“Dodge Ball Faith” by Mark W. Harris – February 21, 2010

“Dodge Ball Faith” by Mark W. Harris

February 21, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – from Mark Harris

Season of darkness and winter,
You have brought us cold, north winds, and chilled bones and bodies. We long for relief, and look to the threshold of warmth that beckons us.

The candles of worship we ignited here helped us to welcome the seasonal stranger that we feared, and brought warmth to our hearts, even as the coldness reminded us of desires unfulfilled, memories of regret, and losses endured.

In the crackling of those flames, the embers of new life have emerged from the ashes of the past, and we have come out of the darkness whole. The glow within each of us reminds us that we have been blessed with many gifts – and so we hold the chalice of our life journey before the altar of love, and celebrate this community and the relationships we create together here, and the power of hope we share to carry on with strength and vision for the days ahead.

Reading from My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Sermon “Dodge Ball Faith” by Mark W. Harris

My son Asher has been very involved with karate for the past few years. Generally he seems to enjoy it. I have also concluded that it is good for his emotional and physical development. I think it is important that children have outside interests that keep them growing in body and mind and spirit, and I want him to continue to advance toward the attainment of a black belt, which as you probably know is the highest achievement in this discipline. . BUT, there is a bit of a catch here. There is a dark side to karate. Asher now attends a weekly weapons class. Yes, weapons. While we are not talking about machine guns, the idea is still a little unsettling.

So the lovely symmetry of movement, coordinated, fluid steps and dance like motions that made it somewhat acceptable before has been superseded by regular combat between the students where the goal seems to be to defeat, overcome, subdue, and basically beat the crap out of the other guy. Yet this is simply an example of a concern that has been present since he started. If Unitarian Universalism had an Antichrist, the opposite of our peace loving, democratic ways this method of teaching would be it. I find karate to be militaristic, autocratic, rule driven, violent, dogmatic and coercive. These words that karate evokes from me are not typically ones I associate with UUs. Even the few rules we do have are often overly scrutinized and subjected to authority issues. While we focus on asking questions, karate merely tells you what you must do. At karate if you are a minute late, then you are subject to fifty sit-ups and possible public humiliation. Here if you are a minute late you might be congratulated for being on time, as many others will amble in five or ten minutes after the projected start time. No, my friends, this church is not like karate.

Yet karate is like church in some ways, or does some of what church should do. It teaches Asher many valuable tools that will help him in life. He learns discipline, and hard work. He takes responsibility for learning his lessons and then practices them. There is a progress through the ranks, but it comes at each person’s own pace. There are relationships with peers and adults through camaraderie and mentoring. So karate, like many things in life, teaches many positive lessons for living, while also giving pause because it promotes values that seem antithetical to what I believe, and to what we promote in this church.

Not long ago I witnessed a different scene at the Dojo. Instead of the sensei teaching forms, there were more than a dozen boys and girls dashing to and fro in the Dojo playing dodge ball. It seemed like a fun break from the usual karate discipline. Kids were running around like mad, whooping and hollering and obviously having a great time. Some kids got smashed with the ball, and others escaped harm altogether.

Nearly a decade ago dodge ball was getting a bad rap. It was called the scourge of the playground, and many schools banned it because it was perceived as too violent. Picture images of kids in circles throwing balls at each other, running, yelling, laughing, and yet there were some kids who pursued this game with violent intentions. Dodge ball is also called murder ball, and some consider it an incubator for aggressive or even violent behavior later in life. There was a law suit in New York by parents of a girl who fell and broke her elbow. On the one hand you might think that this is an absurd overreaction to a harmless playground game. We might say, its just kids having fun, or at worst children learning the hard knocks of life in an aggressive, competitive, dog eat dog world. Yet we all know the playground can be very nasty, and there are those children who pummel others. And this is a game with a human target, not a basket or a goal. We have all seen children gang up on others, and purposefully try to hurt them because they were new or different or weaker or had violated some behavioral code, apparently like the girl in South Hadley, who was taunted and bullied into submission, leading her to commit suicide. So maybe deciding how we feel about dodge ball reveals a little about what we believe about life. Is it basically safe, and fun, with some healthy competition and agreed upon rules; or is it a small scale version of Lord of the Flies?

Do you remember how to play dodge ball? Think about the movements. Once in a while it seems useful to stay still. You can hide behind those who are about to get hit, or you may not get noticed like the person who is streaking in front of the one with the ball. They will see the movement and fire away, and you will not get hit. But generally speaking it is not a good idea to stand still because you won’t win. You will be an easy target. So the ones who stay still are the losers. This fits a traditional Unitarian Universalist view of the world. Just this past week, Duffy was asking me about a much quoted phrase that goes like this: “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.” By this, Universalist minister Lewis Fisher meant that we never affirm one position as final, but are open to new truths, and never stand still at all. Then he goes on to say, “we are not staying to defend any position, we are on the march.” This begins to sound like you can’t defend anything, and makes you wonder about the moral discipline of the position, except to keep moving on, onward and upward. But this sounds superior: we are evolving, moving forward; changing with the times; winning. What does life feel like when it is reduced to the need to survive by moving? Is there no time to rest; to savor our days?

Early in the 16th century Christianity came apart at the seams. People with money were buying their way into heaven with the purchase of indulgences, and the church was getting rich, while the wealthy were assured of salvation. Protestantism emerged because reformers like Luther and Calvin were disgusted with the moral corruption of the church. Ultimately they changed Christianity by affirming that people were saved not by what they achieved in the world with money or good works or even by character, but instead God saved people by grace alone. God accepted people for who they were, period. No achievement necessary. We just have to believe, and feel God’s stirring in our hearts. Unfortunately, they said only some people were saved, not all. Of course, people were anxious. How would you know if you were one of the elect? Our Protestant forebears slowly but increasingly came to say that salvation was dependent upon what kind of success people achieved in the world. Worldly success was a sign of God’s favor. Unitarians began to spend less time thinking about God, and more about life in this world. Sometimes this was devoted to making the whole world a better place, but often it was about achievement: wealth, education, and culture all became associated with Unitarianism.

Then along came the Universalists. They were different. Instead of looking at human achievement as a sign of God’s favor, Universalists believed that all of us human beings had failings and failures, and that God loved us anyway. They did not say that competition and aggression could be educated out of us, but simply accepted that life is not about displaying our status in God’s eyes or our own.

Here is the problem as I see it. If a person is the one with the ball in dodge ball, we can think those who move successfully and win the game really are the winners. The Unitarians were often in this position – in control and able to win. Therefore, they were superior and allowed to make rules for the rest of us. Historically, they were also the ones who would say dodge ball throwing is evil, and should not be allowed. Good people should not allow these aggressive traits to be made manifest. That is probably appealing to someone who has been victimized by a dodge ball, but it has a couple of flaws. First, it fails to recognize that people are not just minds. We have bodies that have dodge ball energy in them that they need to get out, and a discussion of different paths to heaven just won’t do. I need to get physical. Second, this is a position of assumed privilege. It denies the possibility that dodge ball can be fun, healthy, exciting and perhaps even a theater for life skills, and implies a need to protect us from our own human tendencies toward aggression and competition. Meanwhile, that competition continues to exist in more refined ways -education and economics.

When I saw dodge ball at the Dojo, I was thinking it was just like life. You run, you hide, you duck – and sometimes you get nailed anyway. There are times when stillness is what is called for. Or firm commitment to a position. With thought, my metaphor broke down. Dodge ball doesn’t work well for those who don’t move. Unless you’re the one with the ball. Then you can safely rest and control everyone’s actions. If we apply this to the world, how can we not think about those who are kept running and jumping and never, ever win? There are those who get hit over and over again – because the outward signs tell us they should be. People of color. People who are poor. People with disabilities, infirmities, illnesses. Maybe when we win at a game – even the game of life, it is not really a sign of God’s favor. It is simply human power. And that means maybe when we suffer, that is not a sign of failure, either. It is a sign of our humanity, and of our need for one another. If salvation comes through grace, the humble targets of dodge ball seem likelier to make it to heaven.

In the novel My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, Asher wonders if his gift for drawing has come from the source of evil and ugliness. Can beauty come from evil? What is wanted of us? How do we use our gifts? I have struggled with these issues of dodge ball. Should I run to the bigger and better church placement, and doesn’t that bigger place with the higher salary tell me I am more worthy? Do we hurl the balls of competition and success, as we watch and admire the perfection of the skater or the cool tenacity of the skateboarder, as they seize Olympic gold. What can I expect from my children? Don’t I just want them to be happy? What if it is one burden after another placed on your back? Then don’t you long for a little success? Remember when Jesus talked about trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye, while failing to see the log in your own? How careful are we with the logs that blur the vision of seeing what others are going through, even as we describe our own success?

Dodge ball faith helps us see the world for what it is. We all desire achievements as signals we are worthy. We all hurl balls to make our way in the world. We all must flee the balls thrown by others so we are not hurt in significant ways. The privileges we have are many, and perhaps there is some evil in seeing the oppression of others, while enjoying the fruits of competitions. In some ways, celebrating a triumph with one who rarely succeeds at anything is a concession to this competitive world view; believing that God’s favor is measured externally. But I am not going to take away the joy of winning for someone who struggles most of the time.
Dodge ball faith asks us how much of our lives are still built on a salvation of achievement, and we ask where is the line between using my gifts to affirm a faith in universal salvation, or do my gifts lead to a faith of self alone.

The great philosopher Lao-Tse speaks of acting in the way of nature. Acting in the way of nature often means not acting. Not doing anything. Indeed an empire can often be won by doing nothing at the right time. A life can often be lost by trying to do too much. I am one who has believed that the more I do the better I am. I put a lot of balls in the air, and while they may not go at others, sometimes it seems as though they are spinning at me. Letting the ball whiz by may mean we do nothing for a change. When the Buddha was finished with his lengthy teachings, he summarized by raising a lotus blossom. This was simple truth that needed no words. To do nothing at the right time can be the finest form of action. We don’t cross the street when the car goes hurtling by. We don’t say another word when our presence is enough. Stop and see how many balls you are hurtling. Stop and see those who are being hit by the balls continuously hurled at them.

Dodge ball is the paradox of life – the desire to succeed, and the pain of being hit. I still will cringe at the militarism of the Dojo, but also know that it teaches a discipline of right living of dedication and loyalty, and the rewards of hard work. One of the great stories of these Olympics in Vancouver is the Canadian skier Alexandre Bilodeau who won the gold in moguls, whose older brother has cerebral palsy. The skier quit hockey as a youngster because skiing was something the whole family could do. His older brother became his inspiration. The success in the competition was based in the strength he drew from his brother’s example to overcome adversity. He felt the universal grace in his brother. We all must nurture our own gifts, AND those of others, and remember to celebrate them as worthy and good. We serve a larger life than our own; a universal life of greater love, and any gifts we have are meant to serve all.

Closing Words – from John O’Donohue

May you awaken to the mystery of being here, and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.
May you receive great encouragement when new frontiers beckon.
May you respond to the call of your gifts and find the courage to follow its path.
May the flame of anger free you from falsity.
May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and may anxiety never linger about you.
May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.
May you take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.
May you be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.
May you experience each day as sacred