Sunday, May 14: Honoring Our Tailwinds

THOUGHT FOR CONTEMPLATION:

Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

(by G. K. Chesterton)

PRELUDE

WELCOMING WORDS: Nancy N.

CALL TO WORSHIP: Adapted from Deuteronomy 6:10a-11

As we come together this day

may we be mindful that we have been given

a land with large, flourishing cities we did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things we did not provide, wells we did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves (we) did not plant – then when we eat and are satisfied, when we seek shelter and are protected, when we gather from our towns and cities, may we remember with gratitude.

INTROIT

LIGHTING OF THE CHALICE: Anna and Lily R.

We light this chalice

Reminding us that love is abundant,

And we are its care takers

Called to share it and help it grow.

(by Anita Farber-Robertson)

OPENING HYMN: “We Give Thanks” (# 1010)

OUR COVENANT:

Love is the doctrine of this church,

The quest for truth is its sacrament,

And service is its prayer.

To dwell together in peace,

To seek knowledge in freedom,

To serve humankind in fellowship,

To the end that all souls

Shall grow into harmony with the Divine.

This is our great covenant,

One with another, and with our God.

SONG OF ASPIRATION:

From all that dwell below the skies,

Let songs of hope and faith arise,

Let peace, good-will on earth be sung,

Through every land, by every tongue.

Amen.

CHILDREN’S TIME: Anne Principe

SINGING CHILDREN TO THEIR CLASSES:

Go now in peace, go now in peace;

may the love of God surround you,

everywhere,

everywhere

you may go.

CANDLES OF JOY AND SORROW

MEDITATION AND PRAYER

MUSICAL MEDITATION

OFFERTORY

READING: “The Lanyard” (by Billy Collins)

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that¹s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

ANTHEM

READING: From “Taking a Different Approach to Inequality” (by Sendhil Mullainathan)

Most Americans view current levels of economic inequality as a problem: in fact, for 30 years, Gallup polls have consistently found a clear majority supporting a more even distribution of wealth and income.

But there is less agreement on how to achieve that goal….

A recent paper by the psychologists Shai Davidai of the New School of Social Research and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University reveals a quirk in human psychology that, I think, is responsible for some of our failure to make much progress on these issues….Mr. Gilovich illustrates…by displaying two separate Google image searches. The first, for “headwind” elicits many pages of vivid cartoons and photo images…But if you search for “tailwind,” you will be hard pressed to find any compelling images at all.

The asymmetry reflects a deeper psychological bias: We tend to remember the obstacles we have overcome more vividly than the advantages we have been given….

The scholars also find that within families, people tend to think their parents were tougher on them than their siblings recognize.

Of course we don’t really know what is going on inside everyone’s mind, but it does appear that many of us over represent the obstacles we face.

In many autobiographies, for example, even fortunate people, born to rich and loving families, look back on life and remember all the things that stood in their way….

When we see our own past in terms of the headwinds we managed to overcome, it is easy to attribute the failure of others to a lack of perseverance….

Poverty, after all, is not only caused by strong headwinds; it is also characterized by a lack of tailwinds.[1]

HYMN: “Thanks Be for These” v. 1-3 (# 322)

Honoring Our Tailwinds

The Rev. Dr. Anta Farber-Robertson (copyright)

“No one’s life is easy.” I tell people that all the time. Reassuring them that they are not alone in the struggle to manage life’s challenges. Sometimes it works.

Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of the book “The Road Less Traveled” starts the book with one line. Life is difficult. It is his way of saying the same thing, that no one’s life is easy. He goes on:

“This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths….Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”[2]

In other words, it is important that we not be fooled into expecting anything different, that we not emotionally stamp our feet and demand an imagined promised easier life.

Maybe that is what our forebears were trying to tell us when they passed down the stories of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden whose entrance was forever blocked. They, and we, would live difficult lives with sorrows as well as joys, labor yielding fruitful harvests, and failed harvests, and they would cleave to one another, so that no one had to do it all alone. They would work together, because though life would be difficult, it would be easier together. And so it is.

No one ever promised us a rose garden, an easy life, or a lack of difficulty. And when we survey our lives, we can nod, acknowledging that we have found that to be true. Life is strewn with challenges. We know that.

But as we heard, there has been interesting research done that highlights something else. Sometimes, life is made easier. And when it is made easier, we hardly notice. Is it hardwired into us to only notice when things are difficult, and not notice when they are handed to us on a silver platter? Or is it our culture that bestows accolades and high regard on the overcoming of challenges? Our heroes hark back to Horatio Alger in the 19th century who wrote “rags to riches” stories of boys from poor beginnings who made it into the American middle class with hard work, determination and grit. In fact it is the myth of the American – one who struggles up from nothing and achieves on their own, the American dream. We know that story. We see it repeated very day in novels, in movies, in so many moving and inspiring videos that go viral across the internet. I myself recently posted a video about an African American girl who was graduating from college a week before she was graduating from high school because she had managed to double them up. And the message is supposed to be inspiring. See! If she can do it, you can do it. Anyone can do it if they put in hard work, determination and grit. But folks, it isn’t really the whole story. Not really. The whole story is always more complicated than that.

I think of the folks who say that they made it on their own, nobody helped them; they just worked hard and were smart enough to make good decisions. They did it themselves. Nobody helped them. Can you believe that? Can anyone really believe that? Some try to.

Did they build the schools in which they learned? Write the books from which they gained knowledge? Pave the roads on which they traveled? Invent the system of legal tender that allowed for commerce? Create a government of law that provided structure and predictability? Did they create the milk that nourished them as infants?

Nobody has done it, whatever it is, on their own.

And then we get to the questions of what constituted a level playing field from which they rose up. Did they drink water without lead when they were children? Breathe air not laden with toxins growing up? Were there grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhood? Were there messages at school that told them they were somebody, somebody worthwhile? Teachers who would help them after school? Were there any adults at home to protect and encourage them, when they got home from school, or were the adults in their families out working to make ends meet, exhausted when they got home at night?

Considering those things, we get to understand the point revealed by the studies that showed how we tend to overlook the advantages we have enjoyed. Mullainathan says:

Poverty, after all, is not only caused by strong headwinds, it is also characterized by a lack of tailwinds.[3]

A lack of tailwinds. He makes the proposition:

If we work on creating more tailwinds- by giving poor children more advantages-we can solve many otherwise intractable problems.[4]

Hmmmm. We know there are challenges for all of us, rich and poor and middle class, able-bodied and ability-challenged, but along with the challenges, the headwinds against which we had to strive, we had some tailwinds. Those of us sitting here in Melrose, Massachusetts probably had more tailwinds than many, tailwinds we may have noticed, and many we probably didn’t.

That’s why I love Billy Collins poem about The Lanyard. In its heart wrenching simplicity, he acknowledges the gifts he received from his mother, the tailwinds which helped keep him growing up and straight for which he had to do nothing, not even notice…until the day that he did. And when he noticed his tailwind, his gift of a lanyard became filled with a whole new meaning, of depth and wonder, of honesty, humility and gratitude.

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that¹s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift- not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.[5]

“When we see our own past in terms of the headwinds we managed to overcome, it is easy to attribute the failure of others to a lack of perseverance.” (Mullainathan) Says Mullainathan. He continues, “When poor children drop out of high school, someone who complains that these children don’t have an adequate work ethic may be remembering educational hurdles that she managed to surmount early in her own life.” (Mullainathan)

Now, I am not suggesting, and neither are the researchers, that the obstacles we’ve encountered and overcome aren’t real. They are. As I said, no one’s life is easy. Or as Scott Peck said, life is difficult.

But there are things, experiences, resources, and environments that also supported us and helped us along.

She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,…

(Billy Collins)

The tailwind that helped Billy Collins grow up and grow well. … We too can bring back those memories of the tailwinds we have experienced, the ones we noticed and the ones we didn’t. And we too can experience the grace of humility and gratitude washing over us. It can be a very good thing, something that reminds us that we did not create ourselves, and we do not need to. We are in this together, this enterprise of being human. We all need help now and then. And we all can give it, not as charity, but as gratitude, sheer gladness that we can be there for one another.

Amen.

CLOSING HYMN: “For the Beauty of the Earth” (# 21)

EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE (read by the congregation):

We extinguish the flame but not the light of truth,

the warmth of community,

or the fire of commitment.

These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.

BENEDICTION

CONGREGATIONAL RESPONSE:

May the long time sun shine upon you,

all love surround you,

and the pure light within you

guide you all the way home.

POSTLUDE

[1] Sendhil Mullainathan, Taking a Different Approach to Inequality, New York times, Sunday, pril 30, 2017 Business Section, p. 3

[2] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

[3] Sendhil Mullainathan, Taking a Different Approach to Inequality, New York Times, Sunday, April 30, 2017

[4] Op cit

[5] Billy Collins The Lanyard