Right and Risk in the Big Top – Candidating Sermon 1, Nov 8, 2015.


Listen to this sermon here.

Right and Risk in the Big Top

You might have heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes.

It’s an incredibly simplistic and somewhat insulting way of speaking to the experience of coming face to face with our profound and unavoidable vulnerability and mortality.

As a minister I am privileged to bear witness to and walk with people in these sorts of moments – at the bedside in someone’s final hours, across a chair from a couple facing the likely end of their marriage, hearing the first ever out loud utterance of terrible things impossibly survived, or holding space in those first few hours after sudden loss – all of these tender moments of life are so beautiful and holy and heartbreaking. Something does happen to us in these moments. I’ve seen it. Felt it. Something happens, though nothing like what I would call a deathbed conversion.

These vulnerable moments are less transformative than they are revelatory – though transformation is a common by-product. Just, later. In these actual moments, in the slow-moving words, the awkward small talk, the free flowing tears, the unveiled face, there is an undeniable experience of grace, by which I mean, an experience of the ways we are all – underneath everything – connected.

We spend a lot of time not tending to this reality, a lot of time asserting our independence and experiencing our isolation.

But in these most vulnerable moments of life and death, loss and change, we can do nothing other than feel the ways we are all just so human.

As Unitarian Universalist minister David Bumbaugh says it, “beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.”

This, Bumbaugh says, is the proposition to which we Unitarian Universalists dedicate our lives and its practice is the reason UU congregations exist.

As I was thinking about a central metaphor for today’s service, I remembered the prominent Universalist, PT Barnum.  You probably know Barnum as the founder of America’s Big Top 3 Ring Circus, but you are likely less familiar with his passionate Universalist faith.

Barnum’s 1890 pamphlet, “Why I am a Universalist,” circulated across the world – affirming the Universalist good news that every single person would be ultimately saved by God’s love.

Translating Barnum’s language for today: as Universalists, we believe that none of us are beyond the reach of love. There’s nothing you can that would make you unworthy of love and its power for transformation.

And so we might imagine Barnum’s faith, and Barnum’s profession merging, and envision a faith statement that asserts that every single one of us is a part of the Greatest Show on Earth….the great show of life, held together in one great big Big Top – we can take turns as spectators and performers.  Furthermore, we can imagine our congregations as the local manifestation of this big big top where we practice making space for all of life’s diversity.

Or to say it in the way Universalist Gordon “Bucky” McKeeman put it, “Universalists believe that all of us are going to end up together, so might as well learn how to get along with each other now.”


The night after my first interview with the Search Committee I had one of those rare dreams that was both vivid enough to remember and also translatable without much consultation of an online dream decoder. Not that I consult online dream decoders….much.

Anyway, in the dream, I was coming for my second interview with the Committee, which was in real life, to be two days after the first. In my dream, the Committee greeted me, and told me that they had decided that rather than a 2nd interview, they had assembled a dinner party.

For the dinner party, they had invited one or two “representatives” from every sub-community of Northern Colorado. I looked around the room.
There were gun fanatics.
There were tenured professors and also eager CSU freshman.
There were trendy local artists.
And there were oil and gas executives.
There were farmers, cowboys, and engineers.
There were residents from the north Fort Collins trailer park,
ladies from the League of Women Voters,
and there were New Belgium executives.
There were recent retirees just in town for the weekend to house-shop for an impending move to Fort Collins, and there were cranky 3rd generation residents exuding a sense of irritation at how crowded the room was.
And so on, and so on. It was a big room.

So then, the dream version of the Search Committee said to me: For your second interview, we would like to see you build community with the people assembled here. And we’ll watch.

And then….I woke up.
Which is really unfortunate.

I understood right away why my subconscious had created such a fun experiment. So many of the questions we addressed in the first interview came down to how we create community across our differences. It would be a question in any community, as every gathering of humans is filled with vast diversity.

But it is an especially relevant and vital question for us as Unitarian Universalists gathered in this particular congregation, at this particular time.

It is especially important because sometimes – I know, particularly in this time of transition –
we are unclear how to live out this idea, in real life – how to practice this idea in our congregations and in our wider community – if it’s possible, or even if we should.

And, this question is especially important because – there is nothing, absolutely nothing the world needs more now than to see, learn from and experience our good news that “we need not think alike to love alike.”

