By My Side

It is fall now, right? It is the season when the leaves change, isn’t it? The smell of fresh baked apple pie, the crack of the bats of those baseball players taking their season down the stretch, aren’t all those things happening? No? Maybe? Well, not so much, right?

This season we call fall is different here. And those who keep tabs on major league baseball know the season is over. Yet this time of year, with the ads we see, the new cups at Starbucks we drink from, we can’t help but feel a change, and for some of us that means memories, too. There was a time when I was a very big fan of the New York Mets. I still am a fan. But not a super fan, like I was once. But one of the most memorable games of my life, was one I never saw.

The year was 2008. The 7 train rumbled out of the tunnel from Grand Central Terminal, and climbed up to the elevated lines that ran through the most diverse county in the entire country, Queens County, and out to one of its prime attractions, Shea Stadium. Dressed in Mets gear, which really was just a black fleece with a tiny gray and black logo on the breast, and carrying two tickets, I wondered what I’d do with the other. It wasn’t uncommon for me to attend Mets games alone back then. I had season tickets behind home plate but one level up from the ground floor. They were covered so I didn’t get to wet in a rainout. And I was friendly with the brother and sister who had seats across the aisle. It was a kind of home away from home.

But the ride out to Shea was one of the best parts for me. Other excited Mets fans chatted about their favorite players. It was fun to see the names of the jerseys they wore. Some were current players; others were classic Mets players’ names. I wore Doc Gooden’s jersey. I still do sometimes. Even wondering for a second what it would be like to throw a curveball that defied the very laws of physics like the Doc could do is kind of thrilling. And among all the imaginers was a young couple, probably in their early twenties, who I sensed were on a date in the early stages of their relationship, because they were just so cute. And also I got the feeling that they were doing something that for them was a special treat. Maybe the thought that this might have been the sixtieth home game of the season for me crossed my mind, but that’s when my pocket buzzed with a message.

It was my friend Dan. The text said: “You said to let you know if I ever go on, and I am tonight.” I knew exactly what this meant. And I texted back: “I’ll be there.” I closed my flip phone with that satisfying clack I miss every day. I peeked at the next stop approaching and knew I had to act fast. I walked over to the young, excited couple and asked to see their tickets and grabbed the home print-outs they were holding in roughly the same moment. Their seats were up in the stratosphere somewhere. So the pre-printed, beautifully designed tickets I produced from my pocket and gave to them, got a “Are you sure, man?” I smiled a little as I exited the train to wait for the one back into New York.

I hit the street again at 42nd Street, made my way to another ticket counter, and I in my Mets gear, settled in just in time to read the insert in the Playbill I’d been handed on my way in: “At this performance the role of Marius will be played by Dan___________.”

Watching a friend play a role on Broadway he’d been understudying for a while was glorious. Yeah, the production was great. I know every word of Les Miserables. I’d probably seen in a half dozen times on Broadway, tours, and resident companies. It was watching a friend step into a role where he falls in love, cares for his partner and her father, cares for the feelings of a dying friend, do all the things that Marius does in that show, that made the impression of a lifetime for me. It was a gift I didn’t fully comprehend at the time.

We are going to be talking about gifts in the next few weeks. In particular, we are going to be looking at the ways that this community can be a gift to those who enter here, to those who worship here, to those who labor here, to those who don’t even know we are here. Because we are going to spend the next few weeks really getting into what this church tells the world about itself, what this church says it is working to do, it’s mission to boldly grow compassion, justice, and joy. Today we start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. We start with boldly growing compassion.

Now, first hearing the idea of “boldly growing” something like “compassion,” you wouldn’t be alone thinking that it sounds kind of funny, especially if you think of it like a command. “Hey, you there. Grow compassion…no, no, no. You’re not doing it boldly enough. Boldly grow compassion!” Or maybe, “Boldly grow like no one has grown before!” If this church thought for a second that they were going to be able to slip a Star Trek reference into its mission statement, and it would go unnoticed, you have another thing coming. But for many there is going to be a disconnect between the quality of boldness and the practice of compassion.

We think of compassion as gentle, caring, maybe even a tentative thing. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, with those as your models, maybe some think of compassion as an impossible thing. But none of these people were simply born in the state that touched the heart of the world like each has done. No, no, no. Compassion comes in phases…at least I hope it does.

In our gathering song, we all sang one of the finest songs of one of the finest decades for pop music, Africa by Toto, from the ‘80s. It was a huge, huge hit in its time. But what the heck is it about? Honestly, it’s a little cringe worthy for some people. What exactly are two white dudes doing, blessing the rains…down in Africa? Well, David Paich, one of the writers and a band member of Toto explained how the song came into being for him. Here are his words: “At the beginning of the ‘80s I watched a late night doc about the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa. It moved and appalled me, and the pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel if I was there.”[1]

The pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel if I was there. David was not alone in the ‘80s. The suffering in many countries of the African continent was profound. And it was part of huge cultural phenomena throughout the decade and beyond. Those images are indelible for many. And the song David wrote was the way he could think best to respond at the time. And he is not alone.

How many of us over these past weeks have seen images that will never leave our own heads? Pictures of explosive devices mailed across a nation, pictures of a group huddled together for protection, yearning to be free, and inching toward a man-made border militarized, politicized, ostracized, pictures of a house of worship torn, ravaged by the instruments of a deep and dividing death, pictures of an innocent child in Yemen, screaming for her life only a few hundred kilometers from Ethiopia, where so much famine caught so much of the world’s attention, before succumbing to the effects of famine in her lands three days ago. Yes, David is not alone. Bless the rains, indeed.

