“Beyond the Box” 10/22/2017

READING: from “A Core of Silence” by Jim Reilly

A core of silence breathes beyond all words,
or else the words have little worth; …
And half the music lies within the pause
between the arches of the heart;
the print upon the page means less than ink
unless the white and black both speak.

SERMON: “Beyond the Box”

Did you know that there is such a thing as a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant? I found one online, at a website called TheCatCoach.com, owned by Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant. I didn’t look closely into her credentials, or how they are conferred. I did read her advice, though, about why cats like boxes.

She says it’s about safety and security. “All animals have different coping mechanisms,” she says. “This is a cat’s way of dealing with stress. If she’s feeling overwhelmed or in trouble, she can retreat to a safe, enclosed space where she can observe, but can’t be seen.” She suggests that if you’re adopting a new cat, bringing your cat to a new place, or leaving your cat for the day, you should set up a few boxes. “It’ll instantly give them controlled, secure hiding places where they feel protected and calm.”

This has been studied scientifically. (Did you doubt it?) A group of new shelter cats were randomly assigned to either receive a box or not. After just a few days, researchers reported that the cats that were given boxes recovered faster and adapted to their environment more quickly than the cats without boxes.

Another reason cats like boxes is warmth. A cat’s normal body temperature is between about 100 and 103 degrees, which means they’re most comfortable in surroundings between about 85 and 95 degrees. We usually keep our homes cooler than that, so cardboard boxes can act like a blanket or comforter, keeping their body heat close to them.

I think that safety and comfort are also the reasons we like to think and act inside the boxes of accustomed patterns: routines, habits, categories of thought. But like cats, we are also curious, and we like to explore and play. We like to discover new things. And for that, we need to come out of our boxes: interrupt our routines, form different habits, discern new patterns, and reorganize our thoughts. And that’s not easy.

There’s a family story I don’t often tell, about my Aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister. That generation has passed, so there’s little harm in telling it now, other than my own discomfort and embarrassment. The story is that we had gone out to dinner – me, my folks, and my Aunt, and maybe some others – and we were up in Iowa, at a restaurant out in the countryside somewhere, a steak place as I recall. We had finished dinner and we’re walking back to the car, out on the gravel parking lot. Amid comments about how much we’d enjoyed the food, my Aunt suddenly said, “Wasn’t that a well-dressed black family at the next table?” After a beat, she added: “And they were clean.”

The tone of her comment demonstrated that my Aunt was struggling against a stereotype she had learned. She was arguing against it, citing new evidence in her experience. All of us were too ashamed of her comment to reply. We were ashamed because we knew it was an unkind, unpleasant, and insulting stereotype. Perhaps some of us, like my Aunt, had been taught it and had believed it. I had not been taught that stereotype, but I had been taught that some people believed it. The norm in my family was that it was shameful to believe such a thing, and shameful to speak the stereotype out loud. My Aunt had violated that norm.

There’s a lot we could unpack in that story. In my family, we had taken a step away from white supremacy culture, denying our connection with it by rejecting its norms. But our new norms were merely the norms of denial and shame. I have since come to view this as the first stage of a grieving process about losing the “goodness” of being white, as my family gained and processed our awareness of white privilege.

You probably know about the stages of grief: first we deny, then we get angry, then we bargain, then we get depressed, then we accept. As a culture, since the end of the Second World War (in which my father served), I think we have come through denial, anger, and bargaining – most in our country are in one or another of those stages – and the leading edge of our cultural progress (the critical mass of leading opinion) now dwells in the realms of depression and acceptance. What is being called “white fragility” in the academy might better be viewed as a strategy to avoid depression. What is being called “woke” among activists is a way of naming acceptance.

What we saw in Charlottesville and see daily at the White House is not by any means white fragility. There we see the forms of denial and anger that resist even bargaining, let alone depression or acceptance. The popularity with that resistant minority of a “deal maker” who will undo all the “bad deals” can hardly be a coincidence.

When we focus on institutional or systemic oppression, we are talking about creating a supportive environment for all of us to move through the stages of grieving the loss of “American greatness” that is involved in our honest acceptance of the oppression and injustice that kind of “greatness” depended upon. There have long been two kinds of narratives competing to define “American greatness”: narratives in which individuals compete to succeed, and narratives in which communities cooperate to succeed. There is the hardy self-made entrepreneur seeking security through private wealth, and there are the trusting concerned neighbors seeking security through collective commitment. What did the entrepreneur have to do to get rich? How wide did the community draw its circle?

Individuals have been selfless and generous. Communities have extended their support more inclusively. And as they have, they have taken these achievements as tokens of identity, of “goodness” if not “greatness.” That’s what we do. There are such tokens right here in our church. The window behind me celebrates two members of this church who lived about 100 years ago: Jean and Kate Gordon. The Gordon sisters worked for what we now accept as great advances in our culture and society, equal rights for women and fair labor practices. They supported women’s education and work opportunities, and opposed child labor and other labor abuses. They also believed in the science of eugenics. When we acknowledge that fact, we might find ourselves hovering in the stages of bargaining or depression or acceptance of our own community’s identity, coming to terms with the inevitable imperfection of human “goodness.” Yes, the Gordons were eugenicists, but they were clean. As clean as we are, anyway.

There are other examples. The fact that our founding minister, the Rev. Theodore Clapp, preached a famous defense of slavery and owned a slave whom he made work in the church. There are the Schweitzer enamels, artwork by Pauli D’Orlando that hang in our library, and depict Albert Schweitzer using what we now recognize as the stereotype of a white savior rescuing Africans from barbarism. Upon a day, this stereotype was understood as a depiction of neighborly aid, charity, and “doing good.” Some of us remember Albert D’Orlando, and perhaps some of us knew Pauli, his first wife. Whether or not we knew her personally, she’s part of the family. It’s hard to think of her beautiful artwork as saying, “And Schweitzer was clean.”

So what are we to do?

Every so often a pane of stained glass cracks or breaks under the stress the window bears trying to retain its shape. The weight of liquid glass on soft lead causes the windows to sag and sink with time. The leading buckles. The glass cracks. And the time comes when the whole window needs to be taken out, taken apart, and rebuilt with new lead and some new glass. It’s a big project. It takes time. It’s costly. But it’s the only way the window has integrity and can stand again without sagging.

In medieval times it was believed that the stained glass filtered out all but divine light. During the Enlightenment – the seed time of Unitarian and Universalist faith in our country – clear windows came in vogue in churches. More light, more light! More recently we have returned to a desire for color and symbols. Our collective, cultural lenses for viewing the world are like that. When the window starts to buckle, we can choose the color and denseness and pattern of the replacement glass. We can take time for discernment, reflection, deeper analysis and understanding. We can move toward new patterns: interrupt our routines, form different habits, discern new patterns, and reorganize our thoughts.

It’s not easy. But it is faithful.

May we take the time for discernment, reflection, deeper analysis, and deeper understanding – of our own and of our collective patterns. May we move closer to patterns, routines, habits, and commitments that help us resist and undo the oppressions and injustices still encoded in our institutions and social systems. May we thus faithfully live in closer accord with love and justice. So may it be. Amen.


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