Sunday, June 22, 2014

Love Reaches Out

Purple Bletilla Flowers - Blurred Background Image
Perhaps individualism was liberating in the rigid cultures of the nineteenth century. Perhaps. Today individualism is not liberating; it separates us. It creates a prison of the self. We are relational creatures. Our very sense of self, ironically enough, emerges from our network of relationships. We become fully human in relationship: with one another, with our past, with our shared aspirations, with our vision of the holy.
    —Peter Morales, President, Unitarian Universalist                                                        Association

“Love reaches out” is the theme for this year’s General Assembly. If you don’t know already, this is the big annual gathering of UU’s from across the country. This year it will take place in Providence, RI. Some of our folks who are going have already left, with our banner!

If you have never gone before, you might consider making the trip next year. It is always the fourth week of June and next year it will be in Portland, Oregon.  This year the 5,000 or so folks who will gather for a long weekend of business, worship, fellowship, study, and public witness, will do it all around the theme of “love reaches out”.

It makes sense that this is the theme. It is time for us to become more outward facing. It is time for us to take this show on the road.  Reaching out is not just about creating and reciting an “elevator” speech, a 1-2 minute description of what UUism is. It is not about saving the none’s (those that choose “no religious affiliation” on forms we all have to fill out, all the time)  It is not about saving them from their Sunday golf games or beach outings and dragging them into a liberal religious institution and showing them how different we are.

Reaching out is about taking the power of love seriously, living our faith in a big courageous new way, taking what some have considered to be private and going public.

It is about spreading the love. It is about answering indifference and isolation and fear with the power of love.

I don’t need to tell you all the reasons why this ole world needs more love.

I can’t imagine you need convincing of that.

Perhaps you do need some convincing that it is time to make this faith more than about an hour or two on Sunday where you listen, or a minute or two when you answer your neighbor’s question about where you go to church, or why you bring your children here and not there. It is time to step into reaching out full time, and with love and power, not just saying who we are, but really being what the world needs us all to be.

I was talking with a friend the other day who is moving into that stage in a relationship with a potential significant other where the “new” has worn off and one is really starting to see the shadows sides of the other person. And they are seeing yours. The parts that are not attractive are starting to show themselves.  And so is the neediness that lies beneath those unattractive parts.

And now my friend is backing off, and so is the other person, because the neediness seems just too much.

Reaching out in love sounds good, until the “real” shows itself and we begin to wonder about what it might take to heal what is broken. It just seems too much, and too consuming.  We have enough to do just to heal ourselves.

Not very long ago this year, I went through a period in my comings and goings around here, when I was noticing how much “weeding” needed to be done. (At least, weeding I thought needed to be done.) Every time, at least in the day light when I got out off or back into my car; I thought “wow” there are so many weeds everywhere! Somebody needs to do something. There are so many and they making the grounds look unkempt and unattractive. I thought the weeds were obscuring the beauty of what was blooming and it was bothering me.

Sometimes, not very long ago this year when I found myself sitting at my desk too long, I would get up and go out there into the memorial garden, or on the other side past the foyer…. and I would have that thought again. Too many weeds!

In my head, I would think, “if I start pulling something up, it will lead to pulling more up and I just can’t take that project on right now. Let me see if I can recruit someone! It really needs doing!”

My friend is at that stage in her relationship. She’s gotten close enough with the person she is involved with to see what appears to be weeds. She is backing away and so is the other person. Both of them are saying; I don’t have time for “that”!

That’s a huge project, and I am a busy person. (They have considered finding a relationship counselor who perhaps they can employ to pull weeds!)

Then something changed! After a few weeks of my un-acted upon obsessive thoughts about the plentitude of weeds around here, I began to see again and again that almost every single thing I thought was a weed, and I was ready to pull up and cast out, bloom!

And “the weeds” didn’t just bloom once and then go back to being ugly weeds. There has been a succession of blooms, all colors and shapes and sizes. Just about everything I would have pulled up, given the time and the tools, or the volunteers, sprouted something delightful Around where I park my car, where I stroll when I am needing a change of scenery, all around these grounds, have been wave after wave of blossoms.

Now there are some weeds, maybe, but I know now that I have seen so much successive displays of beauty and color that I am way more hesitant to pull up anything.

Once my mind moved away from seeing weeds and into seeing the glory, I then spent weeks and weeks thinking about what was this transformational experience teaching me?

