Judson, Burma and You

October 28, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I have always thought that loneliness was a subject that got too little attention. Note that you can be the senior minister of an influential congregation, have three children, a husband of thirty years, two grandchildren, and two cats and still be lonely. Loneliness is not something that other people, no matter their value or virtue, can resolve. Loneliness is not something that the ideal job can resolve. Loneliness is unresolvable. It is the property of moderns and post-moderns, ancients and peasants, kings and shepherds. Today my aim is not to banish loneliness. This sermon will never be published in the AARP journal or in Women’s Day, each of which feature articles titled “The Seven Steps to Conquer Loneliness.” Loneliness is not conquerable. It is however ameliorable, mitigatable, manageable. We can learn to be alone but not lonely – and even then loneliness will find its way to our souls, spines, solar plexus and shoulders.

First, let’s say a little more about what loneliness is. Loneliness is what cars experience in long term parking at LaGuardia, or what a pitcher feels when he throws a wild ball or what a son feels the day he realizes perhaps he never knew his father. Loneliness is what a mother feels after spending the whole weekend watch her son play a national championship and lose by one point, fully aware that this is probably his last tournament. Loneliness is the quiet in the car as you drive him to the airport. Loneliness is watching an angel in a Halloween costume at midnight, which angel is smoking a cigarette. Loneliness is the plastic bowl at the fourth tree south on Thompson Street, awaiting the old woman’s water jug, which she brings for the squirrel. Loneliness is an unplanted furrow, a clock that lost its battery, a Detroit mechanic that can’t learn computers. Loneliness is an island where none of the ferries run again till Monday. Loneliness is what the land feels in its seventh year, its Jubilee time, its unplanted time. Loneliness is the place you know when you realize that a policeman was planning to practice cannibalism. It is listening to the radio and hearing that an elected official actually thinks that it may be God’s will that children should come out of rapes, medical technology notwithstanding, without a care in the world for how that mother will love that child or that child will be able to ever know the circumstances of her birth. Some people want to assure that loneliness will continue down through the second and third and fourth generations. Daddy, where do you come from? I come from a people whose seed was violent, that’s where I come from. Some people only know women from the waist down. Some loneliness, for some people some times, is the shiver of realization that Mitt Romney, whose running mate is Paul Ryan, might appoint people to the Supreme Court.

Loneliness is the unmarkable, as in no way to remark upon it, experience. It is also the quiet within and after that. Like a good hurricane, its eye is quiet. Like a good Franken storm, on the way in, you don’t really know if you’re going to like it or not.

Why do I speak of loneliness on a day when the text is agricultural, economic, cultural, when the text is about habits and ways of keeping cultures together? Why? Because even in a superb economy, a well ordered culture, even if we lived where we certainly don’t, within a people, in a time, with a purpose, even then loneliness will nibble on our heels. The Hebrew people built a very interesting culture while they lived in the wilderness. They still knew loneliness, that poorly attended subject, that matter that gets swept under the rug, that nibble at the heel and at the heart, that makes us human. Why does loneliness make us human? Because it is the place, from which, no matter how hard we try, we can’t touch each other or ourselves. It is also the place that longs to be touched.

What a just economy and agriculture do for us is that they limit loneliness to something that is bearable instead of being unbearable. These human habits and human structures make it less painful. There are things we can do take loneliness down from a ten to a seven or even a three on the scale of pain. First I want to show you how the Hebrews did it. They created cultural patterns. Then I want to show you how our founder Adoniram Judson did it. Then I want to show you how we do it – and how we could take loneliness down even further in the notches of social and psychological pain. From a natural condition, we can make loneliness less vicious in its bite on our souls.

First, the Hebrews. The Hebrew people put patterns and habits, like the Sabbath and the Jubilee into place in order to assuage their loneliness. They were people who had come out of a kind of rape. They were conquered, subjugated, enslaved and forced to wander. They had to rent land they once owned. Their habits built them as a culture, while they wandered in search of a respectable past and an improved future and the return of their land. In the Sabbath, which is not a universal commandment at all, but instead a way of ordering time, in the Sabbath, they marked themselves as a people. We are the people who take a Sabbath. We are the people who don’t work all the time. In the Jubilee year, they took economic and agricultural practices and turned them into habits. On the seventh year, we will forgive all the debts of the tenant farmers. No one will be allowed to get too rich for too long on the backs of others or on the back of the land. We will normalize debt forgiveness. How will they know we are Hebrews? By the way we take Sabbath and by the way we manage our land. We will make sure people know that this is who we are and this is how we do things.

Second, our founder, Adoniram Judson. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his famous trip to Burma, widely understood to be the first missionary adventure from these United States. Adoniram was a Massachusetts Deist, a graduate of what is now Brown University. He had an experience of hearing a man groan and wail his way into death into a room next to him. That experience changed him. Many say that it was that pain that took Adoniram into missionary behavior. He left Deism on behalf of the deity, so worried was he about what happened to the soul of the man who died too close to him for comfort.

Many argue that what’s really wrong with doctors today is that they never hear the groan and growl of pain. Antibiotics keep much suffering at bay – while causing others – and also our chemical capacities, delivered by tubes and blinking machines keep the experience of death quiet and contained. People don’t growl and grown, wail or wallow any more. Many doctors haven’t ever seen a person suffer into and unto death. They just increase the morphine drip. The good news may be that the suffering is minimalized on the way out, especially if you are the one suffering. The bad news is that pain never gets recognized for what it is and can be. We who anesthetize become anesthetized. (Come on, having to say those two words, plus Adoniram ought to get me some rhetorical cred.)

