“Civil Wars” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 12, 2012
Call to Worship – “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even the
miserable and crochety –
best preacher that ever was
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good
Watch now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
Reading – from “Behavior” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The power of manners is incessant, — an element as unconcealable as fire. The nobility cannot in any country be disguised, and no more in a republic or a democracy than in a kingdom. No man [person] can resist their influence. Manners are very communicable; [people] catch them from each other.
Manners require time, as nothing is more vulgar than haste. Friendship should be surrounded with ceremonies and respects, and not crushed into corners. Friendship requires more time than poor busy men can usually command.
In persons of character we do not remark manners, because of their instantaneousness. We are surprised by the thing done, out of all power to watch the way of it. Yet nothing is more charming than to recognize the great style which runs through the actions of such.
You cannot rightly train one to an air and manner except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love is felt to be done for love. A man inspires affection and honor because he was not lying in wait for these. The things of a man for which we visit him were done in the dark and co
ld. A little integrity is better than any career.
In all the superior people I have met I notice directness, truth spoken more truly, as if everything of obstruction, of malformation, had been trained away. What have they to conceal? What have they to exhibit? Between simple and noble persons there is always a quick intelligence; they recognize at sight, and meet on a better ground than the talents and skills they may chance to possess, namely on sincerity and uprightness.
The highest compact we can make with our fellows is — : “let there be truth between us two forevermore.”
I have seen manners that make a similar impression with personal beauty: and in memorable experiences they are suddenly better than beauty, and make that superfluous and ugly. But they must be marked by fine perception, the acquaintance with real beauty Then they must be inspired by the good heart.
There is no beautifier of complexion, or form, or behavior, like the wish to scatter joy and not pain around us. It is good to give a stranger a meal, or a night’s lodging. It is better to be hospitable to his good meaning and thought, and give courage to a companion. We must be as courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light.
Sermon – “Civil Wars” by Mark W. Harris
This week I have been trying to finish up a paper about John Weiss. While Weiss may not be a familiar name to you, he was minister here twice in the nineteenth century. The first time he got into a dispute with the congregation over the issue of slavery, resigned, and then was recalled only to resign again. While the church records reveal little about the conflict over slavery, and Weiss’ resignations, it is clear from other sources that Weiss, while a man of conviction, could also be an abrasive individual. You can contemplate his visage by seeing a photo in our conference room. He was apparently a great talker with a clever wit. He was free with his comments and opinions about things, and was often sarcastic in tone. He was know to be a proponent of what was called free religion, an effort to move Unitarianism beyond Christianity to an embrace of the spiritual values that are common in all faiths, a radical notion in his day. The criticism he received, it is said, made him sometimes bitter in his sarcasm. “In one address he called out, “Time was that when the brain was out a man would die, but now they make a Unitarian minister of him.”
One could ask if he went beyond acceptable boundaries in what he said in either public addresses or personal discourse. We have him speaking out on the most trying issue of his time, and we also have criticism of colleagues, perhaps because they were so uncharitable towards him, and his pursuit of radical freedom in religion. Did he have reason to be bitter? Later in his career he commented to a colleague, “I was killed to make way for you.” Appropriate speech and behavior are important issues of our times because there are many aspects of our lives in which we witness a deterioration of civil discourse and behavior in the public arena, including the vicious and often false attacks we see in politics, and the bullying issue which is sometimes perpetrated through personal attacks by the use of electronic media.
Let me begin by drawing on an example from Weiss which has some direct parallels to us, especially in the context of what we are doing right now – worshipping.
You might be interested to know that this was also an issue for Weiss. One biography of him states: “He hated to have the [church] service disturbed by those who have not religion enough either to stay away or else be decently on time. Weiss would stop in the service and sit down, when he saw the laggards coming in.” It is harsh, describing the faithful as laggards. And for the minister to just stop –! Well, let me confess. It can be hard for me sometimes, the comings and goings during the service. It can be unsettling. But my gratitude that you want to be here – that you work hard to be here – outweighs my reaction. God knows none of us need another arena in which to be judged. This, by the way, relates to another church etiquette issue. When I hear clapping, it feels like approval. It feels inappropriate, because church services are not performances. But I hesitate – because I know that sometimes what people are trying to communicate is that they are moved. I worry that we have no shared way to experience being moved. I guess it takes constant effort.
Changing times require constant dialogue between us. When I first instituted joys and sorrows in our congregation in Milton. I heard the remark, we do not share personal issues or feelings in church. That has now changed. People changed. It is generational, too. It is only a matter of time before same sex marriage is the law of the land in all fifty states, and perhaps the overturning of proposition 8 in California will help that process. This also reflects that most of today’s young people affirm this as an accepted life choice. I recently finished reading the diary of Caroline Dall, a prominent Unitarian in the nineteenth century. While Dall was in favor of women’s rights, other new freedoms were not reflected in her Victorian attitudes toward sexual behavior. Today we revere Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and its beautiful poetry, but Dall thought his ideas and lifestyle went beyond the pale. This “vulgar, untamed brute” led a “sensual life, and cannot but show the slime the serpent has left.”
Of course the times were only beginning to be untamed. A recent exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, called Degas and the Nude, was a remarkable collection of paintings and pastels and monotypes. Yet some people reviled Edgas Degas for the very frank and revealing nature of his work. He rejected some of the idealized ways to depict nudes, and instead often portrayed prostitutes, who some of his patrons considered a lurid and animalistic subject matter for respectful art. Yet there is something honest about these works, and while Degas has been accused of being a misogynist, the result does not feel like hatred to me, but rather understanding, and compassion for the beauty of many kinds of bodies and lifestyles. People see the breaking of social conventions and rules and fear change, and perhaps the coming of immorality. Of course the Impressionists were helping the world see that what we think we see is not what we see. Together we must come to common standards, and we all see so differently.
When does applause cheapen, and when does it signify connection? When do the closed sanctuary doors, that were planned for today, signify respect, and when do they communicate unwelcome or stay out? When is something beautiful and when is something vicious? A couple of weeks ago, Alex Beam wrote a column in the Globe on Julia Ward Howe, the Unitarian reformer who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Like Caroline Dall, Howe considered impure books to be feeders for brothels. She wanted to censor literature that she considered filthy because it would corrupt the morals of young people. I laugh a bit at this, but I also know that, I agonize over the dialogue on such television shows as “Family Guy,” where everything seems fair game for insult and denigration. Do I fear the corruption of my children’s morals, and make them stop watching? So far, no. I know from experience that when you try to repress free speech, the more likely you are to pay the price in worse behavior. But I do inject my own reactions to the show. I do insist on a dialogue about it. I can’t just let my son hear these things and not ask his opinions about them.
While we can all say how far we have come from the past, we still have to determine a standard where there are so many conflicting opinions. Part of me does decry a social deterioration. Remember the Congressman who yelled out at Obama a couple of years ago when the President was in the middle of a speech. Rep. Joe Wilson screamed the words, “You Lie.” At the time it was considered a breech of Capitol Hill decorum or standards of behavior. For me there were elements of disrespect and rudeness that were just not acceptable, and the Congressman later apologized, but said it was spontaneous. My reaction was similar when the Boston Bruins, the national hockey champions, were invited to the White House, and their star goalie rebuffed the President. Whether you agree with the President or not, it seems to me he is the President of all the people, and you accept an invitation to go to the White House, and you shake his hand. Again I found this disrespectful and rude. Too often we want to give the excuse, oh, he was just expressing himself, it is a free country. No one would deny Tim Thomas his right to express himself, but he does a disservice to the country and his team when he lacks respect for the President.
I find this kind of disrespect has invaded the political debate. Each candidate tries to out nasty the next with personal attacks, and the media searches out ex-wives to see what dirt they can uncover. Personal and hurtful words towards one another is typical. We think this is what is reflective of the national stage, and while that is true, we should also look much closer to home. The venom printed in the Watertown TAB is often a reflection of lots of negativity about other people. We are looking for blood letting rather than understanding and grappling with real issues that require solutions that are not personal. How often do we like or dislike an idea depending upon the source? Civil discourse actually does begin with good manners – with a willingness to think about how our behavior affects others. Some people don’t seem to realize others exist. And some people do not see themselves as people who matter enough to have an impact on anyone else. Listening, and speaking up, and believing that we all matter is a good place to start. Good manners can be reflected in respectful behavior because often we see only personal need and righteousness. When I arrive at church, when we take a phone call, or when I check my email, it should not be when I feel like it because I am the center of the universe. It should come at an appropriate time, when I am respectful towards others, and when I don’t disrespect or interrupt or somehow divert others from their intended jobs or duties. Sure, times have changed, but we still need to ask ourselves how does this behavior affect others?
This sermon began when I was riding home on the 71 bus one day with Levi. It was about 5:00 p.m. on a work day, and very crowded. An elderly woman got on at the same time as us. A young woman immediately offered her seat to her, and she took it. Then a young man offered a seat to me. I looked behind me for the old person, and then realized that he meant me. I said, oh no, I am alright. Then we lurched forward with all the standing people crushed together. Again he gestured and said, here take my seat. Again I said I was ok. He was being courteous and kind toward me. It was the kind of gesture you would hope to see all the time. He noticed me. He didn’t realize how young and vital I am, but nevertheless, he showed he cared that the apparent elderly should receive our care. I did not want the seat, but it gladdened me that he offered it.
During the last year no incident more exemplified the loss of civility in our society than when a Rutgers University freshman was secretly videotaped by his roommate during a sexual encounter with another man. The student shortly thereafter committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. An article in the New Yorker retells this tragedy. One thing that makes it tragic is the need for open communication and truth telling. Civility and respect for one another means not allowing the value of reputation to carry more weight than truth and friendship. In this case, the perpetrator Ravi, wanted to make his friends laugh, and wanted to enhance his reputation. Who among us has not known people who always find it more important to befriend the important people, or do the thing that is politically expedient? Of course this reflects what is said on social media, and how it can be used against you, if it is salacious and nasty, or even implied dislike for effect. Ravi said he had no problem with his gay roommate’s sexual orientation, admitted guilt about how he had treated him, and didn’t want his freshman year to be ruined by a petty misunderstanding. Sadly he said this in a text that was discovered after they found Tyler’s body. That truth, spoken, might have prevented a tragedy.
No one is going to say they purposefully hurt others, but lack of respect and personal attacks do lead to hurt. We do so to be popular, or be funny, or for effect, or to achieve something that we want, and cruelty is therefore deemed expedient, or necessary. What could we achieve though, if we were first honest, and then respectful, and tried to find common ground? We might solve our problems with facts rather than with personal vendettas. More than giving each other the benefit of truthful communication, we could also accomplish more when we show respect for one another, rather than battling to win that place at the front of the line, or try to prove how right we are. In our reading from Emerson he says we catch manners from each other. “There is no beautifier of complexion or form, or behavior, like the wish to scatter joy and not pain around us.” So there must be a kind of good will that accompanies the truth. We must look at a person in a good light, like we would a picture, like the beauty of a Degas pastel. Give them a chance, an opportunity, a seat on a bus because you care that we are all in this together. In another essay, “Manners,” Emerson writes what he believes the individual person can do, or the effect they can have. He described a person he knew who was a solvent on others because she radiated joy and grace on all around her. Manners, Emerson said, are not learned by the conventions of society, but by the moral quality radiating from the countenance of your face. Do you want the best for me? Do you need this? the man on the bus said.
We don’t celebrate a holiday or special occasion by wearing our best suit, or giving the most expensive gift, we celebrate by giving our heart of kindness to the day. Civil wars happen between us when we stop being kind to one another – we are in a hurry, got to get to work, got to get though this line. got to do this, and forget that we must serve one another in order to survive and flourish. We must work out these problems not by attack, but by finding honest answers, by listening to, and respecting everyone’s views. We must work out our relationship, not by being mean or by getting my way, but by extending our hand to one another. The Quaker George Fox wrote, “Walk joyfully on the earth and respond to that of God in every human being.”
Closing Words – “Love” by Czeslaw Milosz
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills —
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they can stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.