Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
May 28, 2017
WHEN WE LIVE AND PROCLAIM OUR PROFESSIVE FAITH WITH OUR BODIES
By David Herndon
28 May 2017
First Unitarian Church
I would like to begin this morning by sharing two personal stories with you.
During the summer of 1983, I lived in a one-room apartment overlooking the emergency room of the community hospital in Somerville, New Jersey.
All Unitarian Universalist ministers are required to complete a ten-week pastoral care training program as part of our preparation for professional religious leadership. Typically this pastoral care training program takes place at a hospital, and typically six or eight ministry students train together under the supervision of an experienced hospital chaplain.
I had been accepted into a clinical pastoral education program at the four-hundred-bed community hospital in Somerville, New Jersey. This was the summer after my first year of theological school. Because I did not reside in the area, I was fortunate to be able to live in a room in a small building out back behind the hospital overlooking the emergency room. The building contained several rooms which were typically made available to students from community colleges who needed a place to stay while they completed their intensive practical training as medical technicians.
Each morning for those ten weeks, I walked the short distance from my room in the small building to the hospital where I met with the other ministry students and our supervising chaplain. At the end of the day, I walked the short distance from the hospital back to my room in the small building. From time to time, I would leave the hospital grounds for one reason or another, but sometimes I was either inside the hospital or just outside the hospital for days at a time.
Each day, the other ministry students and I were given lists of patients we were supposed to visit. There were always more people on our lists than we were able to visit. We did not know these people personally. We simply went to their rooms and did our best to create a safe space for having a conversation. The very first person I went to see was a young man about thirty years old who had lost the use of his legs and had very limited use of his arms. He had been riding in the passenger seat of a car when the car was hit from behind by a truck He was thrown from the vehicle as it rolled over off the highway. And so through no fault of his own he was now mostly paralyzed. Another person I visited had recently been told about a cancer diagnosis. This person did not want to talk with me and simply did not engage in conversation no matter what question I asked, covering his face with his arm. Yet another person was very worried about her surgery which she thought would be happening the next day. In fact, the surgery had taken place the previous day. Our supervising chaplain was very pleased with my response to this person. “I think you are finally getting the point,” he said, for instead of focusing my attention on correcting her misperception about the day of her surgery, I had focused my attention instead on listening and responding to her feelings of fear and anxiety.
You can imagine that these ten weeks of clinical pastoral education were very intense. Each day, the other ministry students and I confronted many situations filled with suffering and sorrow. Yes, one time I made a visit in the maternity department, and that was a happy visit, but that was the exception. For me, unlike the other students in my group, the intensity was made all the more intense because I lived right there on the hospital grounds in that room overlooking the emergency department. And if the situations in the hospital rooms were not emotionally challenging enough, at night I was awakened by the arrival of ambulances with their flashing red lights.
To my surprise, this emotionally intense time was deeply rewarding. I experienced a kind of calmness, for I was deeply focused on the flow of what I was doing. I was not worried that I should be somewhere else doing something else. Yes, the experience was exhausting, but it was also deeply rewarding.I had a sense of the rightness of the moment. My purpose was embodied.
On a very cold morning at the end of February 2015, I had a similar experience. The situation was entirely different.Instead of visiting patients in their hospital rooms, I was taking part in a social justice rally here in Pittsburgh downtown at the UPMC building, formerly the USX building. The rally was called by the union that organizes low-wage health care workers. The purpose of the rally was to demand a higher wage and the right to belong to a union. The Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network was part of the rally, and some of the PIIN spiritual leaders had decided to engage in civil disobedience. When the time came, ten of us refused to move from a spot near one of the doors to the UPMC building. We stood in a circle with our arms linked. We sang songs. And once again I experienced a kind of calmness, for once again I was deeply focused on the flow of what I was doing. Once again, I was not worried that I should be somewhere else doing something else. Once again, I had a sense of the rightness of the moment. Once again, my purpose was embodied.I did not know whether or not we would be arrested, and I did not know whether or not we would be taken to jail if we were arrested, and I did not know what would happen after that. But I felt reassured, as if some large hand was gently pushing against my back and pushing me forward and holding me up
In due time, the police stepped forward and arrested us. We were politely led toward the street where the police asked for our names and contact information. The “handcuffs” were entirely symbolic, for they were just rings of plastic that did not restrain us at all. Once we had given our names and contact information, we were free to go. A few months later, in June, a judge dismissed the charges, declining to sentence us to community service, for he said that as spiritual leaders our lives were already fully devoted to community service. And that was the end of it.
Both of the stories I just shared with you are stories of embodiment. One story of embodiment lasted for a whole summer. The other story of embodiment lasted for about fifteen minutes.
You probably could tell your own story of embodiment, a time in your life when you were deeply focused on the flow of what you were doing, and you were not worried that you should have been somewhere else doing something else, and you had a sense of the rightness of the moment.
For us as Unitarian Universalists, what could it mean to have an embodied faith? What could it mean to live and proclaim our progressive Unitarian Universalist faith with our bodies?
For the moment, I would like to speak about embodied membership and embodied worship.
