Monday, January 22, 2018

When There Are No Leaves Nor Fruit

There’s this odd little story in the Christian scriptures, recorded in the gospels of both Mark and Matthew.  Jesus goes over to a fig tree to get some figs to share with his friends, but there are no figs.  Only leaves.  So Jesus, perhaps in a fit of pique, says to the tree, “May no one ever eat of your fruit again.” (Dun dun dunnn)  The next day they’re all walking by that tree again, and one of Jesus’ friends notices that now there are neither leaves nor fruit.  Overnight the tree had withered and died.    

I don’t know exactly what that story is supposed to teach us, but I’m sure that there are as many ways of interpreting that story as there are people doing the interpreting.  For my purposes this morning, I want to leave the bit of magic aside and look at this as a story about a tree that had not lived up to its full potential and, so, withered and died.

There are a lot of reasons plants fail to thrive.  Most often it’s because there’s something that they need that they aren’t getting – too much (or too little) sun, too little (or too much) water, not enough nutrients in the soil.  Plants don’t just come to flower and fruit on their own.  Without the resources they need they may have all the good intentions in the world, all the heart, all the desire to be all that they can be, but they’re not going to make it.  At best they’ll become stunted versions of what they could have been.  At worst, they’ll wither and die.

We see this in our own lives, don’t we?  If our relationships don’t have the honesty, the commitment, the investment of time and heart, that they need, they don’t thrive, do they?  If we’re struggling with an addiction, yet are trying to do so on our own, without the support of family, friends, sponsors, our recovery can be … stunted.  Take just about anything in your life, anything important, anything of value – if it doesn’t get the resources it needs, it doesn’t go very far, does it?

Now … if the teaser on Facebook, or Lorie’s Opening Words didn’t telegraph it to you, I want us to look at the church — this church, our church — through the lens of this metaphor of a tree with neither leaves nor fruit, a tree withered and dead because it hadn’t had the resources to live up to its full potential.  I don’t think we’re on the verge of withering and dying.  I do think that we’re not living up to our full potential.

If this is your first visit, or if you’ve only come a few times, I hope you won’t find this to be too much “insiders talk.”  Because I am talking to you too, actually.  I believe deeply that we make of ourselves members of this community at the moment we decide to come back.  And if you keep coming back, the future of this community will rest as much in your hands as in those of the folks who’ve been part of this place for decades.  This is not their church.  If we do this thing called “community” right, it is ours.  All of ours.  It belongs to us, and, again, if we do this right, we belong to it.

Yet from where I stand — and sit and listen, and work, play, pray, cry, and laugh with you all — it is not entirely clear to me that we are “doing this right.”  All congregations have their struggles, of course.  All faith communities are, first and foremost, communities — communities of trying-our-best-yet-fallible-human-beings.  Still, there are stresses and strains in our systems which worry me. 

The basic needs of plants are often summed up as:  water, sun, and nutrient-rich soil.  Other things are involved, of course, and it’s really the interplay among them that is needed for a plant to thrive, but that shorthand makes some sense – water, sun, and nutrient-rich soil.  For a congregation to thrive there are also a whole host of things it needs, and it’s really the interplay among them that is most determinative, but I’d suggest that the needs of a congregation can also be summed in three things (which, conveniently, all begin with the letter “c”) – committed engagement, courage, and … well … cash.

Each of these could be a sermon unto itself.  Several sermons, I’m sure.  This morning, though, I’m only going to focus on one … the last of the set … cash.  You can guess where this is heading.  But before I go there, I want you all to know that I know that as soon as I, or anyone else, begins to talk explicitly about money, it gets uncomfortable for some people.  So I want to be clear as I can be that I recognize the fact that we don’t all live in the same economic reality.  I strongly believe that one of our strengths as a community is that we are not the homogeneous upper-middle class, overly educated, Prius-driving stereotype so many have of Unitarian Universalists (and which even many of us have of ourselves!).  There are people like that here, of course, yet our membership also includes people whose income is considerably less than upper-middle class, and whose educational background doesn’t include Ph.D.s and is far less formal.  I believe deeply that this diversity is a tremendous asset – if we can learn to really see and value it.  As we said at the start of the service, and say each week, “We all have a place here.  We all are welcome here.”  Admittedly, we still have a ways to go before we’re fully living the truth of that, before we even fully understand what it means, actually, but I believe it is where we’re headed.

