A sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, January 23, 2011
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
From “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life” by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
BEN: “Waiter,” I said, in an exuberant mood, “I have a perfect life, but I don’t have a knife.”
I was having breakfast with a friend on one of my periodic visits to London to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra. I heard giggles behind me and, turning around, caught the eye of a girl of about twelve with a typically English pudding-bowl haircut. We exchanged smiles, and then I went back to my conversation and to my breakfast.
The next day, I passed the young lady again in the breakfast room and stopped to speak with her.
“Good morning. How are you today?”
She drew herself up ever so slightly and, with a tilt to her chin and a sparkle in her eye, answered me.
“Perfect,” she said.
Later, when she was leaving with her parents, I called out mischievously, “Have a perfect day!”
“I will!” she responded, as though it were the easiest, most obvious choice in the world.
And with that, she sailed out into a universe of possibility.
From “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee” by Sarah Silverman
It Is Brought to My Attention That I Am Scum
Abby and I remained friends outside of camp. She lived in a very affluent town in Massachusetts called Lynnfield. For my first weekend visit to the Rothschilds’, I arrived in my hometown uniform of Levi’s and a denim coat. No matter how cold the weather got, in Manchester, New Hampshire, your winter jacket is jean.
Abby and I were so excited to see each other. She showed me her room and her stuff and her friends, and since she already knew I wet the bed, there were no secrets. My mom had already talked to Abby’s about waking me up to pee. But something didn’t seem quite right; I got the feeling that Abby’s mom was unsure about me, and I had never felt this before—parents generally loved me. The Christian adults in my very Christian town usually held me up to their kids as a model Jew. And though I was used to being regarded as different at home with the “Jew” thing and all, here in Lynnfield there had to be something else creating this sense that somehow I didn’t fit in. I got a distinct vibe from Mrs. Rothschild—like she thought I was going to steal something. It made me extra well behaved. I was too nervous to even be sassy or silly. And then just before we got in the car to go to lunch, she cornered Abby and under her breath—with teeth clenched—I heard her say,
“Abby, tell her.”
Shrugging, Abby turned to me and said apologetically,
“Only scumbags wear jean jackets.”
I was stunned. I didn’t have a mom who would refer to little kids as “scumbags.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. I just looked at Abby and her mom, and said, “Oh, okay.” I traded in my jean jacket, the one I had silk-screened on the back “The Beatles, Let It Be” during industrial arts class—you know, as only a scumbag would do—for a more Lynnfield appropriate coat, supplied by Abby and her wonderful mother. I wore it the rest of the weekend.
I think that it is probably bad karma, bad juju to dislike any time of year, but there’s not much I like about the end of January. Perhaps I should say that I love the end of January the least of all the seasons. I recall a cartoon showing two monks walking outdoors at their monastery. Pointing out a third monk, the first monk whispers to his companion, “I love Brother Albert the least of all the monks.”
I love the end of January so little that it very nearly made of me a football fan. But that didn’t work out. Folks, it seems a long time ago that I was in that vestibule at midnight toasting and exuberantly belting out Auld Lang Syne, ringing the church bell. I’ve started to notice that my pants are getting a little tight around the waist. It is a long time to spring. I hate being cold…I mean I love the fact that it will be 50 degrees below zero the least of all the wind chill indexes.
For inspiration I looked at my new Multifaith Calendar and all the world’s great religions are unanimous in the opinion that at this time of year there’s nothing – nothing! – to celebrate. Actually, we are in the recently made up Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, not that that occasions much toasting, singing or bell-ringing, though I do recall my colleague Robbie Walsh who, in a fit of late January curmudgeonliness once composed a Prayer for Christian Disunity. He meant no harm, he was just being mischievous and celebrating diversity, I think.
What does get my attention, however and generates a glimmer of warm preachability is this book, The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. She’s a therapist and he’s the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. This book was loaned to me by our parishioner Judy Emmons.
