Seeing and Celebrating the Possibilities

When I was working in biotechnology - my first career - there was a long period where I hated what I was doing. I hated going to work. I hated thinking about work. And I kept doing it. Why? Because I had invested a huge amount of time and energy in that direction. Not only that, but in that environment - in that culture - giving up on my work would have felt like an enormous failure. And failure - as we all know is something we don't care to engage with. 


Fortunately, I was helped to admit failure by a helpful CEO - I was fired. Not made redundant, mind you. Fired, sacked, canned, discharged, shown the door, given the boot.


I wasn't happy about it at the time, although I didn't mind that after just a few months work I got a full year's pay...  but that episode ultimately helped me accept failure and move toward a way of life that I actually found satisfying and meaningful.


Last week, we talked about embracing failure. We talked about how each of us individually and how communities of us are reluctant to acknowledge failure. We are so reluctant, in fact, that we continue to proceed in failed directions for much longer than we should or that we need to. Failure is a part of life and if we are not failing, we are not trying anything at all. 


Failing is good. It means we are alive. Not recognising failure as failure is bad. It means we get stuck.


I love to cook and I especially love to try new things. Sometimes those new efforts turn out - well - not so good. A cake meant to be fluffy and moist emerges from the oven dark brown, flat, and dry as a bone. I might be tempted to try to convince myself that it's good as it is. Fortunately, I have a very honest wife...  And when I can admit that my first effort was awful and a complete failure, I have the chance to start over and succeed. If I don't accept failure, I keep making cakes that might as well be made of particle board.


I suggested last week that Unitarianism is guilty of not accepting failures. New Unity stands out from the broader Unitarian crowd in many ways: we've grown while others have shrunk. We've become younger whilst others have seen their average ages increase to worryingly high numbers. We've become welcoming to non-churchy people whilst others retain an appeal only for the more traditional types.


New Unity has been remarkably successful, and that success comes at least in part from the fact that we have been willing to take a hard look at what we are and to take a hard look at what we are doing. Everyone fails. We have the chance to succeed when we admit and try to understand when and how we have failed. 


We can often be blind to our failures, especially those that have been our successes in the past. Consider poor Kodak who was late to join the digital photography revolution. Film had worked so well for them in the past that they couldn't admit failure soon enough. Once hugely dominant in the photography business, Kodak went bankrupt last year.


Last week - to help us avoid being like Kodak and the buggy whip makers - I invited you to help identify our failures. Many of you write some of those failures on cards toward the end of the service.


I went through and read every single response and transcribed and sorted the responses. I've also shared them with the governing Committee, with the Committee on Ministry, with the staff, and with the regular attendees of Engine so that all New Unity leaders can be aware of and focused upon what you have offered.


What did you say?


Not surprisingly, several of your responses avoided mentioning failure altogether. As nice people, we don't really like to mention failure... A few of you mentioned small changes you'd like to see in our Sunday services - changes that didn't quite rise to the level of fully fledged failures.


Most of the comments, though, did try to identify our failures. Remarkably, almost all of those comments fell into two clear categories: The first and largest failure, one mentioned by 14 people, is that we have failed to make ourselves sufficiently visible and understandable to the communities around us. Very few people out there know that we're here. Very, very, very few know what we're about! Many people don't know they would be welcome here.


And failure number 2 - which 5 of you raised - is social activism. Yes, we stood up for same-sex marriage.  Yes, we collect and give away money every week to charities - in fact, we've given nearly 5 and a half thousand pounds this year alone! But many of you feel that we could and should be doing more and other kinds of work to make a better world.


These are two clear failures. 


Remember that acknowledging failure is good! This is great news and I truly feel we need to rejoice at the fact that we have identified and are on the road to accepting our failures. We've failed and we've recognised at least two of the ways in which we've failed. Recognising failure means we can look toward the future in new and better ways. Doing better will be hard. It may call upon us to make difficult, wrenching choices. So let's celebrate the fact that we have done this piece of hard work now. You might want to cheer, whoop, shake hands, whatever. This is worth celebrating!


So, given this new awareness - this important recognition - what could the future look like for New Unity? How will we change our recipe to bake something more delightful and delicious in the future? I'd like to spend some time today dreaming and reflecting together. Understanding our failures of the past opens the possibilities for an even brighter future. 

Those of you who raised social activism want to see us putting ourselves forward more. Giving money is useful and we are to be commended for our generosity - I am hugely proud of this congregation for the way it gives. But more than putting our money out there, we have failed to put our own selves out there.


What about demonstrations? What about opening our buildings up to serve as homeless shelters? What about getting our hands dirty with the hard, endless, and often uncomfortable work of fighting racism, poverty, and classism? Our failure is not that we've done nothing, but that we haven't been all in - we haven't put our whole selves into the work.


Those of you who raised the areas of visibility and outreach when you talked about failure had several different directions. Some feel that we have let ourselves be saddled with and weighed down by the words and ways associated with traditional ways of being church - ways that are seemingly being left behind with great success by atheist churches and other spiritual organisations.


Others were concerned about the mechanics of visibility - about being easier to find on the web and having more multi-media presence. Several wanted us to be clearer and louder and more present in the public square about who we are and what we stand for.


One comment suggested we need to do more to reach and serve young adults. Another suggested it's old adults that we need to focus on. Curious.


There are always choices to be made.


Ultimately, the direction of this congregation into the future is up to you. Your leadership - including me, the committee and others - are here to help you get where you choose to go, but you must choose the destination.


If New Unity is to be more visible, more connected to the larger community, more involved in helping people outside our own circle, it is we together who must decide what that future will look like and plan how we will get there.


