Thursday, February 11, 2021

A Worldwide Interfaith Beloved Community by Reverend Tom Capo

           


           Last week, I was part of working group meeting to develop a new faith leader organization here in Miami.  We spent an hour and a half developing a name, a declaration of intent, and beginning steps.  I am sure that all of you would have loved to spend an hour and a half, developing a name and a declaration of intent.  I guess that is why they call it a working group.  I'd like to tell you it was inspirational, transformative, or spiritual, but really, it was just work.  During this discussion, one of the Imams mentioned that he wanted to use the word Multifaith in the name of this organization.  A Protestant member just wanted to use the word Faith.  And I brought up the word Interfaith.  I was told that Interfaith has too much baggage to be in the name. "What!" I thought.  What kind of baggage does Interfaith have?  I thought about this as the group eventually came up with the name Faith Leaders Alliance of Miami, FLAM.  I'm choosing to think this is a work in progress.

            How do we create a Worldwide Interfaith—I like that word Interfaith—Beloved Community?  The United Nations is encouraging faith communities to work toward harmony during World Interfaith Harmony Week.  There's that word again.  Interfaith is an adjective: relating to or between different religions or members of different religions.  Does relating to or between one another carry too much baggage?  Multifaith sounds so separate, so stranded, like we faith leaders are just standing around, only talking to other people who share our own faith in a room full of people talking only to other people who share their own faiths, like parallel play.  And Faith by itself doesn't necessarily mean spiritual or religious.  I guess I feel like Rabbie Yoffie at these things sometimes. 

            I believe that having people gather from various religious traditions is valuable, but as Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie said, it can be boring. 


This is a picture of a meeting of an interfaith group in Naperville.  We were deciding on who would be responsible for what date to provide what presentation on what issue of religious significance.  In some meetings that I have enjoyed, there was food—oftentimes from different cultures.  In some meetings that I have found useful, we gathered together to speak as one voice about an issue.  For instance, when I was on the Board of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, we wrote letters to the President of the United States, Iowa National and State representatives, and to the mayor and city council.  We asked them to consider the needs of the least fortunate and most marginalized when making decisions.  There had been some tax cuts for the wealthy that resulted in reduced budgets for food pantries and low-income housing.  We offered quotes from our various religious texts and from religious leaders who supported the need for us all to consider those that are less fortunate than ourselves.  Hoping our pollical leaders would reflect on these quotes as they made budgetary decision and voted on bills.  I did follow up with the mayor, a fiscal conservative, by the way, and he was moved by the letter.  And it led to further conversations between us.
But many times, the interfaith meetings I attended were about bills, budgets, planning our next meeting, and introducing ourselves to one another, saying what faith community we were part of, and generally checking in. 

            That's not to say that I didn't care about the people I worked with in these meetings.  I made friends with most of them. I got to know them, some of their families, and the generalities of their lives.  But I've come to wonder: is this what it takes to create an interfaith—I am just going to keep using that word—beloved community?  Making friends with people of other faiths.  I will tell you that for some of the interfaith groups I was part, making friends was literally their whole agenda—to be friends with people of other faiths.  I was surprised that this was explicitly told to me by the members of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago during my first meeting—that knowing each other and being friends was the whole purpose of the organization.  It seemed so simple, so non-goal oriented. They do also have a Thanksgiving Interfaith Service—


this is a picture of one of those Thanksgiving services in Chicago-- and had held a Peace Service in Millennium Park for a few years.  And recently started an annual celebration of interfaith solidarity, inviting people from their various communities to join.  Don't get me wrong, I appreciated making these friends, but I wondered if there could be more, should there be more to our gatherings.

            So I ask how do we create an interfaith beloved community here in Miami?  While we're still in quarantine?  And how do we do that Worldwide?  I will speak for myself on the matter, but first let me share a few thoughts from Rabbi Yoffie.  Rabbi Yoffie wrote: "Why then have I been so involved [in Interfaith groups] for so many years?  The reason is that very occasionally, something extraordinary happens: One of these conversations changes me, binds me to my colleagues, advances my understanding of myself and others, and adds texture and depth to my own religious beliefs and convictions."  I feel that same way.  And I believe that in order to create Interfaith harmony or Interfaith Beloved Community, we—not just this congregation, but people who are committed to an Interfaith Beloved Community-- need to find ways for people of different faiths to have simple fellowship, non-goal oriented friend experiences together, to provide space for friendship and opportunities for something special to happen. 


This image is of an interfaith potluck that was held at a church I served.  Besides providing this space and time tother, I have wondered what can we can do to prod—yes prod, provoke, stimulate, inspire-- those gathered toward extra-ordinary experiences together. 

            Rabbi Yoffie—as you can probably tell, I am big fan of his-- has some ideas about this.  As he has reflected on what makes it difficult to provide the space for these kinds of experience to develop, he has concluded that people let their fears—fears of change in themselves, fears of other people or their beliefs, fears of conflict—keep them from engaging in authentic dialogue with one another.   He wrote:

            "In thinking back on the moments [when something special happens], it seems to me that there are three things that make for a “good” dialogue and that turn tiresome interfaith conversations into meaningful religious moments.

            First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences.  Platitudes are set aside when, as representatives of our faith traditions, we cease to be embarrassed by the particular; when we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes — and trivializes — our discussions; [meaningful dialogue can happen]… when we recognize that, absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing.

            Second, inter-religious exchanges become compelling when my colleagues and partners give expression to their religious passions. I am drawn in when they share with me their deepest beliefs and strangest customs, no matter how radically "other" they are from my own.  And the sharing of religious passions should lead to passionate debate, in which we struggle with the really hard questions:  What happens when conflicting beliefs lead to conflicting interests?  What do we do about those areas where differences cannot be bridged and must be dealt with?

            Third, inter-religious dialogue truly touches us when we can discuss what we all know to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own traditions. We all tend toward the conviction that there are some elements of our religious beliefs and practices that stand above and apart from what other religions offer, and it is liberating when we are able to acknowledge this and then explain why we think that way, without apology but open to the honest reactions of those around us."  

            So, how do the dialogues you have had with people of various faith traditions go?  What would change if we had dialogues like that at UU Maimi with each other?  Sharing our different beliefs—without the fear that some belief—your beliefs-- might not be accepted?  What if we took a risk and shared our spiritual passions, and the exceptionalism of what we believe, while being civil, respectful, loving, compassionate with one another?  What a challenge. And how rewarding.  What if being radically welcoming wasn't just for guests in our congregation?  What, if you, all of you, could feel radically welcomed?

            When we speak authentically, with an open heart and an open mind, I believe so much more is possible.  I try to see every relationship as an opportunity for this kind of dialogue.  And for the most part I have found these conversations lead to rich, deep, long-lasting connections with people I would not normally have had relationships with. 

           


            On the tenth anniversary of 9-11, I was the president of the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County.  As a council, we decided that we wanted to hold a service for the whole county in the Minor League Baseball Stadium.  The team is the Kernels, as in kernels of corn.  We talked with the police and fire departments both of which were part of the yearly observance by the city.  We asked the stadium manager if they would let us use the stadium.  We asked the city and county government officials to be part of it.  And we asked all the faith communities to join us on that Sunday afternoon.  And we started planning the program, calling it Remembrance, Reflection, Reconciliation.  Well over 1,000 people attended in the open-air stadium.  During the service a piece of the twin towers was donated to the city with much ceremony, and bells were tolled for those lost on 9/11.  An evangelical preacher spoke on Remembrance; sharing his experience of the day—the sadness, shock, trauma-- and the meaning of that experience he carries with him.  He spoke of how the experience strengthened his belief in our country and what we were capable of enduring when we support one another.  Then an episcopal minister shared some of her Reflections over the past ten years of the experience—including the wars that were started over this attack on the twin towers.  And we ended with a 16 year old Islamic girl who spoke on Reconciliation.  She told us of the prejudice she had experienced and still experiences due to 9/11.  She spoke about the support she had gotten from various people in the city, not just from the Islamic community.  She spoke of her hope for a future without prejudice and fear.  She was amazing.  We ended the service by bringing everyone out of the stands onto the field, forming a big circle, holding hands.  And a Zen Buddhist monk offered her blessing and we sang a hymn together.  Many of us were moved to tears by the service and there were a few—because there are always a few--who complained about what the Islamic girl said—perhaps not ready to move on from the fear and hurt of 9/11 just yet.  It is these kinds of interfaith experiences, with honesty, passion, authenticity that offer people the opportunity of transformation, the opportunity to create interfaith beloved community.  Even the complainers, or maybe especially the complainers.

            Some final thoughts.  I believe whole-heartedly that working with people whose faith tradition is other than my own is worthwhile, especially something impactful, something that makes a difference. It can be an opportunity for interfaith beloved community to ignite, but only if we can be authentic with one another.  I'll tell you a story.  When working with Black Evangelical Leaders on mentoring black youth in Chicago, at one of their breakfast meetings—


this image is one of those meeting--a woman preached that sex was only sanctioned by god if it was between a man and a woman.  I was unwilling to give up on the work we were doing, but I had to talk with these black faith leaders about the impact this had on our Unitarian Universalist Social Justice members who were also at the breakfast—some of whom were LGBTQ--in order to be authentic with them, even though it was a risk, in order for our relationships to grow deeper, and our work together to continue in good faith.

            I believe that I must live into my interfaith relationships, being present when I am needed for my interfaith siblings—like the time an elderly Sikh in Naperville, Illinois was nearly beat to death and we all—people of many faiths-- came together at the Naperville Islamic Center to speak from our hearts and our faiths about this tragedy and our need for solidarity.


I talked to his son before getting up to read:

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.

This was written by theologian Martin Niemoller, an anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor. 

            So, I am willing to attend boring interfaith meetings, grinding out the details and framework of our future Faith Leaders Alliance of Miami in the hope of creating an interfaith beloved community, in the hope of experiences of authenticity and connection with my interfaith siblings, and in the hope of offering opportunities for transformative interfaith experiences.  I attend interfaith gatherings to the work that is needed to be done and for those rare extraordinary moments, that add texture and depth to my own religious beliefs and convictions as well as offering opportunities for others to add texture and depth to their beliefs and convictions.  I invite you into this interfaith work, to join interfaith gathering, and while you are there, be open the opportunities they offer for transformation and beloved community.  Namaste, Shalom, Blessed be, Amen.

What Did Martin Luther King, Jr. Dream by Reverend Tom Capo

         


           What did Martin Luther King, Jr. dream?  Over the years I've read many of his speeches and a couple of his biographies.  His sermons and speeches were passionate and inspiring.  And it is clear that he was a person who lived his beliefs.  His beliefs grounded him in his work in the world, not just advocating for civil rights.  Professor of Ethics and Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Gary Dorrien, wrote: "Dr. King, in his last years, was more radical than everyone around him. He dragged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to campaign in Chicago, where his lieutenants did not want to go. He got pelted with rocks in Chicago and admonished his staff that white Americans had never intended to integrate their schools and neighborhoods. He added pointedly that white Americans “literally sought to annihilate the Indian.” He defied the Civil Rights establishment, the Johnson Administration, and his closest advisors by opposing the Vietnam War. He campaigned for a minimum guaranteed income and bitterly regretted that he could not speak in public about democratic socialism. At the end he dragged SCLC into the Poor People’s Campaign…"  In addition all this, Dr. King built interfaith connections around the country, advocated for a balance between reason and faith in religion, and preached his vision of what churches should be.  He preached: "The church is not a social club, although some people think it is. They get caught up in their exclusivism, and they feel that it’s a kind of social club with a thin veneer of religiosity, but the church is not a social club. The church is not an entertainment center, although some people think it is. You can tell in many churches how they act in church, which demonstrates that they think it’s an entertainment center. The church is not an entertainment center…in the final analysis the church has a purpose. The church is dealing with man's ultimate concern." ("Guidelines for a Constructive Church,'' Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, June 5, 1966)  Much of my life as  Unitarian Universalist, I have affirmed this vision of what "church" should be—dealing with peoples' ultimate concerns— and preached with that vision in my heart.  We gather together to explore truth, meaning, and purpose, as well as reflecting on how to live out truth, meaning, and purpose in our lives. 

            Although the language he used was very Christian, many of Dr. King's sermons don't require much in the way of translation for me with my faith and outlook.  His sermons provide a grounding and a reminder of the importance of thinking deeply about one's faith and working diligently for justice, equity, and peace in our world.  He preached: "And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer

to mankind's problems. And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I've seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I've seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White

Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. ("Where Do We Go From Here?," Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 16, 1967) As I read these words, I think about the insurrection at the Capitol and I too affirm to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.

