Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Spiritual Practice of Leadership — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on April 3rd, 2011


On a rainy Boston afternoon in 1972,

two weary men sat in a small room wondering

whether to run for their church offices again.

They were tired…

tired of controversy, tired of difficult decisions, tired of fighting.

Both of them had plenty of other things

they could be doing with their time.

Neither of them had to choose to run for a second term.

Many would have understood if they chose not to,

because the practice of leadership had been hard.


Many others would have been happy to see them go.


While sitting in that room

on a rainy Sunday after church,

they together came to a realization.

All of the work they had done in the last four years,

all of the conflict and strife might have been for nothing

if they were to leave now.

They were not in service first to themselves,

but to a much larger vision of the world.

So, they chose to run for office again.

Their dedication to the whole that was their faith

was greater than the weariness

they were feeling in that moment.


Those two men were Bob West and Joe Fisher,

and the offices they chose to run for again

were Unitarian Universalist Association President

and Unitarian Universalist Association Moderator,

the top professional and lay positions

in our association of congregations.

They were called to be leaders of our Association

during what was a perfect storm of problems,

one that almost signaled the collapse of our denomination

and perhaps the end of Unitarian Universalism

as an organized movement.


Some of you may remember those days,

but few had the access to know all of the challenges

our Association faced during that time.

There was a financial crisis in which banks

were calling in loans taken out by the previous administration

that totaled between two and four million dollars in today’s dollars.


The Association did not have the money,

and they were forced to lay off

almost half the staff of 25 Beacon Street,

including all district staff.

Many programs had to be cut, or eliminated altogether.

Many churches and individuals were withholding

their fair share contributions from the UUA

because they felt the previous administration

had mishandled the finances.

There was a distinct lack of confidence in Boston.


There were reports that FBI and Army Intelligence

were spying upon many of our congregations.

The FBI had also tried to gain access

to the UUA financial records and membership lists.

Both Bob West and Joe Fisher had been told by their lawyers

that they might face criminal charges,

because of the decision of Beacon Press,

our associational publishing house,

to publish The Pentagon Papers,

detailing the horrible handling of the Vietnam War.


Add to this a crisis that nearly split

the Unitarian Universalist Association.

It has since come to be known as

the Black Empowerment Controversy,

and it was centered around how the UUA would conduct

anti-racism work in the face

of the Black Empowerment movement

that was sweeping the United States in the late 1960’s.


The controversy over whether to fund

a black caucus model of anti-racism

or a model that sought to integrate

both blacks and whites in anti-racism work got ugly.


There were emergency meetings,

charges of racism were hurled at the General Assemblies,

and ministers and lay-members divided

along the lines of Black Empowerment

or Blacks and Whites working together.

At one General Assembly,

all the people of color stood up and walked out,

and when they sent a white minister back to speak for them

he was booed and a fellow minister spit in his face…

on the floor of the General Assembly of our faith.

It was an ugly, painful time,

and the emotions of those days still exist

in our leadership, membership, and ministry.

There were a lot of people who believed

it was the end of Unitarian Universalism.


But let us step back for a minute,

and remember what led up to that controversy.

There have been a lot of myths and misunderstandings

about the UUA’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement,

and with recent political changes here in the United States,

the Civil Rights Movement has been brought up regularly

in the media of late.

Though many of the Unitarian Universalist Churches in the South

had been actively involved in the movement for Civil Rights

going back to the early 50’s,

the majority of the association only became involved

after the murder of Unitarian Minister

Rev. James Reeb in Selma Alabama.

Rev. Reeb had gone to Selma to March in the famous

Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

On March 9th, after a day of protesting and marching,

Rev. Reeb was walking with two other Unitarian ministers

when a mob of men came out of a bar and began beating them.

The other two had minor injuries,

but Rev. Reeb died in a hospital in Birmingham two days later.


The response from our congregations was loud, and it was one.

Suddenly hundreds of UU ministers and lay-members

descended upon Birmingham and Selma,

including much of the UUA staff and the Board of Trustees.

The UU Church in Birmingham put itself to the task

of organizing places for these hundreds to stay,

serving them meals in the church,

and helping organize busses and other transportation

between Birmingham and Selma.


One member of that church, Ed Harris,

has written about the long hours,

about the trials of finding places for people to stay,

and about the fear that their church would be bombed

for being so active in supporting all these “Yankee Liberals”.

Yet, they did it with a dedication and a love

inspired not only by the death of Rev. Reeb

but also by their faith in an interdependent world

where the inherent worth and dignity of all

would be finally recognized.

Ed Harris tells of sweeping the building for bombs,

of standing guard at the front entrance,

and of keeping watch at night so those “Yankee Liberals”

would be as safe as he could make them.


