Worship transcript for July 19, 2020

Opening music

“Yonder Come Day”

Yonder come day! Day is a-breakin’
Yonder come day, o my soul
Yonder come day! Day is a-breakin’
Sun is a-risin’ in my soul!

Welcome (Rev. Rob Keithan)

Hello, and thanks for joining us for worship with All Souls! Today’s theme is a timely one–Witness, Compassion, and Conflict. And our guest preacher, Rev. Louise Green, is no stranger to leading worship at All Souls. Rev. Louise was the first minister hired specifically to support the social justice ministry here, starting in 2004. She later transitioned to being our Minister of Pastoral Care and served at All Souls until 2011. She went on to serve at the River Road UU Congregation in Bethesda, and she just completed two and half years with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation in Howard County, a sister organization to the Washington Interfaith Network where All Souls is active. I hope you’ll join me in warmly welcoming her back for worship today.

And, speaking of transitions, you may or may not have seen the news that Rev. Tony Coleman, our Minister of Congregational Care, is going to move into a different role with us. After much discernment, Rev. Tony decided that moving back to his hometown of Memphis, TN, was the best option for his family. It was not a move he anticipated, but of course we are all living in circumstances we did not anticipate. So flexibility has to be part of how we live.

The good news is that, given the circumstances, Rev. Tony can, and will, remain an active member of the All Souls staff from Memphis. He will stepping in the role similar to the one held by Rev. Norman Allen last year, supporting our Ministry of Adult Spiritual Development and helping to lead worship in a part-time capacity. The church will be hiring another person, based locally, to serve part-time as our Minister of Congregational Care. This is basically the same ministerial staffing arrangement we had for these portfolios last year, but with Rev. Tony playing a different part and someone else coming aboard. We hope to announce this new minister next week.

Please know that the Board, Staff, and our incoming Senior Minister, Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, are all firmly committed to having a strong, multicultural ministry team. Transitions are inevitable, but we are, and must, be dedicated to building Beloved Community more passionately, more authentically, and more effectively than ever.

So, in that spirit, come, let us worship together.

Chalice Lighting and Pastoral Prayer (Rev. Keithan)

It is time to light our chalices. I invite you to do so at home, as I say these words from Douglas John Traversa:

In a world filled with ignorance, let us bring the light of reason
In a world filled with despair, may we share the light of hope
In a world filled with hate, let us shine the light of love

There are several people in our congregation I want to lift up in care today. First, our hearts go out to Caroline McGregor, who recently lost her father, Sandy McGregor, to pancreatic cancer. We offer prayers of love, and of grief, for Caroline and her entire family.

We also lift up Mary Lauran Hall, who recently had the second of two orthopedic hip surgeries. We offer prayers of healing to Mary, and her fiancé Mike, as they travel the long road of recovery.

In the moment of silence, I invite you to speak aloud the names of those you carry on your heart.

Spirit of Life and Love, Dear God,

We arrive at this time from different paths, with many different identities and many different experiences. And yet we are joined together as well, as well all struggle to adapt to our changed world. Spirit of Care and Understanding, we pray today for flexibility, and strength, and resilience. And we pray especially for those with extra challenges: people struggling with health conditions. People struggling with financial and food scarcity. Parents struggling with the impossible task of working and raising children without school and so many other resources. And we pray for the people working on the front lines, health care workers, delivery drivers, and everyone else whose service helps keep others well.

Spirit of Life, be with us, and particularly those who are struggling, as we struggle to live, and to love, in this incredible and complicated world.

Amen.

Music (All Souls Virtual Choir)

“Spirit of Life” (words and music by Carolyn McDade) (sung in English and Spanish)

Fuente de amor, ven hacia mi
Y al corazon cantale tu compassion
Sopla al volar, sube en la mar
Hasta moldear la justicia de la vida
Arraigame, liberame
Fuente de amor, ven a mi, ven a mi

Spirit of life, come unto me
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice
Roots hold me close, wings set me free
Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.

Reading (Rev. Louise Green)

“A Fearless Heart” (Thupten Jinpa)

Hi, All Souls! It’s good to be with you. Even if I can’t see you, I can feel you. And I thank you for the invitation to preach today.

The reading comes from a book called A Fearless Heart by Thupten Jinpa. Jinpa is a professor at McGill and he works at the intersection of contemplative science and neuropsychology. He was the translator for the Dalai Lama for many years, and speaks to us of compassion and empathy and the differences. Here’s what he has to say:

Our empathy has deep roots in parts of the brain that are evolutionarily ancient, as well as in newer parts, such as the cortical regions that enable us to take on another person’s perspective.

Empathy is feeling for (or with) other people and understanding their feelings.

When we witness another person’s suffering, in particular, compassion arises from empathy, adding the dimensions of wishing to see the relief of suffering, and wanting to do something about it.

Compassion is a more empowered state, and more than an empathic response to the situation.

Kindness is the expression of that compassion through helping, a basic form of altruism.

Compassion is what makes it possible for our empathic reaction to manifest in kindness.

Message (Rev. Green)

The sermon today is called “Witness, Compassion, and Conflict”, some things I’ve been thinking a lot about.

I love to learn about neuroscience, about brains and behavior—the ways we are wired, and our amazing capacity to change. This ability is called neuroplasticity, the always evolving ways that

brains can transform. Research over the last 20 years shows we have innate capacity for empathy, compassion, altruism, and kindness. It is socialization and cultural experience that moves humanity to divisions. This can range from simple preferences for comfort, to outright aversion and hatred.

 

When the more ancient limbic brain, the amygdala, which you might think of as a thumb folded inside the brain, senses danger, we defend or attack. Everything else flips offline, and the amygdala’s in charge. We send verbal and emotional signals to fight, freeze or flee. In conflict, or just perceived threat, people use verbal and physical aggression, and dominant power of all kinds. Current events are full of these impulses playing out—especially on black and brown and indigenous bodies. In territories small and large across the country, humans are perceiving threat, and taking action in ways that damage and destroy.

Brain imaging shows that empathy has deep roots in areas that are oldest in terms of evolution, that limbic brain deep within. In addition, empathy comes from the newer cortical parts, the sides of the brain and the part right before the forehead called the neocortex. Empathy is resonance, the ability to take on another person’s perspective, to sense an actual energy field coming towards us–be it joy, pain, or anger. Scottish philosopher David Hume compared it to the strings of a violin, which resonate with each other, feeling the energy field of the other strings.

My empathy for you is going to be associated with my own pain matrix, the brain regions that hold my experience of pain, so that I can feel yours. So, empathy is an emotional place where we can get stuck; we literally get trapped in a kind of vibrating resonance that doesn’t allow us to feel and move towards any kind of skillful action. There are high levels of burnout in the helping professions because of this empathy drain. People get stuck in witnessing and experiencing pain, grief, anger. It can be exhausting, and demoralizing too.

Compassion is experienced in a different part of the brain than empathy. Compassion comes from areas that work on things like learning music, or building language skills. It’s in this neocortex behind the forehead that we feel connected to others, we feel what they feel, and we shape or reshape our attitudes – we take action towards how we might assist. And so this means we can expand our compassion toolbox if we could just move more to the neocortex. Then we can respond in new ways to suffering. It begins with true compassion for ourselves (sometimes the hardest place), and that literally increases our capacity to feel, which increases our resonance ability with other people.

The good news is this: we can develop more compassion, on purpose. To cultivate compassion is to have a basic friendliness, a kind of loving-kindness, towards the very wild range of thoughts, emotions, and experiences which swirl through this body every day; the things that land in my field of living. It shapes how much and whether or not I can resonate with others. It impacts how I respond to suffering. Do I bring a desire to do something to improve the situation? It also impacts whether I quickly, automatically, move to freeze, distance, blame, attack—or collapse entirely, and shut down in overwhelm, which is a real hazard these days.

We are each having our own limited experience of life. We have personal attitudes towards that experience and it shapes what we think is true. Maybe you have heard the ancient parable of the five blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time? It comes from India. Ones sees with fingers and touch and smell, a sensation of tail. Another is perceiving trunk, tusk, leg, the broad side, and they are having very different views of what an elephant really is. Things break down, they become convinced each person is being dishonest, and it even comes to blows in some tellings of the tale. There is no social media in ancient India, but if there were we know how that is going, right? They’d be posting their own truth, and their own reality, and we humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth, all the while basing it on limited, subjective experience. We find it so easy, I find it so easy, to ignore the fact the others’ limited, subjective experience feels equally true to them.

I’m not suggesting that everything is relative, and there’s no truth, we know where that goes these days too. But the absence of truth, the inability to find compassion leads to this breakdown. We know from daily experience, every hour, how much breakdown there is. And when we distance in conflict, our survival brain, the limbic brain comes online. We move to protect ourselves, we huddle with our tribes. We are quick to identify perceived threats. The ancient brain, the limbic brain of survival, takes over, and connecting functions of the neocortex region literally drop off, go offline. Our amygdala is driving the bus of our being. Our choices become more and more limited because a kind of automatic behavior occurs.

