Honoring Self, Others, and Faith (5-26-2019)

Today I will be speaking about the concept of honoring. Before I venture into the meat of the topic, I would like to start with a little anecdote.

I am a martial artist. While I no longer practice actively, I have been shaped by my art. Lessons about balance, perseverance, and indomitable spirit resonate with me to this day. I had a friend whose commitment to our chosen art was so profound, he got a tattoo as symbol of his commitment to the Taekwondo way of life. The term Taekwondo encompasses three characters, Tae meaning foot, Kwon meaning hand, and Do translating into English as way: The Way of the Foot and Hand. My friend emblazoned his arm with an image of a foot, a fist and a path, the path to represent the character Do. He was proud of this symbol that shone so brightly, permanently inked onto his arm. So proud was my friend that he showed his tattoo off to our master. “Look master, I got a tattoo to represent my commitment to Taekwondo. See a foot for tae, fist for kwon, and a path for Do. You know, like way.”

Master Cho shook his head and said, “You need to take that path off. There is no way to picture Do because Do is not a path, it is lifestyle, a philosophy, a fighting style, and an art all together. Do is an idea that must be felt. This is wrong. This is not a honoring the spirit of DO.”

What does it mean to honor? When I think about the word honor, I see it like the character Do. As a students of the English language, I am often struck by how limited English is. English speakers think in black and white terms when it comes to the meaning of words. Honor has multiple and nuanced meanings that change given the context in which the word is used. This changing and shifting of meaning obscures the meaning of honor because honoring is an idea that is not definable in as much as it is lived. In my opinion, to fully understand the concept of honoring, one needs to access the nuances of the word simultaneously, viewing the word as an idea that must be felt, as opposed to defined.

Honoring in one sense means to regard with great respect. This meaning is synonymous with admire, appreciate, value, prize, cherish, revere, venerate, or  worship. In this sense of honoring, we put someone or something on a pedestal. We honor that which we deem worthy. In another sense, honoring is to fulfill an obligation or to keep an agreement. In this sense, honoring is contractual, and is rooted in living up to a responsibility as in honoring the terms of a contract. We should strive to be worthy of praise and respect while also ensuring that we live up to our responsibility to others.

This dual meaning of honoring is confusing, and at the same time, makes complete sense. The torah teaches us to keep Ten Commandments. The one that always stands out to me is the fifth, “Honor thy Mother and thy Father.” As I have grown older and more socially aware, I have amended this commandment for myself to read, “Honor thy parents.” In the ancient world, this expectation of honoring thy parents is a repeated theme. Why is this such and important theme?

I believe that the relationship between parent and child offers the basis for what it means to honor. As many of you know, I laid my father to rest this past August. I remember how important it was for my sister and I to speak about our relationship with him and explain how important a role he played in our lives as well as the lives of our friends. While each of us shared very different stories, we both spoke to how we admired him, and how our admiration for him sprung from the love and affection he showed us in life. We venerated our father because we deemed him worthy. I also noticed that while we praised our father, we both spoke of how thankful we were that we honored him in life, telling him thank you for all he sacrificed, and on a daily basis telling him that we loved and appreciated him. What if we actively practiced honoring people who have impacted our lives? Imagine a world in which we showed those around us in actions and words that they are worthy of praise and love? How might this shape the way we approach racial justice, stewardship of our planet, or the way we view love?

The play Fences by August Wilson provides further insight. The main character, Troy, tells his son, “You live in my house, sleep on my bedclothes, fill your belly up on my food… cause you my son. You my flesh and blood…. [ It’s] my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you! …. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday ‘cause he likes me. He gives me ‘cause he owes me. I done given you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life! Me and your mama worked that out between us…. Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you.”

Note that Troy insists that his son concern himself with people doing right by him. This concept of doing right by others resonates with me. Troy makes it very clear that he is obligated to take care of his son because he is his son. The commandment tells us to honor our parent, to do right by them, but this is conditional in that the parent must honor their child by fulfilling their parental responsibility. And interestingly, Troy insists that his son has right to be honored, to be done right by.

When one enters into a significant relationship, they are entering into an agreement, one in which we promise to do right by those with whom we enter the relationship. What if we entered into every relationship with the understanding that we are going to do right by by them? What would it look like if every US citizen engaged with each other in this spirit of doing right by each other? How would our church transform if we approached our covenant with each other as a contractual obligation to do right by each other?

A few weeks back, Cynthia Curry stood in this pulpit and professed that she is a theist. She recounted her experiences in a structured religious tradition that professed ideas and ideologies that did not align with her internal sense of right and wrong. She spoke of how she found her home in this church, a place where she could determine her beliefs as her  heart mind and conscious dictate. It did not matter that several among us do not count ourselves theists. We were equally moved by her testimony, and in the sharing of her truth, she honored us, and we honor her by creating such and inclusive space.

I spoke with another congregant who asked that I not identify him, so I will honor his request. He recounted his experience with signing the book to become a member of UUCSS. When he opened the membership book to sign, he noted that it asked signers to record their Christian names. As a non-Christian atheist, he could not in good conscience sign. How could he join a congregation that assumed every person who signed came from a Christian tradition? He brought this up with the then minister who told him that the book was purchased from “the Methodists.” Apparently the congregation purchased a membership book without giving much thought to potential conflicts it might pose to non-Christian UUS. The pastor then proceeded to cross out the words “Christian name” by hand on every single page of the book, so that  the book simple asked for the signer’s name. Apparently, we still have this book to this day. This simple action by a pastor was the the catalyst for the congregant to join the church and remain an active member for some 30 odd years. This simple act told the congregant, “We at UUCSS honor you.”

I believe that as Unitarian Universalists, what most binds us in one faith is our belief in human potential. Through our adherence to the First Principle, we honor people, not creeds, disembodied entities in the sky, science, literature, laws, flags or anthems. I believe that for us UUs, our various spiritual and religious philosophies should serve to help us define our world, but we must avoid the temptation of honor the material and philosophical manifestation of our belief systems as if they have worth of their own. The driving force of our faith and strength of our denomination lies in honoring people and seeing the inherent worth and dignity in each other and respecting the the idea that we are all on a journey to find our own truth. We honor each other by wading into the difficulty of creating a space where people of various religious backgrounds, positions and beliefs (or lack thereof) come together and find union and communion with each other while engaging in our individual journeys for truth.

Go now, honor each other and strive to be worthy of honor. May it be so and blessed be.