“On Losing My Teeth” by Mark W. Harris
October 20, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – adapted from a scroll at a Zen Buddhist Temple
There is really nothing you must be.
And there is nothing you must do.
There is really nothing you must have.
And there is nothing you must know.
There is really nothing you must become.
However. It really helps to understand that fire burns,
And when it rains, the earth gets wet . . .
Readings from “Unitarian Christianity” by William Ellery Channing
We regard the spirit of love, charity, meekness, forgiveness, liberality, and beneficence, as the badge and distinction of Christians, as the brightest image we can bear of God, as the best proof of piety. On this subject, I need not, and cannot enlarge; but there is one branch of benevolence, which I ought not to pass over in silence, because we think that we conceive of it more highly and justly than many of our brethren. I refer to the duty of candor, charitable judgment, especially towards those who differ in religious opinion. We think, that in nothing have Christians so widely departed from their religion, as in this particular. We read with astonishment and horror, the history of the church; and sometimes when we look back on the fires of persecution, and on the zeal of Christians, in building up walls of separation, and in giving up one another to perdition, we feel as if we were reading the records of an infernal, rather than a heavenly kingdom. An enemy to every religion, if asked to describe a Christian, would, with some show of reason, depict him as an idolater of his own distinguishing opinions, covered with badges of party, shutting his eyes on the virtues, and his ears on the arguments, of his opponents, arrogating all excellence to his own sect and all saving power to his own creed, sheltering under the name of pious zeal the love of domination, the conceit of infallibility, and the spirit of intolerance, and trampling on men’s rights under the pretence of saving their souls.
from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (p. 258-260)
Sermon – “On Losing My Teeth” Mark W. Harris
This summer I broke a crown on one of my front teeth as I took a bite of “Maine’s Best Burger.” Once I returned to Watertown I went to the dentist who promptly told me there was nothing he could do except extract what was left of the original tooth, and put in an implant. After that he told me the area would need time to heal. Since he knew I had a cottage in Maine, he suggested I go back there for a few weeks. With a big gap in my front teeth, he said I would feel at home, since that was the way everyone there looked anyway: “You’ll fit right in.” He was trying to make a joke, but still revealed his true judgment of the residents of Maine – They are stupid, ugly, and low class. Judgments. We make them all the time on others, on ourselves. If my wife comes home and I am wolfing down a bowl of ice cream, I will feel shame. It’s not that she is judgmental, but that I am judging myself like the little boy with his hand caught in the cookie jar. Yet sometimes self-judgments are what we need to assess our lifestyles and behaviors. Can judgment be a good thing?
Maine’s Best burger reminds me of the instant judgments we sometimes make based on people’s appearance. This summer Levi and I took a brief trip to New York. For dinner Levi chose a noodle shop, where there were meat, fish and vegetarian options. As soon as I came to the register, the young cashier took one look at me, and commented, “Well, you don’t look like a vegetarian.” I could only wonder if I had blood dripping from my fangs. Was it my burly, male physique that prompted this comment because vegetarians are only thin and petite? Judging is much more serious and personal than trivial observations about what we eat. I remember a woman from my college dormitory who was assaulted, and it was only made worse when people judged her for not trying to get away. Maybe you had an accident with your car, and someone judged you as an incompetent driver for not reacting sooner. With judgments we can attack the person too quickly for their perceived personal shortcomings when it is more humane to affirm them for being strong, or for surviving rather than judging what is wrong with them.
Judging. We all do it, but we don’t want to be thought of as a judging kind of person. Take the Myers Briggs personality type test. I am an I S F J – Introvert, Sensing, Feeling and yes, Judging. When I first heard this, I thought this proves that I am always judging people on looks, clothes, hair, even teeth. Judging in the Myers Briggs types is paired with perceiving. This made me envious. While I was judging myself for judging people, the flip side was the perceptive, smart, understanding type. Why wasn’t that me? Fortunately it turns out the judging orientation does not mean being judgmental. This person likes life to unfold in a planned, orderly fashion. In other words I like to be organized, to finish things and to be settled. That perceiving type was not so great. In my view they are disorganized, terrible planners and open to pure chaos. We judgers are the responsible ones. Oops, I am being judgmental again. I meant to say the perceivers are flexible and adaptable. What this does mean is that judgers are attracted to organized religion because of predictability, but perhaps perceivers are more attracted to UUism for its openness and freedom. This may help you understand why I like a predictable worship service with stable elements repeated week after week.
