Opening Words, Summons by Robert Francis
Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me till
I’m half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I’m not too hard persuaded
Sermon: Naming Names
To paraphrase the poem by Robert Francis (Summons), my aim is to ‘Keep you from going to sleep, or if you do go to sleep, to wake you up…to talk to you till you’re half as wide awake as I am, to tell you the walking is superb. Not only tell you but to persuade you. I know you’re not too hard persuaded.”
By telling you some things from my life I’m hoping to get you thinking about similar things in your own life – things you can look back upon with a sense of appreciation – by looking back we gain a deeper understanding, and understanding if the mother of appreciation.
I hope you’ll think about some of the people in your life who have helped you to ‘wake up’ when you’ve been dozing, to persuade you that the ‘walking is superb,’ the walk we take from toddler to tottering.
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses says it: “I am part of all that I have met.”
We are, to a great extent, what we have experienced; our experiences, and the reflection about those experiences are at the core of our emerging being, and each experience has the possibility, at least, of changing us.
I’m reminded of the story of the aging rabbi in Russia who was feeling discouraged and wondered late one night into a military compound. A guard commanded him to halt and said, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?!” The rabbi was startled back to his senses and he responded, “How much money are you paid?” The guard said, “That’s none of your business,” and the rabbi responded, “I’ll pay you twice your salary if you will ask me those two questions every day!”
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
Who are the people who have startled you back into your senses…who have helped you to ‘feel the deep power of being in all,’ as Tom Mikelson wrote in our opening hymn. Who has encouraged you to ‘honor the beauty and wisdom of time,’ instead of worrying how time flies?
Who has woken your compassion to the voices of suffering we hear about every day…who has urged you to take as your neighbor both stranger and friend?
You can name the names of the people who have had a significant impact on your life – it’s a spiritual exercise because it touches your sense of appreciation, the long list of all the things for which you are thankful.
The Buddhist says, “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.” Get ready!
The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius opens his book, The Meditations, “From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.”
“From…my father, modesty and a manly character.”
“From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts.”
“From my friend Rusticus I received the impression that my character needed improvement and discipline…to stop showing off…and to write with simplicity…”
“From Apollonius I learned to endure pain, even on the occasion of the loss of a child, or in long illness…I learned the value of humility without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends.”
People come into our lives ‘in the nick of time,’ as we say, and it’s like a gift from the Universe.
The right person, at the right time, can help us to find our way when we’re feeling lost; can give us some encouragement when we’re feeling discouraged; can provide the warmth of human touch when we’re feeling the sting of disconnection or alienation or isolation; can be a corrective when we’re responding in an exaggerated way.
“A friend (like his friend, Rusticus) is someone who helps you to know yourself more moderately.” (That’s a paraphrase from Peter Shafer’s play, Equus.)
Who has helped you to ‘know yourself more moderately?’ Who has made a lasting impression, touched something deep, brought out the best in you?
Name the names — such gifts should not remain anonymous.
My dear grandmother taught us to pray at bedtime, including ‘God bless mommy and daddy, and so-and-so…in my case my siblings: Chet, Bill, Art, Al, John, Dot and Gwen. I remember including the name of my teachers.
From my grandmother, who suffered the loss of three of her six children, who lost a leg when she was seventeen, I learned to pay attention – she walked with crutches and was always looking where she was walking, so she would often find coins and have us pick them up. I’ve grown to realize that paying attention is the essential ingredient of prayer, the prerequisite to spirituality.
In my grandmother I witnessed the essence of spirituality.
From my father I learned to respect hard work as a key to one’s character, one’s integrity.
From my mother I learned about unconditional love and the necessity of forgiveness.
I learned a lot from my first grade teacher, Mrs. Harrington; she taught me to read and write and she convinced me that I was a capable student.
I well remember a beautiful spring day in that first year of school when Mrs. Harrington had the class take turns reading out loud, encouraging us to pronounce clearly and to project our voices so as to be heard and understood. To make the point she went over to a window – one of those big old windows you needed to open with a long pole – and she pushed it wide open and she said, “Now Frank, come over to the window and read to that woman standing in the cemetery.”
We were reading from the book called Fun With Dick and Jane, starring Dick and Jane, of course, and spot and puff, the dog and cat and mother and father. “See Spot jump, run Puff run. Dick and Jane can jump and run.”
