Relations With the Stranger and the Strange

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Chalice lighting

We are here
With everything we are and everything we bring, we are here
We will delight each other and annoy each other
We will find comfort in one another
We will find challenge in one another
Through all of our connection
Through all of our joy and struggle
May we learn more about ourselves and others and life
May we learn to love

Reading: Love Poem for an Enemy, by Richard Katrovas

I, as sinned against as sinning,
take small pleasure from the winning
of our decades-long guerrilla war.
For from my job I've wanted more
than victory over one who'd tried
to punish me before he died,
and now, neither of us dead,
we haunt these halls in constant dread
of drifting past the other's life
while long-term memory is rife
with slights that sting like paper cuts.
We've occupied our separate ruts
yet simmered in a single rage.
We've grown absurd in middle age
together, and should seek wisdom now
together, by ending this row.
I therefore decommission you
as constant flagship of my rue.
Below the threshold of my hate
you now my good regard may rate.
For I have let my anger pass.
But, while you're down there, kiss my ass.

Message, part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

I begin with a letter I have never written. It is written to no individual person but to a composite of many people throughout my life.

Dear nemesis,

We did not get off to a good start. I said hello. I asked you what I thought was a friendly question and you answered in a way that suggested you were insulted - in words that made me feel diminished. I responded to your response defensively. Your response felt thorny. Your manner seemed arrogant.

I found your appearance was unusual in an unpleasant way. I hoped my initial impressions would change.

They didn’t. They intensified.

Over time, you sometimes talked too much and sometimes too little. You were too tall for my comfort. You wore the wrong clothes. You argued for the wrong things. You undermined me.

At some point, everything you said or did began to create an increasingly negative image in my mind. A word, a glance, a posture, a movement was a trigger. The food you ate, the way you smoked, the drinks you preferred, the kind of music you liked, the way you danced, the words you chose - the slightest thing added to my growing negativity about you.

The mere mention of your name made me feel slightly queasy and put me on edge.

I was encouraged when others felt similarly negative about you and irritated when they did not.

I carried on what I suspected was a one-sided battle with you. I don’t know if you knew what was festering in my heart. It was a war that most likely wounded me more than it did you as you may not even have realised that invisible bullets were flying from my eyes and creating damage from the kickback of my invisible emotional ballistics.

Really, nemesis. I didn’t know you. I didn’t know what you really felt or whether my interpretations of your manner and actions were accurate at all.

You may not even notice the change but I have begun to ask questions of myself. I have begun to question the conclusions to which I jumped – the disdain I felt – and the embattlements I put in place.

How much of this has been you and how much has been my reaction to you? How much has been me?

Dear nemesis, if not for your benefit then for my own, I will attempt to disarm and start anew.

Thank you for teaching me about myself.

Today’s message - which I titled about the stranger and even stranger - is about our relationship with those we find strange or difficult.  Next Sunday, Marcus Duran will be giving the message and Emmeline Kelly will be leading. Their focus will be the stranger. Today, I’m talking about the ‘even stranger’ - those we find strange or awkward or difficult.

Although the word enemy will come up, I don’t mean people who are evil. I don’t mean those who abuse others physically or emotionally.

I mean the guy in your office who whistles non-stop, the woman who takes up an extra seat when the tube is packed with people, the manspreader, the mansplainer, the one who speaks in a harsh voice or never stops talking, the one who insists on wearing so much cologne that no one can breathe, the one who gets too close when talking to you, who always has a drama, who only talks about themselves. I’m sure you can think of a thousand or two more and several images have probably popped into your mind.

Life is full of such experiences of people who strike us in this way. They cause us to feel angry and annoyed and sad. They prevent us from thinking clearly. They keep us from sleeping soundly.

And paying attention to how we respond to them may be one of the best tools we have for understanding ourselves.

Reading: "Love my enemies, enemy my love", by Rebecca Seiferle

Oh, we fear our enemy’s mind, the shape
in his thought that resembles the cripple
in our own, for it’s not just his fear
we fear, but his love and his paradise.

We fear he will deprive us of our peace
of mind, and, fearing this, are thus deprived,
so we must go to war, to be free of this
terror, this unremitting fear, that he might

he might, he might. Oh it’s hard to say
what he might do or feel or think.
Except all that we cannot bear of
feeling or thinking—so his might

must be met with might of armor
and of intent—informed by all the hunker
down within the bunker of ourselves.
How does he love? and eat? and drink?

He must be all strategy or some sick lie.
How can reason unlock such a door,
for we bar it too with friends and lovers,
in waking hours, on ordinary days?

Finding the other so senseless and unknown,
we go to war to feel free of the fear
of our own minds, and so come
to ruin in our hearts of ordinary days.

Message, part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

“Love your enemies.”

I have a sense of how this probably sounds to you. It is mostly identified with Christian teaching and that teaching seems to be almost entirely ignored by people who call themselves Christians.

