Christmas Eve Homily 2019
The Power of the Manger
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I will admit, I’ve grown weary of the Christmas music season on the radio. To be clear, I like Christmas music, what I’m struggling with is the Christmas music season. I don’t listen to the radio much, usually when I am in the car. I have been avoiding the stations that have been playing the Christmas music all the time since November. They are all so upbeat and jingly. I don’t know about you, but it feels like too much.
I do like Christmas music. There are many carols and songs that I love. It’s not the music itself I don’t like. It’s the constant airplay for an entire month or two that wears me out. And maybe I’m getting old and crotchety. Maybe it’s just been a hard year for me. Maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through. But I can’t handle that much jolly all the time. Or, I can’t handle that much jolly without the counterbalance of the context.
Too often it feels like the loudest version of Christmas is the one that screams at us to be joyful and have a party and buy presents for everyone. I’m not saying I’ve become the Grinch. I don’t mind parties and presents. I am 100% in favor of joy. Again, there’s nothing wrong with all that – it’s just missing the counterweight of the context.
Consider this story we tell of Jesus born in a manger. The songs and TV specials show it through a lens of awe and wonder. The image of angels singing is heartwarming and tender. The wisemen arrive bearing gifts. Mary and Joseph are smiling down at their baby while the animals in the barn add a pastoral air to the whole scene.
But the best part, the most important part of it all, is missing in these images. These images are like snapshots showing a moment in the story but not revealing the full message in the story. The best part is the juxtaposition of the simple goodness of the scene with the surrounding danger of it all.
The context of the story of Jesus’ birth is a context of foreign occupation. The whole reason Mary and Joseph took the journey to Bethlehem was because they had to. The Roman Emperor degreed that everyone had to travel to their home city to be counted.
How would you feel if there were a law suddenly passed saying you had to travel to the city of your birth and register for the census? Where is that? Can you afford the trip – the cost in time and money? Not going is not an option.
Mary and Joseph had to travel. And travelling when you are that pregnant is risky, infant mortality rates 2000 years ago were significant. Yet, they made it. The mother and the baby both survived the journey.
And then, 12 days later when the wisemen arrive, they do bring those interesting gifts – and they bring news as well. There is a king who wants to kill the baby. So, the new family flees into the night. Where would you go if you had to flee at a moment’s notice like that? This story is actually pretty frightening when you sit with it for a while.
This baby is born in the context of oppression and the threat of violence. Jesus, asleep in the manger, we sing, where he lay down his sweet head. He is small and vulnerable and helpless. What the people wanted was a warrior, a powerful leader to free them from the oppressors, a savior who would rid the land of the corrupt liars seated on the thrones.
What the people got instead was a baby. A vulnerable baby at risk and in danger.
Let me tell you about the power found through vulnerability. Vulnerability, at face value, is about being at risk, open to attacks and being hurt. It is to be unprotected. Vulnerability is not a position of power. Normally. But that’s the whole point revealed in the context of this story.
The majestic wisemen, who in some versions of the story are even kings, would normally be venerated; but in this story, they bow down to a baby. The lowly shepherds would normally be the bottom rung of the social status; but in this story, they are the first witnesses, they are the ones to whom the angels appear. This is intended as a tale of the birth of a king, of god incarnate; but in this story, the child is born in an ingloriously stable. Everything about this story is a reversal or upending of expectations.
And yet, that is the way the story goes. The context sets everything at odds. And we discover, there actually is peace in the midst of this turmoil, there is hope and joy arising from right here in the middle of trouble.
Now when you see the adoration of the wisemen, hear the angelic voices singing of peace, witness the young parents smiling down at their infant … in the context of the threat and danger surrounding them … it is all more poignant.
I love the Christmas songs of peace and joy and light, but I don’t want to hear them without the context of why that peace and joy and light are so precious, even now, even today. The message of hope arises because things are not all daisies and sunshine. The message of hope and joy arises out of the trouble and turmoil that surrounds. Hope doesn’t just happen. It grows out of the impossible. Hope grows out of hardship.
Is there turmoil in the land where you are living? Is there turmoil in the life you are living? This is where the story can take us. Not in showing us a beautiful picture that we should try to replicate. But in revealing how in the midst of oppression and grief, we too can shine light.
This is the message I love about Christmas; the message Jesus brings and the story of his birth reveals: There is a power in the manger, in that low and vulnerable place. We have been there ourselves in our lives at times. The power revealed in the manger is the power of hope and of light. And we all participate in that power when we open ourselves to our own vulnerability.
Yes, there is corruption and greed in the country. Yes, there is terror and injustice and destruction in our land. Yes, there is loss and grief and death and suffering in our lives. And, yes, there is a light that shines out at midnight, a mere glimmer. But it is hope and it is life and it is within you, too. The power of the manger is the message that hope is always born in the small and vulnerable places, in the hard times and turmoil, out of the impossible. That’s the point.
