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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Finishing Creation

June is here with its sweet days, refulgent with the scent of flowers, almost leisurely with its elongated evenings lit by the lasting light. I can think of no better time than to issue the call to finish creation. Put more manageably, I hereby declare June “Do Something Month,” the month in which each of us claims what is ours to do—and keep doing it year-round. As Grace said so eloquently in her testimonial, none of us need to do everything. None of us need offer salvation of biblical proportions to make a difference. Instead we are called upon by the very creation that spawns us to do our part to complete it. From the Jewish mystical tradition comes the concept of Tikkun Olam, repairing the torn fabric of creation. Each good deed, each mitzvah renders a stitch.

The writer Howard Mansfield provides an excellent summary in his book, The Same Ax, Twice.

Each moral act works toward Tikkun, or restoration. Gershom Sholem, the pioneering scholar, defines Tikkun as the “restoration of the right order, the true unity of things.”…

“Every human deed or misdeed may change the whole universal balance…”writes Joseph Dan. An individual’s deeds shape “the fate of divinity itself.” The world may be at “any one moment just one step away from the complete redemption, and a minute sin performed at that very moment by some individual would prevent and delay the redemption,” says Dan. “There is no neutral ground, there are no deeds or thoughts that do not contribute to one side or the other.” Each person’s actions carry the weight of the entire community’s redemption. The mending of the world is a communal act. Each day we rise to finish creation.

This is an awesome responsibility. I hear echoes of it in the Passover story where God enlists Moses to free the Israelites from bondage so they can become a covenantal people. God doesn’t liberate them so that they can do nothing. Moses commands Pharaoh to “Let my people go” so that the people can get busy finishing creation by receiving and fulfilling God’s commandments.

The great evolutionary chain of being that gathers periodic elements and fashions them into stars that explode and humans that compose, requires participation. Look at ants and bees: their elaborate social structures that serve creation, not just themselves. The natural world abounds with examples of inter-specie interaction and reliance. The universe is designed to bring us into relationship, engaging us in the acts of co-creation all the time. No one gets a free pass.

In a world grown ever more complicated by human achievement and human failing, there is all the more reason for Tikkun Olam. Howard Mansfield asks,

How do we mend the world? When everything needs doing, when the sky is falling, where do you start? There is a formula in urban forestry: When a mature shade tree falls, you do not replace it with another tree—with one spindly wrist-thin sapling. To restore the shade of that older tree you have to plant dozens of young trees.

Perhaps this is a model. When we lose a good soul, we have to go forth and mend and restore this world in all the ways we know. We have to plant anew—we know this. But with the crisis all around us, we have to plant groves.

Here at First Parish, as the next phase of strategic planning gets underway, what I hear over and over is a fervent desire for this church to remain vital. No one is willing to let this congregation wither on the vine. We all want First Parish to flourish; but are we all willing to do our part to restore and maintain it?

That is the perennial question; and on this sweet June day in this season of refulgence, I ask of everyone sitting here, and the ones gone missing who still get our mail, what can and will you do? Our forebears did not gather so that we would sit comfortably on our tushes making summer plans that don’t include First Parish. No, our forebears, like theirs, had more in mind.

On Tuesday I paid a visit to Bill Ward. Bill lay dying after a long and fruitful life. A life not without its challenges and sorrows, but a life made purposeful and strong by Bill’s willingness to engage. Bill Ward was last of ten children. He joined the Navy at seventeen and served in World War Two. Born in 1925, Bill got his GED in 1967 after learning the construction trades and becoming a construction superintendent. He oversaw the building of Civic Center in Fitchburg, the post office, schools, fire stations and factories. He swept mines in the war and built his family’s home by hand. He has been married almost 67 years and raised four daughters with his wife Eunice. Even though Bill hasn’t come in a long time, he and Eunice still pledge.

It wasn’t Bill who listed his accomplishments the first time we met a few months ago. It was his wife and daughter. Thinking of Bill this week as I am, I reflect on a lifetime of labor given in love. With humility Bill spoke to me of a job well done, of the satisfaction he found in committing himself to a task fully.

