CENTERING THOUGHT “Appreciation can make a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words is all that is necessary.” ~ Margaret Cousins
Natural History - E.B. White
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider's web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
SERMON The Great Work Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst
Once upon a time (in a galaxy far, far away) on a Sunday morning, something like this one this conversation took place:
"Honey, it’s time to get up and get dressed for church!"
"I don't want to go to church. The sermons are so boring, the music and hymns are pedantic, the coffee is weak and the parking is terrible! Give me two reasons why I should go!"
"Well, for one, it's good for you. And second, you are the Minister!"
Watch out – this is what complaining will get you! Didn’t we just talk about shared ministry a few weeks ago? Let me tell you right now, if you are the minister, you really do have to show up on Sunday morning! It is also true that when we all do show up, an hour earlier than we are used to, even after a terrible frightening storm, when we march in a parade of souls willing to rest for a moment or an hour on the forming edges of our lives, when we join in the human experiment of a religious community struggling to live by our values and ideals, when we stumble and are caught by the outstretched hands of a neighbor, when we would hold one another up when life in neither fair nor kind – this is exactly when we can appreciate what is possible in our lives because we belong o this UU congregation.
When the most unlikely spider, Charlotte, weaves a word of appreciation over an anxious, frightened, frankly pretty ordinary pig, just as she did in E.B. White’s classic, when this simple appreciation happens – our perceptions change. What was once a creature whose life purpose was destined to become more fried bacon, this runt piglet was indeed transformed. In the eyes of the world and in his own sense of self worth, Wilbur the pig was miraculously transformed into nothing less than a better pig.
This is the power of appreciation! The word “appreciation” means some blend of thankfulness, admiration, approval, and gratitude. In the financial world, something that "appreciates" grows in value. With this powerful tool of appreciation in our lives, we get the benefit of both perspectives: as we learn to be consistently thankful and approving, our lives will grow in value.
This is true for us as individuals and it is true for communities such as this congregation. Words of appreciation are fuel for health. And the opposite is also just as true: words of complaint and criticism are usually not contributions that increase value. Now I know what you are going to say – “ But my criticism is valuable!” And it is true, sometimes a well-placed suggestion can genuinely improve something. But none of us is ever perfect or complete. We are ever evolving, growing and learning creatures. Only with careful tending, pruning and lots of nurture do we grow. And we all do grow best in the fine light of honest and heartfelt appreciation .
Mother Teresa said, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.” And that is our mission – to transform the world with our love. It is our mission to appreciate, to recognize and to grow the good in this world. This love and appreciation changes us, changes our community and changes the world. I am a witness to it! Look at all the good ministry that is created in this community here on display. This is why we need a celebration in spite of time and weather – we celebrate.
It is true that UUs are people who value critical thinking. That means that we are questioning and thinking about issues and making our own contribution to the conversation, to the community of discourse. And we have the responsibility to examine our beliefs and actions in the fire of our own conscience. But we learn more and go deeper if we can approach our critical inquiry with appreciation. This is the basis of a change theory called Appreciative Inquiry (AI).
from A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry by David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney.
Ap-pre’ci-ate, v., 1. valuing; the act of recognizing the best in people or the world around us; affirming past and present strengths, successes, and potentials; to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence) to living systems 2. to increase in value, e.g. the economy has appreciated in value.
In-quire’ (kwir), v., 1. the act of exploration and discovery. 2. To ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities.
Appreciative Inquiry is about the co-evolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations, and the relevant world around them. In its broadest focus, it involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to a living system when it is most alive, most effective, and most constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms. AI involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential. It involves inquiry through the crafting of the “unconditional positive question.”
In AI, rather than engaging in the arduous task of intervention, the process of asking unconditional positive questions unleashes imagination and innovation; instead of negation, criticism, and spiraling diagnosis, there is discovery, dream, and design. AI deliberately, in everything it does, seeks to work from accounts of this positive change —and it assumes that every living system has many untapped and rich and inspiring accounts of the positive. If we link this energy directly to our change agenda, changes never thought possible are suddenly and democratically mobilized.
My experiences with Appreciative Inquiry in groups and organizations have shown me that this practice is indeed a powerful change agent. Asking questions with unconditional curiosity does open up the future to new possibilities. It creates lift in a group, rather than be dragged down in all the ways we are sure to fall short of our ideals.
A few years ago, I found myself in a campground along the Gulf Coast of Alabama. On an afternoon walk I discovered a road sign that I had never seen before. The sign said, “Do Not Feed or Aggravate the Alligators!” This Jersey girl was quite willing to agree and obey! Maybe if I had lived in the south, I would be more accustomed to alligators, but you know I haven’t and from what I hear, alligators deserve a wide berth, along with our respect and a hands-off approach. I would not dream of either feeding or aggravating a creature with that many teeth along with the will and temperament to use them. So it is also true in family life and congregational life – if complaints and ordinary grumpiness are alligators.
