“Owning and Belonging” November 20th, 2016 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
It seems to me that we are going to need some spiritual survival strategies, and that is precisely the task of this community, and all those like it in the world; to remind us how to be human, and how to hold onto our integrity and our wholeness – which are two names for the same thing, in the end – as we move into the right wing political hegemony that lies before us.
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Owning and Belonging
Brother, Sister – the password and the plans of our city are safe with me. Never by me shall you be overcome. It is always a delight to welcome new members into this covenant community; to enfold these beautiful folks, who have found us in so many different ways, into the memory and the promise of our faith. It has usually been a fun occasion, a celebration of who they are and who we are; an affirmation of our shared dreams. Usually, it takes effort to make us all remember that this is a serious and consequential promise that we make to one another; that it has both a known cost, and perhaps an unknown cost; that it will change our lives. It’s not difficult to be aware of that today – indeed, it may be difficult to be aware of anything else. What we know for sure today, maybe more deeply than ever before, is that we need each other. The only hope for the values on which our community and our hopes are founded is for us to stick together; to be united in the face of hatred, fear, violence, and abusive power. The isolated conscience is going to get ground to dust under the engines of an authoritarian state for the next little while; it is only by lifting our voices and presenting our bodies together that we will be able to protect anything we cherish, and discover the path, if there is one, by which renewed justice and compassion might ultimately prevail.
And so it seems appropriate, on this day when we gather in these precious new ones, and give thanks for them, and for all the good in our lives, that we take a few moments to examine the role of the church, and how we might be about the business of sustaining one another in the days and years soon to come. It seems to me that we are going to need some spiritual survival strategies, and that is precisely the task of this community, and all those like it in the world; to remind us how to be human, and how to hold onto our integrity and our wholeness – which are two names for the same thing, in the end – as we move into the right wing political hegemony that lies before us.
It has been argued, and no doubt will be again, that the role of the church is to be a sanctuary in troubled times. Some would say that it should be a place where conflicts are set aside, and the suffering of ourselves and others is commended to the attention of a higher power, but not dwelt upon. A place of peace and beauty, where we can retreat from the ugliness around us and find respite from our fears and our labors. It’s a lovely image, but I want to suggest that we understand the concept of sanctuary a little differently. A sanctuary is a place for holy things, and that is not necessarily a safe space. This church community and church building is a sanctuary for our values and our lives, because those are sacred. It is not a sanctuary for our privileges, our prejudices, our fears of change, or our fragility in the face of moral challenge, because those things are not holy; they do not offer more abundant life, or create a better world. Indeed, they hold us back from the inner and outer connections that move toward wholeness, and the vision of the possible community that we seek together. A church that does not challenge you to grow into the courage of your gifts, and to find a way to bless the world with those gifts, is not doing its job. A church that protects you from the pain of the world and your role in creating and in healing that pain, is like the false prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, who went around saying, “Peace, peace; it’s okay,” when it was not okay, and there was no peace.
I believe that what we have built and are building here is a sanctuary – a place where the holiest truth and ideals that we know can be honored and guarded. It is not impossible that at some point it might need to be a place where human life itself is honored and guarded; we shall see. It is a place where we can find the comfort of connection with our fellow pilgrims; those who with us are guardians of a humane and compassionate society; it is a place where we give each other solace, encouragement, and celebration. But it is not a place, and never will be under my leadership, to turn away from the real problems that confront us as a human race, or to find protection for our denials, willful ignorance, or wishful thinking. Just so you know. And know this too: as I am finite and fallible, like all human beings, like you, there are limits to my courage, and my vision. I will be trusting you to hold me up and call me out, to challenge my fear, my unawareness, my small-mindedness and despair. I need you to be here for me as much as I am here for you, because this only works if we are in it together.
