“Kind Regards, Take Two”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, February 12, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Please try to understand my point of view.
Wait, can I take that back?
You don’t have to solve this – it helps me just to talk to you.
This is important to me. Please listen.
I see you’re in a tough position.
I can see my part in this.
I hadn’t thought of it that way before.
I could be wrong.
Let’s agree to disagree on that.
This isn’t just your problem; it’s our problem.
I’m feeling unappreciated.
We’re getting off the subject.
You’ve convinced me.
Let’s take a break for a few minutes. (If you can remember to do this, it’s extremely effective – especially if you’re having a big fight. After a break, it’s almost impossible to go back to yelling.)
Please keep talking to me.
I realize it’s not your fault.
That came out all wrong.
I see how I contributed to the problem.
What are we really fighting about?
How can I make things better?
I love you.
“23 Phrases to Help You Fight Right,”
by Gretchen Rubin
“The Tilted Metronome”
By Ian Carroll
It was a little past 8:30am. A school bus rumbled to a stop in front of our house, joined moments
later by another, this one entirely blocking the driveway. I turned away from the kitchen counter
to watch, wondering what they were doing here on a Saturday morning. It didn’t take long for
me to get my answer—all the pink hats and the protest signs were an obvious giveaway. First
Parish was preparing to go to the Women’s March.
I returned to my tasks, but looked repeatedly over my shoulder at the scene through the window.
Now, the goings-on at First Parish are a regular part of my environment—living across the street
from the church, we have front row seats, and couldn’t avoid most of it even if we tried—but this
clearly had the makings of something special. The collection of people filing onto the buses—
young and old, individuals, entire families, most wearing the now-ubiquitous “pussy” hats—was
a sight to behold, at once vibrant and determined, hopeful and serious, confident and
apprehensive. It thrilled me to see this, our congregation in action. The buses drove off. I
remained in my kitchen.
I didn’t have much of a choice really. Breakfast needed to be cleaned up and lunch for my wife
and kids had to be prepared. Besides, I was supposed to teach in a few minutes. I had every
reason to stay behind. And yet, I felt unsettled. I couldn’t shake the subtle sensation of
discomfort that kept nudging me, like the echo of a long ago offered, and frequently repeated,
prodding. It has always felt like a reprimand to me: Ian needs to participate more.
A few months ago, I was flipping through a box of papers that my mother had brought to me—
papers that she didn’t want but refused to discard—and came across a pile of my old school
report cards, every single one from first grade through the end of middle school. The nearly forgotten pungency of the carbon paper, released as I folded open the sheets, flung me straight
back to the feeling of jittery anticipation that accompanied my mother’s unveiling of my school
assessments so many years ago. The slight quiver in my hands couldn’t prevent me from
noticing the obvious pattern inscribed in those documents. Every December, without fail, I was
implored to “contribute more to class discussions,” “be more actively involved in group
activities,” and to “share my thoughts more often.”
I’m nothing if not consistent, I suppose. I’ve always felt more comfortable being slightly
removed from the crowd, a safe distance from the ruckus, rather than deep in the middle of it.
Observing, not instigating, is my default mode of engagement. Without doubt, I am what one of
our parishioners, Doug Muder, refers to as a “contemplative” UU. He has a talk entitled “The
Spirited Life” in which he describes the two poles of the life of a UU, the “contemplative” and
the “activist.” The contemplative, clearly, is about slowing down and seeking spiritual growth,
while the activist mode is about seeking justice in the world—inner work and outer work, he
calls them. Muder suggests that there is a natural rhythm that connects the two within any
individual, that a spirited life incorporates both by swinging back and forth like a pendulum.
This is a compelling illustration, but I’d elaborate on it a little bit. Imagine, if you will, an old
mechanical metronome, one of those wooden, pyramid shaped boxes with the swing arms—tick,
tock, tick, tock—the traditional tool, some would say torture device, of music teachers through
the ages. There is an adjustable weight on the swing arm that controls the speed of this regular
beat, from dizzyingly fast, to mind-numbingly slow. And if you’ve ever used one, you’ll also
know that if the metronome is on an uneven surface, tilted just a little bit to one side or another,
you’ll get this: tiiiick, tock, tiiiick, tock. Long, short, long, short, with the pendulum’s arm
staying much longer on one side than the other during the course of its arc.
