Monday, January 13, 2020

“The Practice of Integrity” by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 1/12/2020

Reading by Bob Barret, from NPR's "This I Believe"
I believe in integrity. It's a belief that's tested in those gut-wrenching moments when conflicting values pull me in opposite directions. Back in the early 1980s, I was in a training session for mental health workers who were volunteering to provide counseling to cancer patients who had a terminal diagnosis. Each of us was given 16 index cards and asked to write on each the names of people, abilities, things and values we hold dear. In the course of our imagined cancer, we had to surrender cards or somewhat abruptly have them taken from us. At the end I had two cards: One read "Integrity" and the other read "My Family." How could I choose between these two; such a choice was unfair and impossible. My initial thought was that I would give up my integrity, because I loved my daughters and would want their comfort at my death. But then, I would realize that dying without integrity might be worse. I drifted back and forth, not wanting to choose. In the end, I uneasily kept the integrity card because I reasoned that if I lost my family, integrity would still be possible; if I lost my integrity, my life would be without value.

Sermon by Rev. Tom
A Unitarian Universalist died, and to their surprise discovered that there was indeed an afterlife. The angel in charge of these things told them, “Because you were a doubter and a sceptic, you will be sent to Hell for all eternity—which, in your case, consists of a place where no one will ever disagree with you again!”  Our proud heritage encourages us to doubt, to question, to reflect on everything, and in particular, as Unitarian Universalists, we question beliefs, ethics, meaning, and purpose, acknowledging that none of the truths we come up with are static. Throughout our lives we are exposed to new ideas, beliefs, experiences, and people that expand our world-view and impact how we choose to live in the world.  In other words, we believe that revelation is not sealed.  Let us hold that thoughts as we consider the rather squishy concept of integrity.
            I’m going to go out on a limb here—I bet every person in this room believes they are a person of integrity.  Don’t all Unitarian Universalists have integrity; isn’t that inherent in living our seven Principles.  Isn’t that why some of you chose to become members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation?  Because you discovered a group of people who live their values—deeds not creeds—with integrity.  Honesty, living our ethical standards, being morally upright, hearing, assessing, verifying, and then following our inner voice?  Well, I don’t think living a life with integrity is easy, even for Unitarian Universalists.
            I want to share a few thoughts and stories as you consider what integrity means to you and what it looks like in your life.  Let’s start with driving.  During the many, many, many times you are watching other people drive and you see them speed, cut someone off, blast across three lanes of traffic, drive too slow, or stop in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, how do you judge that person?  An idiot driver?  A menace? At best, inconsiderate, at worst—what?  A murderer? Now let’s say your were 15 minutes late for, say a doctor’s appointment at one of those practices that cancels your appointment and charges you for the appointment if you don’t get there on the dot, and if you just stand on the gas a little, cut a few inches—or feet—off your safe passing zone, zip over the turn lane and shriek in the parking lot.  How do you judge yourself?  Oh, this isn’t how I usually drive. People shouldn’t be so upset, I’m watching what I am doing.  I know I have been tempted to do that on more than one occasion. According to Michael R. Cunningham, a professor of psychology at the University of Louisville, such discrimination stems from the difference in perception of self as compared to others: “We evaluate other people based upon their behavior; we evaluate ourselves based upon our intentions.” Hence, it’s easier for us to overlook our own lapses of judgement than it is to overlook the questionable behavior of other people.  And author on personal and professional development Beverly Flaxington writes: “While we attribute the unethical behavior of other people to their “badness,” oftentimes we rationalize our own actions in order to find justification for the choices that we make. “I was simply following orders,” “Everyone else was doing it,” “It’s not illegal, so it’s not wrong,” or “No one [I know saw me do it],”…It’s easy to cut yourself some slack when everyone else around you — including celebrities, politicians, professional athletes and large corporations — seems to be bending or breaking ethical rules. It’s hard to stick to ethical standards when it seems that few others are doing so.”
