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That Teal Hymnal

November 30, 2014


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Ted Pack, 2014 Good morning, and thank you for coming out on a cold winter morning, when you could have been at home, making soup out of a turkey carcass. If this is your first time to visit us, I should warn you that I'm not a minister. Our minister speaks three times a month. On the other days we make do with the junior varsity, so to speak. I'm Ted Pack, this congregation's web master. This is the 12th time I've spoken on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, so while I'm not a minister, I'm not a complete novice.

I'm going to be talking about our teal hymnal, "Singing the Journey", first in general and then in detail about three hymns. Some people, if they base a sermon on a hymn, will open their sermon by singing the first verse. Several of the people I talked to about this service - all of them, in fact - said that I might want to re-think that option. I love to sing, but enthusiasm isn't the same as skill or talent. I'm like the sailor who loved to steer but wasn't very good at it. He was always thinking up love poems for his sweetheart when he should have been watching where he was going. He ran his ship aground and was court-martialed for . . . putting his heart before the course.

A second warning: I may ramble a little; it comes with the territory when you have a nimble mind and read a lot. I'll try to connect the dots so that you don't think my neurons are firing at random.

I first met the teal hymnal in 2007, at General Assembly in Portland. I went to a two-hour sing-along and discussion session with Jim Scott and Mimi Bornstein. Ms. Bornstein wrote "Comfort Me". She and Mr. Scott are both accomplished musicians. By coincidence, speaking of doing things for people, I was sitting next to a blind lady when Jim told a joke that involved a hand motion. I have forgotten the joke and the motion, but everyone save the blind lady chuckled. I told her how he had gestured, and she too chuckled.

[Ed. Note: General Assembly, or "GA", is an annual nation-wide convention of Unitarian Universalists.]

Then we sang "Comfort Me". [Lyrics] The third verse, "Speak for me" was the shortest, simplest and strongest call to social justice that I had ever heard. I wanted our congregation to sing it. I knew buying one copy of the hymnal and making 100 photocopies of that hymn alone was illegal and unethical. I approached Ms. Bornstein after the workshop and asked if I could give her money equal to the royalties she would get from 100 hymnals, plus copying costs, for 100 copies. She said no, that was unfair too. So, even though I didn't like some of the hymns, I bought some of the hymnals for us. Others have, too. You can see who donated yours by looking inside the front cover, if you're curious. [Ed. Note - Some of the names inside are not truthful.]

What's not to like about the teal hymnal? Well, to start with, 16 out of 75 of the hymns are in a foreign language, everything from Arabic to Zulu. Seven are in Spanish. Another half a dozen are in English, but borrowed from the African-Americans.

One of the current politically correct concerns is "cultural appropriation", which means we Anglos shouldn't pretend to be something we aren't, whether it be getting what is called a "tribal" tattoo from the Maoris, styling our hair in cornrows or wearing a "bindi" which is that jewel on the forehead that women in India wear. It annoys some members of a minority to see members of a majority aping them. One of the reasons, according to a blog I read on the subject, is that white women can go home, undo their cornrows, then go out and apply for a job without fear of being judged on the color of their skin instead of their skill and experience. Black women can't. Some people compare cultural appropriation to the "blackface" makeup that white minstrels wore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As a side note, for those of you who were hoping for me to ramble, I have a tribal tattoo, from a tribe named the Ibans, but I got it honestly, in a longhouse on the island of Borneo, from an Iban. I served in Borneo for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English at a government boarding school. 2/3rds of my students were Ibans.

[Ed. Note: "Iban" is pronounced "EE-bahn". They are one of the native tribes in Borneo. They were called "Sea Dayaks" at one time, by British adventurers, but they always referred to themselves as "Iban".]

I don't think singing someone's song counts as "cultural appropriation". It is, to my mind, as innocent as quoting Confucius if you're not Chinese; a tribute, not an appropriation. What concerns me is how hard it is to sing in Spanish, Swahili, Italian and so forth; with rare exception none of us speak any of those languages, save Spanish, and stumbling along with a phonetic guide just adds to the difficulties. Some of you sing effortlessly. Some of us don't, and the fewer obstacles we have, the better we run that particular race.

