An Action of the Heart, Rev. Denis Paul and Dorothy Lemmey

Start Date

Reading by Akaya Windwood, “Don’t be Nice, Be Kind,” from an article in Yes magazine

Niceness is often filled with falseness-it is a way to not tell the truth,or to obscure it. "Be nice!" is something many of us heard as children asa way of avoiding upsetting someone. While niceness might be a strategythat gets us through an immediate situation, it is not effective in the longrun as a way to come together to solve the myriad difficulties facing ourcommunities, both local and global.

It is crucial that we hold ourselves and each other accountable, and wecan do this with hearts of kindness. This often takes a lot of courage.Kindness allows us to say the hardest of things while preserving the dignity ofthose around us. It allows us to take the big risk of letting people knowwhat is on our minds in a way that is unclouded and respectful. It is anaction of the heart.

Personal Reflection “Finding Meaning in Crisis” (Dorothy Lemmey)

In 1992, I hit a crisis point in my life at the age of 45. I started to believe life was not worth living but it was the thought of nursing students whom I had tried to encourage that put pause to that thought. I turned to Victor Frankl’s “Man search for meaning”. Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. After some therapy, I started having this inner voice repeating over and over “you should go to church.” After months of this incessant voice I came here to East Shore January of 94. You all helped give meaning to my life. Bruce Clary encouraged me to speak out in church & develop my ideas about domestic violence. Together you and I worked on fighting the pervasive oppressive culture and I started to fit in to a congregation that accepted my flawed soul. Many of you worked on putting these silent witnesses to reality, by collecting money, tracing their body outlines, sawing, sanding, painting, carrying in marches, and sending out publicity. I felt connected to a larger purpose; we were going to remind Lake County of the end result of unchecked violence in the home. This success and support helped me to attempt other projects that I would never have believed possible. I never would have attempted my PhD without these precious successes.

Ken & I moved to Maryland and joined Harford county UU church. I approached that board asking that the church produce their own Silent witnesses which the board agreed and I wrote a grant to Harford Community College.

One warm bright Tuesday September morning on our way to be interviewed about our planned Silent witness project at a radio station, I noticed the stressed voice of the announcer on the radio “A second plane has crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.” We became confused and said, “Is this War of the Worlds?” We arrived confused at the Towson radio station that was in utter chaos. TV’s were blaring behind a glass wall, people were running down halls and shouting, others were hugging and others were crying. The radio announcer shrieks, ““People are jumping out of the windows. Oh my God, The north tower is collapsing.” The receptionist did not know what to do with us. At that moment the Attorney General’s Representative who was to do the interview with me walked in while looking at her official cell phone’s digital message, EMERGENCY.” She looked up at me and said, “We should all go home and be with our family. This is all moot now. “

So over the next 24 hours I questioned should I keep pursuing this project to make visible the end result of domestic violence? It seems unimportant now in light of such national disaster and fear of war. Do we spend money, time and energy producing wooden figures when our lives were at risk? Driving home from work the following day my cell phone rang and caller said, “I personally took your grant proposal to the College President who said not only would they contribute they wanted to be the major contributor and allotted us $1000 for this important project.” With this positive sign we got to work.

Despite the total shock and devastation we all had following 911 I found meaning in the work we were about to embark on. We believed that family violence and the need for power and control is at the core of all the violence we see in the world and we had to do our small part. Imagine for one minute that the hijackers had grown up in a home where violence was unacceptable to settle disputes. That first Sunday in October after we all unveiled the silhouettes we held hands and sang, “Together, we can move mountains: Alone, we can’t move at all.”

Sermon “An Action of the Heart” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

“You should home school your son.”

I just sat there, blinking at the screen.

You’ve been there, I’m sure. You’re on a social media website, or reading letters to the editor in the newspaper, or sitting in a circle here at church when the bad advice and sarcastic comments start.

In this case, a friend had posted a question on Facebook, a genuine concern about the policies of her son’s school.