Now, how old is Judy? 90? 100? Probably not, maybe not even close, but she is not a teenager. She is…mature. Judy’s outlived a couple of husbands and she’s still lively and spunky and salty and forward-looking. Well, when someone as mature as Judy recommends to me a book titled The Art of Possibility, subtitled Transforming Professional and Personal Life, well, it’s worth paying attention!
It’s all the better when Judy loans me her personal copy with notes and underlinings. She underlined this, for example: “We pose the question again: ‘Where is the electric socket for possibility, the access to the energy of transformation?’ It’s just there over the bar line, where the bird soars. We can join it by finding the tempo and lean our bodies to the music; dare to let go of the edges of ourselves…participate !” In the margins, Judy wrote, “Wish I had learned this when I had voice lessons!”
Judy – and a whole lot of our mature and durable parishioner participants – actually do know where there is the electric socket for possibility!
I think that one of the core purposes of religion, at least as we practice it, is to help us find the electric socket of possibility, and to defend and enlarge, to honor and to celebrate all that contributes to our sense of possibility – what we imagine to be possible even in seasons and circumstances we may love the least. We are here to cultivate our imaginations, to stretch the boundaries of what seems possible, for ourselves and for our world.
The Zanders’ book is simple and wise, and I just want to give you a taste of it. They believe that within each of us there is a passionate possibility that too often has been numbed or stifled or buried. Maybe, somehow, it was brought to your attention, as it was to Sarah Silverman, that you are scum. Or maybe some voices have gotten into your head to cool your jets or chill your warm juices of possibility. The Zanders aim to reheat your passion, imagination and possibility.
The book highlights several practices that enhance possibility, the first of which is called “Giving an A.”
Teaching at the conservatory, Benjamin Zander observed that many students were anxious, frozen and immobilized by the prospect of being judged, compared and measured. And so to immunize against this, he decided at the outset of class to begin by giving every student an A. Every one.
The idea was not only to put them at ease, but also to give them an instrument to open up to possibility. At the beginning of the course, Zander announced:
“Each student in this class will get an A for the course. However, in exchange you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, ‘Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…’ and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.
Everything must be written in the past tense. Phrases such as ‘I hope,’ ‘I intend’, or ‘I will’ must not appear. The students may, if they wish, mention specific goals reached or competitions won. ‘But,’ I tell them, ‘I am especially interested in the person you will have become by next May. I am interested in the attitude, feelings, and worldview of that person who will have done all she wished to do or become everything he wanted to be.’ I tell them I want them to fall passionately in love with the person they are describing in their letter.”
Now, don’t worry that I’m going to go all theological on you but, essentially, that is the theology of Universalism: You walk in here looking for salvation (meaning, purpose, peace, inspiration, whatever) and we say, “It’s already yours. No damnation, no judgment, no flunking out. Not only are you not going to hell, but you’re going to heaven. Hell, you’re already in heaven! You’ve already got your A! Now it is up to you to act “as if” you deserved that A.” That’s our theology.
So after having been given an A, Zander’s class was asked how it was to live up to the grade. A student from Taiwan raised his hand.
‘In Taiwan,’ the student explained, ‘I was number 68 out of 70 student. I come to Boston, and Mr. Zander says I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I am number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A student…I am number 68, but Mr. Zander says I am an A. One day I discover much happier A than Number 68. So I decide I am an A.’
“This student in a brilliant flash,” concludes Zander, “had hit upon the “secret of life.” He had realized that the labels he had been taking so seriously are human inventions – it’s all a game. The Number 68 is invented and the A is invented, so we might as well choose to invent something that brightens our life and the lives of the people around us.”
Another of the Zander possibility practices is to “lead from any chair.” Using the orchestra as his example, he recalled once when the great Koussevitzky was conducting, something wasn’t going right, and so Koussevitzky called upon another person to come up and conduct so he could go to the back of the hall and listen to how it sounded.
The point is that each of us needs to take responsibility for our part in the whole. Every member of the orchestra should play as if they could be called upon at any moment to conduct.
