Rev. Fritz Hudson
– those in your near south, in New Haven, at the Unitarian Society I serve there and
– those much further south, who gathered in Alabama this past week to mark the passage of 50 years since the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights.
Your minister, Josh Pawelek, is leading worship in our New Haven Society this morning. Josh and I spent this past week among those gathered in Alabama, in our office as Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association. Our presence in each other’s pulpits today allowed us be marching through the streets of Selma last Sunday and to spend this entire week with our fellow Trustees, discerning the call that the spirit of Selma sends to our 1800 colleagues in ministry now.
Josh today, with my people in New Haven, is developing the reflections you heard from him back in January, on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday. He’s engaging them to insure that “Black Lives Matter” here in Connecticut, in its south as well as its north, and west, and east and center. You know his power to do so. You know his capacity to carry others with him on this mission, drawing on the strength of his deep roots here and on his far-sighted commitment to bringing social justice here. I consider it an honor to be with you today, to touch the hearth from which his fire rises.
What, though, can I offer you in return for your gift of Josh to my people to New Haven? I struggled with this question quite a bit once Josh and I agreed to this exchange of pulpits. What could I offer you that Josh hasn’t already given you, probably better than I ever could? I decided that I might have one thing Josh couldn’t quite give you yet – the perspective of greater age. I can actually remember the passage of 50 years, and more than a decade more. Josh can’t yet. Perhaps my longer view of Selma’s Call could be a gift to some of you. We’ll see.
40 years ago, at my entry onto this ministerial path, the Rev. Joseph Barth was the much revered, but just retired, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Department of Ministry. Only halfway down this path, at about Josh’s juncture, did I become able to take in some of the wisdom Joe’s years had brought him. I’ll share with you now Joe’s learning as he sought to bring justice to his world.
“When I was in my last years of college and (divinity school), I spent my summers (touring Europe.) The years were 1930-1935. … Always we spent at least 2 weeks and sometimes four in Germany. I saw and felt Hitler’s rise to power, saw the Brown Shirts take over political favor and the black leather jacketed storm troopers strike terror on the roads and in the thousands of lives. … I saw the obscene salute spread in those years. Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler and Heil Hitler.”
“When I entered the ministry in 1935, my major ethical goal in life was to “stop Hitler short of war.” … As the Ruhr, Sudetenland, Austria, Czechoslavkia and Poland fell … I worked longer hours, spoke more and more places, spoke day and night to ‘stop Hitler short of war.” If ever there was clearly good moral goal to work at surely that one was unquestionable.
“By the time the German war machine drove its way into Poland I knew that Nazism was having its way in Europe. When England went to war I was sure that we would soon do so. Before Pearl Harbor I knew myself defeated in the great goal of stopping Hitler and stopping war. … I was in despair — hell that is. In a deep depression I could almost feel myself ‘blowing apart.’ …
“By that time I’m sure that I had read from the Bhadavad Gita, the Hindu Scripture, at least a dozen times this admonition: “Do your duty, without attachment.” I had read it but never really attended to it or its possible meaning for me. In depression (though) when I read it, it jumped out of the page and shook me. (A)nd what it told me was ‘Look brother, you’ve gotten your good goals all intermingled with your hungry, demanding ego. You’ve been so attached to your good goals that, now that they’re smashed, you have got nobody to be.'”
“In that one day I knew what was wrong with me — my depression was not primarily the result of the failure of those … highly moral and significant goals. I was what was wrong. I wanted, tried to organize, tried to impose my will on the world. … I didn’t know that even in the battle of good against evil I wasn’t necessarily meant to impose my ego on the world. The fact was I had made no distinctions between opposing the authoritarian Hitler and imposing my will on the world. … I finally saw it: ‘Do your duty without attachment (of ego)’ really meant ‘Do the best thing you can see to do but let the Hitler in you go.”
King of the Hill
– Who of you knows this as the name of a long-running animated TV show? So I’ll show my age right off: I know absolutely nothing about this show. If its themes feed or fog my reflections this morning, you’ll have to tell me about that in our coffee hour after worship.
– Does anyone beside me know “King of the Hill” as the name of a childhood game? In Chicago’s suburbs, as a boy in the 1950s, I mounted many a little bump on the earth and declared myself its “king”. And inevitably I was dethroned from all of those “hills” by some friend who pushed me down the slope on one side or another, to claim and defend his or her own supremacy in my place – but only for a few moments of course. The fun in the game was that it was far easier to push someone from the summit than it was to defend it. In a very short time, each of us could thrill at gaining supremacy, revel in holding it for a brief time, and then fall from it knowing that the thrill and the reveling could again be ours, and again and again and again.
Then as a young minister some years later, I came across a classic lithograph print produced by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives. You might know it. At its base is a two-sided stair-step, like those used to award athletic medals: two steps on the left, a central top platform, and two steps on the right. On each step, is a human image.
– Lowest to the left is a crawling baby.
– On the middle step next is a young boy, crouched as if ready to spring into the air.
– On the top level, in the center is a broad-chested man standing at full height, obviously at the peak of his physical powers.
– On the middle step to the right side is an older man, somewhat round-shouldered and paunchy, bent over his desk.
– And lowest to the right is an old man, bent almost double over his thick cane, rising not much higher above his step then the baby rises on his.
These are, as the print is entitled, “The Ages of Man.” The upright figure at its center I quickly could call “King of the Hill.” But how much more challenged is our spirit in looking at these images than was mine in my childhood game? The movement through our ages is slow. Each step is reached and held only once. And most challenging, we move through our ages only in one direction. Once we’re no longer King of the Hill, we’ll never be again. Where’s the fun in that?
I picture your minister on that center platform now. Who here sees yourself up there with him or rising up to join him in your future? Hail you Kings of the Hill!
I picture myself on the first step down below Josh to the right. Who here sees yourself down here with me or moving with me toward the bottom right? Crouching at our desk, as the lithograph images us, when we’re 64 or beyond it, can we “send a postcard, drop a line” to those rising, as Paul McCartney asked in his song? What exactly could we “indicate” to them? What could we say, and mean it? Or must we just sign off as the song’s lyric imagined: “Yours sincerely, wasting away?” I think we can do much better.
Those of you on that top platform, Kings of the Hill: Who among you have seen this year’s movie Selma? Those of us on that next step or two down, were any of us actually in Selma or Montgomery in that March 50 years ago? Even if not, I’ll bet many here on my step have seen the movie and could place beside it our own memory of the events themselves as they came to us on our TV screens in 1965. Yes? Do you agree with me, that in large part the movie captures the spirit of the reality we remember? In particular I think it well presents Martin Luther King Jr. as the King of the Hill he was in that winter.
He was 36 years old.
– In the horror of the Bloody Sunday end to the first attempted march to Montgomery, he knew the power it gave him to call to the clergy of all America to join him in attempting the march again.
– In the trap of the second march, when he sensed that leaving Selma could bring a violent unwitnessed attack on all his followers out in the countryside, he had the grace to kneel in prayer on the Pettis bridge and then turn his column back into town.
– With the nation’s revulsion at his back, from the beating death that night of his follower, Unitarian Jim Reeb, he then had the strength to mount the third march – five days over 50 miles to the Montgomery Statehouse steps.
And then from those steps, he could ask:
“How long with it take?
How long will prejudice blind the visions of men?
How long will justice be crucified?”
How long? he asked.
“Not long” he answered, and again “Not long” and again “Not long.”
Martin’s impatience for changes, of course, did bring some of them quite soon thereafter. Their price, though, was our loss of him at the height of his strength, as our King. His model, Jesus of Nazareth, likewise became revered as “heavenly king”, leaving this life from that top center platform. The gifts to us all, from their half-lives, are great. But where do we find our models to live with their visions unfulfilled – when “not long” becomes much, much too long – as our strength subsides, as we move down those right hand steps?
My time to seek my place in the “over the hill gang” impressed itself upon me at the death, two years ago, of my mother-in-law. She was the last survivor among Ginnys’ and my parents. I first found a spiritual partner in an old Dennis the Menace cartoon I’d clipped and saved years ago.
– Mr. Wilson, Dennis’ sometimes grumpy neighbor, is sitting in his living room armchair, his newspaper open in his lap, but his face turned back over his shoulder. He’s wearing a scowl.
– Dennis is in front of the couch back there, upside down executing a headstand on the rug.
– From his impish smile come these words, “How can I act my age? I’ve never been my age before.”
Indeed none of us has ever been our age before, have we? When we’re no longer Kings of the Hill, to whom can we now look for a model? Two years ago, in my last sabbatical leave in ministry, I made my way to China, to the ancient city of Qufu. He sought there the model of that city’s most famous son, and most famous old man. Ch’iu was his given name. Kung Futze, Master Kung, he grew to be called. But our western world knows him best as Confucius.
Master Kung’s life stretched over the full length of our ages, up to its strength on the center platform and down again to its dissolution on that far step. His spirit’s progression, though over those years etches a far different image in our mind’s eye. In the Analects, he marks the landmarks of his passages in these words:
At fifteen, I set my heart on learning.
At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground.
At forty, I no longer suffered from complexities.
At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven.
At sixty, I heard them with docile ear.
At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my heart;
for I what desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right. (2:4)
The artist in my mind’s eye would not image this path in steps up and then down. Its shape rather would be the spiral captured by our poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, a century and a half ago. You know his poem, “The Chambered Nautilus.” It describes that sea animal’s progress:
Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
And from it the poet draws his spirits model:
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
But what is the driving engine of this growth, I still had to ask? What allows for this expansion of the spirit, while it remains ever in touch with each turn of its past path?
Joe Barth’s story of escaping his depression at failing to save the world gets us started in the right direction, I think.
