Friday, April 25, 2008

Sermon: "Relational Renewal" (Delivered 4-20-08)

Whenever I preach on certain themes, I often ask two psychologists in our church to loan me relevant books so that I can gain a greater insight into the subject matter. You probably already know that I do most of my sermon writing at my local coffee shop and sometimes taking the books that they have loaned to me has caused a bit of a drama to unfold. When I was preparing to preach on Anger, for instance, I sat in the coffee shop and received worried looks as I flipped through the Anger Management Workbook. And, when I preached on Depression last December I got even more concerned looks as I prepared for that sermon by reading two books on how to survive depression.

Well, for my sermon this morning I went back to their lending library. Picture it: there I was, sitting in the coffee shop, researching when suddenly, sitting right next to me was the most gorgeous and stunningly beautiful woman in the world. She was reading one of my favorite books of all time. My heart skipped a beat. Then she turns to me and asks me in a sultry voice, “So, what are you reading?” I turn slightly away, panicking about how to answer. I can only delay for so long; she deserves an honest answer. The book they had loaned to me was called, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. “Oh,” she says, looking slightly dejected. “No,” I say, “This is not how it looks. I’m NOT trying to make a marriage work.” (This was, in hindsight, probably the wrong thing to say.) And from there I could only dig myself deeper. “I’m not actually married,” I say. In a matter of seconds, her face had turned from fascinated to disappointed to appalled to deeply confused.

When I choose a topic on which to preach, there are often two ways that I approach the task. There are some sermons that I just know. They dwell within the core of my being. I embody them and the task is just to bring out the truth that resides inside of my heart and mind. And, then there are sermons that are not like that at all, sermons that don’t come from any place of knowing that lives inside of the core of my being. These are the challenging sermons, the sermons that require of me new discovery, research, and a journey into new realms.

This morning we conclude the four part series on renewal with the final sermon in the series. We’ve considered bodily renewal and emotional renewal. We’ve considered how communities of people can rebuild and resurrect themselves. And, this morning I want to talk about how it is possible to renew relationships between people. It is the last sermon in the series because, well, because it is the one I dreaded preaching the most.

Now, I’m sure that many of you came here expecting me to speak on a particular kind of relationship – romantic relationships, partnered relationships, marriages. This morning won’t be about those but it also won’t not be about partnered relationships. Those relationships are most definitely on my mind; I will officiate at seven weddings in the next few months – some for members of this church, others for friends and relatives of church members, and two for friends of mine.

But I hope I can speak of relationships more broadly this morning, and that what I say can be gleaned by everyone here and applied to whatever your particular circumstances are. Our marriages, our partnerships, our romances are usually the primary relationship in our lives and the relationship we tend to think of first. But we live within a broad and expansive network of relationships. I would be willing to bet that just about everybody here has a strained or estranged relationship with somebody. It might be your partner or spouse. It might be a child or parent or sibling or some other relative. It might be an in-law. (I’ve heard that people don’t always get along with their in-laws.) It might be a friend. It might be a co-worker or classmate, a boss or a teacher. You might have a strained relationship with a member of this church or the minister of this church. But I would guess that just about everybody knows somebody with whom things just are not clicking. And, what this morning is about more than anything is about how to get things to click again.

One hypothesis: for the most part, the greater the investment that exists in a relationship, the greater the effort we will extend to renew that relationship when things are not at their best. A couple that has spent years and years together and has reared children together will shell out for counseling and couples enrichment. We don’t go to measures like these for that really horrible cousin who lives two time zones away and we, for the most part, just resign ourselves to tolerate him once every two years at the family reunion. When the stakes are raised, we are more open to doing the work of repair and renewal.

Another hypothesis: Every relationship goes through cycles, through ups and downs. The more we have invested in the relationship – invested in time, invested in emotional energy, invested in how important we consider this relationship in our lives – the more capable we are of weathering the low points, the valleys that are inevitable in all relationships.

I recently spoke with a woman in this church whose wedding I performed. I asked her for her relationship wisdom. She said, “Seventy percent of the time we are just fantastic together. Fifteen percent of the time we can’t stand each other. And the other fifteen percent of the time we are out of sync. I am moving closer while he is pulling away or vice-versa.”

So, what do we make out of this? In school work, 70% is a C-minus. Does this person have C-minus relationship? In basketball, a 70% field-goal percentage makes you the greatest player of all time. It makes you Wilt Chamberlain. (On second thought, he may not be the best example for us to emulate in our relationships.) But using the basketball analogy, 70% is a Hall of Fame relationship.

I am guessing that numerical metrics and specious analogies may not be the most useful way for us to go about evaluating relationships… or maybe not. In a marriage, is the experience of mutual satisfaction and contentment 70% of the time good? And, it also depends on how bad the “bad” is. And how would we compare this to other relationships? A consumerist example is probably lacking, but how would we evaluate a restaurant where we only enjoyed the dining experience seven times out of ten? And, what do we make out of people who endure year after year of disappointment. The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series in 100 years, and they still have thousands and thousands of loyal fans. Would any of us remain in a relationship that disappointing for that long?

