Linnea Nelson

by Linnea Nelson, Director of Religious Exploration.

I love August! It’s hot and sunny and the Olympics have added a true bonus to the month. I was also lucky enough to spend the first week of August at the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, NY, which for me became a place of spiritual renewal through the arts and spoken word. The week’s theme at Chautauqua was cities, but the underlying message was the importance of equity in thinking about oneness and wholeness.

During the televised opening of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games, a phone ad (of all things) mimicked my summer spiritual learning. I heard Maya Angelou’s unmistakable velvety voice reading her poem “Human Family” as photos of people from all walks of life flashed across the screen. Angelou repeatedly noted the surface differences among people, even between twins, while ending with the words, “We are more alike, my friends, than unalike.”

This theme of seeking oneness played out in numerous ways at Chautauqua. One of the interfaith lecturers, Dr. Diana Butler Bass, shared her message of oneness by tying our very being to the cosmos. She pointed out that every one of us – our very essence – came from the same stardust, and that each of us now lives in the same changing climate. She tied the new term cosmopolitanism to its root, cosmos, and suggested that thinking about our world in this way helps us live in harmony. In contrast, globalization suggests a sense of “taking over” rather than seeking oneness. She shared her view that by using globalization rather than cosmopolitanism, people are seeking to create empires rather than to coexist.

Bass called us to live in a new kind of global, holy citizenship that brings out each of our unique “gifts of compassion, wonder, hospitality and gratitude.” She reminded us that we don’t make these gifts, rather we add to the cosmos when we use them. Angelou’s words that “we are more alike, my friends, than unalike” also suggest that our unique gifts add to the cosmos and help us seek a more peaceful coexistence.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, who spoke at this year’s Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly and the Democratic National Convention, also gave an interfaith lecture at Chautauqua. He reminded attendees that the coded language in today’s political rhetoric strives to separate us and view our differences as greater than our similarities. He provides a historical review of this idea in his book “The Third Reconstruction,” the newly selected 2016-17 UUA Common Read. I will be reading this book, co-authored by Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, carefully and looking forward to discussing it with you.

Barber also noted that history has shown that, “People vote against their own self-interest when they are told blacks are going to get something for free.” This rhetoric mirrors the signs our nation is showing that too many people are afraid of our differences. We have trouble sharing space with people who do not share our opinions.

Too often we are not seeing how our uniqueness can add layers of love and compassion to the cosmos. Instead, we are seeing how one group takes from another in order to get ahead. This is the power differential at work in so many places in the world today.

Another Chautauquan and renowned peace proponent, Rev. John Philip Newell, gave a sermon on oneness, sharing the importance of being present with one another so that we can pay attention to sacredness, while remaining aware of the world’s deep brokenness. He asked, “Shall we be partners in this sacred dance, this wholeness of holiness?”

I love the metaphor of dance, joining together joyfully to embrace our life in the cosmos. Many thanks to the poets, speakers and ministers who provided rich metaphors and profound images that help keep me engaged in loving and showing compassion to my neighbor while working toward a cosmos of undying peace.

That’s the world I want to live in with each of you.