Sermons

“Listening and Being Heard”

By Rev. Ed Brock

From March 14 to May 31, 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibition of the work of artist Marina Abramovic. Her exhibit was more performance than conventional art and was called “The Artist Is Present.”

Two chairs were placed on opposite sides of a simple wooden table on the ground floor of a large atrium under a high ceiling. Marina, sitting in one chair, with head bowed and eyes closed, would be approached by someone who would sit in the chair opposite Marina. Marina would then raise her head, open her eyes, and looked into the eyes of the person on the other side of the table. The person seated in the chair would look at Maria, holding Marina’s gaze in his or her gaze for five minutes. When the person leaves, Marina bows her head and closes her eyes, until the next person comes to the chair, and it begins again. No talking or touching was allowed. Each person was coached on the rules before they sat down.

Marina did this seven hours a day, for several days each week, for three months. Seven hundred fifty thousand people attended the show over three months. Each day hundreds of people stood about around the periphery of the area to watch the two people sit facing each other. Many people began to weep when they sat across from Marina.

Why did so many people sit in silence, not moving, to gaze into Maria’s eyes for so long? Why did so many people each day stand on the periphery of this display?

I think this exhibit was so popular because it was about the experience of presence.

Presence is being with one another human being without needing or wanting or expecting anything from them. Simply being present to another, accepting the other without judgment, can be healing.

I think presence and its sisters listening and understanding are rare. Often, despite best intentions, something blocks our ability to be present and to listen to others genuinely.

A friend of mine, who I will call Fred,  specializes in counseling couples. Fred regularly asks one partner of a couple to answer the question, “What would you like your partner to know about you?” and reply only directly to him while the other partner listens silently. Then Fred does the same with the other partner. Each partner is allotted the same amount of time to speak.

Often after such sessions, each partner will say “I never knew he/she thought that” or “I never knew what he or she believed about ________ until I heard them just now.” People who might have been living with one another for years or even decades did not know what the person they lived with thought and believed about a host of issues.

They had never really listened to the other person. Fred believed this was a widespread problem.

Fred stated that with some couples, the simple act of hearing an honest and authentic version of their partner’s thoughts and feelings led to an improvement in their relationship.  An absence of presence erodes many relationships. 

Some of the factors that undermine presence and blocks communication are:

Confirmation bias – if what I hear is not a version of what I think, believe, or want to believe, I shut the words out.

A desperate need to have my opinion prevail – if I wish very strongly to communicate my opinion, I will listen to you only so I can am sure that you will then be obligated to me. 

Communication Scarcity – In a world where listening and being listened to are ever rarer, people become starved to get to be heard, and less able to listen to others.

Anxiety – the more anxious a person is, the less they can listen to anything outside their thoughts.  

Time poverty – modern life is fast-paced; time to be calmly present with another, and patient, seems impossible to find. 

Rise of electronic media taking the place of direct and unmediated human interaction – human interaction can be tedious and challenging, compared to texting you and choosing to reply or even respond at my pace. 

The increase of ways information flows toward us – We live in a sea of messages. Twitter, Facebook, i-phones, tv, and radio are swarming around us like bees. By comparison, the act of being physically present and patiently listening and being heard by another seems antique. 

Under the best of conditions, we have a hard time listening to one another. But that task is made even more difficult by the circumstances in which we live.

This difficulty is compounded by the increasing polarization and fragmentation of our society.  Our society is beset by decreasing genuine relatedness, civility, and trust-building, as a counterforce to the growth of tribalism and polarities.

The coherence of society, and its ability to function for its members, depends upon society’s civility and zones of trust prevailing over mistrust and disrespect.

It is critically important for the times we live in to create circles of civility and trust. The practice of presence is an essential element in the process of building trust and civility. 

The irony of our situation is that it is possible to precisely define what creates deeply satisfying communication: openness, transparency, mutual respect, acceptance of differences, and self- management.

And these factors create, over time, trust. This process, in my opinion, is one of the chief functions of religious communities.  

Every religious tradition has teachings about genuine communication. It is not a matter of knowing what to do; it is a matter of doing the work required to make our relationships places where trust, mutuality, and safety, can grow. 

Our religious movement, with its Seven Principles, and other standards for civility and the practice of presence, is well suited to be leaders in this great need in our times. 

“In Praise of Gratitude”

By Rev. Ed Brock

After she first learned to walk, I would take my daughter Allie to a local park every week.  

On each visit, whenever she saw a pool of water, she would stop and gaze at it as though it were the most astounding sight on Earth. She could kick the water gently with her foot and watch the ripples of water run across the surface of these little pools of water. Allie was mesmerized by the tiny tides her shoe evoked. 