Perhaps I am over-thinking here and getting a bit too philosophical and a bit too speculative. We are supposed to be discussing the renewal of relationships, and we have two choices: We could look at dysfunctional, strained relationships and identify the characteristics that threaten relationships. Or, we could look at healthy relationships and tease out the key factors contributing to that health. We could ask ourselves questions like, “What are a few key elements that make your relationship successful?” “What are a few practices that contribute to vitality in your relationship?” “What does relationship renewal mean to you?”

Questions like these are not just for couples, or relationships between two people. There is a whole school of thought by which groups of people can revive. The process is called Appreciative Inquiry, and it is described this way:
“Appreciative Inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives ‘life’ to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable. Appreciative Inquiry involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. Instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design. It seeks to build a constructive union between a whole people and the massive entirety of what people talk about as past and present capacities: achievements, assets, unexplored potentials, innovations, strengths, elevated thoughts, opportunities, benchmarks, high point moments, lived values, traditions, strategic competencies, stories, expressions of wisdom, insights into the deeper spirit or soul – and visions of valued and possible futures.”
I’ve known of several churches that have used Appreciative Inquiry as they’ve entered into a period of intentional renewal. And, while it is a tool that is usually used by communities, I don’t see why it couldn’t be used in smaller unit relationships. I don’t know if any of our psychologists have used appreciative inquiry in couple’s therapy, but I don’t see why not.

This is a sermon and not an amateur psychology lecture. So, I would like to connect this discussion about relationship renewal to both our Unitarian Universalist principles and to our common church life. The word “relationship,” (well, actually the word is “relations”) occurs in our UU Seven Principles, in the second principle that describes our goal of fostering, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations: sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Two of these words are pretty simple. It is no stretch for us to affirm “justice”, which is to say that we should not exploit, deceive, or oppress others human beings. And compassion is another word that is fairly basic. It refers to a duty of care that we have for others with whom we interact.

Equity is a word that may be a little bit more unusual. I had always thought it was a synonym for equality, but I consulted the dictionary and found this was not the case. According to the dictionary, equity refers to having qualities of fairness, reasonableness, rightness, honesty, impartiality, candor, and uprightness.

I also think it is telling that I would just sort of assume the word meant equality. Equality is a word that has great appeal to many Unitarian Universalists and I wonder if subconsciously I just assumed that the word was there in the seven principles. There are all kinds of equality that are worth fighting for and that Unitarian Universalists have fought for over the years. We’ve have been on the cutting edge and on the front lines of the fight for marriage equality, gender equality, racial equality, and so forth.

So, why not put the word “equality” there? Because not all human relationships are based in equality and, if I can say something controversial, nor should they be. This does not mean that there aren’t fights for equality worth fighting. I am simply saying that power is a real and necessary part of many human relationships, despite the fact that we may wish that it wasn’t. There are real and necessary power differentials between adults and children, for example, and to pretend that there isn’t is a recipe for bad boundaries.

Even though it isn’t a topic for polite conversation, we are a microcosm of society and members of this church vary widely in terms of the privilege and wealth we enjoy. Privilege and wealth means the capacity to wield power – to wield power for either tremendous good or for tremendous ill. To try to pretend that we are all equal is to deny that some of us have positions of power that allow us to impact the world significantly.

If this discussion of power is worrisome to you, I ask you only to think about your job. Do you have the same power your superiors have or the same power those who report to you have? Sometimes this fact can be deeply frustrating, but that’s life and there are good reasons for it.

It has been interesting to tune into the news at various points during the day over the past week and see the Pope doing all the things Popes do when they visit the United States. Seeing it, I am reminded of just how unlike Catholicism Unitarian Universalism is. We are far, far, far less hierarchical, which for the most part is good although, to be completely honest I am insanely jealous of the Popemobile. But seriously, even though we are one of the flattest faith traditions in terms of a lack of hierarchy, even I do carry some measure of power in my position. I am human, but more is expected from me. My words and actions are subject to special scrutiny and what I say often has an exponent attached. To deny this would be a form of self-deception. Ministers don’t get to be just another guy or just another gal.

So, while we strive for equality in some circumstances, we realize that complete and utter equality is neither attainable, nor, in certain circumstances, desirable. So, we aim to use our power wisely… to use our powers for the cause of justice, in the exercise of compassion, and to further the demands of equity.

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. That list is a great start. Just off the top of my head I would add accountability, forbearance, understanding, and appreciation as other traits worth developing in human relationships.

I want to conclude by talking about the renewal of relationships in church life. We are all people with many relationships: partners and spouses, parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, siblings, relatives, in-laws, friends, co-workers, colleagues, supervisors, teammates, and so on and so forth. We also have a relationship with others in the church and with the church itself.

That relationship, between our own selves and the church, sometimes follows the same pattern of a romantic relationship or a close friendship or even a kind of familial relationship. We go through periods of infatuation. We are smitten by the church. We go through periods of disillusionment. We go through periods of feeling out of sync.

When this happens, we have a choice. Our response is our choice. We can either let the relationship dwindle and atrophy… or we can take steps to heal, renew, and rebuild. The best news of all is that it is our choice.

Just as it is our choice (as well as our sacred duty) to practice Justice.

Just as it is our choice (as well as our sacred duty) to practice Compassion.

Just as it is our choice (as well as our sacred duty) to practice Equity.

It is our choice and our sacred duty to work on ourselves and to work towards whole and holy relationships. These choices speak volumes about our character.