Overcoming Division

This was originally a sermon given at First Presbyterian Church on January 31, 2021 by Lynn Buske.

I am a Community Organizer for JONAH – an interfaith organization that does grassroots organizing to address root cause of social injustice. I am in this work because my faith values compel me to make a difference in my community and my philosophy background often has my thoughts swarming to seek understanding. The topic I’m about to speak on is the one that has been most recently buzzing in my brain, and, thankfully, JONAH is working as an organization to address it: Overcoming Division.

My heart has been broken, wresting over this for a year – it seems like everyone is divided 50-50 on everything. It is painful to see family, friends, community so divided. I’m sure many of your feel this as well. My friend and mentor Sandra McKinney reminded me, however, that this division has always been there and this past year just stretched everyone too far so they got more vocal about it – a light was shown on our division.

It doesn’t feel like a light. But the fact that so many of the conversations I’ve had this year and what I’ve seen on tv, social media, have been around resolving this division – it seems that through the immersion in darkness, a light was able to shine on our actions – the fact that some of us are ready to talk about mending relationships demonstrates that we have already shifted. 

I’d like to spend a brief moment talking about darkness and light. John 1: 5 says, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Author and speaker Brene Brown says, “The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” Expounding on that she also says, “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

I think that is what happened. The light is starting to shine through because we are taking a look as a culture at our darkness, finally, perhaps with some divine guidance.

But what is darkness? We all have some – personally and culturally. I expect it doesn’t always look/feel the same. Looking at my own darkness in my life they are not all created equal, but I think what they all had in common was that I could pretend they weren’t there. And that space, that moving through like everything is okay, is the darkest – because we have chosen to be blind.

1 John 2:9-11 says, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

We have to look at the darkness with light, in order to know it is there and be able to move into the light.

In the story of Jonah (one I feel compelled to look at often because of who I work for), Jonah ran away from his calling. It doesn’t say why, just that he “fled from the presence of the Lord”. Fleeing from God, and not being the child of God we were called to be, sure sounds like turning toward darkness. Then later in the story Jonah was frustrated with how God gave light, or forgiveness, a second chance, to the people of Ninevah and frustrated that God gave Jonah a plant which he then took away. Both of those sound like totally human responses. Attachment to what WE think is right and fair. And not looking at our own darkness. About the plant, in Jonah 4:10 the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow.” We have to tend to the things we are given and want to keep.

It takes courage to look at the darkness. It takes vulnerability and humility to find our authenticity in that darkness. It takes effort to tend to those things we value. And if we value UNITY, then we must find courage and humility IN OURSELVES to begin to mend division.

Before I dive more into those things, I want to explain a bit more about what I think tangibly mending division looks like, and then how courage and vulnerability and darkness and light fit in.

Division, to me, looks like: 

–       People cutting family out of their lives who disagree with their values.

–       Shaming people for not having the same beliefs as you.

–       Being unable to communicate or listen to each other anymore.

–       Hate speech towards a group of people.

–       Confusion on right and wrong when issues have become so far one way and so far another – and everyone believes they’re right.

–       One side deciding that they are just going to put their beliefs into law because they have the ability to do so.

It is difficult to determine what is right and who to fight for, and how to stand up for what you believe in without causing more division.

In JONAH and WISDOM we believe UNITY is possible. AND we believe standing up for your beliefs while encouraging UNITY is possible. And that none of this is possible without faith. We are a demonstration of interfaith and collaboration. We’re not perfect, we never will be, but we’re trying to be our best, together. We are interfaith to demonstrate that we don’t have to agree on everything (there are fundamental religious differences between our members: the Jewish community, the Unitarian Universalists, the Catholics, and the Methodists). But we can gather together and focus on something bigger than ourselves. We build into our work reflection, authenticity, relationship, listening, and faith. We deliberately seek to be an organization that unites people no matter their income, background, color, skill set. 

There are people who don’t think our value of inclusivity and compassion for all is right. But we are willing to be wrong. We reflect together, we pray on it, and we read God’s words. And we try to be gentle with people and listen to the other side. Non-violence. Like it says in 2 Timothy 2: 14-16, 22-26:

“14 Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 16 22 Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. 23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”

The core of our work in JONAH and WISDOM, the part that is hardest to see from a distance, but what I feel is the brightest light, is our focus on RELATIONSHIP.

This happens through our focus on teaching a practice called 1-to-1s: sitting down with someone one on one, face to face, with no other goal than to listen to them to find out who they are and what matters to them. Encouraging people to speak what matters to them without saying anything and just listening. And then the other person gets their turn to speak what they want to speak and just be heard.

Have you have been truly heard? Think of a time when someone just listened to you, no judgements or comments and gave you their complete attention? How did that make you feel? It’s powerful. I try to do this for my children, as kiddos have a lot to say, and I want them to grow up thinking people care about what’s in their heads and hearts. It takes a lot of patience sometimes to stop what I’m doing and listen and not correct them, but I can see how they shift when eyes are on them and they got to say what they needed to. It is validating. It is healing. As a human being. And it teaches them to listen to others, because it is easier to listen to someone when they’ve listened to you. Getting to know people, specifically for their differences, does require that we BOTH listen.