And we find ourselves gathered here on Christmas eve, at the edge of the deep night, singing our songs of peace and joy. Let us remember to hear the whole story and understand the power of these songs. Let us remember the whole story because we are living the whole story.
The hope of the season arises not from the picturesque scenes of those nativity moment. We sing songs of hope and peace tonight, hope for our world and for ourselves. Hope for all those in danger. Hope that the corrupt empire will crumble. Hope for more compassion in our daily living. Hope that we can come through the danger and turmoil into a last peace.
Amidst the family gatherings and favorite traditions, the festive meals and candy, the giving and receiving of gifts, and any other trappings that may be attached to your experience of the Christmas holiday; let us have compassion for all those in danger tonight. Let us learn that the joy and hope of Christmas arises amid the trouble, but that the glory of it all is tucked into the simple actions of simple people like you and me – the simple actions that bring more light and joy and peace into the world
Merry Christmas and may God bless you all, now and through the coming year.
Meet Me at the Corner of Joy and Justice
(A sermon about anger and activism)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
How long? That exact question is in the Bible no less than fifty times mostly on the lips of the psalmists and the prophets. And those psalmists and prophets didn’t pull punches, they expressed their heartrending questions without sugarcoating.
How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? (psalm 13 asks) forever?
LORD, how long shall the wicked triumph? (psalm 94 implores)
How long shall the land mourn, (Jeremiah questions) and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein?
O LORD, how long shall I cry, (Habakkuk beseeches) and thou wilt not hear!
How long? It is not a plaintive begging for mercy. These prophets and psalmists were angry at the injustice they and their people experience. Their anger fueled their outcry and their actions. It is interesting because most of our modern understanding of anger as it connects to the spiritual life is wrapped up in how negative anger is, how bad it is for our spirits.
I remember a comment a local politician made about anger being her motivation into politics. I think it was D. L., but I couldn’t find a source to corroborate that memory. What I remember is that someone asked her why she went into politics. She told the story of when she was younger and she had a defining interaction with an elder politician, I think it was one of the Kennedy’s. She said to him “I’m angry at what’s wrong with the world.” And he replied, “Yeah, me too. That’s why I am where I am, doing what I’m doing.” She then reflected that this interchange is why she went into politics. She was angry and decided to do something about it.
This has stuck with me because it runs counter to what I’ve known over the years about how unhelpful anger is for life. Anger, for me growing up, was tangled up with violence. My perspective on this has been deeply colored by growing up in an alcoholic home. I took in a clear message that anger was never a healthy emotion, that anger led to hurt. Over the years, as I’ve matured and processed a lot of the experiences from my childhood, I have learned to question some of those basic assumption now and then.
Which is why this story about the politician naming her anger as the positive motivation setting the course of her life has stuck with me. It didn’t fit my understanding of what anger does to us. The old Frederick Beuchner quote says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Beuchner did not suggest that God calls you to there your deep anger meets the world’s injustice. And yet, that seems to be how it works for some people. And I don’t understand.
There is a song lyric that says:
You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder;
Throw your hands in the air, saying “what does it matter?”.
This is from the song “Bruised Orange” by John Prine. It continues,
It won’t do no good to get angry, so help me, I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter;
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there,
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrows.
Spiritually, anger is terrible stuff. The Buddha, according to some sources, said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Another version compares it to drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Mark Twain said “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
I had done a sermon several years back https://douglastaylor.org/2010/12/05/a-people-so-bold/ in which, for preparation, I had asked several congregants why they were so committed and involved in social action. None of them said it was because they were angry. They said things like this about why:
“I have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong. Therefore, Social Justice work keeps me both sane and out of jail.” (gm) “Like the Boy Scouts, I want to leave my “campsite” better than I found it.” (el) “Helping those less fortunate and those affected by widespread social injustice, goes to the core of my being and belief.” (tn) “I do social justice work because I firmly believe in fairness & equality for everyone.” (cn)
They list guiding values and central principles. They didn’t talk about anger. They referred to some passion, and I suppose that what the anger is for some people, a passion to make change.
One thing I’ve learned about anger is that it is rooted in fear. When we get angry, it is usually because we something we hold precious is threatened. Anger is rooted in the fear that something we love, something important, is at risk. So, there is a noble and just version of anger here. This is a perspective that has helped me a lot. I’ve learned to check in with myself when I’m angry or with others when they are angry. “What’s at risk, what is threatened?”
When we are looking at the how this impacts Social Action and Activism, it begins to make a lot of sense to allow anger to serve as a fuel for change. It can be corrosive if it sits; anger can eat away at you if you don’t figure out a way to make a change. But if the anger leads to movement and change, that’s different.
I was reading from a blog about anger and Social Activism. https://insearchofanideal.wordpress.com/2016/08/08/anger-and-social-justice/
The author Bharath Vallabha is a philosophy professor who revealed a few interesting distinctions. Most relevant is what he says is a shift from being angry at people to being angry at institutions.
