Open Source Faith by Rev. Roger C. Peltier, 11/19/2017

posted on November 19, 2017

Sermon on YouTube

On December 25, 1990, Tim Burners Lee completed the first successful communication using hypertext mark-up language—html—the language we use today for online communications. 

 Lest you doubt it, Mr. Lee knew this was monumental and momentous—the invention of this language paved the way for the future we enjoy now—but he did not take out a patent. Instead, ten days later, Lee gave the world-wide-web to the whole wide world; he gave his lucrative invention away! Because he believed this was the best way to make quick progress on the new information super highway.

 Lee’s passion was for an accessible information network. His strategy was “open source.”

 Within months Stanford University set up the first internet service, with then only twenty-six websites online; today there are more than 100 million websites. Email and now texting have changed our lives.  

 Online resources have changed how we learn and do research—all bringing an enormous access of resources and information to rural and small towns and cities alike, creating the global village.

 Indeed, at Thanksgiving there is much for which to thank Tim Burners Lee. By the way, Lee is a member of the First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, of Lexington, MA. I mention this not just to brag (though that’s always fun!), but because I know that Lee himself sees a relationship between his passion for making information available and the values of his UU faith.

 Simply put: Open source software allows users to modify and personalize, to bring new material into an original program, instead of being given a program that you just have to work with it the way it comes. 

 Open source software trusts users with the ability to shape the program as their needs dictate.  By the open and free sharing of the original work individuals are allowed to discover for themselves what is useful for them; and they’re invited to use these with little-to-no restriction.

 That characteristic of the World Wide Web is also shared by the “interdependent web of all existence.” And it is a main feature of Unitarian Universalism: Ours is an open source faith.[1] 

 That is, we are free to bring the origins of our inspiration into alignment with our own free and responsible search for truth and meaning — with maybe only one restriction: that we in some way pay-it-forward, that we build the common good, making glad our lives and people the world over. 

 When my colleagues talk about Tim Burners Lee, they often use his story to introduce guests or new-comers to our faith. I’m interested in doing that, too, but I’m a little more interested in this part of Lee’s story: Namely, that he gave away what he knew was a worthy idea with a huge cash worth.

 I know this is Thanksgiving Sunday, but that was one big give! That kind of thing just doesn’t happen every day and to many people Lee’s action was unbelievable! “What was he thinking? Or smoking?” some asked.

 It turns out Lee is a searcher; he quests for new truths in what’s seemingly unbelievable. In fact, he left the Church of England as a teenager, just after being confirmed, because he simply could not “believe in all kinds of unbelievable things.”[2] (Sound familiar?) That led him to UUism and to his act of great generosity.

It won’t surprise you to know, I’m inclined to think all UUs possess that kind of generosity; it’s really just a question of how seriously one takes this faith. For example: To what lengths do you really and truly go to practice the idea that everyone has inherent worth and dignity?  

Knowing Lee, I know his commitment.   

Notably, too, our small membership has enjoyed a disproportionately large number of inventors, leaders, humanitarians, a US President or two, and many, movers-and-shakers of every stripe. Some of these include Paul Newman, Christopher Reeve, Pete Seeger, and Kurt Vonnegut.  They’ve each done much to make us proud.

Did you know that Paul Newman donated the entire stock of his ownership in Newman’s Own – his famous salad dressings – to charity? That includes Newman’s own Hole in the Wall Gang, a charity for very sick children to participate in activities like boating, fishing, swimming, archery and arts—all while receiving superior 24-hour medical care—free of charge? More than 100,000 children from 31 countries have attended the Hole in the Wall camps.[3] 

I’m sure you remember the Christopher Reeve, most notably for his role as Superman. The whole world watched with hope as Reeve, with courage and conviction, struggled to recover when he was injured and became a quadriplegic as a result of a horse riding accident. Many of us watched this very ordinary, super hero blow into an air tube just to move about in his wheelchair, each time he’d give an interview.

And, each time he did so, it was with grace and guts and a great spirit, and that trademark huge smile.

 What you may not know is that Reeve used that accident and his celebrity to outstanding end with the creation of The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation—which tirelessly works to improve the quality of life for people living with disabilities.[4] 

 Now, I don’t want to give the impression that you have to be a celebrity to be a UU or to make difference in the world, but I do want you to get the impression that to be a UU is to give of yourself to others: gratitude is a verb. 

I wonder… What if the acts of goodness I’ve just described are equally acts of thanksgiving,  is each person’s way of giving thanks for what they have been given in life and maybe even in tribute to our shared faith, to UUism? 

Can it be that Unitarian Universalism—with its seven profound Principles and its deep call to a living legacy of justice and love—can it be that this has somehow caused people to be extraordinarily generous to others? Do you suspect, as I do, that how much one gives is exactly proportionate to how grateful one is? Generosity and Gratitude are sisters.

I read a piece where inspirational writer, Nell Mahoney, cites Cicero for saying that “gratitude is life’s most important virtue.”[5]  Apparently Cicero (considered to be among the greatest Latin orators) believed that all the other virtues—love, honor, unselfishness, sharing, appreciation, altruism—all the virtues come from grateful hearts. So, it was that Mahoney ended a column with a suggestion that we all make it a point to “express our gratitude to two people.”    The idea being that we might hear in our own words an awareness of our own blessings. It’s advice that’s part feel-good and part challenge. (BTW, how are you all doing with your complaining bracelets?) The challenging question for us is always this: “With our grateful hearts, what will we be moved to do?” 

 When we come to the thanksgiving table, “to the place where our children are given instructions on what it means to be human,” we are nourished by bread and thanks.[6] We give thanks best by doing for one another, by inviting many guests to our tables, and then giving ourselves away to each and all of them…

 I want to share with you the story of one more UU, this one not-so-famous or rich but undeniably a hero: She is Hanley Denning. Hanley grew up in a picturesque small town on the coast of southern Maine. She was interested in teaching disadvantaged children, so after graduation she took a job working for the Head Start program in North Carolina.  

Many of the students in the program spoke Spanish as their first language, and Hanley felt handicapped by her lack of fluency. So, she decided to take a trip to Guatemala City for a few months, where she could visit friends and learn the language. It was there that a friend told her about what was going on at the Guatemala City Dump.

Hanley decided had to see this for herself. With a local priest and a nun acting as “tour guides” and providing her protection, Hanley walked through the thirty-five-acre dump. What she saw horrified her: Children, teenagers, and adults—including women with infants strapped to their backs—were scrounging through piles of garbage, in search of scraps of glass or metal, pieces of string, any small thing that could be salvaged and sold.  

She saw people whose hair was tinted to a rust color from the methane gas that emanated from the piles of filth. But it was the children that affected her most deeply.  Countless children, some as young as three or four, were picking through piles of used toilet paper, rotting fruit and even medical waste:  shoeless children climbing mountains of sharp-edged trash; children who would never attend school, who had to scour the dump to help their families survive.  

“I had to make a decision,” Hanley cried.  “I could go back home, where I was enrolled in a Masters of Social Work program, or I could stay right there, and do something.” 

The something Hanley Denning chose to do was to start a program that would get those ragged children from the dump to a desk.  In Guatemala, the public schools are not free.   Parents have to pay for uniforms and school supplies, and provide meals for their children.   Those who can’t afford it can’t send their kids to school.  

Hanley returned to the States briefly, where she sold the few possessions she owned to raise some money, “a car and a computer were about it.”  

Armed with a small grant, she returned to Guatemala and started a program that is now called “Camino Seguro,” or “Safe Passage.”  At first, Hanley offered a drop-in program to children on the way to the dump, giving them a meal and a place to play before they had to go to work.   Then she started to provide uniforms and school supplies to a few kids so that they could actually attend school.  

As more and more of the children of the Guatemala City Dump entered school, Safe Passage began offering after-school care and tutors to provide homework assistance, and supervised sports, art, and carpentry.  Safe Passage took children to local clinics when they get sick, and offered cooking and health classes to mothers, and still more support for dealing with drugs, gangs, pregnancy, and life choices for teen girls and boys.  Then Hanley opened a dream program—an adult literacy program for mothers.   

Today, Safe Passage serves more than 500 children and 100 mothers from the poorest parts of Guatemala City, offering them not just a daily meal and a chance to go to school, but hope and a future.

 I am sorry to have to tell you that Hanley Denning’s life was tragically cut short at age 36 when her car she was hit by a bus—but I’m proud to tell you her story and legacy live on. In one of the many memorials that followed Hanley’s death, one volunteer said: “Hanley scared me because she showed me the power and potential of gratitude—and faith. She scared me because she showed me the potential of what each one of us could do…of what [each of you] could do…”[7]

My friends,  I won’t tell you to give thanks this thanksgiving.  I won’t tell you to count your blessings—or to tell two people you are thankful.  (Though there is benefit in the exercise.)  But I will tell you that Cicero got it right: love, honor, appreciation, altruism— these come from one open source:  your faithful, grateful hearts.   Happy Thanksgiving.! Amen.                                                

[1] My thanks to Rev. Christine Robinson for her video-cast, “Open Source Faith and the Branch Ministry Project” posted to You Tube on November 17, 2007. (This Tim Burners Lee story is quoted and paraphrased from that video.)

[2] Wikipedia: Tim Burners Lee 

[3] Look to the Stars 

[4] Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation

[5] Nell Mahoney, The Quiet Hour 

[6] Joy Harjo, The Kitchen Table

[7] My thanks to Rev. Peter Friedrichs for his sermon “What Would You Give” preached on May 27, 2007. (This Hanley Denning story is quoted and paraphrased from that work.)


© Roger C. Peltier 11/19/2017

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