John Bates: Becoming More Welcoming – Among

JohnBates

As the physical work on the Welcome Project nears completion, it’s time to turn our attention to the important work of becoming more welcoming as a Congregation. In last week’s eNews, our Lead Minister Rev. Mark Ward talked about the Ends Statements that the Board has recently updated after listening sessions with the Congregation last fall. The second group of Ends is entitled ‘Among – We Care’ and the first statement reads ‘feel welcome and connected with each other’. So, among our friends and members of the Congregation, how can we do a better job of making everyone feel welcome and connected with each other?

I propose we use the annual auction as a test of our becoming more welcoming by pushing our individual comfort zone to ensure we make every member and friend feel welcome and connected with each other. Instead of claiming all the chairs at a table at the auction with your usual friends, consider seeking out and inviting that couple or that single person you have seen around but haven’t had a chance to really talk with or get to know. Perhaps you never knew that the single person you see all the time actually feels left out and would so welcome the chance to be invited to your table. Asheville is a couple’s town and it’s hard to be single. Or maybe you didn’t realize that the couple who has been attending now for a year or more still doesn’t feel connected. For them, the auction is a new way to roam and talk and they’d really enjoy the invitation to sit with you.

So as we look forward to the dust settling, the most important part of the Welcome Project is just beginning. I hope you’ll join me in making UUCA even more welcoming than it already is.

Sermon: Learning from a “Watchman” (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The voice is a familiar one, like that of relative who surprises us every once in a while with fascinating, chatty phone calls: updating us on the family gossip, relating some slightly scandalous old stories, and puzzling over all that we lose in the relentless passage of time.

I recognized Harper Lee from the moment I opened her newly-released novel, <i>Go Set a Watchman</i>. To be honest, though, I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to buy the book, given all the controversy over the circumstances of its appearance, apparently some 50 years after it was written. Did she really write it? Did she really intend to release it, or was she bullied into it by relatives seeking to enrich her estate?

READINGS

From To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

“I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end.”

Her voice rose: “It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him t pieces. I’ve seen him when – what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?”

“What does who want, Alexandra?” Miss Maudie asked.

“I mean this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves – it might lose ‘em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re – “

“Be quiet, they’ll hear you,” said Miss Maudie. “Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycombe knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we ca pay him. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

“Who?” Aunt Alexandra asked.

“The handful of people in his town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”

Miss Maudie’s old crispness was returning: “The handful of people in this town with background, that’s who they are.”

From The Luminous Darkness by Howard Thurman

“As long as Negroes functioned within the patters (of segregation), the fear of reprisal and punitive measures was a very effective deterrent. The fear was always current and always active. It could be implemented quickly anywhere by any white man. To use violence as a deterrent against the violation of the pattern had a general sanction in the white community. And the surest protection against its us was not one’s guilt or innocence but rather one’s cunning or the protection of some white an who sytood in the gate on your behalf.

“The stability of the pattern rested uneasily on the Negro’s active fear. That fea, in turn, was based on the threat and the fact of violence, and the inactive fear of the white man, which sprang from his deep unconscious guilt because of his treatment of the Negro and his genuine anxiety about the security of his own position and status. The active fear of the Negro and the inactive fear of the white man provided a condition of tension that stabilized the pattern of segregation. . . .

“Now a strange thing is happening, particularly in the South. The active fear in the Negro, one of the foundation stones providing uneasy stability for segregation, is rapidly disappearing (and) being replaced by an increasing sense of personal and inner freedom. The more Negroes lose their fear, the more white people increase their fear. . . .

:When both are free of the fear, then a new way of life opens for all.”

SERMON

The voice is a familiar one, like that of relative who surprises us every once in a while with fascinating, chatty phone calls: updating us on the family gossip, relating some slightly scandalous old stories, and puzzling over all that we lose in the relentless passage of time.

I recognized Harper Lee from the moment I opened her newly-released novel, Go Set a Watchman. To be honest, though, I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to buy the book, given all the controversy over the circumstances of its appearance, apparently some 50 years after it was written. Did she really write it? Did she really intend to release it, or was she bullied into it by relatives seeking to enrich her estate?

I plead ignorance on all those questions. Instead, what intrigued me were the disclosures from its first reviewers that the book would tell us something new and disturbing about Atticus Finch, the iconic figure at the center of Lee’s towering masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might as well admit upfront that I am among the devotees of Atticus Finch. At least part of it, I’m sure, comes from my admiration of how expertly Gregory Peck realized that role in the movie. But really, Harper Lee gets the credit for the lovingly drawn portrait of the small town lawyer who, against the counsel of his townsfolk, defends an African-American man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman.