            So if we bend the rules, and we do, just like everyone else does, if we cut ourselves some slack, if we attribute good intentions to ourselves and not others, what does integrity really mean then?  I’m not talking about dictionary definitions here.  I mean what qualifies as integrity in this slippery environment where “yes” means “no”, and “no” means “maybe” and “maybe” means whatever we want it to at a particular moment.  And we find ourselves doing the right thing most of the time, unless it seems reasonable or easier to do otherwise.  Living with integrity is challenging, especially when most of the time, no one is watching us, unless you count Google and Facebook.  Author of the Narnian Chronicles and lay theologian C. S. Lewis wrote: “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.” And to offer a quote from someone who isn’t a dead white guy and who aspires to help others with her wisdom and book selections, Oprah Winfrey said: “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not.”  We don’t go around with a sign around our neck saying “I have integrity”.  Signs, after all, are easy to remove, like a wedding ring.  The sign—the ring—isn’t the thing that has integrity—it’s the vow you took, and how you live that vow. So when we say that we are Unitarian Universalists, is that like having a sign around our necks?   Do we think others believe that because we are Unitarian Universalists, we live a life with integrity?  What, if anything, does saying to ourselves that we are Unitarian Universalists and attending Sunday service do exactly? Does it make a difference in how we act when no one is watching?
           I think living a life with integrity, whether a Unitarian Universalist or not, whether others know we are doing it or not, is difficult.  In the reading today by Bob Barret, you heard him struggle with an exercise that he did at a mental health workshop.  He was given blank cards and asked to write the names of people, abilities, things and values he held dear.  And over the course of the workshop the cards were taken away, as part of a simulation of the things we lose as we approach the end of our lives.  His last two cards were integrity and family.  In the end, he uneasily kept the integrity card because he reasoned that if he lost his family, integrity would still be possible; if he lost his integrity, his life would be without value.  Well, there is more to the story.  His reflection on this exercise came at a time in his life when he was getting ready to come out to his wife and daughters as gay.  His struggle was this: does he cause pain to his family by coming out or does he stay in the closet and live without integrity, without being honestly and authentically who he is?
         What if you did the same exercise?  What if it came down to two cards for you and one of them was integrity?  What if your other card was health, family, friends, financial stability, significant other, children, job?  How would you respond to the choice?  When I was considering this exercise, I would like to tell you that of course I would choose integrity, but knowing myself, if I were dying, I would have a hard time not choosing family.  Hard choices—really hard choices-- make integrity so difficult.  Acting with integrity can result in pain, conflict, and people treating you differently.  It can also result in feeling a deep peace in your mind/heart/spirit because you are living authentically.  Acting with integrity can result in not having to always consider how other people will react before you respond.  It can result in more consistently living the ethics, morals, and principles that you hold dear.
            Before I share some thoughts on how we might live a life with integrity, I have one more story to share.  A few days ago a man in Philadelphia robbed a Rite Aid Store.  Pharmacies are robbed all the time; what was unique about this robbery is that we had the opportunity to peek into the mind of the person robbing the drug store, to better understand why he was taking such an extreme action.  The man, “wearing a gray hoodie and dark gloves… took an item to the register.  The store clerk can be seen scanning the item and putting it in a plastic bag. Then, according to a police statement…the man handed a note to the employee that read in part, ‘Give me all the money. I’m sorry, I have a sick child. You have 15 seconds.’”  So for the purpose of this argument, let’s assume what the man wrote isn’t a scam.  Let’s suppose it’s the truth.  Let’s suppose that this man is acting on the same exercise that Bob Barret did.  If his last two cards are obeying the law and saving my child.  Would he be living with integrity if he chose to rob the Rite Aid Store to save his child?  What would you choose?  Put aside our Unitarian Universalist tendency to infinitely debate the merits of each choice just for a moment, and try to answer the hypothetical choice from your gut.  What would you choose?
