Service: “Putting Up with Each Other” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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There is a story from back in the day when parish clergy rode their horses around the town, visiting the members of their congregations – particularly those who were back-sliding in some way. One old fellow, growing more and more taciturn with age, had not been in attendance at the Sunday meeting for more than a month. Yet since he was seen going about his business as usual here and there in the village, the minister concluded that he was not ill, and went to call on him to see what he had to say for himself. What he had to say, as it turned out, was nothing at all. He opened the door, saw the parson, and waved him into the kitchen, indicated a chair next to the coal stove, and sat down himself, all without uttering a sound, waiting for his visitor to begin the conversation. The minister, sensing that any spoken admonishment would be met with silent disdain, pondered how to proceed. After several minutes, he picked up the fire tongs, and lifted one brightly glowing coal out of the fire in the stove. Sitting by itself on the coal shovel, the ember quickly died out to a cold, black lump, which the two of them contemplated. The minister then quietly replaced the lump amidst the other burning coals, where it was soon glowing warm and red again. He then got up, nodded to his host, and departed, all without speaking a word. The old fellow was back in church the next week, and never missed a Sunday after that. Or so it is said.
The start of a new year is always a time to review our habits and intentions; are we actually living the lives we tell ourselves we want? How might any of us be more authentically whole and loving, more nearly the person we aspire to become? I want to suggest this morning that this process needs to be something more than just internal and personal. Our individual experiences of social isolation, for instance, amount to a collective health threat – what George Will refers to in his Washington Post column as “an epidemic of loneliness.” That epidemic has a quantifiable, surprisingly serious, impact on our mortality, morbidity, and quality of life. Not having a robust cadre of friends or an active social life can physically hurt you, as much as smoking, excessive drinking, or obesity. It also leaves you vulnerable to what are now collectively termed ‘diseases of despair’, including drug addiction and suicide. The benefits of belonging, of having a community, are not just about entertainment, or feeling good; they are actually life-sustaining, as necessary as vitamins, movement, sunshine, or nutrition – and just as deadly to be deprived of.
This, as Ken Patton reminds us, is the reason for cities, homes, and assemblies in the houses of fellowship – it is good, and good for us, to be with one another. We are, after all, social creatures; a social species. Unlike a solitary turtle, or hawk, human beings make no evolutionary or ecological sense in isolation. Only in the imaginings of fevered philosophers do we exist as entirely separate individuals; in order to observe human existence you must observe interaction. That is where meaning is made, and the essence of humanity is displayed. For almost a quarter of a century now, since at least the publication of Robert Putnam’s widely read study Bowling Alone in 1995, the bemoaning of American culture’s loss of social capital has become something of an intellectual cottage industry. By any definition that does not include Facebook, most folks in this country have measurably fewer friends than they used to, fewer others they can call on for help; we belong to fewer organized groups, socialize less, sing together less, do anything that requires group cooperation less than we did ten or twenty or fifty years ago.
Actually, American culture has been chipping away at our rootedness in community for longer than that. For those with European ancestry, being the descendants of immigrants means that our forebears were necessarily people who would leave behind a lot of family, and home town, for the sake of uncertain opportunities to build a better life elsewhere. Kidnapped Africans were wrenched away from all family and community ties to be sold into slavery, where connections to people and places could be wiped out repeatedly at any moment. Those of the indigenous peoples here who were not destroyed were almost entirely removed from their native lands and sacred spaces, and strenuously urged to abandon their languages and culture. The rise of corporate capitalism has demanded a steady stream of workers willing to be ‘transferred’ to wherever they were needed, requiring nuclear families to rebuild local community connections over and over again. We live in a society which assumes that we can, and will, pursue the life we want from place to place, recreating connections with groups that we happen find along the way. In some cases we may bring a minimal family unit with us – spouse and children, or more rarely, elderly parents – but many other moves, including those occasioned by divorce, marriage, or children leaving home, involve separations within even the most basic domestic structures. Such flexibility in human connectedness is considered normal and appropriate by our culture, but it is not necessarily the way of most societies across history.
Moreover, rugged American individualism teaches us to beware of how oppressive the structures of connection can be. Domestic violence – the physical and emotional abuse of spouses and children – is seen as resolved only when the victim is removed from the power of the abuser. Destructive family dynamics protect secrets of shame and generations of resentment about inappropriate sex, mental health struggles, or financial exploitation. Small town prejudices make life miserable for anyone who is different, in their sexual identity, physical appearance, or mental ability. Schools and churches seek to enforce conformity, punishing those who ask questions or point out hypocrisy. Family businesses absorb and obliterate the creative potential of children forced to carry them on; young people are pressured into marriages for the advantage of their elders. Needy or overly critical friends sap us of energy and well-being. All these are tropes that encourage us to find our integrity and wholeness in separation, by repudiating the oppressive claims of community, and freeing our individual selves to pursue our own unique life projects and satisfactions.
It’s all true, of course. Community can be coercive, in ways that are repressive to what is unique, original, or questioning in its individual members. The problem is, that is not the only truth about human connection. First of all, like many other nutrients that can be poisonous in excess, we nevertheless require the bonds of social networks in order to be fully human, and to thrive. All our lives, we are in need of others, and they are in need of us. Also, the disciplines of community, that may sometimes require the sacrifice of our personal impulses, are not always a bad thing. Many people at many times are restrained from foolish, selfish, or destructive acts by external cultural sanctions, anywhere on the spectrum from peer disapproval to laws. The collective wisdom is in fact sometimes wise, and saves us from having to learn about reality by making every possible mistake for ourselves.
