Working From Red to Gray

March 21, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

(Chuang-Tzu was the greatest student of the Taoist master Lao-Tsu. He lived from 399-295 BCE. Taoism was a major influence on Zen Buddhism in China.)

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and not be angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

THE SERMON "Working From Red to Grey"
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Every now and then I get an e-mail or a letter from one of you, or sometimes a phone call, indicating that you are irritated, upset and distressed for this particular reason: someone you care about, someone whose regard you generally crave, has revealed a religious, ethical, moral or political opinion – sometimes a combination of these elements – that has thoroughly rankled your spirit and insulted your own deeply held views. And although you are tempted to fire off a dismissive comment or e-mail to this person, although you are tempted to just deliver a clever and scathing verbal smack-down and storm out of the room, so to speak, you care enough about the relationship to want to process through your feelings and to craft a response to this person, rather than just subject them to your reaction.

These e-mails and phone calls are always rewarding to receive and I always appreciate your struggle, for it is one I have shared many times myself. My blood boils as easily as does yours, and perhaps more easily. I was raised in a climate of easy and frequent anger – anger as family bonding and as entertainment -- and it has been long and hard work to untrain myself from that to try to commit to practices of patience and forbearance. Spending a lot of time with the church community helps with this. It helps to remember that above all, we are called to be a relational people. We are covenantal people. And because we are people who choose to honor covenant above creed, we are therefore people who are accountable to respond, rather than to react, to having our proverbial buttons pushed.

Boy, it's hard.

Responding rather than reacting is so challenging. Especially nowadays.

You have noticed, haven't you, that our culture has become enamored of reaction, debate, confrontation, and extremely polarized argument, and hardly knows how to make room for thoughtful, mutually curious conversation? It's true; we're not imagining things. If you suspect, as you read the daily paper or watch the news, that you're being played, manipulated to an endorphin-rushed anger-adrenaline- high, you're not being paranoid. Friends, we are indeed being played. Outrage sells. Neutral, objective reporting, if there is such a thing, isn't nearly as sexy as the kind of story, photo or editorial that makes your hair stand on end and your pulse race. I believe Americans are becoming as addicted to anger as we are to caffeine. Someone asked me what I'm giving up for Lent. "Self-righteous outrage," I said. I have a much easier time avoiding carbohydrates, I'll tell you.

Not very long ago I answered the phone and heard a man's voice say, "We've got to get rid of him!!" I was startled and my first thought was, "Some mad assassin saw me play Emma Goldman this summer and he thinks I'm a real anarchist! But it turned out to be the latest Planned Parenthood telemarketing campaign to get me to give more money, because, and I quote, "George Bush hates women!" I said, "I am a card-carrying member of Planned Parenthood. I know that President Bush and I vehemently disagree on reproductive choice, but I would appreciate it if you didn't incite me to violent feeling to get me to contribute to your worthy cause." Okay, I wasn't quite that nice about it. The point here is, everyone's into extreme thinking and reacting today. Pushing buttons has become the national sport.

So the first bit of advice I have when we feel up against the self-righteous wall is to practice the dying art of listening. Read that e-mail from the offensive co-worker or relative again. Go outside and take a walk and breathe, and train your mind not to jump to unkind and unfair assumptions about the person whose opinion offends you. Return the call. Go have dinner with the person if you can, and ask them specifically what they were trying to communicate with that letter or note, and (this is big), be prepared to respectfully accept the truth of their explanation. Another very dangerous national sport we indulge in a lot nowadays is what I call "playing amateur psychiatrist." In this sport, we pretend to be listening to someone but we're really nodding sagely and thinking to ourselves, "Well, she says that, but she's really thinking that. And it's because she didn't get enough love in her childhood" or some such thing.

Moving from "I see red" to that empty boat of peacefulness taught by Chuang Tsu, requires a willing heart and some patience.

When you come into contact with one of those button-pushers, re-read or reconsider the offending note or comment a third time, and a fourth. Consider it calmly and with genuine appreciation for the value of an opposing point of view (this practice alone is better than all the Pepcid AC in the world). Our lives are not talk shows, which rely on the hottest heads to get the biggest ratings. Our lives are a web of intimate relationships, and we are accountable to those relationships. To be accountable, to be responsible, and to be ethical means to listen to what people say and not to play Mad-Libs in the blank spaces of what they do not say.

To respond responsibly within a moment or time of conflict –whether it be institutional or familial, or between just two people – is also to assume the best of people and not to immediately suspect the worst. Conflict is not a bad thing. It is always an opportunity for learning and growth! In our own congregational covenant, when we affirm on most Sundays that we live together "in the bonds of fellowship and love"… that's where the rubber of fellowship meets the road of love in this church. We assume the best of each other. We practice this in church in the hopes that we will become better at extending that generosity of spirit outside of the church. This is a big part of what it means to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

I have a dear friend who I worry is becoming a bit obsessed with his hatred of a prominent political leader. He sends me endless articles supporting his point of view, and most phone conversations wind up in a rant against this public figure. He always has plenty of fodder to fuel his rage, because he subscribes to all of the e-mail lists and news sources that support his point of view (and never, apparently, to those that challenge it!). This friend is a Unitarian Universalist minister. Playing devil's advocate (and friend) one day I asked him: Isn't the ultimate commitment of liberal religion to maintain a spirit of inquiry and comfort with ambiguity, where we never become rigid and fundamentalist in our own views? Have you even dared consider the possibility that you are mistaken in any of your assessments of this politician? Why are you granting this distant figure so much power to poison your life? And most importantly, if I went to your church having voted for this guy, would I know you still loved and accepted me?

Respectfully responding to opposing ideas rather than hotly reacting to them is intimately tied to the practice of hospitality in the heart, in the home, and in the church. The liberal church, by virtue of its historical roots in open inquiry, should be best of all at this. But we're only human and like any other human institution, we are susceptible to perversion of our own highest ideals. For instance, the liberal church in our times –that is, those religious communities that claim to be most tolerant of diversity of all kinds -- needs to be better at recalling that liberal religion does not require of its members liberal politics. This is one of the major blind spots that keeps the current UU Association of congregations from being, in the words of the Army recruiting ad, "all that it can be."

A few weeks ago, over a hundred of you felt comfortable raising your hands and identifying yourselves in a theological category or two. Mystics, theists, Christians, and atheists put your hands in the air to be counted. Someone said soon after that, and only half-jokingly, "But Vicki, don't ever ask us to raise our hands and identify as Democrats or Republicans!"

Right? But that's not okay. Shame on the living heirs and heiresses of the free faith tradition, if we ever, however subtly, encourage total conformity of any kind among our members. Remember that little robot from "Lost in Space?" Danger, Will Robinson! Conformity is not comfortable. Wherever we see conformity we must know that someone, somewhere is being smothered or silenced. Such an environment does not nurture the soul, and it does not bring about human flourishing. Unitarian Universalist Association President Bill Sinkford, whose sermon of last week I admired very much, did trouble me when I thought I heard him suggest that we should be out recruiting so-called "cultural creatives" to join our congregations. I thought, "God save me from ever desiring to belong to a congregation full of people just like me." Danger, Will Robinson.

Was there ever a time when Americans sought middle ground, when they gathered in groups of varying political affiliations and religious commitments and genuinely appreciated the fascinating discourse that emerged from their diversity of views? In my own lifetime, I only remember late night dorm conversations at college as providing this kind of truly free forum for the exchange of opinions and commitments. We literally had to live together, we wanted to be friends, we wanted to date each other, everyone wanted to be thought intelligent and attractive so we tried hard – even for those fairly juvenile reasons – to listen to each other and to pay at least vague respect to the other points of view. We were unformed and we knew it. Nowadays everyone seems so formed, so decided, so hard-boiled in their opinions. Even our youth; our supposedly liberal Unitarian Universalist youth. And I grieve it.

I grieve this inflexibility among conservatives and among liberals. I feel we have been manipulated into our various corners and there we stand, teeth bared, while the latest political machine feeds us more scraps of resentment, tight hostility and blame. I feel played.

Immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks I was exhausted from being frightened all the time. I lived close to DC and as you will recall, the sense of threat was very palpable for a good while beyond September, and we had the anthrax scare and so forth. I took a little road trip up to Philadelphia right around that time and went to a Tibetan store I remembered from when I had lived in the area. This seems a little bit silly now but I wanted to get some photos of the some of the Tibetan teachers whose writings and work I admired. It's not that I worshiped them, but I was in need of their wisdom. I thought a lot about how the Dalai Lama and all the other Tibetan masters remained decent and compassionate and ultimately committed to non-violence even while their entire nation, all their holy sites and their people were being brutally destroyed by the Chinese occupation. I wanted to partake of their spirit.

The man who owned the shop was sympathetic. Was I Buddhist? No, I responded. Someday I might be mature enough to be a Buddhist, but for right now all I could manage was to be a really bad Christian. He liked that answer a lot. He didn't have any photos of the lamas or teachers to sell me, he said, because such images were dangerous to the occupied Tibetans and there weren't many available. So I bought an amber ring from him, and a prayer wheel, and we chatted for a long time, and then he went into a back room and came out with that photo of the Dalai Lama that you see on the altar table. Please have this, he said. He made me accept it as a gift.

This image is more than an image to me. It is a spiritual teaching embodied in a smiling man; a teaching that instructs me, when I feel the acid-burn of red-hot rage, that when I am in opposition with another being, the one who probably needs the most fixing is not them, but me.

Who needs fixing? How could it be me? I have searched my soul, I have done the internal audit for prejudice of all kinds, I have had my consciousness raised, I am not the one living in slavish obedience to the Bible or some other antiquated moral system! I have had therapy! I have subscribed to all of the objective journalistic sources, I have traveled widely and even lived among many different kinds of people. I have a master's degree. I recycle!

How could the problem be with me?

The reason I chose to use a lot of Buddhist readings in today's service is because the Buddhists are so good at saying, "Yes, the problem is with me. And that is okay." Rather than the kind of self-flagellation and guilt that Western traditions might encourage, Buddhism (the little that I'm acquainted with) teaches us that anger is just an emotion, and it will pass. "Breathing in, I am aware of my anger. Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger." Caring for the betterment of the world, yes, that too, but it doesn't need to be from a poisonous, enraged place.

Let me begin to wrap this up by returning to the special challenge of anger in religious communities. Barbara G. Wheeler is a Presbyterian priest and president of Auburn Seminary. A recent article in The Christian Century provided a transcript of a talk she gave to liberal and conservative leaders in her denomination, who in this particular case were deeply divided about what we might generally call "the gay issue." Here is what Wheeler said to that group:

"I suspect that even those of us who hate the idea of an outright split have a secret hankering for a church in which the most irritating of the others won't be around to make our lives miserable. If we can hammer the other side long enough, perhaps it will be cowed into silence, give up or go away, and then we will have an improved if not purified church.

[But] I want to advocate an alternative: a tense, edgy, difficult church made up of zenoi, strangers, who cling to each other for dear life in the same chilly, rocky [baptismal] boat because we are headed toward the same destination: a better country."

Wheeler is speaking in ecclesiastical terms, of course, but we can certainly borrow that image any time we are provided an opportunity to sharpen our own generosity of spirit against someone else's challenging viewpoint. I'll leave you with a concrete image of that better country: a few years ago, this church endured a very difficult time around the Friendship Home proposal. It was a very challenging era in the life of this church and the church is still learning from the experience. But picture this, if you will, and it's a true story. Two friends from this congregation and their husbands went to dinner the night before the big vote. The two were on opposite sides of the issue. They knew they were going to vote against each other the next day in church, and they cried together about it. Then they went and voted, and got through the day, and never had one day of acrimony between them about it. They were able to hold each other's different conclusions in respect. They were able to hear one another's truths in generosity of spirit rather than in suspicion. They were able to dwell in the peaceful country of gray rather than be drawn into the red inferno of rage. They were in Chuang Tsu's empty boat… together.

That's a better country.

Remember the Chief of Police in "Hill Street Blues"? He always said to his cops at the end of their morning briefing, "Let's be careful out there." It's a blessing worth hearing again in this red, red world, a blessing worth hearing in our homes and in our churches: Let's be careful out there.

I wish you a gray week, and many gray days to come. Amen and blessed be.