Monday, June 18, 2018

Of Bridges & Chasms

This is the text of the reflection I offered at the congregation I serve on Sunday, June 17, 2018.

Once there was a man, walking along in the countryside, when he chanced upon a woman hard at work doing something which seemed kind of strange.  By the time the man got there, she had already stretched out two long ropes in parallel, staking the ends on either side.  Now she was in the process of laying boards across them, and tying the to the ropes.  The man said, “Excuse me, but might I ask what it is that you’re doing?”  The woman replied, “I am a Bridge Builder, and I am building a bridge.”  “But that’s not a bridge,” the man replied.  “It’s just a path on the ground.”  The woman payed him no mind; she just continued on with her work of laying boards between the ropes and tying them in place. 

When she was done, she stepped onto the boards, and encouraged the man to join her.  He did, and she said, “Wait for it.”

A minute passed. Then another. And then, a minute which seemed to last an hour but was only a minute... passed.  [That’s from the Monty Python sketch, “A Minute Passed.”]  Suddenly, as if out of the blue, the ground began to shake.  The air was filled with the sound of a deep, rolling rumble.  And then a fissure opened.  The man looked down beneath him, past the wood and the rope, and saw a deep chasm below, at the bottom of which were very pointy rocks … and land sharks.  The woman looked at him and said, simply, “Now it’s at bridge.”

At the beginning of the month, during the Bridging Ceremony – that uniquely Unitarian Universalist rite of passage marking the transition of graduating seniors from youth to young adult – I said that a bridge takes you from here to there.  From this place to that place.  Yet also that a bridge goes over … something.  A bridge over troubled water, if you will.  Maybe it’s a rickety rope bridge over an awesome abyss.

Since the Worship Staff Team decided that our working metaphor for the month of June would be “bridges,” I’ve had a line from the song “Fortress Around Your Heart.”  The website SongFacts describes the song like this:

Sting calls this a "song of reconciliation." It uses an abandoned fortress within a walled city as a metaphor for a relationship that has been through a figurative war, with Sting now ready to put the battles behind him and build a new alliance based on what they had […]

The line that’s been echoing in my mind all month is this: “[L]et me build a bridge, for I cannot fill the chasm […]”  The reason we need bridges is that whatever is beneath it is unpassable without one – the living bridges of Meghalaya make it possible to cross the monsoon-swollen rivers, for instance, or the Duge Bridge in China which is 1,854 ft  (a third of a mile) above the Beipan River below, making it the highest bridge in the world.

In the story, the Bridge Builder built her bridge before the chasm opened.  Yet she wasn’t just random in her location.  Somehow she knew about the fissure there; somehow she knew that a chasm was coming. 

There are those who say that a chasm has opened up in this community.  There are those who fear that it’s unpassable, and that it might be impossible to fill.  It goes by many names:  the Lead Minister’s performance (or lack thereof); the gaping budget deficit; distrust of lay, and professional, leadership; an unnecessarily combative and divisive approach to the work of racial justice; a focus on the work of racial justice to the exclusion of everything else; a steadily eroding membership; the Lead Minister’s personality, or perceived engagement, or leadership ability, or preaching style, or the limitations stemming from his mental health; the pervasive sense of a toxic dis-ease.  I could go on, but by whatever name it’s known, there are those who see a deep and dangerous chasm having opened up, and who fear that the best we have is a rickety rope bridge that we might not all be able to cross safely from here to there.

There are others, of course, who don’t see anything wrong at all.  People for whom this talk of chaos and chasms is … confusing.  They’re happy with things the way they are, or happy enough, and didn’t see any danger until people started talking about it.  And for some of these people, it is those who are crying, “Chasm!” who have caused it.

What are we to do about this situation?  Is there a bridge we can build, or one already existing, that will takes us safely from this place to that place?  Or is this chasm as unfillable as to some of us it seems? 

