Reflections by Rev. Diane Rollert and Rev. Lynn Harrison. 26 November 2017
Part I: Rev. Lynn Harrison
When Diane suggested the sermon title of “Our Most Humble Moments” to me, I thought it was a great idea!
It sounded so human and down-to-earth…I loved it. That is, until I started thinking about it, and realized that I’d have to share a story about being humbled…coming to terms with my own flaws or imperfections. Suddenly I was a little less keen on the idea.
Mind you, I am preaching this morning at a congregation other than my own…so, I feel a little more free in sharing with you some of my less-than-stellar moments.
We all have them of course. Things we’ve said that we wish we could take back… Choices we made that we soon regretted. Over time, if we’re lucky, those moments contribute to our deepening sense of what it means to be human. They help us develop compassion, as we watch other people also learn lessons the hard way. Most of all, they teach us that “inherent worth” is not about never making mistakes. It’s about extending love to ourselves and others, even when—or especially when—we do make mistakes.
So…here’s the story of one of my most humble moments.
It took place about thirty years ago, when I was just married and my husband and I had moved into our first home. Back in the late eighties, issues of accessibility and inclusion, along with anti-racism concerns, were not nearly as well-understood as they are today. Still, that’s really no excuse for my most humble moment.
It was the Saturday before Hallowe’en, and like many other young couples, we’d been invited to a party. We didn’t know the hosts, who were friends of friends of ours…but we were assured we’d be welcome at this large house party nearby. We’d been planning to go for days… but we’d been procrastinating about putting together a costume. With just a few hours to go before the party started, we were getting desperate.
Meanwhile, we were unpacking boxes and getting settled into our new home. On this particular day, we were taking down some dingy roll-up blinds in the living room, and replacing them with nicer curtains. As I took the lightweight paper blind down from the window, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea!
“I know,” I said to my husband Dave, “We could be the ‘blind’ (as in window blind)… leading the ‘blind’ (as in, person who is visually impaired).”
One of us could hold the window blind, while the other one donned a pair of sunglasses and used a white cane. Voila! Instant costume!
Feeling rather clever and proud of ourselves…
…and dismissing the nagging concern that our costume might be somehow offensive…
…off we went to the party!
As we expected, it was a popular event. The large historical home was packed to the brim with people in costumes of all kinds. Thrilled to have been invited to such a happening event, we grabbed our drinks with our free hands, and gleefully explained our clever costume to one complete stranger after another. But slowly something strange began to dawn on us. People weren’t really laughing. In fact, they were smiling a little nervously and edging away. This continued for a few more minutes, until one kind person pulled us aside and said:
“I don’t know if you know this… But the person who owns this house is visually impaired… and most of the people here work for the CNIB: the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.”
Talk about humble moments.
Or, just plain mortifying.
Apparently not wanting us to feel uncomfortable, the kind stranger went on to say, “But don’t worry, everyone thinks it’s funny. It’s fine, really!” But of course it wasn’t…and we ditched the costume immediately, and didn’t stay very long after that.
When I look back on this story today, thirty years later, I’m grateful that fewer people are likely to make the mistake that we did. As a society, we’re finally having important conversations about inclusion, accessibility and anti-oppression—and our behaviours are changing as a result. I’m grateful, as well, that as a person, I’ve grown to be more concerned with sensitivity to others than with cleverness or drawing attention to myself.
I also celebrate the fact that Life Itself has a way of teaching us the lessons we’re meant to learn…sometimes in ways that are painful and funny and humbling all at the same time.
As we grow in wisdom and insight, we can gradually come to appreciate even the painful experiences that come from our own mistakes… growing in love and compassion for ourselves and others.
Here’s a song about deepening in our understanding as the years go by, through experiences that seem difficult at the time.
Song: “It’ll Grow on You” by Lynn Harrison
Part II: Rev. Diane Rollert
It was probably in July of 1997, during Religious Education Week on Star Island, the famous Unitarian Universalist retreat centre off the coast of Maine.
Rev. Majorie Bowens-Wheatley was the guest minister for the week. Each day, Rev. Marjorie would deliver a talk to us, a gathering of Religious Educators. It was my first year as a Director of Religious Education and this week was an entirely new experience for me.
Rev. Majorie was courageous in so many ways. She was a ground breaker in our movement. In those days, Unitarian Universalism was just coming out of a staunchly humanist phase. Marjorie was inviting us to allow God and spirituality back in. She was also the sole African American in a sea of mostly white UUs on Star Island that week, and she was pushing us on our Western European intellectual bias. Her lectures had a profound effect on many of us.
