Monday, October 05, 2015

What's So Great About Letting Go?

creative commons license
This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on October 4th, 2015.  

Given the theme of the morning, and the fact that it was the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi,  the reading consisted of an excerpt from Richard Rohr's daily meditation from June 7, 2015.  (It was the 2nd paragraph, but the whole thing's great.)

So this month, as it is every month this year, our theme is a question:  What does it mean to be a person of <blank>?   Each month we’ll be filling in that blank with another characteristic of the kind of person our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to be.  It's often said that Unitarian Universalism is a low-demand religion, but I think that does us a disservice.  I know that it’s one of the things that particularly appeals to a lot of us, yet I don’t think that a religious, or spiritual, faith that doesn’t make some demands on us is ultimately worth all that much.  (Kind of like an exercise regimen that lets you just sit on the couch eating potato chips and doesn’t push you at all.)  So every month this year we’ll be looking at different aspects of the kind of person our faith calls us to be.  This month we’re asking what it means to be a person of “letting go.”

You hear it all the time, don’t you?  12 Step folks say. “Let go and let God.”  “Hand it over.”  From all sorts of traditions we hear about the importance of not being “attached” to things, and how the key to eternal happiness and contentment is to be found in “detachment” (which is, of course, another way of saying “letting go”).  We've heard it and hear it so often that we may no longer ask ourselves why we’re hearing it.  Why is it a good think to learn how to “let go?”

After all, this "letting go" goes against what seems like human nature, doesn’t it?  We want to hold on to things; we don’t want to let them go.  When my kids were little they’d even want to hold on to the boxes their favorite toys had come in.  And today, when we talk about giving away the wooden play kitchen they had so much fun with as toddlers, my now teenagers say that they’d rather keep it around, thanks.  All through our lives we’re asked to – forced to – let go of so many things, and in virtually every case it’s been really hard to do so because when you get right down to it we didn’t really want to.  Even people with an addiction can find it hard to let go of, no matter how much they know how bad it is for them.

When Arthur and I were brainstorming for this service he told me about an Empowerment Workshop he’s offered.  It begins, he says, with a deceptively simple question:  “If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  If you could have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?  If your life could be the life you can now only imagine, what would it be like?

Some of us undoubtedly had some trouble coming up with an answer; others no doubt had no trouble at all.  Yet for either one I’d wager that the attempt at coming up with an answer also raised all sorts of reasons why you can’t have your life exactly as you want it to be.  We do that.  We dream dreams of what we could be doing with our lives and then almost simultaneously begin to tell ourselves all of the reasons why they’re just dreams and can never be anything but dreams.

Of course, if my answer to Arthur’s question is that my life "exactly the way I want it" is the life of a rock star, astronaut, superspy … well … that’s a dream that’ll probably always remain a dream.  (Of course, stranger things have happened.  Actually, no they haven't.)  You may have – or, at least have had –  dreams like that, too.  Dreams that really are unattainable.  Yet if I really sit with Arthur's question, live with it a bit, chew on it and digest it over time, I’ll probably find that rock star/astronaut/superspy isn’t really the life I want to live.  A life with some adventure in it, maybe.  A life that takes some courage to live.  A life that has some mystery in it … something intriguing about it.  Rock star/astronaut/superspy is just the metaphor that comes to mind to describe the kind of life I want to live; it's not really the description itself.   See?  If we sit with that question, and really open ourselves up to its invitation, we will come to an answer that's not just a fantasy/dream answer, but an answer that is real.

And that, Arthur says in his workshop, is a seed – that “something real.”  And the vision we have of the plant in full bloom gives us a goal, something to strive for, lets us know where we want to go and where we have to go if we want to live the life we most truly want to be living.  Yet before we can do anything else, we need to prepare the soil for planting that seed, we have to create a space for whatever it is that we're planting to grow.  This will certainly include pulling out some weeds and picking out what will no doubt be more than a few rocks that we’ll have to toss to the side.  We may even have to clear out some of the surrounding plants to make sure that we get the right amount of sun for our new plant's needs.  And all of this, of course, is ... letting go.  In order to plant the seed of the life we most deeply want to live, the life that will be for us most fully alive, we have to get rid of, let go of, those things that will make attaining our goal that much harder – the hurts we’re holding on to; the limiting labels we’ve been given or have taken on for ourselves; the pain that paralyzes; that voice that whispers in our ear about how “not enough” we are.  These things must be cleared from the soil before we can plant.  We have to let them go.

