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Monday, April 8, 2013

Sunday Morning Message: Confessions of a Loser


Here are my notes from the message I gave Sunday morning. 

Warning: This message was intended for a UU audience. I talk a lot about my faith in the blog because obviously, my faith's important to me. But I try to avoid saying stuff that could be taken as evangelism - I came to Unitarian Universalism because there was a hole in my life where faith was supposed to be. If you don't have that hole - either because you already have a religion or because you are happy with having no religion, I'm certainly not going to try to make you think you do, or that I know what will fill it, if that makes sense. 

Point being, I'm going to put on my skinny tie and knock on your door. If you don't want to hear it, just pretend you're not home.
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I am a loser. Have been all my life. 
I grew up in a frugal, religious family, one that didn't prize superficial things and had no interest in keeping up with the Joneses. We read books instead of watching TV, we shopped at Value City, and we devoted a whole lot of our time to church and the sacrifice and service that goes with living one's faith. 
And then I went to grade school. I was a Sesame Street kid in a WWF world. I tripped over my feet at dances and was terrible at sports. I played basketball for three years in grade school and scored a grand total of three points. For all the years put together. I never learned to talk like the other kids – I intentionally picked up the bad spoken grammar habits that I can't kick to this day (like using "me” as a subject pronoun). I swore. I tried to use slang, though I was generally at least a year behind the curve (you jive turkeys). But I couldn't keep from peppering my speech with big words no matter how I tried. In fact, I couldn't stop saying words no matter how I tried. You may find this hard to believe, but I used to talk way too much; and when I talked, I said what was on my mind.
Once, when some of the other girls jeeringly asked if I was going to try out for cheerleading that year, I replied that no, cheerleading is sexist – jumping up and down praising boys for their achievements rather than trying to achieve things on their own – I had more self respect than that. In retrospect, this was probably not a wise thing to say in front of a horde of pubescent cheerleaders who already hated my guts. Man, cheerleaders can kick.
Being a loser in grade school was rough, but I can't imagine being the person I am if I'd been popular. The thing is that eventually I came to accept that I was always going to be a loser – that the cool kids were never going to like me. You know that Janice Joplin lyric "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose”? If I couldn't win no matter what I did, then I got to play the game how I wanted to play it. I listened to the music I wanted to listen to, watched the TV I wanted to watch, and read the things I wanted to read. I never felt peer pressure because I had very few peers. And I got to live my conscience – be a feminist, renounce bigotry, be friends with the other losers.
The ending to my loser story, by the way, is a whole lot happier than most other losers. Or at least, it came sooner. Instead of going to the same Catholic high school that all my classmates went to, I made a clean break and went to an all girls' school as different from my grade school as night and day, and then I just fell in with the right crowd. There were so many losers at my high school that we couldn't even fit at the same lunch table.  We used to joke that the only peer pressure we felt was to eat tofu. 
It wasn't utopia of course, it was high school after all, but it was a hell of a lot better than before.
Actually, being connected to a vast network of freaks, geeks, and other assorted weirdoes was probably my first taste of what it was like to be a Unitarian Universalist.
You see, Unitarian Universalists are kind of losers. 
If all of the world's religions got together to play baseball, when they picked teams, UUs would undoubtedly be picked last. And fairly so. You know we'd just be out in right field picking wildflowers and wanting to know if the animal whose skin was used to cover the ball was killed humanely. 
Unitarian Universalists  make up only .3% of the American population. It takes fifteen minutes and a flow chart to explain what we believe, and John Adams was elected over two hundred years ago and we're still bragging about it.
Actually, John Adams was kind of the quintessential Unitarian loser. According to biographer David McCullough, he was "Not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter. He owned no ships… there was no money in his background, no Adams fortune or elegant Adams homestead.” McCullough goes on to state that John Adams wanted to be liked, wanted to be popular, but his conscience and sense of duty to faith and country always got in the way. Some people thought he was obnoxious; a gadfly. McCullough says "…he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He wished he talked less." 
I was in eighth grade when we watched the movie musical 1776. It begins with John Adams giving an impassioned speech to the continental congress about the need to take a vote on declaring independence. He closes the speech with a flourish, and the entire congress stands up and sings "Sit down John, sit down John, for god sakes John, sit down!" Sitting in my eighth grade classroom I thought "Holy cow, that's me!" Twenty years later, I realize "holy cow, that Unitarians!"  See, in the musical (which is a very exaggerated and fictionalized account), everybody else wanted to debate army uniforms and whether or not to open a window. They were stalling, dragging their feet, afraid of sticking their necks out and doing what they'd come to Philadelphia to do. Tellingly, the "Sit Down John" song ends with one congressional delegates singing "Will someone shut that man up?" and John Adams crying "Never!”
