This month we have been looking at the question of emotional tone in our relationships, and how we might help to warm them up. Two weeks ago we celebrated Valentine's Day with the message to come right out and say it when we love someone, be it a partner, family member or friend. Last week we looked at the importance of really good listening, and how rare that actually is. Today, I'd like to talk about the idea of collective, emotional tone in groups. And my main point today is to say that we have the freedom to create whatever collective energy, whatever tone we want in our various groups. Certainly they will vary depending on what issues may arise. Even the happiest and healthiest families, for example, sometimes have to work through anger or grief. But what I'm talking about today is the baseline, the "mood" if you will to which the group tends to return in absence of special circumstances. The temperature at which the emotional thermostat is by default, generally set. And the main point I want to make is that in our families, our friendship circles, and yes, in this church community, we are free to create whatever baseline collective mood, whatever status quo tone we want. In other words, though it be cold or grey or snowing yet again outdoors, we can decide to have a beach party! And we can do it, metaphorically speaking, week after week after week!
Victor Frankl, concentration camp survivor, said that the last great human freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude in any circumstance. It doesn't mean we slap a happy face on atrocity or tragedy or that we perpetuate Pollyanna denial. Frankl obviously had way too much gravitas than to suggest that. But it does mean that nobody and nothing outside of us has control over our minds and hearts and souls. We have ultimate freedom and responsibility there, and to some extent, we create our own realities, so we might as well start doing so…consciously.
Two weeks ago, I made reference to an amazing bus ride that my husband and I took recently in Bradenton Florida. (Speaking of Beach Parties!) The more I reflect back on that experience, the more inspired I become. It was like, in stepping onto that bus, we fell down the rabbit hole and entered an alternate reality. There we found joy and warmth and the healing of caring community right where we least expected. Bradenton, as some of you may know, is the poor and stressed-out sister city to the affluent and beautiful Sarasota. Like most of coastal Florida, Bradenton has way too many people pumped into an infrastructure which was built for a fraction of the current population. Like much of coastal Florida, it is increasing becoming a two class society, the affluent white people and the struggling, working-poor, people of color that serve them. There is all the socio-economic and racial stress that goes with all of that, and added to that now is the Florida "Stand Your Ground" law, which in many peoples' opinion, mine included, has declared something of an open season to shoot anytime anybody "feels" threatened by anything, including popcorn throwing or loud music. Let's just say the collective, public tone in Florida these days, the minute you get away from the facade Florida of resorts and amusement parks, tends to be understandably stressed, wary and angry.
So when we climbed on the public bus that day, the last thing I expected to find was beloved community, or to put it in progressive Christian terms, "the realm of God, " (heaven sprung up in all its beauty right here and now!) Yet there it was, panoply of joy and caring, peppered with laughter. It started with the bus driver who, as leader, set the tone. (One of the most helpful truisms I learned in seminary is that communities, at least to some extent, tend to take on the personality of their leaders. Not necessarily the FACADE personalities of their leaders, when those exist, but the real personalities.) And this woman was the real deal. Even though that bus was running over half an hour late and she had doubtless been given plenty of grief, she greeted us like long lost friends. "I'm sorry you had to wait, the whole system is backed up today, but come on in to the cool and take a load off." Right away, it was hard to stay annoyed about the lateness. So we plopped down, indeed glad to cool off in the air conditioning, and right away noticed how the other riders were laughing and joking across the aisle.
One rider, who was clearly a regular and a character, announced every upcoming stop the minute the bus pulled away from the last one. The first one we heard after they picked us up was "Next Stop: Yankee Stadium" which cause a wave of snickering down the rows. Soon we noticed that after each stop, the chatter would die down so everyone could hear what the self proclaimed announcer would come up with next. His list included such locales as "Golden Gate Bridge" "Westminster Cathedral" and I quote "What's left of the Berlin Wall."
At one of these stops, the driver activated the hydraulic lift to bring on a woman in an electric wheelchair. She had no sooner landed in the correct spot than two of the riders, without breaking conversational stride, popped up to connect that straps that would secure her chair, offering her a smile and a pat on the shoulder before they sat down. The bus driver called out a quick "thanks guys" and got underway again.
By now we had been on the bus awhile, and my husband, who is by nature, as affable as they come, had joined in a couple of the conversations. And one of his new friends had clearly taken notice of the fact that Brian was still wearing his bicycle helmet. We had biked out to the beach, and for the bus ride home had placed our bikes on the rack on the front of the bus. The other guy, with whom Brian had established friendly banter, kept glancing up at Brian's helmet, and finally, accurately concluded that it was safe to tease. " OK man," he said, "I'm gonna tell you the truth because I like you: Just ‘cause your bike is on the front of this bus doesn't mean it's a good fashion choice to wear your helmet inside. Somebody has to let you know, you look kind of goofy." At this, Brian and I doubled over with laughter, which gave the other riders total permission to follow. Then I popped off with "I've been praying for thirty two years that SOMEBODY besides me would say it!" and pretty much the whole bus was guffawing by then. After the hubbub died down, our new friend said, as a quiet aside just to us, "sometimes when I'm feeling down, I ride this bus even if I have nowhere to go." I asked him, "Is it always like this?" and he nodded, then added, "Most of the Bradenton busses are like this, not quite this much maybe, but pretty close." And Brian, who rides the Bradenton Busses daily, confirmed it.
By then, I was starting to fight back tears as I realized that right there, in that most unlikely community, was a shining manifestation of beloved community, I'll go so far as to say it was a glimpse of the realm of God, even though probably none of them would have put it in those terms. (The spirit listeth where it will and we know not whence it comes or whither it goeth.) And somehow, it had become contagious and taken hold system wide… So, if you need a little hope about the world, consider going to Florida, not to Disneyland or the coastal resorts, or even to gaze at the beauty of the ocean, but to hang out with the least of these on the Bradenton City busses.
A less hilarious but equally inspired story was brought to my attention by Christina Herman. It is told by the same blogger from whom we heard last week in the piece about asking better questions. The writer, again, is Glennon Miller, and you can find her on the web at the Momestary.com Blog, which, by the way, posts this as its purpose: "Momestary is where we practice living bigger, bolder and truer on this earth. Where we remember what we already know: we can do hard things, love wins, and we belong to each other." How's that for a mission statement? No church could do better, I daresay. In her piece entitled 1+1=Love, Miller says this:
"A few weeks ago, I went into Chase's class for tutoring. I'd emailed Chase's teacher one evening and said, "Chase keeps telling me that this stuff you're sending home is math – but I'm not sure I believe him. Help, please." She emailed right back and said, "No problem! I can tutor Chase after school anytime." And I said, "No, not him. Me. He gets it. Help me." And that's how I ended up standing at a chalkboard in an empty fifth grade classroom staring at rows of shapes that Chase's teacher kept referring to as "numbers."
I stood a little shakily at the chalkboard while Chase's teacher sat behind me, perched on her desk, using a soothing voice to try to help me understand the "new way we teach long division." Luckily for me, I didn't have to unlearn much because I never really understood the "old way we taught long division." It took me a solid hour to complete one problem, but l could tell that Chase's teacher liked me anyway. She used to work with NASA, so obviously we have a whole lot in common.
Afterwards, we sat for a few minutes and talked about teaching children and what a sacred trust and responsibility it is…We talked about shaping little hearts to become contributors to a larger community – and we discussed our mutual dream that those communities might be made up of individuals who are Kind and Brave above all. And then she told me this.
Every Friday afternoon Chase's teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they'd like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, Chase's teacher takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who doesn't even know who to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase's teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or "exceptional citizens." Chase's teacher is looking for lonely children. She's looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She's identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class's social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she's pinning down- right away- who's being bullied and who is doing the bullying.
As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children – I think that this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It's like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things, and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold – the gold being those little ones who need a little help – who need adults to step in and TEACH them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts with others. And it's a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside of teacher eyeshot – and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But as she said – the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets of paper.
As Chase's teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea – I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. "How long have you been using this system?" I said. "Ever since Columbine," she said. Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine. Good Lord.
This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that ALL VIOLENCE BEGINS WITH DISCONNECTION. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. She watched that tragedy KNOWING that children who aren't being noticed will eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary. And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often, and with the world within her reach. What Chase's teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11 year old hands - is SAVING LIVES. I am convinced of it. She is saving lives.
And what this mathematician has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything – even love, even belonging – has a pattern to it. And she finds those patterns through those lists – she breaks the codes of disconnection. And then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It's math to her. It's MATH. All is love- even math. Amazing. Chase's teacher retires this year – after decades of saving lives. What a way to spend a life: looking for patterns of love and loneliness. Stepping in, every single day- and altering the trajectory of our world.
I believe that we can each do the same. We can do it in our social circles and workplaces and families, and right here in church community. One church I was a part of read out loud, before every committee meeting, what they called their "Sacred Sandbox Statement" which reminded them of their covenant to "play well with others" when they were in the sandbox together. Their statement went like this:
"Committed to the vision of loving community, we will speak and act together during this time with respect for each person's voice and ideas. We pledge to keep our ears and minds and spirits open, and to do the work of REALLY LISTENING to other people's thoughts, rather than just marking time until we can speak our own piece. We pledge to state our own thoughts with honestly and integrity, and with respect for all present. Only by remaining truly open to the range of voices in our midst, can we hope to discover the creative flow of the Spirit of Life for all of us. By honoring the divine in one another, we will seek to create an atmosphere of respect and love, and thereby maintain an atmosphere of loving community for all."
Did it solve all of their process problems? Of course not. But it helped to keep things from devolving, and it helped for everyone to remember that we have the power to choose our baseline, and thereby to set the trajectory for how things play out.
I conclude by way of returning to the Bradenton Bus. It ran from the beach to the heart of downtown along roughly fifteen miles of congested eight lane roadway past endless, ugly strip malls. It picked up people who were hot and frustrated and struggling just to get through the day. But no matter where they boarded, they entered a beach party. Simply because somebody, somewhere along the line, had taken the responsibility to set and fiercely protect the collective tone… Party on East Shore.