Monday, May 02, 2016

The Blessing of Belonging

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, May 1st, 2016 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.    You can listen to it here.

One of the prized possessions of our congregation in Concord, Massachusetts, is a letter from Henry David Thoreau. I thought of it this week, knowing that today we would be welcoming our newest formalize members. Thing I was thinking of is the letter Thoreau wrote to the Concord church in which he resigned his membership. This champion of the individual said, essentially, that he did not believe in belonging to groups, and that he would resign from the human race if he could.  Luckily the people we recognized today don't feel that way.

There's something I’ve said to every person who has joined any of the congregation's I've served. Two things, actually. First, I say congratulations. Congratulations because you’ve just joined a really cool community.  (I only serve really cool communities so I can always say that.)  The other thing I always say is thank you, because by formalizing your membership you've made this community cooler still.

With all due respect to Mr. Thoreau, belonging is a good thing. It's a necessary thing, actually. Carol Gilligan, the feminist psychologist who first earned notice from her challenge to the developmental theories of Lawrence Kohlberg, argued that the development of identity does not, as prevailing theories even still have it, come from the process of individuation, of separating ourselves from others. Rather, Dr. Gilligan and others asserted, we build our identity through our relationships.

My friend Takeo Fujikura has told me that this is an understanding that's built into the Japanese language. Takeo said that in Japanese there is no first person singular pronoun, no way to say I. More accurately, there's no one way to say I, there are eight. That's because we don't have just one identity -- I am in some very real ways different when I'm with my friends than when I'm with my parents, or when I'm with my child. Who I am depends on who I'm with, if you will, or with whom I'm in relationship.  There is a blessing in belonging -- an affirmational gift.  Belonging helps to make us who we are.

So when someone takes the step of formalizing their relationship with our congregation -- or any group, really -- we are saying something about who we are and who we want to be.  And as we change our relationship with that community, what we can say about who we are changes.

Last week we celebrated this beautiful planet on which, as a part of which, we live.  And we lifted up those who are committed to her health. Yesterday a number of us joined with UUs from something like five or six congregations in our area to talk about spiritual resources for doing anti-racism work. At the beginning of the service I highlighted the work of our Emotional Wellness ministry, and in a moment I'm going to steer this sermon toward the topics of addiction treatment and elder care. Ours is a congregation that's involved in working for justice in a whole lot of areas, and many of us have no doubt looked at all there is to do in this world and wished that we could resign from the human race. I know I have. Stop the world, I want to get off.

A few weeks back at IMPACT's pre-Action rally, the Rev. Brenda Brown Grooms offered the reflection. (Not to toot my own horn too loudly, but I'll be offering the opening reflection at the Nehemiah action itself in two days.). One of the things that Pastor Brenda used as part of the scaffolding of her talk was actually something said by a Unitarian. The Unitarian preacher Edward Everett Hale. I've said it here so often that some of you could no doubt say it with me:

“I am only one,
but 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.”
(And sometimes that last line is remembered as “I must not refuse to do something that I can.”)

So this was part of the tapestry Pastor Brenda wove that night. I can't do everything, but I can do something, and I really ought to do that something that I can do.  But then she added a nice touch. "But oh,” she said, “how much sweeter it is when we do that thing together.”  And isn't that right?  One of my heroes, and a friend of my mom’s actually, the woefully under-celebrated Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray liked to say that one person, plus one typewriter, constitutes a movement.  And there's truth I that. Dated, perhaps, but absolutely true.  No question about it. And yet ... and yet … isn't it better when we're not alone, if we're writing, and marching, and teaching, and working for justice together with others?  There is a blessing -- an affirmation all gift -- in belonging to a community working for justice together.

In two nights, on Tuesday May 3rd, the largest public gathering in the Charlottesville area of any kind, and the largest interfaith gathering in central Virginia will take place at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center. (Doors open at 6:00, by the way.). Roughly 2000 people from 27 faith communities will join together to experience and to be the blessing that comes from belonging. Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, non-denominational Christians, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and …well … us -- folks who might well not come together for any other reason but for our belief in justice. And there is most definitely a blessing in our coming together – a blessing for each and all of us who create this faith community of faith communities, and through that blessing – that affirmational gift – we are able to be a blessing to the larger community.  The blessing, the gift, for us is the affirmation that together we can do great things, and that the distinctions that so often divide us are nowhere near as important as those things that unite us.  The blessing for the wider community is the affirmation that the struggles any one of us face are struggles for us all, and that no one will be left out of the Beloved Community.

This year IMPACT has been continuing the work begun last year to create a local residential treatment option for women struggling with addictions to alcohol and drugs. Last year this was an identifiable need, an aching need, yet it just didn't seem possible that the will for this solution existed among those with the power to make something like this come about. By joining ourselves one to another at last year's Nehemiah Action, there are now plans, commitments, and the cash needed to build and operate a local center that should break ground this fall and be completed in the summer of 2017, serving up to 20 women a year without the need to travel long distances and be separated from their children.  Think of all those lives that will be touched by this.

Each year a new theme is discerned through a process involving listening circles in each of the member communities, with the ideas and concerns named in each being sifted and weighed until one rises to the top. This year it is the out of control cost of long term care for elders that became our focus -- a cost that averages 1 ½ times their average annual income.   This is unconscionable. Unbelievable, though, is that none of the agencies that are working to provide help to elders can say, specifically, the extent of the need – none knows how many people are in need of services yet are also unable to afford them. 

It’s clear that there’s a problem, and it’s clear that there are some extraordinarily caring and committed people working to address this problem, yet maybe in part because they are working so hard to address the problem none of them know exactly how large the problem is.  So IMPACT – which is, after all, us and those other faith communities working together – is proposing the creation of an entity to study the depth and breadth of the unmet need.  This, it seems to us, would of tremendous benefit to those already hard at work, and would provide a first step in developing new and creative ways of ensuring that all of the elders in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area can access the assistance that they need.

Why do the folk in our congregation who are most involved with the justice ministry of IMPACT try so hard to get you to turn out for the Nehemiah Action (on Tuesday, this Tuesday, May 3rd, at the MLK Performing Arts Center with the doors opening at 6:00)?  Simply because there is a blessing in belonging to a great assembly gathered to see that The Good prevails.  It’s not much to ask – one evening of our time – yet to those women, their children, their partners, their friends, to all those whose lives will be immeasurably improved because of this treatment center, its importance can simply not be overstated.  And I could decide to stay home, thinking that my presence in one of those seats doesn’t really matter much … aren’t we hearing a lot these days how about wrong, and potentially seriously problematic, such thinking can be? 

Others have already done the heavy lifting.  Our presence – yours and mine – (this Tuesday, May 3rd, at the MLK Performing Arts Center with the doors opening at 6:00) – is our declaration that we have not resigned our membership in the human race, that we do formalize our membership with those whose voices often go unheard and whose needs are so often, all too often, unseen.  During the offering we’ll have someone passing out tickets to those who are both feeling inspired and are able to come to the Action.  If you take a ticket, please swing by the IMPACT table in the Social Hall after the service so that they can know to expect you.

My friends, I really hope that I have not guilted anyone this morning, yet I know that this is one thing I can do.  This is one thing you can do.  This is one thing we can do.  I look forward to seeing you on Tuesday night.

Pax tecum,


Print this post

No comments: