This was the benediction I gave at the interfaith MLK service last night in Bedford Hills. The sermon, given by my colleague the Rev. Matthew Curry of Mount Kisco United Methodist Church, asked us not only to lift every voice in song, but to train our ears so that we might understand the need to listen.
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
Interfaith MLK Day Service, Antioch Baptist Church, Bedford Hills NY
January 15, 2012
Spirit of life and love, God of many names and beyond all understanding:
We gather here tonight as living witness to a dream.
A dream that all people might one day be equal.
A dream that violence everywhere would one day cease.
A dream that no child would grow up in poverty, not knowing where their next meal is coming from.
For that dream, we are profoundly grateful.
As we sit here tonight in all our diversity, we summon the power of relationship. The power of human beings committed to bridging our differences. The power of people dedicated to building the beloved community in our midst. The power you have given us to do your work here on Earth.
For that power, too, we are profoundly grateful.
Beloved creator, “thou who has brought us thus far on the way,” as we prepare to leave this sacred place tonight, may our hearts return here often, whenever we need a reminder of what is possible.
May our eyes, opened by our experience here tonight, see what Dr. King called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism” wherever they run amok in our society.
May our voices, emboldened by today’s message, be lifted in song and speech to glorify you, and may our ears be tuned to the harmony necessary for beloved community.
God, give us the strength to pray for justice, for equality, for dignity, and for freedom not only with our words, but with our hands and our feet, that together we might build the world that Dr. King spoke about, sang about, and dreamed about.
In your many holy names we pray; Amen.
Several people asked for tonight’s Christmas Eve homily, so here it is. Blessings to all this Christmas and may love and peace be yours in the new year.
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
Christmas Eve Homily – December 24, 2011
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
© 2011 Michael James Tino
Christmas, at its heart, is a holiday about a promise. As the story goes, it’s the promise made by God to the people of the Earth that something better is possible, that something better is coming. It is the promise that each of us should have hope for the future—not despair, not fear, but hope.
This is the promise of the rainbow after the Great Flood in Genesis, the promise of the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus. It is the promise of the rebirth of the Sun after the Winter Solstice, and the promise of the miraculous oil that allowed the temple to be consecrated in ancient times.
It is the promise of peace on Earth. The promise of heavenly peace.
When I first called this service “Heavenly Peace,” of course I was thinking of the lyric from Silent Night—our traditional closing song. And though I was thinking about the Christmas message of peace on Earth, I didn’t give much thought to the “heavenly” part. (I am a Unitarian Universalist, after all.)
Then Frances saw the photo I’d chosen for the cover of our Order of Service, and connected it with the view of Earth from space—from the heavens. She wondered what I’d have to say about the heavenly part of “heavenly peace.” I admitted I’d have to think about that.
And the more I did think about that, the more another song lyric kept playing through my head—the words from Julie Gold’s From A Distance, recorded by Nanci Griffith some 25 years ago (but more famously by Bette Midler in 1990). You’ve probably heard it. You might even loathe it, given how many “worst songs ever” lists it seems to be on, but that’s the song that kept coming back to me as I meditated on the phrase “heavenly peace,” the earworm with which I have been infected for weeks now as I’ve pondered this year’s Christmas Eve message.
In her song, Gold imagines seeing Earth from space, and realizes that from the heavens, the petty differences between people disappear.
From a distance the world looks blue and green
And the snow capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream
And the eagle takes to flight
From a distance, there is harmony
And it echoes through the land
It’s the voice of hope, it’s the voice of peace
It’s the voice of every man.
In an interview in which Gold was asked about the song, she said that she “only set out to write a decent song about the difference between the way things seem and the way things are.”
The difference between the way things seem and the way things are. From a distance, we can see peace. Up close, we get pettiness, violence and inequality.
I believe that the promise of Christmas is fundamentally the promise that what we can see from a distance can actually become reality.
It is the promise of peace—heavenly peace. It is a promise that I think is often quite misunderstood.
I think that many people understand the substance of this promise without the context. They get the “what” but not the “how.”
Many people look at the story of Christmas and see the miracle of the birth of a savior. They celebrate the birth of Christ, whose life becomes a sacrifice to atone for all of human sin. They see this holiday as the promise that peace will come through the actions of God, who will eliminate civilization as we know it and replace it with the kingdom of heaven. The heavenly peace of Christmas is divinely promised and divinely created, and our job is to have the faith to wait for it to come to us.
Now, I don’t mean to be flippant about the central tenets of Christianity, but to me, that’s a lot of weight to put on the back of a tiny baby born in a stable far from home.
