Posts Tagged growth

Open Doors to Many Rooms

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardLighting the Flaming Chalice

One of the activities that’s part of our quarterly Orientation to Membership workshop is the “values continuum”.  Laying out a piece of string on the floor, we describe a number of scenarios where one end of the string represents somebody holding one set of values and the other end represents somebody holding contrasting values.  For each scenario, we ask the workshop participants to place themselves on the string based on how their own values align, and then we invite them to share their reasons for where they’ve placed themselves.

For example, one scenario might have “Interior Isabel” at one end of the string and “Ollie Outreach” at the other.  Isabel believes that Sunday services should be primarily occasions for spiritual growth; she likes quiet sermons on pastoral topics and plenty of time for silent reflection.  Ollie, by contrast, believes…

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A Place of Gratitude and Encouragement

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

We had a lovely trip to England during the first half of October.  We celebrated my father’s seventy-fifth birthday with a special dinner at the inn where my sister was married ten years ago.  Olivia spent more time with her grandparents and her aunt and uncle, and she also met her cousin, who is older only by a few days.  And we even managed to squeeze in a quick side-trip to Paris, thanks to the “Chunnel”, which was the first time either Allison or I had been there.  It was a very full two weeks that went by very quickly, but Olivia took it all in stride, coming home with a bigger vocabulary and a more clearly individualized personality, too.  She’s definitely not a baby any more!

Other than a couple of pointless difficulties before we even boarded the…

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Mining for Gold

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 30th 2013.)

A few years ago I was on the receiving end of a telephone interview when I was asked to name my leadership style.  It wasn’t a question I was expecting, nor was it one I’d ever been asked before, so I tried to come up with something based on my experience in Unitarian Universalism.  I talked — though perhaps “rambled” would be a more appropriate word — about cooperative and collaborative leadership, about the ideal of sharing power with rather than holding power over people, and about companioning others in their own work toward the achievement of common goals.  It evidently wasn’t the sort of answer my interviewers wanted, since they asked me the question again, though all I was able to offer was a more concise version of my earlier ramble.

The interview as a whole certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, but I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get the job.  Since then, though, I’ve continued to think about leadership, particularly in terms of what leadership means — both as a minister and for lay leaders — within Unitarian Universalist congregations.  And given some of the trainings and workshops I’ve attended in recent years, I’m apparently not the only one who’s been thinking about this.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given what some might identify as a common Unitarian Universalist temperament.  “We may be a relatively small denomination,” former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens once remarked, “but look at it this way: we’re the largest, longest lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen.”

Then there’s the not unrelated fact that we are a people who value discussions as much as we value decisions.  You may have seen the cartoon that shows a Unitarian Universalist who dies and is pleasantly surprised to find that there is a realm of life after death, where stands a crossroads with three signposts.  One reads, “This way to heaven.”  Another reads, “This way to hell.”  And the third reads, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.”  Without hesitation the UU goes to the discussion.

Now this isn’t necessarily a character flaw reflective of little more than procrastination: it’s part of our tradition, too, to emphasize good process as much as good product, to not only value but also to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.  Historical Unitarianism, after all, emphasized its own trinity of freedom, reason and tolerance, while today’s Unitarian Universalist values include “acceptance of one another”, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right of conscience”.  So it makes sense that the ideal Unitarian Universalist leadership style is cooperative and collaborative, that the ideal leader is, in the words of the UUA’s former Ministerial Transitions Director David Pohl, someone who “listens as well as speaks, learns as well as teaches, shares the challenges and burdens of leadership rather than monopolizing or relinquishing them.”

Well, okay, that sounds great.  And though Pohl wrote those words sometime in the 1980s, I’d be prepared to bet that if we were to jump into a time machine, go back to the 1930s and show Pohl’s words to what was then the American Unitarian Association, there’d be little disagreement.  On the other hand, some of what they said back then still holds true today.

For example, a 1936 report of the AUA’s Commission of Appraisal lamented the denomination’s condition as being “anarchy mitigated by occasional flashes of brilliant but erratic genius. Leadership,” the report noted, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle. It is the product of careful and patient and far-sighted planning.”

Leadership, in other words, doesn’t come naturally.  It takes intentional and deliberate training, what is often named “leadership development”, a process of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth that equips both new and experienced leaders with the technical and visionary skills they need.

The good news is that, as Unitarian Universalists, we believe that just about everybody has some capacity for leadership; the challenge is that any given person’s capacity for leadership needs to be intentionally cultivated if it is to flourish; the added challenge is that, as Eric Wikstrom notes in Serving with Grace, we’re talking about leadership in the context of a religious community, something that is clearly distinct from a small business, a country club, a political action committee or a social service agency.

Now one of the ways that Unitarian Universalists have been responding to these challenges is to think not just about leadership but about what’s called “adaptive leadership”, so let me explain what is meant by that.

Many of the problems facing us in everyday life might be considered “technical” problems, in that it’s simply a matter of applying the appropriate knowledge and skills to resolve each one.  Should one of the tires on my bicycle develop a puncture, for example, it’s either a matter of taking it to a bike shop for the tire to be replaced or buying a new tire and then replacing it myself.  I come out of the process pretty much as I went in, at least once I’ve washed the dirt and grease off my hands!

A lot of what happens in the day-to-day life of a church involves technical problems, too.  If a light bulb burns out, we get a new bulb and replace the old one.  If the kitchen sink gets clogged, we clean out the P bend.  If the weather changes from cold and dry to warm and humid, we get the piano tuned so we don’t feel like we’re trying to sing hymns in an old West saloon.

