Encountering Change: A Chaplain's Perspective

Encountering Change: A Chaplain's Perspective February 23, 2017

(This comes from Rev. John Cooper, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and a chaplain. His faith journey has led him on a wide path, including natural spirituality, rationalism, shamanism, Buddhist studies and Kung Fu.)

I have been struck by contrast today, a polarization of opposites.  It is early spring (or maybe late winter) here in the desert highlands, and the very weather seems to speak of polarization.  Yesterday, it was warm and clear enough for me to walk for an hour outside without a coat on, today, after a shift overnight, there is a dust of snow all over the mountains, melting into the ground in the valley.  Just a few hundred feet above me, the snow is blocking roads and causing delays, whereas a few hundred feet below, it feels like a cool spring day.

I feel like the weather and political climate are synchronized.  The weather moves back and forth between winter and early spring, thaws interrupted by moments of freeze.  Cold snow still falling not far from where new buds of hope whisper throughout the valley.

When I look to the news, it seems to shift between springs of compassion and rhetoric of icy exclusion.

Erase Bullying. Photo from the Province of British Columbia (cc) 2013.
Erase Bullying. Photo from the Province of British Columbia (cc) 2013.

In the news today, it is Anti-Bullying or “Pink Shirt Day” in Canada and that struck a chord.  As I watch political leadership that seems to have lost the ability to confront disagreement with polite kindness.  A recent NY Times article “The Culture of Nastiness” laments the loss of civic disagreement, quoting Professor Andrew Reiner at Towson University about how people have come to believe, “If I disagree with you, then I have to dislike you, so why should I go to a neighborhood meeting when it’s clear I’m going to disagree with them?”

Disagree in Kindness

The ability to disagree with one-another in kindness and respect is often a challenge for Unitarian Universalists in our congregations.  We are a strong-willed, critically-minded, and gracious people who struggle to learn to share our diverse and powerful opinions and reflections with one-another in ways that are engaging, accepting, even welcoming of “The Other.”  Civic disagreement is a spiritual practice for us.  This is a place where our movement has something powerful to offer the larger world.  Whether we come from Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Humanist, Pagan or other religious roots and beliefs, when we enter into a shared UU community, we learn how to civically disagree with one-another, not only in the arena of faith, but in the areas of community administration, worship planning, religious education and more.  Our way is to walk together in love and care for one-another, even when we disagree with one-another.  It is our highest of callings; to welcome that which is different into our midst, to welcome it with a holy curiosity, and to treat it as a sacred stranger, to be fed, encouraged, uplifted and learned from, even when we disagree.

Not too long ago on Patheos, The Zen Pagan Time Swiss wrote about the sacred nature of hospitality, reminding us that it is not only the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that treat hospitality as a sacred responsibility, but the ancient Celtic and Norse traditions as well.   The Havamal, the Poetic Edda of Odin’s wisdom says “Scoff not at guests nor to the gate chase them, But relieve the lonely and wretched.”  The call to be hospitable to the strange among us is ancient and profoundly spiritual.

I recently preached a sermon in my local UU congregation entitled “Encountering Change: A Chaplain’s Perspective” which would have been perhaps more aptly entitled “Encountering the Other: A Chaplain’s Perspective.”  The key anecdote in the sermon was about how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr talked about his white jailers in his infamous sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” (which is an amazing read, and an even better listen, if you have never heard it, go listen now – wait finish reading this, then go listen).

During his stay in Birmingham, the Rev. Dr. King visited with his white jailers daily.  They would approach to tell him how his views on integration and equality were wrong, he would debate, and then he would listen.  Through those conversations, the Rev. Dr. King discovered that they were earning salaries similar to many of the people of color in his movement.  That was a powerful realization that Rev. Dr. King came to discover because he was in conversation with The Other.  His conversations with his white jailers helped to clarify for the Rev. Dr. King that he was struggling against not only racial injustice, but economic injustice as well.  In his sermon, Rev. Dr. King said that he would preach first, calmly because they wanted to talk, and that it took two or three days of polite debate before they could listen to one-another.  Two or three days of polite debate.

What I take from that is that polite disagreement, civil engagement, is a prerequisite for differing views to hear one-another.  Like the flip back and forth between the seasons that I see today – we humans cannot find common ground in our disagreements unless we can first move civically and politely back and forth through our seasons.  It is how we are made.  It is manifest in the creation I see around me.  Like the transition from winter to spring, we have to shift between our differences with respect before we get to the part where we hear one-another.

Flags at 25 Beacon, photo by Chris Walton (cc)
Flags at 25 Beacon, photo by Chris Walton (cc)

As members of intentionally diverse Unitarian Universalist communities, I think that we have cultivated this practice perhaps more than our neighbors.  This time is a time where we have an opportunity to lead – in our places of work, our neighborhoods, the schools our children attend – we members of the Unitarian Universalist movement have an opportunity to demonstrate and model how to disagree with one-another respectfully, in love, yet without losing sight of our own values and position.  Perhaps through our spiritual practice of engaging that which is different with sacred curiosity and welcome, we can help this world around us, which grows ever ruder in its disagreement, to remember how to argue with civility.  Maybe then, we can all get to the part, two or three days down the road, where we learn something new from one another.

We can get to the part where spring emerges from the conversation.  Perhaps even to a warm summer.

“Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named…but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”

― Robert A. Heinlein, Friday

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