To me, the baby born at Christmas grew up to be a great prophet and teacher, a holy man who taught the ways of peacemaking. It is not up to Jesus to do the work of peacemaking—dare I say that much of humanity has been waiting for far too long for him to come back and clean up our mess.
No, we are shown the promise of peace at Christmas, but it is a peace that we must seek by following the example of the man whose birth we celebrate this day.
Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote, “How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few, his precepts! O! ’tis easier to keep holidays than commandments.”
Indeed, ‘tis easier. ‘Tis easier to look at something from a distance and see peace and harmony than to get up close and understand that so much work needs to be done.
Luckily, Jesus left us some instructions to follow. Love one another. Provide for the least among us. Set a place at the table for the oppressed and outcast. Judge not. Did I mention love one another?
Heavenly peace will not arrive simply by waiting. It is ours to create, on Christmas and every other day as well.
This Christmas, may the promise of peace echo through our land. May it stir us to song, call us to worship, inspire us to act. May peace be with you, and may you bring peace to others. Blessed be.
In yesterday’s worship service, I shared some reflections on giving that I hope people will think about this time of year.
A Reflection for the Thanksgiving Multigenerational Service “In Another’s Shoes”
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
November 20, 2011 – Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
© 2011 Michael James Tino
“On the road from greed to giving, love will guide us through the hard night.”
So goes a line from one of my very favorite hymns, “Love Will Guide Us.”
Today, I ask you to ponder what that road is that leads us from greed to giving, and how, guided by love, we can see giving in a different light this holiday season.
We are entering the time of year known most prominently for greed. We like to think that this time of year is about giving, but let’s face it—it’s about greed. It’s about consumption—about buying stuff. It’s about making lists to ask Santa for things, and thinking that the bigger the gift, the more love it shows.
It’s about all sorts of things that are completely the opposite of the message that different religions for thousands of years have taught at this time of year.
To religions that celebrate holidays as fall turns to winter, this time of year is about miracles. It’s about the unexpected happening. It’s about letting go of old ways of thinking and embracing new ones.
If you are Jewish you might be looking forward to celebrating the miracle of the oil burning in the temple, if you’re Christian you’re getting ready to celebrate the birth of a prophet. If you are pagan you’re likely preparing for the turning of the light at Yule, when the short days begin to get longer again, if you’re Chinese you might be preparing for Dongzhi, the returning of energy to our world.
If you are from a tradition that celebrates this time of year, chances are what is celebrated has nothing to do with greed—even if gifts are exchanged to brighten the darkest days of the year or bring joy to a time of coldness, as is the case in many cultures.
In the United States, we pause for a moment before the winter holidays to celebrate Thanksgiving—a time for gratitude, a time to be glad for what we have. What a perfect time to decide that the greed that usually greets us in the weeks to come will not be what our holidays are about this year.
Now, I’m not asking you to do away with giving gifts entirely. Just to move down the road from greed to giving.
No, in fact giving is a good thing, and giving to one another is something that makes this time of year special. But our gift-giving needs to be separated from the culture of greed that’s all around us. I have three suggestions for how we might start to do this.
First, buy less stuff.
How much you love someone should not be proportional to the amount of stuff you are willing to buy them, or the amount of money you are willing to spend on them. How much you are loved has nothing to do with the amount of stuff you get, or how much that stuff is worth.
If your family is like mine, Christmas will find you with piles and piles of boxes under the tree. Frankly, I’ve come to think of it as quite disgusting, even though I participate in it again and again. Last Christmas, I had to explain to my older nephew that it wasn’t a bad thing that the box with his name on it was smaller than the box with his brother’s name on it. It’s hard to tell a six-year-old that the big box has one toy in it, but the small box has carefully-selected, high-quality art supplies for a little boy who had declared that he wants to be an artist when he grows up.
It shouldn’t matter how big the boxes are, or how shiny the things in them are. Honestly, there should just be less stuff to begin with. So first, buy less stuff.
Second, give gifts of meaning.
Make the value of the gifts you give be the value of thought, the value of care, the value of love—and not the value of money. Two years ago, everyone in my family (except for the littlest kids) got a special basket with a theme selected to match their personality. Each had a few store-bought things, along with handmade items I put in there just for them—jars of canned tomatoes from my garden, home-infused lavender-orange liqueur, ginger-pear jam using pears from the Croton Farmer’s Market. None of it was fancy, but all of it was made with love, and selected with the tastes of the people in my family in mind.
Give gifts of meaning, and not of material wealth.
And third, give gifts that reflect your values.
