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Simple Gifts

November 25, 2012


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Ted Pack with an eagle on his head Good morning, and welcome to our fellowship. If you're a first-time visitor you should know that I'm a lay person, not a minister. Our real minister usually preaches three Sundays a month. On the others, sometimes we have a visiting minister, and sometimes we put in the second string.

Last September, when Rev. Joe took as his text the song "The River is Wide", he started his sermon by singing the first verse in a pleasant tenor. I'm starting with the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts". I asked several of my friends if they thought I should start sermon by singing the first verse. I have never heard such unanimous opinion among UUs in my life. Elizabeth Coard said she'd rather hear one of my produce guy jokes for the fifth time than listen to me mangle such a beautiful hymn. So, I'll tell you about the produce guy's dog who bit a minister. It was a just another case of . . . parson-nip.

If you read the sermon blurb on the web site or in the E-blast, you'll notice it mentioned I ramble. That comes with the territory if you have a nimble mind and read a lot; one thing reminds you of another. I'm going to go from simple gifts to mission statements to covenants of right relations in about 18 minutes, and I hope you stay with me. You may not, but I'll try to connect the dots. In the last few years I've begun telling my wife what reminds me of what, when we're talking, just so she will know my neurons are not firing at random. I'll extend the same courtesy to you.

I started thinking about simple gifts two years ago, when Major Darvin Carpenter, from the Salvation Army, came here to speak about their work. Once a month, from November to April, we prepare and serve dinner for 150 homeless people at the Salvation Army's shelter on 9th and D. Major Darvin told this story about William Booth, who founded the Salvation Army:

Towards the end of his life, someone asked him if the Salvation Army would continue after his death. He replied:
That depends on the Salvation Army! If the Salvation Army continues to preach the Gospel to the lost, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless and give hope to the hopeless, then even the devil himself cannot prevent it from continuing!
If the Salvation Army does not continue to preach the Gospel to the lost, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless and give hope to the hopeless, then it does not deserve to continue!

You'll notice two things. First, Winston Churchill wasn't the only Englishman who could speak eloquently with just one and two syllable words. Second, a million committees working for a million years couldn't come up with a mission statement better than:

"Preach the Gospel to the lost, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless and give hope to the hopeless."

Almost. Twelve years of editing things our members send to me to post on the web site has taught me you can sometimes make things even clearer and simpler, and I noticed you could make "shelter" a verb and cut two words from that line, making it:

"Preach the Gospel to the lost, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and give hope to the hopeless."

Had General Booth given that as a charge to a graduating class of shiny new lieutenants, they would have been on their feet cheering their hearts out, eyes damp. It is as a clear, simple, specific and eloquent statement of purpose as I've ever read.

This, however, is the mission statement of the Salvation Army, USA, as of March 2012:

The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the Universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.

General Booth's line, as I edited it, has 18 words and 23 syllables. That mission statement has 51 words and 98 syllables; almost three times as many words, almost five times as many syllables, so not only did they use more words, they used bigger ones.

Turning from the Salvation Army's not-so-simple mission statement to ours, sometime before she retired, Rev. Grace proposed rewriting our congregation's mission statement. She wanted it to be 15 words or less, and something we could memorize. Our current mission statement is part description and part wishful thinking:

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County is a vibrant, diverse community for all ages, where opportunities exist for religious, intellectual and spiritual growth. We value justice, service and respect for our world and welcome individuals who seek fellowship, healing and a caring connection.

How many of you knew we had a mission statement? [Pause to count hands; 15 out of 50, roughly.]

How many of you have memorized it? [Pause to count hands. None raised]

Among other failings, it would be nice if we actively encouraged our members to grow, not just had opportunities laying around for them, like those large books from the Sierra Club that people put on their coffee tables.

One of the gifts of being simple, if you are also eloquent, is that people remember. Let's try it with the line General Booth said, as edited:

"Preach the ..." (pause for the congregation to finish the phrase)
"Feed the ..." (pause)
"Shelter the ..." (pause)
"Give hope ..." (pause)
[About a third of the people remembered.]

Ours need some work - or to be scrapped. Mission statements reached their peak of popularity in the 1990's. I personally think anyone who needs a mission statement to figure out what a church does also needs a label on his spoon, telling him which end to hold and which end to put into his soup. You are free to disagree with me, and probably will. I'm sure we'll get a new mission statement as a part of the general housecleaning we do for the ministerial search process. I hope it is better than the last one.

How do we get from mission statements to covenants of right relations, besides the fact we are going to get both as part of the search process? Mission statements tell us what to do; covenants of right relations tell us how to do it. Covenants usually mention listening carefully, working with the best intentions, respecting other people even if you don't agree with them, and, if you hold office, not using your position for personal gain.

While churches in many denominations have mission statements, very few denominations have covenants of right relations. They are not unique to our denomination, but they are far more common with us than with any other denomination. When Rev. Joe discussed them at the October Church Council, he used a line I'm going to steal, "We need them more than the other churches because we don't have God looking over our shoulder with the Ten Commandments in His hand".

Up until a couple of months ago I thought they were a waste of time. I signed the one for the board that hangs in the back there, when I was on the board several years ago. I thought it was a waste of time, then. I act the way I do because of the way I was raised and the lessons I've learned since I've left home, not because of something I signed. I can still remember, for instance, the first time I saw my father telling a clerk, "Whoops! - you gave me too much change". I've done it a dozen times since. My parents, primarily, but a favorite uncle, two high school teachers, and heroes in the novels I read and reread in my youth, all helped shape my character. That covenant didn't.

