2020 Vision

“2020 Vision,” Bob Ryder

What is your vision for who you want to be in 2020?  What activities do you practice to stay on course?  What images or ideas or songs or poems help you cultivate the best version of yourself?  As we approach a new year and a new decade, are there aspects of your life that you want to discard, to add, to keep and strengthen?  Take a moment and see what occurs to you.  Keep those questions in mind and I’ll invite you to respond in a few minutes.

A reporter once asked A.J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman and pacifist who protested against the Viet Nam War, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?”  Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country.  I do this so the country won’t change me.”

That vignette came across my Facebook page a couple weeks ago, and it stuck with me.  I’ve thought about it everyday since.  It’s a striking image – one person standing by themself as a witness for peace before the seat of power as a catastrophic war raged in the world.  There are no illusions of grandeur, no effort to gain attention, no expectation of quick or dramatic results.  “I don’t do this to change the country.  I do this so the country won’t change me.”  It’s noble as much for its humility as for its pacifist values.

It brings to mind another thought that made a lasting impression on me a few years ago when Donella shared it as part of an adult education class she led for us.  It was about the importance of setting our intention.  The lesson is that we need to know what we’re striving for if we’re to have a chance at achieving it.  Specifically, the class was considering how to navigate relationships when there’s conflict or inappropriate behavior from others.  Taking responsibility for our own behavior, we begin with the practice of setting our intention to be respectful and fair-minded – even when others are not so.  This doesn’t mean one tolerates abuse or capitulates to unacceptable demands.  But setting one’s intention is a way of cultivating clarity and determination about one’s own core values.  It summons a sense of identity that guides us through turbulence so we can remain true to our best selves.  Wherever we choose to invest our attention and thought and energy, we need to be clear about who we are and behave in a way that approximates the best version of who we intend to be.

An extreme example comes to mind from a scene in a movie produced for television I saw years ago.  I’ve mentioned it a few times before.  I can’t recall the title of the film, but it was about the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and it was excellent.  The scene I‘m thinking of portrays a training session wherein several older men are gathered in a room with one younger man newly recruited for a peaceful demonstration scheduled to take place in their town.  They’re all of African descent, and the training consisted of the established members inflicting terrible insults and humiliation on the newcomer so that he can practice self-restraint and non-violence in accordance with their strategy.  Suffice for our purposes to say the directing and acting in this scene was gripping.  I had a visceral sense of the intimidation and outrage I’d have felt being verbally and physically abused as the young guy in the scene was, even though it was clearly understood to be just for training.  Well before too long, the young man lost his temper, stood up and began to lash out at the others.  Of course, the exercise stopped immediately and they calmed their young friend down and explained that he had to be prepared to face that sort of behavior and worse with absolute non-violence, even at risk of losing his life.  The harsh realities began to dawn on the young man, and he said, “You mean I have to let myself get killed?  What happens if I get out there practicing all this peaceful non-cooperation stuff and end up in a casket, huh?  Then what?”  And with a reassuring voice, one of the elders gazed at him gently and said, “If you should die during this demonstration without raising your voice or your fist against your murderers, then I shall rise at your funeral and say, “’Damn, he was non-violent!’”  And that broke the tension as everyone in the room erupted into raucous laughter.

We need to set our intention because it’s easy to get derailed.  It’s easy to get drawn into other agendas, easy to start emulating the behavior of others when it’s cast in a flattering light.  It’s all too easy to justify judgement and hatred and cynicism and greed.  And it’s easy to disguise our real motivations even from ourselves.  “I’m not being hateful, I’m standing up to injustice.”  So as I think about the New Year holiday just a few days off and the invitation it always brings to refine one’s behavior – as I consider my vision for who I want to be in 2020 – I think about that admonition to set my intention.  I think about that solitary soul standing before the White House holding a candle, determined not to become a participant in hatred or destruction.  “I don’t do this to change the country.  I do this so the country won’t change me.”

I see this idea of setting one’s intention, this practicing a simple ritual to stay on course, as one of the main benefits I get from my involvement with this congregation.  Week after week we share the bread and cup as a witness to the value of inclusive hospitality.  Whatever our work or politics or aspirations, whatever our views on our budget or our next address, whatever our personal accomplishments or failures or preferences or frustrations – on Sunday mornings we gather around this table remembering Jesus’ ministry of creating and restoring community around a shared meal.  The hospitality of this table, this call to transcend “me” and aspire to “us” – this is how I want to set my intention for 2020.  This is the practice I come back to not necessarily expecting to change the world, but at least so the world won’t change me.

