I’ve been thinking about onions.
I have been away in the US for two weeks as I wrangled with the UK Border Agency to get a new visa to come back home. While I was there, I used one of my finely honed skills from this congregation – I made a lot of soup. If you’ve been to poetry and meditation on a Wednesday, you know what I’m talking about.
So, as I prepared to make soup, I looked at all of those ingredients – the raw garlic, broccoli, raw parsnips, courgettes, onions – and a few secret ingredients that I will not disclose. And I thought ‘how odd.’ I don’t want to eat any of this stuff raw and most of it, even if it was cooked, I wouldn’t be that keen to eat it on its own. And all of that goes double for onions.
But soup… I love soup. And I love what happens to onions in soup.
I want to tell you about a very interesting tribe in South Africa. They are called the Babemba. When a woman is pregnant, she and a few friends go out into the wilderness where they pray and remain still and in deep meditation until they hear the unique song of the unborn child.
You see, they understand that every person has it own unique vibration and purpose. And when they hear the song, they sing it out loud. They go back to the tribe and they teach it to all the others.
That unique song is then sung at every important event in that new life: at birth, when starting education, upon reaching adulthood, and at marriage. And then finally, when death is near, loved ones surround the person and that unique song is sung a last time as they leave this life.
But there is one other time when this song may be sung. When anyone in the Babemba tribe commits an offense, they are brought into the very centre of the village. All work stops and every single man, woman and child in the village surrounds them.
They speak to the offender one at a time – not in accusation or blame, but to remind them of every good thing they have done in their life. The circle can last for days.
And at the very end, that unique song is sung again, and the offending person is welcomed back into the circle and heart of the tribe.
The tribe – the community – very plainly and concretely calls that individual back to their best self.
We all know that religion is unpopular today. I dare say that that unpopularity is well deserved in most cases. Religion can be an oppressive, divisive system. It can fill its adherents with guilt and shame, and it can make them passive and paralyzed as they wait for some supernatural force to come and fix things.
We are not that kind of religion – so far from it that we almost want to use different words to describe ourselves here.
On hearing about Unitarianism, most people can’t quite believe it, right? But another reaction is ‘I don’t need to go to church to do that! I already believe that stuff and do it on my own.’
Well, there is something special about soup. An acrid-smelling onion goes in and a sweet tasting delight comes out. The soup – that diverse mix where flavours interact and play and challenge each other – brings out the best in all of the ingredients.
The Babemba know how easily we can stray from our best selves and they know that community is the place where each of us – through challenge and support, conflict and love – can best come to be our best selves.
The Wiccan priestess and author, Starhawk puts it this way:
“We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been — a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.”
It is this circle that community can be. It is this circle that we aspire to being.
I won’t pretend that it is always easy. Community means more than support and sweetness – it also means challenge, it means confronting radically different perspectives and ways of being. It means work as we all pitch in to build and sustain the kind of community that can hold and safely simmer this exquisite mixture.
But all of that heat and diversity in the safe and loving caldron of community creates the rich soup of abundant life and wholeness.
May it be so.