Sunday, September 18, 2016
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
Here at First Parish have been under construction since May. This is just phase 1A of our restoration project and we were confident it would be done by the end of July. But. and this will come as no great surprise to people who live in old houses, things have not gone entirely as planned. Because in old houses, once you start looking at things with the intention to fix them, you will find more things to fix.
Once you start poking into corners and testing beams for density and once you have already put up scaffolding so you are up on the roof already and it makes sense to take a good look around while you are up there, once you start peeling back rubber roof linings to see what is underneath, you will unfailingly find more things that definitely need fixing. That is the way of old houses, especially very big, very old houses.
Last May we thought we were going to scrape and paint the front of the church from the top of the steeple down to the bell tower and we knew there was one large attic beam that was going to need reinforcing as it is a structural beam. Now four months later, we have indeed done those things: our new painted steeple is beautiful, bright white against the blue sky and the attic beam has been reinforced with 16 feet of steel.
In addition, we have a new cooper roof on the bell tower dome and a new copper roof under the bell, underneath which are many new white oak timbers to replace all the damaged ones that were found there. And soon we will have 3 beautiful new clock faces on the tower to replace the deteriorated ones.
Soon the newly repaired and re-gilded rooster who has lived at the top of our steeple for over 200 years will be put back on his perch. The rooster is wonderful and you will be able to see photos of him at the Open House on Oct 22. when we will celebrate the completion of this phase of re-construction. The repair team quickly nicknamed the rooster Buddy and so Buddy he is called. He has bullet holes of unknown origin and an incredibly clear, dare I say cocky personality. Soon the wooden bell cradle which holds our church bell will be reassembled and the bell re-hung so Rebecca Pike our bell ringer can once again summon us to church on Sunday mornings. And news of wedding ceremonies and memorial services will ring over the town as they have done for over two centuries.
The team working on our Meeting House repairs led by our dedicated project manager Al Collins, and Steve Lieman who has done a truly inspired job of documenting the repair process and communicating with the congregation step by step, and including Gregg Baker, Jim Moisson, Allen King, Don Torgersen have spent hours of their summer up in the bell tower. If you have ever climbed the stairs to the bell tower you know that just getting up there is not for the faint of heart. The leadership Board has likewise spent a great deal of time going over reports, making decisions and figuring out how to best use the money we do have and how to get more money to keep doing the necessary repairs.
We know we are the stewards, the keepers, the caretakers of this sacred old house and the act of restoring it is tied, inevitably, to both the past and the future. I find myself thinking often about those who built this meeting house in 1755, thinking about the people who had Buddy made and placed on the steeple. I think about the ones who hewed the massive attic beams and set them in place, the ones who built the cradle for their beautiful new church bell from Paul Revere’s silversmith and somehow hauled that bell up into the tower and put it in place and then rang the bell for the very first time.
There has been significantly more to do than we expected last May when we started. But, thinking about it another way, what we don’t have to repair is kind of incredible too. This building is solid and beautifully built, and it has been standing here for 261 years, nearly three centuries of weather and history. And the repairs make me think about the future too, about the next 261 years. I wonder who will come here, who will sit here, and pray here and get married and dedicated here, whose lives will be memorialized here after we are gone. I hope there will be another 261 years of people singing here and praying however they find to pray and lighting candles and remembering their beloved dead and blessing their new children. I hope that there will be a long after for this congregation and that those who come after us will be able to look at the work we have done and be grateful for the care we are taking now.
Sometimes I think we should leave them a message under the new copper roof or etched in the steel beam saying something like, “We did this for you in the year 2016. We hope it lasted. We hope the congregation is still here and still being a blessing.” But I suspect the message is in the work itself and that is probably enough.
I have also had some less lofty thoughts about our reconstruction project than these thoughts about the sweep of time and our spiritual ancestors and those we will become spiritual ancestors to. Because the repair of the meeting house has coincided with my return to the dentist after a hiatus of more years than I would like to admit. And the process of repairing the Meeting House has been oddly similar to the process of repairing my teeth.
I knew there had to be some dental issues because despite faithful brushing and flossing I had a tooth actually fall out of my mouth a few months ago which is what got me back to the dentist in the first place. I have had this terrible nightmare a few times in my life where my teeth just start breaking into bits and falling out. I don’t know what the dream symbolizes and I don’t even think I want to know. So having a tooth break apart and fall out for real was like a nightmare come to life.
It turns out it was an old post and crown falling out, not the actual tooth, but it was both alarming and horrifying especially as the pieces fell into the knife drawer which I happened to have open at the time.
So I went to an excellent and skilled dentist and he started poking around in my mouth and looking into things with his little mirror and those tiny, awful picks and he took a full set of x-rays so he could see even more and now there is trouble everywhere. At one point the dentist was delving into one of my wisdom teeth, which apparently has a large cavity in it. and he said, I cannot believe you are not in pain from this. Needless to say, the pain started almost immediately as if the dentists’s words had somehow woken up my tooth to its state of decay and now I have to have it pulled out. The post and crown that fell out has to be redone of course but it involves gum surgery and even though that tooth already had a root canal and has no nerves, somehow it managed to ache for two days after the dentist went rooting around in there. I now have appointments to see oral surgeons and periodontists and the costs of all of this will no doubt be stunning. Plus it is going to hurt and take a lot of time. And I am grateful and very lucky that I can have this dental work done and I know that but part of me regrets ever having gone in the first place even though my tooth fell into the knife drawer. I understand that none of this is the dentist’s fault, but I was living just fine without that tooth and nothing hurt.
So going to the dentist was like peeling back the rubber roof of my dental reality to discover all these rotting timbers underneath. I didn’t really want to know. But of course I am the steward of my teeth. I am the care taker and the keeper and decaying teeth like rotting roof timbers will make themselves known with time. So now my mouth is under going repair and there is no doubt its restoration is going to take far more time and money than I want to give. And more energy and courage as well because I have to fight my own dread and resistance every step of the way.
Sometimes life feels like a really long construction project. Have you noticed this? Our bodies, so amazing and miraculous, are also in a fairly constant state of aging and sometimes they just fall apart, often without warning. Our bones break, our muscles pull, our joints need total replacement, our eyesight goes, the hearing dims. And sometimes reconstruction and repair are truly possible. With the help of medicine and surgery and reading glasses and hearing aids we can be restored. But sometimes restoration is not possible and we must learn to live with chronic illness or pain or limitations of one kind or another.
Our bodies are not the only things that break of course. Our minds and our spirits do too, and our hearts which get so bruised and hurt and seem to be both incredibly strong and incredibly fragile at the same time. Our hopes get lost or forgotten, we don’t always or even often become the people we dreamed of being when we were young.
So we make other plans, we construct different hopes, we try again, time helps us heal, and love and friendship and sobriety and therapy and being useful to others and all the other ways we find to restore ourselves and rebuild our lives. We use what we have; we make the best of what we have to work with. I think about all of this now when I marry young couples who are just starting out together, their marriage this shiny, new thing that has not been scratched yet or tarnished with age. I think about it when I see first time parents with their newborn babies - parents who I imagine have not yet made any big mistakes, or discovered their own limitations. Sometimes I want to go back and do things over, do things better, knowing what I know now. But the knowledge only comes with the doing. How could it be otherwise?
We can repair many things, we can restore them, rebuild them after they have fallen down or come apart, but we don’t get the time back, the past does not get undone. We cannot truly begin again as if we are new. We can only use what we have learned, what we have become to live more fully in the present and to bring more hope to the future.
But here is the thing I also believe. We are more for having been repaired. We are more for having felt broken, for having been broken in heart or mind or body and for being restored. The restoration makes us beautiful, not necessarily beautiful in ways that our eyes can see. Nor beautiful in ways that even our minds, so quick to measure and judge and point out what’s missing, can understand but beautiful in ways that our souls can feel and recognize.
There is a well developed concept for this kind of beauty in Japanese art and culture. It was such a relief to me to find this. It is called Kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi literally means ‘to repair with gold.” It is the Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold or silver, so that the lines of repair where the pieces are glued back together become outlined in gold or silver, clearly visible. But it also refers to the idea, the belief that the breakage and the repair are part of the history of an object, not something to be hidden or disguised. And this is because kinsukuroi also means the understanding that something is more beautiful for having been broken and restored.
I did some reading and learned that Kintsukuroi is an old process. It began sometimes in the 15th century and it is quite complex. Working with lacquer takes time. To repair a broken piece of ceramic, an artist puts on many different layers of lacquer in an exacting and painstaking process. And each layer takes several days to dry. When it is done, the piece has new gold or silver lines running through it; The lines of gold or silver tell the story of exactly where the piece was broken but they also create an entirely new design. Being repaired in this way increases the value of the object - it makes it more precious; it is seen as much more interesting, much more complex and much more beautiful than when it was first made.
There is a Japanese folk tale about how kintsukuroi came to be that goes like this: (I found several, this is a combination of some of them with my edits!)
Once upon a time, in the far, far east, east even of Eden, lived a great emperor, who was great because he was wise and kind. It was early spring, and the season of royal visits, when kings and queens and princes and princesses called on one another and admired each others’ most beautiful possessions, gave one another wonderful gifts and enjoyed bountiful banquets. The emperor did not usually take part in this tradition because he did not like parading around in fine clothes and showing off fine things. But this year was special, because the emperor was planning the investiture of his beloved son named Kintsukuroi as the new Crown Prince of the empire and so all the royal visitors were coming to celebrate.
To honor this event, the emperor the finest artists in his kingdom make one small and exquisitely beautiful bowl as a gift for the new Crown Prince. The emperor had chosen the gift of a bowl because he wanted to remind his son of all that he would be holding in his hands as the new emperor - he wanted him to understand the magnitude of what he would hold. Imagine then the emperor’s horror when just a few days before the ceremony, he discovered that the beautiful bowl was broken into a hundred pieces. No one knew how could it have happened? And time was too short to start again and make another one.
The emperor was dismayed, sad that he could not give the gift of the bowl to his son but even sadder that something so beautiful should have broken and he went to bed that night worried that the broken bowl might be some sort of bad sign or portent. The next morning the emperor woke to the sound of a great commotion. His senior ministers demanded to see him urgently. The cabinet where the emperor’s few treasures were stored had now been broken into, and this time the new golden crown that the senior ministers had insisted on having made for the emperor’s son, ready for the investiture ceremony, was quite simply gone - along with the broken pieces of the broken bowl, but who cared about those now.
What is more, the suspected thief had been seen, but not recognized, since he was covered in dirt and smoke and soot, with nothing to distinguish him from a thousand other poor and hungry people who hung around the palace, because the emperor - to the annoyance of his ministers - refused to turn them out but insisted on giving them food and providing them with safe places to sleep.
No one knew for sure where the thief had gone, but he had been seen going towards the prince’s private apartments. There the doors were most unusually locked and there was no answer to their knocking, though they could hear loud banging sounds inside. Would the emperor give his permission for them to break down the door?
The emperor was silent for many minutes. On his face his ministers saw sadness and also love. What was going on? Eventually the emperor spoke. “Leave the prince and his rooms alone. If he is ready to rule, he must be allowed to act.” The ministers were not at all sure just what this meant, but the message was clear. They were to do precisely nothing. So the day passed. The emperor remained in his private rooms and the prince in his with doors locked and smoke pouring out of the prince’s chimney where a large fire had obviously been lit.
And eventually the ministers tired of their waiting and went to bed. The important guests were expected the very next morning after all and they wanted to look their best. Imagine their surprise in the morning when they went to the emperor’s treasure cabinet to prepare his most precious and valuable items for display and found the precious bowl back in its place, whole again, but now glistening with veins of gold where the cracks had been. And by the side of the bowl was the prince’s new crown, now just the thinnest thread of gold, all that was left after the prince had melted his new crown to fix his father’s beautiful bowl. A smile of secret understanding passed between the emperor and the son whose newly burn-scarred hands had shown him worthy to come into the kingdom.
Imagine. Our scars are nothing to hide. Imagine, our brokenness, and all that we have done to heal it, is beautiful. Imagine that grief and how we have managed to somehow live through the death of the ones we love and still get up in the morning, is beautiful. Imagine, addiction, depression, cancer and the strength it takes to recover and to heal, these are more lines of gold in the designs of our lives. The cracks tell the story of our resilience.
We have not repaired our meeting house with gold and silver. We have used copper and steel and strong white oak. But it too is kintsukuroey. More beautiful now and with each passing year, each winterstorm and spring rain and fall wind and long summer day. More beautiful for having been broken and restored. Just as we are.