© Doug Rodgers 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 19, 2006

Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

I love this season - the green season - right here, right now, outside our door. It's the time when the young and athletic climb Mission Peak and wonder at the view. The not-so young can climb the lower peaks in Alum Rock park and marvel at the newness of the leaves - green for the trees and red for the poison oak. The rest of you can stroll through the park and enjoy the grass and the flowers. Even if all you do is to look out your window, you're likely to see birds building their nests.

I love this time of year. I love the way we don't really have a spring here in central California, but we have this green season that starts with a few blades of grass in November, and ends with a great flowering starting right around now and for the next few weeks until it all goes dry again.

We relate to nature because we are natural creatures, after all. Our bodies grow from a DNA recipe that starts with the same ingredients, and is written in the same code as it is for every living creature. We really are related to all of life, not only in some abstract, philosophic, or nostalgic sense, but in a very real, very scientific, very physical sense.

It's a good time to stop and smell the flowers, to soak in your relationship to every creature on our planet.

And how much more are you related to every human? How can we not at least tolerate each other. How can we not have respect for all those other people who feel pain and joy as we do. How can we not have compassion for them?

And yet, we don't live in the Garden of Eden any longer - if we ever did. We can't ignore the reality that we humans aren't always so nice. In fact, we are as violent as any other creature, and more so than many.

Right next to our love for each other and for the universe of life around us is our violence, our anger, our quick tempers.

If two guys are sitting in a cave, telling stories in front of the fire and sharing some roast antelope, and a third guy shows up and brains them both and takes the meat - which one do you think we are descended from?

We humans - we steal, we beat and we murder each other. We organize armies so we can conquer other people and take their resources. We have gone so far as to harness the forces that hold the universe together, just so we can blow it apart. Not us so much, not us UUs, of course, but those other guys. THEY do those things.

Men, in particular, like to blow things up. At my men's group the other night somebody brought up the subject and off we went. We're just a bunch of young guys - about my age (grin). We all had stories about blowing things up, of trying to blow things up, or wanting to blow things up. Not that we wanted to hurt anyone, of course. We just want to have a good time. It's those other guys who like to hurt people.

And the women love it. It isn't the geeks who get the girls. It isn't the smart, sensitive, serious and studious guys with glasses that girls throw themselves at ... not that I remember, anyhow. No, they like the danger, the excitement. They like the thrill of the rough, tough bad guys. Not OUR girls though. Not YOUR daughters, but those other girls.

You might even say that violence isn't really a problem, not for our species. We have thrived on it, conquered the planet with it, reproduced our numbers to the point that we are the most common large mammal. Look around, what do you see? People. People and their stuff.

But we have reached a point where we need each other just to survive. Think about it. Think about what you need to stay alive: water, food, shelter from the elements. How much of that do you make yourself? None of it. At most you grow a few fruits and vegetables on your little piece of earth. But around here you can't even do that without water, and water comes from the tap. You don't live close enough to a stream.

Think about what is closest to you, just as we sit here together. Next to your soft, pink skin is your underwear, your shoes, your clothes and the chair you are sitting on. Your glasses, your jewelry, your wallet, your purse. Every item on your person has a history that involves many, many other people.

Each piece of fabric, each thread, each button, each hook or shoelace, each piece of plastic or metal jewelry was designed by somebody, made by somebody else on machines made by still other people, shipped by people in trucks and by rail, vehicles fueled by oil that was taken from the earth by more people, and refined by still others. And so it goes for everything we touch.

The paint on the chair, the steel the chair is made of, the wax on the floor tiles, the tiles themselves, the glue that holds them down, the concrete they are attached to, the gravel underneath and hole it was all put into. And that's just what you are sitting on. Think of all those people. You can't live without them, nor they without you.

We are a long way from the American Indians who used to live here. Any one of them could walk out into the grass that used to be right here where we sit and make a living - find water and food, make a house, make any tools they might need. With the rest of the tribe, they could - and did - live a good life.

But if we can believe the newer studies, our picture of America as an empty land, with just a few scattered folks, was the result of the 80 to 90% mortality caused by European diseases: smallpox and influenza, which spread rapidly from the first contacts. Before the Europeans came, the land would have been crowded with people - not so many as today, but as many as the land would feed.

So tribes fought each other over hunting and gathering rights. A state of nearly constant warfare is viewed by many modern anthropologists as the normal state of affairs, perhaps continuing for many centuries. With this kind of fighting, the numbers killed at any one time would be small. But over the years, death by violence would take most men and women.

So getting along with the neighbors is not a new issue. What is new for us is that we rely on people all over the world for everything we have. A major world conflict that cut off trade would devastate us economically. And unlike even as recently as the depression of the 1930's when many poor country people could live off the land, there are too many of us city dwellers today who have no resources except economic ones. We all rely on an economy that none of us understands, on relationships with other people we don't know and never see.

We really do have to learn to live together. We depend on one another, yet we have the ability to destroy ourselves. And we do get along for the most part. The fact that we live the way we do, so dependent on so many others, means that we have found ways to get along. We don't have that much violence in our everyday lives. We may be afraid of it, since we see so much of it on TV, but few of us experience it. We would like to have less even than we have. How can we do that?

We UUs would really like to see everyone just get along. Right now there is a movement in the denomination to make "Covenants of Right Relations" within our congregations.

The process of forming a Covenant can be good for a church with problems related to how people treat each other.

I can identify with this, since I have been in the situation where people at church - not this church, not now, but some other church, at a different time - were so angry with each other that they had a tough time talking civilly, let alone respectfully. They went backwards from a state of friendliness where people were taken at their word and good will was assumed, to a state of bare tolerance, where it was a strain to observe basic rules of civility in conversation, and nearly impossible to work with one another. After all, getting work done means there is some give and take. Without a willingness to give, not much gets done.

Under those circumstances, a process where everyone can step back and take a deep breath is a good idea. Done well, it can begin a healing process for bruised feelings, set some ground rules to prevent re-injury, and generally get people back on track.

But, as difficult as people can be in church - not this church, of course, but other churches - it's more difficult dealing with those outside the church. It's a lot more difficult to tolerate and respect people who don't share your idea of the world.

It's easier to deal with conflict in our heads, make it an exercise in symbol manipulation. That way, we don't get our emotions into play. A quiet, abstract kind of exercise might be just the thing to calm everyone down and allow a new approach.

Since we are all sitting here calmly, let's talk about the more difficult aspects of tolerance and respect, dealing with those we don't like, or who don't like us.

A few weeks ago, at an after-church meeting, our member Graham brought copies of the famous Danish cartoons, the ones that caused the riots, the ones that were in the news. Since we had just heard Barbara Meyers speak about dealing with difficult people, I decided that I would allow some of my real feelings about this subject to come out, to be a little difficult, to see what would happen. My feelings were real enough, but I don't normally let them out that much.

So I did. And I surprised myself - I had to use every bit of my self-control to keep my remarks from being really offensive. But they were sharp. And my wife later told me that everyone was a little shocked, since I don't normally speak that way. I also had to bite my tongue not to argue with every comment that was made subsequently. To just be quiet and let others talk.

I was surprised that I heard no echoes of my outrage - my outrage over the idea that people were so offended by some stupid cartoons that they would riot. Everyone else in the group either defended the Moslem behavior or criticized the Europeans or criticized our own government for invading Iraq.

Nobody acknowledged my anger, in spite of the fact that we had all listened to Barbara say just a few minutes before, in her advise for dealing with difficult people, to acknowledge their anger. And I was being a difficult person.

I learned a few things from that experience. For one thing, it really isn't at all easy to deal with difficult people. It's hard to calmly say how we hear someone's anger while we are getting provoked ourselves. It's much easier to try to logically explain to the person how their anger really isn't justified. To try to deflect the conversation onto safer ground. But of course this approach just makes the situation worse if the difficult person really is angry.

