A Sermon for West Seattle UU Fellowship
Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan
May 11, 2003
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer
“It Matters” Rev. Robert R. Walsh, Noisy Stones, 1992
“We are all More Human Than Otherwise” Rev. Richard S. Gilbert
We are all more human than otherwise.
The human race—in color white and black, red, yellow, brown,
A vast rainbow bursting into view.
Yet for all—blood is red, the sky is blue, the earth brown., the night dark.
We are all more human than otherwise.
In size and shape—a varied pattern of tall and short,
Slim and stout, lovely and plain.
Yet for all there are fingers to touch, hearts to break,
Eyes to cry, ears to hear, mouths to speak.
In tongue a tower of Babel, a great jumble of voices
Grasping for words, groping for ways to say
Love, peace, pity, hope.
We are all more human than otherwise.
Faiths compete, claiming the one true way,
Saviors abound, pointing to salvation.
Not all can be right, not one—
They unite only in the urge to search.
Boundaries divide us, lines drawn to celebrate our diversity,
Yet a mother’s grief, a father’s love, a child’s happy cry,
A musician’s sound, an artist’s stroke.
Batter the boundaries, shatter the walls.
Strength and weakness, arrogance and humility,
Confidence and fear, live together in each one of us.
Reminding us of freedom and finitude—
These we share in our common humanity.
We are all more human than otherwise.
We are all more human than otherwise. That means that we all frequently struggle or worry about something, something that is really important to us.
At any given time a whole bunch of us:
We wonder about the way we are living our life, and we feel we may have failed in some important way that matters a great deal to us—
This is all to say that we are painfully and passionately human, all more human than otherwise as Dick Gilbert said in our reading, all of us sitting in this room.
Life happens to all of us! And I am impressed by how well we cope with all our stress. We keep on keeping on!
And, there comes a time when we need to talk about our struggles, yet it is difficult sometimes to know who to talk to. We are really good at keeping up our guise of “life is fine.” We answer the rhetorical question “How are you?” with “Fine!” While we may be hurting, everyone else looks like they are doing pretty well. So to whom do you risk answering, “not so fine?” Our friends are busy, and our family members may be part of the problem. It is hard to find someone who has the time to give us their undivided attention.
But another major stumbling block is that we may be reluctant to share our problems because we may worry about what another will think of us. The antidote to this worry is a little maxim: “What others think of me is none of my business.” What others think of me is none of my business. It is so true!
Despite our reluctance to share our troubles, we need to. We need to because it makes us feel better. There is an energy that gets stored up and blocked in us that doesn’t get released unless we do something to let it out—exercise helps, and meditation helps, but talking it out is essential.
Shakespeare said it more poetically when he said,
“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”
And bids it break…
Our emotional and physical health benefits from our giving sorrow words.
But there is more…
Recently an Islamic Imam, the term for a prayer leader of a mosque, quoted our own special UU minister/author Ralph Waldo Emerson—who said: “What lies before us and what lies behind us is less important than what lies within us.” As we each try to be the best human we can be, it helps to share with another what lies within us, our most important thoughts and feelings, those most precious feelings that lie within us, in our sacred heart place—some would call it the soul place.
Soul is a metaphoric word. If you dislike it because of past religious experience don’t use it. But for me—I need it to name that place inside me from which my life energy flows, the spiritual energy that moves me to look forward to my day, the energy that keeps me going even when I’m afraid. Sometimes our soul place becomes dark, when we are depressed, when there seems to be little light. Sometimes our own light goes out and what we need is re-kindling by a spark from another’s flame. (Albert Schweitzer) We become rekindled when we experience someone understanding what is deep in our heart and soul. We become rekindled when someone hears what it is that gives us sustenance…..what it is that scares the hell out of us…..what it is that makes us feel joy.
And so there is a spiritual basis for our sharing and for being a good listener. We humans are participating in a most amazing cosmic process. We have come out of a miraculous, even if only partially understood, creation—and not so long ago really. We are still trying to mature as a species, we are still trying to figure it out. The story of the world is still being told, as we heard in our reading. We are not settled. The world is not done being created, and what we do matters. We are trying our best to be human. We laugh, we cry, we explore and we wonder and we sometimes do things that cause hurt to others. And in this journey we need companionship.
We are at our best as humans when we respond to the struggles and the wonders of other humans by giving them our full listening presence. That’s not easy to do.
