In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
And God said, ‘Let there be light,’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”
Once again we have gathered in this sanctuary, this place set apart for our contemplation and reflection. This is a new day. We, too, have a genesis—we have precious memories, and we are engaged in life, in the process of growing and learning, of seeing the light—the light of understanding. We are here to continue that life-long journey, to separate the light from the darkness of fear, of prejudice, of that nagging sense of guilt and inadequacy. We are here to heal old wounds, to dig deeper into ourselves, to listen to one another, to build supportive, caring community. It’s good to be together again and to begin another cycle, another season…together.
Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of will power.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.
—Tao Te Ching, Ch. 33, Lao Tzu
Job: 28: 12
But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
Comment: Job suffered; Job cried out from the depths of his suffering; Job cursed the day he was born—the day he left his mother’s womb. Job’s friends failed him because they couldn’t simply listen—they told him that he must have done something very bad to deserve the punishment God had given, since God ‘is a just God, and merciful,’ so he must have deserved even worse! So Job asked them to leave him alone, and then he argued with God, and God spoke to Job ‘out of the whirlwind,’ and reminded Job that He, God, had created everything, had given the horse his strength and taught the eagle to fly and he told Job, in essence, to accept what ‘is.’
Job 42: 10 The final chapter:
And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before…and then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him…and showed him sympathy and comforted him, and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold and the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning…and after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days.
Sermon: “Looking For Bobby McCarthy”
I know there were many birthdays when I didn’t even think about Bobby McCarthy.
That’s not surprising: I haven’t seen or heard from him in 50 years!
As I reflect on that passage from the Tao Te Ching, sometimes I think I know other people better than I know myself: knowing others is wisdom; knowing the self is enlightenment.
One way to know the self is to reflect on experiences — the accumulation, and to find new meanings that emerge. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately, looking again at the events and adventures that shaped and formed me. Those memories are precious; they are precious because they help me to know myself better, and to gain understanding and a deeper appreciation of my genesis; they are also precious in and by themselves, so I take them out like old photographs and look at them and hold them once again.
When I was six years old I went to a forbidden place in the Medford Woods with Bobby McCarthy and my brother Bill. Bill is two years older than I am, Bobby’s a year older than Bill. Bobby was older and he was tall—he was the big kid on the street where we lived and played during those powerful, formative years.
The Boy Scouts, we were told, had built these little rafts in a little muddy pond in the Medford Woods. It was an adventure to go there—the forbidden fruit always tastes the best, they say.
We shouldn’t have been there on that hot summer afternoon. We had been there that morning, and when we came home for lunch my mother noticed that our sneakers were wet. She asked how we’d gotten our feet so wet and we told her where we had been. She told us to stay away from that muddy pond, to stay out of the Medford Woods. “You can eat from the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, but you must not taste the fruit from this tree.”
I clearly remember leaving the house after lunch that fateful day, and going to Bobby’s house with Bill, and I remember making a beeline back to the woods and the rafts. The forbidden fruit is always the sweetest!
We knew we shouldn’t have been there, and I shouldn’t have been standing on the edge of one of those little rafts trying to push off the muddy bank to float into the tiny muddy pond. That’s a given. But I was there. And it happened: another kid, who we didn’t know, pushed my raft with a pole to help me float off. His push propelled me off the raft and into the muddy pond.
I fell off the raft and went from the light to the darkness: ‘and the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep.’
I remember the darkness. I remember, so clearly, the horror of drowning, and I remember crying out to the universe that this should not be happening to me. Not now! I’m only six years old! I’m not supposed to die. I know the depths from which Job cried out in his anguish!
There I was, at the bottom of that little muddy pond, and I couldn’t swim, so I knew I was about to drown…to die. But I didn’t want to die. I talked to myself, down there in the darkness that I’ve never forgotten. I told myself that it wasn’t right—that I wasn’t supposed to die there and then. That minute or two was among the most powerful, profound times of my life, before or since.
My brother Bill stood there terrified as I bobbed up from the surface ‘eight times,’ he said, later. Finally nine year old Bobby McCarthy jumped in to the darkness, the forbidden water. He held on to the side of the raft he was on and somehow managed to grab me and pulled me out.
Bobby McCarthy saved my life.
There were many birthdays when I didn’t think about Bobby McCarthy at all.
Truth be told, I don’t really recall many of my sixty birthdays.
