I have never had a moment when I hit my head and exclaim, “I could’ve had a V-8.” But I have had moments when I think, ‘O I wish I had done something different than act the fool.’ The wise ones are quoted as saying ‘Hind sight is 20/20 vision’ but like most things it only can be so, if we are willing to look back at where we have been and examine what is found.
And if my human nature tendency is anything like the rest of ours, then I would bet we prefer to let the sleeping dogs and hornets’ nests in our past to remain there undisturbed and hope they do not awaken or leave their nests to bite us. Sometimes however, it is good to look back at the path we have traveled and even perhaps consider the sleeping dogs and hornets’ nests so we can learn from these experiences. It is good to learn how to repeat those experiences that served us well and learn how to avoid those events that have not served us well.
So let’s consider our past year together and for a compass let us use our mission statement as a guide to measure whether our past year activities as a community has served us well. There may be events in our community, or in our larger sphere that is asking for a response in this coming year.
Our current mission statement reads ‘We are an open, nurturing community of Unitarian Universalists made visible by our actions to create a better world.’
Now mission statements do not mean that we have arrived or even come close to being what we profess to want to be. And some of us might be better at some parts of this mission statement and not so good in other parts. And there may be aspects of this mission statement that no longer quite fits us. By that I mean we might have developed more clarity as to what we desire to be as a church community. Do we have more clarity in what it means for us to create a better world? Does the person who has never met us know what we mean when we say a better world? They may be wondering according to what standards or according to whose values?
The NRA would have us believe that having armed guards or teachers in our schools would create a better world. Is this what we mean when we say this phrase? I might be wrong in this assumption, but I don’t think this is what we [this congregation] would call a better world. So in the past year have there been actions that we as a congregation performed that point towards defining what we mean by this phrase… ‘actions to create a better world?’
There were several events and activities this year that points to what we believe might be a better world. This past year our congregation has opened its building and its worship space to Somos Tuskaloosa, the Latino advocacy group that is seeking to repeal the anti-immigrant laws HB 56 and HB 658. In so doing we began breaking down some barriers between our two communities. We had this past year two bi-lingual services—or at least we attempted in being bi-lingual and the attempt was deeply appreciated.
Our work with the immigrant community did not stop there. Some of us went to anti-HB 56 rallies in Birmingham and Montgomery. I participated in civil disobedience at the State House in an attempt to stop the legislators from voting to strengthen HB 56.
And in the summer many members of our community opened our homes and our hearts to members of the Undocubus, undocumented individuals from across the country who were making a very public stand against the immigration laws in this nation, both on the state and federal levels. This was perhaps the most powerful event that we as a congregation participated in this past year and perhaps in many years.
The better world these actions point to, at least from my perspective, is one where diversity is honored and celebrated. Where our common experiences as humans is placed as the bridge over the things that divide us. This was indeed a two way street over this bridge because we got to know more about a segment of our larger community and this segment of the community got to know more about us. We practiced living out several of our principles during the week the folks from the Undocubus were here. In the process we created new friendships and isn’t the world better with more friends than with less friends?
But this wasn’t the only bridge into the community that we made this year. We decided as a congregation to affiliate with Caring Days in a more formal manner. This organization provides services to people with memory deficiencies. Some of our members have benefited from the services this organization offers so we knew first hand their offerings in the world. Again we made a new partnership to assist them in their services and this is a good thing because in the process of us getting to know what they offer and how we might help them; they also learn more about us and our values. Who knows when we might need their services? Wouldn’t it be a better world for agencies like Caring Days that are offering loving care to know first hand the diversity of faith in their community? These are but a few of the aspects of creating a better world that I believe we have done this past year.
What about the open and nurturing community aspects? Again, it is a matter of how do we define these terms? What does it mean to be open? What does it mean to be nurturing?
Here is how I define being open. I am being open when I am most present in the moment, when I am most able to go with the flow of life instead of insisting on my own way. When I am the most gentle with another who may be struggling with something, I am being open. When I am willing to hear new ideas, new perspectives and suspend my personal filters through which I have grown accustomed to seeing and hearing the world; then I am being open. It means listening how a person uses a word and their nuances of that word and not immediately applying my meaning or even my experience of that word.
We have had glimmers of being open this past year. I say glimmers because I think it is a growing edge for us. Meeting the people from the Undocubus was a moment of us being open. We came in contact with a group of people whose experience in this country was vastly different from our experience. It meant we had to listen to understand what they experienced. It meant we had to suspend our understanding of the world in order to fully hear their understanding. It was a moment of disrupting our way of thinking for many of us. And it was a transformative experience because we grew in our appreciation of the other. Our hearts were open to what the experience might offer us.