Our anger at injustice usually begins with a focus on particular people, an ‘other’ often as ‘oppressors’ causing or at least contributing to the injustice. Our anger is often focused on people. Emotions are relational! Our emotions are rooted in how we are with each other. The transition from being angry at people about an injustice to being angry at institutions and systems is the way our anger shifts from draining to sustaining.
This is not to say there are never individual perpetrators of injustice, there will still be the racist, the rapist, the liar, and the fraud. But when I shift my anger from the individual to the system, I can see that all of that behavior happens within and is supported by a culture or system designed to perpetuate the injustice and the harm.
The author of the blog put it like this:
“In such growth, there is a release from the toxic effects of the first stages of anger, where one emotionally still needs the category of the oppressor as the target of blame and vitriol, as if that other person or group still holds me captive because I need to push myself off against them, as opposed to them, in contrast to them, to feel my own will power and capacity to change.“
I can be angry and even incensed at an individual bigot. And when I also look at the system around a single incident, I can get angry at institutional racism and white supremacy culture that continues to pervade our society and our lives. And then I can have compassion for the individuals caught up in the system, including myself.
When I can accomplish this shift my anger from a focus on individuals to a focus on systems and institutions, then I open myself to this remarkable paradox of having both anger and compassion at play. I open myself to the capacity to use my anger in a healthy way because it doesn’t consume me as I use it to motivate me to make change.
In the reading about “Justice, Equity, and Compassion,” Patrick Murfin suggested that we need to pair up and even triple up our values so they can balance each other. I am suggesting something similar. When you can pair up your anger with compassion, you can move forward.
We’ve talked about the Loving-Kindness meditation; we’ve done that meditation together. To have compassion toward those you are angry at does not mean the anger goes away. It means you can do something with it rather than allow it to sit and fester.
So, what makes you angry or upset? What is happening in the world that stirs you up? National politics? Hunger and homelessness? Police brutality? Anger can be the starting point when you realize how important an issue or a group of people may be to you. Anger is a signal. But it’s only the starting point. The role of anger in Social Action can be the fuel for motivation, a version of the passion to make change. But until it can be transformed and coupled with compassion, it will only serve to burn you up.
And remember, I’m talking about justice and social action now, not personal interactions. Anger in personal relationships does not play out the same way as in larger social issues. If I’m upset and angry with my spouse or with my friend or with someone I know from a circle of acquaintances – the work is to repair the relationship or prevent further harm by ending the relationship.
But if I’m upset or angry about, as a random example, the way the President of the United States is treating asylum seekers or women or any number of other marginalized groups … I don’t have a personal relationship with the President and there is no relationship to repair. The President doesn’t even know, probably wouldn’t care, that I have these feelings. So, the work is not about repairing the relationship. It is about transforming my anger so it can be of service.
The point is not to get rid of the anger. But neither is it to let the anger fester. When I was younger, I thought the point was to get rid of the anger – that all anger is negative and bad. I’ve heard others suggest the anger can be the motivation to make change, the drive, the fuel for resistance. Both are wrong while being almost right. The third way is to transform the anger. Shift it out of the personal and into the systemic perspective, and then couple it with compassion.
Our First UU principles calls us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I’ve heard people pull that principle out when arguing about President Trump, saying we should promote his worth and dignity. The counter argument is to lift up the Second Source – our living tradition draws from many sources including Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
I am always a little perversely delighted when we discover the little conflicts like this in our principles and sources. When one source or principle is used as a counter-point for another source or principle. It helps me remember that we cannot use the principles and sources as doctrine or law. We don’t work that way. They are covenantal, not contractual. We look to them as guides and challenges, not as pre-cut solutions.
Of course, some of you may have already noticed, title of that reading we had from Patrick Murfin “Justice, Equity, and Compassion” is right out of the Second Principe in which we affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
What are we going to do? Or to frame the question to fit what I’ve been talking about … What are you angry about? What stirs you up? Do you see the injustice and social disharmony at play? Is there something precious to you that is threatened? Name it. Acknowledge that it makes you upset or angry. And then, as it is possible for you, shift your focus to the systems or institutions supporting the injustice – the ‘powers and structures or evil.’ And gently allow your compassion to grow for all of us caught in those systems.
And now we get started on making change. Now we begin again the work of building a better world in which we move with justice not because we are angry but because there is joy in our movement and in our becoming a more compassionate people.
How long? How long until we rise to help build a better world? How long will the people cry out and not be heard? How long, O God, until our anger will be blended with compassion in the service of the transformative power of love? How long will we wait to make the change? May we head the call. May we lean in, together, and grow!
In a world without end, may it be so.
Attention to Endings
November 10, 2019
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Snow arrived this week. Autumn is beginning to give way to the beginnings of winter. I noticed an empty bird’s next outside my kitchen window yesterday. The light coat of snow and a certain slant of the light accentuated it more. It had been there for months, but I’d missed it until the snow helped me see it. So begins winter in my yard.
