Tuesday, December 3, 2013

We Are What We Need Most

A Unitarian Universalist died, and to his surprise discovered that there was indeed an afterlife. The angel in charge of these things told him, “Because you were an unbeliever and a doubter and a skeptic, you will be sent to Hell for all eternity — which, in your case, consists of a place where no one will disagree with you ever again!”

My first career prior to the ministry allowed me to work with families and children and adults with developmental and emotional disabilities. I’ve figured that this work, coupled with ministry, has allowed me to have been in thousands of homes to provide support, services, and pastoral care.  One of them stands out in my mind.

I received a phone call from a congregant asking me to visit her and her husband for pastoral counseling. Naturally I agreed. The next day when I arrived at their home I was surprised but not deterred. I had to park three houses down on the side of the street because the driveway that had been dismantled the summer before was left in piles of soil and stone with the sprinkling of tools one might use to dismantle a driveway. And so I went to their house. I struggled to reach the doorbell because, well, I couldn’t reach it. There were two steps missing between the highest and lowest steps. So I literally crawled up on the first step, stood up, and knocked on the door. The doorbell wasn’t working. No worries. I was soon inside.

I was led into the living room and had taken a seat. Immediately Sara burst into tears. As I helped her gather herself she explained that she was embarrassed and ashamed. Her home had been in disrepair for at least 18 months and she didn’t see a way out of the situation. I looked around and she was right. The floors had no coverings they were simply large sheets of floorboards. The ceilings were crumbling with evidence of new electrical wires being installed. I could see pink tufts of insulation peek out from everywhere floor to ceiling. The window I was sitting next to, a large bay window, was rattling. It had been placed but secured only with a few nails holding it in place. I could go on but by now you get the picture.

I asked Sara if her husband, David, would be joining us and she said that he wouldn’t because he was out helping another congregant complete the finishing work on an addition they had added to their home. Interesting I thought. I asked Sara how David had made his living. Astonishingly she replied “He’s a contractor.” She again burst into tears.

Sara had been living like this for quite some time. She explained how her marriage was deeply affected by David’s decision to reach out to others to voluntarily help with their contracting needs when his home was falling down around them. Sara and David had the resources, and David had the skills to complete the work. However, David was turning his attention outward and neglecting the needs of his wife, his marriage, and his home. 

David was what he needed most, a skilled contractor who loved to help and support others. David didn’t understand that he and Sara needed just that. A skilled carpenter willing to help and support his own family. We are what we need most.

Let me make this concept a little more personal. I’d like to use myself as an example. One of the most deeply satisfying parts of ministry for me is pastoral care. That is, time spent caring for each of you. Its important to me as your minister that you feel cared for, able to reach out if you need, and learn ways to care for yourself. But here is the rub. I struggle with self care. I’m not careful to schedule time away from the congregation to spend time on myself and my family. Extra pounds have been creeping up on me and I’ve neglected to stick to my commitment to making healthier lifestyle choices.

You see while I have the ability and skill and passion for caring for others I’ve realized that none of this self care and compassion is being turned toward myself. Now this isn’t simply about me doing too much. I can actually care for the congregation and myself. I just need to do it.  I need to believe that I deserve the same care I give the congregation. We are what we need most.

So we’ve looked at the concept of who we are what we need most as a family system, as an individual. So let’s look at what this system may mean when we apply it to our congregation. A major part of our identity as a congregation  is our willingness to reach beyond ourselves and into the community and our world and offer love, compassion, meaningful connections and help to ease suffering, and advocacy to transform broken systems. People will say we are not where we would like to be in this area but it is something that the congregation does well knowing that our justice work will never be quite finished. So imagine yourselves standing in a circle along the walls of this sanctuary.

Now imagine yourselves facing outward. This is the place that congregation now stands. You see, the healing, the justice, the advocacy, the relational work is facing outward. An excellent image is one that graces our weekly newsletter the eBeacon. A beam of light rising through the skylight and focused away from this place. 

