Early in her novel Gilead Marilynne Robinson imagines her protagonist, the Rev. John Ames, an elderly minister writing a letter to his 7-year-old son, recalling an episode from early in his youth. Ames tells of how he and some friends came upon one of their cats with a litter of kittens and decided that they needed to be baptized.
It was a unique experience, he says, to feel the warm little brows beneath the palm of his hand. “Everyone has petted a cat,” Robinson writes,” but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.”
For years, Ames reflects, “we would wonder what, from a cosmic perspective, we had done to them.” “It seems to me a real question,” he says. “There is a reality in blessing.“ It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, And there is power in that.”
I’m aware that among us there are different ideas about the nature and power of blessing. Some of us came of age in religious traditions where a blessing is viewed as something given by a person of some authority that, as Robinson’s John Ames suggests, has some “cosmic effect,” that through that act changes us in some way.
As we enter into this discussion, then, it is important for me to be clear on how I’d like us to understand what it is to bless and be blessed. And this passage from Gilead points to it. As Robinson’s now-mature Ames observes, looking back on that childhood episode with the kittens, “there is a reality in blessing. . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it.”
What is important about a blessing is not who confers it or whatever status that person may have but the intention of the one conferring it and the openness of the other to receive it. As Rachel Naomi Remen puts it in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” “A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth and strengthen what is whole in each other.”
In that sense I want to argue that the act of blessing connects with our Unitarian Universalist values, as one of the most effective ways I can think of to practice our First Principle, where we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. When we confer a blessing on another person, we give that person nothing more than she or he already has. But in doing so, we, the givers, can call attention to something that we, the receivers, may lose sight of: that there is a beauty, a wonder, a sacredness to each of us that is ours: no greater or less than anyone else, but ours, and yet not ours alone but something that we find in the web of relationship.
Remen puts it this way: “Those who bless and serve life find a place of belonging and strength, a refuge from living in ways that are meaningless and empty and lonely. Blessing life moves us closer to each other and our authentic selves.”
Remen, a cancer doctor, was acquainted with the language of blessing through her experience with her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi. He was someone who she knew as a wise and gentle man, generous with words of care. But she says she learned from relatives that as a young rabbi in Europe he was a proud and demanding scholar who brooked no challenge or contradiction. His tradition was full of blessings but his ministry was focused on teachings with strict interpretations. His softening came later in life when, as she puts it, “the letter of the law” became “far less precious than the spirit,” and the spirit was something that resided in each of us.
On this Father’s Day, it occurs to me that many of us have had similar experiences with important men in our lives. We may even in one way or another have been those men: proud, demanding, stingy with praise, cards close to the vest when it came to our feelings. The models are many in our culture for that sort of behavior. And men are instructed in it from early in life. It is often only later as a parent or mentor we learn that the greatest gift we have to give is not our teaching but our blessing.
As an example, I think of a supervisor I once had in the middle of my newspaper career when I was an editorial writer. The shift from being a reporter was challenging, since reporting demanded that I take no side while editorial writing required that I write to persuade. It was work that required not just good research and capable writing but a strong ethical center: to call it fairly without fear or favor.
It was the guidance of my editor that showed me the way. The integrity that he modeled for me – day in, day out – despite pressure from some heavy hitters was a blessing that stays with me still.
Leo Dangel’s poem “Passing the Orange,” which we heard earlier, seems to me to embody a blessing of sorts, too. The men, those farmers in their overalls, are communicating something in that awkward game at a school Halloween night party. It was not some special skill – Who trains to pass an orange neck to neck? – but their capacity to make of themselves a team that confers the blessing. In this moment of meeting, these men affirm not only that they’re good sports but what it is to work together.
It’s a curious thing that often we are not even aware of our impact on others and the blessings that result. My editor was not seeking to make an impression on me or anyone else. He was simply living out what his own center taught him. He was, as Remen puts it, serving life by his actions. “The way we live day to day,” she said, “simply may not reflect back to us our power to influence life or the web of relations that connects us. Life responds to us anyway.”
Every one of us in this room affects each other in ways we can’t begin to fathom. What effect that is – whether it enlivens or discourages – depends on the intention we bring. The key, she says, is “taking life personally, letting the lives that touch yours touch you.”I know this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re not always sure what will happen if we let others touch us. We’re not sure if they’ll accept us, or how we feel about accepting them. Some even regard being touched as a form of weakness.
