First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Quiet Acts of Courage

March 26, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

 

When there is a lot at stake, the idea of standing down, stepping back, being quiet, waiting patiently, not speaking or not doing can all seem like recipes for disaster. They can look like slacking or apathy to many of us. When there is a lot at stake, most good Unitarian Universalists get out there and do something. Anything. We are movers and shakers who are socially engaged. We exhort one another to make calls, get involved, volunteer. There is a sense of urgency to the fight against injustice and a need to take action in the world.

No stone can be left unturned, no possible action left undone, and no chance to give voice to an important position left unstated. When there is a lot at stake, there is also a sense of needing to be on guard against complacency and against being blinded to the harsher realities of life. The many injustices - against immigrants, the earth, children, the elderly, people of color, and those living in poverty – are true emergencies that desperately need to be addressed. The time is now. Or is it?  

This sense of urgency – I feel it - and this need to act immediately – I feel it - can sometimes get us in trouble and be the source of problems. Urgency creates trouble when there is reactivity. Sometimes people force decisions before they need to be made or are ready to be made, and create more controversy and problems. This can happen because of the desire to get something off our plate. But it can also happen because we want to have the satisfaction of doing something right now rather than allowing more breathing space.

Something happens and before pausing to gather more information or stopping to reflect on the best strategy, people jump in with whatever comes to mind immediately. People jump in to fix a problem they do not even yet understand. This rush to action approach can create feelings of overwhelm and cause burnout. The very people who have energy and passion can become demoralized, or even guilt-ridden for not doing enough.

The immigration justice team here at church and the board of directors have raised questions about becoming a Sanctuary Church. I have had conversations with a number of members about this idea, as well as with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and with Make the Road, our partner in the Latino community. There is a part of me that feels this tremendous sense of urgency. It weighs on me and tugs at me.

I read about raids locally. Sheriff Eric Weaknecht plans to apply to be part of a 287(g) program. Under this program, local law enforcement partners with ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Deputies are trained to perform immigration law enforcement functions. This program was implemented in Maricopa, Arizona where Sheriff Joe Arpaio used it to justify racially profiled sweeps of Latinos. This seems certain to exacerbate the tension, fear, and actual deportations locally.

I also continue to watch the executive orders being issued by the White House, particularly those seeking to restrict asylum-seekers from Central America and Syria, and to ban Muslims from this country. These broad-based anti-immigration efforts make me want to rush to do something more – like be a Sanctuary Church.

But being a Sanctuary Church is not a quick decision nor is it a quick fix. Such an undertaking takes a lot of church-wide discernment, conversation, study, and assessment. A congregational vote is necessary at the end of a process of discernment. Not every congregation is in a position to do this work. Not every congregation is willing to do it. Nor is it a given that every congregation should.

At its last meeting, the board proposed that we begin to identify more opportunities to learn together about what it means to be a Sanctuary Church. The goal is to come to a better understanding without any pressure to become a Sanctuary Church. As a community, it is too soon to know if being a Sanctuary Church makes sense for us. The danger of rushing in is that the congregation might not have a real thorough understanding of all the implications and responsibilities and risks. We could move ahead with a foolhardy impulse and create more hardship than help. Rushing in could create false hopes and expectations. Or our congregation might end up in an internal conflict, debating the pros and cons among ourselves. 

In situations like these, it can be an act of courage to be patient. It does not look courageous. Waiting does not look courageous. Discerning and being thoughtful do not look particularly courageous. To be intentional and purposeful and prayerful are not what we first imagine when we hear the word courage.  It can be hard for many of us to practice this kind of restraint when there is clearly so much work to be done, so many problems to fix, so many challenges to address.

Rev. Richard Gilbert, a Unitarian Universalist minister, writes about how to manage that feeling of being overwhelmed by the struggles. In a beautiful meditation, he says:

When we are overwhelmed with the world
And cannot see our way clear,
When life seems a struggle between tedium and apathy
Or frenzy and exhaustion;
When today seems a punishment and tomorrow a torment,
May we find the courage of patience.
May we recognize courage in ourselves and our companions;
That is not dramatic, that elicits no fanfare;
That commands little notice by the world,
That is forgotten and taken for granted.

He goes on to encourage us to “know such courage and quietly celebrate its presence among us.”

