16 October 2011 © Rev. Fred L Hammond
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
OPENING WORDS : “The movement of the spirit of god in the hearts of men often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In the moment of dedication, they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.”—Howard Thurman
READING FROM On the Waterfront:
Charlie: Look, kid, I – how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.
Terry: It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.
Charlie: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
Terry: You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.
The film On the Waterfront is about Terry Malloy, the gifted boxer who coulda been a contender had he followed his heart’s voice instead of that of his brothers is a message of what could happen when you allow someone else to forge your destiny. Now to be clear rarely are destinies created outside the context of other people.
Fulfilling our destiny is not something that is done in a vacuum. It is done in the context of our relationship with others. There are many engagements with our destiny that would be essentially impossible if it were not for the positive relationship with at least one other person. An example of this is Helen Keller. At a young age before she fully began to talk, she suffered the ill effects of scarlet fever that left her deaf and blind. Her family and physicians thought she was also dumb as a result of this illness. The family’s hope was for Helen to be well behaved and so they brought in Anne Sullivan to work with her on her behaviors. Anne Sullivan sensed there was intelligence in Helen’s behaviors and began trying to break through in communication with her. And she did. Helen realized that things have names. Anne Sullivan became a mentor for Helen, teaching her how to communicate with the larger world. Helen eventually went on to be the first deaf blind person to receive a Bachelors degree and to write several books. There is a balance that is needed between the individual and the relationships we are accountable to in this life.
But what happened in Terry Malloy’s life is that he lost that balance between what his goals in life were and the goals of his brother. His brother wanted to get rich. His brother wanted to rise in the mob world of power. And Terry Malloy, out of his devotion to his brother agreed that his brother’s happiness, his brother’s dreams, his brother’s life were more important than his own. And when Terry Malloy did that he forfeited his own destiny in the pursuit of fulfilling his brother’s. And as we see in the unfolding story his journey back to forging his own destiny was difficult and painful but one that eventually would be regarded with respect and dignity.
In the first part of this sermon series, I talked about the different aspects of destiny as defined by Rollo May. There was the cosmic aspect of destiny such as birth, death, and acts of god like tornadoes and earthquakes. The genetic aspect of destiny includes the physical characteristics and limitations of our bodies and minds. The cultural aspects of destiny includes whether we were born into a family of wealth or poverty, the location where we spent our childhood, and the time in history in which we live. And there is circumstantial destiny; those events that happen around us that cannot be taken back or redone such as the loss of a sibling or parent at an early age or a nation declaring war or going into economic recession.
So Terry Malloy in our story was born with some athletic talents that enabled him to be a good boxer, potentially a great boxer. This is a genetic aspect of destiny. He was born into a working class family with an older brother who was smart and ambitious at a time when mobs ruled the way things went down. It is a family that taught values of sticking together. This is the cultural aspects of destiny. He becomes involved in the mob that abuses workers with intolerable working conditions and poor wages. Those who speak up about these issues are either replaced or removed by killing them. This is the circumstantial destiny he is surrounded by and he cannot redo what has already happened.
In order for Terry Malloy to redefine himself as a person of integrity and worth, he must choose to engage his destiny. He must begin to self-differentiate himself from his surroundings and relationships and not have his identity be fused with them. Self-differentiation is a term that Murry Bowen, founder of family systems theory, developed to describe the ability of being able to separate out ones emotional and intellectual awareness from that of the family or group. This comes from the person developing and considering thoughtfully their principles and values that they will seek to follow rather than simply adopting the views and values of others. This means when conflicts occur, the person is able to assess the situation from a clear perspective and not clouded with the emotional entanglements such as fears of criticism or rejection. This enables the person to hear the opinions of others, respect them, without feeling the need to either adopt those opinions or try to get others to conform to their opinions and values. Self- differentiation includes both a separation from the emotional entanglements and a connection to the person or group through listening to what is happening.