During RE week back then, there was always a talent show. I don’t know if that’s still the tradition. But you know how these things go. Kids sing or play their musical instruments, there are dancers, painful comedy acts, the usual fair.
I don’t quite remember how it happened, but a group of us were sitting with Rev. Marjorie when someone said, “I keep thinking of that song from Sweet Honey in the Rock, ‘I Remember, I Believe’. Wouldn’t it be great if we sang it for the talent show?”
I don’t know why, but Rev. Marjorie agreed to sing with us and I got roped into singing soprano, along with a few other women who sang alto, tenor and bass.
It’s really a beautiful song with a wordless chorus that has these gorgeous rolling harmonies. Some of the verses end with the words, “Standing in a rainstorm, I believe,” which seemed to be the essence of the message that Rev. Marjorie was trying to get across to us.
But the song begins with this first verse…
I don't know how my mother walked her trouble down
I don't know how my father stood his ground
I don't know how my people survive slavery
I do remember, that's why I believe
We were rehearsing in the gathering hall and it wasn’t sounding bad, when Majorie stopped us. “You know,” she said, “I’m not sure I can sing this song with a group of white women. I mean, what can singing about surviving slavery possibly mean to you?”
There was awkward silence. I think we all probably looked down sheepishly at the floor, feeling foolish and uncomfortable. I remember speaking up at some point, “I guess I relate it to being Jewish,” I said. “We were once slaves in Egypt. It’s part of who I am, but I know it’s not the same.”
I don’t remember what else was said. Perhaps there were apologies and confirmations that we couldn’t possibly understand what it meant to survive slavery. Suddenly, one woman burst into tears and ran out of the room. Awkwardly, we must have disbanded for lunch.
Later, we managed to come back together. I think it was Rev. Marjorie who gathered us. The woman who had burst into tears explained that although she was white, she was always embarrassed by the difference she felt from everyone else. She came from a poor family. She had never gone to university. In a UU gathering like this she was painfully aware of the class differences.
We had an intense conversation that day about race, class and religion. In the end, we agreed to go back to rehearsing and we did sing in the talent show that night. My memory is vague, but I’m sure we began with an explanation of the meaning of the song and the process we had gone through to get to the point of being able to sing together.
It was a humbling experience, one that I’ve carried with me to this day. Rev. Marjorie died much too young of cancer in 2006, not long after I came here. I’ve always wished I could have seen her before she died. I would have thanked her for opening my eyes in so many ways.
Twenty years later, I’m still processing that experience. Should we have gone on singing? Did Rev. Marjorie put our needs before her own? —because she was such a good minister… Were we once again taking advantage of our white privilege to sing with her? Today, a group of white religious educators in similar circumstances would never suggest singing a song that’s really about African American struggles for faith and justice.
How much of our response was about our own white fragility? We didn’t even have the language to know where to start then. Amazing people of colour, like Rev. Marjorie and Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, have been willing to be pioneers in a white denomination. They have stayed engaged despite all our fumbling and our unwillingness to recognize the pain we cause. Twenty years later and we are still at the beginning of a long journey toward wholeness.
I keep thinking I know better now. But just recently, someone shared with me that they had felt distinctly uncomfortable entering this sanctuary to hear a majority white congregation singing spirituals. It hit me then how much I love this music because it is music of struggle and liberation, and how I still have so much work to do. I am humbled once again. I’m painfully reminded that we need to take much more care to reflect on why we choose to sing what we sing. It’s not that we have to give everything up, but it’s how we respectfully consider the context.
There’s a big difference between embarrassment, humiliation and humility. To be embarrassed is really about the minor moments that we can eventually let go of. It’s the egg on our faces that we can wash off. But to be humiliated is to lose a piece of ourselves, to be shamed. Humiliation can be a real violence upon the soul, something that requires us to stand up and survive.
Humility, it seems to me, has a whole other quality that can bring us to a place of healing and even reconciliation. To be humbled means allowing ourselves to let go of our arrogance and pride, to recognize the mistakes we make and to be willing to change. Humiliation shuts you down, but humility opens you up.
There’s a quote in this month’s theme packet that says, “Humility is a strange thing: the minute you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it.” (Dallas Willard). All I can say is that this is all still a work in progress for me, a constant cycle of making mistakes, learning and humbly moving forward a few steps as often as I can.
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