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Selected Presentations

John Buttars (February 23, 2014)

Discerning the Centre - Declaring the Boundries

Personal Reflections on Self- Censoring

This talk was born several months ago when I said in the sharing circle after a Sunday service that I have self-censored myself in all the talks here. And Linda responded that I could come back anytime and do some reflecting on that topic which I am now doing and am feeling quite presumptuous in doing so. However, I offer this talk as an invitation for all of us to enter into a dialogue not only for today but on into the future.

Let’s begin by acknowledging we all self-sensor. Let’s do an inner scan: Consider what you normally don’t share in this congregation? Or at work? With your family? Your friends? We self-sensor for a multitude of reasons: Don’t have the energy to explain the situation; feel awkward or embarrassed; feel guilt or shame; are either afraid unnecessarily what the others will think of us or are absolutely certain we will be rejected. Why don’t we take a minute and talk to our neighbour for a little bit and I will call you back in a very short time and if you don’t want to talk, don’t self-sensor yourself. Just say you would like to sit and think or meditate or just be. (Group time) 

In the Christian monastic world it is called a Rule, like The Rule of St. Benedict. We immediately jump to thinking of rules, like a law book, but The Rule of St. Benedict, for instance, is a framework for a monastery to function. In the Buddhist monastic tradition it is called a trellis, as in a garden, where plants are held in a space but again it provides a framework for the community to function.

For today, I would like you to consider a wheel, the hub in the centre providing the core values and beliefs. The seven Unitarian Principles provide those values and beliefs for this congregation but there are other written and unwritten core realities: Don’t bring your cup of tea or soup into this space when we do our sharing in the circle after the service, as one example. In the past, churches have been rightly condemned for having “All welcome” on their notice boards but almost always the “All” is qualified. Even how congregational members are dressed sends a message as to who is welcome and who may not. So there is the hub at the centre signaling core values and beliefs and then around the outside is the rim, the outer circumference that delineates who is within and who is outside. So I self-censored not on the basis of the hub, the centre, for I looked in at your Principles and in your Hymnary and I could see that it was perfectly appropriate to share a certain part of myself but I picked up a kind of vibe within the congregation that, whether rightly or wrongly, sent to me a message that here was treacherous ground.

This is not said in condemnation. It happens in every community, every family, every workplace. The clue is to be conscious of it and to have some intentionality around it so that we can affirm whether we really want that part of life taboo or not. Let’s be clear, these kinds of things can pertain to the most basic of human interactions. At Harcourt Church there was a long-time member, now deceased many years, who gradually changed in personality and mental health. Over several years personal standards of hygiene became more and more noticeable, such that if you sat near body odours were very obvious to the point, eventually, of gagging. A core value is acceptance and welcome but out there on the rim we do expect certain standards of decorum and personal practices even when we are not aware of those values. A community can be challenged by a whole series of issues – mental health, criminal records, unemployment, personality conflicts, political differences, economic disparities, educational differences, profoundly different life experiences, let alone religious or spiritual values and opinions.

Let me get at my self-censoring by telling a story. I was ordained in 1970 and served a year in Kingston and then four years in rural Manitoba. Being a new parent, doing this new job of ministry with lots of university education but precious little experience, Barbara isolated by parenthood and rural dynamics where ‘the United Church manse’ where we lived was declared ‘off limits’ and you only went there when you were in trouble, it was all a stew that had some unpleasant aspects such that I increasingly felt I was being disemboweled. My response was to leave rural Manitoba and move to Toronto where I took a residency in hospital chaplaincy and then we moved to Guelph and me to being the minister of Harcourt United Church. In the first months, two things happened. Barbara noticed a reference to a book in a footnote which she ordered and read and suggested that it might be neat to offer it in the congregation. In short order I was leading prayer sharing groups, something way out of my comfort level but strangely exhilarating. And secondly I found myself intrigued by the Ignatius Jesuit Centre and wrote a letter which began, “To whom it may concern.” I was told later that the letter from this unknown United Church minister was passed round and round the retreat staff until Fr. John Haley said, “OK, I’ll phone him.” So I began to go up to Ignatius College and meet with John. It was a foreign land with a language very different from my Protestant-speak. John suggested that I come for a morning or an afternoon and he would book a bedroom for me. He would see me for 45 minutes or so and the rest of the time I could just “be” in that bedroom. In July of 1980 I took my first silent retreat, five days. I still remember the experience of putting my supper on my tray and as I sat down for my first meal on retreat feeling this wave of panic sweep over me – no talking, no phone, no newspaper, no TV, no radio. Just me, myself; I found it very, very scary. I’m an introvert, I enjoy being on my own. But this was different. Before, I could always make contact when I wanted. This was an intentional cutting myself off for five whole days. Not even a phone call home to find out how Barbara was faring with the children.

Years later, Audrey Madigan who worked for 16 years at Harcourt Church as the administrator decided to do a weekend in silence at Loyola House. She came back on Monday and said to me, “I have been saying to you every time you go on retreat, ‘Have a good time.’ Never again! This past weekend was the most difficult thing I have ever done.” Most of the silent retreats I have done have been eight days and I suspect I have done 30 of them or so.

The word ‘God’ is a kind of code word and I don’t like the word particularly, so associated as it is with patriarchy, hierarchy, violence, domination, conquest, and a host of other evils. However, it points to a reality that has stirred my deepest self such that I live pretty intentionally although not well within a sense of the divine, the divine that I regard as the Beautiful One, the Holy One, Source and Goal who is Wholly Love. Words, names fail me.

When I came here for the first time, I was deeply, deeply touched by one part of the service, the sharing of joys and sorrows. But I was also limited by it too. In addition to saying, “We hear you” my soul wanted to add, “and you are heard.” Yes, heard not just by each other but by a Presence that lives within us, between us, far beyond us. I can’t prove the presence of that Holy Presence. Maybe there isn’t a Holy Mystery who is Wholly Love and only neurons firing off in a particular way in my brain. But for the moment this is where I find myself, deeply aware of Holy Mystery who is Holy Love, the One of Beauty whom we normally name with that code word, ‘God.’

Several times while leading worship at Harcourt Church I found myself saying sentences where I was hearing the sentences at the same time as everyone else in the congregation. At a Christmas Eve service, I said, “Those who would like a blessing when they come up for communion just ask me for it.” What! What does that mean? I’ve never done blessings. How do you do a blessing? That Christmas Eve so many people asked for a blessing and, despite feeling awkward and strange, I found myself laying my hand on shoulders or heads and saying words with a mouth that had parched dry. But there was something utterly sacred about that night. Another time, decades ago, I heard myself say at the beginning of a sermon, “I offer these words out of love for God and out of love for you who are God’s people.” And once said I remembered those words and found myself saying them the next Sunday and the next and at a funeral and I still use them but I have not used them here. There is my self-censorship, in one essential sentence, but every talk I have given here has been given out of that same sense of love, out of love for a divine mystery that has claimed me and out of love for you whom I dare to believe belong to that holy mystery.

Finally, I would never want you to become like me. What I most want is for you as individuals to become fully and completely who you are able to be. And I want this Unitarian congregation to fulfill all the potential that is embedded within this gathering. And not trying to be cheeky, I will end this talk with, “Thanks be to you for being willing to listen to this talk and thanks be to that Holy Presence for whom we use the code word ‘God’ and who for me is Holy Mystery, Wholly Love.” And, yes, I could keep going but that would demand that I talk about Jesus. I have said enough. It is for you, now, to pick up, if you desire, the conversation.

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