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I Prefer Not To

Last Sunday for our worship service, I asked those who were here to write on a three by five card two things: on one side something they hoped to leave behind from 2013 and on the other something they hoped for in 2014. I have done this for the past three years now, and attendance has been growing each year for this single service between Christmas and New Years. Some of the cards are funny and witty – as you would expect – with the expected golf or Moby Dick references.

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Some are political – no surprise there either – and most are very hopeful about the future.

But many are poignant and very personal, some of which I read aloud and some which remain silent. The whole human story is reflected in those cards each year and I am reminded, and humbled, by the breadth and depth of human experience here in this beloved community. From sorrow and tragedy to triumph and joy, we hold in these walls the hopes and fears of the human experience. We are not just one kind of people, nor are all of our experiences the same. We have people struggling with illness and joblessness, with sorrow and depression. Struggles in families and relationships. We have stories of triumph and good luck, of joy and gratitude.

But one thing struck me this year [I keep these cards and read through them often when preparing sermons throughout the year – they remind me of who you are] was how often the word fear was used to describe what people wanted to leave behind. Several people mentioned this to me after the service.

It has always been there. Each year, for the past three years, fear has been mentioned. Sometimes it is specific – fear of gaining or loss of a job, fear of loss of a relationships, fear for our children, fear of illness, fear for the state of the world.

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But more so this year. Why might that be? Is there something in the air, in the world, that has created a greater sense of fear? The precarious economy – I know many of you struggle because of unemployment or underemployment or precarious employment. Or fear that we’ve turned the wrong corner on global warming and there is no going back? Fear that income inequality will just get worse and leave too many behind? Fear of illness, fear of death.

Or the fear that is in the air: fear that immigrants will take over, that traditional marriage will be ruined, that women will become powerful and control their own bodies, fear that men will no longer be dominant, fear that the wealthy will lose their privileges, fear that schools will force kids to be gay, fear that our guns will be taken away?

Left and right and middle all have their fears.

Fear is numbing; it keeps us from doing what we wish or should. Fear . . . not a fun feeling. It holds us back.

Here is a story about fear and anticipation; this is our text for this month:

In the 1840s or 50s, a successful but not overly ambitious attorney on Wall Street needs to employ a scrivener. In the days before typewriters and computers and Xeroxes, humans copied out documents and there was good employ for scriveners.

This attorney already employs two - Turkey and Nippers. They have similar personalities with opposite clocks. In the morning Turkey is combative and uncooperative while Nippers is calm and reasonable. In the afternoon they switch, so the attorney is always dealing with one difficult person. Also in the office is Ginger Nut, a boy who runs errands. The attorney wants nothing so much as peace and efficiency. He is quite kindly.

Then, in response to an ad, a rather pale young man shows up and is hired. His name is Bartleby. He is very industrious and seems to be an excellent addition to the office.

One day, however, when the attorney asks Bartleby to take part in proof reading, Bartleby responds 'I prefer not to.' The attorney is taken aback, but rushed with the work, lets it go.

Then, in reply to every request, Bartleby responds 'I prefer not to.' Time goes on and Bartleby does less and less. One Sunday morning, the attorney stops by his offices and finds Bartleby there - he is apparently living in the office, but when told that he must leave, he replies 'I prefer not to.'

The attorney tries to help. He imagines that if he turns him out, another employer will be less kind, and so Bartleby remains. Often, the attorney sees Bartleby standing behind the screen by his desk, gazing out the window. The view out the window is not much - no more than a foot away is a brick wall and only a bit of light penetrates.

Finally, Bartleby does no work - preferring not to - and the disruption in the office becomes too much, and, unable to get Bartleby to move, the attorney moves. He leaves with sadness and gives Bartleby a sum of money in farewell.

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Some weeks later, the new owner of the old office comes by and tells the attorney that a pale, young man is constantly hanging around, sleeping in the doorways at night, sitting on the banisters all day and when asked to move either makes no response, or else says 'I prefer not to.' The attorney goes over and entreats Bartleby to leave, even offering to lodge him in his own home, but Bartleby says only 'I prefer not to.'

Finally, the new owner has Bartleby arrested as a vagrant and he is taken to jail, to the New York City jail known as 'The Tombs.' The attorney pays for extra food for him, but, as you can imagine, Bartleby tells the jailer that he prefers not to eat. The attorney returns in several days and sees Bartleby, in fetal position, lying on the ground near a wall. The jailer says 'He asleep, ain't he?' 'Yes,' the attorney replies, 'with Kings and Counselors.'

Melville - yes this is a short story by Melville, one of his best - concludes by telling the reader that Bartleby once worked in the Dead Letter office. He imagines Bartleby there and writes: ‘Some times from out of the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring - the finger it was meant for, perhaps, molders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity - he whom it would relieve nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.'

Then Melville ends with the haunting last words of the story:

'Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!'

We understand, don't we? We understand what Melville means because there is some Bartleby in all of us. Sometimes it is hidden and sometimes it predominates, but we all are ready to say at times 'I prefer not to.' I prefer not to be engaged, not to carry out responsibilities, prefer not to do this, not to do that. Faced with doing something have you ever paused and said to yourself 'I prefer not to' even though you know you should say yes?

I prefer not to. I prefer not to reach out my hand, not to do what I am asked. I prefer not to volunteer, not to pledge enough, not to open my heart to the cries of the world. I prefer not to move out beyond my own skin or desires, prefer not to accept the demands and responsibilities of living in community. I prefer not to open my heart or my mind, prefer not to open myself to the world.

I prefer not to. I prefer not to. Ah Bartleby, Ah Humanity! Ah me, ah you!

Fear? I prefer not to? Do they go together?

Whether in jest or in earnest, I bet that most of you have made some kind of New Year’s resolutions. The typical ones of losing weight or exercising more or drinking less or being more brave or more generous, kinder, more loyal.

Those are all good ideas; it can’t ever be wrong to improve ourselves, I suppose. Better than resolving to be stingier or meaner, less healthy or more irritable. My resolution has to do with ending my ministry honestly and with dignity.

But maybe a resolution for some of us might be to confront a fear that keeps us from moving forward, the fear that is expressed in the phrase ‘I prefer not to.’ Maybe to look at when we say ‘I prefer not to’ and understand what fear is behind that. And then let go of that fear.

I have been haunted by this short story ever since I first read it. I have been haunted by the tension between the attorney in me and the Bartleby in me. The attempts to help that go nowhere and the resistance to engaging in the world – so much so that I just want to lie down and sleep – with kings and counselors.

Ah Bartleby, ah humanity, wondering if we really are like that, or how much we are like that. Wondering what I prefer and what I prefer not to. Wondering where the dead letters in my life are. Wondering, wondering, wondering. Ah Bartleby, ah humanity.

Read the story and see where you fall in its narrative – how much Bartleby, how much attorney, or Turkey or Nippers are you? What fears are holding you back? What do you prefer not to?

I am going to leave that with you today – we will come back to it at the end of the month, with some more thoughts on how to overcome the fears that hold us back.

And this benediction from John Wesley:


Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Church