Final sermon for candidating for senior minister, foothills unitarian church, November 15, 2015
Listen to this sermon here.
Sermon: All This, and More
“What would you say to those who aren’t sure they want us to become a large church?”
It was my second interview with the search committee, when we got to what I call “the growth question.”
“What would you say to those who don’t want to lose a sense of intimacy or connection?”
As I heard the question, I suddenly realized that the way we had been talking about change, growth, and the future of our congregation has been somewhat misleading.
I realized we keep talking about where we are headed as if we are about to become something we currently are not.
It’s a common way to think about change, and one reason we can resist it – I mean, if change means a leap into the great unknown, entirely disconnected to who we have been – it sounds pretty terrifying.
However, like the caterpillar which contains in itself all that it needs in order to become a butterfly, the most successful, largest scale, and most lasting and meaningful change, is not actually about flipping a switch one day and becoming something else entirely. It is rather a process of continuous becoming, where the seeds of the future are already and always contained in the reality of the here and now.
Which is to say – as I told the committee that night- we aren’t becoming a large church. We already are a large church. Whatever intimacy and connection and sense of belonging you have, you can trust that it will continue – at least assuming you want it to continue. Our task as we look to our future, is not to dismantle this goodness – but rather to use it as the foundation by which we will pattern the systems, structures and opportunities for others who are not experiencing these things –
and who want to – to gain access to this same kind of connection.
And just as importantly, our task is to help these various clusters of community – to connect with one another – so that the fullest potential of all our congregation can be unleashed.
This way of thinking about change is rooted in the biological concept of emergence, which you might be familiar with.
Emergence describes how natural systems self-organize in complex and powerful ways, generally by leveraging their genuine sense of connection both from individual to individual, as well as across a whole network of communities.
Organizational expert Margaret Wheatley helps explain how this biological phenomenon often plays out in human interactions. She says, “change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas.
If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they become more connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global or comprehensive level.”
If we understand our congregation within a paradigm of emergence,
as your senior minister, I imagine my role in three ways:
First, to continue to uphold and strengthen an environment where individuals can best become themselves, and then second to facilitate connection between these individuals, encouraging the move from “I” to “we,” and as Marge Piercy says, helping us know who we mean when we say “we,” and for each day to mean one more.
And third, my job is to help all the various clusters of “we’s” to interact with one another. This critical third role is what will allow us to emerge
as a system far more powerful than any of our component parts, a powerful system of liberal values and courageous love transforming not just our own lives, but the world around us. By this process of growth and connection, our congregation becomes not something entirely new, but rather more and more of itself.
A few times over the week, I have had the chance to share with you my sense of what we can do together if I am called as your senior minister.
This vision for our new ministry partnership has been formed in the context of the conversations and relationships we have been in for these past three plus years. As such, it is my read on what is emerging within this congregation given what I understand as our most authentic potential, the congregation we have yet to become within the context of our wider community and all that it too is becoming.
Already from the week, my ideas have evolved through our dialogue.
As I offer it this morning, it remains a work in progress – and I only hope that this great work can continue.
My vision begins with the message I offered last Sunday – the practice that “we need not think alike to love alike” and the affirmation that across our differences, something more important connects us.
Since last Sunday, I have already become more clear that in order to live out this practice, we will need a better understanding of our shared religious tradition. We need to more fully claim our history, theology, and practices as Unitarian Universalists for it is in our own tradition that we will discover that common ground that our President emeritus Rich Young has termed, the boulevard.
If I am called as senior minister, I will work with our staff and all of you to grow our understanding and fluency in our living tradition, and to develop skills and understanding in practices which support our theology – skills like intercultural competency, non-violent communication and the kind of deep listening many of you have experienced in small groups. In turn, I will ask that each of us bring these practices to everyone we encounter –
in the congregation, and beyond.
Our capacity to live out our relationships across diversity, to turn diversity into true pluralism – is a direct reflection of how well we are delivering on the promise of Unitarian Universalism. As I said last week, there is perhaps no greater need or imperative for our faith community or our world today.
Which brings me to the second element of my vision – which is my belief that in order for us to truly unleash the power and potential of our community, we need to understand and claim our shared sense of purpose, that is, how our faith applies in this particular congregation in this time, in this place. It is the answer to the question: Why are we here? What are we about?