What we’re hoping to hear and speak is personal truth, or what we call self-interest. Self-interest is that place where your faith, values and experiences intersect – what do you believe is important and have seen it play out in the world. What matters to you. Your sense of purpose. We’re hoping to encourage people to do something with this BECAUSE inherent in it is OTHER, community, people impacted by it.

I want to take a moment to explain what we call in organizing “The Gamaliel Ladder”. The Gamaliel Foundation is where we get our model of grassroots organizing, and our leadership training material, from. I think it will help put into perspective the impact of relationship and where self fits into the community.

First we believe that it is a person’s belief systems, their faith, that determines the values they hold. It is natural to want to bring your faith values into action, and see your values lived out in the community. But in order to be able to have the capacity to live out your values you have to have some amount of power – which is literally “the ability to act.” Having this power, this capacity, requires having people and resources around you. In grassroots organizing, where we deliberately want to have impact on the values we see living out in the community, we are intentionally organizing people and resources around our values – finding people who uphold these same values passionately. This passion around a specific value – the one we work to see happen no matter the circumstances, the thing we will always take action on. That is our self-interest. In order to successfully gather the people and resources we need, in a sustainable way, we have to find out about other people’s self-interest – what matters to them.

Self-interest is NOT selfish because in order to do anything with it, to make it happen, you have to find others who have similar self-interest. And another one of my mentors, the Executive Director of WISDOM, David Liners, reminded me the other day that having true relationship is also being interested in what someone else’s self-interest, putting aside yours for a moment, and helping them find their self-interest, and maybe needing to negotiate in order to both get what you want. 

I mention this not only to further explain how we work in JONAH but our reasoning behind why relationship is important and what it really looks like. Inherent in self-interest is humility. Being invested in others.

Building unity, overcoming division, it really seems to be this simple – just sitting down with someone one-on-one and listening to what matters to them, and sharing what matters to you. Many JONAH folks groan when someone reminds them to do 1-1s or get training in it again, and I think that is because it is hard to grasp that this little thing, one person at a time, is THE way toward fixing our community problems. 

AND I think because it requires courage and authenticity. So now I return to talk about these skills.

It takes courage to ask the questions you need to, to understand someone else’s view. To be open to learning. It takes authenticity to share yourself and your passions with someone else. Both require vulnerability.

Brene Brown has a lot to say on courage and vulnerability:

  • “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
  • “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
  • “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

To find this we have to look inward – IN OURSELVES. Repeatedly. All the time. Reflection is practice of humility. Listening is too. Be honest with ourselves about our darkness, about our values. So that we are able to have real relationship with others. 

To overcome the fear of “being wrong” or having to feel anger, or fear of speaking our truth without judgement – we must rely on our faith. Pray often for our eyes to be open. Reflect on our words and actions. Listen to how God shows up in our lives. Trust that God is working towards the best interest of all – and we may not get it. Faith, in my opinion, is not certainty about anything but GOD, that God knows more than we do, permission to trust blindly in God and not ourselves Whatever is best for you and all, which may not be what we want it to. But in all of it we must allow!

I have had people ask me a lot about how to get along with someone they disagree with. It’s so hard. Because not everyone will listen or wants to engage in these relationships. Everyone is on a different path and I’ve had to learn to say: “it’s okay that they disagree with me” “It’s okay that they aren’t willing to listen.” And be aware of when I’m not willing to listen. Maybe we can’t 100% get along, maybe there will always be someone who is too stubborn to surrender to vulnerability. But when there is willingness, I think there are three helpful things to remember:

1.    We are not proselytizing but being authentic and vulnerable 

Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Real conversation – we’ve all been learning to have them – is not one teaching the other, or telling them what they have to do, but recognizing you are equals and treating each other with respect. Thich Nhat Hanh, my favorite teacher and author, said in “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation” that “The Three Kinds of Pride are: (1) thinking I am better than the other(s); (2) thinking I am worse than the other(s); and (3) thinking I am just as good as the other(s).” 

2.    Not wanting to win 

James 4:1-5:20 says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” In this I hear – when we are attached to winning, it is an earthly desire, a selfish need. When we are not focused on winning we are surrendering to God. “Lean not on our own understanding” Let the truth speak for itself. Thich Nhat Hanh also said, in the same book, “People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.”

3. Everyone is suffering

I think this one is important for us to remember when having discussions with others who don’t agree with us. Thich Nhat Hanh also said, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” Maybe remembering this can help us quell our responses when someone stirs us up.

Everyone has a story. Everyone has growth to go. Everyone is doing the best with what they can. Everyone of us is making mistakes – that is what GOD is for. I think we can overcome division one person at a time, starting with ourselves – by listening. And being open to unity looking the way God wants it to, not the way we want it to.