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Presented June 2, 2013, by Rev. Scott Aaseng
Love is spirit of this church
And listening is the essence of love
To give oneself and one's whole attention to another
Is to create a space
For connection, for sharing, for healing, for transformation.
Come, breathe deeply, open yourself to the power of listening and of love.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, you are welcome here.
Listen to others?
As if everyone were my Master
Speaking to me
We must sit down and reason together.
We must sit down: men standing want to hold forth.
They rain down upon faces lifted.
We must sit down on the floor, on the earth
on stones and mats and blankets.
There must be no front to the speaking
no platform, no rostrum, no stage or table.
We will not crane to see who is speaking.
Perhaps we should sit in the dark.
In the dark we could utter our feelings.
In the dark we could propose and describe and suggest.
In the dark we could not see who speaks
and only the words would say what they say.
No one would speak more than twice.
No one would speak less than once.
Thus saying what we feel and what we want,
what we fear for ourselves and each other
into the dark, perhaps we could begin to begin to listen.
Perhaps we should talk in groups the size of families,
not more, never more than twenty.
Perhaps we should start by speaking softly.
[Some] must learn to dare to speak,
[some] must learn to bother to listen.
[Some] must learn to say I think this is so
[Some] must learn to stop dancing solos on the ceiling.
After each speaks, she or he will say a ritual phrase:
It is not I who speaks but the wind.
Wind blows through me.
Long after me, is the wind.
I need to start with a confession: I have not yet been able to locate an original source for the poem attributed to Hafiz which was the basis for the song that our choir just sang. Hafiz - whose given name was Khwajeh Shamsuddin Muhammad - was a 14th century Persian poet from the Sufi movement in Islam. His adopted name "Hafiz" indicates that he was one who memorized the entire Qur'an-in his case, as a teenager-as well as the works of Rumi, among others. He is considered to be one of the greatest poets - if not The greatest poet - of all time in modern-day Iran and Afghanistan and many other Islamic countries. According to one source, "'More copies of the Divan-i-Hafiz (the complete collection of his poems) are now sold in Iran than copies of the Quran," which is an amazing fact, given the religious and political climate there. And while there is a gay liberation movement in contemporary Islam, just as there is a progressive feminist movement in contemporary Islam, it seems unlikely that a poet who is so well-known and widely revered in conservative Muslim cultures would be an outspoken advocate of same-sex love.
So I honestly can't speak for the original meaning or intent of Hafiz' poem about
women and men who are married
and men and men who are lovers
and women and women who give each other light.
And I don't want to misrepresent or misappropriate his work. All I can tell you is that it was profoundly meaningful to encounter this poem when it was posted on the wall of the dining hall at the Christian retreat center where my family and I lived during the winter of 2005. This retreat community - called Holden Village - was in the midst of a painful struggle about including people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in their search for the next village pastor. And so we had community meetings and small group discussions and one-on-one conversations, and we expressed ourselves in worship and music, and art and poetry and prose, and the wall of a long hallway in the dining hall became covered with various expressions and ideas (I added some suggestions myself) for how to overcome our differences and right this injustice in our community. And then one day, in the middle of this cacophony of voices on the wall, appeared this poem attributed to Hafiz, which asks the question:
How can I love you better?
How can I be more kind?
This to me is what our Unitarian Universalist principles are all about: asking how we can build more just relationships, more loving relationships, relationships of kindness-between ourselves and others, and between those in power and those in pain-and then listening - particularly to those who were hurting. And although those in power in that community never did get on their knees and ask those in pain, "How can I be more loving to you?," we did listen to each other, and that listening transformed us.
It was a difficult and painful process. Part of what made it so difficult and painful was that, even in the midst of the hurt and the ignorance and the confusion and the misunderstanding between us, we were committed to dealing with each other as human beings, with full respect and regard for each other's worth and dignity - each other's humanity. And so we couldn't just dismiss what others said if we disagreed with them, nor could we ignore the impact of what we said if it hurt them. Nevertheless, despite the difficulty - or more likely because it was so difficult and painful, the deep listening and deep sharing of that experience changed those of us who went through it, in such a way that at least those of us who are straight will never be the same, because we listened to and heard the pain of those who were hurting and feeling excluded.
It is that same kind of listening which I believe has started to turn the tide in our society on acceptance of all loving relationships, no matter what genders are involved. People listening to the real experiences of people they know and respect, and hearing the pain of not being accepted for who they are and who they love. Last month I mentioned how the marriage equality movement in Minnesota succeeded in defeating an anti-gay marriage amendment ballot initiative by organizing a listening campaign of 10,000 one-on-one conversations-people listening to each other deeply, people sharing their stories and their pain-the kind of listening and sharing that transforms people such that they can never be the same. It took many hours and many years, but that listening campaign was so successful that not only was that amendment defeated last fall, but the MN legislature passed marriage equality legislation just 6 months later, and 2½ weeks ago Minnesota become the 12th state in the nation to recognize marriage equality.
