“Borders and Bridges”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Over the past few weeks I have been talking about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’, encompassing a wide variety of beliefs and perspectives. Now we may not be as diverse a group as Meg Barnhouse just described in the tour bus going to the Taj Mahal, but we are certainly more diverse than most congregations, and faith communities of all kinds, meeting in Pensacola on a weekly basis. I’ve talked about Unitarian Universalism being called a “chosen faith” because so many of us have made our way here by leaving other traditions. Either we found that our previous tradition didn’t fit with our own religious conscience or we didn’t fit into our previous tradition’s expectations of us, or both.
As Unitarian Universalists, most of us have traveled paths in our lives where we did not fit neatly into prescribed categories. We have tended to march to the sound of a different drummer, wandering off from mainstream conventions, venturing into new territories, many times on our own or maybe with one or two trusted friends. You might even say that most of us as Unitarian Universalists have become quite familiar with living on the fringe. Not comfortable in the middle of any homogenous crowd, we tend to gravitate to its outside borders where there is more room to move around and choose our own paths.
Hey, isn’t there a television series on now called Fringe? I imagine there are at least a few of us here who still watch TV. Yes, there’s a show on television called Fringe and it’s a creative science fiction series that kind of follows in the footsteps of the X-Files with its wacky writing about strange occurrences. It even has a character that shows up occasionally played by Leonard Nimoy, who was Spock on the original Star Trek series decades ago. In this new show called Fringe, the fringe is actually the interfacing of parallel universes – one being the reality we know as daily life and the other as an alternate reality with all the same people, but they have chosen slightly different life paths and experienced a different series of events. Whenever the two universes overlap and come into contact with each other, there are crazy distortions and some very confused people.
Apparently some physicists these days are talking about not necessarily parallel universes, but rather multiple dimensions of reality. When I lived in California with my daughter I took her to see Stephen Hawking when he spoke at the University of California in Davis. Of course, he used an automated voice and there were long pauses as he entered his thoughts into the technology that projected his words to his listeners. He has a great sense of humor actually, but I must confess I wasn’t able to follow all his scientific talk even though he was trying very hard to speak plainly for the general public. He did talk about string theory though and the idea that like a shaft of hair with some split ends, alongside the main reality we know to be true there are alternate strands branching out and pursuing other possibilities simultaneously. These other possibilities are not usually visible, but apparently there is some evidence that they exist. This may be one of those cases where the truth is stranger than any fiction we might invent. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it, but I think it’s a good exercise to try every once in a while.
This image of the’ fringe’ or ‘border’ between multiple realities, and even the image of string theory with multiple dimensions of the same reality, are interesting ones for us as Unitarian Universalists. We are not strangers to the experience of choosing an alternate path, of exploring options in our lives that are not always the most obvious or visible ones presented to us. In a number of different ways, the typical Unitarian Universalist simply doesn’t fit neatly into mainstream categories or homogenous groups. We have always been a little different from the rest, shall we say? Am I right?
Think now of your own path to this place of being here in this particular UU setting today, even if you are here for the very first time. Many of us who have been in Christian settings before and even some other faith traditions, grew uncomfortable with the exclusivity we experienced – the shutting out of the other. We would hear in so many words “If you are not _______ (fill in the blank), you don’t belong here.” For many of us this practice of exclusivity did not jive with the teachings of love and acceptance that inspired us. We encountered situations that appeared contradictory or hypocritical, where one thing is said and another is actually done.
Let’s face it, that’s part of human nature. It’s frankly quite difficult to walk our talk all the time. It’s easier to say one thing and do another. So we are all guilty of contradictory or hypocritical behavior to a certain extent. But we do usually try to live by our deepest values, even though they are challenging to live by, especially when the ‘rubber meets the road’ in everyday life.
I mean think about how difficult it is to truly practice the radical hospitality that was attributed to Jesus’ behavior in his day. He consorted with all kinds of the wrong people – women, outcasts, criminals and strangers. He really pushed the known boundaries of the Kingdom of God in his time, and this notion is still pushing at the boundaries of accepted norms today.