Before Bill got pancreatic cancer, I did not know him, nor was I aware of his service to this city. The membership rolls of this congregation brim with people who have participated in Tikkun Olam. A few have plaques when money as well as effort was involved but most of the members through the last two and a half centuries go unrecognized. But it is their shade we rest under, and it is incumbent on us to plant the next groves.

Since I arrived in 2007, I have heard the cry for new members. And since 2007, probably a couple of dozen people have joined. Some have stayed, others drifted away. So here’s a simple act of Tikkun Olam. If you are sitting here today and wonder where someone is you haven’t seen in a while, go home on this sunny day and before you get out in the garden or yard or involve yourself in the afternoon’s activities, take a moment to call or write a note to that person. Invite him or her or them to the church picnic on the 19th and offer a ride.

You want more members? Take it upon yourselves to be the ambassadors of this congregation. If you can ambulate through these doors you can make a call or write a note. Glenda has a wonderful ministry of sending cards and I send some too but it is not our exclusive province. It is everyone’s. We all know that a personal invitation is more compelling than a blanket one. So why not take the time to invite a newcomer here today to join your family at the picnic or for iced coffee some summer afternoon?

This church rocks. I love it fiercely and tenderly and I give my heart to it and I expect you to do the same. Not on your first visit or even your third. But if you believe this congregation matters, if it matters to you there is a religious community in Fitchburg that welcomes you, that welcomes any peace-seeking person who hungers to communally engage in Tikkun Olam it’s time to go out on a limb for that. Everyone won’t fit on the same limb so you get to choose the limb that suits you. Today, Martha shared her practice of meditation with us and she’s graciously offered to share it after service on Sundays and I hope through the summer as well. Fred H. restarted the forum and has kept it going all year. Someone started a book group this week and on Thursday at 2:00 any of you who can come to the first meeting of the “Do Something” group are invited. This church cannot sit idle all summer nor can we just gather for worship on Sundays from September to June, when it’s convenient.

That is not Tikkun Olam. Restoring the world is not about deciding what’s convenient. What fits into the schedule. Tikkun Olam is about waking each day and saying, ah, I am alive today so it is my work to help mend creation. You may do it with a smile, a kind word, attentive listening. You may do it with a microcredit loan or a donation. You might do it attending the forum Fred re-ignited or the book group. You might write a letter to the editor like Betty Gelinas did. You might do it phoning a newcomer or a neighbor. You might do it caring for someone who is ill or bereaved. You might do it by attending Bill Ward’s service when it happens. Or you might withhold the hastily uttered harsh word. Restoration happens when we reframe our comments to lift up the positive, when we nudge ourselves to look at a situation from a perspective beyond our own. It happens when we get up off our rumps and take the blessing of aliveness and energy and revel in the day we’ve been given and this glorious world awaiting repair.

Think of anyone in bondage. Think of the ones constricted by theologies aflame with heaven and hell. Think of the ones being instructed right now in catechisms of hate and doctrines of misunderstanding: secular or religious. Now breathe in the air of Unitarian Universalism which summons us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We, who have found or been led to this expansive way of being owe it to others, not ourselves, to get on with the mending of creation and the revitalizing of this congregation.

In the back of our hymnal the poet Adrienne Rich writes, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save. So much has been destroyed. I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

In Judaism, there is a maxim that whosoever saves a life saves all of creation because a singular act of restoration swings the world toward redemption. Each of us has something to offer. None of us will attend every church event, every service, not even me, but we can commit to each doing something. We can each do our part to revitalize this congregation. We can each do our part to reach out to others, to be the welcome we wish any newcomer to feel. We can each actively support an activity or ministry. There are no neutral acts. To sit back and do nothing is neither neutral nor covenantal. Each week we recite a covenant that expresses our promise to one another that love is our doctrine and service our prayer. Love is not a spectator sport. And in order for a church to thrive, love must be a verb not a noun. We covenant to help one another in fellowship which means we must create and sustain fellowship not simply partake in the fellowship others organize.

Today I call on everyone to make this a Do Something church. A church placed at the top of the common needs to cast its light outward not keep it confined to a couple of hours on Sunday morning nine moths a year. Every day we get twenty-four hours to make a difference. Choose one. Make this a congregation of Tikkun Olam. “The mending of the world is a communal act. Each day we rise to finish creation.” Amen.