One of the things I love about juggling as a practice and a metaphor is that it directly, viscerally, addresses the question of how to let go.  After all, juggling is about nothing if not “letting go.”  As I said when demonstrating it earlier in the service, what you need to learn when you’re learning to juggle is how to throw the ball … how to release it … how to let it go.  Catching isn’t something we need to learn.  No matter how clumsy we’ve convinced ourselves we are, catching is a natural thing.  Because catching is just a form of “holding on,” and we humans are already awfully good at that.

What we need to learn, then, as juggling padawans, is how to throw, how to get rid of the ball in our hands, how to let things go.  And the way to do that, the learning of juggling teaches us, is step by excruciatingly incremental step.  Here's how I've been taught to teach it:  One ball ... dominant hand ... up and down.  One ball ... non-dominant hand ... up and down.  One ball … hand to hand.  Step by excruciatingly incremental step.  Each new step gives us practice in letting go.  Each step gives us another opportunity to experience in our bodies this letting go. Each new step making the next one possible -- not easy, necessarily, but possible.  And things generally go along smoothly until we get to that step I was talking with the kids about, that step where we’ve got two balls in the air and one that’s stuck – absolutely and completely stuck – in our hand.

I didn’t tell the kids this, but it took me a year to learn to juggle.  Because of my time on the program staff of a summer camp I think that over the years I’ve taught at least a couple thousand people and I can say with near certainty that if you give me one hour of your attention, and commit to practicing for even five minutes a day for a week, at the end of that time you will be able to juggle.  And it took me a year.

It took me a year because – as a teenager who was already a magician and already had the persona of a circus-y guy – I was stuck on the idea that I should be able to juggle, that I should be able to juggle already, and that if after all I did need to learn that it should come easy.  It took me a year because I wasn’t able to let go of my sense of self, my preconceived image of who I was and who I thought others thought me to be.  I guess it was my ego that I wasn’t able to let go of.  And I was stuck.  
Where are you stuck in your life?  Your job?  A relationship with someone that you want to start, or need to end?  An addiction you’re wrestling with?  A decision you have to, but just can't seem to, make?  Getting your finances in order?  Not being able to give yourself permission to do whatever-the-thing-is-that-you-most-want-to-do-but-can’t-seem-to-do? 

Most often, I think, the glue that holds us tight is fear.  When I was learning (or, I guess, not learning) to juggle I was afraid that people would think less of me and that my rep as a "seasoned pro" would suffer, if I couldn't get it "just right" right away.  Others have been afraid that people will laugh at them if they fumble, or that here, on the brink of actually "getting it," they'll prove to themselves that they really don't -- and never did -- have a chance; that they were destined for failure from the start.  Whatever the reason, we all found ourselves with that ball glued into our hands with thick and sticky fear.

So what's the fear, or fears, that's got you glued in place?  A fear of failure?  Of being alone?  People laughing at you?  Or walking away?  Letting yourself or someone else down?  Fear that the new unknown might not actually end up being any better than the old and known?  Fr. Richard Rohr, in that reading we heard a moment ago, gave all these fears an unambiguous name:  "our fear of loss and death."   And those "three primary energy centers" that he refers to -- our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem -- seem to be where all the action is.  When those things are threatened, which at least one of them is every single time we try to let go of one thing to make room for something new, the glue is thick and fast-setting.

One of the reasons it can be so difficult to face those fears and let go of the things that are holding us here when we really want to be going there is that we get it in our minds that if we only could get past this thing it'll be smooth sailing to our goal, downhill, on a greased track all the way.  Yet we know that that's not how things work.  So even though we may more or less consciously tell ourselves that this is where we're stuck, we're afraid that there's just more stuck-ness on the other side of it.  From the vantage point of this place and this mindset we are completely convinced that the goal is utterly unattainable.   So even if we do manage to find a way to let go of what's holding us here ...  What's the point?

And that's exactly why at this point in juggling training you don’t even try to throw it into a pattern … you just throw it!  Throw it hard; throw it wild.  Without worrying about doing it "right," you do whatever it takes to get the ball out of your hand.  To break through the stuck-ness.  To let it go.  And that, it turns out, just about everybody is able to do.  And when you get rid of that ball you open up a space -- see how this all hangs together? -- in which to catch the ball that's in the air.  And once you can do that, the three-ball cascade, as it's called, is just some practice away.

Arthur also used to tell participants in his workshop that the seed doesn’t just become the fruit.  It takes time.  Preparing the soil is one step.  Planting the seed is one step.  Watering is a step.  Making sure that the growing plant gets enough sun, but not too much; feeding, and mulching, and weeding – these are all steps.  Excruciatingly incremental steps.  Yet each one is absolutely essential.  The seed doesn’t just become the fruit.

