This talk was given at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, NC on February 28, 2016. It was our pledge campaign kickoff Sunday.
One of my favorite movies to watch during the Christmas season is “Love Actually.” It’s a British movie filled with all kinds of hokey stories and totally improbable things happen. Even though I know the outcome, I still shout at the screen and wish people made different choices every time I watch it. One of my favorite story lines in the movie is about a kid who’s mother just died (I promise, it gets better). His adoptive stepfather is trying hard to pay attention to him but he’s having difficulty because his son isn’t talking much. So the father takes him out of the house and down to the River Thames and really tries to get at what’s bugging his son when the son admits something horrendous: he’s in love. The father says, “Is that all? I thought it was something worse.” The kid says, “Worse than the total agony of being in love?” and the father says, “You’re right. Total agony.”
This scene is funny because we can all relate in some way. Thinking back to previous relationships I can certainly understand talking about being in love like a kind of agony. There are the intense feelings but also the fear that the feelings you’re feeling are not going to be reciprocated. And what could be worse than that?
There is incredible vulnerability in love. Here you are, holding your heart out to your hoped for beloved, knowing there is a chance that you could be turned down. Can you imagine anything more terrifying than that? I’ve never had children but I can imagine that raising children could have its own kind of terror. Here you are responsible for keeping this tiny human alive, having absolutely no idea what the future holds for either you or this child, but you are committed anyway.
A few months ago when Rev. Ann Marie asked if I would like to do today’s service, I wasn’t 100% sure the shape the service would take. But I decided to be open to what would come to me. It seems like a really terrifying thing, writing a sermon for the kickoff service for our Annual Commitment Time, pledge campaign. Can you think of anything more terrifying to talk about than money? In our culture we are much more comfortable talking about sex than money but I decided to take it on. Without risk, there is no growth.
I began thinking on a quote from Parker Palmer in his book, the Courage to Teach. I read this book many years ago and no matter how much I looked I couldn’t find the right words but I remember he talked about love and how educators need to acknowledge that they do the work they do out of love. That memory coming back to me has been influencing my work on the board and other work here. I’ve been changing my email sign off signature and using the word “Love.” In my January pledge campaign newsletter column, I encouraged us to remember that the leaders here at UUCG do the work we do out of love.
The interesting thing is, we rarely say the word “love.” That doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, it just means we rarely say it. Over the last few months I’ve worked on getting more comfortable with saying these words and allowing myself to express it to myself and others.
Gary Chapman, a Christian writer, is well known for his books on love languages, how people understand and need to receive love. Each of us understands and expresses love differently. According to the love languages, if I am constantly doing something for my wife Michelle, but it’s not something she recognizes as love, I might as well be talking to the wall.
For some people here at UUCG, coming to the Workday yesterday and doing tasks is love in action. For others, singing in the choir is how they show love to the congregation. For others still, setting out coffee and cleaning up afterwards, is their own way of showing love. But we never say it that way, do we? We say, “We need someone to take care of coffee after the service” or “We need teachers to work with our kids in Religious Education” not, “There are many ways to express love in action here at UUCG. Here are some opportunities.”
In wondering why this is, I came to think of it as being very risky. Going back to the “total agony of being in love,” the agony is in the fear of the love not being reciprocated. In our world we tend to think of risks as physical things like climbing a mountain, kayaking in rough waters, and major life decisions as true risks. What are some areas in your life, either right now or in the past that were risks?
Would any of you think of love as a risk? I want to suggest to you that love is one of the riskiest things that we humans do. In the larger Unitarian Universalist world, this kind of conversation is happening around our anti-authoritarian streak and debates between individualism vs. the community. Our faith was founded by people who were all about supporting individuals and many of us ourselves are what would be called “refugees” from other religions. We have been so tied up in not being our previous selves, and put so much focus on being individuals, that we are forgetting that we are community. Actually, I think “forget” is a strong word. We know it, of course, because how else would we have this building and our staff, how else would we have the relationships we have where we are known for helping each other out when we are in need? On the other hand, what are we willing to risk for our church? What are we willing to risk for our faith? Are we willing to be public about our liberal religious beliefs? At our strategic planning listening sessions, people have brought up that they want us to be known in the larger Greensboro community, but do we? Is that the truth?
If we really want that, we will need to expand our Director of Religious Education’s hours because we can expect more younger families with children. If we really wanted that, we would say yes to Rev. Ann Marie’s request for an increased salary, not only for her but because it will help get us in line with what will be needed for us to attract the right settled minister for us. If we really wanted to be known in the larger community, we would send leaders to leadership training and we would support leadership training that happens right here at UUCG so that our leaders become more and more grounded in our Unitarian Universalist faith. And yet, all of these things take risks. Risk on my part in even talking about this, and risk on your part in truly evaluating what you want to give to our church, not only to sustain and maintain but to grow and live our values.
When I think of our denomination’s struggle around individualism vs. community, I think of the total agony of being in love. The individuals want to be who they are, no questions asked and certainly don’t ask them to change in any way. They think to themselves, “I come to this place where people are nice and accepting but in no way is my identity changing and I’m not changing anything about myself.” At the same time, they know that we are better together but because they haven’t completely bought into this concept on a deep down, in the bones kind of way, they are still holding onto their individualism.
Well, isn’t that what we are like when experiencing being in love? We are standing on the verge of possibilities, not having any idea what is going to happen if we put ourselves out there. Will we continue to stand in our own place of comfort or will we be willing to risk our hearts and our identity by being in community in a very real, we are in this together, my future is bound up in yours kind of way? Are you willing, my friends, to move beyond “this is a place I go to on Sunday morning” to “I am a Unitarian Universalist and I am willing to stretch my finances just a bit more to support the work of this church”? I would like you to think on that.
When I began thinking about today’s service, I realized that every year the board, through the Annual Commitment Time pledge drive, asks our members and friends to stand in a place of vulnerability and possibly fear as they examine their budgets. We ask you to think about your income, to think about your commitment to the church, and we ask you to make an annual pledge that supports our church. We ask you to truly consider what you are willing to commit, what you are willing to sign on the dotted line and say, Yes, I’m committed and I will give x amount of dollars every month, quarterly, annually, whatever way works for you.
The board asks you to do this every year but we ourselves have never acknowledged that it’s a scary thing for us, too. We put out the ask, we follow up, and at the same time we are nervous. Will people give what is needed so we can maintain our current level of operations? Or, will our members and friends increase their pledges so we can continue to build our foundation, expand our ministry, and grow into our values? It is a scary process indeed. I wanted to acknowledge that while it can be fear inducing for you to make a commitment, it is also nerve wracking for us while we’re in the process of waiting.
Today the board is going to take an unusual step, something we’ve never done before and literally stand in the place of giving to you. We are doing something called a reverse offering. We ask you to give to the church every year, today we are going to give to you. This gift is coming to you from our church budget. We are going to stand in the place of giving to you from our budget, acknowledging that can be scary. Our gift to you comes with absolutely no strings attached. We ask you to do with it what you want to. We will have more than enough money – yes, we’re giving away money – for everyone here. We ask you to take what you feel is right for you.
When you get this money, I ask you to take it from a place of receiving, a place of love. Can you open your heart to this moment, this time and place, knowing that we do love you. From the bottom of our hearts to the hours we spend writing agendas, to our meetings, to examining budgets, it is all from a place of love.
Parker Palmer has this great quote: Community is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received. This is how the board and all our church leaders approach our work. What we do is a gift to ourselves and to our community, to you. Are you willing to receive?
Now I’m going to ask the board members to come up. Board, can you give to the members and friends here today from a place of love? If so, say yes. Members and friends, can you open your heart to receive from a place of love? After the service can you say, “thank you” instead of feeling embarrassed about receiving? If so, say I do.
We will begin the reverse offering with the choir then we will give to the rest of the congregation. When the plate is passed to the rest of the congregation, the choir will begin singing. We encourage you to join with them. We truly want you to receive from the heart. You may keep the money yourself, give it away, buy what you need. It is for you.
Afterwards: We gave to you out of love. You received from love. I love you.