Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Revolutionary Relationship

When I was a new minister I had the privilege of being mentored by Rev. Til Evans who believed that ultimately nothing was more important than relationships. She often said the most important challenge was, “moving from I to we”. For her, the divine lived in the space between people, in the quality of that connection. There are many theologians who write and preach about the sacred quality of relationship, but when I was with Til, I really felt it. When we would sit at her table drinking tea and eating whatever delicious food she had prepared, she was always fully present. She gave her whole attention, heart and mind, to me, her guest, and to the quality of what flowed between us. She told many stories to illustrate this point, but one I remember clearly was a time she was sitting at a table outside Starbucks, and a small child wandered, as small children do, over to visit with her. For Til, the openness of the child, reaching out, connecting to a stranger, the immediacy of what emerged between them was exactly what she was always watching for, the moment between them a sacred gift. But too quickly the child’s mother rushed over, apologized to Til, reprimanded the child, herding her away, thus rupturing the moment of sacred connection with a different kind of energy, the energy of propriety and privacy and separateness, of judgement and reprimand. Not long after Til told me that story I had my first child, and I have more sympathy for the mom of that story now. Once you receive enough glares and reprimands for your child simply being a child, you become guarded and wary; reflexively assuming that the natural openness, curiosity and enthusiasm we are born with will be judged and shut down as it ventures into the world. Til’s story is a useful illustration of these two forces that operate in our lives.

I suspect each of you have known these two forces- the sweetness of meeting someone heart to heart, soul to soul, and the walls that keep us apart. Gerald May, psychiatrist and theologian, speaks of this dichotomy in terms of Love and Efficiency. Living in this time and place, it’s easy to believe that our primary role is as efficient producers and consumers, and that our loving relationships to other beings are a sort of extracurricular activity. I felt this acutely as the mother of a small child, serving as a minister of the Palo Alto congregation. The demands of church life are great; e-mails phone calls, meetings and more meetings. No matter how fast I worked, I never seemed to catch up. But time runs differently for small children, who want to stop and wonder at each leaf, each shiny bit on the ground, the joy of running, and the pain of a scraped knee. Every day I felt acutely the tension between love and efficiency. I wasn’t alone. The other parents in the congregation wondered- why is life like this- why is CHURCH like this?

I’ve thought about that question long and hard these past decades, watching the forces that call us to efficiency, that call us to produce more quickly and consume ravenously. I do not believe they are leading us toward greater human health and wholeness , and they are certainly not calling us to support and grow our web of relatedness with other people and with the non-human beings with whom we share this web of life. In fact this system is literally set up to maximize quarterly profits.

In the Christian scriptures, John refers to “Principalities and powers.” Romans 8:38–39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” I’m pretty sure you can call to mind principalities and powers that value and protect institutions of profit at the expense of bodies, of life, of relatedness. I like to call these forces “Empire.” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you too much about what Empire is up to these days; you can’t turn on the news or open your Facebook feed without being assaulted by decisions that make us feel like powerless cogs in an unfeeling machine.

But these drives of empire live not only in the seats of power; empire is woven into the fabric of our lives. All of us, justice makers, activists, parents, ministers, congregations, we all are caught in those same patterns of consumerism, of efficiency and productivity.

What if those life-giving relationships, those sacred connections could be themselves a tool for dismantling empire? According to anarchist philosopher Gustov Landauer this nation, this empire we live in “is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.” [p. 106] By differently, I mean something as simple as a genuine conversation between adult and child at the Starbucks. I mean the instinctive and primal human connections we already have in our lives. We were born to be in relationships. We were born into this interconnected web of life; the idea that we can survive somehow outside it is an illusion. I am speaking of something as simple as bringing the relationships humans have always had into the foreground, of giving them the time and the attention and the love that we too often get seduced into spending on producing and consuming.

Consider the recent success of the marriage equality movement. Organizers say what was ultimately led to the transformation of our laws and our culture was conversations between friends and family. According to API equality “People who know lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people are more likely to accept and support LGBT people. Importantly, people who have actually talked to their LGBT friends, family members, or colleagues about public policy issues that impact LGBT people are also more likely to support policies like employment nondiscrimination or the freedom to marry. Many LGBT people and non LGBT people report that having had these conversations actually strengthens the bond or relationship between them. “[i]