And you know what? Nobody's going to shut UUs up either. For better or worse, whether popular or unpopular, the UUs don't shut up. And you know what? We've been on the right side of history since our inception. We openly advocated freedom of religion while governments were burning heretics. We were abolitionists when people were being lynched for opposing slavery. And the very year that Hitler took power, the American Unitarian Association passed a resolution stating that they "greatly deplore the persecution of Jews in Germany as a violation of equity, tolerance, and humanity.” But come on, that's a no-brainer, right? Nope. When Unitarians passed that resolution in 1933, a whole lot of people in the US were behind Hitler. The US was a much different place then, with a whole lot of the most respected scientists and institutions embracing the concept of eugenics – improving the world by removing undesirables from it. Early in Hitler's reign, American scientists were openly praising Hitler's trailblazing work in purifying the human race. 
Unitarians didn't just pass resolutions either. Unitarians and Universalists all over the world gave time and money to help endangered people escape the Nazis as well as to provide care and comfort to refugees. Despite our tiny numbers, members of the Unitarian and Universalist service committees, working closely together, helped save a thousand or more lives. 
Unitarian Universalists were also some of the strongest supporters of the civil rights movement in the 60s. While many religious leaders condemned the cause of racial equality, and leaders of the more sympathetic but predominantly white Northern churches were calling the actions of civil rights leaders "unwise and untimely,” Unitarian Universalists were out on the front line. 
James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister living in Boston, was one of those front line soldiers. One night, he saw television news coverage of police attacking Civil Rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. The next day, Reeb learned from a local office of the Unitarian Universalist Association that Martin Luther King had put out a call to clergy all over the country to come to the aid of the protesters in Selma, and James Reeb was on a plane to Selma that same evening. He was dead within a few days, clubbed to death by white supremacists, for the crime of participating in a demonstration against discrimination. Martin Luther King called Reeb "a shining example of manhood at his best," and that "he demonstrated the conscience of the nation." 
Of course, learning about Reeb made me think about a more recent civil rights protest, this one in 2009 to oppose Arizona's newly enacted immigration laws, the most draconic in the country at the time. Once again, the Unitarian Universalist Association put out a call. Ministers and other religious leaders were called to go to Phoenix Arizona to protest the legislation, with a small number of those leaders, including UUA president Peter Morales, engaging in an act of planned civil disobedience. This group, 29 in all, blockaded the prisoner intake entrance to a Phoenix jail, one of the facilities to which undocumented immigrants are taken upon arrest.
I had mixed feelings about this, as did a lot of other UUs I talked to. It all seemed a bit over-dramatic and attention-seeking. What was the point, other than to make something of a strident public display? It seemed to me like it would just confirm the opinions of those who think we're annoying. 
But then the stories began trickling back from Phoenix. Those arrested talked about the conditions in the detention center where they were taken. They said the place was filthy. They were kept overnight, crammed together in small cells with no place to sit or lay down. Even though the law required they be given sleeping mats after a certain number of hours, they weren't, and those who demanded them were put into isolation. People were denied medical care, including their needed prescription medications. By all accounts, the members of the group who were minorities were treated noticeably worse.
I guess what really changed things for me was hearing the story of Melissa Carville Ziemer from the UU congregation in Kent, Ohio. I was passionately opposed to the legislation already, but my opposition had been abstract. I shouldn't have been surprised at the horrible conditions in the jail, but I guess I'd just never seen this stuff as something that happens to real people. Hearing this story made me feel called to speak out where I'd previously been silent. To donate to the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. It even got me thinking about the rights of prisoners in jails and prisons around the country, a cause that has been important to me ever since.
So I guess what I'm saying is that Unitarian Universalism is a lot like the weird creative kid who talked to herself and spoke her mind without regard for social standing. Maybe what I'm saying is that this congregation is a lot like the group of friends that weird creative kid made in high school – a big mess of weird creative kids who came to school covered in paint, lived their beliefs passionately and unapologetically, and peer-pressured each other into eating tofu. 
I guess what I'm saying is that Unitarian Universalism is a lot like the portly, unpopular guy who (once again in the words of biographer David McCullough) "could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous and fiercely stubborn." A man who was "ambitious to excel- to make himself known" but had "nonetheless recognized that happiness came not from fame and fortune, but from ‘an habitual contempt of them,' as he wrote."
I'm proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. I'm proud that we step forward when more prudent people retreat. I'm proud that our kids are passionate, creative, and kind people. I'm proud that people think we're weird, strident, even annoying. I'm proud of our congregation in particular; our rag-tag bunch of weirdoes and misfits, who come to church covered in paint, live our lives passionately and unapologetically, and peer pressure each other into eating tofu. 

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