My Yom Kippur homily found me this morning, when I opened up the editorial page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and saw there, published, my letter to the editor. It reads as follows:
I take exception to Lorraine Murray’s article from Saturday, Oct. 4 (in the “Faith and Values” section), where she equates respect towards many sources of wisdom with an “anything goes” mentality. The two are quite different. People with an “anything goes” mentality really don’t care about testing their beliefs to see if they are actually true or helpful in their lives; but people who respect many sources of wisdom think about what they believe and go in search of truth no matter where it comes from. An open-ended search for meaning has nothing to do with “anything goes.” Open minds DO have a limit—and that limit is the test of reason, conscience, justice, and love.
Then there is this. Ms. Murray is clearly out of touch with today’s pluralistic world, which brings to people the riches of the world’s religions, science, literature, the arts, and scholarship. In the face of this, Ms. Murray cites some shallow theology and a spurious interpretation of the Bible to call people back to a narrow “One Way, One Truth” kind of religious path. For my part, I’m grateful that a prophet like Martin Luther King, Jr., ignored calls like this. MLK Jr. discovered the power of peace through the works of a Hindu saint, Gandhi; and his eyes were opened to the New Testament’s message of love when he read a spiritual classic of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita. To me, this says that a spiritual life which draws wisely from multiple religious traditions can change lives and change the world. It also says that if you want to be enriched in your home religious tradition, don’t be afraid to explore other voices and other ways. God is too big to be contained by any single tradition, and this is but evidence of God’s goodness and God’s mercy.
This was the letter, and I read it with great satisfaction, since it was an opportunity for me to express very simply and directly the great power and promise of our Unitarian Universalist faith—to get our message out there. Because of fatigue from doing too many things the previous week, I almost did not write it, but I’m so glad I did.
And then I read my name. The name that my initial email to the AJC very clearly communicated as Rev. Anthony David, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. But somehow, to my utter mystification and dismay, between the email and the newspaper, things suffered a weird transformation, and my name appeared as Rev. Anthony Davis. Rev. Anthony Davis??? What’s the matter with these people’s eyes? It’s right there in black-and-white. David. David. David. Talk about a fly in the ointment. Finally getting a good letter to the editor printed—my first one—and they screw up my name!
I should add that the last several sentences were me grousing and complaining to my wife Laura, while she was getting ready to go and teach fourth-graders at the Waldorf School in Decatur. She’s got enough on her mind, as you can imagine; but even so, she listened to me going on and on, patient as always. Listened silently, fully. Then said, “It sounds like their getting your name wrong touched on something really deep within you….”
That’s what she said, and immediately, I was reminded of a line we say as we begin our Yom Kippur service. This one: “We have come together for our Yom Kippur service. How shall we begin it? Let us begin by listening.”
Then this line: “All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self.”
Then this: “O source of peace … lead us to a healing, to a mastery of all that drives us to war within ourselves and with others.”
Yom Kippur begins with listening, as we think about our lives and our deeds, as we ask ourselves hard questions, confess our frailties and faults, become more aware of all that drives us to war within ourselves and with others, start a clean day in the book of our lives. Forgiveness and renewal.
It all takes on a particular poignancy and immediacy, given the rawness of my frustration from this morning. The incident of the misspelled name reminds me that there are some parts of the naked heart that are persistently hurting. There is a difference between action and the disposition to act; there is a difference between feeling and the disposition to feel. Specific times of hurtful action and feeling from the past year—this we can leave behind us, as we ask for forgiveness and start a new day in the book of our lives. But then there are the underlying dispositions, the underlying patterns that lay dormant until they are triggered—and when that happens, the same hurtful actions we have asked forgiveness for happen again, the same emotions…. It’s the predispositions and the patterns that are so hard to leave behind. They don’t just appear in Chapter 1 and stay put. They extend forward, go into every new chapter we write because they are often a part of our make-up, part of our self-definition, part of the internal tensions that drive us, a weakness that is part and parcel of strength. “From weakness to strength / or strength to weakness— / and so often back again.” Yet another line from the Yom Kippur liturgy we just said, a short moment ago. “O source of peace … lead us to a healing, to a mastery of all that drives us to war within ourselves and with others.”
So let us begin by listening. So often this happens in the context of a caring relationship, where someone is willing to allow us to vent and they do not try to solve it for us, or psychoanalyze us, or make us feel guilty for the emotions we are feeling. They surround us with listening, enabling us to listen to ourselves. When Laura did this for me, she gave me strength and courage to go deeper into the emotional pattern that was triggered by the AJC’s misspelling of my name. In this way, I found myself remembering how I have always had a name that people have mispronounced and misspelled. It used to be Makar—M-A-K-A-R—but most people’s habits of pronunciation and spelling led them to say “Maker” and spell it “M-A-K-E-R.” It was the name of my grandparents who had emigrated into Canada from Ukraine, and all my life I have felt the obligation and the weight of their raw immigrant ambition to do better than the previous generation, to be the best; so it has always been a supreme irony and supreme frustration to have a surname that represented “being the best” consistently mispronounced and misspelled—as if to pointedly debunk it, or ridicule it.
There is far more to say here—there is more to the story of how, in my 21st year, I dropped my last name legally and adopted my middle name as my last name—but the point is made: an innocent misspelling of my name this morning triggered an entire emotional pattern, related to a significant part of my history, and what unfolded was outrage, incredulity, anger, sadness, even fear….An innocent misspelling of my name put its finger on an internal tension that drives me, put its finger on a weakness that is part and parcel of a strength. “From weakness to strength / or strength to weakness— / and so often back again.” We all carry complex patterns like this within us, and though they might have been formed in Chapter 1 of our lives, they can still be with us in Chapter 15, or Chapter 50, or Chapter 75. This is the truth…. “All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self.”
But with listening, the work of Yom Kippur begins. Just this. We listen with curiosity and compassion—we listen with an honest acceptance of what we find. Sometimes, just this can win a measure of the healing and release we are looking for. I love the story that comes from spiritual teacher Anthony De Mello, who says, “I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, ‘Don’t change. I love you just as you are.’ Those words were music to my ears: ‘Don’t change, Don’t change. Don’t change . . . I love you as you are.’ I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed!” That’s the story. Suddenly, our prison of destructive habit is opened, and we are released. My anger at my name being misspelled: defused to the extent I was able to sit with it for a time, to reconnect with the related history, to recognize the old pattern, to honor it for the story it tells, to choose not to indulge it, to let it go.
This afternoon I received an email from a member of UUCA, with this in the subject line: “Nice Letter to Editor!” The email reads, “I assume that the letter in today’s paper was by you, and either: (1) the AJC misspelled your name, (2) You’ve changed your name (again), or (3) You can’t spell your name. I’m sure it’s #1!” And now I can laugh at this. Now I can laugh. I can move on … and I do so feeling more whole, feeling more reconnected in a compassionate way to my past, ready to start another clean day, ready for the future. We can do this, whatever the old pattern might be that is giving us trouble. “Source of Life, in our weakness give us strength. In our blindness be our guide. When we falter, hold our hand. Make consistent our impulse for good.” Amen.
Rev. Anthony David
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta