Energize. Imagine. Become.

One of the leading Unitarian Universalist theologians of the 20th century is James Luther Adams, or JLA for short. Perhaps his best known address is called the “Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion,” and each stone represents a core part of what it means to live our faith. Here I want to explore with you just the fourth stone, and listen to what JLA says about it: “The creation of justice in community requires the organization of power.” “[A]nything that exists effectively in history must have form. […] Thus we are led to the fourth element of liberal [religion]: we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation. There is no such thing as goodness as such, except in a limited sense. The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms.” And there it is, from JLA. “The creation of justice in community.” “Existing effectively in history.” “Decisive forms of goodness.” Don’t WE want that for ourselves, this congregation? Doesn’t all that sound inspiring? But to get there, we have to fight against an illusion whose spell is all too easy to fall under. We have to fight against the temptation it represents, deny it. What JLA calls “the immaculate conception of virtue.” Virtue that’s too easy, that requires nothing special to bring it to birth, that requires no special diets or sacrifices, that needs no check ups or interventions, that involves no birth struggles and pains, that pops out fully-formed, fully independent and ready to go, that costs nothing in terms of money or time or energy, that has none of the ongoing work required in nurturing real infants into children and then children into teenagers and then teenagers into adults. All too often, we think that we can go straight to goodness. The goddess Athena, straight from Zeus’s brain. But that’s “immaculate conception of virtue” thinking, and religious liberalism, says JLA, denies it. Denies it so that it might affirm reality, which is the reality of the group process and all that’s involved in organizing power into community form and keeping it on track. All that’s involved to energize, imagine, become.

That’s why we’re getting out our crayons. Pass the crayons, please, as we prepare to enter into a long range planning process. We want the collective imagination of this place pouring out like a river as we reflect together on four simple but Powerful Questions:

  • Number one: What keeps you coming back to UUCA?
  • Number two: How can we strengthen our congregation?
  • The third question: What distinctive contribution would you like to see UUCA making to the lives of metro Atlanta residents?
  • Question number four: Imagine that you’ve moved away from metro Atlanta, only to return five years later to a UUCA that’s even more dynamic than it was when you left.  What do you see or hear new that happily astounds you?

Bring out the crayons. Let imagination pour out like a river. Let it happen, even as we wake up to news which breaks our hearts, like yesterday’s shooting in Tucson, Arizona. The Associated Press reports that “A gunman targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as she met with constituents outside a busy supermarket Saturday, wounding the Democrat and killing Arizona’s chief federal judge and five others in an attack that left Americans questioning whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.” The story is still unfolding. The news breaks our hearts. But let it and news like it remind us of the seriousness of what we as a faith community are all about. The seriousness of our mission to be a community that creates people who serve the call of Love and Justice, in ways small and large, in whatever corners of our world they happen to find themselves. So much is at stake. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” To exist effectively in history, we must organize the power that is ours. Power of energy, power of imagination, power of becoming. Move it. Release it. Unleash it.

Fourteen years ago, a long range plan helped us do this, helped us grasp our collective power. 200 members in 22 small-group discussions got out their crayons. They took a careful look at where UUCA was at the time, 1997. And then they asked, where do we want it to be in the future? What can we do next that enhances our ability to create Unitarian Universalists who serve the call of Love and Justice? What those 200 people came up with was a vision of a congregation whose large size wouldn’t get in the way of people knowing and connecting with each other in deeper and more intimate ways. Those 200 people envisioned a place where ministry was more widely shared. They saw a building that did a better job in resourcing and facilitating the mission. They pictured a community in which our children and teenagers would be more intentionally nurtured and brought up on Unitarian Universalist values. They got out their crayons. And because of it, because of this effort to organize power, what we have today includes one of the largest systems of small groups in the entire Unitarian Universalist association; a Lay Ministry program that makes a huge difference in the life of this congregation; a building completely renovated and added to; and the hire of Pat Kahn as our full-time Director of Religious Education, together with a program that’s become one of the best around. More happened as a result of that long range planning process from 1997, but I hope you are already getting the point. It was worth it. It’s enhanced our ability to create the kind of people that make the world a better place.

And now it’s time to get the crayons out once again. Lots has happened over the course of 14 years. This was brought home to me vividly as I read an article entitled “Things Babies Born in 2011 Will Never Know.” I’ll just read some of the things without commentary, and as I do, reflect on all the changes in just the past several years that would make the following items outdated, if not already, then soon enough: video tape, travel agents, the separation of work and home, movie rental stores, paper maps, phones that plug into a wall, the evening news, yellow pages, cameras with film you have to get developed. Lots more things to mention, but this is enough. We’re in a different place in 2011, as a congregation, and not just because of technological and social changes but also changes closer to home. 1997’s planning process happened during the long tenure of your previous settled Senior Minister, Dr. Edward Frost, and now you have a new settled Senior Minister, me, in his fourth year. For the first time in the history of this congregation, our music program is led by a full-time Music Director, Don Milton III. Nearly 1/2 of the congregation has joined in the past three years. New groups like our 20s & 30s Fellowship Group have become wonderful expressions of our growing vitality. More than ever before, we’re racially and ethnically diverse. The spirit in this place is moving. So bring out the crayons. Let imagination pour out like a river.

