Monday, February 21, 2011

Sermon - Diagnosing Difference

This morning we are talking about the way that we understand differences between people. Not differences in politics of belief. We talk about that all the time. Today we are talking about physical differences. One quick answer is to say that we are all the same and none of those physical details of a person should reall matter. Well, whether the should matter or not, we notice those differences. We see them. Whether we are talking about disabilities, racial or gender differences, or any other characteristic, we recognize differences between bodies. There’s no denying them. But we have a choice in how we understand those differences.

We talk quite a bit about racial differences on occasion. We talk about the struggle for justice and equality for people of color. But today we will focus on differences of physical ability. In some ways that is about disability, the name that we give when a person is not able to function in the way most people function. But difference also happens to each of us, when we are sick or injured. As some point in our lives, each of us faces a body that’s somehow different from the norm. Each one of us has to face up to being some how physically impaired. That’s a tough, tough moment. But there is hope.

We have all had challenges with our bodies. For some strange reason we think that we are alone in that experience. Maybe that’s because Mr. Mc Duffy McBean keeps us feeling that way so he can make money off of us. I don’t know. But we have a strange habit of feeling isolated in our difference.
Perhaps this little exercise will change that a bit.
Raise your hand if there are things you can no longer do that you used to enjoy.
Raise your hand if there are things you have never been able to do but society thought you should be able to.
Raise your hand if your body has ever made you feel different or ashamed.
Thank you! Not so alone are we?
The most important thing we ever learn and experience from church may be the radical fact that you are not along. You are not alone in feeling like your body is a challenge or source of difficulty.

This month we are focussing on Evil at UUFLB. I felt like it was important to talk about evil in human differences for a couple of reasons. One is that for so long we have been told that our bodies, any bodies are somehow dirty, or not as good. They are just something that we have to live with until our soul moves on to another place. This is a huge piece of mainline Christian thought, thanks primarily to the Apostle Paul. He was strangely afraid of his natural desires, and as a result he set Christianity on a course for self-loathing. And Christianity is not alone in this. A whole variety of traditions claim that our bodies are bad or some how less important, less worthy than our souls. I actually believe our bodies are magnificent miraculous gift, that allow us to live and love and to make manifest our dreams. Our bodies are good.
What is not good. I dare say, what is evil, is a social environment that deems some bodies better than others. Whether based on gender, race, physical or mental ability, thinness or fatness, any ranking of the worth of a human being based on physical attributes, well it is evil. I think Paul had it wrong, he had it dead wrong. It’s not our bodies that are evil. What is evil is judgment and shame, self-loathing, repression. Our bodies are not evil. What is evil is the way we deny them.

Our bodies are a gift. For you and for me and for everyone we know, our physical bodies are a tremendous gift. It’s hard to believe that sometimes, when they bring us pain or when the limit us in some way. But consider this.
Flawed as they may be, our bodies are the vessel for our life. Without this physical being, without flesh and bone we cannot eat, or drink. We cannot breathe. On the most basic level, or bodies are what make our lives possible.
But they offer so much more than simply being alive. Our bodies offer us an opportunity to be in relationship with other people. They allow us to build frienship with others. They allow us to care for our children and grandchildren. And our bodies allow us to be lovers. That’s right, we are physical, spiritual and sexual beings. Our bodies help us to connect to one another in magnificent ways. That’s not something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate.
And there’s more. Our bodies allow us to join in the creative process. We have hands to sculpt, voices to make a joyful noise. We have ears and eyes to absorb all the beauty that surrounds us. Some people have spent a life-time training themselves, training their bodies to create beauty beautiful things. Others of us, well we just like to sing a few hymns and doodle on scratch paper. But our bodies are what allow us to create beauty in the world.
And they allow us to make a better world. There are a multitude of ways of caring for other people and caring for our earth. Whether it is in raising children or advocating for justice, planting and organic garden or volunteering at the homeless shelter, our bodies allow us to care for the wider world. They allow us to live out our convictions. They allow us to put action to our thoughts. And after all, isn’t that what gives life its meaning.

Our bodies are a gift, but sometimes they are broken and sick. Sometimes they need healing. Fortunately, a whole slough of people dedicate their professional lives to making that possible. Nurses, doctors, therapists, surgeons, counselors, lab technicians, emergency responders and an innumerable list of hospital support crew. They bravely attend to the urgent physical needs.

But I think that we can all participate in the healing of bodies. Certainly we all want to. When a loved one is in pain, who doesn’t feel helpless? I want to suggest that we can help, even if we don’t have a hospital badge or a degree.

