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Unitarian Universalism and Veterans Day
Our progressive religious faith has had a conflicted relationship with Veterans Day. Some UU churches will not mention the observance. Others will give it passing recognition. Others will dedicate their entire worship service to it. This conflicted relationship is the result of the struggles in our religious tradition over the rightful place of military force.
In the early days of Unitarianism and Universalism in the United States, there was little question about the necessity of military force. The impact of the American Revolution was strong and the ideals that were lifted from that struggle became pivotal to the emerging American identity. When the Civil War erupted in the 1860s, northern Unitarian and Universalist churches dutifully supported the Union Army. Many had been in the forefront of the abolitionist movement and hoped the war would end slavery. Southern Unitarians and Universalists had more of a struggle. Many had supported abolitionism, although cautiously, because the implications of that stance were more risky. But ultimately the South was their home and these were their people. Many southern congregations actually disappeared during this time.
When the United States entered World War I, the majority of Unitarians and Universalists supported doing so. There were a few pacifists and they were treated like pariahs and questioned about their patriotism. There were also few dissenters during World War II. Those that spoke up often found themselves receiving a chilly welcome in our congregations.
This changed dramatically with the onset of the Cold War. Many Unitarians and Universalists questioned the reason for American involvement in the Korean War in the 1950s. And then came the Vietnam War in the 1960s, a war that changed the face of America. Strong anti-establishment and anti-military sentiments emerged in our congregations. Many Unitarian Universalists joined the anti-war protests and wanted their congregations to join them. Many UU congregations experienced a deep factionalism between those who supported the Vietnam War and those who did not. Some congregations divided over the issue. When the nuclear disarmament movement emerged, many Unitarian Universalist played pivotal roles in the protest. By the 1980s, it was not unusual to hear Unitarian Universalists express the sentiment that being UU and being in the military were antithetical to one another. The majority of UUs did not support the first invasion of Iraq or the second. It became more and more difficult for UUs in the military to feel at home in our congregations.
This is why Veterans Day is approached with some trepidation. However, despite this sea change in attitudes, there have always been Unitarian Universalists who have proudly served and there always will be. This is certainly true in our congregation. There are also many committed members and friends in our ranks, strong Unitarian Universalists who generously support our congregations with their time and money, who earn their livelihood serving the military needs of our nation.
I will admit I have struggled with this day all my life. I was raised in the Mennonite church, which is a peace church. I struggled with wearing a poppy, which is how Canadians recognize this day. I was raised to be a committed pacifist, and I still am. But I have also developed a strong regard for those I have come to know and care about who serve their nation. I have seen their families’ struggles, I have seen their commitment, I have seen the sacrifice. I have also seen a nation that has largely resorted to supporting our troops in parades and bumper stickers and turned its back when our veterans most need support. I cannot understand how our nation can tolerate veterans who live in poverty or in homelessness because of the impact of war on their health and ability to work.
The congregation I serve, Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org), has restored the recognition of Veterans Day into our worshipping calendar for several years now. Regardless of our stance on war, we will recognize those who made the choice to serve, whether we agree with that choice or not, because that choice does include the possibility of losing your life. If we are truly committed to honoring and respecting the diversity of our fellow spiritual journeyers, it means actually honoring and respecting it. I have found many veterans, especially those who have seen active combat, who are as strongly committed to peace as I am. They have seen the scourge of war. They know what it can do. They know its power and they also know its limits. I would never have known this if we silenced their voice or their experience in this congregation. Knowing them has changed me profoundly.
This Sunday, our Affiliate Minister and Acting Minister of Religious Education, Rev. Julie Taylor, will lead us in honoring the recognition of our veterans. There will be a roll call. Julie will speak about how we engage our third principle, that we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and spiritual growth in our congregations, on this day. Julie is speaking from experience as Julie is currently preparing to serve as a military chaplain.
You are welcome to join us in worship this Sunday, regardless of your position on the military and your sentiments on the use of force. We can be united in our commitment to peace without agreeing on the tools that create it.
I haven’t been in a very good mood about marriage equality since March 26th. You’d think I should be. When the Supreme Court of the United States heard two cases – The Windsor DOMA case and the Prop 8 case – Facebook turned red, it seemed like the world turned warm and gooey. There was so much love and care and support. You would think it would be an awesome week. And in so many ways it was.
But it was also a gut wrenching week. You see, the stakes are really high for us. Really high.
I attended the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Annual Meeting in Louisville KY this week. Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, met us for his annual Q&A with the ministers, and one of the things he said was, “In terms of equal marriage, this fight is over because we know how this is going to end.” (my words based on my memory of what he said…. probably not his exact words.) The room erupted in loud cheering and applause.
But I didn’t feel like applauding. I’m wondering if I was the only one. Instead, what I wanted to say was, “Don’t be too quick to say the train has left the station. Hold on.”
And this is why. My gut instinct is that the Supreme Court is going to strike down DOMA. This is going to be great. But I also think they are going to vote as narrowly as they can on Prop 8. Rather than ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional (which would strike down every DOMA act and every constitutional amendment in every state that has one and make marriage equality a reality throughout the country), I predict it is going to strike it down on a technicality, which means that it will confirm marriage equality only in California. The cumulative effect of these decisions will mean that marriage will become legal in California and same-sex married couples in states which already practice equal marriage will now be able to enjoy the federal benefits extended to married couples. If SCOTUS does NOT rule that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, it will mean absolutely nothing to those of us who live in the more than two dozen states that have explicitly banned same-sex marriage.
During the proceedings, Justice Kennedy mentioned the children of the same-sex couples in California, and that they deserved to have parents who are married, which I thought was rather big of him. But what about the children in Mississippi and Alabama and Oklahoma and Missouri. What about those children? And what about their parents?
So I’m a nervous nelly. And I’m not optimistic. I feel like I can’t afford the risk of being optimistic and being disappointed.
Three years ago the congregation I serve completed the Welcoming Congregation. This is a process developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association to support congregations in being intentionally welcoming of sexual and gender minorities. It took our congregation ten years to build up the courage to do this program. There was a lot of nervousness when we started the program, but it didn’t come from the usual suspects. It did not come from older heterosexual people at all! You know who was most nervous? People who identified as sexual minorities and were over the age of 50. It was our older LGBTQ folks who felt the most apprehension, and I think I know why.
This generation has experienced explicit homophobia in ways that I can’t even imagine. They were there when the cops busted up their bars and the courts took away their children and they landed in jail and out of a job for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And no one stood up for them. They took it on the chin, and even though times have changed, many have never completely let down their guard. They still test the waters. They are reasonably wary of supposedly welcome places, like churches with little rainbows on their orders of service, and will often look for signs that it’s not as welcoming as they have been led to believe, because you never know when someone could stab you in the back with a smile on their face. Will the church still be welcoming of you when you hold your partner’s hand in church, or land a peck on their cheek? Will they still be welcoming of you when you talk about the great date you had on Saturday night?
This generation feared that the Welcoming Congregation process would unearth the kind of homophobia that slyly hides under the surface until it’s pricked, the kind of homophobia that masks as something else even though it really still is homophobia. Maybe they would learn that our congregation that really wasn’t as welcoming as it thought it was, and if that was the case, then they might lose their beloved church community. What if doing the Welcoming Congregation program opened Pandora’s box and a place they thought was safe wasn’t? So as much as they really wanted to do the Welcoming Congregation, it scared a lot of them. The stakes felt really high.
This is how I feel right now. For all the expressions of acceptance in mainstream culture, for sea of red that happened on Facebook and Twitter and almost every website I regularly frequent, the fate of my marriage rests with 9 justices, some of whom really don’t like us all that much. And if one liberal-leaning justice gets cold feet and the resulting ruling is as narrow as possible, they are placing our equality, the equality of those like me who live in Missouri, in the hands of a citizenship that is still deeply ambivalent about our right to exist. If the justices leave the definition of marriage in the hands of the states, same-sex marriage is not coming to Missouri for a long time. The only way Missouri will arrive at equal marriage is by being forced into it through the courts.
This is why minorities need mechanisms outside of elected leadership to secure our equality. The majority cannot be trusted to rally for the equal rights of the minorities. We see it time and again. God/dess bless states like Massachusetts and New York and Minnesota. But Missouri is no Minnesota.
So this is why I am a nervous nelly. This is why I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach when Rev. Peter Morales said, “This battle has been won. We know how it’s going to end.”
When SCOTUS rules next week, and if it turns out as I predict, don’t forget those of us in the remaining DOMA wastelands. Keep fighting for us. Because the battle will be far from over.
Thanks Kelly for your thoughtful post. We have a lot to learn from your observations.
Originally posted on UU Planet Ministry & Media:
The following guest post is by Kelly Mahler, a former 3D artist, SAHM (stay-at-home mother), Unitarian Universalist since 2007, and member of the UU Growth Lab on Facebook. Thanks for sharing your experience and suggestions, Kelly! I totally relate as a parent of a young child. 11am? Uh, that’s lunch time! ~ Peter
While reading the UU Growth lab on Facebook, I came across a post that caught my attention. The question asked was, “How can we more effectively reach out to and involve young adults and families with children as fully participating congregants?”
I don’t often participate in these online discussions, but this topic was something near and dear to me, considering I’m one of those young parents many UU churches refer to. Having been a former board member in my twenties, and now quickly closing in on my thirties (with a toddler in tow)…
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How do children save Unitarian Universalism? By asking us to step away from calcified ways of understanding what it means to be a person of faith. By helping us step out of the boxes we have created around a faith that was never meant to be in one box. Our children yearn to express their Unitarian Universalist faith in ways that we have come to misjudge and misunderstand, and discard. If we can be open enough to let them be our teachers, not only is our faith saved, but we are as well.
A Sermon delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (Ellisville MO) on Sunday, June 2, 2013.
One of my favorite things about Child Dedication Sunday is that someone always tries to eat the rose! Another may have just learned to count and finds this the perfect opportunity to show off! And yet another loves to work the crowd, like when little A* saw the congregation and began waving like the Queen of England! And we love it because it takes us back to our time of innocence, when everything was magical, everything was possible, and everything felt safe. Or should have.
One of my favorite children’s stories is by Canadian author Heather Patricia Ward, “I Promise I’ll Find You.” Every page has the same message. A child is lost and its mother promises to search until she finds it. “If I had a little row boat, I’d row across the sea. I’d row and row and row and I’d bring you back to me…. If I had a little airplane I’d fly across the sky. I’d look and look and look for you, as every day went by.” Her little dog is there, peering out from the boat or examining a map, and the child, wearing a little red shirt, is tucked somewhere in the picture, arms outstretched. “If I had a little choo choo train, I’d chug on down the track. I’d chug until I found you, and then I’d bring you back.”
Psychologist/minister James Fowler studied faith development, and found that faith at the earliest ages is about trust and safety. That’s why Ward’s book is so loved. It speaks to a young child’s yearning for security, to know that they are treasured. When I gave this book to my nephew, he scoured every picture until he found the little child in red, and then peppered his parents with questions about the mother and the dog.
James Fowler says that our faith evolves throughout our lives. He identifies six stages of faith, and he doesn’t see these as resting places, but as a way of understanding that is constantly transforming.
The first stage is the “Everything is Magical” stage. A rose is the most perfect thing and the arms holding you are the center of your world. God is pure love, strength and protection. This is when the seeds of trust, courage, hope, and love are planted.
The second stage happens during elementary school. We adopt more complex beliefs and see morality as absolute and literal. Fairness becomes important. We accept the right of authorities to set the rules for us. Parents, teachers, adults, they make the rules. If we believe in God he’s that kind of God, making the rules that we follow.
At the third stage, which happens during adolescence, things start coming apart a bit. We start questioning the box we are in, but we still need structure and a group to identify with. We still need clear rules, but we need to create some of them ourselves rather than have them defined for us. If they are defined for us, we want to know the reasons why. If we believe in God, we will understand God in more nuanced metaphorical ways, beyond simply a judge of right or wrong.
At the fourth stage, which is young adulthood, things really come apart. You see that you are in one box and there are other boxes! This is where you rebel against the moral compass you inherited. You become disillusioned, may become angry and critical at God and your elders. You move away from the absolutes you were given, but, as this is a heated stage, you often replace them with your own absolutes. You might become a highly rational critic or a fundamentalist believer.
At the fifth stage, if you get there, you see the truth of all the other boxes around you. You see that there is no one way and that there are things that can’t be explained. You don’t find paradoxes threatening. You give up arrogance and the need to know it all, and connect to humility and reverence. You accept yourself and see yourself as connected far beyond your own sub-group.
The sixth stage is where you find Ghandi, Jesus, Mohammad, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King. Not many get here. They live lives of deep commitment, have a selfless passion for all things, and feel deeply the love and suffering of their world. They hold life firmly but lightly, because they are willing to die for their commitments, which they often do.
These are Fowler’s six stages of faith, and I suspect that as I spoke you may be wondering where you fit. More than likely, there are elements of all six stages in every one of us, although most of us will land primarily in one or two stages. These stages aren’t neat and clean. You don’t finish one and move on to another. You may cycle into one and your life changes and you go back into another because it’s where you need to be. None of these stages are superior to another, which is how many have often misinterpreted Fowler. This is not a tool to measure spiritual maturity, because there are universal truths in each stage.
Each stage has its strengths and challenges. There is comfort and reassurance in stages 1 through 3, but they can become rigid. There is energy in stages 3 and 4, but that energy can become chaotic. Stage 5 is an expansive stage, but sometimes there is so much relativity that it becomes meaningless. Stage 6 is impressive, intimidating, but I don’t think I’d want to be married to someone in stage 6! I’d like my life partner to cling to life, you know! A lot of stage 6 people get killed off!
Where are you on this chart? And where do you think Unitarian Universalism is on this chart? Congregations can be at stages too! Many of my progressive Christian colleagues struggle because their churches are in stages 2 or 3 and they are at stage 4 and 5.
Most UUs would like to think that our congregations are at stage 5. Our principles would suggest that that’s the natural stage for us to be, but in truth many of our congregations are at stages 3 and 4 and once in a while we bounce into 5. Sometimes we’re simply about the rebellion, about casting off the shackles of repressive religion, which is very powerful and good, but there often isn’t any substance except the rebellion and when we get through that and want more, there might not be more. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of patience for people who are in different stages. We think they’re less evolved! Like when we complain about Christian fundamentalists during coffee hour? That’s when we are pretending to be in stage 5 but our arrogance and pride puts us in stage 3 or 4. We turn a lot of people off with that arrogance.
Sometimes we practice our faith tradition in a way that makes it unavailable to other people, especially our children. For instance, one of the things we often say is that we believe there are many paths to truth. We say that this is a religion where we live in the grays, we don’t do either/ors, rights and wrongs. We say that in Unitarian Universalism we wrestle with the questions, rather than answer them. We also say that this is a religion of reason not blind faith. And this is all true and there is power and wisdom in this way of doing Unitarian Universalism. It’s why many of us came to this faith and its puts UUism solidly in stage 5. But, most of our children and youth are solidly in stages 1 and 2 and 3. So what is there for them in stage 5 UUism?
Our littlest ones are completely in emotion and intuition. They’re in their bodies. So when our religion becomes a religion of mind, it leaves them behind. Our elementary kids legitimately need an authority to say to them, this is how things are and this is why we believe what we do. It’s how they feel safe. So when we become rigidly anti-authoritarian, we aren’t honoring where our kids are. When we ask a young child to live in the questions, we may not be honoring that they need more than questions. When we ask our children to stand in their own truth, we ignore their yearning to stand in the truth of their parents, who they trust more than anyone in the world. They ask us deep questions about life and death and we may say, “Well what do you think?” when they haven’t learned how to think about it yet, and really need to know what we think. We UU adults so often judge faith traditions that give clear answers because we are in stage 4 of rebelling against answers, and then we won’t give our children the clear answers they need. We are denying our children’s deepest spiritual needs by projecting our spiritual needs onto them.
Now one response to this conundrum would be to say that Unitarian Universalism is really for adults and we’re going to have to trust that our children will grow into full Unitarian Universalism. They’re in the prep stages for the real deal. That would be an easy answer, but I don’t think it’s the right answer.
I believe there is a way to be authentically Unitarian Universalist in each of those stages, because we never stop needing the things that a particular stage gave us. We need to stay connected to the everything-is-possible-and-I-am-safe-and-can-trust-my-world of stage 1. Stage 2 helps us to respect boundaries and to trust others with our well being. Stage 3 helps us to write new rules while respecting the traditions that preceded us. I think that many of the weaknesses we see in modern Unitarian Universalism are because too many of us adults think we are too good for those earlier stages of faith. What keeps us from growing this faith and growing our congregations and maturing ourselves is often a lack of trust, a blind allegiance to rebellion and change for their own sake, an unquestioning commitment to questioning. A fear of standing for something in case it will confine us, and so we stand for nothing. And what we are left with is pride and arrogance.
How do children save Unitarian Universalism? By asking us to step away from calcified ways of understanding what it means to be a person of faith. By helping us step out of the boxes we have created around a faith that was never meant to be in one box. Our children yearn to express their Unitarian Universalist faith in ways that we have come to misjudge and misunderstand, and discard. If we can be open enough to let them be our teachers, not only is our faith saved, but we are as well. Because we never stop being the ones in little red shirts with our arms outstretched, waiting to be found.
From Heather Patricia Ward: “If I had a little motorbike, I’d ride across the land. I’d find you and I’d reach for you, and you would take my hand. And if I had no other way, I’d walk or crawl or run. I’d search to the very ends of the earth, for you my precious one. So remember this my darling, for it is very true, if ever you’re apart from me, I’ll search till I find you.”
It’s not just kids who love this book, it’s adults too. I see it over and over again. Because we never stop needing to be found, never stop needing to be treasured. When we dedicate our children, the promises we make are not only to save them, but to save us, because we need to hear their truths to be whole, for our beloved faith tradition to be whole.
So may the spirit of our children be with you and yours from this day forward until we gather again. Amen and blessed be.
Anne Anderson and Rev. Kenneth W. Collier. “James Fowler’s Stages of Faith” and “The Stages of Faith: A Five Stage Church.” The Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, January 7, 2001.
Heather Patricia Ward. I Promise I’ll Find You. Willowdale Ontario: Firefly Books, 1994.
Barbara Wendland. “Worship at different stages of faith.” Connections: A monthly letter calling the church to faithful new life. Temple TX. No. 147, November 2005.
N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.
Every one of us has inherited a legacy that is a mixed blessing. The legacy we inherited from those who raised us has made us who we are. And you and I all know that some of that legacy has given us the greatest blessings of our lives, and some of that legacy is what we will struggle with until the day we die. We are called to work with those legacies and to carry them in new ways not only for our sake, but for the sake of our children….
Spirit of Life, God of grace and mercy, Source of hope and healing, this is a day that is often filled with memories. Memories of those who raised us. Memories of those still with us or who have passed on that fill us with gratitude and love. Memories that can bring grief and sorrow. Memories that bring unrest and turmoil. Some memories are good to remember, some we wish we could forget. Spirit of Life, help us with our memories and if we are called in some way to the path of forgiveness, help us walk towards that path.
On this day, we would ask for blessings on the legacies that we carry from those who are raising and have raised us, for they bear both wisdom and folly. Help us to hold these legacies gently and firmly, for they hold power and promise and if carried wisely, can deepen our spirits and grow our capacity for giving and receiving love.
On this day, we would also ask for blessings on the legacies that we will leave to those who follow us. We are all parents in some way. We are all mothers and fathers. We are all aunts and uncles and grandparents. We are role models and mentors and friends. Help us to celebrate the legacies we are proud of, and to forgive ourselves for the legacies that we wish we could undo. Help us to claim the truth that we are all parents of this desperately beautiful world and its people that each of us will leave this world changed for having been here.
Let us take a moment of silence for the deepest prayers and meditations of our hearts……
In the spirit of love, peace, and hope, this we pray. Amen and blessed be.
One of the happiest memories I have of my mother is of her dancing with us. Several times a week, out came the portable record player, and we danced in the living room to the likes of Joan Baez, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Neil Sedaka, Roy Orbison, ABBA, the Everly Brothers, Buffy Saint Marie, Roy Clark, and Gordon Lightfoot. We also listened to Russian, Ukrainian, German and gypsy folk music, and our mother would pick my brothers and I up in her arms and waltz around the sun dappled living room.
One of the happiest memories of my father is of his strength. He was a hard working farmer, still is, and he would come in from the fields or the barn, and no matter how tired, he would play with us while my mom finished supper. My favorite game was “Daddy Bench Press”. He would lay on his back with his arms outstretched and a kid would stand on each arm with our hands clasped together over him. Then he would bench press us until we collapsed over him, screaming hysterically. He would roar like a lion and hold us close. Being held in his strong arms was the safest place in the world. I believed my dad was the strongest man in the world, and I almost got in a fistfight with a girl at school who told me that her dad was the strongest man in the world. I knew that couldn’t be true because she knew nothing about Daddy Bench Press. And besides, my dad, his brother, and their cousin won gold, silver, and bronze in the Wheatley Hotel Armwrestling Competition! She had to be wrong!
So those are some of my happiest memories. Memories of laughter and deep unconditional love and protective strength. And of course, now I know how much my parents protected us from the difficulties they faced. I had no way of knowing as a child that my mother danced with her children because it gave her the strength to go on. It helped her to find hope when she struggled to find it. I had no way of knowing that my father couldn’t wait to come home and play with us because it was one of the best ways to let the weariness in his soul and body melt away. Our pleas for another round of Daddy Bench Press could lift his spirits and help him remember why he worked so hard. It validated his perseverance and steadfast loyalty.
Both my parents carried the mixed legacies of their families of origin. They came from immigrant families with parents who had experienced war and incredible violence and upheaval, and this deeply influenced their parenting choices. My parents couldn’t wait to leave their parents’ homes and be freed of their difficult and restrictive ways of being. And of course, we all know that when you run from something, it still follows you. Of course my own family has been deeply shaped by the kind of troubled legacies that I mentioned in our prayer today. I can’t imagine that there is one family here that doesn’t have troubled legacies. I’m sure we could fill this room with them. But those legacies often sit side by side with the good ones, the ones where we are held and feel safe and treasured and there is laughter and joy and hope.
Today is Mothers Day, but we are making this Parents Day here at Emerson. We are honoring not only those who are literally parents, but all those who in some way held us and made us feel safe and treasured, all those who brought laughter and joy and hope into our lives. We are also honoring the parent inside all of us, for we are all parents regardless of whether we have raised children.
There’s an excellent article by Anne Lamott published this week* where she talks about not liking Mothers Day, even though she’s a mother. The reason she doesn’t like Mothers Day is because it tells us that women who are mothers are better women than those who aren’t. That only a mother can understand unconditional love and true selfishlessness. Mothers Day is hard for women who aren’t mothers. It sends this message, that we already get from so many places, sometimes even from within our hearts, that our destiny cannot be fulfilled without becoming a mother, that we are not real women without children. This is one reason she doesn’t like Mothers Day.
Anne also writes that the day can be hard for women who are mothers because Mothers Day holds this unrealistic hallmark image of motherhood as some sacred holy perfect thing. It holds up an example that is completely unattainable and cannot truly affirm the normal down to earth every day mother that you are. I suspect that every mother here can probably list, at the drop of a hat, all the ways you think you could be a better mother. While self-examination is critical to be a good parent, self-recrimination is not. So that’s another reason Anne Lamott doesn’t like Mothers Day.
Finally, Anne writes that Mothers Day is hard for those who struggle with the legacy their parents left them. Some of us have parents who should probably have never been parents. Mothers Day with its image of perfect parenthood holds up what we didn’t have. It may show us in a painful hurtful way what we are struggling with, what may be keeping us from giving and receiving love the way we would like to. So these are the reasons that Anne Lamott doesn’t like Mothers Day and the reason that we are honoring all parents today, and all the ways that we are parents.
At the same time, I think there is something undeniably special about raising a child, being a mother, being a father that is irreplaceable. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of babysitting a one year old, and as he raised his arms in total trust for me to pick him up, I felt this surge of softness and love, and I thought to myself, “Wow, his parents get this every night.” And then last week in worship we honored our young people, those who are entering high school, those who are graduating and going to the next stages of their lives, and I watched the parents of these young people, their pride and joy, and the whole range of emotions that wells up as your children grow and change, sometimes away from you for while. It was a precious bittersweet Sunday. It always is.
Somehow we have to find a healthy and inclusive way to honor parenthood and the many ways that we are parents. To honor the very real and unique journey of those who are raising children. And also to honor the fact that every single one of us, parent or not, is responsible for our children. We all make a difference in the lives of our young people. We are all role models. The way we are men and the way we are women, we are examples to our young people. Every one of us is a mother and every one of us is a father, and I say that as a way to avoid simplistic ways of understanding gender because there is no one way to be a mother or father or parent and there is no one way to be a woman or a man. We are all unique and in our uniqueness we have something special to offer the children in our lives.
Do you know what I celebrate about my parents? I celebrate their journey. Both of my parents have spent their whole lives unwinding the tangled legacies of their parents, who were also tangled beautiful people. Both of my parents have slowly repaired, strand by strand, the more damaging things they inherited. They never ever gave up trying to heal. Never stopped yearning to be made whole. Their path included music and dance, hard work and faith and beauty and good friends. Often, the motivation for healing came from their desire to be good parents. Their desire to raise us well was a huge motivating factor for them in the choices they made. Their desire for hope and healing was not just about themselves, it was often for us. I suspect that when they weren’t strong enough to do it for themselves, they found their strength in their love for us. So I celebrate that.
When have you pursued hope and healing for the sake of a child?
I also celebrate everyone else who walked that journey with them. Aunts and uncles. Grandparents. Teachers. Mentors. Good friends. Ministers. All tangled up in their own journeys. And the reason I celebrate these people is because now I am one of these people. I am an aunt and a sister and a babysitter and a mentor and a minister. I am blessed with children in my life and I want to be a good role model. I want to be one of those places of unconditional love that the children who come through my life can depend on.
When have you sought healing for the sake of the children who have come through your life?
So I celebrate the people who played those roles for me, people who could be there for me in the way that my parents couldn’t. Sometimes our mentors can provide those things our parents can’t because mentors do not have the same stake in our decisions. Sometimes they have a clearer perspective because they are not inside the situation the way your parents were. They don’t have to live with your mistakes. They don’t have to pay for your mistakes! Sometimes mentors can say the things a parent can’t and you’ll be able to hear things from them that you can’t hear from a parent.
I have come into an ever-strengthening belief that we all need mentors, if only because it is completely unreasonable to assume that our parents can provide everything that we need. No one can. That’s why places like this are so important for our children. This congregation is one of those places where your children will have good role models, good mentors, loving supportive strong adults who share your values and can reinforce them with your children. And especially in modern society, where so many of us live far from our extended families, congregations like this one can be like an extended family and provide that kind of support and strength.
We need all the help we can get to raise our children in this incredibly complicated world. They need all the love and support they can get to find their way in this incredibly complicated world.
We all need all the help we can get because every one of us has inherited a legacy that is a mixed blessing. The legacy we inherited from those who raised us has made us who we are. And you and I all know that some of that legacy has given us the greatest blessings of our lives, and some of that legacy is what we will struggle with until the day we die. We are called to work with those legacies and to carry them in new ways not only for our sake, but for the sake of our children.
What I know from my own life is that the greatest love that has been bestowed on me, the love that has shaped me and sometimes healed me, has been from those who did not deny their tangled legacy, but carried it and worked with it, held it up, spoke of it honestly from the deepest places in their hearts, and sought to offer forgiveness and to accept forgiveness for the unforeseen ways those legacies have shaped their lives and the ones who depended on them. That’s the love that’s shaped me and blessed me. So tell your stories. Tell your children of the legacy you carry and how you carry it, and when they’re old enough, tell them the whole story. It will be such a blessing to them.
My parents have just retired. They have one grandchild, and now my mother dances with him and my father wrestles with him. They’re a lot older and wiser now of course, with a lot more self-understanding and more time for self-reflection. They’re in that stage of life where they are looking back at their life’s choices, grateful for some, regretful of others. They want the best for each of their four children and still worry about the choices we make. They still delight in us and they delight in their grandson. They worry about him like they worry about us and seek acceptance of the ways they can influence his life and the ways they can’t. They delight in being two more loving adults in his life. And when he’s worn them out, they delight in sending him home to his parents!
What are you celebrating today? What are you needing to hold lightly? Let us be grateful for and gentle with the mixed blessings of the legacies bestowed upon us by those who raised us. Let us carry those legacies with grace and care and compassion so that we may bless those who follow us.
May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen.
* “Why I Hate Mother’s Day.” Anne Lamotte. http://www.salon.com/2010/05/08/hate_mothers_day_anne_lamott/
N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended
conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.
We can set down the stone of our fear, and when we do, we will be free and we will find true justice and true compassion. Like a person emerging into the light from a long dark journey, we will be able to feel the springs of life once again and reclaim our hope and our trust in goodness and we will know without a shadow of doubt who we are to each other and how we are meant to be together.
This sermon was delivered to Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel on April 21, 2013.
Story for All Ages – “Where my fears are planted” by Rebecca Pournoor. http://archive.uua.org/re/faithworks/fall03/worshipc.html
On Monday evening my family and I were blissfully unaware of what had happened in Boston. I was in Canada visiting my parents, who have a no-news-when-we-eat policy because my mother got fed up with the news taking over her meals. She has this radical idea that dinner is about putting family first and appreciating each other and the food that we share, not sitting silently beside each other staring into a TV screen. So on Monday evening my parents and I were enjoying a wonderful meal with my brother and sister-in-law and my five-year-old nephew. All we wanted to do was be together.
After dinner my nephew asked to play his favorite game, which right now is Clue – you know the game where you guess who the murderer is, what weapon they used, and what room of the mansion they committed the crime in? “I suspect Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the lead pipe!” But my mother has changed the game to protect my nephew’s innocence. We are now guessing which room has become messy, who made it messy, and what they used to make it messy. “I suspect that Miss Scarlett messed up the kitchen with the wrench!” Who knows what she messed up! Did she smash the dishes or the refrigerator? Not important! But it was wonderful to see the world through his five-year-old eyes. There is an unspoken ethic in our family, you probably have it in yours, that children are to be protected as long as they can from the unpredictability of the world around them.
So we did not learn of the bombings until Tuesday when we turned on the radio and slowly pieced the details together, and then the reality began to settle in. That reality became very real when I crossed the border back to the United States on Wednesday and customs officers had dogs sniffing every single car coming in. It became very real in the heightened security at the Detroit airport and it became very real in that every single TV in the terminal was tuned to CNN.
So we all know what happened in Boston. We have been inundated with it for almost a week now. The media has examined it from every single angle in the best and the worst ways. We know what happened Monday afternoon. We know what happened on Thursday night, when one suspect was killed, and we know that the second suspect was captured Friday evening. We know that the suspects are young men, immigrants from Chechnya, and that they are Muslim.
And the meaning making begins. In fact it began from the moment of the bombing because we human beings are essentially meaning making people and it can drive us crazy when we can’t make sense of things, can’t understand why someone would do something like this, can’t understand why one person dies and the other loses a limb and others near the bomb are perfectly fine and help load the victims onto stretchers. Why did one person cross by a mere two minutes before the bombing and the other come by at exactly the moment of detonation? Why couldn’t that eight year old boy have run onto the other side of the road to greet his dad and stayed there instead of going back to where he was standing? Why do some immigrants adapt seamlessly into their new country and others don’t? Why do some young men become radicalized while others volunteer for the Red Cross? Why do some people turn their unhappiness into violence and others into poetry? These are questions for which there is no answer.
And I think the media makes a mistake when they think that we actually want an answer to these questions. It is when we force answers for unexplainable disasters that we get in trouble. It’s why so many Americans leapt to the conclusion that the suspects were Muslim and assumed they knew what that meant. It’s why a Saudi man, running from the blast, was tackled and turned in as a suspect. It’s why so many of us are getting angry at each other on facebook as we throw around theories about why this happened, theories that say much more about us and our politics than about what actually happened.
What I believe is that most of us really aren’t looking for answers as much as looking for hope, for comfort, for some sign that things are going to be o.k. One of the most meaningful things I heard this week was on the PBS show “Religion and Ethics Weekly” and one of the guests said that when people ask “Why did this happen,” they aren’t actually looking for the reason why. What we are actually seeking is someone to stand with us, to stay present to us in the struggle of our unknowing, in the struggle to find something to do with the emotions we are feeling, and the most common feeling during trauma is helplessness.
This was a week that was filled with the experience of helplessness. Not only did we experience the bombing, but a fertilizer factory exploded in Texas, part of our city was destroyed by tornadoes last week, this week it was floods, there was already a documented increase in hate crimes against American Muslims before we learned the identity of the bombers, and the Senate failed to pass legislation mandating universal background checks to purchase a gun despite the fact that 90% of Americans support it. It was like we kept getting slammed, and a common response to this is the feeling of helplessness, and one of the responses to helplessness is an often desperate desire for information because it gives us some feeling of control.
Most religions have at their core the mission of helping us find our way through the experience of helplessness. Some religions like Buddhism invite you to go inward and find peace there, believing that what happens in our souls is mirrored in the world. We face in the world what we create in our hearts, so we start within and make peace there so that peace can come to the world. Other religions such as Islam ask you to immerse yourself in charity. If you have trained yourself spiritually to serve those less fortunate than you, you will not have the luxury to give into your perception of helplessness. Christianity asks you to place your trust in a God who works in mysterious ways. If you are in that trusting place, then perhaps you will remember that this helpless is but a moment, and that life will go on because it always has. Just as Jesus rose from the dead and conquered evil so too will humanity. We cannot be undone by evil because good has already prevailed, and this remains true even if we can’t see it.
At their core, these paths are there to keep our hearts open, to stay compassionate and caring and not give in to cynicism and apathy and despair. I think that is one reason why we gather here every Sunday, because unexplainable bad things happen all the time, maybe not as often as they happened this week, maybe not with the same large scope as they happened this week, but they do happen in large and small ways, and what are we going to do when we get slammed? Are we going to isolate, turn inward, become paralyzed with despair?
The Unitarian Universalist approach to the experience of helplessness is to honor that feeling, for we are sacred beings and there is truth and beauty in every experience, but we use the raw material of the experience to move beyond and through it.
So for instance, one of the normal responses to helplessness and trauma is to isolate and turn inward. These are very normal responses to trauma and pain, and they can be powerful ways to take care of ourselves in the first moments of loss and suffering, but they are not long-term answers. If you have ever lost a loved one (and I know most of you have and some of you are in the process of losing loved ones), if you have experienced that loss, there is a time to withdraw and to be in the pain and there is power and healing in that place. We have to go there and do the work that we are asked to do.
But if we stay there, we become paralyzed. We are like the girl in our story who carries around her heavy stone. And when you carry around that stone too long, it gets twisted into ugly things. It gets twisted into dangerous kinds of isolation where you can no longer see life, where you have lost the ability to love and forgive and empathize.
When a society carries around that stone for too long, it gets twisted into irrational hate and the need for something easy to blame, it gets twisted into the kind of scapegoating that we are seeing directed against the American Muslim community. I think that a lot of what we saw this week, with the 24/7 news coverage blasting this story into our homes, is a sign that we’ve been carrying a stone that is getting heavier and heavier. How many of us stayed glued to the TV even when we knew how crazy it was? I did. I was mesmerized by the coverage even as I was critical about it. I couldn’t set down the stone.
That heavy stone of fear and isolation has twisted our attention. We become defined by the weight of that fear and we stop paying attention to the things that we do have some control over, the things that have a few answers. The explosion in Texas for instance. That fertilizer factory hadn’t been inspected since the mid-1980s, which is 30 years. We should be outraged! Why didn’t Fox and CNN and MSNBC have 24-hour coverage of that disaster? Why aren’t they camped with their satellite dishes and bright spot lights and cameras outside the home of the CEO of the factory, providing endless commentary on where they went to college and what their hobbies may say about their morality and who babysat their kids? They should be dragging neighbors and old drinking buddies out and asking, “Did so and so look like someone who would put their workers in danger for a profit? Did you have any idea?” while we are treated to the same aerial view of the roof of their home for days. What about combing their facebook posts and tweets for clues about their disregard for humanity while pictures of every board member are plastered over the TV and internet? What about inviting the public to bring pictures of every person who died in the explosion and holding those pictures up until the CEO dares to come outside and face them?
While an explosion razed most of the town into the ground because a corporation was able to avoid meeting safety standards, our media provided 24/7 coverage of the cops tracking down the Boston bombers. If you watched TV on Friday night, you likely spent over an hour looking at the same video of a boat covered in a white tarp. I think this shows us who matters and who doesn’t, and who is considered off limits and who is considered fair game.
Where are our priorities? I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the bombing at all. That is not my intent! In fact I think that the media circus let down not just the people of West TX, but also the people of Boston, who became another spectacle to boost ratings. This is what happens when you carry the stone for too long. You lose your sense of priorities. Both these events were an equal violation of the common good and the public trust.
You know, when I watched my nephew play our version of Clue, it was delightful, and what I wanted most for him is a safe world and a fair world because I know that someday we won’t be able to protect him anymore. Someday he going to learn how Clue is really played and he’s going to learn how the games in the world are played. I want for him a world where no one is going to assume anything about him because of the color of his skin or where he went to college. I want him to inherit a world where he is kept safe but not so safe that he has no freedom. I want a world where he will know that his employer will value his health and his wellbeing. I want a world for him where going to a public event isn’t a statement of bravery. I want a world where it is harder to for him to get a gun license than it is to get a drivers license. What I really want is a world where the common good is just as important as individual freedom, where someone like a Mr. Watson will show him the stones he carries and help him figure out how to place them in the garden. I want a world where there is balance and fairness and we just get to live our lives.
But that’s not the world we live in right now. The world we live in has trained us to hold this heavy stone and believe that this is how it is meant to be. And it’s not. We can set down the stone of our fear, and when we do, we will be free and we will find true justice and true compassion. Like a person emerging into the light from a long dark journey, we will be able to feel the springs of life once again and reclaim our hope and our trust in goodness and we will know without a shadow of doubt who we are to each other and how we are meant to be together.
Amen and blessed be.
N.B. – These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended
conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.