I had a second concern, namely that someone with a sense of humor as puckish as my own had palmed off what he said was "Great Spirit of All, Protect Us, Your Children" in Zulu, but what we were actually singing was about a young lass from Nantucket, who carried something unmentionable in a bucket. Two different members of the team who assembled the hymnal assured me that they had had independent people translate each foreign hymn.

So, why buy an imperfect hymnal? Because the pluses outweighed the minuses; in my case, having "Comfort Me", even if we never sang anything else in it. In that way, the teal hymnal is a lot like our congregation here; it has some things I don't like, but more that I do.

I'm only going to mention one thing on my own behalf; that Nuclear Free Zone sign. I thought it was silly in the 1970's, when we added it. It was quite the style, back then, to have one. As I recall, the City of London declared itself to be Nuclear Free too. But, it was quite the style back then for men to wear their hair halfway down their ears, and to wear powder blue double knit polyester leisure suits. I think that fad has died, frankly. But, I know some of my fellow congregants love it, and I'm willing to leave it be. I've already annoyed enough of you this morning, so I'll skip the other things I personally dislike, and turn to general things.

A couple of years ago, in another sermon, I told you that for every item in the order of service, and for every ornament, wall hanging or decorative piece in the sanctuary, at least one person hated it and at least one person wouldn't attend if it wasn't there. Just out of curiosity, those artificial trees vanished in the last sanctuary makeover. Does anyone miss them? Raise your hand. [Pause; some did.]

I'd wager large sums at long odds that at least a fourth of you would rather our walls were a different color, although with this color we can brag that, like Fresno, we have a "green" sanctuary.

[Ed. Note: Our sanctuary's walls are a pleasant pastel green. The UU Church of Fresno is the first LEED certified church in California. LEED, in turn, is an award, "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design." from the United States Green Building Council.]

Turning from décor to the order of service, I know a couple of you think we'd have increased participation in our classes, projects and activities if we'd just bring back announcements. I can also remember the Sunday when announcements ran longer than the sermon. I suspect some people would not attend - or would leave the service early - if we brought them back.

So, like the hymnal, it's an imperfect world here at 2172 Kiernan. All we can do is hope that the positives outweigh the negatives.

I'm going to turn to the individual hymns now. The UUA web site has a page devoted to the hymnal, with a paragraph or two of background for each hymn. This is what it says, in part, about "Comfort Me":

The composer writes, "It was written on a day when I wasn't doing my life very well or very gracefully. My partner and I were being quite snarley with each other; I didn't want to be around people and was generally feeling intolerant. I was in no mood to be nice, loving, or anything of the sort. Music has always had the ability to take me out of myself (or more into myself, as the case may be). It was in this spirit that I went to the piano that day. I sat there for a while and just let my fingers wander around the keys. After a while, a chord progression presented itself. As I began to feel better, I decided to ask for guidance in how to get out of the terrible mood I had succumbed to. And then came the words. They were a combination of a prayer and a plea."

"Speak for me", the third verse, is, at just three words, the shortest, simplest and strongest call to work for justice that I have ever heard. Speak for me if I am too young or too old to be heard; speak for me if I am too poor to influence a politician; speak for me if I am handicapped or undocumented or any of a thousand conditions that put people in the margin or in the shadow or in the closet.

Right now I don't have to be spoken for. That may change as I get older. I was born white, I was born male, I was born straight, I was born right- handed, I grew to be just over six feet tall, and, 40 pounds and 35 years ago, I was fairly good looking, except for my nose.

I'm going to stop talking about me for a moment and turn to cucumbers, but, as promised, I'll connect the dots.

Every once in a while, in our house, a cucumber hides behind the kale in the crisper for three or four weeks. When we find it, it drips.

Privilege - white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege and all the other privileges - oozed out of my life the way fluids ooze out of one of those lost cucumbers, through no fault or effort of my own; just because that's how I was born. So, when I talk about the privileged class, I'm talking as a member, not as someone looking at it from the outside like an orphan peering into the window of a fancy restaurant, watching the rich people eat. I'm IN that restaurant, ordering another bottle of Burgundy to go with the pheasant under glass.

I started writing this sermon before events in Ferguson unfolded. We've all had a lesson in white privilege from it. To take one example out of many, I've never been stopped for what African-Americans call "Driving while black", and Hispanics call "Driving while brown". I've worked with black men and brown men who have been stopped.

