In the last year of my B.A. my Educational Philosophy professor returned a paper to me with the comment, “I have to stop reading this paper because what you are saying is nonsense. You are using words recklessly, with no real understanding of their meanings. D minus.” I found her comment a bit harsh but since then, I keep hearing her voice when I express my opinions about something. I learned that words, certainly most words outside the hard sciences, don’t have clear or universal meanings.
A little programming note here. I am going to say some things that many of you will disagree with. Please make note of your disagreements so we can discuss them after the service. I always learn from intelligent people who disagree with me.
In university I learned a new vocabulary that I never heard at home. I started to show off, throwing these new words around as if I understood what they meant – words like eclectic, existential, rhetorical, subconscious, hegemony, esoteric and phenomenology. . . . . . . . “I just started going out with this wonderful woman. We have this great existential relationship.” No, I didn’t. It wasn’t existential. It was hormonal.
I have a problem with words, especially nouns. I used to use nouns with conviction but lately I have come to doubt the meanings of the words I use. At aged 72 I have decided that I don’t know very much. This is not false modesty. I mean it. Not only is the world changing as we sit here, knowledge is being shaped by many with personal agendas and their voices are loud. It’s confusing. What I thought I knew yesterday doesn’t seem to carry much weight today. Living a principled life hardy seems practical or realistic and certainly not easy.
The search for truth and meaning, sometimes even just to understand a single word, takes me in many different directions. I take very little at face value anymore. I will pursue the meaning of a word until I think I understand it and more often than not, I end up not understanding it but I do this anyway because the search energizes me. It may also provide me with an excuse to procrastinate, but I digress.
Last spring, the Sunday Services Committee was having a meeting at Burna and Jim’s house. We were brainstorming ideas for the upcoming year and we decided that we would focus more intensely on our Unitarian Principles. That’s when I chimed in that the word “principle” did not have a clear meaning for me at which point, Margie, being an excellent delegator, said, “How would you like to do a service on the word “principle”. Margie is not an easy person to say no to. If she thought I could talk for 20 minutes on a single word, how could I refuse such perceived confidence in my ability? So I said yes and here we are.
When I talk about a principle, how do I distinguish it from a rule or a value or a law? Dies this question matter? The search for meaning can even induce a type of Attention Deficit Disorder that can ruin your day. Here’s a simple scenario. I’m looking for my keys. I look in my office. They’re not there but while I’m there I notice that my waste basket is full so I take it to the garage and while I’m in the garage I notice that my bicycle tires are soft so I get out my little compressor to pump them up and while that’s happening I remember that I have to fix the leaking faucet in the garage so I get my vice grip and tighten it and that reminded me that the garden needs to be watered. And so it goes. My mind is working pretty hard but I still don’t have my keys. This kind of crazy search, practically, can lead to disaster. I would be terrible ER doctor. Speed is not my thing. Patients would die while I wondered why they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do you ever have that experience, being distracted from what you started out to do? This also happens with me and words, mostly nouns.
A more complicated scenario is trying to find truth. The English language looks for precision. It matters little that consensus-based precision may be extremely difficult or impossible or not even desirable. Speakers of English are more confident in their understanding of an event or a process if they can attach a label to it. As soon as something is perceived, it is named, interpreted, compared with something else, liked, disliked, called good or bad and ultimately accepted or rejected. This dualistic way of looking at things leaves little wiggle room for appreciating the dynamic nature of the grey area where most of life happens. Any definition, by definition, limits what it defines. When we take information and mix it with our assumptions as to how it can be interpreted, we risk marginalizing certain aspects of meaning that are important to a more complete understanding. Dictionary definitions of the words “art”, “woman”, “Indian”, “Education”, “democracy” and “poverty” are okay but they leave me unsatisfied.
Our understanding of the words “order” and “right” and “good” are not universal, no matter how often our meanings are written down. And therein lies the problem. In my opinion, two perspectives on anything aren’t enough which makes a single perspective even worse.
Understanding what’s going on in the world is becoming more difficult. The airwaves are full of fake news and alternative facts and rhetorical sensationalism and political correctness and cognitive dissonance that’s enough to drive anyone to drink or go live in a cave. Where is our common literacy if anything goes, everybody is an expert on everything and I don’t have to listen to you if I don’t agree with what you’re saying?
Specialists love nouns that they use to fill up categories and create classifications. They shut out most of the world except for their area of expertise. Perspective gets lost. “Facts” replace understanding. And knowledge, split into a thousand isolated fragments, no longer generates wisdom. Remember wisdom? Every science, and every branch of philosophy, has developed terminology intelligible only to its followers. As we learn more about the world, we find ourselves less capable of expressing what we have learned. The gap between life and knowledge has grown wider and wider. Those who govern cannot understand those who think. Those who want to know can’t understand those with the knowledge. We have the paradox of unprecedented learning existing side by side with ignorance. We adults don’t really worry about this. We’re okay. We’ve figured out most things but I worry about children and youth because in my work I have met far too many who are very lost and are at risk.
If I throw out these words and ask you to think of the first thing that comes to mind, I have no doubt we would end up with different understandings.
We would agree on the labels but not the definitions. 36m people call themselves Canadian. A common definition escapes us. Not everyone likes hockey or Gord Lightfoot or corn on the cob.
It has been a worthwhile exercise for me to try to define the word Indian. I still don’t have a satisfactory definition but I have had a great time trying. The search has opened up a whole new world for me.
I think our understanding of the word communication has become fuzzy although this is an example of where the dictionary definition is quite good. The root of the English word “communicate” is a Latin verb meaning “to make common.” It doesn’t describe a message-sender delivering facts or information or expertise to a message-receiver, on the assumption that the message is welcome, accurate, easily understood, and interpreted according to a common view of the world. Communication is not that simple. It has a creative element, one which reflects our ability to surprise ourselves by saying or writing something that has never been said or written before.
The noun “Education is defined as the teaching of the most important values and critical thinking skills in order to produce informed, productive members of society”, etc., etc. Whose values? Do we agree on what kind of society we all want? I’m not so sure that all Quebecois and Indigenous people have the same values as other Canadians. I don’t find the definition adequate. And I am not alone. In one of the sub-dialects of Cree, there is a morpheme in the middle of their word for education that means “cry”.
Let’s take the word fascist. Is being a fascist always a bad thing? When it comes to homework junk food and screen time wouldn't all sane parents admit that there are times when nothing works like a confident dictatorship? Of course there are fascists who have committed unspeakable crimes but I am uncomfortable in situations where we replace engagement with name-calling.
Let’s take the word depression. Is depression simply serotonin deficiency? In our culture we see emotional illness as something that happens from the neck up. In some cultures it is defined as an inability to respond to social expectations. Today, in Japan, people who used to experience what used to considered culturally normal states of melancholy are now being given Paxil. If a flower is dying, we don’t try tofix the flower. We take a close look at the garden. Depression is often a perfectly normal response to an abnormal set of circumstances.
Curiosity is a great noun easily translated into a verb. It comes from a verb that means to care and caring is at the core of the Golden Rule.
What is love? How many hundreds of definitions are there? I think, first and foremost, that love is listening with every fibre of my being. I’d like to know how you define it.
Sometimes words have contrary meanings. When Andrea says to me, “Honey, you left the stove on or Honey, you left the garage door open”, I know she doesn’t mean “Honey.” “Honey” means something very different, especially if she adds the word “again” after reminding me about the stove or the garage door.
We wield nouns like weapons. Naming comes with a confident sense of understanding the world and everybody in it. “Nounism” is a way of “declaring things solid”. Nouns are the language of certainty, of things that can be grasped and dealt with. This distorts how we see the world, adding meaning to certain things that they don’t deserve. Convenient made-up nouns like “globalisation” and “recession” implicitly represent complex ways of seeing and relating to the world but simply using these labels collapses complexity. They oversimplify and make it easy to avoid any idea of human responsibility. The most knowledgeable among us are those with the largest lexicons of labels. Gifted with impressive memories, they are the quiz show winners.
Nouns give us a false sense of control over reality. If I sound like I know what I’m talking about, I feel less like a victim of circumstance but that doesn’t change the fact that I am still a victim of circumstance and I have to play the cards I am dealt. I didn’t get to choose the deck.
Words that are nouns used as labels often polarize and separate us – atheists from believers, the NDP from the Conservatives, victims from criminals, Indigenous from mainstream and that category of words like right and wrong, good and bad that always get us into trouble because if my good is your bad, we can end up putting on the gloves and meaningful dialogue stops. So it’s not just nouns or I should say the overuse of nouns that bothers me. It’s also the overuse of many adjectives that support disagreement more than reconciliation.
Our English vocabulary has millions of words but our lexicon is still not complete. What verb means simultaneously both giving and receiving? How often do WE emotionally benefit by helping someone? It’s a perfectly normal human experience, cooking someone their favourite meal, teaching someone a new skill, comforting a child having a bad dream, helping a friend find a job. Charity is often self-serving. But acknowledging that we often receive when we give is just being honest with ourselves. We don’t have a word that means both.
I am a dreamer, an idealist. I believe in universal principles. But what if MY idea of universal principles is different from the idea of universal principles in Saudi Arabia or Japan or Nepal? They aren’t universal if there’s disagreement and where there is disagreement, there can be conflict, a dualistic way of seeing and once again, we will find inequity and persecution.
Here is one of my favourite examples which highlights how, over time, we have shifted the emphasis away from fluid movement, from verbs, from doing, to nouns, to categories which identify and isolate objects in space. The word “sage” is a noun that started out as a verb. It is from the Latin “sapere” (to taste). In its original form, “sage” was a process or gesture to take in the world. Originally, it implied that we make sense of the world and find wisdom by tasting. While watching and thinking may be helpful, it is internalizing what we experience that opens us to wisdom. History tells us that the shift happened in the time of Socrates who named the wise ones, the Seven Sages of Greece – Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson and Chilon. There was great disagreement over which figures should be counted among the seven and disagreement over the number itself. Arguments arose. Soon the curiosity and wonder by which we receive and filter the “hymns of the universe” were ignored as attention moved away from the tasting of life to debating who the greatest tasters were. The noun meaning replaced the verb meaning and power was given to a small number of people instead of to a process available to everyone.
Our written tradition has become a crutch. In my youth, I assumed that there was no rigorous intellectual activity without reading large texts subject to review and challenge by experts with multiple academic qualifications. The written word, in all its forms, for many centuries, has provided guidance, direction, explanation and roadmaps to invention and social harmony. The first five books of the Bible, commonly called the Pentateuch (literally “five scrolls”) which comprise the Torah, were written by Moses almost 3500 years ago and have continued to influence not only religious practice but also cultural and literary expression. When we hear someone say “Legally, he did nothing wrong”, we are referring to words on paper, written laws given greater importance than the necessarily ambiguous area of ethics where dilemmas are resolved by discussion, not precedent. We have replaced the oral tradition with the unexamined power of the written word and too much bafflegab in the media.
Responding to injustice takes more than words on paper. Civil rights did not erase racism. Equitable hiring policies do not guarantee an equal workplace. Strict prosecution of sexual assault does not promise women safe streets. Gun control doesn’t stop violence. A scrapped Indian Act replaced by new rules will not transform our relationship with Indigenous people. The Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women will not guarantee the safety of living Indigenous women.
I don’t mean to dismiss all of this good work. Legislation has helped and research is interesting and often raises awareness but there is no guarantee these things will change behaviour.
We associate the word “principle” with free speech and as a result, anything goes in the media. Even if so much free speech is simply incorrect, do we want to put limits on it? Would it still be free? Is it okay to deny the holocaust? This is a dilemma. Speech can be hurtful. Where do we draw the line? Is there a line? There is a lot of sensitivity around this subject right now. Are you an anti-Semite because you criticize Israel’s policies in Palestine? Are you a racist because you don’t like Black literature? Are you an Islamophobe because you criticize Islam. If so, does that make you a dogophobe if you don’t like dogs? No, you don’t hate dogs and you’re not afraid of dogs. You just don’t want to associate with dogs. The comfort derived from naming is misplaced.
What’s missing in discussions of free speech as an important principle is the absence of any reference to self-regulation. Some will disagree with me. Free speech fundamentalists will say there can be no limits because limits stifle free expression. I believe that free speech implies an intention not to lie because to intentionally lie would cheapen the principle. Some external regulation is a good thing. There would be many more car accidents if we didn’t have stop signs and traffic lights but regulating human behaviour and language is a slippery slope because consensus is impossible. What is the relationship between the rule of law, an important principle, and free speech, another important principle? For me, these are delicious questions because they encourage conversation, argumentation, dialogue, listening at the deepest level to discover how we can accommodate diversity, even when our differences crash up against each other and make us uncomfortable. However, while civilized talking is good, taking concrete steps to hold ourselves and our elected politicians and our school boards and our newspaper journalists to task is what makes democracy work because we don’t get to criticize without participating. Being a citizen is not a spectator sport. But what does this mean, hold them to task? To me it means pushing the conversation into a focus on giving everybody the tools to auto-correct, to be independent thinkers who can construct arguments that hold up and de-construct arguments that don’t. To be able to spot a non-sequitur is a survival skill in a complex world. This is much more important than a rule about something we might call politically correct behaviour or about the unspoken rule that to get ahead you must do anything, no matter what, to win.
The noun Islamophobe raises a hot button issue right now. I think there’s some legislation now being discussed that would make Islamophobia illegal. It implies that there are people who are afraid of Moslems and are acting out their fear whereas I suspect that what people are afraid of is people who commit acts of violence and it doesn’t matter if they are Rosicrucians or Zoroastrians or Moslems, Baptists, atheists or Animists. There are those who appear to be “Islamophobic” and commit acts of violence against Moslems despite the fact that they have probably never spoken to one but I refuse to call them Islamophobes. I think of them as stupid just as I prefer to think of members of ISIS and hate groups as stupid. Their behaviour is not grounded in any universal principle. I prefer the word stupid because I believe I can more easily open a door to dialogue by proving stupidity in a purely secular sense than by attempting to prove that their religion is flawed. If it IS flawed, it’s up to the members of the religion to self-regulate. My suggestions will not be welcomed and will likely only inflame the conversation. However, if members of that religion or any other religion or a hate group or wall street bankers abuse their freedoms to exploit and harm others, we have a justice system that has its own weaknesses but compared to that in most countries, it is pretty effective and it would be more effective if we took rhetoric, name-calling and emotion out of the conversation.
I should mention that I suffer from various forms of stupidity. I feel stupid when I try to do simple plumbing jobs or when I try to understand the stock market or when the Help feature in my Windows program leaves me tormented with frustration. I am quite useless with technology. I often find women’s circular conversation style difficult to follow. They can talk about many things simultaneously and I can’t. I have tried to understand relativity, the warping of space-time, but I still don’t get it. I REALLY feel stupid when I try to play euchre. I can never get the difference between the Right Bower and the Left Bower. It’s okay for us to be stupid unless we hurt people we must de-stupify those who abuse our hard fought for freedoms. Naming is mostly shaming and it’s not effective. Naming someone a racist or misogynist or fascist is not ultimately helpful. I say “ultimately” because although it’s useful to name a problem, this is only a first step. A racist or misogynist or fascist or terrorist today will be the same person tomorrow, maybe even more entrenched in their dualistic way of looking at the world because they thrive on opposition. Engaging a person with knowledge and facts and stories with an emphasis on verbs to truly communicate has no guarantee of success but it doesn’t alienate and close the door. I understand that sometimes we need to lock people up but we could learn a lot from the restorative practices traditionally used by Indigenous peoples.
My caveat to taking the pacifist approach is that there are exceptions. Nelson Mandela believed in non-violent protest until he realized it wasn’t working and changed to support state terrorism that landed him in prison for 27 years but he proved ultimately that reconciliation must happen.
Maybe the word hate makes us feel uncomfortable but in a society that values free speech, it’s okay to hate Walmart, fossil fuels and the cattle industry. Of course, it’s trickier with people but we can’t legislate against a person’s thoughts. Legally, misogyny is not a crime. Sexual harassment or inciting hatred against women or any other identifiable group ARE crimes. Men are allowed to hate women. Why they would do so I can’t imagine but they have a right to exist. Marc Lepine, the man who killed 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989 was a misogynist who crossed the line and committed a massacre. However, to focus our attention on his hatred of women is to avoid facing the deeper illness in our society, that – big generalization – we are losing the ability to understand complexity, to think clearly, even advance civilization with higher order problem-solving or to put it more simply, understand that what we do with children from K to Grade 12 can make the difference in producing either unthinking and sometimes dangerous time-bombs or youth with toolkits that can face complexity with wonder and excitement. Rollo May said that everything we do, everything, is motivated by either love or fear and if our graduates are leaving school with phobias instead of love, we have dropped the ball.
These words, like racist and fascist and misogynist are nouns, convenient labels that may have some element of truth in them but we are not seeing any real improvement in the quality of the conversation by shouting these words. The labels divide the world into two groups, those who think like you and those who don’t. I look forward to hearing how some of you may disagree with this after the service.
Attaching labels can convince us we have answers, knowledge and even power. Not using definitions and labels as if they hold immutable truths presents us with uncertainty but when we become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up.
So I am declaring today that life is a verb, not a noun, that knowing is good as a first step but doing is better because doing always leads to knowing but there is absolutely no guarantee that knowing leads to doing.
I am declaring today that I am a verb. But I am not the first to make this declaration.
In 1970, Buckminster Fuller said
I live on Earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing . I am not a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.
Here is a concrete example of the difference between a verb person and a noun person. Excuse the long preamble. I will get to the point.
In 1995, I worked on a needs assessment project to determine what the Crees in northern Quebec were going to do with their settlement from signing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. I talked to everybody in their nine communities who had a job to find out what educational requirements ideally suited them for the jobs they were already doing. I wanted to find out what they knew and didn’t know about their work. This information was used to produce a thick human resource development plan. The Cree Regional Authority gave it to the provincial and federal governments so their settlement cheque could be written to close the deal.
What was the deal? The total compensation was $225 million paid by the Canadian and Quebec governments in exchange for 981,610 square kilometres of the James Bay/Ungava territory. The Crees got their cheque 20 years after the agreement was signed. I think $225m today would buy 150 houses in Toronto. In 1995, maybe 300 houses. Anyway, one of the people I spoke to was a mechanic on his lunch break in the community of Waskaganish. I walked into the garage where he was sitting on a box carving a bird out of a piece of scrap wood. Not wanting to jump right in to my list of questions, I said, “So, I see you are an artist.” He said, “No, I just like carving wood.” I used a noun. He used a verb. I used a title. He used a process.
This mechanic’s way of looking at reality was very different. It’s based on a different principle and I started wondering who was more evolved.
The world is way too dynamic a place to allow us to think we understand anything, at least for very long, using terminology. This is why verbs, denoting continuous change and movement, are important.
For the Montagnais Indians, also known as the Naskapi or Innu, there are no nouns to describe the weather – no rain, no snow, no heat and no cold. There is no morning, or afternoon, or night. Rather there are verbs, processes of time and processes of nature. All is process. All is transformation. All is animation.
Here is another example. The syntax of the Mi’kmaq language coincides with a view of reality which exists in a perpetual state of oscillation, matter becoming energy becoming matter once again. There are speakers of Mi’kmaq who describe speaking English as like having to put on a straightjacket.