No one is 100% self-differentiated but it is a goal that individuals and groups can strive towards in forging destinies for themselves and for the groups where they have aligned themselves. This is not easy work. It is not something that happens over night and suddenly a person is self-differentiated. It is a process.
In the movie On the Waterfront self-differentiation resulted in push back from the system. When Terry began to self-differentiate his brother and the mob bosses began to get nervous because Terry was always a submissive person. Terry was the person who wanted above all else to please his brother and that even meant being silent when he witnessed a murder. So Charley, Terry’s brother, tries to get Terry to conform to the mob bosses wishes and desires or risk being killed. Self-differentiation can carry with it risks but in the long run it is a healthier way of being.
The prayer that Alcoholics Anonymous uses is a prayer for self-differentiation. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. It is also a prayer to engage one’s destiny. To have serenity over the things that cannot be changed does not mean surrender or helplessness; it simply means to accept them and then use them as the boundaries to redefine one’s path.
In the story of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pip meets Miss Haversham. Now Miss Haversham is an aged spinster who continues to wear her wedding dress and has stopped all the clocks in the house at 20 minutes of nine. She was jilted before the wedding and now she waits eternally for her betrothed to come and marry her. Miss Haversham has tried to stop time and has tried to preserve the anticipation of her wedding that will never happen. This is not an act of engaging her destiny of circumstances. She has in the process of trying to control time become bitter and cruel.
Nor is this an act of accepting things that cannot be changed. True, Miss Haversham cannot change the fact that she was jilted by her betrothed but it does her no good to pretend that it is forever 20 minutes of nine, frozen in time. While we might chuckle at Miss Haversham’s absurd and possibly insane behavior, I dare say that this happens more times than not, perhaps not to the same degree of insanity.
Miss Haversham blames the way her life turned out on this man who jilted her decades before. She then allows her life to be defined by this tragedy instead of grieving the loss and then using her wealth and privilege to create a different life for herself. Miss Haversham did not engage in destiny instead she allowed events to define who she is and in the process became less of a person for it. Life is meant to be lived to the fullest potential and we each have a responsibility towards that endeavor.
So let’s bring this idea of forging destiny closer to home. There are many things happening in our little part of the world. We each have our own unique genetic destiny. None of us know when our bodies will give out so our time of active engagement is limited, for some that limitation will be here sooner than later. And that statement has nothing to do with age because we all have known people whose lives came to an end far ahead of season. So there is that part of engaging our destiny.
I have been engaging my genetic destiny by seeing to my health. I am losing weight, I am now walking three miles a day and I am on top of my medical stats of cholesterol, triglycerides, thyroid, and blood pressure. The question still remains to whether I will follow my father’s family or my mother’s in terms of years ahead of me. There is a sense of urgency for me if my father’s genes are dominant. My hope through my health actions is that I will tip the scales towards following my mother’s ancestry. How are you all doing in engaging your genetic destiny?
There is my cultural destiny. I was born in rural New York State to a working class family. The community I lived in was relatively homogenous. Being born white and male gave me privileges that I came to understand early in life through a friendship in junior high school with a person of color. We challenged each other to read about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And we would discuss these books. Since she moved to the country from Harlem, her experiences were vastly different than mine. This gave me a desire to have different experiences than I could have in this rural community. I engaged my cultural destiny by moving to a city where there was exposure to other cultures. And I took risks to live in parts of the country that I never experienced before away from family and friends. All of this has given me a broader understanding of the human condition. And I continue to engage my cultural destiny by confronting racism and fear of multiculturalism.
Then there is the cultural destiny that results from living in the first quarter of the 21st century in Alabama and America. Some of this is also circumstantial such as the recent laws against immigrants and the banks too big to fail economic crash. How do we engage this destiny?
When I first moved to Mississippi and discussed where to begin addressing social justice issues, the response I received was point your arm in any direction and you will be pointing at an issue that needs addressing. It seems to be true here in Alabama as well. How do we engage this destiny? Can we have a say when history writes the final chapter on this era in American life?