All that said, I don’t believe there is anyone here who can’t pledge some amount of financial support.  $1 a month.  $1 a year, even.  Sure, that may not seem like a lot of money, yet to my mind all three of these Cs are intertwined, and a pledge of $1 a month, or $1 a year from someone who is living with little, would be a much more powerful demonstration of commitment than a much larger pledge from someone who’s got a lot to spare.  Oh how I’d love to see more $10, $5, $1 pledges!  That would mean to me that we’ve reached a place where everyone can see that their contribution – no matter how seemingly small – is really valued, and that they are really valued, not matter how seemingly little they had to give. 

On the other hand, to be both honest and blunt, there are a number of us who could afford to pledge far more than we currently do.  Some no doubt think that we can’t really need them to give more – after all, things don’t seem to be going too badly here.  Well, the truth is – blunt and honest – that we do not have, and have not had for some time, the kind of financial support we need to survive, much less thrive and live both into and out of, our full potential.  It may not look like it – hopefully it doesn’t look too much like it – but if we were a fig tree, I’d be hoping that Jesus didn’t come by looking for figs.  The consultant who worked with us this summer said that he was surprised at our remarkably low percentage of congregational giving.  (And that’s from someone who works Unitarian Universalists, who have a national reputation for being among the least financially supportive of our congregations!)  Even in that context, he said he was surprised at how poorly we support ourselves.

But not for lack of trying.  The consultant also said it was clear to him that the people who have been running our pledge drives over the years have known what they were doing, and have run really good campaigns.  We’ve been doing the right things, yet for some reason our level of pledging has remained essentially static for quite some time, declining slightly, even, in the last couple of years.

I’ll name it:  there is no question that the first four or five years of our mutual ministry was … rocky.  There was fairly widespread dissatisfaction with my performance as Lead Minister, and, I would have to say, rightfully so.  Of course, there are lots of explanations, but really, no excuses.  The results of the 2015 Congregational Survey, which the Committee on the Ministry will be repeating this year, were a real wake-up call and a catalyst change, several changes, in the ways I do what I do.  In the ensuing years it seems that most folks say they’ve felt real and meaningful improvement.  Yet, while that dissatisfaction could no doubt explain some of the financial … reticence … of some members, the basic trend we’re wrestling with was here before I came, and has continued despite the improvements.

Some say that we are trying to be too big of a congregation, that our ambitions outstrip our willingness to support them.  We may want to be a larger, so-called “program-size” church, we may try to act like one, yet, these folks say, we demonstrate year after year that we’re really only interested in being a smaller, pastoral-size church, because we show ourselves year after year that that’s all we’re able (or willing) to afford.  The answer to our financial stuck-ness, then, is to stop trying to be what we’re not, find a more natural equilibrium, shift our ambitions to meet our reality, and to “live within our means.”

And we could certainly do this.  There can be great wisdom in vigorously pruning a plant that has grown too large.  Sometimes the cutting back is so severe that it can look to the untrained eye that you’ve killed the thing; yet in the next spring that plant could come back stronger than ever.  So … we could cut back here.  To do so you would have to cut back on staff; there is simply nothing else to cut in our budget that would have any substantive impact.  So you could ask me or Leia to take a 50% pay cut.  You could decide to eliminate one or more of the part-time positions we have here, like the Office Manager, the Assistant Minister, or the Director of Music, asking volunteers to take on these roles.  But make no mistake, cutting staff in one way or another is the only way to “live within our means” through cutting expenses. 

Oh, and since we're currently severely understaffed for the size we are, if you were to cut staff we’d also have to decide which hundred or so members we’d want to ask to leave.  With less staff, in order to “live within our means,” we would have to reduce the number of people who can call this their spiritual home, because we just couldn't serve them all.

There is another option, though.  The only other option as I see it, and to my mind the only really viable one.  Rather than cutting back, we could invest more.  But how we do we that in light of what I’ve been saying about how we don’t have enough as it is?  We do it with faith. With courage.

Farmers, and others, know that sometimes, when you don’t have enough, you need to invest what you don’t have in order to reap the increased harvest that you believe is possible.  Sometimes you sell off some of what you have so that you can invest it in what you need.  We did that when we sold U-House to pay for rennovations on Summit House and the creation of our beautiful Lower Hall.  But sometimes you take out a loan to pay for new seed, or new equipment, or something you don’t have yet, can’t currently afford on your own, yet know in your bones will make all the difference in the world to your future success.  It’s scary, for sure, and is rarely – if ever – a sure thing.  It is always possible to dig yourself even deeper into a hole than you were before, that’s true.  So it’s a risk.  A gamble.  Yet sometimes it is the only thing to do, and you’ll do it if you’re truly committed to a vision, and you have the courage of your conviction.

