Opening Words: from the Sufi-Muslim poet, Rumi
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.
This is our field where we can freely graze – it’s an open space where we look for something to nourish the soul, the human spirit – to heal the wounds we carry, to inspire us to new insights…to deepen our understanding of ourselves and one another.
‘When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about…’
Sermon: Used Books
Our Small Group Ministry program provides an opportunity to meet in a meaningful way – as Rumi put it, ‘to get beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing,’ to make an ever-deepening connection with a few other folks, and to dig in to a topic of shared interest, a topic like books and the ways you’ve used them, which is what I want to talk about today.
We’ve all put books to many uses, beginning with the uses to which we’ve put them in the process of our education – do you recall your first the reading books (I remember the Dick and Jane books, Fun With Dick and Jane, and Streets and Roads, and More Streets and Roads.) Then came the chapter books – without the pictures – then the math and history books, challenging us to take another step…and sometimes intimidating us!
We’ve used books for lots of things – sometimes just for entertainment. There are books that seem to speak words that express what we’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to articulate – there are books that have become our close companions; books that inform, inspire, encourage, console and challenge us.
There are sacred books – the Bible, the collection of 66 books…which is where the word Bible comes from, biblios, books…a library…bibliography.
Sometimes the sacred books become idols, like the Golden Calf in the book of Exodus, where a thing is worshiped as if it were a god and violence is sometimes done in its name.
How have you used books?
Written language, which we take for granted most of the time, is quite amazing, when you stop to think of it. We are the meaning makers – because we are the meaning seekers.
Language is at the core of what makes us human. Finding meaning, or making meaning, is at the heart of this thing we call religion. It’s what I call generic religion; our need to be connected is the genesis of all the religions.
The essence of religion in all its expressions has to do with making connections, not only with other people and with Nature, but making connections in the sense of growing in our understanding of what makes us tick, what makes the world go ‘round.
There is a built-in need to try to understand ourselves and one another – we want to increase our understanding, so we turn to our books, or the written word in electronic books, or the tidal wave of words on the internet.
The written word nourishes something in us.
How many meals do you remember eating? No doubt there are a few memorable meals. We know the truth in the old saying, ‘You are what you eat.’ The idea is that to be fit and healthy you need to eat good food.
There’s also a saying, ‘You are what you read.’
In this morning’s Book Review section of the NY Times there’s an essay by Geoff Nicholson titled Are We What We Read?
His essay opens, “It’s probably time to update the list on my Facebook profile for the books I ‘like.’” He goes on to explain that the books we read, or say we read, reveals things about us that will attract some folks to us and repel others.
He says, “Books are acquired for all kinds of reasons, including curiosity, irony, guilty pleasure and the desire to understand the enemy (not to mention free review copies.)”
Later he explains: “…most of us read books that reinforce the opinions and tendencies we already have. And yet and yet…the fact is, books really do have the power to influence and change people. That’s why some of us like them so much.”
He concludes his essay: “So, if you actually did examine my bookshelves you could probably reach some reasonably accurate conclusions about my age, class, nationality, sexuality and so on. You would see that I’m not some dangerous, volatile, politically extreme nut job. Rather, you would decide that I’m a bookish, cosmopolitan sophisticate, with broad, quirky and unpredictable interests, a taste for literary experimentation, a sense of history, a serious man with a sense of humor and a wide range of sympathies. At any rate, that’s what I’d like you to think.”
(It’s great when something in the morning paper fits in so nicely with a sermon I announced weeks ago!)
Nicholson’s essay suggests that the reading list we publicize may be a way of creating a persona that makes ourselves attractive to the kind of person with whom we want to associate.
Woody Allen quipped that he loved to read so much that he decided to take a speed reading course. He said he read Moby Dick in twenty minutes. Someone asked, “What was it about?” and he said, “A big fish!”
If we’re asked if we’ve read a particular book we may respond honestly in the affirmative, and may be able to say that we ‘liked it,’ or ‘appreciated it,’ but if it has been several months or years since we read it we might not be able to say just what it was we liked or appreciated about the book. Like a good meal, it was nourishing at the time, but there has been a lot of reading-nourishment since then.
Like the meals we’ve eaten, we’ve used books to nourish something in us – we’ve used books to satisfy a hunger for knowledge, a craving for inspiration, an appetite for stories and humor…some little morsels to chew on, not more than we can digest. A good book is sometimes called ‘delicious.’
To give one final push on the comparison between eating and reading we sometimes ask, “What’s your taste in books?”
We love books that express our own point of view; we admire writers that agree with us! It’s natural. We look for books that express what we already think or believe.
When a book hits home we may recommend it to friends.
Sometimes we come across a book that we think someone we care about should read, or ‘needs to read,’ but we hesitate to tell them about it because it sounds like we’re sending a message about their need to improve some aspect of their life. Tricky business.
From a religious point of view we hope to find books that reinforce our own opinion and the author becomes a companion…someone who really seems to understand what life is like for us; someone who is able to put into words what we’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to express – who reinforces our own beliefs or opinions – a Guru.
Sometimes we read books so we can say we’ve read them. The UUA’s Fellowship Committee (credentializing body) has a list of 40 books on their required reading list.