This country is mostly Christian and has a state church. The US is mostly Christian. Germany is mostly Christian and was at the time of the Holocaust. I could go on.

“Love your enemies” seems to be a far cry from the way Christian nations have treated their enemies. It’s not even how they’ve treated people seeking refuge from persecution. And too often, it’s not even how they treat the disadvantaged and oppressed amongst their own citizens.

So, “love your enemies” starts to feel like hypocrisy - perhaps sincere when spoken centuries ago by a wise rabbi called Jesus, but found just oh so unrealistic and inconvenient and ignored ever since.

The guidance “love your enemies” was not uniquely Christian. It was recorded more than two millennia before the birth of Jesus in the Akkadian empire. It also appears in various forms in Buddhism, in Taoism, Jainism, Hinduism, and amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans.

So, it has been taught widely across religions and philosophies. It is spoken often by people who completely ignore it in their daily lives.

It feels counter-intuitive. We think of it as “this person is out to get me” or “those people want to destroy my country” or “that leader is cruelly harming the most vulnerable”. I’m supposed to love them? Not happening!

Even when we move from the real enemy to the simply annoying, loving them doesn’t seem like a possible or even desirable strategy. Putting on noise cancelling headphones, telling them off, avoiding, and ignoring seem much more sensible ways to deal with our immediate issue.

And they are indeed more sensible for managing the difficulty in the moment. Love doesn’t stop the whistling or the manspreading. Love doesn’t really come into the picture at all.

But it does - maybe not in the moment, but in the longer term.

There are three questions that are important - three questions that I think help us to recognise more fully why love is the right answer.

The first is “What kind of world do we want for ourselves and for future generations?” We know that hate just breeds more hate. In the most practical sense, a kind, loving, approach is the one most likely to lead to resolution of conflict.

When I treat my nemesis with annoyance and hostility, I’m making things worse for both of us. I might be increasing the behaviour I hate.

Treating my nemesis with love means caring why they do what they do. It means creating conditions where they are more likely to care about how their actions affect me. Even if antagonism works in the short term by silencing my nemesis, the problem is sure to reemerge - and probably worse.

The second question is “Do I want to suffer?” Love includes understanding and having compassion. If I understand that the incessant whistling is a nervous habit borne of anxiety, my emotional reaction changes. Instead of intensifying my anger by telling myself this person is trying to annoy me, I can have compassion for the pain that causes the behaviour. It may still be annoying, but compassion feels so much better than telling myself I am being aggrieved.

The third and most important question is “Who do I want to be?”

While the other two questions are more about practicality, this third question is about our own becoming. It is about nothing less than the purpose and direction of our lives. It is perhaps the core of our own growth as people.

What is most important for you to become? Is it wealth you want? Power? Fame? Happiness? Do you want to have vast knowledge, speak six languages fluently, dazzle everyone with your intellectual prowess? Do you want to be artistic - play an instrument or paint or sculpt or dance beautifully?

None of these aims are bad. Some of them are wonderful. Surely, many of us have goals like these.

But in the end there is the end. I have led quite a few funerals. For many of us, a loss and the commemoration of the life that is gone changes us - at least for a while. It refocuses us away from the trivial things in life and toward what is most important and most profound.

I have found this in funerals. I have also found insight from reflecting on how my life will be recounted when I die.

I hope they will talk about New Unity - helping to build this amazing place is something I am very proud of. I hope they say I had a good sense of humour. They can say I was smart. They can say I worked hard. They can even say I advanced the state of human knowledge a teeny tiny bit in my scientific research. They can say I was a good husband, father, son, brother… I’m not sure how good I’ve been but I know they’ll say I was.

They can say I was curious and friendly, that I was geeky and enjoyed spreadsheets and liked to try out every new app that seemed interesting.

All of this pales in comparison to the one thing I hope they will say: “He was loving.” More than anything else, this is how I want to be remembered and this tells me that this is the work of my life.

Although I lose it more often than I focus upon it, the greatest aim of my life is to become an ever-more loving person.

When I work for justice, I want it to be motivated by love. When I interact with this congregation, I want it to be driven by love. I want to treat my nemeses and my enemies with love.

I cannot think of a greater aim in life than learning more and more to love.

In this light and when I can have this great purpose on my mind and on my heart, those I find difficult – and even my enemies – are essential to my growth. They provide me with challenges to my developing ability to act and respond with love.

These are not easy lessons. They are often frustrating and aggravating. They are lessons that are painful because they highlight for me the distance between where I am and where I aim to be.

They are the lessons I need - the hurdles I must leap over to follow the path of love.

I believe this is the truest path in life, the most worthy of goals toward which to strive: the path toward ever greater ability to love.

It is a path that leads to happiness, a path that leads to understanding, a path that leads to justice.

May it be so.

Closing words

I wish you happiness
I wish you satisfaction
I wish you the challenges and discomfort that lead to growth
I wish you love.