charlotte@twenty.ca

A sermon delivered by the
Rev.Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 2 May 1999

I was twenty-one and studying history at McGill when I decided to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Trooping over to the Unitarian church every Sunday morning, singing in the choir and reorganizing the church archives were the one part of my week that had nothing to do with university life, and it was at one of those Sunday morning services, during a sermon on B. F. Skinner that, strangely enough, the idea of ministry popped into my head.

I must say, it was a really weird idea to have in the early 1970s. I knew hardly any ministers, none under the age of fifty, and I had never even heard of a woman being a minister. I had taken one church history course, but in terms of direct experience I was unfamiliar with any religion other than Unitarianism. I had never particularly thought of myself as religious or spiritual, although I looked forward to attending Sunday services. And every time I mentioned the idea of becoming a minister to a friend or a teacher, I could see they thought I had lost my mind. It was just the kind of response guaranteed to pique my interest.

I told my minister I wanted to join him in the profession. He warned me that women don't make good ministers. The idea sounded even more appealing. I went to a career counselor at McGill. He laughed and sort of sneeringly suggested I might want to join the Canadian military and become an army chaplain. Then he got down to the business at hand. He told me I really wanted to become a lawyer or take my MBA. For the next hour he explained about LSATs and Graduate Record Exams and about applying to three top schools, three middle schools and three bottom schools in each field.

I think it was as I left his office, clutching reams of application forms, that I actually made my decision. I still knew almost nothing about ministry. But I knew one thing for sure. I was going to be one.

Yesterday Charlotte, our daughter, turned twenty. She and her friends are at that same stage in life I was at when I decided to enter the ministry. Remembering how thoughtfully I made my decision, and reflecting on all the wisdom I've accumulated since then, I thought it would be prudent to offer Charlotte some advice -- in the form of a sermon -- for her birthday.

I am a bit nervous because when Charlotte was nine and I gave her a violin for her birthday, she burst into tears. And when I asked Mary, my best friend, what I'd done wrong, Mary yelled at me and said I was stupid. "You're supposed to give your children a present they want for their birthday, not the present you want to give them." I'm not sure a sermon is exactly what Charlotte wants for her birthday. In fact, when I got up enough courage to actually tell her my idea she said she thought it was about the worst idea she could imagine. But by then the title had already appeared in the newsletter. We've been talking it over though, and I can assure you we've come to an understanding. Letting me do this sermon for her birthday is Charlotte's birthday present to me. So, here are my words of wisdom for the next generation, my advice for the leaders of the new millenium. Here is my present to myself on the occasion of Charlotte's twentieth birthday.

First, Charlotte: "Go jump off a cliff." As you contemplate your place within the world's unfolding, don't reason that demographics indicate there will be a need for teachers in a few years. Don't say, "My mother always wanted me to be a doctor." Don't even ask yourself, "What am I good at?" My advice is, toss around some new and totally weird ideas. Ask yourself, "What would I love doing more than anything in the world?" Entertain your wildest dreams and then go jump off a cliff.

When I enrolled in theological school and moved to Chicago, I knew nothing about being a minister. But one of the tasks on the list of requirements was to work as a hospital chaplain for three months. So I signed up to do it the summer after my first year of classes. Here's the scene. It's my first week as chaplain in this desperately poor, inner-city hospital on the south side of Chicago. I'm on call, the only chaplain in the whole place for the entire night. Every time a death occurs, the chaplain is called to offer comfort and help to the family, who are, understandably, upset. I'd never seen a dead person before, never mind helping a family deal with their sudden loss. I was called five times that night. The first call came when a four-year-old was brought in. His mother was single, in her teens and had gone out for the evening and left him alone. He had fallen out of the seventh floor window onto his head. The police could not find the mother so they had called the child's grandmother, who was there with her son. It took that baby three days to die. The mother was arrested, but I met her when a guard brought her in to see her child one last time. The grandmother was there and wanted to kill her daughter. And I was there, the hospital's immediate response to the emotional needs of the entire extended family. My advice is if a cliff looks intriguing, jump off and see where you land.

Second word of advice: "see with your own eyes." Yes, see with your own eyes, think with your own mind, speak with your own voice, act on your own principles and be your own person. There are all sorts of lenses you can look through, boxes you can jump into. You can be a liberal or a conservative. You can be part of the black trench coat gang or the jocks and the cheerleaders or the nerds. You can respond just the way engineers might be expected to, or commerce types or arts students. You can be a fundamentalist or a feminist, a red neck or an environmentalist, a vegan-pagan-Buddhist or a Unitarian. Whatever your party, you can follow the party line, for there are no shortage of world-views to mouth. But my advice is: Don't do it. All those canned worldviews are a response to yesterday's reality. How could they not be? A leader, and I believe leadership is the central task of every adult, to be a leader means first and foremost, being your own person, being an individual. Look at the world. What do you see? I know a million people who'll tell'ya how it is. But what do you see? Speak and act out of your own reality. Look beyond the old grids to new truths. Define yourself.

