Vision for our Lives: Loving
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 27, 2015
Vision has been our theme this September. And my vision for how this month would all unfold was slightly different than how, in fact, it did. I wish I could say all the things I could say, say em loud say em clear for the whole world to hear. The beauty about preaching, I’ve learned, is that there’s always next week. Well, that’s the curse of preaching, too: There’s always next week. But I’ll focus on the beauty here this morning. Focus is something we do with our vision. Here’s my focus and my vision:
We are connected, liberating, and loved.
If I stand upon that mountain
Lift my eyes up to the stars,
When I take the trail that’s leading us home
I’ll find that (the choir just sang)
We are connected, liberating, and loved.
By connected, I mean that we are not separate from the planet on which we live, but are born of it, connected to it, connected by it, and must learn to live with the natural rhythms or we will destroy it – or at least our species upon it. We are in the process of changing the climate so drastically that our survival and the survival of other species are threatened – well, species are, in fact, dying off at an alarming rate. And so the other part of our being connected is that we must connect our actions to their consequences and change how we live our lives in this world. We are connected. We are born of the earth.
We are liberating… as a human people, we are ever seeking liberation. Liberation from the social constructs and barriers that keep us from being our best. Liberation helps us cast a vision of becoming something more – as we’ve been saying in our chalice lighting words. Racism, homophobia, identity politics – and the physical manifestations of these constructs – mass incarceration, police profiling, immigration policy which deems some as “illegal”, addiction and drug abuse, violence. I wish I could break all these chains holding me. We are actively seeking freedom from those bonds, freedom for all peoples. We are liberating.
And finally, this morning, I remind you that you are loved. I have no evidence to offer you, no proof to outline. It’s not a rational statement, but a theological implication, a feeling, a hint and a hope. Love is not a sentimental notion, as Martin Luther King liked to say. It is not a sentimental something, but active and creative, understanding and goodwill. And often quite tough, as Blanchard reminds us in the reading this morning. Love is the opposite of fear.
Fear is an interesting emotion. It helped me greatly to understand my own anxieties and fear when I learned that in our evolution as a species, it was, of course, the most fearful who survived. Those who didn’t worry – hey, there’s a tiger over there!- got eaten. But those of us who most feared that tiger and hid, ran, avoided the tiger in some way, survived to have children, who also learned to fear. Fear is a natural human instinct (which we can learn to enhance or diminish) and it serves us well. And it is not enough. In this day and age, the instinctive act of fearing the new and unknown can seriously prevent us from living a full and helpful life.
Love is the antidote to that fear. When you experience a grounding in love that assures you that, in the end, it will all be okay, you can begin to let go of the irrational fears. It may not be fabulous, it may not be great, it may not even be pleasant, but it will be okay. That kind of assurance allows us to go out and explore the world a bit, to try something new, to take calculated risks and to move forward – a way forward to fulfill a vision of what we may have for our lives and the world.
But living love, as you well know, is hard. It can be painful, Blanchard reminds us, to live the kind of love that exists in sharing a regret, asking for help, or communicating hurt. But these are the kinds of risks we can take when we’ve learned to manage our fears and express confidence in the universe and our place in it.
Many of us in this community attended a retreat this weekend, the launching of what we are calling “Beloved Conversations: Meditations on Race and Ethnicity” and a homework assignment we had for that retreat was to watch a movie, Gran Torino, with Clint Eastwood. You may have seen it or heard of it? Filmed in Michigan, staged in Detroit, it’s a movie about a bitter and hard white man, a Korean War veteran, retired auto worker, who has just been widowed. He still lives in his old neighborhood, once all white, now mostly Southeast Asian, with a Hmong family next door. He’s a difficult old man whose sons and their families avoid him and his constant criticism and wrath.
Last week, I talked about naming and prejudice and all the names we can be called, and call others. Well, this main character played by Clint Eastwood, Walt Kowalski, is a master at calling people names. One reason, I’m sure, his sons are estranged. H-mong being, perhaps, the least offensive among them. Purposely pronouncing the H even after being corrected. There was a lot of name-calling and naming in this movie. Words I don’t use in the pulpit and won’t say out of the pulpit either. The names that Walt spews shocks and stings and offends, until you get used to his culture of name calling and begin to laugh at the ways characters return the favor. They are more subtle, perhaps more polite, calling him Walt when he asks to be Mr. Kowalski, or Wally after he asks not to be called that. Dumb Polack That kind of thing. Watching the movie through the lens of naming was fascinating. He even managed to get in that offensive term, Beaner, which I talked about last Sunday.
And it was a hard movie to watch. Not one I had chosen to see before this assignment. I saw the trailers, heard the language and saw the violence, and decided my psyche didn’t need that. And I have a bias against the actor/producer Clint Eastwood. But I’m glad I risked it. It’s a hard movie to watch, but treats the subject of fear and its antidote, love. Which is my topic this morning.
