First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Widening the Circle

September 17, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

Being open is fundamental to liberal religion - being open to more ideas, more possibilities, more people, more diversity, more of the world, and more experiences. This practice means not merely allowing more things in, but also actively drawing in and inviting in more.

It is not more for its own sake that is the goal, though certainly diversity is one of the values. It is more for the sake of healing, truth, and growth, and that spirit of openness is premised on the creative potential and possibility of life. Humans have an amazing capacity to expand their identities and moral imaginations.

In the poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markum expresses our expansiveness this way:

He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took her in!

Those four lines embody so much of Unitarian Universalism’s dreams, promises, and actions.

Markum’s words indicate something of how we can draw more in. This drawing in is not about assimilation or accommodation or consensus. It is not about being right. It has to do with widening the circle – with growing the self and growing the world in a non-coercive, non-violent and non-shaming manner. Drawing a circle that takes the rebel parts in, even what has tried to shut us out, is a pathway toward greater collaboration, exploration, empathy, reconciliation, and respectful critical engagement. To do so is to, as Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, live life “in widening circles that reach out across the world.”

Taking in more, especially taking in more of the people and ideas that are most difficult for us, can sometimes feel like a sacrifice or a compromise, like something we are doing purely out of selflessness or some grander cherished ideal. That’s okay. There is nothing wrong with a little sacrifice for the greater good. But one way of re-imagining that process that makes it seems less strenuous and less onerous is to think about the ways that widening allows us to expand our own understanding of the self, of who we are in the world and our place in it. This broadening of the self helps us to feel more at home in the world and affirms our interconnectedness in the web of existence of which we are all a part.

Eco-Buddhist and activist Joanna Macy says that religion teaches us to “expand the self in widening circles of identification.” She says, “You can learn to draw the circle of the self so wide that the body of earth becomes your larger body, with the rivers like your veins, the rain forests your lungs. Through our desire to protect what we love, we can recognize our interconnectedness with all life.”

Even in this moment in history, when it is sadly too easy to point to the perils and find ourselves absorbed in grief, dread, anger, and fear, there is also this truth that there is a growing collective awareness and a growing movement of people deeply committed to the survival of the earth and all her creatures. Macy observes what she describes as the largest social movement in history, which she says “heralds a basic shift in human awareness and motivation.” And Unitarian Universalists, I firmly believe, are heralds of that shift in consciousness and people who keep the spark of that hope alive. (“Living for the Future with Joanna Macy,” Spirituality & Health,

And if all that sounds lofty and idealistic and optimistic, well, it is. That has been part of our Unitarian Universalist identity throughout our history. That is part of who we are and want to be. The Universalists in particular espoused a universal love and a universal salvation that had no bounds. The Universalist theology insisted that no soul was lost forever, no one beyond the reach of human and divine care. And if you have questions about the fairness and appropriateness of broadening the circle to include murderers, racists, rapists, and abusers, I do too. We live with aspirations and ideals that can be hard to reconcile in the day to day.

The very real difficulty of holding open the circle to what we fear and distrust and hate most is the reason why Pádraig Ó Tuama makes a habit of listening each day and making space to be listened to. He says he greets God by listening to whatever comes – whether it is chaos or burdens or love or being unloved. As Ó Tuama astutely says, “life comes with no trigger warning. Things happen out of the blue. Something happens, and suddenly, with no preparation, you find yourself in the middle of something that you didn’t wish to happen.”

And isn’t that exactly the moment our faith is preparing us for, the moment when we need to reach deeper into ourselves than we imagined possible, drawing on our religious principles and enacting our faith?

One of the stories Ó Tuama tells indicates what is possible. Ó Tuama knows something of conflict and its resolution. He is the Community Leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. Corrymeela is a peace and reconciliation organization that has been in existence for over 50 years. The community offered refuge amidst the violent troubles in that country up until the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

Ó Tuama describes how he was curating a two-day dialogue of 9-10 people in Ireland. These were people he describes as deeply cautious about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. Ó Tuama is gay. At the end of the two days, one of the men who described himself as fundamentalist said, “I have a question for all the homosexuals in the room.” Ó Tuama says he wanted to say that “we don’t like that word.”

