Caution: Perishable (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
I’ve been a gardener for as long as I can remember. It was a passion I picked up from my father, who, despite a busy career as a psychiatrist, always managed to be cultivating something. Digging in the dirt was a good antidote to the heady work of his day job, as it is for me. His gardens, though, would wax and wane depending on how much time and energy he had to devote to them, and I’ve found that’s true of me, too.


“Perishable, It Said” by Jane Hirshfield

SERMON – Part 1
I’ve been a gardener for as long as I can remember. It was a passion I picked up from my father, who, despite a busy career as a psychiatrist, always managed to be cultivating something. Digging in the dirt was a good antidote to the heady work of his day job, as it is for me. His gardens, though, would wax and wane depending on how much time and energy he had to devote to them, and I’ve found that’s true of me, too.

Usually by the end of the summer everything in my garden is growing pretty wild, but then the first frosts of autumn come and shut everything down. I actually enjoy the fall clean-up that follows: unraveling the withered tomato vines from their cages, pulling up the brown stalks of basil or zinnia, and cutting back the spent branches of perennials. All tossed in the compost heap to nourish next year’s crop.

It’s a spiritual discipline of sorts. I knew as I set out those tomato seedlings in May that some five months later I’d be ripping their withered remains out of the ground, hoping in the meantime to get a bounty of delicious fruit.  So, there they are, the wise words of Ecclesiastes, coming to life in my back yard – to everything there is a season, a time to sow and a time to reap; a time to live and a time to die.

Still, these philosophical reflections are often interrupted when I discover that in that frost last night that knocked down the tomatoes I inadvertently left some tender plant outside, a fern or something that in the spring we had brought out to the porch from inside, that I had meant to, but forgot to bring inside, and there it is, crumpled and grey.

Shoot! A stab of sadness and guilt. That wasn’t supposed to happen, and if I’d paid any attention to the weather it wouldn’t have happened.  I would have brought it inside and the plant would be ensconced happily in our heated home. Instead, it’s finished: more fodder for the compost heap.

It’s always a reminder to me that this business of perishability is serious and often unpredictable stuff. We watch the autumn leaves turn color and fall and wax about the circle of life, but we are less philosophical when the chill winds have our loved ones in their sights, or even ourselves.

Perishable, yes, but not him; perishable, OK, but not yet. There must be some warm, protected place we could go to, something I could do, we could do to stave off that catastrophe. None of us has a “use by” stamp on our foreheads, but with Jane Hirshfield we find ourselves examining the backs of our hands, the bags under our eyes from which our young self views in the mirror the improbable pouches and wrinkles that emerge on our faces.

As time marches on we see the signs of impermanence everywhere we look, and we feel something sinking in the pit of our stomachs, a vanishing we can’t see how to fathom. Some of us withdraw and separate ourselves from the stream around us, whose pace seems to be ever accelerating.

And yet, there is Jane Hirshfield suggesting that we might find in the “perishing perfumes and clashings” of the world around us, a “strange happiness” that comes to us not outside of but from within that world, indeed within ourselves. What might that be about?

WORLDLY WISDOM?            By J. Barrie Shepherd

SERMON – Part 2
Our theme groups this month have been wrestling with the notion of authenticity. What do we understand to be our authentic selves? How might we come to know them? And how might that contribute to living with a sense of integrity and peace?

It’s tricky work because really what we are seeking is not to discover what makes us each unique, special people, but to know and feel ourselves fully as we genuinely are. Let me tease out that distinction a little because it’s not obvious in the culture we live in today.

Garrison Keillor sizes the situation up with his description of Lake Woebegon as a place where “all the women are strong all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” We grow up in a culture that teaches us to link our identity with excellence and achievement. We are celebrated for how we excel and what we achieve.

Growing up we give attention to the good student, the poised dancer, the nimble athlete. Childhood is full of awards and certificates. It is what makes us “special.” As adults, we stake our claim to some vocation or perhaps some characteristic or skill that helps set us apart in some way. She’s a hot-shot lawyer; he’s a terrific cook. It gives us standing.

But the old wisdom warns against this viewpoint.

Here’s the Tao Te Ching:

He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand firm.

She who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.

He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. 

Because, here’s the thing: few of us are so confident in our skills that we want them to define us. Instead, dwelling on what makes us “special” inevitably feeds a secret sense that we’re not good enough. Praised for being special we are haunted with the feeling of just how special we aren’t. A kind of quiet shame pervades our perceptions like a low-lying fog.

These feelings often lead us to a kind of antic behavior, either working to be super achievers or skipping from place to place from job to job from relationship to relationship looking for . . . something. As the poet J. Barrie Shepherd puts it, “scanning, skipping to the end at times, searching for the one, the word, the sentence that an tell me what it’s all about.”

But the author Brene Brown, in one of the TED talks you’ll find referenced among the resources for theme reflection on our Web site, argues that beneath all that activity is something else: a numbness that separates us from ourselves.

We don’t like the feelings of fear and shame that bubble up at the edge of our consciousness and so, in her words, we numb ourselves. When something difficult arises or some conflict emerges, we withdraw. The problem is that we can’t selectively numb our feelings. In her words, when we numb guilt or fear, we also numb happiness and gratitude.

And we do that numbing in different ways. We may pull away, or turn to some sort of addictive behavior. Another way, she says, is to adopt a rigidity that in our minds makes everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion, she says, can be part of that. We move from an inquisitive sense of faith to a dogmatic one. As Brown puts it, “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up. That’s it.”

We liberal religious folks like to make this observation about this kind of behavior among conservatives, but the fact is that we can be just as narrow and self-righteous in our own ways. But I think it can help to recognize that response as the voice not of confidence or authority but of shame and of fear, and it doesn’t have to be there.

For, what is authentic about us is not our academic degrees or lack thereof, our artistic gifts or lack thereof, our physical beauty or lack thereof: you get the point. What is authentic in us is that which engages and participates in the blooming, buzzing world around us.

And the way that we gain access to it is we allow ourselves to be seen, not as the reflections of icons or images, but as we truly are. It requires, as Brene Brown puts it, that we be vulnerable: hard to do, but that’s part of why we exist as a religious community, to hold each other in covenant as persons of inherent worth and dignity, offering safe space for healing and exploring, where in time we teach and learn from each other the disciplines of love.

That’s the key to our release from our fears and to coming to know our authentic selves. As Brene Brown puts it, we need to learn to love with our whole hearts and practice gratitude and joy, even when we’re worried and afraid.

It is a place, as poet J. Barrie Shepherd writes, “beyond the unrelenting streaming of words,” where we are attuned to a deeper strain of life, something “without any hope or need for explanation, (that is) moving on, while we stand wordless, gasping in its tumbling wake.”

DROPLETS                 by C.K. Williams

SERMON – Part 3

A few weeks ago in the middle of the morning while we were both at work Debbie and I each got a disturbing call from the woman who periodically does cleaning at our home. She noticed that some rooms in the house were turned upside down and some things seemed to be missing. We both drove home quickly and discovered that, such enough, we had been robbed: TV, computers, cameras and the like gone, and the backdoor, which likely I had inadvertently left ajar, was wide open.

We did what you do – called the police, inventoried our things and made plans to secure the house and replace what we could. Describing the incident to others, I turned to a bit of gallows humor, saying that I had been planning a service on impermanence and so was now given an object lesson. Philosophically, I would say, oh, it could have been worse, and, after all, it’s just stuff.

And still. Those of you who have been through something like this know that the loss – including in our case some irreplaceable family items – while significant doesn’t compare with the sense of violation that haunts you for some time afterward: The vision of someone ransacking your lovingly appointed space, tearing through drawers and closets, and unceremoniously hauling your stuff away.

It leaves you feeling spiritually damaged – suspicious, wary of others, more protective of your space and loved ones: Yeah, a lesson in impermanence, but at first an experience of grief.

I found it interesting that my personal response to the theft was to sort through my remaining things – clothes, books, household items I hadn’t used in some time – and look for things I could clear out. It fits with an urge I’ve been feeling lately to shed stuff. The less I have, after all, the less I have to worry about someone taking. But more, it echoes the kind of visceral sense I’ve experienced of my own impermanence and the folly of attaching myself to the stuff around me, since I won’t be taking it with me.

That passage I quoted earlier from the Tao ends this way:

He who clings to work will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao,

just do your job, then let go.

And perhaps letting go is the answer. I’m not happy having lost the things that we did, but most of them were mere conveniences.  They can be replaced or perhaps even done without.

But in the process of this mess I also got a window into a deeper bounty in my life that I don’t attend to often enough with the response of empathy and compassion from our friends and loved ones.

Even when the rain is hard, C.K. Williams observes, it only disturbs one leaf after another on the little tree planted by his friend or lover. Instead, of alarming him, the downpour mingles with his partner’s piano playing into an intensity of feeling so powerful it tames, at least for a moment, that most existential of dreads, the fear of one’s own death, until, transformed into a transient mist, it falters and fades as the music goes on.

What an improbable wonder this fleeting, heart-breaking, soul-stirring life can prove to be!

A RESCUE       by John Updike

Debbie and I started planning for our Thanksgiving celebration, coming up the week after next, some months ago. All of our three daughters had announced they would be unavailable for one reason or another, so we mulled over who we might ask join us for a simple meal. In the end, we invited Debbie’s sister, Suzanne, from New Jersey and envisioned a quiet day. Then we received an invitation from Stephen and Susie Jones here to join them and their son, Drew’s family. We loved the idea, and so, the gathering started to grow.

Meanwhile, about a month ago my mother, Cynthia, a member of this congregation living at Brooks Howell Home, fell while transferring to a wheelchair and broke her hip. The surgery to repair it was simple, but her frail health and lack of stamina have impeded her recovery to the point where we are unsure of her future.

In conversation with my sister and three brothers we decided that it made sense for them to visit soon, and, well, Thanksgiving was on the horizon. So, perhaps it made sense for them to come then. Three of them agreed, along with my mother’s youngest sister. We contacted Stephen and Suzie with the news, and they insisted on bringing everybody along. So, what started as plans for a quiet meal has grown to a gathering of 15.

It is an occasion I look forward to, but one also tinged with impermanence. Indeed, Thanksgiving for many of us is a kind of thermometer of change. Each year for various reasons different faces appear at and disappear from the table. So in the gathering before the sweet potatoes are passed there is always a moment to take stock of where we are. This year will be a special moment for many in our gathering.

I’ve long been a fan of the piece the choir sang for you today, Copland’s “The Promise of Living,” but for the past several weeks I’ve come to know it quite a bit better, thanks to Debbie. Diligent new choir member that she is, she has found myriad moments to practice her part – playing it through on our piano at home, or plugging in the MP3 recording Milt supplied so she could practice as we drove in her car. It has become a kind of sound track of our lives, and so it’s on my mind.

The song closes out the first act of Copland’s opera “The Tender Land,” and the lyrics, written by Copland’s one-time partner Horace Everett, constitute a hymn of praise centered on that cycle of change we began with this morning: sowing and planting, and the labor of harvest. But it adds another dimension.

Things vanish all around us. Circumstance brings us down. And still, as Jane Hirshfield puts it, there is a “strange happiness” that rises in our breasts, a happiness centered not in the things we surround ourselves with, things of “perishing perfumes and clashings,” but in something else, in the fragile fallible world we inhabit.

Late in the day that we discovered our robbery, having visited my mother in her declining health, I had a moment where I felt weighed down and exhausted. A church meeting was scheduled to start in a half hour, but I had no energy for it. Impulsively, I turned to the computer and Googled the only thing I could think of at that moment that might bring comfort. A pianist slowly began playing Copland’s distinctive open chords and then the tenors and basses entered, “The promise of living with hope and Thanksgiving is born of our loving, our friends and our labor.”

As in John Updike’s rescue, we have the opportunity to set free an agitated essence of air within us, to release it like a self-flung ball to the lovely, perishing outdoors. There is no avoiding the perishing of so much in our lives – the stuff we treasure, the people we love, even ourselves in the bargain. And yet, there is a promise to our lives that we realize in giving our authentic selves to them. It is, as Copland’s farm family sings, born of our loving, our friends and our labor. And it is enough.