            Dr. King's life and his work serve as an example/a model of putting the needs of other people before one's own needs to make change happen.  His life was often at risk and was ultimately lost because he chose to speak truth to power, and to keep speaking truth to power.  We know there are risks when working for justice, equity, and peace.  UU Miami put up a Black Live Matter banner in front of our building and here within our sanctuary.  This is a risk.  And in case you didn't know you, the banner outside was stolen on election day.  We quietly replaced it.  We knew there would be—not might be--risks from putting that banner outside and for that matter inside our building.  And this flag supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, and pansexual communities also makes a loud and proud statement, as does our LGBTQ flag outside our building.  There are risks when we speak for equity and justice, and when we speak truth to power and when we act on our deeply held beliefs and here at UU Miami we're willing to take them.  Our work in the world at UU Miami is part of our living tradition.  It's built into our Principles with words like justice, equity, democracy, dignity, and peace, words we choose to say.  And working for justice and equity and peace is also a choice we choose to make. 

            We, each of us and as a community, make choices as to what risks we are willing to take and what issues we are willing to address to make this world a better place.  Whether we share our truths about justice and equity with our family, our friends, our co-workers, strangers.  Whether we show up for a rally or protest.  Whether we speak truth to those in power in our local, state, or national government.  Whether we side with love and those who are marginalized or oppressed.  We each have choices we make and causes we will support.  We need to nurture one another in this work and not try to pigeon-hole what we are "supposed" to do and how we are supposed to work because we are Unitarian Universalists.  Dr. King wouldn't be pigeon holed either in what work he chose to take on.  He preached: "For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. …Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land." (Beyond Vietnam, April 4, 1967, New York, NYhttps://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam)

            I read and listen to Dr. King's words from time to time, for inspiration, motivation, direction.  I let his dreams call to my dreams.  When I listen to his "I have a dream speech", I wonder what are my dreams?  And I ask you, what are your dreams for a better world?  What are you willing to do to achieve those dreams?  I affirm what Dr. King preached, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (In Building a World House, a chapter in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? a book by Dr. King) And I realize that I only have enough time, talent, and treasure to do a certain amount.  So I watch for where my time, talent, and treasure will make a difference.   Sometimes I can have a pretty big impact and make a difference in what is happening in the world right now.  Sometimes I am just talking to a marginalized or oppressed person or persons and realize how I can support them with their work.  And sometimes the project I take on requires a focus and intention for a long period of time in order to make a difference, and perhaps is a project that won't get completed in my lifetime.

            I bring this up because right now this congregation is working on decentering whiteness, acknowledging White supremacy and White privilege, reading about White supremacy and White fragility.  We just started studying Indigenous Peoples' History in the United States and the issues Indigenous Peoples are facing.  And I wonder what new thing, what righteous action, what new way of doing social justice might result from these intensive study groups? What will we birth into the world because of them?

            At our last Social Justice Committee meeting, we decided on a couple things.  One is that this congregation is small enough to be nimble in its social justice work.  To be open and ready for when an injustice arises and bring ourselves to that work – as we did when we worked on closing down the Homestead detention center for immigrant youth.  And we decided to work for and financially support four local nonprofits: People Acting for Community Together or PACT—a local interfaith grassroots organizing group working on issues such as policing, gun violence, and housing-- the Florida Immigrant Coalition or FLIC—working for immigrants rights-- Planned Parenthood—working for reproductive rights, health, and choices--and Florida Rising— Defending voters' rights and building political power to combat systemic racism that attempts to leave Black and Brown communities overlooked and underserved.  Do you have a role in any of this? What might that be?  That is for you to decide.  Maybe you could join us for the Decentering Whiteness Book Study or the Indigenous Peoples History classes.  Maybe you could learn more about the nonprofits we are supporting, or get involved with the nonprofits we are supporting.

            Dr. King preached: "Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.

Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.  Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied." ("Where Do We Go From Here?," Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 16, 1967 https://kinginstitut) On this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, you might read or listen to a speech by King. Consider what injustice you feel dissatisfied with in our world and let King's passion and vision, his dreams for a better, more peaceful world inspire you.  And decide your next steps.  Learn more about the issues that are important to you.  Reflect more in order to deepen your understanding of why these issues are important to you.  Or act more, allowing what calls to you to be manifested in how you live your life.  In this complicated and challenging world, we need to remember that though  "I am only one, … still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” (American author Edward Everett Hayes)

Making the Most of Mistakes by Reverend Tom Capo

             When I started out as a minister, I frequently made mistakes during services, losing my place in a script, getting up at the wrong time, skipping parts of the service, mispronouncing words/names.  This was due, at least in part, to feeling some anxiety in the pulpit.  This was something new to me and I had not developed my ministerial presence and my preaching voice, so I didn't feel grounded and at ease in the pulpit.  Anytime someone starts something new, it is likely that they will have some level of anxiety or discomfort—whether physical, mental, emotional.  Unfortunately for me, and perhaps for some of my very early congregations, my still developing skills of leading a service and preaching were being learned right in front of a group of people. 

            At some point in my early ministerial journey, I decided to embrace my mistakes.  I felt if I intentionally made a mistake early in the service that this would take the pressure off, I wouldn't have to feel anxious waiting for a mistake to happen.  And guess what? It helped.  My nervousness was reduced and I was able to more easily settle into my ministerial presence and expand my voice in the pulpit.  I still make mistakes, this is after all live, but I don't dwell on them, at least during the service.  I have come to realize that I am who I am; I have always had some difficulty pronouncing some words and names—so I practice them, listen to them on YouTube--I do the best I can.  But here’s the thing: what I am called to do as your minister is to be my authentic self, flaws and all, when I preach. There is no such thing as a perfect minister.

            Making mistakes is rarely easy on a person.  As you heard Christine tell us earlier, you might feel like you want to die or throw up or crawl under the covers so no one will see you.  I know that every single person listening to this sermon, heck every single person on this planet, has made a mistake of one kind or another.  My philosophy about mistakes is that we will all make them and we can try to avoid some of them, but, it's the meaning we make from the experience of making a mistake that is the important thing.

            What are the various ways that you have responded when you have made a mistake?  Well, it kind of depends on what kind of mistake, doesn't it?  You could have said or done something that hurt someone's feelings; you could have made a mistake on a test, a paper, a report, a presentation; you could have tried to do something new, maybe juggling, and made multiple mistakes as you were learning a new skill.  I tried to teach myself to juggle.  I was able to get three balls passed 4 times and that was after a couple of months of practice.  My young adult nephew picked up the juggling balls a few years ago and learned it in a matter of days.  Was it a mistake for me to have even tried?  I clearly don't have the talent for it.  Maybe.  But what did I learn from it?  And how did that learning change my behavior?

            What about a really big mistake, one that is very visible, one that hurts people, say when a mob storms the Capitol building, vandalizes it, and occupies it.  Commits an insurrection or stages a coup.  Actions that frighten people in the Capitol and really all over the country?  Actions that halted, for a little while, the process of certifying the Presidential election results?  What about some of the police who treated those insurrectionists differently because of the color of their skin—not taking the precautions that needed to be taken, opening barricades for them, taking selfies with them? 

            Whipped up into a frenzy or not, caught up in the heat of the moment or not, actions – mistakes – have consequences.  Arrest.  Job loss.  A police record.  Public shaming.  What have your thoughts been about what might constitute appropriate consequences? Natural consequences?  Meaningful consequences?  When I think about those people, I have to admit I want them to be arrested. I want them to lose their jobs.  I want to them to be watched by law enforcement from for the rest of their lives.  I even want them to be publicly shamed.  And as for the police who treated those white people differently than the people of color who marched this summer, I want them to resign or be fired, or at the very least admit their mistakes publicly and enroll in about 10,000 hours of racial bias training.

            When I have such strong feelings about a situation, my response is to step back and wonder where these powerful feelings are coming from.  I don't want my strong feelings to lead to me to make the mistake of advocating for retribution rather than for meaningful consequences.  And so I wondered, what am I called to learn from this situation?  Am I to figure out how to forgive them?  I am not sure I am entirely ready for that just yet, even though I know that holding onto fear, anger or resentment toward them will only hurt me, not them.  How can I make meaning of this mistake, even if it wasn't my mistake?  I realize that many of the people who were part of this insurrection will receive consequences for their behavior and that is just, I hope.  And while they will receive consequences, rather than feeling a vicious vindication, I will still consider how my Unitarian Universalist Principles call me to respond.  I will consider how to treat them with respect, dignity, compassion even as they receive consequences.  No one said that Unitarian Universalism was an easy faith, but how can I get up here and preach on our Unitarian Universalist Principles of compassion, human worth and dignity, and the interdependent web of all existence, if I don't at least try to live these Principles even when it would be so much easier to just give into my thirst for revenge?  Some of us might think it is too soon to think about some of our Unitarian Universalist Principles after what these people did. I mean let's work for justice, equity, and democracy, we can work on those other—those harder-- Principles later. The insurrectionists need to be dealt with and discredited and even shamed first.  But isn't that the same argument that some conservatives have made after school shootings?  It is too soon to deal with the complicated issues.  And then what happens?  The issues are avoided.  I am going to work for this democratic nation, so that it can be stable and just and equitable.  I am going to look at the larger cultural system that allowed this insurrection to happen and perhaps even supported it.  And I will also wonder where is the opportunity for affirming compassion, human worth and dignity, and interdependence as I try to learn and grow from the storming of the Capitol. 