It is not just Atticus’ courage that makes him such a compelling figure, but also his decency and humility. Throughout Mockingbird whenever Lee’s narrator, Atticus’ daughter Jean Louise, known as Scout, gets worked into a fury over the guile and narrowness of her townsfolk, Atticus’ is the voice of compassion – always inviting her to walk in another person’s shoes and be slow to judge.

At the same time, when principle, law, and duty are on the line, Atticus is a tower of strength and rectitude, and it made him a widely-held figure of respect. Probably no scene in the book speaks to that more powerfully than the one that closes the trial, in which the black man he defended so expertly is nonetheless convicted.

Atticus is among the last to leave the courtroom after the verdict is handed down and his client is led back to jail. Among those remaining are dozens of African-Americans who were relegated to the courtroom balcony.

As Lee tells it in Mockingbird from Scout’s perspective sitting in the balcony next to Rev. Sykes, the African-American preacher:

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’ lonely walk down this aisle.

“’Miss Jean Louise?’”

“I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Rev. Sykes’ voice was distant.

“’Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.’”

From the beginning of Watchman it’s clear that things have changed, beginning with Jean Louise. It is some 15 years after Mockingbird, and she is in her 20s, living in New York City. She says that her father suggested the move after she graduated from college. She’s not sure, though whether it’s a place she could make her home. At the same time, on the train ride back home she’s also doubtful whether Alabama holds much promise for her future.

Amid witty banter back at home about the state of the world, we learn a few things about her home town of Maycomb. Tragically, Jean Louise’s older brother, Jem, has died of a sudden heart attack, the same way that they had lost their mother years before. After Jem’s death, Atticus’ sister, Alexandra, moved in with him, and Calpurnia, the African American housekeeper who watched over Scout and Jem, left.

Meanwhile, Atticus is starting to feel his age. Though still practicing law, at 72 years of age he also has early signs of rheumatoid arthritis. Disappointed in his hope to see Jem take over his practice, he has been cultivating another young man in town, Henry Clinton, to help out in his office. Henry, in turn, has his eye on Jean Louise, and she is flattered enough by the attention to return it, though she discourages any talk of long-term arrangements.

One Sunday afternoon, though, everything changes. After Atticus and Henry leave for some undefined meeting, Jean Louise discovers in the stack of Atticus’ reading material a pamphlet full of sulfurous racism called, “The Black Plague.”

Sure that it must have been landed there mistakenly, she asks her aunt. But Alexandra confirms that Atticus has been reading it. Not only that, but the meeting that he and Henry have left to attend is a local “Citizen’s Council.” Jean Louise has paid enough attention to the news to know that these councils have cropped up across the South to block racial integration.

Disbelieving, Jean Louise hurries downtown to check this out. And in the courthouse – the very courthouse that was the center of the action in Mockingbird – she discovers Atticus, Henry and most of the prominent men in town listening to a speaker giving a scurrilous racist tirade. Stunned, her stomach heaving, she stumbles home, persuaded that, as Harper Lee puts it, “the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her.”

So, how is it that we understand letting go to be a spiritual discipline? After all, isn’t our spiritual center, that inner place of trust and love where our heart rests, grounded in things that we deeply affirm? Of course. But we also find that to discover those things requires a good deal of choosing, of casting aside or pruning away those beliefs or ways of looking at the world that no longer serve us.

As my now-deceased colleague Forrest Church put it, “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.”

But how we choose is tricky business. The sad truth is that we are disappointed and disillusioned in so many ways when we grow up; especially hard is how we disappoint each other. And perhaps nowhere is this harder than between parent and child. A natural part of growing up is coming to idealize our parents, but in time they all prove to be fallible – human, in other words. How we cope with that disillusioning experience has something to do with how we grow to be more mature, self-reliant people.

So, it occurs to me that one way to look at To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman is as two parts of a coming of age story. Harper Lee’s first book is told through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl who idolizes a father as her model for moral behavior.

And it is a measure of the power of her prose that so many of her readers close that book with that same idyllic image in their heads. Perhaps one reason for it is the context for Harper Lee’s story. In a country so conflicted over race, she offered for white people an image, a father-figure as it were, who could calm our fears and through principled living, courage and compassion help lead us through the toils and snares of the legacy of racism that we each inherit.

What we discover in Go Set a Watchman is the other side of that story: the disillusion we feel when we are confronted with a side of that father figure that we didn’t know, the clay feet that show us his frailty and limitations.