Another story about that time was told to me

by the Rev. David Bumbaugh.

He was serving a congregation in New Jersey,

and after the murder of Rev. Reeb

his board of trustees came to him and asked

if he was going to go to Selma.

Rev. Bumbaugh thought of his young children, of his wife,

of the financial strain his young family was feeling,

and said he did not think he could afford to go.

The board members told him that they would buy his tickets,

they would pay for his room and board… would he go?


He knew, in that moment, that he had to go…

or nothing he had said to them about social justice

and racial equality would have meant anything… so he went.

He was there when Rev. Martin Luther King

spoke at James Reeb’s funeral, and he marched in Selma.


James Reeb went to support the civil rights of all.

David Bumbaugh went because he had to live what he preached.

Ed Harris worked all night and day

to protect and serve those who had come.

All of them did what they did because

their faith called them to a spiritual practice of leadership.


I have been telling you a lot of stories this morning,

and I’m going to tell you all a few more.

Storytelling is I think one of the best kinds of preaching,

because it allows us to connect the experiences of our own lives

to the experiences that others have had.

I hope a few of you will come tell me

your stories over coffee later.

I am telling you these stories because

they show us something that is sometimes

hard to express in words…

Why do we serve on a church board?

Why do we take on responsibility for the stewardship campaign?

Why do we choose to teach Religious Education?

Why do we do any of these things?

Why do we take on a leadership role in this fellowship,

this liberal faith we call Unitarian Universalism.


An appropriate question, as many of our leaders

Are currently at the District Leadership Assembly

Of the Heartland District of the UUA.


So much in society around us tells us not to.

We are taught to be consumers, not creators.

We are taught to be followers, not leaders.

We are taught that religion is not really necessary,

that on Sunday mornings it is just as good to sleep in,

or it is just as good a choice to watch television

on Wednesday night instead of another church board meeting.


I can give you all the rational arguments…

but I think they miss the mark.

Arguments about the importance of the fellowship,

or how important it is to have a liberal voice in the community,

or even the need to have a place to meet with our friends.

All of those might be valid,

but none of them justify the time, the expense, the frustration,

and the sweat it takes to keep a church,

a fellowship, a UU congregation operating.


So, Why?


I think back to a night in my own life

in this movement of liberal faith.

I was the Church Administrator and Student Minister

of a small lay-led Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

on Galveston Island, in Texas.


Our board president called me at about 9’oclock at night

and asked me if I could come over to his house to talk.

He sounded a little shaken up.


When I arrived, we sat on his front porch and he told me

about a phone call he had just had with an upset imitrex injection online member.

I don’t even remember what the member was upset about,

and it is not all that important.

We’re human beings, it is natural that someone

will be upset over something much of the time.


As we sat and talked, Tony, the board president,

asked himself what in the world he was doing this for?

He was the head of a research department at the local hospital.

He had two teenage children.

He had enjoyed just being a member

of the fellowship for many years.


Why in the world had he agreed to be the one person

that everyone called to complain to?

Why in the world did he accept the responsibility

for making sure that the board ran,

that the Administrator did his job,

that the committees were functioning?


As we talked about it in the warm evening air

(it was Texas after all),

a word came to my Agnostic-humanist friend and board president.

When he said it,

he sounded almost as if he could not believe it himself.

He served as the Board President as an act of Faith.


Now, faith is one of those words that

can get ministers in trouble in many UU congregations,

so let me say a little bit about what I think it means.

Faith for me is a kind of sacred trust,

a trust that you commit your deepest self to.

Faith is the kind of trust that,

when it is broken, it hurts deep inside.

Faith is not belief.

You can have faith in your beliefs,

but you can also have faith in a person,

you can have faith in political party,

and you can even have faith in the future we dream of.


If you have a trust in your life where

you are risking being hurt deeply in order to hold that trust…

that’s faith.


For my board president, he took those angry phone calls

and the late-night meetings because in his heart

he had found a faith

that Unitarian Universalism and the Fellowship

were making a difference in the world,

a difference in the community,

and a difference in individual lives.

He had found a faith that he was a better person

than he would have been without his membership and leadership

in the church.


The realization that it was faith that kept him committed

to the leadership of our small church

brought a small smile and a look of almost wonder to his eyes…

which replaced the tired and angry look

that had been there when I arrived.


The next Sunday I saw him smile,

for the first time in a long while at church.

There were tough days ahead,

and I know he was glad of the rest

when his term as President ended,

but I was back at the church a few years ago,

and he came over and gave me a great big hug,

and a small word of thanks.

His faith was still with him.

Last I heard, he was back on the board.