Fritjof Capra, who wrote The Turning Point in 1982, was on the same page. He said “Relativity theory has made the cosmic web come alive, so to speak, by revealing its intrinsically dynamic character...There is motion but there are, ultimately, no moving objects; there is activity but there are no actors; there are no dancers, there is only the dance."
These messages tell me that life is more about energy than objects/stuff and if we manage our lives by rules we will be stuck in the concrete world. Maybe I’m an anarchist but I think we have too many rules. There is no shortage of rules and regulations. We curtail the freedom of students who break the rules in their classrooms while at the same time elementary teachers have externally imposed rules they must follow adding to their already significant responsibilities. Employees are valued for following policies and precedent. Rules provide security. They are clear. You are following the rule or you aren’t and if you are, you are doing your job. This is not enough. Acting on principle requires a different and longer conversation. One understood principle, say RESPECT, can easily replace a hundred rules.
The Dalai Lama said “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.”
Why are we so much less prepared to challenge those who undermine principles than those who break rules? We seem to lie catching rule breakers. There is a negative criticism that is nothing but complaining and projecting. There is a positive criticism that is all about hope and development.
Rules are important but they are not sacred. Principles are sacred. While it is true that rules can prevent chaos, confusion and even disaster, they also support and even ensure mediocrity when it becomes clear that doing things only by following rules generates the same poor results leaving social conditions unchanged. Living a principled life means, occasionally, ignoring or breaking rules. This takes courage but we have the Dalai Lama as a role model!
What is a principle?
A principle is defined as a noun, “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”
Sounds good. But what happens when two fundamental principles collide?
Acting on principle, emphasizing its verb quality over its noun definition isn’t easy. Here is a domestic example. I have been known to take something out of the compost, brush it off and eat it. Hmm. That half a tomato still looks okay to me. This makes Andrea question my judgement. I say I’m following a principle that food should not be wasted. She will say that the principle she is following is that eating borderline rotten food is unhealthy. The discussion can get complicated. Who’s correct? Don’t answer that!
Here’s a more serious example, okay, a slightly more serious example. The Charter of the United Nations unequivocally honours the protection of sovereign nations from foreign intervention. It should have acknowledged that Ruanda was an exception. It didn’t and Romeo Dallaire was left stranded and unable to stop a genocide. The UN failed to break a rule in order to support the principle of intervening to establish peace and security and save lives.
Lately, I have been experiencing some cognitive dissonance around the word "tolerance". Tolerance is a principle but I feel motivated to be intolerant of the intolerant (Trump, white supremacists, jihadists, etc.) but if that simply adds to the intolerance quotient, I am not being the change I want to see, the philosophy Gandhi advised us to adopt. Would anything be accomplished? Non-dualism is a great theory but how does it stack up against those who thrive on the binary, dualistic, us vs them worldview, who play by a very different set of rules? I sometimes think of Indigenous people and their "turn the other cheek" approach to every broken treaty promise. Maybe I have missed something (very possible) but I don't believe it has served them to be tolerant. It’s changing but my hope is that it won’t be too little too late.
I believe there are such things as universal principles. We may not all be on the same page but we’ve got to start reading from the same book if we accept that we are all members of one human race sharing the same pantry of resources. This is serious. When I was in high school the world population was 2.5b people. Now it’s almost 7b, an increase of 4.5b in less than one lifetime, and I’m not dead yet.
Practising our Unitarian principles, as verbs, is not easy . Mystery and struggle are embedded in the practice. There are people in this world who do not believe in, for example, the Inherent worth and dignity of every person or Justice, Equity and Compassion for all and I need to figure this out because how can I be inclusive of the non-inclusive. I don’t have enough ability to convert dualistic thinking people (It’s my way or the highway kind of people) into more integral way of looking at the world we share. They have figured everything out. I have nothing to offer them. Similarly, I do not believe in an eye for an eye but by the same token I don’t always want to turn the other cheek. I just don’t know. Sometimes I think there's reward in mystery, not knowing, but maybe some of you have figured this out.
I have a personal principle. I derive more satisfaction from doubt than from certainty.
Maybe the universal good is not understanding but standing under, being in awe of mystery and magic not in some New Agey sense but coming to that point from having done the homework, from engaging in rigorous study and still not reaching confident conclusions. This is hard work. It takes effort, not rhetoric or bravado or being the loudest voice in the room or exaggerating the importance of one’s academic credentials or ones apparent status in society. What is the principle? It's ultimately trying and constantly failing to answer the question what does it mean to be human? We don't want to think of ourselves as random, accidental, commonplace and we search for a complete answer that will never be completely discovered.
The first step in the practice of mystery is to is to accept that so much of life and the world around us is baffling, curious, hidden, and inscrutable. I have learned to live with paradox. I have given up the idea that I can always “get it”. I am suspicious of any and all of the “ologies” that try to explain everything – from astrology to psychology to theology.
The practice of mystery enhances our understanding of the complexity of reality. It is an affront to the modern need to have answers to every question and our tendency to create tidy systems with a cubbyhole full of nouns for every problem and aspiration. Some people simply ignore the mysterious because it lies outside the hallowed precincts of reason and logic. The antidote to these reductionist approaches is to rest in the riddle of not knowing. If you sometimes think that answers are wisdom, it is time to try practising mystery.
I know an Elder up north who has figured out how to have the best life possible. Her name is Ruby. She teaches Ojibway and Oji-Cree at a distance education centre. She is a recovered alcoholic. She went to Lakehead University for her B.A./B.Ed. many years ago and suffered the indignity of racism in Thunder Bay, a city that still traumatizes many youth when they come out of the north to continue their education. I asked her one day how she had managed to overcome the obstacles she had faced. She said she used the Medicine Wheel to keep herself mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically in balance and she used the Seven Grandfather Teachings every day to keep growing. She said that when she was drinking she lost her rudder but she found it again when she returned to her culture. She explained that she did this by putting the Seven Teachings – Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, Wisdom and Truth on separate pieces of paper which she put in a bowl in her bedroom. Every morning she would choose a Teaching from the bowl and practised this Teaching all day. The next morning she would choose another Teaching and if she chose the same Teaching, that was perfectly okay. I guess you could say those were her principles and she had figured out how to turn the nouns of those principles into verbs.
We could each do the same thing. Make up our own Teachings, put them in a bowl and practise whatever those things are that we think we need to practise.
Wise people say wise things. I’m lucky. I’ve met many wise people like Ruby.
Here are some possible Teachings that I like:
What does it mean to live a principled life? I am getting to know what it means for me but we are each the sum total of many different stories. We are all on our own path. Sometimes it’s lonely but it’s never boring.
The French philosopher, Albert Camus, said there was only one question – “Why should you not kill yourself” which sounds pretty dark but when I started to answer the question I realized that it was a great question and I made up a list of reasons why I should not kill myself. My answers had a lot to do with enjoying the fascinating and infinite bounty in nature and the amazing people I am still getting to know and the books I have yet to read and the challenges that test my ability and resilience but make me feel more alive.
Here’s another personal principle. I try to be an "honest hypocrite" – to admit that I struggle to follow the principle that I might be preaching. I want to be honest about how I fall short. I believe that admitting my inner struggles and conflicts and contradictions makes me more vulnerable and therefore more human. I’d rather regulate myself than need someone to do it for me. I am a chatty person and I often talk more than act.
My professor was right. It’s not a good idea to pretend to know. I am not what I say but what I do.
What’s the point of all this? If I were to summarize what I have been rambling on about this morning, I would say it’s that the nouns we use and the adjectives we use to describe them are much less important than our behaviour but we are not simply conditioned creatures, responding to the demands of society. ehaviour is a cart, not a horse. It is a consequence, not a cause. It is an end, not a beginning. Behaviour is what we do, not why we do it. Behind the behaviour, there is a motivation, maybe a principle, and I will end with this principle contained in a story.
Many years ago, in my hippy days, I went to hear the famous yogi Swami Satchinananda Saraswati speak at a local church. He sat cross legged at the front on a small raised platform. There was incense of course and flowers. Some of the incense was definitely weed. The people there didn’t need Justin Trudeau to make it legal. The audience consisted of people in their late teens and early twenties and a few scattered old people in their thirties. He spoke very energetically, often laughing. He talked about how the goal and the birthright of all of us is to realize the spiritual unity behind the diversity throughout creation and to live harmoniously as members of "one universal family". This goal would be achieved by keeping our bodies healthy and strong, and our senses under control, and our minds clear and calm, and our hearts full of unconditional love and compassion and our lives filled with supreme peace, joy and bliss.
There were questions at the end which he patiently answered but he got tired and eventually said he would take one more question. A woman stood up and asked, “Swami Satchinananda, before we leave tonight, can you give us one last simple message that you would like us to remember? He paused a little and then said in his musical sing-song voice. Don’t be being a nuisance to yourself. Don’t be being a nuisance to others.”
Elders up north have this wonderful way of ending stories. They often just make the comment – That’s all I have to say.” So, that’s all I have to say . . . except, the next time someone calls you “Honey”, pay attention.
This talk was born several months ago when I said in the sharing circle after a Sunday service that I have self-censored myself in all the talks here. And Linda responded that I could come back anytime and do some reflecting on that topic which I am now doing and am feeling quite presumptuous in doing so. However, I offer this talk as an invitation for all of us to enter into a dialogue not only for today but on into the future.
Let’s begin by acknowledging we all self-sensor. Let’s do an inner scan: Consider what you normally don’t share in this congregation? Or at work? With your family? Your friends? We self-sensor for a multitude of reasons: Don’t have the energy to explain the situation; feel awkward or embarrassed; feel guilt or shame; are either afraid unnecessarily what the others will think of us or are absolutely certain we will be rejected. Why don’t we take a minute and talk to our neighbour for a little bit and I will call you back in a very short time and if you don’t want to talk, don’t self-sensor yourself. Just say you would like to sit and think or meditate or just be. (Group time)
In the Christian monastic world it is called a Rule, like The Rule of St. Benedict. We immediately jump to thinking of rules, like a law book, but The Rule of St. Benedict, for instance, is a framework for a monastery to function. In the Buddhist monastic tradition it is called a trellis, as in a garden, where plants are held in a space but again it provides a framework for the community to function.
For today, I would like you to consider a wheel, the hub in the centre providing the core values and beliefs. The seven Unitarian Principles provide those values and beliefs for this congregation but there are other written and unwritten core realities: Don’t bring your cup of tea or soup into this space when we do our sharing in the circle after the service, as one example. In the past, churches have been rightly condemned for having “All welcome” on their notice boards but almost always the “All” is qualified. Even how congregational members are dressed sends a message as to who is welcome and who may not. So there is the hub at the centre signaling core values and beliefs and then around the outside is the rim, the outer circumference that delineates who is within and who is outside. So I self-censored not on the basis of the hub, the centre, for I looked in at your Principles and in your Hymnary and I could see that it was perfectly appropriate to share a certain part of myself but I picked up a kind of vibe within the congregation that, whether rightly or wrongly, sent to me a message that here was treacherous ground.
This is not said in condemnation. It happens in every community, every family, every workplace. The clue is to be conscious of it and to have some intentionality around it so that we can affirm whether we really want that part of life taboo or not. Let’s be clear, these kinds of things can pertain to the most basic of human interactions. At Harcourt Church there was a long-time member, now deceased many years, who gradually changed in personality and mental health. Over several years personal standards of hygiene became more and more noticeable, such that if you sat near body odours were very obvious to the point, eventually, of gagging. A core value is acceptance and welcome but out there on the rim we do expect certain standards of decorum and personal practices even when we are not aware of those values. A community can be challenged by a whole series of issues – mental health, criminal records, unemployment, personality conflicts, political differences, economic disparities, educational differences, profoundly different life experiences, let alone religious or spiritual values and opinions.
Let me get at my self-censoring by telling a story. I was ordained in 1970 and served a year in Kingston and then four years in rural Manitoba. Being a new parent, doing this new job of ministry with lots of university education but precious little experience, Barbara isolated by parenthood and rural dynamics where ‘the United Church manse’ where we lived was declared ‘off limits’ and you only went there when you were in trouble, it was all a stew that had some unpleasant aspects such that I increasingly felt I was being disemboweled. My response was to leave rural Manitoba and move to Toronto where I took a residency in hospital chaplaincy and then we moved to Guelph and me to being the minister of Harcourt United Church. In the first months, two things happened. Barbara noticed a reference to a book in a footnote which she ordered and read and suggested that it might be neat to offer it in the congregation. In short order I was leading prayer sharing groups, something way out of my comfort level but strangely exhilarating. And secondly I found myself intrigued by the Ignatius Jesuit Centre and wrote a letter which began, “To whom it may concern.” I was told later that the letter from this unknown United Church minister was passed round and round the retreat staff until Fr. John Haley said, “OK, I’ll phone him.” So I began to go up to Ignatius College and meet with John. It was a foreign land with a language very different from my Protestant-speak. John suggested that I come for a morning or an afternoon and he would book a bedroom for me. He would see me for 45 minutes or so and the rest of the time I could just “be” in that bedroom. In July of 1980 I took my first silent retreat, five days. I still remember the experience of putting my supper on my tray and as I sat down for my first meal on retreat feeling this wave of panic sweep over me – no talking, no phone, no newspaper, no TV, no radio. Just me, myself; I found it very, very scary. I’m an introvert, I enjoy being on my own. But this was different. Before, I could always make contact when I wanted. This was an intentional cutting myself off for five whole days. Not even a phone call home to find out how Barbara was faring with the children.
Years later, Audrey Madigan who worked for 16 years at Harcourt Church as the administrator decided to do a weekend in silence at Loyola House. She came back on Monday and said to me, “I have been saying to you every time you go on retreat, ‘Have a good time.’ Never again! This past weekend was the most difficult thing I have ever done.” Most of the silent retreats I have done have been eight days and I suspect I have done 30 of them or so.
The word ‘God’ is a kind of code word and I don’t like the word particularly, so associated as it is with patriarchy, hierarchy, violence, domination, conquest, and a host of other evils. However, it points to a reality that has stirred my deepest self such that I live pretty intentionally although not well within a sense of the divine, the divine that I regard as the Beautiful One, the Holy One, Source and Goal who is Wholly Love. Words, names fail me.
When I came here for the first time, I was deeply, deeply touched by one part of the service, the sharing of joys and sorrows. But I was also limited by it too. In addition to saying, “We hear you” my soul wanted to add, “and you are heard.” Yes, heard not just by each other but by a Presence that lives within us, between us, far beyond us. I can’t prove the presence of that Holy Presence. Maybe there isn’t a Holy Mystery who is Wholly Love and only neurons firing off in a particular way in my brain. But for the moment this is where I find myself, deeply aware of Holy Mystery who is Holy Love, the One of Beauty whom we normally name with that code word, ‘God.’
Several times while leading worship at Harcourt Church I found myself saying sentences where I was hearing the sentences at the same time as everyone else in the congregation. At a Christmas Eve service, I said, “Those who would like a blessing when they come up for communion just ask me for it.” What! What does that mean? I’ve never done blessings. How do you do a blessing? That Christmas Eve so many people asked for a blessing and, despite feeling awkward and strange, I found myself laying my hand on shoulders or heads and saying words with a mouth that had parched dry. But there was something utterly sacred about that night. Another time, decades ago, I heard myself say at the beginning of a sermon, “I offer these words out of love for God and out of love for you who are God’s people.” And once said I remembered those words and found myself saying them the next Sunday and the next and at a funeral and I still use them but I have not used them here. There is my self-censorship, in one essential sentence, but every talk I have given here has been given out of that same sense of love, out of love for a divine mystery that has claimed me and out of love for you whom I dare to believe belong to that holy mystery.
Finally, I would never want you to become like me. What I most want is for you as individuals to become fully and completely who you are able to be. And I want this Unitarian congregation to fulfill all the potential that is embedded within this gathering. And not trying to be cheeky, I will end this talk with, “Thanks be to you for being willing to listen to this talk and thanks be to that Holy Presence for whom we use the code word ‘God’ and who for me is Holy Mystery, Wholly Love.” And, yes, I could keep going but that would demand that I talk about Jesus. I have said enough. It is for you, now, to pick up, if you desire, the conversation.
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)
The last time I was here as a speaker, the 15th of January of this year to be specific, the topic was the first of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Months later, Harold emailed me asking if I would come four times over the year and address each of the principles in turn so this would take more than one year. Rather blithely I said yes only to wonder whether I really will have something to say about each of them. In addition, I am not a Unitarian and that causes me to make two points. First, I cannot speak as a Unitarian about these principles even if I agree with them. Inevitably I look at them through my Christian lens and through my own personal story as you are about to discover this morning. Second, I am aware that the principles leave out a major part of my faith/value system so you might even ask yourself not only whether you agree with these principles but whether they encompass all of your values or principles.
Maybe I should also acknowledge that I will be back on the 11th of November and I was here last year for Remembrance Day. However, my talk is going to be on the third principle and I am planning, whether I actually do this who knows, but I am planning to rewrite a sermon that I gave at Harcourt United Church last March. I am not sure if I am trying to warn you or what but there it is.
So the second principle is this: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote ‘Justice, equity and compassion in human relations’.” Some rough definitions might be in order. Justice: Right relations as opposed to the justice of a law court or the justice of an eye for an eye. Equity: Fairness. Compassion: Deep empathy from the core of our being. And, as I often do, let’s begin with a story.
I was three years old when, in November 1946, a number of college friends gathered in the United Church manse in Bloomfield, now a tourist destination just outside of Picton in Prince Edward County. Bloomfield was the first of three small villages where I grew up. That gathering formed the Waupoos Cottage Cooperative and the friends were from Queen’s University, Queen’s Theological College (now the Queen’s School of Religion) and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My parents were the connection between the Canadians and Americans as my Mom and Dad had lived in New York while my Dad studied for a year at Union in the early years of World War II. The friends were socially engaged young married folk just starting their families. Most were United Church ministers. In short order not only was it a Canadian/American enterprise but it was also an interracial summer community that gathered every August for fun and work and intense conversations. The values shared by that first generation of founders were rooted in the Social Gospel movement. I am very aware that I was shaped as a growing child by that very movement as was the United Church of Canada of which I am a part. And this country has been shaped by that movement; you could argue that Medicare, as just one example, is a product of the movement given that it was inaugurated in Saskatchewan under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, and member of the CCF party which was, in turn, founded by J. S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister and key Canadian figure in the Social Gospel movement.
If you look ‘Social Gospel’ up in Wikipedia, for instance, you will learn that the movement was a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in early 20th century United States and Canada. It applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice understood as wealth perceived as excessive, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to make real the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Social Gospel leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the Progressive Movement and most were theologically liberal, although they were typically conservative when it came to their views on social issues. An example of that liberal/conservative tension in my home was that my parents were strong CCF and later NDP supporters and there was little alcohol in our home.
A few years before my father died, Dad and I were talking about the Cottage Coop which now, 65 years later, still exists, my grandchildren belonging to the fourth generation although it is a much different kind of place physically and relationally with members stretching from Vancouver to Kingston and California to Arizona to the American eastern seaboard. My Dad said, “We had high ideals but we really didn’t know how to get along with each other.” And indeed I have childhood memories of my mother in tears because of hurtful words and actions as just one example.
