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Those Who Can, Teach – 9/21/2014

Let me tell you a little bit about Dave Roche. Dave Roche is a punk rock guy. He belongs to the particular variety of punk called ‘straight-edge,’ which means that he doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke and doesn’t eat meat. The sort of loud, aggressive music that he likes to sing along with and dance to and create himself is socially-conscious, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist. Dave spent most of his 20s going to shows in grimy clubs and sometimes performing in them. He hitchhiked between cities, made guerilla street art, and rummaged strategically in promising dumpsters. You may hear ‘punk,’ and find none of that terribly surprising. What may surprise you is that Dave supported himself through much of that time by working as a public school substitute teacher, mainly as an aid in special ed classrooms.

In his book, On Subbing, Dave records many of his teaching experiences. True to the punk ethic that demands unvarnished truth, many of his stories and anecdotes aren’t pretty. When a student shouts an expletive at him, he records the quote verbatim. When a senior teacher does something cruel, or thoughtless, or outright racist, he prints that, too. His warnings about the job are plain and direct: “[W]hen you sub, especially at a middle school, you have to give the kids as little to make fun of you about as possible. You have to double, maybe triple check your fly, bring some mints, and make sure your shirt is buttoned properly.”

But Dave also clearly enjoys many of the children he works with: a boy who wants to spend recess talking about pets, but doesn’t like monkeys; a girl who remembers him from his last job in her class, and wants him to read the same book to her again. Dave has little tolerance for any teacher or administrators who don’t seem to respect the kids, saying, “My job would be so much better if I didn’t have to deal with all these adults.” Still, he cares about the places where he works and the job that he and the people he works with are trying to do. One particularly hard-up school suffers from a lack of the most basic supplies, including markers and paper. So Dave asks his friends to gather enough materials to last through the end of the school year and leaves them in a pile in the staff room. His anonymous note to the faculty doesn’t mention that all the items were shoplifted.

As a substitute, Dave has very little control over where he is sent and what he is told to do – sometimes he can’t actually do the work at all. In one case he is sent to substitute for the school librarian for a whole week, but because he doesn’t have a password for the computer, he can’t actually use the system to check books in and out. Resorting to writing down the names of students and the books he checks out to them, he wiles away the mostly-empty hours in the library by reading and introducing one of the student volunteers, already a dedicated punk fan, to new and less mainstream bands. Dave begins to lay out a curriculum of sorts, laying out the albums he’ll introduce each day in his head. Sadly his punk-rock tutorial is cut short when the school realizes it can’t afford to pay him through the end of the week.

I begin with this collage from Dave Roche’s stories of teaching to underline two related points. The first is that teaching is a job, it is a role, and it is a vocation, but it is not something that can only be done in one sort of way by one sort of person. Dave Roche spent his nights dancing in noisy bars and sleeping on couches, but that didn’t make him any less determined to do what he could to help the kids in his classes learn something. And the second point is that if you are determined to teach – to share what you know, and help others to grow in their own understanding – then you will find ways to teach no matter the circumstance. Stuck behind a desk unable to function in the role of librarian, Dave still managed to find one student to teach with his improvised class on the essentials of punk rock.

Today, my message is on the importance of teaching – not only to children or even only to people, but to the world itself. This is the first sermon in a series of three – the remaining pieces will come later in the fall – derived from a famous saying from the Jewish tradition. In the Pirkei Avot – literally the ‘Sayings of the Fathers,’ a collection of wisdom from the ancient rabbis – it is recounted that Simeon the Just, a high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, was known to say, “On three things the world is sustained: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim. Gemilut chasadim means acts of loving kindness; avodah means literally work or service and in this case the religious sort: worship and prayer. These will get their due in October and November, but for today, our word is Torah.

