“It All Depends on What the Meaning of the Word ‘It’ Is”

“It All Depends on What the Meaning of the Word ‘It’ Is”
Musings by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, May 13, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts


Opening Words

“Things were done very literally.  One thing they did at that church that I’ll never forget, was that they had a big ply-board thing, in the front of the church, full of light bulbs.  This was at regular church.  If you were present, you and your family, you’d go up and screw in your light bulb.  And it would turn on.  And over the top of the whole thing, it said, “Let Your Little Light Shine.” And if you weren’t there, it would be so obvious to everyone else in the congregation because your little light would not be shining.”

— Lee Smith, quoted in The Christ-Haunted Landscape:
Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction
, by Susan Ketchin


Because she wanted everyone to feel included
in her prayer,
she said right at the beginning
several names for the Holy:
Spirit, she said, Holy One, Mystery, God

 But then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing
That which cannot be fully addressed, she added
Particularities, saying, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,
Ancient Holy One, Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know,
Gracious God and also Spirit of This Earth,
God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou 

And then, tongue loosened, she fell to naming
Superlatives as well: Most Creative One,
Greatest Source, Closest Hope—
Even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her
Probably redundant, but then she couldn’t stop:

One Who Made the Stars, she said, although she knew
Technically a number of those present didn’t believe
The stars had been made by anyone or thing
But just luckily happened. 

One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion,
She said, and no one laughed.
That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning,
She said, and the room was silent. 

Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,
Others began to offer names:

Peace, said one.
One My Mother Knew, said another.
Ancestor, said a third.
Breath, said one near the back.
That Which Holds All.
A child said, Water.
Someone said, Kuan Yin.
Then: Womb.
Great Kindness.
Great Eagle.
Eternal Stillness. 

And then, there wasn’t any need to say the things
She’d thought would be important to say,
And everyone sat hushed, until someone said 


— “That Which Holds All,” Nancy Shaffer


It sounds along the ages,
soul answering to soul;
It kindles on the pages
of every Bible scroll;
The psalmist heard and sang it,
from martyr lips it broke,
and prophet tongues out-rang it
till sleeping nations woke. 

From Sinai’s cliffs it echoed,
it breathed from Buddha’s tree,
it charmed in Athen’s market,
it hallowed Galilee;
The hammer stroke of Luther,
the Pilgrims’ sea-side prayer,
the oracles of Con-cord:
one holy Word declare. 

It calls, and lo, new Justice!
It speaks, and lo, new Truth!
In ever nobler stature
and unexhausted youth.
Forever on it sound-eth,
knows naught it-self of time,
our laws but catch the music
of its eternal chime.

— Lyrics by William Channing Gannett, “It Sounds Along the Ages”


From time to time my friend and colleague Gary Smith calls attention to the conundrum of the hymn we just sang:

It sounds along the ages,
soul answering to soul;
It kindles on the pages
of every Bible scroll;
The psalmist heard and sang it,
from martyr lips it broke,
and prophet tongues out-rang it
till sleeping nations woke.

It echoed; it breathed; it charmed; it hallowed; (and not merely in the past tense!)…for
it calls; it speaks!

“What the heck,” asks Gary, “is ‘it’?”

I imagine that there are times when I preach when you say to yourself, “What is Gibbons talking about? He’s making no sense!” I imagine this to be so because, well, there are times I am preaching when I ask “What am I talking about? I’m making no sense!”

It sounds along the ages. What sounds along the ages?

I’ll get around to answering this question but a few days ago I did pose the question to our email listserv of parishioners: What is it?

And among the answers I got back:

“The person or people who chase and try to catch the other players in the playground game of tag.”

“A 1986 horror novel by Stephen King.” 

Several of you reminded me that it is, of course, I-T, Information Technology.

“IT is not you or me or him or her (one of you informed me).
IT probably is not HERE but IT could be anywhere
IT is not THIS but it could be THAT
IT is not NOW but IT is not LATER either.” 

“IT is later than you think.”

Another person reminded me that “”IT” would join “THIS” in your series of sermons on impersonal pronouns.”  Actually, stick around for a series on THAT and THEY and THEM and THOU!

But this is IT.

Another person remembered, “According to my dad, ‘it’ was what Clara Bow had.”  Now, it’s a good thing Megan isn’t here.  She definitely would have no idea who Clara Bow was!  In fact, how many of you know who Clara Bow was?  She was the 1920’s silent film star whose appearance as a spunky shopgirl in the film It brought her global fame and the nickname “The It Girl.”  She was the first IT Girl!

One of your mothers was known for saying “It is what it is” – and I thought that was Bill Bellichick.

Some of you took me very seriously and one person advised that it refers to Logos:

A principle originating in classical Greek thought which refers to a universal divine reason, immanent in nature, yet transcending all oppositions and imperfections in the cosmos and humanity. An eternal and unchanging truth present from the time of creation, available to every individual who seeks it. A unifying and liberating revelatory force which reconciles the human with the divine… . Hmmm!

Another person started out taking my question seriously but had trouble sticking to it:

It” refers to Spirit of Life (she said) because it manifests in ways that encourage justice, compassion, growth, fruition, love.  IT may also refer to beauty.

In another poem or work it might refer to Spirit of Death, because “it” manifests in meanness, cruelty, greed, genocide ……

In either form IT is a mystery beyond our limited human mind or understanding.

(And then she started to lose it…)

“It” does not refer to Hell as in What the Hell is it? Let me say, the IT in question is gonna getcha, it’s already in ya.”

And yet another person wrote, “IT makes me think of the asses searching the desert for every green thing in Jack Mendelsohn’s book.  

Or (she goes on) IT’s more like scientists trying to describe things they can’t see by describing the effect the unseen has on the objects near it. Like the feeling I get when I realize I have just had a precious moment of meaningful communication with someone, our eyes meet for a second and you know you understand and are being understood. What’s the word for a thing between a feeling and an idea? 

I only know when I am getting nearer to IT. That kids’ game, you’re getting warmer, nope you’re cold again. That next step in human moral and ethical evolution. The faith that there is new truth, new justice, enough love, to be had and the potential for more is infinite. I can no more stop searching for it, dreaming of it, craning the freshest little brain cells on the edge of my awareness after it than I can stop being human. IT’s what brings me to FP I guess.

(She concludes by apologizing quite unnecessarily)…

Sorry for the senseless blather. Obviously I have no clue.

Someone else referred me to the Bhagavad Gita:  “IMO Krishna does a remarkable job of explaining it to Arjuna on the battlefield.

“It” is the clear page under the words; the ocean under the wave; the root under the tree; the colorless sap of the flowers budding outside; the sky against which clouds, stars and galaxies appear; the silence and breath underlying your words as you sermonize; “It” underlies all, including me as I type these words of emailian reply and you when you read them. “I am that, thou art that, all this is that.”

Forgive me, but then I started to lose it and …do you know the Billy Collins poem, “Litany”?

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight. 

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air. 

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk. 

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse. 

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table. 

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.

I did receive another serious response and this was from another friend and colleague, John Buehrens, who is a real know-it-all and self-admitted authority on most topics and John informed me, in no uncertain terms, that It refers to The Word of God.  We’re back to Logos!

Ding, ding, ding!  We have a winner!  According to Wiki-John-Buehrens-pedia, Holly Hosmer of Wilson Road right here in Bedford sent in the winning entry! Logos! The Word of God! Congratulations, Holly! (John then presented Holly with a gift card to Bedford Farms ice cream as the congregation applauded.)

But then I remembered that I went to an interfaith clergy meeting recently and there I listened to a lengthy exposition by a Hindu spokesman who began by quoting the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”….and then in a kind of tantric maneuver he explained that thousands of years earlier this same insight was revealed in the ancient Māndukya Upanishad in which the impersonal Absolute – that which is omnipotent, omnipresent, and the source of all manifest existence – is shown to be represented by the syllable OM and that this is further confirmed by the work of Roman Catholic priest, physicist and astronomer Georges Lemaître who proposed the Big Bang Theory as well as the theory that the red shift in the light spectrum of Stars is an indication of an expanding Universe, research thereafter built upon by Bell Lab scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson who discovered a strange background noise in space and in 1978 were awarded the Nobel Prize for finding the echo of the Big Bang….which is Logos which is OM!

And, of course, at this point you and I both are asking, What is Gibbons talking about?  He’s (well, that would be me)..I’m making no sense!  And that is exactly the point! It doesn’t make sense.

If it all were to make sense, if we took everything literally, we’d put up that “big ply-board thing, in the front of the church, full of light bulbs.”  Which would be kinda cool but isn’t really necessary, or no more necessary than a flaming chalice or a hymn or a flying fish.

If we forced everything to make sense – do you recall that other Billy Collins poem about interpreting poems and how some students want only to “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.  They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.”