One thing we can do – one thing we can all do – is to take the Committee on the Ministry’s survey.  This is the same survey we took three years ago, and while it doesn’t go deep into actionable specifics, that’s not what it was intended to do – then or now.  This is a “pulse survey,” one which is designed to “take the pulse” of the congregation, to provide a snapshot of who we are right now, and how we feel about it.  In the crassest of terms, it’s a customer satisfaction survey.  I say, “crass,” because we’re not really “customers” here, we’re members of a common, covenanted community.  I once heard someone say about UU congregations, “We’re not a drive-through restaurant where you can order, ‘a supersized community with a side of social justice.’  Instead,” this person said, “we’re like your mamma’s kitchen, where if you want something you can go ahead and get it for yourself.  ‘And while you’re at it, would you be a doll and get me an iced tea?’”  (That’s what my older son says when he wants his mom to get something for him, “Would you be a doll …?”)

I say that calling the survey a measure of “customer satisfaction” “crass,” because it’s not – or, at least, shouldn’t be – just our “satisfaction” that’s important.  A part of what being a Unitarian Universalist is all about – or, at least, should be all about – is recognizing that it’s not my needs that are paramount all of the time … maybe even most of the time.  To the extent we really are, or want to be, as diverse as we claim, it should be important to me that you get what you need, at least some of the time, even if that runs counter to what my perceived needs are.  If we’re just in this for “what I get out of it,” then we’re doing it wrong.  Thus ends that sermon-within-a-sermon.

One thing we can do about this dangerous division, this chasm some of us are talking about, is to take that survey – for all of us to take the Committee on the Ministry’s survey.  All of us.  Each of us.  Surveys – any kind of survey – are notorious for engaging the most enthusiastic and the most disaffected.  The vast majority of folks in the middle of that bell-shaped curve rarely feel motivated.  Kind of like mid-term elections.  Yet just like mid-term elections, it’s vitally important that everyone – no matter how you feel about the various issues at play here, no matter how strongly you feel about them – it is vitally important that everyone participate, because it is vitally important that the results of this survey really reflect the voice of the congregation as a whole.  Your voice matters.  Wherever you are in all of this, your voice matters.  (If you haven’t gotten an email from the Committee on the Ministry – it was titled, “We want your opinion” – of if you’ve lost it, or if you don’t do email, please seek out a member of the Committee on the Ministry so that they can make it possible for you to participate.)

The results of our survey might just show us that the divide isn’t as deep as we’d thought, or it might show us a way to building the bridge that we need to cross safely from where we are now to where we are going.

There’s another way we can “fill the chasm.”  For many, the divide has to do with our congregation’s finances.  There are people who, for a variety of reasons, oppose the deficit budget the Board brought forward at the congregational meeting – which is why it was voted down – and there are those who opposed the deficit budget last year, too.  And there are those who point out that we have not, in a long time, supported our own community to the extent we have needed to in order to support any budget.  The UU consultant who worked with us earlier in the year said that we were one of the most under-performing congregations as to its financial support that he has ever worked with.  Let that sink in.  Just about any faith community, in any tradition, anywhere, struggles with finances – usually it’s because they have less than they need.  In fact, one church expert says that you can tell a lot about the health of a congregation by whether they see these budget problems as “a crisis,” or “the cost of doing business.”  But Mark Ewert said that we were one of the most underperforming congregations he has ever worked with.

For some of us, this financial situation, and especially the budget gap proposed in last year’s and this year’s budgets represents the deep chasm we simply can’t cross.  And yet, if 100 people made a pledge of $400, the budget gap we’re talking about would be taken care of.  And if 100 people make a pledge of just $10 a week, we’d have money left over to do things like begin to replenish our building reserve fund (something that is extremely important yet which we haven’t been able to do for years now).  For some people this $400 would be an addition to what they’re currently pledging.  For others, it would represent their first pledge – there are a lot of people who are engaged with the community who have never supported the community, financially, beside what they put in the plate when they’re here.  Pledging gives the Board an idea of what resources to expect in the coming year; it helps leadership build the budget.  You can always change your pledge from one year to the next if your situation changes, but your pledge is your best estimate of your ability to generously support this community.

