By The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Dr. Mansoor Mirza is a physician at a hospital in Wilson, Wisconsin, a town of 3,200 souls. Dr. Mirza had lived in this small town for five years. He knew many of the people at the planning commission meeting that Tuesday night. He expected them, his patients and neighbors, to support him when he requested permission from the zoning board to build a mosque in a nearby village, on land he already owned. Instead, one person after another stood up to say that Islam was a religion of violence, that Muslims were using rural America to train jihadi soldiers, and that a mosque didn’t belong in their community. The board even asked Dr. Mirza if any military training would take place within the mosque. Dr. Mirza could barely control his grief and anger during the meeting (Ghosh 1).
This story was reported in Time Magazine at the end of August in their cover story, “Is America Islamophobic?” Now, I have been to planning board meetings and zoning board of adjustment meetings here in Plymouth where hateful things were said against erecting low-income housing in our town. Town meetings about how to use other people’s land do not bring out the best in people. But we seem to be at a point as a country where the worst is coming out in us. Since 2002, the number of Americans who believe Islam is more violent than other religions has hovered around 40% (Dart 14). Americans in general are too quick to conflate the terrorists who attacked New York, the Pentagon, and a flight of innocent people over Pennsylvania with all Muslims.
There is something in the human spirit that wants someone to hate. Imagine a time in the future when a Muslim person is a viable candidate for president. Imagine that this person, born in the United States, coming from a political family, gained his or her party’s nomination. Now imagine if a coalition of dozens of ministers representing many branches of Christianity, came together to publish a statement expressing their concerns about a Muslim candidate for president in the United States. Imagine they wrote something like this:
“We know that two-thirds of the area of [Afghanistan] has been “roped off” from [secular] activity and more than 200 [secular] schools in this territory have been closed by police. What effect, we wonder, would the election of a [Muslim] as President have upon governments which practice such suppression with the knowledge and cooperation of [Islamic states]? To ask Protestant and Jewish people to take a light view of this matter, or to disregard it entirely, is to be unrealistic. For us this is a matter of self-preservation (Protestants).”
I have to place our imaginary scenario in the future because it’s hard to imagine a Muslim being a viable candidate for president now. A statement like this, however–a statement like this feels like it fits right into America’s current political climate.
Well, this statement was published by the Protestants and Other Americans Untied for the Separation of Church and State–but it’s not contemporary. This was published by a group of Protestant ministers and luminaries, including Norman Vincent Peale, when John F. Kennedy was running for office. Replace “Afghanistan” with “Columbia”; replace “secular” with “Protestant”; replace “Muslim” with “Catholic” and replace “Islamic states” with “the Vatican,” and you would be hearing a quotation from the group’s statement issued in September of 1960. We might have learned from this moment of anti-Catholic fervor in our country’s history that our fears were unfounded (since Kennedy did not, in fact, usher in Vatican control of the United States). Instead, we are repeating our fears and hatred with a new enemy fifty years later.
There is something in the human spirit that wants someone to hate. It was there in Jesus’ time. When Jesus starts debating with a Torah scholar in Luke’s gospel, he is not, for once, arguing with or trying to upset another Jewish leader. He and his companion are trying to understand what the Torah means. In many Jewish traditions of the time, the Torah was understood to require thought, understanding and debate in order to truly come alive. These traditions were the exact opposite of fundamentalism. They believed that debate made the Torah relevant in contemporary life. Jesus’ companion asks, “Who is my neighbor?” This is a serious question. At the time, the Hebrew word for “neighbor,” rea, was not widely understood to mean “anyone” and certainly not “someone different from me.” “Neighbor” was understood to mean a close friend, a coworker or close companion. Your neighbor was someone from your same ethnic and religious group (Young 100).
In response to this question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story. A Jewish man is beaten, robbed and left by the side of the Jericho road. Jewish religious leaders see him lying there and pass him by. Finally, a Samaritan, technically still Jewish but so different that the two sects had nothing to do with each other, stops and helps the man. Not only does he help, he goes over the top–taking the man to an inn, leaving money for his care, and seeing to it that he will recover. Jesus asks, “Who is the good neighbor?” The Torah scholar answers, “The man who helped.”
Martin Luther King gave more meaning to the story when he retold it in his last public address, “I See the Promised Land,” given the night before he was assassinated (King 284). He reminds us that the Jericho road is steep, twisty and treacherous. Thieves would wait around a bend and ambush travelers. King shows sympathy for the two who passed by on the other side: they did not want to become victims themselves. In fact, they may have thought that the man lying in the ditch was part of a con, that he was not actually hurt, and that his accomplices would attack them as soon as they stopped to help. King says that these men asked themselves a very reasonable question: “What will happen to me if I help?” The Samaritan, on the other hand, asked a different question: “What will happen to him if I don’t?”
There is a third question to ask: “What will happen to me if I don’t help?” When we pass by human suffering on the other side, what happens to our own souls? We allow a slow death to creep in, to harden our hearts and make us care less for our fellow human beings. We must ask ourselves these questions about our Muslim neighbors in America today. We must ask “What will happen to them if I don’t help?” and we must ask “What will happen to me if I don’t help?” We are called upon to stand up for the right of Muslims in America to gather peaceably and worship in freedom, just like any other ethnic or religious group.
When we were just beginning the process of planning to raise the funds to expand our building–and this is a good time to remind everyone that we are dedicating our meetinghouse addition in a special service this afternoon at 3 p.m., and I hope you all can come–when we had our first meeting with a consultant from the Unitarian Universalist Association, she offered a way for us to think about the three sources of funding for our building. We had some money from bequests left by members and friends who had passed away–these represented the past. We had the money we would raise in pledges and gifts from current members and friends–these represented the present. And we had the mortgage we would take to finance the rest of the addition–this represented the future. Tamsin, our consultant, pointed out that the mortgage gave members and friends who would come to our fellowship in the future the chance to be part of supporting our larger space.
Tamsin’s words have come back to me again and again as I have seen this fellowship grow since that day. We exist because of our past, we exist in our present, and we exist for our future. We are not here just to make a comfortable spiritual home for ourselves. We are here to create an institution for our future selves, our children, and all the people in our area who will, someday, need a liberal religious home.
It is the same with our country. We should not be in the business of dragging our country backward to a less diverse, less tolerant past. We should not be eager to repeat the wrongs of our European forbears, who exiled, converted or killed their Muslim populations. We should not strive to return to a world where Muslims are a distant other, where we understand nothing about them, and where our cultures are at war. We should be preparing our country for a better tomorrow, a tomorrow characterized by respect, tolerance and mutual understanding.
When our forefathers framed the United States Constitution, there were no Muslims living in our fledgling nation. Today, Muslims deserve protection and inclusion under the First Amendment, just like every other religious group. They should be able to build mosques anywhere public buildings may be built, including in lower Manhattan. They should be free to worship in peace and security, not fearing for their or their children’s safety. Muslims need these assurances and protections under our law now, because they are certainly not getting them from the American culture at large. But in the future, I hope we have more than this. I hope that if enough Americans consider Muslims their neighbors, that in the future Muslim-Americans will not just be tolerated, but respected; that they will not simply expect to be left alone in peace, but will be invited into conversation; that they will not be neighbors in name only but be the actual friends and playmates of non-Muslim Americans and their children.
There is some hope that in the future we will be more accepting of difference and diversity than we are today. Just as with the majority’s increasing acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in America, demographics point to a future where the majority is more accepting of Muslims. People who are more educated and people under fifty are more likely than others to have a favorable view of Islam (Dart 14). I suspect both of these demographic trends are because younger people, and people with more exposure to university settings, have had more opportunity to meet and get to know Muslims. In divinity school, I took a semester long survey course on Islam, the theme of which was that Islam is a diverse religion. Just knowing a little bit about the different kinds of Islam practiced by the millions of Muslims worldwide helps me be more accepting and open to Muslims in America. We can hope that as America becomes more ethnically diverse, and as our children play and learn alongside people of different ethnicities and religions, including Muslims, that the world will grow in its tolerance and kindness toward others. Muslim-Americans are our neighbors in building the America we dream of.
Please join me in prayer.
Spirit of Love, bring us into a world of peace. Release us from our fear. Give us the courage to help those in need. Give us the courage to stand up for what we believe is right. Give us a spirit of curiosity and respect about beliefs and cultures different from our own.
Help us to remember those times in our own lives when we have felt hurt and abandoned by circumstance and ill-will. Help us to recall with gratitude those who stopped by to help us in our times of trouble. We ask the blessings of the spirit on those who came to our aid, and on those who, in the small habits of their lives, make helpfulness a part of their mission in the world.
Forgive us, loving Spirit, for those times when we have not had the personal resources or fortitude to help another person in need. There are times when all of us have left undone something we could have done; times when we passed by on the other side. Teach us through these moments how to come to our best selves again, and help us in the future to reach out to others in love, solidarity and strength.
Bring us ever closer to our fellow human beings. Help us to celebrate our differences and learn from one another. Help us to grow the human spirit which is common to us all. Amen.
Dart, John. “Conflicted Views on Islam.” The Christian Century 21 Sep. 2010: 14.
Ghosh, Bobby. “Does America Have a Muslim Problem?” Time Magazine. 19 Aug. 2010. Time.com. 1-4. Accessed 1 Oct. 2010. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2011798-1,00.html.
King Jr., Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
“Protestant Groups’ Statements.” New York Times 8 Sep. 1960: 25.
Young, Brad. The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008.
By The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
I love my children but I’m not crazy about being pregnant. The sickness, the physical awkwardness, the discomfort–I know there are women who love the physical and spiritual experience of pregnancy, but for me, it’s a necessary nine months, and my goal is to get through them. The real payoff was that I met my wonderful sons at the end. At the end of my pregnancy with my younger son a year ago, I reached the last month without any terrible discomfort. I had even gone camping with my three-year-old the month before with no ill effects, although in retrospect I would have been more comfortable in a cabin than in a tent.
But then, Something Happened. The baby shifted, my bones creaked, and by the end of a day spent taking care of my toddler the pain in my back was so bad I cried. If I sat still or lied down it didn’t hurt. If I moved at all, it was like someone had stuck a knife in my lower back. Since I was spending that summer at home with my toddler, not moving wasn’t an option. I started to live on extra-strength Tylenol, the strongest painkiller I could take. Because I was pregnant, no real diagnosis of the pain was possible. “You’ll have your baby soon,” my obstetrician told me. I tried to hold onto that truth and grind through the five weeks left in my pregnancy.
Well, one week later, I realized that mere strength of will was not going to see me through when I had a toddler to run around after. One of our young people in the fellowship, Leah Hoffman, agreed to be my mother’s helper for the rest of the month, which helped immensely. The other change I made was to start using some support when I walked. I fished my hiking pole out of my closet and began to carry it with me everywhere. If I was faced with a walk of any length, such as shopping at the grocery store or taking my son to the Science Center in Holderness, I made use of an electric cart. Up until the day my back pain started, I had been experiencing an active pregnancy, one in which I made a point of taking a walk every day. All of a sudden, I felt and looked disabled. For those few weeks, I had the privilege of seeing the world from a temporarily disabled point of view.