If we took it all literally, we’d be like that guy A.J. Jacobs who wrote The Year of Living Biblically, who tried to follow all the rules of the Bible:  “I tried not to covet, gossip, or lie for a year,” he said of his effort.  “But I’m a journalist in New York. This was not easy. (My book is) an investigation of the rules that baffle the 21st century brain. How to justify the laws about stoning homosexuals? Or smashing idols? Or sacrificing oxen? And how do you follow those in modern-day Manhattan?”

Another recent book is titled Paradise Lust and it explores the fundamentalist and rather uniquely Christian search for the literal Garden of Eden – not the myth, not the metaphor but the plot of land, the dirt – an endeavor that over the centuries has led people to such diverse conclusions the Eden is to be found in Florida, the North Pole, Ohio, China, and, of course, Iraq which would be and is funny except that it leads to much mischief and tragedy as well: crusades and cross-burnings and bullying and hazing and hate.  It’s kinda crazy when you take things literally.

A while back columnist David Brooks wrote a piece titled, “Poetry for Everyday Life” in which he explores the vital importance of metaphor.  He quotes a linguistic researcher who says that “People use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words.  Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think.  They are at the very heart of it.”

The very heart of it

“Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses (Brooks continues).  Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states, so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job.  A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape.  A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high.”

From Sinai’s cliffs it echoed, it breathed from Buddha’s tree.  It’s kinda catchy.

Back to Brooks:

“To be aware of the central role metaphors play is to be aware of how imprecise our most important thinking is.”

“Even the hardest of the sciences depend on a foundation of metaphor.  To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world.”

Which is another way of saying that to be humbled by the complexity of the world is to be human and it is to be religious.

Last Sunday afternoon I dedicated a child here in this room and, with the family and friends, we read from St. Exupery, “If others import to our children our knowledge and ideals, they will lose all of us that is wordless and full of wonder….  We live, not by things, but by the meanings of things.  It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation.”

It is needful.

And it is time for me to move on, move it.

And today is, it is Mother’s Day.  To be humbled by the complexity of our diverse and often inexpressible feelings about our mothers or our fathers, our mothering or our fathering, is to be human and it is indeed to be religious.

Now face-to-face with this complexity, some may listen for the word of God and others may chant OM or explore some impersonal Absolute – that which is omnipotent, omnipresent, and the source of all manifest existence.  But most of us find other compensatory lesser tokens of its immensity.

And so I will leave you this morning with not one but two more poems, and the first is Judith Viorst’s “A Letter to My Sons About Mother’s Day”:

Unlike King Lear I am well aware
That extravagant expressions of affection
Do not necessarily mean that our children adore us,
Or that their failure to write or phone or do lots of
lovely things for us
Means that they don’t.
I am, in addition, well aware
That most of the wise, mature, sensible women I know
Have nothing but disdain for Mother’s Day,
Which they rightfully declare to be a crass,
commercial way
Of getting guilty children to spend money.
Furthermore, I am hoping that I
Will turn into one of those wise, mature, sensible
Long before this current decade is through.
But meanwhile, if you know what’s good for you,
Send flowers.

And then, once again, here is Billy Collins and this, his poem, “The Lanyard”:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. 

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother. 

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light 

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even. 

I am as unsure as a man can be that I know what it is all about. It is why I cherish this time together to wonder, to guess, to point, to imagine, to hope, to listen, to strive and to rest with you in this moment now…which is like paradise.

Now we will not sing, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

But, rather, “Bring Many Names.” Hymn #23.  Bring it, Steve.

Closing Words

At the outset, when God created the universe,
……..the earth was lifeless and shapeless;
a deep ocean of chaos, shrouded in darkness;
……..brooded over by the Spirit of God.

Then God called for light,
……..and light appeared.

God saw that light was a good thing,
……..and separated it from the darkness.

God named the light Day,
……..and the darkness Night.

Evening passed and morning came;
……..the first day was done.

Then God called for a clear space
……..to keep out the water on either side.

God made the clear space
……..and the water was split in two, above and below.

That is what happened,
……..and God named the space Sky.

Evening passed and morning came;
……..the second day was done.

Then God called for the waters under the sky
……..to be pooled into one place
…………….and for dry land to appear elsewhere.

That is what happened,
……..and God named the dry land Earth
…………….and the pooled waters Sea.

And God saw that it was a good thing.


Rousingly, Steve Sussman played…

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).