Monthly Theme: Help, Generosity and Gratitude
Time for All Ages (Rev Denis)
Harriet Lerner, an author and child psychiatrist? tells the story of going to Coney Island as a child and desperately wanting to ride the exciting rides like the cyclone, but being scared to death. She watched children her age come of the rides excited, clearly having had fun. Envious. Finally, she asked one of the boys coming off, “how did you find the courage to get on the ride?” He said “You don’t have to find courage, you just have to buy a ticket.”
Reading Che Sinclair
Our reading this morning, a brief one, is by Maya Angelou. It’s from an interview with Bill Moyers that aired on Public Television in 1973. Dr. Angelou said:
You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
Sermon (Rev Denis)
You belong no place. You belong every place. It’s a paradox.
My personal theology has a lot to do with paradox.
In my theology, it is an axiom that with everything … jobs, people, relationships, institutions, situations….everything….its best characteristic is also its worst characteristic.
I think the best thing about getting older is the wisdom that comes with it, and all the insight and clarity. And the worst thing about getting older is the wisdom that comes with it, and dreading what you know will happen, working to avoid being jaded.
In our shared faith, the best thing about it is that we affirm the worth and dignity of every single person, which is great, because each of us knows that no matter how bad we think we’ve been, there will always be room for us here. But the flip side to that is, when people are behaving badly by obstructing positive change or creating tension for no apparent reason, we don’t really know how to deal with them.
To call them out publicly seems to many – especially to their friends – like it would be denying their worth and dignity, so we get caught up in trying to figure out a response that would be universally accepted as kind.
And a corollary of that axiom that the best thing about anything is also the worst thing, is that the first thing you fall in love with is also the first thing you fall out of love with. You know what I mean. That high-pitched laugh that was so cute on your first date? After a few years of marriage, you can hear it across a crowded lobby at a funeral and it makes you cringe just a little bit.
Your marriage could be as close to perfect as anyone could hope for, but that laugh.
Dr. Brene Brown knows a lot about paradox in relationships. She’s a researcher at the University of Houston and one of the top ten TED fellows. Her work has focused on vulnerability, and how our relationships grow deeper when we dare we risk exposing our fears and weaknesses.
Vulnerability breeds trust in the other, and resilience in ourselves.
The paradox is that vulnerability breeds strength.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Dr. Brown’s latest book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, is packed with paradoxes. The title alone is a paradox, a reminder of Maya Angelou’s assertion that when you belong no place, you belong every place.
In all of her writing, Dr. Brown defines belonging as “the innate human desire to be part of something larger than ourselves,” and says that “because this longing is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are only hollow substitutes…because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” Therefore, “our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” (1)
Let me say that again. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
The way I understand this is that belonging and self-acceptance are intertwined because you can never fully be present to anyone if you are afraid that they will find out that you aren’t quite as you make yourself appear. If you are withholding any important part of yourself, you’ll feel like a fraud. And nobody trusts a fraud. Frauds aren’t welcome. Frauds don’t belong.
And anytime you aren’t living up to your values, you’ll feel like a fraud.
If you really believe in the worth and dignity of every person, and you don’t do something to counter obvious oppression happening right in front of you, you feel like a fraud.
Dr. Brown suggests what she calls four practices of true belonging, practices that challenge how we think about ourselves, how we show up with one another, and how we cultivate courage and connection. And they are all paradoxes:
First, People are hard to hate close up. So move in. If you don’t trust “them,” become their neighbor, literally or figuratively. Find out what their story is, what they love, what makes them tick. Meet the women at the mosque, and find out from them how they find power in their faith that seems to subjugate women. Start by having tea with them.
The second practice of true belonging to speak truth to what she so vividly calls BS.
But this is the really hard part, especially in these times when our leaders behave so badly: be civil about it. When someone says something that is patently false, or lies about their actions, call them on it. But don’t use words as weapons, and never dehumanize anyone else, even if they make a sport of it. I’m sorry, but calling someone a name like the Cheeto in Chief or the Orange Wrecking Ball just isn’t okay.
Dehumanizing your opponent doesn’t move the conversation along, it stops it, and makes enemies out of those who would otherwise only be opponents.
The third practice of true belonging is to hold hands. With Strangers. It sounds completely counterintuitive, but studies show again and again, that belief in human connection is our most renewable source of courage. And if you think about, you know it’s true, just as Anne Frank knew that in spite of everything, people are really good at heart. I heard yesterday about a man who leaves hand-carved wooden spoons on the Appalachian trail, where only 20% of the people who start out with the intention of doing so hike the whole thing. Because of the legend surrounding the forty or so spoons he carves each year, the few who find them almost universally complete their hikes. Connection with strangers is that great.
And finally, the fourth practice of true belonging is to have a strong back and a soft front. You can only have a big heart and open arms if you take care of yourself first, strengthening your constitution by taking care of your basic needs.
If you can do that, if you can have a soft front and a strong back, you are more likely to have the kind of wild heart that can take on anything.
So again, the four practices of true, authentically belonging to something larger than yourself are:
People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
Speak truth to BS. Be civil.
Hold hands. With Strangers.
Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.
All of which require bravery. Immense bravery. And thankfully, Dr. Brown has a neat little anagram, a seven letter word that correlates to seven things that have to be present to have trust. They spell the word BRAVING. (2)
B. Boundaries: knowing what is your work to do and what is my work to do.
R. Reliability: doing what you say you will do, which necessitates being aware of your own limitations.
A. Accountability: sincerely apologizing for your mistakes and making amends.
V. Vault: another way of saying confidentiality. Tell only your own story, and keep confidences by letting others tell their own.