Last year the Board was courageous in asking the congregation to do just that, to take a little risk, to borrow now so that we can reap a greater harvest tomorrow, to, paraphrasing Dr. King, “take the first step even though we can’t see the whole staircase.”  There was some vocal, and very heartfelt, opposition from some long-time members — who also, it must be said, have their understanding of the best interest of the church in mind.  Even so, the majority of the congregation agreed that the promise of the future is worth a short-term risk, and is worth investing in.

My friends, we are capable of being so much more – we are so much more – than what our long-echoing narratives of scarcity and fear have told us we can be.  A few years back, during a Board retreat, someone used these words to describe their vision for our congregation:  a powerhouse for racial justice.  (I’m hoping we’ll have tee shirts with that on it as part of our celebration of our 75th anniversary!) 

Recently Sally Taylor, our unofficial church historian, shared with me a copy of a sermon that long-time member Virginia James had given to her.  It was preached here in 1983, the 40th anniversary of the congregation’s founding, and was delivered by the first settled minister to serve this community, the Rev. Malcolm Sutherland.  In describing the earliest years of this congregation, Rev. Sutherland said, “We stood unequivocally for human justice … and here that meant racial equality.”  From our earliest days we have understood this to be our mission.  He said, further, that in those early days, when there was talk of trying to become a truly integrated congregation, some of the African American leaders encouraged us in our efforts, yet added, “We would much rather see you a strong white church fighting for equal rights for all than a small interracial church too weak to have any affect.”  I see in that a charge to become the powerhouse for racial justice that we are, today, reclaiming as our vision.

And it’s not just an idle vision, this desire to live into our full potential to which we were called in the days of our founding!  The future the Board last year asked you to invest in, and that I, this morning, am asking us to invest in … we’ve seen it!  We saw it, we tasted it this summer, following the awful events of August 12th, which put the name of our city on the nation’s lips. Many know the story.  One day our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, fielded a call asking if the Rev. Jesse Jackson could preach here that coming Sunday.  Of course, Rev. Jackson could have spoken at any of the prominent African American congregations in the city, but he wanted to speak in a predominantly white congregation as a recognition of the truth that all of us — however we identify — are in this struggle together.  Rev. Jackson said that this congregation, our congregation, had been recommended to him as a predominantly white congregation that not only talked about racial justice, but was active in trying to achieve it. 

This congregation, which worked, in its infancy, for “indiscriminate seating on buses,” the hiring of African Americans onto the city’s police force, the movement of African American patients from hospital hallways into rooms, and the use of respectful titles in newspapers. 

This congregation, the only public place where a small, informal and impromptu interracial square dance could break out in celebration of the Supreme Court’s declaration that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional, because ours was the only public building in Charlottesville in which integrated gatherings were permitted (which led to a cross being burned on our property). 

This congregation, which opened the first integrated preschool in the city; this congregation, which the local chapter of Black Lives Matter has said it knows it can count on.

This congregation, in which there are individuals who whose work in preparing for August 12th can, without hyperbole, be said to have saved lives that day.

This congregation is where Rev. Jackson chose to speak. 

Those who were here experienced the buzzed, like the crackle of electricity, as our members stepped forward, hell, leapt forward to engage, to be useful, to be part of it all.  And we saw our sanctuary filled with to overflowing.  In fact, the Social Hall, which had been designated a place for that overflow, itself overflowed to seating we’d set up outside on the lawn!  And those who were there could feel it – this Unitarian Universalist congregation was living both into and out from its full potential.  It was an extraordinary day.  And Rev. Jackson underscored this vision of who we are when he came to us again and asked us to host a community leadership summit he was calling for when he returned to Charlottesville a month or so later to launch a bus tour across Virginia.

That is who we can be.  That is who we are, even if only nascently.  Yet we can be the “powerhouse for racial justice” so very many of us believe we can, and should, be only if — only if— if we believe in this vision and act on that belief.  We can only ensure that our “tree” has not just leaves, but flowers and fruit as well, and for years and years to come, if we each of us, and all of us, will have the courage to step up the level of our committed engagement and – to be blunt and honest again – to increase the amount of cash we’re

In a moment, the ushers will pass among you to collect this morning’s financial offering, and I hope you will be as generous as you can.  (This is also the time to make your gifts to support the African American Teaching Fellows.)  Following the ushers, others will have blank pledge cards.  I encourage everyone to take one and to reflect on whether you are able to increase what you have pledged for this year (and if you haven’t yet pledged for this year, to do so).  I also encourage you to consider your generous pledge for next year, for which we are already beginning to try to build a budget. 