And just because I’ve managed to hurl that ball out of my hand doesn’t mean I’m a juggler.  I then have to work it into the pattern.  And then, in the way I teach it anyway, I throw the three balls once each and try to catch them.  I do this several times.  I do this over and over again, starting with the two balls in my dominant hand.  And then I do it – again, over and over – starting with the two balls in my non-dominant hand.  Then I try four throws.  Five.  Six.  The teacher of my teacher’s teacher wrote a book in which he describes the penultimate exercise in this method of teaching and learning.  You throw three throws three times.  Without dropping.  Do that, and you throw four throws four times.  You then move on to five throws five times, six throws six times, all the way up to ten throws ten times.  Without dropping.  If you drop you go back to three throws three times and start all over again.  But when you manage to complete this exercise – which I worked on for a couple of months – you’re ready for the final step in becoming a juggler:  continuing to practice for the rest of your life.

And that's why we need to be people of letting go.  That's what it means to be a person of letting go, because this stuck-ness won't just happen to us once.  All through our lives we'll be asked to – forced to – let go of so many things, and if we don’t we’ll be, and will remain, stuck.  And folks, we weren’t meant to live lives of stuck-ness.   Stuck-ness is what one of our religious predecessors, Henry David Thoreau, was thinking of when he wrote, “The mass of [humanity] lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. … But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”  It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.  We are not meant to live our lives stuck.

“If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  Sit with that question during the Offertory.  Talk about it with someone, maybe, in the Social Hall after the service.  Ask it of yourself this afternoon, this evening, throughout the week:  “If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  Then look for the place where you're most intransigently stuck, and I invite you to take a step.  It may not be pretty.  You may not do it "right."  But do it.  Whatever it is -- whatever that step is -- do it.  The steps that follow may be excruciatingly incremental, yet each new step we take gives us practice in letting go.  Each step gives us another opportunity to experience in our lives this letting go. And before we know it, even without our knowing it, we'll find that this letting go becomes second nature ... and then the fun begins!

Pax tecum,


Friday, October 02, 2015

On Resurrection and Renewal

This is the October edition of the column I write each month -- "Words of Wikstrom" -- for the Bulletin of the Congregation I serve, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  I re-post it here because it might be of interest to anyone -- whether in my particular profession or not -- who has felt the need to reinvent or resurrect themselves.

Unitarian Universalist preachers don't get a lot of opportunities to talk about "resurrection," but I don't really know any other frame for the story I have to tell.  It also has to do with this month's theme of  "letting go," I suppose, but I'll get back to that in a moment.

Since I was ordained twenty years ago I've preached somewhere around 1,500 sermons; spent nearly one-and-a-half years in Board meetings; and made a truly incalculable number of visits to people in the hospital, in their homes, and in my office.  In and through all of that I've developed a “way” of performing my ministerial duties, a “way” of being a minister.  Toward the end of the last church year, though, it became increasingly clear to me that over the years I had gotten stuck in my habits and had, for want of a better description, "lost my way."

Nor have I been alone in recognizing that something just wasn't right.  Over the past four years some of you have expressed confusion, discontent, and disappointment with the way you've experienced me doing things (or not doing things).  I can see clearly, now, that I haven't been performing my ministerial duties as well I would have liked -- as well as I know I am capable of -- and I know that some of you have seen and felt this, too. 

And this is where the element of resurrection comes into this story.  This past May was the twentieth anniversary of my ordination, and that got me thinking about what it was like -- what I was like -- when all of this was new to me.  Alex's ordination deepened these reflections.  The results of the Pulse Survey also gave me much to mull over.  And so, this summer I spent a great deal of time in prayer and reflection; I consulted with trusted colleagues, friends, and family; and I sought to remember the fire that once burned so brightly in me and called me to ordained ministry.  I am happy to say that I believe I have not only remembered it -- I've been able to rekindle and reclaim it.  It feels to me as though my ministry has expereinced resurrected.  It may not be too much to say that I have, too.

From the begining I have been committed to the idea of shared ministry.  I believe down to my core that each and every one of us -- ordained or lay -- is called to a ministry of one kind or another.  (After all, "minister" comes from the Latin for "to serve," and aren't we all called to be of service to some one at some time in some place?)  I also believe, just as foundationally, that your ministry as lay people is no less "real" than mine; that the term "minister" should not be reserved only for the clergy nor should it be considered an analogy or a metaphor when referring to lay people.  This is decidedly not the way most religious communities operate, so I have spent a lot of time and energy "defending" our right to share that title ... and to mean it.

