Got Culture

We gather together
People of purpose
People seeking meaning
People who yearn to bring more love into our divided world
We are joined by so much that matters, and yet we are not the same
We come with the stories and truths and ways of our histories
And of the peoples and communities that have shaped us
Let us come here today with all that we are
Fearing not to be fully ourselves
Daring to bring all of us
May the light of this flame reveal the beauty in our differences
The potential in our diversity
And the power of love that can hold us together


Strange and Foolish Walls by A. Powell Davies

The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious.
Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might.
Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion.
What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?
Here we are – all of us – all upon this planet, bound together in a common destiny,
Living our lives between the briefness of the daylight and the dark.
Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else?
How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!

When My Mind is Still by Paul Beattie

When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I remember things too easily forgotten:
The purity of early love,
The maturity of unselfish love that asks --
desires -- nothing but another's good,
The idealism that has persisted through all the tempest of life.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I can find a quiet assurance, an inner peace, in the core of my being.
It can face the doubt, the loneliness, the anxiety,
Can accept these harsh realities and can even grow
Because of these challenges to my essential being.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I can sense my basic humanity,
And then I know that all men and women are my brothers and sisters.
Nothing but my own fear and distrust can separate me from the love of friends.
If I can trust others, accept them, enjoy them,
Then my life shall surely be richer and more full.
If I can accept others, this will help them to be more truly themselves,
And they will be more able to accept me.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I know how much life has given me:
The history of the race, friends and family,
The opportunity to work, the chance to build myself.
Then wells within me the urge to live more abundantly,
With greater trust and joy,
With more profound seriousness and earnest service,
And yet more calmly at the heart of life.

Message, by Andy Pakula

I first arrived in this country about ten years ago. My wife, Miriam, had come over a couple of months earlier, so she had already found us all a place to live and knew how to use tubes and buses.

At first, life here seemed a bit strange. It was strange in the way any new city is, of course. You don’t know which are the safe areas, the dangerous ones, the best places to eat, the tourist traps…  all that sort of thing.

It also seemed strange because it was foreign to me. People spoke differently. They used some different names for things, different vernacular, and different intonations. I had to learn to say “would you like anything from the shops” [with the British descending tone at the end of the sentence] instead of “would you like anything from the shops?” [with that American ascending tone at the end.]

But it wasn’t long at all before I got acclimated. I learned quickly about which hand should hold a fork and which one a knife. I learned to say pavement instead of sidewalk, queue instead of line, lift instead of elevator, bill instead of check, petrol instead of gas, and courgette instead of zucchini, among others.  I learned how to correctly pronounce some essential words like basil, herbs, oregano, banana, tomato, answer, and urinal.

Slightly harder was recognising that figures of speech were different and that greetings could involve strange kisses into the air at the side of one’s head, and that hugs were often seen as some sort of assault.

But I settled in. I started to recognise these people of Britain as pretty much the same as Americans with different customs, different accents, and a few different words here and there.
In many ways, the fact that the people of my new country spoke English misled me. It made me fail to notice that the differences ran much deeper that I had at first thought.

And this was a perfect introduction for me to what is summarised on the cover of your order of service. It shows culture as an iceberg. I saw the part outside of the water. I was encountering a different culture. I immediately noticed the different artifacts and the different customs. I soon recognised there were different heroes and heroines than in the US. Clothing was different. Behaviour was different - including the ability to recognise queues at a bus stop that were invisible to me.

But I - like the Titanic - failed to recall that by far the larger portion of the iceberg is submerged. Fortunately, I did not sink, but I did get a few gashes in my hull as a result of running into the invisible, submerged cultural differences.

After several years, I realised that being called bold or courageous was not necessarily a compliment and could be quite the opposite. I realised that yes can mean no and that - especially with British people who grew up before American television was so pervasive - I would never know where I stood from what they said or how they said it. I did not and still don’t fully understand what made them tick, what values drove them, and what stories were foundational to their way of being.

This is about culture. Today is the beginning of three months where Sunday Gatherings will touch on culture in some way. And it’s specifically about cultures - about the many ways of being that can separate us and bring us into conflict when we don’t fully appreciate the enormity of everything that lies under the surface.

Focusing on culture is even more relevant now than it was when the Sunday Gatherings Team planned it at the end of last year. Cultures played a part in Brexit. Cultures are part of xenophobia. Cultures are part of Britain First and send them back and UKIP and all the rest.
Although my difficulty in understanding and even recognising the culture differences between Britain and my home, it is rarely as easy as it was for me.

One of my favourite examples is from an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation. It’s call Darmok.

The Federation of Planets - our team - has been receiving messages from a civilisation called the Tamarians. The Enterprise with its crew who are the focus of the series are sent to make contact.

