We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own. ~Cesar Chavez
Meditation Reading: “Who Then Am I?”
Once the Mullah (holy man) went to a large town, to visit the marketplace and make his household purchases. He was, however, appalled at the crowds that filled the bazaar, and alarmed also at the rows of beds that he found in the dormitory where he proposed to stay. As he sat on his bed, holding his head in his hands, one of those nearby asked him, “You look troubled, my friend. What is the matter?”
“Alas, said the Mullah, “I have never in my life been among so many people. I cannot sleep, for if I were to awake, how would I find myself?”
“That has an easy remedy,” said the other. “Simply tie a string to your toe. In the morning, look around and find the toe with the string on it. That will be you.”
“A brilliant strategy!” exclaimed the Mullah. “I am in your debt, and will take your advice at once!” So saying, he broke off a piece of string from around one of his bundles and tied it around his toe. Secure in the knowledge of who it was who was in his bed, he lay down to sleep and was soon snoring among the multitude. No sooner was he soundly asleep, however, than the wag who had suggested the device carefully removed the string and tied it on the toe of a man sleeping in the next bed.
When he awoke, the Mullah looked down and was aghast to find that there was no string on the toe where he expected it to be. Frantically, he looked around him, and at last spied the string on the toe of the man next to him. Reaching over, he shook the man awake and asked, “It is clear from the string on your toe that you are me. Who, then, am I?”
(Retold by Paul Jordan-Smith, from Parabola Magazine, p. 61, Spring, 1992)
Particularly true about the Unitarian Universalist’s vision of “church” is the importance of individual thought, feeling, and action BUT set within a communal context.
The great ballplayer, Babe Ruth, said as much about baseball:
The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.
Yes, our belief about gathering as individuals to fashion a spiritual family, is crucial to understanding our identity – our vision.
We often cite that now-famous expression:
We need not think alike to love alike.
That was not the original expression, by the way. The original expression came from the founder of Methodism – John Wesley, who, when preaching a sermon called the “Catholic Spirit” (“Catholic’ with a capital “C”), said:
Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” (From “Who Really Said That?” by Peter Hughes, THE UU WORLD, 9-17-12)
This might be something the Pope might think of quoting.
Now, some individuals might very well think that they are Unitarian Universalists – and like Emily Dickinson say:
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door
Truly, she never liked going to church.
But both Unitarianism and Universalism were created as organized religions – as churches – meaning that we formed so that we would associate together, not separate ourselves from one another.
But ah! There is tension in this association – “divine” or not.
Have any of you heard the sentiment: “Getting UU’s to agree on anything is like herding cats?” The original expression comes from the IT industry and referred to computer programmers. (answers.google.com)
In fact, some who have decided they are Unitarian Universalists don’t seem to understand that we are a community, not just individuals doing their own thing and not really caring about what others think or feel within the congregational community.
It’s not that our historical understanding of church disavows individual expression; it’s just that we believe that all of us should be part of the process and not just a few. That we are a community, a family, reaching out to one another, sharing each other’s stories, and suggestions, being there for each other in the good times and the bad times.
Giving, as well as receiving. Not just receiving.
Believe me, this misunderstanding by parishioners and clergy has caused much friction in many congregations over many years.
Still, when we do herald individual identity BUT within a communal context – we are expressing an exquisite, progressive way of being in the world!
That is when UUism is at its best – when we all delight in the interplay of diverse thoughts, feelings, and actions.
When no one – minister or church member or friend – seeks to dictate to others who they should be, or what they should think, or feel, or do.
Where congregational polity – our democratic way of governance – is primary. Not individual rule.
This process shapes our individual and collective identities. We are the Mullah – wondering who we are. Wondering who the other person is. We are forever sharing the strings on our toes – revealing who we are with each other; creating and re-creating ourselves.
So this morning as we explore what a vision for this congregation might be, I would like to share some stories of individuals in various congregations I have served who either were good examples of this interplay between the person and the group – or were not. I will not use their real names or reveal what congregation they were part of. And please note, I am just going to tell their stories and allow you to draw your own conclusions about how they as individuals related to the church community where they were members.
We ministers, you see, love everybody all the time. Even the stinkers!
When she was a child she could run with the best of them.
There was no indication of the rare, progressive disease which would – by the time she died at the age of 40 – cause her to be nearly completely immobile; cause her inability to breathe without a respirator; cause her to slur her words; cause her face to be severely distorted.
Although Susan’s wheelchair allowed her to get around, she had to have someone push it.
And yet, neither her mind nor spirit was ever “immobile” or “challenged.” She had a keen intellect. Her Masters Degree – written at her computer keyboard by holding an implement in her mouth – showed how wrong her detractors were.
Her subject championed civil rights for persons living with physical challenges.
“I feel accepted by Unitarians; other churches were judgmental,” she told me, laboring to articulate the words while the respirator attached to her wheelchair breathed for her.
Susan became a regular attendee on Sunday mornings. People eventually got accustomed to the loud sound her respirator made. In fact for me, during the moment of silence in the service, the sound of her machine became a mantra. As if it were the soul of us all – breathing.
She organized a service where other physically challenged people talked of their lives – of how some people perceive them, of how they think of themselves. “We just want to be thought of as human beings,” was the dominant theme of the day.
Susan was the quintessential activist and probably would have been, no matter her physical condition. She won many awards for her fervent endeavors and became nationally prominent.
She took me and others into her world and modeled what it means to rise to the challenge; to persevere against great odds; to rail against injustice.
Ironically, she was killed in a car accident, shortly after her 40th birthday.
That she lived to be 40 was a miracle.
That she lived so magnificently an activist’s life was even more miraculous.
He said: “I don’t want that queer minister to do my funeral!” the church secretary reported to me, her eyes wide. “Nor does he want you to ever contact him.”
When she left, I thought about what Joe had told her, attempting to put it into context.
Not much context, really, because I was the new minister and didn’t yet know the flock.
So, I made a few calls – but not to him. My “sources” informed me that he was a long-time UU member. Quite elderly. And quite rich.
His wife of over 60 years recently had left him, citing the fact to her women friends in the church that she had had enough of his abusive ways.
Too bad she waited so long! I thought.
Months went by, and then one day I got a call from Joe’s estranged wife.
“The son-of-a-bitch is dead!” she said, with a lilt in her voice. “And I want you to do the funeral.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond after I told her that I was sorry about Joe’s death and she had said to me: “Well, I’m out of my misery.”
I wondered if she knew that he had requested that I not do his funeral, but then I thought, well, she is still alive and she wants me to officiate, so I told her that I would.
We agreed that I would come to her home and meet the rest of the family so that we could talk about what they wanted in the memorial service.
The next evening as I approached the front door to their house, I was surprised to hear festive music and lots of laughter.
The planning session for the service – and a few days later, the service itself – were beyond the typical – but without question, authentic.
You see, not one kind word was said about Joe from his family. No one else in the congregation, in fact, spoke during the service, although I invited anyone to do so. Perhaps they were afraid of what they might say.
I merely gave the facts about his life in my so-called “tribute.” It was more like reading a resume than a eulogy. But then, I hadn’t known him – and he didn’t want to know me.
But the ones who had known him showed by their words and actions what they thought of him.
One of his granddaughters spoke and said frankly, that the reason her father, Joe’s son, was not in attendance was because he never liked his father.
Joe, a long-time UU. And elderly. And rich.
She was a Sicilian from a coal-mining family in Appalachia. She experienced how the mine owners treated her family and the other families. How the men and boys worked hard for low wages in the mines and died early from inhaling coal-dust, or from being trapped in the mines when they collapsed. She saw how her mother and the other women in the community worked so long and hard and died so young, too.
She personally knew about childhood abuse. But she decided not to be a victim.
The “way out” for her was through education. She went on to get a doctorate in child psychology and was head of a state psychological organization.
Jeanette became a social justice advocate for any cause that dealt with righting the wrongs of violence.
She won many state and national awards for her justice activism.
The Bosnian war was raging. And Jeanette studied all she could about it. And then she made a decision: she would go to Bosnia and see the facts for herself.
When she got back to our town, she asked if she could speak to us on a Sunday morning about an idea she had.
She rocked that congregation! She called us all to action – all 110 of us. She said we could make a difference in the world. But that we would have to be committed and we would have to work hard to make that a reality.
The result of this was that because of one woman’s vision and passion for that vision, our tiny congregation sponsored numerous Bosnian refugee families, bringing them to our town. This meant that we got them housing, food, clothing, medical and dental help, jobs and job training, psychological counseling, English lessons, and various other connections in the community.
Through Jeanette’s efforts, we as a UU congregation – we as individuals in a beloved family – walked our talk – not just talked, not just gave money. We gave our hearts and souls – and in return received the hearts and souls of those incredible individuals who had suffered so much. Who had witnessed their loved ones murdered before their eyes. Who had fled from everything they had known for a better life in a strange land.
Our efforts became a documentary that appeared on prime-time, national television. It showed how reaching out to others through compassion and dedication changes the world.
But always the back story – of how one person can connect through community to bring love into a world that is so desperately in need of it.
Alone…together. The individual within community. That exquisite tension that calls us to our better selves, if we but be open to receiving it.
We Unitarian Universalists have the opportunity as individuals within a community to discover who we are; to be aware of the intricacies of our being.
Indeed, as Laurence G. Bold affirms in his book The Tao of Abundance (p.236):
As people begin to view their own individual quests in relation to a broader social context, their personal search takes on new meaning. They begin to feel that in confronting and solving their own problems, they are participating in something bigger than themselves.
Finally, realize that the word “community” comes from the Latin root meaning “common.”
So I must ask us, as we create a vision for this congregation – and as we do it together: What is that “common” ground that we seek for our community? What is waiting for us to create from the resources that we have now and have had in the past? What is the future of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist?
We cannot hesitate in this process. Because, my friends, the future is now.
We can learn the art of fierce compassion – redefining strength, deconstructing isolation and renewing a sense of community, practicing letting go of rigid us-vs.-them thinking – while cultivating power and clarity in response to difficult situations. ~Sharon Salzberg