Perhaps the gifts you give don’t have to be things at all. Consider giving donations to organizations doing good work in the world. Match up the passions of the people you are giving gifts to with the mission of the organization. For your environmentalist brother, perhaps a donation to the Sierra Club or Clearwater. For your cousin the beekeeper, maybe a hive of bees to a village in Africa through the Heifer Project. For your foodie mom, maybe a donation to the Interfaith Food Pantry. You get the picture.
If the gifts that you give have to be things, consider seeking things whose purchase does some good in the world. Consider things that are certified to be fairly traded—perhaps from small artisans in developing nations who rely on their handiwork to feed their children.
Consider things made by artists with whom you can actually have a conversation (I buy all of my Christmas cards from a friend who hand-makes them—it’s no more expensive than ordering custom printing from a big card company, but much more satisfying–plus, I get to think of my friend Louisa every time I send a Christmas card).
Consider shopping only at small, independent merchants who invest in the local economy. Merchants with whom you have a relationship that goes beyond buying and selling.
Our gift giving should reflect the world we would like to live in, and not the society whose messages of greed are unhealthy and unacceptable. Make your giving reflect your values.
“On the road from greed to giving, love will guide us through the hard night.”
Let love be your guide in transforming your holidays from ones of greed to ones of giving.
Saved By Faith
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
Preached at the UUA Chapel Service, Boston MA – October 18, 2011
(c) 2011 Michael James Tino
From “Saved By Love,” by Michael Tino, in Coming Out In Faith (Susan Gore and Keith Kron, eds.).
The very first time I attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation for worship, I was greeted by the sight of a congregation at least 75% of whom were wearing pink triangles on their nametags. I didn’t know what to make of this. I thought I’d died and gone to some sort of queer heaven.
I remember vividly the experience of looking around me and seeing all of the triangles. I wouldn’t have guessed he was family, I thought to myself, or her. That man and woman sitting together holding hands—I guess they could be bisexual. And that older couple with the same last name—maybe they came out to each other later in life and stayed married for reasons beyond sexual attraction. Good for them. Good for all of them.
How foolish, how prejudiced, how hypocritical of me for presuming people to be straight. After all, they had their pink triangles on, proudly proclaiming their queer identity. And who was I to argue with people’s self-identification? So I made myself right at home amidst the pink-triangle bedecked crowd
I sat there in wonder through the service as the (woman) minister (also wearing a pink triangle) preached about the feminine face of the divine. At the time, I was a 21-year-old gay New Yorker new to the South (albeit the citified, yuppified, Yankee-fied South of Durham, North Carolina—at least the parts of Durham I’d been to at that point). Moreover, I was a third-generation lapsed Catholic who had long ago given up the notion that there would ever be a religious community that accepted my distinctly unorthodox theology (much less my sexuality).
It wasn’t until coffee hour that someone explained to me that several months before, the congregation, as part of its journey to becoming a Welcoming Congregation, had participated in a Sunday worship service in which people were challenged to wear a pink triangle whatever their sexual orientation. They were informed about the origin of the symbol to mark gay men in Nazi Germany, and told the story of the King of Denmark, who, in that same era, wore a yellow Star of David even though he wasn’t Jewish.
At first, I was disappointed. After all, I’d thought I had landed in a queer parallel universe. But the more I thought about it, the more I was amazed by this group of people who were willing to be perceived as gay, lesbian and bisexual in order to send the message that those of us who actually were queer were welcome. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had experienced radical hospitality at its finest, and that was something even more awesome than a church full of queer folks.
While I had (and continue to have) many amazing heterosexual friends who step up as allies to LGBT folks again and again, I had never before encountered an institution that made such a statement. I had not even encountered too many straight people who were willing to wear a pink triangle without a modifier like “straight but not narrow.” Yet, there I was, faced with an entire congregation of people whose simple act of affixing a pink triangle sticker to their nametag changed the course of my life. This wasn’t the first time Unitarian Universalists had changed my life—but it was the first time I knew it.
In the rest of my essay in the book Coming Out in Faith, I described how Unitarian Universalism has saved me, again and again, individual people and Unitarian Universalist insitutions. And it might be cliche at this point to say that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t necessarily save souls, we save lives, but for me, it has absolutely been the truth that my life has been saved by Unitarian Universalism.
I don’t think one can underestimate the power of a community that accepts you as whole, as as wholly loved for exactly who you are, as a holy being. The messages that I walked into that Unitarian Universalist congregation with until that day had taught me again and again that who I was was something to be despised, that what I was was broken, and that everything was wrong with me. That day, sitting there amidst the sea of pink triangles, there was an institution that was finally willing to say, “Who you are is exactly right and we love you for it.” It saved my life.
So I want you today if you can to imagine being a young person walking into a new community for the first time. You’re disillusioned and in despair. You desperately need a change. You’re not sure if it’s the right place for you, but you’ve heard some good things about what it stands for. The signs at the entrance generally reflect your beliefs.