Memorial Day 2011

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day we commemorate fallen soldiers, but approaching it more broadly, it’s a day that invites us to remember the people whose imprint lingers. As we recall the people whose lives have touched ours in memorable ways, we conjure moments recent and long past, even fleeting, when a spark of kindness or decency charged us, when the gift of patience or compassion changed us, even now.

Often, we remember the people who had such an effect on our lives without knowing that we have done the same for someone else. At every memorial service I officiate I remind listeners the fullness of a life is not measured by longevity, but by the impressions made.

Last year, as I considered the perennial question of what happens when we die, I settled on the idea that all the light once contained in our animate body disperses back into the world, carried in all the beings and places we touched. In the memory of people and animals we knew, the ground we walked, the oceans we swam, in the air we exhaled—our essential being remains.

If Memorial Day is a time to commemorate the dead it is also a time to consider the ways death doesn’t end us. In her fanciful novel A Gracious Plenty, Sheri Reynolds writes:

The dead coax the natural world along.…[They] control the seasons.…In June, the dead tunnel earthworms, crack the shells of bird eggs, poke the croaks from frogs. The ones who died children make play of their work, blowing bugs from weed to weed, aerating fields with their cartwheels.…The ones who died old cue the roosters to crow and dismiss the dawn each morning…The ones who died strong push the rivers downstream…the ones who died shy string spiderwebs, almost invisible. There’s a job for everybody on any given day. The Dead are generous with their gifts to the living.

Not everyone perceives the dead this way, but as the protagonist of the novel notes, she can only see those who have died by remembering the shape they held in the past, “but that’s about my eyes—not [their] presence.”

Memorial Day creates an opening through which to return our attention to the presence of those we carry with us, whether they are dead or not. And it invites us to consider the ways we inhabit not just the memory, but the sensibility of others.

If you were to ask me to name all the folks who have made a positive impression on me it would take hours. Chances are good that I did not end up in all of their memory banks, but I have learned I am stored in some.

A couple of months ago, Tricia forwarded an email that came to the church office from a woman now forty, I knew for about six weeks when she was twelve. I stayed briefly at her house having befriended her mother, roosting the way young adults do when they have not quite landed. To be honest, I had not thought of Joni since I left Houston in 1982. I heard from her mother once by email about eight years ago, out of the blue. It was a short email updating me on the family. I responded in kind and that was the end of it. When I read the email Tricia forwarded it took a moment to figure out just who Joni was. She mentioned she had come across a letter in her mother’s attic I had sent to her and her younger siblings and that triggered her getting in touch. She didn’t tell me what was in the letter and I had no recollection of writing it, but she asked if she could visit so I invited her up to my house for lunch and she came. We had a delightful time and though I still don’t know what possessed her to reconnect, I agreed to visit her this summer in Greenfield where she and her children and partner live.

Though I still wonder why Joni remembered and reached out almost 30 years later, I certainly understand the impulse because of the people I carry inside. Some I haven’t seen for thirty years and if my Internet searches had proved fruitful I would have contacted folks out of the blue, too. People who might have thought, gee, what is she getting in touch for?

So often we don’t realize the effect we have on others, or they, on us. For eleven years I have carried a little boy named John Gustin with me. I met John on the pediatric floor of Maine Medical Center where I did Clinical Pastoral Education, the hospital chaplaincy program required for ministers in training. John was seven the summer of 2000. From the notes in his chart I knew he was nonverbal without any medical explanation noted; that his alcoholic mother was out of the picture; that his father and two older brothers lived four hours away. Every day I would visit John, grateful for the chance to hang out without having to worry about words. There was no small talk to make. Just quiet playing and the occasional words I offered him. He was quiet even beyond his wordlessness, in his manner. He moved slowly, deliberately, gently. He had been hospitalized because of an infection around the insulin pump in his abdomen, but most days, he appeared not to be in pain. John liked to play at the computer in the patient lounge and I will always remember the day I found him entranced by the figures on the screen. I asked if he would be willing to color with me for a while, being the low-tech person I am. I can still see him registering my request, considering his options to pass the time. In a moment, he lifted his index finger with its dirty little fingernail and pressed the off button. I have never felt so loved in all my life.

