Let Your Life Speak: Leading From Within


Tomorrow is a special day in the life of Atlanta and the nation. We
celebrate the man who said, when civil rights marchers were facing the
dogs and clubs and fire hoses of Birmingham, “We must face the
forces of hate with the power of love.” “All men are caught
in an inescapable network of mutuality,” he said. ”
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
We celebrate this man, who refused to go along with a social order that
reduced entire groups of people to mere things in service to immoral
ends-African Americans but also Hispanics, Native Americans, poor
whites, all the dispossessed and discarded of American society.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing oriented
society to a person oriented society,” he said.
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights
are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of
racism, militarism, and economic exploitation are incapable of being
conquered. A nation can flounder as readily in the face of moral and
spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.” We
celebrate this man: Martin Luther King, Jr. We invite his spirit to be
among us now.

And we do so as we complete our sermon series of the past several
weeks, which has drawn inspiration from Parker Palmer’s wonderful
book Let Your Life Speak. We go back to it once more, this
time focusing on the issue of leadership. “Go far enough on the
inner journey,” says Parker Palmer, “–go past ego towards
true self-and you end up not lost in narcissism but returning to the
world, bearing more gracefully the responsibilities that come with
being human.” ‘We are made for community,” says Parker
Palmer, and so “leadership is everyone’s vocation.”
That’s our focus today-exploring what this means, and doing it
with the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. in the room, drawing on two
moments in his leadership story to help us understand our own.

The first moment is the time in MLK’s life when he was invited to
become a part of the Montgomery bus boycott. (For this and all
subsequent MLK stories, by the way, I’m drawing from the biography
by Marshall Frady.) As many of you know, first there was Rosa
Parks-her refusal to obey the bus driver’s demand that she give up
her seat. Here’s what happened next, in Marshall Frady’s
words: “That ‘No,” and Mrs. Parks’ arrest, quickly
set off the spontaneous combustion among Montgomery’s black
citizenry of a determination to boycott the city’s segregated bus
system. […] Almost immediately, mimeographed leaflets calling for a
boycott of the city’s bus line were coursing through the
city’s black neighborhoods. But when, the night of Mrs. Parks’
arrest, [a local social activist by the name of E. D. Nixon] phoned
[the young Martin Luther King Jr.] to ask him to join in the boycott
movement, King, out of some uneasiness beyond just his absorption in
his multiple other duties, seemed curiously reluctant: ‘Brother
Nixon, [said MLK], let me think on it awhile, and call me
back.'” Marshall Frady goes on to say that, “Concerned
at King’s hesitation, Nixon called Ralph Abernathy…. Abernathy
then called King to exhort him about the elemental importance of
cooperating in this boycott effort. King finally agreed to lend it his
support if it would not entail his having to aid in any of the
organizing.”

That’s it for now. Let’s see how this part of MLK’s
leadership story can speak to our own. Starting with his humanity. Any
of you ever hesitated when offered a leadership position-perhaps out
of a mysterious sense of reluctance that you might not be able to give
voice to, or out of a concern for the work involved, especially detail
nuts-and-bolts administrative work? Or both? I thought so. MLK was
human, just like us.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s go back to something more basic: have you ever found
yourself in a place where different interest groups disagreed about
what was right and what was good? Perceptions of reality differ; hopes
for the future differ; and while some may truly be more on-target and
more constructive and more just than others, nevertheless, the
different perceptions and hopes of each claim validity and authority.
Something important and vital is at stake with each one, and so people
are passionate.

Now as I say this, and certainly in the context of MLK’s story,
I’m mindful of how easy it is to envision all this in larger
public terms: a segregated city bus system, on the one hand, and
people on the margins on the other. Different races, different
classes. But we can also talk about differences closer to home. We
could also be talking about differences among congregational groups,
or among extended family members, or between life partners, or between
parent and child. We could even talk about divisions within the human
heart.