Why should we speak for them, especially if we are in the privileged class?

Reason number one, it's the right thing to do. You can't belong to a church whose first principle is the worth and dignity of every person, then dismiss people because they are black or gay or just a kid; not without being a world-class hypocrite, at least, and maybe missing something special.

My bitterest experience at GA - the same one where I heard "Comfort Me" - came when the moderator announced it was time for the youth worship service, which means the young people had put it together themselves, but she emphasized it was for everyone. At least half of the adults walked out. The service which followed was, in just 15 minutes, one of the ten best I've attended in my life. I felt sorry for the kids, who had been insulted, and for the adults, who'd missed it.

Reason number two, karma. If our friends the Buddhists are right about reincarnation, and you make too much of a pest of yourself, the next time through you could end up being a dung beetle. If our friends the Universalists are right, and there is a heaven, and everyone goes to it, you'll have an eternity to meet everyone you ever slighted, to get to know what you missed, and to hang your head in shame and chagrin. Even if they are both wrong, fate being what it is, sooner or later you'll wish you'd been a better person.

Reason number three, it doesn't hurt to set a good example. If you are considerate to others when you are young and strong, you can hope others will be considerate to you when you are old and feeble.

Speak out. Speak for someone.

My next song is "How Could Anyone". [Lyrics] The UUA site tells us

A song by Alaskan singer, Libby Roderick, was composed in response to a friend in pain. It has been heard around the world, translated into many languages, and is reprinted in many books. The simple folk tune and words have been embraced by people with many types of pain, from AIDS orphans to cancer survivors and prisoners. The lyrics have been used for healing in many different settings that include churches, hospitals, shelters, rallies, weddings, and funerals.

I used to think it was telling us not to make fun of the handicapped. I myself am missing a bit here and there, mostly through mishaps with sharp objects. You can still see where I took a slice an eighth of an inch wide out of the tip of my finger with a table saw, 30 years ago. It aches in cold weather, but doesn't slow me down. I won't ask for a show of hands on this one, but I suspect some of you have scars too.

Sermon writing, at least for those of us who haven't given up our amateur status, is a lot more collaborative than you might think. I talked about this one with a number of people I know and trust. Two of them told me, before I ever read that snippet from the UUA, that the song could refer to scars on the soul, not on the body, and that there were a lot of different ways to get hurt.

Most of us have scars on our souls; things we did we wish we hadn't, things we didn't do we wish we had, paths taken and not taken. The song tells us not to make fun of them, either. Think, before you ask someone why they never got married, or don't have any kids; think about possibilities and ask them about something else.

It doesn't matter how many parts we have that work, or what caused us to do the things we did, be they wise or foolish; we all have a divine spark within us. Concentrate on that spark, not what surrounds it.

We're going to close with "Shall We Gather at the River", a Christian hymn by a Baptist preacher, Robert Lowry, who was born in 1826, and died in 1899. The river to which the hymn alludes is the "river of life" described in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation. It doesn't have any moral lessons in it that I can see, but it rolls right along, it's in English, and it's fun to sing.

I'm not a Christian, but I enjoy Christian music. There is some suspicion that Rev. William Sinkford, who was the UUA president when the teal hymnal was assembled, liked it too. I don't mind singing Christian songs. Every time I do I think of Handel's "Messiah", which almost every symphony orchestra plays almost every year at Christmas. Many of those musicians, especially in the violin section, are Jewish, and they saw away as vigorously as the Christians among them. You don't have to agree with a piece of music to enjoy it.

I'm almost finished. To review,
Speak for someone;
Don't belittle people;
Have fun.
Amen, and Blessed be.


Here are the lyrics for the first two hymns I mentioned. You can hear both of them on YouTube if you are curious.

Comfort Me
Comfort me, comfort me, comfort me, oh my soul.
Sing with me, sing with me, sing with me, oh my soul.
Speak for me, speak for me, speak for me, oh my soul.
Dance with me, dance with me, dance with me, oh my soul.
Back to the sermon.

How Could Anyone
How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle
How deeply you’re connected to my Soul ...
Back to the sermon.

[Delivered November 30, 2014]

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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