Monday, October 26, 2015

What Do We Have to Let Go of When We Want to Hold Hands?

I will admit that I don’t know if this story is true, and I’ll confess that I didn’t try to find out because it’s such a good story. So let me just say that this is what I’ve heard.  There was an experiment done in which some fish were put into a small tank that was then put within a larger tank.  The fish could see the larger space around them, yet were confined to a much more limited existence.  They were left this way for a while and, as far as we can know what fish are thinking, they grew used to it.  And then the scientists removed the smaller tank so that the fish now had unlimited access to the entirety of their environment.  And yet – again, so I’ve heard – the fish never did swim beyond what had been the boundaries of their smaller tank.  They had, apparently, internalized the limitations that they had learned and simply were not able to move beyond them.

We just recognized and honored the choice of several members of our community to formalize their membership.  I, personally, struggle with the right words here, because I believe that a person can absolutely be a member of this community as soon as they walk through those doors and decide to come back again.  From this perspective, being a member (lower case “m”) has to do with involvement, engagement, connection.  From this perspective there are lots of folks who are members of TJMC even though they’ve never signed the membership book. 

At the same time, though, there is something important in taking the step to formalize that membership.  That’s the reason I generally discourage people from doing so right away.  I think it should be the response to our involvement and not the doorway to it.  And I think it’s a decision not to be made lightly, because afterward things will be different in some perhaps imperceptible yet really important ways. 

I remember my mother telling my older brother on his wedding day that there would be something different after the wedding – maybe even only subtly different – even though he’d already lived with his bride-to-be for several years.  Pat pooh poohed it, of course, but during the reception he came up to her and told her that she’d been right.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was different now that they’d formalized their relationship in this way.

I remember, too, the phone call I got – years ago now – from a woman who’d just signed the membership book that morning.  She called because she wanted to tell me right away about something strange that she’d noticed.  This was a woman who’d been a part of that congregation for a while and who was almost evangelical in her sharing of the wonderful community she’d found.  She’d tell her friends, “at the church I go to we’re doing this …,” or, “at the church I go to we’re doing that …”  She was always telling someone something our congregation was up to.  She called me that day to say that she’d been talking with someone about the church and realized that she had said, “at my church …”.  Something subtle had shifted in her when she took the step of formalizing her membership.  It was no longer simply “the church I go to;” it had become, for her, “my church.”

So, to those we recognize today for taking this step I want to say the two things I’ve always said when people make this choice.  First, congratulations – you’re joining yourself to a really wonderful community.  And second, thank you – because your presence here makes it more wonderful still.

And that’s really what I want to reflect on this morning:  the way new members – formal or more informal – change this community.  In one of our newcomer orientation sessions someone said that at the last congregation she’d attended the ordained minister would say that as soon as someone made the choice to become a regular attendee and participant it was as if they were handed a metaphoric paintbrush so that they, too, could add their colors and shapes to the mural that was constantly being created and recreated.  That’s a lovely image, isn’t it?  Yet there’s a dimension to it that most of us most likely would rather not think about.

I don’t know how many of you have ever worked with others on a free-form mural.  I know that when I’ve done this there are times when someone comes along after I’ve created some wonderful thing and they dare to change it.  My tree becomes their rocket; my sun becomes their flower.  Or I’ve got in my mind how to use a blank space over here, and someone else comes along and does their own thing in it.  And depending on my mood – especially depending on how seriously I’m taking it all – this can be really annoying.  Upsetting, even.  And, in keeping with this month’s theme, I’d have to say that it can be hard to … let go … of the plans I’d had when someone comes along with plans of their own.

This happens when we invite new members to grab a paintbrush and add their own artistic vision to our ongoing mural.  At least, it should.  It should change things if we who are already here are serious about really inviting new people to bring themselves, and be themselves, and offer themselves to this beloved community.  We who are already here are already doing the things, and doing them in the ways, that we’re already doing them.  One of the gifts, we say, of expanding our circle – as the choir so movingly sang last week – is that our common life becomes infused with the inspiration of “the new.”

And this will be especially true when we who are already here welcome in a greater diversity of people, which we say that we want to do.  Diversity speaks to difference, so the more diverse we become the more different we become.  At least, of course, if we really do mean it when we invite people to bring themselves, and be themselves, and share themselves.  Welcoming “diversity” means welcoming people who are in some way or other different than the majority of the people who are already here or, at least, the people who set the tone and establish the norms of how we behave toward one another.  And these different people will have – do have – different ways of seeing things, and doing things, and envisioning what ought to be done.

Speaking in generalities for a moment, the Eurocentric culture – which informs most of the world around us and, let’s face it, the world in here, too – tends to focus on the individual and our own personal growth.  Consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, the question most commonly asked is, “What do I get out of this?  How will this assist me in reaching my own full potential?”  Bluntly said, “What’s in it for me?”

Communities of color – again, speaking in generalities – are more often focused on the community and the health and wellbeing of the whole.  “What do we need?  How can this build us up?  What’s in it for us?”  I’ve heard this described succinctly as the difference between an I culture and a we culture.