It has never been more urgent to expand the human ability to build connections, resolve conflict, and courageously risk listening to differences. Cultivating the ability to observe, to witness, is the beginning. We stop. We breathe. We say: “Wait, I might not know everything that is going on in this moment of intense emotion or experience.” It takes some courage and humility to say, I could possibly be locked into a partial view of an elephant. Perhaps I am not at great risk, but my amygdala thinks I am. I might take a breath and listen, and ask this alarmed lizard self to pause. These are real skills that we can learn, and practice, and improve. It’s not just willing ourselves to feel good. It’s like language or music. You practice, and you get better.

I have also been reading Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution by Diane Musho Hamilton. Hamilton is a Zen priest, and in the Utah judiciary system, as Director of the Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Here’s her view of conflict:

To learn to transform conflict, we must let go of the notion that something or someone is wrong or bad. This belief creates fundamental resistance, and it is the first obstacle to working with conflict.

We can shift our point of view to see that conflicts, like dreams, may possess an elegant intelligence that expresses truths we may not want to see clearly. An old pattern needs to be abandoned, or a relationship needs to grow or change.

We can, with practice, learn to see this intelligence at work and respond creatively and constructively. The conflict isn’t the problem; our response to it is.

We find ourselves in a time of chaotic challenge and change, experiencing global pandemic. We are in urgent national reckoning with race, history and systemic oppressions. Emerging fields of neuroscience can help us see the ways that our brains are wired, for better and for worse. We can change, we can evolve, we can risk new behaviors that connect us, instead of destroying our interdependent web. Our lives, our country, and our planet, depend upon this evolution.

I went recently to Kenilworth Gardens in Anacostia, and saw hundreds of lotus flowers. It was amazing. They are in bloom now in July.

The lotus flower is a sign of regeneration, clarity, and beauty in traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These beautiful water forms are the oldest flowering plants on Earth and rise out of very murky water. They tolerate extreme heat, and maintain root and leaf systems, even when there is nothing above the water. The lotus is a symbol of compassion at the heart of experience, sometimes in Buddhism called the diamond of boddhichitta. There’s the mock there’s the roots, there’s the diamond which results in the lotus which comes out of the waters. Boddhichitta is this natural human awareness which shines through muddy experience. The beautiful luminous flower of compassion is what it symbolizes, rising above the mud and muck, to claim this diamond awareness of our birthright, and our highest gift.

May we center in our innate capacity and ability to connect which is human. May we commit to cultivate compassion, to learn the language, to get better at it. May we bring loving kindness to our own hearts first, and then to all creatures around us, and to this amazing living Earth which needs us so. Blessed Be. Amen.

Music (Dawn McCleskey, vocals; Matt McCleskey, guitar)

“Nobody’s Crying” (Patty Griffin)

Well he jumps in the taxi, headed for the sky
He’s off to slay some demon dragonfly
And he looked at me, that long last time
Turned away again and I waved goodbye

In an envelope, inside his coat
Is a chain I wore, around my throat
Along with, a note I wrote
Said “I love you but, I don’t even know why”

But darling, I wish you well
On your way to the wishing well
Swinging off of those gates of hell
But I can tell how hard you’re trying

Just have that secret hope
Sometimes all we do is cope
Somewhere on the steepest slope
There’ll be an endless rope
And nobody crying.

Well a long night turns into a couple long years
Of me walkin’ around, around this trail of tears
Where the very loud voices of my own fears
Is ringin’ and ringin’ in my ears

It says that love is long gone
Every move I make is all wrong
Says you never gave a damn for me
For anything, for anyone

But darling, I wish you well
On your way to the wishing well
Swinging off of those gates of hell
But I can tell how hard you’re trying,

Just have that secret hope
Sometimes all we do is cope
Somewhere on the steepest slope
There’ll be an endless rope
And nobody crying.

May you dream you are dreaming, in a warm soft bed
And may the voices inside you that fill you with dread
Make the sound of thousands of angels instead
Tonight where you might be laying your head

But darling, I wish you well
On your way to the wishing well
Swinging off of those gates of hell
But I can tell how hard you’re trying

Just have that secret hope
Sometimes all we do is cope
Somewhere on the steepest slope
There’ll be an endless rope

And nobody crying.
And nobody crying,
Nobody crying

Offertory/Benediction (Rev. Keithan)

As we near the end of our service, I invite you to make a donation to support the ongoing ministry of All Souls, as we continue to dream of, and work towards, a different world. You can make a one-time or recurring donation by going to our homepage, by mailing a check to the church, or by texting your gift. We are so grateful for your generosity.

And we are grateful for your presence! If you’ve joined us on Sunday morning, I hope you’ll return at 11am for our weekly Coffee Hour of conversation and camaraderie. You’ll find the log-in information in the email sent out this morning.

And now I’ll close our service with the words of Cheryl Block:

As we go forward
into this frightening, exhilarating,
confusing, miraculous world,
may we offer
our comfort to the afflicted
our love to those who are lonely
and our wish for all to be safe.