Time to organize our power. And three words sum up the way forward: energize, imagine, become.

Start with energize. To energize, as many people as possible need to be a part of the process. Jonathan Haidt speaks to this, in general terms, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He cites a classic psychological study in which benefits were given to residents “on two floors of a nursing home—plants in their rooms, and a movie screening one night a week. But on one floor, these benefits came with a sense of control. The residents were allowed to choose which plants they wanted, and they were responsible for watering them. They were also allowed to choose as a group which night would be movie night. On the other floor, the same benefits were simply doled out: the nurses chose the plants and watered them; the nurses decided which night was movie night. This small arrangement had big results: On the floor with increased control, residents were happier, more active, and more alert (as rated by the nurses, not just the residents), and these benefits were still visible eighteen months later. Most amazingly, at the eighteen-month follow-up, residents of the floor given control had better health and half as many deaths (15 percent to 30 percent).” Jonathan Haidt’s conclusion? “Changing an institution’s environment to increase the sense of control among its workers, students, patients, or other users was one of the most effective possible ways to increase their sense of engagement, energy, and happiness.” And there it is. Energize, through widespread involvement. Get involved, if you want to feel happier here. It’s why your Long Range Plan Steering Committee field-tested those Powerful Questions I presented earlier with four different congregational groups embodying our various diversities of age and race and sexual orientation and others. And now that we have the Powerful Questions set, it’s why we’re inviting as many people as possible, in context of various groups, to sit down and think about the questions and reflect on them and share their ideas. It’s why the Steering Committee is going to take the results, compile them, and then feed them back to the congregation for further refinement, before the final results are presented to the congregation for a formal vote of approval. No nurses doling anything out, but us working in partnership, doing this together.

Let’s energize, and let’s also imagine. That’s also a part of the way forward. What this means is creating an inspiring success vision that is shared. Inspiring because it is appreciative in emphasis, and echoes the wisdom in a wonderful quote by theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” That’s it! Together, let’s create a vision of ourselves more alive than we are right now. But we’re not gonna get there if we come together in our groups and spend our time complaining about all the things we’re not doing right, all our foibles and flaws, all the endless needs in the world and how we are meeting only some of them. Spend our time dreaming about becoming a sugar maple tree when we are a completely different species, a live oak. That’s shame, and any process rooted in shame is going to kill, not bring life. So much that is good is happening. We have so many strengths—so what are they? How can we make them stronger? Shine our light even brighter?

That’s why the special emphasis of the four Powerful Questions is our strengths as a congregation. Guided by them, we imagine our future together, and the goal is a success vision that’s shared. Mutual. Collective. Achieve this first, before we start out on our journey. Why this is so important is suggested by an old story from Aesop: One day, a man and his son were going with their donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a donkey for but to ride upon?” So the man put the boy on the donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed some other people, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.” So the man ordered his son to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”?Well, the man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his boy up with him, and they both rode on the donkey together. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The people said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey? You and your hulking son, weighing him down like that? So the man and boy got off and they tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey fell off the bridge, and because his fore-feet were tied together, he was drowned. “That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them. “Please all, and you will please none.” That’s the story. The community that lacks a shared vision of where it wants to go, and how it wants to get there, is perpetually vulnerable to distraction and delay and ultimately disaster. Responsiveness to every dissenting perspective is not a sign of virtue, or success. The man, the boy, the donkey, the countryman, the group of people, the two women, the passers-by, and the old man—all the characters in the Aesop story—are in this congregation. The story is us. And if we’re gonna get the donkey to market in one piece, let’s be sure, as far as possible, we’re on the same page.

So we’re going to energize, we’re going to imagine, and finally, we’re going to become. Now this relates to what happens after we the people engage the four Powerful Questions, after the results are compiled, after they are fed back to the congregation for further refinement, adjusted as necessary, and then presented to the congregation for a formal vote of approval. If the timeline holds, it should happen this May. What people will vote on are Powerful Proposals, which express high-level priorities for where we want to go in the next five years. And this is absolutely essential. Reminds me of the time when I was putting together a shelving unit for Laura. I’d put together the basic structure and was ready to nail in the back covering, one side of which looked like nice wood paneling, while the other side looked like what it was: bare press-board. Know what I’m talking about? So I get to work. There’s about twenty separate nails to drive in, to fully set the back covering. And I’m hammering away. Busy hammering in one nail after another. Proud of my handyman prowess. Then it’s done. I put the shelving unit in place, clean up, go get Laura to show off. Her first words to me: Honey … take a look at the back of the shelf—looks like you’ve got the wrong side showing. And she was right! I just got so busy hammering in each nail that I lost track of the big picture. I had to rip out every nail, flip the back, and nail it back in again. Ugh. Lesson learned. Lesson learned about how busy-ness is not necessarily a sign of going in the right direction. Again, that’s why we want to identify our high-level priorities first, before we start hammering.