There was an all-day conference at Convocation Hall last year on defining the New Left. Five leaders on the left outlined their answers for the new millenium and then debated with each other and with the audience. You know what was so great about that day? There was no unanimity, only five individuals with five unique perspectives on a variety of issues. When I decided to enter the ministry no one thought it was a good idea. In fact, I don't think anyone even understood what I was talking about. But did that matter? Same thing happened when I decided to marry a black American from Chicago. Same thing happened when we told everyone we were going to share a job. Same thing happened when we decided to skip the hospital and let Charlotte be born at home. Each time our decisions were based upon our own thinking about our own situation as we saw it. Since I became a Unitarian minister, many times I have not been the kind of minister other people wanted me to be. But that's okay, because I have been the kind of minister I needed to be. I'm not saying don't listen to others. But I am saying, listen very carefully to yourself as well. See with your own eyes, think with your own mind, speak with your own voice and act on your own principles.

Third: take care of yourself. You are of absolutely no use to anyone if you don't. Life is not easy. Especially when you go around jumping off cliffs all the time. It is physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually challenging. So find ways of taking care of yourself. Find ways of gaining sustenance when you feel depleted, depressed, hopeless or afraid, because if you live life fully, there will be times when you feel all those ways and more. When you jump off cliffs, sometimes you land on rock, and then you need a strategy for healing yourself so you can go out and do it again. If you look with your own eyes and think with your own mind and speak with your own voice there will be times when people think you are crazy. They may even be angry at you. Can you feel when you are under stress or anxious? Do you have a plan if life backfires? If your boyfriend dumps you or your best friend dies or all your dreams suddenly seem destined for destruction? Those moments of challenge or crisis will happen, because they happen to everyone. How are you going to get through them stronger than ever? To take care of yourself physically, you need to be sensitive to your own stress and anxiety levels and learn how to relax. You need to eat right, sleep right, exercise right. To take care of yourself emotionally, you need really healthy strategies for dealing with other people and with mind-numbing urban society. You need emotional intelligence and good solid friends, a number of them, who love you for who you are. Have you already built those friendships? To take care of yourself spiritually, you need a centre, a solid, sustaining core inside yourself from which you can draw strength and peace. When depression, rage, terror, boredom or hopelessness strike, as they will, you need to be able to find a stillness, hold a stillness, let a stillness carry you into a space of inner peace and renewal. Take good care of yourself. Be your own best friend. You are of absolutely no use to yourself or anyone else if you don't.

Fourth: "Live by your principles." But wait. What are your principles? Your highest values? Who is your god? Do you know? Do you have a clear enough understanding of your principles that in the midst of the chaos of everyday life, in the midst of crisis, you will be able to see a clear direction? Every religion advocates a set of principles. Chief among Christianity's is the principle of Love. Love your neighbour as you love yourself. Love your god. Love the weakest among you, those whom others shun. Even love your enemies. Christianity is clear: Turn a divided world into one world. Make connections through love. Judaism has principles as well, one of them being: you are God's chosen people; now act like it. Treasure yourself and do the best you can to be a model for others and a savior of the world. Unitarian Universalism has seven principles affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, promoting justice and calling us to living in harmony with one another. Christianity has principles. Judaism has principles. Unitarian Universalism has principles. But what are your own principles? Are they clear? Do they guide your living and your choosing? Principles help us decide which cliff to jump off, help us decide between jumping off the cliff called theological school or the cliff called cocaine addiction? If we're going to see through our own eyes instead of the lenses and labels of others, it is our principles that will guide us in turning our seeing into an understanding out of which to speak and act with authority.

One of my principles is that no one wins unless we all win. There are no good guys or bad guys. Life is not about one team winning and the other team losing, for as soon as we divide the world, we all lose. Isn't that the lesson from Columbine High School and the public transit office in Ottawa and the trial of Reena Virk? Isn't that the lesson of Kosovo and Yugoslavia and now from another high school in Alberta and a gay pub in London? There is no way to separate yourself from the outsiders. Unless we all win, unless we work at bringing all the outsiders inside we all ultimately lose. I must say this is a very unpopular principle in Ontario where the myth abounds that the world is basically made up of good guys and bad guys. Every time I turn around I'm told our problems are caused by some bad guy or other: Mike Harris or the teacher's union, the gun lobby or the tree huggers, the multinationals or the homeless, the 905 soccer moms or our most recent immigrants. It doesn't matter which side you're on. When are we going to start working together instead of working so hard to tear each other down? It's not like we're going to win as soon as they lose. There are no winners unless everyone feels like a winner. To know what your principles are, to live by them, is not just to speak with your own voice, but to speak with the voice of authority and honour.

Charlotte, I've only listed four pieces of advice and already I've run out of time. Do you think you'd let me do another one of these on your next birthday? Yesterday, I was telling Uncle Andy about all the wisdom I was going to impart this morning. For those of you who don't know, I was at the St. Lawrence District annual meeting in Syracuse yesterday, and Uncle Andy is the minister in Schenectady. At any rate, while we were talking Anne Orfald, the minister in Peterborough, came over. And Andy turned to Anne and said, "Charlotte's birthday is today. She's twenty. What advice would you give her?" Anne looked down for a moment. Then she looked up, smiled and said, "Tell Charlotte to enjoy life." Then she stopped talking. "Isn't there more you want to tell her?" Anne thought for a moment then shook her head. "No, that's all. Just tell her to enjoy her life." So, I guess it's time for me to stop talking. Happy birthday. And don't forget. Jump off a few cliffs now and then. See with your own eyes and speak your mind. Take care of yourself and your friends. Live by your principles and above all, don't forget to enjoy life.