Sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva on February 3, 2013:
Excerpts from The Happiness Manifesto by Nic Marks (discussing 5 behaviors that research shows promote happiness: Connect, Take Notice, Be Active, Learn, Give)
Quote from Steve Jobs (the world you know was created by people no smarter than you – and you can change it …)
Excerpt from The Church We Yearn For by Michael Durall (story about creation of a new ministry for day laborers using a church’s new ministry seed fund)
Today’s sermon is all about you. But before we get to you, I’d like to talk a bit about me.
And then about us. But I promise, we’ll get back to you.
I don’t know about you, but when I first walked through the doors of this church, I wasn’t particularly interested in changing the world being a leader of anything.
I mean, sure, I was concerned about the state of the community and the world and willing to do my share, but I didn’t come here to get involved in our social justice ministries. I also had no notion of being on the board of directors, let alone board president.
Honestly, at the time, I’m not sure I knew exactly what I was looking for. Apologies to those of you who’ve heard this before, which by now is probably all of you, but we first came here in 2006. This was about five years after we got married. Before we had kids. We both worked. We made good money, and had just bought a nice house. By any objective standard our lives were pretty good. Except that, aside from each other, we weren’t really connected on any significant level to many other people. Sure, we had a handful of friends, but nobody really nearby. We had family who we would see every other week or so. But most of our days consisted of working long hours, and our nights were mainly watching TV and going to bed so that we could get up and go to work again the next day.
Although I may not really have known it at the time, in retrospect, what I think I needed was connection to a community. Some sense of purpose and belonging. You might say that I felt the need to be part of something larger than myself. Except, I think that whole notion rests on too narrow an understanding of selfhood.
Let me take a slight detour here for a moment to talk about how I’ve come to understand the idea of “self” or, if you prefer, “soul.”
One way of imagining this is to picture a person’s outer self – their body, their actions, what they present to the world, and then imagine that inside, maybe sitting in a little spot up in the brain or something, is a smaller person, the “true self,” the unchanging seed or essence of what that person is. The outer person may or may not reflect that true inner self. Often, we imagine the body and the outer world in conflict with that inner self.
Some go so far as to imagine this little self as a spirit or substance that shoots out of your nose when you sneeze, and has to be crammed back in by saying “Bless You.”
Another version of that model might be to imagine our souls as a bunch of billiard balls. Sure, we interact, we bounce off each other, but through it all we’re essentially the same at the end of the game as we were at the beginning.
I’ve come to have a somewhat different idea of what the “self” or the “soul” is. I’m not sure where exactly this idea originates. I picked it up somewhere along the way but I honestly don’t recall where it came from.
What I’m saying is that who we are is defined by how we interact with the people and the world around us. Rather than billiard balls that remain unchanged as the careen off of one another, our souls are more like the places where a spider web converges – defined by strands of relationship, sensitive to the pushing or pulling of every other strand in the web. And like a spider web, our souls are always in flux – constantly being woven and broken and re-built.
Once you understand the soul or the self not as an isolated and static entity but as the ever-changing web of relationships in which we live our lives, the concepts of community, love, generosity and service take on a new light.
One thing that stuck with me from my youthful infatuation with Ayn Rand was the idea that love is essentially selfish. While I’ve come to disagree with just about everything else Rand ever wrote, I still think that she was right about that.
If we understand ourselves as a node in this incredibly rich and complex interdependent web, the tension between acting in your own self-interest and acting for the benefit of others starts to dissolve. Giving and service are no longer about sacrificing your own interests for those of the other. They are acts of self-expression. They are acts of connection and relationship.
By building connections with others, we construct our own souls.
Now, let’s talk a bit about us – Specifically, about this congregation.
As most of you are probably aware, we’re working Mike Durall to reinvigorate our church and move us to the next step in our ministry. One of the key things that Mike has told us we need to do is identify our role as a church. Why does this congregation exist? What is our purpose?
My view of our role flows directly from this idea of the soul or self as the nexus of our evolving connections with other people and the world.
I believe that the reason we gather together here in this church is to weave those connections that make up the fabric of our souls.
As I see it, this church is here as a safe place for people to encounter the “other,” to create a genuine community based upon deep feelings of solidarity and compassion, and to push ourselves to expand and redefine the boundaries of our community.
This understanding of our role is one that can guide all that we do here at UUSG.
It calls us to develop a sense of historical community with those who preceded us – the founders of this church, and the pioneers and prophets of our liberal religious tradition.
It also calls on us to create solidarity within our community by living and acting like a community: worshiping together, sharing meals, learning, celebrating rights of passage, serving together, helping other members of the congregation in times of need, and accepting the community’s help when our time of need comes.
Further, we create opportunities to build solidarity with others outside these walls through social justice work, partnering with other people of good will to make our communities and the world a little bit better, and getting to know other UUs from around our region and around the country.
If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that this role that I’m describing for our church matches up pretty closely to our first reading from the Happiness Manifesto.
Remember those five things that were found to contribute most to individual happiness: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give. All of these are about being engaged and connected with other people and the world around you. And all of these are needs that this church can work directly to help meet. That includes physical activity by the way – if you want to be inspired to get more active, ask Mark Alleman to tell you sometime about his cycling adventures. Or try joining our Habitat for Humanity ministry or help out with the groundskeeping if you’d like a more direct workout.