In recent weeks, I have been updating our membership records. It turns out that our official membership currently includes just over three hundred people who are engaged in the life of this religious community and who support it financially. Unfortunately, however, our list of members also includes many people who were active participants once upon a time but then somehow drifted away from First Unitarian Church. I am feeling a sense of urgency to trim our membership list so that it includes only those who are currently part of the life of our church. I want to remove the guesswork that has accompanied our membership list. When we are seeking someone to serve on a ministry team, for example, we should not have to consult an invisible set of mental notes that includes comments like these: “I have not seen that person at church for years.” “That family moved away a long time ago.” “I guess we keep this other person on the membership list for sentimental reasons, but they are not really part of the church.” Likewise, when we seek financial support for our church, we should not have to consult that invisible set of mental notes.
Aside from removing the guesswork, I just want membership to mean more than signing the membership book.I want membership to be something that we embody, something that prompts us to show up, not merely something that we have in our heads, but something we do with our bodies.
Like embodied membership, embodied worship starts with showing up. Embodied worship starts with taking the time and trouble to be physically present here in this Sanctuary. Beyond that, embodied worship means experiencing what happens here in this Sanctuary not only with our intellects, but also with our bodies. For us as Unitarian Universalists, embodied worship will probably not mean speaking in tongues, or handling snakes, being instantaneously healed.But it does mean recognizing that we are more than our thinking.
Those who design our worship celebrations can include elements that point us toward embodied worship. For example, in our worship celebration this morning, we are singing “There Is a Love” three times. You might say, “Why should I sing this song three times? After singing it once, I got the basic idea.” But there is a difference between singing a song that is unfamiliar, where you need to keep looking at the words and the notes, and singing a song that you know by heart. By having three opportunities to sing this song this morning, you are being invited to learn this song by heart, to learn it well enough that you could sing it again tomorrow, to learn it well enough that you could sing it with your eyes closed, to learn it well enough that you could focus more deeply not on its mechanics but on its message, to learn it well enough that you could share it with someone else, to learn it well enough that it becomes part of you.
So, yes, those who design our worship celebrations can invite you to experience worship in a more embodied way.
But experiencing worship in a more embodied way also depends on the attitude or intention that you bring with you. You can, of course, approach worship in a purely intellectual way, saying to yourself, “I agree with this, but I disagree with that.” But you could also pay attention to what wakes up in you during this time together. You could pay attention to your body’s response to what you experience here. The core quality of embodied worship is deep listening, listening deeply to the messages and the music that are presented, but perhaps even more important, listening deeply to your own response to what is presented.
Sometimes embodying one’s faith comes with a cost, as our responsive reading reminds us.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a holiday when we may reflect on the courage and sacrifice of soldiers and others in our armed services who put themselves in harm’s way.
But soldiers are not the only people who put themselves in harm’s way as they embody their sense of purpose.
We might also reflect on the courage and sacrifice of first responders who also put themselves in harm’s way.
But soldiers and first responders are not the only people who put themselves in harm’s way as they embody their sense of purpose. You may have heard about the incident that took place yesterday on a light-rail train in Portland, Oregon. Two young Muslim women were riding the train. Then, a white man began threatening the two Muslim women. The white man had a history of involvement with white supremacist groups. Three other white men attempted to intervene, trying to protect the Muslim women and trying to get the white supremacist man to stop threatening them. In response, the white supremacist man pulled out a knife, fatally stabbing two of the men and seriously injuring the third man.
These three citizens put themselves in harm’s way while embodying their sense of purpose, standing against hatred and intolerance and bigotry.
Memorial Day belongs to them, too.
Memorial Day belongs to all people who embody a sense of sacred purpose and do so while knowingly putting themselves in harm’s way, knowingly accepting risk, knowingly living with danger.
I don’t know that I would ever knowingly ask others to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of living and proclaiming our progressive Unitarian Universalist faith. I might choose to take risks on my own initiative for the sake of offering public witness for our Unitarian Universalist values, as I did when I was arrested at the UPMC building. But asking others to confront danger? I don’t think I would do that.
On the other hand, many of our Unitarian Universalist churches in the South took collective risks during the Civil Rights era in the 1950s and 1960s. The buildings of some of our Unitarian Universalist churches suffered damage from bombs or arson. For promoting integration, some of our churches received threatening telephone calls or letters. Some members of our churches lost their standing in the community when they embodied the values of our faith tradition. Two Unitarian Universalists, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, even lost their lives when they embodied the values of our faith tradition in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Memorial Day belongs to them, too.
Our interim religious educator, Steven Mead, uses language like this: Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
Being made whole may not go in a straight line, however. Those who know community organizing will say that all organizing is dis-organizing and then re-organizing. Similarly, being made whole may mean first experiencing some disruption or disorientation and then afterward experiencing an encompassing harmony or clarity or unity or embodiment.
On this Memorial Day weekend, may we seek a more embodied experience of our daily lives, a more embodied experience of our progressive faith tradition, and a more embodied expression of our values in the larger community. May we come to know the joys and rewards of more embodied living. May we seek these joys and rewards even when we understand the risks and dangers.
© 2017 by David Herndon