Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 6, 2008
“Principle 3: Accepting and Encouraging One Another
Part of a series dealing with the Seven Principles
of the Unitarian Universalist Association
Rev. Catherine Torpey
When I was setting the date for today’s dedication ceremony, the parents and I wanted to choose a Sunday when the morning’s theme would fit nicely with a child dedication—and today seemed perfect, since the topic of today’s sermon is the third of the seven principles around which Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant with one another. In that principle our congregation has covenante with other congregations that we will “accept one another” and “encourage spiritual growth” in our congregation. To ask what it would mean to accept and encourage a small child like Amaya is to ask what it means to accept and encourage one another. To consider what this will mean for a baby is to consider what it means for us in our spiritual walk together as a community.
What does it mean for this mom and this dad to “accept” their daughter, Amy? Does it mean that anything she does is OK? Does it mean that if she throws a tantrum, a big UU voice comes down from above to warn her parents, “Remember Dad and Mom: you covenanted to accept Amy”? If Amy refuses to eat her dinner, doesn’t want to go to school, decides she doesn’t enjoy homework, should her parents accept these things because, after all, that’s Amy?
Of course, acceptance of a person never means that we accept any and all behaviors. If Dad and Mom were to allow Amy to throw fits, to yell, to make accusations, to leave her homework undone—if they were to allow this, then their understanding of what it means to “accept” Amy would be dangerously distorted. Such so-called acceptance would be a kind of indignity, because Amy’s parents have a right to a peaceful, safe and orderly home. Furthermore, such “acceptance” would actually be destructive to Amy’s own soul. If Amy were unable to have a civil conversation with her parents—and as sweet and innocent as she looks now, remember that someday she’ll be a 15 year-old girl—if, some day, for some brief period of adolescence, Amy finds it difficult to have a civil conversation with Mom and Dad, then they would need to say to her, “Amy, we are in a covenantal relationship. We do not speak to one another in that manner. You are not allowed to do X, Y or Z until we find a way for you to come to the table and converse properly.”
If Amy decides that she wants to protest the injustices of academic life, and therefore decides to not do her homework, or not pay her pledge to her congregation, or not do her chores at home, or in any way to step outside the obligations of a covenanted relationship, her parents would—if they are good and responsible parents—say, “Well, Amy, if you can’t do your homework, then you can’t go to Katie’s party on Saturday, and you won’t be going to parties until you are back in covenant with us and with our community.
So acceptance of one another never means and never has meant that we allow ourselves to be manipulated or disrespected. It never means and never has meant that we expect nothing of one another. In fact, to the contrary: to expect nothing of one another is to not be in covenant. If Dad and Mom expected nothing of Amy, we would not say that they loved and accepted her—we would shake our heads in sorrow at the lack of relationship they had with her.
So, parents—you officially have my permission to have very high expectations for what your child can be and do. You have the right and the obligation to hold her to her promises, to her half of the covenant she enters into today, which will hopefully be confirmed by her as she grows into awareness and maturity.
But what, then, does it mean to ask Dad and Mom to accept Amy—what does it mean for us to accept one another?
The great Lebanese-American poet, Kahlil Gibran, brilliantly encapsulates what it means for parents to accept their children:
Your children are not your children…. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls…. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and he bends you with his might that his arrows may go swift and far.
Just as the seed of a rose, planted in the earth, wants to fully flower and asks only to be nourished, so this young life wants to fully flower and needs only to be nourished. Amy is who Amy is—she has come through you, but she is not of you. To accept her is to notice with curiosity and wonder what the archer, God, has brought into this world. Will she be an artist or a scientist? Or both? Will she be straight or gay? Will she be a tomboy or will she love dresses and makeup? Will she sing like her father? Will she be quick to smile and laugh like her mother? Will she be drawn more to one side of her cultural heritage than another? Will she be an athlete or a bookworm? To accept Amy is to ask ourselves, “Who is this amazing creature? What are her wants and needs? What is the fullest expression of who she is? What are her particular doubts and fears? What repels her and what excites her?” As a Unitarian Universalist community, it is our job to encourage her to fearlessly ask herself these questions and to support her as she tries to find her way.
