Reading: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
– Henri Nouwen, from The Return of the Prodigal Son
I hear voices.
Do you hear voices? I don’t mean that I hear imagined voices, I mean that I hear the voices of people who have influenced me; the voices that have helped me; the voices that nurtured me; the voices that have encouraged me; the voices that moved me closer to a centered place where I locate a sense of inner freedom.
“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them out, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
– Dinah Mulock Craik
There were other voices, of course. There were voices that balanced all the good, helpful things, of course-voices that planted a sense of guilt, shame, fear and anxiety and self-doubt.
I hear those voices, too. Some of those voices were thoughtfully and intentionally helpful; they provided a necessary balance–they helped by challenging; they helped me to ‘know myself more moderately.’ They helped me to stop talking and to listen to the voices of women who were trying to tell me something about their oppression.
I want to talk with you about the voices of women who nurtured, encouraged and challenged me. I want to support the voices of women that are being heard today in Washington, D.C. — voices in support of a woman’s right to choose, and voices in support of women’s rights in general.
Women and men are raising their voices to warn us that women’s rights are under attack. Today’s March in Washington is about more than reproductive freedom.
To state it differently, the assault on reproductive freedom is a shot heard around the world, just as the emancipation of women in America has helped call attention to the oppression under which women in many parts of the world have been living.
Women and men are marching together today to call attention to the government’s intrusion into a woman’s right to have access to safe, clinical reproductive health services. It’s about choice. It’s about the most basic freedoms, it’s about the ongoing attempt to create a truly democratic society – it’s about the threats to our fragile democracy.
Reproductive freedom is a very sensitive and complicated issue. It’s about our shared responsibility to provide young people with adequate and appropriate sexuality education. It’s about the task we share to raise children to make good thoughtful decisions, to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
The issue touches economic justice. Dr. Lorraine Cole, president of Black Women’s Health Imperative said, “The reproductive health status of Black women is in a state of crisis and our rights are at risk. During the March for Women’s Lives, we will raise the level of national urgency about the need for equal access to reproductive health services and information.”
The current U.S. administration, while attempting to force our brand of democracy in Iraq, is willing to undermine democracy at home.
While attempting to prevent the establishment of a theocracy in Iraq, they are attempting to impose theologically-based legislation to limit a woman’s access to safe, clinical reproductive services in our own country.
They are engaged in an all-out attack on women’s reproductive freedom, and therefore on women in every walk of life.
The coalition of organizations that is marching today will come from every state and will represent every race, nationality, ethnicity and it will include every economic and religious category, and it will include delegations of women from counties around the world.
The march in Washington is not about one issue, only. It covers a wide range of urgent concerns about the assault on personal freedoms at every level.
Kim Gandy, president of National Organization for Women (NOW) said, “The march will galvanize a new generation (of women) to action. Our daughters don’t remember the dangerous illegal abortions that robbed many women of their fertility, and even their lives. We (must) never face those dark days again.”
Freedom and democracy cannot be created overnight, cannot be created with printed documents, no matter how spectacular those documents might be.
Freedom and democracy takes years to institute, and decades to refine, and a lifetime to keep alive and vital.
Democracy is fragile.
Politicians like to acknowledge the Almighty’s gift of freedom, planted in the soul. They like to extol the virtues of democracy. Too often, however, the talk contradicts the action.
Freedom is about choice, and the decision to carry a pregnancy to term is, and must be, a woman’s right.
If you don’t have choice, you don’t have freedom. If you don’t have money, you don’t have freedom.
Freedom is about choice. If a woman doesn’t have access to safe, clinical reproductive services, she is not free, any more than a hungry person without food is free, any more than a person without shelter is free.
Voices are being raised today. Do you hear them?
Can you hear the echo of the voice of Abigail Adams who wrote to her husband John, while he was helping to create this democracy, and she said, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”
Abigail Adams warned, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Can you hear the voice of Susan B. Anthony who said, “The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nations. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.”
More recently, Hilary Clinton said, “I have met thousands and thousands of pro-choice men and women. I have never met anyone who is pro-abortion. Being pro-choice is not being pro-abortion. Being pro-choice is trusting the individual to make the right decision for herself and her family, and not entrusting that decision to anyone wearing the authority of government in any regard.”