I’ve heard it said that Unitarian Universalists, because of our personal histories of not fitting neatly within the usual categories of homogenous groups, are a people who are familiar with living along the borders. We have often pushed against the boundaries of accepted norms of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.
As Unitarian Universalists, we know what it means, when we are the ones who are not ‘in’. We know what it feels like to be outside the accepted boundaries. We know how it feels when we are not accepted for who we are. We know what it’s like to be the “other” in our midst, to go against the grain of what is expected of us. Am I right?
Pause for a moment and think about the various settings you have found yourself in your own life – when you felt like an outsider, different from the rest and struggling just to hold your own. Have you thought of at least one occasion yet when you felt like you just didn’t belong?
I remember how nervous I was when I was in seminary and it was time for me to do my student chaplaincy in a regional trauma center. I was in a small group with other student chaplains, but as a Unitarian Universalist, I didn’t feel like I fit in with either my Episcopal colleagues or being a chaplain at all, since to me it held connotations of being Christian. Oh and besides that – it is a hospital! I was one of those people who get nervous just entering a hospital, even as a visitor!
Now seeing as it was my fourth year in seminary I’d gotten used to the idea of meeting with fellow UU’s in a pastoral setting. I didn’t have a problem with meeting with people to listen about what was challenging in their lives and being supportive, but my idea of walking into a stranger’s hospital room to offer support and potential counsel, knowing that they probably assumed I was a Christian candidate for ministry was way out of my comfort zone. At first.
I had to get over my discomfort with not fitting a label I was pretty sure was assumed about me. I had to figure out how to just go in there and talk with a fellow human being who happened to be in the vulnerable situation of wearing a hospital gown. I knew that there would be a time when I’d be asked to pray with a hospital patient and I would be even farther out of my comfort zone. I learned to ask specifically what the patient felt like praying for and I learned to listen closely for the personal hopes in which a patient found comfort. I learned to pray with, and for, another person. It did not come naturally to me, or easily, but I learned how to do it! Whether they assume I was a traditional Christian (whatever that is, or not), was beside the point, when the ‘rubber met the road’ and I walked into a perfect stranger’s hospital room. It was another border that I grew familiar with and found that I could travel along. These days when I go to the hospital to visit someone (and usually they are Unitarian Universalist, but sometimes not), I sometimes chuckle at how nervous I felt before just walking into the building.
It’s still not the most fun place to be, as anyone who has spent time in a hospital as a patient or visitor knows, but it is a place where the preciousness of life is known and felt and shared, among companions along life’s path.
When you think back to the times when you felt you didn’t fit in, didn’t go along just to belong, you know what it feels like to be an outsider. You know what it feels to push against the boundary or borders that often separate us. Having known that experience and chosen to remain true to what you have known of yourself, how do you think that has helped you to relate to other people who may be struggling at the boundaries and borders of their lives? How has your own experience of being an outsider equipped you to welcome the stranger in our midst, to reach out to someone who is outside their comfort zone?
Whenever we are able to navigate and negotiate the boundaries and borders of our lives and to see the common humanity in the person who is struggling under a label of being different or other, we are building a bridge of understanding, a bridge of acceptance. In a world where insular pockets of homogenous groups are getting more difficult to maintain, we need to learn how to build bridges of understanding along the borders and boundaries that divide us. We need to listen to the stories and songs of our neighbors whose lives may have been radically different from our own, and yet who share so many of the same hopes, dreams and aspirations that we hold dear.
Rather than being separated by our real differences, may we find the ways to celebrate them, learn from them, and appreciate the common bonds that still unite us in the human family. Perhaps you’ve known what it’s like to always be the new kid in town, or perhaps you have known the struggle of being gay in a culture that has allowed judgment and bullying to escalate into violence, even of the most desperate kind in the form of suicide. Perhaps you have felt so isolated by the borders and boundaries that have defined your life that you have come to doubt yourself in the depths of your being. Perhaps you couldn’t find a friend to turn to in your loneliness.
You, my friend, are not alone here – in this company of travelers. Let’s share our stories and songs with each other and help to make the world safer for all of us. Let us continue to push the boundaries and borders that separate us, honoring our differences while building bridges of understanding and human kinship. May it be so.