This person saying my friend should just home school her son didn’t seem very helpful. Or nice. But then again, none of the other comments were helpful or nice, either. “His teacher should be fired. You should have a temper tantrum in the principal’s office.”

I don’t know, maybe their standards are different from mine. Before I post anything online, or make a comment in a group of people I vet my own words by asking three simple questions:

Is it True? Is it Kind? Whom does it serve?

Now I love hyperbole as much as the next guy, but still, truth is pretty easy. And I don’t feel like every single thing I say has to serve another person, or even the greater good. Sometimes, it’s okay to state clearly what my own needs are…I just have to be clear that they are my needs without projecting them onto anyone else.

But is what I want to say kind? That’s a whole different question.

Sometimes, comments are not very nice, but they are kind and they do serve. Saying “that hairstyle is all wrong for you,” may feel like you are saving someone from embarrassment, but really, it’s just an expression of your own taste. Saying “I’d like to hear everyone speak before you say more about the topic,” may not sound very nice, it may sound a little “in-your-face” but ultimately it’s a kindness to let somebody know expectations of a group when they might not be able to figure it out themselves.

Sometimes people just miss social cues, so setting them straight is true, kind and of service.

All my life, people have said to me, “Nobody else could get away with saying that to me.” Maybe it’s because gay men are nonthreatening to women. Maybe it’s because short guys are nonthreatening to men. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. Let me give you an example.

A few years back, a group of women, including my beautiful sisters-in-law, invited me to go to a nightclub with them. I was safe. One of the girls, I guess. So I went, ignoring the warning bells in my brain. It wasn’t surprising that men would approach them – even ask them out on dates – as if I didn’t even exist. Even when one of them pointed me out, claiming to be my WIFE and showing him her wedding ring, he looked down at me scoffed.

So, yeah maybe I’m non-threatening. Maybe. But I think I get away with voicing hard truths because I speak out of love.

You see, in seminary, a classmate, Mitra Rahnema, told me that the job of a healthy community is to know what you are capable of and hold you to it. When I reached the next stage of my ministerial development as a chaplain in a hospice program, the supervisor – whose job was to quickly form a dynamic amongst the chaplains in which we could count on one another – said over and over again that in real community, there is no room for niceness. If we are to reach any depth in our relationships, there can only be truth. That has been a guiding principle of my ministry.

Truth, spoken in love and commitment, with the intention of serving, is kind, and the purpose of a mature community. Even if truth doesn’t seem very nice in the moment.

Abigail Benjamin is a Third Order Carmelite skilled in navigating the waters between niceness and kindness. Nuns and monks professed into the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, live together in monasteries. The Third Order of Carmelites is an association of lay people, who don’t take the same vows of abstinence and simplicity, but still seek to live out the values of the order, values of charity, compassion and contemplation. They are a pensive and reflective bunch.

About ten years ago, Ms. Benjamin was working as a public interest attorney in rural West Virginia, about 300 miles southeast of here. She specialized in representing women who were victims of domestic violence and had come forward to press charges against their partners, usually seeking protection orders. Benjamin writes:

“Almost all the judges that I faced … were biased against granting permanent orders of protection. These were kind, wise judges who were usually pretty fair to my low-income clients in general matter. However, at the time, my state had a firm “no Guns” standing on all granted protection orders. We lived in a culture that was strongly pro-hunting. The judges felt good granting short-term protection orders easily to any woman who asked, in order to cool down hot tempers after a domestic violence attempt. However, asking a man to lose all his hunting rights for 1 to 3 years seemed like too steep a price to pay for one night of losing his temper on his wife.”

Benjamin had an uphill battle, but almost miraculously, she settled 90% of her cases in favor of the abused women, out of court, getting men to agree to give up their guns. She did it by treating everyone involved with kindness. “I was kind during a painful interview. I gave [the women] belief in themselves and hope. I was respectful to the men they loved. … A husband can be a generally good guy but still do horrible things to a woman within the privacy of his own home, and he needs to be accountable in public for those acts.”