I was intrigued to discover that the great African-American writer and theologian Howard Thurman wrote the book I read a quote from earlier, The Luminous Darkness, at about the same time that Harper Lee reportedly wrote Go Tell a Watchman: the early- to mid-1960s.

In that book, Thurman observed that there was a shift in race relations under way at the time. The old practices of violent reprisals that kept white people over black people were being questioned. As he put it, “the Negro’s active fear (of violent reprisals) is rapidly disappearing (and) being replaced by an increasing sense of personal and inner freedom.”

But he also said that there was an “inactive fear” among white people that was increasing. That fear, he said, “sprang from his deep unconscious guilt because of his treatment of the Negro and his genuine anxiety about the security of his own position and status.”

We see what that white fear looks like in Go Set a Watchman when Jean Louise finally confronts Atticus. Presented with her discoveries, he receives Jean Louise’s complaint with lawyerly patience, drawing out her concerns, until he lays his position out straight: “Jean Louise, have you considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?”

Brick by brick he argues his case for why he believes blacks aren’t ready for their rights, how, in his words, “they’re in their childhood as a people” and have been bamboozled by the NAACP to bring lawsuits that he says will only wreck Southern culture for all.

But Jean Louise won’t have it. She’s not interested in his fine arguments. Instead, she digs into her memory and throws his own words back at him. Her outrage over his remarks has its origins, she reminds him, in what he himself taught her about how every person had worth and deserved a chance.

“Atticus,” she says, “I grew up right here in your house and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me we were naturally better than the Negroes, that they were able to go so far but so far only . . . .

“You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it’s coming home to you. . . .I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me. Now I’m in a no-man’s land but good. There’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.”

It was the African American writer James Baldwin who once said of his white detractors, “You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in history, which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it difficult to act on what they know.”

I remember when I was around 16 my parents told me of a call that they had received from my grandfather who relayed a complaint he had received from neighbors to house he owned on Point Pleasant beach in New Jersey. The weekend before an African American friend of mine had joined us during a stay at that house. The neighbors apparently were alarmed to see a black boy on the neighboring beach, and my grandfather informed us that we were not to bring him again.

I couldn’t believe that he would say such an outrageous thing – my own grandfather – and I wrote him an indignant letter protesting it. I don’t know what he thought of it. He never made any comment to me about it. Instead, in time each of us, in our own ways, let it go, and instead returned to our roles in family gatherings.

And so, in a sense, does Jean Louise. Once the bitterness of her disappointment fades, she’s able to hear her uncle Jack tell her that despite what she has seen, there are many in town who share her opinion. Not to forget, he tells her: “every man’s watchman is his conscience.” And she must follow hers.

And once we the readers get over, let go of, our disappointment with Atticus, this is the uplift that awaits us. Whatever limitations Atticus may have had, Harper Lee suggests that through his life’s example he was able to teach his daughter, and maybe us, too, not to carry forward the prejudice that had privately weighed him down and fed his fears in his declining years.

In that sense, one could say that his gift to the future, together with all the good he did with his life, was to send forth one child unshackled by that prejudice, so that, as Howard Thurman put it, “a new way of life (might) open for all.” So may that be the legacy that Harper Lee leaves to us, too.

Yes, there is much we must learn to let go of, but not each other, not the possibility of redemption for us all. We fragile, fallible beings do a lot of stumbling. As Stephen Sondheim puts it in his musical, “Into the Woods”:

People make mistakes: fathers, mothers,

holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.”

But we’re not. No one is alone.

We are ever learning and growing, and then invited to prune and discard. It is the way of things on the path to one earth, one people, one love.

Sermon: Finding Home (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The first place I remember calling home was a ranch-style house built on an acre of bottom land carved out of second-growth forest about 20 minutes from Princeton, New Jersey. Our young family – my parents, my 5-year-old self, and two younger brothers (a sister and another brother were yet to come) – had just moved to the area, where my father was starting a psychiatry practice.

 

READINGS

From “Walking Meditation” in Peace is Every Breath
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Every step we make in awareness helps us get in touch with the wonders of life that are here, available to us right now. As you breathe in, you can take a step and contemplate, “I am arrived; I am home.”

“I have arrived” means I am already where I want to be – with life itself – and I don’t need to rush anywhere, I don’t have to go looking for anything more. “I am home” means I’ve come back to my true home, which is life here in the present moment.”

You have arrived at your true home and the wonder of life that are there for you; you don’t need to wander around looking for something more. You can say:

I have arrived, I am home

in the here, in the now.