What I've come to realize, though, is that with this nearly single-minded focus I have lost sight of my own role as this congregation's Lead Minister.  Yes ... your ministries are no less important and no more real than mine, yet mine is no less important than yours.  Lay ministry and ordained ministry are not more nor less important than each other, yet neither are they the same.  I come back to this church year once again committed to answering my own deep call which, in many ways, I have only just begun to hear clearly once again.

TJMC is full of some truly wonderful people -- strong, gifted, funny, smart, dedicated people -- and we are doing some really important things here.  As your Lead Minister it is my role to help make and deepen connections between and among you, and between our congregation and the wider community.  This calls on me to "show up" in ways that I haven't been, yet which I find a renewed energy for doing.  It is not enough for me affirm you as you discover, develop, and deepen your ministries in the world.  My ministry includes taking an active role in supporting, nurturing, and offering you guidance as well.

I have often said that the ordained minister should not be the "captain of the ship" but, rather, its "navigator" -- helping the congregation get to the destination it has chosen for itself.  I still believe this, yet I now see again that when the navigator is passive the ship in emperriled.  I have studied the ancient charts, if you will, and have an understanding of how their wisdom might be of service to us.  I have been taught how to read the signs of the sun and the sky, if you will, so I have an idea of how the currents are running today and what kind of "weather" we might encounter.  Perhaps most significantly, I have the time to contemplate these things and to try to make sense of them.  A "Lead Minister" should lead -- not demand, not dictate, yet the approach of "leading from behind," which I am inclined toward, still calls for leadership.

This looks to be a year of resurrection and rebirth.  That means it will be a year of "letting go" as well.  I need to be willing to let go of the patterns and habits I've developed which have obscured my original call.  I have to let go of my own guilt and shame, to wipe clean my life's "sands of forgiveness and atonement."  I must be able to let go of my own belief that how I've done things before is how I should do things now and, instead, be open to discovering something new.  This won't always be easy of course, but it certainly does feel exciting!

If I am to succeed, however, it will need to be a year of letting go and of discovery for you, as well.  Just as I have, over the decades, developed a pattern, a "way" of being a minister, so, too, over the past four years you have developed a "way" of seeing me.  Some of you have seen me in a bright light while others see me through a dark cloud.  Most of you are no doubt somewhere in between.  I am hoping that you will be willing to try to let go of your picture of who (and how) I've been so that we might discover together who I am now and who I am becoming and what this means for our mutual ministry. 

If we can each do this for one another, I feel certain that this year will see us actively, collaboratively, and creatively deepening our mutual ministries in and through this beloved community.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Does the Government Have an Obligation to "The Least of These"?: a response to Rush Limbaugh

A few days ago, during the visit of the Pope to the US, Rush Limbaugh asked a question on his show.  He said that he wasn't asking it rhetorically, that he really was curious and wanted to know.  I assume that the people who read through what must be a tremendous volume of correspondence will never pass this on to him, yet I'll send it to him nonetheless.  I thought I'd post my musing here, too.

Limbaugh's question was this, "Is there anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says that the government should help people?  Or does he say that individuals should help one another?"  I've heard other conservative pundits ask this same question and, obviously, their implication is the same -- that the moral argument of the government doing anything to address income inequality (and its related social consequences) is fundamentally misguided.  Jesus told people to help one another.  He didn't tell people to ask the government to do it.

I've heard this assertion put forward enough times that when Rush recently did as well I found myself really musing over it.  He's right, of course, as far as it goes and as far as I know.  I do not believe that Jesus is remember as every saying that it was the job of government to take care of the people.  But here's what else I know:

First, it seems obvious to me that we don't really know what Jesus said.  He didn't have a stenographer following him around.  Instead, people told one another what they remembered him as saying.  Those people told other people and the telling of the stories continued for a hundred years or so until people began to write them down.  Those writings, then, went through a myriad of translations -- not just among various languages but also through the eyes of people with different understandings and purposes.  What we have to look at today, then, is the heavily interpreted memory of people's memories of earlier people's remembrances of what Jesus said.  While I know that this is generally identified as liberal interpretation of Scripture, I also don't believe that Rush and the others are among those who believe the alternative theory that the New Testament texts were originally dictated by God for inerrant word, and that God has since guided the efforts of all of the many translators.

Second, even if you do subscribe to the idea that the Christian scriptures are not just "God-inspired" texts but "God-written" texts, you still can't claim to know everything that Jesus said.  After all, in the Gospel of John (21:25) it is written, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."  So ... did Jesus ever say that the government had a responsibility to care for its citizens?  We don't know, and never will, because, "Jesus did many other things as well."

Third, the question itself is flawed.  The government of Jesus' time was the local branch, if you will, of the occupying Roman government.  It was not the government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."  It was an occupying force that obliterated the governing structures of the Jewish people themselves.  When the Jews did have their own independent nation the Prophets did call the government to task for not taking care of the people -- especially the poor and the strangers among them.  And Jesus is remembered as revering the Prophets, and is remembered as chastising the closest thing the Jews had to their own government -- the Temple structure.  Remember his condemnation of the money changers, and the entire system that upheld the Temple hierarchy?  (If not, re-read Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:12-25)  Think of the many times he called the Pharisees and Scribes to account for not caring for the poor and the suffering -- these stories are not remembrances of his just talking to and about individuals, but of his critique of those who held power.  So, it is apparently possible to demonstrate that Jesus is remembered as saying that it was the responsibility of "the powers that be" to take care of its people.  But if you want to be strict in your interpretation and limit yourself to whether or not he spoke of the official government, the government of Rome, it is a false parallel to whether or not he would call our own government to account.

Fourth, there is not only the fact that the occupying Roman government is not an appropriate analog to our democratic government today, there is also a difference of scope.  Jesus lived his entire life in an area smaller than the state of Vermont.  It is one thing to expect the poor and the suffering to be cared for by individuals alone in such a small geographic area, but when we're talking about the entire United States?  Our problems are incredibly larger, more complex, and more intimately intertwined than could possibly be handled on a local lever alone.  The reasons people are hungry, and homeless, and in a myriad of other ways in need are national in scope.  Whatever Jesus is remembered as having said he said in and to his own people in his own time and place.  A community the size of the United States was never, could never have been, imagined.

Fifth, the closet followers of Jesus, those whose stories are told in the Book of Acts, organized their communities with care for one another a foundational principle.  It is written of them that,
  "all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need." (Acts 2:45).  Further, it is remembered that, "[T]he congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. ... there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.…" (Acts 4:32 & 34)  Apparently this egalitarian, some might even say "socialist," approach so seriously that we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) in which two of the community who decided to hold back some of their wealth for themselves were struck dead as a result.  If Rush and the others are really suggesting that we look to the teachings of Jesus to inform our social structures, this is the way those who are remembered as knowing him best organized themselves.  

Finally, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 C.E., and the formation of what, by the 13th century would come to be called "the Holy Roman Empire," we did see a government that at least in name was rooted in Christian principles.  In a book called Germany and the Holy Roman Empire the author notes that there was imperial legislation in 1530, 1548, and 1577 that, "obliged all rulers to take care of their poor," and that, "even in times of crisis, measures that almost all governments had in place undoubtedly brought relief to many.  The deserving poor were neither demonized nor criminalized."  Did Jesus say, specifically, that governments should take care of the poor?  Not that I can tell if we're being strictly precise, but it does seem that those governments that claimed to be following his teachings and example felt that they should do so.

And that, I suppose, is the ultimate response I have to Limbaugh's question:  even if Jesus did not specifically say that governments had to take care of the poor; even if he did intend to limit his overwhelmingly undeniable and inescapable emphasis on mercy, compassion, and "the least of these;" even if we capitulate to all of that ... why not do it anyway?  What is the government?  Representatives of the people, and, for that matter, a just a group of people.  Why should they not feel the same obligations that individual people are supposed to have just because they have come together as "government."  (Specifically, to quote Lincoln again, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people.)  Some may wonder if Jesus ever said that the government should be obliged to take care of its own poor and needy.  I'll just ask in return, "Did he ever say it shouldn't"?

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

To Be, Or Not To Be ...

I've recently been reading a book by Juana Bordas, Salsa, Soul, and Spirit:  Leadership for a Multicultural Age (New Approaches to Leadership from Latino, Black, and American Indian Communities).  This book as been read, and is being read, by UU congregations around the country as well as by Association leadership.  After all, we say we're serious about wanting to be a more truly multicultural community -- both at the level of the local congregation and the national movement -- yet Unitarian Universalism is steeped in Eurocentric history, assumptions, and norms ... so much so that for many of us it's hard to imagine that there's any other ("valid") way of doing things because we're so used to thinking that the way we do things is "the way things should be done."  If we -- White UUs -- want to move toward a true multiculturalism, then we're most likely going to have to open ourselves to learning some new ways of doing things.  (If only so that we can be more aware of how "our ways" don't resonate with anyone.)  Hence the interest around Ms. Bordas's book.

On FaceBook this morning I read a really insightful -- and no doubt for many a really challenging -- post.  It was written by a man named Chris Crass, and made me think of some of the things I'd read in Bordas's book.  First I'll pull out some of those quote and then, with his permission, I'm reprinting Chris' FaceBook post.

From Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: 
When you answer the call to become a multicultural leader, you commit to honoring the unique experiences and background of each person you encounter while connecting with the core human essence we all share.  (p. 199)
[T]he limitations of hierarchical pluralism:  "Dominant cultural values are at the top and are impermeable.  Everyone has to conform to them.  People who are different can come in and be included, but they must understand their traditions don't mean anything.  Their values are subservient and they must adapt."  (p. 203) 
Because Whites are often blind to their own existence as a group, as well as their advantages and privileges, they don't understand that business as usual is really doing business our way.  (p. 203)
Egalitarian pluralism is representative of all people in an organization, not just those who have traditionally held power.  Organizations must be willing to reinvent themselves by altering their language, structure, and methods of operation by welcoming diverse leaders to the table to share their perspectives and experiences. ... Changing structures, norms, and values, is the key to egalitarian pluralism and the foundation for multicultural leadership. (p. 204)

And here's the post that got me thinking:

To become an anti-racist church, the key question, for a white/white majority church, is not "how to get people of color to join the church", it is making a prolonged, spiritually-rooted, engaged commitment to uprooting white supremacy within the church and taking collective action to eradicate it in society.

Our goal is not to have white people sit alongside a person of color so as to affirm that those white people aren't racist. Our goal is to build and be part of beloved community united to end structural oppression and unleash collective liberation in our congregations, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces and society.

Our goal is to join hands across the divisions of racism in our faith and in our communities, find and affirm our humanity in each other, and join our hearts and minds to the task of destroying white supremacy in every worldview, policy, law, institution and governing body of our society. 

For our churches to be places of healing for people of color and white people from the nightmare of racism. For our churches to be places of nourishment for people of color and white people about the multiracial struggles of our people to advance economic, racial, and gender justice and the continual process of overcoming oppression within the movement on the journey to end oppression in society. For our churches to raise our children, of all backgrounds, to be freedom fighters and practitioners of liberation values. 

For our churches to be spiritually alive communities of worship, learning from and contributing to liberation cultures and legacies. For our churches to be welcoming homes for people of all colors, sexualities, classes, ages, genders, citizenship statuses, and abilities. For our churches to regularly be inviting us into and preparing us for courageous action for collective liberation, held in loving community for the long haul. Let our theology and our churches be active agents in the world, to help us all get free, together.

Being the kind of community Chris is describing will take those of us who are used to -- have grown up in, find comfortable and "sensible" -- the mores and norms of the dominant Eurocentric culture to become uncomfortable.  The new, the unfamiliar is usually uncomfortable and we want folks to learn our ways so that they can fit in.  Re-read the second quotation form Salsa:  
"Dominant cultural values are at the top and are impermeable.  Everyone has to conform to them.  People who are different can come in and be included, but they must understand their traditions don't mean anything.  Their values are subservient and they must adapt." [italics added]
This is all true, of course, not just in the context of race.  If "we" want to be truly welcoming to young adults then we need to make peace with the fact that for many of them their phones and tablets are an integrated part of how they think and act in the world.  (This isn't true for all, of course.  No group is a monolith, but it is true for many.)  So "we" want to welcome "them," yet look askance when they assume that that welcome includes them being themselves.

(I keep writing"we" because I am aware that not all UUs are a part of the dominant culture and so it isn't actually true to talk about Unitarian Universalists as if we're all the same.  Yet there is a dominant culture within our movement and a majority demographic, so when speaking of and for that dominant perspective I'm putting quotation marks around "we" so as to remind us all that that "we" doesn't include us all.)

"We" say "we" want to be truly welcoming to people of all economic classes and yet, as one example, "we" still expect everyone to participate in the annual pledge drive as if everyone had the financial means to do so.  "We" say we want to welcome "them," yet in a myriad of ways most of "us" never even see "we" reiterate the message that "they" not as good -- useful, productive, valuable and valued -- as "us."

"We" want to be welcoming to people with a wide variety of abilities, yet don't see making our buidlings accessible as a priority.  

"We" want to be welcoming to transgender people, yet want to make sure that "they" use the bathroom that makes "us" feel most comfortable.

"We" want to be welcoming to families with young children, yet are unwilling to share space with little ones who are age-appropriately squirmy and noisy.  And while we're on the subject of families with young children -- "we" say that "we" want there to be greater integration of these families with the rest of the church community, yet prevent that very integration when "we" insist that "they" volunteer in "our" Religious Education program because none of "us" want to do so.

I could, of course, continue.  In each of these examples, though, the thing to see is that the dominant "we" want the more marginal "they" to conform to "our" expectations and example, and to ensure that "we" are not at all put out or discomforted by "their" presence.  "We" claim as a desire a more multicultural community -- something that's a change from what's true now -- yet "we" are not willing to be changed in order to make it come true.  To put it simply, though:  until "we" are, it won't.