You may already know that the Torah is the foundational scripture of the Jewish people, what are sometimes called the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. A narrative that begins with the two creation stories of Genesis and proceeds through the call of Abraham and the laughter of Sarah, to the enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt, the prophecy of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the receipt of the Torah itself and the covenant between the Jewish people and their G-d at Mount Sinai, and their wandering journey through the desert to the border of the Promised Land. Torah is a word that usually goes untranslated, but technically it means instruction or teaching. Rabbi Stephen Chester, who was the first teacher I studied Torah with in an ongoing way, described the Torah as, “the record of the Jewish people, from Sinai until now.” The literal record in the words themselves stops thousands of years ago, but Rabbi Chester was alluding to a precious understanding in Judaism that the Torah continues to speak, through the same stories and between the words themselves, again and again in every age. The tradition holds that all of the continuing discussion and debate around the book and its meaning is actually part of the Torah, also divine in its origin and so equally holy.

The lovely music our choir has offered this morning comes from Jewish liturgy, specifically the songs and tunes appropriate to Rosh Hashanah, the festival of the New Year which begins at sundown this coming Wednesday. The most upbeat of those pieces was a song sung for rejoicing with the Torah: during one portion of the Jewish worship service, one or more large, carefully inscribed scrolls bearing the full Hebrew text of the Torah is carried throughout the sanctuary. A parade breaks out, people approach the heavy, beautifully decorated text to touch it gently and to kiss it, all before it is taken back to the front to be opened and read. It’s a visual, auditory, and physical expression of how precious the words of the teaching are to the community.

So Simeon the Just may have meant that the world is sustained specifically by this Torah, but if I suggest that existence depends on teaching more broadly, that won’t just be coming from my Unitarian Universalist tendency to, well, universalize. This interpretation exists within Judaism as well: that the exchange of teaching and learning has an essential and mystical role in maintaining the world we share.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the foremost leader of the Chasidic movement in Judaism which began 300 years ago. The Baal Shem Tov was a Rabbi – a title which, you may recall, means ‘teacher’ – of great renown and the wondrous tales of his life often ascribe to him miraculous powers. But in this story, he had lost them all. His miracle-working had ceased. He could recall none of his learning, not one drop of his great wisdom. By power beyond his control, every word of Torah had fled from his mind and he had been banished far from home. He found himself stranded on a far-away island, with only one of his students for company, equally rid of all knowledge and capability. Despair at his predicament began to set in, then hunger and exhaustion. In a final calamity, the two men were captured by pirates, and faced the final loss of their lives.

In one last bid to save their lives, the Baal Shem Tov asked his student, “Can you remember nothing that I taught you? Not one story, not one prayer?”

“No, master; nothing.” Their captors closing in, the student thought for another moment and then said, “I suppose I can remember one thing, but it is nothing at all.”

“Whatever you can remember is more than I can recall. Whatever it is, no matter how meager or small, recite it now!”

All that the student could bring to mind, the only teaching from his master which still remained with him, were the letters of the alephbet – the Hebrew equivalent of the alphabet. Dutifully, but with little hope, the student closed his eyes and began to recite, “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Dalet. Hei.” As he spoke, the image of the pirates began to fade. By the time he reached mem, the island itself had begun to shimmer like the ending of a dream, and when he pronounced the last letter, tav, he and the Baal Shem Tov found themselves at home once more, safe and unharmed, their memories restored.[i]

The magic of the story points to a very real magic in the relationship between teacher and student. To learn something – anything – from someone is to take a part of them into you. It is a profoundly intimate thing, even when we do not want it to be, even when the learning is unplanned or unintended. Our Unitarian ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, “The man may teach by doing, and not otherwise. If he can communicate himself, he can teach, but not by words. He teaches who gives, and he learns who receives. There is no teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfusion takes place; he is you, and you are he; then is a teaching; and by no unfriendly chance or bad company can he ever quite lose the benefit.” The words have Emerson’s trademark – standards so high and grand that it’s hard to think of anyone approaching them, yet they still ring true. To learn is to be transformed, whether your learning is in astrophysics or air conditioning repair or needle point: it means being changed from the person who did not know, to the person who knows. Such transformation connects us irreversibly to our teachers.