There is something importantly related about the two great New Unity failures we've identified. Note that these failures are not about our buildings or our governance or our theology or any of many other details of how we do things. They are not about us - about what we like or what we ourselves want and would enjoy. Both of these failures are about human beings - the failures we have identified are the ways we have failed in relating to the human beings who are not part of this congregation. They are about our neighbours, near and far.


In the Judaeo-Christian traditions, the phrase "Love your neighbour" has deep resonance. It is found in two books in the Hebrew Scriptures and then is spoken again by Jesus in the New Testament gospels. 


We know this is good guidance. We know that nothing else can help to create a more just and loving world. But it is incomplete. The question that prophets and other activists have dared to ask through the centuries is this: who is my neighbour? Which neighbours should I love? In the bible, the neighbour included essentially only those of our own tribe. 

This is still a challenge throughout our world. Many do their best to love their own kind but feel fully justified at ignoring or even in hating anyone outside their group. 


And even if the notion of a religious or ethnic tribe does not quite fit your own life in 21st century London, we can still very easily limit our love to our own tribe: our tribe of people who look like us, who have needs like ours, who dress like we do, who have read the same books we have, who share a sexual orientation with us, who like the same television shows we do, who read the same newspapers and like the same kind of music we do.


I know that we all want to go beyond that limitation. We talk about being radically inclusive. The truth is that it is easy to say that we would include anyone and that we want to help everyone. But those statements ignore something very fundamental: The identity of this community depends on who we consider to be our neighbour. 


When we chose to support same-sex marriage rights, some people opposed that move. They felt that public support of marriage equality would tend to define us and identify us with a particular issue. They were right, of course. The stance we took changed how the larger community saw us. It is always thus. Our identity depends on everything we do.


And the choice of who we include - who we welcome - may seem on the face of it to be fairly neutral but it is not. Welcoming everyone is not as simple as being friendly to everyone who shows up at our front door. 


In this busy world where people are inundated with information and have a myriad of choices of where to go and what to do at every moment, people do not come to a community like ours without some effort on our part. We do the work of making ourselves visible and presenting ourselves to the world. This is the work that so many of you have identified as our failure. And there is no effective communication that is entirely neutral. The way we present ourselves will determine who becomes interested. Whilst we are many things, the way we present ourselves is necessarily more limiting.


If we appear churchy, we will attract people who like churches. If we appear intellectual, we will attract people who are interested in intellectual exploration. if we look traditional, we will attract traditionalists. There is no look that will attract everyone.


And when people do show up, a friendly face is not all that it takes to feel welcome. A Spanish-speaker will not feel welcome if everything is in English and based around English literature and culture. A traditional theist will not feel comfortable if the dialog does not focus substantially on God. A political conservative will not feel comfortable if all the politics they hear is from the left. A working class person will not feel welcome if everyone speaks only of middle class concerns and only in public school cadences.


The truth is that we can't be all things for all people. We can't be actively welcoming in a way that is equally welcoming to all. We can't try to counter every kind of social ill and injustice. While we continue to aspire to be radically inclusive, if we are truly the church for everyone, we are in some sense the church for no one. And if we don't choose the how our identity should grow and evolve, it will happen unconsciously as we stumble unknowingly in one direction or another.


We have failed at presenting our identity to the larger world and we have failed to do as much as we could to make a difference in that world.


The decisions we must make as we go forward are challenging ones that will change the nature and identity of this place. We may feel called to change the identity of New Unity in ways that will make those of us sitting here today uncomfortable - as uncomfortable as were those who oppose our stance on equal marriage and those who want the Lord's Prayer recited every Sunday and those who want only traditional classical music to be heard here.


I want to invite you into a time of reflection now - a time for each of us to explore in our own hearts how far we are each prepared to go to expand our visibility and welcoming and work in the world.


I invite you to enter a spirit of openness and relaxation. I will suggest a series of scenarios - they are all hypothetical - I have made them all up. I simply ask you to consider how each one makes you feel and how you would react. I offer this as a tool for you to explore your own perspectives. During social hour, please return to this space with your drink and - if you are willing - engage in respectful discussion about this experience with small groups of other willing people.


1. A task force studies the interests of the many people living in poverty near our congregation with a view toward understanding what would attract them to become involved with New Unity. The task force reports that we would need to make five changes: a) campaign actively against benefit cuts, b) avoid intellectual sermons and readings, c) pay for biscuits, coffee, and flowers out of the central budget rather than having volunteers pay themselves, d) ensure that working class voices are heard at every service, and e) ensure that at least half of the members of the governing committee identify as working class.


2. Several people of Afro-Caribbean origin have attend Sunday services but never return. Follow-up conversations indicate that all of them liked New Unity's openness and radically inclusive stance, but chose not to return because they found services too staid and reflective. They would be back and stay if there was more exuberance and emotion throughout the service, especially in the message and the music.


3. A major local research study in the Newington Green area reveals that the greatest impact we can have on suffering in the larger community is to open our Newington Green building regularly for use as a soup kitchen and overnight shelter. This would mean allowing homeless people to sleep in these pews overnight. It would mean substantial cooking in the kitchen with the attendant mess that would produce. It would mean the need to install a professional dishwashing machine. Our committee analyzes the costs and finds them to be affordable, but only if we drop plans to redecorate the interior of the church.


4. Two teens begin attending New Unity. They bring many of their friends along, but the friends never return. In a conversation with the committee, the teens reveal that their friends find services boring and anachronistic. They want to see something faster paced, with more dialog, and with live popular music. The Committee determines that we can't have two separate services at this point and asks you whether we should change our service style?


We have failed and we have acknowledged our failures. Let us celebrate our recognition that we have failed as the opening of new opportunities for the future. We are moving forward and we do not know where that journey will take us. The decisions we must make and the actions we must take along the way will be hard. But we will get there. This we know.