The second principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Maybe it is because of those formative childhood experiences during the month of August at the Waupoos Cottage Coop that I find it absolutely fascinating that the second principle combines justice and compassion. That summer community had high, high ideals of Social Gospel justice and some of the people there were absolutely remarkable in their commitment, in the prices that they paid personally and in their accomplishments but also sometimes there was not much compassion shown to each other. A lot of intellectual jousting took place as people staked their claims for their opinions and in that environment it can be like a war, winner take all and relationships sacrificed for some perceived higher good and some higher truth. Equity, fairness, gets totally lost.
I don’t know how many of you know the name of Temple Grandin who received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Guelph this past February. In the press release from the University she is described this way: “As a person with high-functioning autism, Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, knows the anxiety of feeling threatened by her surroundings. Motivated by this, she has introduced and designed humane handling systems for livestock-processing facilities across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, and consults with the meat industry to develop animal welfare guidelines.”
Recently I discovered a biography of her written for young people; it had been misshelved at the library so it was in the adult section of new books at the Scottsdale branch but I was delighted to read it since I had read one of her books previously. At the end of the book there is a description of her home and, if I remember correctly, in Temple Grandin’s bedroom is a quotation on the wall from Albert Einstein: “The Ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty and truth.”
I want to draw this talk to a close by asking some questions:
I wonder if we might end this talk together by singing from the hymnary just remaining in our seats 123, “Spirit of life.” Maybe even more than once, chant like.
As I was contemplating the fifth principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large,” it tumbled to me that we have not considered the preamble in these talks: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote.” There are three potent words in that prologue: Covenant, Affirm and Promote.
Let’s start with affirm. The word derives from the Latin, firmus, strong, and that should give us a clue as to its significance. This calls us to a truth telling statement, a line drawn in the sand. Unitarians are saying that these principles are rock bottom essential. I remember a person telling me of the experience of being offered a sexual favour and he hesitated being truly attracted and far from home and then turned it down. “But nobody will know,” came the reply. “True,” the person said, “Nobody will know except me, except me.” That’s an affirmation relying on inner strength and an inner recognition that, “I have to live with myself first and foremost.”
The congregation is called to “affirm,” take a stand on these principles and promote them. Promote means being, do I dare say it, evangelical, promoting the ‘good news.’ ‘Good news’ is the origin of the word evangelical. I hate the fact that the word evangelical has been captured by conservative Protestants for it is a good word in and of itself. These seven principles are good news. Any community that can affirm these principles is promoting good news. Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket, Unitarians!
Finally, in the prologue, is the word “covenant.” Now there is a foundational word straight out of the Bible, originating in the Hebrew/Jewish experience but continued in the Christian tradition: Old and New Testament, just as one small example, the word testament being the old English word for covenant. It means an agreement or a contract, really a solemn promise made binding by an oath which may be either a verbal formula or a symbolic action. Such a verbal formula or symbolic action is recognized by all parties as the formal act which binds the actors to fulfill the promises made. There is ceremony in covenant making. Making a covenant is a hugely solemn affair biblically and in the world of the church it has gotten translated into the promises made in baptism, ordination and marriage. You as Unitarians might consider how you make real, (Do you ever make real?), your covenant promise to make these principles living realities in your congregational life.
A final thought about covenant might be to contrast the word with ‘treaty,’ a word more in the news these days with the Idle No More movement, a movement that some of you I know have been quite involved in. My own particular involvement has been to make the commitment to get myself better educated as a settler descended Canadian. It is, I can report, a profoundly disturbing business, this educating or expanding one’s consciousness process. Thanks to American historian, Francis Jennings, as one small example, I have had Columbus discovering America in 1492 turned into a new image, Columbus stepping on that Caribbean island on an October day of 1492 and initiating the invasion and conquest of the Americas by European nations. Invasion and conquest: Those words present an image and a process totally different from discovering a new continent. And what role did treaties have in that invasion and conquest? Well, ask yourself, “What did the Europeans want?” They wanted land and the wealth from the land and truthfully, we still want land and the wealth from the land. Treaties have served the function of getting chunks of land until something could surface that required a new arrangement that would secure even more land or more privilege. Such a use for treaties is profoundly different than the original meaning of covenant.
That prologue has some very strong words in it, affirm, promote but most of all, covenant, an agreement like my word is my honour but our experience with treaties reminds us that sometimes we are a very long way from that sense of covenant! Finally, the fifth principle is about the right of conscience and democratic process.
I would invite us to centre most of our thoughts around the notion of the democratic process. It is a process, an unending process, and maybe it is a process far more significant and complex than casting a ballot in an election and then washing our hands of the whole messy process until the next election. Many Canadians see only the messy and sometimes corrupt process and don’t even cast a ballot, something that is completely unthinkable to a person my age, I must say, but I totally get the feeling of being offended and disengaged with the politics of our country. As one who writes letters to elected officials it can be a pretty mind-numbing enterprise.
As a person who pops up in this congregation on occasion I get hints of the democratic process here among you. There was the decision to put solar panels on the roof, a remarkable decision really for a congregation this size and I don’t know the background to your decision but as I have solar panels on my house and I attend a United Church with solar panels on its roof I understand that it would have taken a process to come to that decision. Or a new carpet here in this room and then the process to determine that tea and coffee in the discussion time after the service wasn’t the best decision. If you think about the congregational processes that went into the solar panels and the carpet decision-making (or maybe there are other items before the life of the congregation), you see that it is all very complicated, complicated because there are very few issues that are straight black and white and complicated because of our complexity as human beings.
Congregations are family systems. I live in my family system with its health and its pathology and when I walk into and become a part of a congregation I bring not just me, visible me and you bring visible you, but we each bring in the health and pathology of our own family systems. For instance, I am the oldest child in my family and like all eldest children I am pretty responsible and a little resentful of those who don’t carry their weight. You can be sure I will carry that dynamic into any congregation, ready to get things done when sometimes I should just sit back and let things unfold without my jumping in and doing it. Well, I hope you get the picture. Congregations are messy because families are messy and we bring, even if we are the only member of our family in the congregation, we still bring all of our personal and family dynamics into the congregation. So, individual conscience as central in this fifth principle, I think needs to be interpreted with some wisdom. Yes, of course ‘the right of conscience’ has to be respected, profoundly respected but it requires some wisdom and some willingness to do some introspection. For instance, as a person who has been through the wars in the United Church over homosexuality I can tell you that sometimes what was being said in the guise of ‘respect for individual conscience’ was hate, misunderstanding, bigotry, a refusal to listen and many times those things were rooted in personal experience and family dynamics dating into childhood experiences or decades old realities. One person who left Harcourt Church over homosexuality told me that he could not abide it because when he was in the army in World War II a man had propositioned him. It offended him profoundly. This was early in the wars on the issue and I wasn’t fast enough to say to him, “Aren’t you fortunate for having that situation happen to you because as offensive as that was to you as a man you just had a first hand experience of how offended women sometimes feel with come-ons from men.”
Finally, let me say that in our culture we have profoundly differing views on what democracy looks like and the Idle No More movement, I think, shows up some of that reality. From the aboriginal experience I would suggest that democracy involves a circle of listening, each having the right to speak, and the horizon of engagement including seven generations behind and seven generations ahead, not to mention the four-leggeds, the birds and fish, the plants, the air and water and earth. We who are settler descended have a much more bureaucratic notion of democracy, the Roberts Rules of Order, motions and amendments and 50% plus one. It is a clash of world views and it has been made profoundly worse through negative style political advertising, demonizing opponents and techniques like omnibus bills, silencing federal scientists and centralization in the Prime Minister’s Office but obviously I am showing my political bias.
Whether you are off to home after this service or gather in the discussion circle, these are the words that I would invite reflection on: From the preamble, covenant, affirm and promote; and from the fifth principle, right of conscience and democratic process. And I leave you with two questions: How do you as a congregation make real the covenant that these principles point to? And the democratic process, to remain healthy, always needs to be monitored so how is that process going in this congregation, let alone in your own family?
Thank you once again for inviting me to reflect on the seven Unitarian Universalist principles, a task that has, in fact, turned into a joy for me personally and has resulted in some surprising gifts. For instance, at the end of last June I was at a United Church theological consultation in Toronto and the Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies reported to me that in her researching a particular topic she found these talks on your website. So thank you!
During the course of doing these talks I have wondered when these principles emerged and it was this sixth principle that gave me a clue that they maybe they came from the 1980’s. Contact with Linda Thomson of Canadian Unitarian Council confirmed that, indeed, the principles were adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1985. At the time Canadian Congregations, as you know, were all members of the UUA, but in 2002 the Canadian Unitarian Council and the UUA came to a new understanding about their relationship. At that time the CUC affirmed the 7 principles, with a few spelling changes, with the understanding their suitability in the Canadian context would be reviewed. That review happened around 2005-6 and the strong feeling was that these seven Unitarians had been claiming were very suitable. (See the following article describing the 1985 adoption: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/3643.shtml)
On to the next one, the sixth principle: “The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” However, we always have to remember the preamble, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote.” It’s the action side that I want to raise up. We are called to affirm and promote within this congregation but it is a call beyond this particular congregational community to the world just outside our doors. When I told Barbara what principle was being discussed today, her response was, “Oh wow! That’s ambitious!”
And there, in a picture, is the world community, just outside our doors and expanding into a gorgeous blue ball in space. It is a powerful photograph, this blue orb hanging in space, blackness all around.
Looking at that photograph let me share a quote from the writings of Edward Hays:
Our senses tell us that the earth stands still and that the sun, moon and stars move around it. But while we know this is not true, our daily speech reveals that ancient belief.
The earth spins around her axis at the speed of 1,000miles an hour at the equator. To spin around once takes 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds. The spinning of the earth makes our days and nights. But as we spin we are also on another circle journey as we orbit around our daystar, the sun. Traveling at the speed of 66,000 miles an hour, this second journey takes 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.54 seconds to complete. In the annual pilgrimage around our great star we travel 595,000,000 miles. Finally, Earth as a member of a solar family composed of the sun and nine planets and their moons, is also racing outward into space at 43,000miles an hour.
So here we sit as if we are traveling nowhere and it seems nothing is happening other than my talking and you trying to concentrate but actually we are spinning at an alarming rate and simultaneously moving around the sun and racing outwards all at the same time. Amazing, utterly amazing!
In the same way, I hunch, when we hear the word community it is probably pretty limited, the community of my family, the community of my work, the community of this congregation, the community of Guelph. However, beyond that do we consider Wellington County as a community, Ontario, Canada, North America? It is almost unfathomable how to get your head around the notion of ‘world community.’ As I contemplated this sixth principle I found myself wanting to somehow acknowledge the multitude of communities within the one earth community. In addition, I wanted to acknowledge that by community I did not want to limit it to the multitude of human communities but recognize that there are a host of non-human communities as close as my very back yard – the skunk I met early Wednesday morning and the squirrels and chipmunks, the several ground covers we have under the spruce and pine trees that are battling it out for space and light, the various trees and bushes, the birds and insects. These are all communities, plant communities, animal communities, with whom I share space and whom I affect with my lifestyle just as they affect me. I know that I am straying into the seventh principle but let me acknowledge that we in western culture have a decidedly human focus. Without giving away what I want to talk about next time on the last principle, I want to suggest that we have to give up, relinquish a strictly human focus and recognize the multitude of human and non-human communities within this one world community. It is this reality of human and non-human communities within the one world community that makes this principle so difficult to follow, to put into practice.
Let me take one example and if I offend anyone today please join the circle after the service and let’s have a discussion. I have voted for several political parties but am not a member of any although have contributed financially to two. I find myself, however, quite alienated by the most recent federal Throne Speech. The lead article in The Globe and Mail on Wednesday was on ‘retail politics:’ Concern for the gap between the sticker prices here in Canada and the United States; overbooking by airlines; cell phone charges and so on. All of these are important issues but they are not life and death. I am much more concerned about green house gases continuing to climb, human poverty, the small arms treaty not being ratified by Canada yet, or the continuing lack of real progress on settling native land claims. Since I write politicians I must confess that when I am dealing with the Prime Ministers Office and the various ministers in the cabinet it is like there is a different world view, a different mindset. Maybe we do live on different planets!
How do you go about discussing, negotiating ‘peace, liberty, justice for all’ when the people on the other side of the table, so to speak, have a different world view? Sometime in the early 2000’s I decided I wanted to try to bridge a gap between the Guelph Ministerial (mainline ministers by and large) and the Evangelical Fellowship (conservative Protestants who usually call themselves evangelicals). It was a fascinating experience, one I appreciated and one I disliked at the very same time. But we were on different planets. That is the only image I have to express our profound differences. Except the picture on the table is a reminder that the more literal truth is we live on the same planet and exist within that one world community.
So this is what I want to suggest: Non-attachment and non-anxious presence, two practices or life orientations when we engage in the business of affirming and promoting ‘peace, liberty and justice for all’ when the going gets rough. The reason I want to suggest them is that in the middle of writing this talk one of my grandchildren had a meltdown over, I think, peanut butter and who would get it first, her brother or her. As it turned out, she got it second and had a hissy fit. So, what is the parent – let alone the grandparent, to do?
Non-attachment, attachment, detachment: A few days ago I was talking with a friend who was a bit dispirited because a colleague had disappeared from their life. There had been a disagreement over an issue and the one had taken a kind of hard line, my way or no way, clinging to a particular outcome. That’s attachment to an issue but the opposite is being detached, don’t really care one way or the other. A friend of mine is very socially and politically active and someone asked their spouse how they do it all. The spouse said, “Nothing is ever taken personally.” That’s non-attachment, I think, and for anyone who is committed to the work of affirming and promoting peace, liberty and justice for all that person has got to learn the skills of non-attachment, not wedded to outcomes, being totally committed to the project but not taking it personally. So, how are you in that department of steering away from the opposites of attachment and detachment and being non-attached?
And being a non-anxious presence? You have to be rooted, grounded, self-aware, self-confident to be such a non-anxious presence. The test for me in being a non-anxious presence is dealing with criticism. Criticism is always hard to take but we all get criticized. Do I fight back? Do I flee? I remember sharing with someone my consternation, my blood pressure rising, my feeling personally threatened when criticized, and this person said that they were seeking to have a default position. A response that they would give no matter what the circumstances is this: After a person had unloaded whatever criticism they had my friend was seeking to learn to say, “Tell me more.” Tell me more, a way for them to practice non-anxious presence. So secondly, how are you in not just being non-attached, not taking it personally, but in being non-anxious?
Non-attachment, non-anxious presence: Two concepts to consider as we “affirm and promote peace, liberty and justice for all.”
Edward Hays, Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim: A Personal Manual for Prayer and Ritual, pg. 14.
Well, thank you once again for inviting me to reflect on these seven principles, a task that has, in fact, turned into a joy for me personally. Sadly, at least for me, it ends today.
We started exactly 23 months to the day to work our way through these principles, beginning the 15th of January 2012 to today, the 15th of December 2013. For this one I want to be upfront about my two main sources which are both deeply rooted in Christianity. The first is this book, Teilhard de Chardin The Divine Milieu Explained: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. Teilhard de Chardin was a French Roman Catholic, a Jesuit who as a scientist wrote some profoundly significant books, all of them published after his death as his superiors would not permit them to be made public while he was alive. As a paleontologist, Teilhard saw our humanness evolving by a long journey starting from the first living cells and our very lives penetrated by influences from both within and without. The author of this book is an ex-Jesuit, Louis Savary who has been to Guelph twice now at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre. My second source will come from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, the Christian Bible.
The seventh Principle of the Unitarian Universalist community: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. And I want to ask, what does it matter whether you affirm that? Interdependent web of all existence: so what?
I ask you firstly, when you screw up or when you see someone else mess up, do you point your finger at the individual first of all or at the system? Louis Savary uses a nursing situation as a test case. Suppose a hospital patient receives the wrong medication, a medical horror story at times. He argues that a systems person would not jump on the individual first of all but look at the design of the process. Yes, some person may have turned the wrong dial or pushed the wrong button or misread the instructions but a systems analysis would want to look at the procedures so that in the future this can’t happen again or at least the chance of it happening much reduced. “In other words, instead of focusing on what a person does or does not do, (system thinkers) focus on how people and machines can be designed to interact to perform any process in better and better ways.”
The interdependent web of all existence, this affirmation can remind us to be systems thinkers in all that we do, systems thinkers here in this congregation, in our families, in our work, in our political lives. Every human action is really an interaction and this congregation, as just one location, is an interdependent web. It matters that you are here this morning and it would matter if you weren’t here this morning for we each bring our own personal web of energy into this space. For years we held a longest night service at Harcourt Church, a service for those who just found Christmas hard or who were expecting to find Christmas hard because this was a first Christmas after a death, a divorce, a loss of a job, whatever. One year, one man walked in with a hugely heavy cloud hanging above his head. His body posture, his sighs were incredible for which he was totally responsible. Systems thinking does not deny personal responsibility but what was interesting for the community gathered that December night was that people who came in better space left carrying his burden, even though they had no idea what his burden was, and he left in better space, almost as if there had been an exchange of energy in the room. And as systems thinkers we were as the leaders invited not first of all to blame ourselves for how things had unfolded but to do some thinking about how, in the next Longest Night Service, we might encourage greater transparency so that people would be encouraged to share with each other in words, not just in unexplained psychic energy, what they were bringing to the circle.
So we are reminded to be systems thinkers and secondly, the interdependent web of all existence can remind us of the utter wonder of our humanity and the utter wonder of life and existence. Consider your hand – the story of our planet’s evolution.
In its first stages, the planet Earth was a fiery molten ball of metals and gasses. Some of those same metals and gasses are essential to the bones and blood in your hand – iron, copper, zinc, etc.
When, eons later, Earth cooled and formed its crust, many of the common minerals were formed. They are in your hand too – calcium for one.
Then Earth formed a protective atmosphere and oxygen in the air is in the blood of your hand, blood that carries oxygen to cells and removes carbon dioxide that you don’t need but which plants and trees need. Thus every action of one breath is actually an interaction with the world about, oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. And every time you exhale, scientists suggest that you exhale as many as 10/23 particles from your body, that is 10 with 22 more zeroes. So every action of breathing in, breathing out is an interaction with our environment. And, of course, we are breathing in the air that has been in each others’ lungs.
Earth gave birth to microscopic life forms and your hand is filled with such microscopic life forms – germs, viruses, microbes, on your skin’s surface and inside your hand.
Earth gave birth to thought and whenever your mind wants to express some thought or feeling you can use your hands -- type on the computer, cook a meal, shake someone’s hand, give an affectionate hug, slug someone in a fight, pull a trigger.
Earth gave birth to spirituality and your hand expresses the feelings of your spirit when you bless them or hold a person’s face to kiss them.
Louis Savary writes, “The entire history of the planet Earth is played out every day in your hand. Teilhard does not want you to take your wonderful hand for granted. Earth has worked its process for almost four billion years of evolution to create that hand of yours. It reveals and retells its whole story in your hand. Treasure that story as you treasure your hand.”
So the interdependent web of all existence can remind us to be systems thinkers and secondly, to cherish the utter wonder of our humanity, our existence on planet Earth and the – what is it? – the incredible13 or 14 billion year history that precedes us and thirdly, our inner life is inextricably connected to our outer life. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5: 21-22). Now I know we squirm with the judgment in these lines, United Church people certainly but I have a feeling Unitarians even more, but consider this quote: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Nelson Mandela, 1990: And let’s be clear that if Nelson Mandela had taken that bitterness and hatred with him out of that prison there would have been judgment, very likely civil war in South Africa. There would have been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission but there would have been blood in the streets, retaliation for every big and little injustice that whites had committed and, as well, every big and little injustice that blacks and coloureds had committed against each other. Just look at Syria. There is an interdependent web connecting what is within us, our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts, our memories, with what we do externally through our hands and our voices and the whole of our bodies. As former hospital chaplain in the KW area, Ken Beal, used to say, “The body doesn’t lie!”