You’re welcomed with open arms by two people your age at a clearly-marked welcome and information table. You’re quickly told about the principles of the community you’ve entered, and you are made a part of the covenant by which it is bound.
You’re inspired by all of the different people who have come to this place to be with you even if those people have come for different reasons–even those people who are in that place who believe very different things than you do. You’re inspired by all of them.
You have deep, warm conversations about issues that matter–real, genuine conversations about real, genuine issues. You engage in meaning-making in a way that you have never done before.
You are fed–a delicious, diverse meal that fills your stomach and nourishes both body and soul.
You’re asked about your skills and gifts, and encouraged to give back to the community, because they want you to be a part of it. Your’e invited into conversations–good conversations about race and racism, classism and economic justice, violence, myth and peacemaking–deep, good conversations about justice struggles that everyone is involved in. The conversations are not perfect, but everyone is trying their best. Everyone is staying at the table.
You call your mom and tell her that you think you’ve found a place where you belong. “Are you sure, honey,” she asks. “Yes,” you reply, and you and she are both happy.
The situtation I described is not unlike my experience finding Unitarian Universalism almost 20 years ago. But these days, that situation is much more likely to happen an an Occupy demonstration than at a UU congregation. The experience I described was the experience I heard again and again when I attended Occupy Wall Street just yesterday, and so this reflection is fresh in my mind.
It’s the experience I heard from people like Becca, who traveled to Zuccotti Park in New York City from Missouri. Becca is 25 years old, and after her graduation she worked a string of jobs and found herself unemployed. Her mother, too, found herself unemployed, and so when the call was put out for people around the country to come to Wall Street to demonstrate against the way our society is structured unequally, she asked her mom to drive her to New York. Her mom said yes, and willingly dropped her daughter off at a park on Wall Street. So when she got that call saying “I’ve found a place where I belong, Mom,” Mom was really happy.
I have to ask myself, when I hear stories like that, what we should be doing to make this faith–this faith that saved my life and has saved countless other lives–a place as vital and powerful as the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, especially for young people, especially for people who are marginalized and outcast by our society, especially for people who day in and day out get messages that something is wrong with who they are and that there’s not a place for them in the structures that our society has set up to benefit others.
What should we be doing to make this faith as vital and powerful a place for them as a park in Manhattan? I have to admit that 24 hours after my first experience at Occupy Wall Street (it won’t be my last), I don’t have a clear answer. But I hope that this group is one that’s willing to work on one with me. I trust that coming to UUA Chapel you are exactly the people who need to be working on that answer with me.
And I think it starts with something that I’m calling Occupying Universalism. I’ll share more about that in the coming months as that concept gets fleshed out in my mind, but I’ve long had a problem with the notion that we should be occupying places that, for those of us who are not the native peoples whose lands that they are, is not ours to begin with. But I have no problem occupying something that is rightfully ours to take.
So Universalism is a theology that is rightfully ours, and I believe that we’ve given up occupying it. We’ve given up occupying Universalism to a whole slew of people who are claiming that they invented it, even though it was invented hundreds of years before they were born.
And so we need to reclaim it. We need to proclaim this theology that is already ours, this vital, powerful theology that teaches at its core the radical equality of all humanity. I think that such a theology is where we need to start to make our congregations–and our Association–as vital and powerful a presence, as welcoming and warm a presence, as real and genuine a presence, as authentically engaged in anti-oppression work as the demonstration that I happened to spend the day at yesterday.
I believe that such a theology can do more than save souls. I believe that such a theology can save lives. I believe that such a theology will help us shape a society in our vision of love and compassion, and that, in the end, will be worth occupying that theology that has been ours for so many years. May it be so.
The Society of Most Awesome Super Heroes
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino – Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
September 18, 2011
(c) 2011 Michael Tino
When Hurricane Fred blew through Metropolis, a huge white oak that had grown for centuries in Kent Square was blown over right onto the roof of the Society of Most Awesome Super Heroes headquarters. The big tree crashed through the attic right into the Hall of Awesomeness, where the super heroes had their weekly meetings.
The super heroes needed a place to meet while their building was being repaired, so the society’s fast-thinking administrator rented them a room at the nearby Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Metropolis. The rates were good, and the congregation was friendly.
Being a UU congregation, though, the secretary who booked the rental added them to the calendar using their initials, S-M-A-S-H, since that made a word. And pretty soon, members of the congregation began to wonder what this SMASH meeting was on the calendar.
“Hey–looks like a punk rock group is playing at the Fellowship,” said the Youth Group, and they all decided to attend.
