A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears. Show them how to cry when pets and people die. Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand. And make the ordinary come alive for them. The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
– William Martin
Opening Words #440 “From the Fragmented World” by Phillip HewettFrom the fragmented world of our everyday lives we gather together in search of wholeness.
By many cares and preoccupations, by diverse and selfish aims are we separated from one another and divided within ourselves.
Yet we know that no branch is utterly severed from the Tree of Life that sustains us all.
We cherish our oneness with those around us and the countless generations that have gone before us.
We would hold fast to all of good we inherit even as we would leave behind us the outworn and the false.
We would escape from bondage to the ideas of our own day and from the delusions of our own fancy.
Let us labor in hope for the dawning of a new day without hatred, violence, and injustice.
Let us nurture the growth in our own lives of the love that has shone in the lives of the greatest of men and women, the rays of whose lamps still illumine our way.
In this spirit we gather. In this spirit we pray.
On Turning Ten
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
Reflection: by Josh Leach
It’s easy to get too carried away with nostalgia when we think about childhood. There are so many distinctive forms of happiness that belong to that stage of life that we shouldn’t forget. When I read this poem, though, I felt I knew what Collins was talking about when he speaks of that “perfect simplicity of being one,” and how it seems to get lost on the way adulthood. It reminds me of a line that once struck me from V.S. Pritchett. Writing of his own childhood, he observed: “Between the ages of ten and fourteen [one] reaches a first maturity or wholeness as a person; it is broken up by adolescence and not remade until many years later.”
I remember that adolescent breaking up process as well as I do the earlier “perfect simplicity.” As a teenager I was a great one for having phases. Throughout all high school and college, you never knew exactly what version of Josh you’d be getting at any annual family reunion. “Oh, Josh is in a phase,” my mom would explain. There was my slacker phase; my punk rock phase; my artistic phase; my Marxist phase. At the start of Divinity School, I even had a religious phase. You’re meeting me after that one passed, so don’t be alarmed.
Funny how most of these sound so off to me as I list them now. They are so much at odds with how I think about myself today. Yet I would not take any of them back if I could, nor do I regard them as a waste of time. I had to try on different costumes to see which of them would fit. When one of them didn’t, sooner or later that inner core of myself would know it, and react almost physically to cast it off.
And yet, at the end of the process, I feel like all I’ve managed to do is come back around to where I started. I find that that ten-year-old version of me actually had it right, for the most part. He was comfortable in his own skin, and didn’t mind not having someone else’s. It’s almost as if I had known the answer to the question: “Who am I?” — right up until the moment I first asked it.
What about you? What selves have you tried on or abandoned in your lifetime? Was your sense of wholeness ever fractured by adolescence, or another experience? Which core part of you have you held onto? When you ask “Who am I?” what parts of you would you keep, and what would you change?
This church is a community of ourselves.
Its energy and resources are our energy and resources.
Its wealth is what we share.
As we contribute to the life of this community, we affirm our lives within it.
The morning offering will now be given and received in the spirit of grateful fellowship.
“Inside Out: The Curious Wonder of Being Alive”
Rev. Megan Lynes
Sept 27th, 2016
“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what’s going on inside their head?” This is the opening line of Pixar’s animated movie, “Inside Out” directed by Pete Docter. The film, which came out in June, got great reviews across the board, and grossed 90.4 million dollars in its first weekend—the highest opening ever for an original title. Endearing without being saccharine, graphically astounding and psychologically clever, it was marketed for kids but appeals to grown ups as well. It explores themes common to the human condition, such the pain of loss, facing change, growing up, sacrifice, and the impact of memory. It’s also pretty funny.
There’s nothing quite like hearing a theater packed with people laughing at the same joke for different reasons. There’s a brief moment in the film, almost a throwaway moment really, when three characters are perched atop a moving train, (notably the “train of thought.”) Someone accidentally knocks over some boxes, one carefully labeled “facts” and the other, “opinions.” Wooden blocks spill out and fall everywhere, but they are quickly scooped up and shoved back willy-nilly, combining facts and opinions into one jumbled mess. “Don’t worry!” the offender explains, “That happens all the time!” Just look at the politics around climate change and you know what I’m talking about.