The point I’m trying to make here is that our mission as a church isn’t to persuade our members to sacrifice their self interests in service of some higher good. It’s to help each you, each of you, be better, happier selves. It’s to save our souls – not from hellfire and damnation, but from a life that’s less than fully lived.
Here’s the thing about this mission – it’s not something that we do to or for people. It only works if you’re actively involved in the process.
If your involvement in this church is limited to occasionally coming to worship and maybe having a cup of coffee during the social hour, you may come away with some interesting food for thought and a nice feeling. We’re certainly happy to welcome you and have you join us, but you’re not really participating in the community.
To get more, you have to give more.
That brings us back to the really important part of our disussion: let’s talk about you.
One of the messages that I hope you take away from today is that it’s important to get involved here at church, to give generously of your money, time, and talents. That benefits the church, but more importantly it benefits you. That’s the simple message. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Just as important though is the idea of balance. You have to pace yourself.
It’s a hard lesson to learn. As Board President I’m relatively well plugged into what’s going on here at church. I know about so many things that I’d love to jump into, so many problems I could help solve or things I could help improve.
But I have to hold myself back.
At the end of the day, we all have to remind ourselves that the purpose of our church isn’t simply to take our service and our money. What matters isn’t the building, or the ministries that we offer. What matters is us, each of us and the ties of community that we’re building here.
Remember the list – Connect, Take Notice, Be Active, Keep Learning, Give.
If you’re new here or have been around but just haven’t yet figured out what your role in the church might be, that’s OK. Take your time. Try things out. See what fits and where you connect best. Find a role that fits you and leaves you feeling energized. But most importantly, take the time to build connections with others here.
On the other hand, if you’ve been around for awhile, maybe you’ve found a ministry here that suits you. Perhaps you’ve been on the same committee for years. You like it there – it’s comfortable, you do good work and contribute something of value. That can be a good thing.
But there’s also a danger. To grow as a church and for you to grow as a person, we need to continually invite connections with new people. That’s hard to do if we insist on maintaining the roles and patterns that we’ve established over the years.
We need to make room within ourselves and within our church for new new people, new ideas, and new roles.
When the Nominating Committee asked me whether I’d be willing to continue on as board president next year, I told them yes, but that it would be my last year. I asked them to make sure that there is someone on the board who is willing and expects to take over as president after I step down, so that we can make this coming year a transition year.
I’ve loved being board president and I’m excited for what we’ll achieve over the next year, but for my own growth as a person and for the benefit of the church, I need to move on to a different role, where I can learn new things, make new connections, and give in different ways.
If you’ve been in a particular role here at church for a number of years, I ask you to do the same. Start talking to others to find out who else might be interested in the work you’re doing. Take some time to teach them what you know. And then, take a step back. Let them do the work and take the lead. They’ll do it differently than you – that’s OK. That’s healthy for the church. And most importantly, it’s healthy for you, because you can then try something new of your own, learning, making new connections, and giving of yourself in a new way.
Crucially, you need to start doing this now – while you’re still engaged and energized by your current role, so that you can pass that energy and enthusiasm on to the next person.
I’ll end today by talking about a couple of opportunities that we have to build connections and help make room for new ones here at UUSG.
First, during the congregational meetings following Mike Durall’s first visit, we learned that there are a number of you who weren’t aware of our Lay Minister program, or of the fact that we regularly organize meals or other assistance for folks who are sick or in need. We need to do a better job of publicizing that, because if people don’t know about the help we can offer, they won’t be able to ask for it or help in providing it. I’d also like to see us do a better job as a congregation of sharing what’s going on in our lives – for good or for ill. Whether or not you believe that prayer has any special power to heal, knowing that there is a community that knows you’re sick or grieving and shares in your pain can be an enormous comfort; and sharing your joy at a new baby or a personal achievement is all the sweeter if you share it with those around you.
If you’re interested in helping out with these ministries, please stick around after the service so that we can get your name and include you in the follow-up list. [Note - email me or Glenda Peck if you are interested in helping.]
Second, do you remember that story from Mike Durall that I shared during the readings, about the woman who started the ministry for day laborers with a contribution from her church’s New Ministry Seed Fund? Well, I’m very pleased to announce that we’ve created a New Ministry Seed Fund here at our church. The fund will provide grants to support new ministries at UUSG that are consistent with our covenant and our UU principles. These could be anything, from a Social Justice ministry like the one Durall described, to a new religious education program, guest speakers, a special event – whatever you can imagine, so long as it is new and in service of our broader mission. To request a grant, just send an e-mail to Rev. Lindsay and me describing your project and how the funds would support it. We have $2,000 in the fund, and the board has given Lindsay and I authority to approve grants from the fund of up to $500 per ministry, or more with board approval. I hope to spend all of this money by the end of this church year and to ask the board to replenish the fund for next year, but we need your help and your ideas to do it.
I’ll close by going back to the start. We have a lot of programs here at UUSG. There are a lot of things that we do together. But all of them are ultimately about you, and about us. We covenant to aid one another in our moral and religious improvement and promote practical goodness in the world. And we do that by building connections – by weaving the fabric of our souls.