The author and psychotherapist David Kundtz in his book Quiet Mind suggests the quiet of stopping. Kundtz promotes the value of what he calls a “National Stopping Day.” He describes such a day as “one day a year when no one would work. Everyone would say only what is necessary and strive to be silent and relax.” He wrote this around the year 2000, not in response to current events. According to Kundtz:

Everyone would be quiet and listen. The preachers. The politicians. The judges. The lawyers. The journalists. There’d be nothing on television and radio. No newspapers. No mail delivered. Only necessary phone calls. The World Wide Web would be still.

All over the country we could look at the sky, take a walk, watch the rain, listen to nature, sit quietly, look into one anothers’ eyes, say a few good words, walk the dog, eat quietly, observe the passage of time. (Quiet Mind)

If collectively this could happen, what a day that would be. I look around and see plenty of people doing things I wish they were not doing. And these people I think especially need a National Stopping Day. Some of them may need far more than one day. I am certain you can think of a few people just like that. They may need a year or more of pausing to stare at the sky and walk the dog and learn to sit quietly. To meditate and pray. The reality is … most people could benefit tremendously from a stopping day, a day of Sabbath. We could institute World Sabbath Day.

A National Stopping Day sounds a lot like the Taoist concept of wu wei. Wu wei means non-doing or non-action. The concept appears in the Tao Te Ching in verses like this one:

Act without doing; 
Work without effort. (Chapter 63, Stephen Mitchell translation)

This concept is often misunderstand and mischaracterized as doing nothing. But this eastern approach to life advises not laziness or inactivity or apathy. In truth, wu wei is a different kind of acting. It is action that has to do with “getting into the flow” and rhythm of the earth. It is action without “meddlesome, contentious, or egotistical exertion.” Wu wei tries to bring the inner world and the outer world into harmony.  (www.beliefnet.com/faiths/taoism/the-tao-of-star-wars.aspx#DL7bFhzqaXcdLh...)

For Westerners who are productivity and action oriented, wu wei is a kind of heretical idea. Josef Pieper, like Richard Gilbert and David Kundtz, considers this approach countercultural. And indeed it is. Pieper makes the case for what he describes as “experiences that don’t produce anything obvious.” He says that resisting the utilitarian urge is an act that amplifies. He writes this:

Our culture has beheld with suspicion unproductive time, things not utilitarian, and daydreaming in general, but we live in a time when it is especially challenging to articulate the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious, aren’t easily quantifiable, resist measurement, aren’t easily named, are categorically in-between. (Acts That Amplify: Ann Hamilton on Art, the Creative Value of Unproductive Time, and the Power of Not Knowing)

So often, especially when the stakes seem so very high, we resist these seemingly unproductive times. We say things like: there is no time to waste. This is a moral imperative. The time to act is now. I say these things all the time.

Let me share another story with you. This week I was reading about Brandon Stanton. Stanton got laid off as a bond trader in 2010. After being laid off, he decided he wanted to value his time as a means not an end to something. So he decided to spend a year reading 100 pages of great literature a day. He also spent time listening to the stories of strangers. And he had a camera and a fledgling interest in photography. He took a lot of photographs. He took a lot of photographs of New Yorkers on the street. In fact, he took pictures of 10,000 people.

Stanton’s parents meanwhile looked on with “terror and dismay.” His mother, he says, considered “bond trading a reputable occupation and photography as ‘a thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment.’” (www.brainpickings.org/2016/03/15/humans-of-new-york-brandon-stanton-design-matters-interview/) To his mother, he was clearly being unproductive.

Stanton’s photography eventually led to the creation of a visual catalog of the 10,000 people he had photographed. That led to the creation of the “Humans of New York” project, a blog that has since come to include interviews as well as portraits. The project emerged from patience, searching, discernment, creativity, listening, looking. Stanton’s non-action, non-directive experience was not an effort of ego or force. Still it led to a project that has inspired and informed countless people’s lives.

So what do these quiet acts of courage, these times of patience and waiting, amplify?

These experiences amplify our creativity. They amplify the ability to hope. They amplify the ability to be human, our compassion, openness, the ability to listen and trust, the ability to be.

They amplify our inner life and connect our inner lives with the larger world. It is a deep act of courage to practice stopping alongside our activism. It is a deep act of courage to practice patience alongside our doing. It is a deep act of courage to be unproductive alongside all our productivity.

May we each learn to practice these quiet acts of courage to help heal ourselves and this fragile and beautiful world.

Amen. Blessed be.