Lucille Clifton, one of the poets who spoke and recited at Chautauqua last month, and the only person of color to speak that week, told us about an experience the day JFK was assassinated.
Her children saw that she was crying and asked why she was so sad. “The President has been shot and killed,” she explained. The oldest child said, “Don’t cry Momma, we didn’t do it.”
The anecdote was humorous and poignant. Clifton was named poet laureate in her native state of Maryland. She said, “During my time as poet laureate I was asked only once to write a poem for a state event. They asked me to write on the theme, Our Happy Colonial Days.”
“They want me to remember their memories, but I keep remembering mine,” she said with a wry smile. She’s not an angry woman. She’s a poet. She pays attention to nuance. She notices the delicate variations of tone, subtlety and suggestion.
She compared the request to write that poem to a statement James Baldwin made in response to a question put to him by William F. Buckley. Baldwin said, “You know, you tell me America is one thing, and my experience tells me it is something else, and you want me to believe your story, which comes from your experience.”
These anecdotes reminded me of the key distinguishing ingredient of our Unitarian Universalist approach to religion and spirituality: we want to believe our own experience, in spite of what others tell us we should believe. Some of our old stale opinions need to be challenged, of course.
As we approach another cycle as a congregation we’re encouraged to consider what we’re about and what we want to accomplish together, both as individuals and as a religious community.
We want to inform our children about the variety of religions in the world; we want them to respect the diversity that characterizes our nation; we want them to be responsible citizens of this great nationa nation always in-the-makingand to be responsible citizens of this beleaguered world, without instilling an inappropriate sense of guilt for the sins of the fathers the way Clifton’s children felt in response to Kennedy’s assassination.
We want the same for ourselvesto be informed, and to be reasonably happy in this life, in spite of the trials and tribulations, the sorrows and uncertainties. So we organize ourselves as a religious community to nurture the spiritual and moral aspects of lifeto challenge old prejudices, to speak up with courage, to learn how to love more maturely, to let go appropriately.
On September 8 we’ll begin our new year together by gathering on the lawn at 10 a.m. to re-dedicate ourselves to our primary purposes and principles. We’ll process into our sanctuary where we will remember loved ones by speaking their names or honoring them with a sacred shared silence. We will remind ourselves of the heroic experience each of us is living in the here and now by the ways we live and love. This is a special place, this congregation we’re creating. I’m looking forward to seeing you soon and to sharing another chapter of the Book of Life.