Talk by Gloria Talcove-Woodward
Sunday, November 20, 2016
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia
Columbia, South Carolina
Cautionary Tale: Recitation of Original Poetry by John Starino, “Lois.”
(Included here, with permission, from John Starino)
She was a big woman
For her height, five, five
Her other sibling
She was married
One grew marijuana
For daily use
Invalid from the First
Gulf War by some
She rarely sang in choir
Enjoyed her gossip with
Soap Opera at The Beauty Parlor
Her husband died in
An auto accident
While driving to the plant
Early one morning
She smoked, she drank little
Now Lois is on the floor
In a cob webbed corner of her
Mother-in-Law’s garage within
A brown wooden box
Which has a peaked
Along with her Wedding Picture
Two plastic bags
Opening Words [adapted from Deuteronomy 6:11]:
We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know.
This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Time for Children of All Ages: Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece
Community: Two Boats and a Helicopter
There’s a huge flood and a man is stranded on the roof of his house. A guy in a rowboat comes by and the guy shouts, “Jump in! I’ll save you!” The man on the roof shouts back, “I’m waiting for my God to save me.” Five minutes later, the water has risen to the man’s knees. A guy in a pontoon boat comes by and shouts, “Climb in the boat! I’ll save you!” And the man on the roof shouts back, “I’m waiting for my God to save me!” Next thing you know, there’s a helicopter, and the pilot throws out a rope ladder and shouts down using a bullhorn, “Climb up the ladder! I’ll save you!” The man on the roof shouts back, “I’m waiting for my God to save me.” Just before the man on the roof gets swept away by the flood waters, he shouts up to the heavens, “God, why have you forsaken me?” And the sky breaks open and God, who looks just like Bernie Sanders, shouts down, “I just sent you two boats and a damn helicopter! What more do you want?”
A religious person would interpret this story to mean that God’s hand is in everything. A Unitarian might say that we are God’s hands if She, in fact, exists, and a pragmatic agnostic (who looks just like Bernie Sanders) might say that if you had paid more attention to evacuation warnings, you might not need so damn many miracles.
My talk today is about community and the low-hanging fruit of happiness and how, in spite of the cards we have either chosen or have been dealt, a spiritual community can point us in the right direction towards having the best life we can possibly have.
And it’s also about how not to wind up in your mother-in-law’s garage like poor “Lois” in John Starino’s excellent poem. It’s a little late for a Spoiler Alert, but I don’t think Lois had a spiritual community.
As a Northern transplanted recovering Catholic, I moved to conservative little Columbia in June of 1987. My only acquaintances were my elderly neighbors with whom I talked a lot about tomatoes, tomato sandwiches, tomato plants, tomato cages, seven dust and tomato worms. I had no friends or relatives here, and other than my five-year old Chris, and the mailman, and an occasional magazine salesperson, I had no one to talk to during the day. I missed adult conversation so much that I believe I was the only person that the Jehova’s Witnesses had ever tried to get away from.
On September 27, 1987, I walked into this church for the first time–almost 30 years ago, great with child, and towing my little Chris by the hand. The first person to greet me was Mark T., who took his jacket off and put it on Chris because Chris was cold. When the service began, Mark lifted Chris up and put him up on the stage so he could light the chalice. I was so bowled over by that act of kindness and inclusion, that I immediately felt like I’d come home to a spiritual community I never knew I had. I knew I’d be here for a good long time. And ever since, I’ve called myself a Born Again Unitarian. Every time I see Mark, I always remember his kindness with a gratitude that I’m not sure he is aware of.
That same morning, during Joys and Concerns, Mitch Y. stood up and announced that he and Angie D. would be getting married right here, that very afternoon, and, to Angie’s complete surprise, announced with that great largesse that was so very Mitch that the whole church was invited. He didn’t have to invite ME twice! I had nowhere else to go!
I ran to Belk’s, bought a Chinese Ginger Jar that was on sale for $10, and Chris and I went back for their wedding, which was wonderful. I felt a part of someone’s family, and it didn’t matter one iota that it wasn’t mine. Angie tells me that the first time she remembers meeting me was on the reception line at her wedding. She had no idea who I was except I’m sure she noticed that I was about 10 months pregnant and that I was stuffing my face with wedding cake. The Chinese Ginger Jar went to Mitch after their divorce nine years later. The congregation continued to cherish Mitch and Angie, and their daughter, who grew up, right here in this church just like my kids. Sadly, Mitch, such a fun and funny guy, passed away in 2006. But every time I see Angie, I always think of her as that beautiful bride and the joy I took from being an almost wedding crasher on her big day. I am sure she has no idea how grateful I still am to her and to Mitch.
