"Can We Talk?"
Have any of you ever heard of UU Wellsprings? Participated in one of the groups? This is a real gem of a program that operates much like small group ministry and provides a 10-month program offered in Unitarian Universalist settings. The twice a month, 2-hour sessions offer participants an opportunity for spiritual deepening that leads to more joyful living, increased congregational leadership, and faithful justice making in their lives and in their communities. So says their website and I must say I concur! The first year is always centered around the sources we draw from as a faith tradition. The conversation is rich and the level of trust and vulnerability that are fostered make strong connections a possibility in a short amount of time. This speaks to me! People sharing from their most authentic selves – their struggles and joys – the stories of their lives in real time. It invites me into conversation about my own life with all its ups and downs. I know I am being heard. And together we all grow. This is the kind of thing that the 20th century philosopher and theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, was talking about when he discussed the term “creative interchange,” which I know you have heard about from our pulpit before. I have long been a proponent and follower of this philosophy which posits such a level of communication that it draws from each an ever-increasing depth and growth as one spirals toward their best selves. Shared experience is integrated in another, so as to become a part of each other, in a sense, and creates a unique individuality in the melding of realities. Rather than giving up who we are in the process, we instead add to our identity. We are changed by our connections. The late Rev. Roy D. Phillips, retired Unitarian minister, in his timeless book on the transformation of liberal congregations talks about the future of the liberal faith; the future of Unitarian Universalism and, if I may extrapolate, our future here at the UU Meeting House in Chatham. Our vision includes elements that ask us to apply our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles in our lives; it’s about nurturance and safety, community and celebration; about welcome, connection and fellowship; about vitality and sustenance. We are seeking a different kind of world. Creative interchange gives us an opportunity to shape ourselves into an environment where the “divine seed” in everyone can be acknowledged, nourished, and challenged in order that it develop into an expression that bears fruit. This is a powerful context, he says, where such “a way of being and becoming in the people who enter it, and through them, in the people they encounter” can exist and flourish to the end that our lives and challenges, and the gifts and values we bring to bear upon them in shared ministry have the potential to enrich the world.[i] We have a way of talking about ourselves here – a way of talking about things in general that constitutes a language or perhaps a dialect that is distinctly UUMH. We thought about this for a hot second earlier in the year when I preached about radical inclusion. Remember? If not, I am sure my sermon entitled, “Fluidity” from July is on the website for your review! We have a culture of our own, as does every organization and churches are no different. It is our way of being in the world and to become more inclusive we need to be willing to shift that somewhat. A process of creative interchange with the world beyond our walls engages other ways of being openly, incorporates those ideas into the mix with our own while sharing what we have with them until a new us and a new them is developed. Creative interchange fosters radical inclusion. Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in their research and teaching on the topic of organizational change and, ultimately, our immunity to change offers some pearls of wisdom useful to us as we begin to reimagine communication. In all people and places there is apparently a paradox that exists between what one wants and the length to which one will go to prevent that from occurring! They look at dynamics like entropy – that tendency toward coming apart – disorder and dissipation – we see it in our own bodies! And there is its opposite – negentropy – which suggests that things can be reorganized in such a way as to prevent or at least slow this coming apart and even hold it all together in better ways. Returning to the analogy of our bodies – we eat well, exercise, get good medical care and pre-empt the process, shifting its direction. But they say that there is a third option often at play; a dynamic of equilibrium which operates like an immune system and keeps things pretty much as they are. Rather than tumbling toward disintegration or expanding capacity in powerful new ways, this dynamic maintains the status quo and prevents things from happening at all. This dynamic of equilibrium is roadblock on the path of life.[ii] What does all this have to do with us, you might be saying! What I am noticing is that we talk amongst ourselves fairly well! We’ve all been schooled in the language. Our means of communication make sense to us. Our methods are embedded in the lifeblood of the church. AND, we have a powerful practice of creative interchange within our walls. We care deeply for one another, listen well to each other, give of ourselves to the benefit of our partners in faith, even challenge each other with such love that we can’t help but grow and change in the process. In the space of this container we are flourishing, living into our vision and thank goodness because we need one another now more than ever as we navigate this pandemic place in time. From the inside it looks amazing – beautiful – warm and cozy even! No entropy – we are holding ourselves together. No negentropy – nothing earth shattering blasting us beyond what seems normal. We have been, and to some degree remain, in a state of equilibrium! From the outside of our container it may appear lovely, too! Just look at them in there – how content they are – how good they are to each other – such love in their midst. And for the very self-assured who like what they see and want some of it, the way in is easy. They fit in naturally with no extra effort on either part. But this is not inclusive! It does not employ creative interchange in any way that challenges the status quo for them or for us. There is no change in the actual container that allows for the growth of the whole. It is an either/or proposition rather than a both/and. So, what’s a congregation to do? Here at the Meeting House we are embarking on a new venture in communication. It is exciting and hopeful, and we are delighted to have contracted with someone to help us with it, thanks to the support of the Endowment Board. Our website is getting a face lift, but more than that it will need to reflect the whole of us if it is to be effective. It is one of the places where creative interchange can begin to happen with the world beyond this space we inhabit. When I began this morning, I talked about what speaks to me and how I know I have been heard. I am not unusual in saying that authenticity and vulnerability are key facets of communication. Our website, newsletter and eblast do a great job of talking in the language of UUMH to those of us on the inside. The shift is in exposing ourselves to the rest of the world. This is an incredible, vital, progressive, thoughtful and caring place. Why would we hide that? There is, of course, equilibrium and the question of proselytizing rears its ugly head from time to time. So let me just say this about that and then move on – If we are never willing to talk about what we have here in this faith, no one will be the wiser and we will slowly disappear as a faith tradition. If I never exposed my child to different viewpoints, religious and otherwise, how would they ever decide what they will believe? People don’t make choices in a vacuum. Engagement is necessary. Marianne Williamson is often quoted as suggesting that instead of thinking who on earth am I to tout my gifts, we should be saying who are we not to; that “playing small” doesn’t serve the world. Our sharing about the many things that are going on at UUMH is a gift to the world that invites creative interchange and its subsequent growth. This means that whatever any one of us is doing on behalf of the Meeting House is valuable and worthy of being shared. We need to ease into a level of vulnerability that allows us to realize our full potential. Whatever you are participating in or leading here is no small thing. It is an important piece of the whole. And funneling this information to our communications team will help us begin to engage with the world outside our walls. Our authenticity will speak for itself. We need all of us to survive. The Gospel of Thomas – one of the early writings of the Christian movement that didn’t make it into the big book – says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” There is wisdom in this nugget for us at UUMH of Chatham. It asks us to openly and honestly portray our church with all of its personalities and quirks, happenings and events, opportunities and potential. And it says this, this very thing of offering what we have in ways that allow us to be molded and shaped by what we encounter even as we have that effect on whatever we meet up with, this will save us, certainly from the entropy and more importantly from the equilibrium, that holds us back. And is also says that if we don’t – if we cling to what is ours, keeping it for ourselves alone, that this will destroy us. This is an invitation into reimagining communication with an outward focus. It is an invitation into a practice of vulnerability and authenticity; of creative interchange with the world around us. This is an invitation into personal growth and organizational change, scary as that may sound to us on an individual or an institutional level. May we dig deep and open wide in this time of liminality, creatively emerging from what was to what can be in our midst and for the good of the world. So may it be and Amen. [i] “Transforming Liberal Congregations for the New Millennium” by Roy D. Phillips, Unity Church-Unitarian, 1996. [ii] “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Josey-Bass, 2001.