Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Separation and Community

As humans we are both defined and cursed by our sense of separateness. There is that longing to be special, to be different, and at the same time the longing to be part of something larger than ourselves.

One common way we balance the two is to become part of a group or community that has its own specialness, so that we take on that identity for ourselves. But then, even within the group, there is the posturing, the competition, the clamor for key roles; the building of alliances and opposition, the temptation to divide, and then to align -- and to malign. We expect this in political situations, but in church, we long to be freed from that, and it can be disheartening to see the separation and alienation, the divisions that can thrive even in that holy space.

In church this morning we heard the story of the two men praying in church: the tax collector praying for forgiveness, and the Pharisee voicing his gratitude that he is NOT like the tax collector. The conclusion of the passage is that the humble shall be exalted and the exalted shall be humbled.

It would be easy to stop there, to just point out the virtues of humility; end of sermon. I love that instead of taking the easy way out Bill, our preacher, didn't rest there but pointed out that this could end up being a false humility, assumed purely in hope of someday being exalted. What if, instead of being careful just "not to pray like the Pharisee," instead of declaring the Pharisee's arrogance bad and the tax-collector's self-flagellation good, we stepped back and saw that the humbling is in accepting both as part of a community.

To be a part of a community can bring its own gift of humility. It can be humbling to serve others, to know their stories, to worship beside them. Humbling, too, I think, to know that we have both the pharisee and the tax collector clamoring inside us -- and easier to spot them within when we are part of a community, with all the opportunities community can present to showcase our individual gifts and flaws.

Worshipping in the round as we do in this particular church, it's impossible to think that church is just something that happens between me and God, or maybe between me and Bill and God: we can't NOT see that there are other people in the room, and then, again, the clamoring, the posturing, the competing begins -- all the voices in our heads that drown out the gospel words with petty observations about who's wearing what, who looks tired, whose handshake is stronger or weaker, whose voice is more on pitch. It's embarrassing, it's awkward, it's... yes, humbling.

It's one thing, to sit in meditation, observing your own flaws, letting go of the thoughts and self-condemnation, broadening the circle of compassion by learning to love your own imperfect self. But that is only one step on the journey. I am reminded of a musician who determined that because he was a better saxophonist and a better pianist than anyone he knew, and because with modern technology he could develop his own bass lines and drum patterns, he should therefore rent a music studio for a week and make a fabulous recording all by himself.

But at the end of the week he had nothing to show for his time. What my friend learned in that week alone was that he needed the other musicians -- however imperfect they might be. He needed to play off of their riffs, to interact, to hear other responses; he realized that the sum of the whole could be, in fact, much greater than the parts. Or, as a priest friend once said, a coal cannot burn alone, it needs other coals to make a fire.

Lynn Bauman puts this another way. "Typically we dislike ambiguity, and move as quickly as possible toward some resolution that aligns us with an either/or position where one side is accepted and its opposite rejected....We need instead to learn to live in a state of both/and where we feel the ambiguous nature which constitutes much of reality because it includes what appears to be contradictions that must be held together in tension."

And then Bauman challenges his reader. "As you live through your day, note your tendency to privilege one side over the other... can you experience both with equanimity? See what happens when you hold them together."

Before leaving for church this morning I read a quote from Rabbi Rami Shapiro: "If God were "other than," there would be a place where God was not. God could not be infinite if God did not include you. God includes all. Nothing is "other than" to God. Nothing is outside of God."

God is not just that to which we pray. God is not just that spark of goodness within, the bodhichitta. God is all of us, the tax collectors and the priests, the Pharisees and the children, the presidents and the janitors, the hungry, the wealthy, the celebrity and the barista. There is nothing, there is no one, in us or outside of us, that is not God. And the best way to grasp that may be to hold all those parts of us and the world together in community.

Compassion, then, must be more than just accepting or being sympathetic with the flaws and challenges we or others face. Because that still implies a separation. True compassion must be an understanding that goes to and flows from our very core, an understanding that we all truly are one, that we need one another, that each is part of the whole, that the fire is richer for each of its coals, the melody enriched by the counterpoint and harmonies; that whatever passion we may have as individuals is in fact empowered, multiplied and enflamed by the collection of community.

So then the question becomes: where do you belong? Where do I belong? And how long will it take for us to understand that the fence that divides and separates us from that for which we long is of our own construction?

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