Praise, Learn, Pray

September 7, 2003
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

It is a joy to see you all again, and to see some of you for the first time. The sanctuary feels so much different when you are in it, yet I was aware – during the many times I sat here quietly alone this summer, or took friends on tours through this empty building – that your collective spirit is powerful enough to make this place feel precious and blessed even when you are not physically present. It reminds me of that moment in the gospel story when Jesus' followers are dancing and singing wildly on the road to Jerusalem, and the Pharisees try to silence them, and Jesus says, "Even if these folks were quiet, the stones would shout out!" Even when you are absent, these pews remember you, and they resonate with your life force. I can tell you!

The world has been turning while we have been away from each other, and we have been turning along with it. Some days felt like pure blessing, and others were ugly and agonizing. We heard way too much about movie star romances and not enough about important changes in the world, and we continued not to be very aware of the hurts that plague people in our own communities. We tried to turn our eyes away from media hawkers who wanted us to hook into people's personal tragedies, and the sunshine and fresh air made it a bit easier in some cases to "just say no" to junk news and junk entertainment (although if you indulged yourself some of the latter I hope you enjoyed it!). We gazed on the faces of some loved ones during summer visits, and we found a lot of affection and also some weak spots in the fibers of our relationships. Marriages slipped and fell, and some new people fell in love. Some people's relationships slipped and fell and then they got back up and fell back in love. That happens too.

Some of us didn't make it through the summer. We are mindful now of those missing from our lives, if not from our memories. We had two funerals here at church: one for Frank Mercier and one for Helen Roubound. Jeffrey Chase, a man who grew up in this church, passed away in July. We remember these people and their families with love. A group of Weymouth High School kids were in a car that crashed through the fence of our cemetery over there by Joseph's Pontiac. Two of them died, and one isn't doing well at all. Right over there over that hill Kristen Carriere died, and then Janelle Desmond died after being taken to the hospital. That little corner of Norwell became an impromptu shrine. Maybe you went over and looked at the site and saw the flowers and the messages. Maybe you went home that night and hugged your kids particularly close, and maybe you sat them down and said to them "look, I don't want you to drink and drive but if you're at a party and you do drink or get high, just call me for a ride. It doesn't matter how late it is. And I promise not to yell at you until the next day."

Maybe you yourself made a vow not to have a few drinks and then get behind the wheel of a car. Maybe you vowed not to let your friends or spouse do so either. Maybe you decided now would be a good time to pay a little bit closer attention to the speed limit, and to get that handless cell phone device after all. We are mortal. We are small and fragile creatures who can do both great things and horrible things: to create and to destroy. So we have gathered again to confront this dual nature, to walk together again in ways that encourage us to goodness while always acknowledging the temptation to cruelty and selfishness and apathy.

We come together to keep closer touch with one another – to weave ourselves into a community -- and we practice this closeness weekly by sitting arm to arm in these pews. We even dare to make eye contact! We go beyond our discomfort in order to inquire with real care after someone else's well-being, knowing that we are called to be present for whatever answer comes to us, even if not to fix or rescue anybody else. Look around you. These are the witnesses to your life. It is a sacred responsibility. We come to stand side by side in solidarity, and to gaze together at a distant vision– that each man, woman and child should be strong, and free and nurtured enough to fulfill God's unique and precious purpose for him or her. We stand together to be stronger in the world that too often feels unnavigable and impossible to be in the right way. Here we seek the right way, and the strength to go there step by step.

I have missed the spiritual practice of worship myself. I have missed standing with you with our eyes cast together on that distant vision. Last week, though, I attended a service at King's Chapel in Boston and I was grateful to find that being in church felt simply wonderful, like being in my element again. There are many sacred spaces in the world but there's no place like a church on Sunday. If you're a sucker for hope and you can forgive the difference between high aspirations and the less-than-perfect attainment of them, there's no human institution quite like it.