I’ve had the benefit of many great scholars and educators in my life, but some of my most important teachers and moments of learning have come by at odd hours and with no particular warning. One of those moments that haunts me in a way that I am still learning from happened in summer camp, when I was around 13. Being the product of a liberal church and liberal household did not do anything special to make me good – though there was a time when I thought that it did. Rather, I had to learn, still have to learn, again and again, the ways in which I have failed my own ideals, and the way back towards the person I aspire to be. In this particular moment from my childhood, I was talking with some other young men around a campfire. I repeated a joke I had seen someone else deliver on television, passing it off as my own – that was something I did a lot of in middle school, when I was trying to figure out what cool was.

I and the other boys laughed. One of the female counselors, sitting within earshot, did not. She called me by name, and looked me in the face, and told me plain, “That was a really sexist joke.” She was right, it was. It was also homophobic, but maybe she didn’t think that would get my attention in the same way. Nothing more was said. I cannot pretend that I was entirely changed in that one moment, and that I never said anything ignorant or hurtful or of which I am ashamed, ever again. But every time that I have, or have been tempted to, because I want to be liked, or to fit in, or get a laugh, I think of her face. She taught me that some things aren’t funny, whether people laugh at them or not.

When I was in seminary, one of my professors, who was and is a Roman Catholic woman religious – so, colloquially, a nun – taught me one of the most important truths I know about ministry. “An action,” she said, “can only be identified as ministry by the person who receives it. We can’t know when we are and are not doing ministry, only when others are doing ministry for us.” I would say that exactly the same holds true for teaching, since about 80% of the time, being a minister means being a teacher who is in over their head and trying to cover for it gracefully.

Augustine of Hippo, whose own work has had so much influence on teachers and students of religion and philosophy for 1600 years, was himself rather wary of reliance on teachers directly. His instruction was that people should seek to learn the truth, which might align with the thoughts and lessons of their teachers only sometimes or not at all. Augustine echoed the Gospel According to Matthew in declaring that, “[We] should not call anyone on earth teacher, since there is one in heaven Who is the Teacher of all.”[ii] But what seems like a high and exalted position for God melts quickly into something very ambiguous. Even if its true origin is somehow divine, all information has to come to us more immediately from somewhere: a person, a book, a work of art, even just a flash of synapses in the brain. The frequently-spontaneous, imperfect work of trying to teach here on earth continues. In fact, the process of passing thought from one mind to another, feeling from one heart to another, is the means by which all art, culture, language and religion are transmitted and sustained. The practice of teaching is what makes it possible for everything about the human experience, and the means by which we perceive and interpret our world, to grow and endure.

The organized system for educating children in this country which is universal, public, secular, and free was not any of these things in its beginning. The shift happened gradually. The Unitarian reformer Horace Mann is often credited with helping to push the nation’s schools towards graded classes with professional teachers, away from the one-room schoolhouse model. In the ongoing project of educational reform, two of the leading groups championing public schooling have historically been the Jews and the Unitarian Universalists. We both place a strong emphasis on study and learning as a spiritual practice, and we both have experience as marginal groups with unpopular ideas – so a system of education that benefits everyone without favoring the dominant religion or ideology is in our immediate interest.

Each of us has something to teach; many of us quite a bit more than that. While some few brave souls among us may take their place in the classroom, and some more blessed spirits in our number may play a role in our Sunday School, most of us teach, most of the time, with our lives. Not by our words, so much as how we say them. Not by our grand gestures, but by the incidents we can neither plan nor predict. Not all of us are called to be educators, but in this sense all of us are called to teach: to be who we are loudly enough to be heard. To share what we know in the ways that we can, to help transform the each other, bit by bit, from people who do not know to people who understand. Teaching, in this sense, is not only for us: so frightful and so great is the power of humankind in our age that the present and future of the earth itself rests in our hands. The world, quite literally, depends, on what we teach to each other.