Hear Juana Bordas again:  "Organizations must be willing to reinvent themselves by altering their language, structure, and methods of operation by welcoming diverse leaders to the table to share their perspectives and experiences."  A question for those who so blithely name "diversity" as a value -- are you willing to reinvent yourself?

Pax tecum,


Monday, September 21, 2015

An Invitation to Service

I read something really interesting recently.  Some of you may have, too.  It was just after Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty University.   That’s democratic socialist, secular Jew Bernie Sanders speaking at the school that Jerry Falwell built.  Afterwards, a piece appeared on the internet called “Biblical Argument for Bernie.”  It was written by a graduate of Liberty, a Conservative pastor, who worked on the George W. Bush campaign, and who calls himself, “pretty much a card-carrying Evangelical Christian.”  And, funnily enough, that is why he is now a supporter of Bernie Sanders.  His basic argument is that this “wild haired Jew” (and he calls him that several times) is more closely aligned with the teachings of that other Jew – Jesus – than those who are running on the Republican ticket calling themselves “Christian.”

It’s a really interesting piece, and I’d encourage you to look it up and read it if you haven’t already.  There is one passage that really jumped out at me, though.  At one point the author says to his fellow Evangelicals:
When we chose to follow Jesus, we decided that the Kingdom of God, and the men and women and children of this world, were more important than us. And that accidentally made us all liberals. The day we decided to follow Christ, and the day we decided that we value other human beings more than ourselves, we accidentally became liberals.
A lot of people have focused on this self-avowed Conservative Evangelical Christian asserting that by trying to follow Jesus he had “accidentally become [a] liberal.”  But there’s something else to hear in that passage.  “[W]e decided that … the men and women and children of this world were more important than us. … [W]e decided that we value other human beings more than ourselves.”  More valuable.  More important.

Now I’ve been around enough Unitarian Universalists to know that that’s the kind of religious language that drives a lot of us right up the wall:  that whole “do-unto-others-before-you-do-unto-yourself” thing.  After all, “others first” has often understood to imply, “and yourself really, really, really far behind.”  “Put others first” has done a lot of damage to a lot of us, and so for the most part we reject that kind of self-depreciating, others-first mind-set.   We know, for instance, that if we take care of ourselves – our own mental, emotional, spiritual well-being – we’ll have more to give and a healthier and more solid place to give it from.  A lot of us would say that ours is a “put-the-oxygen-mask-over-your-own-head-before-assisting-others” kind of a religion, and we’d say it with pride.
Yet I’ll just point out that in this we buck the trend of virtually every other religious tradition we humans have ever created.  They all – each in their own ways – teach that we should “value other human beings more than ourselves.”  All of them … except us.  So maybe they’re on to something.  And we?  Maybe we’re missing something.

More than once I’ve preached a sermon on Matthew 22:39 –  “Love your neighbor as yourself” –  pointing out that this tells us to put our love of others on a par with our love of ourselves.  Not above; not below; but on the same level.  And those sermons have been received with a great deal of relief by people who had been taught – sometimes explicitly and often more subliminally – that love is a zero-sum game, so that the more you love others the less you can love yourself.  Hopefully, it’s clear that our faith does not teach this.  I wonder, though, whether we’ve gone too far in the other direction.

What would happen if, as that Evangelical pastor put it, we value other human beings more than we do ourselves?  What would happen if we were to live our lives so that, all things being equal, we did put others first?  If we let a coworker have the last cookie, for instance, or if you and your spouse were both really tired and you realize that the garbage needs to go out, and you get up to do it – what would happen?  We can, of course, go overboard with this, but what if we don’t?  And what if we could do it not out of a forced sense of obligation but as the result of a free choice to put that other person first?

That’s the basis of service.  That’s the foundation from which true generosity springs forth.  That’s the very definition of “ministry,” which comes to us from a Latin word meaning “less than” (same root as “minus”) but also meaning “to serve.”  We minister when we put someone else’s needs ahead – even if just a little bit ahead – of our own.

A few years ago, while I was working at our Association’s headquarters (which I can’t resist calling “UUHQ”), I was asked to write something that might be useful to congregations.  What came out was the book Serving with Grace: lay leadership as aspiritual practice.  It proposes the somewhat radical notion that what we do within the context of a faith community – everything we do within the context of a faith community – should provide an opportunity for spiritual practice, a way of nurturing our souls.  Everything.  Even serving on the Finance Committee.  Even cleaning up after the church auction.   Not really so radical, of course – the great Christian mystic Brother Lawrence said that his work in the kitchen was prayer, and the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that washing the dishes is meditation.  It really isn’t such a radical idea, but its application is a rare thing indeed.  All too often we find ourselves doing the work of the church, while watching our spiritual connections to the community withering away; the very antithesis of lay leadership being a spiritual practice.