            I was talking to indigenous people across the country this week—one of them was from the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau, which I didn't know existed until this week-- finding speakers for the Indigenous People's History of the United States study we are beginning this afternoon and continuing on the second Wednesdays of the month. They each talked about a different way of being in relationship that has worked in their culture for centuries.  And I also talked with some of them after the insurrection in Washington.  Consistently, they spoke of how to treat a stranger.  Bringing the stranger into your home, clothing and feeding them, so that when the stranger returns to their own home he/she/they will speak favorably of those he/she/they visited.  This is not new, I mean Jesus said something like this: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me."  But here's thing, this philosophy informs how Indigenous Americans conduct business interactions as well.  When I started talking with each person about what they would charge to do a presentation, each of them asked me to consider the importance of how to treat the stranger -- affirming comfort, respect, worth and dignity.  They each asked me to keep these things in mind as we came to agreements on assigning a monetary value to their time, talent, and knowledge. 

            And then each told me that with any presentation they do, they believe it is the beginning of a relationship, not just paying them to come and speak—which is a transactional or capitalist way of doing things--but embracing this new relationship as something that would be ongoing, with a willingness to open our minds and hearts to one another.  And with a willingness to be changed through our continued interactions with one another.  This took me by surprise.  I thought I was just calling to set up a presentation.  How white of me. 

            After my interactions with Indigenous People this week, I wondered how what I learned might impact my future interactions when I come across a person who believes to the core of their being that the Presidential election was stolen or that they must still rally in the streets for Trump in order to save this democracy.  Will I be able to treat them as the stranger?  Will I be willing to begin a relationship with them with an open heart or open mind?  Will I be able to be a presence in their lives in the hope that positive change can come for both of us?  Am I willing to take risks with them? 

To laugh with these people and risk appearing the fool.

To weep with these people and risk appearing sentimental.

To reach out them and to risk exposing my true self.

To place my ideas-our dreams-before them and risk loss.

To love them and risk not being loved in return.

To hope that I can make a difference in their lives and risk despair.

To try and risk failure.

And if I fail, to keep living my Unitarian Universalist Principles, and go back out, and try again.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

"Find a Stillness" by Reverend Tom Capo preached on December 6, 2020

 


         What does it mean to find a stillness?  Are we talking about an inner stillness?  A stillness in the environment around us?  Is stillness quietness?  Is there any such thing as ultimate, complete stillness?  Currently we find ourselves in what the Christians believe as the period of Advent.  A period of waiting for the birth of the baby Jesus; a period of stillness if you will.  For some Christians this is a time of patience; others experience Advent as a time of preparing for this special event, and for others Advent is a time of wondering.

          I have been thinking about Advent and how we are all preparing for a life changing event—the coming of the Covid-19 vaccine.  While this is not a divine event—even though it may feel that way to for some of us given the rise in Covid 19 infections and deaths right now--I think many of us are trying to be patient, knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Some of us are preparing for this vaccine; I read Saturday that scientists are researching what we will need to do as we wait for the vaccine.  Some are saying that we should check our expectations.  If we think that everything will be back to normal, we should probably put that expectation aside.  Data from past epidemics indicate it took years before things returned to some semblance of normal.  I talked with a member of this congregation, Andie Arthur this week, she wondered if after the vaccine is widely distributed whether the country would celebrate like in the roaring twenties—you know, after World War I and the pandemic of 1918. 

          But here's the thing I have been wondering during this time of stillness in our homes and waiting for a vaccine, this time of world-wide Advent, what meaning will I assign to this time of personal stillness, so that I can move forward with intention in my life.  And what is the meaning I will make from this world-wide stillness so that I can put it into some perspective.  And then maybe I can decide how I will fold these meanings into what I may be called to do when this Covid 19 Advent time ends.

