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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What more do you want?

A sermon delivered to the First Parish in Concord, Mass., on Sunday, March 12, 2006, by Christopher L. Walton.

My food my parent my child I want you my own
My flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

—Robert Pinsky, "The Want Bone"

[Jesus] was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread." Jesus answered, "Scripture says, '[Human beings] cannot live on bread alone.'"

óLuke 4:2–4, New English Bible

I edit the Unitarian Universalist Association's magazine, UU World, from an office next door to the Massachusetts State House in Boston. I'm lucky enough to have a window that looks out on Boston Common. No matter the season, it's a wonderful view, especially in the late afternoon when the sun begins to go down and the buildings on Beacon Hill glow orange and the gold dome shines and the sky to the east turns an even brighter blue. What more could I ask for?

Working next to the State House also means that almost once a week I hear the emphatic but muffled chants of some group of protesters or another. I can't make out exactly what they're demanding—but no matter what cause they're advocating, they all use the same chant.

A person with a megaphone barks "Whaddawe want?" and the crowd shouts back, "RrrrMmmrrr." The megaphone shouts "When do we want it?" and the crowd says, "Now!"

Sometimes I take a break and walk down the street to see what the fuss is about. Health care, slot machines, arts funding, deregulation, reregulation, tax cuts, spending increases, marriage equality, traditional marriage: Some passionate group of people, a dozen sometimes, a few hundred others, is demanding it.

"Whaddawe want?" The group knows the answer. They can boil it down to one word, sometimes all the way down to two syllables. Justice. A contract. Tax relief. Day care. "When do we want it?" "Now!"

Sometimes, I want what they want, too. But the repetitiousness got on my nerves; cynicism set in. And then I realized I was being offered something a little bit like a Buddhist koan—a puzzle for the spirit—every time the protesters arrived. No matter how many gathered, I always recognized the question immediately. What do you want? I understood the second part of the question, too: When do you want it? And who could miss the certainty of the last word, or fail to relate to its urgency? Now.

But listening to the protesters from my office down the street, I never could make out the most important part—the answer—unless I got out of my chair and walked up the hill.

What do we want? Hmm. When I confront that question for myself, I'm afraid it's not really a simple question.

* * *

The shark in Robert Pinsky's poem, "The Want Bone," left only its jaw behind. When the poet comes across that bleached bit of shark cartilage on the shore, he says: "The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving / And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O" (7–8). The poet calls it "the want bone," nothing but desire itself:

But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
My flower my fin my life my lightness my O. (14–16)

I have loved this poem for many years. It captures something fundamental and awkward about being alive: We're hungry critters. We want love, we want food, we want beauty, we want freedom, we want children, we want joy, we want things, we want dominion, we want, we want, we want. And in our craving and our yearning and our desire we are driven to get up out of our chairs and go out into the world and do things. A good thing!

But the poem provokes another thought, too, because even as it ends in a burst of celebration, it depicts the ultimate emptiness of desire: The shark, of course, is gone, "infinitesimal mouths bore it away" (12), and nothing is left but O. Zero. Nothing. Is that it, then: Whoever eats the most fish wins?

Desire is so central to human life that it's no wonder that religious teachers, philosophers, and psychologists have been preoccupied with it. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is especially blunt: "Suffering," the Buddha says, "is caused by desire."

And so often, it's true: Caught up in what we want, or think we want, hurt other people, waste ourselves addictions, fritter away our talents, and lose sight of any enduring meaning for our lives.

Resisting or taming or suppressing or redirecting desire often seems to be what religion and culture are all about. Monks and nuns give up possessions and sex to devote their lives to prayer and service. Those of us with more mundane callings go to work each day not to do whatever we feel like but to do a job, often when we don't feel like it. Our children may throw a fit and say, "I want it NOW!," but we know that they will have to learn discipline and patience, and we try to teach them. Desire is fundamental to human life, but it is not all.

No one is born an artist or a basketball player or an engineer. No one is born musical or religious or logical—or moral. Instead we are born with capacities that must be shaped and cultivated and refined and focused. Our wants must be disciplined. And, perhaps strangely, many kinds of discipline turn out to bring us great joy.

It's rarely fun to play a game if you don't know the rules. Developing skill with the paintbrush brings great satisfaction to the artist. Musicians must learn their instruments. And we must learn how to meditate, how to welcome a stranger; we must learn how to "hold on to what is good" and it takes practice to "return to no person evil for evil," as we remind ourselves and each other in the benediction we say here each week. We practice.

* * *

Lately I've been intrigued by a psychologist who thinks that our culture's focus on the pursuit of happiness may be numbing us. Stephen Hayes, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, is the author of a book called Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life—advice I'm sure I could use often. After Time magazine headlined a story about him "Happiness Isn't Normal," Hayes told one interviewer:

The natural game most of us are in is how to feel good. That's not the same thing as how to live good. . . .

Western culture promotes feel-goodism. In part it's a side effect of having technology to make things easier or feel better. It's natural progress, so we don't have to do the sweaty, hard things our forebears had to do. But inside that is a meta-message, which is that you're supposed to feel good from morning to night. And add on top of that commercialism and medications—because they feed it too: If you consume the right products, eat the right pill, drink the right beer, drive the right car, you believe that you're not going to feel anything you don't like. What I'm saying is that that is not the definition of a meaningful life, and I'm saying people know it.

Hayes says that most of us work hard to run away from suffering or difficulty or negative experiences, but he focuses on helping patients accept their past and their feelings while helping them commit to actions shaped by their own values. He summarizes this approach: "Accept your history, feel your feelings, notice your thoughts, and carry all that forward down a path that you value that's neither indulgence nor suppression." I'm in no position to recommend one clinical theory over another, but this sounds like very good advice to me.

What do we want? Hayes suggests that the best answer to that question isn't something we can demand. It's not a possession. It's a value.

Let's say that someone realizes they want to be a loving person. That's what they value. Hayes says:

By saying it, you're connecting to it. But it's hard. . . . [I]t's not something you can ever stop doing. If you say that your values are being a loving person, do you ever get to say, "That's done!" No. A value is like a direction, like going west. No matter how far west you go, you can still keep going west. And the instant you turn and start facing west, you're on the right path.

Every phrase in our benediction is a value, a direction, and each week we reorient ourselves. Not one of those values is easy; but we recommit to them because turning again and starting again is always possible. We're practicing the discipline of our faith.

* * *

In the story I read from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness with nothing to eat and, at the end of forty days, he faces three temptations: Focus on your hunger. Focus on power. Focus on security. But Jesus, who is just about to start his ministry, has been in the wilderness learning to focus instead on his values, on the ultimate purpose of his life. What do you want? Think about the way Jesus answers that question.

The Gospel of Luke says:

[Jesus] was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread." Jesus answered, "Scripture says, '[Human beings] cannot live on bread alone.'"

Jesus wanted bread. He was starving! But he sees the devil's appeal to his immediate needs as a trap. He doesn't say, "No, thanks, I'm not hungry"; he doesn't deny what he wants. Instead he points to human needs that transcend his immediate vulnerability to hunger. Why? It seems strange for a starving man to offer a philosophical observation about the inadequacies of food. Something else, I think, is going on here.

People try to take advantage of our vulnerabilities all the time; they manipulate us by seeing what we want and then offering us fantastical solutions. You can turn stones into bread. You can get rich from the lottery. You can have plastic surgery on television and finally get the love you deserve. You can be successful—or at least appear successful—if you go into extraordinary debt. You can have it all. Right now.

Let's assume, for the sake of the story, that Jesus really could turn stones into bread. Why wouldn't Jesus simply do it? The devil isn't offering bread; he's goading Jesus: Show me what you've got. Prove it. And Jesus resists because he won't take a shortcut. There are no shortcuts in the direction Jesus has chosen.

If the first temptation is about food and the needs of the body, the second temptation is about power. Luke continues:

Next the devil led him up and showed him in a flash all the kingdoms of the world. "All this dominion will I give to you," he said, "and the glory that goes with it; for it has been put in my hands and I can give it to anyone I choose. You have only to do homage to me and it shall all be yours." Jesus answered him, "Scripture says, 'You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship [God] alone.'"

Once again, Jesus doesn't dispute anything the devil says. Sure, maybe the devil could hand over all the nations of the world. But this offer comes with a new catch: Jesus can rule the world only if he reveres the tempter. There are many ways to interpret what's happening here, but the most obvious is that Jesus flatly turns down the offer. He refuses to worship power or power-brokers.

The devil moves on to a third temptation, invoking prophecy and promises of security:

The devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the parapet of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down; for Scripture says, 'He will give his angels orders to take care of you,' and again, 'They will support you in their arms for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It has been said, 'You are not to test the Lord your God.'"

The devil is saying, Nothing bad will happen to you. You're too special. It has all been arranged. Trust me.

But Jesus has realized that his life isn't going to be oriented on food, power, or security. He has chosen instead to focus on feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and restoring the dignity of the outcast, the marginalized, and the humiliated. There are no shortcuts to a life of compassion.

This story is about the temptation of idolatry, the temptation to treat a partial good as an ultimate good, the temptation to revere and worship part of life instead of the source of life, the temptation to mistake something we want for what we truly need. However strange the concept of God or the devil may be to some Unitarian Universalists, the dynamic—finding ourselves trapped by wants that cannot ultimately satisfy us—is familiar to us. The Christian ethicist Timothy Sedgwick has written a wonderful description of the dynamic of idolatry. Sedgwick writes:

The dynamics of idolatry arise out of the experience of change. Our experience of change is an experience of the fragility of what we love and the fragility of our own lives. Ultimately all things pass away. To love inordinately is to cling to something, to hold on, to seek to preserve and extend some thing or things beyond the ravages of time. We love inordinately because we love so much and cannot accept that what we love will perish. [Think of our friend, Robert Pinsky's shark: My food my parent my child I want you my own!] What we love is not idolatrous because it is evil. What we love is good. What is evil is our loving inordinately because we cannot accept the good for what it is—finite, fragile, and always perishing. What is evil is attempting to make the particular goods of life into God, into what is absolute, enduring, never changing.

What do we want? Life. The freedom to turn again and again toward the source of life. We practice disciplines like service, fasting, reflection, perhaps even some household downsizing and reconsideration of the paths we have chosen, in order to free ourselves from all those things that pretend to be life-giving but that trap us. And we try to practice the discipline of not worshiping power or might or wealth or prestige or fame or cleverness or brilliance or speed or beauty or thinness or agility—not any of these wonderful but limited features of our all too limited and perishing lives.

What do we want? Courage. Compassion. Love. Life. Not now, but always and evermore. Amen.


Luke 4:1–13. New English Bible. Oxford, 1961.

Stephen C. Hayes. "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)." 5.1.05.

Stephen C. Hayes. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger, 2005.

Robert Pinsky. "The Want Bone." The Want Bone: Poems. Ecco Press, 1990: 14.

Timothy F. Sedgwick. The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety. Eerdmans, 1999: 68–69.

Rebecca Traister. "Getting Over Happiness." Interview with Stephen Hayes. Salon 2.25.06. (Thanks to Making Chutney for introducing me to Hayes.)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 15 March 2006 at 8:10 AM

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Ron Stevens:

March 15, 2006 10:02 AM | Permalink for this comment

Excellent sermon, Chris! I enjoyed it very much, and have shared the link to it with the folks at my Yahoo discussion groups and message board (listed below).


Moderator, "Faith of the Free" bulletin board,

...also "Larger Faith" (progressive Universalism) Yahoo group, at...,

...and "Faith of the Free" (UU growth and UU-style evangelism) Yahoo group at...

Donald Fraser:

March 16, 2006 12:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris: Happy that Ron provided the link to your site and sermon. Your address is excellently thought out, crafted and emphatic in its presentation of a wonderful theme. Wish I could have been there to hear you deliver it.
Don Fraser, First Unitarian Congregation, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


April 19, 2006 05:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

I've been podcast! You can hear me preach this sermon from the First Parish in Concord website; or you can subscribe to the church's podcast through iTunes — search for "First Parish in Concord."

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