Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Ties That Bind

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 12, 1999

There is another version of that sweet old song, you know; or at least, another song with the same title, "The Ties that Bind". It starts like this:
You've been hurt and your all cried out, you say.
You walk down the street, pushing people outta your way.
You've packed your bags and all alone you wanna ride.
You don't want nothin', don't need no one by your side.
Your walkin' tough baby, but you're walkin' blind
To the ties that bind,
The ties that bind,
Now you can't break the ties that bind...
You can't forsake the ties that bind.

If you were wondering when this year's first reference to Bruce Springsteen would come, there it is: in the second sentence of the very first sermon of the year!)
We were there when Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band came to Boston a few weeks ago. On opening night, in a concert that the Boston Globe (no less) featured in an article on the front page, under a great big headline that read, simply, "Glory Night". We were there, if not front row center, at least the front row of the rear balcony, which was still fantastic nonetheless.
That was his Springsteen's first song-- "The Ties That Bind"-- in a marathon three-hour show, of one song after another-- bam, bam, bam-- that had most of us in that jammed-packed Fleet Center audience standing and swaying and dancing in the aisles and clapping and singing along for most of those three blessed hours. (And which proved that, even if life doesn't really begin at 40, there can still be a lot of life-- and a lot of energy-- left in us, as we reach the fourth and fifth and sixth and-- who knows?-- decades of our lives.)
And as Bruce sang of "The Ties That Bind"-- the ties that bind two hearts; the ties that bind a performer and his dedicated fans in a bond of loyalty that extends back almost 25 years for some of us-- I wasn't just in that big crowd at the Fleet Center... I was back at the Music Hall with Elizabeth in March of 1977, seeing Springsteen in person for the first time... and I was back at her senior prom in 1976, dancing to "Thunder Road" and "Spirit in the Night", and I was back student teaching in Smithfield Rhode Island late in 1975, when a bright young, red-headed kid named Danny Smith said to me one day, "Mr. Syms, you really ought to listen to this guy from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen..."
It's funny how these minds of ours work (when they work), isn't it? Our pasts-- both their blessings and their curses, too, of course-- never totally dessert us. The ties that bind us to the past are always there within us. And while we might neglect them, or move beyond them, or forget about them for a while, or cover them up, or deny them, or lose
track of them-- sometimes the least little spark can reenergize them and-- and bam-- there we are, back where we thought we'd never be again.
Of course, for all of us, there may well be bitter, painful, sad memories as well. And while it may well hurt us to recall them, they, too, need to be faced and lived through again if we're going to learn their lessons, and move beyond them. (Hug your demons, the saying goes, or they'll come back, sure as shooting, to haunt you when you're least ready for them.)
As for those blessed memories from our past (of which, I'm sure, we all have an ample supply)-- what a gift of grace it is to be able to summon them up, or to have them touch our lives so gently with their smile-- as though to remind us of just what a precious gift this life is. Of course, we can't live in the past. But we can live with the past. Or rather, the past lives inside of us still. And that can be a real blessing and a real challenge.
But life doesn't go backwards. The inevitable, illimitable lesson of the fall (the fall of the year, the fall of our lives) is that we have to learn to let go-- let go of so many things as time passes. (For instance, I decided this summer down at Six Flags in New Jersey while on the Batman-mobile, or some such thing like that that catapults you forward and backward and up and down and over and out in the longest 45 seconds of my entire life-- that I have reached the point in my life where I can let go of big, scary rides at amusement parks that shake you all up and twist and turn your body into all kinds of strange contortions, and give you a headache and stomach pains. I don't think that's fun anymore. I can let go of those things now, and it doesn't have to mean I have one foot in the grave.)
But time hurtles forward into the future just as fast as that ride at Six Flags did, and sometimes it seems as though there's somebody upstairs with His (or Her) finger on the "fast-forward" button. Life goes not backward, and it sure doesn't tarry for anyone.
We are forging ties, right now, that will bind us to the future, too (whether we'll be here to see that future, or not). How we care for our children-- or don't. How we care for one another-- or don't. How we care for the earth-- or don't. The decisions we make today determine the kind of place this world will be.
And that's what hope is about: Hope is our willingness to do our work well today, so that tomorrow will be good for those who come after us. Hope is about strengthening the ties that bind us to one another-- and beyond one another toward all others-- so that our ties to those who come after us will be firm and secure and life-supporting, and their memories will be sweet dreams of the past and not haunting nightmares.
Being a part of a church is a lot like rowing a boat (not something I have done much of in this life of mine, but the image is a good on nonetheless). For one thing, we get there a lot faster if you've got more than one person doing the rowing, and when there aren't too many leaks. (Which really isn't the point I want to make.) But you know, generally speaking, when you row a boat, you don't face the direction in which you're going. No, you face backwards. You look back, but move forward.
We look back toward where we've come: We behold and cherish and savor the whole long, proud heritage of Universalism and Unitarianism; the wonderful stories of the dear souls who have worked hard through centuries now to keep this special church going.
We love them still. But we abide not with them anymore. We move forward, relentlessly and fearlessly and unashamedly, toward the future that our children (and our grandcildren) will inherit.
We move forward, while looking backwards.
And all of this twisting and turning, looking backward, moving forward, in this not-quite-Royal-Caribbean-Line, sometimes creaky, always wondrous, always interesting rowboat of a church of ours, is about connecting with others. It's about playing our part in this magnificent human symphony of which we are all part. This, very simply, is one of the important reasons we have churches and temples and other religious communities, it seems to me: to remind us of the ties that bind us with one another; and to strengthen the ties that connect us to the past and to the future; and to help us to reach out and make new ties, and reconnect those that have been severed, and, of course, to connect us with that "common spirit of life which connects us all".
How magnificent the cast of characters that cross the paths of any of us in the course of our days upon this earth! What an array of humankind we are blessed to share this earth with!
One of the special blessings I have found in the ministry is the extraordinary assortment of people I have been blessed to know in my church families:
Dear old Mildred Hoisington in Hartland, Vermont-- 99 years old when I left there (she lived to be 104, I think). A rock-ribbed Universalist, through and through. One day, an Evangelical missionary came to visit her at the nursing home where she lived, and asked her: "Have you found Jesus, Mrs. Hoisington?"
Mildred looked the missionary straight in the eye (and she was almost blind, so that wasn't necessarily an easy thing to do), and she answered: "Young man, I didn't know that he was lost."
I was so proud of her, and I learned, then and there, that sometimes youth and zest and energy and spunk have nothing at all to do with chronological years...
And there was my dear friend Gardner Brown in Rockland, Maine, whose well-honed letters were all works of heart (and deep humor), and whose well-chosen words of encouragement kept me in the ministry when I was having real doubts about my calling (and also managed gently to burst the bubble of my own pomposity and self-importance on more than one occasion)...
And there are my Hippie friends from Maine, Ben and Cheryl, who lived on a houseboat in Rockland Harbor (even in the depths of winter, a Maine winter, mind you), and who, I think, could never quite understand why I wanted to move south to the suburbs, of all places.
It is dear little churches like ours, my friends, that make these kinds of connections possible. Strong, soul connections-- that neither differences in age or in lifestyle or circumstance-- or the passage of years, or the divide of miles, or even the passing away of dear, dear friends-- can ever erase.
We can't forsake the ties that bind.
And if we try to, we do so at our own peril.
According to a recent study in Newsweek magazine:
People who think of themselves as "lonely" are more than twice as likely to get sick as people who don't.
The death rate among those with "few personal relationships" is three times that of those who have lots of friends and relatives close-by.
People with numerous good friends report lower levels of stress, lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks and strokes, and less anxiety in their lives.
Friends refresh our spirits. They're good for us.
Our church can be an incubator of friendships. It can be an incubator of our souls. And as such, it strengthens our bodies, minds, and spirits as well.
As the Boss sang in his second song in Boston: "Two hearts are better than one/ Two hearts can get the job done." And if two hearts are better than one, then think of how much better the 80 or 100 or how-so-ever many hearts of all of us in this little church of ours.
And as Springsteen sings in another song:

Tell me, in a world without pity,
Do you think what I'm asking's too much?
I just want something to hold on to,
And a little of that human touch...

We need one another. That's why we're here again this fall: Because in a world grown too fast and cold and inhumane, we yearn for that "human touch".
Because our young people need mentors and friends-- living, breathing, over-age-30 examples of what it means to be a functioning adult man or woman in a difficult world.
Because our older folk need companionship and warmth and caring and an extra dose of youthful enthusiasm and energy from time to time.
Because we all need a helping hand sometimes, or words of encouragement, or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to laugh at our jokes, or a push and a prod out of our seats, and back into the world where we can make a difference.
That, very simply, is why we're back here again, for the 255th year in this church's existence:
Maybe a little bit because of the particular theology that is espoused here, and our sense of liberal religious witness.
Maybe a little bit because we want to learn something about religion and spirituality, in order to stretch our minds.
Maybe a little bit because we feel we have a debt to pay the world, and we want to find a way to serve and make the world better.
Maybe a little bit because of a sense of obligation and duty, or a sense of family tradition.
And these are all good reasons to come to church.
But I sense that the main reason we're here is to feel connected, to break out of our aloneness and our loneliness, and join with others-- not in just another social club, not in just another political party, not in a small, closed circle of "true believers"-- but to join with these others in this blessed community of memory and hope. To join with others in this "community of all ages that sings its songs, tells its thoughts, asks its questions, and searches together with courage and with faith."

Somos el barco, somos el mar.
Yo vio en tu, tu vias en me.
We are the boat, we are the sea.
I sail in you, you sail in me.
Healthy community is the key to our survival and wholeness.
So, welcome back, each and every one of you, to another rockin' and rollin', happy and sad, busy and challenging, joyful and energetic church year together. Welcome back for another stage in our journey of the spirit. Ready or not, here we come!

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