Here are some things I've heard some of you say during the last few months:
“I go walking every other day with my neighbor. Exercise doesn't come easy for me, and I've never managed to stay with exercise before because it's so easy to find excuses not to exercise – I'm too tired, too busy, too whatever. But knowing that my neighbor will be out there on the sidewalk waiting for me gives me a reason to stick with it. I don't want to let her down.”
“Since entering my recovery program, I've really come to rely on my sponsor. I can call him anytime, day or night, when I feel like I'm going to fall off the wagon. I call him not only when I feel like drinking but also whenever I'm in any kind of distress because I've learned the hard way that I'm more likely to take a drink when I'm in distress. My sponsor has been my lifesaver.”
“My mother has had to move in with us since she developed Alzheimer’s. It’s not like my life wasn't complicated enough trying to raise two kids; now I’m responsible for another person. I have to keep my eye on her all the time. The other day she turned the stove on, forgot about it, and melted my sauce pan. Thank goodness I have my husband to lean on. He’s been so understanding and supportive through all this. I know there’s nothing he can say or do to cure her, but just knowing he’s there for me means the world to me.”
“I don't know how I would have gotten through my divorce without my best friend. I can't tell you how many times he has had to listen to me cry and moan about the could've's, would've's, and should've's about my marriage. After letting me go on for a while, he'll say something like, 'Let's go have dinner,” or 'Let's watch a movie,' and I'll quit my pity party, pick myself up, and get over myself. My friend is helping me to move on with my life.”
The common thread here is that each of these persons is undergoing a change, and each one is turning to another person to help them turn around. In my last couple of sermons, I have been talking about change – minor and major changes, trying hard to change and not trying so hard, how to make changes and how to make them last. I think one of the resources we frequently overlook when undergoing a change is our relationships. I could spend all morning citing study after study verifying the emotional and physical benefits of having relationships in your life. Studies show that married people live longer than single people (but that could mean that married people are miserable longer than single people). People who are making a positive health change are more successful if their partner is making the same change. I know from my studies in psychology that the relationship between patient and therapist is more important to the effectiveness of therapy than the theoretical orientation of the therapist or the therapeutic technique he or she uses. In medicine, the nature of your relationship with your physician has as much or more to do with your getting well than any medication or other treatment prescribed. For example, in one study, the same antidepressant drug was more than twice as effective in one hospital as it was in another. On the other hand, the absence of significant relationships is a major risk factor for all kinds of psychological and physical problems, from depression to heart disease and Alzheimer's. People who have greater social networks generally live longer and with better health.
All of this makes sense when you consider that we human beings are social animals who come into being in and through relationships and come to life in and through community. Or as Martin Buber put it, "There is no 'I' without a 'thou.'" But this is not how our highly individualistic culture sees it. Our American culture venerates independence and looks down on dependency as a sign of weakness. We are a nation of solitary explorers who came to this New World seeking a fresh start, of solitary pioneers who made their way across the prairie to start a new life, of solitary settlers who cleared the land and carved out their existence without anybody's help. We are a nation of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, do-it-yourself, self-reliant self-starters. Our heroes fly onto the scene wearing capes and single-handedly save the day, or like Dirty Harry, take the law into their own hands, become a law unto themselves, and bend the rules to mete out their own form of justice outside the justice system … that is, when Dirty Harry is not busy talking to an empty chair.
We Americans typically see human development as moving from dependency to independence. We start out our lives in infancy, the most dependent state, and move through developmental milestones of greater separation and independence: weaning, taking your first steps, sleeping in your own bed, potty training, going to school, getting your driver's license, leaving home. The goal of life is to stand out and stand apart from others. We assume that independence is a sign of maturity. It's a weakness to rely on others, a sin to be dependent. You don't want to be a moocher. You don't want to become a burden on anyone. You don't want to be a leech on society.
An alternative view of healthy development would be to see human beings as growing in our capacity for interdependence – the capacity to be mindful of the needs of others while also attending to your own needs. It's understanding maturity as the ability to be oneself while being in relationship with others. It's realizing that we're in this life together and on this planet together and that when all do well, everyone does well. It's more difficult to exploit others when you recognize your interdependence with others, and it's more difficult to exploit the planet when your recognize you interdependence with the earth.