The same day that Angie and Mitch got married, Janet S., our wonderful piano player, who had just had a baby herself, also noticed that I was about ten months pregnant, and she gave me her telephone number and said I could drop Chris off at her house at any time of the day or night should I need to go the hospital. Nine days later, my parents were here, so I didn’t need to call on her, but what a relief it was to know that I had someone that I could call even in the middle of the night, if need be. Janet didn’t know me or Chris, but that didn’t stop her from reaching out to me. She probably had no idea of how much comfort I took in having someone I could rely on. Every time I see her, I remember with such gratitude that act of loving kindness.
And that was just the first day of my being here! And I’ve got thirty more years to tell you about, so kick off your shoes and get comfortable. Just kidding!
Why would anyone bother having a spiritual community? I mean, we have our little communities at work, we have our neighbors, we have our kids, other family members, we have sports teams, bowling leagues, book groups, our own circle of friends, you name it. And who has the time, anyway?
A spiritual community like ours remains a constant in our lives. We share a common history with a community that celebrates our joys and mourns our losses, that witnesses our milestones and our rites of passage, providing us with a sense of connection and continuity.
How important is that? Pretty important, considering that all the non-church groups I’ve just mentioned, come and go, but a spiritual community is always there. Your kids grow up and move away. You can move away from here, or you can get busy and forget we’re even here, but you can always come back. And the minute you walk in, you know you’re home again. There aren’t too many other places like that. And if you really want to feel like you’re home, walk into the kitchen, and open up the fridge. Just remember to close the door again after you forget why you opened it.
Everyone is here for variations on the same theme. We need different things at different stages of our lives. You will see everyone from newborn babies to senior citizens. We are all looking to find someone who can relate to who we are and where we are in our life’s journey. Some of us might be leading the way, and others of us might be trying to find our way. So many of us might just be looking to figure out which way is up so we don’t fall down.
In his new book, “Tribe,” Sebastian Junger points out that while 50% of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans apply for permanent PTSD benefits, only 10% of those veterans have seen or been engaged in active combat. How can this be? He suggests that their PTSD is due in large part to their separation from their military brothers and sisters, their “tribe,” for whom they were prepared to fight and die, regardless of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, political philosophy or any other characteristic.
After their deployment ends, our veterans return to a society that has learned to live without them, and which seems to be at war with itself. Disoriented, marginalized and isolated, they cannot recreate what they have just lost: a purpose. In their platoons, they developed an intense loyalty towards each other and an unquestionable sense of belonging not common in our nuclear families and fragmented social systems. It is easy to forget that we were once a communal species, but the lack of our own tribe where each person is needed and valued does seem to explain our never-ending quest for meaning.
Tragedy and loss intrude their way into our lives when we least expect it. Death, divorce, addiction, betrayal, illness and disability, financial insecurity, and even elections, can all devastate us and make us wonder what, if anything, life is all about. Our survival depends upon our ability to get back on our feet again.
The right kind of community can help you to define a purpose to your life, just in case you’ve lost sight of what that purpose might happen to be. If you’re really busy and stressed out, the purpose of your life is just to get through each day. But during transitions to other stages of our lives, we have to reinvent ourselves. To some people, such an opportunity is a joy, but to others it is a profound and daunting challenge. Communities will have a common purpose, and whatever you contribute to that common purpose will be appreciated by others, and best of all, you’ll have the personal satisfaction of being useful. If you find yourself with some time on your hands, please don’t forget that we are here and we have lots of fun things we could use your help on. And the pleasure of your company would be just as good!
I will never forget the conversation I had many years ago with a man who was a custodian at my kids’ school. He told me that he had been a hopeless alcoholic, crushed by debt and illness, and tons of family problems. In desperation, he sought out the preacher from his local church. The preacher didn’t lecture him or quote the Bible to him. The only thing he said was start tithing, come to church two or three times a week, and you’ll be healthy, wealthy and wise, and you (probably) won’t go to Hell when you die.
Now if you’re a Unitarian and you come to church more than once a week, you just might be the minister. Also, we generally don’t tithe, probably because we don’t believe in Hell, so therefore, 10% of your income (and I don’t know if that’s before or after taxes and deductions) would be a steep price to pay in order to avoid going somewhere you were never going to go to in the first place!
That’s probably why the only Unitarian miracle I’m aware of is meeting our pledge goal. Now if we did tithe, we could probably afford to hire Megachurch Preacher Joel Osteen as our minister which would probably increase our membership by at least a thousand-fold, but then just imagine how high our capital campaign goal would be! It makes my head spin just thinking about it. Come to think of it, our current capital campaign is a real bargain! It’s much more than half-off!