Judging. Courts do that. Juries do that. They judge whether a suspected criminal is guilty or not. In Harper Lee’s great novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, she writes about the jury and how they respond to the defendant when they enter the courtroom: “A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson.” Hypothetically, we would know what judgment is coming down based on whether they look at the defendant or not. This reminded me of something I heard about baseball players a couple of years ago that was a revelation to me, especially as a person who is a baseball fanatic who has watched hundreds of games, and is exhausted today from staying up last night. This revelation was an announcers observation that when a hitter strikes out, and heads back to the dugout, he cannot bring himself to look directly at the bench. Instead his eyes wander to the outfield, to the stands, or to the sky, but never, not once, does he look directly at a person who might judge him a failure for whiffing. There is something about judging and truly seeing one another. For fear of being judged, for guilt or shame, we will not look.
Today I read an excerpt from William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon given in 1819. Here he accepted the Unitarian name and gave the fledging denomination a manifesto. Yet despite those sectarian beginnings, you can tell from the reading he disapproved of those Christians who would grant all saving power to their own creed. If you judge someone else’s beliefs as false you are intolerant. In effect he said that kind of Christian is a religious bully. Channing advocated for honest and charitable judgment towards those who differ in religious opinions. Right from the beginning Unitarians gained a reputation for not judging others religious views, but you can also see that they seem like the perceivers in the Myers Briggs type. They cannot make up their minds and like to be open to the future without having any definitive faith.
Yet this kind of non-judgmental openness has its limits. Like the perceivers, it is sometimes said we religious liberals cannot be certain about anything, and so we simply discuss it or wordsmith it to death until no one cares anymore. We also have the reputation of being the faith where anything goes. The problem with wanting to be tolerant of all religious perspectives, not only means we have trouble being sure about one, but it also means that we tend to be intolerant of those who are intolerant, or maybe more pertinently, those who have strong feelings or beliefs. How well do we do, for instance, in being non-judgmental when someone tells us about his or her belief in God or an afterlife? We have a great deal to say about individual freedom of belief, and that there is great religious difference among us – theists, atheists, Christians, Buddhists, etc. Yet while we talk about our theological diversity in the abstract, we don’t really talk with each other about our actual differences. In fact, some congregations don’t seem to allow religious difference, and so if someone spoke about a prayer life or a belief in God, they would fear being judged for being too religious. UU minister Earl Holt quotes two colleagues who wrote: “Unitarian Universalists love diversity, it’s difference we don’t like.” The other one said, “We tend to have a spiritual don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” So one way Unitarian Universalists could grow is to encourage more dialogue about spiritual experiences where we would not be afraid of being judged.
The problem may be we don’t engage with others and actually express our differences or ask each other what moves us to love or see beauty, or say what terrifies us. But doing this will help us focus on who or what we serve as a congregation. We are a religious people who belong to each other in community, and so our faith should call us to be more vulnerable to one another, where we give our hearts to the community, and find ways to express our love not merely on a personal level, but by taking that personal commitment and bringing it into deeper relationships with others, so that we know each other’s aspirations and struggles. And if we cannot speak of those freely, it may be because we fear being judged. When we do look within and tell each other about the passionate fire inside, then we can create something to offer to the larger community, to excite new people who might want to join us. When we forget to hold up that religious center of the community we lose our very reason for being.
The surest way to bring a spirit of judgment into this picture is to start assessing individuals who want to be part of our community. Barbara Merritt, my retired colleague from Worcester speaks of what one of her former parishioners called “A New England Welcome.” This is less of a warm greeting of gladness to a visitor indicating joy that you are here, and more of an assessment of what you can do for us. This is described as an on the spot evaluation of where you are from. Are you a smart knowledgeable professional like me, or better yet, like the rest of us. The visitor may be judged for meeting certain standards. Are they ready to teach church school yet? Can they be of assistance in the rummage sale? When a church starts assessing a person’s worthiness for being here, it can be about usefulness to our programs rather than deepening the spiritual life of our community. So a liberal church must watch its inclination to judge those who want to publicly and personally express their faith, and it must watch for its inclination to assess the worthiness of new people, and finally, its must watch its inclination to assess political correctness.
This correctness is the kind of singular leftist leaning, Democratic Party affiliation we have come to identify with Unitarian Universalism. We once had real diversity in our political preferences. Back in 1917 John Haynes Holmes, a minister from New York spoke at a national convention about his beliefs in pacifism, and advocated that the USA stay out of World War I. Former US President, William Howard Taft, an active Unitarian layperson, followed him to the podium, and asked the convention to pass a resolution in support of America’s entry into the war. The resolution in favor of the war was passed, and there were sanctions against Holmes by the denomination. Holmes resigned from Unitarian fellowship. Yet when Holmes offered his resignation to his church, they would not accept it. However, they passed two resolutions. One declared that his position on the war was wrong. But the other resolution was that he had the right to speak his mind. He would remain their minister, they said, even if they disagreed with his opinions. Too often these days we UUs don’t allow for differences of political opinion. We not only judge it as wrong, but if a person expresses a contrary opinion, it feels to them like they cannot disagree, and that if they do so, they don’t belong as part of the community. There are two issues expressed in the vote taken at Community Church in New York. First, it is okay to disagree. And second, the person who disagrees is not a bad person when they do disagree. The way forward for us religiously, politically, and personally is not to judge the person. Practically that means we give room for people to express religious views and differences without fear of being judged, plus it builds relationships and trust, which may not exist if we never say anything besides, “it’s all good.” We never find out what “it” is, and we develop a kind of indifferent tolerance. Hearing differences means people are heard, feel accepted, and we truly welcome them into the community as fellow travelers on a spiritual journey toward truth and meaning.
