That’s our story for today, The Cello of Mr. O, by Jane Cutler. When Mama says “This is not the first time in history that such a thing has happened”–and she’s referring to war–and her daughter replies, “It may not be the first time it’s happened. But it is the first time it has happened to me”–THAT’S when the story grabbed me, and I knew I had to share it. 

Can you relate to what the daughter says? We are not so much in wartime as we are in pandemic time, and we know that there have been plenty of pandemics before. A little more than 100 years ago, in 1918, there was the flu pandemic that ended up killing millions around the world. 

This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. 

But it’s the first time it’s happened to us. 

In the almost 75 years that West Shore has been in existence, this community has never seen a moment like this one. The building has never been so quiet as it is now. We have never been so physically distant from each other, which safety requires. We have needed to discover or invent ways to stay close to each other in spirit that we have never needed before.   

So far, almost 200,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and 900,000 the world over, and we are by no means out of the woods yet, not at all.  

Just listen to some words and phrases that, before this past March, might never have even occurred to us, and now they are part and parcel of daily reality: 

the new normal 

social distancing 

essential worker

infection rates

disease vector 

travel ban

flattening the curve 

herd immunity 

novel coronavirus

pandemic induced recession 

And so on. Each small phrase lands like a bomb in our midst. The normal we once knew—exploded. 

And this is just one layer to life these days. Consider yet another layer: As we approach the national election in November, we are seeing a collapse of democratic norms. The President has told us point blank that he wants to disable the U. S. Post Office so that voting via mail-in ballots won’t be feasible. He also told folks in North Carolina to test the system by voting twice, via mail-in ballot and in person, which is blatantly illegal. I mean, we wonder why it can be so hard to reign-in bullies at work and in regular life, when it appears impossible to reign-in the bully who is our current President…

It’s layer after layer after layer these days. 

This is where we are. 

Shellshocked, perhaps; full of anxiety, perhaps; full of questions: and now we move into a new program year at West Shore. No one expected us to be here, a year ago. We move into more uncharted territory—at least, uncharted for us

And what I suggest is that the figure of the cellist in the story, and the figure of the daughter, can bring powerful medicine to us in this time. 

Start with the cellist. The daughter’s beloved father is gone, and he’s taken his harmonica with him. The other fathers and older brothers are gone too. The streets of the city are broken. All the wood has been used up for heat, food and water are scarce, nothing is as it was. How could things get worse? And then … it gets worse. The relief truck is destroyed. Supplies will no longer come to the people. To get them, the people will have to walk for miles…. 

This is exactly when Mr. O steps out into the middle of the square and begins to play. The music is beautiful, the music eases fear and strengthens courage. The music! It makes people’s faces shine…. 

But the thing in particular I want us to see about Mr. O in the story—the cellist who doesn’t allow a rocket attack to prevent him from giving the gift of his music—is this: that he is fully afraid. He is fully aware of the risk he is taking. But you can be feeling the risk and the fear and do what you are called to do anyway. You feel the fear and do what you are called to do anyway because you come to understand that you are a channel for something that is way bigger than you and your job is just to get out of the way. You come to understand that the world needs something that does not start and end with your ego.  

Music is such a something. And so is vision. 

It’s exactly as Black womanist and activist Audre Lorde once said: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Maybe democratic norms these days are being threatened. Maybe it’s been decades since we’ve had a President who is so obviously on the side of white supremacy and so, for example, he travels to Kenosha, Wisconsin where one of the latest egregious incidents of police violence to a Black person has happened but the President never sees fit to visit Jacob Blake or even say his name—all he wants to talk about are Black Lives Matter protestors as “domestic terrorists” and a need for more “Law and Order.” This is happening and so many other things are happening. It can all feel enormously overwhelming….

At a time like this, we must plug into vision. “Without vision,” says the Bible, “the people perish.” 

So: What is our vision? Are we acting in service to it?

I believe we are. Some of us find ourselves eyeballs-deep all week long in the justice issues that I’ve just been mentioning, and church, for us, is mainly a place where we want to recharge our spiritual batteries. That is the primary reason why we cannot ever afford to stop worshipping. It’s why when, back in March, and the Governor banned large gatherings just three days before our next Sunday service, Larry Wise and Christine Salontay figured it out, in just three days, how to set up and engage the livestream format–completely new for us–we’d never done this before, ever. They figured it out. As for myself, I had three days to basically reinvent the Sunday service to fit the new livestream format. We did it, because so much was at stake: worship is one of the main ways we recharge our spiritual batteries. We had to do it because we were acting in service to our vision. 

Recharging our spiritual batteries is non-negotiable. And then, there are those of us for whom church is the primary place to know more about justice, and how to get involved in justice work. In this regard, a couple things immediately come to mind: how our Social Action group is working to encourage people to get out the vote. How our partner church in Cleveland–Denison UCC–will be receiving 4,400 pounds of food and needs help with deliveries, and we will absolutely be helping! How West Shore members Dorothy Faller and Mary-Jo Maish have created the Widening the Circle program which invites people to tell and reflect on their personal story about race. How our various Justice groups like Undoing Oppressions and Faith Communities Together for a Sustainable Future and Queer & Allies and West Shore Allies Against Human Trafficking are all making plans for another year of powerful, life-transforming programming. 

Every Sunday, as part of our Unison Affirmation words, we say, 

Love is the spirit of this church, 

And service is its law.

This is an integral, non-negotiable part of the vision of this place and it’s never going to change. 

But how we live out the vision will change. Strategy can change. It can change for reasons that are beyond our control, as was the case with the elimination of the Justice Minister position. The story of how this was a very, very difficult change was one that the Congregational Q&A on September 3 tried to convey. And we are still processing, in the context of the World Cafes. 

My hope is that we can use this opportunity to ask ourselves, moving forward, what Cleveland is calling us to be and to do this year, and next year, and the next several years. Strategy makes a general vision relevant to a particular place and time. Strategy, it is said, gives vision hands and feet. 

What do the hands and feet of our vision need to look like in 2020 or 2022 or 2025? 

Thanks to the Q&A and the World Cafes, we’ve had and are having opportunities to process what has happened and to begin reflecting on what our next steps might be. Beyond this, the Board and I are working on putting together a Justice Visioning Task Force that will go the distance in continuing the work of (1) helping us answer some key questions, (2) listening to each other, and then (3) developing recommendations that give us a clear picture of what our justice strategy, fine-tuned for the next 3-5 years, might look like–and what it implies about our annual operating budget.

We will never stop being a justice-hearted people—that’s never in question. And, it’s time to get clear on what our “Love is the spirit of this church / and service is its law” vision calls us to do and to be, here and now—not 20 years ago or 10 years ago or 5 years ago or 3 years ago, but now and into the near future. 

When we are clear about our shared strategic vision—not the strategy of the Senior Minister alone, not the strategy of the Board alone, not the strategy of a couple loud voices among many—when we are clear about our collective strategic vision that is shared, then, like Audre Lorde, we’re going to step up. We’re going to step up in our giving. We’re going to step up in our personal involvement. 

And feeling overwhelmed/feeling fear will be beside the point. 

That’s what Mr. O teaches us—the medicine that this part of the story brings.  

But now let’s turn to the figure of the daughter in the story, and take from this the medicine it has to offer.

Remember how her father has had to go away, and how he’s taken his harmonica with him? She feels the pain of that loss intensely. So when she hears Mr. O yell at her and her friend to be quiet–he wants silence–this feels extra irritating to her. Or when she sees how he doesn’t like to look at people? 


Mr. O is no doubt a sensitive soul, and wartime is getting to him. But the daughter interprets this to mean that he is being intentionally judgmental and rude. Maybe under normal circumstances she might have cut him some slack. But given all the wartime anxiety and stress crowding in on her–given the loss of her father–she is not thinking very clearly. Stress and anxiety do a number on even the best of people, and so she and her friend: they take their revenge. They pop paper bags right outside Mr. O’s door, laugh and run away imagining his fear. 

Here, we’re being reminded that suffering comes in varieties big AND small. War and the pandemic we’re in are BIG. But then there’s the smaller type, which takes more personal form, as when our personal traumas are triggered and we nurture resentments in our relationships and imagine other people to be less than worthy of respect or even the benefit of the doubt. Stress and anxiety help to explain why people might be more prone to doing this than under normal circumstances, but wherever the explanations happen to be, still: there are consequences. The ultimate impact is truly hurtful, and unfairly so. Assuming bad intentions is unfair. When the daughter and her friend try to frighten Mr. O, there are no bombs or bullets involved, but it is still war–it is still a kind of violence–nonetheless. 

How ironic, that Mr. O steps into the town square and, so very publicly, proclaims through music his conviction that, ultimately, civilization will triumph and that the arc of the universe does indeed bend towards justice. But privately his energy is being undermined. Privately he is being pecked to death. People aren’t giving him the benefit of the doubt. 

Is there a way in which you’ve been like the kids and have waged a private war on some Mr. O in your world? 

I need to say, in a very direct sense, that social distancing has made it hard for us as a congregation to process the controversy of the Justice Minister position elimination. If all of us could have just come together in the same room to talk about this, in the flesh…. I mean, how can intimate and sensitive speech happen without being in the live presence of other people? How can it happen when there are little to no nonverbals to rely on? 

The elimination of the Justice Minister position has triggered every kind of response imaginable—including people assuming the very worst things. 

The past seven months, since March, has been a time ripe for misunderstanding. 

Increasingly, people are asking me, How do we heal? How do we heal and move forward? 

In the story, the daughter takes one of those paper bags she’d used to frighten Mr. O with and, instead, draws on it. She draws a picture of Mr. O in his dark suit sitting on a chair, playing a cello. Then she draws bright flowers falling all around him. When she finishes, she takes the picture and tiptoes up to his apartment. She presses her ear against the door and listens. Carefully, quietly, she slips the picture underneath the door. And then she runs.

That’s how she said sorry. And do you remember how Mr. O responded? By then, his cello had been destroyed, and you’d think his music with it. But no. The apology meant a lot to him. The apology opened a door of unexpected possibility for him. He pulls out a harmonica and plays that. And it’s not just any playing. He plays the music of Bach. Bach on a harmonica! 

But only if you know that the daughter’s dad plays harmonica–how the sound of the harmonica is his sound–can you see just how powerful this moment is for her. When Mr. O plays, she feels her father come close, and there is sweet consolation in that. 

I myself am just sitting with what this part of the story is implying…. 

I’m just sitting with it, as I reflect on people I’ve misjudged, and how that may be more about me than them…. 

Maybe drawing them a picture isn’t really feasible, but what is? 

What might you do, if there’s been someone you’ve misjudged? 

There have been so many people asking me about how our congregation can heal, how we can move forward, and there’s no silver bullet solution to that. But we can each try. We can each resolve to play our part in this. Something that is decidedly not a part of the vision of West Shore is perfection, and this is the time to remember that. 

So maybe right now, a part of our collective healing can happen as we say ritual words of atonement and forgiveness. We just can’t afford for there to be emotional barriers between anyone in this community. Let the emotional barriers go. 

So now, in a spirit of love and hope, we will go one line at a time, call and response. With each line I call out, I invite you to reply: “We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.”

For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible …

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause …

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For losing sight of our unity…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness…

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. (Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs)

Consider this the drawing that we slip under each other’s door. Let us not lose sight of our unity. Let us not succumb to the illusion of separateness. 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.  

And maybe NOW we are ready to begin a new program year. 

It’s practically unprecedented in its challenges

although others have lived in equally worse times, and survived and even thrived. 

We can and we will too. 

Let us be very clear though: In the end, what our real riches consist of 

(in this community where perfection is nowhere to be found,

in this community full of hopeful yet frail human beings)

is the grace we are able to extend to others and to ourselves

and our faith in the capacity of this community to love us even when we fall short.

And when we’ve felt disappointed by the community–that the community itself has fallen short–

well, that’s a time for faith too–faith that collectively we’re going to learn our lessons

and become better and stronger for it.  

Love is the spirit of this church, 

And service is its law, we say.

We also say this: 

This is our great covenant:

to dwell together in peace,

to seek the truth in love,

and to help one another.

So may we do that, 

dwell together in peace,

seek the truth in love,

help one another.

now and forever.