As Krista Tippett writes, “We seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view.
What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do.”

Even we who proclaim otherwise don’t know how to resist this kind of thinking.   We sing this anthem about “standing on the side of love,” which I sing too – I enjoy it – it’s been an important anthem, but it is not actually our theology. Our theology, our tradition affirms that in this life there are no sides. Our theology, to paraphrase Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
affirms that the line of good and evil does not run between people but through them.

A few years ago, Unitarian Universalist minister Jan Christian came to the First Universalist Church in Denver to speak about her book, Leave No Brother Behind, in which she traces her journey to uncover her brother’s service and eventual death in Vietnam.

Many things have stuck with me from her talk, not the least of which were her observations about the continued relevance of the conflict around Vietnam.

What she said then, and what she reiterated to me in a recent conversation, was how Vietnam revealed and then intensified how Americans have never really learned how to disagree and yet stay in relationship. We think if we’re against an idea, we’re against the person. We call people out, instead of inviting them in. We break out into affinity groups – often with neat labels –
and assume that our group all agrees and sees things in the same ways we do. We make decisions based on what our group believes. We disregard information that doesn’t conform to our “position,” especially if it is provided by someone we identify as the “other side.”

Since marriage equality became the law last year, I have been thinking about the success we have seen in gay rights over the past fifty years and what we should learn about how social change happens. I mean, even 20 years ago when I came out, it was a totally different world.
Carri and I used to be nervous holding hands in Boulder. Boulder! Who would’ve ever thought that 20 years later a photo of us kissing in celebration of our legal marriage would be featured in the Coloradoan?

When I try to figure out what worked in this culture shift, I don’t have scientific data,
but I do have my parents. My good, loving parents, who I came out to and they were so not ok.
They hoped I’d grow out of it. They told Carri she was nice enough, but that they hoped she’d go find a nice man, and I would too.It wasn’t easy those first five years. We had to do a lot of biting our tongues – all of us. And we had some really hard, heartbreaking conversations. But through it all, we stayed connected, we didn’t give up on our relationship, we just stopped working so hard to change each other’s minds. And from this simultaneous leaning in, and letting go, an incredible thing happened. A miracle.

Within five years after I first came out, my parents changed entirely. They started to tell me how lucky I am to be married to Carri, how she is the perfect partner. They speak out about gay rights, and though they boycotted our first commitment ceremony, they were thrilled to come to our legal civil union in 2013. And, even though she told me initially she hoped I never had children – since my children were born my mother could not be a more proud and loving grandmother or bigger supporter to Carri and I as moms. It really is a miracle. Another kind of grace.

And the only way this miracle was possible was because we stayed connected through this huge, heartbreaking disagreement. Because none of us drew a hard line. None of us imagined each other as the other “side.” And I refused to listen to the things my mother said early on and write her off as a homophobe. I knew she was just my mother, struggling, human, and trying to love me.

From what I can tell, this intimate, family scene played out countless times across the globe over the past 50 years. Of course the miracle didn’t always happen. But it happened enough.
And then, as poet Seamus Heaney put it, “the longed-for tidal wave of justice” rose up, as “hope and history rhymed.” May it continue.


Going back to my dream…if the search committee had created such a challenge for my second interview, I am pretty sure that my first strategy would have been to invite the people present to tell their stories.

One at a time, in the first person. What they care about most, what they are afraid of, what they hope for. But before that, I would ask everyone else to listen while they heard the other’s speech. No arguing, no talking back, no agree or disagree, no interrupting. Just listen, and receive. And no time for response after this listening.

Something happens when we listen to each other like this. That same experience of grace revealed in our vulnerable moments comes to the surface. Whereas the need to be right keeps us from relationship, “the act of listening creates relationship.” Rather than furthering the separation, listening restores a sense of wholeness. And as Margaret Wheatley says,”Neither I nor the world changes from my well-reasoned, passionately presented arguments. Things change when I’ve created [even] the slightest movement toward wholeness, moving closer to another through my patient, willing listening.”

Now try to imagine with me that room I described, that dinner party, and then, imagine each of them listening to each other.  It’s hard, I know.
If they avoided anything real, just talked about sports, the weather, the dinner itself, well, that’s not so hard to imagine. But if we’re saying they would actually share about what truly mattered most in their lives, and were allowed to use their own language, their own metaphors…..wow. It feels risky. Right?

