“Three Strings, Trapezes, Shattered Goblets,
Really Terrible Orchestras, and Other Attempts at Equipoise”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered on October 8, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford, MA
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Let me respectfully remind you,
life and death
are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by
and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to
Do Not Squander Your Life.
—Evening Gatha, Zen Mountain Monastery
Friend, I have lost the way.
The way leads on.
Is there another way?
The way is one.
I must retrace the track.
It’s lost and gone.
Back, I must travel back!
None goes there, none.
Then I’ll make here my place—
The road leads on—
Stand still and set my face—
The road leaps on.
Stay here, forever stay.
None stays here, none.
I cannot find the way.
The way leads on.
Oh, places I have passed!
That journey’s done.
And what will come at last?
The road leads on.
“The Fear of Transformation”
from The Essene Book of Days by Danaan Parry
Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.
Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I’m merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and I know, in that place that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness going to get me. In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well known bar to move to the new one.
Each time it happens to me, I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss, that I will be crushed on the unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It’s called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.
I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing”, a no-place between places. Sure the old trapeze-bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real too. But the void in between? That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast as unconsciously as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out-of-control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.
And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang- out” in the transition between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.
(At the candlestand during Joys and Sorrows, John and Megan announced Megan’s pending resignation. John said that there will be time for us to grieve and say goodbye but that eventually he hopes this will be more about Megan than about us, a time to celebrate her ministry – past, present, and future.)
People sometimes wonder why there are so many Kleenex boxes in our pews. Now you know.
Well, as I said, enough about Megan. Instead, let’s talk about us. More specifically, let’s talk about me. I’ve actually been thinking about a version of this sermon for a while, long before Megan came up with her evil plan. You see, I turned 65 over the summer and “it’s just a number” but it’s a number with some cultural baggage. My body is creakier and lumpier. Sometimes I need to sit down or hold onto something to get my socks or underwear on without falling over. My wife will tell you my memory is shot.
Now I must also be quick to say how incredibly fortunate I am to be 65 when so many have been so unfairly denied that privilege due to violence and illness and caprice. And I must be quick to say that there are those in this room – those in their 80’s and 90’s and 100’s – who scoff at any 65-year old whining. “You want to feel old?” they ask. “I’ll show you old!” And they do – with grace, and meaning, and joy, and purpose.
Nonetheless, every birthday, every trip around the sun, every sunset and sunrise, every letter of resignation is occasion to reflect on the central feature of our very existence, which is our mortality. Memento mori, counseled the stoics. To remember that we shall die is not to be gloomy or morbid but to be woke! Awaken!
A couple of weeks ago out there on the Common I pontificated that the central purpose of religious community is to keep afire the spark of wonder – exhibit A, remember, was Sara, the Flyin’ Hawaiian Hoop Dancer – and wonder is but the other side of the coin of mortality. We experience wonder because we are temporal beings and our grasp on everything is temporary. At the top of your order of service it says, “time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.”
Once I preached a sermon titled “Religion is for Losers” in which I said that every rite of passage is really about coping with loss. A child dedication – there will be one right here in another couple of hours – is a happy occasion but it’s really about parents giving up their exclusive and obsessive grasp of their child, loosening their grip because it takes a village to raise a child. Coming-of-age recognizes a loss of childhood innocence. Marriage celebrates the loss of “I can do whatever I want” autonomy. And then we lose our lives and even that is not the end for we still get to push up the daisies.
“Religion,” said my colleague Forest Church, “is the human response to being alive and having to die.” Forest died at age 61. Let’s hope that Sara, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, lives so long and doesn’t fall off her coconut tree.
So, yes, this morning we’re feeling – not a death – but a very real loss. And I do feel just a little bit older. And so I want to share a few teaching stories about loss and transition. That trapeze story was one. “…Somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives.” “The past is gone, the future is not yet here.”
I try to keep multiple copies of one book in my office and it’s called Transitions by a man aptly named William Bridges. If there is a universal cause of human anxiety it is loss, endings, transitions. We attach and cling to the last trapeze bar. Buddhism – and Bridges too – counsel non-attachment, letting go.
As I said in my postscript to Megan’s letter of resignation, “Every new beginning must begin with an ending.” Megan’s resignation is an ending and, in time, it will lead to a new beginning – for her and for us. The Transitions book by the man named Bridges is all about the space between the trapeze bars, which is where we are now…and where Megan too is now. The thin air where we are is a tender, generative, hopeful and spine-tingling space. The story said, “ Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.” Yeah, right! Oh joy.
Here’s another story about change:
Itzhak Perlman is one of the great virtuoso violinists of our time. Stricken with polio as a child, he wears large braces on both legs and maneuvers with the aid of two crutches.
Seeing him take the stage is an inspiring sight: painfully and slowly, but majestically and confidently, he makes his way to his chair. Then he carefully lowers himself into his chair, places his crutches on the floor, unfastens the braces on his legs, and tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward; he then bends down and picks up his violin, arranges it under his chin, and then nods to the conductor. It’s a ritual that his audiences have come to respect and admire.
At a concert at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in November 1995, the audience saw what a master musician Perlman is. After playing just the first few bars of the opening piece, one of the strings on his violin broke. Everyone in the hall could hear it snap — it sounded like a blast of gunfire. Both musicians and audience members expected the concert to stop and wait for Perlman to put his braces back on, take up his crutches and make his way backstage to restring the instrument or find a replacement. But Perlman didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again and Perlman picked up the piece from the point where he had left off.
Itzhak Perlman then proceeded to do the impossible: he played a symphonic work with just three strings. Audience and orchestra watched and listened in amazement as Perlman modulated, transposed and re-composed the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was “de-tuning” the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.
When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room — and then a thunderous ovation roared from every corner of the great hall.
Perlman smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet the audience; then he said – not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone: “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” (As told in the journal Connections, August 2017)
So how might this story be relevant to us? Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance! For a long time, First Parish has been playing on all our strings and now one has busted loose. With what we have left, we still can make music.
But let me interject a bit about what will happen here. First of all, like many of you, I am really sad. I don’t know why I thought our partnership with Megan might last forever, but I did. Ah, illusion! I feel this loss deeply and while, yes, I’ll come around and I’ll love Megan forever and together with you we’ll celebrate her ministry past, present, and future, and eventually everything will be copacetic, this also does hurt. My emotions are a jumble and it’s OK if yours are too.
And, yes, over the next few months we will have ample opportunities to say goodbye, vent if necessary, grieve, and give Megan our very best farewell. She’ll finish at the end of December and we’ll demand at least one more cartwheel.
With our Board, we’ll be looking for an interim minister – the configuration of responsibilities TBD. I expect we will know who that may be later this fall. But we may be assured: There are no Megan Lyneses growing on trees around here. Trees? Maybe coconut trees? I wonder what Sara, the Flyin’ Hawaiian is doing? Our next minister will not be Megan (or Sara), but I promise there are rabbits to be pulled out of this old hat.
Yes, we’ll be shopping around for some new strings, but we will make music with what we have left.
And, again, this isn’t just about Megan and her evil plan. This is about all of us. This is about life.
And so here’s another teaching story.
Once someone asked a well-known Thai meditation master, “In this world where everything changes, where nothing remains the same, where loss and grief are inherent in our very coming into existence, how can there be any happiness? How can we find security when we see that we can’t count on anything being the way we want it to be?” The teacher, looking compassionately at this fellow, held up a drinking glass that had been given to him earlier in the morning and said, “You see this goblet? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. Every moment is just as it is, and nothing need be otherwise.”??
(Just this morning in the Gloibe Iread the obituary of 90-year old Gestalt therapist Dr. Sonia Nevis. These are the opening paragraphs:
When a course of therapy with psychologist Dr. Sonia Nevis ended and a client struggled with goodbye, she would ask her patient to pick up one of the many glass figurines in her office — a little glass horse, perhaps, or a cat. Then she would tell her client to break it.
“They are often surprised and may physically pull back. They will sometimes say, ‘Don’t you care about it?’ I might answer, ‘Yes, very much.’ They will say, ‘So why do you want me to break it?’ ”
“I’ll say because the sensation of loss is one that most of us avoid, even though it is so ordinary,” she added. “We all have to learn to experience it in the moment. If we are lucky, we can do it with another.”)
If our only spiritual practice were to live (with an awareness that all things are temporary), what time would there be for old games or falsehoods or posturing? …Only love would be appropriate, only the truth
(Excerpted from Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s book, Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying.)
Sometimes I end our services with the benediction, “Let us agree in love for if we agree in love there is no injury that can do us any harm, and yet if we do not agree in love, there is no other agreement that will do us any good.”
Megan has made decisions with love as her goal. She has sought and spoken the truth to us in love. Over the next few months, but really over all our lives with whatever time we may have, may we be so fearless, so ready to let go, so loving.
But I want to go back to that playing with three strings story and Itzhak Perlman who, after the string broke, “modulated, transposed and re-composed the piece in his head.” Now, who are we kidding? I’m not Itzhak Perlman and, friends, neither are you! We may be able to make music with what we have left, but virtuoso? I don’t think so.
And so I want to leave you with one final example of what human beings can do with their finite gift of time. And this example is something called the Really Terrible Orchestra (also called the RTO), a British amateur orchestra, founded in 1995 by the Edinburgh-based businessman Peter Stevenson and the author Alexander McCall Smith.
(You know I don’t make this stuff up. The RTO is all over YouTube and the Internet. Check it out.)
The inspiration for Stevenson and Smith was the enjoyment that their children were having with their school orchestras. They decided to look for a local amateur orchestra with which they could enjoy playing music for the fun of it. They could not find such an orchestra, and formed the RTO as a result, with Richard Neville Towle as its conductor. The orchestra website describes its mission as follows:
“The Really Terrible Orchestra exists to encourage those who have been prevented from playing music, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to play music in the company of similarly afflicted players. The policy of the orchestra is to make no distinction between the various grades of ability and the various forms of music, or time signature. The RTO looks forward to a further lowering of standards, in order to underline its commitment to accessibility and relevance.”
Smith has expressed the low quality of the orchestra’s playing very directly:
“The name was carefully chosen: what it said was what you would get.”
In light of Megan’s lamentable decision (I’m trying to be generous here: that’s a step up from “evil”), and now that we got that high quality bicentennial celebration behind us, I propose that the First Parish Bedford commit to a further lowering of our standards in order to underline our commitment to accessibility and relevance! We’ve spent altogether too much time trying to move from being a good to being a great church and henceforth we have a golden opportunity to be a Really Terrible Church (also known as RTC), which is to say that we are not attached to any trapeze bar; we are not reliant on any single fragile breakable string or crystal goblet…or minister…but rather we shall be an amateur congregation (amateur, remember, “motivated solely by love”) gathered solely for the purpose of delighting in the making of joy and meaning in this oh so temporal world, and to encourage those who have been prevented from doing so, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to do so in the precious company of other similarly afflicted congregants.
Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to
Awaken! Awaken! Take heed.
Do not squander your life.
And Godspeed to us all.