Once their were two childhood friends who were determined to remain close companions always. When they were grown, they each married and managed to have small adjoining farms. They built their houses facing one another separated only by a small path.
One day a trickster from the village decided to test their friendship. He dressed himself in a two-color coat and that was divided down the middle, red on the right side and blue of the left side.
Wearing this coat, the man walked along the narrow path between the two houses. The two friends were working opposite each other in their fields. The trickster made enough noise as he travelled between them to cause each friend to look up from his side of the path at the same moment and notice him.
At the end of the day, one friend said to the other, "Wasn't that a beautiful red coat that man was wearing today?" "No," replied the other. "It was blue." "I saw that man clearly as he walked between us!" said the first. "His coat was red." "You are wrong!" the second man said. "I saw it too. It was blue." "I know what I saw!" insisted the first man. "The coat was red." "You don't know anything," replied the second angrily. "It was blue!" "So," shouted the first, "You think I am stupid? I know what I saw. It was red!"
They began to beat each other and roll around on the ground. Just then the trickster returned and faced the two men, who were punching and kicking each other and shouting, "Our friendship is over!"
The trickster walked directly in front of them, displaying his coat. He laughed loudly at their silly fight. The two friends saw his two color coat was divided down the middle, blue on the left and red on the right.
The two friends stopped fighting and screamed at the man in the two colored coat. "We have lived side by side all our lives like brothers! It is all your fault that we are fighting! You started a war between us."
"Don't blame me for the battle," replied the trickster. "I did not make you fight. Both of you are wrong. And both of you are right. Yes, what each one said was true! You are fighting because you only looked at my coat from your own point of view."
I’d like to offer a modification of an old saying. Sermons are what happens when you’re making other plans
We recently began a Worship Associates programme here at New Unity. Our four worship associates take turns working with me to create and lead services. It is an evolving programme and we are still finding our way, but it has been both wonderful and challenging as the Worship Associate and I bring our perspectives to the table and find our way into a topic.
I mentioned challenging along with wonderful. The challenge comes from our different perspectives and it also comes from our different ways of working and – especially – from all the other stuff that we each bring with us. “Stuff” here is a highly technical theological term… We all have stuff. It is from the way our parents raised us, from our childhood experiences, from our culture, from our genetic make-up, from the way we have been loved and hated, teased and cherished… You know: stuff.
Ashley and I have a similar style. We like to sit with a topic, let it ferment for a while, and see what happens. We tend not to rush until the deadline is approaching. At some point in our preparation, I realized that we really did need to get moving with our theme for today and I said in an email: “Well, time's a wasting, and neither of us seems to be too productive on the idea front!”
And then I went on to suggest a story and some other ideas.
“I read, ‘wasting time’ and ‘unproductive,’… alarm bells went off as I worried that this was true and worse that you were accusing me of this, and were annoyed with me.”
And what we had was the potential for a really significant misunderstanding. What we had was the opportunity for walls to go up. What we had was the opportunity for a distance to be created between us that would mean less understanding and sharing of perspectives in the future.
Ashley could have said Red, and I could have said Blue and then Ashley could have insisted RED, and I could have insisted BLUE. Eventually, we might have each said to ourselves “this is not worth the trouble” and – without seeing from each other’s point of view - the unbridgeable gulf would be established. And this happens all the time, doesn’t it?
But Ashley did an amazing courageous thing. She recognized her anger and she recognized the “not good enough” feelings that had been triggered by my message and she did the hardest thing possible. She told me! – when you said “blue”, I saw “red”.
Why was that so hard? Because she risked my reaction. I might have become defensive for one thing. I might have got angry and accused her of accusing me of making her feel bad!
And she took a bigger risk than my reaction – she was showing me how she works – how she thinks – some of the “stuff” that she carries, as do we all.
The outcome was a good one. We got on the phone immediately. We recognized everything that was going on. We got a better understanding of each other and – I dare say – we got something very useful for a sermon out of it!
Let me take a slight diversion now. I recently learned about something called the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity – the DMIS. It was developed by a sociologist called Milton Bennett.
I know it may sound like an unpromising and dry direction to introduce a sociological model, but bear with me for just a moment.
I have never really given a whole lot of thought to how people change and grow in their understanding and openness to different ways of thinking and different perspectives.
At some level, I had a very black and white view. I suppose I just thought you were either a Guardian-reading, lefty Unitarian type who is keen to understand difference over a lovely mezze platter and a Turkish beer or you are a right-wing BNP send-them-back where-they-came-from fish and chips kind of person.
Learning about the DMIS brought much more subtlety to that picture for me. Bennett understands our approach to different cultures as spanning six different stages, ranging from outright ignorance and hatred of difference all the way through a stage where we become more than appreciative and accepting of cultural differences, but positively fluent in engaging across cultures.
What I want to highlight at the moment though is a stage in the middle which Bennett calls “minimization.” People in this stage recognize that there are indeed differences between people and they try their very best not to reject those differences. Instead they try to reduce the discomfort by minimizing the differences they find – they live with the assumption that all differences are simply superficial and mask an underlying identity. For example, people at minimization assume that everyone has similar learning styles. They assume that one type of political system is best for everyone. They assume that ultimately, everyone has the same dreams and desires as they do.
People at minimization expect similarities. From my perspective this is far better than simply hating difference but it is missing the essential understanding that the way I am is not the only way to be. Although the attempt to minimize difference is well-meaning the truth is that our needs are not the same, our ways of understanding and learning are not the same, and our ways of communicating are not the same.
Minimization understands that when you say a “red coat”, you really mean a “blue coat” or that when you say a “blue coat”, you really mean a “red coat.” After all, we couldn’t possibly see things that differently…
The neighbours in our story – if they were in minimization – would simply have noticed the difference between their responses – decided that the other must simply have a different word for red or blue – and left it at that. The very real difference underlying their varying perspectives would be ignored.
When Ashley told me about her inner reality and how she responded to my email, she opened up a window of understanding between us. Her openness helped me understand better and it helped me to also give her a greater glimpse into my own reality.
It’s a small example, I know. And people don’t often walk around with coats that are half red and half blue, but if such a small misunderstanding has so much power to either alienate people or bring them closer together, then our lives are truly filled with these opportunities where we can either be drawn closer or pushed further apart. I’ll quote Ashley here, because I think her words are very wise:
“Deeply honest communication, I think requires a lot of conscious and courageous consideration. It's much easier to hide, or have an argument. Yet it seems that the way to truly support each other and be with each other requires us to step up and be brave, be ourselves, as we are.”
For the current three week period, our world religions course is focusing on Hinduism. As we have seen in many other religious traditions, Hinduism presents a notion of the divine inhabiting each one of us. We may not recognize it as such, but it is there. In Hinduism, it is Atman. Jewish mysticism speaks of fragments of the divine being. Buddhism claims Buddha nature for each of us.
That deeply sacred nature in each of us is so often hidden from view. One metaphor is that our divine light is trying to shine out through a very dirty window.
We clean these windows to the sacred within in all the ways that allow us to be our truest and most authentic selves. It is through honesty and openness – through allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with one-another – through accepting that there really are differences and doing our best to understand and appreciate our diversity.
Sometimes we even clean the windows to the sacred by trying to collaborate with someone – someone who is wonderfully complex and different from ourselves – and engaging in the messiness all the way through to the end of better understanding.
The coat may be red. The coat may be blue. The coat may be both. Ultimately, what matters is how we are with our differences – differences that can alienate and separate or – when engaged in openness and love - open a window into the sacred within.
May it be so.