The Rev. Michael Dowd, a Disciples of Christ minister

who has become fairly well known in UU circles

for his work in spreading a gospel of Evolution

among Christian and non-Christian alike,

begins some of his sermons speaking

of the lenses we wear in our lives.

Imagine that you have three pairs of glasses in your pocket.

The first set of glasses is named

“The world is out to get me”.

When you look through these glasses,

you see evidence that the world is out to get you everywhere.

The second set of glasses is called

“The world does not care about me”.

When you look through these glasses,

you see evidence that the world does not care about you

everywhere you look.

The third set of glasses that Rev. Dowd talks about

is the one I like the most, called

“The world is conspiring on my behalf! Yippee”.

When you look at the world through this lens,

you can see evidence for the good all around you.


How we perceive the world,

how we perceive our lives

depends a lot about that lenses we choose to use.

Make no mistake, it is a choice.

We are responsible for the attitudes and views

that we choose to let color how we view the world.


I spend a lot of time with people more politically

and religiously conservative than many of us are

in my role as an Army Chaplain.


Through the lenses of attitudes, beliefs, and views

that they choose to look at the world,

their principles and values make sense,

and those like me who are more liberal look crazy.

The attitudes we choose to hold and to use

change the reality that we see around us.


Let me give you another example

of lenses and attitudes, from my own life.

I have now completed one or another form

of Military Basic Training five times.

If I ever needed evidence of my own personal insanity,

that would probably be it.

I remember one particular day at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri

when I was 18 years old and going through Army basic.

I was ready to quit.  I had had it.

The Drill Sergeants were yelling at me,

making fun of me for my last name.

My pack was heavy,

and we were marching what seemed like 30 miles.

It was hot and I was sweating and running out of water.

I made the decision, right then and there,

that when we got back to the barracks

I was going into the drill sergeant’s office

to tell him that I wanted to quit and go home.


I don’t know if my drill sergeant could read minds,

or if they train them to notice body language or what…

but at the moment that I was deepest

in my wallowing in self pity he came up behind me,

patted me on the shoulder and said in a soft voice

“Buck up Pyle, it’s all downhill from here.”


At first I thought, no its not you jerk,

there’s another hill right ahead of us.

But then I realized, he was not talking about the march,

he was not even really talking about basic training.

In a way he was talking about my life.

I had reached a moment of crisis and of choice,

the moment when I was given a choice

to wallow in my own self pity and quit

or change my perspective, change my lens.

I needed to accept a bit of faith, in myself and in the institution

if I was going to make it.


By the time we got back to the barracks, my steps were light,

I was humming a tune, and I had a smile on my face.

My body still hurt, I was still thirsty,

I’m sure I smelled horrific…

but my perspective had completely changed.

I had found a faith in myself.


Robert West and Joe Fisher,

the President and Moderator of the UUA

during the most crisis filled time in our history

reached just such a moment

when they had to change their perspective…

when they had to step away from the pains

and the fears of charges of racism by fellow ministers

and threats of arrest by the FBI

and look at whether it would be better

for our liberal faith movement for them to step aside

or run for office again.

When they chose to act on faith and stand for re-election,

no one opposed them.

No one else wanted the job.


James Reeb faced just such a moment of choice

when he chose to leave the safety of a northern congregation

to go to Selma Alabama in 1965,

and though that decision cost him his life,

it was still an act of faith

and an act of leadership that inspired many.

In a way, his death did change the world, just a little bit,

because President Lyndon Johnson

submitted the Voting Rights Act

the Monday morning after he was killed.


David Bumbaugh faced just such a moment,

when the Board of Trustees of his congregation

came to him with a ticket to Selma,

and he had to choose between his safety

and the commitment to social justice

that he had preached over and over.

He too chose to practice leadership as an act of faith.


Each day, each decision, each board or committee meeting,

each social justice event, each Sunday morning worship,

each late night phone call from an upset member

calls upon us to practice our leadership in a congregation

as an act of faith.

It calls us to choose a lens for our perspective

that says that we are serving a vision,

a goal larger than ourselves.

Call it what you will…

world peace, religious tolerance, beloved community…

Some Christians might call it the Kingdom of God,

and some Buddhists might call it Nirvana.

I call it Salvation.

Not the salvation of individual souls for a metaphysical afterlife,

but rather the salvation of this world, in this time, for us all.


Whatever you call it, when you serve in a leadership capacity

in our liberal faith movement

you are in service of this larger, greater vision…

a vision of “world community with Peace, Liberty,

and Justice for all.

In which the inherent worth and dignity

of every person is respected,

as is the interdependent web of all existence

of which we are a part.


It is a grand vision which we serve…

one that can, and must save the world.

The faith in this vision is the call to

a spiritual practice of Leadership

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