Shoes Off

In our house we take off our shoes at the front door. We acknowledge that we need our home to have a barrier between it and the muck of the world. We adventure out, we play and run and work in the world, but we try to keep our home free from the crumbles of the world. 

In mosques and Islamic centers they have racks or entire closets near the front door where everyone removes their shoes. 

In Exodus 3:5 Allah called to Moses to remove his shoes as he approached the burning bush, for where he stood was holy ground. 

In the Shinto tradition there is a genkin that is used to remove the shoes at the entry of all homes and temples. 

There is acknowledgement that the dirt of the world doesn’t need tread into our home, literal or spiritual.

In a world where there is not just literal and spiritual dirt, but also a whirlwind of anxiety, the line of where to try to stop the muck from coming in becomes much murkier. This isn’t the crunchy fall leaves or the chalky gravel of your afternoon walk stuck between tennis shoe treads. This is part of the full experience of being human in this time and place.

It is nearly impossible to shake the world off as we move between the space of being part of the larger culture and part of the internal world, be it family or individual. 

On the day of a mass shooting, it’s hard to keep the conversation chipper while the pasta cooks. 

Articles about the imprisoned children at our Southern Border, missing their Day of the Dead celebrations with their families, laced the experience of taking my own child Trick or Treating with a thick gratitude and surreal sadness.

It is not a bad thing to feel empathetic connection to the world, but it does mean that we have to be conscious of the impact of the world’s anxieties on our own internal and familial relationships.  

Some variations of religions have a degree of separation from the chaos and anxiety of the world. Their religious practices and their faith traditions are fundamentally on a separate plane from the nitty gritty stressors of the world. For better or worse, they are not swayed, their practices and pulpits are not moved by the social justice crises unfolding. Not out of coldness, but out of a conceptualization that religion is not about the earthly. 

Some families seem to handle the world with similar distance. The dishes get done and Bernie Sanders name never comes up. The laundry gets folded while watching HBO, not while listening to NPR. 

Unitarian Universalism does not offer that separation. Social Justice, awareness of the most messy, dirty, heartbreaking bits of the world, is a fundamental part of the Unitarian and Universalist identity. 

Unitarian Universalists are not expecting to leave behind the painful parts of this world, but instead to engage together to facilitate understanding and to working to heal the parts of the world we see suffering. We are not looking to gather in a way that transcends the earthly, because the earthly is the lived experience. 

However, what that means is that we must be aware and cognizant of the way the outside stressors impact our communities and our families. We invite anxiety into our system by inviting the focus to be on justice and progress. Justice and progress can only become central markers of a conversation when injustice and brutality are acknowledged and witnessed. And without a shared monochromatic understanding of the universe, we cannot speak easily to that which is beyond the earthly suffering and injustice to which we speak, witness, and battle. 

Because of this active witnessing, we must actively lean in, past the tensions, into our shared community. We have to make sure that we are separating the anxiety of our larger system, our tensions and fears, from our experience of learning and growing and fighting for justice together. 

This means leaning in when we walk in the door of our home and of our congregation. 

I know that I have been shorter with those I love, had a harder time focusing in on the moment, on the days where our democracy seems so fragile, on days when the photos or the NPR voices won’t stop echoing. It is harder to be present on the days when the journalists give up on articles and instead just update the same article, giving a new timestamp header for each new update. 

Since the 2016 election, with the rise of White Nationalism, with the attacks on LGBT+ rights, with the horrible atrocities being committed in our name at the Southern Border, we are seeing increased anxiety in all the systems we are a part of. Our families, our friendships, our church communities, our workplace connections. This is especially true, I suspect, for those who hold their hearts on their sleeve. Because we are, by definition, people who are not looking away from the world. We are watching, grieving, and fighting for justice. 

This is not to say we should step away from this awareness and anxiety. Instead it is a call to be aware of how this great pressure puts increased systemic anxiety on us in our many homes. It is easy for process and the microcosm and those we love to absorb the anxieties of the world. It is not that focusing on the minutia actually soothes the world, of course, but it is predictable that those who are watching the world and aching might release some of that ache and anxiety into their daily interactions. Existing in this world is hard. 

This is not as easy as asking folks to take off their shoes when they walk in. We want each person who enters into the Unitarian Universalist church each Sunday to bring the weight of the world. The NPR article that has simmered in your heart all week, the NYTimes article photograph of the face of a migrant child you can’t shake from behind your eyes, the fears of preexisting condition or Roe v. Wade rollbacks. 

I want my partner to share with me the thing he just can’t shake. Or to find an extra long hug in the moments that he needs it, even if he doesn’t want to regurgitate the details of the news article or the newest Tweet. 

The aware, engaged, and hurting are gathered here. This is their home. Dismantling the systemic anxiety of our culture, and helping folks to process the world without bringing that anxiety in and letting it loose into the workings of our community is a very deep quandary. But as a shared community focused on justice, in an unjust world, it is navigation that will have to happen. 

In all our relationships, our relationships with ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationship with our church community, we find ourselves at a point where reflection on the way that the anxieties of the world can become part of the systemic anxieties of our daily lives. And holding witness to that balance and impact is vital to nurture and care for those, all of those, we are in relationship with. 

The answer is not to leave our worries at the door, to kick off our boots and pretend that we exist separate from these very real tangible threats upon our world. But part of the answer is an awareness of the tensions, the million spider webs of anxiety and doubt that this era brings, and awareness of how they follow us into every conversation, every interaction. We can each work to pull those who we are in relationship with closer instead of allowing the pressures of the world to become a wedge. 

We are a justice minded people. We are, as the song goes, a gentle angry people. And we cannot leave that anger at the door. We must bring it in with us, hold it, and learn to coexist with each other while holding on to the fire of a passion for justice in this world. 

*This homily was first read at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield on November 6th, 2019.

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