Ringing the Bell
Now we will have our Opening Reading, words by Reinhold Neibuhr, read by Bruce Turner
Hymn #6 “Just As Long As I Have Breath:”
Embracing the Double-Edged Universe
By Kyle Johnson
A dark treeline against a light grey sky
Mystery of the Universe –
You who some think of not as a being among other beings,
But as the very Ground of Being Itself –
Thank you for this day,
For another sunrise,
Another chance for us to witness the wonder of Creation.
We know that yours is a Creation that is truly double-edged –
A “yin-yang” Universe –
For it is indeed one in which the life giving flame can also burn.
But it is also one in which the dark, cold, misting rain
Gives re-birth to spring.
And it is one in which, paradoxically, our acquaintance with pain and sorrow can help us better appreciate pleasure and joy.
Help us, then, to have the courage and strength to embrace it All,
To embrace what is.
Help us – we, who are similarly double-edged,
Whose love for those closest to us
Can so easily provoke our own tribal instincts and prejudices;
Whose own pain, rather than fostering empathy and compassion,
May turn us inward,
to dig moats, to build walls, rather than bridges.
So help us to embrace this double-edged, yin-yang Universe
with courage and strength,
But above all, help us to do so in a spirit of love and compassion –
For this, it seems, is our eternal challenge,
As it is also the wellspring of our eternal salvation.
About the Author
Kyle Johnson holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. He serves as a lay minister at Follen Community Church (UU) in Lexington, MA.
Hymn # 123 Spirit of Life
Of Our Hearts
A Time for All Ages: “Rituel” a video
CGI 3D Animated RITUEL Short Film by Maéva Gruaz,
Amaury Rospars Maxime Couturat,
Sebastian Durouchoux and
Sermon: “Love Means Having to Say You Are Sorry” by Bruce Turner
In the time for all ages, we watched a girl go through a ritual that taught her to understand and like the creature that she had initially thought of as a monster. When she learned to understand the creature, she came to understand his point of view and felt that it was worthwhile. When the creature realized that she had now knew this, he had taught her his most valuable lesson. He gave her the golden ring--or bracelet--showing that she had achieved a caring understanding that we call empathy. When the creature shoved off the boat taking her back to her world, he knew that he would be turned to stone. He sacrificed himself in an act of ultimate empathy.
Empathy—When we think of it, it seems normal to think about things that we have witnessed. But what are we talking about, anyway? What IS empathy and how far does it extend? How big should we make our world of caring? And how much should we care?
Let’s start small. There is caring by making amends. I was in line in a gelato shop in the evening. The weather had cooled just enough to make a stroll under the trees in the adjacent park desirable, especially when there were so many neighbors and friends to talk with along the way. Everyone was in the gelateria, in all sorts of dress, from guys in coveralls just coming off their construction shift, to kids and parents in shorts and flip-flops, and one elegant vintage couple. He was wearing a tuxedo and she had on a floor-length evening dress. As they turned to go, holding their cones high in front of them prior to administering the first lick under the trees, a little girl tripped. Suddenly his immaculately creased pants leg had a long, bright streak of white goo from knee to cuff, with the main cone melting in the center of his perfectly shined shoe. The little girl looked up at the elderly man and her lower lip experienced an earthquake. She was remorseful in her belief that there was no atonement that could make up for her evil act. She had done a bad thing that marked her as irrevocably exiled from the community of humanity—and she had lost her own gelato.
A tear trickled down her cheek. At any moment, the storm would burst. The old man eyed her with a gentle smile, squatted down eye-to-eye with her and, taking her fingers, wrapped them around his own cone. Her mouth dropped open and she looked at him with the sense of seeing something new and wondrous in life. He smiled, inclined his head to her as he stood up, and walked away into the park with his wife, each taking alternate licks from her cone. There was a ripple of applause from the line, but he may have been too far away under the trees to hear it. The little girl, with her looks, was saying that she was sorry; the man-made amends.
There are other forms of micro empathy.
Most of the time, when I have been on the receiving end of empathy, it is because I made a mistake. I made one oblivious mistake and a man took me in and made me a colleague in laughter.
More years ago, than I like to admit, I lived with my family in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, capital of the Cherokee Nation. Dad was a Deacon in the First Presbyterian Church. There on the western edge of the Ozarks, it was reputed to be a hotbed of leftist ideas. The church lounge was said to have copies of the New Republic and The Nation on the end tables. I was at home alone one Saturday night. Mom and Dad were gone, at some university function and would be back really late. I was happy in my solitude that evening. In the days before DVDs or even Beta, an Oklahoma Saturday night was special. The Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA) showed old movies, usually something classic like Casablanca and then a comedy, often Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. I don’t remember what was on, but it was a great double header and as I watched I got thirsty. There was grape juice in the refrigerator, and I started to drink it. By the time Mom and Dad got home around 1:00 am, I had drunk it all. Dad looked in the fridge and at the empty bottle in the sink and said, “Where is grape juice for tomorrow’s communion service?” Oops! I felt really bad—a dumb 17 year-old-mistake. Boy, was I embarrassed! And sorry.
There were no 24-hour groceries in those days and certainly none open on Sunday morning, so early in the morning, Dad phoned Pop Squyres, who owned the IGA supermarket near the church. Pop was a member of the church and he met us there around 8:00 am and unlocked the store. While Dad was getting the juice, Pop asked me what had happened. When I told him, he put his head back and laughed, loud and long. He was a big guy and you could hear it echoing through the empty market. His laughter took the sting out of things, and I found myself laughing with him. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and predicted that I would remember the story for the rest of my life. As you see, he was right. From being a dumb teenager, I was now a member of a tiny secret society—the Pop and Bruce laughter league.
Empathy can be practiced in several ways. Sometimes it is given back to you when you aren’t expecting it. Face-to-face empathy with street people can be really hard. How do we look at someone who really needs our help without being condescending? Dave was an expert at that. My friend David Yancy and I worked together at RTC for 28 years and often travelled around the country on transit business. We were at a conference in New Orleans on one trip, learning the latest Federal Transit Administration requirements for our upcoming reports. As we came out of our French Quarter restaurant in the evening, a panhandler came up to us. He was dirty, as you get when you sleep in New Orleans alleys; he was missing several teeth, and he was in need of a bath. Dave focused all his attention on this man and for 10 minutes listened to stories about his life and discussed how he might consider getting off the street. Dave had a theory that everyone who asked him for money had a story, but that you had to listen long enough to get over the prepared spiel they gave everyone and get them to talk genuinely about what was really at the heart of their life story. Dave nodded, laughed when the man told jokes, and didn’t take his eyes off the man’s face the whole time. At the end of 10 minutes or so, Dave handed the man a $5 bill. The man took out a small, dirty wad of bills and carefully peeled off 4 one-dollar bills. Then he handed the $9 back to Dave. “I need 27 a day and I got 31 today. Next time you meet somebody like me, give them whatever you normally would and then add these $4 and tell them who it came from. There are people worse off than me.” Dave allowed that man to feel human and respected—more important than mere money. Dave’s empathy allowed the man to feel empathy and was reflected back. And yes, Dave passed the $4 on to a woman in Chicago.
Those are examples of immediate empathy. How do we show empathy to people or groups farther away from us? Though we will hear many denials this election season, one of the most powerful tools of empathy that man has created is government.
How we legislate shows how we view others. Do we have empathy for the people who have lost their identities with their jobs; who live in places where they can see no hope? Or are they just losers who have made poor personal choices. Some people DO make poor personal choices—usually in response to the options they are given. If your family is hungry and you can see no other way to make money, selling drugs may be the only choice. If you, at mid-life, have lost the job that sustained your family, that made you feel respected, and you are prescribed opioids for a job-related injury, you MAY seek oblivion from the hopelessness around you in harder drugs. It is difficult to look at the individual situation and not see a victim, but instead a collaborator in their own downfall—someone that we, as right-thinking middle-class people can’t really approve of. How do we get around this?
I was given a clue by my boss. I worked as a research contractor for the State of Wisconsin Bureau of Alternate Care, a social service agency that looked at community-based solutions to problems of the disabled. Keeping the developmentally disabled at home rather than placing them in a remote institution was our goal. My boss was a Brooklynite named Tony Bruno. He was short and square-built, loud, with a gravelly voice that was all Brooklyn all the time. He had a PhD and 30 years’ experience dealing with the developmentally disabled, from babies to seniors. He was practical and unsentimental. Regarding the people who needed our services and who might have some pretty difficult problems, his philosophy of empathy looked forward and backward. What needed to be done to take care of the immediate crisis and what should be done to prevent such problems in the future? As Tony put it, “You gotta get ‘em out of the ditch and THEN you gotta fix the road.” Fixing the road” means taking care of the long-term problems. That won’t help the victims in the short term, but it will prevent problems in the long run.
So, what can we do to proactively help people in situations to give them the chance to AVOID “making poor choices?” We need to have faith in the people we are trying to help—they just might know what they want better than we can.
First, we have to give them an equal chance at life from the beginning. Public schools must be good and equal. We need to recognize that for this to occur, poorer school districts must have the resources to equal the middle-class districts. This may mean that they must be subsidized to an extent that sometimes, the dollar amount per pupil will be higher than those middle-class districts. This is difficult to envision and hard to legislate. It requires empathy. We need to figure out how to do it.
Empathy is not love, but it is a necessary part of love. Take marriage. We need to understand the most basic hopes and fears of our partner and try to anticipate them; to make them dissipate BEFORE the need for active empathy. Empathy is most effective when it is proactive and not noticed. We can apply this at larger levels.
Another part of empathy is to realize that people are not always just like us. We need universal job training, free for anyone who wants it. You should not HAVE to get a university degree to be a valued member of society. And that job training should be something that people can drop into at any time in life, where they choose what skills they want to hone, or what new ones they want to learn. Recent job training for out-of-work coal miners lacked empathy. It assumed that they would all like to be computer programmers. Not everyone would. AND many of them were later laid off as innovations in software made many of their skills redundant.
If we love enough to have practical empathy, we must show our sorrow for our individual and group transgressions by saying that we are sorry. Love is understanding—the ultimate companion of empathy. When we give love, we must acknowledge those places where we have fallen short of complete empathy. True love means letting those we wish to show our empathy to see that we know we need to do better. And that, as a part of our empathy at whatever level, we will work to improve the effectiveness and the degree of our empathy.
This brings us to the idea of love meaning that you have to say you are sorry. Some of you remember the 1970 movie “Love Story,” with the famous quote, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It was bilge then and it is bilge today. So how do we say we are sorry to society in general?
I think that the best way to express sorrow for one’s actions is to look to the future; to make amends through improving the chances for everyone. Support and vote for candidates and programs that will give everyone an even chance and enable them to choose their own path. That is making amends, that is practically expressing sorrow for our previous obliviousness. That is love, and at its base is empathy.
Let’s Talk About It
Closing Song: Hymn: #16 “Tis a Gift to be Simple”
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free,
‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.
Extinguish the Chalice