Saturday, December 24, 2016
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
Several years ago at Advent the writer Anne Lamott wrote about how things falling apart and breaking into pieces all around her were really the signs of something great about to happen. She wrote:
Broken things have been on my mind lately because so much has broken in my life this year and in the lives of the people I love — hearts, health, confidence. Our preacher, Veronica, said recently that this is life’s nature, that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we will never meet. She said the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and that we, who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers. And then she went on vacation…
Besides the big brokennesses, I’ve noticed all sorts of really dumb things breaking lately too. I’ve had a dozen calls from friends reporting broken cars, water heaters, a window, even a finger. So I’ve been on the lookout for something wonderful to happen, because of this story I heard recently
Carolyn Myss (who writes and lectures about healing) flew to Russia a few years ago to give some lectures. Everything that could go wrong did — flights were cancelled or overbooked, connections missed, her reserved room at the hotel given to someone else. She kept trying to be a good sport, but finally, on the train to her conference, she began to whine at the man sitting beside her about how infuriating her journey had been thus far.
It turned out that this man worked for the Dalai Lama. And he said — gently — that the Dalai Lama believes and he believed as well that when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born. (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott)
When a lot of things start going wrong, when everything is breaking into pieces and falling apart all around us, something new, something big and lovely, is trying to get itself born. I want this to be true. I believe that it is true.
It has been a hard year. The litany of the hard is very long, even just starting closest in with our own families and communities, with the illnesses and the deaths of loved ones, the opiate crisis, which impacts so many and our young adults so disproportionately, the painting of swastikas and other acts of antisemitism in small towns where we thought we knew how to work together.
Moving outward, the list continues with our bitterly divided country, where so many are reeling from the wave of intolerance and bigotry that has risen in the wake of the election. Moving further outward to the world where refugees are desperately fleeing civil wars and the rise of brutal political regimes by the millions, where Christmas Markets in Germany are no longer safe, where Syrian civilians, babies and elders, wait in Aleppo for days in the cold, without food or shelter, to try to get on bus to take them out of their war torn city. There is increased fear and intolerance and the closing of borders everywhere. People, governments, countries turning inward, deciding that anyone who doesn’t look or think or sound or believe like us is the enemy. People, governments, countries pretending there are easy solutions to complex problems or choosing change at any cost and without thought, much less responsibility, for the consequences.
When a lot of things start going wrong, when everything is breaking into pieces and falling apart all around us, something new is trying to get itself born. This time I believe it is nothing less than humankind trying to find a new way of being human, another way to live as one people on this small planet we share. This is an immense thing to try to get born. And though the idea that we belong to one another is not new, we have not yet been able to bring it into being. But it is trying. I believe this. And even more, I believe that the more of us believe this and join in the struggle to get this new thing born, the more likely it is to be true.
I heard a wonderful story on NPR the other day about a small, fairly economically depressed town in Vermont called Rutland, which has gotten itself certified as a resettlement area for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Starting in January they are going to be welcoming 100 new people all from Iraq and Syria to their little town. The townspeople started an organization called Rutland Welcomes which now has several hundred volunteers and 29 different working groups. The UU church is hosting free Arabic lessons so that people can speak to the new comers at least a little bit in their own language. A local college profession who specializes in cultural studies is helping the public school teachers understand how to welcome the new students. They have already collected rooms full of furniture and supplies. They have been showing movies in town about Iraqi and Syrian culture, and having guest speakers come to help the residents of Rutland better understand the people who are soon to be their neighbors. Housing costs are low in Rutland; the population has been in decline. There are some job opportunities nearby and there is room in the schools. The town leaders hope the newcomers will help revitalize their community — that they will bring art and culture and food and a new sense of vibrancy.
Not everyone is thrilled of course. The NPR story said the town was deeply divided but, reading the stories in the local papers, I have to say it did not sound that way. Some people were worried of course or skeptical about how things would go. Some were struggling internally, with their own fear and resistance, wrestling within themselves, saying things like, “I don’t want newcomers in our town who are so different from me. But my grandparents were all immigrants. They got to start a whole new life here because people like me welcomed them.” Something new being born in the little Vermont town of Rutland, Vermont. People are opening their hearts, opening their community in ways none of them could probably have imagined a few years ago. This can happen other places if we help it.