So, one reason I didn't like them is that I thought they would have no effect. They might even have a negative effect. Several years ago I saw a web page devoted to their Board of Directors on the web site for UU San Francisco. The page had the board's covenant in the top right-hand corner. Their web mistress had asked for comments. I wrote to her, and to 400 of my closest friends, who subscribe to the UUA "Websters" mailing list:

If you had a notice telling people what to do if hundreds of rabid weasels invade the sanctuary during services, a wild-eyed, chittering furry horde, as thick as lemmings but out for blood, a casual reader might assume you had had problems with them in the past. By the same token, since you go to great lengths to reassure the world that your board now listens carefully and puts personal issues aside, the casual reader might assume that your previous board meetings were real doozies.

What changed my mind? A couple of things. One was the realization, finally, that although my character wouldn't change as soon as I signed it, a covenant would be a reminder, especially if we read it at the start of meetings; not all committees and not all meetings, surely, but at least every month or two. We all need reminders.

Another was Rev. Joe's description of how it worked at his home church in Chicago. If someone violated the covenant, they had to meet with the president of the board and a senior minister to discuss the violation. If someone violated it repeatedly, the leaders asked the person to leave.

A covenant with teeth - that makes a difference. They have had a clear, simple honor code at West Point for years: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." It isn't a covenant of right relations - senior cadets are still free to call junior ones "maggot", for instance - but it brings up a point. Those last five words - "or tolerate those to do" - are the tough part. Being honorable is easy, by comparison. Those last five words mean that if your best friend lies, cheats or steals, you are honor bound to march down to the commandant's office and report him. We have names for people like that: tattletale, snitch, fink. They aren't pretty words. People do not like to report other people. But, if we have a covenant of right relations, it will be useless unless there is a clause in it that says we shall speak up if we see someone violating the covenant. Such a clause tells people "I have your back".

We have failed to live up to our principles in the past. We're not unique in that respect; there are Mormons who drink, Baptists who gamble and Episcopalians who use the wrong fork at formal dinners. Rev. Joe told us, at that same October Church Council, that he knows of seven people who have left the fellowship because of intolerant, unwelcoming or abusive comments. If he knows of seven, it's a good bet that at least 14 more have left for the same reasons, without telling anyone why. I know two of those members who left. The comments that drove them from our congregation were made in front of at least six other members. They were more upset by the fact no one else said anything - no one had their back, no one spoke for them - than the fact someone made intolerant comments.

There are times to keep quiet. I have watched people who weigh 350 pounds buy jelly donuts, and I've seen people coughing so hard it took them four tries to get the match lined up with their cigarette. I kept quiet. There are times, however, when we should speak up.

It is almost as hard to speak up as it is to report a violation. Again, there something in our culture that says "mind your own business". I'm as guilty as anyone. I vividly remember sitting next to an older man who was no longer a member; I'll call him Ralph, to preserve his privacy. He was welcoming two young women who had come to our fellowship for the first time that morning, but he was welcoming them a little too warmly. I could see mild distress in their faces, but I said nothing. Looking back with the clear, sharp, vision of hindsight. I realized I should have said something like "Ralph, when we get as big as we are, as old as we are, and as homely as we are, we have to be careful around young women." You will notice that self- deprecating humor never hurts, and using "we" instead of "you" helps take the sting out of a rebuke. After that I should have offered to introduce them to some members who were women their own age. I did not, and they never came back. 95% of our first-time visitors never come back, but I still wonder what would have happened if I had spoken up. It is one of those things that when you wake up at three in the morning with a cramp in your calf, you mull over and wish you could go back and do over.

I have told people they should not chew with their mouths open a number of times, but they were people under the age of 12. I don't think I've rebuked an adult for what they said or did since 1971. It's hard; it goes against our grain as adults, and as UUs who value the worth and dignity of every person.

Sometimes when you're writing a sermon you have to reach for examples, and sometimes they fall into your lap. During the week it took me to write this one, a Facebook friend posted an audio clip from a radio station in North Dakota. The caller was a lady who had hit deer on the road three times in two years, every time close to a "deer crossing" sign. She thought that if the state highway commission would just move those deer crossing signs to less trafficked roads, her problem would be solved. The host tried to explain that the signs were warnings to motorists, not directions to deer, but she either didn't hear him or didn't understand him, and he spent the rest of her call muffling his laughter while the recorder spun.

In one way, a covenant of right relations is like a deer crossing sign; it is a set of directions, but it is also a warning that intolerant, unwelcoming or abusive people are out there. They won't abide by it, so we should watch out for them.

I think a covenant would be a valuable addition to our church, but I also think we would need to read it to each other now and again, and that it would have to have a clause calling on everyone who signed it to speak up when they see someone who isn't following it. The third verse of our opening hymn said it the best: "Speak for me". Speak for me if you see I'm being bullied, speak for me if someone aims an intolerant comment at me; speak for me if someone is making me uncomfortable. If we don't do that - if we just blow it up to poster size at Kinko's and hang it somewhere, then pat ourselves on the backs as it gathers dust - then the whole exercise will be as futile as a program to move the deer crossing signs.

[Delivered November 25, 2012. In 2008, my wife and I went to Peru to visit our daughter, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer. While we were there we met a gentleman who rented out his Andean black-chested eagle-buzzard, one nuevo sole (35 cents) for five minutes, to tourists who had always wanted a picture of themselves with an eagle on their heads. Who could resist?]

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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