We Unitarian Universalists like to say that every day is a new day. At Christmas time we remind ourselves of the now-traditional exhortation from Sophia Fahs: “Every night a child is born is a holy night.” Births, beginnings and ‘new days’ hold a special appeal for us. They hold a special appeal for everyone I should imagine, we’re not unique in that. People like beginnings. We like the first sip, opening a new book, starting a project, and that ‘new car’ smell.
Endings are important as well. Indeed, as the reading mentioned, “Endings and beginnings are happening all the time in our lives.” Today may be the first day of the rest of your life, but it is also the last. It is the culmination of all the preceding days, at least so far. In the grand scheme of your living, today may not be a dramatic beginning or ending, but there are smaller beginnings and endings threaded throughout today for you – for us all.
The continuing flow of time gives us the feeling we are in the middle of the story rather that the beginning or the ending. And that is one useful way to perceive it. But I will also note that the morning is almost over and the afternoon will soon begin. Endings are happening all over the place. And while most people are draw to beginnings, I contend that how we navigate endings is far more important. “Ending well’ is a too often neglected art.
How do you end things in your life? We tend to have a great deal of recognition around beginnings, but not much around endings. Graduation ceremonies are as close as we get. Retirement parties do happen. But there is very little done around ending a relationship or going through a divorce, around leaving home or a job, finishing off payments on a significant debt, or even just at the end of the day.
Does anyone still say a prayer before going to bed? There is probably a cultural element to that. I think it would be a valuable practice to pick up again. The day has ended, what will you do to honor the day.
I met a UU professor in seminary who shared the following outline of his own end-of-the-day spiritual practice. He said that before he went to bed, he would pour himself a cognac, sit in his big easy chair with the lights low sipping his drink. He would think back on the day and try to see the ways in which the things he had said and done that day had hurt someone, or caused another pain. And he would also think on the things others had said or done which he had found hurtful. And then he would say a little prayer of forgiveness and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow would be a new day.
Not exactly the same image as a young Christopher Robin in his PJs, hands clasped, kneeling at his bed saying “Bless this silly old bear.” But the ingredients are all there.
How would you honor your day there at the edge of night? Rather than simply crawling into bed, might you take a moment to reflect on the day, to give your attention to what the day has been and what it might have meant for you? Maybe you keep a journal or a daily blog?
Autumn is slipping by. Thanksgiving comes after the harvest that we may gather in and give thanks for our blessings. And it is a similar moment in time to evening. Rather than simply crawling into winter, we take a moment to reflect on the season, to give our attention to what the season has been and what it might mean for us.
Some time back I was visiting a dying person who was moderately connected to the congregation. In their last week, when I visited, I noticed there was a hospice volunteer by the bedside all the time. I learned it wasn’t just for companionship, it was also because this person kept trying to get out of the bed and go do something. That’s what their life had been like – constantly on the move, always on their way somewhere. It must have been frustrating to be stuck in bed that last week, dying. But I would not expect the way this person died be any different from the way this person had lived – up to the end, ready to head out to do the next thing.
Last year while another congregant was winding her way through her last weeks, I remember visiting over at the Hospice House. Every time she would ask some question about me, something about what I thought or believed. That’s what she’d been like in life too. Even when she lost the capacity to host such conversations, she would still make the effort to ask about something all the same. That’s just how she was. I would not expect her to approach her last weeks so differently from the way she approached her whole life.
So, what will it be like for you? One of the hymns we sing each year at the passages service, “We Laugh, We Cry” (SLT #354) has the line, but as we live, so shall we die… There is an integrity to our lives that doesn’t disappear when we come to the ending. It can be stymied by diminishing capacity and control, but still it remains. As we live, so shall we die.
But this is not just about memorial services and the big final ending of our lives. It is about all the little endings along the way. How we end things is what opens us for the ongoing flow of life. It is how we continue to carry the light.
One suggestion is to create little rituals, add moments of intent and attention with the various endings we experience. In researching for this service, Dorothy found an article she passed along to me titled “The lost are of closing rituals.” https://www.radiantwholenesshealing.com/the-lost-art-of-closing-rituals/ The article suggests 4 steps to make a good closing ritual: Appreciation and Gratitude, Lessons Learned, Letting Go, and Moving Forward.
First, offer gratitude. At the end of the day, the end of a relationship, the end of a life: offer gratitude. Give thanks for the good things that have been. It is sad when something good ends, but the great thing is that while it has ended, it will never not be part of our experience. We can always carry with us the good things we received from the relationship, for the day, from the work that is now complete. Offer gratitude.
Second, review; what did you learn? When something ends, take stock of what has occurred, Is there a lesson? Often, we can learn something from our time. The day is done, the job is complete, the project is finished, the relationship is over. Are we better for it? Can we carry something forward that will help us be better? One way to give attention to an ending is to learn from it.
