It’s A Boy!

Opening Words: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Come let us ponder the wonder of this birth that has changed the life course of many.  Come let us ponder the wonder of our own nativity and what our lives may mean in relationship with one another.  

It’s a Boy! By Rev. Fred L Hammond

Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa in Alabama.   24 December 2009 ©

When Jonathon Tucker Jones (not his real name) was born this past August, I pondered on what the world would be like because of his presence in it. Would he grow up to be tall and broad shouldered like his dad? Would he have his mother’s wit? What would he choose to do for a living?

What societal issues will he be facing as an adult? Would he be among those addressing those issues? Is he the one we have been waiting for that will bring true reform to our healthcare? Is he the one that will develop an economic policy that makes our border fences unnecessary? Is he the one that will find a way to make solar and geothermic energy cost efficient enough to mass market? Is he the one who will write the symphony that defines the 21st century? Is he the one we have been waiting for?

I pondered these things and grew amazed at the sharpness of his eyes and his easy smile at the world as it unfolded before him. Perhaps… perhaps there will be another.

Each new life that is received into this world is a life of endless possibilities. If there is anything that 2009 has taught us it is this. We can no longer assume that our station at birth is equivalent to our destiny. The Christian hymn, “What Child is This,” is a universal question of every birth.

He was born in Hawai’i to an interracial couple at a time when interracial marriages were illegal in many states across the US. He was raised by his grandparents. He did well in school enabling him to graduate from Columbia University in NYC. He used his degree in political science to assist in community organizing in Chicago’s south side, a depressed region of Chicago. He decided to go into law and attended Harvard Law School where he became the first African American to head the school’s prestigious law journal. We now know him as President of the United States and his destiny is still unfolding.

She was born in Brooklyn just three days before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. She was raised in a Unitarian household and learned values of equality and justice. She had to fight for her education since girls weren’t supposed to be educated in the ways of the world. Her education taught her how to analyze social conditions and her style of analysis became the foundation of modern sociology. She became increasingly alarmed at the treatment of African Americans in society. She went on to become the founder and the driving force behind the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for its first four decades. We know her as Mary White Ovington.

He was born to middle class black family in Atlanta, GA which protected him from the harsher realities of the south. Yet, when he was five years old, his best friend was no longer allowed to play with him because his friend was white and was entering a segregated school. Because of his family’s class privilege he was able to go to college and planned to follow his father and grandfather into the ministry. He spent one summer in Connecticut to work in the Tobacco Farms and was amazed at how different race relations were there versus in the south. He learned about Gandhi’s work in India and wondered how it could be of use in America. He returned to the south to become a minister of a Baptist church in Montgomery and then a boycott against the bus company began. He was asked to speak which elevated him to be the leader of the Civil Rights movements. We know him as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born in the Ukraine at the close of the 19th century, her family escaped the pogroms against the Jews by migrating to Wisconsin. Her parents thought girls only role in life was to get married; not to have a profession. Over their objections, she went to a teacher’s college and she also married. She and her partner moved to Palestine to work towards building a Jewish state. She organized illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine before and during Hitler’s Third Reich. When Britain arrested the leaders of the Jewish Agency, she became acting head of it and ultimately became one of the signers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. She continued to serve the developing country and became Prime Minister in 1969. We know her as Golda Meir.

He was born in a borrowed cave used to shelter animals. His father was a carpenter. His mother pious. He had no provisions to ensure an education. Yet, this person was gifted with a sense of compassion that was extraordinary for his day. He spoke of this compassion that all could develop. He called it loving one’s neighbor as one self. For this message he was arrested and executed. His message, however, has lived on and went to transform the entire world. We call this man, Jesus of Nazareth. Some call him Lord and Savior; others call him a Great Teacher. By what ever name we honor his birth this night.

These stories of men and women reveal one common theme. Regardless of the actions they took as adults, they all had a common and somewhat obscure birth. No one knows how a life will develop and how that life will impact a society.

I think it is important giving this common theme to all births, that we treat each child as having the potential of shaping our future towards peace. What does that mean? It simply means to seek to honor the inherent worth and dignity in each child we interact with because we do not know who this child will be in the service of the universe.

So as I pondered Jonathon Tucker’s birth back in August, I thought there might be some small role that I, that we, might play in his becoming the person he potentially could be. And for that matter, what role do we play in the shaping of all of our lives this Christmas and every day? Perhaps the season is a reminder that there is the potential Christ child in each of us. Blessed Be.

