On Hanging Up Our Harps

Ancient Testimony ~ Psalm 137

March 01, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

As any of you who have been foolish enough to come to me for counseling know, I love a good structure. I love a good five-step program. I love pulling the string down on the floating balloons of unfocused hope. Problem solving is my middle name. We also know that five steps don’t really work because most problems with any heft to their name don’t readily admit solutions. Consider depression. Or bed bugs. Or cabs that beep at you if you don’t move during the nanosecond of the turning of a light. Consider even recession, bank failures, world peace.

Problem solving is more a form of comfort than it is a form of solution. When you break a problem down into a five-step solution, you rarely solve it. Most problems are bigger than that. But you do give yourself the permission to say, OK, I’m doing all I can about it. You do puncture the balloon of arrogance and the fantasy of “sí, se puede.” The “yes, we can.” I’ll never forget my daughter returning from a long day protesting the Iraq war a few years ago: “I am sí se pueded out.” I understand. This week we have seen an extraordinary increase in our own members who are unemployed. Those of you who inspire me most—and in whose name this sermon is offered—are the ones who say I have been needing a little extra time for a long time; now I have it. Lemons, meet lemonade.

Still, many people choose the harp-hanging-up approach when it comes to problems worthy of the name problem. We just quit. We are so sí se pueded out that we don’t bother trying even the little things we might try. Our failure to sing when in a strange land is not without precedent. Many harps are hung on the wall of despair.

Singing a strange song in a strange land is not something I would say is easy. It is not. It’s just that it is easier than hanging up your harp. When we give up, we get both the problem and the discomfort of the problem. When we attempt five small songs in the face of an opera of difficulty, we often get to keep the problem but we lose the discomfort. Those who do all they can do, and know that they have done all they can do, are people of peace. They are not the people of arrogant despair—since I can’t solve it, I will be proudly arrogant. They are not the people of arrogant hope, either. Come, let us resolve the bed bug problem in New York City together. When we fail, we have an exquisite form of discomfort. We itch with failure.

Let’s consider depression, you know the kind that helps you feel overwhelmed and hopeless all day. Many hang up their harps in its face. Why sing if you can’t even find the energy to put on your socks? Well, why not? Singing while you are putting on your socks, even if you are faking it, has a certain panache. You enjoy a certain absurdity. Depression, for many, many people, is very, very real. One of the songs I want to sing is a song of praise for all of those who do get up in the morning and put on their songs and their socks, after they take their pill. When I think of what it must be like to be depressed already, and then to face the economic depression, I all but lose the few songs I have left. One of the five things we can do in this time is to pay special attention to people who are already depressed. That is a song we can sing.

One of the most important values in American culture is comfort. I want to distinguish the comfort my problem solving approach yields from what we culturally embrace as comfort. Americans expect comfort. From the time we are born in a hospital and wrapped in a blanket and placed on a soft mattress in a climate-controlled room, we expect to be comfortable. Except for the homeless, we live in houses that are not only climate-controlled but also controlling the future climate of the planet. We go to sleep in Select Comfort beds, and we wake up under a blanket called a comforter. We eat comfort foods. We drive cars to avoid the discomfort of powering our own mobility. We will do what it takes to stay comfortable—including altering the biosphere of our planet and driving other creatures to extinction. Bill McKibben suggests, in The Age of Missing Information, that we don’t really value our comfort because we take it for granted. He also thinks that comfort is a low-key, steady state condition that keeps us from real pleasure. Pleasure, he argues, comes from a high-intensity, immediate shift from a situation of discomfort to a situation of stimulus, like a hot shower after a week of backpacking rather than the same shower on a normal day. Americans also expect to be socially comfortable… and don’t particularly like it when unpleasant subjects are brought up. This high value on comfort is not what I mean when I offer the comfort of doing all you can and then giving up.

I mean singing a strange song in a strange land. I mean the absurdity of feeling your heart ache but still humming while putting on your socks. That is song one. The handshake with absurdity, failure, heartache. Song two is what I would call faith instead of doubt in the face of strange lands. It is what Christians do during Lent, as we turn toward a life-filled death. It is what AA people mean when they say, “Let go and let God.” It is what folk mean when they argue that “God never closes a door without opening a window.” That may sound foolish and unsophisticated but it has helped a lot of people in Iowa manage the loss of their farms. It is also what Elie Wiesel (who lost his personal fortune and his foundation’s money to Bernie Madoff) means when he says you can’t control disasters but you can control your attitude toward disaster. By the way, Wiesel was originally theologizing about the holocaust in this thought.

If theological frames bother you, and they do bother many, then think of yourself as a good old-fashioned capitalist, a vulture, waiting for the bottom to be hit so you can “buy low and sell high.” Or ask yourself the great pragmatic question, what am I getting out of letting the depression depress me, the recession recess me? What good do I get out of adding my psychological anxiety to the material reality of the situation? The big shift we need is in our minds. As the Chinese would say, this moment of great difficulty is also a time of great possibility. This second song of faith is not absurd or playful at all, even though it sounds a lot like the silly song we sing while putting on our socks. It is the song of the ages, the ages of faith telling the oppressors and downers where to get off. They can get their profits off our spirits, their boots off our lives.

The third song is what I call the turning song. We are people who turn the trouble, the way a good gardener turns the compost. The more you turn it, the more its decay yields dirt. The third song is keeping a shovel-ready spirit alive, keeping you shovel ready to shovel out the decay on behalf of the dirt.

The fourth song is the freedom not just to turn the decay of old systems into dirt but also to do so with daring ideas. Why bother with little turns? Why not greet the strange land with ideas it thinks are strange? When a Jewish Seminary student doesn’t get a fellowship because she might approve “intermarriage,” why apologize? Why not tell the committee, yes isn’t it wonderful that I want to be a rabbi and approve intermarriage? Isn’t that just grand? In other words, why do the harp hanger-uppers say we are the strange ones? In such strange lands?

I have a low-cost form of personal entertainment, step four, which is to think of as many utopian ideas as I can in any day. That way the strangeness of Bernie Madoff and his friends doesn’t rub off on my spirit. I greet their strangeness with my own. I particularly am enjoying economic utopias compared to the dominant and very strange dystopia.

Think 15:1. No one, not the senior minister or the chief executive of Google, can make more than the minimum wage times 15. That still gives room for what Karl Marx thought was the actual value of creativity, indispensability, talent, and incentive. Figure everybody gets $30,000 at the “bottom” and, going up, nobody gets more than $450,000. That policy would change a lot, especially if attached as policy to every nickel of government bailout or stimulus money. Culturally, we could stigmatize people who make more—instead of praising or, worse, trying to imitate them as our cultural heroes. We could ban them from our country clubs.

Second, guarantee universal health care. Drive medical costs down by doing that. Attach price limits on procedures. Use digitalized medical records with strong privacy policies attached to their use. Institute and reward wellness programs from kindergarten and before, all the way up. What fun to feel really good and not have to pay a fortune for it!

Third, start every child in America off with Social Security, at age one. That would take the teeth out of a Harvard education versus a community college one. People would have money already invested in and for them, which they could use to buy an education, start a business, see the world, support themselves while they pursue opera.

Fourth, institute national service for every eighteen-year-old for two years at a low salary. Don’t let them go to college until they have learned how to drink, been in an extended summer camp with their peers from every walk of life, and learned how to do something with their hormones.

Economically, spiritually, and psychologically, we have been living in a 19th century political economy. That is what has become strange. The political economy is worn out, and it is making many things strange. As part of point four, you refuse blame for this mess, while accepting responsibility. (PS: Some of you are being quiet.)

Finally, if you think my five-step program, with four economic utopias, is not big enough, go ahead and sing six or seven songs. I have no investment in only five songs. Singing while putting on your socks—before, during, and after heartache—won’t remove heartache. But it will keep your harp in your hand.

Turning the tables, turning the ideas, turning our identities around in the face of the strange land may not change the strange land. But it will withdraw our permission. And that is what we mean by sí, se puede. Amen.

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