Making a Difference

The theme at this year’s General Assembly was “All Are Called.” Attendees were challenged to ask how UUs might faithfully meet the demands of our time. At this service, Rev. Sue Browning will reflect on GA, and ask, “As UUFE sets its course for the coming year, how might we meet the demands of our time? How might we make a difference?”


Sermon

In June I attended the UU General Assembly (‘GA’) in Kansas City. This is the annual gathering of UU congregations – over 3000 were there. I knew while at GA that the sense of the assembly felt less energetic than usual to me.

The setting was fine. The facilities were fine. And Kansas City is an engaging city. Bill and I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, did a quick walk through the Jazz Museum, and regrettably didn’t have time for the new WW1 museum that is getting amazing reviews. We rode the street car and ate well, but there was a weariness to the gathering. Maybe this weariness reflects a weariness in the country?

As I started the sermon, before I reviewed the conference booklet, and handouts, and notes from workshops I dutifully brought home, I asked myself, ‘What do I remember standing out?’

The theme at this year’s General Assembly was “All Are Called.” Attendees were challenged to consider how UUs might faithfully meet the demands of our time.

What stood out for me is the reading and sermon during the Service of the Living Tradition offered by Rev. Dr. Sofia Bentacourt.
(Background: The Service of the Living Tradition is an evening service which honors ministers who have died during the year (this congregation’s own Rev. Dan Higgins was included), and celebrates ministers entering fellowship, and other milestones for religious professionals.)

Rev. Dr. Bentacourt began with a reading she introduced this way, “Our reading this evening comes from Audre Lorde’s Commencement Address delivered at Oberlin College on May 29, 1989. Audre Lorde defined herself as a ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,’ and as such her wisdom resounds long past the span of her life. Here is the conclusion to her commencement address: “The white fathers have told us: “I think, therefore I am.” But the Black mother within each one of us—the poet inside—whispers in our dreams: “I feel, therefore I can be free.” Learn to use what you feel to move you toward action. Change, personal and political, does not come about in a day, nor a year. But it is our day-to-day decisions, the way in which we testify with our lives to those things in which we say we believe, that empower us. Your power is relative, but it is real. And if you do not learn to use it, it will be used, against you, and me, and our children. Change did not begin with you, and it will not end with you, but what you do with your life is an absolutely vital piece of that chain. The testimony of your daily living is the missing remnant in the fabric of our future.”…That surge of power you feel inside you now does not belong to me, nor to your parents, nor to your professors. That power lives inside of you. It is yours, you own it, and you will carry it out of this room. And whether you use it or whether you waste it, you are responsible for it. …”

Her sermon was titled, “Sounding the Call” addressed redemption. Her message called for a shared ministry “that seeks out the suffering, neglected places of the world and breathes the Holy back into them.” She was calling us forth. And too, she was asking us to connect with our sense of call – our inner impulse to use our gifts in response to her beckoning.

Her audience included ministers, with varying ‘call’ stories. She was also addressing lay leaders in the audience and challenging them to sense their own call. Further, she was talking to the institution – the Unitarian Universalist Association – which, mirroring the struggles in the country, and has struggled with being truly inclusive, face our own complicity in perpetuation white supremacy.

Rev. Bentacourt’s voice offered a message – gentle and loving in tone, yet bluntly prescriptive on the need for steadfast leadership – A call for ‘hanging in there.’ She offered hope, but not a sense of it would get easier. We needed to lead during struggle and do so from our core. From our feelings. I remembered her sermon because I felt her sermon. Notes weren’t needed.

What is this ‘All Are Called’ theme really asking? I heard: We’re called to use power we have and to be of use in challenging times.

Is a sense of ‘call’ always so crisp and clear? Do we hear a brilliant commencement address and then – boom – a shift from student to profound activist? Maybe for a few, it goes this way, but not for most.

I read the long-life stories on John McCain this morning. Hearing of his early years of rebellion, and of expectation in a military family, and of an young (ish) naval officer eventually finding his path and pulling together his skills and leadership as a pilot. We hear of his time in Viet Nam – hard years, and of his return in the many pictures. He was 36. A story was still to unfold for him.

When have you had sense call?

For me, years ending with ‘8s’ have included many milestones, so this has been a summer of anniversaries. College graduation in 1978. No great ‘call’ but more a launch through grabbing the first job offer (which was sufficient to get a loan for a new car – a cool Toyota Corolla). In 1988 a first child. A sense I had the heart to parent. A feeling-based mission to be sure. A call of sorts.

Ok, 1998 is a blur – kids 6, 8 and 10, and job and more.

And in 2008 – on Tuesday, August 26, 2008 – exactly 10 years ago today, I found myself in my first seminary class. A 51 year-old student. From the first day in seminary we were asked to tell and write of “our call.” I didn’t have a “call” story. I had no plan to be a minister, but liked classes.

Whether someone had entered seminary with clarity, or drifted in with no higher purpose, each of us was asked to look inward, and to look outward. We were asked to peel back our motivation. What gave your life purpose now? What skills and passions did you have to share? What might ‘serving’ mean to you? Was all ministry about service?

