Universalist Society of Strafford
South Strafford, Vermont
A Member of the Unitarian Universalist Association

 

 

 

Defacing the Enemy

A Special Service on August 4, 2013, the 68th Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima
Led by Hilary Mullins, teacher, writer, and occasional UU preacher
Reading

Excerpts from “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, a short story from his well-known collection, The Things They Carried. As some of you may know, these are war stories from Vietnam, and they do get graphic. But we’re not going to get graphic this morning. It is not necessary to traumatize ourselves here in this space.

I am only going to read the story Tim O’Brien conceives of the life the man he killed might have led—that’s it.

He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest was sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar maybe. His wrists were the wrists of a child. He wore a black shirt, black pajama pants, a gray ammunition belt, a gold ring on the third finger of his right hand. His rubber sandals had been blown off. One lay beside him, the other a few meters up the trail.

"He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village of My Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where his parents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, and where, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles and many neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier.

"In the village of My Khe, as in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I killed would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and Tran Hung Dao’s famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi’s final victory against the Chinese at Tot Dong. He would have been taught that to defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He had accepted this. It was never open to question.

"Secretly, though, it also frightened him. He was not a fighter. His health was poor, his body small and frail. He liked books. He wanted someday to be a teacher of mathematics. At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himself doing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes of the stories. He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. He hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping and hoping, always, even when he was asleep.

"…. And for years, despite his family’s poverty, the man I killed would have been determined to continue his education in mathematics. The means for this were arranged, perhaps, through the village liberation cadres, and in 1964 the young man began attending classes at the university in Saigon, where he avoided politics and paid attention to the problems of calculus. He devoted himself to his studies. He spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal, took pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations. The war, he knew, would finally take him, but for the time being he would not let himself think about it. He had stopped praying; instead, now, he waited.

"And as he waited, in his final year at the university, he fell in love with a classmate, a girl of seventeen, who one day told him that his wrists were like the wrists of a child, so small and delicate, and who admired his narrow waist and the cowlick that rose up like a bird’s tail at the back of his head. She liked his quiet manner; she laughed at his freckles and bony legs. One evening, perhaps, they exchanged gold rings.

"Clean fingernails, clean hair—he had been a soldier for only a single day. After his years at the university, the man I killed returned with his new wife to the village of My Khe, where he enlisted as a common rifleman with the 48th Vietcong Battalion. He knew he would die quickly. He knew he would see a flash of light. He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people."

Reflection

The best sermon I ever heard was also one of the shortest. It was August 6, 2004 and I was at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH for their annual poetry conference. This week-long event consisted of the usual sorts of things: workshops, readings and lectures. But there was an added component: the director, Don Sheehan, who started off every morning with comments that kept us all remembering the deepest reasons why we were there and what we could do to make the most of it, not only for ourselves but for others there too. He’d say things like,

“The key that unlocks all truth [is] taking very great and very deliberate care with each other.”

He was a wonderful man!

He was also, incidentally, a man who had converted in his 30s from Catholicism to the Russian Orthodox church, and at The Frost Place and in his teaching too at Dartmouth, he made a regular practice of pointing to concepts and rituals in this tradition that he thought had helpful relevance to others who were not part of it.

That was why on this particular morning I have mentioned, he began his customary daily comments by explaining how that day, August 6th, was one of the high holy days in the Orthodox calendar: the Feast of the Transfiguration. The story of the transfiguration, he told us, starts with Jesus rounding up three of his disciples and taking them to climb a high mountain. They climb and climb and climb, and then suddenly, all this light breaks out, and Jesus is transfigured by that light: his clothes are dazzling white and his face is shining like the sun.

The thing that Don stressed about this was that Jesus’ transfiguration is also a transfiguration of the world: in that moment of great light, the holy is here. Not somewhere else, but here, now. And everything is transfigured—even us.

Then Don turned to that moment’s direct opposite, bringing our attention to another event marked by August 6th: the bombing of Hiroshima: “This,” he said, “we can refer to as a disfiguration of the world.”

And in his own quiet considered way, he next urged us to choose transfiguration in our own lives, yielding not to the ongoing temptations to slight or demean others but instead to make the kinds of gestures that would embody the practice of love—that is, to treat one another with very great and very deliberate care.

War of course, being the practice of large-scale, organized violence, is the antithesis of very great, and very deliberate care. Hence its disfiguring effects, not only on those killed—like the man in Tim O’Brien’s story-- but in those who do the killing.

O’Brien notes this in another story called, “The Ghost Soldiers,”

Something had gone wrong. I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, all the credentials, but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside. Even a little cruel at times. For all my education, all my fine liberal values, I now felt a deep coldness inside me, something dark and beyond reason. It’s a hard thing to admit, even to myself, but I was capable of evil.

A famous and ancient story that makes this two-way disfigurement of war plain is one some of us read back in school but may not remember very well—The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the War on Troy. I actually didn’t read this book in school, but only caught up to it finally last year, and I’ll just remind you now of some of the relevant particulars.

It’s the last year in the decade-long siege of Troy. On the one side we have the Trojans and on the other we have the Greeks.

The cause of the war is a seemingly idiotic one: Ten years ago, Paris, one of the many sons of Priam, the king of Troy, stole away Helen, the legendarily beautiful Helen—the face that launched a thousand ships. Well, those thousand ships as you may know were Greek ships. Helen was the wife of Menelaus, one of the Greeks. It of course makes sense Menelaus would be outraged by Paris spiriting away his wife—that’s not the idiotic part. What doesn’t make sense to us today tho—and what Homer perhaps questions too in places—is the lengths the Greeks go to right this wrong, dying themselves by the hundreds to wreak their revenge on the Trojans—all of them: men, women, and children.

It’s important to remember however as we think about this that our standards of judgment are not the ancient Greeks’: in their culture, there was a logic in it: a man’s honor was tantamount to his immortal soul, and so an offense of this sort was a highly serious matter.

Serious enough so that when the Iliad opens, the Greeks have been besieging the city of Troy for years and many many on both sides have already died. In fact, even before the Greeks managed to get out of their own harbor, there was a hideous slaying—Agamemnon, led by the gods, ordered the sacrifice of his daughter [If-ah-`ja-ni-ah] Iphigenia, so that the wind would finally rise and carry the Greek warriors in their ships to Troy. That ritual slaughter as you probably also know has its own numerous horrifying ramifications later —which is another way of saying that war has an echo effect, a way of going on and on and on, its disfiguring effects drilling down into people’s lives generation after generation.

But let us return to the scene of the war itself, to Troy and to the two greatest warriors of the story: the Greek Achilles and the Trojan Hector.

Of the two men, Achilles has a distinct advantage: son of a goddess and a man, he is a demigod: mortal but still endowed with capacities beyond other men, a warrior whose feats are already legendary. However, for most of the Iliad, he is a non-warrior, sitting the war out because he’s been gravely insulted by his commander Agamemnon.

Then there’s Hector, the oldest son of Priam, the king of Troy. For many contemporary readers, Hector is actually the most likeable character in the whole Iliad. He’s a formidable warrior, the best of all the Trojans, but his heart is not truly in it: he’d really rather not be fighting at all. But he feels he must to protect his people and his land.

There’s a famous scene, unlike any other in the Iliad really, where we witness an intimate moment back in Troy between Hector and his wife (an-`draw-maw-key) Andromache. Their baby son (ah-`sti-ah-nax) Astyanax is there too, being suckled by a nurse at his mother’s side. Andromache, weeping, reminds her husband of how she has no other family but him left to her in the world—her mother was killed by a goddess and her father and all seven of her brothers were slain by Achilles.

“So pity me,” she begs him, “don’t orphan your child and make me a widow.”