Imagine if you were there, sitting near someone who you think of “them” – someone who is on the “other side” of whatever identity or idea you feel most passionate about. And then imagine listening to that person tell their story, their truth, with an intent to understand. It feels uncomfortable, even dangerous.

We tend to think that if we let certain ideas in, if we make space, then we are agreeing with those ideas, and if we listen with an open heart, we are implicitly offering our approval. We confuse understanding with agreement, and “we confuse love with approval. Love doesn’t mean approval. Love just means we need each other, even when we disagree.” (This may be a quote from my conversation with Jan Chrisfian.)

Now imagine we aren’t talking about the dinner party, we’re talking about us. We the members and friends of the Foothills Unitarian Church on the brink of a new ministry partnership.

Imagine, it is our task to create an environment and the appropriate forums for it to be safe for any of us to speak honestly, about those things which matter most – about our fears, our hopes, and struggles.

Imagine it is our core task to make space for all the different metaphors, and language, and meaning-making any of us might engage along life’s journey.

And imagine that in our Big Tent, rather than believing it is possible to hold this much diversity and maintain a perpetual sense of ease, imagine that it is our practice to be that “safe place where we can be uncomfortable.” (Also maybe Jan Christian)

It is, after all, in that place of safe discomfort where transformation – real change of heart and change of lives happens- and where those moments of grace reveal themselves.

The dinner party of my dream was about building community for just one night. But our hope is that we will build and maintain community throughout our whole lives. And our hope is that the goodness of this lifelong diverse community reaches out far beyond our own community –
to transform hearts and lives all across Fort Collins, Northern Colorado, and far beyond.  This is what differentiates a religious community from a social community afterall – we are always for more than just ourselves.

As we look ahead to our new partnership, I imagine a big vision, big love, big impact,
a beautiful, generous, creative, and joy-filled ministry. I imagine this because I know who you are, and I can see what we are capable of together. It’s not theoretical.  If I hadn’t spent the last three years with you and the past 18 years in this area, maybe I couldn’t speak so confidently. But, because I know you, I have no doubts. Our shared ministry will be big love, big impact, big generosity, big creativity, big joy. And central to this vision is our Big Tent where we make space for all who welcome all.

If we are to do great and bold things together this practice must be at our center.

Our difficult and increasingly polarized world needs us to learn new habits and new responses to life’s big questions. It needs us to let go of proving how we are right, and instead step into the risky and beautiful practice of making space to hear another’s story. It needs us to ground ourselves in the fullness of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, a tradition that has been saying since the 16th century, “we need not think alike to love alike.”  And the world needs us to refuse to draw lines between people, and instead to maintain this crazy idea that across all our differences, something more important connects us. The world needs this from us, we need this from us.

May we together, make it so.




I am eternally indebted to Rev. Jan Christian, Congregational Life Staff for the Pacific Western Region of the UUA, for a conversation specifically around the themes of this service that offered me many of the nuggets of insight.  I am sure some of the things I’ve said here are her words, but the conversation was flowing and I didn’t take exact notes.  I am surprised I didn’t end up quoting from her book directly, but I do recommend it highly.

Also, many hearty conversations with the Rev. Deborah Holder are folded into this sermon. Check out her blog at BeTheLove.net.  Same with the Rev. Nancy Bowen,though she hasn’t yet started s blog, despite my urging…..

The quote from Krista Tippet is from one of her posts related to her Civil Conversations project, which is brilliant and important and related to all of the themes of this sermon.

I also consulted with the article, “Leadership in teh Age of Polarization” by David Brubaker, though I didn’t actually end up using anything directly from the artle for the sermon.

The Margaret Wheatley quotes are all from articles that are posted online.  Google them, it’ll all come up.  Really do google them, they are brilliant!!

Dear mom and dad, I promise I will stop telling this story at some point.  Thank you for sticking with it with me and with Carri, and for teaching me about what unconditional love really is! And for loving your grandchildren so well.  I love you.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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5 Responses to Right and Risk in the Big Top – Candidating Sermon 1, Nov 8, 2015.

  1. Norma Fox says:

    WOW! Great sermon. So moving…

    I would say I’m sorry I missed it yesterday but not really, since I was at a Colorado symphony concert. Guess I wish I could have been both places at once! 😀


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