There was a nineteenth century humorist named Finley Peter Dunne who said “life would not be worth living if we didn’t keep our enemies.” I think in the recent debacle in Washington it would easy to identify enemies. Yet the larger path to truth is not found in merely condemning our enemies, but in doing what the Community Church of New York did. They found a way to say to Holmes, we disagree with your position on the war. It is wrong. But we do not condemn you as a person. This condemnation of what the person says is not the same as the condemnation of the person. Yet to actually listen to someone we do not like is difficult for us. Too often we dislike something based on who said it. I used to feel like this very time Barbara Walters came on the television. There was something about her voice and manner that turned me off. I judged the person, not the opinion. This is why we sometimes have a hard time as liberals being critical. We seem to think that judging what a person says or even does automatically means we are judging them as people. In our disciplining of children, many of us learned to say it’s not you that I don’t like, it is what you did. Not judging may seem open minded, but it can also mean we are not engaged at all. Does that mean liberals should judge and condemn their enemies? Can the denomination with no hell actually send some people off to hell?
But didn’t Jesus say, “judge not, lest you be judged.” Sometimes we have taken that too literally. I have never been very adept with tools. You might say inept. Throughout my life whenever I have tried to cut a board or screw in a screw, and I have had some expert looking over my shoulder, I have felt judged. Yet no one ever instructed me or listened to learn what I knew or did not know. I could have used what Channing called “charitable judgment.” Sure I was and am a mechanical oaf, but I was willing to listen and to learn. One of the problems with the current political situation is the failure to affirm that good will or even assume that some measure of trust or willingness to dialogue exists on the other side. We go down the path that condemns and judges the other as inhuman. It is poison to condemn our enemies as people who want to destroy America and its freedoms, because that poison will infect us all, just as it is poison to a church to look for the right people to fill our seats, personally, theologically or politically. A few weeks ago in my sermon on empathy I was struggling to suggest that we need to widen our circle of compassion, but of course that is what a church needs to do, as well as a nation infected by the politics of self-righteous judgment.
How do we create a culture of what Martha Nussbaum calls enhanced empathy? With a church it is a little easier than with a nation, but we still struggle with getting beyond our individual concerns. I think it is hard for liberals to embrace a common empathy because we have this theology grounded in individual belief. We say people must think for themselves. Yet this non-judgmental individualism means there are differences among us waiting to be heard, and listening to each other will only deepen us as a community. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” Love means we do judge those opinions we disagree with, but we do so charitably. And by entering the fray; we open ourselves to hearing our opinions being judged, too. Love means a relationship, not an isolated individualism. We set people free by giving them a chance to speak. We may judge what they say by disagreeing, or we may judge their actions, too, but we also extend a hand that offers them both kindness and courage in asking for the truth. Together we can create something deeper.
In the New York Times this week Stanley Fish speaks about Nussbaum’s call for the building of a common national empathy through love. While that seems like a tall, or even sentimental order, it may be exactly what the nation needs. Nussbaum says that while we claim the nation “needs economic thought, military thought, and good use of computer science and technology, they do not need the heart? They need expertise, but do not need the sort of daily emotion, the sympathy, the tears and laughter or the wonder with which we contemplate beauty. If that’s what nations are like, one might well want to live elsewhere.” How can we get people to love something larger? That is our task, too, starting with this community. As a church we may want a heating system, but institution building starts not with a call to raise money, but with discovering what burns within each of, what you want to serve together. Unlike the Field of Dreams, here we have to come together, before we can build it. And coming together must mean we won’t fear being judged for our failures or our differences. We will look each other in the eyes, and speak our truth. Not long ago the entire city of Chicago was invited to read To Kill a Mockingbird. How do you build a common empathy, or a strong religious community? You hear each other, and you judge charitably, and with love. In our liberal circles when we talk about all those differences, we would know that education doesn’t make us superior. We would affirm what Scout said in Harper Lee’s book, “everybody’s gotta learn.” Despite our differences, “I think there’s just one kind of folks,” Scout says “Folks.”
Note: Thanks to my colleague Anthony David for his use of the Taft/Holmes story, and my borrowing from it.
Closing Words – from Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction
You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you ever risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous in risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ‘til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something you have to keep on living with, real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.