The day he became CEO of Heifer International, Pierre Ferrari promptly eschewed any notion of owning an Italian sports car, despite his last name. But he did display a race-car driver’s singular focus and need for speed in conveying what it is he’s here to do. He quoted Mario Andretti: “If things seem under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
Heifer’s mission is clear, direct, demanding and inspiring, Ferrari told staff at Heifer’s headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. “It’s to end hunger, end poverty and take care of the Earth. It’s not about doing a little bit; it’s about doing it all.”
There is no fear of failure here. There is no hedging of aspiration, in case it can’t be reached. Pierre Ferrari’s dream of a mission statement for Heifer International is born of fearless imagination!
For the last two years I have gathered my two grandchildren around me at the computer and we have together chosen a donation through Heifer International. They remain, at this point, attached to the adorable chicks and bunnies, but I add a complementary something to the list, like trees (last year) or honeybees (this year). As a result of making these donations I receive the Heifer International magazine in the mail, in which I read about their incredible, audacious, statement of mission.
I admire people, and groups, so dedicated to their convictions that they will risk failure, maybe even death, rather than withhold their absolute and complete effort. We all know this is a rare occurrence, although I think we are witnessing this kind of mission based conviction and call to action in Egypt, now, and Tunisia, recently. How many of us have actually risked our lives for an idea? A fearless imagination of what a better future might look like.
How much fearless imagination did it take to create the founding documents for our own country, and then defend those statements and our independence?
How much fear did Barack Obama have to let go of to imagine a vision of The United States of America with himself as President?
You are thinking, I’m guessing, that these examples make the imagination and fearlessness that has gone into our own UUSA mission seem insignificant in the balance. But I beg to differ. You knew I would. Big things have to start somewhere.
Let’s look at the new Mission Statement being proposed and discussed today.
We, the members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst have gathered to share and nurture our lives. Our lives! And in particular the spiritual part of our lives that affects everything we do and will ever hope to do. We are a welcoming and inclusive community. We are also a loving and caring community. What is more important, in these lives of ours, than our relationships and how we love one another? Extending that love to the larger “one another.” Here we are inspired to link our thoughts and actions toward our commitment to religious freedom, social justice, and ecological responsibility. In our Mission Statement, we’ve put all three of these ideas into one sentence, but each one deserves volumes! Each one is an aspiration of immense proportion.
Personal religious freedom is second nature to those of us who have been around Unitarian Universalism for a while – but it is not a natural notion to most of the world, or for many right here in our Valley.
I was just emailing with one of our recent members, Dylan Klempner, who is now living, working and studying in Florida, but remembers his time with us fondly. He gave me permission to pass on to you something he wrote to me, that illustrates, for me, why I believe our presence here in Amherst is so important. Dylan wrote:
Finding my way to Amherst UU, to your sermons was important. For
several years I had been struggling to reconcile what I considered to
be a spiritual dilemma. I had lost my religious identity. The
experience was, at times, anguishing. But your sermons and the
principles of Unitarian Universalism offered an entirely new way of
seeing faith, religion, spirituality. What I had called a dilemma UUs
call a gift.
As a UU I am encouraged to give up simple solutions, to dwell in the
questions, doubts, imperfections, to use them in service of higher
goals like peace, justice, and service. This was the leaning of my
heart, yet I had no way of articulating it until I found Amherst UU.
Dylan told me he is just about to sign the membership book of the Gainesville, Florida, UU Fellowship.
I am convinced that for every Dylan there are probably scores of others out there searching for the same permission to experience and express their spirituality in their own way. We need to be here for them. Just being here is an important part of our mission, along with our commitment to social causes including environmental concerns and justice.
In this Society we encourage each other to lifelong learning and spiritual growth. We understand the importance of fellowship and fun. We feel the call to service to others.
And, as the cornerstone to our life together, we acknowledge that creating this sacred space (with our intention) for the joyful celebration of life and its mysteries, is central to our spiritual sustenance.
We are, already, all these things – our mission statement describes those purposes by which we are guided in everything we do – already. But we can be more. We can fulfill this lofty mission in even more powerful ways. The expression of that “more” is called our Vision.
Our consultant last year, Tricia Hart, recommended that as part of our preparation for mounting a building and expansion project we create a detailed strategic plan for the future, which includes re-examining our mission and creating a vision statement. Thus the purpose of the congregational meeting that will begin soon after this service ends.
It is in creating our Vision of how we see ourselves in the future, that we exercise our imagination. It’s relatively easy to put down on paper an imagined vision of the future. It is more difficult to realize that future – to make it happen.
What gets in the way? I think it is fear. Quoting Hafiz again: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.” (The Gift, p. 39)
There’s fear of uncertainty, of possible shame and embarrassment. We fear hardship and sacrifice (of our time and our finances). We fear change (this is a big one) but perhaps most of all in this case we, as the UUSA congregation, are fearing failure itself. After several previously abandoned attempts to re-design this meetinghouse, that is understandable. Understandable, but not unsurpassable.
