Monday, January 25, 2010

Sermon - On Social Graces

On Social Graces
I want to share with you two quick stories of my life, two stories that I think illustrate pretty well what grace is, and what it is not.
The first of these stories occurred when I was probably 13 years old. My parents were out of town, and I had been signed up to attend an etiquet class with many of my peers. We learned basic dances and the basics of dining. We learned how to escort a date properly, you know, all that really crucial information. So the time for our first class came, and I was told only that I should wear a collared shirt. To me at the time, that meant a polo shirt. Besides, this was Oklahoma in the middle of the summer. So a friends mother picked me up to carpool to the golf club where our classes were being held. We all gathered, probably forty kids. And as the class began, my clothing attracted the attention of the teacher. Apparently my choice of shirt was unacceptable, I needed a button-down shirt. And clearly the sandals I was wearing were unfit for dancing. So, a complete stranger to me, was selected to drive me back to my home, where I could change clothes and then return to the class when properly attired. It was probably a thirty minute drive.
I was embarrassed; I was angry. My time had been wasted, and all by a woman who was enlisted to teach me appropriate ettiquet. That was a moment profoundly lacking in anything that I would call grace.

The other story I have to share with you is a very simple one. It’s not so much a story as a moment. One of the most memorable meals of my life was in the Peace Corps. In West Africa where I was a volunteer men ate their meals together and they ate first. Women and children presumably ate what was left over. I don’t exactly know because I never ate with them.
One evening I was preparing to eat dinner alone at my house in the village. This was a rare time because I usually ate with other families. Well that night, I had one dinner guest. He was a six-year-old boy named Quam. Although he spoke no English, we had become good friends. We walked through the village together nearly every day. So that one night, we shared a meal. I think it was Ramen noodles with some canned green beans. We shared a meal sitting on wooden stools on the front porch. Breaking every social norm of my culture or his, we shared a meal and we slurped our noodles in grace.
This morning we are talking about social graces, the way we treat one another and the way our culture expects people to behave toward one another. There are some generally acknowledged rules about how we treat one another, but this is also a very personal thing. The things that bug you are most likely different from the things that bug me. To really get at this morning’s message, I want you to keep in mind what those pet pieves are of yours. What are a couple of things people do that really bother you? Maybe it’s not saying thank you, or not offering to open the door. We usually have one or two pieces of manners that we expect everyone to live by. What are yours? And also ask yourselves, “How do you like to be treated? What makes you feel like someone has respected your presence as a person?” Keep these questions in mind. These details are different person to person, but keep those in mind for yourself this morning as we explore social graces.

The first thing that comes to my mind about social graces, is that it is a form of communication. It is a set of ways of acting, that one invokes to convey respect, or in some cases disrespect for the other people in the area. Much like language, the way we hold our bodies, the way we enter a room, the way we sit, all of those little details are forms of communication.
But lets go back to regular speaking or writing of communication. A very simple way of understanding communication is that person A says what they want to convey to person B. And person B hears that has been said and knows the information. Ah, wouldn’t that be a lovely and simple world to live in. WE all know that communicating an idea, at least one of any complexity is much more nuanced than that. We don’t usually have the perfect language to express our thoughts, and sometimes it’s difficult to understand what someone else is getting at. Even when we try to be as clear and concise as possible, communication can be messy business.
Back to the model of person A and person B. Sure, person A wants to get a specific message across to person B. To do that most effectively, person A is selects a set of words and a way of expressing those words that person B is most likely going to be able to absorb. Communication isn’t just about saying simply what you want to say. There are choices involved. We choose the words that we use and the way that we say them, depending on who we are trying to speak to.
And so to, we choose the way that we use our bodies and the social graces that we invoke, depending on whom we are trying to communicate with. I have gone through this rather elaborate explanation of communication and social graces to make two points. One is that it is a simple choice of respect to attempt to engage the language or social expectations of the person you are spending time with. And secondly, no matter how hard we try, sometimes we won’t succeed in that communication, because in the end, we all expect slightly different manners. It is no secret that culture to culture, social graces are different. Even within one single culture the expectations change dramatically over time. Still, in the midst of all that uncertainty and difference, we can make and effort, we should make an effort to communicate with the language of those around us. We should do our best to invoke the social graces of those we are trying to build a relationship with.

That all sounds well and good. I have given a little road map to interpersonal relationships and showing respect. So what. Well, There’s much more to it than that. There’s more to this conversation than the one on one exchange or opening a door, or standing to greet someone.

