First Congregational Church of Los Angeles
7 August 2016, 11:00 a.m.
When Reverend Scott Colglazier asked me to give a sermon during his sabbatical, I said: “Only if I don’t have to speak from the pulpit, march in the processional or wear a robe.”
He said: “Okay, just please don’t use the F word.”
So: a deal’s a deal. I will try to restrain my bad self.
Now, full disclosure: I’m not a member of this church. Nor do I call myself a Christian. And yet, most Sundays, I am here. Why?
I suppose it goes back to a Sunday morning in New York in June 1987. I was a struggling stand-up comic, a lifelong asthmatic who awoke in my new girlfriend’s apartment to the worst attack of my life. I was breathing at 11 percent capacity by time the ambulance got me to the E.R. After the crisis eased, I was wheeled up to a room where I stayed for the next six days.
I was released on a steamy Saturday afternoon. On the sidewalk, I was enveloped by an epiphany — a tsunami-sudden, spiritual flash-flood, a status-quo capsizing, soul super-sizing event. I was Damascus-bound Saul, my scaly eyes tipped by Yahweh’s big thumb. I, who’d been indifferent to God, was now awestruck by His presence. I, who’d dismissed Jesus, now upgraded him to Possible Messiah. This moment became the B.C./A.D. of my life. I was now one step within a circle that I had always lived one step outside of. Just two steps, but a world of difference.
All fears and regrets listed in the debt column of my life’s ledger were canceled by the offsetting blessing of this undeserved, unpetitioned-for bliss.
Let me describe my hyper-appreciative state with a story that’s told about Preston Sturges while directing his 1947 comedy Unfaithfully Yours. His leading actress, Linda Darnell, wasn’t hitting the right note in a scene. So he said to her: “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are 90 years old, and on your deathbed, just before you die, God lets you return to your current health and beauty for one moment. Can you imagine how grateful you would feel?” She whispered: “Yes.” Then, stepping back, Sturges said: “Now open your eyes and ... ACTION!”
Such was my post-hospital gratitude. Which I thought would last a lifetime. But, by week’s end, my caffeinated consciousness had vanished. And, in my post-bliss hangover, fear and regret re-appeared. I was the same old sleepwalking me, only abashed because, briefly, I’d been Buddha-awake. And I absorbed the sad fact that perhaps my positively Pentecostal high owed less to the Deity than to drugs in my blood system or mental illness in my bloodline. (I’d had both.)
I still believed in God but I felt disconnected. To try to kickstart myself toward cosmic consciousness and renew my expired grace state, I made three pledges to the universe: if anybody wanted to talk to me about God, I’d listen. If asked to read any spiritual literature, I would. If invited to any ceremony, I’d go. I didn’t have to accept what I heard, read or saw. I just had to consider.
So: When I saw a street corner preacher ranting at passersby, I stopped to hear his message. When a subway pamphleteer predicted the world’s end, I gladly took his flyer. And, every Wednesday at one o’clock, I welcomed into my apartment a Jehovah’s Witness named Kim. After an hour of his talking, I’d say: “Kim, once again, I don’t accept anything that you believe ... and I’ll see you next week.”
After a year of “seeking the kingdom of the Lord,” some “good things” were “being added unto” me: My health improved. I got engaged. We bought my apartment. We hoped to start a family. I got my first TV writing gig on a show with a three-year commitment. And one night I saw a Bill Moyers program about Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, from which I thought a play might be easily, quickly developed.
So, again, I thought my life would be a constant cavalcade of blessings. But...
The TV job was a nightmare, a clinic in how not to produce a show. Then, after just ten weeks on the air, it was canceled. At Christmas. I had to return to the struggling stand-up world from which I’d hoped to have been magically matriculated. ... And maybe there was a play in the Jefferson idea, but I hadn’t found it.
So I suffered a second hangover, which, like the movie series of the same name, was worse than the original.
In my ingratitude, I became a Thesaurus of unattractive adjectives. Didn’t I deserve blessings? Hadn’t I been mindful of — no, wait — I hadn’t been mindful of anything. I’d been too tired to pray. My nightstand was stacked with unread books. I was too busy for services. I’d fudged my diet. I skipped exercise. And I’d been absent so many Wednesdays that my Jehovah’s Witness had stopped knocking at my door.
I’d been serving no God but mammon. And I’d confused blessings with entitlements and ceased to deserve either.
Then I thought: maybe my career and soul run on two separate tracks. That effort in one lane does not accrue rewards in the other. Since then, I’ve tried to balance career and live within God-connected gratitude.
So: I would like to share with you five ideas that have served me. You may find them helpful. I know that I would now be a better man than I am if I followed these precepts better than I do:
You Can’t Make Yourself Successful, You Can Make Yourself Busy: The only sport I follow is baseball. Like life, it’s played every day. Yesterday’s runs, like yesterday’s prayers, don’t count today. So ballplayers just grind it out: one game, one at-bat, one pitch at a time. Go thou and play likewise.
