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Good Guys

November 29, 2009


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Ted Pack stirring 30 pounds of string beans for the homeless dinner [Ed. Note - there are linked references to other parts of the service in the sermon below. You may chose to read them (or not) when you get to them, or, if you want to read them in the order presented, here they are:
Opening Words, from Sam Spade, in "The Maltese Falcon";
Responsive Reading, inspired by the hymn "Comfort Me";
Children's Story, an abridged version of Leviticus 11, verses 9-22 and Mark 7, verses 18-23;
Meditation, a reading about good, evil and easy.]

Sermon

Good morning, and thank you for coming to church this morning. You didn't have to fight the fog, but it was nippy. I'm Ted Pack, your Web Master. I have given the talk on the Sunday after Thanksgiving six of the last seven years. I skipped 2004, much to some people's delight and others' despair.

Reverend Grace often uses the phrase "bring your gifts to the altar of life". One of those gifts, at least for we who speak from the stump, is your attendance.

A brief digression on attendance. Years ago, when I was single and living in San Francisco, I bought two season tickets to the symphony each year, figuring no classy woman would be able to resist the offer of dinner and a concert by a nationally-known symphony orchestra. It turned out a number of them could. What used to bother me the most was when a lady would ask "What's playing?".

"Something classical", I'd say. My thoughts were that 60 musicians had practiced all week for the performance, and it would be discourteous for us to stay home just because we didn't like Shostakovich.

It takes less people to prepare a worship service here than it does to prepare a concert at the opera house, and we don't draw as many people, but it is still a group effort. Phyllis Young gets here an hour ahead of time almost every Sunday morning to turn on the furnace or air conditioning, depending on the season. If she can't make it, someone fills in for her. This morning that someone was Aynslie Frederickson. A number of people, including Helen Buchner, Pat Egenberger and Bernadette Burns, take turns spending an hour or so decorating our center of worship. The choir and our pianist practice. Someone brings snacks. If we're having a worship committee service, one member of the committee spends hours picking readings, going over details, and prodding the speaker to get started on his sermon. Mary Randall did that for me. Finally, it takes an hour or two to come up with a 2500-word talk.
[That was a laugh line; it takes 10 - 20 hours.]
All in all, it takes upwards of two dozen people to put together a worship service, and we appreciate your coming to see the fruits of our labor. Thank you.

This morning I'm going to talk about a question I saw on Yahoo Answers.

Back in 2006 Yahoo, the Internet giant, developed an application called "Answers", where people who needed advice could ask about things, and more experienced people could answer them. The lure was obvious. Once in a while I'll offer people advice, unasked.

I spent 34 years as a computer programmer. We call our customers "users", because they use our computer programs. When I'd offer my users advice, they would take it about half the time, if it was about computers. If they rated people who give advice like they do people baseball batters, my advising average of there would be .500. On other subjects my average was about the same as a third-string pitcher.

I spent 22 years as a dad, counting from the birth of our first child to the year our youngest turned 16. If I said "watch out, don't touch that", AND the burner in question was glowing red, they would take my advice, three times out of four. If the danger was more subtle or the consequence more than a couple of seconds in the future, my advising average dropped to double digits.

I've been married for 31 years. About year three I realized that if I didn't offer my wife advice, unasked, we wouldn't have arguments when she didn't take it.

The people on Yahoo actually ask for advice. You get points, too.

I spend most of my time in the Genealogy category, telling people there isn't a web site where they can type in their name and see12 generations of their family tree, nor do most families have coats of arms. I look for questions about Unitarians and the Peace Corps, every week. When I answer a question about UUs I almost always include a link to our church web site. There are about four other Unitarian Universalists who answer questions on Yahoo.

As a side note, most of the time answering questions is a harmless hobby, about as rewarding as doing crossword puzzles. I do it in the morning before I shower, still in my T-shirt and sarong, with my morning coffee and the cat who likes to sit on the computer table. Last September a fellow in Seattle wrote to me to say he was a fan of my answers about Unitarian Universalists, and of my sermons on our church Web site. He liked the answers he read from other Unitarian Universalists, too. He wrote that "If it is possible for a UU to be called to the faith, I believe I have been".

In my 2003 homily about being your webmaster, (Adventures of a UU Web master) which involves updating the web site on a timely basis, I mentioned twitting Don Strachen, who led the buildings and grounds committee, by saying "Ha, ha, ha, Don, I can do my maintenance work for the church from home, in my underwear." It was a line I have used with succeeding Buildings and Grounds chairs, but I didn't think I could ever use for any church function besides maintenance. Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. Ha, ha, ha, Reverend Grace, I can do my ministering for the church from home, in my underwear.

