Are These The Good Old Days?

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

The events of this week, Hurricane Katrina, a stampede killing a thousand people on a bridge in Iraq, and other painful news, have affected each one of us as we have tried to go on with our day to day living. Having announced this sermon title some time ago, I tried to fulfill my commitment to consider the question asked in the title. I share with your this morning part of the personal journey I took getting from the title to the words I will say this morning.

“Are These The Good Old Days?” When I announced this sermon, my plan was to pull together some thoughts about living in the present, living fully, enjoying each day that we are lucky enough to see the light of morning break over the eastern horizon. There are many parts of our liberal religion that speak to the importance of approaching life in this way. Our faith affirms the goodness of humanity and the importance of our lives here on earth. This life is it for most of us. We are not counting on heaven. If it turns out that there is such an experience of some kind of life beyond life, we will be pleasantly surprised.

Unitarian Universalists have confidence that this life is a gift we have received without charge, an opportunity to freely choose a path within our abilities, we are called by our faith to fully engage with life. Several of our seven principles lead us to this: We affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations; we affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; we affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. These three principles are life-affirming, life-challenging principles.

Thinking of the past – the good old days – can be very seductive. Do you remember when postage stamps for a first class letter cost three cents? Do you remember when there were only three television stations, on a good day? I remember Mother washing our clothes in a wringer washer and hanging them either outside or in the basement to dry. We had a coal furnace that was a scary beast that had to be fed. Our dishes were washed by hand in warm water that promoted the growth of cold viruses and other little things. My father put up the storm windows for the winter and we hoped we didn’t run out of coal. We were vulnerable in ways that you and I don’t even think about today.

And we were safe in ways we don’t think about today. Our wants were few: food on the table, a pie once in a while, favorite radio shows, shared baths for three children in the ever cooling bath water, fresh vegetables in the summer, canned peach pies in the winter. A pedal driven sewing machine, and a player piano. The Nickles bakery truck once a week and milk on the doorstep with cream on the top.

Simpler and more peaceful sounding. Yet the average age of Americans was much lower than it is today. The death rates from almost all diseases were higher. We did not have the medical advances to deal with such terrible epidemics as polio. “Dog days” each year meant no one went swimming. The rate of children infected with polio was printed each day in the Akron Beacon Journal. Everyone knew what an “iron lung” was and we saw photos of them frequently.

Were those the “good old days?”

For this sermon I wanted to make this point that the “Good Old Days” may fill us with nostalgia for the pleasant parts that we remember, but if we are honest with ourselves, life has improved in so many ways regardless of the complexity and isolation many of us experience today. As the quote says on your order of service, “the past is really almost as much a work of imagination as the future.”

The next thing that I planned to talk about in this sermon was that this time, today, is the good old days. The good old days are NOW. We live in a wonderful place, we have many natural resources, many stimulating cultural possibilities, good friends and a caring church community. Good health care is available here in Wichita, good restaurants, safe places to walk, and a number of people in this area are working towards the goals many of us want to achieve, personally, socially, and politically. Goals that may seem difficult to reach, but small steps can be made with dedicated effort.

These are the good old days. This was to be the point of this sermon. Now is the time to be living, not in the past nor in the future. Live fully now. Sounds like and important message.

Then something happened in my thinking about this sermon. On top of all the other concerns we share regarding the condition of world affairs, local and state politics, the Wichita economy, weather and warts, the gulf coast was hit by Katrina, the hurricane that began a devastating series of unfortunate events, events that with better planning over the past decades might have been avoided.

William Rivers Pitt writes:

In June of 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget for levee construction in New Orleans was cut by a record $71.2 million. Jefferson Parish emergency management chief Walter Maestri said at the time, “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay.”

The death toll on the gulf coast continues to rise. People are in critical need, waiting for almost a week for food and water, medical care, diapers, dialysis, medications, baby formula. Our national and state governments are floundering as they try to deal with the greatest natural disaster in our nation’s history and we all are suffering the consequences of being unprepared.

Compassionate people outside the disaster area experience helplessness. We can send money to the Red Cross and to the UUA fund for relief. But people are still stranded with no food or water. People are dying whose time should not have come. The anger and the anguish of family members who are standing with the decaying bodies of their beloved dead is unthinkable in our modern technologically advanced mobile nation. I feel a sense of paralysis, of giving up. And worst of all, the people who are suffering and dying are primarily poor and black. The implications frighten me.

My view of the situation in the Gulf Coast is that reality there is so desperate that hope is hard to find. I can’t avoid believing that the efforts to aid the victims of this tragedy have been too little and too late for hundreds of people who have died. I can’t ignore the casual response of the president, who continued to stay on vacation while his people were dying. I can’t ignore the poor planning of state and federal governments to protect the city of New Orleans from a disaster that everyone knew could happen. These are things that are impossible to change at this point but they haunt me.

In my heart of hearts, I know individual Americans have risen to the highest levels of sacrifice in order to save as many as possible. There are heroes, young and old, working around the clock to help in this terrible situation. I also know that the frustrations of poverty and oppression have added to the motivation of the looters who are taking advantage of the electricity being out and the police being involved elsewhere. Our government’s response to the looting has been to stop rescuing people and “Shoot to kill.” The looters are stealing goods that can be replaced and very likely will be replaced by insurance companies. The lives being lost are irreplaceable. My heart cries out – Let the looters be. Save the people.

In view of what is happening here in our own country, how can I propose to you that these are the good old days? This question took on a deeper meaning for me this week. In my struggle with this sermon topic I had a crisis of faith in the future, my hope was impaired. Perhaps others in this room found themselves “globalizing.” This is a term used in therapy that refers to the confusing of a current condition with a universal state – “I am having a bad day, my life is ruined.” For me this week, it seemed a colossal disaster has struck us, our country is ruined.

I asked my colleagues on the UU Ministers Internet chat line the following:

“What does the future hold? How bad can it get? Is there any good coming? Are we ministers Pollyanna’s who stand in the pulpit each Sunday with a message of hope? Or has Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” died? What gives you hope?”

The responses from my colleagues ministered to me in my grief for the suffering of my brothers and sisters in pain everywhere.

A friend reminded me that the central job of ministry is to hold hope when others can’t. No other profession or agent in society has this as a mandate, and it’s even more important these days.

The Rev. Sandra Fees wrote:

“In Cornel West’s “Restoring Hope,” he makes a marked distinction between hope and optimism. It’s easy to be optimistic when we have a pretty good idea of how things will turn out and when things are going well. Hope, he suggests, has to do with seeing that things are not going well and actively struggling to change them. Hope requires courage. It sustains us during the really bleak and difficult times in a way that optimism can’t. People who have historically struggled seem to have a deep and profound understanding of hope.”

I believe Cornel West is correct. Hope does require courage. It does require that we see that things are not going well and that we actively struggle to change them.

The Rev. Kit Ketcham shared that she says the following in a sermon titled “Hope Has Human Hands:” “Hope is my awareness, my deep understanding, that I am connected to the inextinguishable stream of life, that I am part of the whole…” Our seventh principle places us in the web of existence of which we are a part, in Kit’s “inextinguishable stream of life, ” identifies us as part of the whole.

The Rev. Dr. Judith Walker-Riggs wrote this to me and gave me permission to share it with you:

Hope is a decision about how I will choose to live here and now. OK. I commit myself once again to this view. I will live here and now with courage, working to change the things that I see are not going well.

The sources of our liberal religion are found in the words and deeds of prophetic women and men, people like you and me. Dorothy Day, 20th century pacifist and social reformer, wrote the following:

“People say, What is the sense of our small effort. They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast in to a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”

Are these the good old days? Living and loving in community make them so. Committing our human hands to the work of justice make them so. Caring for one another and telling others of the good news of Unitarian Universalism’s saving grace, our message of acceptance and assurance, make them so. Deciding to live in hope here and now makes these the good old days. May it be so.