In short, the film is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley who moves from her happy home in Minnesota to San Francisco, where she has no friends and feels alone. Much of the film is spent inside Riley’s mind, “Headquarters,” which features a control center controlled by five personified emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. There was almost a sixth character named Surprise because many psychologists would agree that this is the sixth of the core human emotions, but that character proved to be one too many in the story, and didn’t make the cut. Joy acts as the dominant emotion to keep Riley in a happy state, but she and the others do not understand Sadness’s purpose. It’s not until the end of the film that we realize that Sadness holds the key to solving Riley’s problems. Sadness knows how to slow down and be present, how to listen, and how to be a part of changing things for the better when the time is right.
What resonated for me in this movie, and I think for many viewers, was the exploration and acceptance of the many parts of the self within each of us, which make up who we each are. So often we want to discount a part of who we are, when in truth, even the mean, discouraged or angry parts of us have a story to tell. Each aspect of the self takes the reigns at various times in our lives, and each has an important message. A family I’m close to recently sat around the dinner table after the movie discussing people they knew. They decided that most people have one core emotion chronically driving their personality, much of the time unawarely. Someone’s English teacher leads mostly with his anger. Grandma is driven by fear. The teens disagreed on which one of them leads more often with disgust. They did agree that the emotion was most likely to surface around each other. The family dog leads with joy.
A key message of the movie is that sometimes sadness is vital. Isn’t it true that sometimes the parts of us that have experienced pain are our best teachers? Often when we can’t relate to another person, it’s because we haven’t yet come to understand their underlying pain or fear. Reaching across the barriers within ourselves can teach us about how to reach for others. Rilke in his 1903 collection of Letters to a Young Poet said it this way: “You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”
There’s a poignant moment in the film where the character Sadness sits down next to another creature who’s upset about something. Whereas Joy’s first instinct was to distract the creature and cheer him up and chatter over him, Sadness moves in slowly, gently joining him in his despair. “I’m very sorry that you lost something that you love,” she ventures. “That must make you very sad.” The creature nods miserably, cries for a while and then brightens. Soon he stands up and is ready to continue his important role guiding the group, which he previously was unable to do. “How did you do that?” Joy asks Sadness, but then she dances away unawarely as Sadness replies, “Well, I was just trying to listen…” It is our own life experience with suffering that makes us able to express empathy when others are sad.
Modern psychology has made us aware that we become individuals in relationship with others, and that where there is no genuine community the self is damaged and grows in crooked ways. We have only to read our own biographies to know this is true. I once went to a contemplative retreat at a monastery, and we were asked to write ahead of time a short creative writing piece to share about an experience we’d had with suffering and how it had transformed us. Not surprisingly, many of our stories reflected an absence of connection in our families of origin and a longing to be truly seen and heard, a craving that all too often went unheeded. However, for many people what wasn’t found in their own family, was found by connecting to a group that figured out how to intentionally treat one another AS family, in the best sense of the word. “Love makes a family,” we’ve heard, and that proved to be the case in so many of these stories.
As the night waned around us at the monastery, one man talked about his return from war many years ago. The trauma of battle was so great he couldn’t speak for months. When his parents and girlfriend couldn’t relate to him he said it felt like he’d fallen down an empty well, alone and desperate for water and help. His own despair over what he had done, (and now we might call this the “moral injury of war,”) was unmentionable to his loved ones because their anti-war sentiment and the stigma of mental illness seemed to blame and isolate him. His personal transformation happened when he formed a support group for Vietnam War veterans. In community his story was heard, honored and compassion extended. He is now a founder of those groups for vets.