Nurturing is a harder concept for us. I interpret nurturing as being encouraging, supportive in each other’s growth towards their potential—be that intellectual, emotional, or spiritual maturity.
How do we know if we are being nurturing or if we are being nurtured spiritually?
One of my mentors, Rev. Arvid Straube[i] shared what meditation teacher Shinzen Young had to say about spiritual growth progress.
1.You have less suffering. You are less plagued by resentment, self-pity, negative judgment of self and others and envy. You are able to take the bumps and hardships of life with greater calm and equanimity.
2. You have more fulfillment. You experience gratitude for your life and the many joys and gifts that you have been given. You enjoy your loved ones, your friends, your community, your activities and your material goods. Nature nurtures you. You feel your life matters.
3. You have more insights. You see more and more the interconnections between your own existence and the world at large. You intuitively sense the right action to take more often.
4. You have more positive behaviors and fewer negative behaviors. You find yourself being kinder and more patient with others. You are less judgmental. You may find yourself having an easier time letting go of unproductive habits. You may find it is easier to take good care of yourself.
5. You have a natural tendency to act more compassionately and to serve others.
If we are nurturing one another, it is in a manner that encourages these traits to occur within us as well as within others. It is one of our principles where we seek to practice “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
It is sometimes thought that acceptance of one another means allowing another’s behavior to be acceptable even when it is self-destructive or destructive to the health of the whole congregation. Accepting other’s poor behaviors in order to be practicing acceptance is not what this principle is about. There are ways to accept the person without accepting the poor behavior. A parent loves their child regardless whether that child displays poor behaviors or not. The parent will correct the poor behavior in the child in a loving and nurturing manner. I am not saying to treat the person with poor behaviors as a child but rather to encourage the person towards better behaviors.
It is poor behavior to use joys and sorrows as a confessional. Anyone who needs to know can ask privately after the service. It is poor behavior to dress as if this were a nightclub and not a church. I am not saying dress as if this was 1913 instead of 2013, but respect your self to have some modesty. It is poor behavior to make biting and rude comments. It is poor behavior to expect others will tend after your children. And it is poor behavior to tell a first time or second time or even the 15th time visitor what should remain your private business and no one elses’, let alone telling them someone elses’ private business. Being open does not mean we spill our guts onto anyone we can corner.
Why are these poor behaviors? Because these are gatekeeper behaviors to screen out those who might judge the behavior; those who do not judge the behavior are welcomed and those who do are not welcomed. I have wondered long and hard why we have some visitors who come not just once, not just twice but for several months and then stop coming. Disappear.
Every congregation has within it a system that keeps it at a certain size and works to prevent it from growing to the next size. The poor behaviors that I am describing and have witnessed this past year in this congregation are part of the system here that keeps the congregation as a family size church. These act as forces in the system that resist change and will apply pressure to keep things from changing. This is known as homeostasis.
This is essential to life as well. Homeostasis in a body ensures the body is functioning well between all its organs. Homeostasis ensures the heart is beating at the right rate to ensure the blood is carrying the right amount of nutrients to the muscles; the liver and kidney are filtering out the right amount of toxins and waste from the body to ensure proper functioning. These are examples of a homeostatic state and it maintains the body at a certain level. When the heart is not beating properly or the liver is no longer able to remove toxins and wastes from the blood then that balance is lost and the system becomes dysfunctional.
We find homeostasis in other systems as well including the system that we label the congregation. When a congregation has made the decision to grow, then the homeostasis of that congregation needs to make adjustments in order to maintain that new level of functioning. If the homeostasis remains functioning at a previous level, then the congregation, despite its best efforts to attract new members, will revert back to the previous size the congregation was at before the decision was made. The display and acceptance of poor behaviors is a homeostatic behavior to keep our congregation a family sized church.
I have heard repeatedly that this congregation wants to grow. I have heard members here state that we still want to build more religious education classrooms and a formal sanctuary. We need to grow in size not just to a pastoral size church but a program size congregation for us to sustain a larger campus.
To do that means we need to break through this homeostasis state and we need to gently nurture our members away from poor behaviors. It will be healthier for these members individually and healthier for us as a congregation if we can find our way to shift towards holding each other accountable to one another as we covenant to do at every new member ceremony.
We know how to nurture one another. Our congregation this past year unfortunately suffered several deaths. We responded well to these crises in our members’ lives in ways that were very moving and supportive. I have been impressed by the love this congregation shows each other in times of great loss. It is time to show great love towards each other in gently holding us accountable to spiritual maturity. May this be the year that we strive ever closer to our mission of an open, nurturing community of Unitarian Universalists made visible by our actions to create a better world.