So, some spiritual survival tips, with much gratitude and indebtedness to my fellow ministers and our conversations of the past week, both in person and on line. First, as stated by Rev. Jim Gertmanian, my now-retired Congregationalist colleague from Minneapolis, feel what you feel, for as long as you need to feel it. If you are like me, you are grieving, as well as perhaps frightened and angry. A number of well meaning people have tried to encourage us, including President Obama, dearly as I love him, to set a time limit to these painful emotions, and then decide to ‘get over it’, so that we can move into active resistance. You may be offering similar advice yourself, and it’s understandable to want to compartmentalize our discomfort that neatly, but it’s not the way grief works, and not the way that we do the work of grief. What I find, instead, is that I have times of being relatively coherent and alright, and then I will be once again swept over by a huge wave of crushing sadness, regret, and despair. By now that cycle has become a little less bewildering and debilitating, just because I am getting more familiar with it, and I do know from experience that like all intense emotion, it will not – cannot – last forever. I also know that these feelings are real – that they represent a truth about my experience of the world that I cannot change merely by wishing them away.
One of the characteristics of spiritually mature people is that they are self-aware; reflective about the nature of their inner experience and how their actions are affected by their perceptions and desires. To practice that kind of self-awareness now is a survival strategy. This election was determined by people who acted on what they were feeling, with little examination of those impulses, or their implications; that is the tendency that makes a demagogue plausible. We need to stay aware of the pain we are experiencing – sadness, outrage, fear – or otherwise, we will act it out without thinking, and that will not help anyone, ourselves or others. The Buddhist tradition has a meditation practice called Tonglen, which involves breathing in, or recognizing and accepting, the pain of the world, and breathing back out peace, comfort, and love. As with most such ideas, I tend to interpret it metaphorically, and what it represents to me is the practice of choosing to stay in the presence of painful truth, without succumbing to panic. Although I am tempted by the tee shirt that says Can we panic now?, I know that panic and despair will not serve us or our ideals in this moment. We value the truth, and what you are feeling is a part of the truth about the world. Feel what you feel, in awareness and compassion for yourself, for as long as those feelings are true, no matter what anyone else says. This does not mean that it’s okay to curl up in a little ball and let your normal responsibilities go; none of us gets to do that. As with all varieties of grief, life goes on, and even heavy hearts must function. But strength for the long road ahead lies in fully processing the truth of now, not burying the feelings that will only rise up to haunt us and make us less competent in the future.
The second strategy was set forth by the activist Angela Davis in her speech at the University of Chicago the night after the election. “How do we begin to recover from this shock?” she asked. “By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.” We need to connect, and covenant, more intensely than ever before; with the people who share our pain, and our values, and especially across the intersections of oppression and vulnerability. As Rev. Gertmanian says, find the people who are in danger, and go stand next to them. So let me tell you something, my free-thinking friends. We who describe ourselves as heirs of the Enlightenment, as rationalists, have a religious discipline of submitting to the truth. If it can be proven by observation, experience, or reason, we are obligated to acknowledge reality. We may not like it, but if it’s a fact, our faith calls on us to admit it, and be governed by it. As Francis Bacon said, back in the 16th century, ‘Nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed.’ Our religious tradition calls upon us to know and obey the laws of nature, so that we may use them for our benefit; we are a people who surrender to the truth. Another name for one who submits to the truth is ‘Muslim’. And so, if it comes to pass at any time that my government seeks to create a registry of those in this country who call themselves Muslim, I will sign up. I am not the keeper of your conscience, but I invite you to consider doing so as well. The people of Denmark, led by their national conscience and their king, did many remarkable acts of heroism to save the Jews of their country as the Nazi war machine bore down on them. Alas, the story of them all wearing the yellow star to identify as Jewish is apocryphal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. I continue to think wearing our safety pins is also a good idea, for two reasons. One, the idea seems to have gotten under the skin of some Trump supporters, who are referring to them as ‘diaper pins’ in order to try to discredit the idea. I’d say that means it’s working. Two, my pin started a conversation last Sunday with a clerk at the store where I was shopping; a woman of color, who thanked me for wearing it, and lamented that she had not been able to find one when she was getting dressed for work that morning. As I was walking away, it occurred to me that I could give her mine, as I had any number at home, and when I did that, she was serving another customer, who wanted to know what wearing the pin was all about. The three of us connected in a way that would not otherwise have happened, and felt less alone in our struggle with fear.