Now you might have noticed that all of the examples of technical problems that I’ve given you involve things, devices, mechanisms.  If they break, they can be fixed, and it’s just a matter of finding the right knowledge and applying the right skills to fix them.  Well, people can break, too, so to speak — and the relationships between people are particularly prone to breaking — but they can’t usually be fixed in that technical sense, in spite of the fact that we base an awful lot of how we do education and medicine and economics on the hugely false assumption that we can.  It’s false because people and groups of people are not mechanisms to be fixed; they’re organisms that need to be nurtured.

So, many of the problems faced by groups of people — from congregations to human societies — are not technical, and addressing them isn’t simply about having or acquiring knowledge and skills.  Rather, they’re described as adaptive, requiring, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “developing the organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to meet problems successfully according to our values and purposes.”  Addressing adaptive challenges can be messy, as tends to be the case for organisms rather then mechanisms, but doing so is always transformative, for individuals as well as for their culture.

Let me give you an example of an adaptive challenge that just about every congregation — at least every Unitarian Universalist congregation — faces, and not just once but every year.  And that is completing a successful Canvass in order to fund the operating budget.

A Canvass is, in simple terms, the process by which we ask each member and friend of the congregation to figure out how much money they intend to give during the next church year — what is, in shorthand, referred to as their pledge — so that the Finance Committee can put together a balanced budget that supports the Fellowship’s mission in general and funds the specific goals determined by the Policy Board.

Now it might seem like ensuring that there’s a healthy budget is a technical problem: after all, isn’t it simply a matter of finding the right way to ask members and friends to submit generous pledges and that’s all there is to it?  Well, no.  It is far from being a technical problem, and there is no such thing as the perfectly written appeal letter or the perfectly designed Canvass brochure or the perfectly worded pulpit update, any of which would, thanks to their perfection, get everybody to pledge promptly, generously and with a minimum of fuss.  If such magic did exist, trust me, a whole lot of denominational staff and church consultants would be looking for other work.

Rather, each and every Canvass is an adaptive challenge.  Each and every year offers us, in Heifitz’ terms, a new opportunity to develop our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be the best congregation we can be.  Unlike a technical problem, where we come out of fixing it pretty much the same as we went in, responding to such an adaptive challenge requires us to examine our purpose for being, our attitudes towards risk and difficult decisions, our comfort (or lack thereof!) with disequilibrium and change.  That’s why this is not just about leadership but about adaptive leadership, requiring an organic rather than a mechanical approach to problems, and where a good process for problem-solving is, if anything, more important than a good product.

Let me give you an example of how we’re trying to do that in one particular case, something that really brought home to me one lesson from the program for leadership development called “Harvest the Power!” that I co-taught a couple of years ago.

At the start of this year, our chair of the Sunday Services Committee published an article in the Flame about the state of the pulpit, the physical object which usually stands on this platform and from which the lay leader speaks and I preach.  He wrote about how the pulpit was showing its age and had needed some repairs.  Now you’ll notice that I’m not using the pulpit this morning, and that’s because more repairs need to be made, and we don’t want to risk further damage by moving it again until it is repaired.

So, the article was the first step in a process of addressing the deteriorating condition of the physical pulpit.  Now it would be natural, given our cultural habits when it comes to problem-solving, to treat this as a technical problem.  Pulpit’s broken?  Fix it.  Can’t be fixed? Get a new one.  Find the money, repair it or buy a replacement.  Case closed.  End of story.

Well, not so fast.  We know the pulpit’s been here as long as this Sanctuary, about thirty years.  That’s a long time for people to develop not just opinions about it, but feelings, too, and different feelings depending on their personal histories and aesthetic senses.  And that’s just the people who look at it.  The people who use it, the people who use this space, even this platform, whether for worship or for other purposes, they have feelings about it as well.  And it’s not just a wooden box, like a maitre d’ might use to assign people to tables at a restaurant: it’s a pulpit, with the symbol of our faith on the front of it.  So it’s even more complicated than just listening to what people want and then taking a vote.

The deterioration of the pulpit then, is an adaptive challenge.  This was most obvious when we put the article on the Fellowship’s blog and linked to it on Facebook.  A conversation about the pulpit sprang up almost instantly, with some people sharing positive feelings about it and others sharing negative feelings.  The Sunday Services Committee already knew about some of that, which is why we had scheduled a town-hall meeting, to bring people together in person to share their feelings about the pulpit with one another.

Now that Facebook discussion turned out to be an excellent example of one of the lessons of the “Harvest the Power!” course, namely that getting people to talk with one another about their different perspectives on a particular issue is much more effective than having all those people provide their individual opinions to a single person or committee.  Here’s the simple explanation as to why: if you hold an opinion on something, it’s natural to think — in the absence of any evidence to the contrary — that most other people will hold that same opinion.  And if you feel very strongly about your opinion, then surely everybody else feels the same way, because no healthy psyche starts by assuming that it’s wrong to feel what it’s feeling.

So when people individually send in their individual opinions, they naturally assume that theirs is representative of the majority opinion — and they’ll keep assuming that unless and until they get some sort of feedback that indicates otherwise.  The problem is that the feedback usually comes only in the form of hearing about the final decision, in which case all the people who held minority opinions will be disappointed if not angry.  Whoever is responsible for making that final decision is, in fact, faced with the impossible task of satisfying many different people who all think that their own individual opinions are in the majority.

In a multi-directional conversation, by contrast, people can quickly recognize that other people have different ideas and they can start figuring out together how to meet on common ground.  The final decision emerges — or is, at least, indicated — naturally because that’s where everybody in the conversation ends up, given long enough.  The minority is usually okay not getting their way if they at least feel that they’ve been heard, while the majority has at least some understanding that not everyone agrees with them and owes the minority a measure of compassion.

