Service as Joy
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” I have certainly felt this at different times. I have dreamt of joy and happiness in the midst of difficulty, I have awoken to hardship, to busyness, to travail and triviality, and have wondered how I might eek out a modicum of simple pleasure amidst the constant and frenetic pace of living. I have felt that longing for joy in the face of the monotony and meaninglessness of our consumerist cultural drive for perpetual dissatisfaction.
It reminds me of that scene between Charlie Brown and Lucy Van Pelt in the classic peanuts Christmas movie. Charlie Brown – representing all of us who have ever felt a little down or left out or caught up in our own anxiety about ourselves – Charlie Brown goes to see Lucy at her advice booth. (Hang your “the Doctor is in” sign and shake the nickels can saying “Nickels, nickels, nickels.”) Lucy tries helpfully to label him as a first step: “Are you afraid of responsibility? If you are then you have Hypengyophobia.” When that doesn’t produce anything worthwhile, Charlie Brown explains that his problem is Christmas. But that is only because it is the Christmas Peanuts movie! Really, his problem is the same one he always has: “Instead of feeling happy,” he says, “I feel sort of let down.” To which Lucy proclaims: “You need involvement!” Then she promptly gives him a leadership position! She makes him director of the school Christmas pageant. And throughout the movie it is amply clear that this was a terrible idea.
So, you now have shown up here at this congregation. You seek some connection with life, with joy. You are perhaps feeling a little let down – maybe not right at this moment, but at times you have felt Charlie-Brown-ish: a little depressed, a little lonely, a little like you don’t fit in and you long for something that is hard to express or explain. (Shake the nickels can.) What’s wrong? Hypengyophobia? You need involvement! Or, perhaps you need something more.
In his 1996 congregationally-published book, Transforming Liberal Congregation for the new millennium,” Colleague Roy Phillips presents the argument that people do not come to congregations to join committees and develop a clever campaign for balancing the budget. We come instead as seekers looking for deeper meaning and richer connections. Phillips says “People come to our congregations looking for bread. We give them the stones of busyness and pseudo-power.” (p 6) Charlie Brown just wanted some help figuring out the deeper meaning of Christmas and Lucy puts him in charge of the pageant.
By the mid 1990’s Rev Phillips was issuing the call to do away with the 1950’s model of church membership and involvement. Phillips called us to stop thinking about being members and start thinking about being ministers – to think of what we each do around here as ministries that we all take part in. Rev Phillips was not the first, nor the last to issue this call to liberal congregations or to Unitarian Universalism.
Roy Phillips uses a cartoon to demonstrate what NOT to do. There is a young couple talking to an older man standing in front of a huge bulletin board listing all the church’s committees. The old man is saying “Most people are on nine or ten committees, but since you’re new I’m sure people will understand if you only join six or seven to start.”
Phillips goes on to say, “The best part of the cartoon is the list of committees themselves: Finance Committee, Investment Committee, Board of Trustees, yes. But the list goes on … Thermostat Control Committee, Committee for More Comfortable Pews, Committee for the Promotion of Committees, Plant Watering Committee, Pigeon Control Committee.” You get the picture. If the only way to get involved is to serve on a committee, then there will be a profusion of committees. If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
And before I pat us on the back to say: thankfully it’s nothing like that around here – after all we have Small Group Ministry and the Fun Club and a lot of real hands-on Social Justice work – I will also say this: I actually started making a list of ways to get involved in the life of the church, of ways to serve, from casserole bakers and Beacon folders to greeters and teachers and plumbers. It was a big list. And after working on it though out the week with the idea of making it a central feature of the service, last night I finally figured it out and deleted the whole list.
I still want people to know about opportunities to serve, about places in the life of the church where it is simple to step in as well as other places where there is an opening for a person with particular gifts and skills. But I felt a huge list of ‘volunteer tasks’ would set the wrong tone. This congregation is not a pile of tasks and jobs; it is a community of connections.
