Not just I, Community is We
Reverend Tom Capo
A long long time ago
I can still remember how the music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe the’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
Great works of art, music included, ask the viewer or listener to bring a little of themselves into the experience. Thus, the meaning of art or music is constantly shifting little, nuanced by whatever the viewer’s or listen’s life, wherever they are on their journey. Don McLean, the writer and composer of “American Pie” never really talked about what he was trying to say when he wrote the song. Many other people have attributed meaning to it. Some say that McLean was talking about the turbulent 60’s, some that McLean was expressing regret over the death of the civil rights movement, some that McLean was bemoaning the death of danceable rock and roll music. Some have written that McLean was grieving for what he perceived as the death of religion and other traditional ideas from his childhood. Others have found what they believe to be references to rock musicians Buddy Holly,Janis Joplin, and the Beatles, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and politicians President Jack Kennedy, and Senator Bobby Kennedy. And we hear names in the song, including communist and socialist revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx, in addition to the Catholic Trinity, the father, son, and holy ghost, and actor James Dean. What could this song have to do with beloved community? So, how does “America Pie” speak to us about being in covenant with one another as a beloved community?
Before we explore that topic, it might be helpful to share with you the relationship covenant that this church developed, I believe, about two years ago. Would you join me in saying our covenant, it is projected to my right:
“We, the members of the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church, pledge to support one another in our search for truth and meaning with a spirit of acceptance, reason and compassion, using grace in disagreement.
We affirm the Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes as a guide to align our actions with our values.
We covenant in word and deed, to make our church a welcoming congregation for all, honoring diversity in the full spectrum of individual beliefs, family lifestyles and cultures.
We pledge to provide loving care for one another as we celebrate our joys and struggle with our concerns.
We pledge to support our church according to our abilities, honoring the needs of each individual, our staff and volunteers, programs and church structure.
We commit ourselves to serving the wider community, working for peace and justice, and preserving the beauty and majesty of the world and all life.”
These are the promises we affirm with one another as we share our lives here. But also being a realistic group of people, we know that there will be times when this covenant is broken, whether intentionally or unintentionally. What do we do then?
As I listen to “American Pie” I feel sad. I think of a time of great hope and change, the 1960’s flash through my mind. But, for me, the song focuses on the tragedies of all the bitter endings, the end of traditional beliefs, the deaths of musicians who changed the landscape of music and the violent deaths of people who led many of the movements of the time, movements for civil rights, for human rights, for liberal values. Embedded in this music is grief for relationships ending, for the loss of some of the most impassioned, capable, accomplished leaders of the 20th century. And also embedded in this song questions about whether some of the socio-economic changes were helpful, harmful, or hopeful.
“American Pie” speaks of broken relationship covenants during a time of change. Unitarian Universalist and folk singer Pete Seeger said of this song and these broken covenants: “They’d been fooled, they’d been hurt, and it wasn’t going to happen again.” This jaundiced view seems out-of-step during a time of such hope and love, he has a point: Why would a person risk being in relationship with someone when they might be hurt or fooled—perhaps again and again? And if we do choose to be in such a relationship, how are we to treat one another, knowing that we could be hurt, fooled, abused by someone, even someone here in this beloved community? What does “grace in disagreement” look like?
Even when things are going well, positive change happening all around, people can still hurt each other, promises can be broken, things can go far, far differently than the way you hoped they might. And when bad things happen, and people get hurt, you might ask yourself “where is the grace in this disagreement?” I have heard many times that you know you are really a member of a faith community, not when you sign the book or make a pledge, but when something bad happens, or when you or someone you care about his hurt, or when people don’t handle conflict well, and you decide to stay anyway. This might seem to be the hardest choice you have to make, to stay. And yet, I would ask more of you. Even when you affirm our covenant and even when you stay when bad things happen, I ask you to work together to find ways to heal the hurt, to forgive one another, and to, in a positive, compassionate, loving, patient way help one another get back into covenant with each other, to return to a heart-space where you love each other not “in spite of” but “because of” who that person is.
Steve Cooper, our Director of Religious Education, is implementing a terrific program with our children today, PBIS, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support. In fact, PBIS is such a great system that Steve and I and your Committee on the Ministry would like you to consider implementing it to help us recognize when we are out of covenant with one another, and to help us get back into covenant with one another. PBIS offers practical tools to use when someone in this church is out of covenant – by that I mean he/she is not respectful to someone in this community, not acting safely, and/or not taking responsibility for his/her actions. In the skits you observed earlier in the service, the actors were modeling PBIS. Remember the words used by our actors earlier: “Please walk and be courteous of those around you” instead of “Hey you! Stop that! and “Please be respectful of Reverend Tom’s choices” instead of “he’s just so arrogant.” Negative or critical comments are reframed in a respectful and positive way. This might seem simple, but I would bet most people will discover that this type of behavior and attitude shift requires mindfulness, practice, compassion, patience and more practice. We’re all human here, and there are going to be times when your compassion and patience are going to seem far away. In those moments, if you find you cannot be respectful or positive, at least at that moment, it might be better to step away, or as we tell the children, take at time out. You are better able to be positive, respectful, and helpful when you are calm, not when you are feeling angry, frustrated or hurt. I believe what Steve has initiated will indeed change the culture here at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church, if all of us are willing to engage in Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. And as we learn together to be more respectful, loving, patient, compassionate, safe and responsible, we then have the opportunity to take this new way of living out into the world—a world sorely in need of people who treat others--even those who are disrespectful, hurtful, and irresponsible--with love, respect, compassion, and patience, so all people can be in covenant with one another. I am asking you to be change you wish to see in the world. I am asking you to be dangerously compassionate—despite the risk—here in our church home and then take that dangerous compassion into the world. Our children will be working hard to make this change, and I hope you will too. Steve and I are happy to answer any questions you may have about how PBIS will strengthen our relationship covenants.
I end with these words by Unitarian Reverend Vincent B. Silliman. May they inspire you to this great task, for this is what being religious people in the world is all about:
Let religion be to us life and joy.
Let it be a voice of renewing challenge to the best we have and may be; let it be a call to generous action.
Let religion be to us a dissatisfaction with things that are, which bids us serve more eagerly the true and right.
Let it be the sorrow that opens for us the way of sympathy, understanding, and service to suffering humanity.
Let religion be to us the wonder and lure of that which is only partly known and understood:
An eye that glories in nature's majesty and beauty, and a heart that rejoices in deeds of kindness and of courage.
Let religion be to us security and serenity because of its truth and beauty, and because of the enduring worth and power of the loyalties which it engenders;
Let it be to us hope and purpose, and a discovering of opportunities to express our best through daily tasks:
Religion, uniting us with all that is admirable in human beings everywhere;
Holding before our eyes a prospect of the better life for humankind, which each may help to make actual.
Hold before your eyes, my friends, the prospect of a better life here at our church and for all humankind, which we, each of us, can help to make actual. Go be dangerously compassionate.