Lean in, listen, and Learn
Rev Douglas Taylor
What is wisdom and how do you know that you’ve got some?
In a few minutes I am going to ask you to write a piece of wisdom on the cards you have in your orders of service. We are not going to read them out loud here in the service; instead we are going to post them on the bulletin board out in the hallway for the next few weeks while we consider the theme for the month together. Wisdom. What does it mean to be a people of ‘Wisdom’?
One suggestion for when you are ready to write something on the card – I invite you to not put you name on it. Instead list your age. My card will, for example, have whatever piece of wisdom I put down and then “signed, a 49-year-old.” But, if you would, wait a few minutes more before writing anything on the card. First, I want to unpack one big idea and also then show you a short video.
In preparing for this service, I found a bunch of really great bits of wisdom in particular from a 5-year-old named Charlie. For example, Charlie offers this wisdom about relationships:
Charlie says, “Don’t put a glue stick in her hair. It sounds funny, but she never thinks so.” https://www.menshealth.com/trending-news/a19536383/advice-from-kids/ I’m going to scatter some of Charlie’s wisdom throughout my homily so as to keep your interest as I talk.
And I’ll start with the big idea: Confucius was a very wise teacher from China two and a half thousand years ago. The big idea I want to unpack is from him. Confucianism is a philosophical and religious set of teachings many people follow still today.
So, here is the big idea: According to Confucius, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” (Confucius, Analects, XVI.9, [maybe] tr. anon) I’ve had this quote taped above my desk computer for several years.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Let me dig in here just a little bit.
Charlie says, “Don’t cross the street without looking both ways because you could get hit by a car and then somebody else gets all the candy.”
So, one method by which we learn wisdom is reflection. That’s really the point of coming to hear a sermon, isn’t it? It gets you thinking. I say some stuff up here and you think about it and reflect on it. This is the benefit of studying scripture or taking a class in ethics. It gets you thinking and reflecting on your life and how you are in the world. Confucius describes that as the noblest way to attain wisdom.
Of course, the real benefit is when such reflection is put into action. I remember reading about how growth and learning comes from allowing chaos and mistakes to happen. It’s about fostering an environment of curiosity and innovation. But that feels like chaos and a lack of control, which is uncomfortable. Reflecting on this piece of wisdom is one thing. Living it is another.
Charlie says, “Bury your money in the back yard. But make a map so you remember where the money is. But then hide the map where you can’t find it, so you don’t dig up the money. Maybe give the map to a friend who has enough money.”
A colleague taught me an invaluable lesson that fits here under ‘imitation.’ I was in my first year of seminary and was complaining about how I’d been treated by an elder minister. I’d felt dismissed and ignored by that elder minister’s words and behavior toward me. Another colleague said “Every colleague serves as an example to us. Not all of them are good examples that we want to emulate. But we can still learn from all of them.” She was suggesting I learned how not to treat new ministers when I become an elder colleague.
According to Confucius, imitation is the easiest method by which we learn wisdom. Everyone has something to teach us by their example. Who do you want to emulate? Who has treated you with kindness, or good support, or clarity of truth? How can you imitate that example in your treatment of others?
Charlie says, “Sometimes you have to laugh so hard, you super-pee. That’s when you pee over your entire pants. Your pants are like ruined with pee. That’s how hard you laughed.”
There’s an old saying: Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from poor judgement. Don’t be afraid of the mistakes you make. Learn from them. They are valuable. This is not to say our mistakes don’t hurt. Confucius suggests that learning wisdom by experience is the bitterest method, but it definitely works.
Here are somethings I’ve learned through the experience of my mistakes and poor judgement: “Reacting defensively is usually not my best move.”
Sometimes when another person is angry with me, they are really angry about something else. It’s not always about me. I’ve made the mistake of reacting only to the surface level of a conversation or argument, only to discover later that there was something else going on that had nothing to do with me. If I had not reacted defensively in the moment, I might have been able to help. Reacting defensively is usually not my best move.
This is the big idea I wanted to unpack. Essentially, that we have wisdom, all of us. We’ve acquired it by various methods to be sure. And over the years we keep gaining more wisdom. Listen to the wisdom around you and within you.
I have one more thing to offer you before I invite you to write something on your card. I have a video you will enjoy, and it might help you think of something to write down on your card if you haven’t already decided. This video is from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation entitled “How to Age Gracefully.”
Any time after the service, bring your card up front and leave it on the table here with our chalice.
I’ll close with one more bit of advice from Charlie. “If you eat salad, make sure it’s not poison ivy. That poison ivy will get you, mister.”
In a world without end, may it be so.