And that, really, is the goal of having a good process to figure out what to do about the deterioration of the pulpit.  Adaptive leadership recognizes that it’s not just about finding a logical solution, something that is particularly true in this case.  Rather, it’s about developing our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be in community with one another, such as by learning how to avoid the temptation to use a simple vote as a bludgeon to beat a minority into submission, by learning how to be in that minority without holding everybody else hostage as the only way to prove the worth of your opinion, and by learning how to really listen to the people with whom you disagree.

There will always be people with whom you disagree, and if the wider culture is doing a thoroughly awful job of teaching us how to be in community with different people holding different beliefs and different opinions, we should at least make sure that our congregations do better.

And that is one of the reasons why, this week — starting this afternoon, in fact — we’re hosting a Youth Leadership School here at the Fellowship.  It’s known as GoldMine and it’s designed to train Unitarian Universalist youth not only in leadership skills but also in worship arts and religious values and heritage, which are the same three areas of emphasis as at most of the leadership schools for adult UUs.  GoldMine isn’t an extended lock-in or even a youth camp, but is an intensive series of workshops for learning, reflection and sharing, though of course fun and friendship are still important parts of it.  The intention is to provide a whole experience that is as much about faith development, the deepening of religious identity and community building as it is about giving leadership tools.

Now if you haven’t guessed by now, yes, I came up with the name of this sermon based on the name of the youth leadership school, but nowhere in two-hundred page staff manual did I see anything explaining the origin of that name.  The manual does say that GoldMine was created by Unitarian Universalist minister Jaco ten Hove who had himself been a UU as a child and then a youth.  He wanted to adapt the Pacific Northwest District’s leadership school for adults, while also drawing upon the energy of the young adults in that district, to offer a leadership development experience for youth.  So I wrote to Jaco and asked him how he came up with the name.  I’m please to say that he wrote back, explaining that “The name arose, as you might guess, from my musings on the value of the participants — golden! — combined with the goal of the school to bring forth — or ‘mine’ — their emerging abilities as conscious, UU-strong leaders.”

Now Jaco concluded by noting that “Despite understandable misgivings about the extraction industry, one generally thinks of a gold mine as a positive resource.”  Of course, taking a literalistic approach to a metaphor is, to paraphrase writer E. B. White, “like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  So let’s try to stick with the metaphor for a little longer.

Unitarian Universalist leadership development is a process of mining the spiritual gold that is everybody’s capacity for leadership.  Sometimes it gives us hints of its presence, the glimmerings of a rich vein just beneath the surface.  Sometimes it may even be out in the open already, small nuggets collecting where the streams of experience have washed them.  But leadership, as our religious forebears noted over seventy-five years ago, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle.”  Rather, it is up to us to unearth that spiritual gold, working with one another through faith development, community building and the deepening of religious identity to lift up our best selves.

May it be so.

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Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 28th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry seems to have been a hard one to fill.  Another teacher even suggested that the position was jinxed, resulting in its extraordinarily high turnover.  During Harry Potter’s first few years at the school, for instance, Defense Against the Dark Arts was taught, in turn, by one of evil Lord Voldemort’s minions, by a best-selling author who turned out to be a complete fraud, and by a closeted werewolf.  For Harry’s fourth year the school recruits a retired Auror (or Dark-wizard catcher) named Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody who had been single-handedly responsible for capturing many of the world of magic’s criminals.  Paranoid, eccentric and more than willing to defy the system, Professor Moody accepts the invitation to teach so long as he’s allowed to show his students the reality of the Dark Magic they might encounter.

[Moody demonstrates the three “Unforgivable Curses”: the Imperius Curse that controls another’s will, the Cruciatus Curse that induces terrible pain, and the Killing Curse.  Harry is the only person who ever survived the third.]

Anthem: “Double Trouble” by William Shakespeare and John Williams (from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”)

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil”

I’ve had something of a soft-spot for the “Scottish Play” since studying it as part of my high school English Literature class.  You may have recognized some of Shakespeare’s lines in our anthem, which was composed by John Williams for the Hogwarts choir.  (Our version, sadly, lacks the part scored for toads, which some of the students at Hogwarts keep as familiars.)  In the original play, of course, these lines are chanted by the three witches as they prepare their cauldron for a visit by Macbeth.  “By the pricking of my thumbs,” the second witch intones when they are ready, “Something wicked this way comes.”  And that is Macbeth himself, of course, knocking at their door.

I remember being taught in that English Literature class that Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy because Macbeth, while capable of both good and evil, chooses the latter as the way to fulfill his ambitions, but given the results of his choices he eventually loses everything, including his life.  The witches, who are certainly practicing the Dark Arts if the list of ingredients they add to their cauldron is any guide, don’t actually tell Macbeth what to do — his bad decisions are his own — but in their fortune-telling they do give his ambitions a nudge, sinking the whole kingdom into chaos.

J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that the Scottish play may well be her favorite of Shakespeare’s, and so its influences can be found within the Harry Potter stories.  The band that played at the Yule Ball during Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts, for instance, was named the “Weird Sisters”, part of their weirdness being, no doubt, that all eight band-members were actually male.  More significantly, perhaps, one of the themes driving the story arc through all of the books is the tension between fate and free will, particularly in terms of the danger that comes from knowing one’s destiny.

So Shakespeare’s Macbeth murders King Duncan because the witches have predicted that he will “be king hereafter”.  By similar logic, Rowling’s Voldemort attempts to kill the baby Harry Potter because of a prediction that one of them “must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.”

Where the comparisons between Macbeth and Voldemort break down, however, is that while the Scot was driven by his ambition for power, the wizard, much as he hungered for power, too, was really driven by his fear of death.

