The number of people we don’t know will always be vastly greater than the ones we do know. Which is to say – most folks are strangers to us. How shall we related to them?
Share the plate: Rainbow Salem Youth
Celebrant: Janet Stevens, Anchor: Sara Pickett
First service music: UUCS Choir
Second service music: Ted Cory
You are looking at the founder and (at this point in time) sole member of the organization that will henceforth be known as S.P.A.C.E. For those of you who don’t know what this acronym signifies – which is all of you – it’s a multi-service acronym that stands for: Society for the Promotion of Affirming, Compassionate Encounters/ Society for the Promotion of Alternative Creative Encounters/ Society for the Prevention of Apathetic, Callous Encounters/ and finally, Society for the Prevention of Antagonistic, Calamitous Encounters. If, after hearing more about SPACE this morning, you chose to become one of the charter members, know that you will be expected to go through an initiatory phase as a SPACE cadet.
The realization that it was my destiny to be the founder of SPACE dawned upon me slowly, over the years, but now this sun has fully risen into consciousness and I can see the light which clearly proclaims: let there be SPACE! SPACE is concerned with nothing less than the totality of interactions among all living beings on earth (and perhaps beyond, if news from outer space ever reveals the existence of life elsewhere). Sounds grandiose, I know, but with a name like SPACE why not think big?
Why am I founding SPACE? Don’t let this get out – this stays in the room and those couple of hundred of you who listen to this sermon on podcast – don’t let this get out, but I’m a goofball, a silly person prone to pranks, and by designating such behavior as “alternative, creative encounters,” it provides spiritual cover for some of my off the wall antics.
Some background: For reasons I don’t fully comprehend, I’m never been inclined to have normal, predictable interactions with people. I like to shake it up, to do or say something that interrupts the usual patterns. As many here know, I have an off the wall, dry sense of humor and love to lob wacky, irreverent, outrageous comments into the midst of serious meetings, and I sometimes like to engage in subversive acts of humor with total strangers. Which is to say that I’m a Marxist – not a follower of Karl Marx, but Groucho Marx. Indeed, I think I must have been, or will be, a Jewish comedian in another of my earthly incarnations.
Whether or not this is a good thing (who am I to judge?) the point of having an alternative, creative encounter is to create a fresh opportunity for me and another person to be aware of each other as fellow beings in this wild, wacky and wonderful world. To me it seems a shame to just drift through our days hypnotized by routine into dull and dreary, automatic interactions but to be aware of one other, to make it a practice to make contact and create new connections.
So, am I suggesting that you stretch out of your comfort zone just go up and start interacting with total strangers? Of course not! I’ll leave that to the writer Kio Stark who has made encouraging such interactions one of her great missions in life. She writes: “We categorize people as an alternative to learning about them. We see young, old, black, white, male, female, stranger, friend, and we use the information we store in that box, the box labeled OLD or FEMALE or STRANGER to define them. Sometimes it’s the best we can do, but it creates a dreadful lack of knowing at the individual level.” Yet when we have positive interactions with those we may have labeled we subvert the labels we use to define and categorize one another. Kio continues: “When you talk to strangers, you make beautiful and surprising interruptions in the expected narrative of your daily life. You shift perspective. You form momentary, meaningful connections. You find questions whose answers you thought you knew. You reject the ideas that make us so suspicious of each other.”
That’s why I was so intrigued when I heard about the portals project – an art project pioneered by a former US ambassador to the United Nations. They place two large metal shipping containers on opposite sides of the earth which are equipped with video conferencing equipment that allows the people inside to directly interact with the person(s) in the other box far away in a different country and culture (I’m not sure how language issues are worked out, but they are). These individuals are given a single prompt: “what would make a good day for you.” Then, these total strangers from opposite sides of the world just chat about whatever comes up – art, politics, family, entertainment – anything. At the end of twenty minutes the folks who might have previously pinned national, political, racial, cultural labels upon one another, now experience one another primarily as fellow human beings. Perhaps their governments or others with intolerant agendas have encouraged them to regard one another as enemies, but once you encounter someone and recognize her or his humanity the dehumanizing power of labeling dissipates.
I’ve never had the opportunity to meet someone from a different place in a portal, but I remember meeting a woman in a railroad car in Mexico many years ago. There I was, a confused young man, riding on a train into the heart of Mexico without enough money for the return trip. Time doesn’t allow me to tell you how I found myself in this position, but it was a troubled time in my life. I didn’t know where I was going, literally or figuratively. So I was riding along in a foreign land, absorbed in my own anxious thoughts when I heard the middle aged Mexican woman sitting across from me say: “Young man, you look sad and worried. Are you OK?” At first, I was taken aback – I had no idea that my face so clearly betrayed my inner turmoil, and my initial impulse was to deny that anything was wrong. I no longer remember the substance of the conversation that followed, but I will always remember how it made me feel to be acknowledged by another human being in a foreign land. This woman – an aware, compassionate soul – had gently tossed me a life line. I no longer felt so all alone in the world. She had made a compassionate connection.
This was a spiritual experience. What constitutes a spiritual experience? Let me humbly suggest that any encounter between two people (or beings) in which there is an awakening of the spirit of hope, love, joy, new insight and meaning is a spiritual experience. Any experience that makes us aware of our interconnectedness is a spiritual experience.
So when you encounter someone who is scared, afraid, alone, oppressed, marginalized and offer some affirmation and compassion, when you encounter someone who seems trapped in a dreary rut of routine and do something playful and creative, when you awaken or awaken someone else from indifference and callous disregard for others, when you use skillful means to avoid antagonistic, calamitous encounters, you’ve created the conditions for a spiritual experience.
When you cultivate a heart of compassion and have a genuine unconditional positive regard for others – people can sense this. You’ve set the stage for a spiritual experience.
When I think of all the people I’ve met and known in my life – including you here now, my heart fills with joy and gratitude. And I extrapolate from this experience and know that our world is full of an overwhelming abundance of loving souls – an overwhelming abundance. I’ll never get to know everybody, but surely want to take advantage of the opportunities provided me in this precious life to have spiritual experiences all the years of my life. The poet William Butler Yeats put it well: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met.”