Whenever I meet newcomers to Unitarian Universalism, one of the things I talk about is the community – that it plays a bigger role for us than it does for many other religions. We don’t come to church on Sunday mornings to pay homage to a deity and improve our chances of making it into heaven. Or at least most of us don’t. We come to church as part of a spiritual quest, undertaken with others, in community.
When I talk to newcomers about our beloved community I’m thinking about the support we give each other, the meals when someone is sick, the joyous get-togethers, the confidences we share when times are tough, the deep friendships. That community is warm and that community is fuzzy, and I’m sure whoever I’m talking to understands that’s the kind of community I mean.
As we proceed along our spiritual path, however, it’s important to realize that community can also be cold and community can also be hairy. Community is fickle. It pats us on the back one day and laughs at us the next. The same community that brings a casserole to our door when we’re sick complains when we’re late with a project we volunteered to complete.
Communities nourish us and communities drain us, and communities are an essential part of being human. (repeat)
I‘ve had my struggles at times with the religious communities I’ve been part of, and I have come to believe that those struggles – what I’ve learned from them – have been as important to my spiritual growth as any books or any teachers. Our religious communities are laboratories where we can examine ourselves and how we interact with others – w
here we can get better at making love the spirit of all of our interactions.
When Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield first became a novice monk in Burma in the 1960s, a lot of the older monks in the monastery were not really there for religious reasons. In a land without Social Security, some of the older men took their vows and shaved their heads so they would be supported by dana – contributions from the surrounding villagers – through their final years. They had no real respect for Buddhism, and Jack had no real respect for those members of his community.
One day the abbot of the monastery had a talk with him. “Jack, do you understand the practice of bowing to the senior monks?” the abbot asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Jack. “I always bow to the senior monks.”
“No, I don’t think you understand,” said the abbot. “You’ve been bowing to the most senior among us, monks like me, but you are supposed to bow to every monk more senior than you are.” Which meant every other monk in the monastery.
Now when we talk about bowing in a monastery in Burma, we’re not talking about the gentle “lotus to you” that Carol and I sometimes do. We’re not even talking about the deep bend at the waist done by the Japanese. We’re talking about going from a standing position to kneeling on both knees, touching your head to the floor, and rising again to a standing position – three times – every time you encounter a more senior monk.
So Jack began doing that, bowing three times to everyone else in the monastery, and for it to be genuine, he had to focus on something about each individual that warranted respect. So that practice became part of his spiritual growth – finding something to honor in each of the monks in his community became a gift that helps him find something to honor in every person he encounters.
Community is hard. Community is messy. The Judeo-Christian Bible is filled with examples. Moses got so pissed off at his community for building a golden calf and dancing around it that he hurled and broke the first tablets with the Ten Commandments. Then, the way business policy specialist Richard Hamermesh tells it, Moses led the Israelites for 40 years on a journey that could be walked in forty days because he realized he had to “change his people’s culture from one of passivity and slavery to one of self-government.”
I have nothing quite that dramatic to share about my experiences in UU communities, but I’d like to talk about a couple.
Some years back when John Morehouse was the minister here, he and I used to chuckle from time to time over UU political correctness. It was in the days when more and more we were switching some of the pronouns we used in songs to the feminine. I had seen a comment on a UU email list objecting to that. This person thought we should have a neutral pronoun for all the people who don’t identify with either gender. John and I got a big laugh at that. I guess neither of us was aware of anyone like that.
Hold that thought for a minute. This year at UUMAC – the Unitarian Universalist Mid-Atlantic Community, which I attended along with Carol and our son Carl – I met the second transgender person whom I’ve gotten to know at UUMAC over the years. This was a transgender woman who still had many masculine characteristics, and I had a hard time using the right pronoun for her.
We were in the same workshop and became friends, but I kept saying things in the workshop like: “He – I mean she – did that well.” So I apologized one day as we walked from the workshop to lunch. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” she said. “It’s easy to get confused. I’m confused, too. I don’t feel entirely male or female. I’m somewhere in between and I wish we had a neutral pronoun in English like they do in Swedish.”
The UUMAC community had brought me side by side with what I had thought of as a joke just a few years earlier.