We find out in a later books that, while still a student at Hogwarts, Voldemort learned that there was a way to safeguard a piece of his soul by storing it in some other object, such that even if his body was killed, he would not actually die but could be resurrected.  While granting the wizard immortality, such magic comes at a terrible price: as explained by a former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, it requires the wizard to commit murder, which, as “the supreme act of evil […] rips the soul apart.”  That is a price, of course, that Voldemort is willing to pay, and in the end it costs him everything.

From the very beginning of the stories, Rowling makes it clear that in the epic struggle between good and evil, Voldemort’s primary opponent has been Albus Dumbledore, whom Harry knows as the Headmaster of the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At first, Dumbledore comes across as something of a kindly old eccentric, with a twinkly goofiness that hides his true power.  He genuinely loves his students and does everything he can to protect them, but in doing so, Dumbledore demonstrates the inevitable tension between being good and being kind.  In his struggle to prevent Voldemort’s ultimate designs, Dumbledore discovers he must, in some cases, withhold the truth from those who otherwise have a right to know it and, in others, resort to various forms of manipulation, to the extent that Rowling described him as “quite a Machiavellian figure”.

If Dumbledore is Harry’s mentor, then Potions Professor Severus Snape is Harry’s antagonist, at least amongst the grown-ups.  The two get off on the wrong foot right from the start, with Snape apparently taking delight in tormenting Harry and never failing to malign the memory of Harry’s father, and with Harry casting Snape as his first suspect in every sinister plot, in spite of the number of times that Dumbledore vouched for him.

And yet almost at the very end of the entire series, we find out that Dumbledore was right about Snape, when his great secret is revealed in what is surely the most powerful scene in any of the books or movies.  If you don’t know what that secret is, I won’t spoil it for you, but I will tell you that Rowling always planned for Snape to find redemption, and in the end Harry sees the good in him and forgives him.

Harry’s antagonist amongst his fellow students, of course, is Draco Malfoy, and there’s a whole psychology thesis’ worth of material contained in the antics of the Malfoy family.

Draco first appears as a thoroughly arrogant snot of a boy, and he quickly becomes a typical school bully.  We gain some insight into Draco’s character when we meet his father, Lucius, a condescending bigot who doesn’t hesitate to abuse his power over others — or to do whatever he can to save his own skin when someone else has the power.  Another family member is Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco’s aunt, and she’s simply insane.  Utterly faithful to Voldemort and trying to find out what had happened to him after he failed to kill the baby Harry, Bellatrix had tortured Neville Longbottom’s parents with the unforgivable Cruciatus Curse and was sent to Azkaban prison.  Bellatrix’s sister and Draco’s mother, Narcissa, on the other hand, is far more concerned with the welfare of her own family, to the extent that she lies to Voldemort in order to protect her son and then, in the final battle between Voldemort and Harry, simply stays out of it, taking both Draco and Lucius with her.

Now if you’ve never read any of the books, nor even seen any of the movies, I hope that this quick survey of some of Rowling’s principal characters at least shows some of the complexity that she brings to her portrayal of the epic struggle between good and evil.  In the first book, sure, it’s pretty simple to identify which characters are good and which are bad, and though there are still a couple of surprises, the lines separating them are fairly clear.  But as the books progress, some of those lines become rather blurred.

Rowling herself made it clear that, just as Harry and Neville and the other students got older through the years, so would her stories invoke more mature and more challenging themes.  Sure, Voldemort is as evil as it gets, but we discover that Dumbledore is willing to lie and manipulate if that’s what’s needed, and we get confused about whether Snape is really bad or good a double-agent or perhaps even a triple-agent, and we even find that we can feel, as much as we might resist it, just a little bit of pity for Draco, if only for a short while.

That adds to the appeal of Rowling’s stories, of course, since an essential part of growing up is realizing that the world is never neatly divided into red and blue, but consists of all sorts of shades of purple.  As Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote during his time in the Soviet Gulag, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.  […]  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Solzhenitsyn lamented, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Now “evil” isn’t a word you’ll hear used very often by Unitarian Universalists.  Aside from being one of those words that’s been used to hurt and oppress, or at least to promote a world-view that seems at odds with our claim of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it’s all too easy to reduce evil to the cartoonish images that have become embedded in our culture.  One of those images, which I’m sure has already popped into your head, consists of a figure all in red, with horns and cloven feet and a spiky tail and a probably a pitchfork, but unless it’s a costume worn by our own J— to preach his sermon about the subject, you won’t see that image on display within this Sanctuary.

And yet a number of Unitarian Universalist theologians have observed that in refusing to use the word “evil”, in failing to challenge the cartoonish imagery left to us by the Dark Ages, we short-change not only Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition, but also our individual spirituality.  Cutting out a part of the religious vocabulary to which we have just as much a right as anybody else, we only make it harder for ourselves to address brokenness and pain and hatred and suffering.  As Dumbledore cautions Harry when he struggles to choose between referring to Voldemort by name and using the common euphemism of “You-Know-Who”, “Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

So let’s face this business of how Unitarian Universalists might use the word “evil”.

First, let’s deal with the First Principle — you know, the one that is usually taken to say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  How do we reconcile that with the reality that people lie to one another, hurt one another and generally screw up, whether intentionally or accidentally, just about all the time?

Sometimes it’s much worse than that, but we don’t have to invoke the likes of Hitler to call the First Principle into question; we just have to pick up the newspaper or watch the evening news.  But the First Principle isn’t some existential claim that everybody is really a saint, or a requirement that we should permanently attach rose-colored glasses to our faces, or a demand to never call anybody on bad behavior.  The First Principle, in fact, is precisely about how we ought to treat one another — particularly when, inevitably, we screw up — and for that matter about how we ought to treat ourselves when we realized we’ve screwed up.  So how do we “affirm and promote” someone’s inherent worth and dignity?  We hold them accountable for their actions, and we insist that others hold us accountable for our actions, too.  If we are to take all of the other Principles seriously, particularly the Seventh in its announcement of the interdependent web of all existence, then such accountability is essential.

