Monday, May 7, 2012

Sermon - "A View From Above"

What pushes your buttons? What do other people do that makes your skin crawl and makes you react, not as yourself, but as a purely emotional reaction? We all have these triggers. It may be a topic of conversation or even a particular word. Or maybe a particular behavior is just more than you can stand. A couple of weeks ago, at our weekly coffee talk on Tuesday night, we learned just this sort of lesson. Within just a couple of minutes of sitting down with our group, one of our members began confronting another member about how they had treated someone else in the church. Apparently she had not been as supportive as she might, and in the midst of an “I told you so,” wagged her finger. So at coffee talk she says, “Don’t you ever do that to anyone in the church again. If you wag it at me, I’ll break you F-ing finger off.” Needless to say, we were all a little stunned. The finger wager apologized and the topic of conversation quickly changed to something more positive. Eventually, a good forty-five minutes later, an apology emerged. “I’m so sorry, I’m not sure what got into me. That was over the top.” So we talked about it then and there. And we came to realize that the infamous finger wag was a favorite gesture of an ex husband. It was the embodiment of years of condescension and grief. She wasn’t responding to one finger wag of one conversation, she was responding to years of frustration with another person from decades past. And still it jumped out to surprise her. But we all learned from the reaction together. We learned a little something about having your buttons pushed. So when I ask, “what pushes your buttons?” I’m being quite serious. What gestures or ideas make your blood boil in ways that are really out of proportion to the situation? I know my buttons get pushed along the lines of political ideology. Just last week I jumped all over a close friend of mine for an innocent joke about a local non-profit organization. I think it was something about Village Laguna. They work to keep the small-town feel of Laguna Beach businesses. I don’t know what the joke was. Of course in retrospect it was fairly benign. But instead of taking it as an innocent joke, or even hearing it as a critique of the flaws that every organization has, I took it personally. I heard the innocent joke as an attack on my personal political inclinations and my feelings for this town. So of course I read him the riot act about all the wonderful things this group had contributed to our community, all the things I knew he was grateful for, or at least should be grateful for. It was a totally disproportionate reaction to a joke. Fortunately he is a good enough friend to talk to me about it. He asked me what had happened and it took me several days to even figure out what was going on in my head, why I had responded so quickly and harshly. Knee jerk ideological responses are not helpful in relationships. I know this, the challenge is in remembering it. Fortunately both of these stories of button pushing turned out to be opportunities to learn a little, to gain perspective on ourselves and why we respond the way we do. Gaining perspective on our lives, pausing to understand why we respond the way we do in a wider network of people is a critical piece of development. And it is one of the central roles of religious life. By focusing on both our own experiences and the concerns of the wider world we are able to transcend our individual point of view. We are able to rise above the fray for a moment to see our life as part of a much bigger picture. In fact that is the exact purpose of the prayers of the people that we are adding to the worship service. This congregation has shared its joys and sorrows with one another for a very long time. It’s an important part of worship, sharing what it is in our heart. But prayers of the people adds an important dimension, it puts those joys and sorrows into a global context. The goal certainly isn’t to diminish the specific joys and sorrows of this community when we mention those of the wider world. The goal is to give a context, an opportunity to link heart to heart over the share human experience of pain and joy. As we celebrate and grieve the specific events that touch the lives of this community we are reminded of our brothers and sisters around the world who share in the struggle for meaning and happiness. Hopefully, our church, any church for that matter helps us strike a healthy balance our personal focus with a global concern. The other big way that we find perspective in our religious lives is opening ourselves awe and wonder at the beauty of life. That’s why I chose our closing hymn and that’s why I chose our reading from earlier. Tagor wrote, “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measure. … I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.” Even if just for a moment, when I embrace that broader truth, the wonder of creation, I’m cured of my knee-jerk inclination to clobber someone who makes a political joke. Those glimpses of perspective help dilute the intensity of the moment our buttons are pushed. A significant piece of religious life is gaining perspective. And what we tend to see, when we can pause to take a few deep breaths, when we can transcend our anxious perception of the moment, is that we are a part of a much larger system. In our UU language we often call it the Interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. That’s straight from our seventh principle. It’s a pretty grand description of the system that we are a part of. “The interdependent web of which we are a part.” Or you may just see it through ecological terms. We share this planet and its limited resources. Jean Raun spoke earlier about the necessity to engage our political system from a perspective not of self-interest, but of communal thriving. But the sharing and the system can get even smaller scale than that. One of the most interesting pieces of training I had in preparing for ministry was about family systems. As I did a short internship in the hospital, we occasionally came across families or individuals that we just couldn’t make sense of. There seemed to be complex web of psychology and spirituality, so tangled that we couldn’t get a grasp of why they felt they way they did. So we would actually make a diagram of the family, called a genogram. It’s hard to explain so here’s a picture of what one might look like. Horizontal connections are marriages and vertical connections are parent / child relationships. And a whole bunch of different symbols describe the relationships. To make sense of what a patient or sometimes a family member was thinking or feeling, we had to draw out this entire web so that we could see the context that they were coming from. Families can be pretty complicated, as I’m sure you all know. What happens in one part of the family pulls on relationships and tugs in a way that impacts the rest of the family. It’s not difficult to see that we also have a web here at church, based on personalities, roles and relationships. A change in one person, one relationship affects the whole system. Every gathering of people has this sort of interrelated network, where the relationships come to settle into a balance. Change in any one of those relationships means change whether big or small, for the rest of the system. This is one of the reasons people are averse to change in families or in organizations. Our subconscious is actually much, much smarter than we tend to give it credit for. Our subconscious knows that if something changes in one part of the system, then everything else will have to shift a little bit, including our self. And things will keep shifting and changing until a new equilibrium is reached. It’s the algebra of personalities. It all has to even out eventually. And this is where adaptive leadership comes into play, the mystery topic that people have been asking me about all week. Jane, our office administrator had no idea what picture to put on the cover of this morning’s order of service. Adaptive leadership is a leadership philosophy that encourages communities to embrace change as a learning and growth opportunity, rather than a source of fear or frustration. You may have noticed that I have been talking about change a lot lately. It’s not because I want to overhaul the church. We have a good thing going here. But the hard truth is, change is inevitable. When the winds of change blow, some people build walls, and other people build windmills. According to Facebook last week, it is a Chinese proverb. I can’t vouch for its origins, but it’s the truth. “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls, and other people build windmills.” Change is inevitable. Our task it not to prevent it, but to build tools to respond to it. And, adaptive leadership is all about building a community where the challenge of change can be accepted not with chaos and fear, but as an opportunity for learning and growth. What I’m asking is that we trust one another’s good intentions. We trust the spirit of covenant. As you know, we don’t have a set of beliefs that we all hold in common. And this church is more than this physical building. Our real foundation is the covenant that we share with one another, the agreement to seek the truth in love and to help one another. The more we can trust one another’s good intentions, the better we can build windmills together as a community. I have talked a lot today about abstract ideas. To close the sermon let’s simplify this idea of Adaptive Leadership a bit. I want to return to our story from earlier, the story of Chicken Little. The parable is very clear. Don’t be a Chicken Little, don’t overreact and cause chaos out of your fear. Countless other parables in our culture are equally clear about how to behave appropriately. Don’t be a boy who cries wolf. Slow and steady wins the race; the tortoise always beats the hare. These stories teach great lessons, but they don’t teach us how to respond to our friend Chircken Little, or the boy, or the Hare. What are we to say to Chicken Little in the moment of crisis? We could say, “You stupid chicken, stop running around, that was obviously an acorn.” But what is Chicken Little going to learn from that experience? The biggest thing she will learn is that we think she is stupid. Or we could just give up on the situation all together and decide that the crazy chicken and your gang of silly animals got what you deserved. The fox ate them up and the problem is solved. Natural selection isn’t pretty after all. Well I like to think our congregation is a little kinder and wiser than either of these options. What if, instead of solving the problem for Chicken Little and all her frightened friends, or letting them all get eaten, what if we said “Wow you all are really upset about this situation. Maybe I should be to. But, can you tell me what happened here. I don’t think I understand. What do you mean when you say that the sky is falling? Turkey Lurkey, did you see the sky fall too?” A few patiently asked questions can be a whole lot more helpful than a quick answer. That’s what adaptive leadership is about in a nutshell, having the patience to sit with a question, rather than panicking to give a quick fix. Adaptive leadership is based on the belief that polyarchy, or leadership of the many, is actually better than oligarchy, or leadership of the few. Given enough patience and the right questions, that gang of frightened birds would have learned that in fact the sky is not falling, and that they probably shouldn’t get so excited about a perceived emergency. Adaptive Leadership isn’t just something that I’m reading up on because it’s the trend in the business world and the church world. I am sincerely interested in it because it has much to offer our congregation. Even more than that, I think it has some profound lessons for our families and our professional lives as well. Patience and perspective are worth more in the long run than quick answers. We are all going to get our buttons pushed from time to time. We are human beings after all. Conflict and change are going to happen, I guarantee it. My hope for this community, and for your families, is that we can trust our shared covenant, to move beyond quick answers so that together we can build windmills rather than walls when the winds of change come our way. -Amen-

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