Delivered May 11, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
Some of you may know that the word fail has become part of the lexicon in America. I track the modern meaning of words online at the Urban Dictionary website and here is what the entry for fail says, “Fail - either an interjection used when one disapproves of something, or a verb meaning approximately the same thing as the slang form of [a more crass version of stinks]. Using it in a sentence would sound this way, 1] "you actually bought that? FAIL" 2] "this movie fails." There is a worse version of this, it is called epic fail – which is the “complete and total failure when success should have been reasonably easy to attain.”
Today’s topic could just as easily have been titled “what we learn from our mistakes,” but the concept is sort of the same which is, we will try all kinds of things in life, some of them will succeed and some of them will fail, some of them will be noble and valid attempts and some of them in hindsight may turn out to have been mistakes, of course the $64,000 question for today is, when we fail or when we make mistake, what do we learn?
Since scheduling this sermon for today, I was initially unaware that I was going to be talking about this subject on Mother’s Day, I have been made aware of it a number of times by, you guessed it, women who are mothers. I have never done a sermon specific to Mother’s Day or Father’s Day and I don’t really think about that when planning them, so I didn’t really have much to say about that until one of the mother’s talked to me a little about both feeling like a failure and the stress that comes with seeing your children fail.
These are both great examples of what we all can face at some time or another, feeling like a failure and seeing those we love struggle and/or fail. I love what she said about having to watch your children fail. She basically said that you spend so much of your life trying to make sure that they are fed and clothed, that they do their homework and try to make good choices in life and then they get to an age where you can help as best you can, but you can’t follow them around all the time like you did when they were three. At some point, they will fail, they will make mistakes and they hopefully will learn valuable lessons. Parenting books are filled with how to do all of this so I leave your further study to those, however I will say that millenniums worth of parents have struggled with this conundrum and as much as I could say about it, or you could read about it, it feels much more real when it is happening in your life instead of reading it in a parenting book.
The other thing that I think is pretty universal is the fear that we are somehow failing, and we are doing that somehow in an epic way where complete and total failure comes when success should have been reasonably easy to attain. I have to be honest with you. I struggle with this as your minister. I want this to be a loving, healthy and vibrant congregation and care deeply about all of you, and yet I often worry about making mistakes and failing myself and you.
For example, we have a vision statement for this congregation and this is what it says “Inspired by our Unitarian Universalist principles, we are a vibrant, intentionally diverse congregation that models and promotes both locally and globally: love, spiritual growth, service, right relations and sustainable living.” Although I think in many ways we are embarking down the road that we had hoped for when we went through the process of creating it, I know that very few of you could even say a version of this without first finding where it is written and then reading it.
Let me tell you what the plan was when we started the process of creating a vision statement. The plan was that we would be enriched by the process by working together and getting excited about producing something that was bold, flowed deeply though our hearts and motivated our collective actions for years to come. The plan was that it would be easy to say and easy to remember so that everyone in this congregation would know it, understand it and hopefully embody it. The plan was that we would finish that process and be ready to filter every single decision about congregational life, about our programming, about our budget, about our strategic plan and about our building process through this visionary statement. And, the plan was that I would help promote this, not get distracted by all the other demands of ministry at least enough to keep it in the forefront of our minds and hearts.
Of course I thought I could do this because I have been leading board retreats for about 20 years and have been consulting with people and organizations on how to do this very thing for a long time. Based on my experience, I thought I surely could help facilitate this statement for us and have it really be moving and motivating. I admit to this being part hope, part desire for our collective sense of being inspired, part my faith that we could find something that we all could grasp on to and of course, and leaning into my discomfort and vulnerability, part ego.
It isn’t always easy for me and for maybe some others in the world to admit to our visions of self, that level of expectations that we set or demand from our own efforts which can make it even harder to deal with failing and to live up to those visions in our own and anyone else’s mind. It is a place of discomfort and certainly can be a place of vulnerability. Discomfort and vulnerability is a place that we often try to avoid. Last week I talked a little about this; we can often build walls, false fronts, and even systems that can cover our discomfort and vulnerability. These systems can be used to deflect, attack, defend, repel, blame, shame, detach and more. At times they also can stop us from being honest with ourselves and others, being understanding of our shared frailties, or being forgiving. These protective systems of comfort can also keep us from stretching our comfort zones by being bold and taking chances.
So one of the lessons I have learned from any sense of failing I have is that it helps to lean back into the discomfort and lean back into the vulnerability for those are where the areas of growth are. I don’t think growth comes when we use systems designed to deflect, attack, defend, repel, blame, shame, and detach not that we are always responsible for everything, we are not. There are certainly cases when others can contribute to failures because as much as some of us like to be responsible for everything in this world or want to control it, we can’t. These cases do however call us into some deep reflection in order to understand our part in the process. And of course there are times when what has happened, whether in small or large part, is the result of something of our own doing and as exhausting as it can be, it is a time for us to lean into that which challenges us and may help us move beyond.