Second, what do we mean by evil?

In classical theology, goodness is like the water in a fountain, welling up and out from the godhead and overflowing into the rest of creation.  Anything that blocks or removes that goodness is then evil.  Within Unitarian Universalism, we might think of it in terms of the interdependent web of all existence, where a higher quality of interdependence — as gauged by the health of human relationships, for example, and the sustainability of our relationship with the environment — corresponds to greater goodness.  Evil is then damage to the threads of the interdependent web.  Both natural events and human actions may break the threads, reducing interdependence and diminishing the web’s goodness.  Some evil is natural, part of what process theologian Catherine Keller notes is an inevitable part of the creativity of what she describes as “a living, whirling, open system of a world[, …] this real world of finite creatures who live, feed, risk, exult and die, a world of change and interdependence in which suffering is inevitable.”  And then we are faced with a choice: we can learn and grow from it or we can respond with further evil, because in refusing to realize our place in the web, we break the threads of interdependence, resulting in the violence of injustice, ecological damage and unhealthy communities.

Third, how do we respond to evil?

Well, if evil is doing damage to the threads of interdependence, then the good response is healing those threads, healing relationships, healing the community and healing memory.  We don’t need to be able to explain why bad things happen to be able to identify them and call them out, to respond to another’s pain and suffering, to address injustice wherever it takes place, and to find ways to live upon the Earth so that wholeness may be restored to the interdependent web.

There are a couple of aspects of this that, in bringing this sermon to a close, I’m going to lift up by referring back to the Harry Potter stories.

In the second book, havoc is wreaked at Hogwarts when Lucius Malfoy tries to dispose of a magical artifact that had once belonged to Voldemort, namely a diary in which he had stored a piece of his soul.  Malfoy slipped it amongst the schoolbooks being bought for Ron Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny, and soon enough she writes in the diary.  In doing so she awakens the piece of Voldemort’s soul and leads to the unleashing of a terrible serpent that had been hidden in the bowels of the school itself.  When Ginny disappears and Harry and Ron go to try to find her, Harry eventually succeeds in destroying the diary, but not before he is troubled by some of the apparent similarities between himself and Voldemort — like their ability to speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes.  Harry later takes it up with Dumbledore, in one of the sections of the book that Unitarian Universalist ministers love to quote.

“Professor,” [Harry said, “the] Sorting Hat told me […] I’d have done well in Slytherin.  Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while … because I can speak Parseltongue …”

“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Voldemort — who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin — can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he [first tried to kill you.” …]

“So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face.  “The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it …”

“[It put] you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly.  “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students.  His own very rare gift, Parseltongue — resourcefulness — determination — a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his mustache quivering again.  “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor.  You know why it was.  Think.”

“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more.  “Which makes you very different from [Voldemort].  It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is our choices that make all the difference and, what’s more, we don’t have to make those choices alone.  Throughout the books, one of the two great themes is love.  The baby Harry Potter survives the Killing Curse because of his mother’s love in sacrificing her life to protect his.  Dumbledore, Snape, Narcissa Malfoy — they’re all motivated by love, and that’s where they find their redemption, too.  And Voldemort is ultimately defeated because he neither loves nor is truly loved.

It’s not for nothing that the Second Source of Unitarian Universalism consists of the “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love”.  It’s no accident that the Unitarian Universalist campaigns for marriage equality and immigration reform and other interfaith public advocacy issues come under the heading of “Standing on the Side of Love”.

Love in our world may not literally be a mystical force that magically grants protection from evil, as it is in Harry Potter’s world, but it comes very close.  It is love that gives us strength in the face of suffering.  It is love that gives us courage to call injustice to account.  It is love that heals our relationships with one another and with our world.  So how do we respond to evil?  We choose love.

May it be so.

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From Where I Stand

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 2nd 2013.)

There’s a story about someone who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one Sunday morning and immediately starts complaining.

“I don’t feel like going to church.  The hymns are always boring, the readings are so pedantic, the sermons are too obscure, and then, after it’s all over, I get the feeling that nobody there really likes me.  That’s it, I’ve decided: I’m not going to church today!”

“But sweetheart,” her spouse gently replies, “the people do like you and the service isn’t all that bad.  Besides, you’ve really got to go: you’re the minister!”

Well, though I need to get up extra early on Sundays — and though I’ve never been a morning person — I always look forward to being here.  I might be tired or sick, I might not feel as on top of things as I’d like, the weather might be dismal and dreary or swelteringly hot, but I look forward to seeing familiar faces, meeting new people, singing our hymns and sitting in silence together, and always noticing, as if with fresh eyes, how much of a difference this community makes in so many people’s lives.  (And, as much as it’s important for me to practice good “self care” by honoring my Sunday off each month, I freely admit that I am sad to miss the wonderful services that are offered on those Sundays.)

It’s hard to believe that I’m coming to the end of my third year here, my third year as minister to this Fellowship.  The time has gone by very quickly, but it’s been very fulfilling, and I feel privileged to be serving such a congregation with so many wonderful people and with such tremendous promise for the future of our faith.  With Olivia’s birth, of course, my own life has changed considerably, and so I’m particularly glad of the support that Allison and I have received from Fellowship members as we’ve fumbled our way into parenthood.

Now I’ve realized — as have others — that in reaching this three-year point, I will soon have been at the Fellowship as long as any previous minister.  Your last settled minister, Buffy Boke, was here for three years, and Paul Boothby was interim minister before her for two years.  So moving into the fourth year of my ministry will be a new experience for all of us, and I’m excited that we get to navigate this uncharted territory in the life of this congregation together.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that there’s been just a bit of anxiety as we prepare to cross this threshold.  Some of that comes from a general fear of the unknown, and perhaps there’s some worry about what changes might come from a minister who’s been here more than a few years.

Some of the anxiety is more specifically based on the Fellowship’s history, manifesting in concerns that I might be planning to leave.  I remember the song written by Joanne, and sung by our children and youth to the tune for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, that lists the many part-time ministers that the Fellowship had before finally making the leap of faith to full-time ministry, and then lists the settled and interim ministers who followed: this congregation has had more than enough practice saying goodbye to its ministers.

So let me put your minds at ease.  I have no plans to leave.

It’s said that there are two mistakes a minister can make: first, staying too long; second, not staying long enough.  Over the last decade, the Fellowship has known life as a church in short cycles — the usual one or two years for interim ministry, but only two or three years for settled ministry — and though there have been major accomplishments — such as buying the office building and funding the mortgage for it ourselves — it’s hard for a congregation to feel like it’s making much headway when the clock keeps being reset on ministry.  (It’s really hard on the Fellowship’s savings, too, when it keeps being spent on finding a new minister.)  So, as I shared with the Search Committee when I first met with them a little over three years ago, I am a firm believer in the transformative effects of long-term settlements.  After all, I’ve seen first-hand the power of Christine Robinson’s twenty-plus year ministry in Albuquerque, something that has transformed First Unitarian there into a thriving, dynamic, boldly imaginative, willing-to-stretch-itself congregation, making it, in fact, one of our faith’s flagship congregations.

I also shared with the UUFP Search Committee that I was looking for a congregation that would grow with me at the same time that I grew as a minister.  And I was told — by the Search Committee, by your former ministers, by other local ministers and by district staff — that this was a thriving, growing congregation with the potential to do great things, by itself as well as in cooperation with our sister congregations in Norfolk and Williamsburg.

Well, all of that is still true. And we’ve seen that it’s not just a matter of potential for some imagined distant future, either.  At the end of February we held the first Hampton Roads Unitarian Universalist Revival, using every chair that Christopher Newport University could give us and filling the CNU Ballroom with fabulous music and singing and speaking and fellowship.  We caught the attention of the Unitarian Universalist Association, too, with a write-up in the latest issue of UU World.  We’re also poised to make ourselves known in Richmond, since, after taking the lead in getting the Tidewater Cluster started, we’re now building a progressive legislative advocacy network amongst Unitarian Universalists in Virginia.

speakingSo, coming to the end of my third year as your minister, and looking forward to the possibilities of the years still to come, this seems like a good time to reflect on where we are and where we’re going.  I’ll touch on a number of different areas, so keep in mind that all of these interlock with one another in many different ways, but of course I can only speak about them one after another.

Something I’ll mention first is that, after a year’s dedicated work to seek out, gather, process and refine an incredible amount of information, the Planning Committee has issued a report that I ask all of you to read.  It’s on the UUFP website and it’ll be sent out by e-mail next week, too.  Soon there’ll be a survey to collect your opinions about the Fellowship’s future, to help us craft a vision and a plan for the next five years of our congregational life together, so please take a look at the Planning Committee’s report when you can.

Well, the place to start, I guess, is with Sunday morning worship, what we’re doing right now.  It’s most people’s first chance to experience what this congregation is really like in the flesh.  Oh, they know what we claim to be, because almost everyone who visits us for the first time has already seen our website and our Facebook pages and our blog, but there’s no substitute for actually walking through those doors and seeing the people who are already here.  From the friendly smiles of the greeters to the smell of coffee and snacks, from the helpful guidance of the ushers to the uplifting music, we try to make people feel as welcome as we can.

And just as the movement from front door to Sanctuary seat is a unified whole, so are our services, with hymns and readings, music and spoken words coming together to support the message.  Sometimes, a traditional sermon is not the only way to get that message across, or even the best way, so when appropriate I like to share the pulpit or include multigenerational dramas, or tell a story or project pictures or invite you into a hands-on activity.  Sometimes I don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out, but Unitarian Universalism is an experimental faith, after all, and if there’s anyone who should have faith that things will go well, I guess it’s the minister.

This Summer, by the way, marks the latest stage in the evolution of this congregation from where it was — and where most other UU churches were — not all that many years ago, namely being closed on Sundays, with no services, during July and August.  This year, as has been my intention since starting here, I shall be doing services in the Summer months just as if they were any other month.  It’s well known that a lot of people, particularly families with young children, do their “church shopping” during the Summer, and I want to be here for them.  The religious need inherent in being human, the need of people for community and transformation, doesn’t take the Summer off, and neither should ministers.

Next we come to lifespan faith development, which is a fancy way of saying religious education for children, youth and adults.  This is, frankly, an area in which I’d like to be able to do more, but since my place is here on a Sunday morning, I can’t also be part of Adult RE or Spirit Play or the Youth Group.  Of course, for the last ten months I’ve found that I’m doing a lot of another sort of teaching at home, though I think I learn more from Olivia than she’s picking up from me, something I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks’ time.  In any case, I particularly treasure those opportunities I do have to lead classes or offer workshops or participate in youth and young adult events, whether it’s working with and supporting our Fellowship Circle facilitators or helping our Coming of Age students put their faith into words and write elevator speeches about what they believe.

Now when it comes to Unitarian Universalism as a faith, you’ve heard me say before that it doesn’t really matter what we believe; rather, what matters is what we do with those beliefs, in other words how we behave toward others and the world we share.  A good number of my sermons touch on issues of social justice, and this congregation has a long and proud history of good works.