Because We All Have Wings
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Brené Brown says we are ‘brave and brokenhearted.’ She reminds us that we rise, not in spite of our brokenness and adversity, but in many cases because of it. Often, our struggles become part of our identity. The point is not that being broken or hurt is somehow a good thing for us. No. The point is simply that it is a reality we all experience in varying degrees. At some point in our lives we will lose, we will fall and fail and make huge mistakes. Our hearts will get broken. We will lie and be lied to. We will run up against a larger adversary. We will trip up and land hard. Each of us, at one point or another, or at many points along the way, will break.
Our struggles are not good, getting hurt and heartbroken is not good. It’s simply reality. The point is that it’s possible to fall down and rise up again. The point is that it’s possible, and in fact it is something we do a lot. The struggles we survive become part of our identity. Rising up from the heartbreak and trouble is what how we are resilient. Brené Brown says we are ‘brave and brokenhearted.’ Our stories are littered with examples of our resilience. As Helen Keller is remembered for saying; “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
I’ve approached the topic of resilience several times over the years. It is a central theme in spirituality and life. It is something I have tried to understand better, to live more fully, to offer to others. I’ve read about it and thought about it quite a lot. Lately it seems when I look up the word, there is some reference to pillows. “This pillow is resilient. It will spring back and hold its form over the years. Buy this pillow.”
So, our pillows ‘springing back into their original form’ is seen as a mark of resilience … for pillows. Our lives, our spirits, have the quality of, not springing back, but springing forward. After living through adversity or heartbreak, we don’t ever return to what had been, never back to our original form. Instead we emerge changed yet still true to our original form.
Consider the example of baseball superstar Jackie Robinson. In the 1940s and ‘50s Robinson demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. As the first African American to play in the major leagues, he persisted through relentless harassment from fans and fellow players alike. He did not ‘spring back to his original form’ after the slurs and abuses. He sprang forward, he emerged changed yet true. And that example led the sport and eventually the country to also move forward, changed yet true.
We do not spring back to our original form. We spring forward, changed yet still true to that original form. And we rise. We rise because we have fallen.
This is worth remembering not just for personal difficulties. Resilience is a communal quality as well. Social change and the vagaries of politics can be disheartening. I have been frustrated and angry about much of what is going on in politics lately. The impeachment process ran its course pretty much how I expected it would. But even outside of the partisan aspect, there are concerns I have about the health of our democracy now that I did not have 4 years ago. I certainly hope our nation is resilient. I certainly hope we rise from this, because I am weary of all this falling.
Like the adversity Jackie Robinson and other African Americans have experienced, like the devastation of the stonewall uprising, like the heartbreak and slander the suffragettes suffered, may the time in which we now live also prove to be a turning point toward greater progress and resilience.
Last week in our service I emphasized the natural aspect of resilience. I said it is a capacity we all have within us naturally. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. At a major turning point in my life I discovered this quote from Maya Angelou. She says: “No one knows what it costs the bulb, the onion bulb or the tulip bulb, to split – to crack itself open – to allow the thin tendril of life to emerge.” (Restoring Hope, Cornell West)
Was anyone else surprised by the ending of the children’s story? (After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat.) It’s a nice retelling with a good message. Humpty Dumpty overcomes that fear of heights, I saw that coming. He is terrified as he climbs the wall again but he climbs it anyway. I saw that coming, too. That part was predictable. It was good, I loved it; and it was predictable. But I was surprised at the end when the egg cracked and Humpty Dumpty spread his wings and flew. But of course, there would be a bird inside the egg. Of course.
Because we all have wings. But oh, the cost. The cost of cracking yourself open, to allow the wounded places to both heal and break wider. Oh, the cost to open oneself and allow the tender tendril of life out into the harsh world. Resilience is hard. When we most want to curl up and protect what is precious, the way forward is to paradoxically both heal and break wider. Resilience is the art of how we move forward through heartbreak and adversity that we may rise.
And as I said last week, it is natural. How do we overcome? What does it take to be resilient? One answer is that resilience is natural capacity we all have within us. And at the same time, it is a quality we can enhance and practice and become better at. There are skills that we can develop, ways we can practice our resilience. Companion qualities we can encourage.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that resilience has a lot to do with perspective. Resilient people tend to understand that there are things over which we have little control. You are not in charge of other people’s actions. Situations come up which you cannot stop from happening. What you can control is how you respond. As a child I was not very resilient. I always felt like I was not in control of my life, like I suffered at the whims of other’s kindness or cruelty. Bullies were a regular feature to my school life and the unpredictability that comes with alcoholism was ever present at home. It took me years to uncover my own sense of agency and control. People who are resilience have a good perspective of what they are in charge of, and what is out of their control. Resilient people do not expend their energy trying to control others or complaining about things beyond their control. They focus their attention on what they can control: their responses to what is going on within and around them.