And I recently heard this story from my colleague Rev. Shayna Appel, a UU minister who had just returned from a week at Standing Rock, North Dakota. She went to Standing Rock as a chaplain when the call came from the Native American Water Protectors protesting the oil pipeline being built there asking for skilled chaplains to come. Shayna is an EMT so she answered. She heard this story from a man she met there named Steve who witnessed the story happening. Sometime during the week of December 5th, Steve wound up accompanying a number of young adults representing a few different Native American tribes to the Sheriff’s Department of Burleigh County, which is in Bismarck, the town closest to Standing Rock. This was in response to a call put out by the sheriff that the department needed supplies because due to the presence of all these people at Standing Rock, in their words a stand-off, the officers needed to be outside for long periods in the freezing cold. Shayna explained that among many Native people there is a deep commitment to being aware of the impact your actions have on others… including the people you are opposed to or in conflict with. There is an awareness that we are responsible for all of the consequences of our actions, intended and unintended, including on the people we are opposed to or in conflict with.
These young people, some of whom helped start the action at Standing Rock and were leaders there despite their young age, immediately realized that the increased needs of the local Law Enforcement officials were a result of something they had started and they felt a responsibility, an obligation to answer that need. So they filled up a truck with supplies, winter gear, food, blankets, pocket hand warmers, the kinds of things you need when you are outside for a long time in freezing weather and they headed to the Sheriff’s Department in Bismarck.
When they got there they knocked on the door. An officer answered in a simple work uniform and told them to wait so he could get his sergeant but a few minutes later the door opened again and there was an officer in full riot gear…flack jacket, helmet, visor, and an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle. Maybe it was the same man, maybe it was someone different, but clearly the officers were troubled by the young Native people who had come to visit; they did not know what to expect and at least one of them was prepared for the worst. A young Native woman was standing at the front of the small group when the officer in riot gear appeared, and she did the only thing she could think of at the time, which was that she walked right up to him and put her arms around him and hugged him. I can imagine her speaking in a low voice as she held him, We’re just bringing you supplies. We are just bringing you some things you need.
Keep in mind that the previous weekend, law enforcement personnel from this same department had used tear gas and pepper spray, rubber bullets and concussion grenades against the Water Protectors, trying to get them to move, and when those methods did not work, they sprayed a water cannon on people for over 3 hours in sub-zero temperatures. And no matter how you feel about those actions, even if you believe that the police were just doing the job they had been ordered to do, think for a moment about the response. Because that is the new thing. The response was blankets and food and hand warmers. The response was gentleness and taking responsibility and trying to meet the need in front of them. Because the young Native leaders understood something that the rest of our country, the rest of our world, desperately needs to understand. We are all in this together and we are all responsible for one another.
All of us, including those with whom we vehemently disagree, including those whose ideas and beliefs and actions we detest and will protest with all our being. We are all in this together. The young Native American leaders understood that there is another way to be human, that we do not just have to be allies or enemies, for or against each other. The Water Protectors are passionately committed to their cause. They are committed to prayer and to peaceful resistance, And they also refuse to de-humanize the people who disagree with them.
I think of that young woman hugging a man in full riot gear with a rifle in his hands and I am reminded of the baby whose birth we celebrate tonight. I am reminded of that baby who grew up to live a life that was all about compassion, all about inclusive and unlimited love, especially for the people who his society and culture, much like our own, did not value: the most vulnerable, the outcast, the marginalized, the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, the disenfranchised. He taught that the way forward, the only way forward is love.
Something in us yearns to be reminded that love like this is possible, that we are capable of this kind of love. Something in us years to know that we can find another way to be human; we can help something new to get born. We have to believe it but not just in our minds or even in our souls, we have to believe it with our whole lives. If not for us, then for our children and grandchildren.
My 13 year old daughter was in the car when that story about refugees coming to Rutland, Vermont came on. She turned up the volume and leaned forward to listen harder. When it was over she said to me with great urgency, “Are we doing that?” ” Not yet,” I said. “Well, we need to start,” she told me. We need to start.
In this night
Let something be born in us
That heals the brokenness
That does not bow down to hatred and fear
But rather meets them… and offers them love
Let us, this night, choose all the gifts of life we are offered.
(by Lois Van Leer, slightly adapted)