The Wisdom of Howard Thurman

The Rev. Kate Lehman

Sunday, August 21, 2005 – 

Greetings and Welcome

Sounding of the Bell

(Please hold silence after the bell so all may enjoy the start of worship)

Prelude: So Glad I’m Here Sweet Honey in the Rock

Chalice Lighting and Response: (edited) Howard Thurman

One: Let us get ready for our faith to open unto us all that is needed for true freedom.

One: Open unto us – All: light for our darkness.

One: Open unto us – All: courage for our fear.

One: Open unto us – All: hope for our despair

One: Open unto us – All: peace for our turmoil.

One: Open unto us – All: joy for our sorrow.

One: Open unto us – KL All: strength for our weakness.

One: Open unto us – All: wisdom for our confusion.

One: Open unto us – All: forgiveness for our wrongdoings.

One: Open unto us – All: tenderness for our toughness.

One: Open unto me – All: love for our hates.

All: As we are so opened, may we be made ever more fully alive.

*Opening Hymn: 116 I’m On My Way

Opening Words: (edited) Howard Thurman

Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. And people who are alive are open and responsive to what it is that the world needs.

In this spirit, let us join together in worship.

Sharing of Joys and Sorrows

(Please be mindful of time so that all who wish to speak may do so.)

Responsive Offertory Words: Howard Thurman

Voice One: May we open ourselves and sense within and around us the all-pervading presence of that which is greater than and beyond ourselves. And in the presence of that power, my we hear the whispers of our own hearts:

All: Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve, that in fair weather or in foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the darkness and the foe are nameless or familiar, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.

Our offering is an extension of our gratitude for this, our religious home, where we are helped to discover and act upon that which makes us come alive.

Offering, Helping Hand Fund, and Offertory

Announcements for the Life of the Congregation

A Time of Prayer and Meditation: (edited) Howard Thurman

How good it is to center down, to sit quietly, to see one’s self pass by. The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silence, while something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living, a direction, a strong, sure purpose that will structure of confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.

We look at ourselves in this waiting moment and reflect upon the kind of people we are, the kind of people we want to become. The questions persist:

What are we doing with our lives?

What are the motives that order our days?

What is the end of our doings?

Where are we trying to go?

Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?

For what end do we make sacrifices?

Where are our treasures and what do we love most?

What do we hate most in life, and to what are we true?

Over and over the questions beat in upon the waiting moment. As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind – a deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear. It moves directly to the core of our being.

Then our questions are answered, our spirits are refreshed, and we can move back into the traffic of our daily round with the peace of the Eternal in our step.

How good it is to center down.

Musical Response: You Gotta Serve Somebody Shirley Ceasar

from The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan


Shared Thoughts: Kate Lehman

Howard Thurman was one of the most influential people of the twentieth century: not only did he help to change the hearts and minds of people, he also helped to change the system which oppressed the hearts and minds of people, and especially people of color. That fact alone makes him worthy of our attention.

However, to me Howard Thurman is also especially interesting because he was a rare combination of a mystic who was committed to bringing about greater social justice. In short, he, better than anyone else I can call to mind, was able to bridge the gap that often seems to exist between spirituality and social action.

Today I want to share parts of Howard Thurman’s life story, a life story which points to how we as Unitarian Universalists might forge an even stronger connection between spirituality and action for a better world.

Thurman was raised in segregated Daytona, Florida. His father, Solomon Thurman, a big man with a large frame, worked for Florida East Coast Railroad laying track between Jacksonville and Miami. Mr. Thurman died when Howard was seven. While Howard’s mother and grandmother were very religious, his father was not, and the minister of Mount Bethel Baptist Church refused to conduct the funeral, or even to allow it to take place in the building. Howard’s grandmother, Nancy, put enough pressure to bear on the preacher that he eventually relented and allowed the funeral to be held in the church.

But who would conduct the service? There happened to be an itinerant minister in town who offered “to preach” the elder Thurman’s funeral. In his autobiography, With Head and Heart, Thurman wrote:

We sat on the front pew, the “mourner’s bench.” I listened with wonderment, then anger, and finally mounting rage as [this man] preached my father into hell. This was his chance to illustrate what would happen to “sinners” who died “out of Christ,” as my father had done. And he did not waste [this chance.] Under my breath I kept whispering to Mama, “He didn’t know Papa did he? Did he?”

In the buggy, coming home from the cemetery, I sought some explanation. Neither Mamma nor Grandma would answer my persistent query. Finally, almost to myself, I said, “One thing is sure. When I grow up and become a man, I will never have anything to do with the church.”

That was not a vow Thurman kept. Perhaps that was true because even at that young age Howard knew that the watchful attention of the church community enhanced his conscious sense that whatever he did with his life mattered. These people added to the certain knowledge given to him by his mother and grandmother that his life was a precious gift. Unlike the preacher who buried his father, when Thurman did become a minister, he tried to convey to all people – not just those who were members of his congregation or denomination – that their lives were a precious gift, that their lives mattered, that it is how we live and love and not how or where we worship that makes a difference.

In addition to being shaped by his family and the church, Thurman’s spirituality was very much influenced by the profound sense of unity he had with the natural world. It seems to me that what he experienced in the world of nature prepared him to experience the presence of a power greater than and beyond himself. Thurman wrote:

When I was young, I found more companionship in nature than I did among people. The woods befriended me…The quiet, even the danger, of the woods provided my lonely spirit with a sense of belonging that did not depend on human relationships….

Nightfall was also meaningful to my childhood, for the night was more than a companion. It was a presence, an articulate climate. There was something about the night that seemed to cover my spirit like a gentle blanket. [It was as if I] could hear the night think, and feel the night feel. This comforted me; I felt embraced, enveloped, held secure. All the little secrets of my life and heart and all of my most intimate and private thoughts would not be violated, I knew, if I spread them out before me in the night. When things went badly during the day, I would sort them out in the dark as I lay in my bed, cradled by the night sky.

[I also felt that the] ocean and the river befriended me when I was a child. The ocean gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances.

I felt rooted in life, in nature, in existence.

Young Howard was obviously a very intelligent child. However, public education for black children in Daytona ended with the seventh grade. Only those who had completed the eighth grade were eligible to go on to high school. Howard’s elementary school principal tutored him in the eighth grade curriculum, and then applied to have him take the test which would enable him to enter high school. At the time there were only three public high schools for black children in the entire state of Florida, but there were several private church-supported schools. The nearest one to Daytona Beach was the Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville.

Money was saved and arrangements were made for Howard to attend that school. However, at the last minute it appeared that the chance for more education would be denied. Thurman wrote:

When the time came to leave for Jacksonville, I packed a borrowed old trunk with no lock and no handles, roped it securely, said my good-byes, and left for the railroad station. When I bought my ticket, the white agent refused to check my trunk because the regulations stipulated that the check must be attached to the trunk handle, not to a rope. The trunk would have to be sent express, but I had almost no money left after I bought my ticket.

I sat down on the steps of the railroad station and cried. [After a while I heard a black voice say,] “Boy, what in hell are you crying about?”

And I told him.

“If you’re trying to get out of this damn town to get an education, the least I can do is to help you.”

The man went inside the train station, paid to send the trunk to Jacksonville, and then, before I knew what was happening and without a word, he turned and disappeared down the railroad track. I never saw him again.

Thurman’s autobiography is dedicated to “The stranger in the railroad station in Daytona Beach who restored my broken dream sixty-five years ago.”

Howard graduated as valedictorian of his class, and then attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was greatly effected by the sense of mission the college inculcated in its students, which was to learn and then go back into the community to teach others, and especially those not fortunate enough to attend college.

The President, Dr. John Hope, the first black man to become president of Morehouse College, always referred to the students as “young gentlemen.” Thurman wrote:

What this term of respect meant to our faltering egos can only be understood against the backdrop of the South of the 1920s. We were black men in Atlanta during a period when the state of Georgia was infamous for its racial brutality. Lynchings, burnings, unspeakable cruelties were the fundamentals of existence for black people. Our physical lives were of little value…Those of us who managed to remain physically whole found our lives defined in less than human terms….No wonder every time Dr. Hope addressed us as “young gentlemen,” the seeds of self-worth and confidence, long dormant, began to germinate and sprout.

Although Thurman majored in economics and government, by the end of his junior year he had decided to become a minister. He spent the summer of 1922 studying philosophy in residence at Columbia University, where he attended classes with white students for the first time. At Rochester Theological Seminary, where he was one of two black students accepted into the school, he engaged in formal study of the Bible, liberal theology and comparative religion.

Upon graduation Thurman and his young wife, Kate Kelly, a social worker, accepted the pastorate at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. Several experiences from these years were to have great influence upon Thurman’s spiritual development.

As a child growing up in Florida there had always been a huge divide between the Baptists and the Methodists, who disagreed on when and how baptism should take place. While in Ohio Thurman had the opportunity to speak at a Methodist Church, where he discovered that the members of that congregation were just like the members of his in terms of their yearnings, their hopes, their needs. This was the beginning of a lifelong process by which creeds became far less important to Thurman than the felt-experience of faith, which unifies rather than divides.

Thurman also began to change what he saw as the goal of worship. Initially he wanted to share with the members of his congregation what he had learned in college and theological school. However, in time, Thurman wrote:

I began to explore my inner regions, and to cultivate an inner life of prayer and meditation. The experience of religion become increasingly central to my development. [This ability to relate to people from the heart rather than the head led me to see that] the door between their questing spirits and my own [was] a swinging door…; at such times, we became one in the presence of God.

This growing sense of mystical spirituality was enhanced by a chance “encounter” with Rufus Jones, a Quaker mystic and leader of the pacifist, interracial Fellowship of Reconciliation. This is how Thurman first met Jones: the former had attended a “denominational meeting,” at some neighboring church; not particularly interested in what was going on, Thurman was getting ready to go home when he saw a book table set up by the women of the church. He bought two books, one of them that written by Jones. He saw on the steps of that church as if rooted, reading, until he had completed the book. Thurman contacted Jones, and then left Oberlin to study with him at Haverford College. Through his association with Jones, Thurman began his journey towards a philosophy that stressed an activism rooted in faith, guided by spirit, and maintained in peace.

Kate Thurman, the mother of Thurman’s daughter, Olive, died of tuberculosis in 1929. Three years later he married Sue Bailey, who restored to him at his center “a life of heart that made the whole world new.” Sue gave birth to the couple’s second daughter, Anne.

In 1935, the Thurmans were invited to go to India. At this time in history, Gandhi had been imprisoned several times and was in a life-and-death struggle for freedom against an established imperialism. The vast Indian masses were being stirred by the invasion of a hope that steadily contradicted the grimness of their present reality. Gandhi was a symbol of that hope.

As much as the Thurmans wanted to meet Gandhi, they very seriously considered not going to India because they felt that they could not in good conscience represent American Christianity, which was still very much segregated. In the process of discussing this conflict with Sue, Thurman began to make a distinction between the religion of Christianity and the religion of Jesus. This nascent idea, which had been germinating in Thurman’s heart and mind for years, began to grow and began to put down roots while the Thurmans were in India.

It was there, surrounded for the first time by people of many different faiths, that Thurman began to see what is common to all religion, and how awareness of and respect for those common elements can help people both to transcend and to respect their particular differences of belief.

If everything in Thurman’s life led to his meeting with Gandhi, for the rest of his life Thurman’s religious beliefs and actions for social change were influenced by Gandhi’s position on nonviolent resistence. Thurman passed on his thinking to James Farmer, founded of the Congress of Racial Equality and to Martin Luther King, Jr. In what is probably Thurman’s most famous book, Jesus and the Disinherited, he expanded on his idea of a religion based upon the teachings and actions of Jesus, which give a message of liberation rather than alienation. It is said that King carried this book with him wherever he went.

For these and many more reasons, Howard Thurman was a man who changed history, who made the world a better place, and who inspired others to make the world a better place.

And how can his message help us as Unitarian Universalists to bridge the gap that often seems to exist between spirituality and social action?

Howard Thurman taught by word and deed that everything any one person does – for good or ill – matters. Through the actions of any one person, even the most simple action, we can change the hearts and minds of people.

Thurman also taught by word and deed that people matter, that everyone is precious. However, he believed that we are opened to the preciousness of every person, and are inspired to act, only as we connect – not intellectually, but experientially – with others from the very center of our existence. In that experience of unity with other people, we come to know, to feel, the divine, the holy. And that experience will inspire, encourage and support us as we seek to act in ways that affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

Seen in this way, there is no divide between spirituality – the felt-experience of unity with all of life – and social action. Each influences and feeds upon the other in a unity in which we are fully alive in and fully engaged with the world.

And perhaps it is only is this sense of unity that we truly engaged in a living faith.

Shared Thoughts: the Congregation

Closing Words: (edited) Howard Thurman

Every person wants to be cared for, to be sustained by the assurance that we share in the watchful and thoughtful attention of others—not merely or necessarily others in general but others in particular. We want to know that—however vast and impersonal all life about us may seem, however hard may be the stretch of road on which we are journeying—we are not alone, but are the object of another’s concern and caring; we want to know this in an awareness sufficient to hold us against ultimate fear and panic. It is precisely at this point of awareness that life becomes personal and the individual a person is free to ask and find answers to this question: What makes me come alive, and how can I share that aliveness with the world?

*Closing Hymn: 95 There Is More Love Somewhere

Benediction: (edited) Howard Thurman

(As you are willing and able to do so, please stand and join hands.)

As we go forth, may we commit ourselves to becoming persons ever fully alive. So may we do what we can to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuilt the nations, to bring peace in the world, and thus to discover beauty in our hearts.

Postlude: Amen Sweet Honey in the Rock

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