Love. Living love. One character in the movie particularly fascinated me. The young white priest. (you can imagine why I have a fascination with how clergy are portrayed in the movies) but this young priest keeps coming back to Kowalski even after he has made it quite clear (and rudely so) that he does not wish to be in any relationship with the priest or the church. He comes back after Kowalski has insulted him, called him names, and ridiculed his life’s calling. He keeps coming back and engaging Kowalski even though his presence is unwanted. Now, it s a movie, so as fiction it may be unrealistic. I certainly know that in my busy parish, if one of you make clear you do not wish me in your life, I am unlikely to keep showing up in your life when there wasn’t a clear crisis or incident. But as a plot line in the story, it made me think about the hard work of love, and the need to see beyond the flawed expression of a life to the sacred humanity hidden behind crass insults, intimidation and self-loathing.
And our attempts to help always have the potential, of course, to cause more damage, as Kowalski learns painfully in the course of this movie. But I won’t spoil the story line.
The story, however, helps us get from last week’s focus on liberation and naming – to groups and categories of people – to this week’s focus, which is on our particular lives. How do we live love in our lives? What does that look like? How do we make it happen? Why does it matter, even?
It matters because that’s how we heal the world. Fear separates. Love heals. Fear restricts. Love expands.
This movie illustrates beautifully, the research we have that tells us that people have an amazing ability to hold on to prejudices despite evidence to the contrary. When presented with contrary evidence to a stereotype, the human tendency is to count that evidence as the exception but to maintain the prejudice. Walt in our movie slowly begins to see the humanity in his particular Hmong neighbors even as he holds on to prejudices about Hmong people.
And so the lesson in that is it takes us longer than we’d like to unhinge those social categories we put people into, and that to really invite people who are different from us into our lives, we have to learn to risk true relationship.
I actually think that’s what church is for, a gathering place where we can learn to risk true relationship. That, of course, doesn’t often happen on Sunday morning – it may begin here, but it’s certainly not enough. No, it begins when you join a small group – an adult education class, a circle supper, a covenant group, forum, or committee, and you have an opportunity to get to know others in that group, and risk exposing your true self, and welcome learning surprising things about others. Or it begins when you leave Sunday morning, and go home and try a different response to an old family dynamic, or go to work and try to really listen to a co-worker whose talk has become like a broken record in your head. Or at the picnic this afternoon, when someone makes a broad generalization about Unitarian Universalists that doesn’t include you and your life, and you risk sharing the truth of your life and experience with them and challenging their stereotype.
Living love can be hard. We may like to paraphrase Francis David when we say “We need not think alike to love alike,” but living those words is much harder.
But that’s what vision is for. It allows us to name something first, and then work patiently toward that goal. And if we keep naming it –woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom – persistently, patiently, repeatedly – we may someday grow to embody our vision, to create it, to make it so.
We need not think alike to love alike. Francis David may not have ever really said those words, but they persist within our tradition because they articulate a vision we have for who we are and who we want to be. We want to live our lives on the spiritual level of love, we want to stand on the side of love, we want to know that we are loved, and we want to love ourselves and others into becoming something more.
We know fear. We experience fear. We may fear others because we’ve experienced wounding by people, even some we loved. We may fear change because we were hurt by unwelcome change in the past. We fear because we are biologically hardwired to protect ourselves from danger. We may even have been trained as a soldier like Walt Kowalski. But this fear restricts our ability to stand on the balcony and see a larger context – it keeps us focused on immediate survival, me against the world. The good news is that our bodies are also hardwired for love. And all this hardwiring, we know, can be altered – we can grow and change. We can grow new connections, learn new patterns, and choose. We can choose love over fear. Love actually expands our understanding. It is the emotion that allows us to connect with others, see from another’s perspective, glimpse a fuller picture and stand on the balcony.
When we love, we can risk telling the truth, even when its hard or ugly, because we know that we are a part of a greater love, a larger universe with a bigger story.
We are connected, liberating, and loved. That is my vision. My trinity, if you will, for Unitarian Universalists. We are connected, in mystery and miracle, to the universe, to this community and to each other. We are liberating. We are ever seeking liberation for the lives of all the peoples, including our own. And we are loved. We are held in a greater love which we can learn to trust and share and create.
Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us to love individuals who are caught up in the system, and to seek to defeat the system. And who is not caught up in the system? And so we must love ourselves and each other, even as we seek to change the world which has shaped us and birthed us. Love is how we do this.
Living love is a pretty tall order, but that’s what vision is for. A vision is not just a picture of what could be, says Rosabeth Moss Canter. It is an appeal to our better selves, a call to be something more. And if I may be so bold, I think that’s why we’re all here this morning.
Remember that you are loved. Go forth and love the hell out of this world.