The Practice of Presence
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I dropped my mom off yesterday with friends in Little Falls who will be caring for her for the next few weeks. They are likely on the road back to Boston as we speak.   My family and I have had a really wonderful time taking care of my mother during her visit with us these past few weeks.  She is more than halfway through her recovery time from the ankle surgery which is keeping her off her foot for so long.  She has needed help getting around.  She doesn’t need a lot of help, but the help she’s needed was indispensable!  I have fun with her because we talk shop together, what with us both being ministers.  We would slip into delightful conversations about the rhythms of church life, quantum physics and theology.  When she learned that I planned to preach this morning on “The Practice of Presence,” my mother offered me a meditation she had written some years back.  It begins with a story.  She writes,

Listen for a moment to the wisdom of a child.  The little girl was late coming home and explained to concerned parents that she had encountered her friend who had broken her favorite doll on the sidewalk.  “And you stopped to help her pick up the pieces?” her father asked.  “Oh, no,” she said, “I stopped and helped her cry.”

When we experience brokenness, we must cry.  But it is not easy to stop and cry.  At those times, we could use the help of a friend.  In small, sad, snatches of time we sit with one another comforting the pain into tears.  And in so doing, learn that the tears are healing waters.

Let us not turn away from the pain we know.  Let us not turn inward toward the pain with isolating fear.  Let us not stop up the tears in drowning pools.  Rather, let yourself be one who can cry with another.

It will not be to end the pain, but to bring comfort within the pain.  It will not be to repair the broken pieces, but to mourn them; to recognize their loss.

This will require of us the courage of our compassion and the conviction of our caring.  To cry with another is to stand before the hurt and recognize it for what it is and to acknowledge its place within our being.

May we each have the courage, the conviction and the capacity to cry with one another.

So Be It.

                                                            -The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth M. Strong,

And so, now I wish I had titled my sermon after one of the lines in her meditation: The Courage of Compassion, rather than the Practice of Presence.  It is compassion I wish to speak of most, and how it is an act of courage in many ways … I want to speak of that as well.  “Let us not turn away,” she writes.  “May we have the courage of compassion.”  Oh, presence is important, to be sure, that is the healing balm that people need from one anther in our world.  The practice of presence is powerful work that can change the world; we don’t see enough of it.  But perhaps that is because there is a deficiency of compassion just now.  Compassion leads us to be present.  Compassion leads us to notice what someone else is going through.  Compassion leads us to reach out.

And it seems, at times, that it does not happen enough.  It seems, at times, we need the courage of compassion because the world does not encourage such reaching out to occur.  The culture does not encourage such caring.  As if it is a radical act of resistance to care.

As I recall, a few months ago I warned you that to be a member of this congregation is to be a member of the community of resistance.  I mentioned that the grand purpose for which this and any other free church exists is to grow and to serve; to faithfully seek together to find and live out the ways of love; to be a community of resistance.  I remember saying we are not called to be respectable among the other religions; we are not called to be palatable or popular or within any proximity of prevailing opinion.  We are called upon to be radical, to be a community of resistance, to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.  I called each of us to stand up and be counted among those who are human in community.

Can you imagine the implications such a mission could have on the caring ministry of the congregation?  Perhaps, when I brought this up a few months ago you were able to see the repercussions such a commitment to resistance could have on our justice-making work together.  Perhaps you could see the consequences this could have for the Social Responsibility Committee – but the Caring Committee?  What would it matter to the Caring Committee that we declare ourselves to be a community of resistance?  Pastoral Care and Social Justice fit together better than most might think.  Our second Principle, for example calls us to promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”  Without compassion there can be no real justice.  Compassion rests at the heart of any worthy resistance!

There was a popular bumper sticker from a few years ago claiming that the most radical thing you can do is introduce people to each other.  We are a radical people with radical ideas of how to be a community of faith where all are welcome regardless differences in beliefs.  We are a radical people in a time when people are pushed into market niches and stereotypes.  Our faith calls us to break down such barriers every chance we can.  Unitarian Universalist theology will not accept the division of humanity into the saved and the unsaved, the good people and the evil people, those worthy of compassion and those unworthy of compassion.  We’re all in this together.

Back in the early 70’s, Henri Nouwen wrote a powerful book called The Wounded Healer.  The book quickly became a standard for pastoral theology.  The premise of the title is that “in our own woundedness we can become a source of life for others.”  The bulk of the book, however, is centered upon a critique of culture.  Nouwen said that we live in a dislocated world, a fragmented society, a rootless generation, and that we are a hopeless and lonely and isolated mix of people.  Nouwen said we are driven apart by forces in the culture.  Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all that you are and inviting others in.  The most radical thing you can do is introduce people to each other.  Or as J. M. Barrie put it: “Those who bring sunshine to others cannot keep it from themselves.”

It is interesting to note, however, that this isolation and dislocation is not the base human condition with which we must all suffer.  Certainly Unitarian Universalist theology does not suggest this to be the case, and neither does our biology.  Human biology is wired for empathy and caring.  Research lately has demonstrated that there are areas in the brain, in fact specific neurons, which are wired for compassion and empathy just like there are parts of the brain for moving your leg or thinking about ethics or remembering your social security number.

Mirror Neurons are the groundbreaking discovery in Social Neuroscience from the past few decades.  According to Wikapedia, the reputable online encyclopedia, “A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself performing the action.”  In one early study they saw that this cluster of neurons fired when a monkey ripped a piece of paper and the same set of neurons fired when the monkey watched another monkey rip the piece of paper.

Mirror Neurons were first seen as a breakthrough in understanding linguistic development.  In humans, they have been found in the pre-motor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex of the brain.  In what is called Broca’s area, a language center in the brain, the mirror neurons are linked with imitative learning which is critical in language development, but also in nearly all forms of developments.  They are still studying these things, so there may not be an answer to this yet, but if researchers are calling mirror neurons Empathy Neurons, I wonder: do these neurons fire the same way in my brain when I cry and when I see someone else cry?

But I also wonder, is there something we do to kill these neurons off in ourselves?  Are we deadening ourselves to these mirror neurons?  Because so often the evidence demonstrates that people just don’t care!  Newspapers are filled with examples, the movies we watch and games we play for entertainment may also be contributing to the training of our mirror neurons to settle down and die.  “Desensitizing” was the concept from psychology, I wonder if biology will corroborate the story!

A few weeks ago I was sitting at the service department waiting room of the car dealer waiting for them to complete the several hundreds of dollars of work my car needed.  I was feeling surly, I was feeling grumpy, I was feeling out of sorts partly because I didn’t have several hundred dollars to spare and was trying to calculate where the money would come from and partly because I had planned to be on the road to Boston a few hours earlier to pick up my mom to bring her here for the holidays.  Suffice to say I was preoccupied, I was distracted, Nouwen’s word for it was dislocated.  I wasn’t feeling particularly pastoral or caring of others at that moment when one of the sales people walked past, nodded at me, and began making small talk.  I wasn’t interested.

Of course, I’ve never been interested in small talk.  I’ve heard many ministers describe a dislike or discomfort with small talk, so I don’t feel unique in this.  I do, however, remember a game we did during one of the Spirituality Retreats here at the church that reminded me of this.  The game was naming and describing your favorite things.  Each thing meant something about your self-perception: Three words describing your favorite animal were supposed to be three words describing how you see yourself, three words describing your favorite body of water were supposed to show how you are with intimate relationships.  So name your favorite fruit, and (this was slightly different) describe how you would eat it.  I chose a Kiwi fruit.  I would cut it in half and scoop out the middle.  (Yum!)  This is supposed to describe how you make friends.  Hmmm, not much room for small talk there: cut ‘em in half and scoop out the middle!

Anyway, I’ve learned how to make small talk, to chat, to schmooze!  I can do it.  But it’s work; it is not something that comes natural.  So, I was sitting in the customer waiting room and the salesman starts chatting with me: the weather, long hours, end of the work day.  I smiled; I made non-committal noises like, “Yeah,” and “Hmmm.”  As he walked away it occurred to me that he had made a comment about a pinched nerve that was bothering him.

I don’t know, but it sounded when he said it like it was another part of the small talk, and perhaps, for him, it was.  “It’s so warm, do you think it will snow before Christmas.  Whew, the day’s almost over.  My sciatica is killing me.  Hey, did you see the game last night?”  But I was grumpy and distracted and did not really hear him.  Maybe if I had been paying attention, maybe if I had been present to him he would have told me more: not so I could have made it all better, just so that he could have told someone what was going on.  Just so he could have known that someone else knew of his problem and cared.  But I don’t even know if it was just another comment in his small talk or if it really was bothering him.  I wasn’t paying attention.

I’d been reading about Buddhism and the experience of a great teacher who could pay attention to a student as if the student were the only one in the world as he or she asked a question.  I have had an experience like that – when a teacher gave me what felt like her undivided attention, her whole focus.  Suddenly the question I raised, the comment I offered became really important.  Someone was paying attention.  It was an intense experience, I remember this teacher as an intense person.  I have tried to offer that same level of attention to others and I don’t think I have achieved it.  I’ve probably come close, but certainly not with any consistency.  Something for me to still strive for.

We are dislocated in the world.  Cars, Television, games, opinions, political parties, and religious denominations seem to contrive to keep us from seeing each other.  Be radical: smile back!  Go visiting strangers in a nursing home, bring some sunshine to others, sit a moment and listen to another person and discover what is on his or her mind at that moment.  So simple, and yet so rarely done.  Take up the radical work of resistance: visit, listen, smile!  Offer the practice of presence, the courage of compassion, the gift of listening.  You have that power within you to offer hospitality to others in a dislocated world; to welcome someone in and help them locate themselves amidst the odds and ends of experience.

The little girl said, “I stopped and helped her cry.”

Let us not turn away from the pain we know.

Let us have the courage of compassion.

To cry with another is to stand before the hurt and recognize it for what it is

and to acknowledge its place within our being.

May we each have the courage, the conviction and the capacity to cry with one another – to care for one another.

In a world without end

May it be so