The fear of failure is called atychiphobia. At a web site called pickthebrain.com I found these suggestions for overcoming the fear of failure. They seem reasonable – mostly.
- Consider the cost of missed opportunities.
- Research the alternatives. I think we are covering this one pretty well.
- Put the worst-case scenario in perspective. For me the worst case scenario is almost that we can’t move faster! I want all these things now! It may take years, but I do believe that change is inevitable for us.
- Understand the benefits of failure. I guess they mean we should learn something along the way. But what a bummer to always have to think “It’s so good for me that I have once again failed.”
- Make a contingency plan. One of the parts of this long-range process I have very much appreciated is that at every phase there is the acknowledgement that nothing is as yet cut in stone. There is always the possibility to rethink, regroup, go in a different direction should opportunities arise.
- Take action. It builds confidence.
- Burn the boats. I’m not sure I like this one – or even agree. I know that the motivation for writing this is that having burned the boats keeps you necessarily focused on the future, not the past, but it might also make regrouping more difficult or impossible.
Mary Oliver wrote a poem in three parts, called Evidence, from which I would like to read you the second part.
There are many ways to perish, or to flourish.
How old pain, for example, can stall us at the threshold of function.
Memory: a golden bowl, or a basement without light.
For which reason the nightmare comes with its painful story and says: you need to know this.
Some memories I would give anything to forget. Others I would not give up upon the point of death, they are the bright hawks of my life.
Still, friends, consider stone, that is without the fret of gravity, and water that is without anxiety.
And the pine trees that never forget their recipe for renewal.
And the female wood duck who is looking this way and that way for her children. And the snapping turtle who is looking this way and that way also. This is the world.
And consider, always, every day, the determination of the grass to grow despite the unending obstacles.
I said earlier that Pierre Ferrari’s vision for the work of Heifer International (not just to end some hunger and poverty, but to end it all) was born of fearless imagination. But I also think it is born of conviction. Conviction that the work of Heifer is essential and the right thing to do.
I believe that the work of this Society, and the message of Unitarian Universalism is both essential and the right thing to do. Our messages of freedom from religious dogma, the value of the spiritual journey itself, that our “salvation” is in the here and now, and that we have a responsibility to our fellow travelers are, at once, healing and emancipating messages. Who are we missing with these messages by not opening our door wider?
Yes, we can fear for ourselves and the changes we are embarking upon, but I also fear for those we are missing in our present incarnation. Whose life could be changed, in huge ways (like Dylan’s), if only for the ability to offer them sanctuary here? Whose children will grow up without the benefit of a Unitarian Universalist religious education?
“Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking,” wrote Rumi.
“We dwell too much with that which defeats us,” wrote the Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davies.
I am not afraid for our future. I have seen this congregation do SO MUCH in the last six, short, years. I have seen your conviction burst forth at congregational meetings when you are determined to do the right thing. I know that this is a congregation that cares immensely for its principles, and will not, in its respect for itself, let go of its dreams.
Here is my vision.
I see a powerful, and yet healing, Unitarian Universalist presence right here at the corner of North Pleasant and Kellogg Streets. A place to nurture your spirit AND help heal the world.
I see new people walking in the door every week, because this is a place and a community that draws them in, and then loves them into staying.
I see activities every day and night of the week in a new meetinghouse that is no longer a danger or a deterrent to anyone.
I see bathrooms on both floors!
I see a space where we no longer have to run dehumidifiers 24 hours a day in fear of the dreaded mold.
I see rooms that invite creative use – religious education for all ages, interfaith gatherings, committee work, a library that invites the curious and the seeker to sit, comfortably, and go deeper, public programs of lectures and discussions and music. Lots of music.
I see parties and laughing and children everywhere. I see tears, when tears are the right thing. I see children having the same advantage of a liberal religious education that I had. I see young adults coming of thoughtful age, finding here and within the nurture of an entire congregation what will hold them stead for the rest of their lives. This is important.
I see worship (my definition of worship), also, everywhere and all the time. Our faith is the cornerstone and the wellspring of all we do.
I see a meetinghouse, in the center of Amherst, Massachusetts, that serves as an inspiring example of energy conservation and environmentally sustainable architecture.
I see this place and these people, you, as a beacon, shining out through the doors and the windows and up through the sky lights and the solar panels, through the eyes and hearts and hands of the people who gather here – a beacon of hope and courage and love and compassion. Service within and service without.
I see all this – and I am not afraid. I believe that we, and the message of Unitarian Universalism, are worth the effort. You can count on me for my staunch support and encouragement, every step of the way.
How do we conquer our fears? With imagination, with a thorough, practical, process at each step of the way, but most of all with conviction! Just as with Heifer International, we should see a vision in front of us that is “clear, direct, demanding and inspiring.”
May it be so.