Another woman’s story began, “I was taught to think that our family was slightly superior to other families and that in turn I was slightly superior. That was the root of my suffering, my separateness, though I certainly didn’t know it.” Her transformation happened when in mid-life she ended up permanently disabled, confined to a wheel chair. She was in a rehab facility for a long while and the chaplain there tried to help her get to a large church nearby that had all kinds of accessibility assets: a great ramp, a working elevator, and usable bathrooms. Yet after a few months the woman settled happily into a different and much smaller church, which might have seemed strange given that it was a very inaccessible church where members had to literally lift her power chair up steps to get it inside. But as she told it, at the first church, they “let me in but didn’t really want me there. If they talked to me, it was out of pity. And at the small church, they get me in, talk with me about what’s real in our lives, and show me that they want me there.” Her experience with suffering transformed her when those with able bodies reached out with their own hands and lifted her into the heart of their community, welcoming her until it was shared community. Privileged or not, everyone had a seat at the Welcome Table.
In a covenanted community like a church, the call to love and serve is guided in part by an unwillingness to settle for things simply as they are. “In community we hold before our eyes the prospect of a better life for humankind, which each may help to make actual… It is in relationships with others, that the gifts of each person are called forth and celebrated and used for the upbuilding of society, who’s corporate work is transformation.”
The story I brought to the conversation at the monastery, was about a time when I had been in a car accident and broken my jaw in five places. With my mouth wired shut I couldn’t eat solid food for nearly 3 months. I drank bottles of Ensure and watery soup. As you know, thin women are admired and revered in our society, and so people told me how great I looked the more emaciated I became. It was confusing to hear their pity, their approval, and their jealousy when in fact I couldn’t go five minutes without obsessing over food. I recalled one day standing in front of the open refrigerator, desperately trying to shove a hunk of cheese through the tiny gaps in my wired shut mouth. I could taste the flavor with the tip of my tongue, I could smell the sharp cheddar scent, and my mouth watered, but hardly anything could squish through. Fear and rage filled me. I wanted to tear off the bars blocking my mouth. Suddenly images of starving people came to mind. Jews with sunken eyes lying in bunkers, the stick armed little boy cradled in Mother Teresa’s arms, men and women in breadlines during the depression, a beloved friend who nearly died of anorexia… all those who knew starvation were alive in me. My own transformation happened not because I experienced the panic of hunger without relief, but because I suddenly felt the world community around me, as part of me, calling for someone to care.
We know that in the world today there are more refugees than there were displaced by World War Two. The part of me that contains a felt-sense of starving before a fridge filled with food looks at the photos I see of Syrian refugees and my stomach curls into a fist. The U.S is still debating how many refugees to bring in. Ten thousand is a tiny drop in the bucket, that much I know.
So long as we are concerned only for the little family in which we move and the little group we call our group, we are stunted in growth. The truth is that all humanity is one. As the apostle Paul said about beloved community, “we are all members of one body.” Just as many parts of the self help define and guide us, so do the diverse members of our many communities in which we operate. Every person and every segment of the human race is part of the total human body. We see how pain in one little tooth or one little toe claims the energy and attention of all other parts. Sometimes the whole body has to lie down and attend to the needs of one individual. “Do Black Lives Matter?” one member asks? Absolutely! Is it greedy or disrespectful when someone is in pain, that they ask for attention? Sadness didn’t think so. She simply stopped what she was doing and sat down quietly to listen.
Perhaps like me, you have thought over and over again of Rich Daugherty at the candle stand last week, telling us about his grand daughter Olivia’s experience with the Black Lives Matter banner. She’s four years old, and Black herself. As she watched Rich hanging the sign on our church, she asked him what it said. He said it meant we should treat Black people fairly. To which she replied, “They think we’re scary.” How does she know this? She’s telling us her lived experience. That’s the truth that she has come to know. As a member of our community she is giving us reason for that sign. Do all lives matter? Yes. Do the lives of all people of color matter? Absolutely. But the idea here is that we affirm and promote lives in their specificity, as well as in their generality. Cornel West at General Assembly this past June said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” At other times in history this church has extended an affirmation to many different marginalized groups. We need to do this over and over in so many specific ways. I’m so glad our LGBTQI siblings know this is a safe haven because of our gorgeous rainbow flag which waves proudly outside. We hang it up with love every Sunday, and it speaks to the wideness of our vision. But it too carries a specific message. With no words needed it shouts “Gay lives matter!” When our brothers and sisters who are Black ask us to stand in solidarity with an affirmation of their personhood, let’s not get sidetracked.
