In this writing, I use "strange" for what appears strange, a stranger - in person, act, aspect. This does not mean it is strange. In fact, when we welcome what appears strange, we see it is not strange at all. It is a stranger to us only by keeping it at a distance. So, we challenge the accepted norms of normal, which means challenging what and whom we are told to include and exclude - and, remember, you and I are strange to some persons.
This inclusivity does not mean accepting all is okay; we are not speaking here of radical pluralism, wherein whatever is we accept as right, and we are not allowed to have value judgments. Inclusivity is not about amoralism, it is about love. I find it strange that a person puts a needle in her arm to get a chemical high, yet that does not mean the person is different essentially from me and certainly not of lesser worth. Welcoming differences is not permissive but loving and compassionate. And while we may say no to certain behaviors, we say yes to all beings. Also, we can welcome the behavior in the sense of seeing it nonjudgmentally, but not without wisdom as to its potential for harm. Hence, we can disagree nonjudgmentally, while not equating person and behavior. This is compassionate. Having no morals or right to speak of what brings harm is not compassionate, and it is not wise.
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spirit never meets
anything strange, so neither
do you, you only think
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Olive Schreiner. The Story of an African Farm, in Howard Thurman. The Luminous Darkness.
I like to feel that strange life beating up against me. I like to realize forms of life utterly unlike mine. When my own life feels small, and I am oppressed with it, I like to crush [it] together, and see it in a picture - a mediaeval monk with his string of beads pacing the quiet orchard, and looking up from the grass at his feet to the heavy fruit trees; little Malay boys playing naked on a shining sea-beach; a Hindu philosopher alone under his banyan tree, thinking, thinking, thinking, so that in the thought of God he may lose himself; a troop of Bacchanalians dressed in white, with crowns of vine-leaves, dancing among the Roman streets; a martyr on the night of his death looking through the narrow window to the sky and feeling that he already has the wings that shall bear him up; an epicurean discoursing at a Roman bath to a knot of his disciples on the nature of happiness; a Kaffir witch-doctor, seeking for herbs by moonlight, while from the huts on the hill-side come the sound of dogs barking, and the voices of women and children; a mother giving bread and milk to her children in little wooden basins and singing the evening song. I like to see it all: I feel it run through me - that life belongs to me; it makes my life a little larger; it breaks down the narrow walls that shut me in.
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What is the end of not valuing our heterogeneity? Not including those who look different, may even appear unusual?
What does it feel like when we love someone whom we had closed the heart to, for she appeared strange to us, different from our idea of right, normal, or acceptable? What happens when we look beyond the varieties of appearance to what we share in common - humanness, a oneness of spirit?
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The world of my upbringing was white and conservative evangelical Christian. That was the only correct appearance taught. All else was strange. Other ideas of strangeness were attached with that appearance, some minor, like the taboo of men having long hair, others more serious, such as 'divorcees' being failures and tainted for life - unless, of course, the divorce was due to one partner having an extra-marital affair. If a wife, for example, divorced the husband, a man who had a history of mercilessly beating her, she was tainted still and was not to marry again. If she married again, she was an adulteress - strange for life. Where is the wisdom or compassion in such teachings?
The heart led me way beyond that claustrophobic worldview. It has not been an easy transformation. I have suffered much hurt and lost much: including two careers - as a professor of religion and, later, a pastor. I came to cherish what my upbringing kept at length as strange. Love kept opening my heart more. Even when it disrupted my life, I could not deny this summons. In integrity, I could only open more. I came to see the narrow tribalism of my upbringing was based on a fear of diversity and ignorance of our shared, sacred humanness. The intolerance resulted from generations of conditioning - children are not born with prejudice, it is taught by word and example.
Sadly, presently, there is an intensification in this fear and ignorance in the country I live in. But the denial of what we share amid our differences of race, religion, politics, gender, race, economic class, and lifestyle leads us not only away from those we close the heart to, it leads us away from ourselves. In denying the other who appears strange, we deny ourselves. In crucifying the other, we are self-crucified. In embracing our differences, we embrace our oneness - love. Love sees diversity as beautiful. Love has no problem with what appears strange.
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Howard Thurman, in The Luminous Darkness.
The son of a prominent white businessman, while studying abroad ..., met a Negro who was president of a college in his home town [sic]. The student wrote letters to his father about his new and wonderful friend - an educated [and] refined gentleman who reminded him very much of his father. After much correspondence ..., the son succeeded in getting his father to agree to invite the Negro college president to his home for dinner. Elaborate protections were provided; the dinner was scheduled for nine o'clock in the evening: the Negro servants were given the night off so they would not know what was going on. What must have been the agony of conflict in the bosom of that father who wanted to be true to the image which his son had of him, to be true to his own sense of integrity in encounter with a man of equal stature, and at the same time to do nothing that would disturb the pattern of segregation which was a part of his very peace of mind! The cost was the corrosion of the spirit, which is slow and imperceptible - but its effect is sure and relentless.
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Through dishonoring the other, one chips away at the self she is. With irreverence of the otherness of the other, one becomes a little less human - corrosion of the spirit, as Thurman pens it. In continuing this agenda, one becomes more inhuman.
In the country where I live, there is pervasive corrosion of spirit. The corrosion of spirit undergirds social disarray, and it exposes much of religion and politics as haunts of racial elitism and duplicity.
Yet, we humans can choose otherwise, and many are. We can receive the strangeness of the other into ourselves and feel it run through us, changing us in the process. Then, our lives become larger. We become more human, more loving, and kinder. We find ourselves more fearlessly out in the open, not needing to hide behind lies, and freer to breathe the Common Air, a human among humans, a sacred embodiment of Grace among other breathing sacraments of Grace. We find, in being reconciled to the others whom we had excluded for their apparent strangeness, we are reconciled to our Source and our true self.
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For us who choose to let our heart open to the other who appears different, maybe threatening at first, this love expands us and enriches our lives. And we need not apologize for this gladsome welcome. We need to celebrate it.
When a pastor, I had my home altar in my living room. On it were images - Buddhist, Christian, Hindu - representing Truth in whatever way Truth shows Itself. One image was a large, wood, hand-carved Buddha from Indonesia. A devout Christian visited me. He had never met me, so he did not know of my inclusiveness regarding spirituality. After the visitor entered my home, a friend present surprised me by giving an explanation of my altar. He told the visitor that I was indeed a Christian, just appreciated other religions. I had not felt any need to justify my love for Truth or my appreciation of the wisdom of other faiths. The friend disrespected me for assuming he needed to defend my welcome of what might have appeared strange to the visitor - a Christian pastor with images from other faiths.
I share the above anecdote to affirm no one needs your apology for your welcome of what appears strange to them. Your welcome of diversity is a witness to them of grace, a sacred invite to embrace the ways Love shows up in our world. So, do not shy from the disapproval of persons who disagree with your wideness of heart. Honor the opening of your heart and grow in your embracing of differences - thereby, you say yes to Love and grow in love in Love. And, remember, opening your heart to diversity makes our world a little bit more like a world we all can share as one.
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*© Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book consists of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.