Recently we’ve gone through a transition with a restructuring of the Social Justice Committee to be more of an umbrella group, bringing together task forces and groups working on different issues from hunger and homelessness to LGBTQ equality to environmental stewardship so that they can encourage one another and share ideas and resources.  I think that’s great, and I strongly support their efforts to develop more ways for people to get involved with the sort of well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities that prove consistently popular at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry and the PORT Winter Shelter Program.  Given the busyness of life today, most people aren’t willing or aren’t able to commit themselves to the on-going requirements of committee work or organizational responsibility, but offer them a chance to spend a couple of hours making a tangible difference in the lives of others, and they’ll be there — and they’ll bring their children and their friends to help, too. That’s how we show what our faith means.

This brings me to another area, starting with my take on the “hospitality teams” idea that many of you heard about at last month’s annual meeting.  To quickly summarize, the idea of hospitality teams is that the entire congregation, plus any non-members who want to be involved, is divided up into groups of forty or so people.  These teams take it in turn being responsible for everything that happens each Sunday morning between the front door and the Sanctuary doors — from greeting to ushering, from getting the coffee brewing to putting out snacks, from unlocking the doors and setting up the social area to cleaning up after everything’s finished and making sure the building is closed and locked again. There’s something for everyone, since the tasks — which are not always to be done by the same people: well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities work best, remember — the tasks range from simply making sure there’s a fresh carton of half-n-half in the fridge to preparing an entire spread of baked goods, since I for one am not willing to get in Sandra’s way of doing that for us.

I’m excited about the hospitality teams idea for a couple of different reasons.

First, when Cyndi Simpson, who has been minister to the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, offered a workshop to our UUFP leadership a few months ago, she talked about the needs that people have to connect with one another at a variety of levels.  (It’s important to know this, because one of the fears that people often express when talking about congregational growth is that they won’t know as many people or won’t know them as well.)

So people need to connect with one another individually, which is one of the reasons why, over the last three years, we’ve been trying to implement a new way of doing congregational stewardship, where every member or couple or family has someone assigned to them to at least check in with them a few times a year.  People also need to connect with one another in small groups of about a dozen people, which is one of the reasons we offer Fellowship Circles in particular and other programs such as the Book Club and Goddess Circle and Resist Apathy and Fifty and Better in general.  But people also need to connect with one another in larger groups of about fifty people and, other than perhaps EarthRising’s most well attended rituals, we don’t really offer anything that meets people’s needs for connection at that level.  Hospitality teams would do that, and do it intentionally, with each team getting together regularly for purely social events.

And I’m excited about hospitality teams for a second reason, and for this insight I’m grateful to Joanne.  Up until last year, we had a Nominating Committee that, just after New Year’s, would start talking to the UUFP leadership about who was willing to continue serving on the Board or as a committee chair and who wasn’t.  They’d figure out which positions needed to be filled by election at the annual meeting and who they had as potential candidates for those positions.  Then they’d panic, and they’d continue in that state of panic for about two months, and that’s why a large chunk of the UUA ministers’ retirement plan is invested in the companies that make Tums and Pepto-Bismol.  The problem is common not just to churches but also to almost every volunteer group, namely that it usually comes down to re-electing the people who’ve already served many times before or the people who’ve just joined the congregation and made the mistake of telling us that they’re good with numbers or words or plumbing.

That’s why we now have a Leadership Development Committee rather than the old fashioned, gastrically ulcerated Nominating Committee.  I’ll come back to this at the end of the month, but leadership development ought to start when someone first walks in that door, continuing with everything they ever do as a member, and rather than culminating in their election to some leadership position continues after that, too, since the primary responsibility of anyone in leadership is to train their own replacement.

Obviously it’s much easier to find people willing to be elected if they first have some positive experience of the work that’s involved, and it’s much better to have people on a committee organizing some program if they first have some positive experience of participating in that program.  Hospitality teams can do just that, helping people who may well be brand new to the congregation to immediately make a difference in the life of this community, putting them on the very first step of the path toward bigger leadership responsibilities in the future, if that’s something that, in time, they choose to pursue.

And this gets to the heart of what I want you to take away from here this morning.  This community is built by all of us.  Our lay leader wasn’t exaggerating this morning when she spoke the usual words to introduce our offering, that “All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  Growing this beloved community is a ministry in which each and every one of us is involved, a ministry that is found whenever we bring our best selves, whenever we share our joy at the good we find here, whenever we boldly grasp the imagination, whenever we lift up the inspiring work that we’re doing together.

I’d like to finish, in fact, by doing just that, lifting up the good work that each and every one of you is doing, whether you’ve been here for decades or have walked in the door for the very first time this morning, for everything you do is helping to grow this beloved community.

So, if you currently serve in an official leadership position — whether elected or appointed — please stand.  Let’s give them a round of applause to thank them!

If you currently serve on a committee or a planning group or a task force, please stand.  Thank you for your service!

If you help with a program — being an RE teacher or a greeter or an usher or a lay leader or a steward or providing hospitality or music or items for the yard sale or being part of the Casbah or PORT or the buildings and grounds clean-up crew — please stand.  You are truly doing the work of this congregation, so thank you.

And if you are present here this morning, having brought yourself as you are, whether troubled or happy, whether content with your life or searching for something missing, whether curious or tired or hungry or lonely or at peace, please stand.  Thank you for giving us the biggest gift of all, the gift of your presence among us.  I invite you to look around at everyone else standing with you and to give yourselves a round of applause.

All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it.  May we always seek and find new and greater ways to live this gift and this promise.