When my friend shared about the current state of her relationship and how the amount of neediness  was making both her and her potential partner consider backing away, calling it quits, or at least calling in the weeding consultants, I realized I had been “there” too.

And, I have also been in the place where, instead of backing away from me, or coming at me with a gardening hoe, I have experienced the kind of curious, confident love that wants to know what that ugly, needy place is in me.

Love reaching out is not about being so ready to manage the environment. It is about listening with the intent of caring, listening and seeing with the intent of learning to receive what comes toward us as a potential source of delight.

I know now, that most of the plants around here are not “volunteers”. Somebody planted them. Somebody who knew what they were doing. I have heard stories about the “master gardener”. What I thought were weeds; that have been springing into bloom, successively since very early spring all around this building; I now take as all the proof I need that someone had a plan! I am learning to trust that plan.

If I had eradicated what appeared to be a weed, I would have missed part of the plan meant for my delight, my enjoyment, my lesson in loving what is. I would have missed out on the opportunity to be transformed.

“Love reaching out.”

I don’t know exactly what those who are going to General Assembly are going to hear. I don’t know what messages are planned, what the theme talks will say, what the workshops will teach.

But I do know that love isn’t in trying to manage what appears to be out of order. Love understands that it is big enough to hear the whole story, to see beauty in all things at all stages of life.

To live interdependently is to move out of the private lives we have constructed for ourselves, and go public. There will be weeds. There will be needs. Sometimes it will be overwhelming. Too much to do, too much to fix and straighten out, too much to organize, too much hunger and need.

Perhaps we will begin to believe we are all part of a master plan; a plan that creates successive beauty. We have had our time in the temple of the self. It is time to move out and move on and into the garden of all that is. To see if this love we speak of, can stand with in the sun and see beauty in every being. To see if this love we speak of, can move past indifference and isolation, and love strangers on the street.

It is time for a big love that reaches out…

Love Reaches Out

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Trusting Authority

“Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs…. These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.” David Brooks, New York Times, June 11, 2012, “The Follower Problem”

After hundreds of years, a model of the perfect pastor has finally been articulated.

The perfect pastor preaches exactly 18 minutes and then sits down.

She condemns injustice, but never hurts anyone’s feelings.

She works from 8am to 10pm, in every type of duty, from preaching to custodial service.

He makes $60 a week, wears good clothes, regularly buys good books, has a nice family, drives a good car, and gives $30 a week to the church.

He also stands ready to contribute to every good cause that comes along.

She is 26 years old and has been preaching for 30 years, and is entertaining and politely challenging.

She is tall and short, thin and heavy set, handsome and beautiful.

He has one brown eye and one blue; with hair that is parted in the middle, left side dark and straight, the right brown and wavy.

He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all available time with older folks.

She smiles all the time with a straight face because s/he has a sense of humor that keeps one seriously dedicated to the work.

She makes 15 calls a day on church members, spends all spare time recruiting new members, and is never out of the office.

Well somebody appreciates paradoxes!

Of course, I found this description of the perfect pastor floating around on the internet! But as you may know, UU ministers rarely get called “pastors”! Maybe that is because UU congregants reject the insinuation that they are sheep. So, perhaps this articulation doesn’t describe how we might list the attributes of the perfect “minister”!

I know, I know, there are some of you who are thinking there is no perfect minister!

Perhaps, my point is made!

And that point would be, that we look for “perfect”, rather than learning how to be in relationship. Perhaps trusting those who are in leadership has to with trusting that there is an area for growth that goes beyond rejecting what is not perfect, neither perfectly good, nor perfectly bad…

The David Brooks article I quoted earlier appeared in the New York Times on Father’s Day a few years ago.  In that article Brooks was lifting up that it appears we are living in a time when most Americans are having a difficult time trusting authority.

There are good reasons for that! Examples of the abuse of power by leaders both in government and in the church world abound.

But Brooks does not spend time analyzing the misuse of authority by those leaders. Rather he is interested in what is going on with those who distrust leaders.

Maybe the lack of trust is because we have become so accustomed to “assign[ing] moral status to victims …rather than to those who wield power.” The underdog is always, in our collective minds, more worthy of respect, than the authorities.

I agree that it is difficult for liberals to respect anyone we perceive has authority primarily because they have benefited from the privileges afforded by an unjust system.

Brooks also suggests that perhaps we don’t trust authority because of “our fervent devotion to equality”, which makes it hard for us to lift any one out of the crowd as superior to anyone else!