Another quality of resilient people is playfulness and imagination. Serious people don’t bounce. Think about the way most of us get when they are faced with a significant trauma in life, we tend to over value the power the event holds. Having a sense of humor, or better, a sense of life’s absurdity, is important. It is the experience of “Oh, wow!” instead of “Oh, no!”
Alexander Fleming left some dirty petri dishes on his work station and went away on a trip. When he got back, he was not surprised to find most were contaminated. He was sorting through them to see what he could salvage, which was not much. But he noticed something odd in one dish … and perhaps you’ve heard this story, he discovered penicillin from his sloppy lab. Instead of saying “Oh, no!” he said “Oh, wow!” There are stories like this for the inventions of pacemakers, air conditioners, and post-it notes. Imagination and playfulness can help us see possibilities where others see only obstacles and adversity.
Let me offer you another quality of resilient people. They keep perspective, they can be playful, and they are persistence. Persistent people keep plugging away at the problems in life and thus, tend to accomplish some pretty positive things. I bumped into the story of one child helping their younger sibling learn to jump into the swimming pool. The younger one kept hovering at the edge, “but I’m scared,” she would cry. Her older sibling would try to comfort her, “You’ll be okay. I’m right here. You don’t need to be afraid.” But nothing worked until an older lady at the pool swam by and said, “It’s okay to be scared. Do it anyway. Do it scared.” That proved to be helpful advice. Instead of ‘don’t be scared;” “Do it scared.” Persistence is not about perfection. It’s not about having it all together and keeping it all together along the way. Persistence is about doing it anyway; and to keep doing it even if you’re scare, even if it’s not working yet, even if others don’t join in. It is about falling down and getting back up again, and again, and again.
You don’t need to be perfect, all you need is to have failed or fallen down or gotten lost or broken. Resilience is about rising up again and again; with perspective, with playfulness, and with persistence. Add a little prayer and amazing things are possible. We all can be resilient like Jackie Robinson or Alexander Fleming or Maya Angelou. Because we all have wings. Like Humpty Dumpty, all of us can fly; but sometimes we have to break to discover it. Do not fear failure or falling down – or go ahead and fear it, but don’t let the fear stop you. Don’t run from mistakes or heartbreak. Love boldly. Reach for the impossible. Throw yourself into it. Fly.
Perhaps some of you know what Douglas Adams said about flying. In his classic book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, he said there is a knack to flying. “The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
This quote always reminds me of something my kid’s Aikido instructor told us about falling. This was years ago when the kids were little. Mr. Cuffy was explaining how a central and basic skill in Aikido was learning to fall without getting hurt. It involves having an awareness of your body and of physics, and developing certain skills.
He described slipping on the sidewalk one icy day. It was one of those cinematic slips, when both feet were in the air before he started actually falling. Someone came rushing over to help him back to his feet and see if he needed to go to the hospital. But Mr. Cuffy had landed with a roll, dusted the snow off his pants, and walked on. He said, it’s a surreal feeling to slip like that and, while you’re falling, to know that you are going to land okay. He knew that because he’s spent years training himself how to fall well.
Do you know how to fall well? Maybe not literally, as Mr. Cuffy could do. But metaphorically. Can you fall well? Maybe when you fall, unlike Mr. Cuffy, you do get hurt. So maybe you don’t fall well. But do you know how to rise after the fall? Do you rise well? Brené Brown reminds us in our reading today; “There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fearmongers than those of us who are willing to fall because we have learned how to rise.”
There is hope in knowing this. There will always be people who revel in seeing someone else fall down, seeing someone else suffer; ‘the critics and cynics and fearmongers’ Brené Brown calls them. We’ve been socialized to think that falling down reflects poorly on us. But truly the rising up is where the power resides, and you can’t rise up if you haven’t fallen down a time or two. Rising up is what we all can do; it is what we all actually do quite a lot. It is the heartbeat of social movements and social change. Resilience is not just about your personal capacity to respond well to adversity. It is also our communal capacity to usher in change at a societal level when faced with injustice or tyranny.