[i] This story appears in Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire.

[ii] In this passage from his, De Magistro, Augustine is pointing to Matthew 23:10-11.

Listening Twice – 9/14/2014

The story begins like this: a king had a son. One day, this son would inherit his throne, and so the king desired to teach his son wisdom. To accomplish this, he sent the young man to study with a very wise teacher, far away. The prince greeted his new teacher with respect, but as soon as they had been introduced, the teacher sent him away. “Go into the forest. You must live there, alone, for one year. Then you must return to me and tell me what the sound of the forest is.”

Bewildered but obedient, the young man followed these instructions. For one full year he made his home in the forest, and on the anniversary of his arrival he returned to the same place where he and his teacher had first met. “Teacher,” he said. “This is the sound of the forest: the singing of birds and the rustling of leaves, the chirp and buzz of insects, the wind in the grass and the call of the wolf.”

The teacher nodded at the pupil’s statement and gave the next instruction. “Go back to the forest and listen again. Return when you have heard the rest of the forest.”

Now the prince was truly perplexed: he had spent a whole year of his life in those woods. There could be nothing about them he did not already know. But he went, and sat, and listened. For days on end he listened, until finally he heard something. When he returned to his teacher, this is what he said, “The rest of the forest’s sounds are those that go unheard. The sunlight falling on the earth. The grass drinking the rain. The flowers opening to look out at the world.”

“To hear the unheard,” said the teacher, “is essential to all rulers. They must listen to the peoples’ hearts. A great ruler must strain to hear the unnamed sufferings and unspoken hopes of his subjects. Only then can he begin to address what his people truly need.”

To hear the unheard – a great gift, to be sure, if one can cultivate or possess it – but it also sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn’t it? On this day when we bless our congregational leaders and renew the covenant we share for another year, this ancient story from Korea on the quality most essential to a leader seems, at first, to be setting a standard no mere mortal could meet. Try as I might, I confess, I cannot hear the opening of a flower. And while I occasionally get lucky when trying to guess the word on the tip of my partner’s tongue, I am no mind-reader. We may talk often of honoring the joys and sorrows which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts, but if you want me or anyone else to know what is happening for you, speech and the written word continue to prove more effective than telepathy; for half a million years now and counting.

Yet, if we cannot literally hear the glowing of the sun, or the breaking of a heart, that may not mean we should not listen for them. The two types of sound in the story – the heard and the unheard – point to a division in all wisdom and understanding. In this sense, this is a lesson that takes us immediately beyond what is important for all leaders, and to something that is important for all humans. The information that makes up the things we know about ourselves and the world comes to us from two distinct sources: from outside, and from within. It takes two essential forms: the basic information of our senses – the exact things we see and feel and hear – and how we interpret and expand upon that raw data. These two sets are just slightly different ways of describing the heard and the unheard, and the health of our bodies, our communities, and our planet depends upon us listening twice – opening ourselves to both the wisdom of the external world and the insight to be found within.

In one of the more famous passages of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah had reached a deep low. He despairs of the total failure of his religious mission and though he is literally on the run for his life he questions the value in continuing to live. Then, alone in a cave in the desert, Elijah hears the voice of the Holy instructing him to “stand on the mountain before G-d.”

“And lo, G-d passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of G-d, but G-d was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire – but G-d was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice.”[i]

The voice sets Elijah back upon his trajectory, restores his purpose and hope and gives him a way forward and the voice does so beginning with this question: “Why are you here, Elijah?” It is only when he hears that voice that Elijah comes out of his cave.

A still, small voice seems to me a fair description of the unheard sound, the insight that comes from within. As always, whether or not you believe in G-d is completely irrelevant to the critical issue here: attuning ourselves through meditation or prayer or any other mode of deep reflection to our own reserves of purpose and hope. This is not a matter of grandiose spiritual missions and divine intent; or at least it is not only that. Most of the time that small voice, too often pushed down and ignored, is the voice of our own empathy – our ability to understand another’s experience, or at least attempt to.

In her recent collection of essays, the Empathy Exams, the writer Leslie Jamison ruminates on what it means to feel someone else’s feelings. The title of the book comes from her experience as a medical actor. Ms. Jamison worked for a time being paid to play sick in order to test and train medical students both in the work of diagnosis and in the exercise of empathy. She writes,

“Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing….Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.  Sometimes we care for another because we know we should or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations. I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own.”

We listen twice in order to understand each other – not perfectly, but just enough to be able to make choices more likely to help than to harm. We live in a time of catastrophically abundant information: the factoids and fragments of light and sound which are recorded and retained electronically every second of every day are so vast that their magnitude outstrips even my over-functioning capacity for metaphor. We would seem, as a society, to have no shortage of external data. Our biggest collective problem seems to be how to keep any of it protected, whether that’s national defense secrets or personal bank account passwords. But at the level of our own individual selves, we have the problem of being watched and listened for constantly.  There is a psychic cost to this, at least for some of us. Consider, for instance, the emergence of a novel mental health diagnosis: the Truman Show delusion. Patients believe that they are the central and unwilling characters in a reality TV show in which evil executives script the otherwise mundane elements of their lives. The “noise” of all this automated listening would seem to be heavy indeed.

Of course, waiting around for perfect silence and the total absence of distractions before beginning to listen for the unheard is unlikely to lead anywhere. And as David Flynn, who leads our congregation’s monthly meditation group (meeting tonight at 7:30!) can tell you, it’s just not good practice. The key to life is not to simply “drink from the well of your self and begin again,” as Charles Bukowski put it. If we only see the outside material world as an impediment to the internal spiritual one we become just as cut off from meaning as if we never turned inward at all. We need the information from both realms – the heard and the unheard – in order to gain the benefit of either.

Even in our glutted age of information, sometimes a great yawning gap in factual understanding is as great, or greater than a gap in empathy.  Late this summer, when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the still-ongoing outpouring of grief and anger made national news. Generations of routine injustice in communities of color all over the country got an unusual degree of public attention, if only briefly. The dramatic militarization of police forces became something that dramatically more people were watching and listening and thinking about. Certainly, there are an entire constellation of failures of empathy here, but up until the moment the media coverage exploded, and now that it has largely receded, there is also a colossal failure simply to pay attention.

These problems now “on display” in Ferguson were already there in plain view, they were not secret or hidden. They are not unique to one St. Louis suburb – the systematic targeting of people of color by majority-white police forces that behave like armies of occupation is happening all over this country and has been for a long time. But so much depends on what we, collectively and individually, turn to face, or hide from our sight.

There’s another story from the tradition of Korean Buddhism about a disciple to another great teacher. The student was promising and devoted, and worked and studied and thought for many long years in the teacher’s school. But after decades of striving towards the example of the spiritual luminary, the disciple felt no closer to the goal of attaining or even approaching the same degree of clarity and insight as the elder monk. He became resigned to the idea that he would never reach enlightenment. The disciple went to the master to notify him of his intent to leave the monastery. Before he could speak, the teacher declared that he would accompany his pupil to the bottom of the mountain.

Before they began their descent from the mountain top, the teacher asked the soon-to-be-former student what he saw. “O Wise One – I see the sun dawning on the horizon. I see the mountains and hills that reach out in all directions. I see the lake in the valley below, and the little town beside it. The teacher smiled, and said nothing, and the two set off down the mountain together.

Hours later, at the base of the mountain where the two were to part ways, the teacher again asked the student what he could see. “O Wise One – I see the noonday sun high overhead, this mountain we have just come down and the other across from it. I see animals in the farm yards of the town and children playing along the shore of the lake.”

“Enlightenment,” the teacher explained, “requires the understanding that what one sees at the top of the mountain is not the same as the view from the bottom. When we fail to remember this, we close ourselves off to all that we cannot see or know for ourselves. But with this wisdom we come to recognize that we see only so much – little at all, in fact. Yet what we cannot see can be seen from a different part of the mountain.”

We cannot see – or hear – it all. To know even the little bit of all that is that we are capable of knowing requires care and attention. A determination not to look away from the world and its failings, and a discipline of examining ourselves, imperfections and all.

[i] 1 Kings 19:11-12

The Same River, Twice – 9/7/2014

“You can never set foot in the same river twice.” This little morsel of wisdom is frequently attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, a Greek philosopher who lived around 2,500 years ago. Heraclitus was powerfully influential in his thinking and writing, but none of his works have survived into the modern day. What we know about what he actually thought and said comes to us in fragmented quotations from people who used his words either to back up their own ideas, or as an example of something they were disagreeing with. He’s sort of like an obscure musician who gets name-checked in an interview by a pop star, or whose music gets sampled in a song on the radio. Unless you work in a record store or still insist on making mix tapes instead of Spotify playlists, you probably haven’t heard of him. But his songs – or in this case, his ideas – keep popping up.

This river business comes in part from two different quotations from Heraclitus that come down to us through Plato. In the first, the philosopher says, “Everything changes and nothing remains still…you cannot step twice into the same stream.” This is almost a perfect match to the more familiar saying, and you can probably see why it’s become common wisdom. Of course the river is different: new water flows in, old water flows out. Time passes moment to moment, and no object or person is unchanging or immutable. When Alice Walker wrote the story of what it was like to help transform her novel, The Color Purple, into a film, she titled that narrative, “The Same River Twice”. The title points to how hard it is not just to revisit something in the past, but also to reach any point in the future on a planned trajectory. Walker talks about plans for the movie that were never realized, a script she wrote that went unused, and “how difficult it is for a creative person to stick to one way of doing things.” Difficult for a creative person, or any other sort of person, for that matter.

But there’s a second quotation included by Plato that changes and almost contradicts the first. Heraclitus says, “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” Yes it is true, moment to moment, we are changed, we are different. The cells in our bodies die and are replaced. Even the atoms in our cells are exchanged over time. And yet, we are also the same. We retain memories and experiences, and still carry the gifts and burdens of the choices we make. We remain responsible to and for the people we have been. Our lives are almost like the opposite of rivers: life’s course can change in an instant, but the stuff it is made of – everything we have ever done or said or experienced – only shifts very slowly over time.

I once sat and talked with a man over tea in his living room, and this is the story he told me. When he was younger, he had been in the Air Force. He was a crewman assigned to a long-range bomber. It was the height of the Cold War, and in all his years of service the enemy remained the same, and so did the targets he was assigned. He and the rest of the crew practiced the same run, for years, and part of his job was to pore over photographs of the target, so that he could recognize it at night, even when there was no moon out, and the sky was full of clouds. They had a primary target they were assigned to, and they also had a secondary one; it wasn’t as important, but if they could catch it on the way back, or if they couldn’t make it all the way to their main destination, this was where they were supposed to drop their payload. He spent whole days staring at pictures of the place, all taken from overhead.

Luckily for this fellow, and for everyone else on Earth, he was never called upon to put that preparation to use. It never got that far. So he retired from the Air Force, he got a civilian job, and years later, the world changed. Governments fell and new ones rose up, borders shifted, and journeys that had been impossible to make before became much, much easier. This is what made it possible for him and his wife to visit Eastern Europe. They toured the countryside and saw ancient and famous cities, and then one day, they were crossing over a river, and the man stopped. He looked from one side of the river to another, and then down at the bridge they were standing on. He looked at the tall buildings on the Western bank, and he got out a street map just to be sure. “This is it,” he said to his wife. “This was our secondary target.” All those years spent preparing to go there, to bomb the bridge. He had never expected he would ever get to stand on it, or see the river up close. That bridge was so beautiful in person. It was the same bridge, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t the same river, and it was. It was a man who always expected to see the place in person, but never in that way.