We are all so equally worthy that no one is better than anyone else, right? (Or maybe, what is really going on is that many of us feel, I am better than everyone else, so I only really trust myself!)

But none of these are the reason we fail to trust authority. In Brooks’ analysis the “fail” is more likely with the dis-ease we have being followers. It is not about leadership “fail”. It is a follower problem!

Who has that dis-ease more than us?

He concludes that we-the-followers have an “inability to think properly about how power should be (can be) used to bind and build.”

For Brooks, “thinking properly” would mean moving past the simplistic belief that everyone in power is corrupt, or at the very least, suspect, and thus all authority is to be rejected out of hand.

Brooks points out that like leadership, “followership is also built on a series of paradoxes. “Yes, in this society (and in this church)] …we choose our leaders but we also have to defer to them and trust their discretion.” We may be proud and independent individuals, but we also need to understand that we only thrive in a well-organized group, led by a just authority.

This, in my opinion, is the essence of “covenantal behavior”. We each have worth and dignity, but we are not all in equal in positions of authority. Some are leaders, more are followers. And all positions are informed by the nuances of paradox.

A recent UU Commission on Appraisal study entitled; “Who’s in Charge Here” focused on ministerial authority, power and oppression in our UU systems.

My colleague the Rev. Thomas Schade in a recent blog post detailed what happened during the 20th century that reduced the authority of the office of minister within liberal religion.

He points out that humanism and atheism greatly altered any thought that the minister knew something “special” about or had a direct line to ultimate reality. The expansion of university level education made many lay members equally or better educated than their ministers. The Unitarian growth strategy in the 50’s led to what came to be known as the “fellowship mentality”, the belief that congregations can function just fine without ministers.

Add to those factors that liberal religion stopped being any sort of authority on sexual morality. We entered a period of no questions asked. No shame. No guilt. It was almost as if there was an unspoken bargain struck between ministers and congregants. We silently agreed not to judge each other’s sexual lives. “Of course, [that] …was going to end badly as …. sexual misconduct proliferated.” It was ministerial authority that took the hit, when the ministers behaved like everyone else.

At the same time came all sorts of anti-oppression movements. The minister in the closed system of congregational life became “the Man”. Question Authority, meant oppose the authority.

Then you sprinkle more women in the ministry, who were cheaper, and perhaps more compliant in their leadership. Many new female ministers who were Baby Boomers entered churches with pre-boomer mentalities. The new female ministers were expected to conform to the cultural styles of the male ministers of a generation before. A congregational review became comments on hair, makeup, shoes, wardrobe, “warmth”….

Then came the first wave of the aggressive conservative movement, starting in the 70’s and powerful by the 80’s, which attacked all forms of liberal religion saying they were “morally relativistic, ethically slack, sexually libertine, “touchy-feely”, politically correct (thus really a left wing of the democratic party) and in all ways, ridiculous as a religion.

Is it any wonder that liberal self-doubt took hold? ….affecting both leaders and their potential followers?

There is little left of what my colleague Tom Schade calls “positional” authority, the power that has do with being in the role of ministerial leader. Rather, than the kind of authority that comes from holding a certain “office”, ministers have had to rely on personal persuasion, the kind of authority that comes from individual talents and interpersonal skills. Don’t like this one, exchange him or her for another one, with a different set of personality traits…

It has been interesting to be in the Forward Together Moral Monday movement and be in the presence of the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President of the NC NAACP, and a Disciples of Christ pastor. His is a very powerful presence. He exudes leadership. His focus, of course, is on justice for those who have been and are being left out. The paradox is, in the amazingly broad fusion of people and organizations, among those who would not normally come together, he stands out.  It is clear, very clear that his authority may at times be questioned, but it is followed, followed by those who are leaders in their own right. He rises and he leads.

He makes room for all sorts of voices, encouraging others to be provocative and prophetic, but he leads…

Brooks concludes by saying “to have good leaders you have to have good followers, able to recognize authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.”

Tom Schade says “Stronger UU ministers are the key to a stronger UU movement.”

I will end with his words:

“The UU ministers I know are itching to empower and equip church members to go out and live our values in the world. UU ministers want to inspire deeper spiritual growth, and greater public witness, and a more profound service. UU ministers are ready to be inspirational voices in the public square for reverence and solidarity and openness and justice. Instead of trying to limit their authority inside the congregation, every UU should be trying to build their minister’s authority in the community. As our ministers grow stronger, we all grow stronger.”