Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jingle Bells and Harps of Gold


Jingle Bells and Harps of Gold
Aiken UU Church
December 23 2012

Did Unitarians invent Christmas? Well, maybe the answer is a surprising one…we could say, at the very least, that Unitarians have influenced the way we Americans celebrate it. Because of four remarkable American Unitarians that we’ll hear about this morning, our holidays will be merry and bright, if not white!

Four years ago Doug Muder wrote an article called “The ghosts of Unitarian Christmas” in UU World; in it, he claimed that Unitarians reinvented Christmas:
“Unitarians didn’t just inherit Christmas from the orthodox Christian sects… To a large extent we invented it, or reinvented it. For years the orthodox didn’t know what to do with Christmas. Easter was the big religious holiday. In England, Christmas looked more like Saturnalia than anything Christian.

The actual caroling tradition was more like trick-or-treating than the way we picture it now. Rowdy mobs of the poor would stand outside the houses of the rich and intimidate them into offering food and drink. The Puritans hated the whole idea so much that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would fine you for celebrating Christmas.”
http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/124481.shtml
There was in fact a ban on Christmas that existed as law for 22 years, from 1659 until it was revoked in 1681 by an English-appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban against festivities on Saturday night. But even after the ban was lifted, the majority of colonists still shunned celebrations. Samuel Sewell, whose diary of life in Massachusetts Bay Colony was later published, made a habit of watching the holiday—specifically how it was observed—each year:
 "Carts came to town and Shops open as is usual. Some, somehow, observe the day; but are vexed, I believe, that the Body of the People profane it, and, blessed be God! no Authority yet to compell them to keep it," Sewell wrote in 1685.
“The Puritans who immigrated to Massachusetts to build a new life had several reasons for disliking Christmas. First of all, it reminded them of the Church of England and the old-world customs, which they were trying to escape. Second, they didn't consider the holiday a truly religious day. December 25th wasn't selected as the birth date of Christ until several centuries after his death.”
 Charles Follen
Doug Muder says that the first change in American celebrations of Christmas came in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1832, in the home of Charles Follen, the Unitarian minister and abolitionist. He went on to found a congregation in Lexington that’s named after him today. Why is he famous? For bringing a tradition from his native Germany to America in 1832 - the first Christmas tree in New England. Now no home would be complete in its Christmas decorations without this ancient pagan symbol, and the White House lighting of the national tree by the president is just as much an American custom as pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey.
Maria Child
The next Unitarian to contribute to the American celebration of Christmas is a woman named Lydia Maria Child. In 1844 she wrote the poem "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day", which became better known as “Over the River and through the Woods.” It celebrates her childhood memories of visiting her Grandfather's House.
 It’s sometimes sung with lines about Christmas replacing Thanksgiving, so that the line "Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!" becomes "Hurrah for Christmas Day!" The song reflects wintertime in New England in the early 19th century, which at that time “was enduring the Little Ice Age, a colder era with earlier winters.” The picture that she paints of a family Christmas has become the iconic image that we all to this day aim to recreate, as we endure travel miseries to gather from across the country to share the holidays with our families.

Edmund Sears
The third Unitarian who changed the face of Christmas for America was a minister who wrote lyrics that paint a beautiful picture of a midnight scene in Bethlehem. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears in 1849, and we aren’t sure if the carol was first sung at his home by members of his congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts, or in the Sunday school of the Quincy Massachusetts Unitarian church.
 But the tune we sing it by now was written a year after the lyrics by an organist from New York named Richard Storrs Willis.

James Pierpont
The final Unitarian whose music also impacted our Christmas tradition was based further south than Massachusetts – James Lord Pierpont, whose brother John in 1853 became the last minister before the Civil War to serve the Unitarian church in Savannah. In 1857 James wrote a song called “One Horse Open Sleigh” – and in 1859 he reissued it under a new name: “Jingle Bells.” Sleighing was a popular activity of the time, and it’s suggested that while in Savannah as music director of his brother’s Unitarian church, Pierpont was homesick and wrote the song about his younger days in New England.
Like many other important American songwriters, Pierpont didn’t get rich from "Jingle Bells" at the time, but later, "In the period of 1890 through 1954,“Jingle Bells” was in the top 25 most recorded songs in history."
The recognition of his composition came posthumously when Pierpont was elected into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. And more locally, in 1997, Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia established a James Lord Pierpont Music Scholarship Fund.
Looking deeper
Charles Follen, Maria Child, Edmund Sears, and James Pierpont – we as UUs should be justly proud of these 4 Unitarians as we celebrate Christmas. Even though there is one other Unitarian whose contribution to Christmas is hugely important – Charles Dickens - they have made the holiday uniquely American.
But just as Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” promoted the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, and universal values like compassion, friendship, and family, the contributions of Follen, Child, Sears, and Pierpont also come to us undergirded by equally strong convictions and a desire to create a world of peace and justice.
Let’s look a little more deeply into the stories of these four.
Unitarianism in the America of the early 19th century stressed the importance of rational thinking, and a personal, direct relationship with God. By 1825, Unitarian ministers had formed a denomination called the American Unitarian Association. Its members were outspoken on issues such as education reform, prison reform, moderation in temperance, ministry to the poor, and the abolition of slavery.
The Reverend Lucinda Duncan, minister of the Follen Community Church in East Lexington Massachusetts, founded by Charles Follen in 1839, said of him: “Follen has left us a legacy of social action based on the principle of freedom.” Charles Follen was born in Germany in 1796, where aristocratic rule was reinstated following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and French domination. He was a student who joined in the revolutionary movement for reform, and a few years later as a professor he left for America, where he became Harvard’s first German teacher in 1825. 

Follen was influenced by Boston Unitarians like William Ellery Channing and began to study for the ministry. He married in 1828, became an American citizen and a father in 1830. In December 1832, wanting to recreate the beauty of a decorated tree from his childhood years in Germany, Follen went out into the woods and cut down a small fir tree. He then set it in a tub and hung from its branches small dolls, gilded eggshells, and paper cornucopias filled with fruit, and set candles in it. Harriet Martineau, an English Unitarian and journalist who was visiting Boston, described what happened next:
"It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze, and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened, except that one doll's petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of a stick to put out any… blaze, and no harm ensued. I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested."
This was not the first Christmas tree in America, but after he set the example in New England of decorating it, it became a widespread popular custom. And the Follen Community Church commemorates this by lighting a tree every Christmas on the church lawn…but it also works hard “to remain true to Follen's example as a social activist.” Here’s the untold story: “As an American, Follen took up the fight against slavery with the same spirit the younger Follen protested the injustices in his native country.
His uncompromising abolitionist principles once lost him a job as pastor of All Souls Church in New York City; he was outspoken in his stand against slavery at a time when abolition was still highly controversial, even in Massachusetts. Harvard did not renew his professorship in 1835, and his wife later said that it was his outspoken views that cost him his Harvard position.” http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/12.12/ProfessorBrough.html
Taking a position as minister for the small congregation of East Lexington, Massachusetts, he designed the octagonal church which still stands, laid out so that the minister would not be elevated above his parishioners.
Except that tragically, Follen did not live to preach in that church. He was killed in 1840 at the age of 44 in a fire on board the steamship Lexington while crossing Long Island Sound.
Maria Child was another Unitarian abolitionist, and also became a Unitarian as a young adult; she chose the new name Maria to go by at this transformative stage of her life. She became an advocate of women’s suffrage, but her work as an author brought her fame at a young age: she wrote several controversial books, the first being a novel about racial intermarriage at the age of 22. When she was 31 she published “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans,” which became the most influential anti-slavery non-fiction book ever written.

She turned her attention in later years to Native American advocacy, working ceaselessly for the rights of native people to have good education, to speak native languages, and practice their own religions. She passionately opposed the American government's policy to forcibly drive the Cherokee people from their tribal lands. When she was 66, she wrote “An Appeal for the Indians,” a controversial call for government officials and religious leaders to bring justice to American Indians. She inspired other advocates with her writing, which also led to the founding of the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners and the creation of the Peace Policy during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, although nothing came of that policy.
So when we remember Maria Child for writing the poem “Over the River and through the Woods,” it is such a small part of her impressive lifetime of achievement and advocacy.


Someone whose song lyrics are seen as prophetic is Edmund Sears, who wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in 1849. Unlike the first verse with its recreation of the scene in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, the final verse focuses on the hope that peace on earth will prevail:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
         the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
         two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
         the love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
         and hear the angels sing.”
The Reverend Edmund Sears served a small congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts in the 1830s, but when he moved to a larger congregation he suffered a breakdown after 7 years. He then moved back to Wayland, where he wrote the carol. Sears was also a fervent abolitionist during the Civil War, but it is thought that the song refers to the hope of peace following the Mexican-American War, which had just ended in 1849.

As adventurous as Sears was fragile, James Pierpont was the son of a Unitarian minister, and could trace his family lineage back to Charlemagne and beyond to England under William the Conqueror. He was sent to boarding school when a young boy, and a few years later ran away to sea for a short time. As an adult, he had a "Gold Rush" adventure, leaving his wife and children in Massachusetts. He returned to Massachusetts but soon joined his brother in Savannah, giving organ and voice lessons to support himself while organist and music director of the Unitarian church. A year after his first wife died of tuberculosis, he married the daughter of Savannah’s mayor.
In 1859, after publishing the song “One Horse Open Sleigh” and re-releasing it as “Jingle Bells” the following year – neither time a hit – Pierpont saw the Unitarian church close due to its position on abolition. But while his brother returned north, James Pierpont stayed in Savannah with his wife and, remarkably, joined the First Georgia Cavalry when war broke out. He even wrote music for the confederacy, but maybe the soldiers on both sides sang “Jingle Bells” on cold December nights while they were camped out before a battle.
 His father, in contrast, served as a chaplain with the Union army in Washington DC. After the war James Pierpont moved to Valdosta and then to Florida, where he died in 1893. His family has one more connection of note – his nephew was the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, said to have more money than the U.S. Treasury.

The Unitarian Church in Savannah still calls itself the “Jingle Bells” Church, but since the roots of the song trace to both Massachusetts and Georgia, there are historical markers in both states. This, Martha Boltz writes in an article on the Civil War, means that the song represents the War Between the States in a very literal way.

But here’s a real achievement for Pierpont: “Jingle Bells” was the first song — and the first Christmas carol — performed in outer space, when astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford sang it on December 16, 1965, during the flight of Gemini 6.
The Civil War: “Jingle Bells,” sung by the North and the South at Christmas http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/civil-war/2012/dec/12/civil-war-jingle-bells-sung-north-and-south-christ/

So “Jingle Bells” may not be the most profound song – it may not have the nostalgic picture of family warmth and happiness at Christmas that Maria Child’s song does, and it may not be a prophetic call for world peace like Sears’ carol is – and its author may not have been the most noble of advocates for peace and justice - but along with the Christmas tree of Charles Follen, it may be the most popular symbol of Christmas in this country.
And so that’s why we can say that Unitarians invented Christmas…and merry Christmas to all of you.

Gaye Ortiz
December 23 2012
Images:
http://www.wildernesswife.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/wassailing.jpg
http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/UIA%20Online/images/follen1.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Lydia_Maria_Child.jpg
http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-Zmk-6zT_UBI/TZIpDKmc_QI/AAAAAAAAA_c/9rGt3ZY8ZAY/s1600/Edmund+Hamilton+Sears.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/81/Pierpont_Jingle_Bells_Savannah.jpg/350px-Pierpont_Jingle_Bells_Savannah.jpg

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How Homophobia Hurts Us All


How Homophobia Hurts Us All
November 11 2012

Picture a young man, eighteen years old, staring at himself in the mirror. He has just bleached his hair blond, and stares admiringly at the way it drapes over one eye. He is a student at an exclusive all-boys boarding and day school, where most of the seniors are preppy rich kids…but he is different. He has been the butt of teasing and insults; he is suspected of and ridiculed about being a homosexual.

The next day, he’s at school minding his own business when another senior sees him and says to his friends, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” A few days later, that same senior comes marching out of his own dorm room ahead of a posse of those friends, shouting about their plan to cut the young man’s hair.” “They come up to him, tackle him and pin him to the ground. The young man’s eyes fill with tears, he is frightened and screaming for help, but the senior repeatedly clips his hair with a pair of scissors.”
No one did anything to stop the attack that day. None of the posse, and not even its leader, got into trouble for attacking the young man. And soon, he was expelled from the prep school for being caught smoking.
 Thirty years later, at a bar in O’Hare Airport, one of the witnesses to the attack that day recognizes the now much older victim, and in a brief conversation, gets off his chest what he’d carried around for three decades:
“I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to help in the situation,” he said.
The other man paused, then responded, “It was horrible.” He went on to explain how frightened he was during the incident, and added, “It’s something I have thought about a lot since then.”
In 2004 the victim of the attack died from lung cancer; one of his surviving sisters remarked, “He kept his hair blond until he died. He never stopped bleaching it.” Let’s hope that, despite that vicious prep school attack in 1965, every time he looked in the mirror he liked the man who looked back at him, the man who had been shaped by that - and who knows how many other - punishing experiences.
The senior who left him lying on the ground that day, crying with fear and shame, walked away without consequence and into his future…and in the early hours of this past Wednesday morning, he made a concession speech after losing the presidential election to Barack Obama.
 In looking at the attack that day in 1965 at Cranbrook Prep School, there are three vantage points: there is that of John Lauber, the young victim, who in expressing his identity endured a horrifying physical attack; there is a second vantage point of the young leader, Mitt Romney, and his posse; and the third vantage point of the silent witnesses, the bystanders who did nothing to help Lauber. We know through his own words that the victim was shaped by that experience, as it also shaped at least one bystander who, thirty years later, had the opportunity to apologize for not acting to help him. By contrast, the incident seems to have slipped Mitt Romney’s mind, and when the story came out in the Washington Post this past May, he said:

Back in high school, you know, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously, I apologize for that… You know, I don’t, I don’t remember that particular incident [laughs]… I participated in a lot of high jinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mitt-romneys-prep-school-classmates-recall-pranks-but-also-troubling-incidents/2012/05/10/gIQA3WOKFU_story.html

 This morning I would like to ask which vantage point do you take? Have you been in the position of the victim of verbal abuse - teasing, accusations, ridicule, or even physical abuse – attacks on you or your personal property – because of your sex, age, race, gender, class? Have you ever inflicted verbal or physical abuse, on a person less powerful than yourself, because he or she was different? Or can you identify with this story from the vantage point of the bystander? Have you been passive in the face of abuse? Have you kept quiet when someone is being bullied or attacked in any way? Have you failed to intervene when someone’s rights have been threatened or taken away, or when their dignity as a human being has been under attack?

Homophobia hurts us all. What can we do about it? What should we do about it?

Can we actually do anything to get rid of the “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals”, which is the definition of homophobia (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/homophobia)? Do we think it’s worth tackling this prejudice that still affects our society?
  
“Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along we’ll understand why”…this is the sentiment of the gospel song Sam and I sang this morning. I hope the lyrics made you think. We may see things happening and not know why they happen, but one day we feel sure we’ll find out that they were meant to happen. They were just a part of God’s plan. 

Well, I can’t go along with that sentiment…but there are many people who believe that God has a plan, and we just need to let go and let God, and that somehow it will all work out. We’ll find out when we reach our heavenly home, after this life is over, that everything happens for a reason. Nothing we can do about it, it’s God’s will. Victims just have to believe that the oppression they suffer is part of God’s plan.

For centuries our Unitarian and Universalist sisters and brothers have rejected the idea that life is preordained for us, as well as rejecting the Calvinist ideas of predestination and the total depravity of human beings. Liberal theology is based in part upon the Anabaptist radical notion that human beings are free spirits...;

in part upon the New England Congregationalist beliefs of Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Ebenezer Gay, that humans have moral capacities, free will in redemption, and the ability to reason;
in part upon the New England Arminians who preached about reasonable religion...;

upon Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist belief that the “simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God”...;

upon the 19th century ‘social gospel’ that sparked movements in this country to free slaves and give women equal rights, all in aid of completing humanity...;

and upon the humanist cooperative effort to promote social well-being and responsibility.

But we UUs can use our liberal theology not just to reject sloppy religious thinking in old gospel hymns; we can also use it to affirm, through the first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We can use it to stand firmly on the side of love.
And that means rejecting not just hurtful and sometimes deadly homophobic attacks, but also rejecting ‘casual homophobia’, which is the use of derogatory language that we hear in much of our everyday communication. It might be unintended, but the use of terms like ‘faggot’ and ‘that’s so gay’ in everyday language can continue to promote the alienation and injury that so many of our LGBT sisters and brothers have endured. These are terms that are used freely in our high schools, and so bringing our children into the conversation about homophobia and opening their eyes to the power of language is something we all should commit to doing.
Just have a look at the website NoHomophobes.com, set up by the University of Alberta to actually track, in real time, the use each day of these terms on Twitter. I went to the site this past week when preparing my sermon: by the time I sat down to look at it that day after lunch, the term ‘faggot’ had already been used in tweets 14,643 times, and so gay 4497; 2 hours later faggot was at 16,994, over 2000 more times – so gay 5089, about 150 times more. As one observer to the site commented, “In isolation, one instance of ‘faggot’ might simply offend. In aggregate, the numbers are dizzying.”
We can also see homophobia in the language of the Laurens County Republican Party’s pledge for potential candidates. If you want to run for office in that county as a Republican, you have to agree to support lots of policy positions, but also you have to agree to this:
“Your spouse cannot be a person of the same gender, and you are not allowed to favor any government action that would allow for civil unions of people of the same sex.” http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/a-new-extreme-in-the-palmetto-state
Maybe we aren’t too surprised, and maybe we can look back to see that the acceptance of gay life in the USA, especially in the political arena, is a very recent thing. Just 40 years ago, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois, lesbians and gays were banned form serving in the federal government, and there were no openly gay politicians. According to an article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker this week (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/11/12/121112fa_fact_ross), if in 1969 you looked in the best-selling book “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” you would find the assurance from author David Reuben that “if a homosexual who wants to renounce homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted heterosexual.”

Thirty years ago, as the AIDS panic was spreading across the world and thousands of gay men were dying, Larry Speakes, the Reagan administration spokesman at a press conference, was asked what the president’s response was to the announcement by the Center for Disease Control that AIDS was now an epidemic. His reply was, “What’s AIDS?”

When told it was known as the ‘gay plague’ and that one in three people contracting the disease was dying from it, Speakes joked, “I don’t have it, do you?”

Because of the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, the idea of gay marriage gained traction. The exclusion of gay partners from hospital visits, healthcare decisions and funeral arrangements, as seen in the movie Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks, added to the trend toward monogamous relationships led to a movement for marriage equality. The religious right has fought this idea every step of the way, and it still has a lot of influence on political issues, and we also remember the controversy over Chick Fil-A funding of anti-gay groups just earlier this year. But as we saw in this past week’s election, the times they are a-changin’ and it’s all down to the political will of the American electorate.

Going into Election Day, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State had votes scheduled for LGBT issues. Now that the results are in, according to the Marriage Equality website, “48% of Americans live in 21 states (or counties or cities) that recognize various forms of legal relationship” (http://www.marriageequality.org/current-status-map ). Not only that, but seven more states have been identified by thinkproress.org as set to expand rights for same-sex couples, including Rhode Island, which after this past Tuesday is the only New England state without marriage equality. We also saw the first openly lesbian senator elected and more gay members of Congress elected.
Halfway across the world, the substantial gain in marriage equality on Tuesday also included Spain – eight out of 11 judges in the country’a highest constitutional court voted in favor of a law that legalized gay marriage in 2005, but which had been the subject of an appeal by the country’s ruling party.
If we want to work for equal rights, then all this is good news. And since 2003, Unitarian Universalists have been working to live their faith through involvement in a global coalition that seeks to make AIDS and HIV a thing of the past.
A thing of the past just like repressive, homophobic discrimination that is slowly but surely yielding to a respect for diversity; a thing of the past due to an upsurge in a commitment to equal rights in many parts of the world. The UU Global AIDS Coalition had its beginning when Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, spoke at the UUA General Assembly in 2002. He urged the West to do something about the sub-Saharan pandemic that was claiming the lives of millions. The Coalition was formed as a result, and was able to respond with an Action of Immediate Witness which passed at the next year’s GA, resulting ultimately in the placement of a half-time intern dealing with global AIDS issues in the UUA advocacy office in Washington DC.
And as you know, this congregation has a real connection with this issue because of our contact with, and support for, the Reverend Mark Kiyimba, who came to visit us just after receiving the 2012 Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights from the National Education Association. That award is presented annually to an individual whose activities in human rights significantly impact education and the achievement of equal opportunity for those facing discrimination. Rev Kiyimba is the minister of the UU church in Kampala, Uganda, and the church runs an orphanage and a school for children infected with HIV/AIDS and who have lost parents to the disease.
One good piece of news coming from Africa this past week is that Malawi's government is moving to suspend laws against homosexuality and has ordered police not to arrest people for same-sex acts until the anti-gay laws are reviewed by parliament (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/09/malawi-anti-gay-law-homosexuality-_n_2100473.html). 
We have no idea if this should make the situation any easier for the LGBT population in Uganda, but we can hope that this step forward will inspire other African countries like Uganda to reconsider their discriminatory laws and the imprisonment of members of the LGBT community.
As you’ve heard, there are many ways in which homophobia can hurt us all, and we simply cannot be passive and expect that things will change if we just have hope, and that one day we will understand why. We’ll be reminded of the need to act on November 20th: the 12th annual transgender day of remembrance raises public awareness of the hatred and violence directed towards people who self-identify as transgender.
The Day of Remembrance began as a response in 1998 to the murder in Boston of a transgendered African American named Rita Hester.
The UUA president Rev Peter Morales has prepared a message for the Day of Remembrance, which says in part: “As long as anyone is harassed or ridiculed, we must demand an end to the bullying. As long as anyone is judged by their gender identification or presentation, we must insist on a higher moral standard…we must put our faith into action, not just on this day of remembrance but every day.”
He also says, “I hold fiercely to the belief that our society is becoming more passionate and aware. Unitarian Universalists are joined by like-minded people every day who value the inherent dignity and worth of all…”
Our prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for every day must be that we will stand together to speak out against homophobia and to seek justice for those who cannot speak for themselves. We must pray to have the courage to meet hatred and indifference with love and respect.
May we be the ones to make it so, blessed be, Amen.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Most Loving Thing


The Most Loving Thing
Dr Gaye Ortiz
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
October 21 2012

“A man drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood that he considered shady. Its residents were of a different class and race than he.
And, sure enough, as soon as he drove down the first block – having carefully locked his doors – he noticed that people on the sidewalks were yelling and gesturing at him as he drove along. The further he drove, the more outraged and outrageous the angry communication sounded.
This behavior confirmed all that he had suspected and disliked about ‘these kinds of people’.
But then he realized he had been driving the wrong way down a one-way street! People were trying to draw his attention to his unsafe wrong-way driving! If only he had paid more attention to his own actions!”
[Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behaviors (1989), p.121]

Boers ends this story by saying we need to understand how we contribute to undesirable situations and how our behavior can be changed (122).

This is probably a sermon that not many people want to hear; some people may have voted with their feet when they saw the sermon topic…maybe some of those might be people who need to be here the most. Because it is hard to stay in right relation with people, especially people who we’re close to and with whom we have a covenant that ties us together.

This is a huge topic, and I have had to work hard to keep this sermon to just over an hour – only kidding! When we talk about right relations, we are really talking about the first UU principle, affirming the worth and dignity of every person, and the 2nd, affirming justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And those are tough principles to attempt to affirm, let alone carry out!

Meg Barnhouse knows it’s hard; she wrote back in 2009, in an article for UU World, that “the UU Principles are demanding enough to make me whine.”
She says, 
The first one asks me to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which means that I can no longer subscribe to the cheerful Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of human nature. It sounds grim, but really, if you are in fact starting with a totally depraved nature, the opportunities for self-congratulation abound: “Hey, I didn’t knock over a 7-Eleven this afternoon, even though money’s pretty tight. I’m doing well!”
Now I have to struggle with the worth and dignity of people who do unspeakably awful things, whereas the doctrine of total depravity made that one a no-brainer.” (Meg Barnhouse, “Who says Unitarian Universalism's Principles are easy?” 11/23/09, uuworld.org)

Barnhouse suggests that at the end of each principle we add the phrase, “beginning in our homes and congregations”; and she goes on to say:
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, beginning in our homes and congregations” is a sobering ideal. I don’t know about you, but I have sat in meetings about right relations and seen people get testy with one another. Some of the nastiest behavior I’ve seen was long ago at a community workshop for peace activists.”
"Lao Tse, quoted in the back of our hymn book, says peace in the world begins with peace in the home, which begins with peace in the heart. If I start with my own heart, the demands of our Principles get even heavier. Peace and compassion in my heart? Justice too? Freedom as well? Affirming the worth of every person all the time, not only with my words and my behavior but in my secret heart? If we added “in the heart” to the Principles, they might as well just say “Be Jesus” and be done with it. I’m sorry I even brought it up.” (Meg Barnhouse, “Who says Unitarian Universalism's Principles are easy?” 11/23/09, uuworld.org).
Well, if you are like Meg Barnhouse and secretly whine when you think of what is asked of us when we affirm the principles, then this sermon is for you. Because, even though everyone in this congregation may sincerely try to relate to each other in a positive and supportive way, we all know that there are bound to be times when we misunderstand each other, when we do not assume good intentions, when we approach a situation with perceptions and prejudices firmly in place, no matter if we are in fact driving the wrong way down a one-way street…

Over the years, misunderstandings, disagreements, and hurt feelings can cause a ripple effect of dis-ease and discontent moving outward from the people originally involved to an entire congregation. That the members can learn - on the whole - to try to respond in a healthy fashion, rather than leave in a huff or just never talk about the problem, is something to commend. Building the Beloved Community means taking our lumps and dealing with them: Tom Owen-Towle says, “Our chosen church is our principal tilling ground, sacred ground, battleground, common ground, and growing ground” (Tom Owen-Towle, Growing a Beloved Community, 2004, p.5). And although we may welcome people to explore their own individual spiritual paths, that doesn’t mean that they have no responsibilities to the congregation; this faith is built on a common enterprise over centuries.

I think that trust is one of the biggest issues that we might confront in our little community. We saw in our Time for All Ages that when we are not in control and we need to put our trust in another person, it can be a scary thing. And if we can’t do that in this congregation, then we are in trouble.
Because, when we trust another person, we know that when we fall short – or, using the original meaning of ‘sin’, when we miss the mark – that we can make it right again, we can forgive each other and forgive ourselves. Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:4 as asking, “How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” It is an amusing image when you think about it, and I do believe Jesus had a sense of humor when he communicated to his disciples and followers. But it is so true that when we’re upset by someone, we often neglect to look at our part in the situation.

David Miller, a UU minister in California, drew up a list of questions that might help us to reflect on the extent to which we are in right relation with each other in this congregation. We will not go through the entire list, but I’ve selected seven of the questions he asks.

1.   Am I assuming the good intentions of the other? Consider practicing the philosophy of ‘namaste’, the Hindu salutation that literally means “I honor that which is sacred in you.” Can we think that in our minds each time we meet folks here every Sunday? Can you look at someone in the eyes fully, directly, and not think that? In order to stop privileging our own virtuousness while approaching others with suspicion, we have to give up our self-image of being right all the time. How many of us have had a negative encounter this week? How long did it take you to realize that you didn’t trust the other person? Where do the roots of that suspicion lie? If we assume good intentions many of our misunderstandings would never even happen.

2.   Am I communicating directly with the person with whom I’m having an issue? Avoiding that person is not going to solve the problem, but again, this is easier said than done. And that’s often because we have a lack of disclosure trust: if you speak to the person, will they interrupt you before you can finish what you need to say? Will your words be twisted and used against you? Our fragile sense of ego sometimes puts up defenses us before we even begin to speak to the person…and it may not even be a person, but a group or a committee.

For example, you may have the experience of being asked to provide input to a committee, only to find a decision that has already been made by an inside group. No wonder we hang back from speaking...but if we don’t, how will we ever change the dynamic of conflict? But take the story of an 18th century Quaker named John Woolman, at the height of the anti-slavery debate, who was upset that some Quakers were slave-owners. As Tom Owen-Towle tells the story:
To change that state of affairs, he didn’t censure the slaveholders. Instead, he traveled on horseback, visiting each slaveholder individually and sharing his moral concern. It took Woolman some thirty years to persuade all of them. But in the end, not one Quaker owned a slave. Passing laws would probably have brought about faster results but not without pain and lingering bitterness. As servant-leaders and as prophetic parishes, our job is to transform people, not merely to enforce rules, always remembering we won’t necessarily be as successful as Woolman. Therefore, we’re called to be conscientious, even when we fail. (Owen-Towle, 82)

3.   Am I reflecting on what personal wounds, issues, and tendencies of mine that are contributing to the issue? It’s the old story of the wife who makes her husband a cup of coffee in the morning, and when he tastes it he rips into her about how awful it is, and starts a full-blown fight. It ain’t about the coffee, you can bet! There may be one person who can push your buttons – it might not take much, maybe one sentence, before you are fuming. Until you figure out who this person reminds you of – maybe a parent who would speak to you in a certain way when angry or scolding you – you will react to the person very negatively. It helps to figure it out, and then the next step is to desensitize yourself to prevent future knee-jerk reactions.

Pema Chodron, in her book The Places That Scare You (2001), explains that the formal practice of loving kindness has 7 stages, beginning with “engendering loving-kindness for ourselves, then expanding it at our own pace to include loved ones, friends, ‘neutral’ persons, those who irritate us… [and then gradually we broaden the circle to include] all beings through time and space” (Chodron, 43). She says that if we don’t question our feeling of irritation, it is easy to let emotions hook us in and shut us down.

4.   Am I actually trying to live the principles and values of Unitarian Universalism by acting with compassion, respect and high value of our interdependence? The author Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 2004, p.277) says that we can lower our expectations of independence and raise our level of involvement in order to develop unity between people: “The more genuine the involvement, the more sincere and sustained the participation in analyzing and solving problems, the greater the release of everyone’s creativity” (Covey, 283)

In this excerpt from his book Savor, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that there is a human need for meaning, for purposeful connection, for community, and for real engagement in the world:
All of us have a great capacity for compassion. We want to help those who are really in need, who are suffering…But how do we begin? Transforming the world starts with oneself. It is through attending to our own well-being and staying in touch with what is happening in our own personal lives that we can have a greater capacity to understand and address the world’s suffering. We are then on a sturdier foundation to contribute to improving our world. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Savor, 2010, pp.224-5)

5.   Can I let go of my need to control the situation? Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about the Desert Monks, early Christians who lived apart from society but had a strong sense of community. Two elders decided that they should try to have a quarrel like ordinary men; but since they had never had one before they did not know where to start. Even after agreeing how to argue over ownership of a brick, one of them gave in almost immediately, and so they “failed to get into an argument at all” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 2008, 89-90). Normally, we don’t have any problem getting into an argument! And we can tell when conflict escalates to become destructive because we feel we have no control and we begin to think and behave irrationally. We try to control a situation in order to avoid failure or losing face.

6.   Can I have disagreements with an individual or group, do so in love and respect, and continue to stay in community? The Native American activist Catherine Attla speaks of “the big law of respect.” A respectful church “is one where boundaries are kept, saboteurs are confronted, crises are faced” (Owen-Towle, 67). But how can we fight and still stay together? When we realize that conflict is normal and that the key to success is to find healthy ways of dealing with it, we can actually develop rules for fair fighting. Here are some ground rules that you may already use: (Boers, p.73)
·      Don’t label or name-call
·      Don’t attack or question motives
·      Propose positive changes, so not just offer negative complaints
·      Speak specifically, not generally
·      Speak up for yourself and not for others, using ‘I-language’
·      Consider and respect different perspectives; gather plenty of information
·      Be open about differences
·      Be responsible for your own feelings
·      Act accountable
·      Work for win-win situations
·      Value everyone
·      Be open to change and growth
·      Stick with the process
·      Take a break when things get too heated
·      Admit mistakes
·      When the group makes a decision, comply with it.

We need to stay connected through communication: listening and talking and being willing to be vulnerable without giving in to sabotage. When we feel defensive, we tend to want to withdraw, but if we can keep talking we can learn together through our experience.

7.   And finally, can I remember to ask the question, ‘What is the most loving thing I can do or say right now?’ The practice of loving your neighbor as yourself includes the responsibility to be mindful that how you treat another person, even in passing, can make all the difference. Barbara Brown Taylor calls this a spiritual practice, and she gives one example: “Next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. It is enough to acknowledge her when she hands you your change. Just meet her eyes for a moment when you say, ‘Thanks’. Sometimes that is all another person needs to know that she has been seen – not the cashier but the person.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, 94-5).

How much more important is this question when we are in conflict with another person! Words can hurt or heal, gestures can comfort or ridicule. If we try to respect change, difference, and even conflict, we can avoid destroying - and may even salvage - relationships. How can we manage the conflict and manage to keep our relationship intact? Caroline Westerhoff makes an interesting point about the root word of manage:
The root of manage is the Latin for hand – manus – and when I think of hands, I recall Michelangelo’s great work fro the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam… In my imagination, a spark fairly sizzles in the space between them as God sets it all in motion for the very first time: ‘Be different, Adam. But you will not be alone in that differentness. There will be other different ones. Create with them.’ God’s hand is open…It is not shaking Adam into life but is energizing him by invitation…
Perhaps Michelangelo’s genius has provided us with needed fresh perspective. Hands – management can be perceived as instruments either for controlling, checking, holding, taking, restraining and even strangling or for guiding, pointing, stroking, kneading, giving away, letting go. To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind. (Westerhoff, “Conflict: The Birthing of the New” in David B. Lott, ed., Conflict Management in Congregations, 2001, p.57)

Maybe something you’ve heard this morning will come back to you when you are confronted with a situation where conflict may be about to erupt. You have a choice as to how you respond; be mindful about the power that entails. The relationship you save may be worth so much more than the momentary satisfaction of a sharp word, an insult, or an insult. And when someone tries to engage you in a disagreement or an argument, think about what may be going on in that person’s life; Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Change is inevitable, and often with it comes conflict. Tolerating difference, respecting diversity, practicing empathy and compassion, normalizing conflict, and fighting fair can help us, as Hosea Ballou says, “keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.” NAMASTE.

Gaye Ortiz