Historical scholar Howard Zinn offers this remarkable insight:
“When you have models of how people can come together, even for a brief period, it suggests that it could happen for a longer period. When you think of it, that’s the way things operate in the scientific world, so why not socially? As soon as the Wright brothers could keep a plane aloft for 27 seconds, everyone knew from that point on that a plane might be kept aloft for hours. It’s the same socially and culturally…
“If true community can stay aloft for 27 seconds, it is only a matter of time before such a community can last for hours. Only a matter of time before a beloved community, as Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke of, can come into being.” (H. Zinn, 2006, “The Common Cradle of Concern”)
There are thousands of examples of this in history and contemporary affairs. We can rise, we do. We can support each other in communities of hope and resilience. I’ve seen it. And I know we can do it really well for at least 27 seconds at a go. I’m sure of it. With practice, we extend the length of that grace over minutes and hours. Each time we respond to failure and brokenness with perspective, playfulness, persistence, and a little prayer, we extend the length of time we can keep our resilient selves and this resilient community aloft.
It’s okay to be broken or cracked or flat out, fallen on the ground. It’s okay, because you are resilient. We all have wings. It’s okay, because rising up again comes after the falling down. And if you can only rise for 27 seconds, it will be enough. And we know that it’s only a matter of time before we all have our wings unfurled like a ‘network of mutuality’ to rise and bless the beautiful world together.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Wake Up to the Revolution
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Our reading this morning is from the Ware Lecture that Dr. King delivered in 1966 https://www.uua.org/ga/past/1966/ware. For some context, the Ware Lecture https://www.uua.org/ga/program/highlights/ware-lecture is a significant event each year at our UUA General Assembly. It was established back in the early- to mid-1800’s to honor three generations of distinguished individuals from the Ware family. And yes, Ed Ware (a long-time member of the Binghamton UU congregation) has a family connection in that line, you can ask him about it.
Each year, the UUA president invites a distinguished guest from outside Unitarian Universalism to speak. Over the years the we’ve heard from Jane Addams, Howard Thurman, Linus Pauling, Helen Caldicott, Krista Tippett, Van Jones, Eboo Patel, and Cornell West. It is an impressive list. In 1966, the speaker was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his title was “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution.” Dr. King was invited to speak to the gathered Unitarian Universalists and the message he chose to bring us was to wake up!
Dr. King begin his speech to the Unitarian Universalists with the story of Rip van Winkle. In case the tale has fallen out of fashion; briefly, it is a short story by Washington Irving about a man who falls asleep up in the Catskill mountains for 20 years. Most cogently, he falls asleep while King George the third of England rules the land and wakes to find President George Washington in charge. Rip van Winkle slept through a revolution.
In drawing the parallel, King said to us,
“One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” (MLK Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution)
He then goes on to describe the demands of “the new situation” as well as what he means by “the new attitudes and outlooks” needed to face it.
He talked about the shift underway in how racism is experienced in America after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were signed into law. He talked about the ongoing pervasive attitude of racial superiority (or ‘white supremacy’ as we might say today.) He told us about the ongoing threats of violence and annihilation. King did not say it quite this baldly, but it was a time in which a black man could be killed with impunity, often because the police looked the other way or even participated in the lynching and murders. Dr. King warned us about the apathy of the church, the tragic sin of standing by while people were oppressed and degraded. He warned us against sleeping through the revolution.
And frankly, in all fairness, we Unitarian Universalists did fall asleep after we experienced an internal implosion over racial issues just a few years after King spoke with us. As a movement, we pretty much stopped talking about race through the 70’s and 80’s and much of the 90’s. Now, that’s a broad and un-nuanced way of putting it, but it is largely true.
But a new day has arrived. The current generation of young people faces much the same adversity folks faced the 60’s. This is true nationally, and in our faith specifically. There are remarkable similarities. There is an upswell in calls for civil rights and justice for marginalized identities. Young people are riled up and the older generation doesn’t quite understand why. We have ongoing foreign wars that are largely unsanctioned and unpopular. There is corruption throughout the government, including up at the highest level. Back in the ‘60’s, Dr. King would often cite three evils for us to deal with as a nation: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Are we not still facing these three evils today?
So, in 1966, Dr. King said, all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. And the great period of change he referred to then is strikingly similar to the great period of change we are now in today. We can add a few problems and difficulties that were not in play back then. Healthcare, for example, was not a ‘for-profit’ endeavor back then; we invented that problem in the 70’s. And the climate crisis has grown dramatically worse since King’s time. The need for human rights and civil rights for other marginalized groups has expanded and echoes the work King and others had done in their time.
Many people who were deeply involved in the hard work of justice-making in the 60’s may be rightly disheartened that we find ourselves in so similar a situation today. But I tell you the fires have not died and there are workers in the field today building for a better world.
Dr. King said we would need new attitudes and outlooks to address the situation. As you might suspect, the new attitudes and outlooks he called for over 50 years ago are applicable today. Indeed the ‘new’ attitudes and outlooks he called for back then, while radical, were not really new in the 60’s.