While I agree that the pro-choice position is not pro-abortion, I do not share Senator Clinton’s confidence that ‘the individual can be trusted to make the right decision for herself.’
Women will make mistakes, and some will suffer regret, especially in a climate that judges women harshly, the way ours does. I simply do not trust men to make the decision for women. I do not trust people in power who are inclined to deny a woman the right to reproductive decisions.
Some women will be irresponsible. What do you say to a pregnant woman who is smoking, drinking too much, or using other drugs that are harmful to herself and the child that is growing in her?
A woman’s right to choose is challenged by those who point to the irresponsible behavior of some. That’s precisely why we need to promote responsible choice by providing adequate education, adequate care and services.
It’s not necessary portray all women as victims. Nor do we have to portray anti-choice people as mean-spirited and dominating oppressors.
In the ideal world there would be no unplanned, unwanted pregnancies. But unplanned pregnancies happen in spite of almost every contraceptive method.
Some unplanned, unwanted pregnancies are the result of rape and incest. Some are the result of contraceptive failures.
A woman or a man, who is truly free, in the deepest sense, will find him or herself torn between simultaneous opposite feelings.
Anyone who hasn’t felt the soul-searching challenge of questions about capital punishment, the necessity of a ‘just war,’ the termination of a long-term pregnancy, the removal of life support systems for the terminally ill, and issues like the abuse of welfare-the ‘other side’ of any important issue–has failed to meet the necessary standard of an open mind in a free society.
In a free and open democracy people will have a variety of views. A truly free person will spend time on both sides of almost every question, and will entertain a variety of opinions within him or herself, and move from one to the other from time to time.
We all need to hear voices that challenge us to think deeper, to grow toward a fuller understanding.
I value the voices of women who have made those kinds of demands.
I value the voices of women who have done two important things for me: first, they have encouraged me to be my own person; and second, they have been able to tell me about themselves, without blaming me for their feelings, thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
Let me tell you, briefly about some of those voices–voices that have nurtured, encouraged and challenged me and informed me.
I want the voices that come from this pulpit to be voices that nurture, encourage, challenge and informs you so that you be the best self you can be; so that you can be free to make your own choices.
I want the voices that come from this pulpit to be liberating voices that will sink in and stay with you to help you to let go of anger, resentment and disappointment; voice that sing in your head when you are losing courage to carry on; voices that brings poetry to life so that you can translate it to suit your own needs. Liberation comes in many sizes, shapes and colors.
I want you to be creative in your listening, so that you can hear what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear.
I hear voices that have helped me:
The first and most important woman’s voice I heard, and still hear in the depth of precious memory, came from my mother. Of course I don’t recall the earliest sounds she made, expressing that essential thing to me-that I was loved-but it came to me right up to the day she died a few years ago.
The sound of her voice was accompanied by nurturing touch. I know that because I watched her do the same to my five younger siblings.
My mother surprised me shortly after we went through the discussion and vote to declare ourselves in support of a woman’s right to choose, more than fifteen years ago. I’ve told you what she wrote to me when she read about the vote in Soundings. She said that she was very moved by that vote because she had a near-death experience when she self-aborted, because she could not afford to pay someone else to do it, and because it was against the law at that time. She told me about using a knitting needle and slippery elm, and winding up in the hospital, an inch away from death.
Her voice rings in my head today when hundreds of thousands of women and men are marching to preserve a woman’s right to choose, including poor women, like my mother was-women who have no where to turn because they have no money, no power, no influence; only the life of quiet desperation with a knitting needle and slippery elm.
Intimately connected to my mother’s voice is the sweet voice of her mother, my maternal grandmother, Agnes Laird, who had endured the deaths of three of her six children as well as the loss of her leg at age seventeen, as the result of complications with her first pregnancy. They called it ‘milk leg,’ which is, “A painful swelling of the leg occurring in women after childbirth as a result of clotting and inflammation of the femoral veins.”