Homer goes on:

Great Hector of the shining helmet answered her:
“Wife, all this concerns me too. But I’d be disgraced,
dreadfully shamed among Trojan men
and Trojan women in their trailing gowns,
if I should, like a coward, slink away from war.
My heart will never prompt me to do that,
For I have learned always to be brave,
To fight alongside Trojans at the front,
Striving to win fame for father and for myself.
My heart and mind know well the day is coming
When sacred [Troy] will be destroyed,
Along with Priam of the fine ash spear
And Priam’s people. But what pains me most
About these future sorrows is not so much
The Trojans, [my mother] Hecuba, or [my father] king Priam,
Or even my many noble brothers,
Who’ll fall down in the dust, slaughtered
By their enemies. My pain focuses on you,
When one of those bronze-clad Achaeans
Leads you off in tears, ends your days of freedom.
If then you come to Argos as a slave,
Working the loom for some other woman,
Fetching water from Hypereia or Messeis,
Against your will, forced by power Fate,
Then someone seeing you as you weep
May well say,
‘That woman is Hector’s wife.
He was the finest warrior in battle
Of all horse-taming Trojans in that war
When they fought for Troy.’
Someone will say that,
And it will bring more grief to you,
To be without a man like that to save you
From days of servitude. May I lie dead,
Hidden deep under a burial mound,
Before I hear about your screaming,
As you are dragged away.”

With these words,
Glorious Hector stretched his hands out for his son.
The boy immediately shrank back against the breast
Of the finely girdled nurse, crying out in terror
To see his own dear father, scared at the sight of bronze,
The horse-hair plume nodding fearfully from the helmet top.
The child’s loving father laughed, his noble mother too.
Glorious Hector pulled the glittering helmet off
And set it on the ground. Then he kissed his dear son
And held him in his arms.

This scene makes what happens later even more horrifying. The Trojan warriors come very near to driving the Greeks into the sea but in the ensuing and successful counterattack that the Greeks mount, Achilles’ best and dearly beloved friend, the Greek warrior Patroclus, goes into battle wearing Achilles’ armor. At first he kills many and is the primary force that turns the near-rout around. But then he disregards advice Achilles has given him and is killed by Hector.

This is where the true crisis of the book begins. When Achilles is finally told about the death of his friend, he goes crazy, descending into a beserk state. Returning to the battle with new armor, he becomes a killing machine, cutting down Trojans like a farmer with a scythe mows long grass in a field, leaving mounds of dead behind him, so many in fact their bodies are choking the nearby river and the river itself tries unsuccessfully to fight back.

But nothing can stop Achilles. He is beyond touching, fighting on till he can kill the man he most wants to kill, the man who killed his friend: Hector. In a wrenching passage, he succeeds.

And still he does not stop. He puts a cord through his dead enemy’s heels and ties him to the back of his chariot, and for days, repeatedly drives Hector’s body round and round and round some more about the city of Troy, where high on the walls, the people who love Hector can do nothing but stand and watch his disfiguration.

All this might seen extreme to the degree of exaggeration. But as it turns out, Homer is not garnishing, not about Achilles’ state of mind anyway—he’s describing a real battle phenomenon—the beserker warrior.

As Jonathan Shay has pointed out in his seminal book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, the beserk state is not something that only came over ancient soldiers—it happened in Vietnam, and it is still happening today, a condition that is like what Tim O’Brien described, but far worse.

To illustrate something of what the beserker looks like, Shay gives us a list of the characteristics of the beserk state, a list that includes not only the coldness and cruelness OBrien talks about but more: the soldier in a beserk state acts in ways that his comrades, hardened tho they may be too, recognize as crazy. That is, the beserker has lost all sense: he is so enraged that he lacks fear, is insensible to pain, inattentive to his own safety and indiscriminate about whom he kills, all his actions now marked by a cruelty that has no restraint. Strangely enough there is a striking paradoxical quality to this state too: on the one hand the soldier behaves and feels beastlike but on the other he feels exalted, invulnerable and godlike.

So as it turns out, Homer didn’t just make all this stuff up: Achilles reacts in just the way many soldiers over the course of human history have. Vietnam vets, Shay tells us, put it this way: Achilles, has ‘lost it’:

“But what did he lose?” Shay asks. “What did Achilles lose?”

Here is his answer: “I believe that the veterans and Homer shared similar views on this subject. In the veterans’ own words, they lost their humanity. Beast-god and god-beast replaced human identity.”

Another way to put this of course is that internally Achilles has been disfigured—and this, it seems, must be the reason why he treats Hector’s corpse the way he does: he is trying to disfigure Hector too, in this way groping towards creating a concrete external manifestation of the inner state overwhelming and destroying him.

But this is one point where Homer does exercise his mythic license, for here the gods intervene. First, they protect Hector’s corpse—keeping his flesh, as Homer puts it, from spoiling, Apollo also covering the dead man with his golden aegis “so that Achilles could not damage the skin as he dragged the corpse along.”

Then Achilles’ goddess mother is sent to tell him to ‘shape up’ as it were and to give Hector’s body back. She says he also must begin eating and sleeping again, and taking comfort in women as well. Achilles agrees to what Thetis asks, but the real turning point for him comes soon after this, before he has done anything more with Hector’s body: Hector’s father Priam, guided by the gods, comes uninvited and unannounced to the Greeks’ camp:

The old king went straight to the hut frequented by Zeus-beloved Achilles. He found him there, with only the warrior Automedon and warlike Alcimus of all his friends. They were busy attending to his meal….Great Priam slipped in unobserved, and reaching Achilles, clasped his knees, and kissed his hands, the fearful, man-killing hands that had slaughtered so many of his sons. Achilles was astounded at the sight of godlike Priam, as were his friends. They stared at each other, astounded, as men do in the hall of a wealthy nobleman, when a stranger, who has murdered a man in a moment of frenzy in his own country, seeking refuge abroad, bursts in on them.

Priam entreats for his son’s body by asking Achilles to think of his own father Peleus:

…at least [Peleus] he can rejoice in the knowledge that you live, and each day brings the hope of seeing you return from Troy. While I, I am a victim of sad fate…my prime recourse, Hector, you have killed, as he fought for his country. I come now to the ships to beg his corpse from you, bringing a princely ransom. Respect the gods, Achilles, and show mercy towards me, remembering your own father, for I am to be more pitied than he, since I have brought myself to do what no other man on earth would do, I have lifted to my lips the hand of the man who has killed my sons.

At long last, Achilles’ heart stirs and awakes in his chest, breaking, for he knows his own father will never see him again. Here’s how Homer describes the scene:

[Priam’s] words had moved Achilles to tears at the thought of his own father, and taking the old man’s hands he set him gently from him, while both were lost in memory. Priam remembered man-killing Hector, and wept aloud, at Achilles’ feet, while Achilles wept for his father Peleus and Patroclus once more, and the sound of their lament filled the hut.

It is a poignant scene. But it does not stop the war. The war goes on. Achilles dies, Priam dies, the people of Troy die, the people of Hiroshima die, the people of Vietnam die, the men, women, and children in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria today, they die too: as do the American soldiers who are there. The war goes on. But in this particular tale, for this one short space of time--before his death in battle--the disfigurement of one warrior is healed.

But what today can we do about all this? Can we stop the wars? Maybe for a space of time in one particular place we can, maybe. And maybe we can do something to heal the soldiers too. But in our day-to-day lives, being incredibly lucky as we are to live here, this business of war for most of us is relatively removed.

Except it still has a lesson: for as my friend Don Sheehan at The Frost Place knew, what war represents for those of us lucky enough not to be in one is that great choice between transfiguration and disfiguration. For war is just the extreme, super-sized end of the continuum of violence. At the other pole of the continuum lies the smaller stuff, the subtle stuff, the stuff we are engaged in every day.

Don for instance, was masterful at pointing to the dangers we poets were likely to fall prey to at The Frost Place: the great need we would feel to be praised, the envy we would feel about the fine work of others. “You will need to recognize and acknowledge all of this,” he would say, repeating himself, “in order to reach the key that unlocks all truth: taking very great and very deliberate care with each other.”

For what Don Sheehan was pointing to in his brief sermon that morning to a group of poets—not soldiers--was that transfiguration is the work we all do for the benefit not only of others but for ourselves. Because when we slight, demean or dismiss others, it is ourselves we are disfiguring. But if instead we commit ourselves fully to the daily, infinitely exacting work of taking great and deliberate care, our hearts can be opened and we can be transfigured, the light shining through us. And then, in this space of time and in this particular place, creation is healed and the world is made whole.

Who knows how far it might go?