It’s dark out there – sometimes.  There are a lot of mean, immature, insecure, greedy, selfish, power-hungry people in the world.  Most people who are given to hatred or greed don’t see themselves that way.  Evil is seductive, and the ego protects itself.  But whatever it does to improve its appearance, there’s plenty of darkness in the world.  As recently as last night there was an anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish congregation in New York where 5 people were stabbed to death during a Hanukah celebration.  I started thinking about the list of evils I’d recite here, but it doesn’t feel right to inflict it on you.  I trust you’re as aware as you see fit.  And not to be dismal about it – there are myriad angels in the world, too.  There are friends and family and neighbors, colleagues, sometimes random strangers who remind us that the world can be a kind and beautiful place.  But I feel a responsibility to acknowledge evil in the world because it’s too easy to become what we observe.  If I’m not careful, when I don’t set my intention, I can end up becoming selfish and cynical myself.  I end up hating the haters, then what have I accomplished?  Hatred in the service of a righteous cause is… well, I was going to say paradoxical, but that’s not it – it’s oxymoronic.  A righteous cause cannot be served with hatred.  The passing of the year, the transition from one decade to the next reminds me that time isn’t in endless supply.  If I’m going to cultivate my soul into a better version of myself, I need to be thoughtful and persistent setting my intention for hospitality and reconciliation.  This open table where we practice as best we can the hospitality and inclusion of Jesus is something I can use to set as my intention for how I conduct myself in the world.

An analogy occurred to me as I was practicing for a music lesson last week.  A few years ago I started studying percussion – conga drums, cajon, shakers, cymbals, djembe.  I really enjoy it, even though I’m not at the point where I feel confident performing for others quite yet.  But I find it at once challenging and relaxing, and it’s just fun when I remember to let it be fun.  So, as much as anything percussion is about blending different rhythms into one integrated composition.  Listening to someone else play can make it seem deceptively easy, but it takes a lot of concentration teaching your hands and feet and voice to do several different things at once.  So here’s the exercise.  The goal is to isolate my attention on one aspect of a pattern by singing it as I change a different part of the pattern with a hand or foot.  The part I’m focusing on in this case is the downbeat played as a bass tone with a foot pedal on a cajon and sung with the syllable “doom” while my left hand plays a bunch of variations on the caxixi.  Here’s a sample…

Well, here’s my observation working on this.  Even as I focus my conscious attention on one rhythm while playing another “in the background of my awareness”, both rhythms are connected by a common denominator that lets them blend into patterns that come together and sound interesting.  It’s the eight-beat cycle they share in common that keeps them from becoming chaotic.  That integration around a common denominator seems something like what Jesus’ open table offers.  This symbolic practice of generosity and mutuality is the time signature I can use to hold together all the other things I do in the course of a week.  This is how I can set my intention to live in a way that makes it easier for others to feel like they belong.  I want the hospitality of Jesus’ table to be the underlying structure that organizes the composition of my life.  Let this be the candle I hold in a world that sometimes can be quite dark.  When I’m dealing with challenging circumstances or difficult people or listening to news of about hate crimes, I need to organize my groove around a gracious and peaceful rhythm, not because I necessarily expect it to change the world, but at least so the world doesn’t change me.  As I set my intention for the New Year, as I cultivate my 2020 vision, let sharing this bread and and cup be my down beat.

I’ll conclude calling back to two readings Susan shared during her reflection last week.  The first is a quotation from Brian McLaren with a comment from Susan at the end…

“It’s not easy to settle into that joyful holiday spirit when the world mocks so many values I hold dear, from protecting our planet to caring for refugees to respecting the equal rights of minorities to upholding the value of truth. Then, just as I find myself stewing in that bitter soup, it hits me: that’s what Christmas was, in fact, about – not sentimental songs about snow and mistletoe but hope in the face of ugly and dangerous political realities. Christmas means for me not a season of sentimentality, but a season of daring and revolutionary hope.”

So maybe what we need as we prepare for the coming year is something like a Christmas Eve candle to wrap our fists around as we sing about a “silent night” long ago when the Christ Child was born into the same kind of darkness, birthed by a courageous young woman who said yes to God. Because then – at least then – we’re carrying light, even if it is in our clenched fists.

And one more by author L.R. Knost – “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

What is your vision for who you want to be in 2020?  What activities do you practice to set your intention and stay on course?  What images or ideas or songs or poems help you cultivate the best version of yourself?  As we approach a new year and a new decade, are there aspects of your life that you want to discard, to add, to keep and strengthen?