March 22: “Keeping It Together” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Thank you to Keely and to Rebecca for recording this morning’s readings, and to Angie Jennings for her help with that.
In perilous times, when facing into a huge blast of the unknown, it can be helpful to go back to the basics, like kindness, and fairness, and honesty. Those values are easy to understand, and they never go out of date. It’s hard to have any long term strategy when we can barely know what the next day might bring, and the next week is anybody’s guess. Even when our horizon is limited to what is right in front of us, right now, we can still ask ourselves, Am I being truthful? Am I being fair? Am I being kind? If the public in general had more confidence in the honesty and compassion of our highest level leaders, nationally and globally, I suspect we would be facing this crisis in better order, with less confusion and disarray.
As helpful as it is to have information we can trust, it is even more important to see demonstrated behavior we can trust. When our elected leaders seek to profit in the stock market based on confidential knowledge – which they then do nothing with to help us, the people they represent – it leaves us to wonder whether we, too, should grab what we can, and hoard what we have, to protect ourselves when the networks we all depend on begin to fall apart. The trouble is, it is precisely that default of individuals to their own short-term benefit that *causes* those networks to fail. And such behavior is neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable, nor is it in anybody’s long term best interest. History is filled with examples showing that communities that stick together and help each other fare better for everyone in a crisis than those who declare ‘every man for himself.’
It can be hard to hold on to that awareness in the midst of unprecedented upheaval. It is always tempting to react out of the amygdala, the reptile brain that seems to specialize only in self-preservation, with no thought to spare for neighbor, or culture, or species. And yet, assuming that some critical mass survives, those are the very essential things to rebuilding a thriving world; without community and culture, homo sapiens, the social species, is robbed of its true nature. We need to remember that helping each other is part of our evolutionary heritage, a survival strategy that compensates for our very deficient strength, speed, toxicity, protective coloring, or sense of smell compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.
That innate impulse in us, to congregate, to touch and groom each other, to connect and collaborate, is precisely why what is asked of us right now, to stay separate, is so very difficult. It perplexes one of our deepest assumptions, and asks us to do something that is contrary to our natures. I say this as an introvert — who gains energy from alone time to an extent that I don’t often have the opportunity to gratify – yet who also realizes that my humanity is a function of my relationships, and my health operates out of our collective well-being.
And that paradox has led me to be thinking at odd moments this week about Taoism, a religious teaching that in its classical form celebrates the virtue of non-action. Taoism arose in reaction to the officious ambition for order and control that overtook the royal court traditions of ancient China. The wisest, most spiritually mature person, according to the Taoist sages, was the one who was capable of minding their own business, and letting the world unfold according to its own nature. To be skillful, in this tradition, is to observe with great care the way things already are, and how they work, and then to change as little as possible to create the best outcome. Restraint is one of the highest virtues; patience is another; and the humility of not insisting on having things your own way is a third. When the most helpful thing we can do is to stay home, slow down our normal pace of accomplishing things and acquiring things, then maybe a bit of Taoist wisdom is in order.
Actually, this spiritual path is not altogether unique to Taoism. It is sometimes called the Via Negativa – the way of knowing the divine by observing what it is not, a kind of process of elimination. It is the scientific humility of the early Enlightenment philosopher Francis Bacon, who observed that “Nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed.” In other words, if you want to make something happen in the natural world, you have to understand clearly how whatever process you are intervening in works, and then participate with that process as you seek to guide its outcome. Study the Tao, the reality of how things are, and then act within the Tao with as much restraint as possible, the sages would have agreed. The ancient Hindu teachers advised the student to try to locate the sacred source of selfhood, and then met every suggestion about what it might be with the reply, Neti, neti. Not this, not that. Only when all attempts to identify and describe, which are also efforts to control, are exhausted, does seeker understand the pure essence of being that is holy.
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is.
Thus says the Jewish Sabbath, in the words of Lynn Ungar – and that time out of time is to be welcomed like a beloved bride.
There will be suffering before we are done here; that much is certain. There will be heartache and loss, and righteous anger, and helplessness; all these will visit us in our quarantines, no matter how comfortable and well-supplied we make them, because we are simply not designed for separation and we’ll get tired of it very fast. There will be danger, and illness, and we will have to meet them in unaccustomed ways. We will need to practice the virtues of restraint and non-action, which our 21st century American culture has not prioritized to teach us up to now. Our Yankee ingenuity calls us to fix things, right away; it does not respond well to living with uncertainty, and the unknown, when it may well be that the best thing we can do is nothing – to not get in the way, to not spread the contagion, to not make ourselves ill, to not use up resources that the more vulnerable are going to need.
Let’s give this a shot, my dear ones; let’s try to keep it together, for the sake of survival, and community, and those whose lives will be shaped by what we do, or leave undone. And let’s not forget that even in the context of this restraint, we can still practice honesty, and fairness, and kindness – not just when it comes easily, but most essentially and importantly, when it is hard.
The day will come, I am confident, when we and others will look back at this time, and reflect on our behavior – on how we contributed to the safety and well-being of our larger community, or how we got in the way; about how we stuck to our values, or sacrificed them for the sake of indulging fear and despair. If you are going to spend time ruminating, I invite you to reflect on that; what do you want to be able to say about yourself when this is over? I was kind, I was fair, I was honest; I did my part; nobody got the virus because of me. That much, it seems to me, is worth a try.
Our closing song is Splendor of the Morning Sunlight; sing along if you like, the words will be on the screen.