Also, I'm not sure we are really in touch with our feelings when it comes to the world of Islam. I think we are ready to jump to the part that says that not all Muslims are violent or hate us. Although true, I think we need to face up to our feelings about those who do hate us for what we are, what we represent, how we live and how we worship.

Now maybe you don't have strong feelings about this topic, but I'm quite sure there is some group that pushes your buttons. Maybe it's the current administration in Washington - maybe you think they lied to us about Iraq, maybe you think that our President used the weapons of mass destruction argument as an excuse to justify what he had already decided to do. Maybe you are unhappy that this war is now three years old.

Or, maybe you are unhappy with the people who just passed a new law that makes abortion illegal in South Dakota.

Or maybe it's someone closer to home. Like your sister-in-law. Maybe she is obnoxious. Maybe she reminds you constantly that you're going straight to hell because you aren't a born-again Christian. Maybe she smokes too, votes Republican, and drives a Hummer.

Maybe your brother is too fat and won't do anything to take care of his health, and maybe you're tired of hearing him complain that his knees hurt and his blood pressure is too high and that he has diabetes. Maybe he buys his kids guns and violent video games.

Maybe you just lose your cool when rude drivers cut you off on the freeway every day.

We all have problems in dealing with those we don't like, who drive us nuts, or whom we see as being a real physical threat. Hmm. Did I mention the crazy drivers who put our lives at risk on the freeway?

But we can't deal with others effectively until we first acknowledge our own feelings and deal with ourselves. Sometimes we don't want to 'fess up to how strongly we do feel. We may be afraid of our feelings, we may be afraid that we could lose control. And we may be right!

It generally isn't a good idea to display our strong feelings, because it is easy to get carried away. We all have had experiences with people whose anger was strong enough to singe our eyebrows. I had that experience once and lost more than my eyebrows, and it left a permanent impression!

But you do have to acknowledge your feelings, and you may need professional help to do that. But assuming you are strong enough to deal with them yourself, how do you do it?

What needs to happen is for the emotion - the raw chemical energy that is linked to those feelings - to drain away. This may take a while. It begins when you can sit calmly and let those feelings out, just a little, into your mind, and quietly let the emotion drain away. It will, but it takes some patience and it takes the discipline of not following the emotion, not letting it build up and get you all excited again.

You can do this with prayer, by admitting your feelings to God. The anger will start to drain out and you can think of it being replaced with God's love. You can do something similar by writing in journal or by meditating, calming your mind. If you do this as a regular practice, it gets easier, but it always takes an effort.

The first step you can get to is Tolerance. I see that as the first rung on the ladder. You may have to grit you teeth or bite your tongue, but you can control yourself. This isn't a very good place to stay. And it's hard on your teeth. So you need to go to the next step: Respect.

Respect doesn't come until you can calm yourself enough to be able to think more rationally, more clearly about your problem people. What makes them who they are, how do they see the world. Again, this step is going to take some effort, and some time. It works more easily on people who are far away, whom you only know in the abstract. Those people over THERE who do those bad things.

In this information age you can Google them, read about them, get to understand the world a little from their perspective. With knowledge and some introspection you can better define for yourself just where you can sympathize with those others, and where you must disagree.

Respect doesn't imply agreement. Soldiers can respect their enemies, but they shoot them, nonetheless. A respected enemy can be captured, killed or put in prison. But not tortured, humiliated or otherwise treated unfairly. There are rules for warfare, but it isn't surprising that they are often forgotten.

Respecting our reactionary Christian neighbors who want to impose their social behavior on the rest of us doesn't mean that we will end up in agreement. But we can respect their point of view. And we can certainly respect their devotion to their cause. Don't we wish we could have some more of that devotion right here.

Here's one example of why some understanding is needed. From the Christian point of view, our idea of choice in religion is illogical. In their minds there is only acceptance of God and the Bible, or not. And we fall into the "or not" category. So don't expect your fundamentalist sister-in-law to react favorably when you tell her that you respect her choice to be Christian and that she should respect yours. You still belong to the Devil in her book. You need to understand that.