The past two weeks my heart has been heavy as I hear from immigrants the fear they are now living, regardless of their status, with the enactment of portions of this law. Even though additional portions were blocked from enforcement this past week by the 11th circuit appeals court, there still remains much that is heinous. The nullification of contracts that will result in the shutting off of water to suspected undocumented immigrants is a flagrant violation of human rights. Water is essential to life. The potential for a public health crisis looming as families begin living without access to water is enormous.
I have begun exploring what I might possibly do to engage this aspect of our mutual destiny. I explored with the ACLU about the possibility of my standing in as contract holder for families whose water was shut off. This would be an act of civil disobedience. The consequence of this action could result in a Class C felony under HB 56 with fines up to $15,000 and ten years in prison. This new law has not been tested yet in the courts. Am I willing to do this? The idea of sacrificing my career which is what would happen because after ten years in prison, I would no longer be a good candidate for a long term ministry. I am not opposed to prison ministry but I would prefer to do it from this side of the bars. I am not sure that I am as brave as the Berrigan brothers were in the 1960’s and 70’s when they protested the Vietnam war by burning draft cards and then spent six years in prison. But I also do not want to be only an observer of this obscenity occurring in our state.
I recognize that any act of civil disobedience that I might engage in Alabama needs to be done in relationship with you as the congregation I serve. Any action that I take will impact this congregation and if I continue to pursue this path of engagement, that day will come when I will choose to be arrested in civil disobedience. For me, civil disobedience has to be more than just blocking traffic. It has to be geared towards either breaking the law itself or preventing the law from being enforced in some manner, other wise the point is somehow lost to the masses. I am telling you this because this is where my mind is these days. The pain and suffering this law is causing our neighbors is real and unjust. This law is not about their entry into this country with out papers. This is about how we as a nation have time and time again treated immigrants as less than human. Every immigrant group that has come to this country has been vilified by the dominant culture. And our despicable treatment of people from Mexico and further south is not a new phenomenon; it is over 200 years old. It is time we put aside our hatred and bigotry once and for all.
How do we engage this destiny in a manner that reflects our Unitarian Universalist values and principles? How do we forge a destiny that is more representative of a just and noble nation?
I also recognize that my engaging my destiny may not be the same as your engagement with yours or even the congregation’s. We have members here who are engaging their circumstantial destiny in ways that is every bit as important to repealing HB 56 or any other unjust law in our society. The reason why it is important is because in their doing so they are finding ways to be the most alive they can be.
In addition to the personal engagements to forge our destiny there are the engagements that are needed in order to forge our destiny forward as a congregation. And just as it is important for individual self-differentiation in engaging personal destinies there is the need for self-differentiation within the congregational setting as well. Leaders need to be self-differentiated because there are many opinions of what we should or should not be doing for our congregation. We need to be able to hear the words, hear the anxiety, without becoming anxious ourselves. Congregations are not about any one person, they are about the health of the group. How we handle conflict is important to this process.
As a congregation we have circumstantial events that we need to engage.. We as a congregation can also choose to allow our ship to drift on the sea of destiny or we can engage with our ship and determine its course. The choice is ours to make. We have some challenges that we need to engage in soon if we do not like the direction in which we are drifting. We currently have no director of religious education. We currently only have a half time minister. This is a down ward drift from last year. We currently have no one to chair our stewardship campaign for the second year in a row. What will be the result of our stewardship this next year if we have no one to help direct this particular aspect of our boat? It will do us no good to bemoan our misfortunes. It will do us no good to bemoan the lack of volunteers. These bemoaning behaviors only keep us drifting away from our goal instead of moving towards it.
We have the people here to do what needs to be done. If you have not done anything recently beyond attending Sunday morning, this is your invitation to get involved to help forge our future.
It will take all of us looking out for each other to steer this boat into the future we want. All of us together to create the destiny we desire. Our congregation can be a contender in making a difference in the lives of our larger community. May it be so and blessed be.
CLOSING WORDS: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”—Howard Thurman