Getting back to that man? He told me that he had stopped drinking from one day to the next, and, miraculously, his health and family relations had improved tremendously, and his finances stabilized, allowing him and his family to live a more secure and peaceful life.
It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles, but the skeptic in me just couldn’t take that at face value. Then I figured it out: There’s a difference between value and cost. Just like that commercial: The cost of tithing: 10%, the value: Priceless.
And here’s the explanation in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
All of which means that the man probably went to church where he was probably eating church food (which could be something like mystery meat on a hot dog bun), which would constitute a nutritional upgrade from bar fare (which could be something like four beers and a handful of Slim Jims). He probably got involved in some healthful activities like playing basketball with the church youth and quite possibly became a mentor to a few of them, and maybe he became the go-to guy for plumbing crises, and maybe he discovered that he was someone people could look up to, and maybe his kids were proud of him because they saw him as a leader that other people respected, because when I met him, he seemed like someone who had earned the love and respect of people he loved and respected himself.
The best way to surround yourself with a loving community is just to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. Whatever you do, you’ll probably have a pretty good time doing it. Very often, you find yourself just working on a committee with someone, or washing dishes in the kitchen after coffee hour, or painting the RE wing, or putting the chairs away in the social hall, or manning a table at our garage sale, or attending a pancake breakfast fundraiser for our RE program or carrying our rather unwieldy Standing on the Side of Love banner in the Pride Parade. (I mean, could that thing be any heavier? Even we Unitarians have our cross to bear) And something happens. You drop something (hopefully, it’s not the banner dropping on your foot!) or you say something, you laugh and you find yourself sharing a moment with someone that neither one of you will ever forget, and that becomes a little tiny chip in this huge mosaic of all the experiences that you have over the years in this church that will keep you coming back. You find yourself caring about other people’s lives, rejoicing with them over their triumphs and crying with them through their sorrows, helping lift a burden off their shoulders or letting them help you lift one off your own.
Community, especially a spiritual community, is an investment of our time, our care, our talents, our love, and our resources. If you take care of your investment, the dividends are surprisingly high.
A spiritual community contributes to our physical and mental health. Just being here calls us to our better selves, helps us to practice things like gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, mindfulness, respect, generosity and acceptance. It helps us to deal more honestly and effectively with disappointments and conflicts. If you have children, you know they watch you and they learn from you how to solve problems and conduct themselves during trying times.
It is here that our children learn to think critically and to make good decisions using our Seven Principals as an ethical guide. A community is where you learn to be kind, when to say yes, when to say no, and when to say nothing It shapes your relationships with people in your own life, the larger community of our neighborhoods, our institutions, our state and our nation. I like to think of our UU kids as good global citizens.
Not everyone needs or wants a church, and that’s fine, but for those of us who do, I sure am glad that this place exists. Community is a little bit like health insurance—it pays to have it before you realize how much you need it.
And because my favorite spiritual practice is laughter, I will close with one more joke:
God appears to a man one night in a vision. The man asks God to let him win the lottery. God agrees. When the man dies in a tragic flood, he goes to Heaven and meets God and complains that God broke his promise because he never won the lottery. God, who looks just like Bernie Sanders, says to him, “You never won the lottery because you never bought a damned ticket! What more do you want?” And the man says, “I don’t know! Two Boats and a Helicopter?”
Thanks for coming. Have a beautiful Thanksgiving, and please know how thankful I am for you, this wonderful congregation that I love so very much.
Each of Us Ministers to a Weary World
By Darcy Roake
There is too much hardship in this world to not find joy,
There is too much injustice in this world to not right the balance,
There is too much pain in this world to not heal,
Each of us ministers to a weary world.
Let us go forth now and do that which calls us to make this world
more loving, more compassionate and more filled with the grace of divine presence, every day.
Go in Peace.
Bernie and Me
Music Credit: Bruno Mars, “Count on Me,” www.youtube.com
Photo Credits: “John Starino,” by Kevin Oliver
“Two Boats and a Helicopter,” from The Office of CBP Air and Marine helicopter (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File )
“Bernie and Me,” by Sarah Damewood
“Literary Credit: Onion Season, Pt. 1, by John M. Starino, SilDag Press, 139 Dickert Drive, Lexington, SC 29073-9040, firstname.lastname@example.org, Copyright © John M. Starino/SilDag Press, First Edition, 2012. “Lois,” p. 8.