For this young lawyer, holding perpetrators accountable was an action of the heart, it was, in the words of her faith, an act of mercy.
Her comments come in the midst of the current public discourse about domestic violence. In the wake of the release of a video of the National Football League’s Ray Rice violently hitting his fianc�e in an elevator, men and women alike have been asking the question, “why do women stay with abusive men?” A question that to me seems to blame the victim for her circumstances.

Women have responded by publicly posting two different responses in one Twitter campaign.

#whyistayed includes comments like:

I stayed because he never hit me and I didn't think verbal abuse and emotional manipulation [were] considered abusive ...

I stayed because I thought love was enough to conquer all

I stayed because he made me believe no one else would understand

And tweets from #whyileft include:

I left when I realized I was living in constant fear of someone who "loved" me. Someone who treated me like a piece of trash.

I left because I wanted my son to never see me brought that low or think it was okay.

I left because he tried to kill me and I wasn't ready to die.

There are a lot of misconceptions about why abused women stay and why they finally leave, so these women have taken the big risk of letting people know what is on their minds in a way that is unclouded and respectful. They’re being heard, sparking tough conversations. 
One of the most interesting results of this dialog is Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson’s admission that he used to be a bully as a child. In a forum called “The Players’ Tribune,” created by Derek Jeter, Russell describes throwing other kids against walls, rubbing their heads in the dirt at recess, biting them, and even knocking their teeth out.

He writes, “This issue is much bigger than NFL suspensions. Domestic violence isn’t going to disappear tomorrow or the next day. But the more that we choose not to talk about it, the more we shy away from the issue, the more we lose.

That’s what it all comes down to isn’t it? Not talking about a problem makes the problem larger, or at least continue. But if we can find ways to engage compassionately, “to really listen and say the hardest of things while preserving the dignity of those around us,” things will change.

The silent witness project Dorothy spoke about is a great example of public discourse. The silhouettes that stand in the front yard of the church speak a hard truth, symbolizing the deaths of women at the hands of abusive partners. They invite listening, and reflecting. They’re challenging and kind,

I want to get back to this idea of being nonthreatening.

Sometimes I worry that Unitarian Universalism is like a short gay man. We’re nonthreatening to the religious mainstream because we don’t even look like a religion as far as they are concerned. They can discount us as irrelevant. And we’re nonthreatening to the secular mainstream because we look like a bunch of mild mannered peaceniks in sandals and hybrid cars.

Maybe we are nonthreatening. And maybe, just maybe that nonthreatening stance is what allows us into the public discourse as we. The Silent Witness Project is proof that. Like Abigail Benjamin, we can listen with curiosity and openness to find a point of connection with those we don’t understand, allowing for growth and positive change, rather than increasing rancor. Actions like building those silhouettes are more effective than righteous indignation or polite silence on a tough topic. Thanks to Dorothy’s efforts, we are creating curiosity in passersby on Chillicothe Road. They’ll stop, read the plaques on the silhouettes, and be changed in the process.

Silent Witness is true. It’s kind. And it serves everyone who comes in contact with it. It’s what we can be proud of, on this day, when we welcome three new people to our membership.

Earlier, we spoke together these words to our new members. “Let us always feel free to speak the truth as we know it to each other, in loving trust that we need not all think alike to worship together, to learn from one another, help one another, walk together, love one another and work for social justice in the world.”

We don’t always agree, but our diversity of opinion is our strength. It forces us to have difficult conversations respectfully, to see each other as whole people, flawed and confused. Our diversity allows each of us to be held accountable to the best that we are capable of.

You know, the internet is like the Wild West. In it’s unpoliced anonymity, anybody can throw a bomb into a conversation and run away without experiencing the fallout, or facing any consequences. But this church is a small community. We can’t get away with that here. Thankfully, we have our covenant, as summarized in the Bond of Union we speak together every Sunday, a reminder to act from the heart.

May we live out that bond daily, inviting each other into the difficult truths, in kindness and with a sense of discovery, so that each of us may be the best that we are capable of.

May it be so.

Event type
Worship Service