Amen and may it be.

 

The Cathedral of the Diamond

Andrew Lane

 

Opening Words

From Fathers Playing Catch With Sons by Donald Hall

Baseball sets off the meaning of life precisely because it is pure of meaning.  As the ripples in the sand organize and formalize the dust which is dust, so the diamonds and rituals of baseball create an elegant, trivial, enchanted grid on which our suffering, shapeless, sinful day leans for the momentary grace of order.


Chalice Lighting

Let the light we kindle go before us,
Strong in hope,
Wide in good will,
Inviting the day to come.


Children’s Story

Casey at the Bat, by Ernest Thayer

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning left to play;
And then, when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go, in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which "springs eternal in the human breast;"
They thought, If only Casey could but get a whack at that,
We'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn procede Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a no-good and the latter was a fake;
So, upon that stricken multitude grim meloncholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball,
And when the dust had lifted and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second, and Flynn a-huggin' third.

Then from five thousand throats and more threr rose a lusty yell,
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell,
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face,
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the croud could doubt `twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tounges applauded as he wiped them on his shirt.
Then, while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there,
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped --
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him; kill the umpire!" shouted someone from the stand;--
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."

"Fraud," cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered "Fraud,"
But one scornful look from Casey, and the multitude was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold; they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip; his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's b
Oh! somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville -- mighty Casey has Struck Out.

Talk about how striking out feels and yet how common it is.  How often in our own lives do we try to do something and not have very good success?  When we make a mistake what do we about it?  How do we react?  What do you think Casey should do the next time he comes to bat?  How should he act?  Should he give up?  What would happen if he did?
 

Sermon “The Cathedral of the Diamond”


For me, there are many places outside of church where I find spiritual learning.  One of those places has always been with the game of baseball.  The game has taught me many lessons over the years, and I thought I would share one of the most important of them with you today.

Before going further, I thought I might tell you a bit about my baseball history and how I came to love this game.  My parents were divorced when I was very young, and by the time I was five, they had each remarried.  Some people might hear this and think, oh what a tragedy, but I found it to be quite a blessing in so many ways growing up.  Where other kids only had two parents to impart them with life lessons and expose them to the world, I had four.

My mother and father would have certainly been ample if that was all I had, but I had this extra benefit.  My stepmother exposed me to world travel, let me ride on the back of her motorcycle, and gave me the opportunity to visit Russia three times in college.  Those lessons will have to be saved for another sermon.  My stepfather gave me lessons in puns, taught me how to garden, and most importantly to this occasion, introduced me to baseball.  He loves baseball.  His name is Bill, and Bill can tell you details of games of baseball he watched 30 or 40 years ago.  He is a mathematician by training so the game, which lives and dies by statistics, is a natural fit for him.

More than that, when he was younger, he loved to play the game.  While I was never forced to like baseball, his love for the game was infectious.  When I was three or four I had seen my first minor league game, and we began to make pilgrimages up to Baltimore (Washington did not have a team at the time) to watch the Orioles play at the old Memorial Stadium.  By the time I was eight I was playing baseball on a local little league team and Bill was coaching pitchers.  In a way that speaks volumes to his desire that baseball be my own love, and not one placed on me by him, Bill never served as a head coach and never made it feel like “the coach’s son” got any special treatment.

We would go to the park and throw, practice grounders, have him give me batting practice, and just appreciate the little details of the game.  He would tell stories about a cat he had named after a general manager, teach me how no self-respecting person cheers for the Yankees, and other important parts of baseball.

Another thing I should say here is that he never told me untruths about my play.  When I was doing something wrong with my fundamentals, he would help me to correct it.  When I made a mistake, he explained it to me.  When I did well, he made me feel proud of myself.  I never developed a self-inflated understanding of my own skills, and I can comfortably tell you now that while I love baseball, I am certainly no spectacular player.  I was a big kid for my age, and that helped, but I never had the raw talent that I have had the pleasure to see in many of the kids I coach today and in the really good players I played with.

Now I guess these reflections could be sources of good life lessons by themselves; never take yourself too seriously, know your strengths and weaknesses, know your own capacity for success and try to live in that space, but the biggest lesson I have gained from baseball came from the game itself more than from my own participation in it.