Like a lot of men, I have struggled with this tension between independence and dependency. Many of us men have been shamed around this issue. Many of us have been raised so as to feel ashamed of depending on others (that means you're "dependent"), of having needs (that means you're "needy"), of not being proficient or all-knowing in everything you do (that means you're "incompetent" and "inadequate"), and of asking for help (that means you're "weak" and not a man). I would like to think that as a society, we have grown beyond this limited definition of masculinity, but I suspect we haven't come very far.
During this transition from being a contractual to a called minister, I have been reflecting on the kind of minister I have been these past 26 years. I am proud to say that my definition of ministry has evolved considerably over the years as my definition of masculinity has evolved. In the early days, I saw myself as a minster as having been hired to perform a service, and to be competent in my job meant that I was to know all the answers … or at least appear that I had all the answers. It meant that I was to minister to the needs of others without having any needs of my own … or at least appear as if I had no needs. I viewed ministry as a solo mission, something I did for others on my own. In those early days, I would not have dared to ask for help or admit that I didn't have the answers or didn't know what to do. To have done so would have been an admission of my inadequacy as a minister and as a man.
Thankfully, my conception of ministry and masculinity changed primarily because of my intimate relationships. These relationships taught me that it was ok to be less than perfect, to have needs, to depend on others, to ask for help -- in other words, that it was ok to be a human being. I eventually came to see ministry as a shared mission, as a collaborative venture, not as something I do for others but as something we do together for our shared community. I came to see that my job was not to be the lead actor or the producer of the play but to be a supporting actor and a behind-the-scenes stage hand, who sets up props and gives cues to other actors to let them know when they are up. I came to see that I am most effective when I am most invisible because the play is about creating and nurturing a community, not showcasing a minister.
I came to see ministry as being primarily about relationships, thanks to the relationships in my life. Our relationships change us, which suggests that if we are attentive to our spiritual growth, we should be attentive to the kinds of relationships we form.
Many of the relationships in our lives are persuasive relationships, in which another person tries to convince you to change in some way: salespeople attempt to persuade you to buy something; politicians attempt to persuade you to vote for them; leaders attempt to persuade you to follow them; teachers to learn something; preachers to save you; bosses to persuade you to work longer and harder with less pay; teenagers to persuade you to give them the keys to the car and money for gas. The common thread in all persuasive relationships is that the person doing the persuading believes he or she knows what is best for you, which may or may not be what you think is best for you.
These persuasive relationships are not necessarily the most persuasive kinds of relationships, however, when it comes to facilitating change. I think the most facilitative relationships for change are supportive relationships, people in your life who listen to and respect your agenda for change without trying to convert you to their agenda. These are the people who grace our lives by encouraging us to hang in there when we feel like giving up and who continue to believe in us when we don't believe in ourselves. I have talked before about how we change when we immerse ourselves in the experiences of our lives, even unpleasant, painful experiences, because life is like a river, dynamic, flowing, always moving, and we will move, too, if we put ourselves into the flow of life. Certain relationships in our lives support our change because they encourage us to hang in there and embrace more fully experiences we are having difficulty embracing on our own.
I think about Dr. Ryberg, the liberal Baptist minister who became a mentor and father-figure to me during my adolescence. He is probably more responsible than any other person in my life for my becoming a minister … so you can blame him. At a critical time in my life, he provided that kind of caring, supportive relationship that facilitates change. I had written a school paper on conservation that won an essay contest, which entitled me to read my essay on a local radio program, which my teacher played for my whole class to hear. I had hit the big time in Smithfield, North Carolina. Based on that experience, I was urged to enter the American Legion Oratorical Contest. Since the only public speakers I had ever heard were preachers and since this was the big time, I went to the preacher of the big time church in town, the Rev. Dr. John L. Ryberg of the First Baptist Church. He helped me compose and practice delivering a speech whose title I can still recall, The Constitution: A Living Document of Freedom.
Now the assignment of standing alone on a stage without a podium or a manuscript, speaking before an audience which included judges who would judge the content of my speech and the style of my delivery felt like standing naked before a group of curious on-lookers. I was an extremely shy teenager, and that assignment seemed absolutely impossible. What if I can't get the words out?