When they do, their Universal Translator allows Tamarians and the Enterprise crew each to understand the others’ words, so they try to communicate. But it’s no use. The words are clear. The sentences of either race make no sense to the other. Everyone gets frustrated and some start to get suspicious and even hostile.

As a last resort, the Tamarians send their captain - Dathon - and Captain Picard of the enterprise to a nearby planet.  There, Dathon tosses a dagger to Picard and says “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”  Picard thinks he’s being challenged to a duel and refuses. Not a good move politically…

When night falls, Picard can’t build a fire but Dathon shares his, saying “Temba, his arms wide.”
Finally, Dathon comes running toward Picard, who realises that he is being chased by a dangerous creature. They fight it together, but Dathon is badly wounded. As Picard tends to a dying Dathon, he comes to understand that Darmok and Jalad were warriors who met on an island called Tanagra and worked together to defeat a dangerous beast there, becoming friends in the process. Dathon had not tried to fight Picard. So desperate was he to bridge the gap that language could not, he had tried to recreate the ancient Tamarian event, hoping that their shared adversity would create understanding where words could not.

Without a deep knowledge of Tamarian story - Tamarian culture - real understanding proved impossible.

Although we might not think so, this is true for our relationships across culture. It is not enough to speak the right words or follow the right customs. That’s only the visible part of the iceberg.

Being able to communicate on Twitter, as we’ve seen, does not mean we can even begin to understand across a cultural divide. Without knowing the stories and assumptions deep beneath the words, there is no real dialog.

Our words and deeds and attitudes are shaped by qualities that are submerged. They are invisible to the eye and only yield to deep exchange and earnest relationship-building.

We may think of culture as the way other people are. I doubt that some of the politicians dominating the discourse these days would recognise that their countries too have a culture. It’s not just those other people who have a culture - ours is just as strange to them as theirs is to us.

People who communicate too directly, who talk loudly on the tube, who are excessively bold and courageous, who keep strangely shifting their knife and fork between hands, and who shake hands or hug when they should air-kiss… They too have a culture.

What is our culture in Britain? In London? Is London multicultural? What does that even mean? These are topics for other days.

I’d like to talk more locally now because whilst there may be many cultures around us in London and even more locally, our congregation also has a dominant culture. It is not the same as traditional English culture. It is probably not exactly like the culture anywhere else, but it is still a culture.

There are many definitions of culture. We’ll talk about some another day, but for today, let’s keep it simple. Culture is sometimes described as “the way we do things around here.”
We have those visible culture things - our customs and artifacts. We a chalice lighting, candles of joys and sorrow, a minister… We sing. We say words. Sometimes we do something participatory - usually with words.

But there is a great deal of congregational culture underneath the surface - where it’s less visible. One way to find that invisible stuff is by crashing into it - by doing something that violates the unspoken code.

What if we brought in a rock band instead of classical music one Sunday?

What if we had a guest preacher who had a style like those in the charismatic Christian churches?

What if someone earnestly spoke out loud in response to the words of the message?

What if someone got up here and rapped rather than spoke the message?

What if we put up a video screen?

What if some of us starting dancing in the hymns?

What if our AGM became a free-for-all shouting match instead of a very polite, controlled session?

We have a culture. Some of us fit into the culture perfectly - so much so that we may not notice it exists. Others find they have to contort themselves a bit or a lot to fit. Some of you may feel you need to put on a particular mask when you come here. You may sense that you need to put aside their own cultural norms to conform to “the way we do things around here”?
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just is, but it is important that we are aware of it. It’s important that we examine the part of our culture that lies beneath the surface and understand the impact of that culture.

What may be more troubling is that there will be people who could flourish here and who could support our loving mission but who cannot bring themselves to bend to the dominant culture of this place. They may visit and never come back. They may conclude just from our signs or website that it won’t be a place that can accommodate their culture norms - even if they share New Unity’s goals and values and commitments and would otherwise love to be part of this community.

From a position of comfort with the dominant culture, that way of doing things can seem like the logical, sensible, normal way to do things. It can seem as though our culture is the baseline. And it can be very hard to conform to that culture. It may mean you don’t know how to be heard, that you are judged, that you are afraid to speak up lest you be culturally unmasked.

So, does it matter?

These are hard questions without any easy answers and they are questions I hope to explore with you further in the weeks ahead.

Today, I hope we gain a greater appreciation of the nature of culture - that of others and that which stands as the norm here. It is only through awareness that we can begin to create a New Unity that is amenable to a more diverse range of people who share our mission and values and who long for loving community.

Let this be a house of welcome
A community of loving acceptance
A sanctuary from the storm of hatred
A joining place for the work of the future
And a tower from which to proclaim the power of love