Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making Room For Love

Preached at Church of the River/First Unitarian Church
December 27, 2015
Psalm 91
Contemporary Reading:
“…The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds." C S Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age”
A few years ago when the controversy surrounding the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue began, Anna and I were driving down Union Avenue and we saw a sign posted in front of the statue. It was big, bright and colorful. It read: “Please, don’t feed the fears.” I got out of the car and took a picture of the sign. I’ve used that picture repeatedly in my work with students at Memphis College of Art. The students need to know and be reminded that it is their fears that block their learning, their growth and their creativity. I need to be reminded that it is my fears that keep me from being fully alive. All of us need to realize that our fears close the door, at least in part, on our capacity to love and to be loved. Fear is only useful to us when there is real danger, a threat to our well-being and survival. Too many times and in too many ways I have fed my fears. You probably see it in yourself. And that is where the hope lies. In our ability to honestly reflect on our fears and how they can stifle our creativity and our capacity to love. Feeding our own fears not only robs us, it robs the world around us of all that we might contribute if we were not caught up in a cloud of fear.
I want to talk about fear today because I think fear is on our minds. Donald Trump is building his political campaign on fear and feeding it. The media depends on our fear and shovels fuel into its fire. Advertising profits from our fear of getting fat, growing old and being rejected. I do my best to keep my guard up against fear. You probably do the same. It is a matter of our emotional health. Yet, I must confess that I was feeling a shower of fear when I went downtown on December 5th to participate in the St Jude Marathon. Following the San Bernadino shootings and the terrorist attack in Paris, the St Jude event with 21,000 people at the start line, seemed like a perfect place for something awful to happen. And I have been fearful this holiday season because so many neighbors and friends have had their homes burglarized. I confess that fear gets to me sometimes. I don’t want to act as if nothing bad could ever happen to me and my family. There’s every reason for us to be aware of our surroundings and the possibilities. But on the other hand, I don’t want to miss the joy of life simply because I am consumed by fear. I imagine you’re with me on this. It’s a common theme in our lives these days. I think we need to start talking about fear and then finding ways to support each other’s faith in what is good. Learning to trust what is good and eternal is community work. We need each other in order to live faithfully. Any of us can live fearfully all alone. Living faithfully in love is done with others or not at all.
In order to love more and live in faith, we have to first move fear out of the way. We have to move our fears out and then replace them with love. It begins with courage, the courage to acknowledge that fear is taking up too much room in our soul. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience,” Teilhard de Chardin said, “but we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Each one of us is a reflection of God‘s divine spirit.  We were created by love, brought to this life by love and given the opportunity to help bring creation to its completion with love. We are not helpless victims. We are part of the fiber of God’s purpose in the creation story. Realizing that and affirming it among our friends and family can move the watery fear out of our circulatory system and replace it with the red blood cells of resolve to love this life fiercely.
If you have been to Caritas Village in the Binghampton neighborhood, it is likely that you have had the good fortune to eat some of Ibby’s soup. Ibby came to the United States from Sudan several years ago. She and her family arrived in Memphis as strangers in a foreign land. They settled into their house in Binghampton and Ibby missed her community. In Sudan she had lived with the door open. Neighbors knew each other; they came and went freely from each other’s homes. Children were cared for by other women in the neighborhood. Neighbors ate together. Shopping and laundry were not done in isolation. The ordinary things of daily life were community experiences. Missing those experiences, Ibby and her husband began to make connections here in Memphis. He drove the neighborhood children to school and saw to it they got there safely. She started cooking at Caritas Village. They built relationships.
One night, Ibby’s husband had a stroke. She called 911 and the paramedics came. There was chaos and then they were at the hospital. When the sun came up and her husband was stabilized, Ibby took a taxi home to shower and change clothes. She saw that her front door was wide open. “Oh,” she thought, “how could I have been so careless?!” She imagined that everything they owned would be gone.
But when Ibby walked through that open door, she found everything she owned in its place and she found neighbors, six of them, seated in her living room. “We saw the front door was open and we knew something was wrong. So we just came to wait and see if you need help.” Those six neighbors saw to it that Ibby got rides back and forth to the hospital until her husband came home. They ate with Ibby so she would not feel alone. And while her husband was recovering, the neighbors took turns driving the neighborhood children to school, seeing to it they got there safely.
I see Ibby as an example of moving fear out of the way so love can replace it. She came to this country from far, far away. She could have allowed fear to overwhelm her. She could have closed herself off emotionally, just longing for what she had known back home. And think how much her neighbors would have missed, if she had done that!
A few years ago I took a mission trip to Tijuana. I was struck by the poverty there, unlike what I think of as poverty here in Memphis. I went into the home of a family who lived in a house built with materials scavenged from a dump in the United States. The house was constructed with three garage doors leaned against each other. They had a dirt floor. Pictures of Jesus hung on the wall and colorful flowers were in jars around the room. The front door was a bright red blanket.
The Women of the Colectivo hosted us for a day. They are ordinary women living with extraordinary courage and love. They work in maquiladoras, factories owned by US companies. Tijuana is the television-making capital of the world. If you own a television, it is very likely that it was put together by poor women in Tijuana. They work long hours for very little pay. There is no security for them. They tell of going to work in the morning, only to find that the factory has closed down and moved to India or someplace where labor can be hired for less money.
So one day, one of the poor women in Tijuana, Maria, decided to stand up for herself and her family. After her factory closed down and moved away overnight, she wrote to the factory owners and insisted on being given severance pay. It is likely that her first letter was thrown in the trash if it was opened and read at all. Maria wrote again and again. Then a group of environmental justice activists in San Diego learned about Maria and her requests for severance pay. They knew about the toxic waste that the factory had spewed into the air and into the water in Tijuana. They knew about the toxic materials the factory left behind. They knew about the high number of birth defects in babies born to women working in the maquiladoras.
The San Diego activists chose to get to know Maria and her need for justice. They recruited others to help her in her fight for severance pay. She got what she asked for. And she got an office where she and twelve other women work tirelessly to educate mothers and their children about their rights and how to take care of the land and its people.
We gathered in their office and we were fed. The women served us tostados and fruit punch. I was moved to tears by their generosity as they put food in front of us. They were not afraid of going hungry. They were not worried about sharing their limited resources. They were happy to connect with us and to tell us their story.
I wanted to know, since the living conditions are so dreadful and dangerous in Tijuana, why the women stay. “Why don’t you leave Tijuana?”
Maria responded to my question and Carlos translated. “I do not stay in Tijuana for myself. I stay in Tijuana and I work for justice because the earth depends on me. She is my mother. She gives me life and because of the earth’s goodness, I was able to give life to my children. We work together: me, the air, the water, the soil. Together we make life. The earth is being abused by those who love personal profit more than they love life itself. I am here and I will stay here in Tijuana because I love life and I want justice.”
I truly admire this kind of love, the kind of love so strong and so fierce that it leaves no room for fear. Think how much the rest of us would lose if there were not people around us who love so much that their fear cannot find a place to stay.
Moving fear out of love’s way doesn’t require extraordinary heroics. It does require an investment in faith. Not just on Sunday and not just when everything is in order and running smoothly. Moving fear out and making room for love requires the willingness to connect with others, to let go of control and to let others know that we need help. It requires humility.
I’ve been thinking lately that one of our barriers to being truly in love with life is our privilege and convenience. We’ve grown attached to our stuff and keeping it safe. So attached to material things that we think keeping our stuff safe is the same as nurturing our soul and the love in our life. We have made keeping up with our car, homes, computers and cell phones the center of our soul. And we’re withering because of it. We have become easy targets for the fear-mongers because of it.
Do something different this week. Have lunch with a stranger and listen to their story. See how much your soul is nourished by that simple act.  Go without one meal and spend that hour in prayer and reflection. Take a day off from the internet, email and television and, instead, listen for God’s call in your life. Find a way to empower someone in our city who has been marginalized and find the flood of love that fills your soul. Ask someone for help. Tell them you need help letting go of your fears and let them be your teacher. We need each other as we become all that God hoped we would be. Leave the door open so fear can exit and love can find a way in to help you.

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