The Most Loving Thing
Dr Gaye Ortiz
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
June 10 2012
“A man drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood that he considered shady. Its residents were of a different class and race than he.
And, sure enough, as soon as he drove down the first block – having carefully locked his doors – he noticed that people on the sidewalks were yelling and gesturing at him as he drove along. The further he drove, the more outraged and outrageous the angry communication sounded.
This behavior confirmed all that he had suspected and disliked about ‘these kinds of people’.
But then he realized he had been driving the wrong way down a one-way street! People were trying to draw his attention to his unsafe wrong-way driving! If only he had paid more attention to his own actions!”
[Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behaviors (1989), p.121]
Boers ends this story by saying we need to understand how we contribute to undesirable situations and how our behavior can be changed (122).
This is probably a sermon that not many people want to hear; some people may have voted with their feet when they saw the sermon topic…maybe some of those might be people who need to be here the most. Because it is hard to stay in right relation with people, especially people who we’re close to and with whom we have a covenant that ties us together.
Right Relation is a huge topic, and I have had to work hard to keep this sermon to just over an hour – only kidding! When we talk about right relations, we are really talking about the first UU principle, affirming the worth and dignity of every person, and the 2nd, affirming justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And those are tough principles to attempt to affirm, let alone carry out!
Meg Barnhouse knows it’s hard; she wrote back in 2009, in an article for UU World, that “the UU Principles are demanding enough to make me whine.”
She says, “The first one asks me to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which means that I can no longer subscribe to the cheerful Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of human nature. It sounds grim, but really, if you are in fact starting with a totally depraved nature, the opportunities for self-congratulation abound: 'Hey, I didn’t knock over a 7-Eleven this afternoon, even though money’s pretty tight. I’m doing well!'Now I have to struggle with the worth and dignity of people who do unspeakably awful things, whereas the doctrine of total depravity made that one a no-brainer.”
Barnhouse suggests that at the end of each principle we add the phrase, “beginning in our homes and congregations”; and she goes on to say:
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, beginning in our homes and congregations” is a sobering ideal. I don’t know about you, but I have sat in meetings about right relations and seen people get testy with one another. Some of the nastiest behavior I’ve seen was long ago at a community workshop for peace activists.”
Lao Tse, quoted in the back of our hymn book, says peace in the world begins with peace in the home, which begins with peace in the heart. If I start with my own heart, the demands of our Principles get even heavier. Peace and compassion in my heart? Justice too? Freedom as well? Affirming the worth of every person all the time, not only with my words and my behavior but in my secret heart? If we added “in the heart” to the Principles, they might as well just say “Be Jesus” and be done with it. I’m sorry I even brought it up.” (Meg Barnhouse, “Who says Unitarian Universalism's Principles are easy?” 11/23/09, uuworld.org).
Well, if you are like Meg Barnhouse and secretly whine when you think of what is asked of us when we affirm the principles, then this sermon is for you. Because, even though we in this congregation may sincerely try to relate to each other in a positive and supportive way, we all know that there are bound to be times when we misunderstand each other, when we do not assume good intentions, when we approach a situation with perceptions and prejudices firmly in place, no matter if we are in fact driving the wrong way down a one-way street…
Over the years, misunderstandings, disagreements, and hurt feelings can cause a ripple effect of dis-ease and discontent moving outward from the people originally involved to an entire congregation. That the members can learn - on the whole - to try to respond in a healthy fashion, rather than leave in a huff or just never talk about the problem, is something to commend; I think this Aiken church has been fairly successful in this regard.
Building the Beloved Community means taking our lumps and dealing with them: Tom Owen-Towle says, “Our chosen church is our principal tilling ground, sacred ground, battleground, common ground, and growing ground” (Tom Owen-Towle, Growing a Beloved Community, 2004, p.5). And although we may welcome people to explore their own individual spiritual paths, that doesn’t mean that they have no responsibilities to the congregation; this faith is built on a common enterprise over centuries.
I think that trust is one of the biggest issues that we might confront in our little community. We saw in our Time for All Ages that when we are not in control and we need to put our trust in another person, it can be a scary thing (a member was blindfolded and tasted something given to her by several people; she described what it was she thought she tasted, but also was asked what it is like to trust the person giving her these things and how it feels not to have control). And if we can’t do that in this congregation, then we are in trouble.
