Installation of Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long at Fairhaven, MA
Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
April 2, 2017
Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri
Good afternoon, Fairhaven, and friends from all over. We meet today to formalize and celebrate leadership in our Unitarian Universalist movement, amidst some political turmoil within the leadership of our association. Issues around racial injustice in this country have commanded our attention as religious liberals since our founding, and we have yet to resolve the tension between the culture of privilege that we inherit, from which many of us benefit and some of us suffer, and the call to justice, equity, and compassion that is never entirely silent at the core of our faith. Today we find ourselves again in pain over a hiring decision made by good people with good intentions, that has nevertheless served to perpetuate disenfranchisement and systemic power imbalances among us. The president of our association has resigned from office for the remaining three months of his term. No one knows for sure exactly what it would mean to get this right for once. Nevertheless, this is in fact no time for any of us to despair, and despair is the opposite of leadership.
Rather, this is a time not only to face into both our individual and our collective pain, but in fact to be thankful that there is enough capacity among us – even if just barely – for that pain to be recognized by those who carry it and articulated into a space of potential trust, and heard and taken seriously in locations of power. I am inclined to think that the transformation of our institutional structures that we all long for — even as we struggle with our resistance to meaningful change – will not happen just because forces of privilege become willing to undergo the discomfort of hearing about the pain that people of color experience. We won’t get there unless that happens, but it’s not enough. I think we have to be willing to incarnate pain in our institutional experience, and walk through it together, if we are going to learn to actually behave differently. As we used to say in seminary, “Oh, great; another friggin’ growth opportunity!” And yet, without those opportunities, as disorienting and difficult and demanding as they are, we are condemned never to move beyond the limitations and injustices of the past. Choosing to recognize and face into pain is one of the key manifestations of genuine leadership, and it is at the core of what we are gathered here to affirm.
An installation like this shares with a wedding the same dynamic of joyful connection and hope-filled promises for the future; a covenant of fidelity and support, intended to sustain the adventure of mutual discovery and joint accomplishment. It is wonderful; a high moment of human intention to be sure; deserving of celebration. And yet, like a wedding, these high hopes and noble promises can only have their end in some form of sadness. It can be sudden and dramatic tragedy — the minister dies unexpectedly, leaving the congregation heart-broken and grieving. Overwhelming conflict comes to a head by ousting the minister, leaving bitterness and anger. It can be a slow, debilitating erosion of integrity or interest — the people stop coming, the minister stops caring. It can be nobody’s fault — the local employer closes shop, and demographics doom the congregation. It can be spectacular moral failure — the minister seduces a member of the church, or the treasurer embezzles the endowment and refuses to pay the minister. Even in the very best case scenario — the minister enters a well-planned and well-funded retirement after years of loyal and skillful work — both the congregation and the minister will still experience a period of poignant loss, confusion, and sorrow. The longer and more successful the ministry, the more painful that eventual separation. It’s the same with weddings; the story only ends either with one spouse grieving the loss of the other, or else with both grieving for the loss of the love that had once brought them joy together.
There is no fixing this; it’s inherent in the proposition to begin with. The sustenance of the particular connections that give shape and meaning to our lives is always balanced by the grief that comes with losing that bond, either to mortality or entropy. As Robert Frost says, “However it is in some other world, I know that this is the way in ours.” As long as we are creatures in a world of matter and energy, we know at some level that everything is temporary. There are people who look to religion for an exception to this law, for some eternal truth or unfailing love that endures when all else dissolves, and that is indeed what many faith traditions promise. My own life-long religious humanism takes a different approach. It seems to me that faith is not about the search for something that never fails, but rather the affirmation that the experience made possible through connection, relationship, and community is worth the pain of inevitable loss.
I cannot prove this proposition, of course. If you were to say to me, “I have been there, and the pain of bereavement, or betrayal, is far greater than any joy I ever found,” I would not argue with you — only you can know the dimensions of your own griefs and gladnesses. What I can do — what we all do, I suspect, in this strange vocation of ministry — is testify. I can tell you the stories of those who have given themselves to love and to covenant, and been so enriched that they would do it again and again, despite knowing that heartache is part of the bargain. I can bear witness out of my own life in leadership that ‘success’ is a kind of seductive phantom, ever in search of more; it is rather the shared effort, the working together itself, that satisfies both in the moment and in memory. If you really want to build community, take on a demanding project together, and don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough. Whether or not you accomplish the goal, you will be known to each other, and changed by each other, in the process, and that is the foundation of authentic community.
It’s the ‘don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough’ proviso that is the reason for all this hoopla over stuff like installations. It will be silly, and humiliating, six months from now, for either Jordinn or the members of this congregation to turn around and say, “Oh, never mind; this is harder than we thought!” This is why our communities of memory and promise are founded upon covenants; because we all need a defense against the impulse of immediate feelings that challenge our best intentions. It is necessary to be reminded from time to time of what you said you were going to do, and what you really want, over and above the lure of momentary comfort. There is more to covenant than just noticing when our interests happen to coincide: “You want to try being a minister? Oh, good; we are looking for someone to organize and entertain us. Let’s do this!” Now I’m not saying that the bureaucratically organized ministerial search process in the UUA is so perfect that calls don’t sometimes come about for such trivial reasons; but what I know is that if ministry works, it has to grow into something deeper and more challenging and at times more aggravating on both sides, than this. In fact, in this setting, it is hard not to be reminded of Shel Silverstein’s cautionary verse:
Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,
Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail.
