I went this year to the first-ever Conference for Excellence in Ministry in Asilomar, California—a nice place to contemplate excellence! It was put on by our own Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. I arrived late due to a delayed flight, wearing the same clothes I’d worn the day before. I arrived in the main hall midway through the keynote preacher’s sermon.
The preacher was the Rev. Dr. Kay Northcutt, a preaching professor, not a UU. She is a phenomenally gifted woman in her early 50s, I’d guess, beautiful, radiant, and very ill, it turned out. The week before the conference, I hear, it took a team of doctors a week to get her healthy enough to make the journey safely. She came, I am clear now, not because she is a woman who maniacally keeps her commitments, but because she had something she needed us to hear. Us!
Here is what she told 400 UU ministers: “You are lifesavers. You are mosaic makers called to put together broken bit by bit—creating patterns of beauty and meaning out of pain and loss. You are bone carriers, like the Israelites, who lifted the bones of their ancestors and took them out across the boundaries into the desert. Bones are heavy things, but what you inherit from those who come before is rich, so make sure you carry them with you.”
Lifesavers, mosaic makers, bone carriers.
In a smaller seminar gathered afterwards, she said, “Did you hear me? Did you hear me say that you are the hope of the world?” It is this that she had come all this way, that she had made so much personal sacrifice, to say.
Northcutt, you should know, ministers to a small congregation of folks outside the bounds of conventional society in Tulsa where she lives. They are recovering drug addicts, gay and lesbian folk, homeless families, and many Sundays when they arrive at church people gather across the street to meet them, hurling insults and rocks. These are the people she loves, the people she needs the world to protect.
Earlier in the sermon she told a story of her mother sending her and her sister off to school each day. The two, knowing what was coming, would apparently try to get out the front door as fast as possible, but inevitably their mother would hear them leave and rush to the front door, throw it open, and yell across the front lawn to her daughters, “Girls!” she would yell. “Girls,” as they looked back anxiously. “Find your greatness!”
Which was how Northcutt ended her sermon to us. “Unitarian Universalists, lifesavers, mosaic makers, bone carriers, find your greatness!”
The group that heard this sermon knew that we are a movement in trouble. Unitarian Universalism grows or shrinks by small numbers each year, but against population growth we are losing ground. We recognize that we either have to find our greatness again, or preside over a slow drain to irrelevance.
It is time to declare a moratorium on mere caretaking of our communities. It is time to ask each congregation to find and serve its greatness or shut its doors . . . but find its greatness. Find and find and find again its greatness. Explore what high-demand life among us looks like, because in my experience this is what people come to us looking for.
What is our greatness? What is our greatness, in this day, in this age? Where is the place where we set about knitting the world back into a unified whole? Loving the world and its hurt places, where do we focus our efforts at resurrection?
We need nothing less than to reclaim that spirit of fierce unrest, unleashed by people who know life is either a daring adventure or nothing, who build congregations that have no bleacher seats and no time for spectators—people who will face the roiling seas and real or imagined dragons to carry themselves and their people to a land of milk and honey, where there is no room for small dreams.
Adapted from “A Spirit of Fierce Unrest,” a presentation at the 2011 Minns Lectures by Vanessa Rush Southern. see below for links related to this story, including other selections from the Minns Lectures.
- 2011 Minns Lectures. Full texts and video. (minnslectures.org)