Because, when we trust another person, we know that when we fall short – or, using the original meaning of ‘sin’, when we miss the mark – that we can make it right again, we can forgive each other and forgive ourselves. Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:4 as asking, “How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” It is an amusing image when you think about it, and I do believe Jesus had a sense of humor when he communicated to his disciples and followers. But it is so true that when we’re upset by someone, we often neglect to look at our part in the situation.
David Miller, a UU minister in California, drew up a list of questions that might help us to reflect on the extent to which we are in right relation with each other in this congregation. We will not go through the entire list, but I’ve selected seven of the questions he asks.
1. Am I assuming the good intentions of the other? Consider practicing the philosophy of ‘namaste’, the Hindu salutation that literally means “I honor that which is sacred in you.” Can we think that in our minds each time we meet folks here every Sunday? Can you look at someone in the eyes fully, directly, and not think that? In order to stop privileging our own virtuousness while approaching others with suspicion, we have to give up our self-image of being right all the time. How many of us have had a negative encounter this week? How long did it take you to realize that you didn’t trust the other person? Where do the roots of that suspicion lie? If we assume good intentions many of our misunderstandings would never even happen.
2. Am I communicating directly with the person with whom I’m having an issue? Avoiding that person is not going to solve the problem, but again, this is easier said than done. And that’s often because we have a lack of disclosure trust: if you speak to the person, will they interrupt you before you can finish what you need to say? Will your words be twisted and used against you? Our fragile sense of ego sometimes puts up defenses us before we even begin to speak to the person…and it may not even be a person, but a group or a committee.
For example, you may have the experience of being asked to provide input to a committee, only to find a decision that has already been made by an inside group. No wonder we hang back from speaking...but if we don’t, how will we ever change the dynamic of conflict? But take the story of an 18th century Quaker named John Woolman, at the height of the anti-slavery debate, who was upset that some Quakers were slave-owners. As Tom Owen-Towle tells the story:
To change that state of affairs, he didn’t censure the slaveholders. Instead, he traveled on horseback, visiting each slaveholder individually and sharing his moral concern. It took Woolman some thirty years to persuade all of them. But in the end, not one Quaker owned a slave. Passing laws would probably have brought about faster results but not without pain and lingering bitterness. As servant-leaders and as prophetic parishes, our job is to transform people, not merely to enforce rules, always remembering we won’t necessarily be as successful as Woolman. Therefore, we’re called to be conscientious, even when we fail. (Owen-Towle, 82)
3. Am I reflecting on what personal wounds, issues, and tendencies of mine that are contributing to the issue? It’s the old story of the wife who makes her husband a cup of coffee in the morning, and when he tastes it he rips into her about how awful it is, and starts a full-blown fight. It ain’t about the coffee, you can bet! When I was in lay leadership in Augusta, there was one person who could push my buttons – it didn’t take much, maybe one sentence, before I was fuming. Until I figured out that this person reminded me of the way my father would speak to me when he was angry, I was reacting to the person very negatively. It helps to figure it out, and then the next step is to desensitize yourself to prevent future knee-jerk reactions.
In Pema Chodron’s book The Places That Scare You (2001), she explains that the formal practice of loving kindness has 7 stages, beginning with “engendering loving-kindness for ourselves, then expanding it at our own pace to include loved ones, friends, ‘neutral’ persons, those who irritate us… [and then gradually we broaden the circle to include] all beings through time and space” (Chodron, 43). She says that if we don’t question our feeling of irritation, it is easy to let emotions hook us in and shut us down.
