So… this has been an interesting year so far. Maybe even an interesting couple of years. There has been so much fun and so much good that I have seen you do, that I have seen many in the community accomplish and celebrate. Acts of kindness, scholarly accolades, sports victories, artistic triumphs - those things have brought me joy because I have seen how much joy they have brought you. The bonds you have created with each other through these experiences are deep and permanent. It is why our Founding Tenet of Disciplina - experiences in community - is so vital to fulfilling our mission.
Love is connection.
The flip side, however, is that this year has not all been sunshine and rainbows. The pandemic and the other swirl of issues outside our walls - some of which occasionally pierce our bubble, have caused anger and frustration. They have created at times divisions among us, and that disunity does not feel good.
Sin is separation.
In our reading from Peter today, he finishes by saying,
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith…”
In the last half-century it has become out of fashion to talk about the devil much. We are resistant to the notion that there is some spirit existent in the world out there that is actively sowing division among us. It is scary to imagine. But sometimes I wonder … if we are to believe that the Holy Spirit is present among us working to channel God’s love through us, working to connect us - and I believe it is - then perhaps there is a similar force out there working for the opposite cause. From my faith tradition of Catholicism and in private devotion in the Episcopal church, there is a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel - patron saint of the church I know some of you attend - and the prayer finishes with this request of St. Michael,
“O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”
Those evil spirits that prowl about the world seek to ruin souls through the act of separation. They work to separate us from God and separate us from each other. They want to disconnect us from the Summary of the Law, God’s two greatest commandments - to love God and to love each other. When I, when we, fall prey to the evil spirits, we begin to “otherize” our neighbor. “They are the problem,” we say. “If only they weren’t here or if only they would change, everything would be better.”
It is providential perhaps that as we start this new calendar year - this time of resolution and new beginnings - that our virtue of the month is the opposite: Unity…. and with it comes our scripture from Ephesians:
“As you carry each other in love, keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”
Last week. Chaplain Kennedy noted this thought of carrying each other in love and its importance as a path to unity, and today I would like to investigate this concept of carrying a bit further.
The first image I would ask you to paint in your mind is the battle that each of us might be fighting with the evil spirit that wishes to separate us. The picture I paint is of my best friend or maybe a family member - the person who loves me the most in this world - standing with me. Sometimes I am carrying them; sometimes they are carrying me. Regardless it is through our support for each other that we prevail. This image of our support for each other is comforting; however, in real life this picture falls painfully short.
In real life we are thrown into our battle against the evil spirits teamed up with all sorts of people - most often strangers, people with much different perspectives and experiences than our own. Yet, the reality is that unless we figure out how to unify - how to practice our virtue of the month, Unity, ultimately the evil spirits overtake us all. As Benjamin Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
“We must hang together or surely we will hang separately.”
By that Franklin meant that Americans must stay unified or be defeated and executed by the British. In some ways large and small, we are in the same position today. We have been thrown together - sometimes in our smaller communities like ESD, sometimes in our larger communities - not with our closest friends but with others, others we have to get along with, lest things descend into discord, chaos.
So how do we carry each other in love? Particularly those who might be strangers, might think differently than we do?
First, we need to put down the other burdens we carry. Lifting someone else takes a lot of energy. The task is particularly difficult if we are also carrying around other emotions, maybe even some feelings toward those we need to carry - resentment, vindictiveness, revenge, maybe some self-righteousness. It is really hard to carry someone who in our minds we are pushing away, “otherizing”, making them into someone other than the children of God they are, just like us.
Another way to lighten our load is to be clear, direct, and kind. Psychologist Brené Brown likes to say that clarity is kindness. When we are able to be gracefully direct and honest, this lifts a weight from us that allows us to support others in the best way possible. When we are unable to engage directly, when we hold things in, when we leave things unsaid, we become weaker. Suddenly our companions become even heavier to carry.
Grace and patience can be hard to come by sometimes when we have to lug around these people with whom we disagree. But, the piece of wisdom that I hold onto in my toughest moments is the reminder that “to know all is to forgive all.” This phrase not only reminds me that an all-knowing God will forgive all my sins, it also tells me that if I could know all about the person who is frustrating me at the moment, that I am trying to carry, I would forgive them too. Unfortunately for humans, that is impossible, so I will instead just show them grace and patience.
It is also important to remember that in these situations we are not always the ones doing the carrying. Sometimes it is we who are being transported. How do we make ourselves lighter, easier to carry, easier to connect with? First is that we must be willing to be carried. Have any of you ever tried to hold a squirming cat, wriggling in your arms, maybe even clawing at your hands? Ouch! You drop that animal quickly. That is akin to some of us, who don’t want to connect, don’t want to unify, don’t want to cooperate. Our neighbors drop us. In order to unify, we have to be willing to be carried.
Next, let’s not make it all about ourselves. Let’s listen more, talk less. No grandstanding for show to bring attention. No virtue signaling. Now… by all means, do not be a doormat. Do not let people walk all over you. But also do not make it all about you, your anger, your pain. That makes you very heavy and hard to carry. Only those who love you the most will take a hold. Others will give up quickly.
The last bit of wisdom for today on this comes from today’s scripture reading. Peter is teaching both his fellow elders and the younger of the church how to take care of each other. But directly to the younger members he says,
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
What can weigh us down most of all, what can make us too weak to carry others, or too heavy to be carried by someone else is when we do not trust God. When our anxieties build up because we do not trust that God loves us, cares for us, wills good for us - when we are anxious, worried, frightened - we carry a burden that makes carrying someone else or being light enough to be carried almost impossible. That is when walking the path of Unity with other members of the human family, living out our virtue of the month becomes most difficult of all.
I have no doubt that the evil spirits that prowl about this world sowing division will always be with us. My prayer is that within the ESD community we can be a beacon, an example of how we lighten our burdens so that we can carry each other into Unity. May God grant us all the peace, the wisdom, and the grace to live his will in Unity.