1, offer gratitude; 2, learn from it; and 3, let it go. Acknowledge what didn’t work, the hard stuff and the hurt. We can offer gratitude for the good stuff, but let us also acknowledge the hard stuff. Maybe it’s not something we can learn a lesson from – we can simply survive it. Sometimes when something ends, it is because it was too broken to keep going. Acknowledge that and then let it go. Release it.
And the step four, according to the suggestions in that article, step four is: Move on. So, it’s the end of the day and you’re saying your prayers. You’ve offered gratitude and acknowledged what didn’t go well. You’ve noticed a lesson or seen growth in yourself. Now, take a deep breath and do the next thing. In this bedtime example, that probably means: go to bed. In another example it might mean, move forward with your life into the beginning that often follows an ending.
There is more light still in the world. Giving attention to our endings is not a way to be maudlin or morose. We are not meant to dwell on our endings. Instead by attending to them, we can move on from them into the next beginning that awaits.
When push comes to shove, it is not a solid theology or a clever idea, but the caring presence of companions that is wanted in the end. Some attention to what is happening. It is good and right to help one another so, as witnesses. And sometimes we see more clearly at the end, with a light coat of snow and perhaps a certain slant of the light. By attending to our endings, we can move on from them into the next beginning that awaits. This is how we live. This is how we die. It is the light we offer. This is all we have to offer. It is enough and it is good.
In a world without end, may it be so.
How to Belong When the World Wants You Lonely
We start from this recognition that we all have cracks and broken places in our lives and in our hearts. We all carry experiences of loneliness and heartache. How beautiful it can be when we’ve healed and allow ourselves to reveal the healing rather than hide it; when we witness for others that healing can happen, that it does happen quite often. We all can shine because we all are broken. And the way this works and holds true is when we recognize that it’s not about the cracks and broken places. It’s about the love that flows through.
There is a love holding us
There is a love holding all that we love
There is a love holding all
We rest in this love
But it’s not always like that, is it? Too often though we receive messages that our broken places, our healing places, are somehow ugly or unsightly. We learn, unfortunately to be ashamed of the wounds we have received and overcome. That we are not welcome to let our brokenness shine. We receive messages to hide our blemishes and imperfections as if they are bad. That if we want to fit in, we need to not be broken. If we want to fit in, we need to not let our scars show. If we want to fit in, we need to be something other than what we actually are.
I’ve been thinking about this topic of ‘belonging’ for a while now. Tomorrow I am heading up to a colleagues’ meeting. The Saint Lawrence UU Ministers gathering happens twice each year. The Fall gathering begins tomorrow afternoon. We gather for some program time together, some worship, socializing, and just generally being together. One delightful practice we have is to invite a colleague to share their Odyssey or spiritual autobiography. This is similar to the Elder Wisdoms we have here in our congregation except at our clergy gathering we don’t structure it like an interview. What we call an Odyssey is a colleague sharing the story of their life, their spirituality, and their calling.
Well, as it happens. This year is my turn. Tomorrow I will be delivering my odyssey to my colleagues. This has me thinking about our topic of belonging because part of what I will share with them is that the root of my calling into ministry, which arises from what I have come to call a Crisis of Belonging. A pivotal aspect of my call to ministry centers around something that was missing for me in most places in my childhood but I found at church: a sense of belonging.
It is so hard, is it not, to feel like you do not belong. At the beginning of the month, during the First Sunday workshops, I hosted a small group workshop on the topic of Belonging. October’s monthly theme is Belonging. I remember how some people entered the conversation through the reverse question – not ‘when have you felt like you belonged?’ but ‘when have you felt like you did not?’ It is somehow easier to access those memories and feelings of being excluded or forgotten.
So, to talk about ‘belonging’ often is to begin by talking about experiences in which we have been excluded, shamed, and the countless ways in which we have felt we do not belong. Certainly, that is my experience. The concept of ‘belonging’ raises an initial flood of memories and feelings in me about not belonging. According to Dr. Brene Brown, this is normal. She says this, I remember, in her very first TED talk way back in 2010, the one about vulnerability. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en If you have 20 minutes some evening, search online for Brene Brown’s TED talk about vulnerability, it is well worth a second viewing too.
She was talking about her experience of researching the topic of vulnerability and authenticity. She explained: “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they tell you the most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.” She thought she was studying connection and discovered she was actually doing research on shame. Because that’s what blocks us. Shame and fear block us from connection, from belonging.
Our society actually encourages this loneliness and disconnection. Your loneliness is not a problem, only an as-yet unmet market niche! We’ve sorted ourselves into factions. It can be exhausting trying to deal with disagreeable and strident people with whom we disagree. I get it. It makes sense that we would start to circle in among like-minded souls simply to maintain some sanity. But that’s actually not helping. I contend that’s actually what our dysfunctional capitalist society wants us to do because it makes us lonelier.
We focus in with like-minded people, those with whom we don’t have to argue. We’ve done this in an effort to belong but ironically it just continues to drive our loneliness deeper. Narrowing the circle to which we belong only serves to shield us from different opinions and perspectives that frustrate us or challenge us. We may be less stressed but we don’t grow. And interestingly, it doesn’t help us feel like we belong. It only makes us feel more embattled.
According to a research book from 2009 called The Big Sort by Bill Bishop, as people
“… choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable – the nation grows more politically segregated – and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.” (quoted in Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown, p 46)
It perhaps seems counter-intuitive, but to increase your sense of belonging, of connection, seek out people and opinions that are dissimilar to your own. It broadens your base of belonging.
In that Bill Bishop book from ten years back, there are some statistics. He writes, “In 1976 less than 25 percent of Americans lived in places there the presidential election was a landslide.” Meaning, over 75% of us lived in places where there was a variety of opinion. Folks mingled more back then. How much more? “In 2016,” Brene Brown tells us “80 percent of US counties were a landslide” for either the Democrat or Republican candidate. Most of us no longer live near people who are different from us in terms of social and political issues.
Interestingly, Brene points out that at the same time, the number of people reporting feelings of loneliness jumped from 20% in the 80’s to over 40% today. Karen Marsh sent me an article just yesterday corroborating that last statistic. The article was about a recent Cigna study of 20 thousand Americans on the topic of loneliness published just last year The study found 46% – almost half – of the participants reported they “sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”
And this is at the same time we are sorting ourselves into finer niches and factions. It’s corollary rather than causal, I know that. But it’s still suggestive. And when you sit with it, doesn’t it make sense? We separate ourselves out from people who think differently and we lose the benefit of deeper connections.
When we are driven into these lonely factions, we become more easily manipulated. Not just by markets trying to sell us spurious fixes for our isolation but also by our own inability to understand others. Our empathy withers, our capacity to be creative is curtailed, and our willingness to go out of our way for a stranger is circumscribed. We grow numb to our own suffering and that of others. And that, my friends, is the condition from which atrocities can arise.
What is the way out?
Buddhist teacher and civil rights activist Joan Halifax talks about ‘strong back, soft front.’ Her analysis is essentially the same as I’ve unpacked here, but they way she lays it out also reveals the way forward. She says,
“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that is soft and open.” (quoted in Braving the Wilderness, p147)
So how do we go about this work of having a stronger back and a softer front? I think part of the implication in the suggestion is to accept our loneliness, to even welcome and lean-in to the lonely times in our lives. It is not the loneliness that creates isolation and disconnection. It is fear and shame. The more comfortable we become with out loneliness, the more ‘at home’ we become in almost any setting. We begin to recognize the love that is holding all that we love and that we rest in that love. We pour gold in the cracks of our lonely and broken lives, and shine.
This brings me back around to Dr. Brene Brown. One of her recent books is titled Braving the Wilderness, and it’s all about ‘belonging in a polarized culture.’ The heart of it all is the realization that, yes, it’s pretty bad out there. But what you have within you is better. The solution does not hinge on what is out there, on finding the right group or the right people. It’s about building it out there because you’ve already found it within yourself. Then we go out and find communities, not of like-minded people, but of like-hearted people.
Brene begins her book with the story of meeting Dr. Maya Angelou. Brene had idolized Maya for years, largely because of the wisdom from her poetry and her books. Maya Angelou had been a luminary for Brene over the years, an elder to look up to and learn from through her writings and public offerings.
But there was one quote Brene had found of Maya’s early on that struck her at the time and stuck with her for more than a decade. It disturbed her because it didn’t make sense. It was like the proverbial pebble in her shoe. Dr. Maya Angelou once said
“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
It disturbed Brene because she – like all of us – had lived the experiences of exclusion, of not fitting in, of having no place to belong. She thought, the whole point of belonging is to have a place. I belong here or there.
I recognize this confusion. I often think about special places in my life, places in which I’ve felt connected, welcomed, seen. I think of places that feel like home. But really, when I think longer about it – those places are about connections with events and people. Sometimes those places where I feel I’ve belonged are about experiences I have of deeper connection with myself. It’s all less about the place and more something within me.
“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.” Brene puts it like this: “I still thought of belonging as requiring something eternal to us… an experience that always involved others. … As I dug deeper into true belonging, it became clear that it’s not something we achieve of accomplish with others; it’s something we carry in our heart.” (Braving the Wilderness, p 32)
There is a love holding us
There is a love holding all that we love
There is a love holding all
We rest in this love
We all carry experiences of loneliness and heartache. How beautiful it can be when we’ve healed and allow ourselves to reveal the healing rather than hide it; when we witness for others that healing can happen, that it does happen quite often. It’s not about the cracks and broken places. It’s about the love that flows through.
