I used to teach at a high school in Minnesota, and for my first year I had a notoriously naughty group of 8th graders. I had been called in as a sub when their regular teacher suffered a nervous breakdown and left in the middle of the school day, leaving nothing behind, not even a grade book. I had taught in Chicago' s inner city and when they called me and asked if I could handle these incorrigibles I said, "Are you kidding? Catholic schoolboys in loafers? Let me at them!"
I whipped them into shape within a few weeks (mostly by telling them quite honestly that they had the language skills of 3rd graders and I was happy to collect a paycheck while they stayed really committed to being idiots. When they climbed out the window when my back was turned, I locked the window and the door and asked if anyone else wanted to leave, because I preferred smaller class sizes anyway) and we got along great (they even awarded me "8th Grade Teacher of the Year!"). A few months into the semester we studied the play "Anne Frank," and as a finale to the unit we saw the movie version. At the end of the movie, which is quite terrible because the Nazis have found the Frank' s hiding place and are smashing their way in, one of the students, Scott, stood on his feet and cheered. "Yea! Get em!" he cried.
I got on my feet immediately and thundered at him, "SIT DOWN RIGHT NOW AND DON'
T BE AN ASS."
So who do you think was called into the principal' s office -- me or the kid with the Nazi sympathies?
I was, of course. Because it was a much more severe crime to say "ass" to a child than to love him enough to challenge his sick sense of humor -- or whatever it was! -- and to set clear, firm boundaries for him. That was one of the defining moments that sent me out of teaching and into seminary.
I remember the look of disbelief on the principal' s face when I said, "Listen, I love these kids. I care about them enough not to sit by politely while they behave like total wieners." But that didn' t fly as a defense at Hill-Murray School, and I was just as happy to leave. The word I used to describe Scott, that day, by the way, may not be genteel or tactful, but it' s a perfectly good word. It' s Biblical and it' s Shakespearean. Honestly, it did not occur to me in the moment that I so angrily corrected him or at any point afterward that I was not responding to him in love. Maybe tactless love, but love. If I had not cared about him, believe me, I would have spared my blood pressure.
We are in the season of Yom Kippur, the time in the Jewish high holy days where the faithful are expected to reconcile with all those they have harmed. They repent of their sins before their God in the most solemn service of the year at the conclusion of the Days of Awe. The point is to be written in the Book of Life for the new year.
I have to admit that I get a real kick out of it when I hear a religious liberal assure everyone that atonement, which is the heart of the Yom Kippur commitment, really means "at-one-ment." Well yes it does, but that doesn' t have much bite to it. I prefer to just plain out admit that I' m a sinner and I' m in dire need of moral improvement. I believe that the object of life is to tenaciously keep at the job of fully becoming the person I am called to be, and it doesn' t help me in that task to sweeten up the job description like that. Atonement is about saying, "I screw up on a regular basis. I am sorry for it."
Some of you may hear debilitating guilt in that kind of attitude, but I can tell you that I experience it not as guilt-inducing but as joy and liberation. I was raised with this sense that self-culture (to put it in Unitarian terms) is serious business and that since we'
re not born knowing how to go about it, we have to have stern guides who will love us enough to nip us on the heels when we get too far out of bounds, like a mama wolf nips her cubs. I have had some wonderful mama and papa wolves in my life and if I'
m at all a good person, it'
s largely because they made me so. I did not always delight in their nipping, but by this point in life I deeply believe in the power of tough love. How else, after all, do we remake the world so that it better resembles the realm of justice, equity and compassion we wish it to be? We may indeed be born good and pure, but temptations appear on the path very early on, and our stern guides bring us back to it when we stray.
As you know, I have been away this week at West Point, where I officiated at my Uncle Marvin' s funeral, one of my most heel-nipping papa wolves. He died in his sleep on September 16 at the age of 82, and we just had no warning. He and his wife Mae were at the home of some friends in Park City, Utah and had stayed over from a wonderful party the night before. As my aunt describes it, Marvin was the belle of the ball, and one very attractive woman in her early fifties said to him (in front of her husband!) "Marvin, you are the sexiest man I' ve ever met."
He was up at 11:00 p.m. washing out wine glasses and I don' t know but that someone took one look at him and decided to poison him out of sheer envy.
He and my Uncle Dick had just been on a tour to Europe (with Mae) and Marvin had just e-mailed me telling me that they'
d gone to Prague and Budapest and Moscow and God knows where else; an itinerary that would have totally exhausted most men half their age. Days before he died, he had been told by his doctor that he was in disgustingly good health. When he told his brother Dick, Dick had complained that he was tired of being the patriarch-in-waiting.
I want to share some stories with you today about my Uncle Marvin, and my family, because I have been thinking a lot about the way that the elders in my family loved us, and how powerful a force that love has been in all our lives. When I say "all of us," I am speaking of my eleven cousins and myself, who grew up in a big puppy pile of competition and mishegas (that great Yiddish word meaning "family insanity") and need and love and irritation. We were taught from day one that there are expectations of you in this world, and that you find out what they are from your elders, and you obey them. And then later in life, you find and choose other elders to mentor you. My father and his older brothers never wanted to be our pals. They wanted to be our fathers, our elders. They considered that their sacred obligation. And they were all tough on us, but you know, I just developed my photos from the funeral and every second picture is of a Weinstein man cuddling a baby or playing pat-a-cake or horsie with them. There is a profound tenderness underneath the bluster. And we know it, too. Even the babies know it. You should see the photo of 2 year old Nicholas snuggled into Uncle Dick' s neck. And he just met him for the first time.
