Inheriting the Earth

“The meek shall inherit the earth,” Jesus says. Although we are surrounded by messages that encourage us to keep up appearances, to look competent, and to be strong, Jesus’ words suggest that it is the meek, the humble, the vulnerable, who will “win” the big spiritual prize in life. As we dedicate our children this morning, as we are reminded of what it is to be open, unguarded, and yet completely lovable, let us reflect on the power of vulnerability, the courage it takes to live it, and the kind of life on earth we might inherit, when we choose to. (Note: if you would like your child to be included in this ceremony, please email Rev. Ellen to find out more by Tuesday, May 16th at [email protected]).

 

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The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth
by Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
May 26, 2017

Reading
By Anne Sexton

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
[…]
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket

and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Sermon
The meek shall inherit the earth, Jesus said.
We must become like little children to enter heaven, Jesus also said.
Sounds like he was saying something about vulnerability….
A concept with which we humans have an interesting relationship – or, well, I do. On the one hand, I love the idea. I love it. Freedom – a friend of mine was telling me how her 2 year old loves to run around without clothes on – natural, free, safe, unencumbered, and absolutely nothing to hide.

What could be better?

Young children are open, and transparent, they are excellent vulnerability models.

And while I’m not suggesting we should all follow the example of my friend’s boisterous clothing-optional child to the letter, there is something to be learned from a toddler’s unselfconsciousness.

Most of us, by the time we’re, well, anything past 2 years old we have learned a lot about covering up.

We’ve “drunk” the acid, as the poet Anne Sexton writes,

“When they called you crybaby or poor or fatty or crazy and made you into an alien, we drank the acid and then concealed it.”

Hard things happened. Hard things happen, growing up. Whether in the house or outside of it, none of us get through our childhood scott free. And sadly, when the hurts happen, we don’t know what to do with them, we don’t know who we can share them with, and we cover them up. Keep them to ourselves.

I saw the trailer for a movie recently. It’s called the mask you live in (from 2015). It focuses on how boys are trained in our culture to cover up and not show what’s going on. The clip opens with quick successive snapshots of boys – first from the age of 4 or 5, then 6 or 7 year old – you can see the openness in their young faces, and then an 8-year old then 9, 10, 11, teens, young adults, adult men, snapshot after snapshot, and in the voiceover you hear what they heard growing up: “Stop crying. Stop with the tears. Don’t cry. Pick yourself up. Stop with the emotions. Don’t let anyone disrespect you. Be cool and be kind of a jerk. Don’t let your woman to run your life. Be a man. Be a man. Be a man.” As the images flip past you can practically see the layers come on as facial expressions get harder, tougher, more distant.

Ashante Branch, Educator & Youth Advocate runs a group for middle school boys in Oakland. “What is it you don’t let people see?” He asks a group of fresh-faced 12 and 13 year old boys sitting in a circle with him. The video cuts to what the kids have written ion their looseleaf pages. We see “anger” scribbled in block letters on one. “My pain, my heart” written neatly on another. “Anger” on a third. “Almost 90% of you wrote pain and anger on the back of that paper,” Ashante says.
Our kids get up every morning, Ashante says, “they have to prepare their mask for how they’re going to walk to school. A lot of our students don’t know how to take the mask off.
Boys are taught to keep their feelings to themselves, cover them up, hide the really tough stuff and it weighs them down.
And girls – well – it’s not exactly the same but no matter what gender we are, boy, girl, or anything in between, we get a lot of messages when we’re young telling us to buck up, stop crying, “grow up” and just deal with it.

And that’s what we do. We’ve been trained to cover up, go it alone, cut ourselves off from feelings we don’t know what to do with. It’s so part of the culture we may not even always see it.

But it still has an effect on our relationships, with others and ourselves.

And, even though we may not always see it, I think on some level, we know there are blocks, we know there’s more possible and we’re primed to break out.

As evidenced by the stunning popularity of a TED talk by Brene Brown on vulnerability. Recorded in 2010 it quickly went viral, catapulting into the public eye, and, now at nearly 30 million views is one of the 5 most popular TED talks of all time. Her books have been hitting the bestseller list, one after the other.

Brene Brown hit a sweet spot or a soft spot or a need….

Tapping into our longing for deeper connection – and our desire to want to know how to do it. To know how to be more authentic. To regain that childlike openness, recover our childlike heart. To become, as Brown calls it, “whole hearted.”

There’s only 1 little problem. The journey to get there? Those layers that covered us up? They are not so easy to just peel back and take off.

Because they’re all gummed up with feelings we don’t want to feel like fear or shame, and covered over with defenses like perfectionism, or comparing and competition, or being cool or just a little bit aloof.

Vulnerability, Brown is proposing, is our antidote. Our way out of what blocks us and our way in to what connects us.

Vulnerability, “like saying I love you first, asking for a raise, sitting with my wife who has Stage III breast cancer and trying to make plans for our children, sending my child to school […] knowing how excited he is about orchestra tryouts and how much he wants to make first chair and encouraging him and supporting him and knowing [he’s not going to get it]

Vulnerability – emotional exposure, open-heartedness, courage.

In a recent sermon Kim Crawford Harvie gives a particularly striking example of courageous vulnerability that I want to share with you.
Years ago, she organized a conference, she said, and made what she called the very questionable decision to place a talk by a well-known psychotherapist and elder Zen practitioner after a wildly charismatic young storyteller. The storyteller finished her performance – a tour de force. The crowd was on its feet, all riled-up and ready to dance, when a quiet, unassuming gentleman took the stage. Off stage, Kim had offered him the option of having [the audience] take a break before he asked them to settle down, drop into silence, and follow their breath. He declined, and used the moment in an [unforgettable] way. Sitting down and folding up his legs, he closed his eyes and began a monologue, an extraordinary dharma talk. “Feeling old,” he said, cataloguing his feelings. “Obsolete. Heart hurts. Lonely. Sad. Not good enough. Not enough.”
The room quieted down. He continued with his interior inventory. “Breathing fast. Palms sweaty. Face hot. Fear. Shame. Fear. Shame.” People were sitting down. The room was absolutely silent.
After a long time, he said, “Zen is being absolutely authentic, true to ourselves, living the unvarnished truth in this very moment. We only become more fully ourselves when we open our minds and our hearts, and start exactly where we are.” A few people began to weep. His teaching had already begun.
Vulnerability, no matter what its reputation, is not weakness, can be powerful and healing, and can take the kind of courage that makes your palms sweaty. Particularly if you’re opening yourself to an audience full of people all at once.
[pause]
But even 1 on 1, it can be a little fraught.
I was interested to note that, a couple of years after her original TED talk, Brene Brown recorded an interview with Oprah Winfrey where they discuss when you might consider not opening up, not showing your vulnerability. It made me wonder how many people came back to Brene saying – I did what you said. I was really vulnerable with my wife, my daughter, my best friend, my tennis partner, my hiking buddy and, uh, it didn’t work out so well.
On the one hand, when you are struggling with painful emotion, like shame, sharing it with someone who can be genuinely open-heartedly present with it is like balm for an open wound. On other hand as Brene said in her conversation w Oprah: “If we share our shame story w the wrong person (or, I will add, at the wrong time) it can become one more piece of debris in an already dangerous storm.”
Brown gives a couple of examples: Like the friend who gasps and confirms how ashamed you should be. Oh great thanks, thanks a lot. Now you’re still in shame and one friend down, Brene quips. Or the friend who responds with sympathy, with pity, who feels sorry for you and so leaves you feeling like a victim of your circumstances – dis-empowered, rather than supported. Or the friend who confuses connection with an opportunity to one-up you – that’s nothing, they’ll say, wait till you hear what happened to me!
[pause]
The fact is, when we take the risk of being more vulnerable with more people – we find we do not do it perfectly. As a society, we don’t have lots of practice being authentic and we don’t have lots of practice taking in the authenticity of others.
In his sermon on vulnerability Rev. Roger Bertschausen notes a couple of particular pitfalls to watch out for on our own end, too when sharing our vulnerability – sometimes, he suggests, we think we’re being authentic, but we’re actually being a little manipulative – perhaps we’ve made a mistake but talk so much about our own painful regret that we manipulate the other person into comforting us, rather than taking responsibility for the mistake we made. Or, we are in an already overly vulnerable position with respect to someone else, like with an abusive spouse, or a boss with too much power. Being vulnerable in that situation can be risky and simply reinforce an already problematic dynamic. Or, maybe we fall into sharing too much, taking up space, unmindful of others’ needs or ability to hear and take it in; we’ve forgotten that others have limits too.
Who hasn’t had that moment when you see – in someone’s eyes – oops I’ve shared too much, I’ve gone on too long, I said something that triggered them – you see the walls go up and then you know…

I’ve definitely done that.

As we practice this edging toward more openness, we’ll bump our heads.
So there is a healing, a process, a testing and a trying and failing and trying again. Learning how to be thoughtful, learning how to be skillful, learning how to be mindful, with our vulnerability.
I think of connection groups, or other small group experiences, designed to create some safety, designed to make some room. These groups are set up to foster relationships that can, increasingly, bear the weight of greater openness. They are invitations to deepen that connection with others, and that connection with yourself, so that more is possible. To strengthen your ability to be present to others’ true selves, even as you get to take small risks in showing more of your own. Small risks to uncover that beautiful self that’s still there, underneath everything, open-hearted, vulnerable and waiting.
I think of meditation practices — sitting, watching our minds, being present with our feelings, all our feelings, even the ones we don’t know what to do with. Growing our ability to be with ourselves.
I think of daily life – affording many opportunities to reach out, be more honest, be more open, to practice, vulnerability.
[pause]
The meek shall inherit the earth, Jesus said.
We must become like little children to enter heaven, Jesus also said.
Sounds like he was saying something about vulnerability….
We may have some layers that block us. We may have some defenses that separate us. But the good news is that wholeheartedness is within reach.
In the words of Brene Brown: If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you.
And when we do that, when we live that way, we inherit all that matters most, and become capable passing that on to the children we love.