The First Parish of Watertown – Unitarian Universalist
February 9, 2014
Can I Get a Witness?
by Tracy Johnson, Ministerial Intern
Does it ever happen for you this way – that you hear a song and are suddenly transported inward – touched by something at first incomprehensible, but then unfurling before you – a gateway to a deeper place that fills you with emotions you can’t explain, but feel with certainty? Many of you know that I am spending part of my time this year doing Clinical Pastoral Education at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; a chaplaincy internship. Once a week I meet with my group of fellow interns and our supervisor to “process” our learning and experiences. It happened one week that whoever was scheduled to bring an opening reading forgot and so another member quickly pulled out her I-phone and called up a song for us to reflect on. With a respectful nod to the rabbinical student in our group and then to me she noted, “It’s very Christian,” warning of the sacrificial atonement references to the cross. We smiled. It is lovely to share with a diverse group of people in such an intimate way that we are attuned to one another’s spiritual journeys and needs. So, it was very Christian, as she had said, and I got past the owning of the crucifixion and the blood that the performer was claiming for himself, and listened as he began the refrain: I am blessed, he sang softly; I am blessed, coming straight from his heart; I am blessed to be a witness. And there it was, catching me totally off guard as he repeated the words, a single tear rolling down my cheek. In those few words he had captured something of me. I am blessed to be a witness. It’s what this Unitarian Universalist ministry is all about for me – being a viable witness to something that the world so desperately needs. And I began to think about this concept of witnessing. What does that mean?
I was reminded that every so often in my mandatory training as a parole officer we would be shown a video of a man and given a question upon which to focus. And every time I would watch intently, wanting to be able to respond if I needed to. And every time I would miss the very thing that they asked about, having long since forgotten the previous training experience. The instructor would always ask about the gorilla with the basketball who passed by in the background, left to right and back again, several times! When they replayed the video it was so obvious that it was embarrassing for most of us. What they were trying to do was make credible witnesses out of us; to get us to look at the larger picture; widen our lens, in order to see the whole of an event. To see something and then be able to report on it. And what they were pointing to was a statistic about how unobservant most of us really are with our myopic view of what is going on around us. Certainly this had value for the work I was doing, but as I think about it now in a different context I am given to a consideration of the condition of our world in these times. As the local and national news stream rattles off innumerable shootings, kidnappings, and bombings, alongside stories of how we are devastating our environment and I read in the local paper about the increase in homelessness and food and job insecurity, I – we – witness all this on a daily basis. While the man in my video might represent one news snippet, as a trained observer I am forced to widen my lens and look at the larger picture – the gorilla of injustice; that lack of right relationship which crisscrosses behind each event, unseen if we are not paying attention, but frighteningly evident as a backdrop in our world.
Do you see these things and feel an urgency to bear witness? Clearly we here at First Parish see the need around us and respond by supporting the local food bank, the UU Urban Ministry and its various forms of outreach, the work of the UU Service Committee; or by lending our signatures to petitions regarding gun legislation and the state of our prison system. In that responding we are, in some sense, witnessing as individuals in a faith community to ideals we hold about dignity and life.
Some weeks after my group epiphany, at the close of one of my husband’s favorite TV crime shows, NCIS, a song began to play in the background, quietly at first, and then a little louder with a haunting refrain. I was singing along in no time, captured again, while suddenly realizing that this was television and there would be no rolling credits like in the movies to tell me the name of the song or the artists. Now, if there is a god, she is the developer of google, I am positive! I typed in the one line I had committed to memory: “We are how we treat each other, nothing more.” In less than a minute I was led to a You Tube video along with the song and an explanation. The Alternate Routes, whose song we listened to as a reflection earlier, are a local Connecticut band who responded to the 2012 shootings in Newtown and to an organization started by the family of one of the slain children which promotes kindness over violence in memory of their daughter. The Alternate Routes responded in the way they knew best: musically. Their song is their witness to a tragedy and to an ideal that asks us what it is we witness and how we will in turn bear witness to it. In the totality of their lyrics, again I had uncovered another piece of my witness puzzle. “We are Love. We are One.” Living witnesses to our interconnectedness and the way to care for that. “We are how we treat each other when the day is done.” The course our relationships chart is a witness to a way of being. “We are Peace. We are War.” We are always witnessing to something, be it good or bad. “We are how we treat each other, nothing more.” And here’s the bottom line: this is all that truly matters – our witness, without any words at all, speaks volumes. In both our actions and in our inaction we are witnessing to truths that are a part of us at the core of our beings.
We are always witnessing to something. I received an interesting gift for Christmas this year from my daughter and her new partner. I have met him twice now, both times at our home when they visited for short stays. We haven’t had any really deep conversations about my interests or beliefs, and he is apparently an observant soul, but still he chose a gift that has intrigued me since I opened it. Maybe it was the line of recycling bins in the garage or the compost bucket on the kitchen counter or the earth centered, seasonal décor of our home that led him to suggest an “Eco-Logical” calendar, divided up into seasons instead of months, with star patterns we should look for in a given night sky, and details about the flora and fauna surrounding us, the animals and their seasonal behavior. The way we make our home is a witness to what we have seen and experienced. It says that we care about the environment; that we are ecologically engaged and want to make difference in whatever small ways we can.