But instead he waited for the question. The question was: “I want to know how many times since we’ve met together in the last while, have my words bruised you.” One person quickly said. “you’re lovely You’re nice.” But the man insisted he wanted to know the truth. He said: “No. Don’t patronize me. How many times have my words bruised you?” One person started to count. “One, two three, four. I’d given up after the first hour.” And then the man who asked the question invited others to help him understand. He said, “Are you telling me that it’s painful for you to be around me?” And one person said, “Yes.”

Can you imagine! Just as startling, I find, is Ó Tuama’s conclusion. Ó Tuama says he, Ó Tuama, was converted by this man’s capacity to ask questions. Ó Tuama says, “I want to be someone like him, who says, ‘tell me what it’s like to hear the way I talk because I need to be changed.’” (“Belonging Creates and Undoes Us Both,” On Being, Interview with Krista Tippett)

Being the one who is willing to hear another person, who listens to the question and tries to hear, to genuinely hear the other person is closer to where I am by training. I have had to have a lot of difficult conversations with people as a minister, conversations I wish I did not have to have. I have had to listen to people share ideas and beliefs and criticisms that were hard to hear. Sometimes I found myself debating in my mind and even at times debating with the person.

Mostly, like Ó Tuama, I try to wait and allow the other person to be curious and to make discoveries for themselves. Sometimes I leap in too quickly. Sometimes I am not ready for the encounter. Restraint and spaciousness can be exhausting. And yet it is so much more healing and instructive than pushing opinions and insights and correctives on others. But leaping in can feel so gratifying in the short term and certainly more expeditious. In reality, it rarely seems to work out that well. And Ó Tuama points to a truth that I have experienced. I have been changed by those who were willing to risk asking, who wanted to be changed, who were willing to hear the way they talk.

The other side of that dialogue is being willing to be the one who steps up to ask, are you telling me it is painful to be around me. That is a terrifying question. Asking such a question is a huge risk …. because another person can shame and ridicule or retaliate with linguistic violence.

That is why we create spaces in our community where we can practice listening and being listened into being. So we can ask hard questions. This is part of the reason for having smaller conversation groups, whether it is our people of color caucus or the LGBTQ caucus, a group discussing a racial justice book, or a group meeting to engage in spiritual practice. These intimate circles of trust make possible a level of risk-taking and listening that might otherwise not be possible. These groups expand the circle of who we are. These learning spaces can help us  break old habits of communication, learn to trust that growth can happen when we are both honest and spacious, can help us learn to be careful with our words, and teach us to be willing to take risks with our words in order to grow.

Our readiness to hear one another and be heard is an opportunity to expand our identity and to grow our knowledge of ourselves. The truth is most of us want to do those things. We want to be understood and to feel heard.

Unitarian Universalism teaches us that we have the capacity and ability to be open to ever widening circles of experience, relationship, and existence, that it is possible to live together well on this planet and to experience truth-telling. We do this moment by moment, day by day, striving to approach life with an attitude of curiosity. Sometimes something magical happens and sometimes it all falls apart. And yet we try again, because that is who we are and who we want to be.

I am not entirely certain that all differences can be bridged through dialogue or that we can truly understand everyone. Maybe some gaps of belief and experience are too monumental. But even allowing for that uncertainty offers a generosity of spirit, a willingness to be open to what is beyond our knowing. No matter what, I still I insist on trying.

In the end, it is possible to encompasses more than we may have thought possible, more truth, more life, more love, and yet to know there is always more awaiting us. In that space, “we greet God, and we greet the God who is more God than the God we greet” (Ó Tuama). In that space, we more fully inhabit our identity and create space for others to inhabit theirs. And still we reach out even to the places of our greatest unknowing in this cosmic web of which we are all a part.

The prospect that our discovery of the divine, of each other, of new worlds within us and beyond us is ever in process, that there are ever wider and yet wider spheres of truth and beauty to be discovered, infuses this life with wonder, hope, and gratitude.

Amen. Blessed be.