Olivia herself is moving with her mom to Argentina this week. When she next faces racism, wherever she is in the world, my deep hope is that she’ll remember the sign her White grandfather hung up back in Bedford which shouted a message about her worth and dignity as loud as it possibly could. My church loves me – that’s what I hope she remembers. Or as Lisa said this morning, I am lovable and important, and no one can take that away from me.
I think the same part of us that doesn’t want to face sadness, is the same part of us that doesn’t want to face oppression. We want so much for life to be happy and flawless, for ourselves and others, that we’re sometimes willing to pretend it is that way when it isn’t. We don’t want to face the pain that exists for so many people every day in our own community, right here in Bedford, let alone in the broader world community. But if we close ourselves off to understanding the experience of the other, we pay a big price. The cost is the illusion of separateness, the false security of privilege, and the loss of a rational perspective about the value of our human relationships. The truth is that no part of humanity can come fully into its own until every segment comes into its own. Growth is the capacity to see one’s own identity, education, health, and happiness as tied up with everyone else’s as well. We need to feel both joy and sorrow to be a connected people who collectively shape life’s meaning and purpose.
The irony is that in genuine community separateness is maintained. In genuine community we do not merge with one another. We exist and love in specificity. We come to see the other and reach across the space that is there between us. If we succeed in meeting, then that is communion. When we leave off communing we are not less than who we were, we are more.
I’ll conclude with this thought, which comes from the Pope. (I like this Pope!) Many of us watched the Pope’s address to the U.S. congress this week. I do not presume we all felt the same way as we listened, or that we all heard the same ideas even. But what I took from it, is that he’s calling us back to ourselves. He is inviting us to find the parts of ourselves that want the best for our human race and for our world. He spoke plainly, kindly. Have compassion for immigrants and refugees, because not so long ago most of us were strangers in a strange land too. It’s ok to create wealth, but share it. It is moral to help others so they don’t fall behind. Business should be about “service to the common good,” not greed. He called upon us to stop the arms trade, and be at the service of dialogue and peace rather than war. He asked congress to rise above polarization, and the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil. Climate change is real he said, (that’s a fact, not an opinion.) Over and again, his message was that humanity counts for something. What a curious wonder it is to be alive.
This is what I took from his message: We don’t have to give up our hope. Though discouragement, disconnection and fear make us turn away from each other, we can instead remember our solidarity and interdependence. The world community, of which we are all a part, needs our commitment to work collectively for the common good. Everyone is welcome at the table. Everyone is needed at the table. Our corporate work is transformation.
Together let us work for justice, which is what love looks like in public.
“Let Religion Be To Us Life and Joy”
Vincent B. Silliman
Let religion be to us life and joy.
Let it be a voice of renewing challenge
to the best we have and may be;
let it be a call to generous action.
Let religion be to us a dissatisfaction with things that are,
which bids us serve more eagerly the true and the right.
Let it be the sorrow that opens for us the way of sympathy,
understanding, and service to suffering humanity.
Let religion be to us the wonder and lure of that
which is only partly known and understood:
An eye that glories in nature’s majesty and beauty,
and a heart that rejoices in deeds of kindness and of courage.
Let religion be to us security and serenity
because of its truth and beauty,
and because of the enduring worth and power
of the loyalties which it engenders;
Let it be to us hope and purpose,
and a discovering of opportunities
to express our best through daily tasks:
Religion, uniting us with all that is
admirable in human beings everywhere;
Holding before our eyes a prospect of the better life for humankind,
which each may help to make actual.