During the remainder of this church year, the Board will be leading a series of conversations to affirm our congregational mission. This is good and important, but it is not sufficient, as ultimately, mission is not a one-time process. Mission evolves as we evolve. And so we need to keep discussing, and discerning, and asking the big question of why. We need to use small groups, and a learning community model to foster deeper networks of connection and mutual growth and to remain open and available to the emerging possibilities of all that we are called to become.
When I met with the stewardship team on Monday, I shared with them how an enhanced capacity to know and claim this sense of WHY
will inspire us all towards greater generosity of time, service, and money –
because the work will be more worthy of our generosity – and because we will know it as our work. This is the third element of my vision for us –
that we all generously share our unique gifts. Generosity looks different for all of us at different stages of our lives, depending on our circumstances – and yet the power and promise of a free religious community is that we freely choose to share our resources in service of doing something powerful and important that none of us could do on our own.
Sometimes I hear worry that as we grow, there will be less engagement from our members. In my understanding, it is actually the opposite –
and in fact I hope you measure my success in terms of how many more people feel like they are doing the work of the church, how many more feel inspired to give generously of their resources because they understand this is their church, their vision, and their values made real in the world. Again, that each day “we” means one more.
As to what this growing “we” might be up to, I’d offer two additional pieces of my vision – two that sometimes people think of as either/or choices. That is: Either “we” need to care for those who are already in our community – an inward focus or “we” need to have an impact in our wider community – an outward focus. A number of the comments in the appreciative inquiry process and in the survey expressed a desire that we do one or the other, or at least one before the other.
However, these two things are better thought of not as either/or, but both/and, where the two inter-relate and neither is overemphasized. We are always a community in context, and as we are blessed, so we are called to be a blessing.
We need to build on our strong foundation of care, support, and mutual learning for those within our congregation – meeting people both within their own age and stage of life and learning, as well as strengthening connections across generations so that we can truly claim ourselves as an intergenerational community.
And, in the coming years, I look forward to strengthening the relationships we have with our community partners, it’s one of the reasons I so valued having Rabbi Shoshana light the chalice today – as an example of our partnerships….so to build on these partnerships and allow them to serve as a foundation for a vast and dynamic network which brings love to all those places across Northern Colorado – and beyond – where humanity is at risk, where life is not flourishing – courageous transforming love – which in turn will liberate and transform us all.
Speaking of the wider community, as I turn to the sixth element of my vision, it seems the population in our little corner of the world is not getting any smaller – and as you may have noticed, we are already out of space. Although some hope we could avoid remodeling by starting a new campus, this too is not an either/or situation. People don’t usually pick a church based on the one that’s nearest them. They go based on where their friends are. So most of you will keep coming here even if we started a campus that was a little closer to you. And as you can see, even if only half of our current congregation shows up on a given Sunday, we do not have enough room. The RE building is even worse. We are going to need to deal with this. And we will. We will make a plan, and create a dream, and we will figure it out together. Actually it could be a lot of fun, and allow a whole new generation to commit to this congregation and our future
in a whole new way.
AND in addition to addressing our current facility needs, we also need to start offering programming or small groups or occasional worship services in the various areas booming all across northern Colorado. I imagine fostering a network of locations, all operating in ways that are particular to their specific community or neighborhood needs. Why not gather some of our members living in Windsor for regular dinners or small groups as an example? This might become the seeds of a Windsor campus. Or how about hosting a series on liberal religious takes on big life questions at a Foothills’ member’s home in Timnath? For all those hundreds of families moving in around there, surely some of them would be interested in a liberal religious community – and enjoy the idea of not having to drive up Harmony…..And, those who do prefer a smaller community might choose to join up with some of these gatherings along the way.
We need to try some things out, scatter some seeds, see how it all evolves.
My hunch is that this area – with its changing, growing demographics
and general culture of neighborliness is ripe for an emerging network of Unitarian Universalist communities all working together and working with our greater community.
