© Doug Rodgers 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 18, 2006

Opening Words

Zion's Walls is a revivalist song of the 1800s which was re-worked by Aaron Copeland. It goes like this:

Come, fathers and mothers, come, sisters and brothers.
Come join us in singing the praises of Zion!

Zion isn't a place in time and space. It isn't a church of bricks and glass. It's a longing in your heart, a desire, a vision, a feeling. Feelings are important. Churches run on feelings. Come run with me this morning and let's see where we get to.


Welcome and thank you for coming this morning.

It's Father's Day!
Stand up all you fathers, stand up and be counted. Those with your own children, Those with adopted children or foster children. Stand up if you spend time mentoring young people, tutoring them, reading to them, being with them. Stand up and accept our thanks.

Thank you.

If you didn't stand up, then you need to get with the program. You have a responsibility to children. If you don't have any of your own, then adopt some, be a mentor. Teach Religious Education right here on Sunday morning. Help out at your neighborhood school. Spend time with your sister-in-laws kids, figure out something that works for you. Next year you need to be counted, too.

I love little kids, especially little guys, like my grandson. He's 3 and 1/2, well, almost 3 and 1/2. You knew I was going to talk about my grandson. He has recently discovered sticks and stones, those most wonderful of all God's creations, at least for little boys. Throwing stones into the creek is OK, in the house it's not OK. Hitting the tree with a stick is OK, hitting Grandma isn't OK. What a lot of rules, what a lot of effort it is to learn how to get along.

In the Kindergarten class where I spend some time each week, the little boys punch each other, they cry, they run around and generally get into trouble. The mean ones punch and then put on their innocent face, the crybaby cries because the other boys call him a crybaby. The quiet little girls sit and talk, the good little girls watch the teacher, and the bold little girls tease the boys and then tell on them with they get rough. The teacher sits them down, lines them up, marches them around, quiets them, and tries valiantly to teach them their ABCs, their numbers, the days of the week, the months of the year. It's uphill all the way.

At five and six, the feelings that make them want to run and hit, talk and conspire, laugh and sing are strong and not easily suppressed. But we have a lot to teach them, and we need to start early, or so we think.

Later, they learn mathematics and history, English and geography, language and how to behave. Hmm, do they still learn geography? For years they are immersed in a culture of learning and facts, reason and rules.

But after all that school, they face all those life decisions, marriage, family, job, more education. All internal decisions, all subjective, all based on feelings. All made with little or no preparation. And parents, their decisions were made in a world that no longer exists, so they're not a lot of help. Our children are making decisions about the world of the future, the world that does not yet exist.

For a lifetime we struggle with our feelings, we read self-help books. They try to translate feelings into logic, subjective decisions into objective ones. Those of us who are more logically inclined read them, take the quiz, follow the results. But the more logical among us were going to pretty much do that anyhow. The more emotional folks aren't going to read those books, and if they do, they won't take the quiz, and if they do that, they won't follow the results. They will follow their feelings instead.

So here we are, we have followed our feelings and this is where we have gotten, right here, right now. Maybe we used some logic to tease apart our feelings and try to understand them. Maybe we tried to figure out what we were good at, tried to see ourselves as others see us. Or maybe not.

Here we are, not only as individuals but also as a group. Our group is the sum of our individual feelings, but it is more. It also includes the feelings we generate as we interact with each other. As we spend time together, our group takes on a character of its own. Groups generate a culture, a way of seeing, of talking, of acting. That culture often outlives the individuals who generated it. Each new person learns and perpetuates the culture, until nobody remembers where it came from.

The up group feels good, energetic, outgoing and positive. It attracts others, because we all like to feel good. Our feelings go up and down. I've been up and I've been down. Up is better.

The down group feels bad, lethargic, introspective and negative. It repels others. We don't like to feel down. Up is better.

It isn't logical to feel that - actually it isn't logical to feel at all.

Let me try again. It isn't logical to conclude that a group feeling would be so strong that it would determine the group's future. It would be more logical to conclude - for a church, let's say - that the theology, or the liturgy, the practices and the principles - that these more objective things would determine what happens in a church. But they don't.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a young, twenty-something couple moved to San Jose. It was April and the orchards were blooming, the pears, the apricots, the prunes. Tractors were disking the green and yellow mustard into the brown soil, and houses were sprouting everywhere.

They went to the San Jose church and found a funky old building and a small, rather strange, but interesting group of people. It was 1970, and there were a lot of strange people back then, or so it seemed. The church went slowly upward in membership and good feelings. Two baby girls joined the couple's family, and they started to think about Sunday School (RE, as we call it today). The minister wasn't up to the change and quit.

The church went down like a roller coaster at the top of the first big hill. But a new minister was found. He wasn't an intellectual sort, but an outgoing man with a big voice and a big heart. The couple's two-year-old daughter would climb into his lap during the sermon discussion after services and fall asleep.