            I am not sure I know the right answer, or even if there is a “right answer” to the questions I am posing.  Realizing that there is no real right answer, let me offer some strategies that I use that aid me in living a life with more integrity.  One strategy that aids me in this complicated world is choosing some ethics, morals, principles, and purposes that I hold dear, that I aim towards in living my life.  I regularly attend to them, hold them in the front of my mind, and seek out places and people, like you all, that affirm those ethics, morals, principles and purposes that I hold dear.  You might say I hold onto them like a sign I wear, but the thing is no-one knows I am wearing the sign.  It’s invisible, just for me to see.  It’s like a vow to myself.
Another strategy I use is talking with others I trust, especially when considering a difficult decision.  I am not seeking their advice.  I’m using trusted people as a soundboard, as a way to process my thoughts and feelings.  I do tell the listener, if they have a thought that might help me look deeper within myself, I would value that.  Again that is not advice.  It might be “have you had to make this kind of decision before and how did that turn out” or “I notice that you are crying or seem angry or tense as you talk.”  Something I might not be aware of. Something that helps me look within for an answer.
            Here are a couple other ideas.  While I have thought about and used these ideas in my life, I’ve found them most clearly stated by Beverly Flaxington in Psychology Today (Like No One Is Watching: Acting ethically when others don’t always do so. By Beverly Flaxington, Psychology Today, oct 27, 2015)
“Listen to your self-talk. Do you search for excuses for yourself? Do you try to rationalize your questionable decisions?”  I can tell you this one really hits home for me.  A friend of mine really wanted and applied for job.  She told me about it in confidence.  I thought about putting in for the same job, an Employee Assistance Professional at NASA JSC.  Government job—I’d be set for life.  I rationalized that I was more qualified; I knew more about the people who worked there and the environment.  I had consulted for NASA a few times.  Fortunately, I noticed my racing thoughts and rationalization, the nagging guilt, and the physical agitation, for me signs of being out of balance within myself.  I stopped before taking an action that I would have regretted, that wouldn’t be consistent with my values and how I lived my life.
            Here’s another idea: “Question everything. Don’t accept something as true only because you have been told that it is. The more you know, the better-informed decisions you will be able to make. Two people can look at the same situation and one can find it ethically sound, whereas the other —[find it] debatable at best… Question your own judgement, too. More often than not, our opinions and decisions are affected by the many biases that we subconsciously hold, and therefore must be re-evaluated for ethical soundness.”  While serving a church in Cedar Rapids, I heard of an evangelical minister who preached that marital equality in Iowa was worse than the city-wide flood that devastated much of downtown Cedar Rapids.  The local television station and newspaper reached out to me, the local liberal minister, to comment on this preacher’s message.  I did not hesitate and was clear that his message was destructive and hurtful to the LGBTQ community and that this minister seemed wholly unaware of the power of the pulpit.  After I did this, I received an email from him.  He didn’t understand why people were so upset with him.  At that point, I started questioning whether the approach I had taken was the best one, the one with most integrity. After much questioning and self-reflection I decided to meet with this young evangelical minister and mentor him, to discuss with him why people were so upset with him and how he might grow from this experience.  That act felt like it had more integrity.
            How to be a person of integrity is for each of us to consider.  Living a life with more integrity takes intention and effort; it doesn’t happen without paying attention to ourselves, our mind and body, our emotions and spirit.  It is too easy for us to ignore or miss the many clues that pop up when we are letting our integrity slip away.  My friends, it is worth it to make the effort from time to time, especially when making a big decision or when reconsidering your world view or what is right and wrong, to examine your heart.  Also listen to that still small voice within, empower the part of you that questions and doubts, bring people into your life whom you can trust to really listen to you, and hold on to what is good and true for you even if it is a handful of earth.  Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself. And hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here.  Blessed be.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

"Who Are You" preached by Reverend Tom Capo on January 5, 2020

Everywhere we’ve lived Martha and I have heard a knock on the front door and opened it to find Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.  I wonder what it would be like if Unitarian Universalists went knocking at people’s doors?  Would we say something like “We’re Unitarian Universalists, and we are unsure how to describe our religion.” or “We’re Unitarian Universalists, could you tell us about your religion.” or “We’re Unitarian Universalists, could we offer you a cup of coffee in a bright orange mug with a chalice on it?”

            Knowing who we are as Unitarian Universalist is one thing, but knowing who we are period, is one of those ultimate questions of existence that we all answer either consciously or unconsciously as we live in this world.  Earlier in the service we sang “even to question truly is answer.”  What I want us to consider today is how we each experience the question “Who am I?”

            Sometimes you might answer that question by describing or naming what you do or what roles you have, or sharing how other people refer to or name you, or sometimes you describe who you are through metaphor: “I am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years. . . .”  It’s a short question, but it’s a really big one.  It can seem like no answer, no matter how long or detailed, is really complete.  And that’s because no answer is really ever complete. 

Recently, I have been struggling with who I am in terms of what I have I done in my life, and whether any of my accomplishments, for want of a better word, have any worth.  How many of you have heard of Erik Erikson?  How about his stages of psychological development? 

            With each stage Erickson suggests we have the opportunity to grow psychologically and learn more about who we are, perhaps gaining some core values as we grow—wisdom, trust, purpose.  In brief, at each stage we struggle with two opposing dynamics, like trust vs. mistrust from birth to about a year and a half.  During this stage we experience the consistency with which our needs are met, and if we develop trust that our needs will be met, we develop hope.  The same dynamic exists throughout all the stages of development.

            I have been wondering if I could describe myself by how I have resolved each of these psychological dynamics.  For instance, right now I have found myself considering stage 8, even though I am not 65 or thinking about retirement.  I have found that many Unitarian Universalists seem to be fairly fluid across the stages of development, addressing each according to their individual readiness to do so rather than by a particular maturational age. Erickson suggests that it is during this Ego Integrity vs. Despair time that we contemplate our accomplishments and can develop ego integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life. 

            I have found myself comparing my accomplishments to those of my peer group and my siblings.  What I have found is that it is easy to get caught up in financial accomplishments, time when people are able to retire, ability to enjoy a range of choices in how to spend retirement.  Really these are less important to me.  However, they are benchmarks that are easy for me to become obsessed with and they will certainly impact the quality of my life. What seems more important to me is how I embrace the kind of accomplishments that don’t really fit into the normal definition of an accomplishment: treating someone with worth and dignity, trying to really understand someone different than me, helping a community, group, or non-profit accomplish something amazing.  The thing is I have to remind myself that these non-mainstream accomplishments exist, and that I determined a long time ago that they’re important. They don’t seem to pop into my head unsolicited like finances and retirement seem to. But the reality is these are the achievements that are meaningful to me and that are more descriptive of how I see myself, who I am and who I want to continue to be.

            I recently read an article on about the psychological issues that people were struggling with in 2019 and one of the top ones is people realizing they are not the person they feel they are supposed to be.  Karla Ivankovich, clinical counselor at North Shore Counseling in Northbrook, Illinois wrote: “The most common thing people brought up this year was a fear of not being who they think they are supposed to be, and the imposter syndrome.  Because people are so used to seeing ‘the success of others’ on social media, they perceive others to be the real deal and question their own skills.  It really revolves around our feeling of inadequacy; social media has made caparison and contrast the new norm.”  And Heidi Cox, licensed clinical psychologist in New York City, wrote: “This year, many of my clients were dealing with imposter syndrome and perfectionism.  I think a huge factor in why these concerns are predominating in people’s lives is the amount of exposure we have to everyone’s ‘highlight reel’ through social media and the web.  By highlight reel, I mean the peak moments with none of the difficulties or failures shown…a lot …[of] people who are high-functioning…[feel they are] not measuring up to what they see online.”

             I am deeply concerned that too many people are defining who they are by what they see on social media.  I can tell you I have been tempted by the social media yardstick myself.  But as Cox said, I am only seeing the “highlight reel”, not the realities of a person’s existence with all it normal functioning, difficulties, and failures.  Think about how easy it is to compare yourself to someone else’s highlight reel.  How does that impact your sense of self? 