Lean in to the differences around you. Don’t narrow your circle to only those like-minded souls who do not disturb your living. Seek the like-hearted. Let your own scars bear witness to your broken, lonely heart that you may better see the same in others. Belong nowhere, that you may belong everywhere. Be vulnerable, that you may rise in joy, worthiness, in love
In a world without end,
May it be so.
How to Be a Perfect Stranger
Rev. Douglas Taylor
As I shared with the children during the story, we’re moving for a bit. As in the story, https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/youth/bridges/workshop1/185618.shtml we are going away from home on a journey of several months, and then coming back to discover our treasure. And, like in the story, in order to find the treasure here at home, we need to go away for a bit. So that’s what we’ll do.
And, this morning I will bring us up to date with some details about this. I’ll share the plans as they currently stand. But I also want to talk about what this means, why it’s important and valuable for us to do it like this, and what is at risk for us in this passage.
And to offer some context for my remarks, the Soul Matters monthly worship theme for October is “Belonging.” So, let’s talk about leaving our home for several months in the context of belonging. How shall we ‘belong’ in a space that belongs to someone else? How are we to maintain our sense of belonging when we are away from home?
Some of the answer to that is personal, and I’ll talk more about that next week. There is a way of being in the world in which by belonging nowhere, you can belong anywhere. But that’s for next week. Today, let’s consider the more communal element of this. How shall we ‘belong’ in a space that belongs to someone else? Some of the answer is: that being a good guest is its own way of belonging.
Everything that will happen for us during these few months away is both temporary and by our choice. This is an opportunity to rely on the generous hosting of another community. So often the conversation about hospitality is about how we offer it. We spend time talking about the value of being generous, of hosting space, of opening ourselves so others can also be here. Today, we’re talking about the art of receiving that generosity. The art of being a good guest. Or to name with a common religious phrasing: they are going to “welcome the stranger.” We get to work on being good strangers.
The United Presbyterian Church will be opening its building to us starting January 1st, 2020. We will be their guests for about 8 months. We will worship in their space; we will establish an office and move our copy machine and phone number over there. We’ll have meetings there and classes and almost everything we might have done here, within reason.
Their building is at 42 Chenango street in downtown Binghamton, just above the courthouse traffic circle and below the bus station. Fun fact: they are about a block north of where our Universalist Church building had been in the 1800’s.
United Presbyterian is a congregation that grew from the merger of two other Presbyterian congregations a few years back: First & West. Full disclosure: one of the rumors floating around their place is that we’re merging with them. I’ve been talking about our anxiety over these months; their anxiety looks different from ours. So, if you hear me emphasizing the temporary element of this a lot, now you know why. They have a big merger in their recent history and that colors much of their view of a conversation like this.
But they are not merging with us. They are opening their space in hospitality to us. The Hebrews epistle in Christian Scripture advises the people to be hospitable. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This, perhaps is a guiding passage for them. They are entertaining strangers and perhaps angels unaware. So, the inversion of that – for us – might be: “Be not forgetful that you may unknowingly be as an angel to those who entertain you.”
This passage refers to a couple of times in Genesis when angels have visited Abraham or Lot or Jacob, and while they were not recognized as angels at first or even at all, the people received a blessing for offering hospitality. The lesson is usually: be hospitable. You’re probably just being kind to some random, normal person. And you might win the angel lottery!
Today, we are the ones looking for hospitality. And this Christian congregation is opening its doors to us. The ministers of that congregation, Rev. Kimberly Chastain and Rev. Becky Kindig have shared with me that opening their building to people from the community in need is part of their mission as a congregation. They house several community organizations and activities in their building.
The Binghamton GED program has space in their building. Both Truth Pharm and VINES have an office there. NAACP has some meetings in their space and the Urban League runs an after-school program in the basement. And that’s just a first brush of groups that are regularly in the building each week. And as a side note, that list reveals the similar values we have in common between our congregations.
They open their building to the community. That’s part of their purpose and their mission. That’s a key part of why they said ‘yes’ to us. Our work is to let them welcome us and host us. This harkens to some of what was shared in our reading from Jeffery Lockwood, The fine Art of the Good Guest.
“One begins by demanding nothing more than the bare elements of life and dignity, which every host is more than delighted to exceed. The good guest then simply allows the other person to be a good host—to share [their] gifts.“
The leadership of this Presbyterian congregation are not forgetful to entertain strangers. So, how do we enter into this with the possibility that we may unknowingly be as angels to them, that we may unknowingly end up blessing them. I mean, the trick in that way of framing it is we won’t know what we might do to be a blessing to them. But let’s enter into this knowing that from their perspective, welcoming us is part of their holy work.
Let me give you a few of the details of the plan as it is so far. We’re still negotiating, so there are some gaps and open-ended pieces here and there. But we have a general sense of what this is going to be like. A central question has been, “When will we have our worship services each Sunday?’
They worship from 10:00 to 11:15 and then go into a social hour. They are inviting us to come in to share social hour, say around 11:30. We would do our social hour before our worship service. We would begin workshop at 12:30. This timing is the most significant compromise we’ve made here. We wanted to maintain our regular worship time but as we explored places to meet, keeping our 10:30 worship time became less and less realistic. It’s not what we wanted, but we can make it work.