In other words, as we follow our personal pendulums from inner work to outer work, we all have
our own unique tempos (tempi for the Italian linguists). Furthermore, I suspect that most of us
reside on surfaces that are not quite level. Around church, you’ll find those who are constantly
in motion, on every committee, attending every rally, doing things in the world—the classic
rabble-rousers. But you’ll also find the quiet ones, sitting in the back row of the pews, or
perhaps way up in a corner of the balcony, listening intently, pondering, trying to find peace and
make sense of it all. That’s me.
Doug Muder is right in suggesting that a healthy, spirited life needs to incorporate both motion
and stillness, action and contemplation. This is where belonging to a community is so important,
in two ways. First, I suspect that a strong, thriving UU congregation has a blend of “activists”
and “contemplatives,” and that as a whole some sort of balance is achieved between these two
poles. Secondly, our communities serve both to accept each of us as we are, and to encourage us
to be ourselves, only better.
That has definitely been the case for me. My personal metronome moves none-too-quickly, and
it is precariously skewed towards the contemplative side of the swing arc. It took me years to
regularly attend services at First Parish, and several more before I signed the membership book,
but I have always been welcomed to be involved in ways that suited me. I’ve performed
saxophone in services, been invited to give a stewardship moment to the congregation,
describing what First Parish means to me, and shared some of my thoughts in the Parishioner,
our newsletter. It’s even possible that Rev. John and Rev. Megan, and the First Parish
community as a whole, have applied a little weight to one side of the table that my action/
contemplation metronome sits on. Maybe, just maybe, my pendulum swings towards outer work
a little more easily than it used to.
The week after the election, yes the one that ushered Donald Trump into the presidency, Rev.
John spoke of the urgency of this moment in history, and of the need to immerse ourselves more
deeply in beauty, art, nature, and creativity. But he also spoke of the need to be outraged, to
protest, to fight for justice with greater intensity than ever before. Not surprisingly, I initially
gravitated towards his encouragement to find more quiet and solace in our lives. That’s what I
need, I thought. The more I’ve considered his words, though, the more I’ve realized I need to
respond to his exhortation to act. I’m certain that others in the pews that day had the opposite
reaction to me, and felt their hearts leap at the call to action. But like me, they too will feel, in
time, their pendulums swinging the other way.
If you’re one of those people, and you feel the need to take a step back, to regroup for a little
while, there might be a vacant seat up in the rear of the balcony. Because I’ll be in a pew near
the front. You see, while it’s true that the December report cards of my youth highlighted my
preference for quiet, I learned something else the day I looked through that stack. Most years,
the final report cards told the story of a student who had ultimately chosen to speak up, a boy
who took the risk of being uncomfortable.
I will always be a listener first and foremost. That’s how I feel most comfortable. Tiiiick, tock,
tiiiick, tock, is the sound my metronome—my tilted metronome—makes. If you are a doer,
yours may make quite a different sound. In this healthy, spirited community, we honor both. But
the collective, beautiful weight of this congregation also challenges us, subtly shifting the ground
on which we stand, altering the tilt of our metronomes. And so too does the ominous gravity of
the present era.
Now is a time for us all to seek comfort, but more importantly, to embrace discomfort as well.
That’s precisely why I’ll be sitting near the front of our Sanctuary, and it’s also why you might
drift to the back, for a time. There is a chorus of pendulums in motion around us, and one inside
each of us, all swinging between their poles. From contemplation to action. From outer work to
inner work. You protest, and I listen. I rise up, and you observe. Together we will make
ourselves, and our world, better. As individuals and as a community, in this historic moment, we
need to find quiet. And we will make noise.
And, yes, my sermon this morning is intended to generate a conversation among us as friends. Unlike so many of my sermons, this is not an oracular pronouncement from on high; I am not Moses come to deliver unto you the Commandments from above (that’s a joke). But today I do want to deliver what may be hard truths and I want to do so in a manner that does not arouse our defensiveness.
As Ian said so eloquently, in this historic moment, we will make noise. We also need to find quiet. This is a sermon about finding quiet.
You know, there’s someone who sometimes comes to this church but one thing she says she misses about her former church is that there, before the service began, there always was quiet.