We all have choices about how we respond to these, and sometimes even we ourselves are the alligators. The response that is most helpful is to not feed, nor to aggravate. Ordinary grumpiness can be about the issue at hand, or it can be about something else all together. Feelings of neglect or misunderstandings that leave us feeling just a little unloved have to first be addressed before a problem (if it really is a problem) can be solved. This makes sense to me. Common courtesy and civility ought not be abandoned with alligators. They are especially helpful when nerves are frayed, when we are not feeling heard or appreciated. And they cost absolutely nothing. Maintaining courtesy and civility during conflict allows us to step back from the brink, and it allows us time to let our better nature take control. Simple expressions of concern and care for the person, regardless of the issue being presented, allow for space to breathe. Such responses do not fan the flames of conflict. They do not feed the complaint but nurture the person in front of you.
This is the lesson of Charlotte’s Web. Our lesson of the day is in appreciative words like ‘some pig’, ‘terrific’, ‘radiant’, ‘humble.’ Such words can make any of us glow like a prizewinning pig after a buttermilk bath!
And the gifts we bring to this shared ministry start with just such appreciation. These words weave a stronger community. They add to a gentle sense of well-being. They make this congregation our common Great Work.
Near the end of Charlotte’s life, she weaves what she calls her magnum opus, that is, her great work. After all the meaningful spinning she has done that summer – webs to catch flies for food, webs to save the life of a humble and terrific pig, webs to just call home – then she weaves her greatest work: her egg sack, for Charlotte knows the number of her days, just as she knows her final purpose. With this knowledge of finitude, this great purpose is made ever clearer. She weaves this magnum opus with all the love and dedication she knows, and she places it most carefully into someone she appreciates own care and protection , until it is ready to hatch. She places her magnum opus under the watchful eye of her good friend Wilbur, the miraculous and celebrated, terrific and radiant pig. This friend knows, first hand, the value of appreciation. This is a friend whose very life is indeed indebted to it.
So what is our magnum opus? What is our great work? To me it is this beloved congregation. This work of weaving together a faith community is our great work. And each of these ministries presented here are threads in a web of connection and meaning. This UU Congregation of Monmouth County is “Some congregation!”
Today as part of the celebration and appreciation of this beloved congregation, we are also reflecting upon the gifts we give to support it. All of us, as members and friends of the congregation, support its work and its continued existence by our gifts of time, talent, and treasure. We bring our selves to this task of religious community, we bring appreciation, in both senses of the word, an increase in value and a recognition of the good we see around us. In a few minutes, it will be your turn to show your appreciation of UUCMC by letting your leaders know what your annual pledge for 2010 -11 will be. In addition to bringing forward your pledge form, I also want to invite you to come forward and weave a word of appreciation into our web. The ushers have ribbons and pens to hand out, along with pledge forms.
Now I expect that you arrived here today with a pretty good idea of what your financial gift to UUCMC will be this coming year. Think about that number now and imagine adding some amount of appreciation to it. Consider if you will increase the value of this congregation of love and justice in your own life, in the lives of the people you know and in the lives of the people you do not know. Consider the value of bringing our social justice and caring into this hurting world and growing in effectiveness and agency in that presence.
I believe that if we are as generous as we can be, if we each do make our most generous gift to UUCMC, we will indeed transform ourselves and the world.
Chris and I have thought carefully about what we can give UUCMC this coming year. We were fair share last year, giving 3% of our income, but we have decided to increase our level of fair share giving to 4% because we feel so fortunate right now! We really do appreciate this wonderful congregation in our lives. We both have jobs, our children are independent, and we know there are others here who are not so fortunate at this time. We want this congregation to thrive for them, for all the children whose lives are changed for the good with the benefit of a liberal religious education, for families that are strengthened because their values are affirmed here, for all those whose cares are too much of a burden and need these doors to be open to them. Wherever you are in your life’s journey, I hope you too want to grow and deepen you life’s meaning. Each of you deserves a community to support you through your life’s challenges and to lift you up, to give you and a hurting world the hope and the appreciation - you and this lovely world hunger for. And the community to do all of this is UUCMC.
May this congregation transform the world with our generosity. May this faith community make its mark on the world. May our gifts be an expression of who we really are. And may this congregation be always worthy of these great gifts. May it be so. Amen.
BENEDICTION and INVITATION
The word benediction just means “a good word.” And this is what I wish for you this morning – that you may know how good you are, and how beautiful and precious this shared faith and beloved community is. I invite you, as the music plays, to bring forward your good words to weave into our web, and your most generous gifts forward to this great benediction and embrace. May it be so.