          I have been thinking back on a time when the experience of stillness was on my heart and mind almost as much as it is now.  Several years ago, I decided to literally embrace stillness and silence.  Not just the silence of sound, but silence from the sensations of touch, sight, smell, taste, even my kinesthetic sense, my sense of movement.  And not just simple bodily stillness, not just environmental stillness, but such profound stillness of body and environment that the only thing I would be aware of would be the activity of my inner self.  I decided to submerge myself in a sensory deprivation tank.  I remember the attendant telling me "be patient", to have no expectation that I would be calm or relaxed during my first session, that in fact I would probably feel some anxiety and have difficulty remaining in the tank for the full hour.  Most people could not make it through their first session.  But if I could make it through the anxiety of the first session, the next session would be wonderful, amazing, more peaceful than I had ever experienced, at least that is what the attendant said.  I asked if there was anything I could do to prepare, the attendant said to be intentional about staying in the tank and open to whatever I experienced.  I wondered if I was making a good decision about doing this sensory deprivation tank thing. 

          I entered the small, shallow room with the tank, I took my clothes off, opened the tank, and with fear in my heart, I took a deep breath, and stepped in.  I felt like I was entering a sacred space, almost like a monastery, one in which you couldn't talk and would be expected to do nothing, but contemplate. 

          I had always loved the silence and stillness I found in the cavernous Catholic churches when I was an altar boy—especially before those 5 AM services when no one was there and I could fully embrace the responses that the stillness and silence elicited in me, a feeling of connection to something larger than myself and a connection with who I am deep inside.  I felt a groundedness and calmness I did not often feel.  And I wanted to feel that again as I entered that tank, despite my fears.

          So I enclosed myself in a tank with no sound, no smell, in complete darkness.  The salt water floated my body.  The temperature of my body, the air, and the water were all 98.6.  All that I was aware of was the internal workings of my body, the jumble of thoughts in my mind, and my erratic, reactive emotions.  For the next hour, I submerged into the stillness, into the silence and into myself.

          I invite you to close your eyes for just a moment, and imagine yourself entering a sensory deprivation tank, total darkness, no sense of touch or movement, not even any movement of air against your skin, no sound except those made by your own body or in your own mind; you are completely cut off from all external stimulation. (silence)  What did you notice? Was your heart racing at the prospect?  Was your mind distracting you or finding reasons why this would not be a good idea?  Did you want that time to be over?

          Oh, I forgot to tell you that the attendant also told me that the first time that I enclosed myself in the sensory deprivation tank that I would face my worst fears—my out of control thoughts and images, my erratic emotional swings, the minutest physical sensations within my skin.  The therapist who owned the sensory deprivation tanks told me that we all use the noise of external stimulation to distract ourselves from what is really going on inside ourselves.  They assured me that I would face those things that I, either consciously or unconsciously, was trying desperately to distract myself from.  Good grief.  I did face my fears very soon after I entered the tank.  I saw racing images— Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies—I watched too many of those ‘durn’ movies.  I saw myself helpless before people who were stronger and smarter than I am—and realized that sometimes I have irrationally felt that most people were stronger and smarter than me.  I saw people trying to hurt me.  I heard sounds—like those songs you can’t get out of your head, earworms like Kung foo fighting, fast as lighting.  I felt sensations that I could not stop—like itching all over, like feeling dizzy and nauseous, which is something I’ve always dreaded—like feeling suffocated, unable to breath; another deep fear.  Yet even as I experienced all these, I stayed in the tank.  I came to the realization that I could feel all my fears, see and feel those things that I was most scared of, and not die.  I was uncomfortable for a time facing those dreaded memories, images, and internal physical sensations, but I passed through them without letting them control me, without getting out of the tank. 

          When I finally embraced my fears, accepted all of what I was experiencing, I noticed that I was exhausted, sweaty, and my heart was still beating rapidly.  I emerged from the tank just as someone came to the door to get me out.  I made it.  My first hour in the tank was done.  As odd as this may sound, I immediately signed up for another hour, which occurred a couple of days later.  I wanted to continue this, sometimes deeply unsettling, yet ultimately enlightening, journey into stillness and silence, and into myself.

          Author Barbara Erakko Taylor (Silence) wrote: Silence.  A word that evokes images of aloneness, of vulnerability, of having to face one’s inner world.  We say we want a deeper spiritual life, yet we deny it by avoiding perhaps one of the most crucial elements—silence.  We are afraid of it.”  I believe that we all need times of silence in our lives, and –let’s be honest—silence is scary.  We avoid it by having the TV on while we are working around the house just for the noise.  We avoid it by blaring the radio when we drive.  We avoid it by finding whatever stimulation is possible in our world; we embrace noise all the time; you might say we wallow in it.  Our world is full of opportunities for noise.  Yet we rarely if ever do we seek out times to be still, do nothing, embrace silence.