We are often reluctant to listen because it is painful to hear of another’s problems and not be able to fix them. It is hard to just be with someone’s pain. But as is so often true, we can learn from younger humans, our children.
There is a story of a little girl sent by her mother on an errand. When she finally returned, her mother asked what took her so long. A friend had fallen and broken his bicycle and she had stopped to help. “But,” her mother said, “you don’t know anything about fixing bicycles.” “I know,” she said. “I stopped to help him cry.”
We don’t have to know how to fix another’s problems. In the face of life’s imponderables, all we should do is sit with another and love them. We just need to be with them to help them cry.
We are often busy and so only give perfunctory attention to listening to ourselves-- let alone others.
How well do you listen to yourself? Do you think there is good stuff inside you? Adrienne Rich, the contemporary poet said of listening to ourselves:
Is too narrow
To understand it all
Beginning with the huge rockshelves
That underlie all that lives
But there comes a time
(perhaps this is one of them)
when we have to take ourselves more seriously
when we have to pull back
from the incantations
the rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves,
bestow ourselves to silence,
or a severer listening.
To the extent that we are good at quieting our rhythms, slowing down and listening to our own selves, we will understand how to pause to bestow silence and listening presence on another. The deeper we can listen to ourselves, the deeper we can hear another person’s story. So the first step in learning how to be present with another is to practice really listening to yourself.
When we do listen to another, we sometimes only half listen. I heard a good example of it in a restaurant. We were out working on our research project—Wayne, my husband, and I were surveying which Chinese restaurants have the best egg foo young! So we were in a booth next to a father and his college aged son—they had some serious talk about the Taliban—I couldn’t help but hear. The son was talking, and then suddenly stopped. “Dad,” he said, “what are you looking at, you are not looking at me!”
His Dad’s eyes had strayed away. He let himself take his focus away from his son. That’s easy to do, we’ve all done it, but isn’t it disconcerting when we are trying to talk to someone and they look away?
One of our Unitarian ministers, Clark Wells, reported on how he learned about this. His little 3 ½ year old boy tried to gain his attention, shortly after the evening twilight began. “Look, look at the shiny star.” Clark and his wife were busy with time, schedules, and the irritabilities of the day and other worthy pre-occupations. “Yes, yes, we see the star—now I’m busy, don’t bother me.” On hearing this the little boy launched through the porch door, fixed his parents with a fiery gaze, grabbed his father’s face and turned it towards the star and said, “You be glad at that star!” (100 Meditations, Collected by Kathleen Montgomery, pp. 77-78)
It breaks our hearts when we try to share something and our friend doesn’t really listen. This little boy knew he needed to share something that touched his very soul. The wonder and awe he felt could not be contained in him. His parents were not present with him—they were busy. We are often busy. It’s understandable. We cannot always be good listeners.
His father reports that he will never forget that moment, when all at the same time he experienced reprimand, disclosure, and blessing.
Blessing. Blessing is what we are about when we are present to another. For when we are present, we are honoring another. A good listener empties his or her self out of any assumptions, expectations or judgments. We all have the capacity to be arrogant. There is no place for it here. The listener respects the other, knowing that the other knows best what is in their mind and heart. Leave your anticipations behind and be willing to be open, be willing to be surprised.
When we listen, we want to fully focus on our friend and hear their story. We want to listen to what they say, and to hear what they might be feeling in their heart. We let them know what we sense. We let them know that we are not just listening to their words, but we are hearing what those words mean to them. Such a relationship of care and respect reflects the meaning of what Martin Buber named the I-Thou relationship.
When we listen this way, it is holy listening. There is a creative interaction that happens between us, where the speaker gets to hear themselves in new ways, thus changing their life and deepening their knowledge of themselves. In the holding space between us lies a mutuality and richness in which the trust and openness changes both people for the better.
To honor our friend so, we are blessing them—we are saying “you are my friend with your own truth, you know yourself best, you have inside you the sources of your own strength. Let me be your companion in your journey, your comforter, but let me not lead you; rather, I will walk beside you.”
Such a blessing it is…such a rare blessing to be given this gift of full listening presence. And it doesn’t cost any money. It just takes a little sharing of our own flame.
All of you in this room are members of the caring program of this Fellowship. May we all provide a little more listening presence to each other, a little more often, as we trek this journey called being human. May such holy blessing be abundant and ever present in your home, and in this community.