There’s a scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a king has betrothed a beautiful young woman to the prince. The King is discussing his son’s future with the prince. “One day,” the father says, “all this will be yours,” and we see outside the window vast tracts of beautiful countryside.
“What will be all mine,” the prince asks, “the curtains?”
“No! Not the curtains, lad,” his father says, “all that-- as far as the eye can see and beyond. That'll be your kingdom, lad.”
“But, Father,” says the young prince, “I don't really want any of that.”
Listen, lad, I built this kingdom up from nothing. All I had when I started was a swamp. Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show 'em. It sank into the swamp. So I built a another one. That sank into the swamp, too. I built another one. That fell over and THEN sank into the swamp. So I built another... and that stayed up. And that's what your gonna get, lad: the most powerful kingdom on this island.”
“But,” persists the son, “I don't want any of that, I'd rather... just... sing!”
And out of nowhere comes a sweeping orchestral arrangement to accompany the young prince’s song.
The father storms out: “You're marrying Princess Lucky, so you'd better get used to the idea!”
As parents, chances are you’ll have dreams of what you’d like Amy to be. It’s perfectly natural and fine for you to have these dreams for her, and even to build castles in order to pass them onto her. But in the end, her soul will want to sing, and it might not be the tune you would have chosen for her.
Acceptance of one another means letting go of our agendas for who we want the person to be—and often, that means giving up when they don’t want what you want them to want.
Accepting one another means remembering that each one of us has deep yearning inside of us. I believe that something inside of us always knows what work we are meant to do in the world. Something inside of us knows what kinds of relationships we want. Much of the time, our knowing is only very vague—an indistinct feeling. Sometimes we only know what we don’t want. The spiritual task of accepting one another is to encourage the exploration of what these deep yearnings are, and what would constitute their fullest expression.
And this is, in turn, what it means to encourage spiritual growth. The encouragement to spiritual growth is nothing more and nothing less than this nurturing of the fullest and healthiest expression of our deepest yearnings.
Spiritual growth means coming more and more into the truth of that young prince in Monty Python—who ought to want a castle and tracts of land and a beautiful princess, but who, in fact, wants to sing. Encouragement to spiritual growth means saying to that prince—“How do we help you sing?”
This does not necessarily mean giving up all pragmatic considerations. We do not always have to give up pragmatism for our dreams. Sometimes, though, we do. Sometimes in order for our spirits to sing, we truly have to give up a secure job. Sometimes for our spirits to sing, we truly do have to give up a home that feels cozy and safe. Sometimes, for our spirits to sing, we truly have to disappoint people.
Encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations means, on its most basic level, that we ask one another—can you remain in your current job and have your spirit sing? Can you remain in this relationship and have your spirit sing? Can you continue on the path you are on and have your spirit sing?
And sometimes, given the covenants we have in our lives, spiritual growth requires emotional maturity. Sometimes, what is needed for a soul is to accept the responsibilities that live has given us. While Dad and Mom are encouraging the spiritual growth of Amy, it is not OK for one or both of them to say, “My spirit wants to sing, so Amy, good luck with things. We’ve packe lunch bags enough for the rest of elementary school. We need to run off to the woods to find ourselves. Best of luck to you.” Spiritual growth is not spiritual growth if it is disconnected from our covenants, from our rightful responsibilities, from dealing with the world as it is in real life. I once had a conversation with a woman who had experienced significant spiritual growth through her 12-step program. She said to me that what she had come to discover was “I can deal with life, on life’s terms, with me as I am.”
I can deal with life, on life’s terms, with me as I am.
For a single prince, who has not entered into covenantal relationships which have a hold on him, if he wants nothing more than to sing, we might encourage his spiritual growth by saying, “Go where you want to go, sing what you want to sing.”
If that same prince had already married the beautiful princess, and they had a baby girl and he had a kingdom to run, we would say, “How can you maintain your covenants with your wife, your child and your kingdom AND how can your heart sing as well?” How can you deal with life on its terms AND be who you are?
To Amy and to each one of us—may your soul sing the songs it yearns to sing. May you fully bloom into the flower you are meant to be. May you fly free.