Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT
March 13, 2016
“Nobody calls out for their therapist on their deathbed.” Such is the observation of psychotherapist Dr. Mary Pipher. In no way is Pipher writing off the benefits of psychotherapy. She is rather landing emphatically on a “something more.” Family is that something more—family, not necessarily biological, but family that breathes caring and commitment and is grounded in covenant. Few families, biological, extended, or institutional, are sustainable by creed. Covenant—experienced, learned, practiced—is the stuff of sustainable community; and family, in whatever form, is the first community most of us experience.
Tiospaye is the Sioux word Pipher introduces to bring to life what it means to dwell “in the shelter of each other.” Tiospaye—“the people with whom one lives.”
Given her message, I would like to believe that it’s not coincidental that Mary Pipher has long been a member of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska. “Nebraska, the middle of nowhere,” some of you might be musing. Not really, no more than Iowa, where I grew up. Lincoln and Des Moines are not exactly the Big Apple or even an understated Bean Town, but they are hubs of the heartland, where dwelling “in the shelter of each other” is as rich and challenging as it is here in New England or the Deep South or the Far West. And the heartland, the Midwest, is home to the Sioux nation, whose people harvested the term tiospaye from how they lived before the intrusions of my ancestors.
A community of faith is a form of tiospaye. I was fortunate enough to know it from an early age. What I recall most vividly from the church of my childhood–a Presbyterian Church in a small Iowa town–are the smells and the din of potluck suppers in the church basement on cold winter nights. It doesn’t take much to conjure up the 27 varieties of steaming meatloaf, the 92 renditions of quivering Jell-O, and always the cakes, the pies, the brownies and the cookies that we gobbled down if we cleaned our plates. Such were the sacred ingredients of extended family, of tiospaye.
The downside of this scenario is the stark reality that my brother and I were discipline fodder for any adult deeming our behavior out of bounds, and we did our share of out of bounds. But somehow we negotiated our way through this gauntlet of hyper-vigilance toward some semblance of responsible adulthood. It’s that same brother who introduced me to Unitarian Universalism—long after I had graduated from seminary, long after I had detoured from being a Presbyterian into faith terrain that was a complicated and enervating wilderness.
In this sanctuary this morning I’m guessing that we hold stories of our biological and adopted families that stretch across the spectrum of beloved to tolerated to fractured to tragically dysfunctional. A beloved family is some curious reality of luck and mindful compassion. Beloved community, that mantra of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a reality to which we aspire. What a profound kinship lies between beloved community and what it means to be “in the shelter of each other.” Beloved community is an enhancement, an enrichment, of that notion. It rises from intentional compassion and a deep understanding that we are all family. Whatever dysfunctions we have are no excuse for not pursuing the path that Dr. King expounded and modeled.
Was it because he was just a born saint? I don’t think so. Any of us who are moderately acquainted with his life know that Dr. King had his share of follies and frailties, and he too stood on the shoulders of prophetic women and men who came before him. The very term “beloved community” was borrowed from Josiah Royce, an early 20th century philosopher/theologian who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which Dr. King was a member. So too Dr. King borrowed that now famous claim that “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” from the 19th century Unitarian abolitionist minister/theologian Theodore Parker. We know also that Dr. King was profoundly influenced by the non-violent principles and practices of Mahatma Gandhi, with whose family he met in 1959, just eleven years after Gandhi’s assassination and nine years before King’s own assassination. He and we abide in the historic and current “shelter of each other” for gifts received and gifts passed on.
Beloved community is not a state to which we simply open a door and there we are. It is rather the inevitable outcome of intentionally pursuing and practicing principles of non-violence grounded in an understanding of brotherhood/sisterhood. At the age of 30, in his Sermon on Gandhi, Dr. King proclaimed that:
“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.”
The battle to which he referred was rife with conflict, as battles are; but conflict needn’t be violent or disrespectful. So it is in a world rife with conflict, as our world is. So it is in a nation rife with conflict, as our nation is. So it is as this nation teeters on the threshold of violence and crosses that threshold in spaces that embody these conflicts. So it is in a community and in neighborhoods brimming with conflict. So it is in a congregation in which conflict is inevitable. So it is in a family in which conflict is a given.
Whenever a couple says to me, “We never fight!” I respond by saying, “You’re either not telling me the truth or you don’t live together!” When we abide in the shelter of each other, it’s not a rose garden unless we count the thorns, those prickly appendages that are as much a part of the rose as the blossom.
The path to beloved community is wrought with peril, yet bends when least expected toward love and justice, like that long moral arc of the universe. It’s simply impossible to find beloved community and to abide faithfully in the shelter of each other unless we’re willing to take the risks. In this faith and this congregation, you strive to do so. You aspire and you perspire. Every congregation holds a history of pivotal moments. You search your souls and move through these moments, not around them, held by what my friend and colleague, Robbie Walsh, calls “the tensile strands of love that bend and stretch to hold you in the web of life.”
How to engage historic moments of brokenness in this and any congregation, this and any community, as we aspire toward beloved inclusiveness? How to own episodes in our congregational life, our community life, our family life, when an honest mirror stares back with blemishes? Being in the shelter of each other ensures that each of us is a check and balance on all of us and all of us are checks and balances on each of us. That proverbial observation that “humility is the beginning of wisdom” is an understatement. Humility is not the same as doubt; it is rather an acute awareness that we are flawed. We trip; we reel; sometimes we even careen in our attempts at wholeness and our temptations that lead us far from it. To the extent that this community, this congregation, is beloved is also the extent to which we can admit our frailties to one another as well as celebrate whatever acts of communal compassion we may have helped make possible. Families nuclear and extended are fallible.
My brother Jeff and I are among the lucky ones to have grown up in a family that was overall deeply caring. Our father was blessed with a rollicking sense of humor that beveled the edges of his strong opinions. But as I ventured forth into the world of college and, heaven forbid, seminary, I came into increasing conflict with Dad over primarily political issues. We could both be stubborn, and neither of us was good at backing down. As for my Mom, how frequently did she raise her voice in my direction: “Stop arguing with your father, Jan! You’re going to give him a heart attack!” Guilt, schmilt! Sometimes I think guilt gets a bad rap in this faith. It can be quite useful, and my Mom was a master at it. Did this make her a bad Mom? I don’t think so. Did it make me a more compassionate daughter? Well, it took awhile…. but I hope I’ve learned that when I’m in conflict with someone I love, or even someone I don’t particularly care for, compassion overrides content.
I don’t want in any way to understate the real cruelties that can be transmitted between parent and child. Their aftermath commonly leaves scars that linger. But when families work, they provide grounding and a far greater capacity to love our neighbors as we love ourselves than perhaps any institution I could name. Families need not be biological families or families of adoption. They can be extended families. For some here this morning, many perhaps, this congregation is an extended family.
None of us can be the singular catalyst for healing another. We need the check and balance of community with individuals liberated to speak the truth in love and sometimes the truth in love minus one. We need the tempering and transforming influence of cohesive caring community.
With such community we can be there for our children and for the child that still resides in each of us. Those words of Alice Walker awaken my own memories in the very title of her poem: “Sunday School, ca. 1950”. So my past meets my present:
…there we stood
Three feet high
Leaning into Bosoms.
As she continues, “then” meets “now”:
I no longer recall
Or brood on the Genesis
I ponder the exchange
And salvage mostly
In the leaning, in the “being leaned on,” in the caring behavior, in the flexing and stretching of strong opinions, in the feelings moving in and out of hurt and gratification, in the exchanges that stretch the patience of the best possible angels of our natures, across the minefields and the meadows of religious community, our souls ripen. Let us be grateful for the prophetic women and men of all ages: Theodore Parker, who bore the scorn of his colleagues for his unconventional theology; Sophia Lyon Fahs, with whose words we opened this morning’s service and who persevered against formidable odds into ordination at the age of 82; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who paid the price of walking down the perilous road toward beloved community; Dr. Mary Pipher, who continues to share the wisdom gleaned through thousands of hours of therapeutic practice and thousands more in the spheres of church and family; Alice Walker, who kindles the flame of our chalices with the resonance of her poetry and prose; and you, you, and you–prophetic souls all, each with the message that is your life.
Where are we on the path to beloved community? How do we dwell in the shelter of each other? Let’s take a moment of silence and ponder these questions in our hearts.
(Moment of silence)
Beloved community is not a goal for the faint of heart. Being in the shelter of each other is not a kumbaya party. Together they call us to look into the eyes of another and see our own—teary, smiling, sobbing, laughing, in anguish, in celebration, in discovery, in epiphany, in faith that we can walk the path and that we are not alone.
So may it be. Amen
“The Beloved Community,” from The King Philosophy, http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy.
Sophia Lyon Fahs, “We Gather in Reverence,” in Singing the Living Tradition, Beacon Press, Boston, The Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993, 439.
Mary Pipher, Ph.D., In the Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, Ballantine Books, New York, 1996.
Alice Walker, “Sunday School Circa 1950,” in Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1970, 11.
Robert R. Walsh, “Fault Line,” from Noisy Stones: A Meditation Manual, Skinner House Books, 1992.