I use the word “privilege” mindfully. In looking back at that time, my forced immobility was a kind of privilege. Those of us who have the full use of our bodies, hearing and eyesight can slip into the trap of thinking of ourselves as “normal,” while we tend to think of people whose bodies work in other ways as “disabled.” What we lose sight of is that those of us born without disabilities could acquire them at any time. Statistics vary, but those over 65 years old may make up as much as one-third of all disabled people. Fewer than 15 percent of disabled people were born with their disability, which means that the majority of disabled people acquired their disability, and many of us will face disability as we age. It’s not really an “us/them” situation. Those of us who do not currently live with disabilities should welcome opportunities to experience the world from a different point of view.
One thing I noticed during my weeks with a cane and a scooter is that kind people were very helpful. My neighbors were solicitous and asked how they could help. A good friend who is also a devout Christian put her hands on my shoulders and my belly and prayed that I would feel better and have a healthy baby. The Science Center was happy to let me reserve an electric cart, and did not question that a healthy-looking, albiet very pregnant, woman showed up to claim it.
On the other hand, some people were carelessly inconsiderate. I was shopping with Ben, my toddler, one weekday afternoon, as working folks began to crowd the store looking for ingredients for that night’s dinner. I had waited a minute or two to be able to get through a crowded spot, and a man turned to notice me trying to navigate through. He said, “You didn’t pick the best time to come shopping, did you?” I’m sure he was trying to commiserate with me about the crowded store, but he also betrayed an attitude that many able-bodied people have, often unconsciously: people with disabilities are responsible for making things easier for themselves, instead of wondering why our world is not more open and accessible to everyone.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and signed into law in 1990. It is a civil rights law that protects people with physical and mental disabilities against discrimination when using public buildings, looking for a home, or making a living. Accommodations we now take for granted have come about because of the ADA: cuts in the sidewalk where it meets the street, elevators, ramps, Braille on signs, subtitle options on DVDs, and backdoor lifts on buses are all part of our society today because of the ADA. Sadly, our courts have not chosen to interpret the ADA as a civil rights law, but rather as a law conferring benefits and entitlements. The United STates is much more accessible now that it used to be. Still, disabled people must often prove their disability to be protected under the ADA, instead of living in a world where buildings and opportunities are designed with people of all abilities in mind.
There is a paradox inherent in the way the structures of power treat people with disabilities in our society. On the one hand, our culture celebrates when people with disabilities can “triumph over adversity.” Helen Keller and disabled mountaineers like Mark Inglis and Tom Whittaker are exemplary of this ideal. Their achievements are magnificent (Inglis and Whittaker, who are both amputees, climbed Mount Everest on separate occasions). Yet the able-bodied community in America tends to look at these individuals and say to itself, “If these people with disabilities can accomplish so much, then why do we need to provide special treatment to anyone with a disability?” On the other side of the paradox, people with disabilities are seen as egotistical and selfish for demanding equal treatment and protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Should a company really have to refit its hallways, kitchens and bathrooms just for one employee, the thinking goes? Why can’t that disabled employee triumph over adversity like those heroes in the disabled community? Why should mainstream society have to make any concessions at all?
The challenge is to reach a place of empathy with people with disabilities as individual people, who are entitled to the same right of equal employment and respect as anyone else. Thinking of ourselves as temporarily able-bodied is a step toward that empathy. Any one of us could lose some or all of our hearing or sight, or break a bone so that we must use a wheelchair, and be in a position ourselves of trying to live as equals in a world of prejudice. It is a challenge for our spirits to see that people with disabilities have the same spark of divinity in them that we temporarily able-bodied people have in us.
It turns out that parenting young children has given me some sense of my own temporary able-bodiedness, even beyond the end of my pregnancy. Young children, like adults who use wheelchairs, need wheels to get around. Therefore they need ramps and cuts in the sidewalk. They need accommodations in the bathroom and for sleeping. Our congregation is part of a larger association of congregations, and our district in that association is comprised of the churches in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. Our spring conference and annual meeting in May was at a hotel in North Conway. My younger son was nine months old and I took him with me. In order to get from our hotel room to the childcare room, I had to open about seven doors, some of which opened toward me and some away. I had to navigate two or three staircases, and sometimes just one or two steps between hallways. The stroller did not always fit comfortably through the narrow doorways. I could only imagine how impossible getting around the conference site would have been to a person in a wheelchair, or a person who relied on a walker, or a blind person not expecting stairs through every door. When I told a conference organizer that this was a problem, she agreed it was regrettable. In my mind, it should have excluded the inn as a location for our annual meeting, and I hope it will in the future.
In the world we hope for, accessibility for people who don’t have perfect vision, hearing and mobility is not a tack-on to an otherwise inhospitable world. In the world we hope for, we recognize that we are all temporarily able-bodied, and that disability in any form could come to us at any moment. Therefore, we strive for “universal design.” Universal design is the concept that our buildings, public locations and workplaces should be workable and welcoming for all people. You can see universal design in some newer city buses–in Boston, for instance, if you’re ever on a bus there. Accessible buses might have a wheelchair lift in the back. This lift makes it possible for wheelchair users to ride the bus, but it requires special attention from the driver and extra time. The wheelchair user, who can neither get herself on or off the bus or choose her own spot on the bus, becomes a passive recipient of good intentions by the transit system.
Buses which incorporate universal design, on the other hand, have a low step keeping the bus up off the curb in normal conditions. By operating a hydraulic system from her seat, the driver can make the bus “kneel” until the floor of the bus is flush with the road. This allows anyone who might have trouble with a step–a wheelchair user, a parent with a stroller, a young adult pulling a shopping cart, or a person using a cane–to enter the bus on his or her own, as a free agent, with almost no slow-down in service. In the old buses, helping a wheelchair-user to board the bus was clearly an irritation to driver and rider alike, and noticeably slowed the bus from its course. In the new buses, wheelchair users ride the bus like anyone else. The new design is much better, because the kneeling buses allow more people in more circumstances to ride more easily and with more dignity than before.
Ability and disability are not either/or, us vs. them, normal/different. “Ability” is a word that describes all of us and the different things we can do, the different ways we interact with the world. We may be able to walk unassisted or not; we may be able to see or hear unassisted or not; we may be fluent in American Sign Language or not; these are all part of who we are and not the definition of who we are. And all of us, whatever our abilities are right now, may see them change in the future. All of us benefit from a world with more compassion and acceptance for all people and all abilities. All of us benefit from practicing kindness, whether at a personal level or a policy level. We hope for a world we will all be seen as complete people, dignity intact, whatever our own abilities may be.
by The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
I hope you enjoyed last week’s service, if you were here. We celebrated the new energy that comes to our fellowship in the fall with our annual water communion, and we tried something different this year. Cindy and I worked to create a service with lots of singing, stories, activities, and movement. We wanted a service that would engage people of all ages in the symbolism of creating our shared bowl of water. When I asked Suzan Gannett to read a Sufi story as part of the service, she had the idea of adding images to it to depict the stream’s long journey to the sea. Cindy and I plan to lead services like this once a month, for all ages. On the remaining Sundays in the month, the children will have their own worship service downstairs and then proceed to their religious education classes (with the exception of the younger teenagers, who will be involved in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum from nine to eleven every Sunday in the conference room up here). The hope that Cindy and I have with these family services is that once a month, adults and children can explore a form of worship they can engage in and find the spirit in together. We’re calling them Family Services.
Of course, being a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we don’t want to leave anyone out of a worship service. So I hope that when you hear the name “Family Services,” you won’t think those services are only for young children and their parents. Whether we have children or not, and whatever the ages of the children we may have, we are all part of families. We all understand “family” to mean one or more adults living with small children in the home. Yet our culture has ancient stories telling about the drama, love and difficulty of relationships between adults and their adult children. Even once we’ve grown up, we’re just as much a part of our families as ever.
In our times, the catch-phrase for the special joys and difficulties of being an adult child of our parents is called being the “sandwich generation.” I’m not quite in this generation myself; my kids are very young, and my parents and my husband’s father are healthy. In fact, they help us out with the children, not the other way around. One social researcher, writing on the “sandwich generation” even enumerates different kinds of sandwiches. The most evocative name for me is the “club sandwich,” for those whose young adult children have had their own children, and who are still taking care of their own elderly parents; or those young adults who are caring for their young children as well as their parents and grandparents, both at different stages of aging (Abaya).
I do wonder how our times are different from times past. Is this “sandwich” thing really so new? Haven’t working adults always had to help support young children and elderly parents? Of course, in our country and era, the elderly live longer and longer lives, which sometimes prolongs a period of ill health. At the same time, adolescence has also grown longer, extending the period of time when young adult children may need support–although also, perhaps, putting off their own children. As middle class women have moved into the workforce, families need more institutional support for caring for children and the elderly–support our society has been reluctant to provide. These trends may be new. Yet the basic difficulties facing adult children and their parents are ancient. We heard one such story this morning, an ancient Jewish parable retold by Jesus to a group of Pharisees: the story of the prodigal son.
Before I go farther, let me stop here and say that I’m talking this morning about parents and adult children who have some kind of relationship with each other. Some people have chosen not to have children, and that is a choice we honor. Like I said at the beginning, “family” means everyone, whatever shape your family may take. But “family” does not always mean happiness, and it is not always marked by healthy choices. Some people don’t have a relationship with their parents or children–because of past abuse, because they are estranged from one another or never knew one another. Others have wished for children who never came. Some of us have lost our parents by the time we become adults, and some of us have lost our children before their adulthood. All our families have been touched by these sorrows over the generations. If you have trouble finding yourself in the adult child-parent relationship this morning, I invite you to reflect on who is your family now. Our families are not limited to those linked to us by blood. Whether we have families of birth or families of choice, our close relationships change and grow into new joys and new difficulties as we grow older.
Two things stood out for me when I reread the parable of the prodigal son. When we are children, we treat our parents as very different from other adults in our world. When we are babies and toddlers, our parents are safe and trusted adults, two of a very small group with whom we feel safe and at home. When we are older children, our parents become the authority figures against whom we rebel, the enforcer of rules–but they are still a source of safety, comfort and love in a healthy home. When we become adults, however, we’re faced with a new relationship with our parents–and our parents are faced with a new relationship with us. We are called on to treat our parents and children like our parents and children, with love and respect. And we are also called on to treat each other like fellow adults, who deserve respect and compassion just because we are human beings. Problems arise between adult parents and children when we forget one of these relationships.
The prodigal son has asserted his rights as his father’s son and as an adult. “Give me my share,” he asks. “I’m striking out on my own.” He goes off to a foreign land and spends his money on intoxicants and prostitutes. Meanwhile his brother stays at home, becomes a partner in the family farm with their dad, helps make business decisions and shares in the profits. One day the prodigal son comes to his senses–the Bible says “comes to himself,” as though he’s woken up from a terrible hangover–and realizes that his menial work barely brings him enough money to buy food to eat. “My father is a better man than my boss,” he thinks to himself. “I’ll appeal to his decency. I’ll admit what I did wrong, ask his forgiveness, and see if he’ll hire me as one of his men on the farm.” He starts out home, thinking that he no longer has a relationship with his father as his father, and planning to appeal to his father simply as a compassionate human being.
Biblical scholars point out some details of this story that we, as modern readers, may miss. The father is completely over the top in his expression of love for his son, and his willingness to do whatever the son asks. According to the family values of the ancient Near East, a father would not have divided his estate before his death, and would not have run to greet his son. The father in Jesus’ story is shown as only interested in his son as his son, and shows no interest for his own status.
The older brother’s reaction to his brother’s return is more understandable to modern readers. He has to learn of his brother’s return from a servant; he is angry and resentful. Yet the father reminds him that their relationship is full and complete in that they treat each other as family (“all that I have is yours”) and as adult business partners (something the older brother himself alludes to when he says, “For all these years I have been working…for you”). The father tries to tell his older son that their relationship is complete, and that now both of them have a chance to rebuild their relationship with their son and brother. The older brother is left outside, with Jesus’ listeners, with us, deciding whether or not to go in.
The story of King Lear is another ancient story about the difficult relationships between adult children and their parents. This story is different from the parable of the prodigal son because in this case both Lear and his elder daughters behave badly, and the youngest child is the virtuous one. I learned recently that the story of Lear (which Shakespeare took from earlier English or Welsh myths) is a version of the story of Cinderella, which, if you think about it, is another story about the problems between adult (or perhaps adolescent) children and their parents. In the story of King Lear, Lear’s tremendous pride is bruised when his youngest and best-loved daughter, Cordelia, refuses to publicly declare her love for him in order to receive her share of his kingdom. He disowns her (the King of France finds himself moved by her virtue, and sweeps her off to become France’s queen–the entire Cinderella part of the story is then over with).
Lear had planned to retire, in a way. His faculties are slipping away from him, a truth of which he is dimly aware, and hopes to spend his elder years living with his daughters and their husbands and going hunting with his men. He wanted what many elders want: a peaceful time at the end of his life. His elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, have other ideas. They reduce the size of his retinue; they treat him rudely and tell their servants to treat him rudely. When Lear leaves Goneril’s home in a huff and tries to go stay with Regan, his middle daughter tells him she’s not ready for him yet, and refuses to give him hospitality. Lear finds himself turned out of doors on a wild and stormy night, accompanied only by his fool and a loyal courtier in disguise. He is full of rage. Why, when he stopped being king over his daughters, did they stop treating him like their father? He rails against them and shouts into the storm:
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles gainst a head
So old and white as this. Oh! Oh! tis foul (III.iii.14-24)!
Lear thought his daughters would treat him like an honored member of the family, or at least as a respected old man, but he finds that only the daughter who refused to show off her love for him is truly loyal. Goneril and Regan saw Lear as nothing more than a stepping stone to power.
The play has wisdom about adult child and parent relationships. Lear’s daughters know him better than he knows himself. They know that he is beginning to lose his mental faculties, They know what will anger him and what will please him. Because they do not respect Lear, Goneril and Regan use this special family knowledge to manipulate him to their own ends. Their insight, however misused, tells us a truth about our relationships as adult children and parents. We know each other better than perhaps any other people do. We have seen each other at our worst and at our best. The challenge is to remain in relationship as adults, carrying all that past with us, allowing it to inform our adult family without defining it.
As we grow up, and our parents age–or, for some in the congregation, as we find ourselves cared for more and more by our adult children–our challenge is to allow our relationships to transform and grow without souring. I wonder who you identify with in this morning’s stories. Are you the prodigal son, whose relationship with his parents soured long ago? Are you wondering how to come home? Are you the father, running to meet your children on the road? Are you Cordelia or Kent, loyal and true to your parents even when their decisions harm them? Or are you Lear, finding that you no longer know yourself or your children as you age? I find myself just beginning to navigate the waters of being a fellow adult with my parents, even more so now that I have my own children. Sometimes I interact with my children, and can remember so clearly when I was on the child’s end of the same moment, and my mother was me. It’s eerie to realize we now inhabit lives our parents have lived, even while we make them our own and our parents continue into the future.
One character we all perhaps identify with is the elder son in Jesus’ ancient parable. We wait outside, the party beginning within, wondering how we will forge new relationships with those we love as we grow older. There are parts of our relationship with our siblings, our parents and our children which we cherish, and parts we resent. Every moment makes the relationship new, and forces us to change to meet it. We share responsibility for the relationship as adults, and we are free to cherish it even more than we did when our children were young, or when we were children. We ask only for the wisdom to remember that our adult family members are basically human, and specially ours to cherish and respect. We carry the future of our families together.
Please join me in prayer.
Spirit of connection and love, bind us together with those we love, with bonds strong enough to hold us in hard times, and loose enough to allow us to find our own way in the world. Help us to understand our own love for our families and their love for us.
Let us see a face of the divine love in the love we feel for our families, and which they feel for us. Help us seek the other’s point of view in our own, and help us act out of respect and understanding.
Where we have known pain and harm in our families, we ask for healing. For members of our families who may have hurt us or those we loved, we ask for self-knowledge and compassion. We know there are times when we must not strengthen our ties with some family members. We ask for wisdom to recognize these relationships, and strength to find the familial love all of us need in our friends and loved ones.
For family members who have left us too soon, we hold their memories in the love of our hearts. We honor their names and keep their spirits with us. We ask for the healing of grief and the persistence of love. Amen.
Abaya, Carol. The Sandwich Generation. Accessed 17 September 2010. www.sandwichgeneration.com.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear.
The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to see clear examples of classism. We try to avoid looking at the markers of class, try to pretend that differences in class don’t exist, that while there may be poor people or rich people “out there,” everyone we know is just like us. But class differences are all around us, and we confront them at a personal level and a societal level all the time. We confront a diversity of family incomes and personal financial backgrounds in this congregation alone. Apart from diversity of belief, diversity of class may be the way in which Starr King Fellowship is most diverse, but we may not even be aware of all the differences among us. Class differences can be covered up and ignored if we wish to.
As you probably know if you have been reading, watching or listening to the news at all lately, New Hampshire’s legislature has been working to close a budget gap of nearly 300 million dollars (Fahey). Our state makes almost all of its money from a very few sources. We pay property taxes to the state–all of us, since those of us who rent have landlords who pay property tax, and landlords presumably pass that cost on in rent. If you’re a business owner, you pay taxes on your real business property as well. Individuals can be subject to an interest and dividends tax. There’s a rooms and meals tax, a gasoline tax, and a business income tax. The current budget is trying to extend the business income tax to limited liability corporations. The state liquor stores make money off the sale of wine and the exclusive sale of hard liquor. There are fees on everything–fees for parks, for hunting licenses, for car registration. We don’t have sales tax or a personal income tax.
Much of the budget gap has been closed with cuts and new revenue sources in the tens of millions. Services will be cut by thirty-two million dollars. The state will seek private development of the rest areas off I-93 in Hooksett in order to bring in more revenue. The government will sell bonds and sell some other pieces of property . The two biggest items, however, which could have brought in more revenue, are the most controversial: an income tax and expanded gambling (Fahey).
I’m not going to talk about an income tax this morning. I support a broad-based, progressive, fair tax structure for our state, and I personally would be willing to pay more in taxes in exchange for more services from the government. But the possibility of a new broad-based tax is far from the legislature’s mind and will right now, in part because they have been seduced by another possibility: expanded gambling.
It took me a while to figure out what I thought about expanded gambling. Then I had a personal moment where I came face to face with my own classism, and I began to figure it out. I was stopping in the convenience store at one of the gas stations on Holderness Road, by the entrance to the freeway. Standing in line to buy my drink, I saw two women come in, talking to each other about what they were making for dinner. I made two assumptions about them right away, as soon as I saw them and heard their conversation: they were coming from office jobs (judging from their clothes) and they were native New Englanders (judging from their accents). Then they headed to the lottery ticket side of the counter, and I added one more assumption: unlike me, in my enlightened state, they didn’t understand the futility of the lottery.
Not entirely futile, as it turns out: one of the women had won 40 dollars on a scratch ticket, and had it with her to turn in for her prize. She didn’t even take the money from the clerk. She waved him off when he reached to open the cash drawer and used her winnings to buy more lottery tickets instead. I couldn’t believe it. Forty dollars! Once you’ve won forty dollars on the lottery, you should stop playing forever. It will never get better than that. I began to think of all the things I could do with forty dollars, paid for my soda, and left the store feeling very self-righteous.
It didn’t take long to deflate that sense of righteous indignation. I told the story to my husband that night, and I began to think out loud about what I would do if I won forty dollars. Let’s assume that I don’t need to spend it on necessities like housing or food. I might buy a book or two. I might buy a board game. I might go out to eat. I might buy yarn for a knitting project. In other words, I would spend it on entertainment. I assume the woman in the convenience store didn’t need the forty dollars for necessities, either. I had already made the assumption that she had a job she was coming home from, and she didn’t hesitate to spend her winnings on more tickets. So it stands to reason that I should see her lottery purchase in the same way I would see my own purchases: entertainment. She had forty dollars to spend, and she spent them having a good time. Who am I to judge what she does with her entertainment dollar?
Now, as entertainment goes, it doesn’t matter to me if one person spends her money on yarn and another spends it on lottery tickets. Learning this has been part of getting rid of one piece of my class blinkers. It is easy to deride the choices of different groups simply because they are not the same as our choices. More lower-income people play the lottery than higher-income people. This doesn’t mean that I should look down my nose at options other people choose.
That is not to say that there are not problems with gambling. The kind of gambling New Hampshire already has–a state-run lottery, horse-racing, and bingo–and the type that senators, especially Senator Lou D’Allessandro, are proposing to close the budget gap–video slot machines–are favored by poorer people. In addition, video slot machines prey especially on lower-income groups. Video slot machines are more likely than other forms of gambling to promote addiction, and, according to a study on the relationship between demography and gambling addiction, disadvantaged neighborhoods are ten times more likely to experience gambling addiction than wealthy neighborhoods. In the poorest, most disadvantaged neighborhoods the researchers studied, ten percent of the residents were found to be problem or pathological gamblers, compared with less than one percent in the richest, most advantaged neighborhoods (Welte 418). This same study found that a person’s chance of being a problem or pathological gambler was more than twice as high if a casino was located within ten miles of his or her home (419).
Still, as a society, we condone making some forms of discretionary behavior available to everyone, even though a minority abuses those behaviors. Alcohol and cigarettes are legal, for instance–and much like the proposed expanded gambling, the state regulates and benefits from the sale of liquor and wine, and taxes the sale of cigarettes. Coffee, a substance much more addictive than alcohol (although much less harmful in its addiction), is not only legal–we build temples to it on street corners all over the country. Non-addictive, but potentially dangerous, activities are also legal: riding motorcycles, using chainsaws, climbing Mount Washington, hunting, eating raw fish, even driving a car. So it’s clearly not in the state’s interest to ban all potentially addictive or all potentially dangerous behavior.
The difference here is that Senator D’Allessandro and others are proposing to balance the state’s budget on the back of expanded gambling. Instead of considering a broad-based tax, whether a progressive tax like income tax or a regressive one like sales tax, expanded gambling would create a tax base dependent on compulsive and addictive behavior, used more by poor people than by rich people. Our state, the place where we all live and contribute to the welfare of the whole, would be saying that it was willing to finance its shortfall on the backs of the poor and the addicted. This would be in addition to the thirty million dollars in cuts already made to state services, including the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the state child care subsidy. My yarn and my books–the ways I spend my entertainment dollars–would continue to go untaxed. As a non-gambler, I would not be asked to make any greater contribution to the state’s welfare than I do now.
Understanding the dangers of expanded gambling asks us to look at class difference clearly and without prejudice. It is easier than ever for households to acquire the trappings of a middle-class life. Consumer goods once thought to be luxuries, like DVD players (or even televisions), cable service, and electronic gadgets of all kinds are now easier and easier to purchase. Ironically, these “luxuries” are priced within reach of people living on a tight budget–or perhaps, are priced within the credit limits of their credit cards. These consumer goods make poorer people feel like they are part of the next class up, part of the America they see represented in commercials. They allow many people to “pass” as a member of a higher income bracket than they are.
In the meantime, investments in a secure future and a future for one’s children are increasingly out of reach. In 1960, minimum wage was one dollar per hour, or two thousand dollars per year (U.S.). A color TV cost $500, or 3 months’ wages (Genova). In-state tuition at University of Minnesota was $213 per year, or only 1.2 months’ wages (“University”). (I’m using the University of Minnesota as an example of a state university because their tuition information is available on-line.)
In 2009, minimum wage was $7.25 per hour, or $14,500 per year (U.S.). A LCD HDTV, a state-of-the-art TV comparable to a color TV in 1960, still costs about $500, or two weeks’ wages. In-state tuition at the University of Minnesota, however, has risen to $10,320 per year, or two-thirds of a minimum wage worker’s gross annual salary (”University”).
When I preached on class a year and a half ago, I framed this problem in terms of a society that did not reward frugality and good choices. But now I see our problems go beyond that. A person used to be able to pay for college with a summer job; now it takes debt and the sacrifice of an entire family for one person to get an education. Consumer culture is built on the idea that you can get what you want. Credit is easy and toys are cheap. Businesses don’t profit if people say to themselves, “Nah, I can’t afford that.” But our state is not in the business of making a profit. Our state ought to represent the best interests of the people who live here, rich and poor alike.
We must recognize that whatever a person’s standard of living looks like from the outside, there are real differences of means between the lowest and highest earners in our society. For high earners, college for one’s children is a foregone conclusion, and gambling is likely to be an occasional entertainment. For low earners, valuable goods like college may be completely out of reach, and gambling may be seen as a form of investment, however unlikely the payout. We cannot, as a state, balance our budget on the backs of the least fortunate among us. Gambling as entertainment is a personal choice. Gambling as public policy is predatory and unfair. We owe ourselves better than that.
Please join me in prayer.
Our hearts are charged with the spirit. We reach out in thought, and love and warmth to those around us, sharing our spirit with others. Together, we extend the spirit of this community beyond these walls and out into the world.
We ask for the courage to see those struggling in poverty as our kindred, not as a nameless “other,” but as brothers and sisters to our own hearts. We ask for help with our own financial worries and struggles, that we may be freed from the cycle of want and debt, and that we may find the means to pay for the necessities and investments in our lives. We ask for a spirit of generosity, that we may give out of our abundance of wealth or spirit to those who have less. We ask for strength as we continue our various works for justice and equality in our communities.
We ask the leaders of our nation and our state to feel this same compassion when they exercise their power and make choices for us all. We ask that the fire in our own hearts burn brightly for justice, helping us to do our civic duty. We ask that they, and we, have strength to remember our sacred calling: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Eternal.
We ask that this community remain united in its zeal for justice beyond the divisions of politics. Let us work together in common cause for the good of all the people in our community, our country, and our earth. Many things seek to divide us: politics, class, race and geography. May we ever seek to overcome these divisions and live as a more complete humanity together. Amen.
Fahey, Tom. “Deadline Approaches for Budget Negotiators.” Unionleader.com. 26 May 2010. Accessed 28 May 2010. http://www.theunionleader.com/article.aspx?headline=Deadline+approaches+for+budget+negotiators&articleId=da82e104-8240-48dd-b9ef-1b407ecacb05.
Genova, Tom. “TV Selling Prices.” Television History–The First 75 Years. Accessed 29 May 2010. http://www.tvhistory.tv/tv-prices.htm.
U. S. Department of Labor. “Federal Minimum Wage Rates, 1955-2009.” Infoplease. Pearson Education. Accessed 29 May 2010. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0774473.html.
“University of Minnesota Annual Tuition Rates: 1960-61 to 2009-10: Twin Cities Campus.” University of Minnesota, Office of Institutional Research. 22 July 2009. Accessed 29 May 2010. http://www.irr.umn.edu/tuition/.
Welte, John W., et. al. “The Relationship of Ecological and Geographic Factors to Gambling Behavior and Pathology.” Journal of Gambling Studies 20.4 (2004): 405-423.
The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
I have the privilege of serving on the New England Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy for the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Subcommittee meets once a year and interviews people who are hoping to become Unitarian Universalist ministers. Ideally, we see them after they have completed about one year of seminary.
Students have to see a subcommittee like the one I serve on before they may prepare to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which confers fellowship. Seeing the Ministerial Fellowship Committee is the last step before becoming a professional minister. That body makes sure that candidates know their material about our tradition and the practices and ethics of ministry.
The Subcommittee I serve on, one of four around the country, is looking for something different. After only one year of school, and often no parish or chaplaincy internship yet, students are not expected to know a body of information. Rather, the Subcommittee checks in with the student about their progress, areas of attention before proceeding with seminary, and gives caution where needed. In a very few circumstances, the Subcommittee has the power to tell a student she or he is unsuited for the ministry and may not proceed toward fellowship, with the hope that they might reconsider their career before spending any more money or time on divinity school.
When we met last month, we happily did not have to give any such negative decisions to any students. To my great pleasure, I got to meet with and learn from wonderful future ministers. I met a woman who has already spent fifteen years working for women’s reproductive choices and health, and who has come to understand that work as a ministry. She envisions combining the social justice work of advocacy with a pastoral ministry to women and men who face the challenges of parenthood, from losing pregnancies to rearing children.
I met a man who is entering the ministry as a first career, as I have done. He has studied the history of Unitarianism in Germany. I can see his ministry taking him into the parish or into the academy.
I met a woman approaching ministry as a second career, after long and successful service as an administrator in universities and government agencies. She was so competent, clear and organized. In her I can see a future district executive and builder of institutions. As much work as the three days of interview were, they were also joyful and deepening for my ministry.
The interviews were an occasion for me to recall my own path to the ministry. I had always been a church kid. When I was young, my father was a church musician in an Episcopal church and I always went to church with him, even as my mother lost interest in Christianity.
When we became Unitarian Universalists when I was eleven, I transferred my loyalty to my new congregation–in large part because I was instantly welcomed by the other kids in my Sunday School class. I kept on going to this new church, now with both my parents and my younger brother. I explored goddess spirituality with our pagan-leaning minister. He left when I was thirteen, and we hired a woman as our interim minister–the first time I had personal experience of a woman minister, although it had never occurred to me that ministry might be an all-male profession.
It was with Anne that I first began to think about being a minister. I joined the church when I was fifteen so I could vote to call our new settled minister, also a woman–and a lesbian, opening one more barrier before it had even had time to form in my mind. When I was sixteen I got the idea that being a minister was a job people could have–a job I could have–something I could point my life toward like a blaze in the thicket.
It would be easy to say that I have always wanted to be a minister. I remember, however, that when I went to college I hoped to be a poet–perhaps the only career less practical than the ministry. But I kept going to church, and stayed active in the continental youth movement–and it was at a youth conference that I realized something in me was, in that ancient language, called to the ministry. I was eighteen years old.
I studied philosophy, the Bible, the Qur’an, history; I went to divinity school; I still think I only had a vague sense of what ministers actually do, and what might make a person suited to that work. As I prepared for fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, I was introduced to much of that real work in my parish and hospital chaplaincies. From having a very vague and glib sense of the work of ministry, I became convinced of the enormity of the work, and wondered how I would ever get good at all of it. With time, I figured, a person could learn to do everything that was required.
Of course, a secret of ministry is that one never learns how to do everything a minister could do. I am just lately coming to realize that, as a minister, I don’t have to do it all. I don’t have to be the perfect minister for every situation. I don’t have to run an abortion clinic, or write about German history, or administer a district–because for every moment and every calling, there is a person who loves that work and will take it on with vigor. The work is not all mine to do. I stand in a tradition of religious leadership stretching back thousands of years. Even now, I stand in a community of colleagues all working together for the health and strength of our Unitarian Universalist faith and institutions.
That community of colleagues includes many who do the work of ministry in our movement apart from the path to ordination. Many people do their good work for the good news of liberal religion in other paths, no less important or valuable for their choice not to pursue ordination. Others begin their work as laypeople and eventually enter the ministry, even while continuing their original mission in life.
Sophia Lyon Fahs is an example of a woman with a non-traditional path to her ministry. Fahs was born in 1876, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She, too, wanted to be a missionary, and married an aspiring Methodist missionary. She began her professional religious career close to home, however, as a Sunday school teacher in a Presbyterian church. She was a freshman in college. She wasn’t–at first–put off by the Christian theology of the Ten Commandments curriculum she was teaching; she was more dismayed by the manner of teaching the children. Religious education in those days, for Unitarian and Presbyterian children alike, involved drilling the Bible into impressionable young minds. Fahs knew their must be a better way. And as she began to explore children’s faith development and pedagogy, as well as modern Biblical scholarship, her theology began to change, too.
She continued her education and continued to teach Sunday School, including an experimental Sunday School during her days as a student at Columbia Teacher’s College. She waited until her children were grown, however, to enter Union Theological Seminary. As we heard in this morning’s reading, she was forty-seven years old. I can hear in her letter about starting seminary in mid-life her own doubts and wonder about her life’s path.
Fahs writes to her mother that first, she needs her ministry degree so that she will be seen as an equal by the male parish ministers she will work with when she is the head of the Sunday School. Secondly, she says, she may someday get a parish–Fahs qualifies it by saying it would be a “small” parish. She also wanted it to be a congregation open to the possibility of a worship life centered on the interactive style children respond to so well, and not to preaching–so we do not know whether she felt herself limited to a “small” congregation because of her gender or because of her worship leadership style (Hunter 130).
I find it fascinating that although Fahs already had two degrees, one in education, she felt that in order to make her mark as a religious educator she needed a professional ministry degree as well. As it happened, she did not seek ordination. She joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary and promoted her vision of children’s religious education that began with the experiences of the children themselves.
In 1937, with Unitarianism in decline, the American Unitarian Association hired Fahs to be the children’s editor of an entirely new Sunday School curricula. In 1945, Fahs became a Unitarian herself. Of her work for Unitarianism, Chris Walton, editor of the UU World, writes:
Drawing on anthropological and psychological research, the children’s books were dedicated to one goal: “We wish children to come to know God directly through original approaches of their own to the universe.” The series’ child-centered approach appealed to many young “baby boom” parents, and the curriculum’s popularity in the fellowships that sprang up across the continent was one leading factor in Unitarianism’s post-war resurgence (64).
Fahs was ordained in 1959, at the age of 83, as a recognition that the work she had been doing all her life, was, in fact, a form of ministry.
Religious education has long been one of those areas which we, as a movement, don’t exactly know how to relate to ministry. We now have the umbrella term “professional religious leadership,” meaning ministers, directors of religious education, music directors, seminary professors, and denominational administrators–anyone who has prepared, through experience or education, to lead our movement professionally.
Our movement has tried, over the years, so many different paths for lay religious educators: to allow directors of religious education to apply their years of professional experience toward a Master of Divinity equivalent and become Ministers of Religious Education; a while when we had a profession called Minister of Religious Education but it still required a seminary degree, even if the possible jobs were not much different from being Director of Religious Education; and now, when the Minister of Religious Education label has faded and we have a credentialing process for religious educators, which is once again going through review and change. We seem to have trouble recognizing that the challenging and rewarding work of religious education, just like the challenging and rewarding work of other kinds of lay leadership, is its own profession with its own skill set and preparation, and that it is a form of ministry even if many religious educators are not ordained.
The truth is, in our faith tradition, ordination is not a sacrament. Ministers don’t get sacred powers that laypeople don’t have. Ordained ministry is one path for people who hear the call to service within themselves. Professional religious education leadership is another; congregational music leadership is another.
Yet to some extent or another, every person who walks into the doors of a worshiping community because they hear a call of some kind: a call to community, a call to service, a call to caring, a call to deeper faith. The work of all of us is the work of ministry. Participating in a Sunday service, chairing a committee, visiting a fellow member in the hospital: these are all aspects of the ministry of our congregation.
When you feel supported by Starr King Fellowship and your own personal beliefs to carry your truth into the wider world, that’s ministry, too. Standing up at your town meeting to speak against a narrow and bigoted definition of marriage: ministry. Working to organize your community for a lower-carbon, greener future: ministry. Speaking up for the minority point of view: ministry. Congregations are sustained because of the ministry of the membership to each other and to the larger community.
You may be considering professional ministry as a career. If you’d like to learn more about two paths to professional religious leadership, I invite you to the discussion of this sermon at 11:00 a.m. today. Cindy Spring, our Director of Religious Education, will join me as co-facilitator of that discussion. But whether your path will take you to seminary or not, whether your path will take you into professional religious education, I encourage you to make of your “vocation and avocation” a united whole. The fellowship consists of the people, not the minister. The ministry is all the work we do together to support our community, our values, and the good of the world.
Please pray with me.
We pray for our congregations. We pray for Unitarian Universalists across this country and around the world. We pray for religious educators. We pray for ordained ministers, for those who have gone before, for those who serve now, and for those who are yet to come. May we see ourselves in the other, the other in ourselves, and God in all.
Hunter, Edith. Sophia Lyon Fahs: A Biography. 100th Birthday ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976. (This book is available from the Starr King Fellowship library.)
Walton, Christopher L. “Sophia Lyon Fahs: Revolutionary Educator.” UUWorld March/April 2003: 64.
Leading memorial services is one of the most rewarding aspects of ministry. You might not expect this, looking at it from the outside. When I meet with families about services for their loved ones, the mourners are often distraught, bereft and tearful. They are people at at extreme of human emotion. Then when I consider that planning a memorial service is one of the easier tasks of grieving, one of the most structured and for which much family and community support is provided, I realize that I am seeing people standing on a precipice of grief. The next month will be impossible, the next year will be a struggle, and their lives will be different forever. Working with death hardly seems like it would be rewarding.
Yet it is. I have found that people are open in their grief when a loved one has died. Our culture puts such a premium on good cheer and maintaining a positive outlook. Melancholy has become a diagnosis. Grief is one of the few times it’s socially acceptable to be sad–even very sad. There’s also something comforting about the ritual of planning and carrying out a memorial service. When I meet with families, I ask them to tell me the life story of their loved one. In a few rare circumstances, I’ve been able to meet with the dying person herself, to ask her about her most cherished memories and lessons learned. Usually it is families revealing their fond memories. I ask not only about the good times, but about struggles the deceased had as well. Talking to a minister, families can feel a freedom to share the truth about their loved one, truths families often all understand but rarely talk about.
Then, once we get to the actual memorial service, an entire family is often gathered together. Friends come from out of town. People connect with cousins they haven’t seen in years. They are brought together by loss and grief, but the occasion is an opportunity for growth, connection and love. In the Jewish tradition, people are buried immediately after death, usually within 24 hours. This of course means that only the family already present at the time of death attend the burial. Then family and friends gather in the home of the bereaved for several days after the burial to sit shiva, a time of visiting, remembering the dead, and offering comfort to the family. It’s similar to a Catholic wake, except it happens in the family’s home, and lasts for several days.
I sat shiva with a friend of mine in middle school, after her younger sister died of Tay-Sachs disease. It felt very natural for us eleven and twelve-year-olds to be visiting our classmate while her family and adults in our community also came by to pay respects to her parents. Death brings generations together around a shared human experience. Continuing in the Jewish tradition, the gravestone is unveiled a year after the person’s death, a ritual which marks the end of the official mourning period.
In a Christian context, I read a grown man’s account of grieving recently where he spoke of himself as having “self-indulgently” allowed himself to grieve deeply for his mother’s death for over a month. The Jewish tradition is much more human and realistic to me. The first stage of loss is immediate: your loved one dies and is buried. The second stage follows in the week after: all your friends and family gather in your home. The third stage takes the rest of a year: learning to live the memory of your loved one instead of his presence. Only then may grieving begin to be over.
Finding memorial services valuable and deepening has not been the only surprise in the ministry of the end of life. Another has been the number of people who say to me when they are alive, “I don’t want any kind of service when I pass away. I don’t want any fuss.” Or, something my own grandfather said, “Don’t act sad when I die–have a party to remember me.” These statements have always struck me as strange. Of course I and my family were sad when my grandfather passed. Of course your family, friends and fellowship community will gather to remember you when you die. I advise people to make known what they want included in their memorial services, and I advise families and communities to conduct memorial services for their dead loved ones, even if their loved ones said they didn’t want a service. Death occurs when it will; it is honored and brought into the rhythm of our lives through ritual. Death is one’s own rite of passage; the memorial service belongs to those who remember us.
We live in a society insulated from the fact and occurrence of death. People in our country live longer than they ever did in generations past. Death has become a part of the medical world, much like birth. And this is confusing, because the task of the medical world is to heal, to improve, and to avoid death. This can make doctors’ approach to a dying person contradictory to the person’s and her family’s approach to dying. Dr. Ira Byock, in his book Dying Well, tells of being an emergency room physician and seeing an elderly man, clearly dying and clearly well-cared for, brought to the hospital by his close-knit family. The doctor confirmed that the gentleman was dying and asked why the family had brought him to the hospital. They responded: “Isn’t it illegal for someone to die in your home?”
This isn’t to say that all physicians are fearful of death, or that all doctors will rail against the dying of the light until the patient has entered the Twilight Zone. It’s just to say that the goals of medicine, in general, are to improve bodily health; and the ultimate disposition of humanity, in general, is the end of bodily health. It says more about our culture in general than anything about the culture of medicine that we have handed the act of dying over to the hospital.
The experience of death is not universal across cultures. Sarah Erdman, writing about her Peace Corps work doing women’s health education in a village in Cote d’Ivoire, describes that villages different reaction to death and dying. Children died so often in the village, especially during childbirth and infancy, that there was a certain detachment from very young children that Erdman had never experienced in America. Plans weren’t made for unborn children; infants were not given names until they were eight days old. She witnessed people express their deepest grief over the deaths of their mothers, not their children. When a very young mother is inconsolable over the death of her first child, after only a few days of life, her experience stands in stark contrast to the expectations of her village. The village’s response to the mother’s terrible grief at her son’s funeral is “Please, leave this.” It is the standard response to a burden to great to bear. “Leave this. Grief is with us all the time. You cannot carry this one loss with you. Leave this.” In this village, grief and loss are neither “good” nor “bad”–they are constant and inevitable (189-90). We here in the United States are privileged in our removal from everyday death and dying.
For us, in this culture and this time, what makes a death “good”? We usually think of someone old–not just elderly, but downright old–someone who has lived a fulfilling life, someone who is at peace or has made peace with the people and struggles of his time. We also think of a peaceful and painless transition from life to death. We like to think of the dying person being spiritually ready to pass on. We imagine him dying suddenly, or slowly expiring without any messy pain. We imagine our own anxiety being as low as possible. In fact, if we–we who are left behind–could get through the process of dying, death and mourning with as much composure as possible, that would be best. Sadness and desolation are so disruptive and unpleasant. A “good death” would not take us too deeply into that abyss.
As a culture, we have defined a “good death” so narrowly that almost all deaths fall outside it. And if they are not “good,” those deaths must be “bad.” The deaths of children–of men and women in battle–of young parents–death when we are not ready–death in the midst of life–we cannot simply label these deaths “bad” deaths and expect to get through them. We need stronger and deeper spiritual tools to help us navigate the sea of grief where these deaths can leave us. It is a fact of life in the developed Western world that death does not come as often to us as it used to. I have experienced the deaths of two great-grandparents, three grandparents and an uncle during my lifetime, apart from the deaths I have been honored to stand witness to as a minister. Even one hundred years ago, a person would hardly have lived to adulthood with so little loss. We have all the more reason to be prepared for loss and death when it comes our way.
One comfort I take spiritually in the face of death is its inevitability. Especially in the face of illness, and especially when we are not very old, we seek to postpone death with medical science. And this certainly has its place. People still in the primes of their lives have every reason to seek medical treatment to avoid death. Yet death will come for all of us. There will come a moment where medical intervention is not the right approach, because we have reached our own personal end. If we are blessed enough to know when we have reached that point, we can use resources such as the love of our families and the support of hospice care to die in familiar surroundings, not in pain, and not in the hospital.
I mentioned that one of the losses I have experienced in my life was the death of my uncle. My family is tight-knit, and I had been close to my father’s brother since I was a little girl. In 1999, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He chose to treat it aggressively. His sister gave him a bone marrow transfusion, and for a year, his cancer went into remission. Then it came back. His wife, my aunt, could not imagine life without him. She held onto hope that he would recover, even though the prognosis for recovery was very poor. It seemed to me that, in my family, we could not talk about Uncle Selden’s dying, only about this impossible hope that he might get better. I would have been comforted, in that moment, by a spiritual knowledge of the inevitability of death. I knew this, in a learned way, but with my uncle I came to know it in a personal and deeply compelling way. We will all die. If we are blessed and lucky, we will have some time when the end is near to accept our deaths and share our love with those to whom we are closest.
The other spiritual comfort I take from the fact of death is an observation that Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church made. He noted that our lives have meaning because we know that we must someday die. We know that we only have this opportunity to make things right, to be our best selves, to build up relationships and beauty in the world. It is this knowledge that makes us ethical beings, and this knowledge that gives depth and meaning to our actions. Precisely because we do not live forever, we are forced to make the most of the time we have. We don’t need to agree on what happens after we die–we don’t need to imagine cosmic judgment–when we know we face the judgment of our own conscience and the possibility of a life well-lived. We live on in our good works and the memories of those we have loved. Death comes to us all; it is what we do in the living that gives us meaning and a relationship to the sacred.
Byock, Ira. Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.
Erdman, Sarah. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.
I have wishes for the future of our fellowship. When we think of wishes, we think of a genie in a bottle, wishes for the moon or for what will never be. These are real wishes for this wonderful, energetic group of people. These are wishes for what I know we can accomplish by working together.
My first wish is that this fellowship be always more open, always more curious, always more welcoming to the stranger in our midst. We are at our best when our arms, hearts and eyes are open to the new person among us. It’s easy to be open and welcoming to people who are just like us: people who we recognize as the same through their interests, their socio-economic class, their age or their politics, or because their racial or ethnic background is the same as ours. My wish for us is that we are open even to those who seem different at first glance, whose background, or ideas, or way of being in the world is different from our own. We grow spiritually by opening ourselves up to a wonderful diversity of human experience, and by learning from others about their lives and their passions.
This congregation has been good at welcoming the newcomers among us. My wish is that we continue to bring new people into our culture, and change our culture as new people become part of us. Starr King Fellowship is not the same congregation that was begun in 1980. Every time someone has joined our group, we have changed. Every time someone has left, even if their leaving brought pain for them or us, we have changed. Look around you. Our congregation is not the sum of the parts of the people in our fellowship today. We are the multiplied effect of all the human spirits who have been a part of this congregation since the beginning, who have moved through us, who have journeyed with us for a little while or for a long stretch. There must be a part of us that is open to those human spirits who will come in the future, and transform us in ways we cannot imagine. Be always more curious, always more open: that is my first wish for Starr King Fellowship.
My second wish is that we increase our social justice outreach. We have done such a good job over the past four years, giving away one collection plate a month to charitable organizations. Next week, we’ll give away our collection plate to the Pemi Youth Center, the local after-school center for middle-school and high-school youth. I can imagine, in several years, our giving away every collection to charity. We could work with those charities to pair our financial gifts with volunteer opportunities for our adults and youth, to give everyone a chance to participate, and to strengthen the connections between our fellowship and their organizations. When we started giving away one collection plate a month, we quickly saw our charitable giving reach as much as $10,000 in one year. We also saw our income increase as our fellowship committed its resources to the larger good. Our fellowship can be known as a place that connects people to opportunities to do good, both through volunteering and through financial generosity.
I can envision a playground outside the new religious education wing in the back. I can see the neighborhood kids playing on that playground as well, just as they play at our basketball hoop every afternoon after school. I can see this congregation leading the way toward the transition away from dependence on fossil fuels. I can see us continuing our connection to people and communities in other countries. This congregation has been involved in social justice work since its birth thirty years ago. In one way or another, we will continue our social justice work in the future. There are exciting possibilities ahead for us.
Finally, my third wish for our fellowship is that we continue our journey of spiritual growth. From Sunday mornings, to adult religious education, to the men’s group, to Wise Women, to hiking, to covenant groups, to our children’s religious education–I hope we all continue to have more opportunities to expand our experience of the ultimate truth. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that spiritual truth comes to us not only through words on a page–not only through the record of the revelations given to other people in the dusty past–but through our experiences here and now. Enlightenment waits for us in the natural world, showing us the miracles of evolution and the dizzying vastness of life on our planet. Truth waits for us in our interactions with other people, as we come to connect on a soul level with people whose perspectives and experiences are different from ours. The spirit is with us in this community at its best, in moments of singing together, in moments of shared silence, and in our coming together to support families when support is what they need. My third wish is the deepest: that we continue this journey of growth and exploration and the life of the spirit together, held accountable to our own conscience, to our relationships with others, and to that which we call Most High.
This morning, your fellowship is asking you to make your financial commitment for next year’s budget. The Governing Board and the Budget and Finance Committee have done their best to keep growth in the budget modest. We know we’re coming out of hard times as a country, and we know that people are still being very generous and paying their capital campaign pledges to the building. The growth in next year’s budget is really focused on two areas. First, we need to budget for an increase in utilities, because with only one warmish winter under our belts in this new, expanded building, we still don’t know what our average or expected utility costs will be for a year. And, like most organizations, we’re still dependent on fossil fuels, and we don’t know what oil will cost a year from now.
Secondly, we’re increasing the hours for our Director of Religious Education, Cindy Spring. Our religious education enrollment has more than doubled in the past two years, from 19 to 43. We are lucky to have Cindy, who has decades of experience in professional religious education, both in other Unitarian Universalist congregations and in our district. Giving her more hours to work with our children and youth will help sustain and continue the growth we’ve seen in the religious education program.
Our dreams this morning are about possibilities and programs that we will realize in years to come. The visions you shared this morning will go into the mix to create a renewed mission for our congregation. This summer and early next fall, the board and committee chairs will be working to turn that mission into a new strategic plan, with three-to-five year achievable goals.
What the fellowship is asking you for today is a commitment to sustain the good work we’ve started. If you look in your pledge form, you’ll see there’s space to consider both a financial pledge and a volunteer pledge. Please consider what you can give financially and how you can participate. I want to emphasize that every financial gift matters, whatever the amount you can afford. No single pledge can support the mission of our fellowship. We can only do it by giving the amount that is right for us, and trusting that all our individual pledges will together carry us forward.
This is a year of committing to what we have done so far and laying the foundation for the future. It is a year of asking ourselves where we are going together and making sure we have the resources to get there. You know where your passion is in this congregation and what makes you excited to give of your money and time. Show that excitement through your gifts to support our mission now.
Imagine the Israelites in the desert. They’ve been wandering out there for years, not eating much, carrying everything they own with them. They have had new experiences of their God, mountaintop experiences–they have seen their God as a pillar of fire in the night and a storm of cloud during the day. Moses has actually spoken to God on the mountaintop and he has brought to the Israelites the law, an ideal vision of the agrarian community they will become. There are many new and thrilling revelations and experiences on their way to freedom.
Still: they are on their way for a long time. They wander in the desert for decades, so long that a whole generation dies, and a whole generation is born, between the shores of the Sea of Reeds and the River Jordan. Once, Moses is up on the mountaintop for a long time. All the Israelites can see is a massive storm that envelopes the peak. For all they know, Moses is dead and God has abandoned them. The Israelites know that other nations pray to a bovine god when things are bad. So Aaron gives the Israelites permission to melt down their gold to make a sacred bull. When Moses does come back from his encounter–glowing, transformed, terrifying and prophetic–all those who worshipped at the golden idol and who will not repent are struck dead. In other words, for all of God’s promises via Moses, things are not going well. The Israelites mutter and wish that they were still slaves–slaves!–in Egypt, rather than wandering around the desert for years on end.
They keep going because there are those among them who believe that they are going to the Promised Land. “Get through it,” their leaders say, “because a better time is coming.” When you and I hear those words, we think of the promise of the sweet hereafter, something that will happen after we die. In the Exodus story, the Israelites’ leaders help them believe that they are getting somewhere real, somewhere on earth, somewhere they can give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle down to raise crops and dandle their children’s children. As the story has been handed down to us by the oral tradition of the Israelites and the writers and editor of the Torah, the Israelites overcame the suffering of slavery and of their wandering by thinking of the good world to come in the land God would give them. The endured their suffering and got through by imagining, through their leaders and as a people, the day when that suffering would end.
At this time of Easter in the Christian tradition, we think of Jesus on the cross, suffering. In him, we see the suffering of the Jewish people under Roman control distilled into the suffering of one human body. The gospel stories tell us that Jesus knew that his ministry, and probably his life, were coming to an end during the Passover feast of the year 33 CE. The gospel writers imagine him abandoned by his friends in the garden of Gethsemane, praying that he not have to endure what is coming, knowing that there is no way out. In art, Jesus is often depicted as impassive as he walks the road to his own death. This is the Jesus who says, while he is being crucified, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” But Jesus’ much more human response is also recorded: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
Suffering is a universal human experience, and our faith traditions try to make sense of it. Judaism and Christianity seem to say, “Look beyond.” Another tradition, Buddhism, says, “Go deeper.” Take this meditation, for instance, attributed to the Buddha:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
This sounds to me like an ode to the notion that suffering is always with us, that we cannot escape it, and that there is simply no “getting through.” The hard times aren’t now; the hard times are the nature of our existence. Even when we’re enjoying life, even when things are going well, we are merely building up painful attachments to goods and relationships that are temporary. The future suffering of having to let go of those attachments is already built into forming them. The key to enlightenment is coming, through experience and spiritual discipline, to see that happiness and sorrow are one, that all is one in the cycle of life. This is the insight the character Siddhartha came to on the banks of the river–a river he had been to before but was now different–that love and death, suffering and joy, birth and aging are all one. And, having come to know this, he felt truly at peace.
However, I don’t mean to place Buddhism and the Jewish tradition, out of which both the holidays of Easter and Passover find their roots, at odds to one another. In the story we heard this morning from the Hebrew Bible, from the history of the people Israel presented in 2 Kings, the prophet and man of God Elisha uses his divinely-given power to give fertility to a woman with an aged husband. This couple has many material possessions in life, but they do not have a child. They have been patrons of Elisha, hosting him when he is in their city and even building an addition on their house where he can stay. Elisha offers them political favors, but the Shunammite woman declines, saying she is content where she is. She says, “No, o man of God, do not deceive me.” Elisha’s servant tells him that what the couple really lacks in life is a child, and they do not think they will ever conceive. After Elisha blesses her, the Shunammite woman becomes pregnant–a miracle like the one given to Sarah and Abraham when they became parents to Isaac.
But here is where the Shunammite woman learns the lesson of the Buddha. She and her husband are overjoyed to have a son. They think their suffering is over. But one day, while the boy is working in the fields with his father, he is struck with an ailment or an accident. “My head, my head,” he cries. The father brings him back to the house, and he dies in his mother’s arms later that day. The mother lays her son on his bed and goes straight to Elisha. She says, “Did I ask you for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?” Elisha first sends his servant to cure the child with Elisha’s staff, but when that does not work, Elisha goes himself. He prays, and he brings the child back to life. The Shunammite woman is overjoyed; the story of Elisha, the man of God, moves on.
What stays in my mind from that story is the Shunammite woman’s rebuke to Elisha: “Did I ask you for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?” She refuses the servant and goes straight to God’s prophet with her lament. She is saying: if you wanted to do something for me, why did you give me greater suffering with my greater joy? Hadn’t I learned to accept the life I had been given to live? Wasn’t I happy with my husband, using our wealth to make a difference in the world, even if we had no child? I asked for nothing. You thought you gave me a gift in the form of a child. But all you really gave was misery, now that he is dead. If you meant your gratitude, give him back.
The Shunammite woman learns, in that awful moment when her son dies in her arms, that her sorrow was always already with her in her love for her son. Elisha is able to use the power his God has given him to bring the boy back to life. In the Jewish tradition, there is a connection between birth and resurrection: God is the giver of life (Levenson 128). This story accompanies the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in the rabbinic lectionary, and some Hebrew words and phrases appear only in these two stories. Isaac is also a beloved son, given late in life, whom Abraham must be willing to sacrifice before he is miraculously spared from death. Having and loving children means accepting that someday you will be separated from one another by death. We parents hope it will be our death, we hope at an advanced age, and not theirs: but the loss is with us from the moment they are born.
In my life, I have been slow to learn the wisdom my troubled times have to offer. I often have to search for my own awareness of my sadness, to work to stay with it long enough for it to speak to me and become part of me. I am too focused on the next thing, on the brighter days, and I can miss learning the lesson that suffering has to teach me. I recently had the chance to talk to a woman, engaged for her whole life in the process of helping others and standing up for those in need, who had also struggled her whole life with depression and anger. It came and went through the years like a comet, fire and ice. She had long been in therapy and took prescribed medication to manage her depression. Yet she also acknowledged her depression like a companion, a sister on her journey who whispered in her ear. The woman had learned that, in some way, her depression would always be with her. She was learning to accept it–if not yet love it–as part of the whole that made her who she is.
All of us suffer. Some clearly have harder lives than others, but suffering is built into every human life. What deepens us, what sustains us, what connects us to one another is the meaning we are able to find in that suffering. We will probably never find the meaning of the question, “Why is this happening to me?” because there is no why. God does not look down from his heaven and pick: this one poor, this one filthy rich and miserable, this one president, this one dead at seventeen. The lesson we learn from suffering is that it is not going away. There is no tomorrow where everything is fine. Suffering is with us, it is part of us and part of the world we live in, and we are called to deepen our relationship with it and with all aspects of our existence. Even if we do everything right, exercise, eat our vegetables, give to the less fortunate, stay out of the sun–even if we follow all the rules–we will still experience loss and heartbreak on our way.
Today is Easter, and one day in the celebration of Passover. Today is a day of triumph, a day of celebrating the victory of faith and community and hope over the worst kinds of oppression and death. Today is the day the slaves make their way to freedom. Today is the day the tomb lies empty. Today is the day of victory over bondage of the body and the spirit. But listen to the wisdom in our religious heritage: the time will come when we will once again walk the road to Golgotha. The day will come when we once again eat the bitter herbs of bondage. Just because you’ve crossed the Sea of Reeds doesn’t mean your troubles are over. The desert still lies ahead.
But there is the other side of this moment, there is another message as well: joy will be with us in the desert, too. Joy is with us even at the funerals of beloved friends and family, as we share together and laugh at the best moments we remember. Joy is with us even through the aches and pains of living and growing older. Joy is not what we experience when we get through our suffering. Joy is the deep connection and love we feel with one another and with the ultimate ground of our being even in the midst of suffering. Joy is not what we strive toward once we get over the hard road. Joy is in the deep bonds to other people we form along the way. And even when those people go from us, or we from them, as we all must do, we are deeply blessed for having known them and loved them and been loved in return. In this way new life is always with us; in this way we live in the promised land.
Please pray with me.
God of death and dying, of endings, of the parting of the ways, be with us. Let us know that your loving presence is with us even when we are in the midst of sorrow. Let us not reach too quickly to leave our sadness behind. Help us not to paper over the depths of our lives with distraction and hollow enterprise. Let us feel the love and companionship of our fellow human beings even in the midst of our suffering.
God of new beginnings, of the green earth, dancing God and God of the goal attained, be with us. Help us to celebrate the wonderful moments in our lives, and to celebrate those moments in others’ lives with them. Let us know joy for the gift it is. Let us know that you are with us in our joy, celebrating with us. Give us smiles, give us laughter, give us the gift of enjoyment without the temptation of grasping after eternal happiness.
Let the spirit of new beginnings and new life be with us this morning. As we gather together to share meals today, as we connect with friends and family, let us see the face of the divine in those we love. Let us feel the warmth of their hands in ours and know the presence of God.
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Levenson, Jon D. Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.
I went to the fifth grade in the most integrated elementary school in Michigan. It was located in the corner of one of Detroit’s northwest suburbs.
There were the kids, like me, whose ancestors had immigrated from Europe to the United States or Canada several generations ago–kids whose families had come from Poland, from France, from Italy, from Germany, from Scandinavia. There were first-generation immigrant kids from Russia and Eastern Europe, often Jews fleeing the Soviet regime. There were some Orthodox Jews, although most of those kids went to a hillel, or Jewish day school, associated with one of the three large synagogues within walking distance. There were African American kids, the children of Detroit’s African American middle class, who had moved out to the suburbs for the same quality of life and good school systems they offered white families. Most of the white Catholic kids, often from French Canadian families, lived in the next suburb over and went to the Catholic elementary school. I remember a few kids from southeast Asia, especially Vietnam. There were not many kids who spoke Spanish as a first language–it was much more common to hear Russian. I remember standing in the warm vestibule on winter days with my classmates, waiting for the doors to open in the morning, and trying to work out between us who celebrated what holidays, and why.
In fifth grade, students were randomly assigned to homerooms where we did our academic subjects, and then traveled as a group to things like music and art. When we moved over to the middle school next door in sixth grade, we began going to tracked academic classes: high, middle, and low. This continued in high school, which drew from that one square mile my elementary school had served plus two other suburbs.
By the time I was taking honors classes in high school, there were no African-American kids in my classes. More than ten percent of the population of Oakland County, Michigan is black, but not in my high school classes. I had one African-American teacher throughout my education–she taught advanced English at my middle school. In retrospect, I can see how much grief she had to put up with from the entitled white students in her classes. I remember one Russian immigrant student in the honors track, a year behind me in high school. He stood out from his compatriots because his English was so good, which seemed to be a prerequisite to study college prep material. I went from attending the most integrated school in the state in fifth grade to an almost entirely native-born, white cohort in high school in the same district seven years later.
Despite the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous statement that Sunday morning at eleven o’clock was the most segregated hour in America, my Unitarian Universalist church was one of the most integrated places I went every week. It was (and remains) nowhere near as black as the suburb where it makes its home. Southfield is more than half African American, and I would guess that around ten percent of the members of my home church are black. Still, that meant that I got to know African American adults and kids as equals, role models, teachers and companions in a way that was not available to me in other parts of my life.
I remember going to a Tigers game just a few years ago with my white friends, and seeing an African American member of my church standing outside Comerica Park, handing out flyers for his brother-in-law’s business. He gave me a bear hug and we talked for a few minutes. That experience of crossing a racial line, of seeing a black man as a friend in downtown Detroit–I could not have had that experience if it were not for my church.
I’m lucky my Unitarian Universalist church helped lower the barriers of race between me and my brothers and sisters of color. Unitarian Universalism has struggled with race relations for a long time. More than 200 Unitarian Universalist ministers answered the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to join him in Selma in 1965, to march on Birmingham for civil rights. But by 1968, the racial unrest throughout the country had made such simple black and white alliances more difficult. Malcolm X was calling for black separatism. Riots in Detroit and Newark killed 66 people. Leaders of African American communities wanted white people to support them on their terms.
In the Unitarian Universalist Association, too, African Americans were beginning to assert their leadership in ways that made many people, both white and African American, uncomfortable–the way radical steps forward often do. In 1967, after the urban riots, a denominational official called an “Emergency Conference on [the] Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion.” Participants were not democratically elected. As soon as the conference started, 30 of the 37 black participants withdrew to form the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. The formed a list of demands, which they presented ultimately to the Association’s Board of Trustees. According to historian Warren R. Ross, “The core demand was that the board establish a Black Affairs Council…, to be appointed by the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus…and funded for four years at $250,000 a year. The funds would go for grants to fight political repression and economic exploitation in the black community and support black cultural expressions and community education (45).”
This may sound intransigent, but it was an attempt to make the Association live up to its antiracist goals. A group of African American leaders were demanding self-determination within the Unitarian Universalist movement, and the funds with which to do it. They were saying to the Association, which was integrated but still predominantly white, “If Unitarian Universalism wants to support rights for black people, then let black people be in charge. Moreover, let us be in charge of the money to make it happen, and trust that black leadership will live out the Association’s anti-racist goals.”
However, things weren’t so simple. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s board rejected the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus’s demands. A rival group formed, Black and White Action, which espoused a less radical agenda. The General Assembly, the annual gathering of church delegates, voted to fund a Black Affairs Council for two years (with a total of $500,000)—against the Board’s wishes—but during the second year the allocation was reduced as part of massive budget cuts in the Association. All the groups involved argued about whether those cuts were the result of institutional racism, or a simple lack of funds. Many African Americans left Unitarian Universalism after this controversy: some because they felt excluded from the power structure of the Association, but others because the rancor and infighting alienated them. All the advocacy groups—the Black Affairs Council, its supporting groups, and Black And White Action—had ceased to exist by 1972.
In 1996, the Unitarian Universalist Association began to re-engage with issues of race in a purposeful and institutional way. Many churches went through the curriculum Journey Toward Wholeness. The Association began working with Crossroads Ministry, an organization dedicated to doing anti-racism training and work with organizations. They ran into difficulty, however, around theology. Crossroads is a Christian organization, and defines racism as a kind of original sin. Now, before that language turns you off, listen to what they mean.
Racism gets bound up in institutions–like hiring practices that disadvantage applicants of color, or whatever policies caused my high school to feed more white kids into honors classes and more African American kids elsewhere in the school–so that those racist practices outlive the intentions of any individual in the system. An individual white person’s conviction that they are not racist, and their intention not to be racist, doesn’t stand up against the power of racism in the institution. Racism is a pre-existing condition in the system, like original sin.
This is actually kind of an elegant way of thinking about racism in America, because it helps us white people confront the problem of racism and our place in a racist system without having to think that the problem is only our particular opinions and actions. It shows us that what we are called upon to do is to work together, and with allies of color, to transform the system we live in to be more just, and more equitable for people whose heritage is not white European.
However, this approach has not worked as well as the organizers hoped. Having to accept one’s own racism, even if what we mean by that is our place in institutional racism, has been hard to the point of refusal for many white allies. The word is too charged to be easily redefined. And the comparison to original sin hasn’t worked very well in a Unitarian Universalist environment. Also, perhaps most tellingly, this approach has not made Unitarian Universalism any more racially diverse.
When Mark Morrison-Reed entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1979, he was the eighteenth black minister in our tradition since 1888 (198). Eighty-nine years; eighteen black ministers. That is a dismal track record. Even now, there are a mere handful of African American ministers, or ministers of any ethnicity other than European-American. Ministers of color face a harder time being settled in congregations, even today.
I think it was widely hoped that electing the Rev. Bill Sinkford, an African American man, to be the Association’s president in 2001 would help propel diversity in our congregations. Bill was elected because of his experience serving our denomination and his skills in public leadership. But I would suppose that even he hoped that he might be able to lead the Association toward a more diverse future. Instead, our movement has seen almost no racial change since 1997. We are still more than 90 percent white (Rasor).
I heard Mark Morrison-Reed speak about these problems at General Assembly, the annual national meeting of Unitarian Universalist congregations, this past June. He pointed out that the one thing that seems to have driven multiculturalism in our ministry, at any rate, is the rising rates of college education among people of color, and specifically among African Americans. Unitarian Universalists have an average of seventeen years of formal education. The percentage of African Americans in our ministry mirrors almost exactly the percentage of African Americans overall who receive bachelors’ degrees (Reed “Multiculturalism”). Reed thinks the lack of racial diversity in our congregations is a function of the lack of class diversity in our congregations. I see this here in Plymouth. Sunday services at Starr King Fellowship are some of the most racially diverse events I attend in this area. But this area has a great deal more class diversity than racial diversity, and we don’t reflect that in our congregation. It’s something for us to think about as we plan for our future and future growth.
I also hear from Reed, both in the talk I heard him give in June and in the reading we heard today, that the division between the races is harming America. It is especially damaging to people of color, who face discrimination of all kinds, from the irritating to the catastrophic, everything from hearing white pop stars use the n-word to seeing ten percent of young black men in this country in prison. We need to find tools and pathways toward true multiculturalism that will allow us to live in peace and community with one another, embracing racial diversity as the gift it is.
The collection we’re going to take this morning will support strategic efforts within the Unitarian Universalist Association to support ministers and religious professionals of color. It will support development of the Building the World We Dream About curriculum, which will be available free and online to all Unitarian Universalist congregations. We could offer it here. The curriculum will address issues of class diversity as well as racial diversity. The money will also help support congregations in ministering to youth and young adults of color, to the very people we hope will live out the multicultural future we are dreaming of.
We may seem far away from this problem, here in this rural section of our largely white state. But our financial contributions will help work toward diversity at a national level. It will make sure that there are more opportunities to cross the class line, to meet each other as human beings whatever the color of our skin, to tear down barriers as thin as tissue instead of bricking up the walls between us. We can be proud that our contributions are supporting our Association to be the kind of religion we want to be a part of, and build the future we want for all our children, whatever the color of their skin.
Please pray with me.
Let us remember those who have gone before us in the service of the most holy.
Those who marched and protested for basic civil rights in Selma, Birmingham, Baton Rouge, and Montgomery; in South Africa and India; and in times and places forgotten where people have demanded fair treatment. Let us remember those who endured force without returning force; those who sat in jail to show that their incarceration was wrong; those who met physical force with soul force; those who hewed the stone of hope out of the mountain of despair.
Let us remember those who fought to end America’s most insidious of institutions, human slavery; those people of white and black skin who gave their energies and lives so that everyone might be free; those who believed that the horrors of war were preferable to the horrors of human bondage; those who let their love for humanity overcome their love for tribe, class or race.
Let us invite the spirit that animated these, our heroes and saints, into our hearts this morning. Let us call the same source of fervor and hope into our lives, that we might answer the call of duty and righteousness when we hear it. Let us remember that every small step we take toward the kingdom of God is a vital step in a long march toward freedom, equality and peace. Amen.
Morrison-Reed, Mark. In Between: A Memoir of an Integration Baby. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008.
—. “Multiculturalism and Race.” General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Salt Lake City, 25 June 2009.
Rasor, Paul. “Berry Street Lecture.” Conference in Berry Street. Salt Lake City, 24 June 2009.
Ross, Warren R. “The UUA Meets Black Power: BAC vs. BAWA, 1967-1971.” World March/April 2000: 42-48.
I hope you were here for our Christmas Eve pageant with our children. It was a wonderful night. If you missed it, or even if you were here, you can read about how it came about through the work of parents and kids in our religious education program, and the members of the Worship and Music committee, in the February newsletter.
In the pageant, we told the story about the birth of Jesus as it has been handed down to us, respecting the mystery and wonder of that tale. And we invited some characters from other traditions to join us in our celebration of Christmas and the Winter Solstice. Wise people joined us on the backs of the winged dragons of the Solstice, bringing their presents to the Children of Wonder everywhere. We sang traditional Christmas hymns, along with Starr King Fellowship’s own traditional song, “Christmas Morning,” and a newer song, “Song of the Dragons,” for the solstice. It was so much fun. I think we’ll do it again next year.
The thing is, if you had asked me a few years ago what I wanted out of a Unitarian Universalist celebration of winter holidays, I would have said I wanted to be faithful to the tradition or traditions we were honoring. I would have said that however much the Christian celebration of Christmas and the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice had in common, they were really two separate things, and ought to be celebrated separately. I would have said that we ought to sing hymns that reflected Unitarian or Universalist theology or history. I would have said that it’s hard to celebrate Christmas, as Unitarian Universalists, because we tend to hunger after the feeling and wonder of Christmas while not believing in the story it tells in any literal or historical way. I was pretty committed to my own vision of what a Unitarian Universalist Christmas should look like.
When the idea for a new approach to our Christmas Eve service was presented to me, though, I had the good sense to let go of my ideas. I thought to myself, “Let’s try this. I won’t worry that it’s not something I thought up.” It helped, too, that I went on sabbatical last spring. The idea for a pageant for Christmas first came up a year ago–last February–and I wrote to all the people who I thought would be involved before I left on sabbatical. I said, “Here’s a new idea for Christmas! Let’s go with it. You work out the details.” Then I left. I highly recommend this planning strategy.
In working with many of you on our Christmas Eve service–including many members who had been to one or two previous Starr King Christmas Eve services, as well as with members who had been to dozens–I was reminded of the importance of letting go of our own ideas and plans some of the time.
This is especially important for us as a fellowship to remember as we continue to grow. Each year, the governing board drafts a covenant, which is an agreement among its members of how they will work together as your board. This year, Paul Tierney brought a concept he learned at a Unitarian Universalist leadership school from my colleague Erica Baron, the minister in Rutland, Vermont. It was: “Like a new idea for five minutes.”
Think about that. “Like a new idea for five minutes.” This is excellent advice. Someone suggests changing the Christmas Eve service. Try liking that. See how it feels. Someone comes to a committee with an idea for a change or a new program. Like what they have to say for five minutes.
I have often been so pleasantly surprised when I opened myself up to the enthusiasm another person has for their passions. Sometimes I am even infected by them. This fellowship already has 140 members in it, and even more friends, and visitors and newcomers all the time. Those adults have children with their own unique souls and ways of being in the world. With so many of us, spreading out into our new, shared space, surely there is room for more than one way of doing things.
We ministers are supposed to learn the basics of our work in divinity school, but it is widely understood that we don’t really know what we are doing until we have been in the thick of ministry for a few years. For me, part of learning this work as I do it has been becoming a parent. I think I have become better at being your minister since I became a parent.
Now, this is not to say that ministry is like parenting, or that the relationship between a minister and the congregation is like the relationship between a parent and her child. I try to stay away from family metaphors to describe the relationship between a congregation and its minister. Rather, it’s that both families and congregations are like another group: a team. A team (or a family, or a congregation) works best when all the members enjoy working together and understand that they’re on the same side.
Of course, in a family, the other team members are often people who share your genetic code. And sometimes they are also small children who are capable of driving you out of your mind. (I understand that teenagers may also have this special ability.) One of the ways I think parenting has made me a better minister (and my children have made me a better parent) is that it has given me the gift of self-reflection. This is another way of saying that I have realized that some of the things that can drive me crazy in my children are also qualities I possess.
It makes me stop and think, for a moment. It gives me a certain amount of understanding and fellow-feeling with my child. If I recognize a quality in him that I think has also been a part of me for thirty-plus years, what are the chances that I am going to get him to change by tomorrow? Not trying to get him to change at all, but rather figuring out how we can both be who we are and still live together and enjoy the days peacefully, has so far been a better strategy–when I am calm and reflective enough to remember that approach.
Being open to new ideas is also something I’ve learned, not just from spending time with my children, but from work that involves so many other people so much of the time. I’ve learned that I do not have enough energy or enough good ideas to be in charge of everything that happens all the time. I don’t even have enough of those things to pass judgment on everything that happens all the time.
This has been a hard lesson for me, because I like to be in control of things, and I like things to be organized. (This is why I’ve taken up knitting.) But there is more grace, more abundance, more freedom, more movement of the spirit, there is more of what is good when many people contribute and lead their own passions and enthusiasms. There is also more joy, because people doing things they love, and having the chance to share that love with others, makes those leaders really happy, in my experience. Congregations do many different things. One of the best things they do is to give people the chance to be human in a way they had never tried before. Openness and possibility get us there, while grasping after control does not.
There is a balance to this openness and trying new things, which is ritual. All of us, children and adults, crave things being the way we expect them to be. We want to try new things, but we also want a touchstone of the familiar so that we can relax into something we know. A certain amount of ritual and sameness allows many other things to flow and change without becoming overwhelming.
I’m reminded of a children’s book, in which a Jewish boy is given a prayer shawl by his grandfather. That boy brings it with him from Europe to America. He grows up. Parts of the shawl wear out: it needs new fringes, sections of it need to be rewoven, the hem is resewn. By the time that immigrant boy is a grandfather himself, almost nothing is left of the original shawl. But when he gives it to his grandson, it is still the same shawl his own grandfather gave him. It is the same because the boy, who became a man, and then an old man, wore that shawl for Friday prayers week in and week out. It was used for the same holy occasions, day after day, week after week, year after year. It participated in the rituals of the man’s life. Even if every stitch in the shawl had been replaced by the time he handed it on to his grandson, it would still have been the same shawl his grandfather gave him. The rituals spun into its threads were the warp over which the shuttle of change flew.
Now that both my boys are sitting at the table, my younger son in a high chair, we are trying to eat dinner together as a family. Some nights this works better than others. When it works at all, dinner itself is the culmination of a mad application of will to the chaos of the late afternoon and early evening, to reheat leftovers or cook something quick and easy and get everybody sitting down to eat before anyone melts down from hunger or exhaustion. Some nights it doesn’t happen at all, despite our best efforts.
When it does work though, Andy and I have found that we can move finally from the chaos of preparation to the ritual of eating together by saying a grace. We are teaching Benedict, our three-and-a-half-year-old, what grace involves. We have told him that prayers around the dinner table can be to ask for help with something ourselves, to say thank you for something, or to ask for help for someone else. We pick a theme for the prayer and each take a turn giving our contribution to that theme.
When we sit down in the hullaballoo of the evening and say, “It’s time to say a prayer,” Benedict quiets down and holds out his hands to us. The ritual of the prayer brings our spirits to the table, even though our bodies may already have been there. It is a constant amidst the change and sweep of our lives. Andy and I were haphazard about table graces before we had children eating with us. But now that we are doing it regularly (ostensibly for them) it turns out to be healing for our souls also. I know that on a night when I am alighting at the dinner table to eat for 20 minutes before going back out into the winter night for a meeting, that prayer makes it feel like I had real time with my family, real communion around a shared table.
I think that Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum was on to something with his essay on learning everything we needed in kindergarten. Learning things by being in the team, of a family or a congregation, is really relearning things we once knew when we were children. When playing games, sometimes I get to decide on the game, and sometimes you get to. Stick around a try out new games even if you don’t know how it will go yet. Try new things.
But also, keep some things the same. Have there be some things that you do the same way every day, every week, and every year. Accept who you are, and let other people be who they are. Most importantly, perhaps, think of your group as a team. On a team, all the members are on the same side. There is no “us” and “them,” even if some of us do different things or play the game in different ways. Everything we need to know, we have already learned. We continue to remember together, in beloved community.
Please join me in prayer, with these words inspired by Sara Moores Campbell.
Spirit of beginnings, of growth and generations, Spirit of connection and love, be with us this morning.
“Give us the spirit of the child. Give us the child who lives within: The child who trusts, the child who imagines, the child who sings, The child who receives without reservation, the child who gives without judgment (Campbell).” Help us remember the children we once were and still are. Help us forget our own self-consciousness. Help us relax our vigilant anxiety. Help us live now, in this place, in this moment.
“Give us a child’s eyes, that we may receive the beauty and freshness of this day like a sunrise; Give us a child’s ears, that we may hear the music of mythical times; Give us a child’s heart, that we may be filled with wonder and delight (Campbell).” Help us see the possibility and promise of each day, and not count the failures and disappointments of the past. Help us dream, and play, and do things for the fun of them.
“Give us a child’s faith, that we may be cured of our cynicism; Give us the spirit of the child, who is not afraid to need, who is not afraid to love (Campbell).” Let us know that we all need one another, need the love and companionship another human can give. And let us know that we all have love and companionship to give another. Even when we feel empty, that spring may well within us again. Give us the comfort of your spirit, as we know it in our hearts and through the care of other people. Amen.
Campbell, Sara Moores. “Give Us the Spirit of the Child.” Singing the Living Tradition. Ed. Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. 664.
Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Ballantine Books, 2004.
Oberman, Sheldon. The Always Prayer Shawl. Boyd’s Mills Press, 2005.