4. Am I actually trying to live the principles and values of Unitarian Universalism by acting with compassion, respect and high value of our interdependence? The author Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 2004, p.277) says that we can lower our expectations of independence and raise our level of involvement in order to develop unity between people: “The more genuine the involvement, the more sincere and sustained the participation in analyzing and solving problems, the greater the release of everyone’s creativity” (Covey, 283)
In this excerpt from his book Savor, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that there is a human need for meaning, for purposeful connection, for community, and for real engagement in the world:
All of us have a great capacity for compassion. We want to help those who are really in need, who are suffering…But how do we begin? Transforming the world starts with oneself. It is through attending to our own well-being and staying in touch with what is happening in our own personal lives that we can have a greater capacity to understand and address the world’s suffering. We are then on a sturdier foundation to contribute to improving our world. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Savor, 2010, pp.224-5)
5. Can I let go of my need to control the situation? Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about the Desert Monks, early Christians who lived apart from society but had a strong sense of community. Two elders decided that they should try to have a quarrel like ordinary men; but since they had never had one before they did not know where to start. Even after agreeing how to argue over ownership of a brick, one of them gave in almost immediately, and so they “failed to get into an argument at all” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 2008, 89-90). Normally, we don’t have any problem getting into an argument! And we can tell when conflict escalates to become destructive because we feel we have no control and we begin to think and behave irrationally. We try to control a situation in order to avoid failure or losing face.
6. Can I have disagreements with an individual or group, do so in love and respect, and continue to stay in community? The Native American activist Catherine Attla speaks of “the big law of respect.” A respectful church “is one where boundaries are kept, saboteurs are confronted, crises are faced” (Owen-Towle, 67). But how can we fight and still stay together? When we realize that conflict is normal and that the key to success is to find healthy ways of dealing with it, we can actually develop rules for fair fighting. Here are some ground rules that you may already use: (Boers, p.73)
· Don’t label or name-call
· Don’t attack or question motives
· Propose positive changes, so not just offer negative complaints
· Speak specifically, not generally
· Speak up for yourself and not for others, using ‘I-language’
· Consider and respect different perspectives; gather plenty of information
· Be open about differences
· Be responsible for your own feelings
· Act accountable
· Work for win-win situations
· Value everyone
· Be open to change and growth
· Stick with the process
· Take a break when things get too heated
· Admit mistakes
· When the group makes a decision, comply with it.
We need to stay connected through communication: listening and talking and being willing to be vulnerable without giving in to sabotage. When we feel defensive, we tend to want to withdraw, but if we can keep talking we can learn together through our experience.
7. And finally, can I remember to ask the question, ‘What is the most loving thing I can do or say right now?’ The practice of loving your neighbor as yourself includes the responsibility to be mindful that how you treat another person, even in passing, can make all the difference. Barbara Brown Taylor calls this a spiritual practice, and she gives one example: “Next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. It is enough to acknowledge her when she hands you your change. Just meet her eyes for a moment when you say, ‘Thanks’. Sometimes that is all another person needs to know that she has been seen – not the cashier but the person.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, 94-5).
How much more important is this question when we are in conflict with another person! Words can hurt or heal, gestures can comfort or ridicule. If we try to respect change, difference, and even conflict, we can avoid destroying - and may even salvage - relationships. How can we manage the conflict and manage to keep our relationship intact? Caroline Westerhoff makes an interesting point about the root word of manage:
The root of 'manage' is the Latin for hand – manus – and when I think of hands, I recall Michelangelo’s great work from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Adam… In my imagination, a spark fairly sizzles in the space between them as God sets it all in motion for the very first time: ‘Be different, Adam. But you will not be alone in that differentness. There will be other different ones. Create with them.’ God’s hand is open…It is not shaking Adam into life but is energizing him by invitation…
Perhaps Michelangelo’s genius has provided us with needed fresh perspective. Hands – management - can be perceived as instruments either for controlling, checking, holding, taking, restraining and even strangling or for guiding, pointing, stroking, kneading, giving away, letting go. To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind. (Westerhoff, “Conflict: The Birthing of the New” in David B. Lott, ed., Conflict Management in Congregations, 2001, p.57)
Maybe something you’ve heard this morning will come back to you when you are confronted with a situation where conflict may be about to erupt. You have a choice as to how you respond; be mindful about the power that entails. The relationship you save may be worth so much more than the momentary satisfaction of a sharp word, an insult, or an insult. And when someone tries to engage you in a disagreement or an argument, think about what may be going on in that person’s life; Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Change is inevitable, and often with it comes conflict. Tolerating difference, respecting diversity, practicing empathy and compassion, normalizing conflict, and fighting fair can help us, as Hosea Ballou says, “keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.” NAMASTE.