Opening Reading: After Apple Picking, Robert Frost
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Sermon: The Human Heart in Conflict With Itself
Today is the 34 anniversary of my ordination into Unitarian Universalist ministry. I don’t remember the specific wording of the ordination vows, but I’ll never forget the day — the commitment.
Lincoln’s lines at Gettysburg come to mind; ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it must never forget what they did here.”
Of all the books I read this past summer, the one that touched me in a very personal way relates to my ordination—the ministry. It’s a book by an Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, titled Leaving Church: a memoir of faith.
She introduces her memoir with a line from William Faulkner’s Nobel prize speech in which he said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Faulkner made this statement in his Nobel speech in 1949, while the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had barely cooled; while the effect of the atomic age, the nuclear age, were just crossing over the threshold. Humans were now capable of what amounts to the ‘instant and utter annihilation of the species.’ North Korea’s recent entry into the nuclear club last week is another aftershock of the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The nuclear age changes everything, even theology. Prior to the Hiroshima event the world could be said to be in God’s hands, or in the domain of Nature, depending on one’s belief system. After Hiroshima it became apparent that the survival of human life on the planet was all-too dependent on mankind’s questionable ability to live peacefully on an ever-shrinking planet.
When Faulkner made this statement the world was just beginning to absorb the Holocaust and its implications, as well as the staggering implications of the bomb.
At the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1950, Faulkner said, in part:
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust…
”Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
”He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice…
”Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Barbara Brown Taylor’s book is about ‘the human heart in conflict with itself,’ about her heart; about her inner world, with its conflict as well as high and holy moments of success. She took her vows of ordination seriously, and she worked hard to become minister of her own church, after serving on the staff of a large Atlanta congregation.
Her senior ministry lasted only five years before she suffered what she referred to as ‘compassion fatigue.’ She left parish ministry, thus her book’s title, Leaving Church, and her choice of Faulkner’s words: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”
I had a busman’s holiday at Chautauqua, listening to Barbara Brown Taylor deliver three sermons; I was captivated by her warmth—the human heart she put into the pulpit was not in conflict, but connected with those of us in the pews.
She took her shoes off, preaching barefoot, which I assume is her way of identifying with Moses. Someone asked me why she took her shoes off. I referred him to the story in the book of Exodus when Moses has a life-altering encounter with the burning bush, after he had fled Egypt in fear of his life:
“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro…and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning and yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ and he said Here am I. Then he said, ‘Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’”
This is the moment when Moses is called to his ministry—when the voice of God comes to him, out of the burning bush, and tells him to liberate his people who have been enslaved in Egypt.
Moses resists. He says that he’s not the man for the job; he says that he can’t speak well, and he doesn’t feel up to this huge assignment. But he gets God’s assurance that he can do it, and he won’t be alone.
This is the story of Moses’ ‘heart in conflict with itself.’ He cares very much about the Hebrew people who are in bondage—he had intervened when an Egyptian task master for abusing an enslaved Hebrew, and in that encounter he killed the Egyptian, fled for his life, met and married his wife and settled down to a comfortable life; then, bango! this burning bush encounter puts him in conflict with himself.
This is also the Biblical scene that offers a wonderful definition of God. You remember: when Moses asks the voice that’s coming from the burning bush—the bush that was burning but was not consumed by the flames—who He is, that is, he’s asking for an explanation of God, or a definition he can deliver to the people when they ask who sent him to them to free them from bondage, and the voice says, “I AM that I AM, tell them I AM has sent you.”
This also translates: “I am becoming,” making God a verb.
The story of Moses is the human story – it’s about each of us, who exist here and now.
It’s about change. It’s about holy moments — the little epiphanies that come when we know we’re on ‘sacred ground,’ and it’s time to take off the shoes; which is to say, to acknowledge the sacredness of life and the importance of those decisions and the turning points in life.
The story of the burning bush is a metaphor, not meant to be taken literally, of course. It’s about the thing we call ‘a religious or spiritual experience.’ This was a religious experience for Moses — an encounter with something unexpected, and an acknowledgment of something greater than himself. It is characterized by a sense of ‘inner conflict’ — the heart in conflict with itself. It’s about the lifelong struggle with inner forces—the will to believe and the natural resistance to belief, for example.
It’s about the human need to find ‘inner peace,’ which is a kind of liberation, when it is achieved. It’s about insight, and coming to terms with those inner forces in conflict:
The Bhagavad Gita says, “I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature: I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all…I am the mind…consciousness…I am glory, prosperity, beautiful speech, memory, intelligence, steadfastness and forgiveness…the divine seed of all lives. There is no limit to my divine manifestations.”
The idea of a Self that lives within each points to the conscience, that which informs us about right and wrong; it is, as Emerson said, ‘an intuition.’ It’s as though there is a person living inside, part of us, but somehow separate – a voice that guides us. “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake,” the Psalmist said, poetically. “He restoreth my soul.”
When Socrates was on trial, accused of capital offenses—corrupting youth, and introducing strange gods—he said that he knew he was not guilty, since he did not hear ‘the voice’ inside that would have told him that he was doing something wrong.
Plato writes in his Apology: “Socrates says he has a divine sign, which is a voice he hears that tells him when he should avoid doing something. His divine sign has been with him his whole life.”
In response to his death sentence Socrates says, “It is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what was right” (Apology, 41).
Freud called it the super-ego.
Faulkner called it ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’
There’s a little poem by Miller Williams in a collection he called —”The Ways We Touch”
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper (conceit) or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her ‘memoir of faith,’ lets us know about the ‘wars going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.’
She was an Episcopal priest who got what she was after — her own congregation in Clarkesville, Georgia, with a population of 1,500 souls — about the number of members in the Atlanta church she left.
After serving successfully there for a few years her heart became ‘in conflict with itself.’ Life is full of surprises – (be careful what you ask for) and full of questions she hadn’t thought about.
Whitman summarized it when he said, “Now understand me well: it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, comes forth something to make greater struggle necessary.”
She writes a moving account of that ‘greater struggle,’ which became necessary once she immersed herself in the assignment she sought.
She writes about wearing a collar that gives her the identity as a parish priest, but the collar begins to feel like something else…oppressive…
She came to realize that in order to keep her faith she had to leave parish ministry: she went on to teach at Piedmont College.
She writes: “By now I expected to be a seasoned parish minister, wearing black clergy shirts grown gray from frequent washing. I expected to love the children who hung on my legs after Sunday morning services until they grew up and had children of their own. I even expected to be buried wearing the same red vestments in which I was ordained.”
“Today those vestments are hanging in the sacristy of an Anglican church in Kenya, my church pension is frozen, and I am as likely to spend Sunday mornings with friendly Quakers, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists as I am with Episcopalians who remain my closest kin. Sometimes I even keep the Sabbath with a cup of steaming herbal tea on my front porch, watching (the birds) vie for the highest perch in the poplar tree while God watches me. These days I earn my living teaching school, not leading worship, and while I still dream of opening a small restaurant in Clarkesville or volunteering at an eye clinic in Nepal, there is no guarantee that I will not run off with the circus before I am through. This is not the life I planned, or the life I recommend to others. But it is the life that has turned out to be mine, and the central revelation in it for me—that the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human—seems important enough to witness to on paper. This book is my attempt to do that.”
‘The call to serve God is the call to be fully human.’
To be fully human is to be engaged in the process of becoming a simple, separate person; to enter the depths of the soul –– and to be willing to encounter the holy: “I am that I am; I am becoming,” says the inner voice at the burning bush. It’s time to take the old shoes from your tired feet, to question old assumptions, and to dare to try on a new idea – willing to have an encounter with the ‘Self that dwells within the heart…’ down there, ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
It’s also the willingness to stop the struggle now and then and to allow yourself to be blessed by a deep sense of peace, accepting things as they are; accepting yourself as you are: a simple, separate person — a verb, in the process of becoming.
E. E. Cummings celebrates the process of becoming fully human in a little poem with which we’ll bring this sermon to a close:
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weasel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into what
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down