Post-colonial lens

Manners and social graces have a much larger impact than individual relationships. They can have a huge impact on the way we interact on a societal level. Two men of American history seem to embody this reality. The impact of their understanding of manners and social graces meant the difference between harmonious encounters and cultural genocide. Those two men that I am speaking of are Benjamin Franklin and Captain Richard Pratt. On the one hand Franklin knew that every culture had its own etiquet, and by appreciating one another’s social graces, we might not only better understand one another, but build deeper relationships.
As I was researching this sermon, I was absolutely stunned by the perspective that Benjamin Franklin brought to bear on cross-cultural communications with American Indians. He details some of the cultural differences at the time and eloquently lays out how some of the American Indian practices most baffling to whites, were actually far more respectful and humane. In the opening words of his essay “Remarks concerning the Savages of North American,” Franklin writes, “Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs.” I love that quote, because it is so on target, and such a recipe for cultural conflict. “Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs.” He knew that American Indians simply acted out of a different set of cultural norms. And within their own norms there was a meaningful and loving way to express human relationship and social order. He respected that difference deeply.

Now compare that with Captain Richard Pratt, the man associated with the initial effort to create American Indian “Boarding Schools.” This is one of those often ignored by deeply important pieces of American history. In 1875, Captain Richard Pratt took 72 Indian warriors suspected of murdering white settlers to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. Once there, Pratt began an experiment which involved teaching the Indians to read and write English, putting them in uniforms and drilling them like soldiers.” His theory was that he could “civilize” these Indians, working under the strict motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” From then, a whole network of camps was created to do just that. The federally sponsored program recruited or simply took American Indian children from their families, kept them against their will in residential schools and enforced English language and culture, mostly through corporal punishment and fear.

For five consecutive generations from rough 1880-1980 American Indian culture was systematically stamped out through “boarding schools” that originated with Pratt’s disturbing motto, “Kill the Indian and save the man.”

When I first started thinking about this sermon title, I was concerned that there wasn’t going to be much substantial to say about social graces and how we understand manners. But quite the contrary, the way we understand cultural differences is in many ways the foundation for how we build relationships with people who are different. Social graces matter, maybe not so much in our mastery of every little rule of etiquet, but certainly in our ability to appreciate other peoples expectations. All this talk about social graces does have more impact on selecting the correct fork to use for the correct course at a fancy dinner. It has meant life and death, it is a lens, through which some have seen an array of beautiful contrasts and variety, and where others have see hate and fear in the world.
How did I get onto the topic of Social Graces anyway, that’s a very good question. You may remember that this month we are talking about the theological theme of grace. Not graceful dancing or being a debutant, or even a woman named Grace. We are talking about grace as the unearned gifts from the universe that make everything okay. Grace is relief; it brings salvation and forgiveness. Grace gives us strength and power to heal ourselves. Grace is a particular theological concept that we have been exploring through a few different venues.
For most of the month, I have been talking about it as a Christian concept, but really every religious tradition has some concept of grace. Within Buddhism some believe in Bodhisattvas, or beings who have already achieved enlightenment, but continue to exist for the purpose of helping other achieve enlightenment. They offer help along the way. Within Hindu traditions, an array of God and Goddesses are available for special favors. And just about every religious traditions and culture that I know of has some concept of angles ghosts or ancestors. Regardless of where you live or what you believe in, there is always something out there that is available to help bring some relief to your life, some grace.
And all of these angels and favors from God or Gods. All of this divine intervention, it brings comfort and solace. Sometimes eternal life or major mystical benefit, but in large part, they bring comfort. And that to me is the only type of grace worth having.
I want you now to think back to that question that I asked you about the social graces that you appreciated, or even expected. What was it that made you feel welcomed and comfortable as a person? I’m guessing it wasn’t a huge deal. It’s something that anyone in this room could do for you, if they knew what it was that you wanted. But more importantly, the feeling or comfort and support are not so different from the feeling of comfort and support that come from theological notions of grace.

This theological notion or grace and the social notion of grace are actually profoundly intertwined. Just this past week I heard an amazing story from one of you about just this sort of thing. During some challenging years of her life, one member of this congregation had a regular habit of cooking wonderful food. To keep the loneliness at bay, she cooked wonderful food and had dinner parties nearly every week. They were great fun and the friendships that developed were delightful. But for one of those guests the connections have essentially saved her life. One of the members of that circle eventually became deeply mentally ill. For years she has struggled with unemployment, poverty, and near homelessness due to her illness. She had no family to speak up, but that circle of friends that grew out of shared meals continues to be this woman’s safety net. They have literally kept her going for years, decades now actually.

At those dinner parties, in those relationships, there was grace abundant. But it the grace was not in the correct folding of linen napkins, but in the network of love and support that grew out of those times together. Human connection can save souls. I’m not sure if you call that getting serious about etiquet, or theology, but it is real. Making the time and effort to be together can save souls.

Real social graces, are the things, like theological grace, that make us feel safe and secure. Real social graces, at least the ones worth having are about recognizing and celebrating a whole person, and making them feel welcome and heard. Real social grace is about building the beloved community, building a place where all are welcome and all are heard. And that invitation, the invitation to the beloved community, does not require you to RSVP ahead of time.


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