A long time ago, a lot of Unitarian churches used to place at the top of their order of service, a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson who said “I like the silent church before the service begins.” Like “please silence your cell phones,” it was sort of a reminder to keep a quiet decorum. What’s funny, though, is that usually they did not print the entire Emerson quotation, which is, “I like the silent church before the service begins” (comma) “better than any preaching.” Often they omitted his dig at preaching.
Here at First Parish, however, there’s commotion and hubbub before the service and then, in recent weeks, during the service our rafters have been shaking and it’s been hard to tell where the protests stop and the worship begins. TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! Probably it’s not necessary for me to work that into every sermon (and I won’t), but I could!
And so, as it happens, the person who likes quiet before the service attended the Washington Women’s March and she noted that before the speeches, before the chanting, there was a time of quiet…and, amidst the hundreds of thousands of protesters, she experienced that quiet to be profound and powerful. She suggested that, perhaps, our Boston March might have benefitted from a similar time of quiet. And I think she’s right. And I think whenever we are together, we need some quiet.
I think it was eight years ago that I first preached a sermon titled “Kind Regards,” and – some of you may recall – it was at a time when I was chair of the board at the UU Service Committee and UUSC was without a CEO and so Constance Kane, the COO and I were effectively managing the organization and it was not a happy place. There was a lot of dissatisfaction and dissension and mistrust and nastiness, a really unhealthy work environment.
Now, the thing about Constance, the COO, is that she was always immaculately well-mannered and also she had the habit of signing every email, letter, and memo with the closing words, “Kind regards.” Kind Regards, Constance. Kind Regards, Constance. Now, at first, I thought this was a sappy, saccharine, and meaningless gesture. But, as time went by, I slowly came to believe that signing off with Kind Regards was instead a subtle, subversive and transformative guerilla tactic to inject some potent micro-dose of civility to what had become an uncivil organizational culture. Signing off with Kind Regards was not the only tactic we employed to turn things around, but we did positively affect the culture, and I am convinced that Kind Regards surreptitiously helped.
After I preached that sermon, many of you adopted Kind Regards as your closing so that still we see those words in our communications, and I find it a sweet-not-saccharine and still-meaningful gesture.
So, the hard truth is that as our national culture coarsens, and as our resistance to injustice stiffens, I believe that there is a real danger of our interactions coarsening and stiffening – with one another as well as with whom we disagree.
A neighboring Episcopalian colleague says that he is starting to see some worrisome Trumpian mannerisms in his own behavior – impulsivity, flying off the handle, mean-spiritedness.
I read of an attorney and author named Mike Godwin who gave birth to Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies when he observed, “As an online discussion grows longer (and more heated and more disagreeable), the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%.”
Let us resist our Trumpian or Hitlerian impulses!
Indeed, I think it is essential that we cultivate a culture – within our movement broadly but most immediately within our congregation – that is as able to keep quiet as we are able to make noise. We cannot and should not be quiet always – and Elizabeth Warren ought not be silenced, but I am talking about being spiritually prepared for the sacred work of resistance. We need cultivate a culture of respect and courtesy and comity. Resistance and resilience; defiance and deference. We need to know when to step up and when to step back.
(Included in the order of service was a list of attitudes, often typical of those in dominant positions (white, male, privileged, etc.), that often undermine cross-cultural communication. Awareness of, and sensitivity to, these attitudes is helpful to knowing when to step up and, more likely, when to step back.
Yes, it was an old German folktale that tells the story of a group of porcupines who live in an area so cold, they will freeze when they stand too far apart from one another, but succumb to impalement if they stand too close. Settling at last upon a state of mutually inconvenient cooperation, they call their artificial state good manners. They learned when to step up and when to step back.
So, who are the porcupines? Well, we are the porcupines. We may have soft and tender underbellies but, believe me, we can be barbed.
As Oscar Wilde once said: “A gentleman is one who never hurts another’s feelings unintentionally.”
In recent weeks, I have had a few people come to my office to say that recently they have felt bullied by other parishioners, or that they have felt that their feelings or opinions have been dismissed or gone unheard. There have been aggressions and microagressions. Often those who have spoken to me have been women who have felt bullied by men…but not always. And to everyone’s credit, sometimes these concerns have been taken directly to the offending parties, apologies have been made and matters peaceably resolved. Sometimes others have felt too intimidated to speak up.
Within this congregation and elsewhere, I personally have been told of offensive things I have said and done and, wherever possible, I have apologized. Apologizing sincerely is a vital ministerial skill, Josh. It’s a vital human skill. We all have ample opportunity to practice.
