Bring Your Sermon (BYOS) Summer Series

  1. Why does it seem that Western culture has so much difficulty discussing, with any degree of rationality, the big three of Sex, Religion and Death.
  2. It seems to me the most strident of fundamentalists are frightened of the ambiguity of nothingness represented by death. What are John’s views on that subject.
  3. It’s fun to talk about theology but it can be divisive too, and it can degenerate into cant, or worse, doctrinaire judgment, prejudice and hatred. What guidelines would you give for discussing theology with members of our congregation? With our families? With acquaintances?
  4. How do I describe to my 90+ year-old Mother your belief system? If God doesn’t tell you what is right and what is wrong, how do you know?

Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I
touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds….

And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it
Is idle to try to alarm me….

And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but
That does not offend me….

Without shame the man I like knows and avows the
deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I Corinthians 13
Dewey, Hoover, McGaughy, & Schmidt, The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning (Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2010), pp. 98-99.

if I were fluent in human and heavenly tongues
but lacked love
I’d sound like a hollow gong
or a crashing cymbal

if I could interpret oracles
had the key to all the sacred rites and secrets
and every insight
if I had all the confidence in the world
to move mountains
but lacked love
I’d be nothing

if I parted with all that I owned
if I offered my body to the sacrificial flames
but lacked love
t would do me no good

love takes its time
makes itself good and useful
love doesn’t envy
it doesn’t boast
it doesn’t bluster

it doesn’t make a scene
it doesn’t look after its own interests
it doesn’t throw fits
it doesn’t dwell on the negative
it takes no pleasure in injustice
but is delighted by the truth

love uphold everything
trusts in everything
hopes for everything
endures everything

love never falls away
though oracles will cease
tongues will fall silent
insight will fall short

we know bits and pieces
in bits and pieces we deliver oracles

but when the whole picture emerges
the bits and pieces will disappear

when I was very young
I talked like a child
though like a child
reasoned like a child
when I grew up
I put an end to childish ways

now we look at a reflection quite obscure
then we’ll gaze face to face
now I know only bits and pieces
then I shall know as I am known

so then confidence hope love
these three endure
but the greatest of these is
love
I saw a common thread in these four questions and thus grouped them together. From different directions they seemed to ask, “How do we talk about it?” We know it is important to talk about things but we also know that it isn’t easy. We don’t always do it so well. How do we talk about talking?

I guess I would like to start with a few things.

When we talk we won’t always do it well.

We won’t always listen well.

We will say unhelpful things at times.

But sometimes we will do it well.

We will listen.

We will say helpful things.

Just because we don’t always feel good about what we have said and done that doesn’t mean it is impossible to feel good about it. We do succeed.

I just want to say that up front. Communicating is not an impossibility. It is hard for a number of reasons and we can succeed at it. We can elevate the discussion, touch hearts, respect others, honor our integrity, do and say things that make for a just peace.

It is true that we can do it. It is true that we do do it.

In fact, I suggest that we do it more often than we might think we do.

The other day I was waiting for my turn coming on to Highway 26. You get into pole position and you wait for your green light. I was thinking how amazing it is that people follow the rules. There are a lot of cars that get from one place to another. On occasion, there are accidents. On occasion people get impatient or distracted. But overall, the traffic flows and people make it from one place to the next. Thousands and thousands of cars everyday. We succeed.

Our institutions whether they be schools, governments, businesses, or churches, accomplish an incredible number of things, producing things, balancing the different needs and power relationships and various interests, every day, peacefully. Millions, billions, trillions, I don’t know what number to use of interactions happen, every minute, peacefully.

In the United States just as one example, power is transferred peacefully. We don’t go to war each time a new president, a new commander in chief, takes office. There isn’t chaos in the streets when everything breaks down. We take it for granted that the most powerful person in the world, whoever that will be, will take office peacefully.

When I say peacefully, I don’t mean to say that there isn’t disagreement and anger and frustration and all of that, but we don’t break down into chaos and conflict to the extent that life is threatened on a mass scale.

Think about what just happened over this past week. Nine judges debated, deliberated, and democratically as a group made a decision. Four of those judges dissented from the decision. 5-4, a close a vote as you can have. This was a decision that was about sex, religion, values, social structure, and power. All the taboos, all the potential for chaos. The decision affected the entire country. All states are required to provide marriage licenses regardless of the applicants’ gender.

Yet here we are today. Sunday morning. The lights are on. People are still obeying traffic signals. Food distribution continues to happen. The buses and trains are still running on time.

We have developed a level of complexity in our relationships that has allowed us to do incredibly complicated, difficult, and divisive things without destroying ourselves.

I am not trying to sugarcoat things, nor am I trying to say that this level cooperation is guaranteed. Chaos at various stages and levels can happen, does happen, and will happen. I am saying that non-chaos is our expected norm. Trillions and trillions of conflicts are handled peacefully every minute. We aren’t aware of it because this happens at a level that is higher than the individual’s awareness.

This cooperation of negotiating power interests has emerged and it has become a living thing. I don’t know what you call it, but it is the result of the interactions of our aspirations, ideas, inventions, rule-making, and so on and so on.

As Nancy Ellen Abrams points out in her book, A God that Could Be Real, we as individual humans relate to our complex and emerging society as an ant relates to the complexity of an anthill. Both the anthill and our societies have emerged. They are real things. No individual whether ant or human is in charge or orchestrates it or understands it completely.