I describe UUMAC as summer camp for the whole family – one week a year for UUs from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia – to get together on a college campus near Allentown, PA, with activities for all age groups. But that’s not an adequate description. To understand UUMAC, it would help to imagine all of the warm and fuzzy things that happen in a UU church community over the course of a year and smoosh them into one week. So far so good, right? Now take all the cold and hairy things that happen in a UU church community over the course of a year and smoosh them in there, too. Now you can understand UUMAC. All of it into one week. It’s intense.
Carol and I began attending UUMAC with our two sons about 18 years ago. We met some wonderful people there and formed some close relationships, but Carol is better than I am at taking the ups and downs of community in stride, and I stopped going after the first eight years or so, badly hurt by some of the stuff that happens in a close, intense community. Among other things, I felt dishonored after being the Director of one UUMAC and the President of two. Carol and our son Carl continued to attend, and this year I joined them again.
I felt the warm fuzzies immediately… and I’ve become better at letting the other stuff go, or maybe it’s more accurate to say learning from the other stuff, letting it help me on my spiritual path. The effect of this year’s UUMAC on me was all about tearing down walls, letting myself get close with people I might never befriend outside of a community like UUMAC. That indeed is spiritual growth.
I’ve come to realize that I’m never going to change any community’s capacity to hurt me from time to time. What I can control is my reaction to that hurt. If this is beginning to sound like marriage, that’s not a bad analogy.
As an aside, Nick Murray, who writes a newsletter for financial advisers, said this in a recent article: “People do not change. (If you doubt this, get married. If thereafter you still doubt it, get married again. You will anyway.)”
There is a Buddha story that took me a while to appreciate.
Kisa Gautami was a young woman from a wealthy family who was happily married to an important merchant. When her only son was one-year-old, he fell ill and died suddenly. Kisa Gautami was struck with grief, she could not bear the death of her only child. Weeping and groaning, she took her dead baby in her arms and went from house to house begging all the people in the town for news of a way to bring her son back to life.
Of course, nobody could help her but Kisa Gautami would not give up. Finally she came across a Buddhist who advised her to go and see the Buddha.
When she carried the dead child to the Buddha and told him her sad story, he listened with patience and compassion, and then said to her, “Kisa Gautami, there is only one way to solve your problem. Go and find me four or five mustard seeds from any family in which there has never been a death.”
Kisa Gautami was filled with hope, and set off straight away to find such a household. But very soon she discovered that every family she visited had experienced the death of one person or another. At last, she understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once Kisa Gautami accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She took the child’s body away and later returned to the Buddha to become one of his followers.
When I first read that story, what the Buddha did seemed uncharacteristically cruel, sending Kisa Gautami off on another futile quest. She had already gone from house to house. Now he was sending her back again. I didn’t understand why the result would be different.
But as I thought some more about it, I saw that at first she was this weeping crazy woman going door to door with a dead baby. Not an easy object of compassion. We lose patience quickly with someone desperate making demands that can’t be met. When the Buddha sent her back, she was calmer, with a question for the residents of every household: “Have you had any deaths here?”
That must have led to conversation. She listened. She learned about others’ grief. I think she already understood that death was inevitable. What she learned was that she was not alone in her grief. Grief is something we all can share if we approach each other the right way – in loving community.
We all want our religious communities to be loving and compassionate. Love is the spirit of this church. But because communities are not any more perfect than the people within them, our communities will sometimes fail us. We will sometimes close the door when Kisa Gautami comes knocking with her dead 1-year-old.
We all need to be more compassionate, of course. We’d like never to fail anyone in our community. But I’d suggest that perhaps a harder task – and one with even greater potential benefits – is to learn how to cope when the community we love fails us.
We need to recognize, as Jack Kornfield eventually did, that there is something bow-worthy – something to honor – in every member of our community. And when we feel that our community is not honoring us, if we can manage to stay the course, and to look deeply into that experience, what we learn may be a breakthrough in our own spiritual growth.
Please rise for hymn number 1021 in the teal hymnal, “Lean on Me.”
So just call on me, brother, call on me, sister, call on me sibling without gender, when you need a hand. We all need somebody to lean on.
Copyright 2015 Mel Harkrader Pine