“I wonder if this is the cooking class we’ve been asking for,” wondered the retirees group. I guess we’ll be making guacamole this week.
“I bet this is that new group for active young kids,” said a bunch of parents. “What a creative name. We’d better bring our whole families.”
A member of the Social Justice team called everyone she knew who was interested in anti-oppression work. “I think we’re hosting a meeting of the Smashing Racism coalition this week! We had all better be there!” They all accepted her invitation.
Add in that small group of people that show up for just about everything on the calendar, and after a while most of the congregation planned to attend the SMASH meeting, even though none of them were really quite sure what it was.
And so it happened that on the evening that the Society of Most Awesome Super Heroes was to have its weekly meeting at the UU Fellowship of Metropolis, there were many, many more people in attendance than the Super Heroes had counted on.
Wonder Woman, the group’s President, called the rowdy meeting to order. “Welcome to the Society of Most Awesome Super Heroes meeting,” she said. “I see that we have a lot of new, er, prospective members in attendance tonight. While we weren’t expecting membership applications, I guess we can make sure you’re all eligible to join. After all, this is a gathering for super heroes only.”
The congregation members weren’t quite sure what to make of that, but each one decided they needed to hear more.
“Most awesome costumes on this band. I’m staying to hear them,” said a teenager to the rest of the Youth Group, who also decided to stay.
The children were stunned to silence by the fact that they were in a room with a bunch of real, live super heroes. Having never seen their kids that quiet before, the parents weren’t about to go anywhere.
“Eligible to join?” The Social Justice people were getting defensive. “Who does this white woman in a bathing suit think she is to tell us who is and is not eligible to join the anti-racism coalition? Sounds like we have some serious work to do with this group.”
“Did she say super heroes?” asked one of the retirees. “Does that mean we’re not making guacamole?” None of the other retirees could answer her, but they decided that since they had come all this way to the Fellowship, they might as well stay. After all, they’d never seen a meeting at the UU Fellowship that was this well-attended before.
Seeing that no one budged, Wonder Woman turned the meeting over to Superman, the Society of Most Awesome Super Heroes’ Membership Coordinator.
“As Wonder Woman said, being a super hero is a requirement of staying in this meeting,” said Superman. “So we have to make sure you’re all super heroes. Are you all super heroes?”
Betty, a member of the retirees group, raised her hand. Superman was a little confused by that–he had not had to take questions before–but he called on her. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“What does that mean,” Betty asked. “If I’m to tell you whether I’m a super hero, you probably should tell me how I would know, first.”
Superman sighed, thinking that it was very obvious what made up a super hero, but he couldn’t argue with Betty’s logic. “There are three requirements for being a super hero,” replied Superman. “Super hero values, super hero powers and a super hero costume.”
“Let’s start with values,” he went on. “I, for example, am dedicated to truth, justice and the American Way.”
“And I stand in a long line of Amazon sisters empowering women to be strong,” said Wonder Woman.
“I believe that all the creatures of the Earth are related to one another, and they all have something to teach us,” piped up Aquaman.
“And I generously use my vast wealth to fight crime throughout the land,” boasted Batman.
Andres of the Youth Group raised his hand to share, and Superman called on him.
“We’ve definitely got super hero values, Mr. Superman, sir,” said Andres, a little amazed that he was talking to the Superman. “We just call them Principles, and we’ve got seven of them that our congregation affirms and promotes. There’s a list there by the door.”
“We believe that every person is important,” said Robin, one of the children in the front row.
“We believe in justice, equity and compassion,” said Mark, who was a member of the Social Justice team. “We work hard for justice in our community and our wider world.”
“We promote the democratic process, and let everyone have a voice,” said Pat, a retiree.
“Don’t forget spiritual growth,” said Brenda, who was on the Worship Committee. “We are religious institution, after all.”
“And like Aquaman, we believe in respecting the interdependent web of all life. We love our Earth and all it’s beings,” said Sandy, a parent, who was also a member of the Green Sanctuary team.
Superman, who had by then read all seven principles from across the room using his super eyesight, was impressed. “Those sound like super hero values to me,” he said.
“But you also need super powers,” continued Superman, “some special gifts that you use to make your values real. Thanks to the fact that my home planet of Krypton has stronger gravity than Earth, I can fly around the country looking for evil-doers,” he said. “I can also leap tall buildings with a single bound, and run faster than a speeding bullet.”
“I have used my vast wealth to hire a staff to design crime-fighting gadgets for me. See–I have a grappling hook and a stun ray, and lots of other gizmoes. I carry them all on my belt–except for my most awesome car,” boasted Batman. “The Batmobile is super-hot.”