The church went up again, more rapidly this time, and further. And then there was the Great Mardi Gras bust. The entire vice squad was at the church's Mardi Gras party and at the end of the evening church members were cited for gambling. Lawyers were hired, good spirits evaporated, and the church went down again. The minister left.

An interim minister was hired, a nice man, but an incompetent minister, at least for that church at that time. The church went down further. Money was scarce, UUA and PCD dues went unpaid, the church was generally shunned by other UUs, by the district, and by the other ministers. The caretaker shot an intruder in the church hallway. Later he was evicted from the church for being abusive to members and tenants. Feelings were about as low as they could be.

Finally, an older, more experienced minister was hired. He knew what to do, and the free fall ended. The church went slowly upward, dues were paid, respectability regained, old debts settled. After several rounds in court, gambling charges against the church members were dropped. Confidence and energy returned.

But older people continue to get older, their energy levels decline. The members started to ask, what does he do, anyhow? Well-meaning, but misguided members decided to fire him, get someone younger, more energetic. Imagine a congregational meeting with about fifty people, angry and upset. At least a dozen were no longer on the active member list, but showed up anyhow. Imagine the young woman going around with the membership list telling people gently, but firmly, who had the right to vote and who didn't. Her hair had more red in those days.

The motion to fire the minister failed, barely. Decorum was preserved, the minister stayed another year or so, and then retired gracefully. The next minister was chosen not by the church but by the District under a new program for urban churches. The new minister brought new energy, new people and a new spirit.

And they lived happily ever after.

What can we learn from this roller coaster story? I learned that people's feelings determine their behavior to a much greater degree than I had ever believed. I learned that having a positive atmosphere, an atmosphere of competence, as well as welcoming, an atmosphere where you expect that your integrity will be respected, where you can speak your mind as well as learn what you came to learn - that atmosphere is what makes the church go.

Somehow we come here seeking those feelings, that atmosphere.

People not only run their own lives based on their emotions, they - we, that is - are sensitive to the emotions of others. We can sense the mood of a group very accurately and very quickly. Without even thinking, we get the body language, the facial expressions, the tone of voice, the vocabulary. All of those things we sense and evaluate, often without even being aware that we are doing it. We just know that the group has a feeling about it, it's a good feeling or a bad feeling. It's attractive, inclusive, welcoming, or it's a closed feeling. It's elusive and exclusive or it's down to earth and friendly.

The group feeling comes from the group's behavior. We can be aware of and control some of this behavior. Like the use of language. Groups love to invent their own jargon. But language is such a tribal thing. Neighboring tribes who speak the same language will diverge over time so that generations later they can barely understand each other. And we are a tribal size.

In the days before history, you couldn't leave your tribe and join another one just because you felt like it. But today you can leave your church and join another one or join none at all. It's your choice. So we need to earn our place in the lives of our members.

People will come and stay if they find what they need.

But isn't it happiness that we are all looking for? That long-lasting good feeling that is deep in our heart. The feeling that crowds out the everyday hurts and fears, the disappointments and misunderstandings. The feeling that we can do what we need to do. Some people call that mental place of happiness Zion, or the Eternal City, or the Peace Which Passes all Understanding.

It's that place, that feeling that we all imagine, and sometimes achieve.

Sometimes we mistake pleasure for happiness. Pleasure, now that's not so hard. We all know what pleasure is, but we also know the consequences. The Hangover! I've talked about that before. Happiness is pleasure without the hangover. But how do you seek it, where do you find it?

Part of the process of seeking happiness is realizing that you will have to do some things that don't seem like they will make you happy, at least not at the time you do them. Like attending to the mundane but necessary parts of your life. Paying your bills. Or maybe calling your mother even though you know you aren't going to like what she has to say. Maybe it's facing up to someone or something in your life, something that you need to change.

Actually it's about being in harmony, you feelings and your actions, your mind and your body, your relationship with yourself and with others.

If you are a person who ignores your responsibilities, then you aren't going to find that peaceful feeling until you face up to them. But if you are a person who obsesses about responsibilities, who always has to do everything - then we need more people like you. But you obsessive types, for you it is more of letting go, doing what you can without feeling that it's all your fault if things don't come out as you wanted them to.

It's about doing and feeling, faith and works as the Christians like to say.

Churches are like that, too. Only it looks a little different. In the 1970s people came to UU churches who were really into enjoyment. There were the pot smokers, the hot tub groupies, the swinging singles. You name it. They're still around, but in those days they were hot, they were who everyone wanted to be, the cultural icons. But nobody wanted to take out the trash, or run the canvass, or serve on the board. Thankfully, that attitude that we can enjoy ourselves without a thought for anyone or anything else has passed out of fashion.

So those were bad years for the church, at least the San Jose church. Mission Peak missed that. Mission Peak started at a time when acting responsibly was more fashionable and it started with people who believed in acting responsibly. We need to keep that Mission Peak culture of responsibility going forward.

