Better Than Oprah?

Circle round for freedom
Circle round for peace
For all of us imprisoned
Circle for release…


This circle is something I missed terribly two years ago when I was on sabbatical. But being elsewhere, having different kinds of experiences to strengthen my spiritual leadership, was exactly the reason why you put me on that journey. There are realizations and deepenings that simply cannot happen when you’re plugged 24/7 into the day-to-day. You put me on that sabbatical journey so I could find those realizations and deepenings, and I hope you’ve seen the difference it’s made, since my return.

One of those realizations had to do with Oprah, and TED talks, and all the inspiring personalities in our world who say such illuminating things. One of them is most certainly Brene Brown, emotional intelligence researcher, someone who brings us back to our best selves by inviting us to lean into our vulnerability. Listen to some of her thoughts:

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.”

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

I’m encountering insights like this during my sabbatical journey several years ago and it’s all so good. Now usually I’m too busy researching sources already close at hand for sermons that are coming up way too fast, so who has time for trial-and-error discovery of sources NOT close at hand? But the sabbatical has given me time. So there I am, trial-and-error, exploring this and that, following my nose, no deadlines, just eating the new stuff up. Oprah and her SuperSoul Sunday and her LifeClass show and a million TED talks and all these amazing other things.

The expertise in this world just overflows. Wisdom overflows and all you have to do is read a book or find the right channel on TV or surf the web.

Which triggered the question in me: when the expertise DOES overflow, why not just stay home and tune in?

I mean, in just three minutes of watching today’s video, we learned about some of the ways we can armor ourselves against the vulnerability that is supposed to be the birthplace of innovation and creativity and change. The armor of perfectionism. The armor of numbing ourselves with food or social media. The armor of dress-rehearsing tragedy, as when we behold a joy in our lives and wonder, “What if it gets taken away from me?” We learned about these forms of armor, and then there was that wonderful insight about joy. Joy is the most precious yet vulnerable emotion. It’s as fragile as bubble. So can we just let the round iridescence perch on a finger and be? Or will our fear of losing it cause us to grab at it and thus pop it?

The wisdom just overflows. And, furthermore, it’s so easy. You just watch. That’s all you have to do. Be the audience. Someone else is taking care of the production. Oprah and her staff are taking care of all of that. You don’t have to volunteer to help make the experience happen. You don’t have to pledge your time or energy or money to help make the experience happen.

But “circle round for freedom, circle round for peace” is a different kind of thing. It means “circle round for coordinating all the events this year related to taking a congregational stand on anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism; circle round for teaching in our RE program; circle round for singing in the choir; circle round for making our Fun-for-Funds Auction happen.” Passivity is not really compatible with “circle round.” “Circle round” means “all hands on deck.”

Oprah is easy. Just stay home and watch in your jammies. You don’t have to clean up, dress up, brave traffic and weather. You don’t have to go through all that rigmarole, fuss, hassle, folderol. Very active UUCA member Mria Dangerfield says, “Here’s a general rule of thumb for parents: add 15 minutes per person for kids, and teens, to get out the door. The more people you have moving towards the door, the slower it goes and the longer it takes. I’ve been a mother for 20 years and I have this epiphany at least once a month.”

But that’s just going anywhere. What if we’re talking church? Sunday morning the mood in the house is lazy and carefree until the announcement comes: time to get dressed so we can leave for church. “Ugh! I don’t wanna go to church!” the six-year-old wails. “Why do we have to go to church?” he squeals in a sing-song whine that makes skin crawl.

“Dear Parents With Young Children in Church,” writes Jaime Bruesehoff, “I watch you bounce and sway trying to keep the baby quiet, juggling the infant car seat and the diaper bag as you find a seat. I see you wince as your child cries. I see you anxiously pull things out of your bag of tricks to try to quiet them. And I see you with your toddler and your preschooler. I watch you cringe when your little girl asks an innocent question in a voice that might not be an inside voice let alone a church whisper. I hear the exasperation in your voice as you beg your child to just sit, to be quiet as you feel everyone’s eyes on you.”

Why not just stay home?

Our Music Director Don Milton III told me recently that it’s so cool, how we get to worship in the round. “I’ve never heard a congregation that sounds better and that’s because we’re singing right to each other. Not up to the altar. Even when we’re looking at the screen to read lyrics we’re all in this circle together and the singing feels rich.” Yes. But he also says this about our worship in the round: “There’s nowhere to hide.” It means that you’re busy typing away on your laptop during the service and we’re all wondering what you’re doing. You’re leaning in for a chat with your neighbor, or falling asleep, and we all see you. There’s nowhere to hide. This circle is a space of Brené Brown vulnerability. Imperfections are magnified. Noise is magnified.

Let’s talk about noise. I asked a question about that on The City a couple weeks ago–if you’re not signed up, you’re missing out!–and it opened a floodgate of responses.

As a much older member, I actually like hearing babies.

I think it all boils down to courtesy toward our neighbors.  If you are coughing continuously or your baby is crying or talking or your cellphone is ringing, I think the courteous thing to do is leave the sanctuary, at least temporarily.

As a stay-at-home mom, who’s with kids all the time, I don’t want to have to deal with kids in worship. I need a break.

As a parent, I have no interest whatsoever in spending an hour trying to control my child while trying to have a spiritual experience. Not possible and not enjoyable.

I can tolerate occasional noises from children. However, I expect to easily hear the service, including the sermon and music

As I have no young children in my immediate family, UUCA is one of the few places where I get to be around kids and so I try to enjoy it all.

As a working mom who doesn’t get as much time with my kid as I’d like, I want to be in worship with him.

As a young mom, I feel isolated from adults. I long to be among grownups!

Listen to all these voices…. This is what I mean when I say that this circle is a space of Brene Brown vulnerability. We come here hungry, we can be emphasizing different kinds of hungers, and the hunger makes us vulnerable because we might not get what we came for–and so what do we do with that feeling of “I might not get what I need”?

The feeling is itself a heavy burden. Not easy. Not Oprah.

Circle round for freedom

Circle round for peace

For all the noisy noisyness

Maybe we shouldn’t circle round after all….

But I think we should circle round. I didn’t return from my sabbatical journey all soggy and disillusioned about religious community but on fire about it, even more convinced than before about its value.

Yes, the expertise in the world overflows. Yes, there’s an amazing TED Talk for practically anything. But what’s rare in this world is relationship. What’s rare is personal presence. I might not be Oprah, but I’m here with you, we are in this thing together, we have history together, you see me living into the complex messy truth and maybe that helps you do the same, I long for aliveness just like you, I am perfectly imperfect just like you, my job is to help you live into the truth and connect with your longing for aliveness, my job is to help lead this Beloved Community in service to changing lives.

I’m going to get right down into the trenches with you. I can do that because I’m here. Oprah is not here. We’ve got to

Circle round for freedom

Circle round for peace

And it’s not easy. We have to build the boat even as we sail it. We have to build the car even as we’re driving it. We have to build wings on our way down, so there can be an up.

But there is nothing better than this sort of personal engagement. Says Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first woman to become president of the UN General Assembly, “The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war.” The more we sweat to build a Beloved Community like this one in all its aspects, the more that Beloved Community radiates as a presence of peace in the world, and therefore the less we bleed in war.

Personal engagement is good for the world and it’s good for us. You don’t have to be perfect to get involved. You learn as you go. You learn a lot. That was my story when I first started to go to church. I got involved. I saw talents unfold. I realized limitations first hand. I realized possibilities. It was all so good because I was in a real rut in my life, and I swear to God, volunteerism at church busted me out.

Circle round for freedom

Circle round for peace

I know it’s tempting just to stay home. Especially for families. So much rigmarole, fuss, hassle, folderol to get here.

But get here. “Church cannot wait,” writes Eleanor Michael, “because learning to be part of a community cannot wait, and so we force our kids into anything-but-sweatpants week after week, and faithfully occupy our spot in the (easy-escape-route) back of the church, and feel thankful for our blessings, our church community, and our understanding pew neighbors.”

Don’t stay home. From a recent book entitled The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, by Columbia University psychology professor Lisa Miller, we learn that children who are raised with a robust and well-developed spiritual life are happier, more optimistic, more thriving, more flexible, and better equipped to deal with life’s ordinary (and even extraordinary) traumas than those who are not. Teenagers, in particular, are exponentially better off if they’re in touch with their spiritual sides — less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, to engage in risky sex, to cope with depression. “In the entire realm of human experience,” Miller writes, “there is no single factor that will protect your adolescent like a personal sense of spirituality.”

Circle round for freedom

Circle round for peace

The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war

Which takes us back to the issue of noise, and that horrible burdensome feeling of “I might not get what I need.” EITHER I’m noise sensitive and I need quiet so I can feel connected. OR I’m a parent trying to have a spiritual experience and I want my kid to have exactly the kind of robust and well-developed spiritual life that psychologist Lisa Miller talks about and so I need space, I need understanding.

Do you know what we can do with that very vulnerable feeling of “I might not get what I need”? We armor up. We can demand perfectionism—EITHER nothing but absolute silence is good enough OR nothing but a free for all and kids screaming as loudly and as continuously as they like is good enough. We demand perfectionism–or we can armor up in a way that Brene Brown doesn’t get into in the video but she does elsewhere: we get cynical. We get bitter. We get too cool for school. We disengage, step back from the messy, sweaty work of peace—especially if it’s not of the grand glorious type that gets in the newspapers.

Let’s not armor up. Let’s take that armor off. Wherever the vulnerability is felt, even if it doesn’t feel glamorous or big, let’s go there, the only way out is through. Right now, the sweaty work of peace is bringing compassion to the whole noise issue. As one congregant says, “ to remember to be sympathetic with all parties—parents trying to do their best, children being children, and congregants trying to have the spiritual experience that they want and need so badly.”

Right now, the sweaty work of peace is:

To clearly state that there can be an unacceptable level of noise in the sanctuary, and this is just children being children, there is no condemnation, and so the courteous thing to do, the kind thing to do for the noise sensitive among us, is to step out of the sanctuary, at least for a moment.

The sweaty work of peace:

To develop a reasonable level of noise tolerance, one that acknowledges that the sound of a growing congregation is not absolute silence but one that will always be noisy to some extent.

The sweaty work of peace:

To be proactive in kindness. I say it’s not enough to approach someone and kindly ask them to go to the quiet room or to the social hall (although that’s a lot better than demanding it). How about going to that mother or father or family and asking if you can help? Standing up for them. Bringing them a soft fidget toy? Offering to hold the baby and give that beleaguered parent a break? Stop seeing the situation as “us vs. them” but rather “we’re all in this together”?

The sweaty work of peace:

To improve the Quiet Room. Solve the problem of the endless traffic in and out of it, the quality of the sound, the lack of video. And I also want us to seriously consider an idea that came from David Soleil. He says, “How about piping nice loud sound and video into a runaround/social room where no one cares if my child screams with joy or fights with her sister or cries because she bumped her knee or needs a snack or has to go potty or gets bored? As parents, ALL of these things happen with our children EVERY service. This could actually be fun for the community. For those whose spiritual journey is loud and full of interruptions, for those whose journey is as much social as spiritual, for those who want spirituality, lattes and donuts at the same time, for those who enjoy the blissful cacophony of the human experience, etc. Let’s make a joyful noise together!”

I love it. Who will increase their pledge to make it happen, or make a special financial gift to support this? Who will offer up time and energy to make it happen?

I’m asking you to take up the sweaty work of peace.

I’m asking you not to step back from the circle but step in.

In the circle we find our greatest vulnerability, but guess what? “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Circle round for freedom.

Circle round for peace.

It’s not easy like Oprah.

But it’s way more fulfilling, way more fun.

What’s better than Oprah? This circle.