The consumerism of our culture has responded to the continuing felt need for community by turning it into yet another commodity of choice. If the family we were born into is too irritating, we can gather a better one by serving the right wine to our friends. If the potential romantic partners we happen to encounter locally are not up to snuff, we can shop for a better selection on line. If one religious congregation suffers from hypocrisy or bad music, we can move on to the next. If the bonds of community chafe, it is because we have not yet found the well-ordered collection of good people that we are entitled to be affiliated with. And by the way, if you are still new enough here at All Souls to be thinking that this might at last be the group that will live up to your standards and deserve your membership, let me assure you that it’s not. These folks are just as annoying and dysfunctional as any community you have left, and I am no wiser or purer than the average of my colleagues.
The problem is, Alain de Botton is right. We are, all of us, more difficult to live with than we imagine – or than anyone is willing to tell us. Each of us is crazy in our own special way, and it is rarely in someone else’s interest to make both us and themselves uncomfortable by pointing this out. Community does not happen because we finally stumble across the group of people who have perfected personal integrity and unconditional love. Rather, it grows in a jumbled sort of way wherever people have agreed to make the effort to put up with each other – or, wherever they believe they have no choice. It is my sense that our mobility and consumer mentality play into each other as Rev. Heather Lou suggests, by continually inviting us to cut off from community whenever we feel slighted or irritated or uncomfortable, rather than working through our own and others’ craziness to a new level of understanding and patience.
In other times and cultures, where it was less possible to move away from family, or leave town, or change churches, individuals had to find ways to come to terms with the imperfect others who made up their homes and neighborhoods and religious communities. This could be oppressive, if it meant having to tolerate bullying or abuse, and I am not suggesting that such constraint is ever a good idea. But as we concluded at one gender justice conference recently, not all discomfort is harm. Indeed, sometimes discomfort is the necessary condition for growth. And many times, other people are working just as hard at putting up with you, as you are struggling to put up with them.
Religious community is something of an anomaly in 21st century America. Families are still held together by an emotional centripetal force that makes it deeply wrenching to cut off from them, and maintains a connection even from that cut off position, as many of us know from experience. Neighborhoods and work communities are reinforced by an economic inertia that usually makes changing them, by moving or getting a new job, more costly than staying put. But what is the force that holds a congregation together, so that it survives the mutual irritation that is an inevitable part of the human condition? One thing that helps us put up with each other is having a common enemy. You can learn a lot about putting up with others – as well as about your own brand of craziness – from that kind of experience. But once the threat goes away, if there is nothing else to hold the heart of community together, it quickly disintegrates, so as a long term strategy, that is not so good.
The strange thing that summons us to stay in community and learn to put up with each other in the voluntary association of congregation is covenant – the promise that we make to each other that says we will, in fact, hang in there together, even when it gets really annoying and difficult, and uncomfortable and tiresome. Precisely because we want that network of relationship that is the only soil in which human nature truly thrives – where we are known in our irritating craziness, and people put up with us anyway, and we learn to put up with them, because that is how we all grow.
Our closing hymn this morning proposes that we are not merely our own; that we are bound together here on the earth through the generations, by families and friends and strangers, that show us who we are. The third verse says this,
Therefore, let us make thanksgiving
And with justice, willing and aware,
Give to earth and all things living
Liturgies of care.
I want to suggest that we notice some of those ‘liturgies of care’ – remembering that ‘liturgia’ means the work of the people in worship – for these are the techniques that help us as we struggle with learning to put up with each other in the service of community. One that we have already observed this morning is our quilt making to welcome new babies among us. We could, of course, if we thought there was any real danger of these infants suffering from cold, send someone out to just buy a blanket for them. But that would not help us build community as we do in learning the family’s preference for colors, in contributing and preparing the fabrics, and spending several hours together to assemble this unique gift of love and blessing for one of our own. That is a liturgy of care.
Another example is our new year aspiration tree out in the lobby. If you will take a moment to write on a shining star a hope that you are carrying into 2019 as it begins, and hang that star on the silver branches, then next week at our final holiday celebration, we will each take home another person’s star, and hold that aspiration in your mind and heart throughout the year, while someone else holds yours. Keeping one another’s hopes alive, is a liturgy of care.
Finally, I offer you the possibility that when you find yourself struggling with the challenge of putting up with the folks in this congregation — or in your family, or your neighborhood, or any other community you may be part of — that instead of letting your discomfort lead you to cut off, and destroy those bonds that are essential to your physical and mental and emotional and spiritual well being, you might experiment with praying for those folks. By this I don’t mean anything about god, necessarily, and certainly not asking god to fix what is wrong with someone other than you so that they can be less annoying. What I mean is holding that person, or those people, with gentle, curious attention in your mind – since curiosity is always the antidote to judgement – and wondering what might truly help them to thrive and be at peace in the world. I mean, imagining the burden of pain they may be carrying, and what it would be like for them to be released from that pain, and seeking within yourself the good will to wish that for them. You may or may not be able to find that good will in a given moment, but it is always helpful to look for it. That, too, is a liturgy of care.
Dearly beloved, if there were one resolution I would ask you to carry into the unfolding possibilities of the new year, it would be this: Be assured that the perfect community, the one that will accept you exactly as you are, and ask nothing of you in growth or change; whose other members will never exasperate you or make you uncomfortable, is a mirage. A fantasy peddled by the profit seekers, who will sell you death if it accrues them power or wealth. Recognize that true community, those life-sustaining connections that bind us to the needs and hopes and crazinesses of other people, requires of us patience, and struggle, and the capacity for discomfort; there is no easy counterfeit that will save us. We must put up with each other, in all our fallibility and finitude; we must give to each other, to all people, and to life itself, liturgies of care. Here’s one more; let’s rise together, and sing.