Published in: on December 26, 2009 at 2:37 pm  Comments Off on It’s A Boy!  
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Making Peace With the Darkness

“Making Peace With The Darkness”
by Rev. Fred L Hammond
 13 December 2009 ©
given at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

I don’t remember when I stopped being afraid of the dark.  Maybe it was when I realized that frightening things could happen in the light of day as well.  Perhaps it was when I moved to more urban areas where there is plenty of light pollution so the dark of night is no longer so dark.  But at some point I began to realize that the darkness was not something to be afraid of so much as to be embraced as apart of the cycle of things and perhaps even as a metaphor of life’s journey itself.  

Our ability to see ahead of us only goes as far as knowing what lies outside of the shadows. Any further into the shadows and it can be pretty scary.  For our ancestors, it was a matter of life and death regarding what lurked in the dark shadows; where nocturnal animals roaming the woods looking for prey was a real concern.  So when the days began to grow shorter, it meant an increase in the danger of the night.  

To counter-act that fear, our ancestors, especially those in the northern climes would light huge fires.  They believed that the sun-god had died and they were calling forth for the birth of a new sun-god.  So these huge bonfires would be built and cuttings from evergreen trees, hollies, mistletoe would be placed in their homes to protect them from a variety of ills and to remind them of life continuing.  

With the darkest day of the year behind them, they would dance and make merry for the thirteen days of Yule. They would drink hearty ales, ciders and brandies. It would lessen their fear of the dark as they began to see the sun rising a little bit higher in the sky each morning.   It is thought that the word Yule is from the Norse word meaning wheel.  The winter solstice is a time to honor the coming round of the wheel to its beginning again.   

So this is how our ancestors made peace with the darkness.  And we carry on this tradition with our winter holidays.  The celebration of being together yet another year is something we rejoice in.  And while most of us no longer apply the superstitions of keeping some of the ashes of the Yule log in the house to ward off ill health or to adorn the house in greens to ensure health and fertility, we do get together to make merry.  The fires in our hearths and greens on our window sills bring a bit of that warmth and decorations to the season which can be so dreary for many.  

The words of the hymn Dark of Winter[1] offer an important message.   Let’s take a closer look at these words and see what they might tell us about making peace with the darkness. 

“Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surrounds me.”  

As a child living in rural New York, I used to enjoy watching the snow fall.  There was this stillness, this silence in the snow gliding down to earth.  Everything was quiet.  There were no birds chirping.  There were no cars on the road except for the occasional plow truck.  Everything was calm.  And even though it was dark and grey outside there was a peace that transcended the cold.  As night would fall the only way to see the snow was from whatever light escaped the windows.  And so only the small area where the light shone would be illumined.  The white flakes would almost glow as they softly blanketed the earth.  

“Let my thoughts go where they will, ease my mind profoundly”

It may sound like a strange companion to embrace the darkness.  Yet there is restfulness in the darkness as well.  In the dark we tend to bundle up and get cozy.  There is something nurturing in sitting before a fireplace on a dark and cold winter’s night with some friends and some hot cocoa.  It is a time of reflection, perhaps even of holding no thought in the mind at all except the image of the roaring fire.  

Like the snow falling gently, thoughts can also fall gently where they will.  There is an easiness that can be found when we allow our minds to roam free while watching darkness and snow descending. It is in this listening, this quiet listening to thoughts flowing freely that we can be nurtured.  

“And then my soul will sing a song, a blessed song of love eternal.” 

What songs does your soul sing when all is quiet and dark?  As a child looking out at the snow falling, there would be this sense of awe, this sense of wonder.  If I was at my grandmother’s when the snow was falling, I might spy a deer in the back field bobbing at the last few apples still clinging on the tree.  Even in the cold dark winter, there was still the quietness of nature thriving around my home.  The song my soul sang at such moments was one of gratitude of life.  There is a sense of eternity as snow falls on a windless day.  As far as the eye can see upwards, there is snow falling. As far as the eye can see outward there is snow falling.  And love abounds in such experiences of infinity.  

“Gentle darkness, soft and still, bring your quiet to me.” 

With all the hubbub of the season, the rushing to and fro to get holiday preparations ready, to have a moment of gentle darkness is a gift.  Where there are no glaring lights and holiday musak blasting over the air waves at the stores, a moment of non stimulation. Even the multitude of holiday parties can be a bit of an overload. Just to be still in the darkness can feel so very good.  

“Darkness, soothe my weary eyes, that I may see more clearly.” 

Eyes that are tired from the glare, eyes that are up late searching out the window for loved ones to come home safe,  eyes that in mourning. These are eyes that are exhausted and blurry from trying to see other things, perhaps distracting things. These are eyes that have been filled with tears over aches of the heart.   Sometimes just to rest in the darkness with a warm washcloth over the eyes was the perfect thing to soothe them.  

“When my heart with sorrow cries, comfort and caress me.”

For some this season of making merry has become a painful memory of loved ones gone.  It is hard to celebrate when the pain of loss is still so close to our hearts.  To make peace with this form of darkness is hard.  It means allowing the heart to cry so that moments of comfort can appear.  I think many of us have experienced the crying to the point of exhaustion that we fall asleep.  Darkness is the comfort in those moments. It wraps around us and holds us.  

Within my own family, my father’s youngest brother took his life a year ago this month.  The questions left unanswered.  The unnoticed signs that something was brewing under that quick smile and jovial laugh.  Making peace with the darkness becomes about living with regret of unforgiven moments.   To allow darkness to be a comfort means forgiving ourselves for those now lost opportunities with our loved ones.  To still be able to speak ‘I am sorry’ even into the darkness is an important step towards our own welcoming of the rising sun of spring.   

I have discovered that our relationships do not end with the death of a loved one.  The relationship only transforms into a different kind of relationship, one not embodying the physical plane but instead embodies some emotional, mental, and spiritual plane. Making peace with the darkness; that void of no longer having this person located in time and space is still a relationship with that person.  Darkness can indeed “comfort and caress me” in such moments. 

“And then my soul may hear a voice, a still, small voice of love eternal.” 

While, I still have questions about the finality of death, I have found the memories of my uncle most comforting are those of love shared.  It is these memories that enable me to honor my uncle and enable me to forgive myself for those lost opportunities of forgiveness shared.  It is this still small voice that I hear when I think of my uncle.  The memories of time spent during childhood. Love eternal does not allow itself to be overthrown by the darkness.  It is still there, underlying everything, gathering strength like a seed pod in the dark soil, awaiting the day when it can blossom in full glory.  These moments of darkness does engender in me the desire to seize other opportunities to heal relational wounds. 

“Darkness, when my fears arise, let your peace flow through me.” 

As I began, I am no longer afraid of the dark.  It is a part of the life cycle.  Even though I do not like the shorter days; even though the darkness makes me tire easily, I am no longer afraid of it.  

My fears take on the form of what ifs… a wondering of the future that remains, as far as I know, unformed and unwritten. The future is unknown with myriad of converging factors that will unfold its course.  I can either be passive about the future or I can actively pursue it with the hope that my actions will have some impact on how that future unfolds. So here the darkness becomes a resting stop, a place to regroup, to regenerate my life’s goals.  I can use the darkness as a means to take stock of my life.   And in so doing, allow the peace of this time to flow through me towards a new beginning. 

I am aware that this too is a part of the wheel that our ancestors honored as Yule.   They did this as a community.  They took whatever actions they thought would inspire a good year to unfold.  And so can we, perhaps not with the superstitious actions like preparing and eating hoppin John on New Years for a good year of health and wealth.  But with over arching goals that will help enliven our community to achieve the things we believe will bring our mission to life. 

There is within us such a wealth of support for one another that any darkness that we travel through can be traveled with peace knowing that we do not do it alone.  We have a community that we can gather together to share the joys and the sorrows.  We can dance around the Yule log as in days of old, calling forth the sun god to be born anew.  Recognizing the light of love shines bright in each one of us and empowers us to be at peace.  Blessings,

[1] Dark of Winter words and music by Shelley Jackson Denham © 1988. Used with permission of composer.

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 11:10 am  Comments Off on Making Peace With the Darkness  
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An Advent for Unitarian Universalists

The congregation I serve in Mississippi  had a guest minister (whose theology is Universalist Christian) come and preach on November 29th.  He asked the church to have an Advent wreath with candles to light.  The congregation decided to keep the Advent wreath for the remainder of the season up to the Christmas Eve service.

Advent isn’t something that Unitarian Universalists note every year any more.   Some congregations will have a service about the season of Advent but I bet these congregations are in the minority.   Advent is from the Latin word meaning coming.  It refers both to the coming of the birth of Jesus at Christmas as well as the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age.  It is a time of preparation, of expectant hope, of waiting for the Messiah to come. 

It is most likely because of our ambivalence to Jesus as being Messiah or in his second return that we Unitarian Universalists have not made much about the season of Advent.  So what would we as Unitarian Universalist be waiting or preparing for? 

In searching for some ideas to develop some Advent wreath lighting words;  I first came across EveryDay Unitarian’s blog about her reflecting on Advent.  And she referred to an interesting new blog entitled Twenty Six Days of Advent written by a Christian who is reflecting on Advent in her life.  In one of her posts she talks about our not choosing to be born in this specific time; in this specific place.  She compares this to the Christian teaching that Jesus was chosen to be born in a specific time and specific place.    She then states, “A specific time, a specific place. We were not chosen to be those who walked with Jesus in Palestine. We were chosen to be here. And what am I blessed to see and hear? What will prophets and kings desire to have seen and heard from what I have experienced? Is there anything in my life wondrous, noteworthy, mysterious? Living in the blank page, our response time to the coming of Jesus, all I can think is “there had better be.” There had better be something worthy left behind when I am gone. And I had better get to it.”