Most of us have at least a few books that we’ve read more than one time, not hoping to find something new, but we remember the feeling of appreciation we had reading a particular book and we want to revisit it, and we’re often surprised to see something new in it.
All of us have books on our shelves that we started to read and got about a third of the way into it and allowed it to sit neglected.
We have books we got because for one reason or another we feel we should read. I have a book by Erich Fromm titled The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – I bought it for two reasons, first because I had read just about everything else he wrote and appreciated all of them, and secondly because I want to understand that aspect of the homo sapiens – what’s all this destructiveness about?
That book has been waiting patiently for me to open it again for about 35 years – I know exactly where it is on which shelf. Let it wait.
Some books just take up space – they are decorative – they fill the shelves. I have the fourteen volume set of Emerson’s Works – I think they qualify as antiques; maybe I could take them on the Antique Road Show. Some books are collectibles, not acquired to read so much as to have them in one’s possession, to own them. I have a copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that more than 100 years old which is precious to me.
We use books in a wide variety of ways.
Some books are a challenge, acquired when we felt a surge of energy…most of those well-intentioned volumes gather dust on my shelves.
Then there are the books given as gifts, usually they are golden-rule gifts…give unto others what you like to read, and they come with a degree of obligation attached.
Some books make us feel guilty, not because they preach to us about our shortcomings, but because of our failure to read them…they sit silently on the shelf waiting…looking at us from the corner they occupy, as if to say ‘why have you neglected me?’
Then there are books I’ve used again and again…for reassurance…for inspiration…to feel that wonderful sense of connection – I’m not alone in the universe, someone understands what it’s like to be in my skin.
One of my all-time favorite books is a journal by Florida Scott-Maxwell which she called The Measure of My Days which I’ve given as a gift several times.
Some books were written to show us what we look like as a culture, in the same way a mirror shows us what we look like individually. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a book, so much so that Lincoln is reported to have said to Harriett Beecher Stowe, “So this is the little lady who started this Great War!”
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was such a book.
In a recent sermon I mentioned the power of language Mark Twain used in Huckleberry Finn and when I sent the manuscript to our web master, Charles Klein, he wrote back to me, saying:
“Regarding Huck Finn – the novel that created American Literature and for the first time declared blacks were fully human.”
“One simple and short passage – and it has stayed with me since the second I read it and read it immediately again and again because it strikes like the proverbial thunderbolt right between the eyes and refuses to allow you to not see it or hear it.” The passage shows Huck wrestling with his conscience for being an accomplice to stealing someone else’s possession, namely Miss Watson’s slave, Jim.
“So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter – and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
‘Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.’
“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
“It was at a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.”
Charles concluded his note to me, saying: “This is a sermon in of itself. (And the words “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” made me want/need to be a writer.)”
Some books have been used to inspire us to want to write, to want to craft words like that, the way a good meal can inspire us to improve our culinary skills.
On June 12, 1942, her thirteenth birthday, Anne Frank was given a book full of blank pages – an autograph book – which she had shown to her father in a store window in which she could preserve her experience and her thoughts during the two years and she and her family spent in hiding, from July 6, 1942 until August 1, 1944 when they were discovered and arrested and shortly taken to Auschwitz and later moved to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she, her mother and sister died. Anne died just three weeks before the camp was liberated.
After the war her diary was retrieved by her father, Otto Frank, the only member of the family who survived.
The book, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, was first published in 1947 in Dutch, the language in which it was written; and English translation was done in 195l, and has been published in sixty-seven languages. Her book inspired the play, The Diary of Anne Frank produced in 1955. The movie version came four years later, in 1959.
She wrote that she wanted to write a book about her experience in hiding, but didn’t realize, of course, that she was, indeed, writing that book. She would be very satisfied to know that her book is included on several lists of the top books of the twentieth century.
On Wednesday, April 5, 1944 she wrote:
“I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want! I know I can write, but it remains to be seen whether I really have the talent.
“If I don’t have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that. I can’t imagine living like Mother, Mrs. van Daan and all the women who go about their work and are then forgotten. I need to have something besides a husband and children to devote myself to! …
“I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!
“When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer.”
Anne made good use of the book her father gave to her, and the God-given writing gift.
Let me close by telling you about the sculpture on the left of our foyer as you exit. The poster beside it says:
“This extraordinary sculpture was created by nineteen students from the Neighborhood Studios sculpture class to be displayed in the lobby during Westport Country Playhouse’s production of the Diary of Anne Frank. Under the supervision of prominent Westport sculptor Steffi Friedman, the students read the book discussed their reactions, and decided they would like to create a replica of the famous hiding place.
“From the beautiful scene of the upper right of the family lighting Chanukah candles to the powerful scene at the lower left of the Nazi storm trooper leading the family out of the house, the individual sculptures within the larger work were each fashioned by individual students to illustrate important moments in the story.”
Mark Twain gets the last word:
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read. ~G.K. Chesterton
If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. ~Toni Morrison
A good book has no ending. ~R.D. Cumming
Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all. ~Abraham Lincoln
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before. ~Clifton Fadiman