“I learn kindness from the hard-hearted; I learn patience from the harried; I learn compassion from my grief. Let me be not ungrateful to my teachers.”
—Author unknown, adapted by S.R. Holland
I had been at sea for ten days. I’d visited this city before—but not on a Sunday, so I’d never been to the UU congregation there.
On Sunday morning, I walked into the sanctuary where a greeter recognized that I was a visitor and welcomed me with a friendly greeting. Then he asked, “So what brought you to our congregation today?”
Being that a ship had literally brought me to the congregation, I turned and pointed down the hill toward the harbor at the Coast Guard cutter I had steamed in on. “I’m a Navy chaplain,” I explained, “and that ship right down there brought me here. We sailed in yesterday.”
He replied, “So what brings a Navy chaplain to a Unitarian Universalist church?” And my brain lurched to a halt.
Unitarian Universalism and the military have not always been on friendly terms. After almost 20 mostly-happy years in both, I sometimes forget the tension in our history. In my many run-ins with ministers on the right-wing, fundamentalist side of religion, a calm, friendly, but unapologetic demeanor had always gotten me through those conversations.
“I am a Unitarian Universalist and this is my spiritual home,” I said slowly. “When I travel for work I like to visit new churches.” What he said next was like being whacked with a foam pool noodle — conspicuous but not overly harmful: “Oh, you didn’t say you were Unitarian Universalist.”
I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember my body switching to teacher mode: “I didn’t know it was my responsibility to announce that.”
I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, straight white guy. I don’t have experiences like this often. But I’m grateful that I do occasionally; they give me insight. In the moment that I switched to “teacher mode,” I wasn’t aware of where I had come by that practice. It didn’t take long to recall several moments in which I had inadvertently said ungracious things. I was fortunate enough to have professors, ministers, and friends illuminate my clumsiness for me. They did so in a way that was gracious enough that it increased my appreciation and respect for them, and clear enough that I will never forget the teaching.
Spirit of Life and Love and Truth, who connects us all to each other and to all things, teach me to receive with thick skin and a forgiving heart; teach me to transmit gently with insight and skill. When we collide, restore us to harmony, for we need one another to be whole.