And this is where Unitarian Universalists can celebrate Advent.  It is in preparing our lives to be an example of something wondrous, noteworthy, and yes,  even mysterious.  As  Mary Oliver states, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?” 

Advent for Unitarian Universalists can be a time of planning, of preparing the way, of welcoming the coming;  if not of the Christ then of the arrival of another life [ours] lived in compassion towards our neighbors seen in the activities to rid the world of oppression and injustice. Such a life demands spiritual fortitude and spiritual practice to re-weave us when the cloth of compassion wears thin. Advent can be that season where we re-fortify our selves for the work we have chosen for this specific time and this specific place.  And we had better get to it. We had better get to it.  Blessings,

Using Language

I linked my previous post “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” on my Facebook page where it seems the title caused a couple of my friends to chastise me for not using inclusive language.  There is a difference I believe when using traditional  language versus using inclusive language.

In writing this title, I thought I was quoting a famous quote.   It turns out that I blended two quotes together from traditional sources.   The first is the King James biblical text of Luke 2: 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The second is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s post civil war hymn I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, which reads “Of peace on earth, good will to men.” It turns out that my title was a blending of these two quotes. These are traditional words and words written during a particular era when the language had different meanings and understandings.

It was a deliberate move on my part to allude to the traditional language.  Not because it is sexist but because the traditional language is part of our cultural milieu  and therefore is familiar to most people.  I am also writing in the South where traditional religious (specifically Christian)  language is commonly used.  To have changed the wording of the title to not allude  directly to the scripture would have been, in my view,  haughty and condescending.    But this begs the question, is it ever appropriate to change language written in an earlier age just so it appeals to modern readers?

I do not believe it is appropriate to change words from an era long gone just because the language usage is harsh to our ears.  I find that disrespectful of the author and a lack of appreciation of the era in which he or she lived.  And frankly it is arrogant for us to assume that we are the enlightened ones in word usage.   In a hundred years time, our language will have changed again and the words we have written today will appear archaic and perhaps exclusive of someone.   There will probably be papers written about our attempts to be inclusive and that we did not go far enough in that direction.  How foolish and unenlightened we were compared with the sophisticated reader of the 23rd century!

There is a joke about UU’s that can also be considered a truism.  The joke goes like this:  Why are UU’s horrible at singing hymns?  Because they are too busy reading ahead to see if they agree with the words.    We have a propensity of changing words that we do not like to sing to fit our thinking of how it should be.  It really is arrogant on our part to do so.  It shows our ignorance in appreciating the literary era in which such words were written.

And yet,  we think nothing of changing the word “wretch” for “soul” in John Newton’s Amazing Grace.   A song about his realization that being a slave trader was a dehumanizing and evil act.  The word “soul” may soothe our delicate ears but the word “wretch” is more accurate to how he felt.  It also emphasizes the grace he felt as being amazing, the word soul misses that mark.   We are being arrogant when we fail to appreciate the words originally used simply because we don’t believe anyone can be a wretch.  If we were honest with ourselves, there were probably times when we  have done some action that only a wretch would commit.  Let’s own up to our times of being a wretch so we can sing this hymn with the heart felt passion in which it was written.

Natalie Sleeth a music composer from the late 20th century wrote a song that many UU’s absolutely love.  It is called Go Now in Peace. The editors of the  Singing the Living Tradition sought to get permission to change one three-letter word in the song.   Ms. Sleeth said absolutely not.  Yet, hundreds of UU’s sing this song incorrectly every week, changing the three-letter word to a four-letter word.  What was the word that offended our sensibilities so very much?  “God.”  We felt that to sing the word “love” instead would be inclusive for our diverse theological  congregations.  Perhaps.  But that is not the word she used.  She wrote “May the love of God surround you”  and not “May the spirit of love surround you”.  For us to really appreciate her words, we need to sing the song as she wrote it. It does not mean we have to agree theologically but we can appreciate the sentiment she was seeking to convey.

It is the same with inclusive language.   Longfellow was not being exclusive when he was writing his famous poem that we sing every Christmas.  Nor was King James or rather the translators who translated the biblical text into English under his reign in the 1600’s.  They were reflections of their day and culture.  We can quote them and appreciate their writings in the context they were written.  We can quote them for the poetry of their words.  It is known as respect. It is known as honoring their integrity even as we recognize that words have changed in their meaning.

May we honor our forebears words even when the words they chose seem harsh or foreign to our ears.  May we read looking for the spirit of the words written and not the logos of the words used.  And May all our words lend themselves to a greater and more lasting peace on earth and good will toward all people.   Blessings,