Unitarian Universalists, in general, are not especially known for our humility. You’ve noticed this? And in these suburbs which can be over generalized as “leafy, liberal, and loaded,” there can definitely be a sense of entitlement, as if we are especially worthy and entitled to have our needs met.
It is not uncommon for me to observe parishioners making requests of one another, or requests of staff members, with the request prefaced by the words, “I need you to do this or that…” No please, no thank you, no if you can work it in, no acknowledgment that the other person may have other things on their plate. And, speaking of plates, it’s not uncommon for me to observe parishioners leaving their cups and plates in the sink, waiting for “someone else” to clean up after them. The maid, perhaps?
This is beginning to feel déjà like one of those horrible meetings with your roommates – a house meeting, a family meeting – and…it is!
It also would be a kindness for us, whenever possible, to address one another by our names. Do you know the name of your child’s caregiver or teacher? Or, for that matter, the name of the person sitting next to you? And, for that, nametags do help. We don’t often actually say, “Don’t you know who I am?” but sometimes we act that way.
There is something that I’m seeing more and more, and it’s called “bystander training” and, in this coarse and sometimes unsafe climate, bystander training offers ways for bystanders to intervene when witnessing words or deeds that are hostile to Muslims or immigrants or women or Jews or the differently-abled or LGBTQ folks…or anyone. And maybe we need this training for ourselves but, just as a start, I want to give us permission, if we observe the absence of common courtesies, to say “Could you please say…please?” And if such a thing should be said to me or to you, I hope that you and I will do our best to respond affirmatively and non-defensively.
When making requests of my mother, my father never – NEVER – said please. And I know that did not help their marriage.
When I preached about this several years ago, I cited work that the UU Service Committee was doing in 3rd world countries where there is endemic domestic violence. They first taught men to say “Good morning” to their wives. To say ‘good morning,” to call someone by their name, to say please, and thank you, and I’m sorry…these have far reaching and profound effects.
As I say, it can often be men who are the obstinate ones and, recently, a colleague analyzed many of our hymns. The blue hymnal which preceded the one we currently use was especially sexist. These were among its hymn titles:
The Mind of Man
The Man of Integrity
The Man of Life Upright
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
Our Friend, Our Brother, Our Lord
O Brother Man
Man Lives Not for Himself Alone
Happy the Man
The Son of Man
The Parliament of Man
and so on.
This colleague went on to say that “There was only one of these hymns that women in the congregation felt comfortable singing. It was entitled ‘Turn Back, O Man, Forswear Thy Foolish Ways.’”
This, the successor hymnal, sought to be more inclusive in many ways, reflecting a growing interest in spirituality and including women as composers and authors, and music from diverse cultures was included.
Even more recently, this teal supplement was published and my colleague actually sang to us from hymn #1012 which we just sang:
”When I am frightened, will you reassure me?
When I’m uncertain, will you hold my hand?
Will you be strong for me? sing to me quietly?
Will you share some of your stories with me?
If you will show me compassion,
then I may learn to care as you do,
then I may learn to care.
My colleague went on to say, “This song, by Shelley Jackson Denham, portrayed a Unitarian Universalist culture that was unlike any we had published before. Unitarian Universalists: Frightened? Uncertain? Needing to learn compassion? This was something new for us. We were not depicted as the people with all the answers. We were learning that we needed to be learning. And it is with this perspective that we will grow in intercultural competency to live in the rapidly changing culture which surrounds us.”
My friends, we will make noise but we will be effective only to the extent that our noise arises from a deeply grounded quiet place within.
I say these things now, my friends, because as I look around I see us on the front lines of those who are calling attention to the moral crises of our times: racial justice, climate justice, justice for the disabled, immigrant justice, gender justice, justice for people of all faiths and none. We must be resistant and resilient; we must stiffen our spines but not our hearts. We must not coarsen, but deepen and elevate this struggle. “Well behaved churches seldom make history” we say; and we may never be a well-behaved church, nor may we want to be one; but we can and would be a kindlier church.
There’s something I haven’t yet said clearly. This is not a sermon about good manners. What instead I am saying is that our efforts at social justice are founded not on our political principles but on the trust and compassion we have with one another. This is not a top- down but a bottom-up approach.
A recent study of UU congregations shows that “the most important factor in whether individual congregation members participate in social justice activities in the wider community is also participation in a small relational group. It doesn’t have to be a social justice oriented group. It could be a 12-step group, a knitting circle, a Bible study, a book group.”
“What doesn’t make a difference in congregational involvement in social justice? Incredibly, prophetic preaching. A study of congregations during the Viet Nam War era showed how often ministers preached prophetic sermons had no effect on whether church members participated in anti-war activities.”
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. notes that all nonviolent campaigns have four basic steps:
1 Collecting facts to determine if there’s injustice
4 Direct action
My friends, we are I suggest at a phase of self-purification where, indeed, we need the spiritual resources to sustain us in our struggle. Not least is the cultivation of kindness and quiet.
Yes, let’s remember that we are porcupines and remember to say please, and thank you, and I’m sorry.
I’ve been reading, you won’t be surprised, a book about manners by someone named Henry Alford and it is titled, “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?” I give you permission to, as gently as possible, ask that question if the circumstances require.
And I’ll close with Alford’s words. He says,
“I’ll just speak simply about what makes me think we could all profit from a frank discussion of how we all behave. Americans have an essential conflict with manners. We yearn for the predictability and sense of order that manners provide, but we are turned off by the elitism and privilege that they seem to bespeak. But the fact is, manners don’t need to take the form of asparagus forks and ‘My good sir’; the manners I’m talking about are available to all regardless of station in life. Contrary to popular opinion, manners are not a luxury good that’s interesting only to those who can afford to think about them. The essence of good manners is not exclusivity, nor exclusion of any kind, but sensitivity. To practice good manners is to confer upon others not just consideration but esteem; it’s to bathe others in a commodity best described by noted speller Aretha Franklin.”
Noted speller, Aretha Franklin?
OK, let’s spell it together:
Find out what it means to me!
Spell it one more time.
I love you.
Somebody say amen.
These are the words to an old song sung by the United Mineworkers and popularized by Pete Seeger:
Step by step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none
And by union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill
Singly none singly none.
***********************[This is the list that was printed at the back of the Order of Service – it could go on the back cover maybe?]
The purpose of this list is to reveal the systems of power that give dominant voices privilege in our traditional social discourse, and to help all allies understand when, why, and how to STEP BACK and empower traditionally marginalized voices to STEP UP.
-I expect some level of authority because of my education.
-I feel comfortable using academic terminology.
-I have always been told that my voice is important.
-As soon as I have something to say, I feel like I should say it.
-When I speak, I expect not to be interrupted.
-I was taught that aggressive speech is admirable.
-Every time I personally feel slighted, I am inclined to demand justice.
-I often feel that I represent “we” and I hear marginalized voices as “they.”
-My voice sounds like most voices in the media.
-Most leaders look like me and I feel comfortable leading and expect others to follow.
-People know how to address my gender identity.
-I normally feel that my good intentions justify my words and actions.
-When there is a crowd, I instinctively move to the front.
-When there is a conflict, I want to be involved whether or not I have anything to contribute.
-I often feel that others need and want my help.
-My voice is never eclipsed by my sexual objectification
-I do not fear violent reactions.
-My native language is the only language I ever need.
-I was raised to expect people to respond to insensitivity with a sense of humor.
-I have never been admonished for excellence.
-When I am eloquent and knowledgeable I am never called “feisty” or “uppity.”
-I expect the police and government to serve me, and I feel comfortable engaging in arguments with them.
-I am more interested in what is said than how it is said.
-I sometimes view conversations as having winners and losers.
-I am inclined to talk mostly about things I’m interested in or proud of.
-I am naturally more interested in conversing to report, plan, or act than to build rapport.
-I normally value data over personal experience.
-I was raised to value muscle and intellect but not spirituality or compassion and I often expect my values to be the norm.
-I use the word “I” a lot.
-Most metaphors and expressions are relevant to my culture.
-I never feel judged for my sexual orientation, and it is considered normal for me to express my sexuality.
-No hate speech exists that would dehumanize me or my heritage.
-People assume I have money and a lawyer.
-I love to work, think, and act alone.
-The status quo largely accepts and feels comfortable with me.
-When I look at groups of people, I might not immediately notice if most of them are white men.
-People value my time and don’t expect me to console them or listen to their personal problems.
-People often are reluctant to share their opinions with me if they don’t think I’ll agree.