While on hiatus from the rhythms of church life I have been lucky enough to spend most of my time in another sacred space: the theatre. I spent a lot of June and most of July rehearsing "Ragtime," and most nights in August performing. It was a delight to become reenchanted with the art of musical theatre, and even more intoxicating to bond with a group of actors and technicians and directors in the creation of what we all felt was a moving and worthy story featuring powerful music. I played Emma Goldman, a real person whose life inspires mine, and whose political and philosophical contributions I will share with you in more detail later. But while theatre has its own beautiful rituals, it is not worship. Performing does not necessarily call us to goodness and to compassion as church life does. Goodness and compassion are appreciated qualities in a performer as they are valued in anyone, but you can be a fine actor and singer and a not-so-terrific human being. I don't know about you, but I need to regularly practice being compassionate, openhearted, forgiving -- "rich in spirit and good of heart." I need church and I'm glad to be back. Those of you who manage to be good without church: you get extra credit for being here. You are the flowers whose fragrance and beauty ministers to the more easily snarled souls among us.

Seeing the spire of our church almost daily gave me strength when I was missing you. It was a beacon. I feel that people should see the spire of a church and slow down, think about what is of utmost value in their lives, take a second to glance upward and regard the world from the perspective of eternity. While I was standing outside at my grill or in the backyard this summer I heard our church bell chime the hours. The bells sound different in the summer than the rest of the year, did you know that? In the fall, winter and spring those church bells say, Ahem. It's eight o'clock. Better hurry up with that coffee! . . . Excuse me. It's eleven o'clock. Sign off the e-mail and get over to the office!. . . Hey lady. It's six o'clock. Don't forget your meeting!. . . Well. It's 11 o'clock. Where have you been? Your sister called. You forgot to put the laundry in the dryer. And I thought you were going to try to take a walk today. But you didn't, did you? In the summer the bells said, Hi. It's the hour again. Doesn't really matter which one. God's in heaven; all's right with the world. Talk to you later.

While I think it regrettable for some important reasons that we close our doors for all of July and August (and I hope we can talk about how to be better available to the community while on hiatus), I treasure the way that the summer has wiped the slate clean in many respects. Work that seemed pressing in June seems more manageable today. You realize the to-do list never really gets shorter and just to do what you can, little by little. Church issues that worried us last March have had some fresh air breathed into them and we know we'll be fine and figure everything out. Time away helps us restore perspective. We realize, if we have spent even one night gazing into the starry sky, that our primary goals should be the daily practice of compassion and cultivating peace, not amassing wealth or squirreling away factoids and opinions. So I only read half the books in my summer pile. Okay, less than half. But I listened to Lena Horne recordings a lot, and when she said at the end of one of her songs, "Go out and get you some LIVE," that sounded like good advice. Go out and get you some live. Or in the words of a popular saying, "Be a human being, not a human doing."

Sometimes quotes and slogans are helpful in our quest to live a meaningful life. We don't want to be enthralled to the sound bite but we can't help it: we love bumperstickers and buttons. There's nothing wrong with that, just so long as we don't base our faith, belief and understanding on slogans. That would be sloppy and lazy and we need to honor our spiritual lives and our personal integrity better than that. Given that caveat, however, I am always on the lookout for catchy soundbites and quotable quotes. The best of them help distill great eternal truths to one little nugget, one little gem that is easy to carry around in the mind and to chew on like dog gnaws a good bone.

I look for such nuggets of wisdom everywhere. Bumperstickers, graffiti, e-mail chain letters, stickers, buttons, magazine ads. Last year, at the beginning of the year, I was up in the choir loft and turned around and saw a great little gem of wisdom affixed right to the organ on a plaque. It's right up there. You can go see it in a minute if you like. It's not a slogan, it's just three words printed all in caps: PRAISE, LEARN, PRAY. Rumor -- or legend -- has it that one of our old organists, Paul Anderson, put it up there sometime in the 1960's.

I find this very refreshing. I find it a worthy recipe for what we should be doing in church, and certainly a simpler and clearer one than most of the prescriptions in the books I see piled on ministers' shelves: books on demographics and organizational development, full of lingo and charts and a kind of bizarre mixture of corporate mentality and Jimmy Swaggart fervor. PRAISE, LEARN, PRAY. Think we can do that? Those aren't a bad trio of recommendations if you want to get a lot out of your spiritual experience here or anywhere. Let's take them one at a time:

PRAISE – If we start everything we do with a grateful heart, it's hard not to remain loving and open, and this is what we are called to do and this is how we are called to be. Praise does not always start from the proposition that whatever is happening to us is fortunate, or great, or pretty. Praise starts from the proposition that life is a gift, and being grateful to God or to Life for the opportunity to live it, and to share the experience of being human with other humans is a blessing and never a punishment. Even when it's hard, and the way is stony and painful, the "thank you" that we keep in our hearts and on our lips is a faithful response to the fullness of life, not a commentary on the action. To paraphrase a well-known theologian, if the only prayer we ever learned to say was "Thank you," that would be enough.

LEARN – Life, said A. Powell Davies, is an opportunity to grow a soul. Everything we do is a learning to that end. Learning in the spiritual community happens – or should ideally happen – on several different levels. There is learning the community; getting to know each other, learning each other's stories and becoming more deeply acquainted with our own lives, demons and dreams. To get the most out of religious community, we should devote some time to learning our tradition (in our case, this would involve becoming educated in the democratic process and congregational polity as well as our theological heritage) to exploring its principles, to becoming literate in its history and its teachings. I encourage you all to do this year. I was never more gratified as a teaching pastor than at Easter when one of you remarked to me that she had a much deeper appreciation of the holy day because she had spent the previous four weeks in a Lenten Bible study and becoming familiar with the gospel narrative that culminates with the Easter experience. We will be offering more adult learning courses this year (spiritual poetry, chakra meditation, photography, Bible and others) and I do hope you will find something that appeals to you for your own continuing education in religious and spiritual life.

We learn here about the world, too. We are brought into encounter with one another's passions for politics, and while some come here for refuge from the complicated social ills and challenges that beg human engagement, others want their church to pull them into awareness and involvement. We learn from each other that there are things we can do, and we learn from each other that not all of us feel called to save the world in the same ways. We learn, above all, that love is not a slogan or a mere poem in the mouth but the foundation of all personal and congregational action. Without it, there can probably be learning but there is not likely to be any wisdom. Let us be deep learners together here.

PRAY – What does it mean to pray? I have spoken at some length about prayer as a variety of spiritual practices – some inner and some more active – that put us in touch with the pulse of life and our intimate connection to it. It is not necessary to pray "for" things unless that is your preference. It is, however, advisable to pray about things if you are a church person. When we pray, however we do it, we are creating an attentive silence within us for healing and compassion to take the place of anxiety and babble. In prayer -- whether it happens at home sitting yoga, in the garden with a trowel in your hand, on the road jogging, in a wheelchair reading, or in a boat sleeping on the waves -- we intentionally take time to open our hearts and send our spirits out over as much of our world as we are able to go. We are brought to mindfulness that our lives touch other living things, and that we are responsible to touch other lives with care. In prayer we don't try to figure things out, but rather to bear quiet witness to our own struggles; to observe our own feelings and reactions without "hooking into" them and feeling we must act on every one.

Prayerfulness is a precondition for discernment, and discernment is a religious value central to every worshiping community. Anyone can make a decision. But only the prayerfully attentive, loving-hearted and listening person – or church -- can be discerning.

As I will continue to pray, and to pray for you and our church, I do hope that you we will do so for each other. I received a little handwritten note (hand-scrawled, really) in the mail this summer. It was a prayer request. Just a name that I've never heard before, and the sentence "Please pray for…" There was a time I would have worried about how to do this. What am I praying for? What's going on? It doesn't matter, though, whether I know or not. To add this man's name to the concerns of my heart, and to lift him up to the great universal love that is God, that is enough. It was obviously enough for whomever asked. It is enough that we do this for each other.

PRAISE, LEARN, PRAY. If you were to pick three words to nail up on a plaque, what would they be? I thought maybe "LOVE, LEARN, HELP" or "FREEDOM, REASON, TOLERANCE." Maybe you'd put your favorite bumpersticker quote up on the wall, or maybe a symbol or visual image. Whatever it is, however, whatever guiding truths you would inscribe upon the wall of this church, inscribe them now upon your heart and make your promises to live by them.

It is not ever necessary,
it is not ever required
that we should choose the same words,
but that we should stay together as friends of the spirit,
walking and living side by side and arm in arm,
as each of us strives to be true to those inspiring mottoes and slogans
that make us sit up that much straighter where we are,
full of possibility,
brought together for the sacred work of sharing our lives
in a way that blesses whatever piece of the world God has given us to touch.