So as long as our community here is built around largely homogeneous Eurocentric norms, we’ll tend to focus on doing things, defining “success” by how well our own particular needs are being met, and essentially maintaining the status quo so that we, ourselves, can remain comfortable and feel “at home among like-minded people” (as is so often said). 

To the extent we’re serious about becoming a more multicultural place, to the extent we mean it when we say we’d like to see TJMC become more diverse, to the extent our talk about a wide and welcoming invitation to all people is genuine, there will be challenges to that comfort.  If this vision of a more diverse, more multicultural congregation begins to take hold, the “we” of this place will be increasingly comprised of people who come from cultures that are more interested in the being in relationship than the doing of things, who define success by how the whole community is being supported and strengthened rather than the individual, and who will want to see us being flexible and fluid so that we can readily change as the “we” of this place continues to  change.

Let’s look at another example of the potential clash of different cultures, this one more generational than racial.  We who are already here – we who have been here for a while, and know how things work because we’ve been the ones doing the work to keep things working –  we know that there is a natural progression which folks are expected to follow:   you come for a while and then get involved on one or another of our committees; you volunteer your time to a fundraiser or, as we sometimes call them, a funraiser; you eventually become a chair of a committee (or two), gradually increasing the level of your responsibility until you find yourself on the Leadership Development Committee, the Committee on the Ministry, or the Board – levels of leadership and service that have traditionally been reserved for those who have “put in their time” and have gained the respect, or are at least fairly well known by, the congregation as a whole.  And, of course, along with this is the expectation that we will support the church financially – through the weekly offering and our annual pledge – and that we will increase that support the longer we’re here and the more we get involved.

That’s the way things work.  Or at least, that’s the way things are supposed to work, and it’s darned frustrating that it doesn’t seem to be working that way anymore.  Frustrating and a little scary, because that’s the way things work and if things aren’t working that way any longer it won’t be too long until our whole church isn’t working any longer.

Yet more and more often there are people joining this community who don’t have these expectations, and not simply because they “haven’t learned how to do church yet,” as is sometimes said.  They don’t have these expectations because that isn’t the way they see the world.  I know I’m speaking in generalities again but folks who make up what’s called Generation X and the Millennial Generation usually have no interest in climbing the committee ladder like us Baby Boomers and Traditionalists. 

In fact, they have no interest in sitting on a committee in the first place.  They want to be up and moving and making a difference.  Committees?  Not so much.  Active task forces focusing on doing something real?  Much better.  Especially if their work can be done largely asynchronously so it can fit into an already tremendously full life.  Maybe even most shocking, they’re not all that interested in making sure that they’re doing things in accordance with the way things have been done before.  They’d rather do things in the ways that work best for the task at hand and the people who are doing it.  In fact, they tend not to be all that devoted to “the church,” per se – the church as a concept – and are really more motivated by the real relationships they form than they are by some abstraction like a mission statement or sense of “church identity.”

A truly multicultural community – the kind we who are already here keep saying that we want – is full of all kinds of diversity.  Generational diversity.  Racial and cultural diversity.  Economic diversity and diversity of educational background.  Diversity in mental health status, and physical ability.  Gender identity and expression.  Political and theological diversity.  Each of these, and so many others we could think of, require of all of us a letting go of our own expectations of who we are and how we are so that we can listen across and through the differences to see the world – and our part in it – in new ways.

It was so easy – if you’ll forgive my anthropomorphizing – for those fish to remain content to swim within the comfortable confines of what they’d always known.  And it is easy for we who are already here to want to be comfortable in what we’ve known – the in-jokes, the shared history that goes unspoken (except through glances and knowing smiles), the assumptions we make about the new person we meet (because we expect that they’ll be more or less like we are in terms of educational background and the experiences a certain economic status provide).  It is easy – and natural –  to want to be surrounded by “like-minded” people who reinforce our own world-view and who validate our experiences as normative.

It’s easy, but our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to be people of letting go, and that means letting go of all these things, too.  As a monocultural institution – which, let’s be honest, this is – becomes a multicultural one, people with different world-views and different experiences become part of the mix and no single one can think of itself as normative anymore.  Yet letting go of these things doesn’t mean throwing them away, but simply letting go of our death grip on them so that, as we said earlier, our hands might be truly open to receiving, our minds truly open to learning, and our hearts truly open to loving. 

I will tell you this, when I reach out my hand to welcome a newcomer, I don’t want to be holding on to anything that will get in the way of my completely clasping theirs.  And in that spirit, and with that conviction, I want to welcome again those we honored earlier for their decision to formalize their membership here and say once more:  congratulations – you’re joining yourself to a really wonderful community, and thank you – because your presence here will make it more wonderful still.  I don’t know quite how yet; I can’t know quite how yet; but I can’t tell you how excited I am to find out.  So me it be of for us all.

Pax tecum,


This is the sermon delivered in worship with the people of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, October 25th.  You can also listen to it, if you prefer. Print this post


Florence said...

Love this! Thank you from a fan. I was also preaching on membership this last Sunday, but I like what you said better. :)

RevWik said...

Would you be open to sharing a link to your sermon? You might like what I said better, but you already knew what you said ...