May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Sermon:Tending a Sensitized Conscience

Tending a Sensitized Conscience

Delivered November 11, 2012 at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh

       During my twenties, I drove taxi for a year at Union Cab in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember early on, the dispatcher – his name was Tim, but everybody called him “Hat” – I remember Hat telling me, “You've got to really listen to your radio.” I thought to myself – Did he mean just always be tuned in to the CB radio so we could listen and put in a bid when a trip became available in our area? Did he mean to listen closely to the songs on the FM radio stations? Or did he mean to really listen to the voice of the dispatcher, to hear the tone of his voice, and try to find out from his inflection whether the calls he was giving were good calls that would take me and my fare all the way across town, or they might be just a few blocks, for which I'd have to drive a couple miles to get there? Or I thought maybe he meant even deeper listening, and his use of the word “radio” was a metaphor – in which he wanted me to listen to others so closely, and figure out the stories prior to the stories, to hear what was happening in their hearts and their heads. Then again, maybe it wasn't about people at all. At the very beginning of the teal hymnal, we have a song that says, “Listen more closely to things than to beings...”
       This is a sermon about listening deeply. Listening with the purpose of educating our conscience – our internal sense of right and wrong, also known as that still, small voice within. This education I'm talking about assumes that our conscience is not some static entity. That our sense of right and wrong is dynamic. It assumes that as we open to receive new experiences, the conscience is capable of fine-tuning its compass toward the good, and also of becoming more keenly attuned to nuance. The invitation I'm investigating today is for each of us to consider sensitizing our conscience, according to our present ability and desire. To make it capable of detecting things that it previously could not.
       First comes the question of why to do this. Having a sensitized conscience means being ready to take on some of the sting of life, feeling a little more tender, maybe even raw. It may be preferable or easier to just go out and numb the pain we already have. And maybe your life does have a lot of pain. And if that's the case, this sermon may well not be for you, at least not in this moment. But if you are willing and have the capacity to move to a deeper level of connection with suffering, the question of why still looms. 
       I think of the enlightened Bodhisattva from the Buddhist tradition who, upon reaching a state of enlightenment and understanding suffering, then and there makes a vow to go back to the human world and work to guide people to the alleviation of their suffering. To choose that is to enter into a world of discomfort. There's a good reason to go back and engage (from whatever state of enlightenment you already have). Taking on some level of discomfort is bearable, especially with the knowledge that the discomfort you take on with a new sense of awareness may help alleviate some actual pain in the lives of others. To my understanding, pain is an order of magnitude stronger than discomfort.
       There's another reason why you might want to develop a more sensitized conscience – spiritual growth. There is always room for increasing our awareness, thereby allowing for a better-informed conscience. I have a brief story to illustrate this point. The first General Assembly I attended was Portland in 2007. I was staying in a hostel 3 miles from the assembly floor. I got on the bus in the morning, and got halfway there, and realized I'd forgotten my name badge. If you forget your name badge, there is no way you can get onto the floor. So I turned around, knowing I would be at least 45 minutes late, and wouldn't be able to make it to any of the workshops during that morning session. And I had an epiphany! There were three different workshops all at the same time I had wanted to attend, and I would've been unable to take in two of them anyway. Missing all three wasn't really that much different, in a way. Right there on the bus I realized that if I were at GA, I wouldn't be able to pay attention to what was going on on the bus! And from there, I realized that we are missing almost everything, all the time. I imagined there were even a million things going on in that bus that I wasn't aware of and would never be aware of. But that's no excuse not to try and pick at least one thing to pay attention to. The key is to prioritize what gets your attention.
So, a second question then is 'How to cultivate a sensitized conscience?' The first step is to be curious. Ask questions – of yourself, and in dialog with others. “What am I experiencing? How do I feel about it? What experiences have I had in the past that lead me to feel this way, and not some other way?” Can you imagine how others with different perspectives, based on different life stories might feel in the same experience? It's easier to do if they're right there in the room sharing the experience with you, especially if you can just ask them.
       A really good way to sensitize is to ask, “What am I missing?” The things on the surface, at least, you and I try to catch. But, as I like to interpret my old taxi dispatcher “Hat” as saying, find out what's under the surface there. When there's a conversation or dialog, it's often more telling to listen into the noise-floor for what's NOT being said, either something that's under the surface, or may actually just be an elephant in the room that people are focusing away from, either consciously or unconsciously. I've learned to know my senses only take me part way. As humans, using our senses, we do not have the ability to see in the Infrared or Ultraviolet light, we cannot hear the high-frequency sounds that dogs can hear, or the 7.8 Hz low-frequency sound of the earth's constant rumble. We do not have the inherent ability to detect radon gas in basements, not can we detect radioactivity. We have to stop and ask, I wonder if there's something I'm missing here, and then go out and get (or devise) an instrument to find out. The same is true with developing a keener sense of conscience.
       So once we do begin to have a more sensitized conscience, what happens? We do, indeed, start having to ask questions of ourselves, and begin calling ourselves into accountability. Accountability is uncomfortable, especially when one is less-than-willing to engage, or not sure how to go about engaging (I have been in both situations myself). You may start to feel guilt or shame for things you've done or left undone, or you may feel fear of what might happen (such as 'doing it wrong') now that you're doing something. Another thing that happens is that we begin to see and feel new nuances from new perspectives, and may feel compelled then to report back on what we've discovered on this free and responsible search for truth and meaning. A sensitized conscience is a very good tool for that search, and practicing the right of conscience may very well be the result of that search.
       There's a sacred text -- actually a rather profane text, but sacred in that it serves a purpose worth studying -- I came across in late-August of this year. In this case, the sacred text was words spoken by Clint Eastwood, at a political convention. I don't mean for this to be a political sermon. In fact, the only way I see it as political is that the root of the word 'politic' refers to “how we choose to be together in community.” Eastwood's way of being in community was quite remarkable, actually.