Last year we began the practice of automatically renewing a person’s pledge at the level it was the year before.  If you pledged $1,500 dollars last year, you will automatically be registered as pledging $1,500 this year as well.  This is a practice which many congregations have taken on, especially larger congregations such as ours.  We will continue to make general appeals, of course – and a letter is going out this week to remind people of the expectation that the people who call this place their spiritual home will do what they can to support it.  And we will continue to make personal visits with those who request them, and those who have shown in the past a greater willingness to change their pledges from year-to-year, yet anyone can change their pledge at any time.  Anyone can, say, add $400 to the amount they pledged last year, or make a first-time pledge of $400 … or more, of course!  A colleague of mine likes to point out the we UU’s don’t require people to tithe, don’t require people to pledge 10% of their income.  He reminds folks that you can always 12% or 15% if you want!
There are pledge cards available at each of the entrances to the sanctuary, and clearly marked boxes to receive them.  You can also pledge online.  But this is one chasm, one cavernous canyon that we can fill.  It’s one deep division we can get across, bridge or no bridge.

Some of the other gaps between here and there will be harder for us to navigate.  Yet I believe that we can.  In fact, I feel certain that we can … if … and I’d say only if … everyone involved remembers that everyone else involved is motivated by a common love of this congregation.  It’s not personal, however personal it might seem.  The “sides,” if you will, in this discussion of where to go, and what to do, next all would like to see this faith community be as healthy as it can possibly be.  There are some strong disagreements about just what this community is and should be, and some very strong disagreements about what will constitute “health” and what we need to do to be healthy, yet despite these disagreements, the motivation is the same.  I truly believe that.

And I believe that if we all can remember that, if we all can believe that of each other, then it is not only possible, but extremely probably that we will get where we need to go safely.  Let me repeat – this is not personal, even though some of the issues revolve around individual persons.  This is all about the community.  So let’s focus on that.  Let’s strive to keep our common love of this community before us at all times, and let us act out of that in all of our interactions.  There is no need for combativeness; no need for defensiveness.  There is no need for acrimony on anyone’s part.  Let us assume good intentions of one another, recognizing that that does not mean that the solution to all of this will be simple.  It won’t.  It is possible that we won’t be able to fill this chasm; it is possible that not everyone will be able to, or will want to, cross the bridge that gets built.  Yet we need not “tear the congregation apart.”  However we get there, wherever “there” is, this community – made sacred by all who have gone before us, and held sacred by all who call this place “home” now – will be made healthy through this process, if we behave in healthy ways through this process.  We can do it.  I know we can do it.  If you believe that too, let me hear you say, “Amen.”

Pax tecum,


Monday, June 04, 2018

Little Boats and Living Bridges

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, June 3rd, 2018.  This was our annual "Bridging" service, at which we honor our graduating seniors and recognize that they have made the transition from "youth" to "young adult."

I want to tell you something absolutely amazing this morning.  Or, to be more precise, I want to tell you about something absolutely amazing.  You might think that I’m going to tell you about the youth who will be bridging in a moment – and you’re right, I could, they are amazing, and the journey that has brought them to this point in their lives has been amazing, and that the journeys that stretch out in front of them will be amazing – but I want to tell you about something else, instead. 

In northeast India there’s a region known as Meghalaya.  I first heard about Meghalaya several years ago through a video someone pointed me to.  A few years back, while trying to refresh my memories for that year’s Bridging service I discovered that this incredible place is only about two and a half hours away from Nongkrem, India, where our Khasi partner church is located.  Small world, right?  [If you want to know more about Nongkrem, there’s an amazing display in the Social Hall, created by one of our rising 5th Graders, Sarah Colbert.]

What brought Meghalaya to my attention in the first place, as I said, was an online video I was directed to, a clip from a nature show, narrated by the incomparable English actor John Hurt, who died at the beginning of last year.  His voice is so distinctive; I’d put it right up there with James Earl Jones and Samuel L. Jackson as the best voice-over voice.  Yet great though his voice is, it’s what he was describing that really blew my mind.

Before I tell you about it, though, I want to call to your attention to the metaphor around which this whole service is built – the bridge.    Bridges come in all shapes and sizes.   All sorts of styles.  But whether they’re small or grand all bridges have at least one thing in common:  they connect here to there.  An apt metaphor, then, for the experience of moving from this time in your life to that; from here to there in life experience … say … a youth graduating from high school and being recognized as a young adult.  A big transition.  And, I suppose, you could go all Neo and try to jump it … but I think it’s better to use a bridge.  Of course some times you can’t quite see the other side, but if you trust the bridge, and those who built it, you know you can keep on moving forward.
And that brings me back to Meghalaya.

Centuries ago the people who live in this region realized that they, too, had need of bridges, and they developed the most extraordinary way of making them.  This is the picture on your Order of Service and what you’re seeing here is a bridge that is several hundred years old and is … and here’s the amazing part … alive.

In past years I’ve tried to use words to describe to you this incredible thing – this centuries-old practice of building living bridges, a practice passed down from generation to generation.  But, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a picture with words (given voice by John Hurt), well …  And since the weather is cooperating, giving us the perfect grey day which makes projection work in this sanctuary, here’s that video I first saw all those years ago:

I told you I was going to tell you about something absolutely amazing, right?

Bridges connect here to there.  And as those bridges from Meghalaya so clearly demonstrate, the space from here and there can often be treacherous.  There are bridges over troubled water, if you will.  And there are bridges that cross seemingly impossible gulfs, chasms so deep that it might seem that, as Mainer’s like to say, “ya can’t get theah from heah.”  And as Indian Jones taught many of us so many years ago we won’t always see the bridge we have to cross, yet with faith – faith in the truth that bridges will often appear when things might seem most bleak – as well as the courage that comes with a deep faith in ourselves – we just might find ourselves getting where we want to go, where we need to go, even if we’re not sure how we’re going to go to get there.

Leia gave us earlier the image of a littleboat in a vast, often overwhelming ocean.  But when it had friends, companions, it had the courage and the conviction to go anywhere – even past the edge of the world.  And let me tell you, those of you who are bridging this morning, it’s a big ole’ ocean out there and you and I really are tiny little boats (no matter how big we may feel from time to time).  That’s the bad news.  The good news is we’re not alone.  Not you, not me, not any of us.

And that might easily have been enough of a message for this day, but I couldn’t get those living bridges out of my head.  And that’s because the symbolic bridge you’ll be “crossing” in a few moments will be, in fact, a living bridge made by your advisors and your families and some of the young adults in this congregation who will be welcoming you into their midst.  And while not literally beneath your feet there’s another bridge, one that is right now laying out a path for those who will bridge, just as you are today, in years to come.

As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a first Communion.  We don’t have confirmation.  We don’t have bar and bat mitzvahs.  We don’t send our young girls and boys out into the bush to come back women and men.  Every culture of our human family has developed ways to mark and honor the transitional times which come in every life.  And so have we.

With this Bridging Ceremony we say that these youth who will shortly stand before us … we say that you will be considered here youth no longer after you’ve crossed this symbolic bridge.  We recognize that you are young adults; that you’ve reached a milestone, a turning point, a transition in your lives and that we, as a community that loves you, recognize this and want to mark and honor this passage.
To our bridgers – and to all of us, really – please remember that you’re not alone on that big ocean, wherever and however you chart your course (even to the edge of the world).  And trust that the living bridge that has borne you safe thus far will hold you, and grow stronger as the years go on.

Pax tecum,