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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Heart, Mind, Soul

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Jonathan Mawdsley, Worship Associate, And Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration

Heart, Mind, Soul

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

February 10, 2013

Part One

When our Director of Religious Exploration, Erica Shadowsong, first told me about the story she wanted to tell for Together Time today, she said it would be her revised version of a story that might be familiar to us, called “The Cracked Pot.” The original tells about a person carrying water in two water-carrying pots, one that is perfect and a cracked one that drips out half its water. The pots are suspended from a pole balanced across the person’s shoulders. The water-bearer plants flower seeds along one side of the path so that the water dripped by the cracked pot will accomplish something unique and beautiful even though it fails to carry a full pot of water.

Erica's critique of the original version led us to discuss how people who think they aren’t flawed sometimes act toward those who they believe are flawed, when really we are all flawed.

In the original story, when the cracked pot agonizingly apologizes for always wasting half the water, the water-bearer responds, “I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it.” Took advantage of it??!! The water-bearer goes on, “I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream you’ve watered them. For two years, I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my mistress’ table.”

Great (sarcastically)! The water-bearer never acknowledged the cracked pot’s discomfort and even “takes advantage” of it to make him or herself look good to the boss! And the cracked pot feels badly about itself for two long years, so badly that it doesn’t even notice the pretty flowers growing by the path. That would lead to discouragement if not depression, wouldn’t it? I had to agree with Erica that this was not the story to tell to our children!

In reality, there are no perfect pots. Some of us carry water better than others, true enough. But each of us in imperfect. And we all have the potential to bring flowers to bloom somewhere, somehow, sometime.

Two weeks ago I was in Philadelphia to attend the memorial service of a man in his late fifties. The people who passed him on the street may have regarded him as more of a “crackpot,” than a “cracked pot.” But, as we learned that night, Bart had caused many flowers to bloom over the years.

You see, Bart had schizophrenia. He looked like a homeless person, with unkempt hair and clothes. He often sat out on a park bench in Rittenhouse Square in downtown Philly, and frequented a trendy coffee shop nearby. He had his own table in the corner, where he drew and painted, and sometimes could be heard wailing inconsolably or laughing oddly, without apparent reason. He often traded his artwork for a cup of coffee or for money to get home on the train or bus to the apartment his family provided. He’d be out of money even though they gave him enough for food and transportation – it’s just that he couldn’t keep track of what he didn’t spend on cigarettes, his one addiction.

I’d met Bart only once, last December, when he was already dying, afflicted with cancer. My husband, Don, and I had driven to Philadelphia to keep his brother and sister-in-law company while they cared for him. Had I not known of Bart for the thirty years I’ve been their friend, I might have thought askance of him too. But I knew, and saw for myself that weekend, that he was beloved, and also had required their care and evoked their worry for in ways that most brothers do not.

I tell you this story because of what happened at the memorial event. It was held at the coffee shop that had been Bart’s hangout for the sixteen years since it opened. You’d think the owners would have found him to be a liability, a turnoff to their customers, and sent him packing when he showed up. They hadn’t, for all those years. And, for the memorial event they opened the shop after hours and provided refreshments. It was packed with people who’d come to celebrate Bart’s life. Word had gone out that people should bring any of his artwork in their possession for an impromptu art exhibit, and they did, and so the walls were hung with beautiful, colorful, abstract art - exhibiting real talent, I thought.

After a brief welcome by our friend, Bart’s brother, the microphone was offered to anyone who wished to speak. One by one, people stepped up. Some were people he’d met at the coffee shop. Some were young artists whose talents and confidence Bart encouraged through times of indecision or discouragement. Some were people with whom he’d been in a conservative Christian Bible study for years (although his family is Jewish). They recounted how he could read and speak Hebrew and recite by memory passages from both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, brilliantly relating them to their discussion topic or the times. Others knew him from the apartment buildings in which he’d lived in younger, somewhat better years. Several sang a favorite song. Many spoke of him reverentially, as a deeply spiritual figure, someone who loved them unconditionally.

For me, among the most memorable of the speakers was a woman who showed a beautiful painting by Bart, which she had framed, and told the story of how she acquired it.

One day she was hurrying through Rittenhouse Square on her way home from work, when a familiar voice rang out behind her, calling her name, several times. She turned and saw it was Bart, who she’d known from the Bible study, but hadn’t seen in some time. “Wait. Wait,” he called. When he caught up, he said breathlessly but with joy in his voice, “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!” “What’s a miracle, Bart?” “You are!” “How am I a miracle?” “I was just praying and praying to see someone I knew. And here you are!” “Why were you praying to see somebody?” “I need bus money!”

Many in the room laughed knowingly, not surprised.

“Will you buy this painting?” He thrust it out to her and she honored him by looking it over, knowing she would help him out regardless. But it was beautiful, and she told him so. They made the exchange, and went about their ways.

In closing she said, full of heart, “I didn’t know he’d become so ill. And I’m so sad he’s gone. I want to thank him…  for… teaching me what it feels like to be a miracle.”

Eventually, family members spoke. They thanked everyone for gathering, and explained with their hearts wide open, how amazing the evening had been for them. Through the stories told, they came to know about how Bart had lived his life and how he had loved, and been loved by, people they had never met. The Bart they knew had been a recluse at family gatherings, had a brilliant mind and was artistically gifted, but was sometimes difficult. He was someone who had been their care and concern for many years. That night they learned he had caused many flowers to bloom

And, don’t you want to know what it feels like to be a miracle?

SONG How Could Anyone – words and music by Libby Roderick: “How could anyone ever tell you – you were anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever tell you – you were less than whole? How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle? How deeply you’re connected to my soul.” 

Part Two

Our congregation provides acceptance, comfort and support for many people with mental health challenges, whether they are in the form of addictions or diagnoses. Someone who signed the Membership Book a couple years ago told me that she joined in part because of how we treat one of our Members who she could observe was struggling and special.

Therefore, we are blessed to see the flowers, too.  We have even celebrated the regained strength and stability of some, even some whose lives were in terrifying disarray when they first arrived. Some of them are among our most reliable leaders today.

For example, upon learning about the topic of my sermon, one of you wrote in an email:

“Nine years ago, I showed up here unknown, was greeted warmly by someone who invited me to join a group going out for lunch after the service and to attend the Spirituality Circle the following Sunday, which I did. I felt welcomed and accepted at Paint Branch even though I was very reticent, could not engage in a conversation, and had almost no emotional affect due to the medications I was taking for my diagnosed mental disorder.

I had been hospitalized 4 times in a year and a half and they were very traumatic experiences for me.  I had left my 13 year partnership, moved out of my home and was living by myself, had no friends, had no job, had lost my two professions, had no family support other than my 20 year old son, had no self-confidence or even a sense of who I was or what I could believe in.  I slept 12 hours at night and had a couple of hours nap everyday and my mind was very foggy a lot of the time due to the medications.  I had been told that I had a serious mental disorder that would grow increasingly worse and would have to be on medications the rest of my life.  I considered suicide.

No one knew my story when I walked through the door of PBUUC, yet many extended their caring to me and later when many learned of my story their acceptance and compassion was even greater.  I've come a long way since then, and with the approval of my psychiatrist will be off of all medications by the second week in March.  I am flourishing and the welcome, acceptance and caring that I have received from Paint Branchers has helped me in my journey.”

How could anyone have told her she was anything but beautiful?

On the other hand, this ministry of ours is demanding, in time and in emotion. As the Worship Associate mentioned in his Chalice Reflection, being a Pastoral Care Associate helped him “become more fully aware of the extent to which our church serves as a place of healing and hope for people dealing with mental illness.” I’m S0 grateful, beyond words, to share this ministry with our Pastoral Care Associates and with many other Members who take the time to listen, to engage, and to invite into relationship those congregants who are struggling with mental health illness. And I also know their families deeply appreciate our care for their loved ones.

This ministry is demanding in other respects as well. When there are many people who are chronically ill, sometimes it’s difficult for us to make our time and emotional resources available to the acutely ill, even for those whose love and leadership have upheld the congregation practically forever. The latter need and deserve your minister’s care and your care too!

Also, our very openness and acceptance can be our downfall. Therefore, we must have behavioral boundaries and lines of authority that promote a healthy sense of community.  While one of our primary principles as Unitarian Universalists is our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” we do not want to encourage self-centeredness or selfishness. Neither do we want “self-lessness,” a kind of self-denial supposedly for the good of others. It seems to me that we want to be a community of self-full, not selfish, or selfless, people. We want individuality, not individualism.

Our community will be most healthy and our “sense of community” most deeply shared when we are each secure in ourselves and in our interconnections with each other. Congregational life depends on collective commitment to work things out together to achieve commonly – if not unanimously - held goals and move toward a vision of who and what we want to be as a congregation and how we want to be and act in the world. This is what it means to be in covenant with each other.

The American cultural glorification of individualism and consumerism has gotten in the way of covenantal communities for quite some time. More recently, electronic friendships have become possible. Maintained in bits of time and snatches of phrases, they fit well into the crazy busy-ness of our lives, but they are not a substitute for the embodied friendships we can have in person, here, in congregational life.

Here, where – with our bodies, across the generations – we make eye contact, shake hands, touch a shoulder, offer a hug, sing, pray, dance, laugh and cry, and sign up to serve the homeless, write letters to legislators or march on behalf of our shared values.

Healing and hope are offered to hearts, minds and souls in tweets, emails and posts.

But healing and hope are most real when they happen in the actual, real, embodied presence of one another.

The Beloved Community is for all of us cracked pots, who promise to one another our mutual trust and support, and covenant to relinquish our individualism, but not our individuality, for a common vision of the good we want to be for each other and the good we want to do in our beautiful but troubled world.

May it be so. Amen.

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