So what is this life lesson, you are likely asking by now?  It is this: the game of baseball is all about a constant quest for perfection while at the same time having to come to the realization that perfection is impossible to achieve and you will drive yourself nuts if you try.

You might ask how is this so?  Well I have a few examples of this perfection that I am talking about and the fact that if you are going to participate in the game, you have to realize the impossibility of this perfection.

Let’s start with the field itself.  I like to take pride that the team I coach plays on the best field I can provide them with and that before every game the field is set to as close as perfect as it can be.  This starts with dragging the infield and the baselines to make sure that the bumps and divots created during previous practices are smoothed out and that the ball will hop as predictably as possible.  Then we lay down the chalk to mark the baselines.

You might not know this unless you have had to line a baseball field, but the way you set the lines down is based on the black line on the edge of home plate.  Theoretically, you are to stretch a line directly over that few-millimeter thick line, and extend it perfectly down to the foul pole.  It should hover over the outside edge of first or third base and be very, very straight.  Now, maybe at Fenway Park they can really achieve this, but for us this a bit of a stretch.  We try our best to make these lines perfect, but to believe that we have achieved a perfectly straight line would be a bit silly.

Another example of this is the pitcher’s mound.  In the major leagues it is supposed to no higher than 10 inches above home plate.  Measuring this requires surveying equipment, and while it might seem a bit silly (I mean how much difference could one inch make) these specifications are honored religiously.  In small towns around America volunteers attempt silly numbers of calculations and modifications to attempt to live as close as possible to perfection with this measurement.  Of course, very few fields are really this precise, and thus we have had to come to terms with our inability to achieve this level of perfection.

Hopefully you are starting to see a pattern develop.  Where baseball provides us with absurdly detailed structures for every aspect of the field, creating a field that truly fills all these specifications, and is therefore perfect, is likely impossible.  For fear of boring those of you with a slightly less absurd love of this game than others I will move on from the field itself to other aspects of the game.

Hitters are, of course, one of the most obvious examples of coming to terms with one’s own imperfections.  The most common measure of a hitter’s success is their batting average.  The last person to have a batting average over .400 for a season was Ted Williams in 1953.  That means that every player since 1953 has achieved a not-hit (strikeout, fielder’s choice, put-out, error, etc.) more than 6 times for every 10 times he came to bat.  Think about that for a second.  If in your job you “messed up” more than half the times you tried to do something, you might get pretty defeated pretty quickly.  Instead, a baseball player comes to term with this inability to achieve regular success and moves on to the next at-bat.  If he cannot do this, he will never be able to stay in the game.

Fielders too attempt this perfection as they play defensively.  The greatest accolade a fielder can achieve is the golden glove.  This award is given to one player for each position in each of the American and National Leagues.  The 2011 American League winner at the position of Shortstop was Erick Aybar of the Los Angeles Angels.  He must be really good you might think; almost perfect.  After all shortstop is where you put your best fielder when you are coaching, and is the center of many plays in every game.  Mr. Aybar had a pretty spectacular year, but he still recorded 14 errors; certainly far from perfect.  In fact even the player to achieve the least errors in a season at shortstop, (Cal Ripken Jr. at 4) was not perfect.  We can hope to be perfect in life, but even the best of the best make mistakes, and in fact, over the course of a career, they make a lot of them.

So I have given you a bunch of facts about baseball, but how does this lesson on perfection really relate to our own lives?  Here is what I have taken from this lesson.  I regularly find myself searching out perfection in most everything in life, and I can get pretty discouraged when things don’t go as planned.  Even blissful experiences like summer vacation can be a source of discouragement if we hold onto some imagined sense of perfection about what we are going to do, see, accomplish, experience in the limited time of the summer.

The place I have the hardest time coming to terms with my own imperfection is in my job as a teacher.  If I have a lesson that I have really tried to prepare well and I have thought lots about how to deal with potential pitfalls and mistakes and then I get blindsided by something I had not even thought to predict, I can be fairly disappointed.  I might feel as though I have let down the students and that I certainly could have done something differently or better.

In an interaction with a colleague or a student, I hope to be my best self, but more times than I care to admit, this does not happen and I make a mistake with that interaction.  To use baseball language I make an error, and occasionally I really screw up.  In those moments, I can get down on myself or feel bad about this mistake.  So, is this the “right” way to feel, is this the most productive reaction to have to these mistakes.  Baseball would tell me it is not.

Instead, I need to think about what went wrong, make corrections and get ready for my next at-bat in life.  Striking out happens more often than we think, and we need to be ready to roll with that imperfection and apply it to our next opportunity.  This is true with work, with parenting certainly (how many times have parents gone to bed thinking they are doing a terrible job?), with our relationships with our lovers and our friends.  And also in our relationships within a church community.

Over the next few months we, in this congregation, will be pondering what matters to us in terms of ministry and who we want to be as a congregation.  In this process there will certainly be times when we make errors in our relationships with one another, where we have a foul tip of an idea, where some of us may drop the ball.  The most we can ask of one another is to do our best.  We can try for perfection, but we need to accept that perfection is likely unattainable.  I know I am looking forward to working with all of you to think about these questions around ministry and to work towards some common vision of our future as a congregation.  Much as I teach my players to back each other up on the field, I know that we will make sure that we are backing each other up as we move forward in this endeavor.

So in parting, I would ask you to listen to this poem of redemption written by C.F. McDonald in 1907 entitled “The Volunteer”.  I think it speaks to the fact that life gives us many opportunities to correct our previous errors and move forward.  We need to find ways to put the error behind us, and step into the batter’s box the next time with a fresh outlook on the world around us.  With this knowledge, I know I can be more comfortable with the lack of perfection in my life and in my interactions with others.  I will still quest to make that perfect foul line, but I will be alright knowing that I have done my best, and that there will be another chance to lay down that line before next game.  So here it is:

The Volunteer


The Bugville team was surely up against a rocky game;
The chances were they’d win defeat and not undying fame;
Three men were hurt and two were benched; the score stood six to four.
They had to make three hard-earned runs in just two innings more.

“It can’t be done,” the captain said, a pallor on his face;
“I’ve got two pitchers in the field, a mutt on second base;
And should another man get spiked or crippled in some way,
The team would sure be down and out, with eight men left to play.

“We’re up against it anyhow as far as I can see;
My boys ain’t hitting like they should and that’s what worries me;
The luck is with the other side, no pennant will we win;
It’s mighty tough, but we must take our medicine and grin."


The eighth round opened- one, two, three- the enemy went down.
The Bugville boys went out the same- the captain wore a frown.
The first half of the ninth came round, two men had been put out,
When Bugville’s catcher broke a thumb and could not go the route

A deathly silence settled o’er the crowd assembled there.
Defeat would be allotted them; they felt it in the air;
With only eight men in the field ‘twould be a gruesome fray,-
Small wonder that the captain cursed the day he learned to play.

“Lend me a man to finish with!” he begged the other team;
“Lend you a man?” the foe replied; “My boy, you’re in a dream!
We came to win the pennant, too- that’s what we’re doing here.
There’s only one thing you can do- call for a volunteer!"

The captain stood and pondered in a listless sort of way.
He never was a quitter and he would not be today!
“Is there within the grandstand here”- his voice rang loud and clear-
“A man who has the sporting blood to be a volunteer?”

Again that awful silence settled o’er the multitude.
Was there a man among them with such recklessness imbued?
The captain stood with cap in hand, while hopeless was his glance,
And then a tall and stocky man cried out, “I’ll take a chance!”

Into the field he bounded with a step both firm and light;
“Give me the mask and mitt,” he said; “let’s finish up the fight.
The game is now beyond recall; I’ll last at least a round;
Although I’m ancient, you will find me muscular and sound."

His hair was sprinkled here and there with little streaks of gray;
Around his eyes and on his brow a bunch of wrinkles lay.
The captain smiled despairingly and slowly turned away.
“Why, he’s all right!” one rooter yelled. Another, “Let him play!”