The distance between this idea and its application is a decision.  A decision that we make freely, not out of obligation.  And it’s at least in part the decision to see this community as maybe even just a little bit more important that we are.  I mean, if we didn’t see it that way, who would stay in a Board meeting for three hours?  Or give hours of their time visiting another congregant who’s in need?  Hardly anybody would!  We all have other things we could be doing with our time (our talents, our money, or any of the other things we share with this church).

The sad truth is, though, that many people who give of themselves to this community don’t do it as a spiritual practice; don’t do it because of a freely made decision to apply the idea that service is salvific.  More often it’s because the church needs a chair for this committee or that task force, so we step up because it seems clear that no one else is going to do it.  And while that’s laudable, it’s also a set up for burn out because that makes service to and through the church into merely doing the work of the church, and that’s not why most of us are here.  If we haven’t made the free choice to put others even if just a little bit ahead of ourselves it can be so easy slip into resentment, because it hasn’t been a free choice but a decision thrust upon us.  If we haven’t freely chosen it, it can be really hard when we’re forced to do it anyway.

In a moment we, as a congregation, are going to recognize some of the people who are volunteering their time in a leadership role.  We’ve done this for the past few years in what we’ve called a Service of Commissioning.  I hope that this service is more than simply a way to recognize and thank some hardworking volunteers.  (Although I hope it’ll do that, too.)  The word “commission” means, “the act of granting certain powers or the authority to carry out a particular task or duty,” and it also has its roots in a Latin word that meant, “to entrust.”  Simply put, when we commission these volunteers, these ministers, we are entrusting ourselves and the care of this community to them as they carry out their ministries through the various roles they play here.

Today we’re taking seriously the service these folk are offering to the rest of us, by seeing it as, recognizing it as, and naming it as a true ministry and not a mere job.  It’s my hope that this will help to invite these leaders to see their own work, their own lives, in this way; to recognize in them the possibility of and the opportunity for real spiritual growth and deepening.  I hope it will help to remind them of why they’re doing what they’re doing, and help them to be conscious that the choice is, and always has been, theirs to freely make.  And, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind it at all if today also inspires some of us who have not yet found a way to be of service here to seek out opportunities to do so.

And so, let us begin our Commissioning of Congregational Leaders.

Commissioning of the Worship Weavers Guild
Members of the Worship Weavers Guild:  we thank you for your work as ministers of worship.  Week after week you strive to create a safe space for us in which we can explore and engage with things that matter.  Know that we will try to bring our whole selves whenever we gather. We bless you and your ministry as Weavers of Worship.

Commissioning of the Pastoral Visitors and CareNet Coordinator
To our Pastoral Visitors:  we thank you for your work as ministers of pastoral care.  When we are in need of a companion during difficult times you bring your hearts and minds not to solve anything but to sit with us.  We thank you for your willingness to give of yourselves to others and we offer you our support.    We bless you and your ministry as Pastoral Visitors.

And to our CareNet Coordinator:  This work, too, is a ministry of pastoral care.  It falls to you to strive to match the resources of our community with its needs and this means that it falls to you to hold those needs.  We thank you for your willingness to bear this burden, and to remind you that you do not have to hold those needs alone.  We offer you our hands and our hearts to use as they can be of use.  We bless you and your ministry of CareNet.

Commissioning of the Committee on the Ministry
To our Committee on the Ministry:  we thank you for your work as ministers of and to the congregation.  At different times each of us will have things that delight us and things that distress us about our experiences here at TJMC.  You provide a safe place for us to bring our questions, comments, concerns (and praise).  We thank you for your willingness to listen to us and to help our voices be heard.   We bless you and your ministry as members of the Committee on the Ministry.

Commissioning of the Board of Trustees
To our Board of Trustees:  we thank you for your work as ministers of leadership.  We have elected you to represent the whole of us and to act on our behalf in fulfilling the mission of this church in collaboration with our staff.  We offer you our support and trust, and thank you for your willingness to give of your time and your talent.    We bless you and your ministry as trustees of our beloved community.

Commissioning of all the Ministers at TJMC
And to all who serve this congregation and the wider world around us, know that your ministries are recognized, honored, and celebrated too.  Each of us have gifts to give, and our faith calls on us to share them.  May we at this time commission one another to our individual ministries, and our congregation as a whole to the fulfillment of its mission in the world.  We bless one another, and receive each other’s blessing.

Pax tecum,