But acting responsibly isn't enough. It's like when I start a new project. For me that means cleaning out the garage, making some space. For you it might be clearing some space on your calendar, deciding to quit doing some things that take all of your time and energy (like your job). But then you need some inspiration. You need an idea of what you want to do. The idea has to be far enough out from where you are to give you a sense of inspiration, and yet be close enough so that you have a feeling that you can get there. (Not a logical conclusion that you can get there, but a feeling).

My father liked to build things, as I do. He used to say that you need some long-term projects and some short-term ones. I agree. In fact, if your long-term vision is bold enough to really get you excited, and if you take the time to break it into some logical steps, then you can get started on the first one.

I think of it as a list. I work the project that's on the top of the list. But the list - OK, maybe that's awfully linear, but at least I can understand it - the list represents a larger vision, a set of projects that, if I can complete them, will bring me some real satisfaction, some pride of accomplishment, maybe some happiness. Of course, it is said that life is what happens while we're trying to do something else. So don't expect your project to be completed in a linear way as I described it. Still, you need to keep it in your sights. And I suppose it isn't so much the accomplishment as it is the doing of it that brings the happiness.

So it's always the Vision Thing. We need to have a vision of where we want to get to. Having an idea of happiness isn't specific enough for a vision, we have to conceive of a context, we need an idea of a world where our vision is achieved. Zion!

How we express that vision is determined by our culture, our life experience. If we were shepherds, then the Biblical idea of the lion lying down with the lamb might feel very satisfying. But lions are in zoos, and lambs, well, we don't see them much except on the menu or in the grocery story. Our vision is a little more difficult to express, but let me try.

"I have a dream," said Martin Luther King Jr. Well, I have a dream too. I have a dream of a civil society that really is civil. Where we treat each other and our institutions too, with respect and they live up to it and so do we. A civil society with room for different personalities and beliefs, for different life styles. A society that is tough enough so that young men can hurl their energy against it and not get broken, a society caring enough that a young woman can bear a child and not have to raise it alone. A society that has a floor that is clean enough to sleep on, so that those on the bottom can sleep, at least in safety, if not in comfort. A society where the sick are cared for and the weak are protected.

That civil society is held up by people, people like you and me. We need a place where we can get together, where we can form friendships, where we can practice the art of working together. Where we can explore what is inside us. Where we can refine our idea of the civil society.

I see that place where we get together as an expanded version of where we are sitting right now. I see us UUs as providing a framework, a base structure where people can build the kinds of relationships and philosophies that work for them. I see us as translating the ancient truths of religion into the language of our modern culture. I get a glimpse of that place when I go to General Assembly and attend a worship service with a few thousand other UUs. I feel the power of a group of people who are dedicated and responsible, who are willing and able to work for what they believe. I would like to have that feeling every Sunday.

So that's the long term project. The short term project is building a culture of positive energy.

If you know me at all, you know I love to sing. Sometimes I get a tune stuck in my head. Recently I got one from my grandson.

It's Bob the Builder.

Bob the Builder: Can we build it? Bob the Builder: Yes we can!
Bob the Builder: Can we fix it? Bob the Builder: Yes we can!

I believe it's the most succinct statement of positive values that I can remember hearing. Can we build it? Yes we can! We may not know how, not exactly, but we'll figure it out. That's what makes this country great. Can we fix it? Yes we can. We'll figure it out. Let's do it! Yes we can!

Time for another story.

Years later, while they were living happily ever after, the church burned down. Actually it burned up. It went something like this. After a successful capital campaign, selection of a builder and architect, the long awaited restoration of the 100+ year old building started. The first phase, that is, the first of four phases. First the roof.

There had always been leaks at the place where the dome roof joined the steeply peaked roof in the rear of the building. It always leaked at the transition. So, a new high-tech membrane roof was specified. The roofers installed it, heat-sealed it as per procedure, kept the required 30 minute fire watch and then went home. Well, after an hour or so, a spark in the dry old wood flared and up went the roof.

The San Jose church was rebuilt, a one-phase reconstruction. It's done now and beautiful, you should go see it. And they all lived happily ever after, again. But there is one final piece of the story that I want to tell you about.

In the post fire service to honor the firefighters and begin healing the church community, the head of the building company spoke. He was a member of a large church, not a UU church, that had been torn apart by fighting, rumors, and general bad feelings. He told us with tears in his eyes - this was a construction guy, not some teary eyed poet - that he could build us a building, he knew how to do that, but that the church community was something very precious and he didn't know how to build that.

But we do know how. We do it by creating good feelings.

It feels good to be respected and listened to. But that means we also have to respect and listen.
It feels good to be cared for, but that means we also have to care.
If feels good to work on things that are important.

Feelings are important. Churches run on feelings. People do, too.

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