How the “I’s” and the “C’s” Help Us See Our Vulnerability (text & audio)

Joy Christi Przestwor
Part 1 of Sermon

WOW…that was amazing! We’re filled with energy, laughter, smiles. Oh yes and since we’re diverse probably a little “this is over the top” critique going on too!  Oh my gosh, we may even have forgotten about ourselves for awhile in the enjoyment of the process blending these service elements.

But what happens to each one of us when we put our intellect in front of our heart; when we place our rational, thought-through ideas in front of our spontaneous intuitive feelings? Is life a happy song each day? Do I REALLY depend on you or you or you (go from person to person in the congregation) to rely on “being by my side”? How does compassion and caring propel me through my self-created maze of independence, interdependence and introspection?

You know, Bill, I’ve had many an occasion over this past year to think about those questions—to ask myself why do I continue to extend myself, to volunteer, to “lean-in” to life’s moments rather than allow my introverted self to just sit in the mountains or even run away from any engagement. How do I live into Pastoral Care in this community or receive Pastoral Care for myself? How do I develop an alive, collaborative dependence with you and other members of this congregation rather than the uncomfortable dependence on my fellow community travelers?

I just returned from a week on the Atlantic Ocean—one of those serene, very positive, deepening places on mother earth for my soul. I sat intentionally one evening, as the sun went down, along the lapping water’s edge and breathed in the lovely salt air AND jotted in my journal a list of all the major events that I moved through in 2012. (you know me a little—lists are part of me, no matter where I find myself!)

So Bill here’s the items that I wrote on my list: The first two months of 2012 I celebrated my 65 birthday, taught my last classes of my 40-year teaching career, and was honored at a retirement party on the final day of February. That was then followed by a 6-month intensive study in mystical, esoteric, theology—dotted with my mother-in-law’s death in CA in April, my niece’s wedding in May, and Justice General Assembly in Phoenix and culminating in my ordination as a Liberal Catholic priest at the end of July. I returned to my mountain home the first day of August and promptly was immersed in a half month travel trip each and every month from August through December supporting my mom and my dog Angel as each moved toward their respective deaths; Angel on the anniversary of Carla, my partner’s death and my Mom on Christmas Day. I closed 2012 with the actual closure of my mother’s internment box where my family celebrated her 90 years with song and awe. I was tired and emotionally drained when my pen left the 2012 listing page. My annual lists ALWAYS jar me as I deliberately embrace and take-in what appears in front of me. But my mind continued to race noting that the first six months of 2013 have begun with vigor and deep moments as well.

What was clear as I re-read that list, spattered with tears and supported with quiet nods and smiles as my eyes scanned over the page, is that every person in this congregation sitting right here in front of you and me, at this moment could also make such a list; a list of HIGHS and LOWS; a list that mimics the lapping of the waves on the shore where I sat. These moments TRULY are part of the ebb and flow of our human experience. They challenge us to redefine in day-to-day, nitty-gritty ways what we consider the concepts of independence, interdependence, and introspection to mean as we carry ourselves through the “front lines” of this exquisite journey of living. As we say in our Congregational mission: we journey “to nurture our individual search for meaning and work in community for freedom, justice and love.”

My work as part of our Pastoral Care team has taught me to appreciate that Pastoral Care is NOT confined to only moments of despair, or on-coming death or hospitalization. It’s about being present at ALL moments where need is expressed or abides; moments of enormous joy, gratitude, and delight or moments of uncertainty, confusion, and difficult decisions.

As Brene’ Brown noted and Nancy read so well…these moments ENGAGE us—they cause us to either sink into a place where “having the world in the palm of your hand” isn’t even imaginable or reaching out that palm and choosing to dare greatly helps keep our hearts AND hands open.

The image of hands remaining open is a wonderful metaphor for our need for each other. It’s sometimes easier to keep our hands in our pockets or to clasp them together behind our backs or to ball them up into a fist; all ways of partially disengaging—NOT RISKING any moments of sweaty palms or trembling fingers or awkward thumbs. Perhaps the intertwining of my hand with yours calls me to be more compassionate with myself, more caring in my outreach both to you as well as myself.

Perhaps being vulnerable with you, letting you in and “being all in” myself to all the moments we share opens me to that mysterious miracle we strive to achieve that Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community. Eleanor Roosevelt put it another way, “Yesterday is History, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift”.

