Friday, December 10, 2010

Sermon: "Welcoming Our Tensions" (Delivered 11-28-10)

From the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2 by Lao-Tzu, as translated by Stephen Mitchell
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

In one of the stories that he tells frequently, John Buehrens, one of my mentors in ministry, talks about traveling to Japan and attending a fancy dinner with a number of that country’s significant religious leaders. As the evening grew late and the sake flowed, one of the guests became irritated and began to mourn the way many of the old traditions were fading. John interrupted his table mate and suggested a koan. The guests eagerly waited for what John to speak. John spoke a Zen koan: Why does the stork stand on one leg? The monk paused for a few beats and answered. “So the stork doesn’t fall on his butt.” As John explains the significance of this koan, it is important to keep one foot rooted in tradition even as you step beyond tradition with the other foot.

Allow me to name this tension. It is a tension that tends to pop up at this time of the year, the Thanksgiving and December Holiday season. It is the tension between tradition and innovation, tradition and change. It is the challenge of trying to balance the creative non-conformity that we like so much with a sense of nostalgia for doing things the old fashioned way.

All this month in our worship services we’ve been exploring the theme of welcoming. We’ve looked at what welcome would look like as a spiritual practice. We had a guest speaker deliver a presentation on multiculturalism and racial diversity. Last week we looked a bit more broadly and considered our moral obligation to provide a place for those who are looking for an alternative to a larger culture and society that is inhospitable to the human spirit. This morning we take this idea of welcoming in a bit of a different direction. Rather than looking at welcoming as something that we do to others, we are going to face inwardly, and look at what it would mean to welcome the way we are in the world.

The title I’ve given to the sermon this morning is “Welcoming Our Tensions.” The title is in some ways unfortunate. “Oh, great. The minister is going to talk about tensions in the church. Too bad I couldn’t schedule a root canal.” Most of us don’t like tension. It reminds us of stress. Too much tension and we think about scheduling a massage. Hypertension is a serious health problem. It’s in our nature to want to avoid conflict.

The good news is that in preaching this sermon, I have no ulterior motive and no secret agenda whatsoever. I am not talking about any conflict, battle, or feistiness that endangers us as a church. For that I count my lucky stars. That is not to say that there isn’t any conflict in our church. To paraphrase Jesus’ teaching, conflict exists wherever two or three are gathered. Those who work with groups of people ─ marriage and family therapists, church consultants, workplace managers ─ know that the key to health is not to avoid conflict, but to engage with it in a healthy way. I think this church manages conflict with a great deal of health. So, even though I don’t think this is an issue for us, I do think that it is a part of us. I think tension is a part of the human condition and a part of the Unitarian Universalist religious experience.

The perfect, indirect metaphor for explaining what this sermon is about dropped into my lap yesterday. In yesterday’s Kansas City Star there was an article about the brand new bridge connecting Kansas City with the northland. The article was about people who suffer from “gephryophobia,” which is a fear of bridges. This was a topic I knew nothing about. But, one of the lines in this story caught my attention. According to the director of the bridge project, Brian Kidwell, the bridge was “designed so that drivers could easily see the anchors of the bridge cables… [and] seeing what’s holding the bridge up will give anxious motorists a sense of security.” To be architecturally precise, this new bridge is not technically a suspension bridge. But, like a suspension bridge, those who cross the bridge get to see the cables that are holding the bridge up.

In any event, I thought that this idea was fascinating. When the tension in the bridge is exposed, anxious motorists are less likely to panic. In that same spirit, I thought I might offer these few words in an attempt to name and expose the tensions we may live with as a part of being Unitarian Universalists. When tension is seen, named, and understood, it is much healthier.

Those of you who have heard me offer interpretive words about the significance of the seven principles and purposes have probably heard me comment on how the seven principles capture at least three key tensions In the principles and purposes, we find tensions in the third, fourth, and fifth principles.

“Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.” Is accepting another person ever at odds with encouraging that person to grow? Take a moment to think of someone in your life who encouraged you or challenged you, perhaps a teacher, coach, mentor, counselor, or even a minister. In that encouragement did you ever feel like something more of you was expected?

“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Does responsibility ever require that we curtail freedoms? When you hand a teenager the keys to the car, you don’t say, “Drive freely!” You say, “Drive responsibly.” To drive responsibly means not driving in certain ways.

“The rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process.” Does following our conscience ever mean that we have to reject decisions that were made in a democratic spirit? In our democratic congregations we celebrate someone like Henry David Thoreau who willingly went to jail for refusing to pay taxes to support a war that his conscience could not support.

Each of these is probably worthy of a sermon in and of itself. It would only take a short brainstorm to come up with more tensions:

In our congregations, how do we strike a proper balance between individualism and community?

In our worship life, what is the proper balance between tradition and innovation?

When we deal with a major social issue, should we approach that issue with a posture of separatism or engagement. Two recent decisions of our national body demonstrate this tension. At our most recent General Assembly, we forcefully debated what to do with our 2012 meeting which had been scheduled to be held in Phoenix, Arizona, ground zero in the battle for immigrant justice in our nation. One side argued for boycotting Phoenix. The other side voted for going to Phoenix and standing on the side of love while witnessing for our values. The General Assembly made the decision to practice engagement rather than boycott. However, within the last year the Unitarian Universalist Association voted to move the retirement holdings of all church employees from Fidelity to TIAA-CREF because Fidelity allows investors to invest in companies that fund the genocide in Sudan. TIAA-CREF’s funds are apparently more socially responsible. The UUA decided to go in the direction of divestment, a form of boycott, rather than shareholder activism, a form of engaged witness.

There are yet more areas of tension:

In our focus on diversity, do we emphasize the universal or the particular?

When engaging in theology, should we approach these questions as poets or as scientists?

Ought we to emphasize the metaphor of the spiritual journey or the metaphor of the spiritual home? Is church a place you come to journey or a place you come to be at home?

Last Sunday, one of our board members talked to us about the Connecting Conversation process that we participated in during the month of September. I think that some of the comments we received speak to a tension that is alive here. A whole bunch of cards talked about outward-focused risk taking. Many commented that we need to be reaching out into the community, broadcasting our presence, getting involved, and making ourselves known. Other people commented that this was the place where people came to experience safety, security, and shelter. Ought we to be more like a beacon or a bunker, more like a harbor or a launching pad?

I’ve just scratched the surface. This could be one long sermon.

In our Coming of Age and Youth Group experiences, one of the things we often do with our teens is something called a “Power Shuffle.” You clear the room of all of the chairs and furniture and draw a line down the center of the room. You read a statement and those who agree go to one side and those who disagree go to the other side. When done well, the results can be powerful. Even in a roomful of people who affirm your inherent worth and dignity, it can take a lot of courage to be the only one who stands on one side. On those statements where there is disagreement, it is humbling to realize that that, yes, there is a difference of opinion. While the logistics in this space prevent us from having a “Power Shuffle” today, I invite you imagine where you would stand along the spectrum with regard to those tensions I just named.

Several years ago I taught a course on Unitarian Universalist history and for that class I put together a handout called the creeds of creedless faith. The handout begins with a Universalist document from 1803 called the Winchester Profession of Faith and ends with the Principles and Purposes as adopted in 1984. When I discuss this handout, the document that always attracts the most attention is a funky little document from 1933 entitled, “Unitarians agree / Unitarians disagree.” The document lists six things the authors felt Unitarians basically agreed upon in 1933 and five things about which Unitarians disagreed.

In case you are interested, some of the things that Unitarians disagreed about in 1933 included the use of traditional religious vocabulary, whether the church should keep one of its feet planted firmly in the Christian tradition or whether it should attempt to step completely outside of Christianity, and, how engaged the church should be in political matters. What is striking, if not surprising, is that nearly eighty years later Unitarian Universalists continue in some measure to have these disagreements.

Now, you may find this little piece of information frustrating. You may shake your head and mutter, “Can’t we answer these questions? Can’t we come to some agreement?” However, I would say that it is foolhardy to believe that we will come to an agreement on all religious matters. There are lots of big questions where we’ve not reached agreement. There is wisdom in being okay with not finding agreement on some matters. And, I would hasten to add that throughout history one way has worked better than all others to create agreement: kick out anybody who disagrees. Every time a Christian creed has been created, it has worked to push out and to exclude certain people that up until that point had been a part of the group.

We find a different attitude toward tension in some schools of religious thought. Not every tension needs to create winners and losers. The Tao Te Ching teaches that differences depend on one another.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
And, in his famous essay “Compensation,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a vision of the universe where differences complement one another instead of combating one another:
Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals; in the equation of quantity and quality in the fluids of the animal body; in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the undulations of fluids, and of sound; in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in electricity, galvanism, and chemical affinity. Super-induce magnetism at one end of a needle; the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels. To empty here, you must condense there. An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; woman, man; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay.

It has been said that there are three types of people in the world: people who know how to count and people who don’t. The humor is a bit obvious. It pokes fun at people who always want to divide people into warring camps. There is an alternative to dualism.

E.B. White once wrote, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Welcoming our tensions requires that we recognize and embrace these competing claims on our lives. It requires that we accept and value and welcome others who find themselves pulled between competing claims on their spirits. It is by welcoming our tensions that we find another way, and in doing so, become whole.

“A Song for Jacob, Descartes and Kierkegaard” by Ted Tollefson
Sometimes either/or is not enough.
Light is not battling with shadows.
In-breath and out-breath are not at odds.
Does a sun-flower contend with Sun, Earth or Wind?
Meanwhile, in the Holy Land
the 3 sons of Abraham are duking it out.
Meanwhile, Old Buddha, Master Kung and Lao Tzu
savor a taste of vinegar
and share a cup of green tea.

[Sermon Notes: In October the Prairie Star Chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association had its fall retreat in Windom, Minnesota. The retreat was focused on the new UUMA theological deepening initiative called "Whose Are We?" Part of the process including naming tensions which resulted in the list below. Following the retreat, Ted Tollefson shared with us three resources for thinking differently about dualisms: the passage from the Tao Te Ching, the quote from Emerson, and his own poem. Thanks to Ted and to my other colleagues for helping to inspire the thinking in this sermon.]

Appendix: Some Tensions Within Liberal Religion
Acceptance of one another … Encouragement to spiritual growth (3rd Principle)

Freedom … Responsibility (4th Principle)

Rights of conscience … Use of the democratic process (5th Principle)

Individual freedom … Responsibility to the community

Journeying … At-home-ness

Tradition … Change and innovation

Boycott … Engaged witness

Presumption of struggle … Presumption of harmony

Comfort the afflicted … Afflict the comfortable

Engagement with culture ... Separation from culture

Save the world ... Savor the world

Particular ... Universal

Pretense ... Risk

Process ... Closure

Poetry ... Fact