Being Possible

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Susan Milnor
September 24, 2017

When Muppet originator Jim Henson died suddenly in 1990, people were amazed to think what he had created:  Miss Piggy, Elmo, Kermit, and the rest of the animal-people who made their wise ways into the hearts of children and adults alike.  Eulogizing him at a memorial service in London, director and performer Frank Oz said: “I really don’t believe that Jim could have been such an extraordinary creator if he hadn’t been such an extraordinary appreciator.”

Scholar of psychology and religion Henry James believed that the deepest principle in human nature is what he called a “craving for appreciation.”  We want to know that we count.  We want to know that what we do matters.  We want to know we are not invisible to other people.  In fact, according to some research, the people are motivated in their jobs than by pay or hours worked.

On the personal side, research reveals that in lasting marriages –I assume all loving partnerships – the people have five times more positive interactions than negative ones.  My husband Terry and I once decided that for every criticism we uttered, we had to make at least three positive comments to each other.  It was great – for the two hours that it lasted.   When it comes to raising children, the most “self-confident and flexible” children from ages six to eight have had five times more positive than negative interchanges with their parents. When one child’s teacher asked the class members what they wanted to be when they grew up, several kids immediately offered typical responses: teacher, doctor, astronaut, president.  But this child, we’ll call him James, remained silent.  “Well, what do you want to be, James?” the teacher asked.  “Possible,” he replied.  “Possible?”  “Yes,” said James.  “My father is always telling me I’m impossible.  So when I get to be big, I want to be possible.” 

 We all want to be possible, don’t we?  We understand how important it is to be on the receiving end, to feel appreciated.  It surely keeps ministers going in a vocation that can be befuddling and challenging, when you wonder if you are making a difference. A year or two ago I received a message out of the blue from someone whose congregation I served nearly twenty years ago. She told with more specificity than I could have imagined about three sermons that had helped her.  I was very surprised and grateful. 

But true appreciation is not flattery, or ego boosting, or even simply gratitude.  Appreciation involves understanding:  looking and recognizing particular acts and acknowledging their importance in letting someone know that you have taken note of their contribution.   “I appreciate your openness to my requests because I come to work every day feeling like problems can be solved.”  “I am grateful to you for listening and taking my point of view into account.”  “Thank you for steering that conversation away from blame.”  The possibility of redeeming interactions that are going wrong, of transforming them into something creative, of building trust, when we call on genuine appreciation is stunning.

If we know how important appreciation is to receive, what makes us hold back sometimes in giving it?  Do we fear losing some advantage or leverage, giving away the chance to judge?   Some people seem to have a natural gift for appreciating.  Jim Henson loved life so much that he created the Muppets to celebrate what is possible. But most of us have to cultivate our ability to appreciate and to share our appreciation.  That means learning to tell the biggest saboteur, the voice of the Inner Critic, to be quiet.  For much of my life, a voice in my head was always ready to say, to me, “Do it better.  You should.  You ought.  They should. They ought.  It’s not good enough.   You could have done it differently.  Do better.”  Confronting and changing that became a spiritual challenge.  The best therapist I ever had helped me transform my life, my work, and my sense of well -being by teaching me how to interrupt that negative self-talk and start to appreciate even my own efforts.  I thought it only right a few years later to write her a letter telling her how much I appreciated her help.

Make no mistake.  That inner critic is reinforced by too many outer ones. We live in a culture of criticism, in blogs, cable television, political diatribes. Even our work often requires us to be critics, in a necessary way, yes, but also ways that just bolster the judge in our heads. The great news is that we when we become aware of it, and challenge it as a fundamental response, we start to change the culture for at least a few other people.   After David Rivers spent a number of years as an anti-nuclear activist, he said no to people so much he began to worry whether he could still say yes. So he began to concentrate on started a personal campaign to realize how many people, like servers in restaurants, were trying to make his life easier every day.  When he would get up out of the dentist’s chair, he would appreciate the fact that someone had just worked with great skill so that his teeth might stay in his head with a minimum of pain.  Then he began to offer appreciation to the person, to set the gift in motion.  He stopped people collecting for good causes on the street to thank them.  He complimented minimum wage workers he encountered every day. He engaged in making life more possible.

Ultimately, here we are called to appreciation because religiously, spiritually, it’s much more than a technique of self-help. It’s how we preserve the I-Thou component of our relationships with other people.  I’m part of this interaction or this relationship, we are saying, and you are part of it, and I know thatRight here, in this moment, we are meeting one another with the offerings of ourselves. At the heart of such appreciation lies a spiritual equality that Martin Buber, of course, identified as I-Thou, the most essential expression of a full relationship with the divine.  It’s in our relationships with other people, with “thou,” he said, that we approach the Thou of God.

What is good for workers and romantic relationships and children and ministers is also good for communities and congregations.  I hope I have expressed to you what I appreciate about First Religious Society and its people:  your good will and mutual respect, your can-do approach, your embrace of your essential purpose as a religious community.  I appreciate that you make a place for the spirit and that your leaders constantly exhibit a sincere sense of duty to and caring for this community. As people and not just worker bees, we are called to to make every meeting, every effort, a place of appreciation, to sometimes still the inner voice of “Do more, do better, and stop to express what we all do right, and well, and good, really see each other and how we care.  Such an effort can become a campaign of the heart.On that note, it’s a good day to appreciate not only the service of Bill Heenehan, as we did, but what our women’s organization, the Alliance, does to create smaller community for people to call home in this larger congregation and also to reach out to the world.  Last week, they hosted Afroz Kahn to speak about growing up Muslim American.  The Alliance opened the forum to the larger community, and people were touched with new insight.  It is a good to help to repair the world.

Frank Oz said that Jim Henson appreciated nearly everything:  being with his family and colleagues, flying kites in London on a beautiful day, eating desserts.  But the one image that remained with Oz most vividly during the days following Henson’s death harked back to the editing room where they worked on the film “The Muppets.”  Those on the production team would play the footage, Oz explained, and then judge it, most of them usually critical: “Oh, that’s terrible.  We’ll have to shoot that again.”  “No good,” someone else would say.  But Henson rarely judged; he would stand there, quiet, eyes wide, arms folded, watching the scenes, appreciating the design and performance – just appreciating.  Jim Henson would never have been such an extraordinary creator if he hadn’t been such an extraordinary appreciator.

Maybe that’s why he touched so many people that two memorial services were held for him, one on each side of the Atlantic.  At the New York City service, at Henson’s own request, a jazz band played, “When All the Saints Go Marching In.”  St. John the Divine cathedral was filled that day with costumes, of course, but also with 14,000 butterflies made in Henson’s studio by grieving workers.  And on that day, the Muppets sang about the importance of “Just One Person.”  It was a day of appreciation for a man who understood the gift of being possible. The same opportunity is there for us all, in our appreciating, to truly blessed be.

The exact sources for all my references here are unrecoverable, but the following would provide you with most if not all of it:

Jones, Brian Jay.  Jim Henson:  The Biography.  New York City:  Ballantine Books. 2013.

“Why Do Employees Leave Their Jobs?,” . . /why-do-employees-leave-their-jobs-new-survey-offers-answers (October 10, 2015).