There were two particular ideas, theological ideas, that he mentioned in his speech to the Unitarian Universalists as the attitudes and outlooks needed for those times. They are theological ideas that resonant well with the various theologies we have here in Unitarian Universalism.
The first in the mindset of interconnectedness as a perspective of renewal. In the 1966 Ware Lecture he said simply, “All life is inter-related, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” In other speeches he talked about it as a “network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny,” in which we are all caught up together; and how “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s all inter-related. This theological premise that we are interconnected led King and it leads us today into the work of justice.
It becomes important to be in relationship with the poor and oppressed, that you understand the condition of the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Dr. King said “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” I am suggesting our interconnectedness calls us to have relationships with the people we would help. And what an opportunity we have while worshiping here at United Presbyterian downtown for the next few months!
The second theological perspective I’ll mention is that of the Beloved Community. Dr. King kept the vision of a Beloved Community fresh in the people’s minds, as a beacon toward which we were striving. The whole underpinning of the I Have a Dream speech is that the ‘dream’ was really a social vision of the Beloved Community. The dream is the goal. And here is the trick. This is what King came to say to us back in in 1966. To achieve the dream, good people like you and me need to first wake up and stay awake through the revolution.
What are we going to do? What are you willing to do? It is all inter-related and our goal is nothing less than Beloved Community. What are we going to do?
Our congregation has been deep in the details of our renovation project and the capital campaign, the floor plans and possible mortgage senecios. What are we going to get and how much will it cost? This has been consuming us. And rightly so – it is big work. And, soon we will be on the other side of our part of that work. The contractors will get busy and we can return to other matters. Soon, maybe even next week, we will turn our attention more fully to the mission for which our congregation exists and for which we are making all this great effort at renovation.
And what will we do?
In the speech he gave to the Unitarian Universalists he quoted Victor Hugo who had once said there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. I would cautiously suggest that time is cyclical and the time has come again for the grand ideas of freedom and justice in our country. And it is the church that needs to herald these ideas, it is the church that must wake up and shout such things in the highways and byways of our nation.
In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote:
“The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.”
This is the call for religion to recognize its role in ushering in a solution to national problems.
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail he wrote that the church had been behaving like a thermometer of culture when it used to be like a thermostat! During Dr. King’s time, the church had an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of racism. Churches did so then and need to do so now. Will we? He called on churches to be champions once more for the poor, to cry out against the sin of economic inequality. Will we? King called on churches to raise their voices against the oppressive machinery of war and destruction. Will we?
The message of Dr. King was not contained as only a message against racism. He spoke out against the triple threat of racism, militarism and economic disparity. A key demand in his I Have a Dream speech, for example, was for “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” (A line that often gets missed!)
Dr. King was killed while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN who were struggling for a living wage and for their dignity. Dr. King said,
“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American worker whether a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.”
Dr. King’s vision still serves for our current crisis, as there are still parts of that vision we have not fully realized. We can yet work against racism. We still can take part in speaking out against endless war. There is still more to do, right here in downtown Binghamton to change systems and support individuals struggling with poverty and economic inequality. Dr. King shared with us the dream but to achieve the dream we must first wake up.
To achieve the dream of economic equality, we must wake up enough to recognize that nearly 40 million people in American living in poverty is unacceptable and that we can do something about it. To achieve the dream of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” we need to first wake up to the fact that we have 15 million children living in poverty in this country, which is unacceptable and something we can address if we wanted to address it.
To achieve the dream of a day when increasing our teachers’ take-home pay will triumph over tax-breaks for tycoons; when providing for the poor pulls rank over putting them in prison; when we adjust our attitude as a society about the possibility of putting people of color into positions of power … then we must first wake up to the myth of meritocracy and the insidious reality of white supremacy culture.
I share the dream of a day when we put our great wisdom and wealth to work feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and caring for the sick. I share the dream of a day when our nation is once more recognized as the leader of the free world not by of the magnitude of our military but by the capacity of our compassion. I share the dream of a day when we wake up and realize that before we can be a great nation, we must first be a good nation. We Unitarian Universalists have a role in bringing that Dream to fruition. It is time for us to again wake up and join the work of building the Beloved Community for today.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Christmas Eve Homily 2019
The Power of the Manger
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I will admit, I’ve grown weary of the Christmas music season on the radio. To be clear, I like Christmas music, what I’m struggling with is the Christmas music season. I don’t listen to the radio much, usually when I am in the car. I have been avoiding the stations that have been playing the Christmas music all the time since November. They are all so upbeat and jingly. I don’t know about you, but it feels like too much.
I do like Christmas music. There are many carols and songs that I love. It’s not the music itself I don’t like. It’s the constant airplay for an entire month or two that wears me out. And maybe I’m getting old and crotchety. Maybe it’s just been a hard year for me. Maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through. But I can’t handle that much jolly all the time. Or, I can’t handle that much jolly without the counterbalance of the context.
Too often it feels like the loudest version of Christmas is the one that screams at us to be joyful and have a party and buy presents for everyone. I’m not saying I’ve become the Grinch. I don’t mind parties and presents. I am 100% in favor of joy. Again, there’s nothing wrong with all that – it’s just missing the counterweight of the context.
Consider this story we tell of Jesus born in a manger. The songs and TV specials show it through a lens of awe and wonder. The image of angels singing is heartwarming and tender. The wisemen arrive bearing gifts. Mary and Joseph are smiling down at their baby while the animals in the barn add a pastoral air to the whole scene.
But the best part, the most important part of it all, is missing in these images. These images are like snapshots showing a moment in the story but not revealing the full message in the story. The best part is the juxtaposition of the simple goodness of the scene with the surrounding danger of it all.
The context of the story of Jesus’ birth is a context of foreign occupation. The whole reason Mary and Joseph took the journey to Bethlehem was because they had to. The Roman Emperor degreed that everyone had to travel to their home city to be counted.
How would you feel if there were a law suddenly passed saying you had to travel to the city of your birth and register for the census? Where is that? Can you afford the trip – the cost in time and money? Not going is not an option.
Mary and Joseph had to travel. And travelling when you are that pregnant is risky, infant mortality rates 2000 years ago were significant. Yet, they made it. The mother and the baby both survived the journey.
And then, 12 days later when the wisemen arrive, they do bring those interesting gifts – and they bring news as well. There is a king who wants to kill the baby. So, the new family flees into the night. Where would you go if you had to flee at a moment’s notice like that? This story is actually pretty frightening when you sit with it for a while.
This baby is born in the context of oppression and the threat of violence. Jesus, asleep in the manger, we sing, where he lay down his sweet head. He is small and vulnerable and helpless. What the people wanted was a warrior, a powerful leader to free them from the oppressors, a savior who would rid the land of the corrupt liars seated on the thrones.
What the people got instead was a baby. A vulnerable baby at risk and in danger.
Let me tell you about the power found through vulnerability. Vulnerability, at face value, is about being at risk, open to attacks and being hurt. It is to be unprotected. Vulnerability is not a position of power. Normally. But that’s the whole point revealed in the context of this story.
The majestic wisemen, who in some versions of the story are even kings, would normally be venerated; but in this story, they bow down to a baby. The lowly shepherds would normally be the bottom rung of the social status; but in this story, they are the first witnesses, they are the ones to whom the angels appear. This is intended as a tale of the birth of a king, of god incarnate; but in this story, the child is born in an ingloriously stable. Everything about this story is a reversal or upending of expectations.
And yet, that is the way the story goes. The context sets everything at odds. And we discover, there actually is peace in the midst of this turmoil, there is hope and joy arising from right here in the middle of trouble.
Now when you see the adoration of the wisemen, hear the angelic voices singing of peace, witness the young parents smiling down at their infant … in the context of the threat and danger surrounding them … it is all more poignant.
I love the Christmas songs of peace and joy and light, but I don’t want to hear them without the context of why that peace and joy and light are so precious, even now, even today. The message of hope arises because things are not all daisies and sunshine. The message of hope and joy arises out of the trouble and turmoil that surrounds. Hope doesn’t just happen. It grows out of the impossible. Hope grows out of hardship.
Is there turmoil in the land where you are living? Is there turmoil in the life you are living? This is where the story can take us. Not in showing us a beautiful picture that we should try to replicate. But in revealing how in the midst of oppression and grief, we too can shine light.
This is the message I love about Christmas; the message Jesus brings and the story of his birth reveals: There is a power in the manger, in that low and vulnerable place. We have been there ourselves in our lives at times. The power revealed in the manger is the power of hope and of light. And we all participate in that power when we open ourselves to our own vulnerability.
Yes, there is corruption and greed in the country. Yes, there is terror and injustice and destruction in our land. Yes, there is loss and grief and death and suffering in our lives. And, yes, there is a light that shines out at midnight, a mere glimmer. But it is hope and it is life and it is within you, too. The power of the manger is the message that hope is always born in the small and vulnerable places, in the hard times and turmoil, out of the impossible. That’s the point.
And we find ourselves gathered here on Christmas eve, at the edge of the deep night, singing our songs of peace and joy. Let us remember to hear the whole story and understand the power of these songs. Let us remember the whole story because we are living the whole story.
