Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Great sermon from David

David Bresnahan is an active member of St. John's, Bowdoin St in Boston on the backside of Beacon hill. St. John's is a small congregation...and needs honest, loving, leadership. This past week, my sermon was as they say, all right. But I thought David's was outstanding. Here it is for your review.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord… plans to give you hope and a future.You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”Amen.
Jeremiah 29:11,12


I’d like to offer some thoughts about how this community can respond to today’s Gospel mandate to “put in everything [we have] to live on.”

Our parish throughout its 126-year history has steadfastly provided leadership on social justice issues/concerns and has challenged itself to provide genuine welcome to all. Our parish included freed slaves in the late 19th century, was the first church in Boston to provide a spiritual home for people living and dying with HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, and has advocated for women’s ministry and the rights of LGBT people within the Church and the community at-large. For many years, we provided space and support to Neighborhood Action, which provided meals and hospitality and hope and kindness for homeless and very low-income people in our community.

The parish has held a distinguished place in the liturgical, musical, artistic, and intellectual life of the Church. Everett Titcomb, one of the 20th century’s most influential, prolific composers of Anglican music, was St. John’s Organist for 50 years. Among the notables at St. John’s, T.S. Eliot was a parishioner and Desmond Tutu was a guest preacher.

Today, Saturday’s/Sunday’s Bread feeds more than 200 poor and homeless people every weekend in Clayton Hall. Our weekly free concerts provide outreach and respite for city residents and a supportive artistic home for emerging Boston musicians, many associated with the conservatories in our community. St. John’s hosts Dignity/Boston, a congregation of LGBT Roman Catholics.

As together this community emerges into healing and stability from a prolonged and complex period of internal conflict and decline, we have an opportunity for a new beginning.

It might be hard to imagine what a new beginning might look like for us. There are 25 or so of us trying to support a budget of about $250,000. It doesn’t take long to do the math and realize that it just might be a bit of a challenge for such a small number of people to realistically and consistently sustain that budget. In fact, we don’t. The fact is that we are spending down our dwindling endowment at a rate of more than $100,000 a year.

These numbers are more than discouraging. For those of us who love this community, who have been formed by this community, who have been healed within this community, who believe this community has something left to offer the broader Church, we might be terrified of what this means for our future. We are

anxious. We’re at an impasse, an uncertainty like darkness. But darkness is not the end.

I’m not usually one for self-help books, but as I’m in the middle of a job search while I’m finishing up an MBA, I’ll take all the help I can get. A friend recently leant me “Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths,” a book by Timothy Butler, who is a psychologist and Director of Career Development at the Harvard Business School.

His premise is that times of uncertainty, of impasse, of darkness provide the opportunity to create new beginnings for ourselves – that we can move from crisis to impasse and not repeat the cycle over and over again. Acknowledging that crisis is going to be a continuing, repeated reality, his argument is that at times of impasse, we have an opportunity to move ourselves to a new level at the point of impasse, so that when crisis occurs again, we have the opportunity to deal with it at a new level, with greater strength and more enriched experience – so that we don’t deal with the same issues over and over again. What he says resonated with me as having direct applicability for us as a community at this point in our life.

I’ll quote one story he used he used as a metaphor in his book, that I found particularly compelling – that of

The Black Sun[1]

“Both Greek and Celtic mythology include a mysterious image known as the “Black Sun,” which can be visualized as tremendous energy radiating from a dense and dark center. (Celtic myths sometimes place it in the center of the earth.) And it stands in contrast to the metaphoric qualities we commonly associate with the sun: The brightness of day gives life warmth. Good things must be close by when we rise to a sunny morning.

“But the idea behind the ancient Black Sun image is that energy and life radiate from darkness as well. Some kinds of energy that we need for growth and for a complete life come only from the experience of darkness. The Black Sun is a hidden resource, a font of energy that is available if we recognize it for what it is and know how to turn toward it and accept it. Being dark, its energy is hidden. We cannot explain it

in the same way we can explain things in the light of the more familiar sun. The wisdom and energy it brings are less obvious, less rational.

“Myths illuminate subtle aspects of the human condition and human development. The Black Sun tells us that there is value in slowing down and being patient when things seem dark and unclear. Do not run from such experiences, it says. Turn toward the difficult time. By just focusing on it and sticking with it we will discover power that radiates from it as surely as warming light radiates from the daytime sun.

“The Black Sun is an apt metaphor for the deep concentration and inward focus that precedes the act of writing a poem, founding a company, forming a sculpture, or jumping into a radically different role at work. In all these cases, we do not operate “in the light” or “from the light”; instead, we are going where we have not been before and are trusting an intuition that seems to rise from the depths of our selves. The successful artist and the successful businessperson alike learn how to stay with this process of being stuck in the darkness; in fact they stick with it until a new momentum emerges from the very experience of being stuck, being in the dark.