So, perhaps we begin with a blessing. Barbara Brown Taylor is a capable guide. Begin with something simple. She chooses a stick. What will you choose? The key is paying attention. What can you say about this thing? What do you notice? What makes it unique? How does it fit in this grand world of ours? What might it teach you? A little silly? Maybe. Give it a try.
Then cast your eyes around this room. Focus your thoughts on some other person. It could be someone you know or someone you don’t Bring that person to mind. What would you like that person to know? How might you send hope his or her way? What blessing do you have to give? How might you strengthen the life around and within them?
Does any of this make any difference? Well, it’s up to you. The next time you meet the person you blessed it’s a good bet you’ll think a little differently about them. You might even share your blessing. And who knows what might come of that? Meanwhile, the connections you have made will deepen and a new flower of compassion will bloom within you.
This talk of blessing reminds me of an episode at the end of my father’s life. Years before, when his father died, he sent letters to me and my four siblings telling us a little bit about the difficulties that he had had with his father. It had long been plain to us that the two of them had a strained relationship. And he confirmed that, adding that in the days before his father died he had tried to draw him out a little, to have the kinds of conversations they hadn’t had before. But as you might imagine he found it no easier than it had been in the years before. He wrote us that he was sad about that and he hoped that things would go better with us.
i’d like to say that they did and that he and we did undertake to improve our relationships, but in truth that not much changed. Throughout our childhood years he’d been a psychiatrist in private practice, working 60 hours or more a week. So, he wasn’t around much for us to know him, and in our adult years we’d gotten busy ourselves and had scattered across the country. He wasn’t much of a phone talker and visits were brief and full of interactions with grandchildren. His death in a hospice in Naples, Florida, in the middle of a roaring hurricane in 2005 certainly made for a dramatic ending, though.
After the memorial service, I was surprised when my sister handed out envelopes to each of the siblings that our father had left behind, one for each us, with our names written in our father’s hand. What on earth could this be, I wondered?I looked for a quiet place and opened my envelope. Inside was one sheet of paper with three words that my father had written on it:I love you, it said; that was it.
In that earlier letter about his own father, my father had written that while he knew we didn’t talk much he felt sure we knew that he loved us. It was nice to say that, but in fact, it wasn’t necessarily true. It’s not enough to assume that another knows how you feel. You have to tell them. I am grateful to have as the last communication I ever received from him words that banished any doubt about that. In doing that I now see that he left me a blessing, one that only he could give, one that changed me and still leaves me smiling.
So, don’t hesitate, my friends. Cast your blessings widely. And don’t doubt the power that they can have. For each person you meet – it could for the first or four thousandth time – magine the blessing you might give. It doesn’t have to be some grand declaration, but just some word or gesture that connects directly with who they are.
Don’t fret about whether you’ll get it right. A blessing is a no-lose proposition. Try it once, then do it again and again and again. In this way, we have the capacity to make our very lives blessings to each other, not by being extraordinary but by being fully ourselves and by being fully present to every person we meet. Truly, as Barbara Brown Taylor put it, a miracle enough to stagger the stars.
As seven years of our ministry together draws to a close, we can look back with fondness and pride. As we say goodbye, we can acknow-ledge the times we have disappointed one another and forgive ourselves and each other. We can be grateful for the big moments and the little ones, and know that our journey together has been meaningful and fruitful. I, for one, have been changed for good. I owe you my deepest gratitude for the moments you have shared with me, some public, and some deeply personal.
And so much has happened in that time – in your lives, in my life, and in the life of the congregation. as my ministry among you comes to an end, I leave you with seven thoughts:
- Remember that this is a community that cares for one another. To love one another, they say, is the greatest commandment. Love wins. But remember that love doesn’t win by itself. It wins because we fight for it, because we choose it again and again and again.
- Come on Sundays even if you’re not interested in the sermon topic. What you are doing here together is not consumable, it’s not a product. As you sit in the Sanctuary surrounded by these people working toward creating beloved community together, know that it matters that you are here – to the person sitting next to you, and to everyone. As Horton the Elephant said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Plus, you never know what magic is waiting for you in unexpected places.