Which brings me to the last element of my vision. All that I have shared so far are important, but this last I’d call the most important – because it is the one that lifts up the practice that is uniquely ours to offer: which is – liberal religious worship. Other parts of society engage in social justice, social service, social connections and educational opportunities – but no other place invites you to gather with your friends every week in song, silence and reflection, to connect as a community, belong beyond your choosing, celebrate your highest values, grieve the difficulties in life,
and find new tools and make new commitments to live your and our best life. Worship is where most people begin their relationship with our congregation, and for some it is the most consistent and important part of their connection here. It is where we embody our mission and where we practice who we are so that we can become who we are meant to be.
At the same time, with all that pulls on our attention these days,
gathering for worship is simply one of many good options our members may be choosing from on a given Sunday.
For all of these reasons, my vision for worship is what I call “can’t miss,”
as in every Sunday offers an experience you feel you must be there for –
both because it is that compelling, but also because you understand yourself as a critical part of our gathered community. With our staff team and lay leaders, there is no reason worship shouldn’t be powerful, inspiring, and engaging every time – something you wouldn’t want to miss.
So….that’s it. Those seven things are what I see emerging. I hope you can see with me how all of the component parts are already here,
among us, within us – The vision may seem a big one, and somewhat complex…and that is because we are a big and complex community, a community filled with incredible and diverse people and programs and abundant life.
The journey from here and now to all of these things, this vision, looks a lot less like turning into something new than it does unleashing and enabling all the goodness that is already here. And then unleashing the goodness that comes a result of that goodness. And again and again.
All of this, and more. And then all of that, and then more.
As we together we keep becoming ourselves.
May it be so. Amen.
As with last Sunday’s service, there’s a lot here inspired by Margaret Wheatley’s ideas around change and leadership. In particular her writings on emergence as well as her ideas of the servant leader and moving from hero to host.
In my first draft of this sermon (which was twice as long) I wrote about polarities management, which I learned about from UUA staff member Jan Gartner but it seems you could best learn about in this book by Barry Johnson.
I had three additional stories I didn’t get to include, starting with Eckart Tolle’s Beggar and the Box story, and then the Hasidic story of Why Weren’t You Zusya, and then Parker Palmer’s story of wondering if he should be a University Dean. None of these made the final version, which I decided should ultimately contain the actual content of my vision rather than these abstractions. Even still, they are good abstractions, and useful in thinking about this idea of becoming yourself……
For the vision as I presented it on my ministerial website, look here
After the sermon, I offered these words, followed by an incredible “flash mob” style rendering of Meg Barnhouse’s All Will Be Well
Sometimes, in the past few years, or months, or days, maybe hours – I have felt worried. Sometimes, in the past few years, or months, or days, maybe hours – I have felt worried. I come by it naturally, my mother is a very good worrier – so much so I tell her that she thinks to love and to worry should be used interchangeably.
However, my strongest commitments to myself is to act out of trust and hope rather than out of worry. Which means, I have sought out tools that keep me grounded in trust whenever worry may try to take hold. Sometime last year, around March…..you might remember March…my friend and colleague Kelly Dignan – the minister recently called to the UU Congregation in Boulder, sent me the link to a song by another UU Minister, Meg Barnhouse, who serves one of our congregations in Austin, Texas. In this song, Meg is singing to the 13th century mystic Julian of Norwich, who you may know for one of her often-quoted phrases, actually TS Eliot used it in one of his poems – it goes:
“All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
According to her diary, Julian heard this phrase in a vision when she was very, very sick – nearly dying. She tells how paradoxically as she experienced more and more of life’s suffering, she was able to also experience a profound grace and peace.
The song is basically Meg telling Julian that this phrase she heard can’t possibly be true, and then Julian’s response. When I thought about how I would want to end today’s service, this song came immediately to mind – and gratefully Meg and Lehne and a few others were willing to help make it true. I know that there has been a good deal of worry about what will happen in our congregation, and how this community will move forward.
So, I wanted to end with my strong affirmation that no matter what, all will be well.
In light of the events in Paris, it holds even more significance – inviting us to both see the world’s brokenness more clearly – not to turn away or pretend it isn’t there, and yet simultaneously discover a greater peace and joy – so that we do not give in to despair, but rather maintain the strength and the open hearts to keep showing up with a deeper knowing: all will be well.