Be advised, you back-benchers or you over here, at any unexpected moment you may be called forward to preach the rest of this sermon. As Emerson reminds us, “There are sermons that may be foolishly spoken but wisely heard.” Lead from any chair.
Another practice is Rule Number 6. Rule Number 6 has been applied with miraculous results in many anxious circumstances. And what exactly is Rule Number 6? Rule Number 6 is “Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.” And what are the other rules? There aren’t any.
You know about the man who was on his deathbed and someone asked what he looked forward to after death. “Ah,” he said, “I look forward to being with my wife.” Knowing, however, that the man had been married twice, the visitor asked, “Well, which wife do you look forward to being with?” “Neither,” said the man, “I look forward to the next one!”
Don’t take yourself so g-d seriously.
The Zanders also promote something they call “One buttock playing.” Judy is a devotee of one-buttock playing so you can ask her about this, but it started with a musician playing less than passionately who sat firmly centered in an upright position. Zander diagnosed the problem, “The trouble is you’re a two-buttock player!” The musician just wasn’t putting that anticipatory lift and verve and zest and body English into the performance.
Using this concept in a workshop, including non-musicians, Zander received a letter from the president of a corporation in Ohio, saying, “I was so moved that I went home and transformed my whole company into a one-buttock company.”
So…don’t get too comfortable out there; stay on the edge of your pews ‘cause we are a one-buttock church! (Bumper stickers?)
Well, I recommend The Art of Possibility for its simplicity and practicality. While it is largely directed to our personal possibility, there is also a social dimension to this possibility-thinking and here I quote our community minister and UUSC President Bill Schulz who says, “We need a new theology of social change and a contemporary doctrine of evil capable, for example, of addressing the Holocaust. But what we need even more is a new eschatology, that is a new vision of the social world to come. To the extent to which liberal religion has depended upon political/economic liberalism for its image of the Blessed Community, the former will perish with the latter. But neither traditional capitalism…nor traditional socialism…offers viable alternatives. And so we need a new Unitarian Universalist fantasy of utopia. We need, in other words, to know what (in the world) we’re working toward.”
While we live in a world of limited resources, cutbacks, compromises and modest pragmatic goals, I think it is our religious calling never to retreat from vivid descriptions of the Beloved Community, our fantasy of utopia! “For telling ourselves and others that evil is inevitable while good is impossible, may we stand corrected.”
Well, there is one more thing I want to do this morning and that is to share some of the responses I received from you last week when I asked, on email, what you are looking forward to. I know I preach to you about living neither in the past nor in the future but being present in this moment now. But, hey, it’s the end of January and it’s 50 below and I do believe that for us to survive, personally and socially, we all need to act as if our future is possible. We need to look forward. That’s the muscle we’re trying to exercise.
I can’t read all you sent me, and please forgive my edits but here’s a sampling of what you look forward to:
One of you, on a business trip to India, is – short term – looking forward to getting home! Longer term: I know what I do makes a difference – helps improve the food supply, cheaper electricity, cleaner environment – good stuff as results trickle down. But there is a young woman tapping on the window of my taxi here in Mumbai, holding a 2-year old, begging. I am haunted by her dusty face. No trickle down. I look forward to trickle down reaching her child, and keep working hard.
I look forward to the emergence of technology leadership that values competence, candor, and curiosity in expressing precise information simply.
I look forward to the possibility of being able to retire someday.
…I look forward to being a little thinner…
One of you is looking forward to around 11:10 this Sunday morning when “I will no longer have to play the blankety-blank Mendelssohn Scherzo.”
From a First Parish Board member, anxious about our January 30 congregational meeting: “I look forward to February 1.
More steady work.
Being out of debt.
Feeling truly loved.
I look forward almost every day to when my son is old enough that I won’t have to deal with my ex-wife any more.
I look forward to finding Ms. Right.
I look forward to the US getting out of the Middle East.
I look forward to going to sleep and I look forward to waking up. If I wake up, I figure the world’s my oyster. Being a blue-collar worker I have had a lifelong romance with that moment on Friday afternoon when I push open the loading dock door, smell the free air and become 100% responsible for my own happiness.
