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Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

In 1620 a group of about 40 religious refugees boarded a merchant ship leaving England and sailing for the “new land.” Others called them the “Separatists,” or the “Congregationalists” because of their desire to separate from the Church of England and return to the ideals of the Protestant Reformation. They oh-so-humbly called themselves the Saints. With this, they clearly aligned themselves with the religious cause: they were holy people, distinguished from the “Strangers,” the other people on board the ship who were from some other religion, or perhaps no religion at all.

You know this story–it’s top of our minds this time of year. You know how hard that first winter was for this band of Saints and Strangers. You know about the generosity of time and spirit shown to these immigrants by the Wampanoag tribes. It’s a story many Americans have historically celebrated. When told rightly, it reminds us that the USA wasn’t just built on grit and perseverance; it was grounded first on hospitality and generosity.

We’re sorely in need of that reminder.

Today, our world is more connected than ever before. The journey that took those early Europeans several months is a mere day’s flight by plane. We can talk instantly to anyone in the world and social media lets us keep up to date on any number of details about a person’s life.

But new circles of Strangers and Saints have also being drawn. They’ve been drawn around city dwellers versus country folks, Democrats versus Republicans, Christians versus Muslims and Evangelicals versus Progressives. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone mourning the division and vitriol that exists in our country right now. If you’re feeling that way, you’re not imagining it. Polls measuring political division, racial division and economic division are all showing a record high.

The root of all of this is, of course, fear. We all know that. But I don’t think it’s just fear of the world changing, or fear of “the other.” Those are secondary fears to a deeper fear: the fear of being known. We lash out at other people when our own fears of not being good enough take over. We shut down because we are afraid that if someone sees our vulnerability, or our flaws, or the thousand ways we’re not perfect, they will find us unlovable.

What better camouflage is there than to block ourselves off into ever smaller and smaller groups, narrowing the category of who belongs and keeping everyone else out with bluster and bravado?

***

In 2010, witnessing the growing divisions in the country, a couple of people set out to make a change. On the surface, it seems like their plan was pretty simple—they were just going to get people to talk. In their living rooms. So they called the project Living Room Conversations and started creating ways for people to get involved.

I was trained in the Living Room Conversations model last month and although it’s simple on its surface, it’s revolutionary in practice. It’s built around the simple practice of telling stories and sharing dreams. To date, they’ve created 65 conversations around topics like immigration, zero tolerance policies in education, religious freedom, race and incarceration or student debt. In short, all of the hot button topics today—you know, the ones all of the pundits and politicians are yelling at each other about on television and Twitter.

Here’s the genius of these conversations: they’re not meant to persuade or cajole. There’s no talking points. And each conversation, no matter whether you’re talking about gun control or legalizing marijuana, starts with the same three questions:

  • What sense of purpose / mission / duty guides you in your life?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are and what makes you “tick”?
  • What are your hopes and concerns for your community and/or the country?

People who have used this model say that it works wonders and I believe it because it starts with relationships. People are given the opportunity to know and love each other before they’re asked to start solving problems. They’re given a way to love each other before they can start looking for ways to hate each other.

What’s even more amazing is that people are doing it. They’re inviting others into their homes, or setting up groups in divided churches, or maybe participating in a conversation online. People are hungry for connection. They’re hungry to be known as more than someone “on the other side” of a problem.

Author Dan Allender says, “stories obligate.” Stories connect us to something greater than ourselves. Truthful storytelling enables us to learn each other’s joys and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and fears. “Stories obligate” because they remind us that we’re all in this journey together and that we all share a duty to know and to be known.

***

Just as these Living Room Conversations don’t start with our differences, they don’t end in our commonalities. There’s no pretending that everyone sees eye to eye–which, quite frankly is just another way that we hide ourselves off and refuse to be known–instead people recognize their differences and choose relationship anyway.

The call to love is a call to love intimately. Click To Tweet

In some ways, it’s much easier to love our enemies than to love, I don’t know, our families at Thanksgiving, because we keep our enemies far away from us. (Plus, we already know that we don’t like them, so we’re not upset when they disappoint us.) With the people close to us—our families, our friends, our fellow church members—love sometimes takes a lot more work. These are the people we see up close and personal. We see them before they’ve had their morning coffee, or when they’re rushing around on a Sunday morning. We know their flaws and we have every opportunity to be irritated by them.

We take a risk when we commit to loving each other; to truly love someone we must truly know them.… Click To Tweet

The bridges that we need to build to heal our world can only come through relationship. The more that we silo off into our self-categorized groups of saints and strangers, the less likely we are to do any real loving. All of our love will be conditional. It’ll be love that’s only given as long as we see eye-to-eye.

I believe that people of faith have a unique ability to play a role in the healing of the divisions that exist and it’s because we’re practiced at the work of building relationship. It’s more than just a theological commitment to love, we actually get to practice working at it. We know what it’s like to stay in relationship with others–even when we don’t agree with them–because we do it over and over and over again.  

Jesus gave his followers quite the task list: feed the hungry, care for the prisoner, protect the child. But above and beyond all of that, he instructed them to love one another.

All of these other things, these other cares and concerns of the world will tear us apart if we’re not grounded in love. But the reverse is also true. When we are grounded in love, all manner of things are possible. Differences might be overcome, flaws might be overlooked, vulnerability might be welcomed so that in the end, strangers and saints find themselves all part of the same great big circle of love. May it be so with us.

The Simple Prayer That Changed My Life

The Simple Prayer That Changed My Life

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam

Even before we learned the alphabet in my seminary Hebrew class, we learned this. 