            So how do we answer the question “Who am I” if we don’t use comparisons to others.  And how do we answer the question of “Who am I”, if we are not static beings, never changing how we think, feel, or act. Buddha said after a man spit on him and later asked for forgiveness: “Forgive [you for spitting on me]? But I am not the same man to whom you did it. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every person is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.  And you also are new. I can see you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and he spit, whereas you are [now] bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more.” 

            I was working with an African American evangelical preacher in Chicago, Reverend Dr. R. J. Saffo.  We both were highly committed to our relationship and the relationship between the church I served, DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church, and his collaborative group of local African American evangelical churches (PTMAN).  However, on one occasion members of DuPage UU and I were at a breakfast hosted by his organization, and one of the speakers spoke extensively about how sex should only be between a man and a woman, and that the woman should be submissive to the man.  Needless to say this didn’t go over well with me and the DuPage UU members who were in attendance.

            As it turned out that morning, earlier at that breakfast I had spoken about how Dupage UU was happy and thankful to have a growing relationship with PTMAN.  I had announced that we were going to financially support PTMAN’s black youth initiative to help black youth in the area have summer internships. 

            But now the members of DuPage UU and I were so disturbed by what we heard that morning that some wanted to quit the relationship with PTMAN, and at least one did.  I committed to sit down with Rev. Dr. Saffo to discuss our concerns.  When I did, I shared with him how the presentation about heterosexuality and submissive women distressed myself and members of DuPage UU.  He was surprised by our feelings.  As it turned out he was going to contact me about something I said.  He and the members of PTMAN were offended by my use of the word “black” in reference to their youth.  They felt this word was degrading.  Rev. Dr. Saffo and I wanted our relationship and the relationship between our organizations to continue, so we both expressed “What next?”  We both apologized and then worked on ways to deal with these issues, and committed to stay in communication when issues like these came up in the future.

            Was I the same person after this experience?  No, I wasn’t.  Was Rev. Dr. Saffo the same person after this experience?  No, he wasn’t.  In fact, we were different people by just being in relationship with one another. 

So “Who I am” is a challenge for me and I think any Unitarian Universalist to answer.  Answering the question of who I am, at least today, has two parts.  One is the part that I present to the world—minister, father, husband, male, heterosexual, Unitarian Universalist, all the titles that I have taken on or been given by others—selecting the ones I choose to accept.  That is the functional way of defining who I am.

           The second part of who I am starts with acknowledging that all beings are always in process, always changing, always learning and always experiencing new things.  Understanding this, the best I can do is focus on, or hold in the front of my mind, the values, meaning, and purpose that ground me as I live life one day at a time.  Even as I know that my understanding of those values, meaning, and purpose may shift.  Probably will shift.  And who I am will probably shift as well.

            Indian born spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran writes:  “The glory of the human being is our ability to remake ourselves. The Buddha is very rightly called the Compassionate One because he holds out hope for everybody. He doesn’t say our past has been dark, therefore our chances are dim. He says whatever our past, whatever our present, the sky is bright for us because we can remake ourselves. The Buddha says, ‘be a good woodworker. Consciousness is the wood, and you can make it take any shape you like. Just as a carpenter works the wood to build a house or a fine piece of furniture, similarly we can fashion the responses and attitudes we desire: love, wisdom, security, patience, loyalty, enthusiasm, cheerfulness. As an irrigator guides water to the fields, as an archer aims an arrow, as a carpenter carves wood, the wise shape their lives.’”

If you consider being an archer, aiming with your life toward your values and purpose, you will need to shape who you are one day at a time.  You might consider being with people and in places that remind you of who you choose to be. Or read about the values and purpose you want to foster in your life and keep those values and purposes in the forefront of your mind.  Or meditate or pray about those values and purposes.  And when you make a mistake, miss the mark, run into a stone in the middle of your river, you can step back and learn from that experience, examine it as it relates to the values and purpose you aspire to embody.  You will answer the question of “Who am I” multiple times in your life, probably with different answers each time you ask.  By asking the question, you will learn more about yourself, you will have the opportunity to refocus on the things that are really important to you, then you might follow that question with the question what’s next—and wait in expectation for what life offers you.