I grew up in Connecticut and for a time, all my father' s older brothers lived close by. So we spent a lot of weekends at Uncle Dick or Uncle Marvin' s houses on the beach, boating and swimming. I liked to hang out with my uncles while my 11 cousins ran around like something out of "The Jewish Lord of the Flies." I was a serious child and my uncles took my ideas seriously and listened to what I had to say. To listen to a child and encourage her to thoughtfully and responsibly participate in a discussion is a real gift, and I have to thank them for that.
But I have to tell you that when I was about two years old and not talking yet, and not doing much of anything, Uncle Marvin pulled my father aside and said to him, "Carl, she' s an adorable baby but she' s going to be slow." My mother tells me that my father was apoplectic with fury. He never let Marvin forget it. He' d show him my report cards and report every academic achievement with enraged glee, "She' s slow, huh? Look how slow she is!!" My mother shrugged it off. "If she' s slow, we' ll love her just as well."
It would be so helpful if we all knew how to love each other in a way that was untainted by competition or anger or hurt or loss or projections. But that' s not how it works. We come walking into this church every Sunday bowed down by the ways we fail to love purely in a way that simply shines the light of regard and adoration on the other and lets them be. Our love is all mixed up with power and control and unfulfilled wishes and desires, and so it is of the love given all of us in our formative years.
My family' s way of loving is a love that felt like an eagle' s eye and a lion' s big soft paw, all-seeing, very powerful, velvety but with killer claws. Our love had teeth to it. Some of this is generational. My father and his brother were the children of Romanian and Russian immigrants who knew that life was tough, and they wanted their children to be capable of faring well in this tough world.
My great-grandmother Sophie had come over with small children from Romania, and lived for a time her son, my grandpa A.J., his wife Minette and their four boys. One day when he was in junior high school, Minette caught Marvin smoking a cigarette. She went absolutely white, set her mouth in a firm line and said very little -- just "WAIT TIL YOUR FATHER GETS HOME."
Marvin figured he was as good as dead (and if you knew A.J. Weinstein you' d know why) so he beat it up to his bedroom, undressed and got under the covers. The idea was, if he was asleep when A.J. got home, A.J. probably wouldn' t wake him up just to kill him. So he played possum.
Grandma Sophie knocked on the door and entered the room. "Marvin, dahling, what' s the matter? Why are you in bed in the middle of the day?" she asked. "Mother caught me smoking," he replied, "And I' m staying in bed until Pop comes home."
"Dahling," she said, opening her arms, "Get out of bed and come to grandma." So Marvin did, approaching her in his p.j.' s. Grandma Sophie clocked him so hard he fell on the floor, and as he looked up at her in astonishment, rubbing his jaw, she said, "If I ever catch you smoking again, you won' t live to see another day. Now get back in bed. I' ll deal with your father when he comes home."
Marvin absolutely loved this story. He absolutely loved and admired his Grandma Sophie. Marvin later went to West Point and became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, so this upbringing served him very well.
I' m not advocating corporal punishment. And I know this kind of love will seem abusive to some of you, but the idea that adults would try to reason and negotiate with children in the aftermath of misbehavior was totally foreign to my family. The elders knew the boundaries, and our job was to obey them or have a mighty good reason why not.
During my ministry in Pennsylvania, one of the kids from my youth group showed up at church one afternoon. He wanted my help because he had been caught shoplifting cigarettes and he wanted me to be there while we broke the news to his mom and dad. I was so ticked off at him, I spun him around and gave him the side of my boot in the pants. "That' s for stealing," I said. And then I booted him again. "And that' s for stealing CIGARETTES!!"
I' m not proud of that. It wasn' t the best pastoral approach. It was just great-grandmother Sophie coming right out. ( I was very unpopular with the youth leadership community in Pennsylvania for insisting that our kids not be able to smoke at all at their conferences. Other, more permissive adults thought they should be able to smoke outside at special times. Can you imagine?)
One of the realities about myself I have learned over the years is that I have all of Sophie and her grandsons' stern expectation in love and not that much of their tender mushiness. What I have learned of that tender brand of love I have learned by studying the nature of God, who I think may be that creative force that really does hold us each as a precious, unique treasure -- as a species and therefore also as individuals unconditionally, from the moment we are crafted in the womb to the moment we are re-released into spirit at our death.
And while it is important to incarnate that kind of love for each other, it is also important, I think, not to fall prey to the idea that all love must be based in total and absolute "free to be, you and me" mentality.
I was thinking about this while knowing that a team of about forty UUs have convened in our church this weekend for a workshop on congregational growth and vitality. I have been thinking about how tough love plays out in the congregational setting, and whether or not it does at all, and whether it should, and wondering whether Unitarians have confused the idea of the "inherent worth and dignity of all people" with the idea that everyone who comes to our churches is just perfect the way they are and the object is to change the world and not ourselves. Because of course we couldn' t possibly need changing.
You heard me say during the offering that the church is an academy for the spirit. I believe it is. And Love is the way we learn our lessons, Love is the teacher. There is the unconditional love that our Universalist forebears believed God had for all of us, for every soul. And there is the love with expectation "Tough Love" -- that was more the emphasis of our Unitarian forebears, who stressed the importance of self-culture, the steady struggle for moral, ethical and spiritual improvement that, truth to tell, comes courtesy of our early Puritan roots.
Let us go forth into our day and into our days with both those forms of love tucked safely into our pockets and into our hearts: loving the world and our fellow human beings both with unconditional regard and reverence for the very nature of their being, AND loving them (and ourselves!) in the spirit of expectation in the knowledge that the best in all of us is yet to be and with a little boot in the pants when necessary.
Thank you for sharing these memories with me. They live in us. Amen.