I don’t recall the precise passage I read, but I clearly and fondly remember Mrs. Harrington’s encouragement – she had me project my voice, though the woman standing in Oak Grove Cemetery bordering the Gleason School in West Medford could not really hear me. When I was finished she thanked me and said to the class, “Did you see how Frank did that? That’s what I mean!
It made a big impression on me; a seed was planted. I’ve been projecting my voice, and I’ve read out loud in lots of cemeteries since that spring day.
If we are fortunate, there are people who come into our lives – people who encourage us, people who help us to find our way in life, helping us find some direction.
For me, a lot of those people were teachers. By the time I was in high school I decided I wanted to be a teacher, and Mr. Driscoll was a role model. In fact I wrote in the high school year book that my goal in life was “to be as good a teacher as Mr. D.”
Another teacher was my college economics teacher Mr. Nick Xanthaky. I’ve never forgotten his final lecture. It was all philosophy – no economics that I recall. He had a commanding presence with a rich voice and a tone of authority. One of the last things he said, after staring out the window for a few moments to collect his thoughts, then turning back to the class he said, “For heaven sakes, class, be for something!” He explained that our generation is so often against this and against that – it was 1962 – and being against this or that was alright, but only if it is balanced by being for something.
Unitarian minister, William Brooks Rice, took me aside one day when I was 28 years old and said, “You should be a minister!”
I had some wonderful teachers in seminary at Boston University. Daud Rahbar introduced me to the Islamic mystical poetry of Rumi and Hafiz — but it was Dr. Rahbar himself that was a gift greater than Rumi. On several occasions Dr. Rahbar took off his shoes, sat on his desk and played the tabla, the Indian drum, or the sitar, later made popular by Ravi Sankar. His performances were greeted by the consternation of some and the delight of the rest of us.
The seminary teacher who had the biggest influence of me was my Old Testament professor, Harrell Beck, who I’ve often quoted from this pulpit. I took as many classes with Dr. Beck as I could, following the old adage about taking the teacher, not the subject of the class.
At the time of my graduation he wrote a note to me, thanking me for what he called my ‘provocative participation,’ saying, “I knew when you were in the class that it would not be boring.”
During my first year in seminary another special person came into my life, as if by chance. One night, at a UU District dinner I sat across a table from Herb Adams. It was my first year in seminary, in mid-February, a week after Bill Rice’s sudden and untimely death and I was grief stricken, which Herb could see and one thing led to another and within ten minutes he offered me a job as his assistant at Follen Church in Lexington, which I began a month later.
Ralph Bishop owned a small take-out seafood restaurant which I frequented for a small box of French fries from time to time. When I was fourteen I asked him for a job and he suggested I was rather on the small side and when I protested he had me stand at the very big, high sink, which I really couldn’t reach, so I grabbed an empty wooden milk carton and put it in front of the sink and said, “Now I can reach,” so he hired me as a pot walloper, as he called it and I worked for him for fourteen years, all through high school, college and my seven year teaching career. Ralph was one of the most influential men in my life.
I have been blessed by Agnes Laird, Chester Hall, Dorothy Hall, Mrs. Harrington, Nicholas Xanthaky, Daud Rahbar, Harold Beck, Herb Adams, Ralph Bishop –
“I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered. How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” (from The Layers, Kunitz)
I could name hundreds of names, many who I got to know through their writing: Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Cummings, Frost, Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Florida Scott-Maxwell, Erich Fromm, Bertrand Russell…to name a few names of people I never met but who met my needs – when I was ready they arrived.
I’ve been blessed with lots of friends, including you, which is why I address my Soundings letter to ‘dear friends.’
Then there are dozens of colleagues from whom I have gotten a variety of gifts, especially my 20+ year Friday lunch group: Mich, Bob, Doug and Jim…
In the Building Your Own Theology class the participants are asked to write a Spiritual Autobiography that includes, among other things, naming the important, influential people in your life, so far.
Often they name family members – parents who gave unconditional love or parents who provided challenges when a challenge was needed; they name a spouse or life partner; they name friends, and very often they name teachers.
In his essay, The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley put it this way:
“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large – this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone…” Aldous Huxley, (1894 – 1963)
He uses capital letters for the phrase ‘Mind at Large.’
Speaking of ‘naming names,’ the creation of our Circles of Care is about naming the names of people from the congregation who live in your geographic area…we want to help you to get to know them, and to be known by them, so they can say your name and get to know the person behind the name.
Jim Francek, who has been helping us to form these twenty four circles will be glad to explain.