Many of you I am sure recall that we were also considering a Jewish congregation as a location. The Board decided to go with United Presbyterian for a few reasons such as accessibility, cost, and parking.
Let me tell you about how lucky we are with our current parking situation as a congregation. We never have to worry about parking here. When we come back from our journey, I suspect we will be overjoyed not only with the renovations but also to have out parking lot again.
Anyway, at United Presbyterian, there is street parking and a good-sized parking garage half a block from the church. All of that parking is free on Sundays. We’re still negotiating how we’ll use the small parking lot behind the church.
We’re also considering how we might establish a Sunday morning shuttle from the garage to the church door (and vice versa) for folks who need extra help, especially in the winter months; like shuttle-ushers. Watch for a sign-up sheet if you think you’ll want that shuttling support or if you think you might offer that shuttling. This is an example of how we turn a potential problem into an opportunity.
There are various lists floating around the internet, advice columns about how to be a good guest. They generally have tips like: arrive with a gift, ask about house rules, give you host personal space, keep the common areas clean, strip you bed when upon departure, and leave a parting gift. [For example: https://www.wisebread.com/11-simple-rules-of-excellent-houseguest-etiquette] I’m not sure that one about stripping the bed is applicable, but many other suggestions can translate.
With such advice in mind, we can turn our attention away from what might be a problem for us, to how might we bring a gift to them or lend a hand where needed.
I will share that we are planning to keep our custodial staff employed while we are visiting United Presbyterian, to lighten the cleaning load our presence will create. We are looking into snow removal options – they usually just plow their back lot but that leaves the snow piled up and in the way. Parking matters to us so we’re looking into a snow-removal company. In other words, one way we are going to be good guests is to share the work of keeping the common spaces clean and in good repair (and clear of snow).
The leaders of United Presbyterian were excited about the possibility of hosting Cranberry Coffeehouse in their space. Our two congregations took a little too long getting to the negotiation table, and the leadership of Cranberry Coffeehouse chose to not sit on their hands waiting. They looked around and found a community center called The Mansion on Walnut street just above Main where they will host their events through this winter and spring. And before you ask, Yes, they are intending to return to this building when our renovations are done. But Cranberry will not be travelling with us on our treasure-seeking journey away from home. They will have their own adventures.
We will be taking our pagans with us, though. Our CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) group asked us to check in about this specifically. There’s some tension between Christians and Pagans from way back. Our pagan group wondered if they would be welcomed by the Presbyterians. So, we checked.
The Presbyterian leaders said, “Oh that’s no problem, in fact there are some of our folks here who are very interested in that kind of spirituality and would want to learn more.” They also shared an interesting connection from their recent experiences. United Presb. was a host site for LUMA a few months back. [LUMA is the public art event using 3D light displays.] There was one installation set up inside their sanctuary. It was a large statue, a representation of some ancient pagan god, as it happened; set up right there in the sanctuary for the weekend.
Well on Sunday morning, that statue was still there, off to the side waiting to be picked up after the event. Some conservative Presbyterians from out of town got wind of this and someone wrote a scathing tell-all about how the Binghamton Presbyterians were worshiping a pagan god in their sanctuary! You know how social media can be … the story travelled … things escalated. This was all just last month.
So, then we show up and we’re like, “Are you okay with our pagans using your space for discussions and rituals?” And they said, “Yes. That’s fine.” Someone had accused them falsely of cavorting with paganism and they respond with “Oh, we’ll get some real pagans in here, just you wait.”
I’m not suggesting this will be a perfect fit. Our 8-month stay with them will be bumpy. Some among us will probably stay away because 12:30 is too late, because their sanctuary is too Christian, because the community is too downtown, or it’s all just too different. And perhaps other people will start showing up more because 12:30 works, because their sanctuary is Christian, because the community is downtown, or simply because it’s all just different. We’ll see.
I will mention we will set up some tours in the next few months. It’d be nice to get to know the space. We have plans to host and co-host some potlucks, forums, and other such activities. And, this year our annual Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” Radio Play will be performed over at United Presbyterian. We’ll open the casting up to their congregation as well. That will be Sunday December 22nd in the afternoon. That will be a chance to meet some of them and visit the space.
How shall we ‘belong’ in a space that belongs to someone else? While we love our current building, we are looking forward to the new space we will have when we return. But consider the value of traveling for a time among people of a different community.
May our adventuresome travels away from home serve to heighten our awareness and appreciation of the treasure we may discover upon returning home. May our time among others serve as a blessing to us and to them. May we experience the virtue of expanding the circle of our care, of being good guests, of being perfect strangers. And may we discover what it is like to be entertained as if we might be angels unaware – that we may be better ready to do the same when we our turn arrives.
In a world without end, may it be so.