If you are a regular reader of The Sealight, our newsletter, you know that there is usually a section called “Circle of Light.” That’s a place where we lift up the names of people who are sick or hurting in some way. It keeps us together as a community as we care for one another.
But I only recently found out where this name comes from. I’ve been here for three and a half years as the minister and I’m still finding out some pretty important stuff. The name “Circle of Light” comes from a very specific ministry that was a part of this congregation. For years, one of the members named Dorothy Nolty lead, what I would call a healing circle. People who were ill or hurting would gather in a circle and Dorthy lead them through a guided meditation. Then they would offer healing thoughts and energy to others in the group, not in a generic way, but in a focus individualized fashion.
I finally found out about this group as Russ told me it is a big part of what got him through his battle with cancer. I don’t know how many other people felt supported, even healed by this group. Probably several considering its tenure and the fact that its legacy lives on in our newsletter.
Why all this talk of healing in a sermon about how our bodies are different and sometimes flawed? Because I think it points to a radical act of holding hope, and a radical act of concentrating your energy on love and healing. So often when we are faced with sickness and disease, the pain gets transformed into anger. Dorthy offered a different way. I have since heard others of you talk about this practice of sending healing thoughts to those you know are hurting. Stick with me here, I know this sounds pretty wuwu out there to some of you but stick with me.
When your loved ones are hurting and there is nothing you can do, try pausing. And visualize a warm ball of love, compassion and healing glowing in your own chest. Then send that ball out, and offer it to the person in pain.
My faith tells me that it will help. Maybe an actual energy gets transferred from the healer to the healed. Maybe this sort of concentration can manifest in physical healing. I hold out hope for that possibility. But what I know, is that focusing our energy and our thoughts on love makes us healthier people. It makes us stronger, and it makes us more able to stay in a loving relationship with those who are in pain.
Only a few of us are blessed with the medical know how to help heal the injured person. And oh how we long to help when we really care. Try offering your thoughts and your love. Just try it. There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

There are also ways that we can respond to assist people with disabilities. Ways of engaging that foster more genuine and respectful relationship, so I want to name a few of those.

If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted, then listen for instructions.
Speak directly to people rather than through their companion or sign language interpreter.
Offer to shake hands when introduced. People with limited hand use can usually shake hands and offering a left hand is an appropriate greeting.
Identify yourself and others who may be around when speaking with someone with a visual disability.
Don't lean against or hang things on someone's wheelchair. Remember people with disabilities treat their chairs as an extension of their bodies.
Place yourself at eye level when speaking with someone.
Listen attentively when talking with people who have difficulty speaking and wait for them to finish. If necessary ask questions that can be answered with short answers or head nods. Never pretend to understand, instead repeat what you understood and allow the person to respond.
Tap a person who has a hearing disability on the shoulder or wave your hand in the air to get his or her attention. Speak slowly and clearly and keep hands and food clear of your mouth when communicating with someone who can read lips.
Finally, relax. Most of what I have just said is very simple if you take a moment to think about it. Be aware of what you are doing and saying, and your best intentions will fill in the gaps.

Accessibility is a key word in any discussion of disability. Clearly, wheelchair users should be able to get into and throughout buildings, and people who are blind or deaf should have access to appropriate assistance. But unfortunately, we tend to understand accessibility as a one-way street. Bringing them to us, bringing the outsider in, offering access to the American dream.
But offering access is about more than just invited the outisider in. A person coming from a different persepctive can bring a completely different way of approaching problems. When we talk about disability and access, we must talk about accessibility that goes in both directions. Inviting everyone to participate means recognize that people with disabilities have much to teach the rest of the world. Accessibility is not just about being nice and hospitable, it is about being in complex relationship and learning from one another. Their "different" experiences, our different experiences are filled with lessons for everyone.

Before we close our time together, I want to say briefly that this is not the sermon that I had intended to preach today. You may have noticed that the description is somewhat different from the content of this sermon.
That’s because I came to realize what we need isn’t a lecture on the postmodern deconstruction of science. What we needed, what I needed and I think you needed as well, was the life affirming message of Unitarian Universalism. That is, that you are not alone in your joy, and you are not alone in your pain. We stand with one another and there is indisputable power in the relationships that we build. And you and I both needed to hear that these bodies that we carry around, no matter how flawed or imperfect, they are what we have to work with. They are our tool for living in this world. They are beautiful. And it’s high time that we celebrated them, rather than moping about their differences.


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