Focused away from this place. What would it be like if you accepted my invitation to remain standing in that circle but you turned around and faced inward? Imagine looking around and seeing faces that you have loved and befriended for decades. Imagine seeing faces that have just arrived this morning. Imagine the real need that each of these faces hold to be loved, accepted, understood, supported. Imagine that in this circle your needs are not the only needs, your projects and ministry are not the only important projects and ministries. Imagine that in this circle your theology has its place but you need to make room for the theology of others. Imagine directing the light from the skylight inward. We are what we need most. 

Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching :

Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

If we are not compassionate toward ourselves and one another as a congregation we aren’t able to send anything through our skylight let alone justice and freedom of thought.

So what is behind being able to give freely and without reservation that which we need most for David, Sara, this congregation and myself? I spent part of a week in Minneapolis last month reflecting on this very question. Sometimes we are afraid to look inward and so we move to giving outwardly. Sometimes our self worth takes a backseat so that we may direct our attention and deeds in making the worth of everyone around us rise.

Offering ourselves the same consideration, compassion and concern can be quite difficult. Self-care remains a challenge for many of us, personally and professionally. It is one thing to know, it is another to do. The reality is that many of us struggle with conflicts and deterrents to our own self-care.
Self-care is different from selfishness, self-absorption, or self-indulgence. In fact self-preoccupation is more likely to occur as a result of inadequate self-care over time. Fitting self-consideration is a manifestation of a healthy respect for one's self and for others.

Becoming more self-aware is not necessarily easy or pleasant for us. The process may be elusive and conflictual. It involves becoming conscious of, and grappling with, confusing and painful internal conflicts and tensions existing between different kinds and levels of needs and desires. 

Acknowledging unmet hungers may be anxiety-provoking. Yet awareness is crucial in the process of managing emotions in a manner acceptable to the self. Without awareness, unprocessed feelings are at risk of being acted out, potentially in very costly ways for ourselves, our congregation, our community.

There is an old story that tells of a little boy who is having a difficult time trying to lift a heavy stone. His father comes along and seeing him trying and failing to lift the stone asks him are you using all of your strength? The boy looks at him impatiently and says of course I am. No you are not responds the father. I am right here waiting and you haven’t asked me to help you. What if our strength was measured not by what we can do alone but by what we can do together? How might that change our idea of caring and being cared for?

So lets follow up on all that I have mentioned this morning. Sara and David continue to be married and their home as Sara puts it “is complete in many ways.” It took a lot of self examination for David to turn toward his wife and his home and realize that he could continue to helps others as well as maintain his own home. He shouldn’t choose one or the other.

As for me. I’ve been busy cleaning my own back yard. I have been accepted into a wellness program sponsored by Duke University which is piloting a self-care program for Unitarian Universalist ministers. There are only 20 of us in the program from around the country. I don’t need to choose the health of the congregation over my own and do not need to become so self obsessed that I do not care for the congregation. I can do both. I have decided that I will be healthier as a result of our ministry.

Now for the congregation. I raise this concept of being what we need most for a reason. Did someone just hear an elephant? It would be irresponsible as your minister not to ask you to consider what it is we truly need as a congregation in terms of relationship and walking together. Certainly all of our energy, compassion, and understanding cannot bring us closer to beloved community if we direct it in one direction. We are a congregation that loves and heals. What do we need most? We need to turn at least sideways and direct love and healing into this house. Clean our own backyard. We need the compassion that is directed outward and spend more time and energy filling this house. We are what we need. We are a strong, capable, committed, and loving bunch. We need some of those same things. We can do and have both. The love and excitement we share outside can also be shared inside. 

May we consider how we relate to one another in this house. May we bring back the joy, celebration, and the plain old fun back into this house. May we offer this congregation light. May this light continue to shine in and around us.

May it be so.

We Are What We Need Most, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 8, 2013.

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