August 19, 2018
Why is it that when life knocks some people down – a layoff, a serious illness or injury, a breakup or divorce, the end of a friendship, the death of a loved one, the loss of a physical ability, a failure at something that matters – why is it that some people seem to sail through it almost as if nothing has happened; some endure a period of difficulty and then regain their balance and get moving again; and some never seem to really recover. Why is it that when life knocks some congregations down – their building is destroyed by fire or flood, their finances dry up because of a recession or the loss of members, a pillar of the church dies or gets caught in a scandal, a conflict erupts between two factions, a minister leaves willingly or unwillingly – why is it that some congregations just deal with it almost as if nothing has happened; some get mired in controversy or stagnation for a while and then move on; and some lose heart and never seem to fully recover. The question is not if life knocks you down but when life knocks you down, will you lie there, wallowing in misery and self-pity, or will you get up, dust yourself off, and get on with your life?
Psychologists call this ability to bounce back resiliency, and there’s been quite a bit of research on the topic in recent years (and you would expect a psychologist to find this research intriguing). The research has pinpointed the skills of resiliency, and I want to share them with you this morning because you might find them helpful at this particular time in your personal life and maybe in your congregational life. Actually, I want to highlight just two of them, and the first one is the ability to face the reality at hand, honestly and unflinchingly. Now this may seem counterintuitive. On the surface of it, we might think that resilience comes from taking an optimistic view, of seeing the situation through rose-colored glasses, but this is not what the research reveals.
This point was made poignant to me in an interview I read with Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was held prisoner and tortured by the Vietcong for eight years. Stockdale was asked, “Who didn’t make it out of the camps?” He answered, “Oh, that’s easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who said we were going to be out by Christmas. And then they said we’d be out by Easter and then out by the Fourth of July and out by Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again.” Then Stockdale said, “You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.”
This is not to say that optimism doesn’t have its place, but the research indicates that resilient people face reality as it is without watering down the seriousness of the situation. Do I truly accept the reality of what has happened? Accepting the situation does not mean that you have to like it. It means accepting life on its terms, not yours.
That’s what I like about the farmer in the Buddhist story I told the kids. He accepts life on its terms without getting caught up in his own judgments or expectations about how life should be. If his horse runs away, he deals with it. He doesn’t get tangled up in trying to decide if it’s good or bad. If his son breaks his leg, he attends to his injury. He doesn’t worry about whether he’s lucky or unlucky. He doesn’t feel compelled to pass judgment on what happens because he recognizes that the categories of good and bad are subjective and that they exist only in our heads. He recognizes that no judgment is final, that our judgments change with time and as the circumstances change. So why regard them as necessary? He thinks what he thinks without getting entangled in his thoughts. He feels what he feels without getting overwhelmed by his emotions. He takes life as it comes. He is truly living in the moment, not in his head.
I have noticed — and you probably have, too — that people tend to fall back into one of two default settings when life doesn’t conform to our expectations. I call them our default settings because they are literally hard-wired into our biology – fight or flight. When life doesn’t go according to plan, we typically fight the reality of the situation or fly from it. We fight it by gritting our teeth and resisting it. “It’s not fair. This isn’t what I was anticipating. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.” We fly from an unacceptable situation by denying what has happened or minimizing its impact on us. “Oh, it’s not that bad. It could be worse. It’s ok. It didn’t really hurt. I’m not really angry.”
You and I have had to face some unacceptable situations these last couple of years. I had to face a congregation that was distrustful of its new minister because its previous minister had betrayed their trust. I had to face a hostile associate minister and administrator whom I finally had to ask to leave. Then I had to face the leaving of my life partner, with whom I thought I would spend the rest of my life. You had to face the leaving of your minister of ten years and the transition period of an interim minister. Then you faced the high expectations of calling a new minister, and now you are facing the crushing disappointment of unfulfilled hopes.
You and I – all of us – must play the cards that life deals us, whether we like them or not. It is tempting, it is so tempting, to turn against or turn away from a situation we don’t like. We turn against a congregation that disappoints us by disparaging it. “Those people are so petty, rude, ungrateful, dysfunctional. They’d screw up a one car funeral. That congregation just chews its ministers up and spits them out.” I have served five congregations, and all these quotes are mine. We turn away from a congregation that disappoints us by giving up on it. We resign from our volunteer positions. We quit giving our contributions. We leave the church. “I’ve had it with those people.”
Many of you know my life story. You may remember that I left the ministry after serving two congregations and went back to graduate school to become a psychologist. The reason I left wasn’t just because I lost my religion. I could no longer pretend to believe things I could no longer believe. I left the church because I had had it with those people. But you know what I discovered in graduate school and in the places I worked – a community mental health center, a drug and alcohol rehab center, a college counseling center, and a pastoral counseling center? “Those people” were there, too! Those people are everywhere! They just have different names and faces. People can be petty, rude, ungrateful, and dysfunctional – just like you and me. They can also be gracious, considerate, forgiving, and sacrificial – just like you and me.
It is absolutely essential for our own spiritual growth that we face the reality we are facing because life is trying to teach us some lessons, and we’ll miss them and we won’t grow up if we turn against them or turn away from them. What lessons is your present reality trying to teach you? It may be inviting you to ask yourselves, “What kind of congregation do we want to be, and what kind of minister can help us become that kind of congregation?” Congregations can’t do everything well, and ministers can’t do everything well. Congregations and ministers perform multiple ministries. There’s worship, pastoral care, social action beyond these walls, community-building within these walls, fund-raising, building maintenance, and organizational management. No congregation or minister can do all these things well, so you need to decide your priorities so that you’ll know what kind of minister you need.
Facing reality head-on is one skill of resiliency. Another is making meaning out of terrible times. All of us know people, including you and me, who, under duress, throw up their hands and cry, “Why is this happening to me?”
In the first church I served out of seminary, a mother lost her son to a drunk driver. What made this tragedy especially tragic is that he had just been admitted to med school. Years after his death, she agreed to come speak to a Sunday School class which was reading Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When someone asked her how she was able to bounce back from such an appalling loss, she said, “People sometimes say, ‘Why me?’ But I’ve always said, ‘Why not me?’ What makes me so special to think that I should be exempt from tragedies? Losing my son has been the most horrible thing to happen to me, but his loss is not all that happened. His death has made me more compassionate toward others who suffer losses, and it has made me more grateful for the other people in my life and for the gift of life itself.”
Being resilient is the difference between seeing yourself as a victim or as a survivor. Victims learn no lessons from hardship. Survivors use their suffering as an opportunity to create some sort of meaning for themselves and others.
Have you noticed that a rubber ball thrown to the ground bounces back because it pushes back against the ground? You could say that it remembers its true shape. Surviving hardship is about being able to push back against terrible circumstances by retaining your integrity, by remembering and remaining who you really are, no matter the circumstances.
Who are we, you and I? We are Unitarian Universalists. The words you still use at the beginning of every service reminds members and visitors that Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion; that is, we don’t tell people what to believe. Instead, we are a covenantal religion; that is, we promise one another that we will live by our principles. We have seven of them. We print them on the back of our order of service. Please join me in reading them together out loud.
We covenant to affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
This is who we are, no matter the circumstances. If I had to boil down all the verbiage of our seven UU principles to one word, that word would be respect. We promise to respect one another. You don’t have to respect a person’s beliefs or opinions to respect the person. You don’t have to respect a person’s words or actions to respect the person. Even when a person is disrespectful toward you, you can still treat them with respect. How? By remembering who you are. You are a person of principle. And why do you act with respect? For your own self-respect. Whenever I have gotten down in the mud with muddy people, I may have felt justified or clever or self-congratulatory in the moment, but afterwards, I have always felt dirty. Taking the low road diminishes our self-respect.
I’ve mentioned how easy it is to allow the fight-or-flight response to take over in stressful situations. In those situations, not only do we tend to turn against and turn away from the situation; we tend to turn against and turn away from each other in the situation. We turn against each other with blame. “It’s his fault. He’s the reason this happened. That’s just like her. She’s always causing trouble.” Blame is actually a well-practiced self-defense mechanism to protect our hearts. Rather than allow ourselves to feel our pain, we focus on categories of right and wrong, judging ourselves to be right and another to be wrong so that we can feel better. The problem with blame is that it short-circuits our ability to heal because you have to feel and own your pain in order to heal. The other problem with blame is that it short-circuits our growth because it doesn’t allow us to learn from what has happened.
We turn away from each other by cutting ourselves off from each other. “I’ve had it. I’ll never speak to him again. I’ll never step foot in that church again.” The problem with turning away from others is that it short-circuits our ability to heal as a community because we have to see and hear the pain of others in order for the community to recover.
It seems to me that this present moment is inviting you to ask yourselves, “How do we want to handle our disappointment and frustration?” My brothers and sisters, I know that it is tempting, it is so tempting, to turn against each other and away from each other as you face the reality of the moment. I urge you to turn toward each other, and you can do that by remembering who you are. You are people of principle, no matter the circumstances, and since we all live by the same seven principles, that puts us all on the same side. Now is the time to live your principles, not your impulses. If someone else takes the low road, don’t let them take you down with them. Follow Michelle Obama’s directive: “When they go low, we go high.” Take the high road of respect for the sake of this congregation. Take the high road for your own self-respect.
Practically speaking, what does it mean to turn toward each other during a time of conflict? The most compassionate, the most healing action you can take is to listen. “The first duty of love,” said Paul Tillich, “is to listen.” Just listen. Restrain yourself from passing judgments, even if unspoken. Restrain yourself from giving advice, no matter how wise you think your advice would be. Restrain yourself from setting the record straight. This is not about being right; it’s about being present.
When you do speak, try to have more questions than statements. Seek to understand the other person. You may not agree with them, but you don’t have to in order to understand them. Cultivate your curiosity because curiosity begets understanding and understanding begets compassion. Try to understand especially how the other person is hurting. I try to remember that when someone is acting out, they are usually acting out of pain. I’m not suggesting that we excuse bad behavior or not set proper boundaries. I am simply suggesting that we try to understand the source of bad behavior, and when possible, to respond with compassion. What is it that the person needs at that moment? What do they need to hear from you? See if you can respond with compassion instead of judgment.
If you can turn toward each other in this way, I will make two predictions. First, I predict that you’ll discover that nearly everyone has had a different experience. No one has the same relationship with their minister. Some of you have had some positive experiences, and some of you have had some negative experiences, and all of them are real. That’s because ministers are complicated, church members are complicated, and people are complicated.
The blind men who happened upon an elephant each had a different experience. One felt the elephant’s tail and concluded that elephants are like ropes. One ran his hands across the elephant’s side and concluded that elephants are like walls. One grabbed one of the elephant’s legs and concluded that elephants are like tree trunks. All of them were right, and all of them were wrong. In one version of the parable, the men blame each other of lying and start arguing and try to correct each other. In other words, they turn against each other. In another version of the parable, they stop trying to convert each other and start listening and collaborating to “see” the whole elephant. In other words, they turn toward each other. If you will turn toward each other, you will discover that while your subjective experience is true, it’s not the whole truth. Then maybe you can start having compassion toward those who have had a different experience with your former minister.
My second prediction is that if you turn toward each other, you will discover that nearly everyone is hurting from what has happened. When we share a community, we share the same principles, and we share the same pain. It hurts when a minister and a congregation are not a good fit for one another. It’s profound disappointment for the minister and the congregation. This happens all the time with ministers and congregations, but that doesn’t make it any less painful when it happens to you. That this was not a good fit does not mean that he or you are bad, incompetent, or dysfunctional. It simply means that you made the best decision you could make at the time based on what you knew at the time, and it didn’t work out this time. It simply means that you are human, and I hope that you can forgive one another and yourselves for being human.
I know you. I was a member here for sixteen years, and for ten of those years, I served as your minister. I know you are a resilient congregation. You face reality, and you deal with it. You had a previous minister who was not a good fit with the congregation, and he left amid controversy, and you bounced back. My immediate predecessor and I took six-month sabbaticals, and you carried on well without us. In fact, I thought you carried on too well. You bounced back. You have had a succession of DREs, and you bounce back. You have endured financial shortfalls and membership losses, and you bounce back. When life knocks you down, you get back up and get moving again. You’ve done it before, and you’ll do it again. In the words of Tennyson:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones