The Question Box Sermon: 2012
by the Rev. Peter Connolly
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY on February 5, 2012
1. How important do you believe a connection to nature is for a healthy spirituality? Can one have a healthy life born in a city and never leaving?
I think that there are several layers to the question. My first impulse is to say that to live a healthy life spiritually, it is essential to have a direct relationship to nature. To get outside, to breathe fresh air, to notice the growth of the leaves on the trees or the dropping of leaves in the fall, to feel a balmy breeze on your cheek in the summer or a biting wind in the winter (though maybe not this winter) all remind us of something essential—that in natural settings we are most in touch with who we are as natural beings, the core of our identities finds itself in recognition that we are a manifestation, after all, of the natural world.
My second thought is to say that there is never a time when we are not natural beings. Every time we take a breath, if we are conscious of that breath, we are in contact with what it means to be a product of nature and so to be connected spiritually with natural things. Even when we are not conscious of that breath, we continue to live as natural beings. Perhaps the essence of the answer comes in recognizing the truth of the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness—if we are truly awake and truly aware, we answer for ourselves the extent to which we need a relationship with the natural world to understand fully our interdependence, which is a spiritual understanding.
As to whether we can live a healthy spiritual life without ever leaving a city— I think of an even more extreme example: Can one live a healthy life, spiritually, if one never leaves a prison and rarely leaves a jail cell? We have to look no further than the life of Nelson Mandela to realize that there can be power in the human spirit to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. That he could have spent 26 years in prison and emerge in good enough shape, physically as well as spiritually, to lead a movement for social justice for a whole nation—and to keep the practice of forgiveness foremost in his consciousness throughout—says that in some people, at least, there is a passion in the spirit that burns bright and remains healthy in circumstances both natural and brutally unnatural.
2. What do you see as your role on committees?
Well, this is a polity question and as the question “What is polity?” also comes up from time to time, this might be a good opportunity to address that, as well. “Polity” is simply “church governance,” the way a church such as ours, or any other, chooses and declares a mission, adopts a series of by-laws that seek to outline and delineate the ways by which this group of people seek to fulfill that mission. It includes the setting up of a Board of Directors or Trustees, as the case may be, setting up a committee structure or some other method of getting things done, and marking out how decisions get made.
In this church, we use a committee structure for the most part. There are 14 committees, I think. I am an ex officio member of all the committees, which means that I can attend and offer suggestions and comments, but do not get a vote on policy. The first year I served as your minister, I attended almost every meeting of almost every committee. After that, the Board and I agreed that it would be best if I chose some committees to attend regularly and some to attend only upon occasion.
Those I attend regularly are the Sunday Services Committee, whose task it is to plan these services, arrange to fill the pulpit on the twenty or so Sundays a year that I am not preaching, and to make sure that the elements of each service are coordinated, that the various roles are filled, such roles being those of the service moderator, the musical accompanist, a song leader, and readers. The Membership Committee recruits greeters. The Hospitality Committee makes sure that snacks and beverages are served and clean-up is done each Sunday morning.
I also attend the Religious Exploration Committee meetings where plans are made for special activities, processes and procedures. Sometimes curriculum is reviewed for the Children’s and Youth Religious Exploration classes. And we try to find the best ways for me to have an opportunity to interact with the children and ways to make them feel included in the larger family and mission of the church.
I also attend the meetings of the Finance Committee, the Social Action Committee, the Committee on the Ministry, and, of course, the Board of Directors monthly meetings. We also have a Committee Leadership Council which is made up of the chairs of all the various committees; it meets every other month and I attend those meetings as well.
My role will vary a little bit from meeting from meeting, but, for the most part, I see my role as similar to that of any other committee member—to offer comments, suggestions and critique to the best of my ability to ensure the effectiveness of each committee in fulfilling its self-defined mission. Sometimes I mostly listen and don’t say very much at all. Sometimes I’ll strongly advocate for one thing or another— I find myself doing this most often at Social Action Committee meetings as I get restless if I don’t think we are doing all we can do to address concerns in the community we live in and the society at large.
At Sunday Services Committee meetings, I offer suggestions for guest speakers as I have gotten to know a fair number of the folks in town who might be classified as religiously liberal or socially progressive, folks who may have something to say to us that is worthy of our attention.
3. Have you ever experienced a miracle? (This is not a “yes” or “no” question…)
Well, I’m glad that it’s not a “yes” or “no” question because I don’t know that I have a “yes” or “no” answer. I like the quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh, “To walk upon the earth, that is the true miracle.” In this case, I think he is positing the reality of our Earthly life and experience against the unlikelihood of any one of us being born in the first place or even the unlikelihood of life emerging on any planet anywhere. If we do not occasionally think in this way, we are in danger, I think, of taking too much for granted and failing to appreciate the miracle of living at this time and in this place—or in any time and any place.
But this may appear to be evasive. I suppose the questioner is talking about that word “miracle” as it applies to something supernatural, something that occurs despite the fact that nothing in our way of thinking of the world can account for it. Well, I think that I am probably equal parts rationalist and mystic. Something in me rebels against ideas that do not fit with the rational framework through which I’ve been taught to view the world. I don’t have a lot of patience with people who want to convince me that they have a unique revelation to share with me that will revolutionize the way I look at the world. But something else tells me that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
There is a personal story that I have told twice in Bowling Green, once in the first “Building Your Own Theology” class I led, the other time in a Small Group Ministry group. It’s not a story for a large group, really, but I’ll tell it here in the spirit of how the question was asked.
My mother died in 1996. I was 45 years old, as grown up as I would ever be, but still I felt like a child suddenly thrust into full adulthood because there was no longer a generation older than me in my family. As with all such losses, there were various layers to the grieving and a thousand memories to cherish or to recoil from and finally, to let go.
The day after the funeral, I took a walk around Jamaica Pond in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston where I lived. I thought of a hundred things, I guess, but I can’t remember them now. It’s the feeling that I remember, one of loss, and coming to terms with loss; acceptance and some kind of notion that with acceptance comes a kind of fulfillment. I was lost in thought and feeling as I completed the loop of the walk.
As I came to the end, which was the beginning, where I had started from, I looked up and in the sky and I saw for the first time in my life, a full rainbow running from the west to the east, 180 degrees, full and beautiful. I did not see anyone else stop to marvel at it. No rational part of me believes I received a message from either my mother or God or any intermediary, but something in me felt reassured that my mother’s soul had made it safely to the other side, whatever that may mean.
And there’s more. Filled with this sense of reassurance, I was filled, too, with a sense of infinite tenderness. Every thing, every natural thing, seemed full of its own integrity of being, in its right place in the universe and completely whole in its context.
When I reached home, I walked up to my car which was sitting in the driveway. On the trunk of the car sat a large black beetle. Still full of this sense of tenderness, I reached out to stroke the back of the beetle. Three times I stroked its back with my finger, and three times it held its place and did not move. Then, I walked away. Had my mother temporarily assumed the shape of a beetle? Had I been granted one last opportunity to complete the circle, to make a connection, to complete the acceptance of the loss and to accept the completeness of the relationship? You will make of it what you will. I don’t need a rational explanation, really. And I don’t need to call it a miracle either.
4. What do you see as our greatest challenge as a church community in the coming year?
In some ways, our greatest challenge as a church community is the same from year to year— to hang in there together through thick or thin. From year to year, there may be changes to the specifics of this challenge, but that’s the challenge that we are confronted with not only from year to year, but from month to month, from week to week and from day to day. The question always is “Is it worth it?” and we all have to work together to provide an adequate answer.
Each time I speak to someone who is a candidate for membership in this august body, I recite to them our mission statement: “We are a caring community that encourages spiritual growth and actively works to improve our society and the environment.” One day I found myself with four minutes to spare before an appointment. I used those four minutes to memorize that mission statement. I think that that is something that we all should do. We need to stay aware of who we are and why we exist as a spiritual community.
One challenge that we can foresee in the coming year is financial. We need to make sure that the financial structure is in place that will support the institutional structure that will support our ability to effectively meet, plan and carry out those things that will carry forth the mission—our mission from year to year.
Last year, Ken Kuehn gave a presentation that included the question “What is church? Can you have church without buildings?” And the answer is “yes,” if we are hardy enough, we can meet outside on hillside or plain, conduct our worship service, sing our hymns, make our announcements, share our joys and our concerns, teach our children and celebrate our holidays and holy days.
Had we chosen to, we could have elected to go without a new building for classes, conferences, wedding receptions and special events. Had you so chosen, you could have elected not to call a minister. But the fact is, we have made other choices.
And when we did make those choices, we made a commitment to fund them. Until now, we have relied on a 3-year reserve fund to cover part of our expenses. Do you know how much is left in that reserve fund? You should, we all should, if we really mean to be responsible stewards of our funds and our mission. Do you know what the annual budget is? Do you know what portion of that is funded by the pledged donations of members? We all should, if we are to use our financial resources wisely.
One step that we have taken this year is to publicly post in one newsletter a month and one Sunday bulletin a month, where we stand in terms of the funds pledged and the funds received. This lifts up the importance of our awareness without, we hope, hitting us over the head with it so often that we forget our mission. Presently, we have received 85% of the funds pledged to date. This was as low as 78% in October and as high as 97% in November. The closer we are to 100%, the more we can shift our focus from funding to care giving, and fostering spiritual growth, and improving the society and the environment in which we live. And, yes, it’s true that a crisis in funding does, indeed encourage our spiritual growth— will we be strong enough, generous enough and faithful enough to make our way forward and to prosper as the community we have chosen to be?
I think we should name numbers more often. I challenge the Finance Committee (as I did at our Wednesday meeting) to be bold in naming the amount of money we have determined that we need to operate the church we have chosen to become— $201,000 this year; and to name the amount that we have pledged to support that budget— $138,000; and to name our other sources of income: from building rental, plate donations, special donations, and reserve funds. And I challenge us all to make the pledge drive just beginning a success.
Some of our families have suffered job losses this year; some of our most loyal members have moved away in the past couple of years and have reduced their pledges or are pledging to support other churches. The rest of us may have to do more than our part for the next year or couple of years to ensure that the church that we are is the church that we have chosen to be.
I said once last year that for me a donation to the church is like taking money from one of our pockets and putting it in another of our pockets. It’s still our money— no one supports this church, but its members. And the spiritual dimension of your life, we hope and trust, is greatly enhanced by your membership here and your participation in the life of the church.
The life of the church is nothing other than your life lived in a particular way in a particular place with particular people you have chosen to be with on a Sunday morning and, for many of us, several other times during the week. As John Downing said last week and as Susie Likes said before him, We are here because there is no place we would rather be on a Sunday morning. Let’s commit ourselves to ensuring the health of this community and continuing the success of its mission— our mission.
5. Why are negative reactions so quick to arise when suggestions are proffered for minor improvements?
Oh, Oh, Oh! This is a loaded question. Did you notice? One of the things that we have to be very careful of— and it’s very easy to miss it—is when we present opinions as facts or assumptions as facts. There are something like 120 members of the church and a good many others who consider themselves friends who help us in various ways to fulfill our mission. Lots of people, lots of opinions. What might be a “minor improvement” to you may be a “major change” to someone else. The phrase “negative reaction” might seem factual to you– and perhaps it is. But to someone else the same action may be seen as simply protective of some good that is already in place.
What we are talking about is “change” and change is not easy for everyone; many of us resist it for one reason or another and that is the reason that we frequently sing a hymn which includes “Don’t be afraid of some change.” And, in fact, this church actually seems to be better than most in embracing change. Calling a minister for the first time was risky business, but very few were so dissatisfied with the change that they actually left the church.
The order of service has changed considerably since I came here two and a half years ago today. The service for the day was not even mentioned on the front of the bulletin. Now, the service title, program coordinator, moderator, accompanist and song leader are all listed.
When it became apparent that keeping the children in the sanctuary till after Joys and Concerns cut considerably into the time teachers had to present their lessons, after a good deal of discussion, it was decided to sing them out before that portion of the service. Beginning a couple of weeks ago, an even more significant change was incorporated. The children report directly to their classes now. This helps ensure their safety in transit and frees us seats for more congregation members and, especially newcomers. I feel that something has been lost and I hope that we will look for ways to meaningfully include the children as much as possible, but this was more than a minor change and it was approved.
Many of us have ideas for improvements–some get approved; some do not. That’s the nature of a democratic process. But it is true that your suggestions stand a much better chance of approval if you show commitment to membership and join the committee whose policies you seek to affect. Then your positions gain in credibility because you show that you are willing to hang in there for the long run. As they say these days: “Just sayin’.”
6. We are new to town and not from the “Bible belt” conservative tradition. How do we, as a family, deal with those who judge us because we don’t believe in the unloving, wrathful Christ so many in this community seem to think is the only true and right God?
Well, I think you’ve taken a good first step by choosing to come to this church. A second step that I think will be very helpful is to become familiar with the teachings of Christ. There are many ways to understand the teachings and the way that is characterized in this question is not universal, though it does permeate the culture in the town and county in which we live.
In fact, there may be as many interpretations of the teachings as there are human beings who hear them. After all, understanding comes from the interaction of the text with those hearing or reading it– and since we each bring our own personality and life history to each bit of text, it is natural that our interpretations will differ. This is where the value of dialogue and discussion are made known.
If you get engaged in argument with one who has a literal or fundamentalist understanding of Scripture, it is doubtful that you will get very far. It’s best to just hold to what you can legitimately hold to and request that the other do the same. Here are two passages that may be helpful. Luke 6:37-38a: “Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
This does not have to be said with venom or defensiveness or superiority, but very simply, as a statement of the teachings. And John: 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That is enough.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.