Lonely Spirits Seeking Communion

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

How many of you came into this or some other UU congregation because you were looking for friends? Or even (maybe secretly) looking for a love interest?

I used to be so judgmental about UUs who would admit to either of those two reasons! Especially the latter! Those who filled out surveys who clicked on “social connection” as the primary reason for being in a UU congregation, or at least their initial reason, made me suspicious of their motivations! I wanted them to say they came seeking meaning or spiritual depth, or something weightier than “finding friends.”

But what is so wrong with that?

I can be pretty judge-y about a lot of things. 

At the very same time, I make it clear to everyone who gets to know me that I met my wife at a UU gathering and our first “date” was at a General Assembly.   

As I have—as we all have—endured the relative social isolation of the year plus trying to avoid infection from the dreaded pandemic, I have let go of some of my judgment. (I said some, not all!)

I get it now. Nothing beats human connection. Nothing means more than friends, chosen family, even blood relatives in most cases.

Finding and holding onto a “love interest” is so important. especially when there is so much ongoing threat to human life. 

I have been communicating with some of you lately, with some of my colleagues and friends, even having amazingly deep conversation with casual acquaintances, and I am hearing over and over how exhausted and discouraged and sometimes even resigned we all are to this imposed isolation and the grief of it all. I hear how so many of us are trying so hard to keep up a valiant front. Wearing that emotional mask of “everything is fine.” Telling our children “Be brave” things we may not really be very sure about, like “you’ll be safe, you’ll be fine.” 

In my lowest moments, I wonder if we are the ones telling the lies. I really, really want my children of school age to be in school, in a school building with professional teachers again, but I worry if we are making the right decision to send them back in the petri dish. I worry if there are any “right” decisions to be made, or if is all an unpredictable gamble, a crap shoot.

Just like I have heard many of you admit, I have moments when it feels I can barely keep my head—my spirit—above water. 

Yet something calls out to me, reminding me that the remedy is the same it has always been. It isn’t right thinking or making the right decision. It is Love: Fierce, risk-taking, boundary-breaking love. It is answering the call of compassion. 

This is such a lonely time. We don’t want others to know how anxious we are, how worried, how NOT fine we are. We, all of us, put on a stubbornly brave front.

It is courage that will get us through, though; courage to love with compassion. 

I have a colleague who grew up Pentecostal and is now a UU minister. She has a trans son she loves fiercely. He is becoming a trans man, who—like her—puts love first. Many of their relatives remain Pentecostal. Too many have died from COVID, refusing to mask, stubbornly refusing to believe what we understand as scientific fact.

My colleague tells a story of her son and her father, the grandfather her son calls “Boomba.”

She says, “Several years ago, my dad went through a scary thing with my son and me. Dad began softly singing some old gospel hymn, as he often does when he is nervous or fearful.

“My atheist UU son took his Boomba’s hand and began to sing along.

“When asked later by a family member about how he could sing those words as a non-believer, my son said, ‘When Boomba is scared, his faith makes him want to sing about Jesus. My faith makes me want to hold his hand and sing with him.’”

Then Rev. Misha said, “That’s my kind of Unitarian Universalism right there, beloveds.”

That is my kind of Unitarian Universalism right there.

May it be ours. Not right belief, but powerful LOVE. 

It is not about right belief, ours or anybody else’s. Our way of being is about love, about making bridges, about healing brokenness, about becoming the people we want to fill the world with.

Many UUs are or have been on the “outside.” Some UUs have been, at some point in their past, literally or emotionally cast out. Many of us know what it feels to wander and wonder, to wonder if we would be—really be—welcomed inside a circle of love.  

Many of us know what it feels like to have found the place where we are welcomed and where friendship and “love interests” can flourish.

Bringing more human beings inside that circle of love requires that we see and hear the hurt, the desperate sense of aloneness.

I ran across a sermon written by one of my mentors, a person who became my colleague and friend some years ago. She died too early. I still miss her welcome and her warmth.

My colleague and friend, the Rev. Marjorie Bowens Wheatley, tells a story in her sermon about when she was studying for the ministry, 20 years after becoming a Unitarian Universalist. She was a United Methodist seminary. One of the expectations was that each week, the entire community would attend chapel. She had resisted that expectation because she was still healing from her fundamentalist background. But it was near the end of her first semester and final exams were coming up, and she thought maybe going to chapel might be a good thing.

It was early December, and instead of a sermon, the service was a liturgy focused on Advent, ending with a celebration of the Eucharist. She says she tried to keep an open mind… until she heard the first lines of the prayer, which began with these words: “We, who are the children of Abraham and Sarah….”

She says her mind went blank and she began to weep. The people near her tried to comfort her, but they really didn’t understand what was so upsetting.

When she heard the liturgist say, “We, who are the children of Abraham and Sarah,” she heard the suggestion that all present were descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

And that did not include her. She knew well the biblical story. And she knew that that as a person of African descent, she was a descendant of Hagar, the other love interest of Abraham, the one who birthed Ishmael, the mother who was banished with her son into the wilderness, because Sarah wanted the entire inheritance to go to Isaac, the son the once-barren Sarah bore just after Hagar birthed Ishmael. But the liturgist didn’t mention Hagar.

Marjorie’s mind could have told her not to take the words so literally. Yet the complex race, class, and gender dynamics hit her in gut where trauma lives; hit her with the pain of exclusion. Hagar, her ancestor, was an Egyptian woman whose ethnicity and social standing made her an outcast in ancient Israel, a stranger in a strange land.

“Eye for an eye” behavior continues to this day, doesn’t it? Setting those to wander, outcast, wondering if they belong anywhere.

It isn’t our place to judge others based on their beliefs, even if those beliefs seem so wrong to us. It is our job, our only job, to love, to be compassionate. To rise above division.

Marjorie ends by saying, “This is the work of the soul. Soul work is hard work, but it must be done if we are to be fully alive. One thing that makes it difficult is that it is transcendent—we must move beyond ourselves, to the place of empathy and compassion; to the place of hospitality; hospitality of the human spirit.”

I will end with a poem where I understand the Divine is speaking to us from the future.

The Turning by Rowan Mangan

My sweet darlings,
however did you stay afloat for so long
and never suspect you were
built to breathe underwater?
Why did you never toss thoughts
around in three dimensions,
never loose them like dragonflies
into the deep sky?
How could you fear falling?
Didn’t you see the spiders
stringing safety nets
across the earth every day, just in case?

Instead, you tore at this world, and I watched.
I felt the air’s grim thickening, saw the waters rise.
You were huddled at the precipice—at the very brink,
my loves—and still bellowing for more.
What crucial inspiration turned you at the last?
I’ll never know what broke over you,
and with what calamity, clamor
or grace—
but when you knelt, as one, it was a mighty sight.
You placed your hunger on the ground
and left it to lie among the gadgetry of old logics,
beside the corpses of cruelty and greed.
You were exquisite to me then, long-legged and bright-eyed,
built of gravel and stardust; oh,
my sweet, funny loves. My unfurling galaxy, my
pebble-scatter of promises.

And so we came to the age of the great unbuilding,
where everyone’s name is stillness.
Here, day gathers you into the deep magic of play.
Here, night powders you with the ancient magic of rest.
It’s a time of dragonflies.
So be soft in your hearts, dear hearts,
for we are all cast shining and short-lived into the sky—
And allow your face to take the shape of wonder
when your children ask again to hear the tale
of the time you almost broke the world.

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