I am going to stop here. I have named three ways that the interconnected web of life affects us: Systems thinking; the utter wonder of our human existence and the billions of years of history that have led up to now and which is incarnated in our very bodies; our inner life profoundly influencing our outer life and vice versa. Maybe you have other ways in which the affirmation of the interconnected web of all existence impacts on your life and I hope you will ponder them, discuss them with each other or around the circle after the sharing time with some beverage in our hand in the other room.
 Savary, pg. 72.
Four years ago I was here on the second Sunday of November and Barak Obama had just been elected President of the United States. As a white man with a son in law of colour I was absolutely delighted. And here again on the second Sunday of November, 2012, I am still delighted. In addition, I don’t know how you are finding it but this project of examining the Unitarian principles is turning into a little adventure for me but I am a Christian looking at these principles from the outside. I am hoping that you as Unitarians will have a fuller opportunity to talk about them or maybe when this series is finally over return to them with some Unitarian voices speaking. After being here the last time dealing as we were with the second principle Charles approached me and suggested that the Unitarian principles were consecutive, building on each other and I found that comment very helpful as well as the discussion afterwards. I also find the principles inter-related so today I would like to lift up two parts of the third and fourth, ‘encouragement to spiritual growth’ and ‘a free and responsible search’ and maybe two words even more narrowed down, ‘growth’ and ‘search.’
I need also to say that last time I said that I might be rewriting something that I presented to Harcourt United Church last March as I felt that it fitted with these two principles. Well, it does but it is way too Christian. If you asked me to talk about being a Christian today it would work but otherwise it doesn’t. What I propose is examining these two principles in two parts, today having a personal edge to it and in January a communal, two sides of a coin.
Let’s start with the year you turned 12. For me, it was 1955. I entered grade 7, an awful year really in a new village and a new school after my family moved that August. In the February 2012 United Church Observer, there was an article, “A house of dark mirrors,” and in it a quote from the book Before I Fall: “Something ruptures when you hit 12 or 13, or whatever the age is when you’re no longer a kid but a ‘young adult,’ and after that you’re a totally different person.” So let’s take a two minute break and talk to our neighbours. Where were you when you were 12 and what year was it? Who were you back then? Two minutes, not nearly enough time but journey back to when you were 12 and just say in a sentence or two how it was with you.
(Congregational conversation and any responses for all to hear)
So let’s go back to those words ‘growth’ and ‘search’ of the third and fourth principles looking from an individual’s point of view. Three questions have arisen for me: Do you think in the same way as when you were 12? Do you have a sense that there is an essential question that life is addressing to you? What methods do you personally have to process your life experiences?
First question, “No,” when I was 12 my school was trying to teach me how to critique, how to take things apart and see them in their individual characteristics, how to think logically, 2+2=4, it is either this or that, the earth is either flat or round, the earth circles the sun or the sun circles the earth. The fruits of that kind of linear critical thinking are stupendous from evidence based medicine to scientific discoveries and technological innovations that are truly incredible. The computer, one of those amazing technological innovations, an absolutely amazing machine, works on the basis of something so simple, as I understand it, yes/no.
I am a failure as one of those critical logical thinkers although I tried to learn how to do it back when I was 12. Mathematics and science were huge challenges for me even if my teachers assured me they were just based on observation. In addition, I tried to apply my school taught form of linear logic to Christianity. I understood faith as beliefs; they needed to be verifiable and if they weren’t they were not to be taken seriously so I struggled with everything from Jesus’ miracles to the Genesis creation stories. Gradually I came to realize that there is a place for critical linear thinking and there is also a place for paradox and ambiguity. It was my sister’s death that began to break the logjam. In her death in my third year of theology, I grappled with the perplexing disturbing gift of paradox. I had to live with the painful paradox that I grieved deeply her death and her death broke our family’s heart making me, do I dare admit it, a better man, a better human being, a better minister.
Thanks to Fa. John Veltri, a Jesuit priest who lived for many years here in Guelph, I learned a simple three step process: What do I notice both internally and externally, what do I learn, what’s the next little step. My linear training taught me to critique, to take apart, to analyze, all important things to do but not necessarily applicable in every situation. Sometimes, many times, it is enough to simply notice non-judgmentally. A friend of mine gave me this example of the difference between critiquing and being, as she said, simply descriptive. You could say of a couple just after they learned that he had terminal cancer, you could say, “They were so upset.” Or, “She cried quietly and one tear rolled gently down his cheek as they held each other.”
Secondly, has life presented a question to you for you to live with and ponder? Over the years I have taken many mostly 8-day silent retreats. There is something about being stripped of relationships, newspapers, TV, radio and so many of the trappings of civilization. If you want one form of such a retreat then read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. One of the most challenging silent retreats I took was in 1995, 8 days in the hermitage on the property of the Ignatius Jesuit Centre here in Guelph. I was so profoundly lonely but gradually through writing and drawing and dreams and active imagination and prayer and meditation a question began to surface, a question that I came to see had been with me from my very beginning, “Is there a place for me?” A whole bunch of my decisions, my fears, my hopes, came into focus, “Is there a place for me?” So, do you know whether you have a question that life has presented you? It may do so because of your family of origin, the decisions you have made, the relationships that you have navigated, even the era in which you were born. Or maybe there is more than one question but if you could raise that question to consciousness you might begin to see a bit more clearly what drives you, what influences you, what causes you to have the hopes and fears that you carry within your mind and heart.
Finally, what methods do you have for processing your life? This question will lead us into the presentation in January but I have already named for you one of the methods I have for processing my life, that of going on silent retreats. One of my mentors taught me the following, “I know what I know only when I say it.” As long as it is stuck inside of me, a thought, a feeling, a memory, I have not really gotten to know it truly until I am able to bring it outside of myself. Journalling is one of the ways that I say it and here is my journal for the last day or two, not that I am going to give you the opportunity to read it but you will notice that it may look a bit peculiar. That is because I journal with both hands. Twenty-five years ago now I attended a workshop by Lucia Capacchione here in Guelph who has authored a number of books on non-dominant hand writing and drawing. It was a revelation and I have found the method has brought me to some amazing discoveries and ‘ahha’ moments, Wow! The theory is that using one’s non-dominant hand accesses the other side of your brain. I certainly notice that my dominant hand is well educated and knows how to punctuate and spell correctly. My non-dominant hand cannot write, only prints, and is somewhat dyslexic. And it invariably accesses memories that I seem to suppress and feelings I seem to suppress and what I find most remarkable is that I more readily suppress joyful happy contented feelings and memories.
So in conclusion I leave you with three questions: Do you think in the same way as when you were 12? Do you have a sense that there is an essential question that life is addressing? What methods do you personally have to process your life experiences?
Lisa Van De Ven, “A house of dark mirrors,” The United Church Observer, February 2012, pp 14-15.
Welcome to part two of our examination of the third and fourth principles: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Last time on the 11th of November I picked up particularly on the word ‘growth’ and this time I want to pick up on ‘responsible’ and ‘free.’
I understand from a conversation I had with Eleanor last time that when these principles were debated and formed into their final wording the chief alternative to ‘responsible’ was ‘disciplined.’ A free and disciplined search: Now that has a distinctly different feel to it, doesn’t it? However, responsible won so I am wondering if you might take a couple of moments with your neighbours and just have a conversation about what responsible and free mean to you, that this congregation is called to encourage a responsible and free search for truth and meaning based in acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. (Congregational conversation)
I don’t know how many of you have heard of this book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle is a 78 year old woman from the southern States, an absolute delight, mother of 7 children, former religion editor of Publisher’s Weekly who, at retirement, began the life of a writer and since retirement has produced a veritable stream of books including this one that I got out from the Guelph Library and which I am returning today to the Library. .
In her first chapter, she quotes an American Anglican bishop by the name of Mark Dyer who observes that about every 500 years the Christian church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale and that this is exactly what is happening at the moment. And as a Christian minister I fully endorse that sense; like every rummage sale or garage sale everything is out there on the street for everyone to see and lots of people are picking it all over. Here in Guelph, for instance, the number of United Church congregations has gone from 5 congregations when I came in 1976 to 6, 7, 8 and probably by April of this year we will be 4. About three years ago, I heard in a lecture at Queen’s School of Religion that there were just over 50 cathedral sized Roman Catholic Churches in the Montreal area that were for sale.
Now if you don’t mind, I want to talk about this rummage sale every 500 years as a way to get at the business of responsible and free so I am inviting you to sit in on my tradition as a way for you to think about your tradition. And you can actually start in the Judaic tradition, of something really significant happening every 5 centuries or so: The journey of Abraham and Sarah and 500 years later Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt followed by the establishment of the monarchy (Kings Saul, David, Solomon); the Babylonian Exile; the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 AD (CE) from which came the emergence of two separate religions, rabbinic Judaism and Christianity; the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of monasticism that carried western civilization during the Dark Ages; the rise to centre stage of the papacy around the year 1000 and 500 years later the Protestant Reformation and, now, 500 years later, what some people are calling the Great Emergence. In each of these major rummage sales there were many unique issues at stake but of these various epochs I have mentioned more of us, I suspect, have at least some acquaintance with the Protestant Reformation and certainly there the argument was over by what authority shall we discern the truth and how should we act on that truth. Martin Luther declared here I stand rejecting papal authority and standing on the authority of scripture. On one side was the Pope, the direct link one pope after another back to Christ, as it was argued and to that authority all must submit. In response, the Protestant principle became sola scriptora, scriptora sola, only scripture. In Protestant Christianity, responsible searching for the truth involved dealing first of all with the Bible and for some Protestants only with the Bible where every other potential authority was ruled out.
Gradually over the last couple of centuries pressure has been building against that authoritative position of scripture. Some of the origin of that pressure has been from within the church and some has been from outside. More than two centuries ago, biblical scholars within the church began to analyze the bible like any other book, looking at the text for the text’s own sake. As one simple example there are two creation stories signifying they come from different sources that have been glued together as if they are one story but they aren’t. Thus, I was trained to analyze the Bible like any other piece of literature and I have never interpreted it literally. And then the scientific method arose and particularly the work of Charles Darwin and evolution. But other factors developed. The ending of slavery within the British Empire and the American Civil War were huge attacks on the centrality of scripture because the Bible accepts slavery and there are accounts of preachers going around the southern States declaring that the Confederacy may have lost the war but the principle of slavery was still right because of its biblical support. World War I became a huge dividing line where chaplains on each side of the war carried identical bibles, represented the same God, prayed for victory such as is described possible in the Bible but truthfully it was nothing but European colonial powers in a brawl who threw their young men into a holocaust of destruction. The rise of women has been a major attack against some of the basic social principles espoused in the Bible. And at the moment the present fight in various Christian churches over homosexuality has to do with by what authority shall we make a decision when the Bible condemns homosexuality even if the condemnation is very marginal.
Now, I suspect that a number of you were raised in a Christian church and if you were raised in a Protestant church I would hazard that at some point you rejected the church because of its position on science, women or some other factor and that factor would be rooted in a particular understanding of the Bible. And if you were raised in a Roman Catholic Church I would hazard that at some point you rejected the church because of its hierarchy rooted in the Pope or because of one of the positions taken by that hierarchy.
So that is the rummage sale going on in the church right now: Everything is out there on the street and there is this bidding war going on as to what authority will be used to decide on truth, meaning and so on. My question is, by what authority will Unitarians, will this congregation, decide what is truth. What deserves your loyalty in terms of meaning, value and significance? How do you decide? I don’t think just being responsible and free will cut it. For instance, you have a very fine hymnary with some quite traditional Christian hymns that here and there have been changed in wording. Besides being responsible and free, what values did those folk who prepared this hymnary use in their decision making?
I am not suggesting that you adopt this but in my United Church tradition we have what is called the Wesleyan quadrilateral, a kind of four legged stool to sit on. It suggests that in sorting out truth and meaning there are four sources that have to be used to test out the worthiness or value of a truth: the Bible, tradition, reason, and personal experience. When it is the Bible only, you get fundamentalism. When it is personal experience only, it is the tyranny of narcissistic individualism. When it is tradition only, nothing changes. When it is reason only, it is intellectual game playing. The four sources need to be in dialogue and in tension with each other.
So, can I call you my Unitarian friends? Responsible! Free! What content do you put into those words and would you lay claim to other values that would go into this process of seeking out truth and meaning? Maybe there is nothing else you would name but my invitation today is for you to contemplate whether, in naming truth and meaning for you, there are sources of authority that you rely on but which are not specifically named in these principles.
In 1985, at an archaeological dig in downtown Toronto a remarkable find was made. Beneath the old Sackville Street School playground were traces of a house, a shed, and a mysterious cellar. Municipal records revealed that the original landowner had been “Thornton Blackburn, cabman, coloured.” He and his wife were fugitive slaves from Kentucky who had settled in Toronto in 1834 and had gone on to become wealthy and successful businesspeople. The Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Site became the first archaeological dig on an Underground Railroad site in Canada.
Between June and October 1985, the site received more publicity than any dig in Canadian history. Journalists from all over the world interviewed staff, produced television and radio programs, and published articles that appeared in newspapers from Kuwait to Japan. Respected scholars traveled to Toronto to discuss the findings. More than three thousand schoolchildren and members of the public participated in the summerlong dig. Thousands of fascinated visitors came to watch, intrigued by the painstakingly slow process of piecing together the story of two human lives, written there in the soil in fragments of pottery and bits of broken glass.
As the excavations progressed, historical research revealed tantalizing clues about the Blackburns’ past. The trail led to a late-nineteenth-century newspaper article entitled “The First Cab in the City,” written by John Ross Robertson, editor of the Toronto Telegram. It credited this pair of runaway American slaves with initiating Toronto’s first taxi business. An abolitionist newspaper dating to 1851 showed Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn as leaders in the campaign to end slavery in the United States and to help its refugees make new homes once they reached freedom. Thornton’s tall granite tombstone in the Toronto Necropolis revealed that he was born in Maysville, Kentucky, in about 1812. But the most intriguing information came from Michigan. The “Blackburn Riots of 1831” had erupted when slave catchers tried to return a man named Thornton Blackburn and his wife to their Kentucky masters. These were the first racial riots in the city of Detroit. When the couple sought refuge in Upper Canada, a sharp diplomatic altercation between Michigan’s Territorial Governor and the British colonial government of Upper Canada over their extradition had a very significant result: the formulation of British North America’s first, articulated legal rationale for harbouring fugitive slaves. In fact, it was the Blackburn case that formally established Canada as the main terminus of the Underground Railroad.
Yet until archaeologists discovered the site of their Toronto home, the Blackburns had been forgotten. They had no children. They never learned to read or write, and to this day not a single photo of the couple has come to light. Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were all but lost to history.
My book, “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” is the result of almost twenty years of historical detective work. Government records in Canada and Michigan provided an all-important key to researching their lives in slavery—the names of Lucie and Thornton Blackburns’ owners. All trails led back to Kentucky. As their story took shape, the Blackburn family’s experiences in slavery and freedom opened a door into the world they knew and in which they played so vital a part. Set against the backdrop of antebellum America’s struggle with race and slavery, the Blackburns’ biography illuminates the historical trends that shaped the tangled histories of people black and white, on this continent.
Thornton’s mother, Sibby, was born in Virginia in about 1776. Thornton was sold as a slave at age three and grew to be a young man of character and determination. He met and married another slave while they were both in captivity. On the day before Independence Day, 1831, as Lucie, was about to be “sold down the river” to the slave markets of New Orleans, the young couple planned a daring—and successful—daylight escape from Louisville. But they were discovered by slave catchers in Michigan and slated to return to Kentucky in chains, until the black community rallied to their cause. The Blackburn Riot of 1833 was the first racial uprising in Detroit history. The couple was spirited across the river to Canada, but their safety proved illusory. In June 1833, Michigan’s governor demanded their extradition. The Blackburn case was the first serious legal dispute between Canada and the United States regarding the Underground Railroad. The impassioned defence of the Blackburn couple by Canada’s lieutenant governor set precedents for all future fugitive-slave cases. The couple settled in Toronto and founded the city’s first taxi business. But they never forgot the millions who still suffered in slavery. Working with prominent abolitionists, Thornton and Lucie made their home a haven for runaways, eventually travelling back to the state they had run from to rescue Thornton’s mother. The Blackburns died in the 1890s, and their fascinating tale was lost to history. Lost, that is, until a chance archaeological discovery in a downtown Toronto school yard brought the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn again to light.
The collective experience of the Blackburns therefore encompassed some 120 years of history, and on both sides of the long border the United States shares with Canada. From the impassioned liberation rhetoric inspired by the American Revolution through the catastrophe of Jim Crow–era segregation, the events and the shifting meanings of the words “race” and “freedom” over these twelve decades shaped modern North American society. The Blackburn saga is framed within the history of Africans in America and their ongoing resistance to the inferior and exploited status colonialism thrust upon them. This rejection of their enslavement by the turn of the nineteenth century had culminated in the establishment of well-worn paths leading out of the slave states. These clandestine routes and the courageous individuals who assisted those who traveled came to be known as the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad occupies a very special place in the North American saga. Tales of hidden tunnels and false-bottomed wagons, perilous escapes by night and brazen daylight rescues all paint an enthralling picture. Yet the stories we learn are filtered through much embroidered late-nineteenth-century accounts by white authors. In the place of the daring freedom-seekers who made the perilous journey north, the heroes have become whites who helped them on their way. Yet surviving slave narratives show that most people escaped alone and unaided. Years after Kentucky-born author, poet, and playwright William Wells Brown fled slavery in 1834, he wrote, “When I escaped there was no Underground Railroad. The North Star was, in many instances, the only friend that the weary and footsore fugitive found on his pilgrimage to his new home among strangers.” Mattie J. Jackson told the same story: “My parents had never learned the rescuing scheme of the underground railroad which had borne so many thousands to the standard of freedom and victories. They knew no other resource than to depend upon their own chance in running away and secreting themselves.” Lost in the mythology, too, are the free blacks of the Northern states who risked far more than their white counterparts when they hid a desperate fugitive in a barn, or passed a meal over the fence to a starving family. The book was, in part, an attempt to set the Underground Railroad’s record straight. The Blackburns traveled the routes of the Underground Railroad as it was, rather than as myth and legend would have it be.
No one will ever know how many African Americans fled slavery in the tumultuous years before the Civil War. Black people in the United States had been escaping those who claimed their service almost since the first Dutch slave ship landed her human cargo at Jamestown in 1619. Some runaways formed maroon communities beyond the outposts of white settlement. Others went to Spanish Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and a tiny proportion reached Britain, Europe, and Africa. Estimates of those who came to Canada range between 20,000 and 100,000. Reliable contemporary observers place the number at somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 over the entire antebellum period.