It was twenty years ago now, when I came out of my bedroom to join my roommate and her boyfriend in the living room for dinner—probably for Taco Bell. And somehow I got in the way of my roommate’s boyfriend. I said, “I’m sorry.” He said, “Don’t say that, man.” I was puzzled. He continued. “Whenever I hear a gay guy say ‘I’m sorry’ it sounds like they’re apologizing for who they are, not what they did. One of the first things my football coach taught us was not to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Say ‘may bad’ or ‘I apologize’ but never ‘I’m sorry.’ So whenever I hear a gay guy say it, I notice. You shouldn’t say it.”

I confess that the boldness of this statement could have made me feel ashamed, but somehow this man, who grew up on a farm in Ohio with three brothers, knew how to talk to me in a way that was bold and compassionate. He told me what he imagined might be happening in my mind when I spoke those words, and told me to be kinder to myself. He was open to hearing whether he was off the mark. That’s an important part of bold compassion, checking assumptions. But to be honest, he was dead on. And if that’s not boldly growing compassion, I don’t know what is.

The song we heard from our beloved and blessed Spirits before the sermon was “By My Side.” It’s from the musical Godspell, which is based on the moral teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, with some stories from Luke and from John (just to get a little criticism of women into the play, but that’s another sermon). We’re going to stay a little while in the world of theater as we look at our mission over these three weeks. There are historical reasons for this.

For starters, worship and theater for the ancient Greeks were by and large indistinguishable, one from the other. And across the world a little ways, the sacred Natya Shastra, a book concerned entirely with the proper and effective performance of sacred theater and compiled in what is now India, some five centuries before the baptism of Jesus described in Godspell, influenced theater and ritual performance throughout much of Central Asia for centuries. It still does. The structural and historical relationship between theater and worship throughout global history is so close and so clear, it would frankly make for a pretty boring sermon. So please take my word for it.

But there is another reason why we are talking about theater over these weeks. We are looking at our mission, and doing that has everything to do with people. But not just any people—theater people. You know the ones. You saw them in high school. Many of you were them in high school. There on the fringes in some ways, but at the center of social life in other ways, theater kids could be equally trusted to sing at the top of their lungs, dancing through the halls, as they could be to be brave, understanding, and a heck of a lot of fun to be around. There weren’t a lot of them, but they sure stood out.

Well, friends, I’ve got news for you, direct from all my colleagues in other religions. Unitarian Universalists are the theater kids of religion. And don’t you kid yourselves for a second about it. Because Unitarian Universalists, at our best, try to inhabit, to understand, to take part in meaningful ways in the spiritual lives of our entire human family. And you can count on us to be as ready for a party as we are to storm city hall with you. But that perception by the outside world comes at a social cost, like it did for some of those theater kids.

Because Unitarian Universalists don’t ascribe to a set creed, because Unitarian Universalists don’t all believe the same thing, because Unitarian Universalists might not even believe the same thing tomorrow as they did today, like in the halls of the high school of life, the other groups look at us a little funny. They don’t understand what it is really going on inside—what makes us show up the way we do for others, what makes us speak out the way we do where we see injustice, what makes us cry out when we see needless suffering.

I mean, it takes some boldness to say, “I attend the Unitarian Universalist church.” You might as well be saying, “I can’t wait for the auditions for the next production. Who do you want to be?” But it is by really, really trying to inhabit and understand others, not only ourselves, that makes compassion more than a word, more than an impulse or even a concept. It is the dogged pursuit of what is really at the heart of faith, of meaning, of justice, that compels so many of us to take the actions we do.

It is a bold expression of compassion, to see the images we have seen these weeks and then long to be by their side, to be with those threatened with terror, to be with those yearning to be free in a land of immigrants, to be with those who suffered so senselessly the final division from their bodies that comes from false division peddled to masses as bigotry and false claims that weapons meant only for killing should continue to be peddled to the masses and call it “legal, to be with a child who slips too soon a mortal coil of none but suffering at last. Heaven bless the rains.

That is the imagining of a bold people, of a people who saw enough a world divided and sought to come together, in a place of imagining something new into being, in a place of refusing to leave compassion to the saints among us and make a start, no matter how scary it fells or how haltingly we start. Speaking up for each other. Speaking love to each other. In a place of boldly learning, of boldly failing, which is all part of boldly growing.

As I sat there looking up at my friend Dan on stage, nothing separating us but an orchestra pit, I was moved. Yes, by the play. Yes, by seeing my friend’s dream come true. Yes. But it was something more.

It was the decade before, when I got in his way in the apartment I shared with his girlfriend, when we settled in for a college feast of Taco Bell, and when this same man, Dan, this theater kid grown on a farm in a football town, told me to stop apologizing for being alive.

Bold compassion is not having the backs of a caravan of hope, it is knowing our own liberation is linked arm in arm with all who yearn yet for freedom.

Bold compassion is not quietly wondering what’s going on with someone trying to be polite, it is speaking up to tell someone they are worthy and loved.

Bold compassion is not the Tree of Life, it is the soil fed by blessed rains where the Tree of Life is planted. Bold compassion is in the words of a friend who holds someone dying and sings.

Hushabye, dear Eponine,
You won’t feel any pain,
A little fall of rain,
Can hardly hurt you now.
I’m here.
That’s all you need to know.
And I will stay with you
Till you are sleeping,
And rain,
Will make the flowers grow.

Welcome to the greatest show you’ll ever see friends.
The lights are on.
The band is ready.
The stage is set.
The only question is, what role do you want to play?

[1] See more info about the song at https://www.smoothradio.com/features/toto-africa-meaning-lyrics-meme/, last accessed November 2, 2018.

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