Way back in the early days of European settlement on the North Shore, before Beverly was even called Beverly, this congregation was here. Well, not here, but a few blocks away. We weren’t called the First Parish Church then. We started out as the Church of Christ at Bass Riverside. Centuries later, not much is the same. A different river and different sort of town. A different church: a different name, different building, different location, different people, and a very different theology. But all of these things are also the same. We are responsible to our forbearers and to the dreams they dreamed, even if ours are not quite the same. We are connected to them even if their 17th century values might be scandalized to know that we are their descendants. Because they were, we are. No matter how we got here, we are here, and because we are here, how we came to be matters.

It is true for us as a congregation, and it is true for us each as human beings. We are not the people we were when we fell off our bike at eight years old, or when we got our first speeding ticket, or when our first marriage ended. Even in the space of a week or a day, the water of life passes through us bringing new fears, new experiences, new possibilities. But we are still connected to who we have been: all those past selves do not determine us entirely, but they are the material out of which our present lives are made. We must reach back: correct what we can, make peace where we can, and offer apologies where nothing else can be done. We cannot simply run from who we have been, or only hold tight, refusing inevitable change, for the river that was not only holds most of the river that is, but much of the makings of the river we have yet to become.

More Than Just Slightly Amusing Accountants

The comedian Bob Newhart began his professional life a fair distance from the field of comedy. His first vocation was as an accountant. Now with a 60-year career in entertainment, his particular style of delivering punchlines – slow, emotionally blank, and with a minor stammer – has become his signature. But early on in his career, his act didn’t get such rave reviews. More than once he got the advice that he should change his approach to a more standard and familiar one, and tell jokes the right way if he wanted a laugh. Bob didn’t take the advice. As he put it, “I’ve been told to speed up my delivery when I perform. But if I lose the stammer, I’m just another slightly amusing accountant.”

Each of us has elements of our personalities which can at best be called distinctive. Things that make us seem out of place, in small ways or in big. One of us sings loudly and proudly and just a little off key. One of us still has those superfluous loops in his signature that he acquired from his cursive teacher in third grade. One of us collects, well, just about everything. Most of the things that are particular to us just come and go: we acquire some habit in one year, and lose it in another. Other things may last much longer, and some of them very well can get in our way. No one would tell Bob Newhart’s story if it ended with him as a somewhat unhappy accountant who tried to break into comedy when he was younger and didn’t get anywhere with it.

But somewhere among the stacks of things that we cannot change, and the things that we’ll change whether we try to or not, and the things that we really ought to change, but won’t ever without a whole lot of work – somewhere in there are the things that make us different in useful and interesting ways. These are the things that distinguish us as more than just slightly amusing. As we grow, both as social animals and as spiritual beings we need to be mindful of these rough edges and odd corners of ourselves. We must make sure that we don’t file off our imperfections to the point where our shape becomes too smooth to make any impression at all.

I try to remind myself of this, whenever I get frustrated with someone I love or know or otherwise spend a lot of time with. Those things that might feel in the moment like flaws and inconveniences all fit together into a vast jig-saw of a whole person. It doesn’t mean that no one should ever change or grow or become different. We all have faults and failings in need of repair. But as I forget and remind myself nearly every 10 seconds, my expectations of normalcy or convenience don’t determine what should change in another person. The measure of what about ourselves needs to go, and what about us needs to remain is found in the purpose we put our lives to. As we return to worship in our congregational home from a summer spent doing church at the beach (or farther afield for some of us), let us be grateful for the many benefits life in religious community gives us, including a means to assess which among our quirks and characteristics need mellowing, and which are the things that make up part of who we are, and who we need to be in the future.


In faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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