Near the beginning of his speech, he says: “So I -- so I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here. And he’s -- I was going to ask him a couple of questions.” I thought to myself, “Is this performance art? Is he acting? He must be acting.”
He went on to ask the silent and invisible man in the chair questions regarding his 2008 promises vs his record regarding Guantanamo and then interrupts himself, saying, “What do you mean shut up?” He continues to ask questions to which the invisible man in the chair remains silent, and then Eastwood interrupts himself again... “I am not going to shut up, it is my turn.” He speaks for a while longer, and interrupts himself again, responding indignantly to the chair... “What do you want me to tell Romney? I can’t tell him to do that. I can’t tell him to do that to himself.” Then later, “I’m sorry. I can’t do that to myself either.”

       I felt so appalled, I had to pause the video. It took me a day or so after experiencing this for my conscience to begin to sort things out. The issue was not with just the words. The real issue I saw was with the process, the way it was done. I can only imagine President Obama sitting with his family in the White House living room, or at work with his staff, watching this pseudo-conversation. Were it me, I would be nonplussed perhaps, and I don't know whether I would be amused or very not amused. Here, Eastwood had brought an imagined likeness of the president, the most powerful man in the world, and dressed him down. He made this man – this African-American man who had been vested with power by over 50% of the voters three years ago – he made him invisible, put him there into the narrative without his permission, and then, of all things – he made this imagined character into the fabled (and fearsome) angry black man, without ever having his invisible man in the chair even speaking a word of his own. For all listening, it was like hearing one end of a telephone conversation – the profanities were unspoken, but they were there to be sure. After almost four years of keeping his cool amid being treated like a second-class president in so many ways -- as if he can't be legitimate, or "our" equal or better than us -- finally somebody had conveyed anger on his behalf, and strangely, it was Clint Eastwood who did so. Wordlessly. Unexpectedly. Without permission.
       What did it mean to me? I still don't fully know. Not without complexifying, by being in conversation. My conscience tells me that what Eastwood did was mean-spirited and unethical, and may eventually somehow serve something good – but at a huge cost. This was not microaggressions, this was aggression. And to be clear, I call this racism. And by shining his light in this way, Eastwood unconsciously gave others permission to do the same. In this sacred text, is a conversation that needs to be had, if we are to come together.
       Throughout this election cycle, and since the results came in, I have been feeling the gravest sense of broken community. Among white people, straight people, and men, with the unacknowledged privilege of being white, or straight, or male, it seems there are large groups of people feeling their privilege slipping away. I see them in fear and anger regarding this change, and believe they are avoiding invitations to come to common ground. I see a power still entrenched, and refusing to let others speak for themselves, instead speaking for them and plastering them with labels.
       With no universal conversation happening, the signal-to-noise ratio is low [the children's story involved exploring the noise floor of various situations with respect to audio recording]. In order to hear each other, to have a conversation that doesn't make the Abby in each of us want to cry, we need to turn the noise down AND come to common ground. Until all parties are ready to come together and talk, however (and some are still not ready), I will be taking my dispatcher's advice, and listening to the radio, trying to find what's underneath and behind this. I want to see more than just the surface of this pain, fear, and anger. And I want to get to a place where we desire to have this conversation not only for the instrumental purpose of creating greater community, but also for the intrinsic value of bringing each person back. to. wholeness.       As one granted privileges in several ways, who seeks to be a better ally, I want our congregation to be ready to call out oppressions wherever we see them. And I don't want the people with dark skin to have to call out their examples of oppressions each time they come. Or the women to call out theirs, or the LGBT folk, or the people who have disabilities, or the people with oppressions marginalized enough that they didn't even make this list. I want us to be sensitized allies, who step up and into the conversations before the persons on the receiving end have to become their own last line of defense. And because I want to honor the dignity of all, when I do step up and speak, I will try not to speak on behalf of others. I will speak for myself. It has taken me a long time to figure that out, and I doubt I still have it completely right. This spiritual growth is a work in process.
       So, now. How to tend a sensitized conscience? The rewarding part is knowing you're coming into closer connection with others, and making room for – as Leslie Takahashi Morris states it – the more gorgeous rainbow world, where there is room for a river of identities. The reward is knowing that in closer connection, you're listening back in time for the seeds (both the wondrous and the tragic) that made them what they are. And you're listening forward in time for the flowers they hope to bloom, that make them do as they do.
       Another way to cope with this new awareness is to know the reason why you chose it. Principle zero – love! – the foundation and predecessor for all our principles. Principle zero says step forward with a spirit of confident love. That spirit of confident love says your still small voice within is not a burden to carry as you make your way, but is a blessing to guide you each and every day. 

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