This gives me pause, really, to think about my witness overall. Great that I – we, perhaps – are in tune with environmental causes and make choices based on what we hope to change. But what else might I be witnessing to, unawares? To what idolatries of mind and heart do I – we – bear witness? The search for knowledge that keeps me safely tucked away in the halls of academia? The financial means to provide charity which protects me from coming face to face with need, getting my hands dirty and risking relationship in order to empower another, thus eliminating need? You can fill in the blank here for yourselves, but be assured that some of our witness misses the mark in what we would want to be remembered for as persons and as a people. For as much as we may do, there is a complacency inherent in our level of comfort. And whether we intend it to or not, it is a part of our witness.
It was this complacency in part that the prophets railed against, along with outward expressions of adulation that left lacking the societal change necessary to turn injustice on its head. From a place of deep knowing and experience of communion with the divine consciousness, according to Abraham Heschel, the Jewish Theological Seminary professor and civil rights activist in his book, “The Prophets,” they made a life of bearing witness to a divine pathos of love for and disappointment in humanity and what it had created for itself, still short of its potential goodness.
Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Richard Gilbert says that we, as a religious tradition, fall under what he calls a “prophetic imperative; a religious mandate for the corporate address of the church to the systemic problems of society.” Like the prophets who felt that the will of God for their nation had been whispered in their ears, we have a message too that calls for more than Band-Aid solutions to injustice. We can feed the hungry – important enough in its own right – or we can cry out for systemic changes that eliminate hunger. The prophets’ aim was to bring about the kingdom of god – not some far off place to be later realized – but an ideal in the social order right here in our midst. Gilbert calls us beyond individual energy to the communal power required to achieve social change in our times. The freedoms that we espouse as Unitarian Universalists are not just for us. We get wrapped up at times in what we have been freed from, especially those of us who have come to Unitarian Universalism from other, more hierarchical religious traditions, that we forget our responsibility to pay it forward. Basking in the glow of our newfound freedom we want to rest in it.
Our Unitarian forebear, James Luther Adams, suggests that a correct use of freedom seeks freedom and social justice for others. Instead of keeping our freedom to ourselves, we need to begin to consider using our freedom for a purpose. We possess a freedom in order to do something with it. Our principles provide a backdrop from which to work; ultimate goals in right relationship that we are called to bring into existence. Like the prophets, we have a message; a Unitarian Universalist pathos, if you will, that arises out of the kind of divine pathos that the prophets themselves engaged. The social ethicist and theologian, Gary Dorrien, suggests that our common theology (if we can claim one together, I would add) is really about whatever a religious community stakes its life upon and witnesses to; whatever is of ultimate concern to us.
What does that witness look like for us? Have we thought about that? For those outside our walls who witness us here at First Parish, what do we imagine they might say is our ultimate concern? I guess my question here is really, “Are we doing all we can to be credible witnesses to our faith, to our principles?” “Are we using our freedom to create freedom for others?”
I don’t know about you, but personally, I am feeling these days a “disconnect” between the empowerment I mean to promote and the actual witness that I present. I am feeling distanced from the kind of engagement necessary to truly uplift another; the kind of relationship with the marginalized that asks who they are and what they want and finds ways to assist them in obtaining that for themselves.
Some of us will recall the early 60’s when Motown was all the rage and Marvin Gaye released his popular ballad of unrequited love. Others may recall when the Stones produced their cover of this tune. Some of you will recall the shouts of those who, by virtue of race alone, were presumed guilty and rarely offered the opportunity to prove themselves otherwise or the more current rap recounting of such still all too familiar circumstances. But it was the African American church that brought life to the words in the way that I mean for us to consider them, seeking affirmation of a public testimony or spiritual insight shared in their midst. “Can I Get a Witness?” A plea from the pulpit for someone to bear witness to what the speaker had professed; to shout out an “Amen!” – someone to agree that they, too, had experienced what the speaker had revealed.
So I am wondering here in this place about a witness. Like the very Christian singer that inspired my thoughts on witness, are you blessed to be a witness to our faith? Is there some one of our principles that moves you so deeply you can’t keep quiet about it; in fact creates an urgency within you take a stand for it with words and deeds? Can I get a witness? Like the band that used their special gift to witness to an evil and to a better way of being, suggesting that our witness is the thing that matters most, is it important to you to live into your idea of right relationship in such a way that it makes a difference in our world? Do you think about your identity, not just as a person, but as a Unitarian Universalist person; think about what gifts you possess and how they are being used; think about how these things effect the ways in which you relate to others, so that you are intentional about your way of being in relationship? Can I get a witness? Do you, along with me, sometimes feel that disconnectedness; want to go deeper in working toward justice in ways that are more than charitable; ways that are empowering, even when that means risking vulnerability? Like the members of my chaplaincy group, are you willing to view the world through another’s lens in an honest way that comes from your having taken a chance and really listening, one on one, to their pain, their hopes, their vision, for humanity? I ask you one last time: Can I get a witness?