I say all this as a reason for hope.

We human beings are products of evolution, emergence, and complexity. That seems to be the way universe moves, toward more and more complexity.

While we might look at things as filled with conflict, anger, small-mindedness, and so forth, at the larger more complex level incredible things are happening. The things that we have learned over the ages are not lost but are put into the mix, revised, and made into something new. They evolve.

What have we learned, for instance, in regards to interpersonal relationships? More than I know. I don’t think any individual has or could master all of the information available regarding interpersonal relationships. We know as Paul says, only in “bits and pieces.” This reality of the interpersonal skill-building continues to grow as each of us adds to it and then what we add is absorbed and changed. It is available to us.

Whatever we need in order to negotiate our relationships peacefully actually exists. In the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, the kingdom of God exists within you and outside of you. It is bigger than us and available to us.

I think it is a legitimate position to trust that we can go into a relationship confident of a good outcome. No guarantee and we may not always find the right formula, but it is legitimate to trust that it is possible for a relationship to become better with conversation.

I admit, I don’t always think that way. There are times when I let cynicism have a louder voice in my head than hope. I have to pump myself up for it. I have to remind myself and get tuned in to the bigger reality of wisdom and goodness that has gathered from millions of years of evolution and emergence and is available to me. I guess I could call that tuning in “prayer.” Sitting in traffic amazed that everyone is following the rules is a form of prayer.

Why is it so difficult to talk about religion, sex, death, theology, and politics and what have you?

The easy answer is that these issues are hard. They matter to us at deep levels. We may not even be aware of the levels of emotion these topics have in our own lives. Shame, vulnerability, fear, and survival are often triggered by the mere mention of sex and God. None of these topics is without power dynamics.

Even if we wish to have a fun chat about God or morality, not everyone thinks it is fun. Some people find these conversations, just opening up the topic, to be insulting to their structures of authority and meaning. For some, these questions have already been decided. God already said it in the book and in the correct interpretation of the book.

These topics, especially related to sex and morality, have often been handed over to authorities to decide for us. When we start to claim that power back for ourselves, there is great resistance.
New opinions about Jesus, or historical scholarship of the Bible, or differing ideas about God, or changing rules on who can get married, can be considered to be an affront on everything of value. These topics shouldn’t even be discussed outside of strict parameters. You must stick with the belief system that has been established by God or you are out of the club.

How do we talk to family, friends, acquaintances, people in our communities, people on the internet, or wherever about important things?

I think it is good to be self-aware. It is good to also be aware of power dynamics.
Not everyone is a friend. There are people who will use what you say against you. Before going into a conversation, it is good to have a sense of what you want out of it.

It is a legitimate position to go into a relationship confident of a good outcome. But it is wise to be realistic about what a good outcome might look like. If we think we are going to have a conversation with Donald Trump and convince him to vote with the Green Party, we will likely be disappointed.

Sometimes we want to go for a home run when it is really enough just to stand there and swing the bat. Opening the conversation can be a good outcome. Drumming up the courage to make an “I statement” can be a good outcome. Listening and connecting with another’s feelings without agreeing or disagreeing is a huge outcome.

One of the tools that I have found helpful over the years is the Self-Awareness Wheel. I introduce it to couples who are planning to get married. You will find it on the front cover.

AwarenessWheel1
It is a way to develop self-awareness around a particular issue and to communicate that awareness. When we make I statements as opposed to you statements, when we separate out our observations from our conclusions about those observations, when we are aware and name feelings, and when we are clear about what we want and have done or are willing to do, we actually can converse in ways that help bring down defenses.

Mrs. Smith leaves the room and the door shuts loudly behind her. Mr. Smith is filled with emotions and thoughts and stories. How does he handle it?

When he sees her again, he could raise his voice and say, “There you go again! You get all mad and leave the room and never settle anything!” Then he might just for a twist bring up something she did wrong ten years ago. That is one way to have a conversation.

Another option might be this. Rather than make conclusions about what he saw and heard, allow his emotions to shape his responses, and make “you statements,” he could say something like this:

I saw the door shut behind you.
I thought you were angry and didn’t want to speak with me.
I am feeling frustrated.
I would like you to talk to me about what is bothering you.
I am willing to sit down with you now or later today.

Making I statements are vulnerable and they are non-threatening. They allow for vulnerability in return. We don’t have to defend a position. The key in any discussion that is going anywhere is doing whatever we can to avoid putting people on the defensive. Whenever we can open up a space for others to speak from their heart, we will have a good outcome.

This is pretty basic. I have found that practicing the wheel as I call it, can be really effective. It is when I don’t do it, when I revert back to fight or flight, that is when discussion is less productive.

When it comes to matters of religion, or taboo topics, again there is nothing better than “I statements” and telling stories of how we have come to where we are now.

As we tell we need to listen.

I have found that the wheel is helpful when I use it even with those who don’t. Many times using I statements can bring down the anxiety and level of intensity and can move us to a place where we can engage more productively.

There are times when I don’t need to talk to some people. When their language is abusive or when I have good reason not to trust their intentions, I don’t need to engage them.

Much of the time I find that “the wheel” results in good outcomes, if for no other reason than simply allowing me to become more self-aware.

I am going to close with a quote from Quaker author, Douglas Steere.

“To “listen” another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”
Amen.