“I have a lasso of truth that I use to spread honesty,” said Wonder Woman, “and my bracelets block bullets.” She was too modest to mention the invisible jet.
“And I can climb walls like a spider to go after bad people,” said Spider-Man, who had also invented his very own web-spinning machines for his wrists.
“So,” Superman asked, “what are your super powers?”
The congregation members sat silently for a moment. Did they have any super powers, they wondered?
Just when Superman was about to stop the meeting, Denise stood up in the back, and in a loud, clear voice, she said, “I use my super powers of courage to dismantle oppression wherever it is found.”
Another long pause. Then Barbara stood up and declared, “I use my super power of compassion to take care of people when they’re sick.”
“I am the baby whisperer,” said Dave, “I rock the babies in the nursery until they fall asleep.”
Then the fourth-grade class stood up together. “Our super powers are best used together,” said Mindy. “Together, we teach people about child labor and fair trade chocolate, and we’re working to use our super powers of only buying stuff that’s made with love.”
“Martin uses his super powers to stop roof leaks wherever they are found,” said Peter, “and sometimes his super leak-stopping powers work on plumbing, too.”
Max raised his hand from the wheelchair in which he was sitting and declared, “I have the super power to feed the hungry every week at the food pantry.”
“I have the super power of harmony, which I use with the choir to bring beautiful music to our worship,” added Sarah.
Kwame pointed out that Bill, his Coming of Age Mentor, had the super power of patience to help him with the nineteen drafts of his credo statement the year before, and Bill, in turn declared that Kwame had the super power of persistence to keep at it until he was done.
On and on it went, until everyone in the congregation had recognized that something they did in the UU Fellowship of Metropolis held the secret to their super power–they were using their powers for the good of their community and the world.
The super heroes of the Society of Most Awesome Super Heroes were impressed. “It sounds like you all have super powers,” said Superman, “now all you need is a super hero costume and a secret identity that hides it. I have these spiffy tights and cape and a big ‘S’ on my chest. I go into a phone booth as Clark Kent and turn into Superman.”
“By day I’m a nurse named Diana Prince,” said Wonder Woman. “I twirl around and around and magically come out in this great sparkly bathing suit and knee-high boots.”
“When the Commissioner flashes the Bat Signal, I slide down the Bat Pole as Bruce Wayne, and my robots put me in this great black outfit,” said Batman, “and by the time I’m at the bottom in the Bat Cave, I’m Batman.”
“And I’m the gnarly surfer dude down at the beach,” said Aquaman. “I don’t need to hide my outfit so much since all the other surfer dudes are also in wetsuits.”
“So, do you have super hero costumes that your secret identities put on when you are needed?” Superman thought he had them all stumped. And, truth be told, most of the people in the congregation thought he had them stumped, too. “We’re sunk,” Morris whispered to Matilda, “we’re just us.”
No one had noticed that Rev. Michael (yes, they had one too) had come in the back door while the meeting was going on, but good ministers always know when their entire congregation is at a meeting, and so he quickly got over to the Fellowship, even though it was his day off.
“Oh, we have costumes, Superman,” piped up Rev. Michael. “By day, we are mild-mannered Unitarian Universalists. We worship, we teach, we sing, we play, we discuss. But when we get word that someone in our community is expressing hate, we become…the LOVE PEOPLE!”
And with that, Rev. Michael ripped open his dress shirt to reveal his yellow-orange Standing on the Side of Love t-shirt.
“Evil-doers beware,” he declared. “Your meanness will be met with our love. Your unjust laws will make us protest you. Your injustice will make us work harder. Wherever hate is found, the LOVE PEOPLE will be there!”
The congregation rose to its feet in applause. Yes, they were the love people.
“Hmmph,” sighed Superman. “I guess you all meet the criteria to join the Society. I hereby declare you all to be super heroes!” Wonder Woman banged her super gavel, and it was sealed. They were all members.
As the meeting went on, the Society of Most Awesome Super Heroes and the Unitarian Universalists from Metropolis discovered just how much they all had in common. They all cared a lot about the world they lived in. They all found ways to make it better every day. They all used their powers for good.
By the time the Hall of Awesomeness was patched up, the original super heroes had all decided that maybe they didn’t need a secret society after all. They all joined the UU Fellowship, and they donated the Hall of Awesomeness to Cyndi Lauper to turn into housing for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens.
And they all lived happily ever after.
This morning, our congregation gathered for worship as it does every Sunday. The 2nd Sunday in September is traditionally our “ingathering” service, in which we celebrate our community with a common UU ritual of pouring individual water into a common vessel. Of course, this Sunday was not just any Sunday (especially in the New York metropolitan area), and so we needed to pause for a moment on the 10th anniversary of 9-11-01.