African Americans waged a daily, unrelenting battle against their enslaved condition. Well aware that their value to their owners lay in their unpaid labour, they engaged in acts of resistance calculated to undermine the slaveholder’s profit margin: breaking tools, injuring livestock, or “malingering,” simply pretending to be ill. Charismatic leaders arose to foment revolts always limited in scale and quickly contained, but these struck terror into the hearts of whites across the South. Such collective resistance was relatively rare, for the entire system of the slaveocracy militated against bondspeople being able to organize or arm themselves. Instead, when the beatings, hunger, and the destruction of family occasioned by sale and sexual interference became too much to bear, African Americans made the single most overtly antislavery statement possible, short of suicide or murder: they ran away. In so doing, they deprived their owners not only of their productivity and of their own market value but also that of their children and all ensuing generations. Even more potently, the thousands of slaves who “stole themselves” exploded the comforting racist myth that buttressed American slavery: that blacks were unfit for freedom, too lazy and unintelligent to care for themselves without white supervision, and that they preferred the kindly oversight of benevolent masters—that they were, indeed, “happy in their chains.”
In a Christian nation founded upon republican principles, the commodification of black labour required moral justification. White America found ways of separating itself from blacks as fellow human beings. No lesser an authority than Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” A beneficiary himself of the plantation system, he deemed slavery a “necessary evil.” In the years immediately following the American Revolution, biblical and scientific justifications were sought to “prove” blacks irredeemably less capable than whites, uneducable, inherently indolent, and immoral, the eternal “other.” Even in Northern states where slavery gave way to wage labour soon after the Revolution, black skin came to be considered emblematic of bondage. People of color were required to carry with them papers attesting to their free status, lest they be taken up as fugitive slaves under harsh federal laws that enabled slaveholders to seek out their absconding property anywhere in the United States. Slavery in America was inextricably intertwined with the concept of race.
By the time a young enslaved Kentuckian named Thornton Blackburn came of age in 1830, self-serving pro-slavery ideology had transformed Jefferson’s “necessary evil” into a system slaveholders professedly believed to be a “positive good.” Apologists maintained that white “wage slaves” in Britain and the northern United States were worse off than blacks living in Southern slavery. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who with New England’s Daniel Webster and Kentucky’s own Henry Clay formed the “Great Triumvirate” of antebellum American politics, summed this up in a speech he made before the U.S. Senate on February 6, 1837: “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” Yet nowhere was such nonsense better contradicted than in the lengths enslaved African Americans were willing to go to free themselves. The exodus of black men, women, and children from the slave states was a vast, collective rejection of their circumstances and of the racially biased rationalizations that supported slavery.
Whippings, mutilation, rape, and varied forms of physical and mental torture were ways in which the slaveholding class maintained its hegemony over its unwilling workers, and thousands of unacknowledged slaves provided much of the work in pioneer wagon trains heading to the U.S. east coast. But slave narratives show that a majority of runaways fled for a more specific reason: they were about to be parted from those they loved. Colonial-era planters had maintained the fiction that they cared for their “black families” as they did their white. When selling off slaves, they paid lip service to keeping couples or at least mothers and children together. The death knell to such paternalism sounded when the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793 gave birth to the cotton-growing boom of the early nineteenth century. As cotton-growing expanded in the Deep South, the older farming districts of the more northerly slave states found it very profitable to ship their “surplus” slaves south for sale. These so-called Border States became a slave-producing resource for the larger, more prosperous plantation economy of the Lower South. Wives and mothers, fathers, and even tiny babies were taken from their loved ones and sold far away.
At the same time, the rift between North and South was widening into an irreparable chasm. Increasing Northern and foreign criticism of the American slave system and resistance to the expansion of slavery into the newly added frontier districts resulted in a hardening of pro-slavery positions. A series of slave revolts terrified slaveholding whites and intensified efforts to control supposedly contented local black populations. In addition to the escalating threat of being sold away from their families, enslaved African Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century suffered from enhanced surveillance, ever more limited mobility, and a host of other indignities and restrictions. Slave flight to the Northern states and to destinations outside the borders of the United States turned from a trickle to a flood as conditions deteriorated in the South. Proslavery advocates blamed the progressively more vocal abolitionist movement for slave discontent and minimized the numbers of runaways officially reported, but the fact that mounting numbers of black Americans were taking terrible personal risks to flee bondage was difficult to counter.
It was to preserve their own marriage that Thornton Blackburn and his bride would make their own break for freedom in the summer of 1831; the year was significant, for 1831 was the watershed for abolitionism in the northern United States. Originally, the antislavery movement, a factor in both the South and the North in the Revolutionary era, had proposed that slaveholders support the gradual emancipation of African American slaves. Some hoped slavery as an institution would die a natural death. Those who believed black people should “return” to the African continent, incidentally ridding the United States of quantities of free blacks, sponsored an ambitious and ultimately ruinously expensive colonization scheme that resulted in the founding of Liberia. But by the 1830s, with increasing pressure to extend cotton-growing and the slavery that made it so profitable into the American West, it had become evident to antislavery advocates, both black and white, that the practice was not going to end anytime soon. More radical elements began to campaign for the immediate liberation of the nation’s more than two million enslaved African Americans.
The first black antislavery convention had been held in Philadelphia in September 1830, as African Americans of the urban North worked to create mechanisms to both combat Southern slavery and ameliorate the conditions of their own lives, for even as free people they were subjected to unrelenting racial discrimination. Then, in concert with black abolitionist leaders, a white printer from Newburyport, Massachusetts, named William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of the antislavery paper The Liberator on January 1, 1831. A year later Garrison helped to found the New England Anti-Slavery Society, a precursor to the American Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1833. As the antebellum years progressed, there was a measurable increase in both popular and political opposition to maintaining a system of human bondage in a nation founded on ideals of democracy and freedom. Nearly three decades later this elemental conflict would culminate in the bloody Civil War. But before that time, a great many brave individuals, out of conviction or simple humanity, laid their livelihoods and even their lives on the line to support black refugees who chose to take the freedom road.
For fugitives like Lucie Blackburn and her husband, the odds against making a successful escape were staggering. Federal law facilitated the efforts of owners and the brutal slave catchers they employed to retrieve runaways throughout the United States and its territories. Local and state ordinances nearly everywhere prohibited black people from defending themselves against their white captors in courts of law. That so many of the enslaved were able to liberate themselves is astonishing. That uncounted numbers were captured and carried back to places where white men ruled with the lash is unutterably tragic.
Once unearthing the history of the Blackburns had begun, it became apparent why most literature about slavery and the Underground Railroad deals with the general rather than the particular. Rescuing slaves was illegal under the federal Fugitive Slave Law and the much more punitive legislation passed in 1850, so records of Underground Railroad routes and stations are scarce. Only since the middle decades of the twentieth century have most archives and libraries, historical societies and museums begun to preserve evidence pertaining to the heritage of peoples of the African Diaspora on this continent. So much has been discarded, still more destroyed, carelessly and sometimes intentionally. Only a handful of authenticated fugitive slave stories survive, mainly in autobiographies and in narratives recorded by abolitionists.
What genealogists call the “wall of slavery” makes fugitive slave biography extremely difficult to research. Theirs was a heritage of oppression, with the vast majority of its documentation produced by slaveholders rather than slaves, most of the latter of whom were illiterate. The problem lies with names. Although soon after Africans landed in America, they adopted European-style surnames, these were rarely recognized within the slaveholding culture that governed their lives. Most whites, if they acknowledged a surname for their servants at all, assumed that the slaves took the name of their owner. This was indeed often the case in the first generation out of Africa, but slaves were sold, inherited by married daughters, given away, or even raffled off as lottery prizes, and so, within a generation or two, a great many bore names that had no relation at all to the people who now claimed their service. The fact that white culture did not use slave surnames freed black Americans to choose ones they desired, pass them down through the female line as well as the male, and take names that pleased them rather than ones that carried any connection whatsoever to a hated master or difficult mistress. Names of towns and cities were popular, as were the names of people who had been kind to them, important events or battles, and even European heroes or figures from the Revolutionary War era.
To make people even more difficult to trace through history, records kept by white slave owners and overseers only very rarely mentioned slave surnames at all. It was part of the culture of domination they maintained to address even venerable black bondspeople by only their first names, as one might with children or pets. So hundreds of thousands of African Americans were born, lived, and died with no historical notice taken of their existence except, perhaps, their first names and relative ages listed in a white family’s Bible or in plantation account books as “Little Buck, aged 3” or “Suky, cook, 34.” Following the history of specific enslaved African Americans is therefore an exercise in the genealogy and migratory patterns of white slaveholding families. Personal papers might reveal a chance comment about this or that bondsperson. Accounts for medical care may offer insight into a slave’s age or condition. Family relationships can sometimes be inferred from sale documents, wills, or inventories. Hiring agreements help trace the movements of this or that slave over time. The vast population movements after the American Revolution further complicate the process of fugitive slave research. As slaveholders pushed out into the American interior in the successive waves known as the Westward Movement, they carried with them their slaves. Documents directly relevant to the Blackburns’ slave experience have been located in repositories in Washington, D.C., New York, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, Louisiana, California, and Ontario, Canada.
Archaeology is unique in that it gives voice to the inarticulate and the illiterate of any age, including, in this case, the relatively modern. Each archaeological site is a window to the past; it exposes information about people who lived and worked and died in a specific place, at a fixed time. They left behind, in the very earth, a kind of picture puzzle of their lives. There are always many pieces missing. People’s emotions, hopes, fears, the dreams they dreamed, and the high-held ideals that guided their actions are not to be found in layers of dirt, however carefully sifted. But by placing the material culture of their everyday lives in historical context, one can discover an enormous amount about how the key events and larger social, economic, political, and cultural trends acted upon the people who lived through them. And sometimes, as was the case with the Blackburns, one can discover what role they took for themselves as actors in that great play.
Adapted from an excerpted from I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad by Karolyn Smardz Frost. Copyright © 2007 by Karolyn Smardz Frost. All rights reserved to the author and kindly granted to the Unitarian Congregation of Guelph where the author gave an overview of her book and its spiritual connections.
In September, at a discussion after a service I had done, Jim Wilton asked me if I would do a sermon about death. He commented that Unitarian Universalists had a tendency to avoid the subject of death -- in fact, he thought we avoided the dark side of life in our determination to be hopeful and optimistic. There is truth in Jim's perception and as I enjoy being challenged, I agreed to do some thinking about death for the next time I spoke.
I had actually been thinking a lot about death at that time as I had just started to work as a chaplain in a busy hospital in Hamilton. Much of my work involves patients and their family come to terms with medical diagnoses, amputations, or their impending death. It was not uncommon for me to deal with two or three deaths of patients on a night when it was my turn to be on call.
Each of us knows that life is terminal. However, there are different levels of that knowing. We use clich's when we refer to death to help us skim over the surface of our knowing. You can't take it with you, we say of material goods; or we won't live for ever. If we want to be indulgent, we might say, "Gather ye rose buds while ye may old time is soon a-passing." When we are young, we are usually cocooned from death by many layers. Both time and experience remove those layers. I was 36 years old when my mother died suddenly and at that time I felt as though layers of my own mortality were suddenly stripped away. So much of my identity, my sense of self had been shaped by her that I felt like and aphid exposed to a world I no longer felt sure I fitted into. With time, and loving support, I survived and found strength and meaning which has helped me to better understand others.
Being present at the death of many strangers had a different effect on me. I find it very moving when I am requested to be present at the most vulnerable time for both the patient and their family. Grief is usually an expression of love and at times, the depth of feeling and connection I have experienced has deeply moved me. Let me tell you about Leon.
If you use the Scotiabank at St George's Square, there is a poster beside the bank machine full of children's smiles. Included is a picture of Leon, a man who was ill all of his life. I met him when I did a Remembrance Day service on his ward last year. Leon was 47 years old, very frail and tiny as a result of his illness which had also necessitated the amputation of an arm and a leg. His family came from Holland and he told me with pride about the heroic behaviour of his relatives during the last war. I did not have many more conversations with Leon, but I became very aware of his influence on other patience on my unit. So often, a patient adjusting to the loss of a limb, or in pain following surgery would say "I felt so sorry for myself -- until I talked to Leon. He gave me a different way to look at things."
Some months ago, Leon had a second arm partially amputated in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life. I was on call when his parents requested the Sacrament of the Sick, what used to be called The Last Rights. Leon was a devout Roman Catholic and as the priest anointed him with oil, he attempted to cross himself with the stump of his remaining arm. Both of his parents were deeply loving people, who had suffered alongside and who deeply admired their son. They very much wanted to give him permission to stop fighting, to go to sleep, to die. It gave them some comfort to hear how influential their son had been and I liked his father's comment, "If Leon is not in heaven, I don't think there is a heaven, nor would I want to be there." Leon did die peacefully as short time later.
What moved me deeply about this man was not just the very big spirit in the small, frail body. Nor was it the devout faith which had helped him right until the end. Leon was not a saint, he had been angry, depressed, questioning of life, but he also remained caring and connected to others, until the moment he died. It was his unflinching engagement in living with both its pain and its happiness which moved me deeply.
A week after I started thinking about this talk, I was alone at night in the hospital when I got the results of tests that confirmed that I had a malignant tumour in the tube connecting my kidney and bladder. My thinking about life and death became very personal in the time before, during and after surgery. I learned a number of valuable lessons in this part of my journey. Firstly I found other people?s reactions to words like cancer or malignancy were sometimes much more frightening than the reality of what was happening to me physically. My first reaction was to tell only those very close to me who needed to know. Cancer can become a dirty little secret and it was a wise patient in the hospital who challenged my secrecy. She asked me how I would feel if the people I cared about wanted to withhold such information from me to protect me. She challenged me to make a list of people I cared about and to talk openly with each person on the list. I am so glad I did, as the love and support I received from family, friends, colleagues and this congregation wove a magic carpet which floated me through the most difficult days. The experience has been life altering in positive ways. I have become more comfortable in my own skin. More in tune with my own needs and more balanced in regard to what I give to life and what I get from life. My own career direction has changed too. I no longer plan to be an ordained minister; instead I intend to continue to be one of the many who minister in this congregation.
Fear of death can dominate and direct how we live our lives. Joseph Addison says "The fear of death often proves mortal, and sets people on methods to save their lives which infallibly destroy them." I don't think he is referring to our obsessions with what we eat, with best medical advice, or miracle cures alone. I always loved the movie "Moonstruck" The mother in the film acted by Olivia Dukakis is a very pragmatic woman who knows that her husband of many years loves her, but she is trying to work out why he also needs to have a young mistress. Eventually she understands -- it's because he is afraid to die. Sometimes it is our work, our prestige, which provides our buffer against death and as each of these gets removed, we come face to face with ourselves and our mortality. Facing death means facing the purpose and meaning of life.
The children's story I chose today and Tom Harpur's essay present a view of life after death which appeals to me. My two years at seminary studying church scripture and history helped me understand that hell- however well Dante described it -- hell was used by the church as a means of controlling people with the threat of perdition. The truth is that we don't know what happens when we die. It makes as much sense to think that we might come back and have another life as it does to conceive of heaven and hell. Personally, I like the image of death liberating our souls so that they can be freed to move off like the dragonfly.
When I was young, Dylan Thomas' poem made sense to me:- "Do not go gently into this dark night -- but rage, rage against the dying of the light". However, as I get older and closer to my own death, I find I admire a different kind of courage. It is the behaviour best described in the last stanza of a poem called courage by Anne Sexton:-
When you face old age and its natural conclusion
Your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
Each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen
Those you love will live in a fever of love,
And you'll bargain with the calendar
And at the last moment
When death opens the back door
You'll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.
Last week I had the privilege of meeting a woman with this kind of courage. She used to be a member of this congregation over 30 years ago. She's been told that she has only a few months of living still to do. She is planning her memorial service and the details of her cremation so that her sons and her husband will not have to guess at her wishes. This is someone who loves life, her family, her plants, her garden and some beautiful objects which she cherishes. I found her ability to gaze steadily at death was reflected in her engagement of life. When death opens the back door, she will put on her carpet slippers and stride out. I'd like to think I would have the courage to do the same.
The folk song, Bobby McGee, has a line which has always haunted me. "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose???, Nothin' ain't worth nothin' and it's free, oh boy!" When I worked in probation I met many run-away people for whom that empty definition of freedom seemed to be a true description. Freedom meant not being accountable to anyone or for anything. When Martin Luther King made his famous "I have a dream" speech, he gave a vivid picture of a world without racial prejudice where people of colour could truly be free from oppression "Free at last, free at last, thank God I am free at last." Here freedom is equated with liberation from tyranny. When George W. Bush talks about freeing Iraqi people in the name of democracy, I have a feeling of dissonance. What he calls "freedom" seems more like exploitation for his own energy-focused purpose.
As Unitarian Universalists we refer to ourselves as a liberal religion. We covenant together for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. From outside our denomination some people think that that means we are so open-minded that we accept everyone and every idea so like Bobby McGee we have "nothing left to lose."
Ours is a creedless faith. We believe that:- no single religion has a monopoly on wisdom; that the answers to the important religious questions change from generation to generation; and that the ultimate truth about God, creation, death, meaning and the human spirit cannot be captured in a narrow statement of faith. The mystery is always greater than the name. We do not require our members to subscribe to a particular theology in order to join our congregations. Instead we encourage individuals to garner insights from all the world's faiths, from science, from feminism, poetry and experience and each one of us shapes our own personal faiths. However, although the individual is the ultimate source of religious authority, it is not the only source. If it were the only source, we could easily fall prey to the condition which afflicted Otto Von Bismark, the German Chancellor, of whom it was said, that he believed firmly and deeply in a God who had the remarkable faculty of always agreeing with him.
Our individual views are tempered by history and need always to be tested within the crucible of our religious community. Both our Unitarian and our Universalist tradition rejected the notion that higher authorities be they rabbis, theologians, or bishops could impose their views on the laity and this is the origin of our freedom of belief. But our traditions also supply us with a rich legacy of positive affirmation from Universalism's faith in a benevolent god to Unitarianism's assurance that human beings have within themselves the capacity to shape their future.
Freedom of belief exists in dynamic tension with the insights of our history and the wisdom of our community. It is true that we welcome the devout atheist and the ardent Christian, but one could never advocate racism or genocide and still in a meaningful sense call oneself a Unitarian Universalist.
Our religious search requires that we are both free and responsible. The word "freedom" comes from an ancient Norse root verb that means to become loving. Freedom is not a state of being, but is more accurately a choice for becoming. So our religious freedom is about becoming never about just being. As freethinkers we need to keep expanding to stay evergreen and avoid psycho-sclerosis -- the hardening of mind and spirit. Our responsibility is to deal with the diversity which our freedom produces not to shy away from it. Avoiding or ignoring our differences may make for more comfort, but the avoidance will not encourage us to move along in our search for truth and meaning.
Giving voice to deeply held beliefs can be a transformative experience. When you make the effort to put your thoughts into words, you not only feel more free, but you also become aware and more conscious of what you really think! Some Unitarian Universalist churches make a time in the services sometimes as part of chalice-lighting, where individuals make short faith statements. Articulating our beliefs helps us, helps others and makes it easier for us to speak openly about our beliefs to others outside our church when we have practiced in the context of our community. Our personal search for truth and meaning carries the responsibility that we do not hold our beliefs rigidly. We need to be able to blur our boundaries to allow humanism to discipline our affinity for mystical experience; to discover the Buddhist or Christian truths which enrich our rational thought and acknowledge the earth-centred nature of existence which can be forgotten in high-minded philosophy. The beauty of our religion is that as we each tell our stories and as we listen to each others wisdom we can learn from it all.