We wondered aloud what it meant the same way you might taste your way through a dish at a neighborhood potluck. We rolled the words around in our mouths and picked apart the ingredients. Adonai: Lord, a substitute for the unspoken name for God. Someone pulled this from an Amy Grant song. Melek: king. Someone else pulled this from an obscure hymn they knew.

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe.” Our professor aided our translation until we arrived at the right one.

And because we’d heard it first in a tantalizing foreign tongue, this sentence registered as equally poetic, its rhythm marching a gentle beat across the room as we repeated the words back to her.

This ritual formed the beginning and end of our class together. We learned to complete the prayer in traditional fashion, offering praise for the many delights of our day. I knew I had learned Hebrew when I began dreaming it and I knew it had changed me when this prayer surfaced equally mysteriously throughout the day.

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who makes the sun rise in the East.”

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who sends rain on the just and unjust alike.”

picture of cairn

 

The following summer, I taught the prayer to a group of middle schoolers I took to camp. I printed the Hebrew and English words on large poster board, holding it up in the dewy morning light of our outdoor chapel. It framed our numbered days the same way it had for me a year earlier. I stopped using the prayer after that. This wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that gradually happens, the same way a favorite shirt eventually gets pushed to the back of the closet, loved but largely forgotten.

I was reminded of it recently at a writer’s conference where rabbi and blogger Rebecca Einstein Schorr* mentioned the Jewish practice of saying 100 blessings a day. It’s a practice meant to recognize God’s presence in even the most everyday details.

I haven’t yet worked up to 100 blessings a day. Honestly, I probably average about 3, which I usually squeeze in between waking up and having my first cup of tea, then forget about in the hustle of whatever comes next. I murmur thanks over lunch, if I stop long enough to actually sit. Sometimes I pause when I prepare a lesson for Sunday, or  later when I survey the refrigerator for dinner.

Wednesday, though, I sat at the pool chatting with a friend and watching our kids play and five tumbled out–heartfelt silent thank yous for the sun, for friendship, for healthy kids, for teenage lifeguards, for water that flows abundantly enough that we just play in it.

And just like that, the ordinary suburban life–lugging kids, coolers, swimming suits and sunscreen to the pool became a holy in-breaking of God’s grace.

This, I suppose, is the point. If we parcel out our thank yous, carefully noting them to be sure we’ve reached our quota, we’ll never reach 100. But when we let the the practice guide us, attuning our hearts to the goodness all around, we might just breathe 1000 prayers in one precious, sacred, ordinary moment.

Blessed are you, Oh LORD our God, whose requirements bring light and life.


*A caveat for inconsistent memories: My friend Susan attributes this lesson to Jamie Coats, who is also taught us amazing things and is equally capable of saying it. So many wise, wonderful teachers.

6 Non-Religious Thankfulness Poems

6 Non-Religious Thankfulness Poems

Several weeks ago I spoke to a woman who was in a mixed-belief marriage. She’s Christian and her husband is agnostic. (I’m still looking for interviewees, if you know any couples like this! I’d love to talk with them about what works, what doesn’t and what they’ve learned on their journey together.) One of their challenges was saying grace before meals. For her, a blessing was essential but for him, the religious component made him feel squeamish and judged. Since squeamish and judged is never how we want to make people feel, I suggested that they try some non-religious thankfulness traditions before meals. With a growing awareness that gratitude plays a huge part in contentment, the couple agreed that building opportunities to recognize their abundance was important. This gives them a way to do that as a family while showing love and respect for their individual spiritual journeys.
Thankful Blessings
With Thanksgiving tomorrow, many families will be sharing their tables with people from a variety of faiths and philosophies. If religion is a touchy subject around the dinner table, here are some ways to be grateful together:

“For what we are about to receive
let us be truly thankful
…to those who planted the crops
…to those who cultivated the fields
…to those who gathered the harvest.

For what we are about to receive
let us be truly thankful
to those who prepared it and those who served it.
In this festivity let us remember too
those who have no festivity
those who cannot share this plenty
those whose lives are more affected than our own
by war, oppression and exploitation
those who are hungry, sick and cold

In sharing in this meal
let us be truly thankful
for the good things we have
for the warm hospitality
and for this good company.”

“Let us enjoy good food and good drink,
And let us thank all whose efforts have set them before us;
Let us enjoy good companionship,
And let us each one be good company to the others;
Let us enjoy ourselves, without guilt,
But let us not forget that many are less fortunate.”
At secularseasons.org, credited to George Rodger, of Aberdeen, Scotland

My daughter’s preschool, mini college in Glenwood Springs, sang this before snacks and meals:
“There are many things I’m thankful for.
I can see them near and far.
There are many things I’m thankful for, let me tell you what they are!
I’m thankful for the earth, I’m thankful for the sea.
I am thankful for my friends and I’m thankful to be me!”

Another mixed-belief couple I know uses this before meals, sometimes changing the last line to “We thank you God for everything:”
“Thank you for the food we eat
Thank you for the friends we meet
Thank you for the birds that sing
We give thanks for everything”

“We are blessed today, with enough to eat,
May we be grateful.
We are blessed with clothes to wear,
May we be grateful.
We are blessed with shelter from the elements,
May we be grateful.
We are very well blessed today.
May we remember that there are many people
who do not have these blessings.
May we be grateful enough to help others when we can.”
From Abby Willowroot at spiralgoddess.com, copyright 2008

Happy Thanksgiving to you all! May we find ways to be grateful this week and always.