“All right, go on,” the captain sighed. The stranger turned around,
Took off his coat and collar, too, and threw them on the ground.
The humor of the situation seemed to hit them all,
And as he donned the mask and mitt, the umpire called, “Play ball!”

Three balls the pitcher at him heaved, three balls of lightning speed.
The stranger caught them all with ease and did not seem to heed.
Each ball had been pronounced a strike, the side had been put out,
And as he walked in towards the bench, he heard the rooters shout.

One Bugville boy went out on strikes, and one was killed at first;
The captain saw them fail to hit, and gnashed his teeth and cursed.
The third man smashed a double and the fourth man swatted clear,
Then, in a thunder of applause, up came the volunteer.

His feet were planted in the earth, he swung a warlike club;
The captain saw his awkward pose and softly whispered, “Dub!”
The pitcher looked at him and grinned, then heaved a mighty ball;
The echo of that fearful swat still lingers with us all.

High, fast and far the spheroid flew; it sailed and sailed away;
It ne’er was found, so it’s supposed it still floats on today.
Three runs came in, the pennant would be Bugville’s for a year;
The fans and players gathered round to cheer the volunteer.

“What is your name?” the captain asked. “Tell us you name,” cried all,
As down his cheeks great tears of joy were seen to run and fall.
For one brief moment he was still, then murmured soft and low:
“I’m the mighty Casey who struck out just twenty years ago.”

Closing Words:

Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.
Salvador Dali
 

Message from Rev. M'ellen

Dear Friends,

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to serve as your part-time consulting minister here in Strafford for the past seven years of so.  In our time together I have striven to help us to pay attention to our spiritual lives and to become better people. As a foundation for our exploration, we have turned to our Universalist and Unitarian heritage, to the teachings of the world’s religions and to common wisdom. In the various worship services, groups, documentaries, religious education programs, hikes, meetings and classes over the years, I suggested that to become better people we do the following:

  • Be grateful. Practice gratitude daily.
     
  • Be appreciative.  Take the time to notice what is good and beautiful around You.  Pay attention!
     
  • Forgive.  Let go of the old stuff so that You can enjoy today.
     
  • Be hospitable.  Welcome the stranger -- and the “strange” parts within Yourself!
     
  • Take life lightly.  Cultivate humor.  Laugh lovingly at life – including Yourself.
     
  • Move!  Get unstuck. Develop flexibility in your body, heart and soul. Dance!
     
  • Sing!  Find your voice. Add your part to life’s chorus.
     
  • Spend time in Nature on a regular basis. Respect and care for Gaia, mother earth.
     
  • Sit. Be in stillness in the presence of Mystery.
     
  • Make peace with your spiritual past – whether it’s Christianity, Judaism, atheism, or no religion.
     
  • Recognize and cultivate the power of the heart.
     
  • Develop spiritual heroes and look to their example for inspiration in living.
     
  • Learn to live comfortably with paradox. Make friends with the dualities that trouble You.
     
  • Live simply so that others may simply live.
     
  • Recognize that utter interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. There is no "other."
     
  • Pay attention to the most vulnerable including kids, folks who are older, ill, immobile or in institutions.
     
  • Appreciate, care for and celebrate the treasure of this small and mighty congregation.
     
  • Explore or strengthen a spiritual practice (such as mediation, movement, prayer, art, nature, etc…)
     
  • Find out what feeds your spirit.  Then do it!! Regularly!!
     
  • Keep on the lookout for Hope and Blessings which often come in unexpected packing.
     
  • Honor the Divine Feminine.  Bring more compassion into your living.
     
  • Stay connected.  Don’t isolate.
     
  • Be kind to each other.
     
  • Serve.

I hope that at least some of these suggestions have resonated with You. We become better people as we integrate these timeless lessons into our daily interactions and way of being in the world. And there are certainly many more key lessons we can glean from the world’s religions.

I wish You well each individually and as a congregation as You move forward. I believe from the depth of my heart that You’re here for a reason – individually and as a congregation. The world needs You, your gifts, and your presence. I wish You the best in using these gifts to bring more love, light, beauty, truth, healing, goodness and joy into our aching, broken world which needs You.

Hope to See You at Church on the 17th,

With Love,

M’ellen

 

 

 

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