Teacher Parker Palmer calls the place where we begin muttering miserable, unrepeatable things at the radio, or at our social media feed – that place that many of us are way too familiar with these days – he calls it the “tragic gap.”
The tragic gap is the distance between “the hard realities around us, and what we know is possible, not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.”
A lot of times I think of church as a place where we go to deal with the tragic gap.
We come together to try to gather up the strength and courage to live in the gap – to learn how resist the equally alluring pulls of denial and despair. We come to stay awake,
in the mix of beauty and brokenness, and to gather up the strength, and the support
to do our part to make the gap just a little smaller.
But sometimes, church itself is the gap. It can be devastating when the distance shows up here in church because we so want this to be the exception. We so want this – here – us – to have no gap.
But the church is ultimately, still, filled with humans, humans who are sometimes short-sighted, short-tempered, sometimes petty, often self-centered – humans. And so there will be sometimes, a gap. Sometimes a big one.
I knew all of this the Sunday I was driving home from a long weekend of ministry –
it was my first solo ministry, but not my first experience in church. Church had broken my heart a few times before that – but this was my first time as a minister.
I was serving a congregation three hours from my home, so I would go and stay for three or four days at a time – we’d pack all the meetings and pastoral visits and classes and leadership training – oh, plus worship – all into just a few days. And then I’d go home, and come back two weeks later, and do it again.
On this particular trip, it was maybe 12 months into my time with them, so maybe they were trusting me more – but I heard more stories of grief, and anger than I had before. It was overwhelming. But, I could’ve handled that. What it did it, was the way all these folks, my beloved church members, were treating each other, and sometimes me – terribly – passive aggressive and sometimes just aggressive.
I had so much I wanted to offer, I was in my first year of ministry – I was bursting with ideas – and they just seemed so – afraid. Resistant. The sacrifices my family was making so I could do this (my kids were young, and I was often away) – I wondered why. How does anyone, why does anyone do this – for whole lives. How could I do it – without becoming just sad, and cynical – without ending up muttering miserable unrepeatable things – all the time. I cried off and on the whole three hour drive home.
As I got closer to town, I realized I couldn’t actually go home yet. I needed instead, to make a phone call.
They were marked in my favorites, so it just took one button.
Hello? The Rev. Nancy Bowen answered, but it could’ve been as easily her husband, the Rev. Howell Lind.
Can I come over? I asked.
Howell was the interim minister here at Foothills from 2015-16, so some of you know him. And Nancy served as the Regional Lead for the Pacific Western Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association for a little over a decade before she retired in 2016, so you may also know her.
Howell’s been a Unitarian Universalist minister for going on fifty years. And Nancy has been a minister for half that, but active as a lay leader for the whole of her life.
More importantly, for more than a decade now, they have been my teachers, my friends, and my mentors – and in that moment – I was absolutely clear that I had to see them.
We sat in their living room, there may have been scotch. I didn’t tell them much about what had happened, it wasn’t necessary. I only asked them, with all sincerity and earnestness – how they had kept going? For all these years – surely they’d seen way worse than my few little days, felt way worse – but from what I could tell, they were only occasionally overly cynical or sad or, only occasionally muttered miserable unrepeatable things. So, what gave them the courage, I wondered, and the strength – what allowed them to keep alive that bright thread of hope?
Without hesitation, they both said – you.
By which they did not actually mean me. Not precisely. More, people like me, relationships like ours. Being able to mentor and support new ministers, they said – and to see the ways that these new ministers would – with their own passion and creativity,
become leaders themselves. It wasn’t just for the mentees benefit – it turned out – it was the thing that kept the fire alive in them.
They recalled a recent time when they were listening to new ministers preaching on evil. They said after hearing that, they realized, even now, we can keep going. Everything is ok. Which is funny – I know – evil – but they said they could see there that our story was in good hands – the fire, the light – it’s still going.
They told me then about their own mentors, the women and men who had asked more of them than they thought possible – who pushed them and challenged them – showed up for them, and invited them to truly join in. And to whom they felt responsible, for passing it on.
As they were talking, I understood suddenly exactly what it is we mean when we say that Unitarian Universalism is a Living Tradition.
We usually talk about it as if it is about knowledge – about truth continuing to be revealed – like truth is the living thing.
But in that moment I realized, actually, the fact that ours faith a Living Tradition means that our faith has been created, and recreated, sustained and supported not through some apostolic line passing down orthodoxy, nor through the policing of well-practiced rituals, but instead, this – all of this – this bright thread of hope that we sustain here,
that we embody here – has been made possible, and keeps being possible, by way of a great network of care – people who care about each other – a tender willingness of human beings, regular and flawed though we may be – receiving the blessing,
and then offering that same blessing to others – stoking the fire with their life, and passing it on.
In the fall of 2016, a small group of lay leaders, plus Eleanor VanDeusen our Director of Faith Formation – and Sean and I attended a workshop on the future of faith formation –
and, if that phrase doesn’t make sense to you, try out instead – “the future of how we’ll help people connect to, and even, feel responsible for the bright thread of hope.” (For short hand I’m going to say, “the future of faith formation,” but in your head you can say that.)
The workshop gave us many good insights that we’ve been working to implement, but the major take-away about faith formation still challenges me – because it’s pretty-radically different than how we’ve traditionally thought about our programs and the whole set-up of our congregation.