Lucy Van Pelt says “You need involvement.” And do we have the perfect task for you, we add. Rev Phillips disagrees when he says we each need to uncover our personal ministry. Rev. Erik Wikstrom also disagrees with Lucy when he writes, “Just getting involved is not enough.” On the first page of the introduction of his new book, Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice, Wikstrom writes:
Common wisdom holds that people come to church for a sense of belonging, and that getting involved with a committee or task force is a great way to meet people and feel more connected. You do meet people while serving on a committee, and, yes, working together in common purpose can create these bonds. But perhaps this is not really why people come to church. Though this is often why they say they come, I think there is an even deeper reason – to have their lives transformed.
We are called to serve. “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Wikstrom speaks of transformation, of being transformed. Now, some of us shake our heads at a word like that for it carries the clear implication that we somehow need to be transformed … because we are somehow not good enough as we are right now. And yet transformation has always been at the heart of the quest for spiritual growth, at the heart of the religious endeavor! A Zen Buddhist master once said “You are perfect just the way you are … and you could use some improvement.” I suppose, mostly, this pokes at our ideas of ‘perfect.’ You are who you are and it is beautiful. But don’t stop: keep growing, keep improving, keep going.
Meg Barnhouse has an article entitled “Broken Buddha” in this most recent issue of UU World magazine (7/5/10) that tugs on this same concept.
I have a photograph in my online art collection [she writes] titled “Broken Buddha.” It shows the lap of a painted statue. One graceful hand has broken off and is resting on the sole of an upturned foot. I’m trying to figure out why I’m so drawn to this image. The enlightened one as imperfect, cracked, and chipped—maybe that is how my enlightenment feels. [She writes,] It is not all that shiny anymore. A piece or two might have gotten knocked off.
So there is room for improvement, at every stage, whoever you are. There is always room for transformation. Thus, it is not enough to just get involved – it is not enough to just sign up on the list of volunteer tasks. What is wanted is the building of the bonds of connection. What is wanted is the discovery of the depths of meaning. Step up and sign on to get involved with the goal of offering something of yourself, never to simply fill a slot. “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” “For to be hopeless would seem so strange.” (Holly Near)
It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be big. I remember sweeping sand off the front bricks leading up the main door of the lodge at camp Unirondack. We were preparing for the next session of campers and I was sweeping the sand off the front bricks. There is sand all over that hill where the lodge sits. Within a matter of a few hours those bricks would be covered with sand again.
The director of the camp noticed this and commented to me about it. By the end of our conversations we agreed that I was not doing task. I was performing a spiritual exercise. Any small activity you do can be done in this way. As you work consider for whom you are doing it, consider it metaphorically if that fits, consider it as an offering of yourself in some small way.
With such small examples, can it not be true for larger activities as well? Teaching Sunday school, chairing a committee, organizing a fund-raising event, serving on the board: consider for whom you are doing it, consider it metaphorically if that fits, consider it as an offering of yourself. And we begin to see that the task itself is not the point. It is the connections and the meaning found in serving in this way that matters. Leadership can be a spiritual practice, a way of deepening yourself, of learning about yourself, of opening yourself to transformation. “I am open and I am willing, so lift me up to the light of change.” (Holly Near)
Now, you might be saying, “Whoa! I just want to bring some cookies I baked for coffee hour – I didn’t sign up for transformation.” To which I would say: perhaps it is more important that you brought the cookies than the fact that there were cookies. Perhaps it is more important how the board moves through its agenda than the fact that it got through the agenda. Perhaps it is more important how you sweep the sand or run the meeting, more important with whom or for whom you fold the special mailing or prepare the meal for the hungry. Perhaps the quality of our relationships, the quality of our living, is the point – not the fulfilling of the tasks.
The work of the church is not as important as the quality of the experiences – no, that’s not right. The work of the church is the quality of the experiences we have while doing the work of the church. This is not to say the cookies and the agendas and the classes and all the other tasks are unimportant. Only that there is something that is more important, and it is the reason we are a congregation in the first place: intimacy and ultimacy, richer connections and deeper meaning, to nurture your spirit and to help heal the world.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Consider this: becoming a leader in the life of this congregation – or perhaps more accurately being of service in the life of this congregation – can be the single most enlivening and fulfilling practice you can do here for your spirit. It can deepen your spirit and transform your life. Be open, be willing to be lifted. Cast your lot with those who – yes – perversely, and with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world. And as is the case with so many of the everyday spiritual practices: all it takes is a shift in how we see the world and one another.
In a world without end
May it be so.