Anything that we can do to be publicly present with those who are vulnerable is our work right now. At this moment, it probably isn’t going to cost us very much, but it’s good practice and a good habit for times when there might be more than social awkwardness at stake. I’m reminded that in the very earliest days of the American UU partner church relationships with the Hungarian Unitarian congregations in Romania, the most important function of those visits was sheer visibility. What they needed, more than anything else, was folks who were paying attention on an international basis, and would notice if their villages simply got wiped out. Even financial help was secondary to that witness to their existence, and partly because we were watching, they are still there today.
Everything that connects us strengthens our hands and our hearts. It is good to have these newest members finding the power of our covenant, and adding their voices. I think it may at some point literally come down to whether we are willing to stand by and watch, or intervene as our neighbors are taken away. So we need to know them, and they need to know us. We need to have each other’s backs. We may die, but that is all we have to do for death; we do not need to map him the route to anyone’s door, and indeed, we can meet him at that door with whatever resistance is within us to raise.
It was by such small and seemingly useless gestures that our spiritual ancestors have driven back the tides of power from age to age before us; not by winning, usually, but by steady witness. There are many stories to be told about that witness, with many different strategies, and many different outcomes. I was reminded this week about the danger of having only one story; that a variety of stories can all be true, and that the more stories we know, the more resources we have. Diversity is one of our core values, and that means knowing and living out of many different stories. The Nazi holocaust is one story that has my attention at the moment, but there are others that we should be paying attention to – the story of reconstruction and redemption in the American south after the civil war, to name one. The story of the dialogue between the Athenians and the island nation of Melos in 416 before the common era. The story about the great statue of Ozymandias, king of kings, by the poet Shelley. Stories don’t have to end well or make us feel good in order to be instructive, and true. They give us glimpses of how to make meaning out of our suffering, and sometimes that’s the best we can do. Other stories can inspire hope, and give us clues about how some people have triumphed over their adversity. So keep telling stories. Keep thinking, “This reminds me of the time that…” Don’t try to talk other people into your story, but find out about theirs. We need all the stories now, because rigid is what we are up against, and creative diversity is going to be part of how we fight back.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to be kind. Everywhere. Always. To everyone. Here, in this community, where good will is the spirit of our church. To ourselves, and to each other. Be kind. That doesn’t mean letting other people hurt you, but it means trying to protect yourself without violence if you can. Be kind. Remember that rage and fear, of the kind you might have been experiencing, or come to find yourself experiencing, can make you feel like you want to hurt someone, or something, or yourself. Notice that impulse, and breathe through it, let it go. Look for kindness, ask for kindness, teach kindness, offer kindness. Learn how to de-escalate confrontational encounters, to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable. Be kind, especially to those at risk for oppression, because other people will take their lead from your example, and if enough of us are actively modeling kindness wherever we go, kindness will be there to meet us. Be kind, even to those who disagree with you; think about how to refuse to comply with the demands of evil, while remaining kind. Because here is the truth, and the ground of whatever hope there is: Legislation and the acts of government can only change how we are allowed to treat each other; they cannot change how we are inclined to treat each other. Liberals have learned the reality of this over the years; we can only hope to control how people behave, and not always that; we have never been able to enforce more open or justice-oriented hearts. Well, let those who would empower separation find the same lesson; they may give us permission to hate, to crush people with less privilege, to blame and demonize the other, but they can’t make us do it. Be kind. We have lost the authority to enforce our values upon and through the state – who knows to what extent or for how long. We have not lost the ability to make those values real in our covenant communities and in our lives, and perhaps to astonish a cynical world with their enduring power.
We shall die, all of us, one day or another, but that is all we are required to do for death. Let us determine together that we shall not be spies in the land of the living, to deliver men and women to death. Let us rather commit to one another that we shall be, now and in the days to come, messengers of life; heralds of its most abundant possibilities for kinship, freedom, justice, and peace, just as we have always said. Welcome to our new companions on the journey; we are grateful for you, for your stories and your strength, for your kindness. For these, and all those we love, and for the call to build the common good together, we give thanks.