Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Spirit of Generosity

A Spirit of Generosity

Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta

March 2 2014

I want to open my message this morning with a quote from Jewish author Elie Wiesel:

 “Sanctuary is often something very small. Not a grandiose gesture, but a small gesture toward alleviating human suffering and preventing humiliation. Sanctuary is a human being. Sanctuary is a dream. That is why you are here and that is why I am here; we are here because of one another. We are in truth each other’s shelter.” (Buehrens and Parker, A House for Hope, 148)

I became a rebel in the 9th grade.

Glenn Hills High School in south Augusta in the late 1960s had a dress code, just like most other schools at that time. But times were a’changin, and so was what girls wanted to wear to school. We wanted to wear mini skirts, culottes, and blue jeans.
One day I wore a pair of knee—length culottes, and was sent to the principal’s office. 

It was not allowed. I didn’t understand why, and the authority of the Richmond County Board of Education was not good enough. I became a rebel.

Soon after, the Richmond County board of education held a meeting at which the dress code was on the agenda. I wanted to go with a couple of friends – one of whom circumvented the dress code rules on boys not being allowed to have long hair, by wearing a wig to school. I told my parents that they were coming to pick me up, and my dad said no way. I was not allowed to go. The board of education reaffirmed the dress code at that meeting.

The next year, the protest among us students began to swell across the city throughout the high schools, and soon we were planning a march, from the downtown post office to the Richmond County Board of Education headquarters on Heckle Street.

When it came to telling my parents, well, I knew better by now – and I had my own car! So I told my parents innocently that I was going out with my friend Mike. I drove my 1966 Ford Falcon station wagon down to the post office, and took part in my first protest. Of course, the one thing we failed to consider was that, once we got to the Board of Education building, we would have to walk all the way back to get the car! My feet had blisters and so when we got near to the post office Mike ran ahead and got the car and drove us back home. The next day when I got in the car I realized he’d driven all the way home with the emergency brake on, and it was shot.

But that was nothing compared to the sense of achievement, and the sense of solidarity, that I had. Within the year the dress code was dismantled. Our protest had not been in vain.

Why am I telling this story on the morning we launch our stewardship campaign? 
Because it was the first time I felt a ‘meeting of the minds,’ a common cause which drew diverse people together to fight injustice as we saw it.

But not every one of my protests was supported. I have, as many of you must do, Native American roots through my dad’s biological family. I became aware of this in high school, and aware of how modern-day Native Americans are marginalized in our society. AIM, the American Indian Movement was formed in 1968, and the group carried out protests over issues such as poverty, broken treaties and police harassment. I decided that in solidarity I would not stand every morning in homeroom when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance and saluted the flag. I decided there WAS no liberty and justice for all.

This act of rebellion was noted but not punished…until as a rising senior, I decided to run for Student Council president. I was ready to represent the nonconformists in our senior class while the other candidate was an athlete and a nice guy who was pretty conformist.

I was summoned to the principal’s office where a gang of teachers was waiting for me; they informed me I would not be allowed to run since I was unpatriotic. So the other guy won by default.

As Jane Eyre would say, “Reader, I married him…” yes, my husband Wil was the other candidate, so you could say I won in the end.

But when I was disqualified as a candidate, I was alone; I was not a member of AIM; I had no one to back me up. I could have contacted the ACLU, had I known it even existed. There was no community to feel part of and in which I could seek solace or support. Only years later did I read of other students in other schools who have done the same thing in protest of the inequality they see as pervasive in this country.

What I really needed as a rebellious teenager was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta! Four years ago, in March 2010, my aunt Babe died; because my dad was adopted, I never really got to know his biological family, and only met Babe in the last dozen years of her life. By then I was a Ministry Associate here at the UU Church of Augusta. I was asked if I would co-officiate at her funeral service, and there I was introduced to other aunts and cousins I’d never met.

When I was speaking to one of my newfound cousins about being a member of this church, she said to me, “Oh, when I was a teenager I actually went to that church a few times.” All I could think of was, “Why didn’t I know you then? I could have taken a shortcut through all my searching, and I would have found the spiritual home and supportive community I needed then!” I would have had a sanctuary…

Back to Elie Wiesel’s statement about sanctuary: we all, at one time or another, need a sanctuary: “Sanctuary is a human being. Sanctuary is a dream. That is why you are here and that is why I am here; we are here because of one another. We are in truth each other’s shelter.”

You are here this morning because, at some point, you needed a sanctuary. If, like I did eventually, you came to the UU faith tradition and thought it was THE liberating force of your life, then you felt a sense of relief, of inner joy, of gratitude that remains in your heart even today. To be with people who understand your search, who welcome your questions, who don’t judge you, and who support your quest for justice and truth – for me, it was worth the search! My teenage search for justice was not in vain.

Rebecca Ann Parker knows what that means when she says, “The progressive church holds a feast of life spread for all – it is ours to share with any who can find nourishment within our walls.” (Buehrens and Parker, 167) I hope, whether you are a recent member or a veteran UU, that you believe this congregation can nourish your spirit and enrich your life.

But the nourishment of our own selves is only half the story. We seek more, and we ARE more, than individuals going through life on our own. We covenant together, and we work together, to live up to the seven principles that we affirm and promote as UUs.

Again quoting Parker: The mission of progressive faith is to embrace the beauty of diversity and the diversity of beauty…to love one another and this earth as paradise, here and now,…This mission requires each person to answer the question, What will you do with your gifts? And it requires vibrant commitment to life together in community. (Buehrens and Parker, 170)

We already have been given gifts in abundance. In spite of its problems, Mark Ewert writes, “this planet is an incredible gift to us all. It provides sustenance, pleasure, and infinite variety. We are surrounded by this beauty, which is ever-changing and recurring. That is just as unavoidable as suffering, and these two opposites create the great balance of life.”

Our birth is another gift and a “fortunate one from our parents; and we benefit from generations of inventors and designers who make that gift of life easier, more comfortable, and more pleasurable.” Those gifts in turn have made it possible for us to pass on other gifts: “Whatever comforts and security we have created for ourselfves may be a source of joy for us and help us feel more confident in our giving. Each of us has acquired benefits and resources that now can be tapped for our giving.” (Mark Ewert)

We are blessed indeed to have a faith community that has the courage to look outwards instead of remaining inward-looking. At its best, in the words of Jean Vanier, it “encourages us to break open the shell of selfishness and self-centeredness to reveal the seeds of a society where people are honest, truthful and loving.”

We have a mission that is honored when we look outwards. Our mission matters. Our vision for this church, for this community, and for this world, matters…and we need to pass on that vision if our precious faith tradition is to have a future.

The author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, put it this way:
“In a house that becomes a home, one hands down, and another takes up, the heritage of mind and heart...It is needful to transmit the passwords from one generation to another.”

In my mind, one of those passwords should be ‘dream.’ The words of one of my favorite hymns urge us to “Come and go with me to that land”…we can dream of a better land right here on earth. You may not connect figures and statistics with dreams – maybe nightmares! – but this is exactly what your board-cum-stewardship committee is doing this year.

When we think of the UU legacy we are so fortunate to have – the rebels who sometimes gave their lives to ensure freedom of religious expression – we can feel honored to be asked to carry on the flame of our UU values.

If you can feel that this faith community has values and a purpose that you share, then, as so many here in this congregation do, you will commit to living out those values and that purpose in your daily life.

The word 'generous' comes from the Latin for ‘noble, magnanimous’; magnanimous in Latin comes from words magna=great and animus=soul; the Oxford English dictionary defines generous as “freely giving more than is necessary or expected.”

Here’s a poem from Hafiz that illustrates that freedom of giving:

“Even after all this time
the sun never says to the earth, ‘you owe me.’
Look what happens with a love like that!
It lights the whole sky.”

Generosity, then, makes us great souls! What a description to aspire to…and not only that, but the root prefix of generosity, ‘gen,’ means birth, as in generative ‘being capable of production or reproduction.’ We can generate generosity!

Mark Ewert writes about a woman who taught him how to develop the daily practice of generosity that I shared with the children during Time for All Ages. He was speaking with her about a colleague who was not acting on something he needed her to do, and his friend simply asked him, “What is the most generous response you can have to this situation?”

He says that whenever he is faced with a choice he asks himself: What is the most generous response I can make? This question helps him get back to a generous attitude.

And maybe you haven’t thought about the connection between giving and receiving: “Giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin; one does not exist without the other. We cannot be a world full of givers if there is no one to accept our gifts.” (ME) 
“Giving connects two people, the giver and the receiver, and this connection gives birth to a new sense of belonging.” –Deepak Chopra

Money is about relationships. Margaret Marcuson reminds us that “if we didn’t need to relate to one another, we wouldn’t have money. It was invented by human beings, and we use it with each other. One of the things money symbolizes, for better or for worse, is human connection.”

But when “our self-perception is tied to taking care of ourselves with no help from others, we experience fewer opportunities for accepting the normal give-and-take of care in relationships.

This level of independence can lead to an unreasonable and rigid standard of self- reliance. Those of us who are seniors, for example, may not adjust to our concept of independence as we age, making us unable to adapt to a need for more assistance.” (ME)

When we are gracious about receiving “it is easier to be generous givers. We see more easily what flows to us; we recognize and appreciate the abundance in our lives. When we feel abundant, and recognize the flow as unending, it is easier to give from a place beyond all reason: our values.” (UUA, FORTH Stewardship Education Ideas I) When we give of our wealth to build up this community we are filled with wealth.

Everyone is already generous in his or her own way; “hasn’t there been a time when you cared for someone who was sick, nurtured a young person, or benefitted someone without them knowing it? Maybe you don’t think of yourself as generous because, like all of us, you are sometimes impatient or do not share what you have when you could, or your idea of what constitutes generosity is too grand to reach.” (ME)

Maybe what you need to do is become more intentional about being generous and build upon that strength you already possess. “Every time I take a step in the direction of generosity, I know that I am moving from fear to love.” – Henri J.M. Nouwen

Here’s what I believe about giving: when we make giving a priority, generosity in a closely knit community presents an opportunity for each of us to align our beliefs, loves, and values with what we give in money and time.

Rebecca Parker in her book Blessing the World tells a story about gaining maturity as a giver, a lesson that was taught to her by a congregant during the annual stewardship drive in the Methodist church she served: “I first began to tithe because I was taught to do so by my church, and my church taught me to obey its teachings…I continued to tithe, however, because the people I most loved and admires tithed: my parents and leaders of the religious community whose lives really challenged me by their goodness…but as my faith matured further, I came to my own reason for tithing, because to tithe is to tell the truth about who I am:
I am a person who has something to give. I am a person who has received abundantly from life. I am a person whose presence matters in the world, and I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself. If I did not tithe, I would lose track of these truths about who I am.” (ME)

“The ancient tradition of tithing can be traced back to the nomadic Israelites, who acted out their belief that everything on Earth belonged to Yahweh through the practice of each household giving a tenth of their livestock herds to local religious leaders. This practice eventually included agricultural produce and evolved into a way to encourage obedience to God identified with Israel and the temple.” (ME)

Tithing in this day and age to is support the institution where we come together to live out through fellowship our commitment to its mission. I feel very fortunate to be able to give back to this church by tithing, my Baptist grandparents would be proud of me! My telling you about my pledge may sound like a challenge to you, I am tithing, will you, or in the words of one Minister who unveiled the church's new tithing campaign slogan: "I Upped My Pledge - Up Yours."

But whether or not you tithe or give another regular amount, it is a way of ‘putting skin in the game’ (ME) and of developing a sense of stewardship. No matter what level of donation you make, you receive congregational benefits “in full measure,” the same as any other member.

If you give more of yourself as a volunteer at leadership levels, “then you will have greater influence on the workings of the church. But this is held within the structures and polity of the community itself as we have constituted it, and your giving or withholding of money does not become linked with personal gain. Each of us should feel invited to step forward with our resources according to our ability; this separates what we gain from how much we give and keeps us in right relationship.

Let me be clear about this: Our community prompts us to give in ways that "fuel our own growth of generosity, rather than improving our level of status.” (ME)

In fact, we do have what some people call “angels in the congregation” who are able to give substantial amounts in pledges, but we need to all consider stepping up so that the gap is narrowed. We are grateful for what these major donors do for our church, but we’ve allowed them to carry a big portion of the budget, and to be frank it would put our budget at risk if they were to suddenly not be here anymore. I care enough to lift this up here before you this morning…even though such frank talking reminds me of the minister who got up one Sunday and announced to his congregation: "I have good news and bad news. The good news is, we have enough money to pay for our new building program. The bad news is, it's still out there in your pockets."

Some of us don’t like to talk about money, and Mark Ewert says that many of us may find that our thoughts about money are fueled by dominant cultural messages about obtaining comfort, happiness, and security through money.

After all, American culture emphasizes earning and financial status, spending beyond basic needs, and aspiring to various forms of luxury. But he states that “The most culturally challenging action in a consumer society may be to give away money to benefit others, with no reciprocation or personal benefit expected in return.”

And when we do spend money, we are supporting others: our resources have the opportunity to help others – when I get my hair cut, I am helping my hairdresser’s family; when I leave a fair tip at a restaurant, I am making a contribution to the life of that server. We don’t expect any personal benefit from our spending decisions, and as a Roman Catholic nun once observed, “Like prayer, money is everywhere, linking us with one another and bringing something new.”

After a long spiritual journey over more than four decades, I was amazed to find a faith tradition with values like the ones Rebecca Parker lifts up in the reading we heard earlier; when I worship on Sundays, I feel the abundant blessing of belonging to a community that tries to live out those values. And my congregation is where I develop my ability to receive and give.

Quoting the Buddha, Lama Surya Das says,
“Giving brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous; we experience joy in the actual act of giving something; and we experience joy in remembering the fact we have given.”

If you feel that you have received care, support, respect, freedom in belonging to this church, if you have ever felt it is a shelter, a sanctuary, then you’ll feel like you’ve received an abundance of nourishment.

Do you see the flow of abundance in your lives? Your generosity can ensure the future of this congregation and its values and its dreams. What might we be called to do together?

We can – with the contribution each of us makes through our time, talent, and treasure – do more than just dream, we can reach our vision of the future, in which we stand as a proud beacon of progressive religious freedom and expression, diversity and radical hospitality for the Augusta area and beyond.

May it be so, blessed be, Amen.

Mark Ewert, The Generosity Path, 2013.
Margaret Marcuson, Money and Your Ministry, 2013.
Rebecca Ann Parker and John Buehrens, A House for Hope, 2011.