Tuesday, January 9, 2018

2018.1.7 How Shall Our Garden Grow?

2018.1.7 “How Shall Our Garden Grow?”    Rev. Laura Bogle        Foothills UU Fellowship

Connections are Made Slowly by Marge Piercy (#568 in Singing the Living Tradition)
Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
__You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half a tree is spread out in the soil
under your feet.
__Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
__Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
__Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make love that is loving.
__Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Live as if you like yourself, and it may happen:
 __Reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
__For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Mark 4:3-8
“Listen. What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled among the weeds and nothing came of it. Some fell on good earth and came up with a flourish, producing a harvest exceeding his wildest dreams.

Context for those who are new: the congregation voted last month to enter into call exploration process, to consider whether to call me as your settled minister.  This sermon is a response to that vote.

It was perhaps dangerous to agree to preach this sermon, on my vision of ministry with you all, during the month when our worship theme is “resistance!”  Hopefully you all are not here to resist what I have to say today.

While I’m not preaching directly on the theme of resistance today – here’s one connection I will make—I see the purpose of our congregational life in these times is to resist cultural and social pressures that separate us, that keep us lonely, that keep us hopeless and despairing, that keep us only talking to people in the same income bracket or the same educational status or the same race or the same age as ourselves, and to resist pressures that keep us disconnected from what is most important and precious in our hearts and souls.  We resist those cultural pressures is by practicing living a different way of Love and connection in this community.

As your part-time, consulting, minister the last 5 years I have been privileged to be with you as we seek to deepen and expand the ways we practice that kind of Love.  Back in October I preached a sermon that was really a Love Letter to all of you as this congregation enters its 10th year as a chartered congregation of the UUA.  I reflected on where this congregation has been, and where we have been together. That sermon is posted on my blog if you want to go check it out.

One of the things that I’ve experienced in the last 5 years with you is a back-and-forth spiraling deepening of investment and trust.  As you have welcomed me and invested in me and trusted me, I have been able to deepen my own investment and trust; and vice versa.  I have learned from this process so far that the relationship between a minister and the congregation they serve is a dynamic one;  it is never only one thing for very long.  It is core to my theological perspective that I am only who I am because of the relationships I am embedded in.  And so in a very real way, I am not the same minister who joined you 5 years ago.  For one thing, I have more kids!  But I am the kind of minister I am today in large part because of you. 

And so, what I have to share with you today is out of the best that I have to offer, today, knowing that it is just part of an ongoing conversation among us. 

I want to thank and acknowledge the folks who have sent in specific questions for me.  It is interesting and notable to me that most of the questions submitted have in some way to do with organizational structure, authority, tradition, power, decision-making, and growth.  I will begin I hope to answer some of these questions today, though because I am a preacher it will be through metaphor.  And I want to note, that there’s much more that could and probably should be said – and I want to set aside additional time for those conversations.

We, together, are considering entering into a more permanent and longer-term relationship—one that is open-ended and based in a covenant with one another. 

Very often marriage is the metaphor used for this kind of relationship between minister and congregation.  You might have heard that if you were here for my colleague Jake Morrill’s sermon on called ministry last month. 

That’s a rich metaphor and there’s lots that is helpful there;  the spiritual practice of growing in love and intimacy through committed and equitable partnership, through the good times and the bad times.

But it’s not the first one I depend on—perhaps because as someone who for a long time didn’t have the right to marry the woman I love, the word marriage has been a bit fraught for me.

Another colleague of mine, who spent years as a labor and delivery nurse before becoming a minister, says the minister is like a midwife—doing hard work supporting and coaching the congregation to give birth, but not doing the actual labor of giving birth.  I like this metaphor, too, because it reminds us that the work of the congregation is not in the end the minister’s work; that indeed, the congregation does not belong to the minister.  In our tradition the congregation belongs to itself, and it is only the congregation that can decide to enter into special relationships with a minister.  It is the congregation which must decide where and how it will bring new life into this world.  The minister is there as guide, as supporter, as inspirer, as knowledge-bringer.

But, this metaphor is also not the first one I lean on.

The metaphor I want to open up today is that of ministry as organic gardening.  Perhaps this works for me because I grew up in a family with a big garden.  And, while I am no master gardener, I try to continue that practice of growing some food every year.

To be in ministry—whether ordained or lay ministry-- is to be cultivating earth, planting seeds, nurturing life, harvesting and feeding others, following the seasons, recognizing the fallow seasons as crucial for the next year’s crop.  It requires being attuned to the ecology of the whole.  It is about organic growing.

I often get asked “Is your church growing?”  By which people usually mean, do you have more members than you had last year?  And sometimes, I have asked you all, do you really want to grow, and how?  Congregational consultant Loren Meade, in his book More than Numbers: the Ways Churches Grow  outlines 3 other ways that church grow besides simply growing in the number of attendees or members. 

He talks about maturational growth, incarnational growth, and organic growth--All different kinds of growth that aren’t directly about how many people are on the membership roll.
To be only focused on numerical growth to the exclusion of these other kinds of growth would lead, I think, to seeds being planted in shallow or rocky soil; and an inability to take hold and really produce a harvest.

            Maturational growth—which is maturing in spirit and wisdom; becoming more of who you 
and we are meant to be; growing in faith across the lifespan spectrum from children through elders.
Using the metaphor of ministry as gardening, we might think about maturational growth as the practice of tilling and feeding the soil; preparing our souls to receive seed, so that when some are scattered they don’t sprout too quickly and die, they don’t get eaten by the birds, they don’t get strangled in the weeds—but we can receive them and allow them to take strong root.