This was a very full service, and so I wrote only a short homily. Here it is.
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino
September 11, 2011 – Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
© 2011 Michael Tino
Human beings are relational creatures. We exist not as isolated individuals but as people connected to everything and everyone around us. What happens to someone we’re connected to affects us.
I believe that goodness in our world is a result of connection, of real and right relationship that helps us act not as individuals but as a community. When we see ourselves as connected to others, we are more likely to do things that make their lives better.
I believe that evil happens in our world when we break those connections—or refuse to form them in the first place. When we separate ourselves from others, we are more likely to do things that affect them badly.
Small bits of badness come from broken relationships between individuals. I say something on purpose that hurts your feelings. Siblings strike each other in anger when they’re frustrated. People tell lies to one another because they think they won’t be caught. Someone steals from another who has something they want or need. These things can be healed when the relationships are healed.
Larger systems of immorality and wickedness come from severely harmed relationships between groups, sometimes magnified through time and history. We allow people in our very midst to go without shelter, food, medicine in a nation of riches. Oppressions are handed down from generation to generation—racism, sexism, classism and others. These things take serious amounts of work to overcome—whole networks of relationships need to be rebuilt.
And unthinkable acts of evil come from true brokenness. Murder, rape, war, terrorism. I honestly cannot imagine how someone can be so completely disconnected from the feelings and experiences of another to even contemplate something like this. I certainly cannot fathom what goes into the hatred that makes someone do something like what happened on September 11, 2001. Such evil can only be faced and destroyed with unthinkable amounts of love—amounts of love that we are not be capable of by ourselves as individuals, amounts of love so great that even this one community is not enough; we need to enlist others in creating it as well.
It falls to each of us to engage in the work of creating connections and love in our world as a response to the immense evil we witnessed ten years ago.
Each of us is asked to respond to the pain and suffering in the world by sharing some unique part of us with others. Perhaps we see systems in a way that helps us dismantle injustice. Perhaps we grow vegetables that nourish others. Perhaps we express ourselves—or help others express themselves. Perhaps we make ourselves vulnerable by sharing our own experiences of pain and loss. Perhaps we have (or make) the time and patience to listen.
In the days following September 11, 2001, artists responded to the pain that they were seeing by creating beauty as a gift to a world where ugliness was running rampant. My friend Sarah Dan Jones wrote When I Breathe In, from which comes the hymn we know as Meditation on Breathing. Bruce Springsteen wrote The Rising—but not until after he was called on to sing something he had already written for a telethon.
He chose his song My City Of Ruins, which was originally written for his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, a city that faced depression and devastation, and was just beginning to revitalize itself. In the song, he describes this destruction and emptiness, and he asks, “Tell me, how do I begin again? My city’s in ruins.”
His answer? “With these hands.”
With these hands, we pray. With these hands, we heal. With these hands, we reach out to others and comfort them in times of mourning. With these hands, we build a new society.
“Come on, rise up,” Springsteen sang that evening to a nation in mourning. Rise up from the devastation using your own hands to rebuild our society, to rebuild our city, to make justice in our world.
Among the signs of ruin in Springsteen’s song was a church whose doors were open, “but the congregation’s gone.” The picture we get of an empty church is a striking one to use to indicate something’s wrong. I don’t think that Springsteen meant that he longed for a society that adhered to a specific dogma or creed.
Rather, he understood that empty church as a religious institution, and a religious institution, whether church, synagogue, mosque or fellowship, is a place of connection. Connection with other people. Connection with something greater than ourselves. Connection with the holy—however you experience or name that holy.
This religious community creates goodness whenever it comes together in community. We create goodness when we worship together. When we sing together. When we learn together. When we dance together. When we work for justice together. When we discuss and debate together. When we play together. When we sit in silence together, we create goodness.
Whenever we come together as a community, we are building relationships. Relationships that make possible compassion. Relationships that make possible beauty. Relationships that make possible love. More and more and more love. Until that love expands far beyond our walls and embraces everyone, asking them to add to it, to multiply our love again and again.
Our religious response to evil and ugliness in our world, then, is community. It is coming together, despite our differences, to build the world we want to see. With these hands.
And if we do that, we will see it rise up from the ruins around us. May it be so.
Thanks to all of the rain this month, our garden has been overrun by the most curious things. They’re bright orange, tall, slimy mushrooms that smell awful. Gardening books and websites have led me to understand that these are stinkhorns, and that they emit their foul odor (said to be reminiscent of rotting meat–eww–but it’s really not quite that bad) to attract the flies that then spread their spores. Did I mention we have a lot of flies these days, too?