A good example of this was in a recent Hamilton Unitarian Universalist chuch newsletter where Allison, the Minister, stated:-
"I have always been grateful that this church is relaxed about language and is accepting of the diversity of belief and background that makes up our community. The humanists know that the theists need to hear the word "God" every now and again, and the Christians know that it means a lot to the pagans to hear "Earth Mother" and "Goddess" from time to time. The agnostics and atheists come to worship even though they are not sure what if anything they are worshipping and the Buddhists bow their heads in prayer although they may be meditating, we can't really tell!
"Social activists understand that some people need to be spiritual (even if they are not sure what it means) and the mystics that for some people religion is about what you do not what you feel, and they respect that. We recognize that we come from different traditions but there is a unity and a universality that shines through all that distinguishes us. That spirit is what we truly celebrate in our services."
For many of us, becoming Unitarian Universalist was a liberating experience. We were freed from rigid creeds, doctrines and authorities which restricted our spiritual growth. Freedom also includes the responsibility to articulate our beliefs, to understand and include the beliefs of others and to put our beliefs into action through our behaviour.
Marion Ham summed up these ideas in the words of one of our hymns which see each of us as a stream.
"As tranquil streams that meet and merge/ and flow as one to seek the sea/ our kindred hearts and minds unite/ to build a church that shall be free. Free from the bonds that bind the mind/ to narrow thought and lifeless creed/ free from a social code that fails/ to serve the cause of human need. A freedom that reveres the past/ but trusts the dawning future more/ and bids the soul in search of truth/ adventure boldly and explore. Prophetic church the future waits/ your liberating ministry/ go forward in the power of love/ proclaim the truth that makes us free."
Buehrens, J.A. (1993). The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide. Skinner, Boston. 111 pp.
Before I begin, I need to make a disclaimer about some shameless plagiarism. A few weeks ago the Elora Chant Group delighted me and many others in this congregation. I had been percolating ideas about this sermon and the words of their chants have somehow inserted themselves into my talk this morning.
All around us things are growing: Leaves are breaking out on trees; crocuses, snow drops and scillas give a wonderful jolt of unfamiliar colour in gardens as the symphony of spring begins again. For some of us, this process lifts our spirits and brings us new energy. We'll start our thinking of spiritual growth here in our gardens. Seeds are buried deep in the earth and now they are beginning to stir. As they feel the warmth of the sun, they start to stretch after their long sleep, they break their outer shell as the moisture from the rain soaks in and the earth gives them nourishment through their roots.
The seed feels the warmth through the layers of soil. Over my head I hear singing in the air: There must be a God somewhere. Perhaps for you it is a goddess, perhaps a spirit, a higher power or a sense of wonder. No matter the name, the beginning warmth that stirs the seed of the spirit, the warmth that creates the wonder, the yearning, the connection with the eternal comes from beyond us, connects us, warms us, and starts the questing of our inner soul.
When I use the word soul, I am not focusing on the Christian idea of soul as the part of the human which lives eternally. I am focusing on the soul as the seat of human personality, the soul as the fundamental part of our nature and the essence of who we are.
We need to return again. "Return to the land of your soul, return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again." This idea is expressed by Sophia Fahs in one of our education curricula. The religious way is the deep way -- the way that dips into the heart of things, that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles at the heart of every phenomenon."
Sometimes we need to visit the shadow of our soul. Each of us has a pattern and shape to our lives which is made on choices we made and situations and events which occurred to give our life its unique shape. Beyond this is the shadow of who we are not, the other life, the other person, the other place, the other ways of looking at life. Spiritual growth and the care of our soul requires us to open our hearts wider than they have been before, softening the moralism that may have characterized our attitudes and behaviour for years. Moralism is one of the most effective shields against the soul protecting us from its intimacy. As we deal with the complexity of the soul, morality can deepen and drop its simplicity becoming more demanding and also more flexible.
The family is the nest in which the soul is born. The family is a microcosm reflecting the nature of the world which runs on both virtue and evil. No family is perfect and in reality most have serious problems contrary to the image of sanitized families depicted on television. The prefix "dys" in dysfunctional is representative of the Roman name for the mythological underworld. Soul enters life from below, through the cracks, finding an opening into life at the points where smooth functioning breaks down. We need to recover our soul by reflecting deeply on the events that have taken place in the crucible of the family. The sentimental image of family can be a defense against the pain of proclaiming the family in what it really is, a sometimes comforting and sometimes devastating house of memory and life.
The Christian image of God as our father in heaven looks different for each person depending on their experience and view of fathers. Yet there is a sense that part of our spiritual journey is to find the deep father figure that provides a sense of authority and wisdom. Care of the soul's fathering requires that we sustain the experiences of absence, wondering, longing, melancholy, separation, chaos, and deep adventure. For some people, the kind of authority and wisdom we need comes from scriptures or prophetic writings. Revisiting scripture in seminary as a Unitarian has for me been a deeply enriching experience. The historical metaphors and stories have stimulated my imagination and thinking especially when my life experience confirm the ring of truth in these stories that still has relevance today. You may have a different source for the authority and wisdom that feeds your soul. Whatever it is recognize it consciously and visit that place. Like the rain for our seed in the earth, our spirits grow when we soak them in spiritual wisdom.
As Unitarian Universalists, we covenant to affirm and promote: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. My friend Ann Treadwell mused that she was curious why these two ideas were joined. Perhaps they were really two separate principles and we wanted to keep the number limited to seven, and so lumped them together. She correctly concluded there was a rationale why acceptance of others is tied to spiritual growth. Actively living in religious community is the earth that nourishes spiritual growth.
To be a Unitarian Universalist requires one to shun intellectual laziness and spiritual shoddiness. We cannot rest easy with the faith we inherited: we must grow our own; revising it continually during our lifetime. We are blessed (perhaps cursed) with a faith as large as the universe, as diverse as human nature, and as complex as it is simple.
An open mind becomes a clogged mind if it never changes. Whenever we arrive in our spiritual quest, we ossify and turn like Lot's wife into useless pillars of salt.
A UU minister Walter Jones tells of an evangelist who took her place at a busy intersection almost hidden beneath the panels of a sandwich sign that proclaimed on the front in huge letter "THE ANSWER." The rest of the placard was blank except for the words on the bottom in small, almost inconspicuous letters "Please see the other side."
People who stopped to read the front almost always looked behind, where to their amazement they found an identical announcement "THE ANWSER" with "please see the other side written at the bottom."
Perplexed, some people raced from front to back and front again while the evangelist stood quietly. Other people left shrugging and tapping their heads as if the evangelist was a nutcase. Some laughed in embarrassment, others left scowling, feeling deceived.
At length a wise woman came by. She considered the sign from the front, and then the rear and stood a while pondering. Finally she spoke "Yes," she said quietly, "we all want the answer but being willing to see the other side is the only way to even come close." And the evangelist smiled approvingly.
Unitarian Universalist communities encourage people to share honest confusions as well as their convictions. It is in our sharing with each other, our listening with openness to each other that we gain enlightenment and spiritual growth. Religious community is the earth that nourishes us. Our seed puts out roots and it is our acceptance of each other that stimulates our growth. As Norman Cousins stated "Our passport to immortality is not valid unless we have the stamp of human community on it. Strong is what we make each other, flowing through you, flowing through me. Birthing life.
Each of us like the seed in the ground has the potential to grow to flower and to bloom spiritually. We need to look inwardly and know ourselves. What sort of seed are we? The growing conditions right for one seed may not work for another. Some like direct sun others must have shade; some thrive in rich soil, others only grow in sandy and waste areas. The divine, the mysterious must warm us. We need wisdom and authority to soak in and the nourishment of our church community to be able to grow strongly. May each of you find that place where the dead old husks begin to crack and new life stretch its way into the light?
On behalf of my wife, Patricia Trudeau and my son Donovan, I am pleased to be with you this Sunday morning. Patricia would have been here, but as a Board Member and Sunday Services Chair at Neighbourhood UU Congregation and this afternoon is our AGM, she had to be a NUUC. Donovan, well, like most teenagers in a small Congregation, we do not have much to offer him on Sunday Mornings.
Perhaps, we would not have been able to have gotten Donovan here; Patricia would have been here with me for a number of reasons. Guelph was our home community for 6 years until the summer of 1998. But there is more, your very own Eleanor Knight married us almost 18 years ago at the University of Guelph Arboretum. However, we were not Universalist Unitarians while we lived in Guelph. I would speak at your fellowship about twice a year, but we never joined the rolls. Two weeks after Donovan was born in February 1997, I spoke at your service and you all welcome three of us. It was one of Donovan’s first public outings.
It feels great to return to your Congregation in your new building, which may be old to you!
Before I begin my talk, let me speak to three points: (1) The UU Seven Principles;
(2) What drew me to focus my work as a social worker, researcher, teacher and Universalist Unitarian on race, racism and white privilege; (3) How my work is linked to my spiritual journey?
(1) Being a Universalist Unitarian is important to me. Hanging out with Unitarians is a joy, because we share a common bound and a commitment to the Seven Principles that defines who we are. You can locate my talk directly to three specific Principles:
- the inherent worth and dignity of every person
- justice, equity, and compassion in human relations
- the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
(2) What drew me to focus my work as a social worker, researcher, teacher and Universalist Unitarian on race, racism and white privilege? Having grown up in the segregated US south, within the foothills of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains, race, racism and white privilege were factors that shaped my life before I was born and continued throughout my life. The “White Only Signs” and “Back of Bus” along with 12 years of the “separate but equal segregated public schools” are not things I have read. I lived it.
(3) How is my work part of my spiritual journey? I am pleased that my career choice in social work practice and education easily blends with my spiritual and life choices. The values of all four spheres are the same for me. The Seven Principles, Social Work Values and my personal value system are all linked together and drives me to my work on race, racism and white privilege.
There is more to be said on both of these points, but my time is short and I look to the discussion circle to speak on these and other points.
On Friday, May 14, 2009 The Toronto Star reported on new study of multiculturalism by Jeffrey Reitz of the University of Toronto and Rupa Banerjee of Ryerson University. The study
“...provides disquieting evidence that members of several visible minority communities don’t feel at home here. In their survey of 41,666 Canadians, the two researchers found blacks felt highly stigmatized and South Asians experienced some degree of discrimination.
What was most disturbing was that these feelings didn't subside over time. They got stronger. Second and third generation immigrants, identifiable by race, felt less attached to Canada than their parents.
The study used data from Statistics Canada's 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey. In the last seven years, said Reitz, "attitudes have improved in race relations. But they aren't reflected in reduced discrimination. Better is not good enough."
Crunching thousands of numbers from 41,666 people interviewed in nine languages, the just-published study found skin colour – not religion, not income – was the biggest barrier to immigrants feeling they belonged here. And the darker the skin, the greater the alienation.”
Lesley Ciarula Taylor. (May 14, 2009 04:30 AM). RACISM IN CANADA. Darker the skin, less you fit. Toronto Star.com, http://www.thestar.com/article/634117
Let me start with race. In multi-racial society like Canada, no matter how we try to avoid it, race matters. It can be positive or negative. For most people with darker skin and people with African heritage, the differences in most multi-racial societies and within nations that are predominately Caucasians is negative. We see it today in Europe including Italy, South America, Cuba, Australia, India, Japan, Russia, Mid-east and Northern Africa including Israel. There are traces in other parts of Africa that were colonized by whites. A number of reasons or rationales can be found for the differential treat and prejudices toward blacks. As a Unitarian, you are no aware of what I am speak, so I will not spend time this morning identifying reasons and rationales in which societies or nations use to oppress and discriminate against black people.
Perhaps racism has been around from the first sighting between different races. It is clear that racism predates William Shakespeare’s era; how do you explain Othello. I can not recall any mention of Othello’s race within the play, but race is present throughout the play and within English society then and now.
For me, the origin of modern day racism comes from the founders of the newly formed country that was separated from the Canadian French and English settlements in North America. African slaves were found throughout the colonies and settlements in North America.
African slaves were well-suited to labor in North America: unlike the Aboriginals, they were resistant to European diseases; they couldn't easily run away; they were not Christians (and hence unprotected by English law); and they were skilled semi-tropical farmers. In the late 17th century, African slaves became available in large numbers just as the English indentured servants, the original labor force for North America, began to rebel and immigration from England slowed. Over time, the degradation of slavery became identified with blackness, giving white Americans the idea that Africans were a fundamentally different kind of people and could be treated less than people who were white.
Thomas Jefferson, (a quasi-Unitarian) can be credited to writing racism into the new nations foundation. He was the first American public figure to suggest “as a suspicion only," that black people might be inherently inferior to whites. Thomas Jefferson was the first prominent American to speculate that black people might be innately inferior to Europeans. Until then, most Enlightenment figures believed that differences between groups were not inborn but due to environmental factors. It wasn't until Jefferson introduced the radical new ideas of liberty and equality that slavery had to be justified and prejudices against the enslaved began to crystallize into a doctrine of white supremacy. American freedom and the idea of innate racial difference were born together.
As historian Barbara Fields notes, the new idea of race helped explain why some people could be denied the rights and freedoms that others took for granted (The Race Literacy Quiz was developed by California Newsreel, in association with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, www.newsreel.org).
For most Canadians, when they see me or any other black person for the first time, one of the assumptions made is that this person needs to be treated differently because of skin color. There is a prejudgment being made. This prejudice is at the core of racism. It forms the bridge for seeing black people as unequal and for sufficiently justifying inferior treatment. Discrimination then results when that prejudgment is acted upon either actively or passively, and sometimes without direct intent to do harm. It is this judgment that causes black people in Canada to be victims of discrimination. When a person is discriminated against whether it is because of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or you name it, the harm has negative impacts on the quality of life and life choices of the person being discriminated against.
Thus for, I have touched on race, racism, prejudice, discrimination and white privilege. White privilege is fourth point I want to draw your attention. White privilege is the unearned racial advantages that whites as a group and as individuals have that result in disadvantaging blacks as a group and as individuals --- oppression. This is not to be confused with earned privileges, such as formal education. In Canadian society white privileges are more about attitudes and informal practices of whites, other non-black ethnic groups, and blacks that put blacks at a disadvantaged... White privilege is locked into the norms of our community culture. People on both sides of the race line have come to accept incidents as just part of getting along. White privilege is often hard to describe, but once you identify it you know what it is or was.
Most of us can identify white privilege at institutional and macro levels. Let me give you a few examples: Bay Street; our legal system, especially, who are lawyers and judges; MPPs and MPs; Canadian major corporations and large businesses, especially boards of trustees; our large and powerful labour unions, especially in leadership positions; teachers in our public and Catholic school systems; need I go on. The common occurrence in all of these and other sectors are the very few black faces. Regardless, of the many legitimate reasons and rationales for each case one may cite, one factor that rings out is having white skin has something to do with it. With white skin come privileges that few blacks can acquire.
The Worst White Person In The Neighbourhood
That is what I mean by white privilege. I am certain in Canada I would win. But there would be a number of votes for the worst white guy. How do you explain it? White privilege!
This example moves to the most resistance form of white privilege: within the individual. All the societal institutions and businesses I just identified have taken an official stance against racism, discrimination and prejudice. But there remains an absence or very few black people. Here is how white privilege at the individual levels work with the institutions and businesses. The individual(s) who hire, appoint or select a person for a position for the most, will be white. Often it is the case, when a choice is to be made, the person selected will be much like the person(s) during the selection. There is an abundance of research that indicates that race matters and white privilege is one of the underlining factors.
There is more that can be said, but I need to bring my talk to a close, with a few challenges.
1) Don’t continue in the artificial Canadian vision that when it comes to race, racism and white privilege, we are okay.
2) Whatever you are currently doing to end racism, prejudice and white privilege, keep doing them.
3) Look for ways for you to increase your contact with black people.
4) Educate yourself about how black people see the concerns opportunities and quality of life.
5) Read and really listen as to what black people are writing and saying.
6) Look around at members of Guelph Congregation and seek out opportunities for you within the congregation to examine and do the necessary work with each other to address racism, prejudice and white privilege. Just talking with each other is an important step.
7) Step forward with your relatives, your close friends, and people with whom you work. Let them know that you disagree when a racist’s comment or a clear instance of white privilege has occurred. You need to pick and chose your battles. Understand me; some battles are not worth the fight. My point is that the line now is not necessary the institutions and, but on the personal level. White people need to confront each other. It does more good for you to speak to your relatives, friends and co-workers a bout their behaviour and attitudes.
As the civil rights turned to the black struggle, we asked many whites that were on the protest lines and the freedom buses, who were victims of violence on our behalf... we asked them to leave the black community as we needed to develop our own identity in absence of whites. They were offended and took it as rejection. If a fourth of them had gone back home and spoke of their experiences while changing the racism and prejudices of their parents, their siblings, their uncles and aunts, and their closest of friends, I believe in 2009, we would have gone a lot further in addressing racism, racial prejudice and white privilege than we have gone. If you as Unitarians take my challenge, I know Canada will move faster and further in
Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of black Canadians;
Ensuring that justice, equity, and compassion is real for black Canadians;
Reaching the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Thank you for inviting me and I look forward to your comments after service.
July 10, 1946 – July 25, 2009
The Arboretum of Guelph
I sit down at my computer to begin writing for today’s service and it hits me all over again as I type the name of this new, clean slate of a document – “June’s Memorial”.
The news came as such a shock, even though we have been trying to prepare ourselves for this matter of June leaving us. We really thought she had a little more time with us. We thought we would have a more gradual goodbye.
In place of this gradual departing we imagined, June gave us something else…. Another great June story -- spunky images and details to figure out and piece together – that is, once we were able to forgive her for leaving so abruptly. I say spunky because that is one way I have always experienced June. I now love the fact that she died in midair – I have never known anyone to do such a thing. In Meg’s words, she was already half-way to heaven. And by Michael’s scientific calculation, he figures she was in the midst of flying over the exact spot of the farm where she grew up. I think it was spunky of her to do this to Michael – to embarrass her reserved Englishman husband one last time – an endearing thing to do. I love that Michael, himself, framed himself in the story this way, telling it to a roomful of over 60 people last Thursday as we gathered to hear him tell us the story of how June died.
June and Michael and Meg came to our congregation in Guelph the Fall of 2004 and it didn’t take but a little time for them to be completely entwined in our congregation.
June was such a connector, a conductor. A weaver of a grand web.
She had a way of getting people to do what she wanted, but it was often by seeing her set the pace and leading by example out ahead.
I remember one winter Saturday morning several years ago where about 10 of us got together – June wanted to create the story-line of our 50 year old congregation. She figured this could be done on a Saturday morning!
What came of that meeting was a seed that she planted – she had an idea that we would know better where we wanted to go as a congregation if we knew where we had come from… she wanted us to create our story. So I found myself being part of a group of 4, June being one, Joan Rentoul and Linda Reith, that put together a visual history story-board about 15’ long, still hanging, and then a written brochure to go along with it. June was a thread of inspiration and motivation all the way thru…. It took us more than a year to fulfill that vision of hers.
But truly this has shaped the direction as a congregation, to now know more about our past, and to envision possible futures – because this is where June really wanted us – having a future vision for our congregation, especially for the young people.
We have a youth group today where none existed because she made it happen. Not that she did it all herself, but she was good at getting others to catch the vision. We offer a course to people who want to learn more about being a Unitarian, and June took on teaching that and made it hum.
Somehow during her time with us in Guelph, she also managed to take a neighboring congregation under her wing – they are smaller than us in numbers and she would go to the Elora-Fergus folks and give services and much moral support. We had to learn to share her.