Nana was the most balanced, centered person I’ve known. It would be many years before I learned the phrase, ‘unconditional love,’ but she radiated that kind of warmth, that kind of affection, that kind of affirmation.
She gave that unconditional love to my mother, of course, and she passed it on to her nine children. I’ve told you about my mother’s comment when I was wrestling with the decision to leave my former church and come here, and I told her that I was nervous, not knowing how I would be received, and she said, with sincerity, innocence and spontaneity, “Oh, Frankie, just be yourself and they’ll love you.”
That’s a voice of freedom. It’s what’s at the heart of what we call spiritual freedom.
I hear their voices, still. They tell me new things from year to year.
I hear the voices of women who were there for me in my formative years; voices that encouraged me to be myself and to become the best self I can; voices that gave me the freedom to speak up.
I can still hear the strong, encouraging voice of Mrs. Harrington, my first grade teacher at the Gleason School in West Medford. I particularly remember a spring day when she opened that big window, using the long pole with the device that could unlock the window and then fit into a slot to push the window up.
It was the spring of 1947. No one had air conditioning, so all windows could be opened.
We stood in front of that big window at the side of the room that faced the cemetery. There was no screen-nothing between me and the out-of-doors world.
Mrs. Harrington pointed to a woman standing alone at a grave. She was, as I recall, the only person we could see in Oak Grove Cemetery. “Now, Frank,” she said, “I want you to read to that woman.” I don’t recall her using words like ‘projection.’ It seemed a bit strange to me, but I read with all my heart, and was roundly rewarded with Mrs. Harrington’s approval.
I remember the importance of that approval, and I understand the significance of it, now.
There’s a direct connection between that day, that woman, and this day, in this place. It’s not only about projecting the voice, it’s about finding the voice, claiming the voice, and celebrating this thing we call self, the essence of which is integrity.
I hear voices of hundreds of women. I’ve told you about the voice of Ruth Codier, one of the women in the Lexington congregation that I served from 1970 to 1972. Ruth challenged me to grow up, to pay attention, to have some humility and to move closer to becoming the minister I need to be.
Ruth is the one who wrote the little poem to me when I left Lexington to take up the ministry of Murray Church in Attleboro. Maybe you remember that poem and the circumstances-the rocky relationship that led to a lasting friendship. She wrote:
Some couldn’t stand me.
You stood me.
It may be
because you stood me
I’m more standable.
Implicit in Ruth’s powerful poem is the assertion that she stood me. Yes, she was acknowledging that she was often a difficult person. If difficult people scare you off, you have no business in the ministry -at least not in a Unitarian congregation.
It’s one thing to know that in theory. It’s another to experience it, and to come to a deeper understanding of it in practice.
Let me recite the names of Rena Rounseville, Alice Coles and Alice Wetherell, three members of a Sunday school class at Murray Universalist Church in Attleboro; a Sunday school class led by Elizabeth Lamb who was their teacher for more than fifty years. The class started meeting together in 1894, when they were in the first grade together, women who were born in 1887 and 1888.
I met them in 1972 when I took up the ministry of Murray Church where they were active members. I asked each of them what it was like in those early years in Sunday school class with Mother Lamb, as she was affectionately known.
I can hear their voices: “Well, Mother Lamb always had a lesson for each class, don’t ya know, and she would do the lesson. Then she would put the lesson aside and say something like, ‘Now girls, we have something very important to talk about. You are going to see the day when women in this country can vote. when women in this country have the same rights as men.'”
“It was very exciting in those years. When we were older we joined the women’s suffrage movement. We marched together.and in 1920 the whole class went together to register to vote and we all voted together.it was a very exciting time.”
I have these voices on tape, as well as in my head. I can hear Alice Coles quoting Mother Lamb who said, “Golden shackles are more cruel than iron chains.”
There are voices in our heads whose echo resounds through the years; voices that paved the road for us, voices that help us to be fully engaged in this great adventure we call life.
I hear those voices. I understand some of them more in retrospect than I did then. Each has contributed to my growth and to my sense of integrity, which is at the core of personal freedom.
May you hear the voices of those who have helped you, and may your voice add something to the lives of those who need your support, encouragement, challenge and love.
So may it be.