“The problem, of course, is that we are afraid of the dark. We want to move in the sunshine, walk along familiar streets, and have experiences that are sure to give us pleasure. We want to feel that most of life can be planned and that we have reasonable chance of avoiding pain. The idea of staying with things just as they are, without a plan, of suspending our model of how things work, puts us into a frontier of unknowing, which is to say at a place that is “dark” to our previous concentration of things, to our plan for ourselves and our notion of how everything works. We avoid this dim frontier, and so we stay stuck.

“[Sometimes we can’t help but see] being in the dark, being at an impasse, as failure, rather [than] as a necessary crisis in the service of a larger creative moment. There is danger of internalizing the experience of impasse as evidence of personal deficiency, as a statement about our self-worth. [We may need help to realize] that this is a tough time and not a statement of who we are in the core of our being.”

We may be in the dark – at an impasse – but it’s not the end.

After the death of her spouse, Ruth was in an uncertain, tenuous place in her life, but out of her desperation, her darkness, her open-mindedness – …she told [Naomi] “All you tell me I will do” – she became the mother of “Obed: he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Out of Ruth’s grief, she became a mother – David’s great-great grandmother – and a link in the family tree of Jesus.

But notice she didn’t do it alone. And neither can we. We need to grow to make this work. We need to continue to look to the community around us as a source of energy and renewal.

What does our surrounding community look like? Here’s a snapshot. Suffolk University (and several other nearby colleges), government offices (including the State House and City Hall), Boston’s Financial District, and uniquely vibrant and historic urban residential and commercial neighborhoods surround the parish. According to the Boston Indicators Project, 47.8% of neighborhood residents are between the ages of 20 and 34. While the neighborhood is one of the most affluent in the city, 10.3% of families live in poverty.

Growth for us will require continuing our tradition of genuine welcome. It will require flexibility and change. It means putting in everything we have – in terms of our collective energy and commitment – into growth.

This week I learned a great deal from Bill Traynor, a community organizer and the executive director of Lawrence Community Works 30 miles north of here in the post-industrial city of Lawrence, which has some of the highest rates of poverty in the state – where the foreclosure crisis has struck particularly hard. Crime is persistent. But Lawrence is also a vibrant community in many ways. 80% of its residents are recent immigrants. It is the youngest city in the state – out of 70-something-thousand residents, 23,000 residents are kids.

Bill has been influential in rethinking the way community organizing has been done and has written extensively on the subject and has transformed the traditional understanding of community organizing: the knock on doors, protest something, insist on change, get change, let the energy created by the efforts fizzle.

Bill prefers the concept of community building – the idea that community is not the network of relationships or connectivity of people, but is the value and the functionality that comes from that connectivity.

Lawrence Community Works is an organization of 5,000 residents of Lawrence, with a number of programs including English as a Second Language, Job Skills training, after school tutoring, first time homebuyer classes, affordable housing development, entrepreneurial resources and more. It’s a large organization, with a sizable budget

– but its organizational model seeks to provide maximum internal and external flexibility so that people have many ways to enter the organization, move within the organization between programs and become more and more engaged with the organization.

Bill shared some of the principles that allow Lawrence Community Works to thrive and that may be some good wisdom for us as we seek to grow and welcome and transform. His advice for building community, he said, is a way to avoid the entrenchment, stubbornness, and closed-mindedness that occurs when communities go through crisis – such as Lawrence certainly is (and maybe St John’s is too).

· Encourage confident welcoming. Communities that are not sure of or confident in themselves are not welcoming to newcomers;

· Turn a “no, we can’t” attitude into a “yes, we can” attitude;

· Flexibility to change is an asset and a tool for welcoming;

· Pay attention to figurative room creation – whether the space and attitudes create a sense of staving or an attitude of feeding that every room or space or attitude has the capacity to do

o A room that starves encourages – domineering leadership, rigidity, detachment, fear of change, difference, complexity, withholding information or value;

o A space that Feeds provides – generosity, tolerance; fun, joy, creativity; mutual support, engagement; relationship building;

· Embrace community mobility. Sometimes it is best for people to move on to better things for themselves. Focus on continual change and on creating quick and easy and organic ways for people to get to know other people to make the experience of moving into a new space positive and welcoming;

· To be flexible, focus on what we’re doing rather than what “we are” or “what we’ve always been.” Avoid a structural gatekeeper mentality or an attitude of “the right way” to do things – implying of course that something new or different is “wrong.” Avoid anything that gets in they way of welcoming and of building connectivity. Build a community where you can’t necessarily tell who the leaders in the room are.

I think there are some good principles and some good lessons for us as we commit ourselves to living into uncertainty. We have had a rich history, and our present provides a jumping off point for a yet unknown, evolving, future that can involve new people, ideas, energy, hope, life…

Let’s live into the opportunities provided by the blank slate of our darkness. Let’s welcome newness and change and growth. Let’s collectively “put in everything [we have] to live on.”

With our faith, we’re never at the end. Amen.



[1] Butler, Timothy, “Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths,” 2007, Harvard Business School Press, pp. 6-7


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