          As a psychotherapist, I often heard from my patients that they were afraid to be still or silent.  They were afraid to face the bogeyman that chased them constantly; the bogeyman who grows bigger and more frightening the faster they tried to run.  Sometimes in the silence of dreams, the bogeyman can manifest itself.  I remember a man who said that he dreamed about running away from a Tyrannosaurus Rex; the faster he tried to run, the slower he seemed to go—like he was running through molasses.  He woke from these nightmares heart racing, sweating and deeply afraid.  In discussion with this person, he came to realize that he had these nightmares when something was troubling him in his heart—a situation he was afraid to face or guilt over hurting someone else.

          When you try to stop and face the bogeyman, your feelings and your fears will encourage you to find noise, to keep moving, to distract yourself from the ever encroaching monster that resides in your heart and mind.   I remember a young woman who would sew placemats and napkins in the middle of the night.  She was afraid of being still in the silent dark of her home.  She tried on many occasions to lie down in the silent darkness of her bedroom, her heart would race, and she would be so afraid and agitated that she had to do something—thus sewing became her noise to keep her fears at bay.

          When you finally stay still and silent, when you finally realize that your fears and feelings won’t kill you or damage you, then you realize you can face what is inside you, then you make peace with yourself.  I am going to add an addendum here; if a person has a significant psychological problems or needs psychiatric medication, this process of being silent, facing fears, etc. may need to be done with the help of professionals—not alone.  Ultimately by embracing stillness and silence, you begin to learn more about yourself, and you begin to experience a startling new connection to mystery, God, to others, to humanity. 

          Being quarantined in our houses, some of us unable to physically contact another human being, wearing masks that keep us from really seeing the expressions of those around us, masks that sometimes muffles the speaker's words, has somethings in common with being in a sensory deprivation tank.  Many of us have looked for ways to distract ourselves from this stillness and silence of this Covid 19 time offers, just to cope.  But now my friends there is light at the end of the tunnel.  The vaccine is coming.  And now is a time we can begin to embrace the stillness with hope that we won't be stuck in our homes for the rest of our lives.  This is our Covid-19 Advent time.  Now is the time for you to close the lid on your metaphorical sensory deprivation tank, face your fears, and open yourself to wondering about what meaning this time will have for you.

          Ohiyesa, an early Sioux author, wrote: “[The Native American] believes profoundly in silence—the sign of a perfect equilibrium.  Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit…[a person] preserves [their] selfhood...[by remaining] calm and unshaken by the storms of existence—not a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the surface of [a] shining pool--… If you ask [Ohiyesa]: “What is silence?”  he will answer “It is the Great Mystery!” “The holy silence is the voice [of the Great Mystery]”.

          Silence and stillness can provide us with opportunities to bring ourselves back into balance.  The ever-present, ever distracting noise around us obscures our interior lives, makes us oblivious to the changes that go on inside ourselves, distracts us from the changes in ourselves, others and the world, and distances us from our connection to mystery, to God, to our common humanity.  Internal noise comes from embracing what is not self and not mystery.  We all have to embrace what is not self and not mystery in order to function in the world, to work, to talk, to eat, to drive, to be in relationships.  But if we only embrace noise then we lose our true selves.  And my concern is that many of us have lost parts of ourselves by resisting the opportunity to embrace stillness and silence during this time when stillness was imposed on us and the future was far from certain. 

          During this time of expectant waiting for your shot of vaccine, perhaps it is time to have an intentional Advent experience, you might make time to submerge in some stillness and silence.  Maybe start out with a few minutes, then gradually stretch it out to twenty or thirty minutes.  Let yourself face what has accumulated within you during this last year, discover how you have changed, experience your body-- knowing it has changed too.  Then you can make an informed decision about how you will incorporate these learnings to better understand who you are now and what you are called to do when this season ends.  Yes, you and I and many others will probably celebrate like it’s the roaring twenties when we get the vaccine, but beyond that we will also need to decide what work calls to us after we celebrate.  We don't need another decade of celebration like the roaring twenties.  We need a new world.  A world where we treat one another with worth and dignity; a world of peace, equity, justice, and compassion; a world with stable democracies; a world where we affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence.  Let stillness be your guide to this new world.  Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry you.