It turns out, that what truly forms people in faith – what makes people literally
change their lives because they feel so responsible for stoking the fire of hope –
has absolutely nothing to do with offering great classes, or reading the right books. It doesn’t even have that much to do with really good sermons, or beautiful music,
or with helping people serve – no matter how meaningful any of this might be.
These are all often good entry points. They can get people started, and stir things up, and bring comfort and challenge along the way.
But the real way that the story of hope remains alive – in any of us, and in a way that keeps it alive in the world – is exactly what I realized that day in Nancy and Howell’s living room. It happens because someone who already feels responsible for this (()) for this story, this faith forms a real relationship with someone who doesn’t yet, and then invests in them, and invites them to join in. It happens through friends, that become mentors, that become partners – partners who pass it on.
Mentorship is an ancient practice – the word mentor itself is inspired by the character “Mentor” in Homer’s Odyssey, because – as I’m sure you’ll all remember, in the story, the goddess Athena takes on the appearance of Mentor in order to guide Telemachus in a time of difficulty.
Despite these ancient roots, the concept of mentorship only recently became a thing society talked about. Before the 1970s, most people hadn’t really heard or thought about mentoring – but by the 90s, finding a mentor was considered a critical part of the career-building process.
With that said, any mentorship that’s primarily serving a utilitarian purpose is not exactly mentorship – because mentoring isn’t about gaining access, or information, or even about skills – although those things may be a by-product. Mentorship is about relationship – a relationship of accountability, and most of all a relationship grounded in love.
Mentorship is an investment in another’s personhood, and potential – so much so that there is always the hope that the mentee will move the story forward in ways the mentor couldn’t. It is a relationship of mutual learning, and a process of exploration and discovery – passing the blessing on, and then receiving it right back – again, and again.
Sitting in the faith formation workshop together, the group of us started to wonder,
what would it mean if every elder in the church started to think of themselves as a mentor. And by elder I don’t mean older aged – we have some youth I’d call elders, and some of you 80somethings are indeed novices.
Unlike last week when Sean surveyed about introverts – I’m not going to ask who among you thinks of themselves as elders – because I already know, not enough hands would go up. So I’m just going to let you know up front, you’re wrong. Many of you are elders.
Many of you have things to teach, and to pass on. Most of you.
So we were sitting there with this vision, of how transformational it would be, if every person who was an elder – every person who had a sense of responsibility for this congregation, and faith – a sense of commitment to this story of hope,
and our mission – if all of these folks were charged not with simply continuing their (your) discrete responsibilities within the church – or even charged with finding someone who they could train on those discrete responsibilities – which is basically the bulk of our mentorship thus far – we ask people who’ve done a job for a while to find someone else and teach them how to do that job.
But instead, we started to imagine that these elders (you) were charged with creating the kinds of relationships with others – newer folks – where they would be inviting and challenging them – discovering and exploring with them – their emerging commitment to this story, this hope, and listening for what new story we might create together. Because this is the way that this equally true story – of the ways people have lived and given their lives for love – keeps going.
So that all of us, as we receive this blessing, also simultaneously, start to feel an expectation, a responsibility – to pass it on.
In turn, we imagined that as folks arrive here seeking a sense of belonging, and meaning
we would help them find not only the program, or class they might like, or the service they can plug into – but more, the people they need to meet. The people who who might become the companions who will invest in their personhood, their becoming, who will, before too long, invite them to share in leadership.
The authors of the book Growing Young, call this vision of ongoing mentorship-based faith formation, “keychain leadership.” Because it advocates handing over the “keys” to the next generation of leaders – but not as in, empowerment by way of abandonment – like, here you go, good luck! But more, by way of accompaniment, and “walking alongside those who are just beginning, [sharing the lessons that have shaped us], even while we hand over access, influence, and responsibility.”
There is something counter-intuitive at the heart of this mentorship-based/key-chain leadership paradigm of faith formation – especially today in our overly-busy world. We don’t want to ask too much of anyone, or else we might scare them away. We try to make participation easy, simple, afraid that otherwise it will become just one more thing on the too-full-to-do-list. But what we are learning is that when we ground the invitation in relationship – place it in the context of ongoing support and care, and that investment in personhood – and in the bigger mission – the story of hope, the unleashing of courageous love – then people are eager to join in, and to be a part, and to pass it on.
I had the chance to spend some time with Victoria Safford last February – the author of our reading today she is the minister of a congregation a little bigger than ours, outside the twin cities, and I wish I could say she was one of my mentors. I have admired her ministry for some time.
Which is why I was surprised, when I finally got to talk to her in person, that when I asked her about her church, and what was on her mind – imagining she might have something inspirational to offer, a little gem – she said one word: vigilance.
Not compassion, or love, or justice – but vigilance.
We must be vigilant, she said. Our story is always at risk. Our bright thread of hope is always at risk. We can’t take it for granted.
On a week like this, when the gap feels – so big – I know exactly what she means.
We need more partners – more partners who are more invested, more deeply,
more keepers of the story, more tenders of the flame, and more who know themselves as responsible to keep watch – to remain vigilant for hope. So that together we might keep stoking this story of courageous love with our lives, and passing it on.