            Incarnational growth—which is growing outward—putting our faith into practice in the world; embodying our values more effectively and living our mission. 
Using the metaphor of ministry as gardening, we might ask the question “Who does our crop feed?”  How are we using our plot of ground and our resources to feed others—not just ourselves?  That is, how are we sharing our harvest?

            Finally, he talks about organic growth—or, organizational growth,  and that’s what I want to spend a little bit more time on today.
Marge Piercy reminds us that ecological connections are made slowly – that we don’t always see what is happening underneath our feet, or see the effects of our actions in one season.  Healthy organizational development is a lot like this.  A few lessons I learn for our congregation, reflecting on organic gardening practices:

#1 Any organic gardener or farmer I know has to take a long view – thinking about the long-term health of the soil, for instance, so doing things like planting cover crops to replenish nutrients, and sometimes letting the ground lie fallow to rest. 
àIn congregational life and leadership, we could do the same.  Remembering that we each will have seasons of growth and activity, and seasons of rest and replenishment.  I want to see us build that into the organizational culture of our congregation, so that we are not burning out our volunteers or our leaders.  That means building strong functioning teams where the work can be shared among us. 

#2 Taking the long view also means not using toxic tools even it might get you a better harvest this season, because you know in the long run pesticides are going to wreak havoc on the larger ecosystem.
            àIn congregational life and ministry, for me this means that process and relationship matters just as much if not more than the product or harvest in one season.  It may take longer, but if I want to grow sustainably I have to take into account the long term effects of my actions.  For us, this highlights the importance of taking the time to have real conversation and build real connections.  To really listen to each other, even when we disagree.  This is where our congregational covenant is so important and guides our work with one another.  As your minister, I see one of my primary jobs is to help us hold that covenant together; to help us make that covenant real.  As a human being, just like you, I know that I myself don’t always live up to everything that covenant says.  In a longer term relationship with one another we are going to have lots of opportunity to call each other, with love, back into covenant and right relationship.  We do this for the health of the whole ecosystem, and our own spiritual integrity.

#3 Organic gardeners are not monoculture planters—only growing one thing.  In organic gardening there is a concept of complementary or companion planting. It’s the idea that one kind of plant next to another actually helps the other to grow.  Having a diversity of plants helps them all to thrive together.  Think about the old Native practice of planting squash, beans, and corn together—the Three Sisters.  The corn emerges first, and provides a stalk for the bean vine to reach up when it comes up next.  Later the wide leaves of the squash provides some shelter and shade at the roots, holding in moisture and keeping the weeds at bay.
àWe are also not a monoculture here, thank God.   How boring would that be?  We can all thrive better when we welcome the unique gifts we each have to bring.

Native American ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “The way of the Three Sisters reminds me of one of the basic teachings of our people.  The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world.  Individuality is cherished, and nurtured, because, in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others.  Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts.  …The gifts of each are more fully expressed when they are nurtured together than alone.  In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship.  This is how the world keeps going.”
è From an organizational structure perspective, this means we make room for each of us to give the gift we have to give, and to make that easier and more transparent.  This is a growing edge for any small congregation—to fully welcome and integrate newcomers and to communicate well how to get more deeply involved. This is something that we have to continue to work at, together. 

è The metaphor of companion planting in a garden also helps me think about roles and boundaries in a congregation in a non-hierarchical way.  The more clear we are about whose job is whose, the more beautiful our garden can be.  The more clear we are about whose job is whose, the more fruitful we can be, together.  As your called minister I will be invested by the congregation with a particular sphere of authority, to lead the spiritual and worship life of this congregation, and to lead us in ministry to one another and the world. In the same way the congregation invests the Board with the power to play a particular role of governance, to do a particular job in the garden.  Its not the same job as the minister, but we must be in collaborative complementary relationship in order to grow well.   

All of that authority is given by and is accountable ultimately to the power of the congregation.   The process of deciding whether to call me as your minister provides a good opportunity to get deeper clarity about our roles.

#5 Organic gardeners have to practice a certain kind of discernment.  This time of year I love looking through this beautiful seed catalog I get, and making big long lists of things I want to plant in the spring.  The dream is so beautiful!  And then I remember: oh yes, I only have these 4 little raised beds in the back yard, I’m going to have to make some choices here!  I have to ask, what might actually grow here?  What do I most want to grow this year?  Can I add another garden bed and adequately take care of it?  My hope in my ministry with you, is that we will grow in our ability to practice this kind of discernment, together, so that as a community we make good decisions and feel we are moving together in a mission-focused way. 

For instance, I get asked often these days whether I want us to have our own building.  I can tell you that I am excited that we feel full here on Sunday mornings and that I think we need to be thinking creatively about how we make more room for all of us and what we want to do.  I can tell you that I personally am excited about the visions that were cast at our leadership gathering back in September when so many people individually shared variations on a theme—the idea of a space in the future that we share with other good work and organizations in our community, consistent with our mission.  Again, I go back to the metaphor of organic growth, and thinking about long-term sustainability.  What do we really need, and when, and why?  How do our values guide us in the use of our resources?  As your minister I am here to both cast my own vision, but also to listen and to companion us all in a process together.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Gardening or farming is a risky business.  You must invest a huge amount early in the season, not knowing whether the harvest will be good.  You never control all the variables – there might be a drought or a disease.  There might be seasons when the whole crop is lost.  Or you might end up with way more tomatoes than you know what to do with.  But does that mean not planting at all in the next season?  No.  We rely on each other and the Spirit of Life that is greater than anyone of us, to have the faith to keep planting.  Each attempt at sowing seed is an act of faith, and an opportunity to pay attention and to learn.

May we together, in the words of Marge Piercy,
“Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make love that is loving.
…Reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”

May we live our short lives on this Earth growing more Love, serving Justice, and creating Beauty.

May it be so, and Amen.

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