- When someone asks you to volunteer for something, say yes. But only if you really want to. And by that I mean two things – One, this community is yours, it only exists because of the commitment of each of you. And two, it’s no good to have volunteers who aren’t really into the commitments they’ve made. So if you are asked to volunteer for something and it isn’t your thing – give a gracious no, and then go find something that IS your thing. Which brings me to number 4:
- This community matters. It matters to all of us here today. It matters to the community around us. It matters to the queer kids who met here years ago before there were other places that would give them a meeting space. It matters to the couples who had no place else that would celebrate their marriage. It matters to the earth when we limit our collective carbon footprint. It matters to immigrant partners when we declare this a sanctuary congregation. This community matters because you live your values every day both inside and outside this building.
- The children are NOT the future. They are the present. They will become the future, but they are here now, and they are participating in the life of this congregation now. They are learning how to do church. How to live in community. How to be Unitarian Universalist. How to live their values. Help them, support them, get to know them. Really see And let them help you. You won’t regret it.
- Go deeper. No really. That’s the greatest opportunity we have in religious community. You’ve gathered here for fellowship and fun, to connect and reflect and the relationships you build here are special. This community is built to hold all of you – both “all of you” and all of YOU. Go deeper, ask questions, explore your authentic selves. Because the greatest gift you can give the world is authenticity.
- And seven’s a duplicate: It’s so important I’m going to say it again. Love one another. And keep fighting for love to win. Even when things look bleak and we have to fight harder than we ever thought we would, keep choosing love. Keep choosing love again and again and again. Choose fierce, active love. Live your values, fight for justice. If you do these things, love will always win because hate will never get the last word.
It has been my goal these seven years to help you trust yourselves, to support you in finding your own voice, to believe in what is possible when we come together and try. And I do believe in what is possible. I believe in this community and I believe in what it has to offer
I will miss you a great deal, and hold you in my heart as I travel this next stage of my journey. As I leave, I hope you will remember just one thing:
It’s possible. Anything’s possible.
Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper
June 10, 2018
We at UUCA rightly take pride in our commitment to social justice. Our principles, our values call us to be advocates for change to make the world more fair, compassionate, and equitable, to disrupt patterns of historic wrong that oppress so many people and endanger the Earth. Yet, nearly always, it seems, the hardest kind of change that we are faced with is not in the world but in ourselves.
When you think about it, that’s not surprising, since some of the toughest problems that face us are the result of deeply-ingrained practices and thoughts, ways of thinking or doing things that are woven into the fabric of how things seem to work, that we don’t really even think about. Yet, that is precisely why we need to examine them.
This is especially true when we’re dealing with the heritage of white supremacy. Those of us with white skins pretty much get that there are patterns of oppression that put people of color at a disadvantage simply because of their color and also give us privileges simply because of our whiteness. It’s not something that we or they have a choice about; it’s marbled into our culture.
So, part of our work, as people who love justice, is to do what we can to change that culture, to disrupt assumptions, and to use our privilege, our advantages, to correct disparities that result from them. Much of our most important social justice work in the last several years has been focused precisely on that. And it’s helped us make important and lasting connections in communities of color and with other organizations allied with us in this work.
But as we get deeper into this work, we see how much further we have to go. Once we are in conversation with people of color, strategizing next steps, we find that even how we organize tasks can insinuate white supremacy culture into the work. For example, we may be stingy in how we allot decision-making power, seeking to hold onto it ourselves, rather than sharing it. Or we may bring a hyper sense of urgency or perfectionism to the work that stymies our effort. All of these, we’re coming to realize, are artifacts of the prevailing white culture that make it hard for people of color to fully participate with us.
To help sensitize myself to this I am participating, along with about a half-dozen UUCA members, in a webinar called “Changing Systems, Changing Ourselves” that helps address these issues. I’ll include links at the bottom of this column to some of the resources I’ve gleaned from this training that I hope you will consider taking some time to look over during the summer. This is all part of the inner work that we need to be doing if we are going to be effective advocates and allies in the work of justice.
Here are some resources from “Changing Sytems, Changing Ourselves:
“I Love My Undocumented People” – a 3-minute YouTube video
Deconstructing White Privilege with Dr. Robin DiAngelo – a 22-minute YouTube video
White Supremacy Culture – a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture which show up in our organizations
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister