, to whom will I show it?”

Then it is said that the king became ready and the painter said, “Okay, the time has come.”

They entered the room — nobody else was allowed in the room. The painting was really wonderful. It was difficult to say that it was a painting — it looked real. The painter had done a painting of hills, valleys, and they looked almost three-dimensional, as if they existed. And by the hills there was a small path going somewhere inside.

Now comes the most difficult part of the story. The king asked, “Where does this road lead?”

The painter said, “I have not myself traveled yet on this road, but you wait, I will go and see.” And he entered the path, and disappeared beyond the hills, and never came back.

I do plan to come back, if you’ll have me, but for a while I intend to enter the path and disappear beyond the hills.
And I hope that this is also an opportunity for you to enter the path, too.

Some familiarities already are disappearing: the world looks brand-new. It’s a magical world, a world to explore.
Let’s tell one another what we find when we meet on the other side.