I do remember that I celebrated my 40th on Star Island while working with the junior high conference. I remember a small gathering out on the rocks—someone brought a bottle of wine. I couldn’t tell you who was there—a few friends. It was a quiet, gentle, almost secret slide out of my thirties into forty.
I do remember that I celebrated my 50th in the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, where I was on a ten-day wilderness adventure with a men’s group. We called it a Vision Quest, after the Native American spiritual experience about which we’d read. On the evening of my fiftieth, around the campfire, I was inducted into the Old Farts Club. There were speeches by the officers of the Society—John Larson and Harold Grinspoon. There were some gifts—but I won’t mention them in this polite company.
I remember birthdays forty and fifty.. And, of course, I remember my 60th, since it was only a few weeks ago.
Oh, I have two recollections of my 8th birthday. Early on the morning of August 29, 1948, the telephone rang—remember those days, when there was one phone in the house? I was the only one up at the time, which was not unusual—I was often the first one up. So I answered the phone. It was Dr. Nash who told me he had just delivered my mother’s sixth son, my brother John. Later my mother said that John was to be my baby, my birthday present!
Later that day I remember our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Murphy, sending her son Jimmy and me to Micky Finn’s sporting goods store in Boston. We took the train. I even recall that my fair was $.12, round trip. I don’t know if my mother had put Mrs. Murphy up to it, or if she thought of it herself, knowing I was spending my birthday without my mother who would have put a little party together—ice cream and cake after supper.
I remember Jimmy Murphy talking in hushed tones to the clerk, and I remember the box that the clerk packed—a box big enough for a baseball glove, which I coveted.
That night, after supper, Jimmy Murphy came over to our house, and we did have ice cream and cake with eight candles, and I opened the box and found the two baseballs which were in the midst of the crinkled newspaper that filled the box. I clearly remember being disappointed that it wasn’t a baseball glove, and just as clearly I remember that I didn’t want Jimmy or anyone else to know that I was disappointed. Somehow, on that eighth birthday, I began to understand what Lao Tze meant: “He who knows he has enough is rich.” It was enough.
In a more general way I remember that I looked forward to certain birthdays—especially my 16th, when I could get my license and drive that ’50 Ford I’d bought and fixed up from the wreck it had been in. I looked forward to my 21st birthday and the beer my older brother Chet bought me that night. We were on Cape Cod, working on a roofing job that required us to stay for a few days in a motel rather than drive back and forth.
I remember that I was always glad to get older. My fortieth went by without a twinge, and even my 50th was welcomed since I thought I might have more credibility as a minister after reaching the age of wisdom. “Knowing others is wisdom.” You would like a clergyperson who has wisdom, right?
My 60th was first birthday about which I was, as they say, not pleased!
Within a day or two of my 59th birthday—which was, of course, the beginning of my 60th year—I had a very telling, very disturbing dream. In the dream I was at home, looking into a mirror and a young, clean-shaven, blond-haired guy was looking back at me. The reflection in the mirror wasn’t me—not at any age!
At first I was amused. The amusement didn’t last because the young man in the mirror wouldn’t leave, even though I knew it wasn’t me, and that it ‘must be a dream.’ The dream made me so anxious that I woke myself. It was a bad dream, and that underlying feeling during the year of turning sixty remained, but I couldn’t wake myself up from it.
The bad dream was about aging, of course. So, several months into that sixtieth year, when Lory asked how I wanted to celebrate this big birthday, I told her, in all seriousness, that I’d like to go away, be by myself at my cabin in Maine, eat a lobster and forget about it.
Of course I couldn’t forget about it. There’s a guy in the mirror who insists on staying there, and my children and grandchildren are celebrating big birthdays that remind me that we’re all getting older, and they need me as a model for aging gracefully.
I remembered a line, which I think is from the Desiderata: “Gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”
Dylan Thomas balanced it with lines in his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night…old age should burn and rage at close of day, rage, rage against the dying of the light. But of course it isn’t the end of day. Yet. So I don’t need to rage.
Back to the Future
I knew I needed to make an attempt to go along with this process. Lory and Sue planned a party, inviting my brothers and sisters to come to Sue’s house the Saturday before my birthday. Lory, Carlyn and I arrived on Friday so Lory could help Sue get things ready. They told me to make myself scarce.
