By the light of this candle, we gather today, marking the end of the last week and the beginning of the next
We might have had a great week -
closing a deal at work, spending quality time with those we love
Or we might come with a heavy heart, feeling lonely, frustrated, or carrying sadness.
Let us take a moment to become aware of this candle.
Let us take a moment to become aware of the thoughts and feelings we bring with us today.
And let us choose to sit with ourselves, and to sit with others together in this space.
Reading: Change, But Start Slowly, Because Direction is More Important Than Speed, by Clarice Lispector
But start slowly,
because direction is more important than speed.
Sit in another chair, on the other side of the table.
Later on, change tables.
When you go out,
try to walk on the other side of the street.
Then change your route,
walk calmly down other streets,
observing closely the places you pass by.
Take other buses.
Change your wardrobe for a while;
give away your old shoes and
try to walk barefoot for a few days
- even if only at home.
Take off a whole afternoon to stroll about freely,
listening to the birds or the noise of the cars.
Open and shut the drawers and doors with your left hand.
Sleep on the other side of the bed.
Then try sleeping in other beds.
Watch other TV programs,
read other books,
live other romances
- even if only in your imagination.
Sleep until later. Go to bed earlier.
Learn a new word a day.
Eat a little less, eat a little more, eat differently;
choose new seasonings, new colors,
things you have never dared to experiment.
Lunch in other places, go to other restaurants,
order another kind of drink
and buy bread at another bakery.
Lunch earlier, have dinner later, or vice-versa.
Try something new every day:
a new side, a new method, a new flavor,
a new way, a new pleasure, a new position.
Pick another market,
another make of soap, another toothpaste.
Take a bath at different times of the day.
Use pens with different colors.
Go and visit other places.
Love more and more and in different ways.
Even when you think that the other will be frightened,
suggest what you have always dreamed
about doing when you make love.
Change your bag, your wallet, your suitcases,
buy new glasses, write other poems.
Open an account in another bank,
go to other cinemas, other hairdressers,
other theaters, visit new museums.
And think seriously of finding another job, another activity,
work that is more like what you expect from life,
more dignified, more human.
If you cannot find reasons to be free, invent them:
And grab the chance to take a long, enjoyable trip
- preferably without any destination.
Try new things. Change again.
Make another change.
Experiment something else.
You will certainly know better things and
worse things than those you already know,
but that does not matter.
What matters most is change, movement, dynamism, energy.
Only what is dead does not change
- and you are alive.
“Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer;
it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten
steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away.
As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So
what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to
Eduardo Galeano, 1940-2015
When we think about the idea of progress, we tend to think about a direction of travel that is linear. We know that in reality, this is not the case. Right now, in July 2019, the staff and students of two primary schools in Birmingham, UK have been subjected to months of noisy protests against the teaching of something the press have termed “LGBT lessons” – a misnomer, as I’ll explain shortly.
Things said by these protesters are reminiscent of language used more than two decades ago during the existence of Section 28, the piece of legislation introduced in the 1980s which prevented the so-called “promotion of homosexuality” in schools: interpreted as a total silence as to the existence of any relationships or persons other than heterosexual.
Section 28 was removed from the statute book in 2003. Despite, in the intervening period, the introduction of civil partnerships and then equal marriage (putting all citizens of this country on an equal legal footing no matter who they love), these protesters seek to avoid what they term the “exposure” of their children to the very existence of people who are different to them.
“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and similar slogans we were more used to seeing from the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church in the States, have been rolled out on their banners and shouted as children walk to school. Remarkably, the government has remained near-silent on the issue.
The story of the development of the teaching against which these protests are made is a story of change, of progress, and of hope. It begins some years ago now with Andrew Moffat, a deputy headteacher who is a gay man, who at a previous school, had started to teach the concept of LBGT equality in some of his lessons – and who, shortly after, came out as gay in a school assembly. With no official mandate, no support from the governors and no consultation with the parent group, he and the school were not well placed to deal with it when the complaints started to trickle in. This early chapter of the story ends swiftly, with his departure.
It was only a chapter. Out of that experience, Andrew Moffat built what is now known as the “No Outsiders” programme. It’s a teaching approach centred around more than 30 age-appropriate children’s books, which touch on the whole spectrum of different characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010: that we have different skin colours, but we can all be friends. That we have different bodies, abilities and disabilities, but we can all find things in common. That a little boy called Julian wants to dress up as a mermaid covered in glitter, and his granny doesn’t tell him “that’s not for boys”. That not all families have a mummy and a daddy - some families have two mummies or two daddies, or just one parent, but we can all play together. This went through intensive consultation with the parent group at his current school before it was introduced, and for five whole years, it was taught with the collaboration and at times participation of the parents, many of whom were devout Muslims.
The story of that period is a story of parents who, despite some holding religious beliefs that sat contrary to the LBGT element of “No Outsiders”, supported their children being taught at school, in this age appropriate way, that the outside world contained many different people and different ideas to those they might encounter at home – and that not everybody had to agree with each other, but everybody could get along. The concept behind the title of “No Outsiders” was, and is, “there are No Outsiders in our school. Everybody is welcome.” Not dissimilar to the welcoming words spoken here, at the outset of each Sunday Gathering. You will find this peaceful history of tolerance and cooperation missing from the media articles about what’s currently going on in Birmingham.
The suspension of the programme from one of the two schools, which followed this year’s protests, has not heralded the end of “No Outsiders”. The protests are recognised as an inevitable, backward, perhaps painful step along the path of progress. To continue in such circumstances to have faith in one’s destination requires hope. It requires one to keep embodying what one wishes to see in the world. To keep on challenging, gently, and persistently. To persevere.
It was Andrew Moffat’s choice to be himself in this world that started the programme. It is his choice to continue being himself which is enabling the wider change which will, in however a roundabout way, continue to unfold.
And this idea of the self as the enabler of change applies to all of us, in smaller daily interactions, also.
When, in my twenties, I left the security of a seven-year relationship with a person of the opposite sex, and started to uncover my real self, I went through the process of telling family, and friends. There was one family member I saw very little of. I delayed telling her, and delayed telling her – the last time we’d spoken about homosexuality had been the year 2001, in the context of the campaign to repeal Section 28, which she had, at the time, been fighting against. The things said back then had stayed with me. I feared her rejection.
One New Years, I was in the passenger seat of her car – she had invited me over to lunch, and was driving me back to the station. I had met Megs, who would become my wife, by this time. On the way back, I thought, I cannot leave this any longer. I said, I need to tell you something; I’m gay; I’m dating a woman. She didn’t miss a beat. I guessed this must be the case years ago, she said. It doesn’t make an ounce of difference to me. I love you.
That was a conversation I could easily have delayed another year, or another two. Taking the plunge involved openness to rejection, and to a conversation that could have become messy and difficult – a fear that was mitigated, I believe, by a tiny, daring dose of hope. And as it turned out, taking the plunge had enabled this relative to show me who she now was, too.
There is a philosophical term known as “always already” that appeared in the 20th century, and particularly in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. It has been used to mean that the present instant contains both the consequences of the past and beliefs about the future. A modern formulation of this idea is the term “always already listening”. Applied to our relationships between self and other, this can refer to the phenomenon that we do not go into an interaction truly listening to who and how the other person is. Rather, it is as though we see a film in front of them, which is our projection onto them of who and what we think they are – based on our past experiences of them, and of the world. This can distort our perception of what they say, and can cause us to edit ourselves and how we behave, as we already believe we know how they will react.
And so, this week, I invite you to reflect on where in your life you might be holding up change, in yourself and others, by not being your true self, because you have made a judgment about what someone will think, or a judgment that they will not accept you. If we fail to be our true selves, we fail to give other people the opportunity to show us who they are too. By holding back, we may not give them the opportunity to be challenged. We may not give them the opportunity to respond. And none of us, nobody, is a static being – a belief, or a viewpoint, evolves with time, with challenge, and with each encounter we have along our way. Each time we present our true selves to someone else, we may become a part of their story also. May it be so.
Sometimes the idea of making a difference to the world can feel overwhelming
The truth is that all change starts small. It starts when we set aside our “already always listening” filter and we start to see ourselves and others for the possibility that we can all be, rather than who we have always been or who we fear we might always be.
I invite you this week to put aside your projections, to dwell in the space in between those thoughts and feelings, in the space of nothing but who you fully are, and who other people can, or might, fully be.