And because the universe is benevolent, one of my last days there, I happened on John in his room while a lovely pet therapy volunteer brought out an enormous white bunny. I sat down on John’s bed and stroked the rabbit’s soft fur with him when the volunteer offered to take our picture. I knew there would have been no way to photograph John myself as that would have been a violation of confidentiality and a breach of my role, but when the volunteer handed us each a Polaroid print I smiled and silently thanked the universe.

I treasured that photo because it allowed me to more readily revisit the time I spent with John, the way he instructed me in how to be present and attentive. He provided an easy way for a nervous novice to pass the days without having to knock on doors or enter rooms of other patients less eager to see a chaplain.

Over the years I have wondered what became of him. A few years ago I went onto Facebook thinking I might find him there but I found only other folks with the same name. And for some inexplicable reason about a week and a half ago, I decided to try again. I went onto Facebook, typed in his name, and got a link to his obituary. John died six months after I last saw him. In the hospital at age eight.

I have been carrying his light, thoroughly illumined by the vision of that small finger pressing the computer button. I have held fast to the feeling of John one of the last times I encountered him, curled in my lap, his arms wound tightly around me, his head burrowed in my neck. I heard him crying and followed the sound into his room where a young nurse’s aide brusquely combed his freshly shampooed hair. Suddenly, John began to wretch and the newly made bed was instantly soiled. Exasperated, the young aide yanked the sheets beneath him so I carried John to the couch and cradled him. The trust he bestowed charged and changed me that August day, in a way that enlivens us both still.

When I speak of the universe holding us, this is what I mean. We are held in body, but also in memory. Whether we recognize it or not, we are held by those who carry us, and those we carry. We are held by the places we have trod, the trees trunks we leaned against. We are held in the stories others tell.

In the novel I quoted from earlier, Sheri Reynolds writes of the realm the dead inhabit, “In this place you’ve moved beyond experience. Now it’s your stories that keep you down. You can’t leave until you’ve told them.”

I sense it is our stories that tether us. The ones we have yet to tell, the secrets as yet unreleased carried into death may need telling in order to free the spirit. And perhaps imaginations freed of body trade secrets and swap stories beyond our capacity to hear.

The stories we tell testify to the presence of the beings that remain part of our lives—they may not all be human—by virtue of leaving an impression, imparting a lesson, instilling a value, encouraging a path.

I invite you to take a few moments now to share a story you carry with someone seated nearby so that on this Memorial Day, we not only remember, but we become the a chalice poised to hold another’s light. (Give folks time to share stories)

Sheri Reynolds writes in A Gracious Plenty, “I know the Dead haven’t disappeared because the sun does rise. The roosters do crow. The clouds move across the sky like always.”

After my father died in 1999, a year or two after I read Sheri’s book, which by the way, I bought seventeen copies of and gave out to friends, I began to think of my father pushing the tomato plants up each summer because of the way he devoured the box of Tennessee tomatoes his sister shipped him every year. He would sit down with a box of Saltines, a handful of red tomatoes and a serrated knife and eat slices on crackers as if every one were his last and happiest meal.

Before my father left this life to ripen tomatoes, he married three times, first my mother, then his second and third wives. The last two left their marriage to him and got involved with a woman. During my father’s cancer when there was time to ruminate, we wondered aloud what were the odds. At the time my father met his second and third wives, they had been drifting in rough seas—and in him they found a safe harbor. My father was a gentle, supportive man. In his later marriages he had come to understand more of himself. From the pier where I stand looking back, I see how each woman gathered her strength and re-charted her course. And if someone were to say to me, “Gosh, your dad was married and divorced three times; too bad none of his marriages worked out,” I would tell the story of his memorial service where all three ex-wives gathered to hold him. I would speak also of the Russian √©migr√© who told the people gathered, all strangers to her, how my father had saved her life by helping her come to America. I would express how proud I am to be the daughter of a man who ushered women to safer shores.

Relationships serve a purpose beyond our line of sight. They don’t have to last to work. What we think of as not working may in fact not be a failure of anything other than our ability to see. In 1982 when I left Houston, a twelve-year-old girl named Joni stored me in her memory; and though I left Maine Medical Center eleven summers ago, I never set John B. Gustin II down.

This Memorial Day as we remember the lives that imprint our own, may we feel the embrace of those we hold and those who hold us, in memory, in story, in being. Amen.