We try to dig them up, but every day new ones have sprouted. This morning, as I went to get the paper, I noticed seven in the part of the front yard closest to the walkway. Seven–none of which were there yesterday (when I dug up five of them, including their underground parts), or the day before (when Eric dug up a dozen or so).
My tendency would be to bemoan the presence of this unslightly, malodorous, uninvited garden visitor. I am tempted to think of them as something truly awful. And yet I can’t.
Perhaps it is because those same gardening books and websites assure me that they are doing nothing worse than decomposing the mulch on top of the garden soil–making its nutrients more available to the plants in the garden. I am also assured that unless I am willing to liberally douse my garden with fungicide (I am not), I am helpless against them. These assurances help me make peace with our fetid friends.
But my reaction is also out of sheer marvel at our natural world. A fungus that sprouts overnight, and whose slimy, sticky spores smell just right to attract carrion flies. Whose spores and underground mycelia lay dormant in wood mulch waiting for a deluge of rain to create just the right environment to send up four-inch-long fruiting bodies in a matter of hours. Wow. This thing has evolved for hundreds of millions of years to have these properties. It is marvelous.
And, truth be told, the smell goes away once the flies have taken off the slimy spores–it’ll be gone by mid-morning.
Given the choice of frustration or wonder at these odd garden additions, I choose wonder.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year precisely coincides with the month of August. On Wednesday, I have been invited (along with other local religious leaders) to break the daily fast of Ramadan with a local Muslim community. I have accepted their invitation, and was told to eat a light lunch, since the dinner will be enormous.
Something about that just didn’t seem right. After all, my hosts will have been fasting for 15+ hours before breaking fast at dinner. I decided I should honor the day by fasting myself.
If I’m going to fast, however, I need to do it right. Or at least as right as I’m capable of. No food and drink–that’s a given. But what else do I need to know?
Fasting at Ramadan requires understanding why Muslims fast. Fasting is intended to remind people of the commandment to submit themselves to Allah. It means refraining from being rude, or impolite or angry. It means not lying or cheating or doing immoral things. It means abstaining from idle talk. While there are certainly things about Islam as it’s practiced with which I sometimes disagree, I can certainly honor the intention of right speech and right action during a day of fasting.
The person who is hosting the fast-breaking dinner on Wednesday reminded me that there is no food or drink from 4:50am to 7:35pm. It won’t be easy, he told me.
I wrote back that if it were easy, it probably wouldn’t be worthwhile.
From time to time, it’s worth it for each of us to step out of our comfort zone to try on another way of being. On Wednesday, I’m going to try a fast. And I’m going to try it with right intention–to dedicate myself to kindness and peace, and to use a day of hunger and thirst to remind myself of that dedication.
Below is the reading Erika shared with us in our Flower Festival worship service. I wrote it in 1999, and it was originally published in the Independent Weekly in Durham, NC.
Pea Creek Time
As I flipped my calendar to June and turned on the car’s AC to ward off the sweltering heat, I was reminded that it’s just about Pea Creek time.
I look forward to that time in the summer when the air is hazy and still and the long evening hours are bathed in a warm twilight glow. It’s at that time of year that I’ll get calls from friends in the middle of the afternoon asking if I’d like to go swimming that night.
“Sure. Meet you there about 6?” is the preferred response, and the one I’ll give if my calendar tells me I’m free of meetings, appointments, softball games, dinner parties or other such pre-planned activities. No destination needs to be stated—we all know to meet at the small swimming hole carved out where Pea Creek spills into the Eno River.
Making my way down the State Park trail on a muggy summer’s evening, I’m never sure which of my friends will be there, and I look forward to the surprise. Some might have brought their dogs, some will be by themselves. Some will have carpooled and others will have walked, so a quick census of the cars parked along Cole Mill Road does me no good to figure it out, so I hike through the brush, towel in hand, looking forward to seeing a group at Pea Creek.
We gather at the swimming hole in silence and slip into the cool, flowing waters. We splash and we laugh. We swing from the rope through the air and crash through the glassy surface of the pool. We sit on the banks and chat. We toss balls to the dogs, watching them leap into the water to retrieve them for us. Floating down the slowly moving river, we revert to days of our youth, spent swimming in streams from upstate New York to west Texas to the Oregon coast.
I can always measure the level of stress in my life by the number of times I make it to the Pea Creek swimming hole. Last summer, after finishing a dissertation, moving across town and making the tough transition to a new job, I managed not to get there the whole summer. The priorities in my life were all screwed up by all of the changes. This summer will be different—I’m going to do the calling. Some things deserve to stay the same, and Pea Creek is one of them.