Sermon: Practice, Practice (audio and text)

READINGS

You Reading This, Be Ready  by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

From “What They Dreamed by Ours to Do” by Rebecca Parker

(When our congregations were asked what their dreams are for the UU movement, a strong majority said their highest hope was “to become a visible and influential force for good in the world.” How do we do that?)

“We do not need more money, although money always helps . . . . We do not need more people, though it would be good to have them . . . . To be an influential force good, what we need to do is establish more strongly in our congregational life the practices that embody loving, just, and sustainable community. We need to be what we want to see and make visible an alternative to the forms of oppression, alienation, and injustice alive in our time.”

SERMON

            Each summer I make a point of signing up for a wheel-based pottery class at a local pottery studio. Pottery is something I’ve enjoyed playing with on and off since college, and Asheville is such a great center for ceramics that I often meet the most impressive artists in those studios.

            I have no great ambitions for myself. My talents are quite modest, but I enjoy the process. I love working with clay, the way it feels, the way it responds to how you shape it.

I remember how frustrated I was the first few times I tried to center the clay, the way it would wobble-wobble-wobble, and it seemed to take forever using all my might before I could wrestle it into the center of the wheel.

These days centering is no big deal, even five or six pounds of clay for some larger bowls that I’ve made. It’s not that I’m any stronger. It’s just that I have a better sense of what I’m doing. I don’t fight the clay; I work with it. I’ve learned where, when and how to apply pressure to get the result I want. And that just comes with practice.

 Practice gives me more than just facility. It gives me a sense of and a fondness for the material I’m working with and the beauty it makes possible. In time, I’ve found I get a deeper sense of the artistic possibilities in shaping clay. I come to admire artists for what they were able to accomplish, which opens new possibilities for my own work.

I’ve made a few pieces – some I’m even proud of. It’s always fun to see what comes out of the kiln. But to be honest it is not so much the product as the process that draws me. I look forward to each class as a way to explore a new dimension of this work, to challenge myself to try out more difficult forms. Inevitably at some point, I bump into limits of my understanding or ability and get frustrated. But then there’s an instructor or classmate who offers a tip, and I’m back at it.

It’s a process that I expect many of you recognize who have ever tried your hands at any skill, from playing the clarinet to baking a pie, to planting a flourishing garden: Something calls you to a particular art or skill. So, you seek out instruction and find that, at first, you’re awkward and uncertain. If you’re like me, you may even get impatient with how slow the learning seems to come.

But then, before you realize it, the clay in your hands, the piano keys beneath your fingers, the mountain slope under your skies, is something you begin to know, and even love.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the old saw goes? Practice, practice.

            This fall your Board of Trustees is leading you in a process to help us discern what we as a congregation are called to do. It’s a challenging time to be asking this question, with so much that is important to us in play.

But, we have a pretty good idea of where we begin. As Unitarian Universalists, we are joined with more than 1,000 other congregations across this country by our seven principles, commitments to affirm such things as the inherent worth and dignity of all, justice and compassion, acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth, the right of conscience and a goal of world community, as well as a free and responsible search for meaning and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

If it’s been a while since you’ve looked at them or if this is new to you, I invite you to find a time to look them over in the first pages on our gray hymnal. Take a look, too, at what we consider to be the primary sources that we draw from as a religious tradition.

Beyond these principles, we as a congregation have identified core values that we believe guide us in our work: connection, inspiration, compassion & justice.

We also gather here under our covenant – words that affirm commitments we make to care for and support each other, to celebrate our diversity but also to attend openly to differences and to create healing by listening and speaking in the spirit of love.

These are words we recite at congregational meetings and upon welcoming newcomers into our congregation, yet we are still challenged by Rebecca Parker’s observation that, “Covenant is brought into being through practice. Our verbal promises are just the frosting on the cake.”

The question remains, then, what shall we do? How will we devote our limited resources of time, talent, and money to accomplish what best serves our hopes for the world, this community and each other?

In the next several weeks there will be opportunities for you to participate in this conversation. The Board has recruited UUCA members to facilitate conversations at 11 meetings on different days and times in the next several weeks to address this question.

I sat with them in their training yesterday, and I think you’ll find the process illuminating. You can sign up today in Sandburg Hall after the service, and I hope you will. It’s a unique chance to help guide where we are going as a congregation. I’ll be fascinated to learn what comes of it.

But I’ve chosen this topic as you embark on that journey to urge that in answering that question you consider how you might frame your answers in the context of practice.

Why practice? Well, to begin with, practice gives us work for the long haul. We exist as a congregation not to accomplish a specific end by a specific point in time but to be agents of transformation. And transformation is hard. It requires that we pace ourselves and develop strategies that keep us focused even in hardship, disappointment, and loss.

My model for this work is John Lewis, one of the last surviving leaders of the Civil Rights movement. He is famous for saying that, in the end, the Civil Rights Movement was not about achieving specific political ends but, in his words, “about seeing a philosophy made manifest in our society that recognized the inextricable connection we have to each other.”

Seen from that perspective, he said, each of the acts of the movement – the victories and the defeats – were only steps along the way. Writing in 2012, Lewis added, “Yes, the election of Barak Obama represents a significant step, but it is not an ending. It I not even a beginning; it is one important act in a continuum of change. . . . It is another milestone on the nation’s road to freedom.”

“We must accept one central truth and responsibility as participants in a democracy,” he said “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create and even more fair, more just society.”

Freedom, in other words, is a practice. So, the question returns to us: What practices will keep us centered, hopeful, united and strong as we move, bit by bit, toward our goal?

A focus on practice reminds us that some of the hardest work in creating the change we want to see is changing ourselves. Remember, when learning a new skill, it’s a little rocky at first. We make mistakes and get frustrated. And even then, the best-laid plans go easily astray. We get distracted. We get busy. We want to do better, but it all seems like too much.

Remembering that lasting change can’t be accomplished overnight, we begin with the small steps. What can we do today, right now that might take us at least a tiny step along the way? This past week our Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper offered a few ideas at our Wednesday Thing.

Feeling grumpy? How about filling a Gratitude Jar with prompts that remind you how much you have cause to be grateful for? Are folks in your house a little over the edge right now? How about digging into the family Calm Down Box or the Boredom Jar? Maybe it’s a game, a book of poetry, a packet of tea, or just a blankie. Surely there’s something there that can dial down the level of stress or craziness in your house at that moment.

While some were filling boxes or jars, I led others in silent meditation, and Bruce Larson gathered others still to talk about peacemaking. All of these are simple things to do, but they become powerful when we make them personal practices, activities that we rely on to center and ground us, that reminds us to focus on what connects us with others, on living into the people we want to be.

Rebecca Parker in our reading captures the sense of it: “To be an influential force for good,” she said, “what we need to do is establish more strongly in our congregational life the practices that embody loving, just and sustainable community.”

Practices also offer us a way to stay true to what matters to us even when we reach the end of our rope when we have no clue of the next step to take. Chris Lattimore Howard writing in Christian Century magazine recalled a night early in his chaplaincy training where he and his supervisory were dashing from crisis to crisis with barely a moment to think.

At one point, Howard says, he flippantly said to his supervisor, “Man, this is out of control.” The chaplain, he said, stopped and turned to him, saying, “Not being in control is part of the discipline.”

So it is for us. There is much that we will encounter that will surprise us or knock us off our equilibrium. So, we need to develop practices that can keep us grounded and focused and true to who we are and aspire to be.

How do the promises of our covenant become practices? How do our values focus our work? How do our principles guide our hands and feet? How does all of this link us to the larger work of transforming the world? Each generation pressed by both the outrages and the radiant possibilities of its time confronts such questions. How shall we respond? What halting skills do we cultivate such that we may be fully present to our age, struggling at first with the wobble-wobble-wobble of awkward uncertainty until we get the hang of the work until we learn where to apply the pressure with true skill so that we truly be a blessing to the world?

The opportunity is before us. As William Stafford reminded us, what can anyone give you greater than now, starting here right in this room, when you turn around?