Make a Commonplace Book: Jefferson kept a blank journal in which he copied quotes from books he read. I think that quotes, written down and checked out, can cut like diamonds through life’s confusion. And collected comments can comprise a map of your heart.
The first example from my commonplace book is: “Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Matthew 2:26 was the verse that made me suspect I’d underestimated Jesus. He says people are not created as slaves of rules, rules are presented to serve people. How rad is that?
The other quote that I would like to share is today’s scripture: Matthew 25: The Parable of the Talents. Now, to tell this story, Jesus only needed two examples: he who worked with what he was given versus he who did not. But, by using three examples, Jesus makes a second point: the two workers who proved themselves to be good and faithful servants received different sized gifts from their master: the first got five talents, the second got three. And yet, by working with what they were given, both pleased their master. So: We can’t control how many talents we get. I know I’m not the genius who got five. But I must work with the three or one I got, not bemoan the full handful given to Mozart, Shakespeare, Picasso, Orson Welles or Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Or: If not a Commonplace Book of words, then perhaps one of songs. I was raised on rock ‘n’ roll. And was always embarrassed by songs about God, especially by artists I liked. On albums I’d paid money for. I loved to sing along with records but could not sing lyrics I didn’t believe. So “God” songs were buzzkills on my vinyl. But, in my A.D. era, I made a mixtape of all those uncool cuts. And I Walkmanned down Manhattan giving each song a shot to make my playlist. Which is now on my iPod. And from which are chosen some of the today’s songs.
Embed Gratitude In Others: The sweet end of my day is nightly prayers with my 15-year-old daughter. I hold her hand and recite the Lord’s Prayer (using “trespasses”, sorry “debts” users). I end with: “Dear God, please bless your very special servant, Colette Thi Carter, who is grateful tonight because ...” And her quiet, beautiful voice says: “I am grateful for ...” And she names something from her day: time with her friend Grace, dissecting a frog in biology or that the Pokemon GO app finally came out. And, as she expresses gratitude, I become grateful.
Treat Everyone With Respect; Don’t Expect Gratitude In Return But Appreciate It If It Comes: Awhile back, I got an email from a producer who’d worked for me seven years before on a show that lasted just two seasons. Now he was running his own shows. He sent a photo of his son with a note saying that when we worked together, his wife “... accidentally got pregnant... She said that we should probably terminate. I told her, “Honey, I’m on a show that’s going to go on for years... we can afford another kid. Let’s do it! Thus, the unbelievably happy result is my son James, the human being that exists because of you. So, thank you.”
Attend Gatherings That Humbly Address The Mystery Of Life: Some people go to Twelve Step meetings, others to group therapy, some join book clubs.
On Sundays, I come to this church. I come to be surprised and delighted by beauty. I come for sights, for silence, for sounds, for words.
I come early, usually alone. I sit in a dark side pew to sneak in my second meditation to open my heart and mind.
At eleven, I congregate with this coalition of searchers who, perhaps, like me, seek a missing piece in a personal puzzle.
The service floats by me. I confess my focus tunes in and out, not from boredom but because, when I’m here, thoughts surface. So I sit, pen in hand, a telegraph operator in an old west train station waiting for a Morse coded message to click in. I scribble a note in my program, then focus back.
Sometimes, as I listen, a grudge from the week bubbles up in my brain. Then, on further review, the resentment recedes and, gradually, gratitude returns. As I forgive those whom I believe have trespassed against me, I feel my own trespasses being forgiven and, often, in those moments, in my eye appears a sanctifying tear.
I come for the cast of this weekly pageant: Scott, Laura, Tom, Christoph, Jonathan, Stephen and the rockstar choir.
I come for First Kids First kids bounding up these steps and mourning-coated ushers passing brass double-handled velvet pouches into which, soon, may you all be generous.
I come to pass the peace in which may be found the peace that passes all understanding.
I come for the end of the recessional when the choir wraps around the congregation and I feel as though I’m in a living room with the world’s greatest sound system.
I come, post-service, to the chancel for communion. There I raise my open palms to remind my by-that-time-hungry self that each morsel received should be savored as sacred.
I leave, post-fellowship, with the knots in my mind a little loosened, my heart a little less clenched and my spirit ready for the coming week, in which I will try to act, in gratitude, trusting “highs” in life will come — my wedding day, the gift of two beautiful baby girls, the success of my Jefferson play after 27 years, and my nearly three decades in TV — but, in the meantime, sufficient unto the day is the joy thereof.
Close your eyes.
Now imagine that you are on your deathbed. But, just before you die, God lets you return to the most absolutely glorious edition of yourself. Imagine how grateful you would feel. Now open your eyes and...