Unfortunately we are living in a time of increased polarization, when it feels harder and harder to have conversations with people “on the other side.” Political views harden and into opposing teams. There are few places where people talk respectfully and listen deeply to those with different views from their own. When folks talk about putting up walls, I suspect they are not talking about putting walls between themselves and their friends, their kin, their community, I suspect they are imagining putting a wall where no connection is felt. That is why, as feminist philosopher Donna Haraway puts it “making kin across divides of species, nation, gender and other borders is perhaps the most urgent task today.” [p.92]

As Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” so poignantly describes, our mainstream society is no longer growing and strengthening the web of kin, the web of connection. We foreground the individual consumer with the freedom to consume whatever goods and services they can purchase in exchange for the money they produce

“Creating intergenerational webs of intimacy and support is a radical act in a world that has privatized child-rearing, housing, subsistence and decision making” write Montgomery and Bergman write in their book Joyful Militancy [p. 101]. This is why we are here today, isn’t it? You could be home right now in your own private residence, downloading a blog about this topic, or one more interesting to you personally, but you got dressed and traveled here because you wanted to be present with this community, with this intergenerational web of intimacy and support. Maybe you’ve felt that holy feeling of connection here. I want to affirm today that whenever you gather in community this is a radical act- an urgent act with the power to transform the fabric of society through the quality of our presence with one another.

Mia Mingus writes “What I’m talking about is reinventing how we love each other and knowing that solidarity is love, collaboration is love. And really, isn’t that what queerness is all about; Loving? I am talking about growing and cultivating a deep love that starts with those closest to us and letting it permeate out. Starting with our own communities. Building strong foundations of love.

And [she continues] I just want to be clear, I am not talking about love that isn’t accountable. I am not talking about staying in harmful and dangerous or abusive relationships. The kind of love I want us to grow is accountable and assertive. Really, I am talking about collective love, where we look out for each other.” [p. 122]

This is important. Real love, real community stays engaged when things get tough, real love has boundaries, real love speaks truth with compassion.

“Because we are going to mess up. Of that I am sure.” Mingus continues “We cannot, on the one hand have sharp analysis about how pervasive systems of oppression and violence are and then on the other hand, expect people to act like that’s not the world we exist in. Of course there are times we are going to do and say oppressive things, of course we are going to hurt each other, of course we are going to be violent, collude in, voice or accept violence as normal. We must roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict, pain and hurt as if our lives depended on it – because they do” [p. 104]

Even in this beloved community there are webs of connection that need to be woven, and rewoven when they are broken. Because despite our intention to be that radical web of kinship and community, we are still part of a society that teaches us many times a day that we are individuals whose freedom to consume is primary. The separateness, the otherness we long to transform in the world is right here, and this is a good place to begin, and begin again. That’s why we have a committee on ministry, so that we can tend the relationships of our community. That’s why I’m so excited about this new Circles process, so that we can sit down together and talk face to face about our experiences of being in community together, what feeds us, what challenges us, and where we need healing.

That’s certainly part of what drew me to seminary 25 years ago, and is at the core of why I’m still committed to our UU congregations after all these years. Our relationships with one another and the wider world has this radical power to reweave the patterns of empire. When I was a Religious Educator, parents often said to me “I don’t have time to work for Social Justice, I’m working and raising my children” But working for Social Justice is not just showing up at rallies and writing your Senator, it is re-weaving the fabric of relationships. So when we raise our children in a way that values relationships over products, we are dismantling empire. When we teach and practice non-violent conflict resolution, we are dismantling empire. When we reach out across denominational lines to make supper at the Methodist church, and across class lines to serve folks we don’t know, we are dismantling empire.

There have been times in our denominational history when UU churches worked for their own individual success and growth, and treated other churches like competitors. But for the 11 years I’ve been a minister in this area, I have been part of a web of relationships of clergy and congregations that links us together. The ministers share their joys and their challenges when we gather. We support one another, and support one another’s congregations as part of our covenant. When we invited the Big Flats teens to be part of our Coming of Age program as our guests, we are dismantling empire. When you send me to preach in our neighbor’s pulpits during their minister’s sabbaticals, and when ministers from all around the area come here this winter to be with you in this sanctuary waiving their usual honoraria, we are valuing relationship over financial gain. Each time we tend the web of relationship inside these walls, or branching out into the larger world, we are re-weaving the fabric of society. We are revolutionaries.

Relationships are revolutionary because that is where we ordinary people use our shared power for transformation. Building webs of kinship is a radical act, is an urgent act in our world, and I challenge each of us to heed the revolutionary call of love.

[i] https://www.apiequalitync.org/what-we-do/breakthrough/