Back to Adoniram. Born in 1788, he and his wife Ann of seven days, set sail for the East in the fall of 2012 and after a tortuous journey, arrived in Burma in 1813. We celebrate the 200th anniversary of his journey this year and next. By the way if anyone wants to go and see Judson College and Judson churches in Burma, speak to me. There is going to be a giant celebration in a land where he is still lauded. As part of his journey, he abandoned the Congregationalism of his youth and talked the Baptists into funding him. I love his joint origin. We also come from both of these traditions and often put one against the other as a way of getting funding. After arriving in Burma, he waited six years for his first convert. I rather imagine he knew loneliness by its first name. Ann died there, as did their first born. The growl next door moved into his own room. His great victory was to translate the bible into Burmese, followed by the development of an English/Burmese victory. Burmese is notoriously difficult as a language. He did these translations because he was driven by concern for what happens to the soul. He saw in the Christian story an answer and he spread what he saw as that good news all around the world. He was jailed for 22 months as a British spy. Loneliness in jail has a special flavor, as some of you know first hand. I tell you this story not just to celebrate our founder on his great anniversary but also to paint pictures of loneliness and how stories ameliorate loneliness. For our founder, the story was the one of the bible. For the Hebrews, it was the Sabbath and the Jubilee. In each of these habituated culture making, economy making, cultural economy making actions, we find the way to assuage loneliness. We don’t beat it. We manage it. We tell the same stories over and over again as a way to say we belong to a people, a people we can touch. We translate stories so others can hear them as a way to belong to each other and to something larger than ourselves. We keep a Sabbath and normalize debt relief because that is what our people did and it is also what we do. You are going to hear a lot about a rolling Jubilee in the coming days. That Jubilee is important politically and economically, for sure. But most of all, it is important for your soul and its capacity to link to its people. You will be less lonely if you have a people and a practice of being a people. You will be much more lonely if you don’t have a people and a practice of being a people. Obviously I want you to have a practice of being a part of this people, the people who have great stories that we tell over and over and which we weave into hymn and poetry. We are the people who think forgiving debt is normal. We are the people who believe in both work and rest. We are a Jubilee people. We aren’t Pollyanna. We know that some things, like loneliness, are not going away. On the other hand, we believe we can be less lonely over time.

One of the things that worries me most about 2012 and the years to come is how eviscerated habits and traditions are. People don’t know what to do with birth or partnership or death, how to dedicate a baby or get married or die. Many flail around wondering what a funeral is or what a baptism is or what a wedding is. We are here to create a wide range of practices for hatching, matching and dispatching. We do that well; especially as we make habits and, with full freedom, use the full blessing of our glorious traditions I’m not saying we don’t have traditions. I know we do. Pop labs are one of our habits here. Asking one question at the retreat is another. (What is your favorite food? Where did you get your name?) Surely “ Joys and Concerns.”, our weekly marathon, is another. We also have “Talk backs” to the sermons or just some Sundays when we have “Ask the Preacher.” Annually, we make pledges, a word that is getting a good dusting off in this pledge season. In the coming weeks as we roll out a rolling Jubilee, we are going to engage an ancient Christian tradition. We are going to have testimonials, where people will have an opportunity to connect to their own experience of debt. This is not an understatement: we have gone from a culture that thought the cancellation of debt was automatic and necessary and useful to being a culture which is drowning in debt. As social and economic analysis, this fact cannot be overstated. Debt makes us lonely because we don’t have a cultural or economic framework in which to put it. Like marriage or burial or baptism, we have lost our folkways. The loss of folkways – stories, habits, and practices – is creating an unnecessarily powerful sense of loneliness. There is no culture without an economy or economy without a culture. Duh.

What Michael and I want to do around the rolling jubilee is to topple the selfishness of the banks. We want to change our relationship to debt and make sure everybody knows that underwater mortgages and gouging student debt is abnormal to our people. We want to hear your story about how your debt has affected you. If you don’t have debt, wonderful. Tell us the story of what you did to stay out of the clutches of debt. We will have talkbacks the next three Sundays in which you can speak – and during the services we will have many voices. We are going for the aha moment, that great moment of recognition when we realize that we are not alone. Remember consciousness raising? Remember that great feeling. Oh, My God. I am not alone.

As we go into the seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas, a lot will be said about habits and the cultural economy. I call these the sides and strays discussions. Who else should come to our table, if we have one? That’s the stray conversation. What shall we serve with the bird? That is the sides conversation. Both are conversations designed to create culture. To tell us who we are.

I don’t think I could ever say enough about the shaved Brussels sprouts at Trader Joe’s. I put them into the tuna casserole last week at the Judson potluck and no one even knew. Or Warren’s Sauer Kraut, which had to come from a cabbage at Atkins Farm and for which, we searched whole weekends looking for the right size jar. Why spend time in such a silly pursuit? To assuage loneliness. To do something that connected us to a tradition. To take up the time, to keep the loneliness at bay. To create culture around food and around people, around land and around remembered, repeated stories.

For many of us, the most habits or practices or traditions we have today are remembering to plug our cell phone in. The doctor’s oldest trick used to be the art of touch – and today, they just read the charts and do the numbers. Folkways are gone and have not been replaced by good things. Sure, machines are good but people need more personal touches, more connections. Otherwise the tubes are just too dismal. They rightly bother us and make us excruciatingly lonely for the human hand.

A final note. Many would like to see these kinds of communitarian virtues go viral. That word worries me. I’d like to be les lonely by belonging more to a people. But I don’t know that I want to belong to a viral people. I know too much about fungal meningitis in Jersey or the way a virus traveled from Tibet to Haiti. I know too much about the overuse of antibiotics and not just their effect on doctors. I may prefer to belong to a people who lay on hands rather than being hands off. I may prefer lots of local solutions that don’t go viral but instead encourage local practices to remain local. Either way, the story has already been exported to Burma. I guess the cat is already out of the bag.

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