The relational power of listening to each other as human beings has translated into political power at the ballot box and in the state legislature in Minnesota and elsewhere. And it may yet do the same in Illinois, though I can't help wondering if the reason we haven't succeeded yet in this state is because we haven't yet done the kind of relational work needed to transform people's attitudes, and the movement is stuck relying on the political machinations of Mike Madigan to win marriage equality. [I'll be attending a training this next month with Beth Zemsky, who has been a leader in the marriage equality campaign in Minnesota, and I will be eager to learn what they plan to do next with the relational power they've built, and what lessons we can learn from their success.]
Listening to each other deeply, with full respect and regard for each other's humanity, is the essence of love which is at the heart of our covenant with each other. There's a quote by Peter Challen on a postcard from the Quaker organization I used to work for - American Friends Service Committee - which I think expresses the best of Unitarian Universalist principles:
"Inclusive justice requires learning to slay giants
without slaying or flaying people."
It goes on:
"There is that of God, of Spirit, in all people; because of this, our lives are linked together and we all equal. [Being inclusive, or "welcoming" in our context,] means using our talents to empower others as well as ourselves . . . It [means] regarding no person as our enemy, but opposing specific action and abuses of power, while at the same time speaking to the goodness and truth that resides in each individual, even those who act in ways that oppress others."
I would add that speaking to the goodness and truth that resides in each individual includes listening to the goodness and truth that resides in each individual-listening for the goodness of the creative or divine spark within each person, as well as listening to the truth of the pain and hurt that is in each person's life.
That kind of speaking to each other's goodness and truth, and listening for each other's goodness and truth, are the essence of the one-on-one conversations that are at the heart of the marriage equality campaign in Minnesota and elsewhere. Speaking to each other's deepest selves, and listening for each other's deepest selves, connects us in a powerful way. It can bind us together in common cause to work together to heal the brokenness and injustice of our world and in our community. I'm not sure we've even begun to do this kind of work here, but I believe that kind of sharing and listening is essential to making this a congregation that will thrive and grow into the future.
And it's not just about healing the brokenness "out there." The connections we make when we speak and listen to each other's deepest selves can heal our own disconnection from our own deepest selves. I'm not always in touch with my deepest self. I'm not always being who I want to be. But when someone speaks and listens to the goodness and truth in me, they put me in touch with who I want to be, and help me be who I want to be. I have my own way of losing track of myself - as we all do. I stop being the engaged and charming person that I sometimes am, and I get stuck in my own grumpiness and isolation. But I have people who listen to me and to who I want to be, and who speak to and call that deeper me into being-sometimes by gently nudging me in the right direction, other times just reminding me of when I'm not being who I want to be. We can help each other heal our inner alienation by listening to each other's goodness and truth, and calling each other into being who we really want to be.
And we can heal our conflicts and disconnections with each other most powerfully through listening. My friend Pete was struggling with this issue of welcoming and inclusion at that retreat community I lived at. He just couldn't get what "they" were asking for, it didn't make sense to him, because he couldn't see what he was doing that was hurting anyone else. And as I listened to him, and gave him space to work through the depth of his struggle and confusion, it suddenly became clear to him that it wasn't all about him personally. It was a system of behavior that was hurting people - including himself! -and he was part of that system that hurt others, but he didn't have to take it personally. That realization allowed him to hear what was happening for other people in a whole new way, and to start being part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.
Listening builds bridges between us that can make so much possible, but it may take letting go of something. Perhaps our attachment to our own agenda of what we want from that other person. Or perhaps the voice in our head that says this is how that other person is and always will be. Or the voice in our head that says this is how I am and always will be. The voice in our head that says this is the way things are, this is what's possible and no more, that nothing new can really happen under the sun. That kind of cynicism runs deep for some of us, because it doesn't always seem realistic to think that something new can really happen, that anything will ever really change or get better. We've been hurt too often or seen our hopes dashed too many times to believe that change is really possible, that "those people" will ever change-perhaps meaning we aren't sure if we will ever change.
That was the narrative at work when I lived in apartheid-era South Africa almost 30 years ago. There was a desperation in the air - a sense of despair that was so tangible I could actually feel the difference when I went across the border into the independent nation of Lesotho or the recently liberated nation of Zimbabwe. In South Africa there was an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust because the security-state apparatus put in place to counter terrorism had reached into every organization in the country, including informers on the campus of the Lutheran seminary where I was, and it ultimately affected people's ability to relate to each other, because they didn't know if they could trust each other. It was this atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that a mining community near Pretoria was dealing with, and in which the mining company Lonmin and its workers were trying to work out a new relationship. But there was an exchange of listening that started to break through that distrust and despair and open up a new possibility, a new way of being together and working together.
The transformation began when Lonmin senior executives agreed to meet with workers, union representatives, and community people in the hot, dusty, overcrowded/impoverished townships where the workers lived. The execs spent day after day listening to what life was really like for the workers and their families. At one point, Antoinette Grib, a white South African senior manager of Lonmin, was speaking to a group of about a hundred people when an elderly community member stood up and insisted on saying something to her. The woman, Selinah Makgale, began: "Antoinette, I have an issue with you.'' Antoinette's shock was obvious. She said, "But I don't even know you.'' Selinah continued, "Yes, I don't know you personally, but you are a white South African woman, and I have an issue with white South African women. When I was thirteen years old, my parents told me that I needed to be the housekeeper for the white [Afrikaaner woman] that owned the farm we worked on. It was payment for us working the farm. I was like a slave, not earning a cent. The woman, she was very, very bad to me. Getting through that year was tough. I've been hating white South African women ever since.''
She paused, then continued, "I'm sorry, even though I don't know you, I've been sitting here for days hating you and all the other white South African women. You probably weren't even born when all this happened.'' After another thoughtful moment, she ?nished with: "Please accept my apology-you and all the other white South African women here. I apologize to you all for making you a faceless group and hating you."
Some people became serious, others looked like they were remembering the past. Some shook their heads. All were visibly touched by Selinah's courage and intent to close a chapter from the past. The senior manager took the next step: "Selinah, I see that I represent something to you with my blond hair and my blue eyes that caused so much pain in your life... I ask your forgiveness for the mistakes my people made. I offer you my support in getting this issue completely resolved. If you want, I will go with you to visit the woman who treated you so poorly and see if there are amends that can be made. We can try that."
Both women started to cry-one elderly, poor, and black, and one young, wealthy, and white. Selinah replied, "Yes, I am willing to do that. Thank you very much. I hope our future can grow better than before." The group cheered.
By hearing another's pain, and not getting defensive even in the face of expressed hatred, they were able to start a new relationship based on listening and respect, instead of anger and hurt. By starting with listening, and letting go of the things that made it hard for them to hear each other, they were able to create a new atmosphere where real communication could happen, and where real change was possible.
Listening is the essence of love. To hear the truth of another's pain is to create a pathway of connection, so that no one needs to suffer alone. And to hear the goodness of another's passion/commitment is to build a bridge between you and them, and between where you are now and where you want to go. But being able to listen requires getting beyond attachment to our own baggage and our own agenda so we can really listen to the goodness and truth of what another is saying, and so we can speak from our own goodness and truth. And this finally comes from a place of being at peace with ourselves. To get beyond our own stuff, we have to be at peace with it, or it's always going to be swirling around in us, making it hard for us to set it aside and really listen to the other person. Being able to listen to others finally comes from a place of self-acceptance, which of course is the key to being able to accept others. Acceptance of what is and who we are is finally what makes it possible for something new to happen.
One more story about the transformative power of listening, deep listening which sets aside everything but love, and which is the source of creating more love. David is a man who grew up in a fundamentalist household, and was rejected by his parents because he was gay. The breaking point came when he went to a W.H. conference on families during the Carter Administration, which was the first time gay families were actually considered families at the federal level. David's name ended up being in the lead paragraph in front-page stories about the conference in Sunday newspapers around the country (this was back when people still read newspapers . . . ). David thought it was great, but he never considered the fact that not only would his parents wake up to a front-page article publicly identifying their son as gay, but that his parents would have to face all their friends who would read the same article. His father called him up and told him never to come home, and his mother never said anything.
A few years later David participated in a transformative experience which enabled him to get beyond the stuff in his head and come to a place of peace and self-acceptance. He was able to get beyond others' rejection of him and see the goodness and truth of his own worth and dignity, and he was able to get beyond his parents' stuff and see that he didn't have to suffer from their rejection anymore. He became able see the essential goodness of his parents' love for him underneath their rejection, and then to see the truth of the pain he had caused them. So he called his parents up and asked if he could come talk with them, but he said that whatever their answer was, he loved them. They said yes, and when he got home, he sat and just listened to their bible verses and their prayers and their anger and their grief, for an hour, and then two, and then three, and then four. At the end of five hours, when he asked if there was anything more, his father just shook his head, and then got up and embraced the son he had rejected for so many years.
A few years later, David's partner, the love of his life, was dying of AIDS, and he needed a place to take him to die, because his partner's parents had long ago rejected him. David drove his partner home to his own parents' house, and his once closed-minded father went out to the car and carried the frail body of his son's partner into the house. David's mother watched her son care for his partner for about a day before she asked for the number to the partner's parents. She had not said anything to her own husband when he banished their son from their house, but now she called up David's partner's parents and said, "Your son is in my house, and he's dying. I think you need to be here." And they came.
Two families were reunited-two entire family systems were transformed, because a son was able to listen to his parents, and hear both the goodness of their love and the truth of their pain. A whole new world opened up because someone was able to listen in a way which transformed his relationships and the relationships of those around him forever.
It happens all the time in heaven
And some day
It will begin to happen
Again on earth
That men and women who are married
And men and men who are Lovers
And women and women
Who give each other Light
Often will get down on their knees
And while so tenderly
Holding their lover's hand
With tears in their eyes
Will sincerely speak, saying,
How can I be more loving to you?
How can I be more Kind?"
There is more love somewhere
But not just somewhere, but here
For if not here, then where?
If not now, then when?
If not us, then who?
Let's keep on keeping on
Until we find it.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.