An annual weekend away with friends where we get to talk, eat, play games, and escape the day-to-day cares of the world.
A good glass of red wine (or two) after a long day. Quietly reading the paper (the real paper) on a weekend morning. A day when we all really get along. Not feeling guilty I have not done enough. Discovering nirvana (just joking).
Back-country skiing in the White Mountains with a dear friend.
My first thought is that I look forward to a saner and more peaceful world. Then I thought that sounded too hokey. But as I tried to come up with other ideas, that idea didn’t seem so bad.
I am looking forward to when I give up reconstructing the past, end my propensity for wishful thinking and just sit with my buddies soaking in the moment!
I look forward to giant snowstorms that force us to simply set aside all our plans and preconceived notions about what that day should have been.
Going to the gym. Ice cream on Saturdays. Bike rides in the summer.
Growing up attending boarding schools in England I looked forward to spending vacations with parents abroad three times a year. The pattern persists: anticipating a desired event promotes a positive outlook and softens the effects of life’s daily frustration. Now that my father has died, I look forward to a pattern of regular phone calls to my mother. Looking forward provides a certain momentum to keep me moving when the ground may be a little slippery or sticky.
I’m looking forward to our last payment to Smith College. And the house being less chaotic and beautiful and heated once we have insulation and walls. I’m looking forward to a shower and to doing a little yoga.
Walking better and longer.
Having both kids in school full time so I can figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Learning to surf. Being done with the (church) auction.
My meditation time, hoping to regain that feeling of wonder with the dawning of a new day.
At the end of the day, I look forward to tomorrow!
More reliably keeping the promises I make to myself.
Reading to my child.
Choir on Thursday nights.
I look forward to the day when there is nothing left to look forward to.
OK, mine is another of my wacky aspirations: in the next few weeks I hope to begin creating a McMetaphor Tree to be among the 100+ decorated Christmas trees various organizations and individuals donate to the Billerica library every November. Visitors get to put tickets next to the tree you want to win. This raises a LOT of money for the town.
This small tree will be made from a discarded natural one, and topped by my version of the Golden Arches. Instead of ornaments on branches, there will be 4 “shelves” covered with fake cowhide, and displaying the 14 toys from that many Happy Meals I was forced to consume in order to do this project. Attached to the bottom of the tree will be the piece de resistance, a copy of the book that inspired it all, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation. It chronicles the disconnect we have between what we eat and where it comes from.
Everybody’s got to have a dream!
I try to focus on the present, having a good day. I call this “traveler mind.” I get on a plane with a book I want to read and, other than making sure I’m on the right plane, I don’t think about where I’m going until we’re starting to land.
I’ll soon turn 84. I look forward to many more birthdays together with my husband. First Parish helps…as does my work as a writer and researcher.
Samplings, revisits, practice, competency….
A martini tonight with 3 olives.
I look forward to my next life, when I’ll find a job that closes whenever it snows.
Warm snuggles in bed with our girls. Heartfelt conversations, not email or texting. Seeing the snow sparkle in the sun.
And over and over in your responses, people said they are looking forward to spring, spring, spring, spring.
And, yes, there’s plenty of snow sparkling in the sun. And there will be plenty more, and then there will be plenty of slush and dirty snow and then more snow sparkling in the sun and, sure let’s keep looking forward to spring.
In the meantime, what’ve we got? We’ve got now and, well, pretty soon we’ll have Valentine’s Day! Which reminds me…
A young man was looking for a Valentine card but was having difficultly deciding, so he asked the clerk for help. She directed him to a beautiful embossed Valentine card, explaining, “It says, ‘To my one true love, the most beautiful woman in all the world,’ on the inside.” The young man was thrilled. “That’s perfect!” he said. “That’s exactly the kind of heartfelt message I was looking for! I’ll take five.”
Think of the possibilities! Find that electric socket of possibility!
It is bad karma, bad juju to dislike any time of the year. All beautiful, the march of days.