I decided to take a ride to West Medford, to the neighborhood I moved out of 50 years ago—a nostalgia trip. To give my little trip a purpose, besides the nostalgia, I decided to look for Bobby McCarthy. I wanted to thank him for all those birthdays.
When I got to the old neighborhood I saw right off that they pushed the houses closer together. I distinctly remember that the Murphy’s house was much further away from our house—it couldn’t possibly have been that close. And Larry Sands’s house had to be further away from ours on the other side—though the first television I ever saw I watched through the living room window of the Sands’s house while sitting on the roof of my father’s car which was parked in our driveway, between the houses.
The O’Donnel’s house used to be way down the end of the street. How did it get so close?
I walked around the old neighborhood and saw a man working on his yard. I walked over and told him what I was up to, that I had lived there, in number 14 and moved away in 1950.
“I’ve only been here for 37 years,” he said, “but Eleanor Murphy, who grew up in that red house lives over there now. Her daughter bought the house and still lives thee. I know Eddie O’Donnel. He used to live across the street, over there. He works in the Sunnyhurst Dairy store downtown. You could find him there today if you want.”
I knocked on Eleanor Murphy’s door. She answered and I told her who I was, and she nearly fell over. I told her I was looking for Bobby McCarthy. She didn’t know where he was, but she knew the people who bought the McCarthy house and suggested I knock on their door.
Eleanor Murphy was a year older than me, which made a difference in those days—she was in the second grade when I started in the first. That mattered, then. She had two older brothers, Jimmie and Vinnie. They were among the big kids in the neighborhood.
As we talked Eleanor told me, “My brother Jimmie died in 1978.” she told me. She said, “I remember that you and Jimmie Rawson were friends.” I nodded. She said, carefully, “He died last year.”
I told her how her brother Jimmie who took me on a train to Boston to get a birthday present for me on my 8th birthday, when my mother was in the hospital, having given birth to my brother John that morning. I recalled the train trip to Boston with Jimmy, and told her what a fond memory it is. I told her how Jimmie had a gift wrapped in a fairly big box, and I wondered what it could be, and how Jimmie didn’t say. I told her about the birthday cake and the two professional baseballs in it and how happy I was to get two brand new baseballs. I had never held a brand new baseball before, and it was a long time before I would use those balls in an actual baseball game. It didn’t seem right to have people bat it into left field where it might land in the brook in Playstead Park.
It was a nice memory. She appreciated my story. She talked about her brother Jimmie, and what a nice, thoughtful guy he was, which I had confirmed for her. I didn’t tell her that I had been hoping it was a baseball glove. I didn’t tell her that the experience helped me to be conscious of not hoping for something else, but to take what life give. I didn’t mention the line from the Tao Te Ching: “He who knows he has enough is rich.” I felt rich that day with those two brand new baseballs, and I felt rich again, remembering and relishing.
After talking with Eleanor Murphy—her married name is Casey, but she’ll always be Murphy to me—I went downtown to the Sunnyhurst store, which was where I used to take bottles to cash to buy candy and ice cream and those peas we used to use with our pea shooters; do you remember those? They were banned, eventually, but we could buy them—just a big straw which we used like a blow gun.
But I was going to say, before that memory intruded itself into my story, that I went to the Sunnyhurst store and there was an older guy standing there and he looked at me and asked what I wanted—knowing, somehow, that I wasn’t there to buy anything. I said, “I’m looking for Eddie O’Donnel.”
“You’re looking at him,” he said, almost grinning. I told him who I was and his face lit up and he said, “I thought I recognized you! Now where were you in the line…let’s see, I know Chet was the oldest…were you next…?”
We talked for awhile, catching up on who had died and who was living. He asked about my mother who he had seen at Dick Sands’s funeral, and I asked him about Bobby McCarthy. He didn’t know if Bobby was still around and he took out a Medford telephone book that listed two Robert McCarthy’s, one of whom was a short walk away, up High Street.
I walked to the house, knocked on the door and asked if Bobby McCarthy lived there and she said, “He died five years ago—he was my husband.” I said I was sorry and told her why I was looking for Bobby McCarthy and asked if he had grown up at 222 Woburn Street. She said, “No, my husband wasn’t your Bobby McCarthy, he grew up in South Medford.”
I reached the other one on the phone and his wife told me that he had grown up in on Princeton Street, just outside of Medford Square. It wasn’t my Bobby McCarthy.