But we don’t want to forget about the hammering part, either. We need that, too. We don’t want our inspiring success vision that is shared to go upon the shelf and stay there, collect dust. It happens too often in our lives. Lots of talk, but no action. Visioning processes that can be so exciting, but every time we see nothing change as a result, we get more and more cynical about long range planning processes. So we don’t dare allow that to happen here.

That’s why, after the congregation approves the high-level priorities, we’re going to get to work figuring out how we’re going to actualize them. We’re going to develop an implementation plan for each priority that specifies tactics, resources needed (both one-time and ongoing), and a timeline. Once that’s done, it’s back to the congregation, for approval, hopefully by December of this year. And then, after that—we all get busy hammering. The money, the time, the energy of all of us will be required to bring our crayola picture of our future to life. No “immaculate conception of virtue” here. No one else to do it for us. We do it. In the midst of a world where innocent people are shot, where bad things constantly happen, our aspiration is to give birth to something more hopeful, to give birth to the dream of a congregation that is even stronger than before, creating people who make the world a better place, who bring to it Love and Justice. There’s going to be struggle and pain. It’s going to cost us. Perhaps special diets, special sacrifice. Periodic check-ups, periodic interventions. Ongoing work required to bring the baby up, bring it into childhood, the teenage years, then full adulthood. But that’s who we are. That’s what it means to be a religious liberal. We grieve the cruelties of this world. But we never allow them to be the last word. And neither do we imagine that our religion is simply a matter of individuals going their various and diverse ways. For as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “religion that ends with the individual, ends.”

Let’s not end. Let’s claim our collective power, exist effectively in history, be decisive in our goodness. It starts by getting out the crayons. “Guess that sounds absurd,” says Robert Fulghum. “A bit dumb. Crazy and silly and weird. But I was reading in the paper today how much money the Russians and our Congress just set aside for weapons. And I think about what those weapons will do. And I’m not confused about what’s weird and silly and crazy and absurd. And I’m not confused about the lack of, or the need for, imagination in low or high places. Pass the crayons, please.”

Reading before the sermon

Our reading this morning is from the Rev. Robert Fulghum’s classic work, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Amazing things, Crayolas. Some petroleum-based wax, some dye, a little binder–not much to them. Until you add the imagination. The Binney Company in Pennsylvania makes about two billion of these oleaginous sticks of pleasure every year and exports them to every country in the United Nations. Crayolas are one of the few things the human race has in common.

What I notice is that every adult or child I give a new set of Crayolas to goes a little funny. The kids smile, get a glazed look on their faces, pour the crayons out, and just look at them for a while. Then they go to work on the nearest flat surface and will draw anything you ask, just name it. The adults always get the most wonderful kind of sheepish smile on their faces a mixture of delight and nostalgia and silliness. And they immediately start telling you about all their experiences with Crayolas. Their first box, using every color, breaking them, trying to get them in the box in order again, trying to use them in a bundle, putting them on hot things to see them melt, shaving them onto waxed paper and ironing them into stained glass windows, eating them, and on and on. If you want an interesting party sometime, combine cocktails and a fresh box of Crayolas for everybody.

When you think about it, for sheer bulk there’s more art done with Crayolas than with anything else. There must be billions of sheets of paper in every country in the world, in billions of boxes and closets and attics and cupboards, covered with billions of pictures in crayon. The imagination of the human race poured out like a river. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev used crayons, I bet. So did Fidel and the emperor of Japan and Rajiv Gandhi and Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Mubarak and maybe even the ayatollah. And just about everybody else you care to name.

Maybe we should develop a Crayola bomb as our next secret weapon. A happiness weapon. A Beauty Bomb. And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one. It would explode high in the air–explode softly–and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air. Floating down to earth-boxes of Crayolas. And we wouldn’t go cheap, either–not little boxes of eight. Boxes of sixty-four, with the sharpener built right in. With silver and gold and copper, magenta and peach and lime, amber and umber and all the rest. And people would smile and get a little funny look on their faces and cover the world with imagination.

Guess that sounds absurd, doesn’t it? A bit dumb. Crazy and silly and weird. But I was reading in the paper today how much money the Russians and our Congress just set aside for weapons. And I think about what those weapons will do. And I’m not confused about what’s weird and silly and crazy and absurd. And I’m not confused about the lack of, or the need for, imagination in low or high places. Pass the crayons, please.

Here ends the reading for today.