"We will practice enough so that you will know that you can speak to an audience," Dr. Ryberg would say.
What if I forget what to say? "By the time of the contest, you will know it so well that you can ad lib if you have to," Dr. Ryberg would say.
What if I make a mistake? "If you do, it will be ok. Everybody makes mistakes," he would say.
But I'm scared. "That's ok. If we waited until we weren't afraid to do something, we wouldn't try anything new," he would say.
So we practiced my speech. I delivered it in his living room. I delivered it in the empty sanctuary of the First Baptist Church. I delivered it before the Smithfield Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club, and the American Legion. Then came the contest. Sometimes I did forget my lines, and sometimes I did make mistakes, but Dr. Ryberg was right; it was ok. We won at the county level, then the state level, then the Southeast regional, and we placed third in the national finals. Today, if I were to give a speech to the American Legion, I'm sure I would come in last place.
Looking back, I realize that what Dr. Ryberg helped me do was to embrace my fear. He encouraged me to embrace all of my experience, and when we embrace our experience, we will change. That's how supportive relationships support change.
This is even truer when it comes to our intimate relationships. The most profound life-altering changes in our lives are usually accomplished through our intimate relationships. Now I almost hesitate to use that word because "intimacy" has become synonymous with sexual intimacy. But we know that not all intimate relationships are sexual and that not all sexual relationships are intimate. By intimate relationships, whether they are sexual or not, I mean our closest relationships in which we can most fully be ourselves, those relationships in which we can let our hair down and be ourselves without pretense or self-consciousness. Such relationships are among life's most precious gifts. We are fortunate indeed if we are ever able to enjoy such relationships.
Intimate relationships facilitate change on a profound level because such people accept us as we are, and through their acceptance of us, they encourage us to accept ourselves, even those parts of us they we may not find acceptable, such as our fears, our hurts, our embarrassments, our losses, our neediness. Because our intimate relationships have such great potential to facilitate change, it is important that we choose our intimate partners with care. It is important that we choose someone who does not have his or her agenda for our change and can appreciate and respect our agenda. It is also important that we choose someone who can appreciate us as we are and respect all of our experience and who can welcome the changes we undergo as we grow and mature.
So if you want to grow and mature, you will want to be especially attentive to your relationships. You will want to notice how much you are giving to your relationships and how much you are receiving from them. Is your giving and receiving roughly in balance? If not, what do you need to do? You will want to notice which relationships you are keeping up with and nurturing and which ones you are neglecting. Are you investing enough of yourself in the relationships that are important to you? Are you investing too much energy in relationships that are not as important to you?
Many of you have intentionally chosen to invest yourself in this congregation because you recognize that it supports the kinds of changes you want to see in your life. Here are some things I've heard some of our new members say during the last few months:
"I grew up in a religious tradition that discouraged questions and was threatened by doubt. I can't believe something just because some religious authority, book, creed, or tradition tells me to believe it. A belief must pass the test of reason for me to embrace it. I come here because here it's ok to challenge authority, to doubt the pat answers, and to ask the hard questions, even if they don't have apparent answers. For me, it's the questions more than the answers that give meaning to my life."
"I joined this congregation for my kids as much as for myself. As a single parent, I need all the help I can get. It really does take a village to raise a child, and this is the kind of village I want to help me raise my children -- a place where they will be loved, valued, and respected and where they will learn to love, value, and respect others."
"I came to the UUCC because of its involvement in social action. Like so many people, I had become too preoccupied with my career, with my family, and with my life, and I was not doing anything to affect the society that shapes my career, family, and life … except to complain to my friends and yell at the TV. I want to give something back to life and leave this place a little better than I found it. This congregation gets that and can help me do that."
"I couldn't survive in South Carolina without this congregation. I feel like I'm surrounded by bigotry, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and judgmentalism. I could just scream. I need this refuge where I can come and breathe and know that I'm not crazy for valuing education or believing science or believing in the dignity and worth of all people. For me, this congregation is like an oasis in a conservative desert."
Whatever our reasons for being here, the common thread is that each of us is choosing to change, and we are turning to other people to help us turn around.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones