I was ordained in 1970 as a United Church minister and my first congregations were in ssouthwestern Manitoba. One Sunday, one of my parishioners in the Napinka church, Maisie White, exclaimed to me, “John, why can’t you preach sermons like that every Sunday?” Later I passed this comment on to my spouse, Barbara, who said in reply, “Well John, your sermons are boring.”
I was quite mystified why Maisie had liked that particular sermon for, near as I could tell, it was ppretty much like all my sermons. I was writing them like I had been taught at Queen’s, their structure the “three points and an illustration” variety. Gradually what developed out of those comments by Maisie and Barbara was a new style of writing sermons, a narrative style, telling stories even if the stories had to do with me. Not that I was really trying to set myself up as an example. Rather, through the use of story I wanted to invite people to reflect on their own personal story.
So, the inherent worth and dignity of every person: It does roll off the tongue like sweet wine. Bring oon the three points and an illustration or two. How can you argue with that kind of affirmation? The sentence easily becomes ‘an ought,’ a rule, a goal in life: It is my duty to live my life in such a way that the inherent worth and dignity of every person I meet is protected and communicated. I will, I shall, I must.
My first question is, “If that first principle of Unitarian Universalism is not a law, not a dogma, not a rrequirement, how does such an affirmation move into a grounding principle, a passion, an affirmation that gets lived out, almost unthinkingly, in one’s daily and most intimate relationships? If this is a grounding principle for you, how did it become that? Here are two stories from my past but I tell them to stir up the embers of your memory.
My parents were instrumental in the establishment of the Waupoos Cottage Cooperative in Prince Edward County. It was made up of several families from Canada and the United States. One of those families was a black American family who, over the years, lived in New York, Washington and Baltimore. The members of the Carroll family were our closest cottage neighbours at the co-op and we shared the same outhouse in the days of the late 1940’s to mid-1960’s when we had no flush toilet. One day, maybe when I was six or seven, but I can’t be sure at this point, I was standing fairly close to the outhouse, playing a game of some sort and saying, “Eeny, meeny, miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe.” Ed Carroll, the dad, came over to me and asked if I knew what the word “nigger” meant. I had no idea. He told me and he told me how that word hurt him and his family. I was mortified, ashamed, stricken to the core. The Carroll family, Phenola and Ed, Nanci and Ed Jr., were honoured and special people to my family and to hurt them in any way was totally mortifying. But, I have to say, the Carroll family was the only black family I knew coming from the small southern Ontario villages in which I grew up but that event as a youngster had a profound effect on how I saw and how I related to people of non-white skin.
Several decades later and now living as a minister here in Guelph I was co-chair of the Education and Students Committee of Waterloo Presbytery, the committee that oversees candidates for ministry within the United Church. Was it 1978, I don’t know, but we were interviewing people who were graduating and thus coming up for ordination or commissioning. Two of those were a married couple who had recently separated. We met the wife first and asked about the marriage. So she told us her story of being a lesbian, knowing for years, how she had hoped being married would deal with it, how it had all ended so horribly. As a committee we didn’t know what to do so we asked for time, one week to think and we would meet her exactly 7 days later. We told no one of our dilemma but somehow the word was out in the student and church community and the executive of Hamilton Conference passed a motion in the middle of that week that no self-declared homosexual students would be ordained or commissioned until the United Church as a whole had settled the matter. So it was here, right here, that the United Church odyssey began over the ordination or commissioning of self-declared homosexuals with a similar thing happening in British Columbia.
The thing for me was that I had this weird inner reaction, a kind of inner revulsion to the idea of homosexuality but never any revulsion when the person was in front of me, talking, laughing, being who they were. And, as a reminder to me that God has a deep sense of humour, it is exactly 20 years ago this month that one of our daughters began to share with us her unfolding realization that she wasn’t who she thought she was. For many years now Barbara and I walk with our beloved daughter, other parents and their children in the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto. Barbara and I even walked once in San Francisco. We took a Canadian flag and made a sign that read, “Guelph, KW, Cambridge PFLAG.” Who would ever know in San Francisco where Guelph, KW or Cambridge were. At one point in the parade, there was this young Asian man jumping up and down and shouting at the top of his voice over the crowd, “KW, KW, KW.” As he jumped and shouted, he waved me over and when I got to him he flung his arms around me and said, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
I don’t know about you but it is events such as these that make me want to live my life where the inherent worth and dignity of every person is honoured. The conviction on my part has emerged out of actual lived experience, experiences with people different from me who have caused me to enter into their experience. Otherwise, I would argue, it is but a law, an attitude I should have
And a second question: It seems obvious to me that this principle is not self-evident. How does one convey the inherent worth and dignity of every person to the Adolph Hitlers of the world? But maybe more pertinently, how does one work out that principle in relationships that are fraught with difference of opinions or revulsions or complications?
So let me start with two issues on my plate at the moment. There is a guy up the street whose name I do not know who, early in the morning, starts his truck from inside the house, one of those electronic keys, and he runs that truck to warm up the cab and sometimes the truck turns itself off and he turns it on again. I hate it. I hate what I perceive to be an attitude of disregard for the environment and non-renewable resources. So it is easy for me to say that this man has inherent worth and dignity but truthfully, in my heart, I hate what he is doing and have struggled to figure out how to respond without conveying my hate for what he does.
I have similar feelings for conservative Protestantism. I have a long list of complaints and recently something has happened, is happening in this city, that if I let myself think about it too much, the wrath starts to boil within me. For 2 ½ years, I attended the Evangelical Fellowship even though it felt somewhat unsafe as a father with a lesbian daughter. Finally I just couldn’t do it any longer. I loved their energy and enthusiasm but I came to realize that although they call themselves evangelical they are conservative Protestants. I know they have inherent worth and dignity but there are some expressions of their faith I find utterly repulsive. So how is inherent worth and dignity lived, conveyed, when you abhor parts of someone else’s faith and you belong to the same broad faith family?
In the last six months I have had two acquaintances tell me of sexual exploits and conquests. One of those guys I actually admire and value our relationship and the other, well we belong to the same cottage coop and we have to make decisions together. If I did what they did I would be filled with so much shame and self-disgust so how do I look at them without such a filter.
Which brings me to my very final point: When I trained as a hospital chaplain one of my fellow students was asked by our supervisor to share some of his self-talk. The supervisor said, “Say out loud some of the words you use against yourself.” He could not do it, revealing that the words he used were simply profanity upon profanity.
It is about, at some basic level, the inherent worth and dignity of you. You! And me! And those three grandchildren who will take a life time to unfold the meaning of both their love for each and their rivalry. I conclude with one of my favourite prayers: "O God, help me to believe the truth about myself – no matter how beautiful it is!" (Macrina Wiederkehr)