Over and over, variations of these questions. Professors knew clarity was to be found, and no one would land where they had begun. As my son would say, not their first rodeo.

The goal – To get past logic, and lists, and other’s expectations: What was I feeling? Why did that matter? How do feeling inform your next step? Your goals. if ministry, what type? Not all would be called to be parish ministers.

While our teachers didn’t ask it this way, there was an aspect of naming our own power. Could we feel our own power? Subservience was not the goal. Leadership through deep connection would be. Where was the holy voice in our lives? What was a fit for me? For others?

Many here have heard my ‘call’ story, so I offer just the short version. I took two years of classes, but was intentionally not in the ‘I-want-to-be-a-minister’ Masters of Divinity degree program. The risks felt too great. The chances of failure to great.

After two years, I invited a mentor to coffee. Entering the coffee shop, confused about why I’d even invited my mentor to coffee, I blurted out, “I want to go for ordination.”

That was it. My claiming of a call to serve as a minister at Chesapeake Bagel Bakery. I might be of use, and for me parish ministry was a likely fit. On the risks – well, I’d take them one at a time. Many friends had already guessed this would be my path. My inner voice had been afraid to claim the power, and now I had. My mentor’s response was, ‘Finally.’

Have you ever felt that you had power? Power you could use for good? Have you ever held back from using your power? Why?

Power often is dismissed as harmful, and examples of tyrants abusing power to do harm exist.

Power is a complex force. Some get power when named (or elected to) a position. You’re named a boss, and the paperwork says you can sign things, and supervise things. You’re a school principal, and are expected to run the school and answer for shortfalls. Power can come through force – size, volume, weapons and fear. Power can come relationship by relationship – building trust– parent and child, teacher and student.

Not all sources of power are the same. Not all power is bad. In fact it is only power – the ability to influence change that can confront wrongs. Power used well is needed. We owe it to ourselves, and to others not to hold back.

In the context of her sermon on redemption (turning the tide and addressing white supremacy and the other forces holding back good) Rev. Bentacourt describes call this way,

“And I think we know that redemption is a shared ministry that means everyone, that elevates all, that seeks out the suffering, neglected places of the world and breathes the Holy back into them. Redemption is a professional religious leadership that is humble, that apologizes, and that limits its own power to move us toward a greater truth. Moving in that direction means trying even when we don’t know how it can ever come to pass. Trying because the struggle itself is holy. It means celebrating the successes that do in fact exist among us, elevating them, and putting them to the service of creating even greater success. At the same time it is modeling that the reality of our failings is not more powerful than the inherent goodness that we teach.We are left asking ourselves what will we risk for this grace? The thing is, I believe in our callings. Yes, many of us are called to professional religious leadership. We agree to be there in the difficult moments, and in the successes and celebrations, and we promise to wrestle and show up even as our hearts are breaking. But we also promise to understand that every member and friend of a Unitarian Universalist community is also there by calling. We are called, collectively, to this great experiment in communal salvation. Whether we arrived in this faith by birth or by choice, our everyday expression of our values in the world matters.Friends, colleagues marking profound milestones in your professional service, what will you risk for this grace?”

This is what I remember from GA.

If you have aligned what you feel, and what you can offer, and with the needs around you, it will feel risky, and too is worthy.

Can you feel that you have power? When you think of what is around you, what are you called to do?

This congregation has power. Collective power. What feels like a good use of this shared sense that will matter? What will make a difference What are you called to do? What is calling you on? How might this fit with your decision to call a minister?

I take the risk of asking to encourage a fully honest discernment period for the congregation. Not unlike the questions we were asked to wrestle with in seminary, what is an aligning call for you as a congregation? Am I a fit for you as you faithfully figure out how to work through challenging times?

It’s another year ending with an ‘8’ and the potential for saying yes again to a question may come. We look for fit in the work of call – a beckoning, and a meeting of requests.

At GA I intentionally went to workshops where I could hear voices different than my own. I heard from those connected to the prison communities challenging the bail process, and experts on immigration asking for partners to hold the humanity of those stereotyped and pressed to the side, and advocates for youth, and colleagues in ministry who because of their gender expression or color are not fully included. The information was solid, the challenges large, and it is in the stepping back that I see hope.

When I recheck my notes from GA, a thread present was on leadership. Messages of learning to lead and stay in the fight as we address the need to dismantle white supremacy, and to personally and collectively change.

What do I feel looking back GA this year? Gratitude for leaders like Rev. Dr. Bentacourt who reflect our weariness in affirming ways, and remind us to stay in the moment with commitment. To build relationships that matter. To celebrate successes, and to carry on, and on.

‘All Are Called’ is resonating more with me as I get some distance from GA, as is the reminder to tie this call to feeling. Feelings. From fear, to sadness, to silliness, to determination. To longing. It is from feeling that we find purpose which sticks. It is from that place we can sense something strongly enough to name it as our call. Center yourself there, and then take the next step and claim your power in a world calling for your wholehearted participation.

May It Be So

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