All of this lays the groundwork for leadership, which, as I see it, is
a matter of taking a stand and speaking and acting in such a way as to
contribute to one vision becoming real rather than others-or perhaps
synthesizing the competing visions into one that can embrace the best
in both. Whichever happens, leadership is intrinsically a matter of
getting clear about the vision you want to give your money and time
and energy to. Whether the vision becomes real because of your direct
actions or because of how you empower others to act or because of a
combination of the two, still, it’s all in service to a larger
vision.

Consider the classic story of the old Cherokee who told his grandson
about the battle that goes on inside all people. “My son,”
he said, “the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us
all. One wolf embodies anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed,
arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false
pride, superiority, and ego. The other embodies joy, peace, love,
hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity,
truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a
moment, and then he asked, “Which wolf wins?” This is what
the grandfather said: “The one you feed.”

Leadership is about taking a stand in service to a larger vision.
It’s about the wolf you feed.

Yet there is a sense in which everything I’ve said so far remains
purely academic-until an actual call comes and we are invited to step
up. That’s when things truly become practical, and our personal
leadership story begins.

What might the call look like? As it did for MLK, sometimes the call
takes the form of widespread social crisis, like the spontaneous
combustion of the Montgomery bus boycott, energized by the larger
conflict over civil rights. This crisis gripped our congregation as
well; we too were swept up in the civil rights movement of the 50s and
60s, and what we did was solidly affirm desegregation, becoming the
very first multiracial religious community in all of Atlanta. This is
how our collective leadership story began, here at UUCA.

The call can emerge out of widespread social crisis, but it can also
emerge out of crisis closer to home. It can be a crisis in our
congregation, or a crisis in our family, or a crisis of personal
health. Even a crisis of spirit. You can feel the two wolves going
round and round each other, snapping at each other, and the one that
you feed is the one that prevails. Something happens or does not
happen in our congregation, for example, and you have an instant
negative reaction-right here is a call to leadership. So what do you
do next? Do you pour out your anger in a passionate email which you
blast out to all the world-instead of going directly to the person who
could actually answer your questions, address your concerns, perhaps
even correct some of your assumptions? Do you indulge your suspicions,
cultivate your worst doubts, divide people into US vs. THEM, spread a
spirit of war around rather than of peace? If you do this, you did NOT
answer the call. You fed the wolf that destroys, not the wolf that
heals. The leadership opportunity was missed.

We’ve just got to be there when the opportunity comes our way. So
much is at stake in how we use our influence. And it’s not always
a matter of responding to crisis. Parker Palmer puts it this way:
“I lead by word and deed simply because I am here doing what I
do. If you are here, doing what you do, then you also exercise
leadership of some sort.” And so, just to smile across the room
at someone you know-just to acknowledge their existence-this can be a
kind of leadership, an exercise of influence that is truly important.
Just by smiling across the room, you are living into a larger vision
of a community that strengthens and encourages. Someone was talking
about this just the other day-how horrible and withering it feels to
notice someone looking at you but they don’t smile, they don’t
acknowledge your existence, even though they know you! Leadership is
about making the vision real, in acts both big and small. You see a
piece of trash on the floor, and you pick it up even if you aren’t
the sexton, you aren’t the staff, you aren’t a part of any
formal leadership. You just do it, and as you do it your simple act of
leadership is helping to create the beloved community vision that
says, We are all in this together. It’s up to all of us.
Let’s pull together and not apart. The ministry here involves
every friend, every member, because that’s what it takes to live
out our mission of changing lives. That’s what it takes.

Leadership is everyone’s vocation, expressed through acts both big
and small. It’s about how we use our influence, towards the
creation of some larger vision. It’s about how we respond to the
call, when the call comes.

But now, what happens when you get the call, and you hesitate, just
like MLK did? You feel an inner sense of reluctance, and you might not
be sure about what it means. Or you are concerned about the kind of
work involved. Don’t want anything to do with administration,
organization, stuff like that.

I love this part of MLK’s story. You know, we take our hero
figures and we make them more than human. We make them superhuman, and
then we turn around and wonder why we get so anxious when the issue of
leadership comes up. Who, me? we protest, when it’s time
for us to step up. Well, of course-but only because we don’t know
that every fear we have, they felt too. Every insecurity, every
flaw-they had them too.

All I know is this: I’m grateful for the Ralph Abernathys among
us, the Ralph Abernathys who come into our lives as we are hemming and
hawing about what to do, whether or not to accept the call before us.
Ralph Abernathy gets ahold of MLK and says, “Listen here. Yeah,
there may be organization involved. There may be administration
involved. It might not all be fun. It might be busy work. But look
here. All the busy work-it’s holy work too. Cooperating in this
effort has elemental importance. Cooperating in this effort amounts to
building the vision. And the vision is everything!”

The take-away lesson here is that sometimes the call comes, and we
don’t recognize it as a call. Someone invites us to volunteer, and
all we see is just more busy work, and so we miss a golden
opportunity, perhaps the opportunity of our lives. It’s just as
another classic leadership story suggests: we can be like
brickworkers, piling up brick after brick, resenting the heck out of
gruntwork that seems disconnected from anything truly meaningful,
while all the time what is really happening is this: we’re
building a cathedral! That’s what’s happening, but we
don’t know it. Until a Ralph Abernathy comes into our lives and
helps us see the larger picture and purpose. Until we help each other
to see the larger picture.

And so MLK said yes. He said yes to being involved in the Montgomery
bus boycott. He showed up to the minister’s meetings, and, as
biographer Marshall Frady says, “mostly because he was a
relatively fresh figure not yet entangled in the politics of ego
within the city’s black establishment,” he became the leader
of the boycott, leader of the whole shebang. The rest is truly
history. He said yes to the call-he showed up-and before Montgomery
and then an entire nation and world, it happened. A unique destiny
unfolded. A true prophet for our times. He showed up.

And it can happen to you and me as well. Something deep within us
released, because we showed up and said yes….

But something else happens, and it leads to my last point today. Yes,
as we step up to leadership, we realize the promise and potential of
our souls. Yes, we let our lives speak. But we also put ourselves in a
vulnerable place. This happens too. We open ourselves up to criticism.
In MLK’s own case, one particularly poignant example of this
relates to how, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he received
constant threatening phone calls at home. One night, he picked up the
phone to hear a voice tell him, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken
all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever
came to Montgomery.” It was the straw that broke the camel’s
back. “I hung up,” said MLK about this event, sometimes
later, “but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had
come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I got out
of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and
heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a
way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In
this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I
determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed
over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that
midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand
for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are
looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without
strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my
powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I
can’t face it alone.'” But now listen to what happened
next-again, this is MLK speaking: “At that moment I experienced
the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It
seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice,
saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God
will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to
pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face
anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me
inner calm.” This is MLK’s spiritual testimony, and as I
share this, I am very mindful that I speak to a Unitarian Universalist
community with different senses of the sacred. Some of you will relate
to MLK’s experience of God, and some of you will not. But we can
all relate to his despair. We all know what it is like to reach a
saturation point. We may be surrounded by criticism and complaint on
all sides; we may doubt ourselves and be more than ready to give up.
Leadership, even as it expresses our vocation in life, puts us again
and again in difficult places just like this.

So my last words to you today are this: be ready. Be ready. MLK took
his problem to God. Where do you take your problems to? MLK once said,
I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but
I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the
promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about
anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

That’s what he said, and we need to be able to say that as well. The deep hungers of
the soul continually push us towards difficult leadership places where
we find ourselves challenged like never before, and so what can
strengthen us and encourage us? What can help us hope, and keep on
hoping? That great man, Martin Luther King Jr., was up there at the
mountain top, but he was also down there in the deepest valley of the
shadow of death. And he got up. How do you get up?