Last week after District Assembly I posted this on my Facebook page, “I am so filled with the possibilities of this UUism after being surrounded by so many people with so much love in their hearts and so much yearning for the possible. I have felt like we are building a new way for a long time and today, I feel like the articulation of that new way is getting closer and closer. With each gathering of UU's I come away with hope. With each gathering I make connections that bring me joy. With each gathering I get closer to colleagues that deepen my love. With each gathering I feel jubilation when my congregants get filled with spirit from attending. My mind is swirling tonight with the possible, but I will rest well full to the brim with joy, love, hope, jubilation and spirit.” As you can tell, I was moved and motivated by attending our District Assembly as I know others were in this congregation. I think with staff included we had 10 people there.
Meg Riley the keynote speaker, the minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the online UU congregation, talked about how we must be willing to make big mistakes in the service of this faith. I think the gist of what she was saying was that in order to move effectively into the future, we must be willing to try things, make mistakes, learn from the mistakes and try something else.
A couple of days after this, I was thinking about all this, discomfort, vulnerability, and making big mistakes and I posted this on one of the national UU facebook pages, “If you were going to do one really radical thing that you always wanted to do (or just thought of) that would change your congregation or Unitarian Universalism for (hopefully) the better for a very long time, what would it be?” Here are some of the answers:
- I'd shift to calling ordained UU people clergy (still Rev), but use term minister much more freely -- youth ministers, social media ministers, etc... Still need accountability, structure, supervision and job description. But we need to empower people to do ministry in way out the binary "your either a real minister or your not" culture.
- We need to focus resources on planting a thousand new missions (some called churches) in a thousand different ways by 2025
- Being more focused on society instead of our congregations.
- I want UUs to be proud of the part their faith plays in making the world a better place, and willing to say so. That would be the best kind of marketing, in my opinion.
- We need to learn how to invite people in besides the following: NPR listeners, Prius drivers, professors, the families of professors, local artists, former hippies, Humanists, Atheists & the list could continue. Not that these people aren't important to us & we should keep the doors open where they are concerned, but they already know we're here. There are SO many who do not, because while they may agree with our principles, they have no idea who we are or where to find us, & we make no effort to reach out to them because they don't look like us or participate in the same activities we do. Opening the doors & walking as far as your usual haunts is not outreach
- Then someone replied, if we got all the NPR listeners, Prius drivers, professors, the families of professors, local artists, former hippies, Humanists, Atheists, etc., we would be a lot bigger and stronger than we are now.
- And perhaps my favorite: I would wave my papal crosier and require, as a condition of membership in good standing, that each person develop a plan for becoming the best person she can be, that each person shares at least some of his goals and objectives with the community and that the community hold each person accountable for working the plan.
Can you imagine the risk of failure in some of these answers? Can you imagine how uncomfortable and vulnerable we might feel coming up with a plan for becoming the best person we can be, and standing up here on a Sunday morning and sharing at least some of our goals and objectives with the entire community and then, opening ourselves up to the community to hold each us accountable for working the plan. Who is squirming in their seat right now? But let’s take a minute and release us from all that might hold us back. Let’s maybe even switch off for a minute those systems that serve to protect us. Let us just imagine if we can, what might be possible if we actually took the time, the effort and the risk to develop a plan for becoming the best person we could be, whatever that looked like and then had a community of people devoted to helping us work that plan.
After District Assembly one night a group of us went out for dinner and I ask a colleague of mine “If you were going to do one really radical thing that you always wanted to do (or just thought of) that would change your congregation or Unitarian Universalism for (hopefully) the better for a very long time, what would it be?” He said he would take his congregation out from the walls of the church and hit the streets to work with homeless children. He said he wanted his congregation to understand that Unitarian Universalism has the power to save lives.
We may not all know the vision statement, we may not all yet be on the same page about the potential this congregation has for transforming this community, we may not all be creating plans to better ourselves, but let’s not fall into to the trap of thinking that we have reached some finite point in any of these efforts. We can do whatever we can think of together, we can go boldly into the future. If I said to you today that we were free to think of huge and unreasonable ideas, ideas that cost too much money, ideas that would take too many volunteers, ideas that might add too many staff people, ideas that take us streaming into this community to bring love to people in need, what would those ideas be? What would change us and change others forever? What could we do together, as a force for good that would hit the national news, go viral and demonstrate our UU values in such an amazing way that there would be no doubt?
I can’t tell you today what this looks like. I don’t know what this means to our vision statement our how we implement our strategic plan. I am not even sure what this means about how we do congregational life moving forward. But this is what I do know, this world needs us. It is in urgent need of healing. Our political systems need healing. Our nations need healing. Those who are hungry need healing. Those who cross borders for economic reasons need healing. Those who cannot live without a living wage need healing. Those who feel lost, lonely and without community need healing and our climate is in grave need of healing. How can we not risk big mistakes in the hope that we can help heal and transform the world? So as we move forward from here, I ask that those of you on the fringes of congregational life get involved and come to the center, lend your time and talents, for this can be a vehicle for big ideas and vital healing. So let us pledge to support boldness, let us not succumb to the seduction of our natural tendencies of critique and skepticism, let us be people of unrealistic vision, and let us be willing to risk the big mistakes on the always possible path to success.