Welcome to this place and to this community
Welcome with everything you’ve done and everything you are
Welcome as who you are and not who you think you’re supposed to be
Let the flame we now kindle bring us together
May it help us see one another as we truly are
And meet that true self with acceptance and love
Such Singing in the Wild Branches, by Mary Oliver
It was spring and finally I heard him among the first leaves -
then I saw him clutching the limb in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness -
and that's when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree -
and I began to understand what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass stopped for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing -
it was the thrush for sure,
but it seemed not a single thrush,
but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky - all,
all of them were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last for more than a few moments.
It's one of those magical places wise people like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true, is that,
once you've been there,
you're there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Message, by Andy Pakula
Today is the last Sunday of our three-month long theme on cultures. I know from many of you that it’s been a powerful time. Some of you have started to think differently because of all we’ve done and talked about.
It’s had a very major effect on me. Here’s a tip - if you ever want to challenge the way you think and compel yourself to develop new and different perspectives - write and present a Sunday Gathering every week. Every time I do, I end up growing. It’s not always comfortable - it’s almost never easy - but it works.
So, if you thought I’ve got some storehouse of wisdom ready to be doled out each Sunday like money from an ample bank account, it’s not that way at all. We’re on this journey together.
One of the most important parts of this theme for me was looking at my and our own culture. It is hugely powerful to become more aware of the assumptions we bring to the world and that we apply to our encounters with others. Much of what we expect and many of the criteria we use to evaluate people are based on the culture and cultures that shaped us.
And we also have to know that - with the many cultures we bring with us here - New Unity also has a dominant culture. And that matters tremendously for how welcome people feel and how comfortable they can feel being themselves. We have cultural norms that fit some of us perfectly and don’t fit others nearly so well.
And this thinking led us to consider what it really means to be - as we say each week - a radically inclusive community of faith.
That’s actually a perfect intro for the next theme, which is about faith and belief and mystery… What is this ‘faith’ thing we’re talking about? We’ll be exploring that together from next Sunday until the end of the year.
What does it mean to be radically inclusive?
Last week, we talked about communities that are like salads, stews, or pureed soups. In salads, our cultures sit side by side but don’t influence one another much. In purees, we are pulverised and liquified to the point where there’s no difference at all between one person and the next. It’s like some sci-fi story where some alien power forces everyone to have the same thoughts. It’s not interesting and it’s not at all welcoming to anyone unless they’re ready to be liquified and homogenised into the mix.
I said that I believe in stew communities - places where we influence each other to become richer and more tasty, but we also retain our individual character. This is the vision we hold for New Unity - a place where new flavours are welcome and where we are all changed for the better by our connection to one another. It’s a community of interculturalism - cultures that mix and enrich one another and evolve.
We talked a bit about how the Golden Rule is great if we are all identical. If we are, then treating others as we want to be treated is perfect.
But if we are diverse, then the Golden Rule has us give Chocolate cake to someone who’s allergic to it because it’s what we like. It encourages giving a big hug to someone whose religion forbids touching people of the opposite sex. It guides us to invite someone on a date to see a film they will hate followed by drinks when they don’t touch alcohol.
Something more is needed if we are committed to diversity. I mentioned The Platinum Rule - “treat others the way they want to be treated.”
And I said, the key to making people feel welcome is to accept them exactly as they are, not as you want them to be.
The Golden rule is easy and it’s easy to accept people as what we think they should be and the way they pretend to be as they try to fit our expectations.
I am human. I have dreams and disappointments, fears and determination. I want to be seen and heard. I am not perfect and I don’t want to pretend that I am. I want to be accepted and loved as I am.
This is where the hard work comes. The Platinum Rule and being radically accepting mean knowing others deeply - knowing their perspectives - how they are different from you - and it means understanding their fears, their strengths, their longings, and their failings - as they are. And it means overcoming the barriers inside of each of us that keep us at a safe distance and make us harsh judges of ourselves and others.
We are talking about growth and deep practice. We are talking about a practice of living into the kind of knowing and understanding that we so badly need in the world.
Knowing and understanding begins with listening. Until we can listen deeply, we can’t begin to know one another - to know the deep needs and beauty and imperfections we all carry with us. The author and Psychiatrist, Rachel Naomi Remen, said it powerfully:
“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.... A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”
I think that’s enough talking about doing. It’s easy to have this in our minds and harder to practice it in real life, so I want to invite you to do some listening. Find one other person in the room - preferably someone you don’t know well - you can move around the room to pair up.
Here are the instructions. You’re going to take turns being the talker and the listener. So, choose now who will be the listener first.
OK, listener. Your job is to listen super carefully and attentively. You won’t talk at all except maybe to say ‘yes’, or ‘uh huh’... You can nod, smile, anything to show that you are listening and hearing the other person.
And talker… You can talk about anything that comes to mind that is about you. That might be about what you’re thinking about cultures, about acceptance, about New Unity… It might be about your week… anything as long as it’s about you.
OK? Each of turn will be three minutes. I’ll ring a chime when it’s time to switch.
Take a minute now to tell each other how the experience of listening and talking were for you.
This is how we begin to know and to be radically accepting - putting aside our concerns about what we have to say and how we seem to someone else - so we can just be present and listen.
Quick, then - open the door and fly on your heavy feet;
the song may already be drifting away.