And whether you can pledge $10 a year, or $10,000 a month, I encourage you to fill out the card today, this morning, right now, as you sit here, and then, as you leave, to put it into one of the boxes you’ll find at each of the doors, and in the Social Hall.  (On the back there is a chart that offers some guidance about what might be an appropriate level for your pledge, as a percentage of your income and as a reflection of your committed engagement.)  If you’re not able to decide on an amount right now, I’d still encourage you to fill out the card as much as you can, noting that you will make a pledge, and an estimate of the date by which you intend to do so.  (You can easily make a pledge at any time online at our website.)

It’s been said that, “the free church is not free.”  The Rev. Gordon McKeeman — Unitarian Universalist minister, and beloved member of this congregation in his retirement — would often remind us that we are responsible for supporting our community.  It is our responsibility — no one else’s — to ensure that it has the resources it needs to achieve its full potential, to ensure that there will be leaves, flowers, and fruit on its branches with which to nurture a world that is so hungry for true justice and all-embracing love.

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 08, 2018

If Trees Could Talk
This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, January 7, 2018, at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"Bare Tree" (© Erik Walker Wikstrom  2012)

During that tree planting ceremony I was talking about during the Story Time, when it got to my mentor and friend Ed Lane, he talked about spending time in Sequoia National Park, out in California.  He mentioned, in particular, one tree there – the largest and oldest tree in the Park – the General Sherman Tree.  (It was named after General Sherman in 1879 by naturalist James Wolverton, who had served as a lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Cavalry under General William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War.)  This tree – not only the largest in Sequoia National Park, but in the world, I’ve learned – is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and Ed mused on the stories that tree could tell, if only it could talk.

“That tree first grew around the time that Jesus was on the earth,” Ed said.  It would have been able to observe the thriving cultures of the Monachee and Potwisha peoples, the arrival, and eventual dissolution of the Kaweah Cooperative Commonwealth, a experimental socialist colony established there in 1886 (which renamed the tree the Karl Marx Tree, and which is remembered in the name of the largest and most eco-featured residence at local Twin Oaks Community).  This tree would be able to tell of Colonel Charles Young and his company of the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, who served as caretakers of the, then, 13-year old national park.  And, of course, it could talk about the visit of Ed and Helen Lane, in more modern times.  Oh, the stories that tree could tell, if only it could talk.

The oldest tree in Virginia, until it’s death in 2008, was a bald cypress dating back 1,000 years or more which lived in a remote swamp 80 miles southeast of Richmond.  (I couldn’t find anything about the tree that claimed its title as the oldest tree in the Commonwealth today.)  Oh the stories that tree could tell; the things it witnessed. 

The oldest tree in the world, until 2013, the oldest individual tree in the world was Methuselah, a 4,845-year-old Great Basin bristlecone, in the White Mountains of California.  It didn’t give up its status because it died, but because an even older tree has been discovered – another Bristle Cone Pine, in the same region, that is 5,062 years old. 

By contrast, the oldest living animal on the planet – again, until recently – was Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise, estimated to have been roughly 255-years old when it died.  The member of our own species with the longest lifespan was Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997, at the age of 122 years, 164 days. (She was born in 1875.  To put that in some perspective, she met Vincent van Gogh when she was 12 or 13.)  The oldest living person today is a woman from Jamaica named Violet Brown, who is 117 years old.

The oldest living person today could tell stories of our history over the past hundred years or so, but the oldest tree, if it could talk, could tell tales of the past 5,000 years.

Besides being, I hope, at least at least a little as interesting to you as it’s been to me to learn all of this, why am I spending time on a Sunday morning giving something of a biological history lesson?  Because I believe that trees can talk, and their collective longevity gives them more than a little perspective.

What do I mean when I say that trees can talk?  A member of the congregation emailed me this week, having seen today’s topic, and told the story of a very difficult year for his wife and himself.  While he was in the hospital, he was able to see a tree outside his window, and he was moved to write a poem:
Outside my window
Is a tree
Large, imposing, yet graceful.

It's arms extending
Reaching towards Heaven.

Though last month stripped of leaves
Its fingers left intact
Provide haven for perching
Flocks of dark starlings.

Hundreds flying and landing
In perfect unison
Against fall's backdrop
Clear, blue skies.

Years later, while sharing this poem, someone suggested to him that the tree he was looking at, the tree that inspired that poem, was a living metaphor for … him.  He concluded the email, “I wonder if perhaps, that tree, at that critical point in my life, did talk to me.”

And, as I said to our children earlier, every single person in that circle during that tree planting ceremony – almost 25 years ago now – had a story about a tree – or trees! – that had touched their lives and, it’s really not much of a stretch to say, taught them something important.

We’ve begun, this year, to order our liturgical cycle not only by monthly themes – and this month it’s the image of a bare tree, but seasonally as well, taking a category of life’s Big Questions.  For the winter it’s:  why is life so full of pain and struggle, and what can we do about it?  Why do people we love die?  What do dreams shatter?  Why do our dreams so often elude us?  Simply, why is it so often so hard between the twin realities of being born and having to die?

Those are questions which, ultimately, have no answers – no definitive nor, for most of us when we’re in the midst of the struggle, fully satisfying answers.  But the “what to do about it?” piece, does.  And I think – not surprisingly given what I’ve said so far – that one of the places we can go for those answers is, not surprisingly, trees.

Trees, as the examples I’ve given, are often long lived, so they take the long view.  If those trees could talk they would tell stories of joys and sorrows, loss and gain, celebrations and consternations, hard times and good times, and they would tell us that all of these things come and go.  No one experience of reality is eternal; no one experience lasts forever.  And so it is with us.  Our lives see this same rising and falling, ebb and flow, and whatever hard time we’re going through at the moment will pass.  It is as certain as the branches of the bare tree bringing forth new leaves in the springtime.

They would also remind us that even in those hard times all is not lost.  As the poet in our midst noted from his hospital bed, even the bare branches in wintertime, “provide haven for perching / flocks of dark starlings.”  And so, for us, even in the midst of our struggles, when it might appear to us that there is nothing good, there always is something to celebrate.  I do not mean this in a pollyanna-ish way, the so often too glib idea that “every cloud has a silver lining,” as if that should make everything “okay.”  As Monday’s page of my Grumpy Cat calendar said, “Don’t forget:  every silver lining is part of a larger, darker cloud.”  Yet without denying the reality of that cloud, trees tell us that even in the times of our own winter bareness we can be on the lookout for those starlings.

Trees put down roots.  Some have very shallow roots, and those are easily knocked down during powerful storms.  The ones that have roots that go deep can withstand the hardest winds.  Remember, as the poet Marge Piercy noted in a poem (that’s at #568 in our hymnals), “More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.”  If we listen well to the teachings of the trees we will sink our roots, too, deep into the soil of our lives, deep into what grounds us and nourishes us.

At the same time, as Taoist sages observed centuries ago, the winds of life can break a tree that is too rigid, too stiff.  Flexibility is a lesson we so often forget – the flexibility to bend with those winds, to resist the urge to fight them, to push back, but, rather, to accept them as they blow, knowing that the time will come when the winds end and we can rise again.

Three more teachings, quickly.  (There are so many more that I can’t mention before my time, and your patience, runs out … but which, perhaps, may give you a conversation starter during the time of fellowship in the social hall following the service.  Go up to someone and say, “Hey, what have trees taught you?”  And then, after listening to their answer, you can say, “Here’s something they taught me.”). 

First, after the first service someone on their way out told me that trees grow best in a diverse environment, with different species.  A grove which has only one kind of tree in it doesn’t do as well.  I don’t think I need to elaborate on the lesson there.

Second, those Bristlecone Pines I mentioned – Methuselah and its successor?  Again, someone on their way out of the first service asked me if I knew what else it needed to live so long, besides the obvious sun, water, nourishing soil:  fire.  It needs fire to survive.  This, too, is something I don’t need to expand on.

The lesson I want to offer you of the teachings of trees comes from a fact about trees that I haven’t mentioned yet.  Those long-lived trees I talked about earlier?  They are individual trees.  There is another type of tree, a tree that grows in colonies, which, though made up of individual trunks and branches, are considered to be one living organism, because they share genetic markers and grow from one root stock.  The oldest of these is not 1,000 years old, or 5,000 years old.  The oldest living colony tree is … wait for it … 80,000 years old. 

The lesson here, too, is obvious, but I will spell it out – don’t go it alone during the hard times.  Be part of a colony.  Remember the truth that if we are like trees, then we are colony trees, connected at our roots to one another, part of one another.  This faith community can help to us to have the lived experience of being part of a larger whole and, if this community does its job well, points us to the reality of our interconnectedness with all those who ever were, all those who will be, and the entirety of the earth and the cosmos on which and in which we live.

There is no avoiding the hard times we will unavoidably experience in this life, but the world abounds with lessons about how to cope with them.  As I said to our children, I hope that in this day (this week, this month, this year, this lifetime) you keep your eyes open to trees, and to the wisdom they offer.

Pax tecum,