Hi, friends. My name is Rich Villodas. I’m the lead pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York City. And I am just thrilled to be with you at this gathering.
I love the title of this gathering, “Being While Becoming,” and I am thrilled to talk about a significant aspect of that theme: what it means to belong to one another. What does this mean in our life together — in our life in our various communities — to belong to one another?
There’s a verse that comes to mind out of Ephesians 4:32 that I want to highlight and build some of my thoughts out of. Ephesians 4 says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ Jesus forgave you.”
Langston Hughes, the great African-American poet, wrote a poem that has become a favorite of mine: It’s called “Tired.” Hughes writes these words, he says: “I am so tired of waiting, / Aren’t you, / For the world to become good / And beautiful and kind? / Let us take a knife / And cut the world in two- / And see what worms are eating / At the rind.”
When Hughes writes that poem, he gets at the ache and the longing that we all have for our world, for our relationships, for our life together. We ache and we long for a good world, a beautiful world, a kind world. And yet, that is not what we often see in our lives. That’s often what we don’t see on social media. Instead of beauty, what we often see is ugliness. Instead of kindness, we see meanness. Instead of goodness, we tend to see evil. And yet, Hughes named something, he says we are aching for a good and beautiful and kind world. But how do we get to that place? He says, let’s take a knife and cut the world in two. Let’s look beneath the surface. How do we get to a place where the world is good and beautiful and kind, where we can belong well with each other?
And what I think Hughes is naming is what we need desperately to do is to look beneath the surface and to cultivate something really important. What I want to spend my time focusing on is calm presence. There’s certainly so many ways that we can move toward a world that’s marked by healthy belonging, but calm presence is something I think we need in this generation.
In family systems theory, there’s a term called “differentiation.” And that’s essentially what I mean about calm presence. Differentiation is this process of remaining close and curious to God, to myself, and to others — especially in times of high anxiety — and resisting the polar-opposite pull of cutting off from people or fusing into them. It’s very easy in our day to cut off from people or to fuse into them. But what would it look like for us to be calm and curious with God, to remain close to myself, and remain close to you, in times of high anxiety?
I think about a story that comes to mind at our church where I saw this demonstrated in some really powerful ways. In October of 2020, we had the election season. And I remember getting an email from one of our pastors; it was one of those emails that came late at night. And one of our pastors said, “Rich, I have a great idea. The election is coming up. There’s lots of divisiveness, lots of polarization happening in our church and in our world. What if we put together a Zoom gathering where we had two people from our congregation, one who’s voting for Trump and the other who’s voting for Biden, and let’s have them have a conversation on why they are voting for each candidate?”
And when I saw that email, my first response was — and this is with great faith I said it, with great courage in God. I said, “Not a chance. Are you crazy? We’re not going to do that at all.” And so my initial response was, “No, I don’t think so.” And then I gave it some thought. We’re trying to be a church that’s marked by emotional health, a church that’s marked by loving well, and so I needed a little bit of convincing. And finally I said, “Yeah, we’ll do it.”
And so a couple of weeks later, we had this forum on Zoom, and I did what most pastors do. Before I jumped on Zoom and opened my computer, I thought to myself, “This is going to be awful. This is going to be a disaster.” And yet, when I pressed the Zoom button, started the video, to the 150 or so congregants that were there, I said, “Everyone, this is going to be fantastic, the best event we’ve ever had. God is going to move in some powerful ways.” I think I was lying at that point. But we went on with it. And we had two men in our church, one voting for Trump, one voting for Biden, who are in conversation with one another. And I began to see something that I was not anticipating. I saw presence. I saw curiosity. I saw good questions. I saw humility. And I was actually quite surprised, and surprised that I was surprised of what I saw. And was it awkward in that Zoom meeting? Yeah. Were some things said that I was cringing a little bit? Yeah. But what I saw was presence, calm presence. And certainly this is not the answer to everything. But I do think this is an important part of what it means to belong with one another and to one another. Differentiation, calm presence, remaining close and curious to God, to myself and to others in times of high anxiety.
But how do we do it? How do we live a differentiated life, a life of curiosity and calm presence? And what I want to do is just anchor my thoughts in three ideas. Whether you’re leading a small group, whether you’re leading a congregation or organization, whether you’re talking about your workplace, or your home: how do we cultivate calm presence, differentiation? There are three things that come to mind.
The first is this: if we’re going to grow in differentiation, if we’re going to grow in calm presence, it requires us to cultivate a life with God in contemplative prayer. Prayer — contemplative prayer — is about being present to God, allowing ourselves in silence to cultivate presence with God. And whenever we give ourselves to that kind of prayer, that kind of presence of God, here’s what happens: Our souls get trained to be present to others. You see, prayer is not simply about telling God everything I need and giving God a laundry list of things that I want God to do. Prayer is essentially about sharing presence with God and allowing God to do something in us so that we can share presence with others. One of the greatest gifts that the world needs is people who know how to be present, people who know how to be curious to another. And prayer forms us to be present to others.
The second way that we grow in differentiation and calm presence is by monitoring our interior life and our bodies. Oftentimes, when conflict emerges, when we have emotional allergies, when we are triggered by what someone says, it’s very easy not to pay attention to our bodies and to just be reactive, and not give thought to our ways. But to live a life of differentiation requires us to take inventory of our bodies, to notice our breathing, to take note of our visceral reactions. And so much of this has to do with our willingness to look within to identify our reactions. At our congregation, we often say that our reactions are great points of revelations. And whenever we’re triggered in a context of a group or in a relationship with someone, we often ask, “What does my reaction tell me about myself?” Unless we are taking inventory of our reactions, we’re going to have a hard time being present.
But here’s the last thing. To be a calm presence, to operate in differentiation, to belong well with one another, means that we also must see others as image bearers of God. We are often in relationship with people who are wounded, who are hurt. And our greatest task is to be people who see the image of God in others, that the people we are in relationship with are loved by God, and God offers kindness to them in the way that God offers kindness to us. And so hear those words again: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ Jesus forgave you.” Amen.