I. Integrity: choosing courage over comfort. Choosing what is right over what is easy.
N. Nonjudgment: asking for what you need and letting others do the same, knowing that no person is perfect and being okay with that.
And G. Generosity: “extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.”
If you want to trust others, and if you want to be trusted by others, these are the things you have to tend to:
Boundaries, reliability, accountability, “vault”, integrity, nonjudgment, and generosity.
And you have to make sure people are at least trying to tend to them in order to trust them. But it starts with trusting yourself, and making yourself more trustworthy.
That last requirement of trusting is the one I want to focus on for a bit: Generosity.
Your board of trustees has had as part of its covenant with you and one another that they “assume one another’s good intentions.” It’s created a bit of difficulty, because, after all, an assumption could be wrong, or, worse, it could take away responsibility from both parties to seek clarity. But by “extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others,” in the context of our covenant, and in the context of Dr. Brown’s BRAVING checklist, it’s clear: in order to build trust, we must be generous with ourselves and one another, WHILE tending to every other aspect of trust.
Boundaries, reliability, accountability, “vault”, integrity, nonjudgment, and generosity.
What makes it hard is that we just aren’t living in generous times right now. We seem to be in an era where the default is to always assume the worst intentions of other people, rather than risking connection with them. We don’t trust strangers. And we have no trust in leadership.
Up until recently I’ve always noticed that for myself and others, its harder to be generous toward ourselves than it is to be generous toward others. We’ve typically been harder on ourselves than others have been.
That just doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, at least not out in the public square where single-finger salutations and four-letter words are more commonplace, and in social media where none of the old rules of civility seem to apply anymore. Just a few years ago, cruelty became the norm in settings of anonymity.
Now, people use their full names as they insult and threaten one another openly, without any fear of retribution or accountability.
But that’s out there and online. That doesn’t happen here, in this congregation, among the people we live and worship and journey with. You don’t curse one another out. You don’t wish harm on one another. You show up when you feel like you have something to offer, or something to gain in the process. You take care of the people you know. You reach out, in your own ways, to newcomers.
But. You aren’t exactly totally trusting, either.
Don’t get me wrong. I know trust exists here in profound and meaningful ways. You give generously to the annual pledge and the capital fund, and you seek to ensure that your staff are fairly compensated, both of which are characteristics of trusting the institution. You entrust your children to one another as you act as caregivers, teachers, and mentors. Lots of you have keys to the church.
It’s sounds silly, but whenever there’s a potluck, you trust each other’s food.
You know mine will probably be way too spicy, but you know nobody is going to poison you. In small groups you trust one another to protect your confidentiality as you share the most tender moments of your lives. You trust one another enough to offer your hands during the bond of union.
And most importantly, you invite new people into the trust.
But how do I know trust among our members and friends could be improved?
First of all, if there were more trust, more people would be willing to step up to leadership, not just on the board but as committee and task force chairs. I’m afraid what’s going on is nobody wants to be part of the mistrusted class, whose intentions are questioned.
I’ve also noticed that frequently, when those among us experience extreme personal loss – the death of a loved one, a newly empty nest, bankruptcy, a painful divorce – they stop coming to church. Sometimes for a while. Sometimes forever.
The truth is, none of us feels very generous in a time of such great need. I know when I’m grieving, tending to my own fear or my own broken heart, I don’t feel like being generous toward other people. I get it. I get why people would want to stay away, at least for a little bit.
So, when I’ve reached out to these folks to find out what’s going on,
I haven’t been surprised by the number of times I’ve heard variations on the same thing:
“I want to come back, but I’m afraid people are going to need me to take care of them,” they say. “I’m afraid people are going to ask me how I’m doing because they need me to tell them I’m okay, when really, I’m not. Right now, my heart is broken, and I’m afraid they’ll tell me I’ll get over it just so they can feel better about themselves. Right now, I don’t know if I will.”
And so, they stay away. At first, just for a few weeks, but then weeks turn into months, and it gets harder to face all the well-intended questions and comments, then before you know it, months … have turned into years.
When people are in the midst of unspeakable loss, we aren’t willing to take risks. We’re like the little girl in this morning’s story, watching people coming off the wild roller coasters, dizzy from excitement, and we’re afraid we’ll never have the courage to risk loving again.
It’s a time when we feel like we belong nowhere, as we make our way through the wilderness of despair and loneliness.
And those are the times when we need others to take the risk of being generous. When we’re lost in despair, we need others to extend the most generous interpretation possible to our intentions, words and actions.
I know, because so often what I hear from people who are staying away is something like “What I really need is for people to just be friendly to me.
Look me in the face and tell me they’re happy to see me. Invite me to lunch. Tell me a joke. Act normal.”
When our friends are in the wilderness of despair, its time for each of us to take an extra dose of BRAVING: Boundaries, reliability, accountability, “vault”, integrity, nonjudgment, and generosity.
This is one of those times when I feel I must give you some direction if you want to build trust among yourselves. Think of someone who hasn’t been here in a while. Call them. Tell them you miss them. Respect their boundaries and confidentiality. Listen nonjudgmentally. Give them your time and your care.
That kind of action may just be the thing that helps repair the world, and build trust where it’s lacking.
Acting bravely will be the thing that builds your courage, and your belonging.
May it be so.
(1) Brene Brown. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the courage to Stand Alone. 2017. Random House, New York NY. P. 32.
(2) Brown. P. 38-39.