From Howard Thurman who served as chaplain at Boston University for many years and was mentor to M.L.K. Jr. when he was a student there.
The concern I lay bare before God today is my need for courage: I need courage to be honest:
honest in my use of words;
honest in accepting responsibility;
honest in dealing with myself;
honest in dealing with (others);
honest in my relations with God.
I need courage to face the problems of my own life
the problems of personal values:
they are confused; they are often unreal;
they are too exacting for comfort.
I need courage to face the problems of my work.
Sometimes it seems I am working at cross-purposes with my own desires and ambitions…
Sometimes I am arrogant instead of simply taking pride in doing my work well.
Sometimes I’m doing what I’m doing just to prove a point that is not worth proving after all.
Here in the quietness I lay before God my need for courage, for the strength to be honest, for the guidance to deal effectively with the problems of my own life.
May this time together today help us to find the courage we need to live our lives with integrity and a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.
Sermon: “A Girl’s Garden”
A neighbor of mine in the village
Likes to tell how one spring
When she was a girl on the farm, she did
A childlike thing.
One day she asked her father
To give her a garden plot
To plant and tend and reap herself,
And he said, “Why not?”
In casting about for a corner
He thought of an idle bit
Of walled-off ground where a shop had stood,
And he said, “Just it.”
And he said, “That ought to make you
An ideal one-girl farm,
And give you a chance to put some strength
On your slim-Jim arm.”
It was not enough of a garden,
Her father said, to plow;
So she had to work it all by hand,
But she don’t mind now.
She wheeled the dung in the wheelbarrow
Along a stretch of road;
But she always ran away and left
Her not-nice load,
And hid from anyone passing.
And then she begged the seed.
She says she thinks she planted one
Of all things but weed.
A hill each of potatoes,
Radishes, lettuce, peas,
Tomatoes, beats, beans, pumpkins, corn,
And even fruit trees.
And yes, she has long mistrusted
That a cider-apple tree
In bearing there today is hers,
Or at least may be.
Her crop was a miscellany
When all was said and done,
A little bit of everything,
A great deal of none.
Now when she sees in the village
How village things go,
Just when it seems to come in right,
She says, “I know!
“It’s as when I was a farmer. . . .”
Oh, never by way of advice!
And she never sins by telling the tale
To the same person twice.
Jesus told a similar story in The Parable of the Sower: (Matthew 13)
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.
His disciples asked why he taught in parables, and he told them it’s because those who are ready to hear will hear and understand, but those who are not ready to hear will not understand the meaning of the parables. Then he quoted from Isaiah, and if Bruce Chilton is correct, he quoted from memorythe oral tradition, since he could not read the words himself, he memorized. He reminded them what it says in Isaiah:
You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.
Then he adds: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”
We hear what we’re ready to hear. We refuse to hear when we’re afraid that hearing will cause us to reconsider our old ideas. I guess that’s why I’ve been having a hard time reading Tom Friedman lately.
Like all good parables and poems you can find lots of meanings, which may or may not have been intended. Whether he intended it or not, Robert Frost invites our interpretations. When asked if an interpretation of the line ‘I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep’ was a reference to death he said, “No, I was writing about a man who had to get home, but I can take credit for that interpretation. It was my poem, and the writer can take credit for any interpretation, whether intended or not.”
Frost is disarmingly simple. He’s not known for deep, complicated, or hidden meanings. What you see is what you get. Maybe. But sometimes we see beyond the simple surface stories and discover things about ourselves, or have things we know about ourselves confirmed, things we didn’t think other people knew.
In A Girl’s Garden, for example, Frost says, ‘One day she asked her father to give her a garden plot to plant and tend and reap herself.’
She wanted to be in charge of her lifeto do her own planting, tending and reaping. It was her own garden, not enough to plow, so she had to work it all by hand…her own hand.
Doing something with your own hands provides opportunity for a sense of integrity and pride. She knew she needed that opportunity. There was some risk involved. She might be laughed at. She might fail. What then? She had to risk it, for the sake of her sense of integrity. What about you?
‘She wheeled the dung in a wheelbarrow…and hid from anyone passing.’
We could take that at face value: she was embarrassed about the manure she was wheeling. But is this about childhood, only? What does it take to make a garden grow? A garden needs fertilizer, and manure is natural food for plants.
I wonder if Frost is suggesting something about what it takes to make a person grow? What does it take to make the human race grow, in the deepest sense? Are we destined to perpetuate all the base human tendencies? Are we destined to perpetuate our own base characteristics, like the need to be in control of other people?
She planted a hill of potatoes, radishes, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, beats, beans, pumpkins, corn and even fruit trees.
“Her crop was a miscellany, when all was said and done, a little bit of everything, a great deal of none.”
That’s the line that attracted me to this poem. Clergy colleagues poke fun at our Unitarian Universalist approach and say that we’re a miscellanya little bit of everything, a great deal of none. There’s truth there–we plant our religion in rows: a hill each of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist…a patch of poets: Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth; Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver…and a field of philosophers, like Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Our crop is a miscellany when all is said and done, and I’m not going to touch the closing line where Frost says, ‘and she never sins by telling the tale to the same person twice.’
So I’ll slip back to Margaret Fuller who said, “A new manifestation is at hand.” She was a writer, a feminist, a teacher, a transcendentalist and a social critic, which sounds like Frost’s ‘girl’s garden’ to me. She was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was the first female member of the Transcendentalist Club, that group of clergy and lay folks who met to discuss the divinity and individualism of human nature.