The hope of the season arises not from the picturesque scenes of those nativity moment. We sing songs of hope and peace tonight, hope for our world and for ourselves. Hope for all those in danger. Hope that the corrupt empire will crumble. Hope for more compassion in our daily living. Hope that we can come through the danger and turmoil into a last peace.
Amidst the family gatherings and favorite traditions, the festive meals and candy, the giving and receiving of gifts, and any other trappings that may be attached to your experience of the Christmas holiday; let us have compassion for all those in danger tonight. Let us learn that the joy and hope of Christmas arises amid the trouble, but that the glory of it all is tucked into the simple actions of simple people like you and me – the simple actions that bring more light and joy and peace into the world
Merry Christmas and may God bless you all, now and through the coming year.
Meet Me at the Corner of Joy and Justice
(A sermon about anger and activism)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
How long? That exact question is in the Bible no less than fifty times mostly on the lips of the psalmists and the prophets. And those psalmists and prophets didn’t pull punches, they expressed their heartrending questions without sugarcoating.
How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? (psalm 13 asks) forever?
LORD, how long shall the wicked triumph? (psalm 94 implores)
How long shall the land mourn, (Jeremiah questions) and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein?
O LORD, how long shall I cry, (Habakkuk beseeches) and thou wilt not hear!
How long? It is not a plaintive begging for mercy. These prophets and psalmists were angry at the injustice they and their people experience. Their anger fueled their outcry and their actions. It is interesting because most of our modern understanding of anger as it connects to the spiritual life is wrapped up in how negative anger is, how bad it is for our spirits.
I remember a comment a local politician made about anger being her motivation into politics. I think it was D. L., but I couldn’t find a source to corroborate that memory. What I remember is that someone asked her why she went into politics. She told the story of when she was younger and she had a defining interaction with an elder politician, I think it was one of the Kennedy’s. She said to him “I’m angry at what’s wrong with the world.” And he replied, “Yeah, me too. That’s why I am where I am, doing what I’m doing.” She then reflected that this interchange is why she went into politics. She was angry and decided to do something about it.
This has stuck with me because it runs counter to what I’ve known over the years about how unhelpful anger is for life. Anger, for me growing up, was tangled up with violence. My perspective on this has been deeply colored by growing up in an alcoholic home. I took in a clear message that anger was never a healthy emotion, that anger led to hurt. Over the years, as I’ve matured and processed a lot of the experiences from my childhood, I have learned to question some of those basic assumption now and then.
Which is why this story about the politician naming her anger as the positive motivation setting the course of her life has stuck with me. It didn’t fit my understanding of what anger does to us. The old Frederick Beuchner quote says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Beuchner did not suggest that God calls you to there your deep anger meets the world’s injustice. And yet, that seems to be how it works for some people. And I don’t understand.
There is a song lyric that says:
You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder;
Throw your hands in the air, saying “what does it matter?”.
This is from the song “Bruised Orange” by John Prine. It continues,
It won’t do no good to get angry, so help me, I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter;
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there,
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrows.
Spiritually, anger is terrible stuff. The Buddha, according to some sources, said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Another version compares it to drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Mark Twain said “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
I had done a sermon several years back https://douglastaylor.org/2010/12/05/a-people-so-bold/ in which, for preparation, I had asked several congregants why they were so committed and involved in social action. None of them said it was because they were angry. They said things like this about why:
“I have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong. Therefore, Social Justice work keeps me both sane and out of jail.” (gm) “Like the Boy Scouts, I want to leave my “campsite” better than I found it.” (el) “Helping those less fortunate and those affected by widespread social injustice, goes to the core of my being and belief.” (tn) “I do social justice work because I firmly believe in fairness & equality for everyone.” (cn)
They list guiding values and central principles. They didn’t talk about anger. They referred to some passion, and I suppose that what the anger is for some people, a passion to make change.
One thing I’ve learned about anger is that it is rooted in fear. When we get angry, it is usually because we something we hold precious is threatened. Anger is rooted in the fear that something we love, something important, is at risk. So, there is a noble and just version of anger here. This is a perspective that has helped me a lot. I’ve learned to check in with myself when I’m angry or with others when they are angry. “What’s at risk, what is threatened?”
When we are looking at the how this impacts Social Action and Activism, it begins to make a lot of sense to allow anger to serve as a fuel for change. It can be corrosive if it sits; anger can eat away at you if you don’t figure out a way to make a change. But if the anger leads to movement and change, that’s different.
I was reading from a blog about anger and Social Activism. https://insearchofanideal.wordpress.com/2016/08/08/anger-and-social-justice/
The author Bharath Vallabha is a philosophy professor who revealed a few interesting distinctions. Most relevant is what he says is a shift from being angry at people to being angry at institutions.
Our anger at injustice usually begins with a focus on particular people, an ‘other’ often as ‘oppressors’ causing or at least contributing to the injustice. Our anger is often focused on people. Emotions are relational! Our emotions are rooted in how we are with each other. The transition from being angry at people about an injustice to being angry at institutions and systems is the way our anger shifts from draining to sustaining.
This is not to say there are never individual perpetrators of injustice, there will still be the racist, the rapist, the liar, and the fraud. But when I shift my anger from the individual to the system, I can see that all of that behavior happens within and is supported by a culture or system designed to perpetuate the injustice and the harm.
The author of the blog put it like this:
“In such growth, there is a release from the toxic effects of the first stages of anger, where one emotionally still needs the category of the oppressor as the target of blame and vitriol, as if that other person or group still holds me captive because I need to push myself off against them, as opposed to them, in contrast to them, to feel my own will power and capacity to change.“
I can be angry and even incensed at an individual bigot. And when I also look at the system around a single incident, I can get angry at institutional racism and white supremacy culture that continues to pervade our society and our lives. And then I can have compassion for the individuals caught up in the system, including myself.
When I can accomplish this shift my anger from a focus on individuals to a focus on systems and institutions, then I open myself to this remarkable paradox of having both anger and compassion at play. I open myself to the capacity to use my anger in a healthy way because it doesn’t consume me as I use it to motivate me to make change.
In the reading about “Justice, Equity, and Compassion,” Patrick Murfin suggested that we need to pair up and even triple up our values so they can balance each other. I am suggesting something similar. When you can pair up your anger with compassion, you can move forward.
We’ve talked about the Loving-Kindness meditation; we’ve done that meditation together. To have compassion toward those you are angry at does not mean the anger goes away. It means you can do something with it rather than allow it to sit and fester.
So, what makes you angry or upset? What is happening in the world that stirs you up? National politics? Hunger and homelessness? Police brutality? Anger can be the starting point when you realize how important an issue or a group of people may be to you. Anger is a signal. But it’s only the starting point. The role of anger in Social Action can be the fuel for motivation, a version of the passion to make change. But until it can be transformed and coupled with compassion, it will only serve to burn you up.
And remember, I’m talking about justice and social action now, not personal interactions. Anger in personal relationships does not play out the same way as in larger social issues. If I’m upset and angry with my spouse or with my friend or with someone I know from a circle of acquaintances – the work is to repair the relationship or prevent further harm by ending the relationship.
But if I’m upset or angry about, as a random example, the way the President of the United States is treating asylum seekers or women or any number of other marginalized groups … I don’t have a personal relationship with the President and there is no relationship to repair. The President doesn’t even know, probably wouldn’t care, that I have these feelings. So, the work is not about repairing the relationship. It is about transforming my anger so it can be of service.
The point is not to get rid of the anger. But neither is it to let the anger fester. When I was younger, I thought the point was to get rid of the anger – that all anger is negative and bad. I’ve heard others suggest the anger can be the motivation to make change, the drive, the fuel for resistance. Both are wrong while being almost right. The third way is to transform the anger. Shift it out of the personal and into the systemic perspective, and then couple it with compassion.
Our First UU principles calls us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I’ve heard people pull that principle out when arguing about President Trump, saying we should promote his worth and dignity. The counter argument is to lift up the Second Source – our living tradition draws from many sources including Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
I am always a little perversely delighted when we discover the little conflicts like this in our principles and sources. When one source or principle is used as a counter-point for another source or principle. It helps me remember that we cannot use the principles and sources as doctrine or law. We don’t work that way. They are covenantal, not contractual. We look to them as guides and challenges, not as pre-cut solutions.
Of course, some of you may have already noticed, title of that reading we had from Patrick Murfin “Justice, Equity, and Compassion” is right out of the Second Principe in which we affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
What are we going to do? Or to frame the question to fit what I’ve been talking about … What are you angry about? What stirs you up? Do you see the injustice and social disharmony at play? Is there something precious to you that is threatened? Name it. Acknowledge that it makes you upset or angry. And then, as it is possible for you, shift your focus to the systems or institutions supporting the injustice – the ‘powers and structures or evil.’ And gently allow your compassion to grow for all of us caught in those systems.
And now we get started on making change. Now we begin again the work of building a better world in which we move with justice not because we are angry but because there is joy in our movement and in our becoming a more compassionate people.
How long? How long until we rise to help build a better world? How long will the people cry out and not be heard? How long, O God, until our anger will be blended with compassion in the service of the transformative power of love? How long will we wait to make the change? May we head the call. May we lean in, together, and grow!
In a world without end, may it be so.