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Called to Abundance

People with a scarcity mentality tend to see everything in terms of win/lose.  There is only so much, and if someone else has it, that means there will be less for me.  The more principle-centered we become, the more we develop an abundance mentality, the more we are genuinely happy for the successes, well-being, achievements, recognition and good fortune of other people.  We believe their success adds to — rather than detracts from — our lives.
— leadership consultant Stephen Covey

Long before I became a driver myself I noticed something curious about driving: red lights are far more memorable than green lights.  Trying to make an appointment at a particular time, every red light adds to the anxiety that we’ll be late.  As for green lights, well, they all ought to be green when we’re trying to get somewhere on time, shouldn’t they?

It’s easy to adopt a “scarcity mentality” when it comes to our time, as well as to finite goods such as food and material possessions, not to mention money that is, after all, a surrogate for every other commodity, tangible or not.  It’s easy to get into that competitive frame of mind, that if someone else has more — wealth, respect, power, friends, shiny stuff — then there must be less of it for the rest of us.

Churches can fall into that competitive way of thinking, too.  We can look at the local population and talk about increasing our “market share”, as if the complicated people looking for comfort, community and transformation are merely customers to be enticed by billboards and bumper stickers.  Once we embrace the perspective that churches serve many more people than their own members, however, then interfaith cooperation becomes possible regardless of theological differences, as is the case for many of our outreach efforts including the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads and the meal programs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Now the Fellowship’s big news right now is that we’ve been growing!  The Sanctuary has often seemed filled to capacity on Sunday mornings, our children and youth are growing (and not just in faith!) before our eyes, and we have some great new programs going on during the week and on the weekends as well.  Our annual membership reports to the Unitarian Universalist Association over the last few years show that not only did we pass the 150-member mark, we burst through it!

Does this mean we’re in competition with our neighboring Unitarian Universalist congregations in Williamsburg and Norfolk?  A scarcity mentality might say yes, that there are only so many prospective UUs to go around.  An abundance mentality on the other hand would note that Unitarian Universalism in Virginia as a whole has been growing, and that growth here on the Peninsula helps our faith in other parts of the 757 area code, too.  Our efforts to change lives and to transform society will be multiplied in their effectiveness as our congregations grow together.  A scarcity mentality would hardly have permitted February’s Hampton Roads UU Revival!

Al Smith

William Alfred “Al” Smith
(1931-2011)

And we’ve only scratched the surface of our potential for transformation.  A couple of Decembers ago the Daily Press included an obituary for William Alfred Smith, who lived and for most of his life served as a lawyer in Hampton, often fighting for civil rights and racial equality.  Though you wouldn’t have known it from his obituary, this was the same Al Smith who was part of the newly chartered Fellowship in 1959 and who challenged society’s bigotry by bringing mostly white teenagers down the street to his law offices for religious education classes.  Al planted the seeds of love and justice for an abundant future, a future that still calls us to help bring to life today.

How are you answering that call?  How are you moved to help grow the Beloved Community that offers life abundant to everyone?  And how is our Fellowship changing your life?  I look forward to hearing your answers to these questions.

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The Jigsaw Puzzles of Our Souls

It’s no accident that my congregation’s mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — refers to “truths” in the plural.  Unitarian Universalists generally recognize that there are few things we can claim as being absolutely true in any completely objective sense, and so we embrace “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a valuable part of our religious endeavor.

Of course, we human beings like to be right.  We like to think we have the truth, that we can even refer to “truth” in the singular — or, worse, capitalize it.  We like to believe that we’ve got it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of convincing people, and if they won’t be convinced it’s only because they’re stupid and we just need to talk at them more loudly.  Oh, we know on an intellectual level that it’s possible to be wrong, but we’d much rather be right, even over the most apparently inconsequential things, and if needs be we’ll defend our rightness with words or fists… or bullets… or bombs.

There’s apparently no greater need to be right than when it comes to understanding the world around us.  Given my former life as a research scientist, though, I know that while a good discovery confirms something we thought was right, the better discovery is actually one where we realize we were wrong about something.  After all, experiments that failed to follow Newton’s ideas about absolute space and time led Einstein to his theories of relativity, while a couple of apparently minor problems in optics and thermodynamics led to quantum mechanics.  As Isaac Asimov put it:  “The most important phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, isn’t ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

Now it’s not for nothing that most religions lift up humility as a virtue; at one time in ancient Greek society, hubris was considered the greatest crime someone could commit.  Journalist Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes that “the capacity to [be wrong] is crucial to human cognition.  Far from being a moral flaw,” she writes, “it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction and courage.  And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.  Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

Of course, I’m not advocating willful ignorance or suggesting we avoid courage when it comes to our convictions.  But it seems to me that refusing to acknowledge our own mistakes, to stick to our guns come hell or high water, to willfully deny the evidence that we’re wrong is to be no better than a child with his fingers in his ears chanting that he can’t hear.  In doing so we forget that it’s only when we’re wrong that we have a chance to become right, to seek out those small-‘t’ truths than can help us find wholeness and wisdom.

Maybe we can think of such truths as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — actually, as the pieces of lots of different puzzles, at least one for every human soul on the planet.  You never know where you might find one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your own soul, or who might have found it and kept it in their heart until the day they can pass it on to you — and on that day your own soul grows a little more into its own wholeness.

After all, we can learn a lot about ourselves from other people.  Versions of the Golden Rule are found throughout the world’s religious traditions, but here’s one from the ancient wisdom of Shinto that goes beyond the ethic of reciprocity:  “The heart of the person before you is a mirror; see there your own form.”  What if we were truly able to see and hear ourselves reflected in the hearts of others?  Would we be so righteous about our rightness?  Or would we be open to seeing the holes in the jigsaw puzzles of our own souls and be more willing to seek out the missing pieces?  Wouldn’t we see ourselves as part of something so much larger?  Perhaps then we’d be ready to lift our hearts above the constraints of our own truths and be free.

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