She also stopped to look at flowers, low hanging limbs of trees, rocks protruded from the ground, the moss that grew on the rock, and blades of grass that stood isolated from other clumps of grass. 

As she fixated on each new wonder, I would soon become impatient, and think about all the ‘important’ things I had to do.   

Allie’s wonderment and fascination with the mundane has seemed to me increasingly wise over time. 

Allie exhibited a natural gratitude wherein I am grateful for what is, and for what is happening right now. It is guided and supported by the ability to feel wonder. This innate gratitude finds sufficiency in life in each moment. 

As we move through adulthood, we feel a countervailing wind all around us. For we live in a society that persuades us to be dissatisfied that we do not have more of everything. And sooner rather than later. The creation of dissatisfaction (through advertising, for example) is the primary means by which the wheels of commerce turn. 

So, as we grow out of childhood, gratitude becomes fractured into two broad paths: as being grateful for what is, and a different path wherein gratitude devolves into an inexhaustible hunger for ‘more.’  By degrees we learn the catechism of discontent. We fall into thinking that we should not be appreciative for life, but out there is something that will lead me to feel gratitude; if I get it, I will feel gratitude – so I need to get whatever it is that will make me feel grateful. Until then, I will be unfulfilled and incomplete.  Furthermore, many people have more of everything compared to me, so I am perpetually stuck in an appreciation deficit. 

As adults, it takes intentionality and effort to move from the second to the first type of gratitude.  So much so that gratitude can be thought of as a spiritual practice, reviving and engaging our ability to see and savor, which goes against the prevailing winds of the dominant cultural norms. However, it is worth the effort, for gratitude appears to be an essential requisite of life.  

For more than 40 years, Dr. John Gottman, now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, studied more than 7,000 couples in research.   

One of the discoveries is that four specific behaviors have a remarkable power to predict whether a relationship will last.  Dr. Gottman calls these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  They are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. They destroy relationships. Criticism and contempt are particularly potent. 

If criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and distancing are toxic, might their opposites, appreciation, gratitude, openness, and presence, be healing and life-giving? His research indicated that the answer is yes.  

What is true for relationships is true for a family, a marriage, a congregation, or an individual. Gratitude and appreciation are particularly positive for relationships.     

Gratitude is very powerful. If it infuses how we perceive our lives, the mundane can become sacred. I have found a personal practice of expressing gratitude as often as I can, and anyway I can, to be extremely valuable. 

Of course, we cannot live in a continual state of wonder and gratitude. Personal, professional and interpersonal pressures, obligations, and commitments demand our attention and responses. Outside our personal challenges and tragedies, lie larger challenges: climate change, racism, economic inequality, and many other problems. Gratitude is not an antidote for all that troubles us, but it has its place, perhaps as a spiritual truth, that is extraordinarily important.   

Establishing a prominent place for gratitude and seeking to avoid all the ways life is cheapened or demeaned, strengthens us and the tender cords linking members of the human family.    

I concur with the sentiments of the poet John O’Donohue who wrote:

I would like to live

Like a river flows

Carried by the surprise

Of its own unfolding.

And I agree with the idea that we can recover the lost gratitude of childhood, as expressed in this poem by Mary Oliver:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

I invite you this week to engage in a spiritual practice of gratitude. I invite you to express gratitude and appreciation to as many people as possible this week and see what happens. Put aside cynicism, doubt, and disbelief and just try it for one week. It is a life-giving practice. 

I close my remarks, in a spirit of gratitude, by expressing my appreciation for each of you:  

For the sacrifices you have made, and for your generosity. 

For all the things you have done for the sake of what is right and good.

Thank you for your helping in small and large ways, sometimes in ways that no one will see or have a chance to acknowledge, to advance the cause of hope, and build places where compassion can flourish, and justice be honored.   

May we remember that each of us is a gift to the world, to one another, and those will come after us.

“Shame And Forgiveness”

By Rev. Ed Brock

Libby, one of my aunts (her real name was Elizabeth), was a collector of family secrets. Libby was different from all her siblings – my father and his sisters and brothers – in her curiosity about family secrets and her willingness, very selectively, to share them.  Her ability to gather and collect family secrets was formidable.  

A special bond existed between Libby and me. We were both the youngest of our siblings. She the youngest of eight children, and I the youngest of four children. The youngest member of a family is usually the one most free of family dynamics, and this included, in our cases, an inordinate interest in what happens in the subterranean level of the family life, beneath the surface.

Aunt Libby passed on to me an abiding suspicion that the ‘authorities’ are not always telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Carl Jung called this our shadow.   

Aunt Libby and I had this special relationship, but I could tell she regarded family secrets with deeply mixed emotions.