She has done our Flower Service every June for the last several years. When she led a service, she had poise and a way of filling the role; she really was a minister even if she didn’t have the degree ….
I was always amazed at her facility with creating the flow and tone of a service. Not only could she do this, but she could teach others how to do this, which, in a lay-led congregation, is quite an asset – she held several annual workshops where she would walk us through how to do this. One key learning was that as a service leader you “unofficially” have 3 mistakes you can make / and in fact you should expect to make 3 mistakes in the course of standing up here leading a service – learn to welcome them, June would say, not draw attention to yourself -- you have to take it in stride and keep on going. June herself had such a lovely way of flying by the seat of her pants.
One of my fond memories will be of her last Flower service, on June 21st, there she was, already set in motion in creating sacred space, exuding her transcendent grace leading the service, when she went to light the Chalice and there was just not a single match to be found. She looked on the piano, in the corner cupboard, all the usual places they end up.
Oh June! this was not a great start to the service – this kind of mistake can bring the spirit to a halt real fast, but in her June-style, she drew out the one person, Kerry, one of our newer people, who happened to have a match that morning. Of course there was a bit of ribbing from us about why he might have a match… and there were comments and chuckles all around. But if that counted as a mistake, not having a match for the chalice lighting, it was even more, really, a simple gift to her and to us. It softened and eased everyone… it felt like we were all more at home and at ease. June took it all in stride and carried on. The spirit didn’t lose a beat.
Very simply, our congregation will miss June very much.
Welcome - Melina Bondy and Aspen Heisey –
Lay Chaplains at the Unitarian Congregation of Guelph
Song - Let It Be A Dance
Life, Death and Attitude + poem by Anne Sexton
Musical Reflection – Spirit of Life
June’s Life Stories:
Letter from John Spence
Song by Helen Gilbertson
Megan Gilbertson - poem by D. Robinson
Song – You Gotta Sing When the Spirit Says Sing!
Megan Gilbertson - poem by George B. Shaw
Letter from Anne Treadwell
Aspen Heisey, Letter from Allison Barrett
Song – I Yam What I Yam
London Green - poem by Sappho /prayer of Dr. Norbert Capek
Blessing and Closing Words
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
100% Recycled Paper
Following the service:
* Out-of-Town Visitors: Soup at 41 Meadowview
* 2:30pm - Tree Planting at 47 Meadowview Ave
Stories for the memory book can be given to Pamela Dickie today or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Those who wish to support the organizations dear to June can make a donation to ChildHaven International, Prevent Cancer Now or The Unitarian Congregation of Guelph. Donations may also be made on-line. Thank you.
It struck me the other day that I have only known Pam for 2.5 years. I was taken aback when I realized this.
It made me wonder: how did Pam manage to infiltrate our community so thoroughly in that short time?
How could she impact us so strongly that we can barely remember what it was like before she came?
Pam had an uncanny ability of perceiving what a person’s need might be - and then cheerfully, very cheerfully, swooping in to fill the gaps she saw.
I could recount numerous examples of how Pam’s watchful eye identified needs. Some of these were community needs, but often they were about helping individuals... feeding, transporting, babysitting, and affirming us in practical, tangible ways --
all of this, with a twinkle in her eye.
Perhaps it came from 31 years of teaching grade-school children.... shepherding successive waves of human fledglings, anticipating their needs, and practicing her religion of unconditional love. Although officially retired from having her own flock, it sometimes felt like Pam was still on “Yard Duty” - sidling up to us poor waifs, determining just what we needed, and then filling the void.
As “Captain of the Yard,” she stepped in so whole-heartedly and capably that some of us kids might have been guilty of thinking her -- bossy.
There’s a quote I saw on the wall of the hair salon where Pam frequented - no doubt Pam saw this too - it was in the washroom -
words by the American actress, Betty Grable:
“The practice of putting women on pedestals began to die out
when it was discovered
that they could give orders better from there”
I can well-imagine Pam chuckling as she read this.
To be on “Yard Duty” means you have to be good at giving orders even if it strikes some of us kids as being a bit bossy.
I think she liked her quiet authority as Yard Duty Captain; she was good at it.
Our “playground” functioned better under her watch and care.
Now Pam had a BOAT of a car - an enormous gray Chrysler sedan of some long-extinct genus. She frequently apologized for it, and was trying to figure out how to trade it in for a “more appropriate” Prius. But that car was perfect in its imperfection, especially when someone needed help moving all their belongings across town.
She would be the first to volunteer to drive anyone, anywhere.
Sarah needs a drive to Toronto airport? No problem - what day, what time?
Joan, you need to go to London to the doctor? No problem - what day, what time? Need a car to take lots of us to the Bruce Trail hike and picnic? No problem. She could fit at least 8 or 10 adults. It had the capacity of a U-Haul trailer.
Melina is running an all day Yoga retreat in a yurt out of town? No problem. Pam’s sedan swallowed yoga mats, meditation cushions, blankets, folding chairs, a table, dishes, and food...
It’s what “Yard Duty” is all about.
Making sure the kids - all of us kids - are alright.
Like her car, Pam’s music was another useful vehicle to get us kids to the places in our lives where we were meant to be. As yard duty captain, Pam knew that music was a sure way to bring collective joy to our playground.
As Unitunz member, Bruce Walton said so aptly in our Hospice gathering, we all felt a sense of ease and joy when Pam came to our music gatherings because she could play anything on the piano by sight or by ear, any musical genre, and her encouragement to us emerging musicians was one of her most generous and lasting gifts to our Unitarian congregation.
Sarah asked me a few days ago, “Who is going to drive me to the airport now?”
Of course it wasn’t really a question about transportation.
It could have easily been another question, like:
“Who’s going to keep us in tune?”
Or “Who’s going to line us up for Sunday Soup-making responsibilities?”
Or “Who will remember all the Junitune songs?”
Or “Who can we ask to fill in last minute for the children’s program downstairs?” These are only some of the questions we’ll need to answer...
Now that Pam is gone, who fills that void? Who is on yard duty?
I think the answer lies in Pam’s true legacy.
We can serve Pam’s memory, serve our community, and really, serve ourselves, by giving to each other as freely, lovingly and as cheerfully as Pam gave to us.
(Pause - make eye contact - look for specific people...)
Sarah, Joan, Ruth Ann, Lucille, Donna... you need a ride?
The Newsletter Blurb – for March 7, 2010
Aspen Heisey will lead us into the subject of death and the writing of Thomas Lynch, an award-winning poet and author, as well as an Undertaker. Inside his poetry and writing is an uncommon (and sometimes humorous) place to stand and look at this thoroughly human predicament of our mortality with consciousness and a sense of mystery. “I'm more interested in the meaning of funerals and the mourning that people do. It's not a retail experience. It's an existential one." Thomas Lynch.
The Sunday Service Committee asked me if I would put together a service about DEATH. It took me a while to figure out my angle on death – it’s a big topic, and probably not an easy one for some us. We have all had our own experiences with death; some more, some less; some in the distant past, some very recent. I want to acknowledge this might be the case AND I would like to invite a range of thoughts and feelings about it this morning.
I have come to appreciate this opportunity for a service topic -- for all of us to visit this potentially difficult territory. When do we get to do this, except for when there is a death in the family or a friend?! How healthy might this be to share a service together? – it wouldn’t have to be all doom and gloom, and singing dirges. Which brings me to the song we are going to sing….. Death Came A Knockin’( **lyrics at end).
When I was thinking what to talk about, there were many sub-topics under the main topic of Death -- the stages of death and dying, assisted suicide, how to die consciously, the stages of grief and mourning, funerals and memorials, alternative and earth-friendly burials, (and Rick, my husband’s favorite – being catapulted!). It would be interesting to explore the rituals various cultures and religions have around funerals or how they have changed over the years, or what we mean when we say “that was a good funeral or a good memorial.” Those would all be fascinating topics. (And London Green, my editor/coach, might say that in my first draft I tried to cover almost all of them. – he said, “what exactly are you trying to say? – what is your point?” (Thank you, London, for sending me back to the drawing board ….a member of our congregation and a retired drama/theatre professor.)
So what I narrowed it down to, is something slightly off to the side of those topics.
When I first wrote the above blurb for the newsletter, I thought it would mostly be about Thomas Lynch. I heard him use this phrase - a predicament of mortality – in an interview with Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition program from November 4, 2007. That was a turning point in my life really, because he was putting into words things that, for me, were sleeping just under the surface. His sensibility as a Poet combined with his experience as an Undertaker awoke in me what has now become, almost an obsession.
It was just in time too, because as a new lay-chaplain, I had just gotten my first call from a Funeral Home – could I do a Memorial Service, 4 days from now?! I was entering new and unchartered and fast moving water and I needed some firm and grounding handholds.
Thomas Lynch was that for me – I listened to that interview over and over – I felt I was part of the conversation. I even typed it out verbatim so I could read and reread it. He stirred up memories and feelings long forgotten, awakening me to the fact that I had had my own experiences with the dead.
In the interview he says: “Everything we can do to mend, to make whole, to connect whatever dots we can existentially –that’s deeply human, deeply human. Do we always get it right? No.”
This morning’s talk is my attempt to connect some of these dots in my own life.
But first, what exactly is a predicament of mortality?
pre·dic·a·ment (dictionary meaning) - a difficult, unpleasant, or embarrassing situation from which there is no clear or easy way out.
So that is what a generic predicament is -
We tend to seek out the experts or the professionals when we have to deal with predicaments like taxes, surgery, accidents, crimes, investing, the legal system, etc.
But a predicament of mortality, in the most basic sense, would have to do with birth and death – the 2 experiences whereby we encounter what it means to be mortal:
to have life, or to not have life.
This morning’s service is mostly about how the dead are important to the living. It is through our encounters with the dead, that we, the living, have a unique opportunity to encounter our own mortality.
It was from Thomas Lynch, as I introduced earlier, an articulate Undertaker and Poet, that I came to see why and how the dead matter. He asks, “if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, or a nuisance and we hurry them away, what might we be missing out on?”
Because of what the newly dead can mean to the living, he says it is wise to treat them tenderly, carefully, and with honor.
In some places people still do Wakes for the dead – this gives the living a chance to encounter the predicament of mortality. It takes time for us, the living, to take in the new reality; that one of us, the living, has been subtracted.
Here is my own story as a 7 year old, and again at 21, how I came face to face with the newly departed – how thesepredicaments with actual dead bodies became my most poignant memories and shaped my experience of death.
My first encounter with death was when I was about 7 and my little brother, Nathan, was 2, and he drowned in the pond on our farm. That was October 11, 1966, in Gardners, Pennsylvania. My older brother was 8 and our little sister was 6 months old.
I was at my girlfriend’s house up the road. A call came that I needed to go home right away. The scene at the end of the lane stopped me from getting too close – there was my mother, and I guess the doctor, and perhaps a neighbor, all there, bent over and busily doing something….. it was CPR they were doing.
An unsuccessful attempt, as it turned out.
I was looking at my first dead body.
What my 8 year old brother remembers is being there at the edge of the scene too, holding his BB gun tightly, accidentally shooting himself in the foot with his gun. He said it hurt like crazy but he didn’t say anything.
When I asked my mother what she remembers: “I took him from the pond and carried him down to the end of the lane.” (Keep in mind this is a long lane.)
“I flagged down a car and asked them to get a doctor.
The doctor seemed to come fairly quickly.
We tried to give him artificial respiration. But he was gone.
They wanted to give me something to keep me calm but I wouldn’t take anything. I carried him up to the house in my arms. I wanted to carry him. They wanted me to get in the car and ride up the lane but I wouldn’t. The car drove up behind me. Up at the house, they kept asking – “who do you want for an Undertaker? I didn’t know! I couldn’t fathom anything happening until Orville came home.”
So my mother carried Nathan up the lane to the farmhouse, laid him on a blanket on the living room floor. It was a long evening.
Thinking about it now, it was this time with Nathan that made all the difference…. To be in our own house, in the middle of our living room where we played and had birthday parties, where we had Christmas, where we made forts, where we practiced the piano.
To see that he wasn’t getting up. To see that he wasn’t sleeping. This was serious.
There was now a gap between us the living siblings and our dead one, a gap we couldn’t grasp but at least there was time – time to take in a kind of sweet rawness about just being there, being in our own living room; just having time to take it in.
And when the undertaker came to take Nathan, and my mother cried desperately “– you can’t take him! you can’t have him!” (My father wasn’t back from his conference yet and she couldn’t fathom all of this happening without him there.)
They wrapped Nathan in a blanket and just before they took him away my mother said she gave us “the privilege of kissing him.”
So began my spiritual and cultural immersion with death.
How we love our dead. What we do with our dead.
How the community and larger family responds.
I watched as my parents moved through this territory.
They did not shield us. They didn’t think about shielding us.
The last time I saw Nathan was at the funeral. I distinctly recall my mother leading us up to the casket before it was closed for the last time, her leaning, and kissing the face of Nathan. Then, wanting my brother and I to do the same, wanting to, but not really wanting to, and doing it anyway.
I accepted that, and the way all of it was done.
A note I am adding November 2011, nearly 2 years after writing this original talk:
It strikes me now, after all the study I have done around how distant we are from death in our culture, how exceptional and important an act it was that my mother carried Nathan in her arms from the pond to the end of the lane, hoping to revive him. After he was pronounced dead, she wanted to carry him again…. up to the house, refusing well-intentioned help for her “predicament” – her instinct as a human being and as a mother was raw and primal… To hear her tell the story, her voice and tone has that quality of “Don’t you dare try to tell me, Mamma Bear, what to do. I don’t want any drugs to lessen my pain, and I will carry my own dead baby, thank you very much!”
There is something important about her being able TO DO this. We generally don’t know what to do in the face of death, in the face of such a predicament. For her to pick him up, feel in her arms the weight of her dead baby, she was fulfilling the instinctual, unconscious human need she had of her own body registering experientially the sensation, the reality and newness of the death… Only then did it begin to register in her bones, in her arm and leg muscles, in her spine, that her world has just changed, forever, and she would have to face it somehow.
When I first wrote my talk about death I did not even clue in on this subtlety but I get it now.
Now I will tell you another story, just told to me a few days ago when my bookkeeper asked me what I was writing about and, I told her “Death”.
Marion said “I have a story for you!” This is what Marion told me.
It was the mid-1950’s. Marion’s family was fairly Christian; the children knew who Jesus was. Marion, 7, was the oldest. Her younger sister, Barb, was 4. The very youngest was Geoffrey, 10 months old, born with a hole in his heart, and not doing well. Jeffrey ended up dying, but he died in the hospital without his siblings around him.
Marion remembers the phone call coming and learning of her little brother’s death and being sad. Her younger sister Barb, stomped her foot loudly, and in a very upset voice, said – "That's just great! Marion gets to go to birthday parties, Geoffrey gets to go and live with Jesus! I never get to go anywhere!!"
Then she told me this,
“We didn't get to go to the visitation or the funeral because my mother felt that it would be too upsetting for us to see adults crying. I was in my early 20's before I saw the picture of Geoffrey in his little casket, and could finally cry and grieve. I was able to talk to my mother and that was when she told me why she didn't let us go. She said that in retrospect she felt that she had been wrong. My sister spent a lot of time in her teenage years sitting at Geoff's gravesite.”
Now there was a certain kind of wound that lasted for years.
It struck me later how “lucky” my brother and I had been. We were not shielded from the predicament of Nathan’s dead body. We were there in the house with him, witnessed our mother’s anguish, we went to the viewing, the funeral, the gravesite. We had time to take it in, in our own way.
Fast forward to 1980, when my grandmother died in my arms.
I was in a completely different stage of my life encountering death, and in a very different manner.
I was 21 years old and spending 2 weeks living on my grandparent’s farm near Canton, Ohio, helping my Grandpa take care of my dying Grandma. The colon cancer was directing what was left of my Grandmother’s life and she had come home to die.
She soon stopped eating. She no longer talked to us. She was going thru the final stages of the slow folding up of someone’s life.
I brushed her long yellow-white hair and braided two long braids. Her ruddy high cheek-bones, blue eyes, and yellow braids made her look youthful - I marveled at her healthy countenance – the incongruity of that.
And then the end came.
Grandma was coughing and Grandpa and I hurried to be at hand in case we could help her. I was on one side of the bed leaning to hold her head and shoulders in my arms, my grandpa doing the same on the other side of the bed.
She choked a bit, struggled for air – the struggle seemed to last a long time, but I am sure it was less than minute, and then she was gone.
Grandpa broke down and cried.
I watched him fall a part, knowing there was nothing I could do for him or say to him. It was a moment like no other in my life. He finally looked at me.
I’ll never forget his face.
In that hush of the newly dead, himself just released from the long months of duty and care of the dying, there was sadness and grief beyond words, and yet a tinge of exhilaration.
After this time of awe and sacredness passed, we had a brand new predicament on our hands……The newly dead.
My grandpa knew what to do (being a rural preacher in those days meant he knew something about this kind of predicamenttoo) and to my amazement immediately went to work, tying a scarf around her head to make sure her mouth stayed closed, and tried to make sure her eyes stayed closed. I can’t remember quite how he accomplished this but I remember feeling uncomfortable. These were predicaments I had never thought about before.
We were now the living caring for the dead, no less important than the living caring for the dying.
And in the presence of her dying and death, I felt an awe of the mystery of death, and wanted to linger in the body and soul transition taking place, and take it in, feel it fully, before the undertakers came and helped our predicament, our helplessness. That was a life-deepening final gift my grandmother gave me.
With Nathan and my grandmother, I don’t really remember the funerals very much – the most poignant parts for me, were being there with the newly dead….. not rushing them off…
It is almost as if we have an aversion to seeing the dead. In the experience of Thomas Lynch, the Undertaker I mentioned, the dead become all important when we can’t get them home or we can’t find our dead. That creates a different kind of wound.
He tells a story of the mother of a dead girl who had been kidnapped, raped, and buried in a shallow grave out in the township and was found two seasons later and he said,
“I remember the mother saying to me –
“Are you going to tell me I can’t see my daughter now?”
….as everyone else had done for all of the best reasons –
they kept saying to her, No, you can’t – her father, her clergyman, everyone kept saying No, No, No – and I said to her,
“I wish there were some other way for you to know this,”
but I knew for my myself I would have had to see too,
and so all I could say to her was -
“I will be there when you want to do that.”
She was so grateful.
And not because of WHAT she saw, but because she DID see.
That is difficult to take in, I know.
She was trying to mend the wound….. trying to connect the dots.
To go the distance with her dead she felt she needed to go, however far.
My uncle Marion stepped fully into a predicament of mortality. (Incidentally, he is the son of my Grandmother in the previous story.)
His wife of 40-some years was dying of Parkinson’s. They had lived with this deteriorating disease for decades, and the last, say 5 years of her life, my uncle increasingly cared for her in every way, with lots of help from his daughters, some of whom were nurses. When my aunt Rachel was clearly approaching the end, everyone knew it would happen at home. My uncle is a Do-It-Yourself kind of man.
Not everyone would choose to take this on…( an aside - just so you don’t think this is too odd, my uncle Marion is a minister, a mental health therapist, and created and taught a graduate course entitled Counseling Issues In Death and Dying, so this territory was not that foreign to him). In his research for teaching the course, he had learned what he needed to know – he had interviewed at a mortuary – learned about the legal boundaries for the dead.
If you choose not to embalm, (and he clearly did not want that; Rachel’s decline left her weighing 70 some pounds - small and fragile.) By law, in New Mexico, you have to bury the dead in 24 hours, or refrigerate. So when she died, he would have to be prepared, in advance, for the predicament.
He purchased a nice-looking, inexpensive casket for his wife. He had the hole dug in the nearby cemetery.
All the children and the multitude of grandchildren came to the house to have their own funeral, immediately after Rachel died. The women, daughters and grand-daughters lovingly washed the body, dressed her for the last time, and finished with an ever-so-slight amount of make-up.
My uncle wrote this as part of his account of the story --
“We were all surprised at how long her body remained warm, even after death. Because of the threat of rigor mortis setting in, however, we did not know exactly how long we would have until the body would become stiff, so we worked rather rapidly to get the body washed, the hair set, the girls put on some rouge and a light coat of lipstick, to get her dressed and prepared in a way that we all would feel good about. "
“This all took about an hour. When we were finished, the men and boys came in, and all were surprised at how natural, how good, how well she looked. We all commented, she looked just as good or better than any mortician could have done.”
Once the body was fully prepared, they gathered around their wife, mother, and grandmother and said their farewells and sang the hymns. They recorded it and I got to watch some it. It moved me deeply….never seeing anything like it. Then the sons and grandsons carried the coffin to the cemetery for the burial.
Later that same week, there was a memorial service, standing room only, which I was privileged to attend.
Talking with my cousins afterward and my uncle, it was clear to me that by going that distance with their dead, they had an experience of a predicament of mortality that is vastly different than most. It is an example of how we do have more choice than we think we do sometimes.
Exactly how does a dead body matter? Is it partly because of the predicament that it presents?…. Maybe it is through pausing long enough with our dead, to recognize just how close we might be to the mystery of some of those bigger questions –
I also think we might feel helpless attending the moment of death, and the time just after death – and sometimes when we feel helpless, we rush things on through so we don’t have to feel the full impact of the predicament.
I’ll give the final words to Undertaker/Poet Thomas Lynch…
“The bodies of the newly dead are not debris nor remnant,
nor are they entirely icon or essence.
They are, rather, changelings, incubates,
hatchlings of a new reality
that bear our names and dates,
our image and likenesses.
It is wise to treat such new things tenderly, carefully, with honor.”
We are going to finish with some music for you to listen to.
After all that talk of death and dying, and predicaments,
I think we need a life-affirming song.
We are going to listen to Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World”.
So just sit back and enjoy this experience of being a human.
WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
by Louis Armstrong
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you.
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.
Extinguish the Chalice --
We gathered to light this Chalice
We part the flame lit within us, an inspired community.
In our sharing circle after the service, I invite you back to talk about your own experiences …. As a child -- How did you encounter “predicaments of mortality” and how it has shaped you? Other thoughts to share….?
The Sunday Edition – November 4, 2007 - Michael Enwright interviews Thomas Lynch, poet and undertaker from Milford, Michigan. Author of 3 volumes of poetry and 3 books of essays….
The Undertaking – Life Studies from the Dismal Trade - Thomas Lynch is an essayist, poet and funeral director of Lynch & Sons funeral home in Milford, Michigan. His most recent book, released this past June 2005, is "Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans".
Death Came A Knockin’ By Carlisle Floyd
Key of Bm (B-E-F#)
You know that Death came a knockin’ on * my mother's door
Singin' “Come on mother, ain't you * ready to go?”
And my mother stooped down, buckled up her shoes
And she moved on down by the * Jordan stream
And she shout "Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin' shoes"
And Death came a knockin’ on * my sister's door
Singin' “Come on sister, ain't you * ready to go?”
And my sister stooped down, buckled up her shoes
And she moved on down by the * Jordan stream
And she shout "Hallelujah, done, done my duty, got on my travelin' shoes"
Hey - Hey
This is a story about a girl who dreams of becoming the Royal Perfume Maker. But the law forbids it: only boys may compete for this coveted position. Almost no one can remember a time when it was any other way. This is a tale of courage & character - a tale that shows the enormous power of a person who knows - and can remember - what is right. I chose this story because it foreshadows the talk today: a girl who encounters her destiny while young, the obstacles sometimes encountered in finding our way to what we are called to do, memory and the social amnesia related to our history (in this case how we cared for our dead), power & temptation, and the motivation to do something symbolic that results from having experienced loss.
Best of all, listen at the end of the book. We can take direction from Yasmin's wish. (to appoint a Royal Storyteller so no one would ever again forget the proud history of the land and the people who lived there.)
Hello, my name is Kory McGrath and I am here to talk to you about my spiritual journey through my career in caring for the dead. But first, for a little background on how I came to be invited to this talk. Last fall, I met Aspen and Rick while attending a talk by Jerrigrace Lyons on Death Midwifery and we had the opportunity to chat a little bit afterwards and have been in touch ever since. My talk today follows on the very subject that Aspen has discussed within these walls prior - A lively conversation on Death and the matters that surround it.
INTRO MY TALK - refer to synopsis from program (below)
[SYNOPSIS] What if you were asked to care for your own dead? Would you? What leads a person to want to care for the dead?
Some people are born into the "business" of funeral service, and the others, so they say, are called to it. And sometimes, we are just plain asked (or expected) to do it. Historically, we all cared for our own, there was no "business" about it. How have we lost our way in caring for our dead and why is it important, not only to our spirituality but also to our humanity, that we rediscover this sacred rite of passage?
In this talk, I will share my personal experiences in being "called" to caring for the dead and how I eventually chose the alternative path after having had many years to reflect on a funeral service career and intersecting spiritual journey.
· [touch on Aspen's story from 'Predicaments of Mortality']
"They wrapped Nathan in a blanket and just before they took him away my mother said she gave us “the privilege of kissing him.” So began my spiritual and cultural immersion with death." These are the words from a talk Aspen did about this time last year entitled 'Predicaments of Mortality.' I recently read the notes from this talk and was overwhelmed with emotion at her recollection of witnessing the aftermath of her young brother drowning - perhaps as a mother to young children, the story really struck a chord with me. I hope you don't mind, Aspen, but I have used some of the themes from your talk to inform my talk today - a way of quilting our stories together into a tapestry of life and death, awe, spirituality and how we have come to do the things we do.
I wanted to reflect on Aspen's story from last year because it is but one example of an early life experience that led her to her interest in death and ritual. Similar to my own childhood, there is memory of loss and intensity and the vivid pictures of what was going on in those moments of time. I believe "we become who we are because of what we've seen and done" perhaps as a way to work things out later in life, to make sense of it all. So what did I see and do as a child that I see as my influence to go the way of funeral services?
I used to make caskets out of shoe-boxes & would bury little dead birds and rodents that I would find in the field next to our house. Then I'd bury them by the stream and set stones on their graves. Why? I suppose I have come to interpret it as if I were burying little pieces of me that had broken in a turbulent childhood - loss does come in many forms. In my case I had lost my mother to alcohol and because of the alcohol, I lost my father when he left. I realize that then, and since then, I have always tried to find meaningful ways to cope with a life in transition. In wanting to be near to others who were in some walk of fear, of change, of transformation maybe became my own way of therapy, of finding my way to the surface through their journey and somehow tapping into the bigger consciousness that is humanity.
· Miwifery or funeral services? - the beginning.
When I was in high school, I learned that an older student was doing his co-op at a funeral home. A funeral home. A Mortician. An Undertaker. A place of wonder and mystery. Some kids from broken homes turn to drugs or crime. I chose death. Finally, a place of a familiar family drama and chaos. And yet, a place of untold stillness. Of other people's pain.
After my own coop a year later at a local funeral home, it was time to decide on career aspirations when the colleges and universities came to town. I thought maybe I wanted to be a midwife, to be surrounded by cries of happiness, but the representatives from the university said to go and get some life experience first. So I applied to the program that matched the only skill I had developed - the funeral program at Humber. And so began a life determined to find experience.
Here are some of those experiences:
The lady and her budgie: One of my first encounters while apprenticing at the funeral home, was with a lady who had come in on a Saturday and asked to see some urns and keepsakes, otherwise known as cremation jewellery. I led her to the "Casket Selection Room" where the merchandise was displayed and pointed her to a shelf of keepsakes. She seemed awkward. Then started talking about her dead budgie. She talked for almost an hour about how much she had loved him, some times they had together, and how she was going to have him cremated and wanted a place to keep his remains so he would always be close to her. I'm telling you about this story because it really demonstrates the gamut of what's entailed in a day in the life at a funeral home, but also because it relates to my earlier story about burying birds as a child and the irony of this. It was also my first lesson in listening. We all have our stories about loss and none are lesser than others.
The harmonica player: One day, at the conclusion of a funeral arrangement for an elderly lady, her son asked if it would be possible for him to witness the embalming procedure. A bit stunned, I thought for a moment and in a separate room shared the request with my boss. He said that as long as a waiver to protect us from him potentially experiencing 'psychological damage as a result of witnessing the embalming' was signed, that the gentleman could do as he wished. It ended up that I was the embalmer also, so one afternoon, this man accompanied me into the preparation room where we both donned our protective gear and I explained what I would be doing. With extreme dignity and the tactful placement of cloth, I washed his mother and started the embalming process. At which point, he pulled out a harmonica and for the remaining 2 hours of the process, played her favorite songs while circling her body. This was my first lesson in being open to the wishes of others in how they needed to mourn, or to ritualize, no matter how 'unusual' the request. There had to be no judgment. It ended up becoming one of the most profound acts of love I have ever witnessed.
Faith and Ritual: I cannot say how much I have learned from the worlds faiths when it comes to caring for their dead. I believe they have contributed to my spiritual development to move away from the present day model of funeral care to a more community-and family-centered approach to caring for our own. From the burial societies and their rituals for cleansing, sitting with, and sending their dead off in the simplest of ways to the more elaborate wailers and adorners - filling caskets with goods for the afterlife, there is something to say about ritual, symbols, and the proximity and attention to the dead. This was my lesson in diversity and alternatives. That we can take direction from others and that funerals need not be so closed-off and cookie-cutter in our own culture.
The auctioneer: One of the most memorable funeral arrangements I engaged in was with a family of Auctioneers. The fact that the name of their company was Love's Auctioneer's is kind of sweet too. The widow was stricken with grief. Her adult daughter took the reins while in the arrangement while her mother emptied the tissue box, but the entire process was filled with their sharing stories of him and their interest in creatively contributing to how the funeral would go. It seemed like weeks of consulting and planning and testing out different ideas, not unlike the planning of a wedding, and many more hours of tears and pleading to have one more night of visitation with her beloved husband. On the day of the funeral, the building had been transformed into a romantic, loving, perfumed room of their love for him. They had the entire room stand and hold hands in a circle around his remains and it moved us all. This would be one of many lessons in the benefits and importance of having families be as involved as they wish to be in how the services will unfold, as it was testament to their love and resolve.
Closing the casket: It might go unnoticed to some, but it affects me deeply - the final closing of the casket. Because it is me, the funeral director, not the husband, the child, the parent that has the last look. It's me. And why? There were times when I invited the widow, the bereaved to do the honour, but each request was met with decline. Why? We have become so uncomfortable with death that most of us don't want to be near it. Or our ego takes over and we tighten at having to be in front of a crowd in a tender moment. Afraid we might break down. Afraid we might feel. That others will see. I learned that this distance from death is unsettling and that I wanted to do something about it. I interpret this question of 'why me' as a sign that I am supposed to translate these experiences and educate the public to feel empowered to take charge on closing the door for the last time on their loved ones.
The baby: This story falls on the tails of the last one, but is a little more intense. Most of us are parents or have children that we love in our life. When you see a baby in the morgue at the funeral home, life doesn't make sense anymore. Sure, adult remains are cumbersome, they need to be lifted with lifts or many hands. Sometimes deceased adults have no survivors to come and be with them, so you get used to them being alone. But babies are little. They fit in your hands. And generally, when they are new, have parents that belong to them. So why do they go to funeral homes? Again, because somehow we have learned to fear them when they stop breathing, and so we hand them over because we don't know what else to do. Being with these babies made me promise I would do something in life to ensure that they had a more intimate goodbye. It was a lesson in dedication to helping people truly be with death so they could truly move on with loving wholeness, not from a place of absence and fear and mystery.
The autopsy - This is not a gruesome story. It's a story about going the distance. About putting together the pieces of a mother, as if it were my own. After arranging a funeral for an older woman, her son shows up and wants to see her. Her remains have just arrived from the Coroner's office and are in no state to be seen, but her son is impatient and angry. There is something bigger going on but I don't know what it is. So I tell him to give me 2 hours (a procedure which would normally take 6 or more.) Suddenly I am carried away to the night my own mother died, and I frantically dialed the number to my brother's house, knowing the pain he would feel but that he had to be a part of. Like my brother, this man was so obviously full of anger and grief. This was my first lesson in doing what it takes, no matter how challenging, to getting the loved ones, the hurt ones - together with their dead.
My own mother: After funeral school and before the birth of my first child, my mother died. She had been in the hospital for a few months with brain and bone cancer. I would visit her and wash her hair, bring her an Iced Cap from Tim's, and watch as she talked silly, an effect from all the morphine I suppose. It was there, in her childlike innocence and suffering that I forgave her. When I got the call in the middle of the night, I didn't pick up. I had too many glasses of wine hours earlier with my brother. After several attempts, I finally decided to answer - it was the hospital. They said to come quickly. I was worried about smelling like booze, so I brushed my teeth before calling a cab. I should have picked up the phone sooner. I shouldn't have brushed my teeth. When I arrived, she had already left, the sweat on her shirt still warm and damp. But in some way, her death opened the floodgates of love I had been too afraid to give into. Our mutual suffering was over. As Aspen puts it, "In that hush of the newly dead. And in the presence of her dying and death, I felt an awe of the mystery of death, and wanted to linger in the body and soul transition taking place, and take it in, feel it fully, before the undertakers came and helped our predicament, our helplessness."
For me, this was my first lesson in the fragility of life and forgiveness. It was also my first lesson in being with a death that was mine - not someone else's.
It is with these encounters and lessons from my professional life, together with the threads from my personal experiences with death that set me on my way to where I am now. I woke up there, in the funeral home, where other souls are fast asleep.
I started to grasp that death and dying are bigger than any of us, that it gets bigger the closer you are. So I started searching for ways to get closer - closer to death, closer to that "Predicament of Mortality." I trained and worked as a hospice volunteer, looking for the pieces that fell between life and death. Simultaneously I also trained as a birth doula - knowing that here also was a place between darkness and light. And then it clicked. My swirling soul connected these two places, birth and death, and here is where I truly began my spiritual journey. I realized then that one must inform the other and vice versa. In essence, the great circle of life was showing me that the skills required in one aspect could transfer to the other. Here, I will quote Aspen again: "a predicament of mortality, in the most basic sense, would have to do with birth and death – the 2 experiences whereby we encounter what it means to be mortal, to have life, or to not have life." (Aspen) And this is where I get back to the midwifery bit.
How have we lost our way in caring for our dead and why is it important, not only to our spirituality but also to our humanity, that we rediscover this sacred rite of passage? "What does it mean in our culture when we are not permitted to see death? FEAR. We can also ask ourselves the same questions surrounding birth. I have decided to borrow from the midwifery model of care to inform my funeral education practice: Continuity of Care / Informed Choice / Choice of Death/Funeral place. I have become part of a small group of like-minded people that call ourselves death midwives (or my preference, home funeral guides) to help educate other people in how to care for their own. Presently, we are in the early stages of defining our scope of practice and forming an association for Canadians seeking guidance in home funerals, in being closer with death.
"we become who we are because of what we've seen and done" AND SO: imagine the humanity we could instill in our society if we could be near death, have the honour of caring for our own. A death midwife friend of mine said that the only way to reach people to care for their own is through education, through linking the idea with a history of their ancestry - for this is what they did only a few generations ago. It was the only way. Let's take direction from this and from our earlier "Story for All Ages": to keep Storytelling, like Aspen and I have done, about our experiences with being near death so no one will forget the honour it is to be there and how it contributes to our spiritual journey and thus, our humanity.
· Introduce & Tie the music in
Here I wish to conclude with a song, performed by my young niece, Courtney Seguin. The song is from the montage in the finale of the HBO series Six Feet Under. One of our society's only references to the funeral 'industry' is via this pop-culture HBO series, which is a bit sad. But what I love about it is how in the montage we watch as a young girl travels through a space in time where she sees how she will encounter death - both with the people that she loves and eventually her own - as she sets out on her own spiritual journey. Please enjoy Courtney's rendition of Sia's "Breathe Me" and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this morning.
Song "Breathe Me" by Sia (Guitar & singing by Courtney Seguin)
Kory's contact information:
Kory Prentice McGrath
Family-Centered Memorials & Events
Rituals and traditions connect us to each other and to our broader community. They also help us define ourselves and our families, and communicate our values to our children. A s we move towards the holiday season many of us wonder how we can create and sustain family traditions that honour our 7 principles. Karen McKay will speak about some of her family's traditions and her attempts to incorporate traditions of the dominant culture while creating meaningful new ones.
In doing research for this service today, I came across a story about an African people who believe that we are each created with our own song. Their tradition as a community is to honour that song by singing it as welcome when a child is born, as comfort when the child is ill, in celebration when the child marries, and in affirmation and love when death comes
Isn’t that beautiful?
I think that family rituals and traditions are like a family version of that song – the song we sing to connect, to find each other, to define ourselves, to carry us through transitions, to support, to celebrate.
But what if the song we want to sing to our families is overshadowed by the hymns of a religion we can no longer believe in, or the popular culture marches to a drum whose beat does not match the one we feel in our hearts. What if we have never heard our own family’s song?
How can we find our own song, one that rings true for us?
When I was pregnant with my Ryan, my oldest, I knew I wanted to have lots of family traditions. I grew up with parents who did their best, given their circumstances, but who weren’t able to put much energy into creating or sustaining traditions or building family connections. My family of origin has few traditions or rituals, and perhaps as a result has relatively weak connections and little that draws us back together as adults. To my younger pregnant self, family traditions signified a type of connection I longed for as a kid and as a parent. They seemed to be the best sort of gift I could bring my children. Little did I know they would also be a gift to me. I began collecting rituals and traditions, in the same way other mums may have collected onesies and cute little socks. I have no less than a dozen books about family traditions on my bookshelf. Interestingly, many of them are written by Unitarians, a link I didn’t discover for quite some time. I kept a notebook of ideas I heard or read, and pulled pages about celebrations out of magazines. Many of them didn’t fit our family, or my energy level, by the time our kids were old enough for us to implement them. But all that thinking about making meaningful connections did start me down a path towards what I hope is a way of thinking about what we as a family need to stay connected. Like most families we have collected an odd assortment of rituals. Over the years we have made green eggs and ham cake for Dr. Seuss’s birthday, celebrated Valentine’s Day with strings of tiny love letters written on construction paper hearts and hung from the kids’ doorways, and a gift of homemade baking to someone we want to express appreciation for. We invite in Leprechauns on St Patrick’s Day and always make a trip down to the dock to say goodbye and thanks to the lake before we leave the cottage. We have family movie nights on Fridays, a silly answer to the question “do you know how much I love you” and a family whistle passed down through the generations. We make birthday crowns and homemade birthday banners, and the same chocolate cake recipe for all our birthdays, even the one that falls on Christmas day.