“In the here, in the now” is the address of life. It’s the place we come back to – our true home. Each step brings you back to life.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World
by Adam Zagajewski

SERMON

The first place I remember calling home was a ranch-style house built on an acre of bottom land carved out of second-growth forest about 20 minutes from Princeton, New Jersey. Our young family – my parents, my 5-year-old self, and two younger brothers (a sister and another brother were yet to come) – had just moved to the area, where my father was starting a psychiatry practice.

The image of us living in that woodsy suburb still resonates in my memory, though it no longer has for me a sense of home. For, we moved from that place after only five years to another, larger house in nearby Pennington. And that house, which my family called home for another 12 years, has a more powerful claim on my memory.

It was there that I came of age, had my most memorable successes and failures in school, and developed a circle of friends, many of whom revolved around the Unitarian Universalist church that we had joined shortly after moving to Princeton.

Also, it was there that the ingredients of my sense of home began to expand. Geographically, I came to claim not just the rolling hills of central New Jersey where we lived, but also the Atlantic shore, where my grandfather had a beach house, and the urban centers of New York and Philadelphia that we found occasions to get to now and again, both within something like an hour’s commute.

There were other dimensions of that sense of home, too. The church, frankly, was one. It was a community where I felt welcome and valued, even as a child. And, while not much from specific classes sticks with me some 50 years later, I am left with a sense of being invited to discover the wonder of living, of the world about me, to treat others well and be open to wisdom from many sources.

There was also a sense of home about our social circle, the people we had most to do with, many of them young families like ours scrambling to make their way. Though, I’ve come to realize years later that not every element of that was positive. Most of the adults I dealt with were, like my parents, professionals, and so there was some elitism marbled into my experience: admiration and respect for some people, not so much for others.

Also, with some notable exceptions, our social circle was almost entirely white. So, there was a kind of unarticulated racism that pervaded it, too. My parents and their friends likely would have objected to such a claim. They talked a good talk and extended themselves at times to communities of color. But the gulf between them and the people they served was undeniable. It didn’t help that without exception the women my parents hired to clean our house were African-American.

We need to be wary lest the sense of home, that sense of belongedness, colors how we see the world, for there are some things from “home” that we need to outgrow as our sense of home widens. And so mine did. As I moved off to college what felt like home moved beyond the memory of that familiar place of my upbringing.

Instead, the rootlessness of school became a home of its own, a home in my head, the familiarity of books, classrooms and leafy campuses, and its own unreality: the unquestioned dependence, the cloistered circle of acquaintances, until exiting into the cold shower of the work world.

We each experience our own evolution as home of one form or another presents itself in our early lives, and it either suffices or it doesn’t. One way or another we try to make do until the realization dawns on us that home is not simply where we happen to land: it is also what we choose.

It encompasses not just places of our choosing but also partners and progeny – or not. Life invites us to sort ourselves out, and we either take the opportunity to make those choices or we don’t.

Some who are confronted with such choices forgo them. Faced with a decision – fourth and 10 – they punt and then mostly drift. They live on the surface, go with the flow, never really put down roots. It is an existence that is figuratively, if not literally, homeless.

For me, when the fork came in the road – as the now-departed Yogi Berra put it – I took it. I met the right person, we made the right choice to marry, bore three wonderful children: what Zorba the Greek called, “the full catastrophe.” But catastrophic only to some inflated sense of self-importance, or cavalier egotism. For what the experience gave me was a pearl of great price – a sense of home stronger and deeper than any I had ever known.

One of the surprises of parenthood, though, is how much goes into creating and maintaining a home – a place of love and affirmation, a refuge from the storms of the world, a cold frame where tender shoots can put down roots and send up their first leaves. Quickly it becomes obvious that we can’t do it alone and for us to thrive we must widen the circle of our concern.

We begin looking for others in similar straits, and, if we’re lucky, we come in contact with a community like this one, where breadth of life experience is wide and where connections of care invite us, once again, to deepen our sense of what home might be. I remember when our girls were growing up some of their most important connections came at church from adults who decided that they looked like pretty interesting people and made an effort to get to know them.

Experiences like this feed a new sense of well-being that extends beyond the particulars of the people and places that we know contributing to something more like a sense of faith. When I speak of faith, I’m not referring to the specific content of any particular belief. I am speaking of that in which we rest our hearts, which we trust as true. It is a settled place within us, at our core, the ground of our certitude.

It was the religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith who famously referred to faith as “a quiet confidence and joy which enables one to feel at home in the universe.” It is something that, he, says, has less to do with belief than with, in his words, “a quality of human living.” It isn’t anything that comes at once, but grows within us as we go through the process to trusting and testing that leads us to a settled sense of meaning.

One of the ways we develop our faith, then, is how we project a sense of home outside of ourselves: how it embraces others, even those significantly different from ourselves, and how it extends to the world around us.

Last year, for example, in this congregation we convened a class called, “Discovering a Sense of Place,” that was centered in the notion that how we understand our immediate surroundings can deepen our feeling of being at home in it. We walk, after all, on some of the most ancient mountains in North America and in one of its most diverse ecosystems. Yet, so much in our lives removes us from our surroundings.

So, we spent time examining all of it more closely. We took field trips to learn more about our human predecessors here, ranging from the Oconaluftee Village of the Cherokee to Hickory Nut Gap Farm. And we surveyed the natural landscape from investigating individual species of animals and plants to gaining a sense of our own unique niche in our nation’s complex array of bioregions.

We were companioned by poets, scientists and thinkers whose writings urged us both to widen our sense of boundaries to where our concern might extend and to sink roots where we reside, to know it as a real place, as something more than a place where we are parked for a time, but as home: home as a place occupied by our relations with all things our relations.

But Adam Zagajewski’s poem illustrates poignantly what can keep us from making that link in our consciousness. He wrote the poem you heard earlier shortly just before the 9-11 attacks, and it was widely shared at the time as a response to that disaster. But it could be applied equally to the world today.

“You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,” he says, watched stylish ships ply the seas “while salty oblivion” awaits others. We hear executioners across Middle Eastern war zones “sing joyfully.” This “mutilated world,” as Zagajewski puts it, is cause for much heartache.

Praise it all the same, he urges. Remember the beauty of long June days and wild strawberries, the moments of peace we find together, the leaves that in time cover over the scars on the landscape. Even amid all this, we are at home.

Thich Nhat Hanh in his walking meditation speaks of how we are so often preoccupied with regrets, suffering, worries and fear. But those phantoms, he says, need have no power over us in the present moment.

The walking meditation is a good practice to bring us back. Each step reminds us of where we are and that we need be present only to what is here. Focusing our attention on that moment brings us present.

What shall we do with this presence? This Buddhist master suggests that we use it to get in touch with the wonders of life that are here, available to us right now. Such as? Well, how about beginning with our breathing, that simple act that we perform without thinking about.

Right. So? So, at least for this moment we are calmed, and we are aware of our calmed self. And that calmed self, at least here and now, is enough. We don’t need anything else. We don’t need to go anywhere else. We are home, here, now.

And when we reflect, we come to see that, wherever we were when we last felt most at home, that self, the very self we just experienced, was a part of it, too. So, wherever it was – with our families, in our communities, at our places of employment, glorying at this good, green earth – there is home within us, too.

Welcome home!

Rev. Mark Ward: What Do We Do Here?

Mark Speaking-WE DO

How we focus our work as a religious institution is something that evolves over time as we in this community come to a growing understanding of who we are and what we feel called to do. It can be hard work to figure this out, but one of the benefits of Policy Governance, the way that we organize ourselves as a congregation, is that it guides us to a process to be clear on those points.

Any conversation about our purpose begins with our Mission Statement. From it our Board of Trustees is tasked to create Ends Statements that describe what it believes we must do to fulfill our Mission. The Board passes those Ends Statements on to me, who as Executive is charged with achieving those Ends. I then say how I interpret those Ends Statements and how we plan to achieve them through the ministry of our congregation.

Described in the abstract that way all this can sound very removed, but it’s not. Because these high concepts guide all the particular decisions we make about concrete things like staffing and programming, how we shape worship and religious education, what is the focus of our social justice work and our caring ministry. You get the picture.

When we first adopted Policy Governance about five years ago, the Board and I went through this process of them writing Ends Statements and me writing interpretations. These have guided us through those years, but in reviewing those old Ends Statements the Board decided recently that they could use some improvement: they were a little wordy and vague. So, earlier this year they rewrote them, trying to make them tighter and more focused. This month I am submitting to the Board my interpretations of their revised Ends, and I thought it was something that it would be good to share with everyone.

In my report to the Board I go into some detail on specific ways I think we can measure whether their Ends are being achieved. I’d be happy to share this longer report with you if you’d like to know more, but for now let me just offer this document giving you the Board’s Ends and my interpretations that I offer to guide our work together.