Just perhaps being vulnerable calls me and you into daring to touch one another in the deepest recesses of our spiritual presence with and for each other…perhaps we CAN be vulnerable and see more completely who we can become through facing our challenges of independence, interdependence, and introspection.

Bill Williamson Sermon
Part 1 July 14, 2013

When Joy Christi and I began to talk about vulnerability what jumped to mind were my high school years. In 2007, two people very close to me were very sick. My father had bile duct cancer that would end up killing him in 2008. Simultaneously my best friend, William, who had been a healthy state-ranked wrestling champion, had contracted Crohn’s disease had progressed to the point that he was living with a feeding tube for nutrition.

Luckily after a year with his life in the balance, William was returned to full health, playing rugby with gusto at Chapel Hill and once again able to whoop me at wrestling.  But during a time when most kids were focusing on getting cars and dates and then getting those dates into cars, I watched two of the most important people in my life literally waste away.

I also saw the Is and Cs that Joy Christi began sharing with us this morning. I became much more introspective. When faced with the specter of the grim reaper as a young high schooler I spent a lot of time thinking about the big questions. Not surprisingly I had many conversations about these big questions with both my friend William and my dad. These conversations deepened my relationships with both people in immeasurable ways. When I reflected on how my dad and William handled their illnesses and how those around them responded, I realized the type of man that I wanted to be.

To borrow Joy Christi’s imagery I wanted to be a man with open hands. I wanted to risk engagement and be deepened by it. I clearly remember debating whether or not to go visit my friend one day when he was sick. He was frightening, creepy-looking, and foreign. His skin was wrinkled and crinkled from extreme weight loss and had a pale blue/green tint. This was not the person I had been on sports teams with, had played in band with, had camped with on Boy Scout trips. Watching his decline was scary.  By seeing his vulnerability… while living daily with my dad’s situation of declining health, I was doubly reminded of my own fragility. However, I went for a visit and I think that visit was far more important for me than for him. When I arrived we played chess, and laughed, and we made fun of each other. And the most meaningful thing for me was that my frightening and foreign looking friend, skin and bones, pale as paper, with a plastic tube coming from his nose, asked how I was dealing with my dad. My friend who looked like death warmed over wanted to make sure I was ok. It was then that I realized that my “I’s” were out of balance. And that, although independence is wonderful and self-sufficiency is a virtue I prize highly,  I was not giving interdependence the respect it deserved. I thought that I was going to play chess to cheer my friend up but he helped me far more than I helped him.

Another person who inspired me during this time was my neighbor, Mark Gauger. When my dad got sick, lots of people offered condolences and in true southern fashion, food; lots and lots of food. Many also offered to help in any way they could.  However, this man, unlike the others who said “anyway they could” as a polite, rather than a true action-oriented statement, meant it. He described what he meant; he said to call him to help when dad became bed ridden, to call him at 1 am, to call him to help clean up bodily messes, or to lift Dad when he fell or basically, to call him for any reason.

The overriding lesson I learned from this time was that in the moments of great vulnerability, you will receive community care. However after my dad died and William got better, I realized that like Joy Christi said– community care has a place not just in moments of great vulnerability but also in moments of enormous joy, gratitude, or moments of uncertainty and confusion. In that spirit I have tried to be there for my friends and members of my community during daily life just as my community was there during my life changing events.

Bill Williamson Sermon
Part 2 July 14, 2013

All faith communities have an obligation to cultivate community bonds but as UUs this obligation is even stronger for each of us. We do not offer our members eternal salvation, we do not offer rituals like ‘priestly confessionals’ that will mitigate transgressions, and we most certainly do not offer certain answers. What we do offer is covenantal community. We offer a welcoming space shaped by our principles in which a community of questioners can grow and learn from each other.

To quote James Luther Adams, a former professor at Harvard Divinity and an UU theologian, “A free church brings the individual…into a caring, trusting fellowship that protects and nourishes his or her integrity and spiritual freedom”.  If we agree with this, and I think I can say we do, since this statement so closely mirrors our fourth principle guaranteeing a free search for truth and meaning, we need to nurture this search. To do this we need to open ourselves up. We need to expose our own vulnerabilities to invite others to expose theirs. Once we do this we can engage more fully with members of our communities.

One of the biggest challenges to opening up is today’s ever-present electronically-driven universe, full of IPads, IPods, IPhones, and Facebook Friends. It’s too easy to flee from the intimate settings where people can form truly close friendships. When everyone has a device on their hip, it is hard to fully engage with one person at a time because we are trying to constantly engage with everyone all the time. We spread ourselves too thin and end up not fully engaging with anyone.

My high school Latin is pretty rusty but I know the word commune and the word communicate are related in some etymological way. The Webster online dictionary describes commune as ‘bonding or intimately relating’ with someone. It also describes it as a transitive verb that is obsolete.

This past winter my girlfriend broke her phone and it was one of the best things that has happened to me. Without a means of instant communication we had to face the horror of making plans in person and then sticking to them. This meant that more often than not one of us would show up at a place we were supposed to meet slightly before the other and shoot the breeze with whomever we would run into. I loved it! Without a constant technological connection I was able to make personal connections.  To remain open to being vulnerable in our day-to-day life, connection is required.

Rebecca Adams, a professor at UNCG says that sociologists consider three conditions crucial to making close friends, proximity, repeated, unplanned interactions, and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down. That last one is important for our service today. In order to make close friends you need be where you and others and can open up. To truly build intimacy, a crucial part of community, you must be vulnerable and allow others to be vulnerable as well.

Our congregation is the perfect place for these three conditions to occur, two of them are guaranteed: we have proximity and repeated interactions. The only condition we need to work on is having people let their guard down. We need to not only open our doors when we welcome people but open ourselves in all that we do.

We might get hurt and we may get burned and certainly will uncover uncomfortable differences, but by engaging and connecting with others at a deeper level we will be rewarded. I recommend always being willing to take off your electronic and emotional armor and be willing to make connections wherever you find yourself.

Joy Christi Przestwor
Part 2 of Sermon

You are truly amazing Bill…you certainly help me realize, just by being with you, that opportunities seem to abound when we stretch out our hands and hearts.

One of the memorable moments that transpired in the first six months of 2013 has been a RE Adult Ed class called Healthy Living. Nancy Bragg, who shared one of the readings today, was one of its facilitators. (A commercial side bar, if any of you see this class advertised as happening here or at Reuters’ Center take advantage of a spectacular opportunity to grow) During that class we made lists, lots of them, they covered every wall space we had in our meeting room. The lists weren’t the critical element but they aided our process of remaining vulnerable with each other. They provided the backdrop for explaining how we were working to remain open, discovering  OUR healthy ways of being, and growing individually and collectively. At the final class we went back to the first list we wrote of WHY we had come to this class and what our hopes were for our participation; we discovered, in laughter and tears, that a transformation in each person in that classroom had taken place by supporting each other in achieving what we wanted to gain from our time together. As Bill so wonderfully noted, we found out that when we engage and connect with one another amazing things can and do happen; changes and insights happened that we couldn’t even imagine!

Today everyone here has taken four minutes out of this new day (that’s 2 hundredths of a percent of a full 24 hour day for those mathematically interested) to share a hope and a promise with one other member of this, OUR beloved community. I ask you then during the rest of this day and in the weeks ahead to intentionally focus on that sharing. To engage in this congregation, to be all you can become by remaining open to the moments of vulnerability that are here…moments found in an RE classrooms, moments in Sandburg Hall, moments as you find familiar or unexpected opportunities to share at Moral Monday bus stops or Equality Now rallies or SUUSI or as you sit in your favorite spot at home or go to our congregational retreat in November or attend District workshops. I ask you to cherish each moment for those moments propel us deeper, provide us with better visions, and offer us the incredibly, wondrous delights of living wide open.

I ask you, as we walk among and along side one another, that we share these deepening moments of growth, that we stretch forth our entire being not knowing what we may touch but truly knowing we can grow from just the process of stretching out an open palm, opening wide a loving heart, and attuning closely a listening ear. I can guarantee, from my personal lived experience in this community of cherished friends, that if each of us lives with this level of intentional vulnerability in all our daily moments, living will be mystical and magical. Living this way will allow our sight to become clearer and our light to shine brightly for all to see! And so I ask that together and intentionally we may make it so!