Beginning in autumn, 2013, Dan Harper, our Associate Minister of Religious Education began explaining our unison benediction to children at the 9:30 service. His reflections on the unison benediction will appear here after he says them in the service.
Every Sunday morning, at the end of each service here in the Main Hall, everyone says the words of the unison benediction together. And we also say the unison benediction together at the end of many of our Sunday school classes. This is what our unison benediction says:
Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.
I like our unison benediction, and I enjoy saying these words. But what do these words mean?
What does it mean when we say “Go out into the world in peace”?
Well, first off, you have to remember that we say these words together at the end of the Sunday service, or at the end of Sunday school. When we say “Go out into the world…” we mean that we are about to leave here, and go back to our normal busy lives.
Because, you see, one of the reasons we come here on Sunday morning is to take a break from our normal busy lives. We come to hang out with people we know and like, people who share our highest values. We come here so that for an hour or two we don’t have to worry about homework, or about all the things we have to do at work, or around the house. Another way of saying this is that we come here to find a peaceful moment.
At this point you might be saying to yourself: Hey, wait a minute. It’s not so peaceful here on Sunday mornings! We sing, and talk with our friends, and drink hot chocolate, and ride unicycles, and so on. That doesn’t seem all that peaceful.
But I think it is peaceful here. It’s not peaceful in the sense of being completely silent — that’s not how we do religion. But it is peaceful here in the sense that we get to relax and renew our energy, — and above all, we get to connect once again with the most important things in life. Doing homework is not the most important thing in life. Creating that Powerpoint presentation for work is not the most important thing in life. What is important is to remember that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and that we are here to make this world a more loving place.
So that’s what I think it means when we say: Go out into the world in peace.
We all know what courage is, right? Courage is what you need if you are going to stand up to something that is big and dangerous and frightening. If a large bear were to walk in here and say, “Dan, I’m hungry and you look yummy,” it would take great courage on my part to stand up to the bear and say, “No, Bear, I’m not going to allow you to eat me. Here, have some Purina Bear Chow instead.”
Or to give another example: If you were at school, and you saw a big kid threatening to beat up a little kid, unless that little kid gave his lunch money to her, it would take courage to stand up to that big kid — it would take courage to say, “No, Big Kid, you should not threaten to beat up little kids. That little kids does not have to give his money to you.” It would take great courage to do this, because for all you know, that big kid would start to pick on you instead!
It takes courage to stand up for what you believe is right and good. When we say, “Be of good courage,” we are saying that we are going to try to have the courage to stand up for what we believe in. Let me give you an example of how our church once stood up for what we believe in. Back in the 1950s, the state of California passed a law that said that all churches must proclaim their loyalty to the government. In our church, we believed that this law was wrong — that governments should be allowed to tell churches what to believe, and that we had to give our primary loyalty to our highest ideals — so we refused to sign the loyalty oath.
So when we say, “Be of good courage,” we are saying that we will stick up for what we believe in. And more importantly, one of the reasons we come here is so that we can be with other people who will help us stick up for what we believe in. Sticking up for what you believe in works best when you can do it with other people!
Now let’s look at the line that says, “Hold fast to what is good.”
When you hold fast to something, that means you keep something close to you because you don’t want to let it go. You might hold fast to a stuffed animal — perhaps to help you get to sleep at night, or perhaps just because you like that stuffed animal.
When you hug someone you really love, like maybe your parents or your grandparents, you hold them tight while you’re hugging them because you don’t want to let them go. Of course, when you’re hugging someone, eventually you have to let them go. It’s really hard to eat your breakfast while you’re hugging someone tightly, and it’s dangerous for them to drive a car while you’re hugging them. So hugs usually only last for a short amount of time.
But even when we stop hugging someone, there’s a sense in which we continue to hold them fast. We’re not actually hugging them, but we hold on to them in our hearts; we don’t have to be actually hugging them, but we can still think about them and love them.
Now it’s not just people we love. We also love to do good things. We want to help other people. We want to find out what is really true, and what is not so true. We want to find what is beautiful in life, and appreciate it. We know that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and we want love in our lives. We want to know something that is larger and better than our own limited selves. In short, we human beings love to do good in the world.
And one of the things we hold on to — is loving to do good. Sometimes it is hard to help other people, and we don’t want to, but we help other people anyway because we know it is good to do so — we hold on to what is good. Sometimes we’re not sure what the truth is and we feel a little lost, but we keep looking for the truth anyway — we hold on to what is good. Sometimes we need to feel loved, and we turn to the people we know and love to find love — we hold fast to what is good. Sometimes we need to get in touch with that which is larger and better than our individual self — we hold fast to what is good.
I think it is not easy to say exactly what we mean when we say “hold on to what is good.” Perhaps what I have said just now will help you think about this yourself.
The fourth line of our unison benediction says: “Return no one evil for evil.”
Let’s think about what this might mean. And let’s start with a small example. When I was a kid, my older sister and I would sit in the back seat of the car when our family went on long trips. One of the other of us would draw an imaginary line down the middle of the seat and say, “This is my side of the car, and that’s your side of the car. Don’t reach over into my side of the car.” Pretty soon, one or the other of us would stick his or her hand across that imaginary line, and the other one would whack that hand. Next thing you know, we would be hitting each other, and one of our parents would have to turn around and say, “OK you two, stop it!”
Now we had agreed that we would each stay on our own side of the car. Reaching across into the other person’s side of the car was not a very nice thing to do. In fact, it’s a mean thing to do. And then when one of us would reach across that imaginary line, the other one of us would whack the first person. That was also a mean thing to do. And next thing you know, we’re in a fight, and we’re annoying our parents, and we’re making everyone in that car feel grouchy and unpleasant.
When someone hits me, of course I want to hit them back. The problem is that when I hit them back, they’re going to hit me again, and harder this time. And then I’ll hit them even harder, and next thing you know we’re in a nasty fight. If someone is mean to you, and you are mean back to them, you’re just going to get meaner and meaner to each other.
Now you know why you should not return evil for evil. If someone does something evil to you, of course you want to do it right back to them. But then they will do something to you that’s even worse, and you’ll have to do something to them that’s even worse. You start a fight, and a fight can build into a battle, and a battle can build into a war. You start a war, and next thing you know you’ve got weapons of mass destruction and terrorists and drone strikes and so on.
So we say: Return no one evil for evil. The problem is, it’s really hard not to hit back, if someone hits you first. So when we say “Return no one evil for evil,” this may be the most difficult thing in our unison benediction. But even though it’s really difficult, it might be the most important thing in our benediction. If we could all stop returning evil for evil, the world would be a much better place. That is why each week we remind ourselves: Return to no one evil for evil — and we try to live up to that ideal.
Next we come to the line which says: “Strengthen the fainthearted.”
What does it mean to be faint hearted? When you are doing something that requires courage, and you find that suddenly you don’t have enough courage to finish your task, we say you have become faint hearted. This might make more sense if I give you an example.
Let’s say you’re at school, and you see a friend of yours getting teased by some big kids. You see that your friend is crying. You know that you should either go over and help your friend escape those older kids, or you should go get a teacher or an adult. But those older kids look kind of scary. And you realize that you just can’t do either thing, because if you go over to help out your friend the older kids will start teasing you, and if you go get an adult the older kids will know that you got them in trouble and then they will start picking on you. So you stand there and do nothing — and we say that you are faint-hearted; your courage has left you; you are afraid. (By the way, adults might call this a moral challenge.)
Now here’s an interesting thing: you would be much less faint hearted if you had another friend there with you, someone who might be willing to go over with you and help your friend escape those older kids. And if there were four or five more of your friends, you could all gain courage from each other, and help your friend get away from the teasing. So one of the best ways to strengthen the fainthearted is this — you help out other people when they need help doing something difficult.
We are all fainthearted at times, and need to be strengthened by others. And there are times when we are the ones who strengthen others. Sometimes we strengthen each other to deal with personal moral issues. Sometimes we strengthen each other to deal with public moral issues like same sex marriage, or affordable housing. It can be difficult to stand up for what we know is right. And so we strengthen one another, and keep each other from becoming fainthearted.
(This page is copyright (c) 2013 Dan Harper. Used by permission.)