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I’d been braced for Pete Seeger’s passing for years, but I was still very sad several weeks ago when the news came that he had died, at age 94. I was a little stunned when, within 24 hours, a stern warning came over social media from a colleague: if we sang too many Pete Seeger songs in church that Sunday, we’d be alienating Generation X and Millennial congregation members.

The author, who is just about my age, has since stepped back from that rigid recommendation, acknowledging that the 140-character limit of the format she’d chosen had cost her message some nuance. We all know how that is. (A warning to the Twitter generation?) But I was no longer concerned only with that one statement. The chorus of agreement that met it—mixed, to be sure, with many younger-than-Boomer voices protesting that they know and love Pete Seeger’s music—showed how badly these generational concerns can deepen the ruts we get into. We UUs clearly aren’t ready to move beyond our brother UU, Pete Seeger. On the contrary, we’d better run if we’re ever going to catch up with him.

I understand the exasperation with Baby Boomer domination of our culture, especially UU culture. I think the phenomenon is real, and I appreciate people’s reminding us that there are other generations, and not to get stuck in nostalgia for the boomers’ heyday, that is to say, the 1960s. And there are other people who have died in the last month who deserve our honor but don’t get much attention, such as Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba.

Still, not to lift up Pete Seeger’s work and life would be to cut off our nose to spite our face.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Seeger was not a boomer. He wasn’t even just a bit older than the boomers, like boomer icon Bob Dylan (born 1941). Seeger was born in 1919 and served in World War II. My colleague Dan Harper pointed out exactly why Seeger began playing the college circuit in middle age: because his thriving career as a performer and recording artist was throttled by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) when it blacklisted him for insisting on his, and his associates’, First Amendment right to the freedom of assembly.

Which brings us to another reason we need to memorialize Seeger. No U. S. citizen can understand their country without knowing about the Red Scare. If you don’t know much about HUAC, reading the transcript of Pete Seeger’s testimony is a good introduction.

Seeger was a die-hard union supporter, and we don’t pay much respect to the labor movement in Unitarian Universalism. My congregation has its old lefties of Seeger’s generation, bless their rabble-rousing souls, but on the whole, we UUs have settled into a comfortable liberalism. The demands of the labor movement—now as in the 40s and 50s when his Almanac Singers and (to a lesser extent) Weavers were singing its songs—aren’t liberal, but radical, and they’re not comfortable. They shake up the system. It needs shaking up. Remember working 9 to 5? Weren’t those the good old days? In this and so many other ways, working people are going backwards, and Pete Seeger was one who kept pushing against that tide.

Another trend Seeger’s example helps us buck is that of receiving (consuming), rather than making, music. His concerts were always participatory and he never missed a chance to remind us that we are born to be music makers. He once said,

Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.

I mostly listen to music; my guitar languishes in a closet and my fingers have lost their calluses, and I rarely gather with friends to make music, except in church. I want to change that. He’s a gentle prophet nudging us to make that change.

The most chilling comments in the wake of Seeger’s death were the ones dismissing music of 25, 50, and 75 years ago as ancient history. One way that Unitarian Universalists are totally mainstream, completely in the sway of U. S. American culture, is in our disdain for the past. We revel in our refusal to look back, as if focusing on the future is the secret to being progressive. I don’t buy it. I still think that those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. We’re repeating it now, as those who have been thrown into poverty by others’ mismanagement of the economy are reviled as lazy spongers, as were those of Seeger’s childhood, the Bonus Army. We’re fighting battles that labor organizers of two generations ago thought they had won for us (workplace fatalities, for example, have plateaued after years of welcome decline). We’re struggling to keep our rivers clean—Seeger worked with the Clearwater efforts on the Hudson for almost 50 years—and maybe if we want to prevent poisonous spills such as we’ve seen in West Virginia and North Carolina in the past couple of months, we should look to the environmental strategies of 50 years ago, instead of trying to start from scratch every time. Maybe we give up so easily because we don’t know that we stand in a long heritage of struggle for true progress. As another UU singer, Utah Phillips, said, “The long memory is the most radical idea in this country” (Thanks, Dan Schatz, for that timely quote.)

Pete Seeger never stopped raising his voice, even decades after he insisted that he couldn’t sing anymore. It was never about the quality of his voice anyway—it was about heart and commitment. We still need them, and when I find someone who devoted himself to making a better world long after most people retire or give into cynicism, I’m really happy for his example. So as soon as the news of his death came, I scheduled a Pete Seeger Memorial Singalong Celebration, and we’ll be raising our voices tomorrow, March 8, at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

A homily given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Christmas Eve, 2013

What are we to make of these angels? What are we supposed to think about all these angels?

There’s a lot in this lovely little story of Christmas that is hard for the rational mind to believe. But you can explain most of it away—the miraculous birth, the amazing star. But not angels. They are a whole different kind of creature that populates the Bible, something between the human and the divine. People have invented a whole field of study called “angelology” and explained all the various ranks and types, which only makes it all harder to believe for me.

But the meaning of the word “angel” in the Bible that I was taught as a child and that means the most to me today is something very simple and grounded in our real lives. An angel is a messenger. Someone who comes from God to a person, carrying a message. Someone who tells us something we need to know about the holy.

What is the holy? Well, according to the Unitarian Universalist songwriter Peter Mayer, everything—and I see no reason to doubt him. Which would seem to suggest that everything is or can be a messenger of the holy also. Anything that helps goodness, wisdom, hope, get from out there to inside here, is an angel of a kind. Anything that brings us a message that the holy is the holy is an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a beautiful young woman straight out of a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings. When you’re sick and scared in the hospital, and an overworked, overweight, aging nursing assistant puts a reassuring hand on your shoulder and smiles, and you look into his eyes and feel a flame of hope come to life inside you—he’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a human being. When you are filled with despair and there seems to be nothing except barren ground and hard edges, and you stumble home and your cat rubs her cheeks against your ankles, and you remember that there is something soft and loving in the world—she’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be alive. A shooting star, the Badlands of South Dakota, a sand dollar shell washed up on the beach, the ocean itself . . . these have all been known to whisper messages of hope, harmony, beauty.

Whenever a message comes that reminds you of holiness, you have met an angel.

The messages don’t always have to be pleasant, either. We may hear that people are dying in South Sudan (radio as angel). We may be informed that we have hurt someone’s feelings (angry friend as angel). We may suddenly grasp that we are going the wrong way and have been going the wrong way for years (road sign as angel). If these messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking to us.

Everything is holy; anyone, anything, can be an angel.

And so the unknown writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

This, to me, means: be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the apparently uninteresting. It may be the messenger bearing a note for your ear.  And we are reminded in particular to be open to those would-be messengers that we turn away because they bear messages we don’t want to hear. After all, when the holy breaks into our awareness, it can make us have to change our lives. It can turn everything upside down.

A message implies that there is something we now must do. Here’s a text message that says, “Call me, it’s urgent.” Here’s a messenger of God saying, “Joseph, marry your fiancee,” or “Shepherds, go to Bethlehem and look for the baby who will be King of the Jews.” Here’s an angel saying, “I bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Wait a second. As the first carol we sang tonight, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” says, there hasn’t been peace on earth. People have not extended goodwill to each other. What has followed that message has been “two thousand years of wrong.” That’s because the message is never just a point of information; it’s a command. Go and do something. Make this a world of peace. Make goodwill between yourself and your neighbor. Hear the angels sing and take their messages to heart.

So the messages that come our way can be disruptive, reassuring, joyful, scary, exhilarating . . . . it depends on what we do with them. One thing is certain. When the holy speaks to us, whatever form the holy takes, whatever form its messenger takes, that angel is always bearing good news.

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