In Praise of Small Things

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, November 4, 2018.

One summer day many years ago, when our son Will was little, five or six I guess, I took him fishing. We went to a small river about half an hour from home; a stream where dark water swirled around granite rocks, a place I’d caught fish before. Before leaving, we gathered our gear, and packed some snacks, and then we headed out. It was midsummer and hot, but I figured it would be cooler in the woods and by the water. On the way, we were both excited. “We ought to be able to catch some trout,” I said, imagining myself, the proud father, taking a picture of my son holding up a big and beautiful rainbow trout.

But when we got there, I was dismayed to see what I should have known: the river in midsummer had slowed to a trickle; it was shallow and warm, and any trout that had been there would have migrated upstream or down to find a deeper hole with cooler water to spend the summer in. I felt this ache of disappointment go through me. I hid this from Will, of course, as we wandered up and down the banks, and soon we were looking in puddles in the rocky ledge at the edge of the stream, turning over stones to see what was underneath. 

At some point I noticed a little dimple on the surface of one of those pools of water. Some little fish had risen to eat a bug. I rigged up our smallest rod with a tiny fly and showed Will how to flick it into the water. And we waited. After a some time, a tiny little fish, a sunfish or minnow of some kind, came up and ate the fly. “Set the hook!,” I yelled, as if he was laying into a monster from the deep. He did, and the little rod bent a tiny bit, and he had a fish on! It swam around the little pool in circles until Will reeled it in, and we bent over the shallow water and gently picked up that fish, which easily fit in the palm of his hand. We took the barbless hook out and returned the little fish to the water, and it flitted away.

For several hours we did this, wandering from one pool or puddle to another, looking under rocks and catching baby fish. I hoped no serious fisherman would show up and see what we were doing. Surely they would be smart enough to stay away from that place in the heat of summer! We sat on the rocks with our feet in the water and ate our snacks. Will seemed to be having a good time, but still, an ache of disappointment hung over me, a disappointment I tried to hide. 

Eventually it was time to go, and we gathered up our things and walked back to the car. On the ride home, like all fisherman, we reviewed our day. What we’d seen and noticed and held in our hands. I was surprised that Will seemed so enthusiastic about it all, because we hadn’t seen, much less caught, any trout. I was about to say that I was sorry about that, when he turned to me, the biggest smile on his face, and said, “That’s the most fish we have ever caught!” 

In that moment I saw the difference between adults and children. I had all these expectations about how it was supposed to be, and what would make our outing a success, and Will reminded me that it’s about something much more elemental—being out there, seeing what happens, being glad and grateful for any fish that decides to bite. I was stunned and happy to see that, in his mind, those little minnows were as beautiful and as valuable as any trout. It was our most successful fishing trip ever!

We live in a time, and in a country, where bigger is seen as better. From big box stores to massive TV screens to huge cups of soda, it seems everything is big; what a friend of mine calls “America on steroids.” You want to supersize that, right?

Please don’t hear what I’m saying as against desire or effort or aspiration for a better life, but in this month when our worship theme is “gratitude,” it seems to me that we would be wise to come down to earth and notice and give thanks for what we have, rather than be sad and sorry about what we don’t. It’s so easy to take for granted what is right here, to assume that it will always be this way, to miss the gift in this moment and this day. 

I once heard someone talking about this on the radio. Reflecting on a relationship that had ended due to his partner’s death, and how this had changed things forever, this man said he had one piece of advice of offer: “Want what you have,” he said. 

This week I shared a passage from Anne Lamott with the folks who came to our newcomers class. Talking about why she makes her son Sam go to church, she says, “I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want – which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy – are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians – people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.”

To want what you have, to have an attitude of gratitude, does not mean that you’re complacent and self-satisfied. Or that you aren’t concerned about the needs of the world. It just means that you are grounded here, that you are present here, that you are grateful here and now. And isn’t that a good place to be? Isn’t it a firm foundation upon which you can build a life that is a blessing to you and to others and to our world?

I sense I’m preaching to the choir today, that you already know this, and are working on it. You are a grateful congregation, I noticed that about you early on. And maybe it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, in a society that seems to try to make us always want more and bigger and better. That seems to want to keep us ungrateful and impatient, and worried about the wrong things.

The antidote to all the focus on bigness encouraged by our consumer culture is to remember what’s truly important, what money can’t buy: time with those we love, moments of peace and grace and connection. And how do we do this? How do we awaken to the moments that are so easy to miss?

The answer is to go small. To slow down and look more carefully at what’s close at hand. To take the time to really see, to really listen, to really touch and taste that which we have been given. What we could easily miss if we aren’t careful. 

None of us can do everything, and some of us could stand to do less, to have a little more space in our lives, but I was moved, and grateful, that a good number of you showed up on Friday night at Temple Emanu-El to be with our Jewish friends in this hard time. It’s one thing to say “I am with you.” It’s quite another to show up, to make the effort to be there. And isn’t that what is needed right now? That we show up for one another? That we be intentional about this?

At the Temple there were, I believe, twelve clergy from a variety of faiths who came forward to join in a prayer for peace. Later that night, Cantor Vera Broekhuysen wrote an email to us, saying, “Thank you for being with my congregation this evening. I can’t begin to convey how much assurance, and hope, you and your congregants’ and students' and faculty’s and families’ presence gave us.”

Mother Teresa would say that we are here to “do small things with great love.” What small things might you do with the love and the time you have to share? What ways are you going to show up and make a difference? 

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye is a prophet, speaking to these times we’re living in. In the forward to a new book that includes the poem we heard this morning, she writes,

“Someone—Abraham Lincoln?—once remarked that all the voices ever cast out into the air are still floating around in the far ethers—somehow, somewhere—and if we only know how to listen well enough, we could hear them even now…

“Might we pause on our way to everywhere we are rushing off to and hear something in the air, old or new, that would make sense?”… Can we go outside and listen?

Hear again Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Small Basket of Happiness”

It would never call your name. 
But it would be waiting somewhere close, 
perhaps under a crushed leaf 
turned from pale green to gold 
with no fanfare. 
You hadn’t noticed 
the gathered hush 
of a season’s tipping. 
Shadows flowing past 
before any light came up, 
people whom only a few 
might remember, 
so much accompaniment 
inside a single breeze. 
All whom we loved. 
In the quiet air lived 
the happiness they had given. 
And would still give, if only. 
You would slow down a minute. 
You would bend.

My spiritual companions, this is the invitation and the requirement of these days. To slow down a minute. To bow and to bend and not be ashamed. To pay attention to the small wonders around us. The hidden voices, the quiet beauty, the call to be of use. To be grateful for what is, and for what yet will be. To plant ourselves here, on this small and stable foundation called gratitude. To make this our prayer, and our song,