Community – Rev. Jane Thickstun

Community – Rev. Jane Thickstun

May 24, 2015

Prologue to the sermon:

Kay and I have some facts about geese that can give us a few lessons about our life together, courtesy of Rev. David Abbott.

“It has been learned that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.”

            Lesson: When we share a common direction and a sense of community, we can get where we are going more quickly and easily because we are traveling on the thrust and uplift of each other.

“Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone, and quickly gets back into formation, to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front.”

            Lesson: If we have the sense of a goose, we will stay in formation with those who are headed the same way we are going.

“When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing, and another goose flies up front.”

            Lesson: It pays to take turns doing hard jobs with others.

“The geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.”

            Lesson: We, too, might “honk” from behind. It is probably best if we “honk” encouragement.

“When a goose falls sick, or is wounded by a gun shot and falls out, two geese fall out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with the weakened goose until it is able to fly, or until it is dead; and then they launch out on their own or with another formation to catch up with their original group.”

            Lesson: If we can stand by each other like that in our church community, people will be lining up to become members.

 

The Sermon

The small town of Potsdam, New York, where I grew up, lives in my memory as the ideal community. It was a community much like the one Richard Louv describes in the reading. It had everything I needed and nothing I didn’t need. A town of 7,000 in the almost unknown region of extremely northern New York State, Potsdam was, for me for a long time, the center of the universe. The Raquette River runs through the center of town, and from Ives Park downtown you could go swimming or ice-skating, depending on the weather. In the summer there was an ice cream social outside the Civic Center. With two 4-year colleges, it was not so small a town that everybody knew everybody’s business. We had music and culture through the colleges, and ice hockey. We also had great community theater. I felt connected to a network of friends and acquaintances who were all connected to each other in some way.

Since leaving Potsdam, I have lived in a couple other small towns, a mid-sized city, and two large metropolitan areas—three, counting Atlanta. In the small towns, I quickly found myself embedded in a network of friends and acquaintances who knew each other. In the metropolitan areas of Chicago and Washington, I quickly became lost. People work in one locale, and live in another. I never ran into people I worked with at the grocery store. And when I would go to bars in younger years, I noticed that in the metropolitan areas, people sit and talk only with the people they came in with, whereas in the small towns everybody interacted with each other.

At some point when I was in Chicago, I realized that the lack of community was a problem for me, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Then I started going to the Unitarian Universalist Church. I originally went to find new ways to nourish my spirituality, but was delighted to find that here was a place I could find that sense of community that had been so lacking in my life in the big city.

Community has long been undervalued in our society, because Individualism is our heritage. It is the flavor of this American nation, and especially of this Unitarian Universalist denomination. The founding of our nation and the liberal religion that arose at the same time both have their roots in the Enlightenment, and both are characterized by its highly individualistic view of the human self. It was our own Ralph Waldo Emerson who was the philosophical champion of individualism, saying things like, “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” He believed people should act from themselves, “tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window….” He preached non-conformity and independence from European culture, and our young nation ate it up. For 200 years, this strong individualism has been the predominant worldview of our country and our religion.

But of late there has been a shift in thought that it is not the individual that is the primary unit of human society, but community. A self is not an isolated being, but is defined only though its relationships. The group comes first; we are formed by the lives that intersect ours. There is no individuality without community. So our cultural value of independence actually works against our basic nature, which is interdependent.

 

The reality of our interdependent nature and our need for connection was brought home to me by a recent article about addiction, titled “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.” Author Johann Hari tells of an experiment that was long used to prove the addictive nature of certain drugs:

“Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.”

This experiment established the belief that addiction was inevitable given the nature of certain drugs.

But then a professor noticed something odd about this experiment. “The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So the professor built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, he wanted to know, will happen then?

“In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

“The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.”

There are studies of humans as well, of soldiers being addicted to heroin in Vietnam and no longer needing the drugs once home, and medical patients using heroin in the hospital but no longer needing it at home. Hari concludes that addiction isn’t due to the drug itself, but to the environment. He says, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

 

Our very nature is interdependent, and we need to be in community in order to thrive. But a genuine community is more than a collection of individuals. A genuine community is not found, but created. It offers tremendous rewards, but it is also work, and can involve pain and sacrifice.

Many of have a tendency to sentimentalize community. We tend to lift up the promise of personal nurture that community offers, and forget or ignore its challenges. In a recent thread on the ministers’ chat list, the value of home schooling was weighed against the value of being in a true community where you don’t get to pick those you associate with, where you come into contact and even conflict with the school bully and others. There was a recognition among the ministers that as much as we’d like to protect our children from such experiences, we also wish them to have the learning that comes from precisely such experiences.

And with the rise of the internet in just the last decade or so, increasingly the communities we associate with are in cyberspace. These communities are unlike geographical communities in that they are very selective. They consist of people who have the same interests or think alike on important issues. In such communities, we no longer bump up against people who challenge us to see things a different way. And in spending our time with these pseudo-communities, we are becoming more disassociated with our local, flesh-and-blood communities.

A genuine community is not made up of just our friends, or people like us. To be a true community, it must be diverse and inclusive. Everybody must be welcome, just as they are. Much of the challenge of being in community comes from the need to honor everyone’s needs, while yet not letting any individual’s needs outweigh that of the whole community.

In a genuine community, a healthy community, we are able to be ourselves fully, with all our needs and quirks and personalities, and yet at the same time able to subsume our individuality into the whole. To the extent that we can let our own needs be subservient to the greater good, to that extent we are enlarged—we take on a greater purpose, a purpose greater than our own survival or that of our family.

Community challenges us, and it changes us. And it asks that we make a commitment.

When I first went to Midland, Michigan, I went now and then to the contra dances that happened two Saturday nights a month. I missed them often when my sermon wasn’t finished in time. Then I realized that the dances provided an important community for me, and I needed to make them a priority. I worked them into my schedule and became a regular. When I became aware of a need to help run them, I started showing up early. And when I became aware of a need for another caller, I applied myself to learning how to call dances.   I realized that the more I put into it, the more I got out of it.

A church community is much like the dance community. We can just attend, and enjoy programs that others create, but the real value only comes when we make a commitment and become an active member of the community, prepared to stick with it even if it gets difficult. The more you put in, the more you get out.

Without a certain level of commitment, we aren’t able to hang in there through the pain of conflict to work through to the rewards that follow. We create community, we “weave the invisible strands of community” by being there for each other, by making a commitment to a community and participating in it wholeheartedly, in the good times and the tough times.

In every relationship, and so in every community, conflict is inevitable. What distinguishes a healthy community is its ability to resolve conflict.

In his book, A Different Drum, M. Scott Peck says that the reason a healthy community can resolve conflict without resort to “physical or emotional bloodshed” is that its members have “laid down their weapons and their armor, have become skilled at listening and understanding, they respect each others’ gifts and accept each others’ limitations, they celebrate their differences and bind each others’ wounds, they are committed to a struggling together rather than against each other.” (p. 71)

In community, we bump up against others who see things differently than we do, who have their own way of getting things done, or whose needs conflict with ours. The bumping sometimes hurts, but in the process there is opportunity for growth. If we keep ourselves apart to avoid getting hurt, or leave when things aren’t to our liking, we deprive ourselves of the challenges of community and so also the rewards.

And the rewards are great. Peck says the most common thing he hears from members of groups that have achieved community is “I feel safe here.” To feel truly safe to be ourselves is a rare and valuable thing. We are fed by the caring, listening, acceptance and understanding that a community can provide, and it only works if we feed others too.

In our UUCA community, we have a congregational covenant that guides our behavior and helps us resolve conflict. I’d love to have us read the whole thing, because it’s that important, but it might make the service unduly long. So I’ll just lift up some important parts and urge you to go look it up on the website.

Our covenant starts by saying “We will be mindful of how we communicate with and about others,” and describes specific intentions to achieve that. Similarly with the agreement to seek a peaceful and constructive resolution process when conflicts arise, to celebrate the diversity within our community, and to build the common good. This Covenant of Healthy Relationships ends by saying, “Our commitment to one another ensures that our community will be a safe and inspirational place in which we, as individuals and groups, can live out our spiritual journeys.”

I’d like to share a couple of stories about how community works when it works well.

The first is a story in a book by Aimee Wise, who is associated with this congregation. The book describes her time as a nun in Africa, and in this story, the local people were excited because a hippopotamus had turned up dead in the river. They waited for the messsengers to get back from asking permissions. The government said it would be unsafe to eat the hippo, since no one knew why it died. But when the other messenger came back, saying “Chief Tengani said yes!”, they immediately began dessecting it.

Wise tells us, “As the minutes and hours passed, the dismembered hippo was piled high on the sand, forming a mound twice as large as the animal itself. . . . Then the women took over; the wives of the area chiefs had first pick, then others came, baskets in hand, to claim a share of the motherlode. Each took only small portions of the meat. No one rushed in to take more than the others.” Wise reflects that, “besides the exotic nature of the event, what stands in even stronger relief is the memory of a community—which never had much to eat—sharing in equal portions what was unexpectedly provided.” (p. 206-207)

The second story is well-known; I’m not sure where I originally found it.

A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, “Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”

The Lord led the holy man to two doors.

He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and

made the holy man’s mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful.

But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering.

The Lord said, “You have seen Hell.”

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth

water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here

the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, “I don’t understand.”

“It is simple,” said the Lord.          “It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other.”

 

We here at UUCA are lucky. A congregation is one of the few forms of intergenerational community. Here we have all the ingredients for a healthy, thriving, inclusive community that transforms lives. Just remember—the more you put in, the more you get out. And remember the lessons of the geese:

 

When we share a common direction and a sense of community, we can get where we are going more quickly and easily because we are traveling on the thrust and uplift of each other.

If we have the sense of a goose, we will stay in formation with those who are headed the same way we are going.

It pays to take turns doing hard jobs with others.

We, too, might “honk” from behind. It is probably best if we “honk” encouragement.

If we can stand by each other like that in our church community, people will be lining up to become members.

 

Our dear Emerson, individualist that he is, also says, “We are not born free, we are born with a mortgage. That mortgage is a debt, a debt that we owe to the past and to the future. While we live, we pay interest and then pass it on to the next generation. That’s how churches, communities, and nations survive; by accepting what has been bequeathed and passing it on to those that come after them. This ritual of receiving and giving is an act of Thanksgiving.”

Our community is one that exists not just for us here now, but is extended through time, both past and future. It is our responsibility here and now to ensure the health and continuity of this religious community, even as it feeds us and contributes to our individual health and well-being.

If we pay attention to the lessons of the geese, we can fly together. I’ll honk encouragement to you, and I’ll listen for your honks of encouragement to each other.