Last May someone asked the question that inspired this sermon, and I found it when I searched for the two words "Peace Corps":

What is the stereotypical good guy thing to do?
Join the Peace Corps?
Help an old lady across the street?
Get a cat down out of a tree?

You'll note there is quite a range of commitment among those options. I've done all three. You can help an old lady across the street in a minute or two, without any training. Peace Corps Volunteers train for three months and serve for two years.

I answered in general terms, first; to my mind, good guys do nice things for people who are younger or weaker or poorer, or less educated, or less fortunate in some other way. They do it without expecting a reward of any sort, beyond "thank you". Finally, our own principle of honoring the worth and dignity of every individual comes into play; it doesn't count if you do it with a condescending manner. If the person is unfortunate, you should do it in a way that says you know that he would do the same for you, if your situations were reversed. If the person is younger, that he will be able to do it just as well when he gets older. If the person is older, that he could probably did it better when he was younger. If none of the above, in a way that suggests the person has talents in another field.

Then I listed a dozen examples for the guy who asked the question. You can probably think of a couple of hundred yourselves; the three dozen people who help Bill, Aynslie and Adlai feed the homeless once a month qualify as good guys even if many of them are women.

On the other hand, I was at the lake once when a sailor tipped her 16-foot Hobie Cat. This particular sailor was a lady in her 20's, 110 pounds and wearing a bikini. You need 250 pounds of people to right a 16-foot Hobie Cat. Within 5 minutes there were half a dozen boats at the scene, with about 2,500 pounds of male volunteers, all anxious to help. That didn't count, to my mind, as being noble. Had she been 50+ or a pair of 10-year olds, yes. As it was, they were all hoping for a reward - to be a knight in shining armor and maybe ask her for lunch so she could properly appreciate just what sterling fellows they were.

The question brings up a deeper one - what motivates people to be good guys?

When our kids were small I would take them to Grace-Ada Park on Saturdays, Modesto having better parks than Riverbank. It was a time for family bonding and gave me a good excuse to put off doing yard work. One Saturday one of the other children there, a seven-year old boy on the piece of play equipment we called the "Merry-go-Round" - a disk of metal about 12 feet across, with handles, which spun - asked me to give them a push. Normally I would have been willing, but he asked rudely; he said "Hey mister - are you going to stand there looking stupid, or are you going to give us a push?". So, I told him "Neither".

After a bit one of his friends asked me if I was going to push them; I said no, she asked why, and I explained that her friend had insulted me. Then, in a leap from the specific to the general that must have gone over her head, I told her that the only reason someone will do something for someone else is if they get paid, or they like the person, or it makes them feel good about themselves. I'd known that subconsciously before, but I'd never actually laid it out formally.

I realized afterwards that if he had said "Hey mister - if you are as strong as you are good-natured, you could give us the ride of our lives", I would have known he was lying for a reason, but I still would have still pushed them until they begged me to stop.

As it was, he insulted someone who out weighed him three to one, and I didn't kill him, so he gained some bragging points with his buddies, but he didn't get the ride he wanted.

Fast forward now ten years, to when Tri Valley Growers instituted a system of field tracking, which meant, among other things, that every bin of raw fruit had to have a bar code label saying who it came from, and which orchard. The truck drivers who were supposed to put the labels on the bins were not doing it properly; they put them on the wrong corner, or upside down, or both. The programmer in charge of the field tracking system said he didn't understand why they were not doing it correctly. I asked him if they were paying the drivers more, since we were asking them to do more. No, he said.

I told him about the boy on the playground, repeated the three reasons people do things, and suggested they have a raffle once a week for all the drivers who put their labels on correctly. That was yet another bit of advice that dragged my average down.

Feeling good about yourself, quite often, means you know there is a right way to do something, and another way, which isn't necessarily wrong; it may just be easy, as I mentioned in the Meditation Reading.

You may chose to do it the right way, to do it the easy way, or not to do it at all. No one chooses to do the right thing every time; we pick our battles. To pick one I read about every now and again, farmers routinely feed their livestock antibiotics which makes them healthier in the short run but encourages the evolution of antibiotic resistant germs in the long run. I haven't ever done anything about that problem; never contributed to a campaign, never written to my congress person, never spent extra to buy antibiotic free milk, eggs or meat. I'm human. I have my flaws.

It doesn't have to be a major effort. Last summer, at a work party here, I tied a cord to something, and, by habit, used a knot called a bowline. Most sailors, scouts and hikers can tie one. It takes a little longer than the one they call a "Granny" but it holds better and unties easier. John Patton noticed and said "Hey - that's a real knot." It made me feel good about myself.

When my son and I were fixing a water trough last month I asked him to take the old Teflon tape of one of the plumbing fittings before we put new tape on. I said it would take a bit longer but be the right thing to do. He told me that I usually did things that way, and I was oddly pleased; I thought that at least some of the advice I gave over the years had stuck. You'll notice that advice by example is often more effective than any other.

So, if being a good guy means doing things that make you feel good about yourself, and if doing those things means doing them the right way, how do we know what is the right way to do things?

Jews, Christians and Muslims can turn to their holy books. God laid it out for them, at least in part. Eat those locusts and leave the lobsters alone, if you are Jewish. Eat what you will, but keep your heart free of murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness, if you are Christian. Leave the pork and alcohol alone, and pray five times a day, if you are Muslim.

[The line about Jews and Christians refers to the Children's Story, an abridged version of Leviticus 11, verses 9-22 and Mark 7, verses 18-23.]

Life isn't easy, nor is knowing what is right. The Old Testament, New Testament and Koran don't cover all the bases, and exactly what they mean varies depending on who you ask. I've read, for instance, that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" should be read as "Thou shalt not commit first degree murder", because the word "kill" had a different connotation back when King James had the Bible translated.

We pick up bits and pieces along the way. I can still remember the first time I saw my father tell a sales clerk "Whoops! You gave me too much change" and hand back a dollar. My mother was more of the Socratic type, teaching by questions. I can't remember the first time she asked how I would feel if the situation was reversed, but I try to put myself in the other guy's shoes to this day. Their examples and questions did more to make me who I am today than anything or anyone else.

I would argue that we are constantly being bombarded by lessons about doing the right thing, sometimes conflicting ones. Help children, or leave them alone to make their own mistakes; obey the law, or break it when it is unjust; boycott companies who use cheap third-world labor or support them, because for some of those 14-year old girls who sew Nikes for $3 per day it's a choice between that and prostitution.

We get lessons in church, as you expect. We got lessons from our parents, and we gave them to our children. We get them from TV and movies. Times change; when I was watching TV in the 1950's you could tell the bad guys in the westerns because they wore black hats. Nowadays, unless it is a period piece, the bad guys are the ones who smoke.

We get them from popular literature; when I'm not doing something useful, and have tired of answering questions on Yahoo, I often read hard-boiled detective novels. They are novels about flawed men who, nevertheless, have a code and are true to it. Their code isn't always in strict parallel to the law of the land, but they stick to it. In detective novels, at least, even though a bad guy can hire a team of really clever lawyers to beat the criminal charges, he often finds there is a sterner code, and ends up as full of holes as twelve pounds of Swiss cheese.

[Our Opening Words, from Sam Spade, in "The Maltese Falcon", talked about what hard-boiled detective had to do.]

There are some general guidelines to being a good guy. It usually involves sacrificing your time, energy, money, sleep, dignity, or sometimes all five, for the benefit of someone else; someone who is worse off than you, in some way. One of the classic tests for being a good guy is whether you are willing to break your stride to avoid stepping on a bug; another is how kind you are to animals.

I sometimes think that some of our devotion to pets, especially my wife's elderly dog, who dribbles when he gets excited, comes from the fact that they give us an opportunity to feel good about ourselves. Our lives would be simpler if we didn't have to feed and water him, then clean up every once in a while, but we do it anyway. It's harder to read a detective novel if you have to balance it on a cat, a cat who comes trotting out of the back of the house every time he hears the recliner squeak, then jumps on your lap, but we do it; at least some of us do. He purrs and I sacrifice a bit of comfort for someone who can't speak and only weighs 8 pounds.

How can we encourage people to be good guys, to do the right thing? That's the $64,000 question in the moral suasion game, so to speak. I don't have any sure-fire answers, just a few simple suggestions. Example works; try to set one. Compliments work; if you see people doing the right thing, mention it. Exhortation sometimes works, so I leave you with this:

Comfort the lonely.
Feed the hungry.
Speak for the powerless.

You'll feel better about yourself. You'll make the world a better place. Thank you.

[The charge to the congregation echoed the Responsive Reading, from which was inspired by the hymn "Comfort Me".]

[Delivered November 29, 2009. I have plain but regular features and a rapier wit. In the picture at the top, I'm stirring 30 pounds of string beans for a homeless dinner.]

This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.


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