Opening Words by Mary Oliver:
Every morning the world is created.
Under the orange sticks of the sun
The heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again
And fasten themselves to the high branches-
And the ponds appear like black cloth
On which are painted islands of summer lilies.
If it is your nature to be happy
You will swim away along the soft trails for hours,
Your imagination alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn
That is heavier than lead-if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging-
There is still somewhere deep within you a beast
shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted-
each pond with its blazing lilies is
a prayer heard and answered lavishly, every morning.
Whether or not you have ever dared to be happy,
Whether or not you have ever dared to pray.
A letter to the editor in the New York Times caught my eye and imagination. It was written by a physician who had published an article in the Magazine section a few weeks before. Something in his article was called into question. He said he looked into it and found the criticism to be valid. Then he said, simply, but directly, “I stand corrected.”
I re-read the letter, then I took my notebook and wrote the title for this sermon. Underneath the title I wrote, “the corrective.”
I want to tell you the story behind ‘the corrective.’ It happened to me twenty years ago.
On a November Sunday in 1983 I listened to a very disturbing talk given by Richard Scobie, President of our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee at the time. I had invited him to share speak from the pulpit in the church I was serving.
The UUSC had been taking members of the U.S. Congress to Central America so they could see first hand what was going on down there, and to convince them to change our government’s policies regarding El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It was becoming painfully clear that we were on the wrong side in each of those countries. In El Salvador and Guatemala we were supporting state sponsored death squads-the terrorism had become notorious. We were determined to undermine the new government in Nicaragua.
After listening to Dick Scobie’s talk I decided to find a way to get to Central America to see for myself, so I could speak from first hand experience. I called the UUSC and asked how I could get to Central America on one of those fact-finding missions. The person to whom I spoke said, ” Well, first you have to get yourself elected to Congress.”
I didn’t find the comment amusing, but I resisted hanging up. I said, ” Well, I’m sure you’re not the only socially responsible organization that takes people there.” As a result of my persistence I learned about a travel program for those of us who were not members of Congress, sponsored by the Center For Global Service and Education, at a Midwest Lutheran seminary.
I contacted them. The director of the program, Joel Mugge, said, “As a matter of fact we have a group of seminarians that is going in two weeks. Someone just dropped out, so, if you can commit to it, you can come.”
Two weeks later, in early December, I was on my way to Central America. I flew to Mexico City where I met the Lutheran seminarians. We went to a retreat center in Cuernavaca, 40 miles south of Mexico City, where I was introduced to the rest of the group. The group leader told them that I was a Unitarian minister, and said, “Reverend Hall will be our corrective.”
His comment took me by surprise-I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know much about me. The comment could have been a little dig in the ribs of my Unitarianism which stood in such contrast to their Lutheranism.
I would soon learn that he wasn’t being a bit sarcastic. I realized that when the group responded to his saying that I would be their corrective in a matter-of-fact manner. They simply nodded, as if he had just told them that I was to be the umpire in the baseball game that was about to begin.
I’ve been thinking about his comment ever since-20 years, so far. What does it mean to be ‘the corrective?’ It’s not a job for which one can volunteer, tempting as that is for many of us. (We who are parents have a responsibility to take it on, to be the corrective, which sometimes spills into the relationship between parents.)
The corrective, in the sense that this Lutheran teacher meant, is simply to be a ‘presence.’
As their corrective, I would serve as a reminder to them, not because of what I had to say, not because I would tell them where they were wrong, but I would be present. I would be with them as they spoke to one another about what they were observing during this time together, and what they were feeling.
The ‘corrective,’ in the sense that this Lutheran teacher meant, is there simply as a reminder that they are being heard by the people about whom they would be speaking.
I was there to be a mirror for them. They could see their own reflection.
I’m not suggesting that I understood this, then.
I made the mistake of speaking up, just once. I’ll tell you about it: on the second day we drove through the Mexico City dump, where 5,000 people were living-men, women and children. They lived in the dump! They scrounged for things to eat and to scavenge to sell. We were stunned. We drove back to the center with silent tears.
Once back at the center we sat in our circle again and there was a very long, uncomfortable silence. Finally a young man, a former Marine, who had told us about his call to ministry the day before, suddenly cried out in an agonizing scream, “Where is God.” His primal scream cut to the core, and it was followed by another long, painful silence. Then I said, “God is in your scream.”
I immediately became the target of his angst. He screamed at me, “You shut up, you’re an atheist, you don’t know anything about God. Who are you to tell me.”
The corrective isn’t supposed to answer questions!
Nothing serves as a corrective more effectively than to be put in the position of being ‘the corrective.’ I got in touch with my own, built-in corrective.
I keep learning. It’s not a matter of practicing what you preach as much as it is preaching yourself into practice! We who struggle with sermons are forced to stand corrected, again and again. Being corrected by people in the pews is humbling, challenging and invigorating. But that’s different from the internal corrective to which I’m referring.
I don’t mean that we stand corrected because we have to listen to criticism from those who hear or read what we’re saying. That’s relatively easy.
Nothing allows me to hear and understand those with whom I am not in agreement than to preach my side of the story. Does that make sense to you? This is my understanding: there’s a major difference between responding to outside criticism as opposed to being in touch with the inner Being that sits way down there ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
That kind of understanding doesn’t come with a bolt of lightning, an epiphany. It evolves. For me it has been gradually evolving during 33 years of preaching, of listening to my own sermons, not with my ears only, but thousands of others.
In the early days of ministry the burden was to prepare a sermon; to find the right thing to say, and to say it so as to be heard. Now the burden is to listen to my own preaching! I stand corrected! It’s not a matter of preparing a sermon as much as it is a matter of preparing my self to stand again in the pulpit and to try to find the words I need.
When I say that I listen to my own sermons I don’t mean that I listen to the recording on tape. I almost never do that. I mean that there’s a built-in, instant replay that runs through my head during the delivery. It’s not something I intend to do; it’s not something I want to do. It simply happens on its own.
Are you familiar with the instant replay in football? A few years ago the National Football League instituted the instant replay. A coach is allowed a limited number of challenges to a ruling from a referee. In the 256 regular season games in the NFL last year, 294 plays were reviewed and 94 calls, 32%, were overturned. The referee has to say ‘I stand corrected.’
This system is now being considered for the big ten college football league.
The idea of the corrective is a major theme in all religion.
The Ten Commandments serve as a cultural corrective.
The Analects of Confucius that serves a billion Chinese is filled with correctives. In 500 B.C. Confucius penned what we call ‘the golden rule:’ ” What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” That’s a corrective to last a lifetime!
But the corrective I mean isn’t carved into stone or found in books. The corrective I mean is built-in. It’s more about spirituality than it is about religion.
The religions attempt to institutionalize the corrective, and they may indeed help us to hear that ‘still small voice,’ but they can’t put the voice there. The institutionalized corrective tries to replace the natural corrective.
Emerson acknowledged it. He said, “The moral laws execute themselves, they are out of time, out of space. Who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. Who does a mean deed is by the act itself contracted. Who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.”
We live on two levels: the inner, spiritual level, which is entirely and utterly personal, and often lonely, and frequently confusing; and the outer level, which allows us to be in relationship with other persons, with the animals and plants who share life on the planet, and with the stars and planets.
Sometimes we have to be the corrective in an active manner, as parents, partners, friends, counselors and teachers. At those times, if we are to be effective, if we are to be helpful to one another, we need to be careful, compassionate and constructive.
The key ingredient in this process is trust.
It takes time to build trust. Trying to provide a corrective without trust can be destructive. Someone said, “Honesty without compassion is a form of brutality.”
Attempts to provide a corrective often backfire, making matters worse. It takes a hundred years for a forest of trees to reach maturity. A forest can burn in just a few hours.
A corrective can only be someone we trust, implicitly. It takes time, risk, and ongoing effort to build that trust. It takes a kind of intentionality to keep, preserve and increase that trust. It can be destroyed so quickly. In the words of Smoky the Bear, ‘Only you can prevent forest fires.’ Forest-fire criticism is delivered with a haughty, overbearing, condescending attitude. The natural, built-in response to criticism that is delivered in a haughty, overbearing, condescending way is, of course, defensiveness. If you beat up on someone don’t add insult to injury by accusing him or her of being defensive.
Truth telling without compassion and sensitivity is brutality; it’s never a corrective–never, ever.
The word corrective comes from the Latin verb, regere ‘to lead straight.’
In Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, is reporting to the magistrate, Hester Salomon-the judge who is hearing the case of Alan Strang who has blinded six horses. Dysart has been working with Alan Strang to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial. Dysart says: “He can hardly read. He knows no physics or engineering to make the world real for him. No paintings to show him how others have enjoyed it. No music except television jingles. No history except tales from a desperate mother. No friends. Not one kid to give him a joke, or make him know himself more moderately.”
May we be blessed with such a friend-someone who can help us to know ourselves more moderately!
We who climb into pulpits often have people volunteer to be the corrective. The first characteristic of a prophet must be reluctance. Moses said, “Who, me? You’ve got to be kidding!”
The first characteristic of the person who takes on the task of serving as the corrective must be a kind of reluctance, but a reluctance that is overcome.
Some who have served as effective correctives for me over the years don’t even realize that they have filled that role. Political conservatives have often served as my ‘correctives.’
Michelangelo’s motto fits: I’m still learning.
That’s why I attended a conference for large-church staffs in Concord this past week. Barbara and Jamie were there. We got to meet with colleagues and discuss programs that are working in their congregations, we got to talk about issues of common concern.
We used a case study. It’s about a long-term minister of a large congregation who was insensitive, who didn’t share leadership. His Associate Minister was given the difficult assignment of trying to tell him what others were saying about him and how they were feeling, and how she herself had come to feel.
Everyone in the room that morning agreed that the Associate Minister had a near-impossible task. We talked about what she could do, and the ramifications of doing nothing.
Later, Gary Smith, Sr. Minister at the Unitarian Church in Concord spoke to us in our closing worship service. He encouraged, inspired and challenged us. I want to read what he said. Gary said:
“This is what I believe.
“I believe we have a home, we have a spiritual tent, we have sanctuaries, we have sacred spaces, that are large enough to hold those who hunger for something, hunger for something more in this lifetime. I believe that we have a message that speaks right to the deepest places of the human spirit as it cries out in its hunger and thirst. I believe that Unitarian Universalism and places like your congregation and mine are places where dreams have become realities for people, where they have been fed, where they have been given living waters.
“This is what I believe.
“I believe we care more for the salvation for the many than a salvation for me alone, and that the marginalized in this world count for something, and that we need not crawl all over the backs of others in order that we alone can reach the Promised Land. I’m proud to stand with a faith like this, where we talk the talk and walk the walk. I’m proud to be part of a faith that is not proposing the excommunication of our Unitarian Universalist politicians if they don’t vote the party line. I’m proud to be part of a faith that is staying the hell out of people’s bedrooms and that leaves the definition of love between two consenting adults right where it belongs, with two consenting adults. I’m proud to be part of a faith that makes the NRA enemies list. I’m proud to be part of a faith that stands with a woman and her own right to make decisions about her body.
“I’m proud to be part of a faith that had the courage to speak up and scream and jump up and down before the bombing started in Iraq, and that we can now watch the politicians pathetically chase along at the end of this parade.
“This is what I believe.
“I believe we as Unitarian Universalists have for too long made our own happy little communities and have been terrified to keep the doors open and let new people in, afraid to grow because God knows what will change, and surprise, surprise, we have stayed the tiny little religious movement we have deserved to be. I believe your presence here, and the number of large congregations we can now claim, are proof enough that we want to change, that we want to get out into the streets of our towns and cities and say how proud we are of this faith and won’t you please come in. Help us grow. Help us be a witness for the best this world and its people can be.
“This is what I believe.
“I believe we can become a force to be reckoned with if only we will find our voice and our witness and our courage and our leadership and our message and our commitment. I believe only our pettiness and our silly fights about this or that will do us in. I believe we can stay small if we choose.
“We can offer horrible sermons, a thin liturgy, a cold shoulder to visitors. We can push our children out of the way. We can throw a buck a week into the offering plate. We can sing only the hymns with which words every last person in the sanctuary can agree. We can revise our bylaws every six weeks. We can let the other religious communities in town take the leadership for helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. And we will be small.
“This is what I believe.
“Something can start right here in these three days in this town. Something can start right here with you and me. We can claim our leadership. We can name it and claim it. We can build trust in the places we call home. We can be Somebody in this movement and mentor those congregations just a little smaller than we are to grow and to surpass us. We can be selfless and non-territorial. We can let somebody else claim the credit. We can keep our eye on the vision.
“This is what I believe.”
Gary E. Smith, November 12, 2003