When she wrote that ‘a new manifestation is at hand,’ she was urging reform in a woman’s place in society and a new way of portraying women in art and literature. She was invited by Horace Greeley to join the staff of the New York Tribune and she went to Europe in 1850 during European revolutionary struggles. On the return trip to New York she and her husband and child were lost when their ship sank in a storm. She was forty years old.
She looked forward to a new time ‘when Man and Woman may regard one another as brother and sister, able to respect and appreciate one another.’
She said, in the 1840’s, “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man. Were this done, we believe a divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages. A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour has come.”
Margaret Fuller lived from 1810 to 1850; a relatively brief lifethree years less than Thoreaubut she had a significant impact on American culture in general and women’s liberation in particular.
Like the narrator’s voice in A Girl’s Garden she planted a lot of seeds, and some of the fruits of her labor are being harvested today:
“And yes, she has long mistrusted/that a cider-apple tree/in bearing there today is hers/or at least may be.”
Some of the seeds wind up in shallow soil and some get caught up in the thorns, but some grow a hundredfold; many of hers grew a hundredfold.
She insisted on a new kind of conversationshe planted her own garden.
You heard that the poet Sam Hamill was invited to the White House to read poetry, so he asked friends to send him anti-war poems so he could bring them. Word got out and he was dis-invited.
Robert Frost did it differently. He wrote palatable poems that often take you by surprise. Simple sentences sink in smoothly.
Interview with our poet laureate, Billy Collins, today’s NYT magazine: “If you could hand Bush or Cheney a poem right now, what would it be?”
“The poets who have written the best poems about war seem to be the poets whose countries have experienced an invasion or vicious dictatorships. Poets like Vaclav Havel…and the poet whom I am centering on, Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner. She has a poem, “The End and the Beginning,” that begins: “After every war/someone has to clean up./Things won’t/straighten themselves up, after all./Someone has to push the rubble/to the side of the road,/so the corpse-filled wagons can pass.” I would probably stand at the White House and hand out this poem.”
In Roman Polanski’s powerful, penetrating film, The Pianist, there’s a poignant scene when Szpilman is being herded with his family from the Warsaw Ghetto to the cattle cars, and almost certain death. He’s walking with his sister, they’re both about 30, and he says, “I know this isn’t a good time to tell you this, but I want to tell you that I wish I knew you better.”
She looks at him with a wonderful silence. It doesn’t last more than a second or two, but it’s enough. It’s enough to make us wonder what she will say. It’s a precious moment and a necessary momenta chance to wonder what she will say, so we can contemplate the meaning of that statement in our own lives.
We need those little silences so we can feel the meaning that might emerge; so we can sense the question that sits behind most of our conversations.
Here’s a man telling his sister that he wishes he knew her better. It’s a brief moment. It’s a powerful and poignant moment. More importantly, it’s a telling moment, revealing something so basic about the human condition. The brevity of the exchange between brother and sister is inversely proportional to its importance. Polanski doesn’t give us enough time to ponder, and I have to think that is purposeful on his part. But he gives just enough time for us to feel the depth of its meaning–just enough time to pay attention to this issue in our own lives.
He makes this seemingly simple statement: “I wish I knew you better.” He doesn’t try to explain. He doesn’t apologize for having failed her. She is visibly moved. She is touched in a sensitive, loving way, and she says, simply, “Thank you.” Her response is like a prayer. Just two words: thank you.
She doesn’t explain what she’s feeling in that moment, but we know. And, like a response to a poem that touches us, we can add our own interpretation, as Robert Frost suggests.
When she says ‘thank you’ it’s as though she was expressing thanks to something beyond him, but within himsomething like the Divine in him, which is beyond his knowing, just as she is beyond his knowing. This is what Margaret Fuller and the Transcendentalists were talking aboutthe Divine as potential within each person.
Sometimes we wish we could know God; know that God exists; know that God is aware of us and cares what happens here on this earthly plane.
Her response, her thank you, touched that for me. It’s like the Namaste, the Hindu greeting with the hands held in front of the chest, palms touching, with a slight bow, which means: the god in me greets the god in you.
A more precise explanation of the Namaste says: I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides, where lies your love, your light, your truth, you uniqueness, and your peace. I honor the place in you where, if you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”
In those two simple words, and the manner in which she says them, I think she is expressing the most basic existential realityour sense of separateness, on the one hand, and the wish to feel known, to feel understood, to feel accepted as we are, not just to be admired for the person seen on the outside, but the inner person, the flawed and fallible human that each of us is.
Perhaps his statement, I wish I knew you better, acknowledges that one can never feel he knows the other completely, just as one can never feel fully ‘known.’
Albert Schweitzer, in the autobiography he called Memories of Youth and Childhood, says:
We are each a secret to the other. To know one another cannot mean to know everything about each other. It means to feel mutual affection and confidence and to believe in one another. We must not try to force our way into the personality of another. To analyze others is a rude commencement, for there is a modesty of the soul which we must recognize…no one has a right to say to another, ‘because we belong to each other as we do I have a right to know all your thoughts.’ Not even a mother may treat her child in that way. All demands of this sort are foolish and unwholesome.
God is the big secret, of course. If there is a ‘modesty of the soul’ then we can accept the necessary theological limits with which we humans must live.
All demands to know God in a rational way are foolish and unwholesome.
We’re all like the girl who planted that garden. We are responsible caretakers of the ecological system on this earth of oursthis garden. We need to find ways to protect and preserve it, and to nurture growth. We need to find ways to nurture a sense of inner peace, especially in these troubled times, so that we can peace makers in this war-weary world. May you find that place of inner peace and carry it from this place into a world in need of healing. So may it be.