I went back to the house where Bobby used to live and knocked on the door again, noticing that the mail had been taken out of the mailbox on the front porch. A young woman answered, I told her why I was there and she invited me in and gave me the name and telephone number of the people from whom they had bought the house, who she knew had bought it from Bobby McCarthy.
I called and they said the last they knew Bobby was living in Wakefield, so I got the Wakefield directory and called three Robert McCarthy’s and each of them was glad to talk but couldn’t help in my search.
At the party the next day I told my brothers that I had been looking for Bobby McCarthy—I told them about Eleanor Murphy and Eddie O’Donnel. I told them about Jimmie Rawson and Jimmie Murphy.
I told them I wanted to thank Bobbie McCarthy for my birthdays, and my brother Bill said, “I told Bobbie that we shouldn’t be going to that pond in the Medford Woods, but he was the big shot. I know he pulled you out but I always blamed him for being there in the first place!”
It helped me put Bobby McCarthy in perspective. He had grown into a hero—he certainly did a heroic thing that day. But he was also largely to blame for our being there. He was the big kid, he should have known better. Bill’s response showed Bobby as culpable, not quite the villain, but not the hero I had created in my mind, either.
Isn’t that the way. The gods and the devils dance around us in circles, and there we are—there’s our life—in the center.
And who are we? What are we? We’re not gods. We’re not devils. But we are capable of good and we are capable of evil; that is to say, we are capable of creativity as well as destructiveness.
That’s what it means to be human.
Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.
He who knows he has enough is rich…
I don’t claim the kind of enlightenment suggested by Lao Tzu in this passage from that Taoism’s most sacred book. But I know what he means.
I know some things about others, because I’ve made it a point to listen; I’ve worked at it. To know others requires listening without judgment, without trying to tell the other what he or she should think or believe. Trying to get someone else to believe what we believe, to think what we think, is an attempt to master them: mastering others requires force!
I know others because I have been entrusted with people’s hopes and fears. I’ve listened to confessions—not in one of those little booths that have the curtain between us, but it amounts to the same thing. There’s always a kind of curtain that separates us; there’s a degree of embarrassment and I understand the need for the person in a vulnerable position to feel a sense of trust in order to dig deeper, in order to be vulnerable…in the hopes of cleaning the slate, in the hopes of being authentic.
I know something about myself, too. Mastering the self needs strength.
What do I know? I know that I have appreciated being alive, and since I appreciate being alive, I appreciate Bobby McCarthy and all those who have ‘saved my life’ in little ways or in big ways over the years. I appreciate the people who have given me the gift of their honesty, whether I was ready to hear it or not; the people who have loved me in spite of my faults, failures and limitations—the people who hung in there with me as I grew up, or tried to, and those who distanced themselves and forced me to take another, deeper look at myself. All of them saved my life, each in their own way.
I know that my love of life is, in part, a result of being down there at the bottom of that muddy pond, before Bobby McCarthy jumped in, held on to the side of his raft, and pulled me out. It’s as though there was some god out there watching and waiting for me to get what I needed at the bottom of that muddy pond. I understand the lines from Genesis: “In the beginning…the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep.” I was there! It was a new beginnig.
I’ll keep looking for Bobby McCarthy. Who knows, I might actually find him some day. But I know that looking for Bobby McCarthy is one of the ways I have of getting in touch with that deeper self — the enlightenment which is so essential.
What about you? Have you been looking for Bobby McCarthy? Have you gained the wisdom inherent in knowing others? Have you come closer to the enlightenment of knowing your self?
Do you know you have enough? Do you know you have enough? Then you’re rich!
Do you practice the art of appreciation? Then you’re a model, a teacher, a guru.
That’s the influence which lives on:
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present…to be eternally present.
It matters, doesn’t it. It matters what we think. It matters how we reflect and remember. It matters how we live, how we influence one another — what mark we leave. Our influence lives on. Every memory contains a seed we can nurture to help our growth.
Like Job, we rise up out of the ashes, out of the suffering, a little wiser. This is what it means for God to give Job twice as much as he had before. Job deepened his sense of appreciation for his life, which doubles life’s worth or value. Job gained a deeper appreciation for simply being alive, and for being part of this vast Creation. Job gained humility which is necessary to accept one’s limits and feel at home in the Universe.
Yes, I’ll keep looking for Bobby McCarthy, and so will you. And so will you.