For example, she would often speak in a low voice when telling me a family secret, and often add ‘Ed, don’t tell this to another soul,’ as though she were passing on information that might get us both shot if disclosed to others.  

It was through my Aunt Libby that I learned what was one of the most deeply guarded family secrets – that my eldest sister, Kay Rose Brock, was conceived before marriage, and that extraordinary measures were taken to hide this fact.

Nevertheless, I cannot adequately express to what extent the timing of my sister Kay’s conception was covered with layers of secrecy, affecting so many things, creating ripples felt through the family and the generations to the present.

Today we might smile at the quaint morality that made my Mother so devoted to keeping this fact secret. I think, for example, of my nephew, who recently had a child with his girlfriend and broadcast this information via Facebook and other social media so that the whole world could know. What a difference two generations make! 

But the shame surrounding this family secret was powerful. 

My mother believed that she had done something nearly unforgivable. It mattered not that this was a silly notion; it was what she felt it meant. The secret possessed a power she gave it, and the culture she grew up in, gave it. It was what she believed it meant in the eyes of others that dominated her thinking. 

I stress again that we may smile at the pointlessness of my Mother’s guilt or shame or any specific reason for anyone being guilty – but the point is, it is real to the person who feels it.  

I began to learn through the experience of my Mother’s guilt, and later through my work as a minister and then as a therapist that there is a vast hidden world of the unforgiven, and the unacceptable, which exerts considerable power in this world.  

And it was through this experience that I learned about the power of shame, which is the name of that perceived as permanently unacceptable and unforgivable.

That which is unforgiven about us can solidify into shame. Shame, if unchecked, metastasizes into a belief that we are, at our core, flawed and fundamentally unacceptable, in the depths of our being.  Brene Brown has done a great deal of work on shame. She believes shame is an epidemic affecting millions of people and is associated with depression, grief, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, and violence. Shame can also reveal itself in rage and anger toward others, even to the point of violence. Is this one reason there is so much violence in our society?

There is a social and cultural dimension to the power of shame. 

Sharon Salzburg, a well-known Buddhist teacher, attended the Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, in 1990. This conference was one of the first contacts between Western psychologists, scientists and meditators, and the Dalai Lama. During a Q & A session, Sharon asked the Dalai Lama, “What do you think about self-hatred?”  Her question grew out of her experience with the self-rejection she had often observed in her students and even herself.  

The Dalai Lama turned to his translator and asked in Tibetan for an explanation; it was evident he puzzled. Finally, looking back at Sharon, the Dalai Lama said, “Self-hatred? What is that? Is that some kind of nervous disorder?” He added: “…you have Buddha-nature. How could you think of yourself that way? I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.” 

Salzburg reflected that many people she encountered had not believed they deserved happiness, well-being, or peace. And it struck her: she was dealing with something widespread that had become part of the culture. 

We live in a culture where judging ourselves and others and assuming the superiority of one group over the other holds such powerful sway.

Where did this come from? From the negative heritage of our culture’s religious traditions? From materialism? From racism? From classism? From economic disparities? All the above? 

In a certain sense, however, it does not matter where it arose.  Finding a way back to an unfettered affirmation of our lives is what is essential.

Forgiveness is the art of beginning again and evaluating our lives based on an affirming value system not dependent on the whims of mood or judgments of culture.  

As members of a religious community church, we are here to reclaim our human dignity, our capacity for caring, our ability to forgive and let go, and to recover our right to well-being.

Without the practice of forgiveness and a willingness to begin again in love, there can be no peace in our lives.  

The best place to start is with ourselves. Buddha stated that we can “search the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of our love and affection than ourselves and that we won’t find that person anywhere.” 

An enormous amount of shame percolates through our culture and society, and one of the ways in which it is most commonly manifest is as self-hatred. But self-hatred can also ‘flip’ outward and be manifest as hatred directed toward those who are ‘different’ from one’s self or one’s group. Is this one reason why there is so much violence and division in our society?

Do you want to take a stand for peace in the world? Start with forgiveness, of yourself, of those who you harbor resentment, even of those who do not or can not begin to acknowledge that they did something wrong which is needing forgiveness, and who would not care if they knew that you had forgiven them. Forgive, and begin again in love, because it is always ourselves that is hurt by withholding forgiveness.  

People treat others as they treat themselves. So, if you know someone critical or hateful of others, have compassion on them, because that is how they are with themselves.  

Forgiveness is not sentimental or delusional. Forgiveness does not exclude self-protection. Forgiveness does not mean continuing a relationship that is harmful or destructive. 

Without forgiveness, there is no release from the past, no freedom from the bondage of revenge and hatred and emotional reactivity, no ability to let life flow, and embrace the reality of what is true and real and now.

If we can truly forgive ourselves and others, the whole world changes, and other people change, too, because we have changed.