And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”
But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.
She took little bites and she chewed very slow,
Just like a good girl should…
…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale,
Because she said she would!
I find this particularly apt given Jordinn’s well-known affinity for sea food!
Now, I do not mean to suggest that every misguided decision must always be pursued to the bitter end, nor that any ministry, however fruitful, ought to endure for eighty-nine years, certainly, but I do think there is a word to be offered on behalf of that which we do ‘because we said we would.’ That word is covenant; it is our solemn promises that counteract the randomness of a future in which anything and everything is possible, by committing us in advance to certain relationships and values that we have selected as references points for our unfolding journeys. We do this in the knowledge aforethought that there will be both ultimate losses, and incidental difficulties along the way. We do it because what we build with intention, and even with difficulty, is more satisfying in the long run than the pleasures that we happen to encounter randomly wandering around. We do it in these time-consuming, somewhat anachronistic rituals — like weddings, and installation services — invoking powers that we scarcely know how to name, and only partly believe, because we are seeking some way to give our lives the density, and dignity, and depth that we suspect, with longing, might yet be possible for us to access.
The conservative columnist David Brooks, a perceptive if crotchety observer of progressive culture, once described the paradox of liberal institutionalism as the attempt to ‘build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.’ I think he had an accurate point, with specific application to Unitarian Universalism and its insistent basis in covenant. We tend to reject family legacy, cultural convention, or the dogmas of tradition as constraints in the project of framing either our specific individual lives or the social structures we must share. We want to make our own commitments of conscience out of an essential freedom; we want to choose our duties and assent to the responsibilities for which we will be held accountable — not because some external force of history or divinity assigned them to us, but like Melinda Mae, because we said we would. Rather like a long-co-habiting bride, Jordinn’s ministry here is already well underway — what, if anything, changes today? I suggest that what changes is that you, the congregation, and she, are about to try to name, and call into being by naming, that ‘because we said we would’ that will bind you both to a shared future, despite the certainty of grief which that future holds. This is an act of faith, on both sides, and let no one tell you otherwise.
It matters that we do this, in both private and collective life, even though there is no escape from eventual loss, because it is precisely what we enact together in the meantime that gives sacred significance to our days. If we are faithful to the purpose of church, it seems to me that there are two necessarily uncompleted projects in which we are always engaged, and these are the challenges on the ground of which authentic community arises. The first is to take David Brooks at his word, and demonstrate what it looks like to indeed build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice. What does an institution that incarnates the values of Unitarian Universalism look like on the hoof? When the curious and the spiritually hungry come to these doors, will they see people relating to each other and to the rest of the world as our seven principles would suggest? If all someone did was to observe your congregation in action, what would they assume the essence of our faith to be? As I experience it, that essence and those values are counter-cultural; at our best, we are a subversive organization, challenging a success and power idolizing society, bearing witness to the possibility of more compassionate, liberating, and humble human community. We do this most effectively, if not most often, by exemplifying such relationships, amidst the all the challenges of life in a voluntary organization. The effort to be the world we want to see is exhilarating, once we get past the trap of constantly judging and blaming each other. That’s one project to work on together.
The other never ending adventure we share is our own spiritual growth, into the people each of us wants to become. Many and various are the forces which urge us at every moment to take stock of what we have, and whether we are satisfied with that, but where in the course of our daily lives might we be held accountable for what we are, or what growth we are striving for? Who asks us to step into spiritual maturity, to aspire to be grown ups, to identify the qualities that would make our lives worthy of honor, emulation, and blessing? From what I see, if the church is not a place for this, it doesn’t happen anywhere — and this brings us back to covenant. Because there is nothing gained by trying to apply my aspirations for personal growth to you; rather, my role as a partner in religious community is to hold up the mirror of accountability to what you said you wanted to be; to bear witness to your achievements and failures and continuing efforts to give your life the shape you most deeply believe it ought to have. We can share insight and inspiration on this journey, but no one else can do the work of spiritual growth on your behalf — that is not the minister’s job, not even one as talented and passionate and beloved as Jordinn is destined to become. Besides, she has her own inner life to cultivate, with the added challenge of making it transparent enough to serve as an inviting model and summons for all of you. But in the end, religious community that is founded in freedom of conscience and diversity of expression can only hold together because we said we would; it can only keep us as accountable as we make ourselves in covenant, to one another and the challenges we have chosen to take on together.
Today, my friends, we bear witness as you and Jordinn make explicit your stepping into that covenant with one another. We bring to this moment our full awareness that struggles and parting, as well as joys and fulfillment, lie ahead. We bring the testimony of our own past experiences, as well as the centuries of our heritage, affirming the promise that religious community offers, is well worth the price that it demands. With all the hope and wisdom at our disposal, we bless your future together, and lift up your example to our movement and to the world. May you grow together, and sustain each other; may you find the community that is not self-serving, but other-serving and justice-serving, and in the process, become the greater selves that you have shown each other, in courage and faithfulness, all because today, in this place, in this joyful, poignant moment, you said you would.
Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long is the newly installed minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, MA