Finding Intimacy and Ultimacy
Rev. Amy Russell
June 15, 2014
On a busy commuter train in downtown San Francisco, earlier this fall, a young 30 year old man took out a 45. caliber pistol with a flourish and pointed it right at the commuters sitting across the aisle. Staring at the people he expected to react with horror, with fear…. he got….. no reaction. No one noticed. They were all looking down at their cell phones, busy texting and emailing or checking on the latest Facebook post. They failed to notice as this young man brandished the pistol again and even a third time. They didn’t notice until he actually pulled the trigger and shot a 20 year old student exiting the train. They were all too busy connecting else where to look up and connect face to face with the young man holding their lives in his hands.
Connecting with people in a real up close and personal way has become passe. We connect with people through technology, but increasingly not face to face. Giles Slade in his book, The Big Disconnect, says that “our progressive reliance on technology for companionship is part of a prolonged and increasing disconnection from nature” and I might add from each other.
In the busy, stressful lives of careers, family, and constantly plugged in communication, how do we find more meaningful connection? People go to work, spend most of their days in front of their computers, and come home spending most of their time interacting with their smart phones, their televisions, and their personal computers. How often do you go looking for a family member to find them engrossed in Facebook or email? How difficult is it to pull them away from that to have a real conversation?
We are so connected in such meaningless ways: tweeting out our political opinions, facebooking our latest vacation highlights, and emailing our friends to keep in touch. Much communication, little connection.
Sometimes, my husband will turn to me and share something about one of our kids- that one of them was sick or got a new job or something significant in their lives. So, I’ll ask him, “How did you know that?” feeling kind of hurt, imagining that one of them called him before they called me. And often he’ll say, “If you kept up with your Facebook, you’d know these things.” So, there is something to be said about keeping in touch in this way. Sometimes, you’d rather find out anything at all about your kids, even if it is through social media.
But how do we find deeper meaning in all the noise? What role should our congregations play in helping us find deeper connections?
Over the past 12 years of ministry, I can’t tell you how many times someone has come into my office and once we really starting talking and they began sharing their life with me, I often hear, “I feel disconnected, lost, somehow like I don’t have a purpose or belong anywhere.” This feeling has been described to me often by young people, but it is also a feeling that older people feel when they’re going through a major change in their lives, a career change, a retirement, at the end of a relationship or during some other time of loss in their lives. Feeling disconnected and searching for some larger purpose is universal in our life’s journey. We all feel it at one time or another.
About six years ago, near the beginning of a new ministry for me, a woman came into my office (let’s call her Susan) who had told me over the phone that her husband had just left her, claiming that he had discovered that he was gay. I had only met her once in a service and she had called me to make an appointment soon after. We spent a long time talking about her feelings about the loss of her marriage. She was not sorry that he was gone; she had realized earlier on that he was not the right person for her. But she still felt lost and adrift and mainly, disconnected. We talked and made another appointment.
That weekend, sometime in the evening, I received a call from a friend of hers, telling me that Susan’s brother had died suddenly and that she had requested that I contact her. I called Susan right away. She had a hard time talking. I asked her if she wanted me to come over to visit right away. She seemed to respond positively and gave me directions to her apartment.
That night, Susan expressed much pain and grief at having lost the closest brother she had. Her brother had been her main support in life, had been someone to constantly encourage and guide her in finding her way. She felt that the floor had just been pulled out from under her, and the roof from over her head as well. I was with her for a couple of hours as she poured out her grief and anger at this loss.
Susan’s loss was followed within a month with the next untimely death of her other brother. One loss after another creating an insurmountable mountain of grief that left Susan in indescribable pain. Over the next weeks and months, Susan experienced a mental breakdown that brought her to her knees.
While I had immediately found Susan a good therapist and continued to see Susan regularly myself, I could see that even this level of support was not enough. She was new to the congregation but had made just one new friend. This friend also became part of a support mechanism that we began to create with her therapist, myself, and two other women in the congregation who had reached out to Susan to walk with us through this difficult journey. We became Susan’s support team. Throughout a number of psychiatric hospitalizations, through periods of suicidal thoughts, and times of slow recovery, our team always had someone on duty when Susan needed it, to sit with her, to be available by phone, and to ascertain her mental stability. We met as a team with the therapist at times and we made contracts with Susan about our expectations and her care.
Our work with Susan was scary. We couldn’t pretend that we knew what we were doing, or that we had any answers. We didn’t. There were many nights when one of us would be sitting up late at night talking with Susan, trying to decide if we needed to take her to the psych ward, or whether if we left her, would she be safe? There was many a night when before I left Susan, we’d say a prayer together, and I’d continue praying all the way home.
During times when she was doing better, she and the team would create rituals to celebrate some milestone or anniversary. Several times, we met at our church at someone’s house to perform some kind of group ritual, marking the slow but steady mileposts of her health recovering.
I remember one of these group rituals, where Susan had planned a group ritual that we held on a Saturday in our church’s sanctuary. Susan had planned it, choosing readings, writing some of the pieces of the ritual herself, and involving all of us in participating. As we all began to see the beauty of what she had put together, I remember looking around the circle at these other incredible woman and how deeply they were all affected by what Susan was sharing with us. She was expressing her gratitude to us by sharing openly the joy at her own beginning health. Reflected in all the faces around the circle was the joy we all felt, not only for her healing, but of what we had all received from each other of deep commitment and connection. I could feel the power of a holy sacred presence knitting us together into a powerful circle of love. Connection was happening, a connection created through deep sharing but that reached a level of a higher spiritual purpose.
James Luther Adams, one of our Unitarian theologians, might call this connection the creative, sustaining, and transforming power that holds us together in covenant in our congregations and in our friendships. Adams suggests that the intimacy that we develop with each other creating bonds of trust points us to the ultimacy of life. The highest purpose of life. Finding ultimacy through intimacy. The true meaning of our lives becomes clearer when the relationships we develop lift us out of the mundane into a sense of the sacred. While ultimacy, or God, or the universe is defined differently by everyone in our congregations, we can all experience a deeply moving power in connections that are transformative.
But finding these meaningful relationships isn’t easy in our busy, impersonal world. Many people are at a loss as to how to get connected in a deeper way. Brene Brown, a researcher who looks at people’s vulnerability and their disconnection, gave a TED talk a few years ago. In her talk, she talks about how disconnected we are in our present world. How our means of communication leave us isolated and without purpose. So she studied people who felt really deeply connected to life, and she found that they were people who had the courage to become vulnerable with others. She described how when we are brave enough to truly show others how vulnerable we are, how lost, how hurt, how scared we are, we then start to build bridges with each other that are lasting and meaningful. Then we begin to feel our own worthiness. She calls people like this “wholehearted”.
Whole hearted living is about engaging our lives from a place of worthinesss. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection. People who.go to bed and wake up thinking…
“Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”
But this isn’t easy, she says. It’s damn hard and scary. When Brown realized that getting to this wholehearted place meant getting real and authentic with others, in other words, being vulnerable, she had what she describes as a “mini-breakdown”. Or she says it could also be described as a “spiritual opening”. They’re much the same, she says. But when she came out of this breakdown and realized what her awareness was allowing her to do, become open to others, she realized this was her “A-ha” moment. Brown could then begin to understand that this deep spiritual connection came when “we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.”
Many of us have this kind of connection all the time with close friends and family. Those moments of deep personal sharing with your partner, a sister, or a daughter or a son. You might be able to describe to me what this feels like. A time of great joy or great sorrow, when you’ve opened yourself up to another and felt understood, felt heard. A time when someone you were close to was ill or deeply troubled and opened up to you about their fears or about their fragile hopes. That moment when your first child was born- that moment when you looked in their eyes and knew that you already knew them. Or just a moment when someone shared something about their amazement at discovering life. But how many times has this happened with casual friends, with people you don’t know well?
When I’ve experienced it, it’s often been with small groups doing some real deeply opening work in our congregations. I would imagine that those of you who are deeply involved in some kind of small group in your congregation, you have had this experience of connecting at a deep level with others. A Build your own theology group. An evensong group. A small group ministry that really worked. Maybe even a choir or a group on retreat. It doesn’t always work- the group doesn’t always gel, but when it does, you can create that kind of connection that feels not just intimate- but like something deeply spiritual.
James Luther Adams described what people look for when they come into a religious community. He said:
When people come into congregations – They [come] to wrestle with (and from time to time to actually find answers to) life’s ultimate questions. Who am I? In what or in whom do I trust? In what community do I belong? And they come for a sense of intimacy, a safe place in which they [can] be accepted while making connections to others.
In our reading today from Anne Lamott, you heard of a congregation who created this connection through their hymn singing. Lamott shares earlier in her book about how she found this congregation by overhearing their lusty singing while she was walking by their downtown church. She found in this congregation deep caring when she was trying to get sober from a long dependence on alcohol. What she found in that small church was an openness in which everyone brought their own problems and shared them, warts and all. When people were honest with each other and accepting of each other’s difficulties, there was a connection that led to a feeling of the holy.
In our need for connection and meaning, we sometimes allow ourselves to be vulnerable and that draws us toward meaningful relationships with others, in which we hope to find trust. When we offer others our most tender and open selves, then we begin to find ourselves in relationship with what we might consider sacred.
Oh, and by the way, Susan, that I told you about earlier, after recovering her health went on to graduate from seminary and is now completing a residency as a chaplain. She’s awaiting her time at the MFC to become credentialed as a UU minister.
What we bring of ourselves into this kind of community and offer to others, we then receive back in equally sacred gifts from others- that is a form of communion that transforms us and the whole community. Holy relationships are not formed through texting, emailing, or Facebooking. It’s only found when we look into each other’s eyes and share from our deepest selves that we find an ultimacy created through intimacy. When we create this kind of bond within spiritual community, where people are seeking a larger purpose, a sense of intentional community then we might call this Beloved Community.