You may need some perspective at this point. More precisely, you already have a perspective and it isn't working so well, so you need a DIFFERENT perspective. Usually a broader one - the 20,000 foot view - as the corporate types like to say. You will find opportunities for new perspectives in unlikely places, if you are looking. I found some in the video store the other day.

I always rent at least two movies when I go to the video store. This time, one was a re-mastered classic, "To Kill a Mocking Bird" which I figured my wife would watch and the other was about naked people, which I figured she wouldn't watch. I was right about the watching part, but each provided some perspective.

First the Naked People. It was a documentary about Spencer Tunic, a photographer who you may have heard of. He photographs large numbers of naked people lying on some paved surface, often in the middle of a city. His work has a very strange and compelling quality - all those soft pink and brown bodies lying on that hard cold surface. Of course it was those same soft pink and brown creatures who made that surface, perhaps that's the point.

The film shows him going around to different cities passing out flyers and asking people to pose naked for him. Imagine yourself doing this. In Paris nobody would even talk to him. In London he had hundreds turn out for his shoot. As one man later said with a smile, taking off your clothes in public didn't seem very British, but lying down on cold wet pavement, now that seemed British. The Aussies loved him - they turned out by the thousands, covering the park with their bodies. Strange creatures, we humans.

If you need some wider perspective about who we are, and some haunting visual images, I recommend Spenser.

If you aren't into naked people, then "To Kill a Mocking Bird" can give you perspective of a different sort. There is nobody like Gregory Peck to play the hero, the man who does his duty, who defends the outcast when nobody else will and who has the self-control to stand there and get spat on and not move. What is the role of the hero? How can you get that kind of self-control, or is it just in the movies?

You take your perspective where you can find it.

We don't ask you to be a hero, just show respect for every person. That's not such a high standard, at least not when you compare it to the Christian standard which is not just to respect everyone, but to love them. Since we profess to believe in Jesus' teachings, let's look at one. You heard First Corinthians 13 earlier. Here is Matthew on loving your enemies:

Wow! That's a standard high enough to keep even the saints working their tails off. I don't expect that kind of a statement would come out of a committee's brainstorming session.

But you are still trying to get along with your friends and family, your obnoxious sister-in-law. Now that you have acknowledged and then calmed your own feelings and you have done a little homework, you have some better idea about where she is coming from, and you can take the next step.

And that is Looking for Common Ground. I have found, for example, that talking about church as an institution can be common ground. You can ask how her church functions, how it raises money, how it attracts and keeps members, how it is organized. Most people like to talk about their interests, and this can be an eye opener for you. And she may forget for the moment that you are the Devil's spawn.

I was amazed to learn that my co-worker's large and growing fundamentalist church didn't run an annual canvass at all. What they did was to visit the new members and make clear what the church's financial expectations were (tithing is the bottom rung). After that, the minister would occasionally lay out some new major project that needed money and ask that people give more. If the collection wasn't large enough, they would pass the plates again. Wow!

I'm not sure that would work for us, but maybe there are some ideas there. In any case, we had something to talk about that was constructive and I'm sure he prayed for my pagan soul. I suppose it never hurts to have someone pray for your soul.

SO, now that you've got the whole program, let's review the steps

1. Acknowledge your feelings. It isn't going to work if you are not in touch with yourself. Those feelings will rise up and bite you sooner or later!

2. Practice letting the anger go. It won't all go at once, but you can come back and do some more later. In fact, you can (and will need to) repeat all of these steps. Think of it as "mental floss".

3. Step back and get some perspective. Learn something about the other person or group. Think a little from their perspective. This is hard, because they are wrong. But try it anyhow.

4. Identify for yourself where you really do disagree and remind yourself not to point that out directly to the other person the first time you see them.

5. Look for common ground. There is always some - it may be a lot or a little.

Next, move on from your friends to your enemies! And when you get that done, come on back. I never did get to Compassion. Maybe respect isn't such a bad intermediate step.

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