– Remember his words to his own tortured soul: “Let the Hitler inside you go. Do your duty without attachment.”
But I think we can go further along that path.
Gary Kowalski was for many years our minister in Burlington, Vermont. He moved from this long settlement into Interim Ministry, just ahead of my own passage from Lincoln Nebraska to New Haven. He has spoken to the expanding spirit of our spiral when he contrasts the skills of gaining control and losing control:
To gain control of your life, you need the skill to influence other people and change the way they think.
To lose control, you need the skill to listen with an open mind to what others say, and to let your own opinions be changed.
To gain control of things, you need the skill to dominate and alter your environment.
To lose control, you need the skill to be sensitive to your environment and value it for what it is.
To gain control of time, you need clear plans for the future. To lose control, you require an appreciation for the rich ambiguity of the present, as well as for history and traditions that have brought us to this moment.
On the whole our society has emphasized the skills of gaining control and neglected the equally important ones of losing control.
We lose control whenever we fall in love, . . . whenever we make friends or have children, whenever we become subject to the give-and-take of living in relationship with other people.
And this past Sunday, in Selma, I felt confirmed in the strength of this spirit for my time of life. Josh and I have talked with one another of our feelings as we crossed the Pettis bridge in Selma. They were not exactly the same. His were perhaps much as Martin Luther King Jr.s were, perhaps as most of our “King of the Hill” aged forebears were being there 50 years ago. I’ll let him tell you more of those feelings.
My feelings that day, I realized however, had been called out and given a name by my own agemate a few days before. We marched in Selma on Sunday. On the Friday and Saturday before then, 400 Unitarian Universalists gathered in a Birmingham conference. There we asked ourselves: What does the spirit that brought our forebears to march 50 years ago call us to do today.
Our prod to those reflections was the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed. Who knows Mark or his work here? We have much in common, Mark and I.
– We’re both Chicagoans, rooted in its south-side.
– We’ve shared UU ministry now for over 35 years, each ending our settled service with a 16-year tenure – his in Toronto, Ontario, as was mine in Lincoln.
– And at 65 each of us, we’re both clearly over the hill.
Mark’s calling in our faith, however, has always included a special dimension, an outgrowth of his race. Mark is black, as I and nearly all our colleagues are not. And Mark has long owned his role as pioneer among us to bridge this gap in our experience.
– His first gift to us, many years ago, was his book Black Pioneers in a White Denomination. It gave us the mirror to face our failures for years to affirm the worth and dignity of every person in our ministry.
– This year his gift to us is the book The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism. Who here has read it? I strongly recommend it. It invites you into Selma, 50 years ago, through the eyes of our faith.
And from that story, in inviting us to return to Selma last Sunday, Mark drew one telling lesson. What moved the over 200 UU ministers to go there back then, he asked?
– Yes it was the righteousness of the cause, he said, in part.
– Yes it was the call of King’s leadership, he said.
But more than that, what drew Unitarians and Universalists to Selma 50 years ago more than anything else, he said, were personal relationships.
– It began with four who had studied with King at Boston University Theological School. It spread when those four called their friends in ministry to say, “I’m going to Selma. Will you join me there?”
– It spread then when those friends reaching out to their friends and their friends reached further to their friends – until over a third of our settled ministers had been called, and touched, and moved to join into one body in those streets and on that bridge. The spirit of those forebears, Mark told us, ask us today only one question:
– “With whom are we now in relationship”
– “From whom would the call to rise up come to us today”
And “to whom would we make our own call”
With whom are we now in relationship?
In the back of the book Mark lists the names of all the ministers he’s identified who went to Selma 50 years ago – almost 200 names are there. I went through them when I read the book. I found I had known at least 87 of them. I felt confident that had I been old enough to be among them then, several would have made me a call. So when I moved, as I did last Sunday, across the Pettis bridge, I felt the power of Mark’s question.
– I looked around me at the seven or so veterans making the crossing for second time. I knew my relationship with them.
– I looked at the current Kings of Hill now then beside me, those like Josh who’d answered this call. I knew my relationship with many of them.
– Then I began to look and ask: who among this generation, who among the generation just now rising to their place on our platform, who are not here?
To whom of them have I not yet given my love, ceded my control?
With whom of them am I now called to enter into relationship?
Where is the as yet ungrasped hand I can pull on to answer our call – to cross whatever bridge is before us to widen the spiral of love and justice?
I’m glad I’ve come among you as you undertake your reflections on generosity this month. I ask you to reflect now on the root of its spirit – in the word’s first syllable: “gen”. Think of generosity’s siblings in the family of words that has grown up from that root: genesis, gender, genealogy, genius. “Gen” in the ancient Indo-European language, meant to give birth, to beget. It is the beginning of relationship.
As the Rev.Ralph Helverson taught me as I entered this work, so must I now bid to teach you as I fade from it.
Keep us growing without faltering;
Keep us exalted without egotism;
Keep us humble without abasement;
Keep us finding life in the process of losing it.