Sunday, January 25, 2009

Higher Ground: The Zeitgeist of New Leadership


told by Sky Hedman who traveled to DC with her partner Lynn (all photos from Sky & Lynn)

Although the Metro started running at 4:00 a.m. 4:30 was our agreed upon wake up time, so we dutifully rolled out of bed when the alarm went off Tuesday morning. The four of us from Kentucky were out of the house on our way to the Metro at 5:15 a.m. Our local hosts had decided that TV coverage was good enough. The train was only partly full, but with every stop, more happy people poured in, so by the time we reached downtown, it was shoulder to shoulder with excited Obama supporters. I alternated between riding high on the enthusiasm of everyone around me, and flashbacks to trainloads of people naively packed into trains in the dark days of Germany. I was in the back of the crowd when the train doors opened to let us out at the L’Enfant plaza, and I almost couldn’t get off the train because the platform was so crowded. The four of us held on to each other as we climbed up the (not working) escalator to street level. We were swept along in the dark for several blocks with an enthusiastic crowd of thousands. At one point, we had to go down a narrow space next to the Hirschborn Museum and the press of the crowd was a little scary, but then in a minute we spilled out onto the grassy Mall. The first ¾ mile of the Mall was already packed with people, so we walked to the middle of the Mall, and close to a Jumbotron, and put our blanket down. Within minutes we were surrounded by more attendees, standing shoulder to shoulder as far as we could see. We couldn’t move from our spot—partly because there was no room to walk, and because we wouldn’t be able to find our group again if we left it. It was about 6:15 a.m. and 19 degrees, with a cold wind. Five hours to wait…

What is a leader?

The answer has been changing for some time now, because the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, has been shifting ..our new awareness of the interconnected nature of all things and the value of relationships changes our definition of “leader.” This week, it became manifest.

Margaret Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science, “As scientists fill us with images of this participatory universe… I wonder how we can continue to support authoritarian approaches? Can we survive as command and control leaders?... No one can hope to lead any organization by standing outside or ignoring any of the relationships through which work is accomplished.”

Leaders are no longer authoritarian demagogues, but co-founders of a new reality, a participatory reality that echoes our new apprehension of the self-organizing universe. This is the zeitgeist.

Listen to how some UUCL folks responded to my online survey, capturing this spirit:

Sean writes: Mr. Obama's position on issues, manner of speaking, and public behavior has to me always radiated high intelligence, compassion, and determination…. when these three things come in abundance to any prominent position, the result for me is tremendous hope for a new unity…

Sandy says: And he is one of us… He knows what it is like to be on the outside and he has overcome that personal struggle and turned it into a very welcoming, transformative empathy.

Debra adds: We need to be united as a people yet tolerant of differences of opinion. I wish for all to come together and work together towards a common goal.

And Jim simply reminds us: “We are the people we have been waiting for.”

Here are some new metaphors for leaders:
· Gardeners
· Stewards
· Jazz Musicians
· Midwives.

But I like Adam’s: Quarterback. He captures the zeitgeist as he writes:

Rather than divide and conquer, rather than demand that people submit to his will, we are bringing forth a new kind of leader. Someone who unites. Someone who can see that there are advantages to each viewpoint on an issue. Someone who can see the value in each person around him. He has proven himself to be just and compassionate. He walks the walk in matters of equality and acceptance of others, as reflected by his familial history. He has always emphasized the importance of using the democratic process. And then he has followed through. He chooses peace over war. He understands the importance of the health of our surroundings and Mother Earth in general. Gone are the old ways that have served to help those in power at the expense humanity. We look forward with great anticipation at a new era in Homo sapiens. We look forward to this new quarterback to lead us forward… Mr. Obama, here is the ball. Game on.

The postmodern leader must be relational and authentic. He or she (and by the way, this is almost immaterial, because the new leadership is androgynous in the way Jesus was androgynous, encompassing the best of feminine and masculine strengths) makes everyone feel included. Unlike Newtonian style leadership (which was also once “scientific” but is now outmoded) new leaders focus on strengths and possibilities rather than problems. No longer will problem-focused, mechanistic and hierarchical methods suffice. Now, humans are at the center rather than flow charts; relationships matter more than bottom lines. We feel this if we have been paying attention, in the campaign and transition of President Obama.

In “Claiming The Light,” Paul Chaffee writes: “in terms of values, genuine, credible, and respectful best describe these leaders. In terms of practices, an appreciative leader challenges, encourages, enables, coaches, inquires, and dialogues… And characteristics the leaders associated with worldview were envision, inspire, and holistic.”

Here are the qualities of leadership that will make this new era radically different:

· Communication ~ President Obama is a listener. You can tell from watching him that he knows how to engage and be engaged. But this is not the artificial listening most politicians engage in, using charm to gain votes. We know he listens because he has acted upon and promised to act upon what we asked for! Listening, in the new leadership, is about “establishing ‘higher ground’ for the dialogue, a ‘place’ where what is most important to us allows the irritations and arguments of life to fade into perspective or just disappear. A safe personal discussion of our most cherished values and experiences, focused on matters transcending disagreement and conflict, bonds people together.” This is key to new leadership. People who feel included, acknowledged, will participate. Things get better. As Amy says, “There is finally someone to look up to again.” That’s higher ground.

· Self-awareness, self-differentiation, and non-anxious presence. President Obama is the first “cool” President. That means more than that he looks good in his shades and he plays hoops and carries a Blackberry. It means that he has learned to be non-reactive, calm, and unruffled in the face of high anxiety. What a difference this will make, in foreign policy, domestic disputes, and tense Congressional votes. He can stand above the battlefield, as it were, while remaining engaged. This is Higher Ground.

· Clarity & Boundaries ~~ I remember when Pres. Obama had had it with people attacking Michelle and he simply said, “That’s enough.” I knew then that this was a man who had clarity, boundaries, and integrity. HIGHER GROUND!

· Leaders inspire. Inspiration comes from the same root as spirit. This is all spiritual, because it has to do with our deepest values and our core selves. Why else did almost two million suffer bitter cold to be there in DC on Tuesday? Why else did hundreds of thousands go out and volunteer on Monday? Michelle says, “I hope President Obama will give us direction on what each of us can do to help our country recover and move forward.” Higher Ground.

· Good leaders, finally, are playful, have a sense of humor, and are humans who make and admit mistakes. Putting humanity at the center means not only that humans can be a part of leadership, but leaders can be human. Thank God. We feel this. When Obama gave the Hawaiian sign meaning “hang loose” during the Inaugural Parade, when he joked while helping to paint a classroom on Monday that he would be moving into a new house and might have to do some painting, we saw humility, humor, and playfulness. Hallelujah!
Higher Ground!!

Charles wrote:
The impression that most overwhelmed me was that of hundreds of thousands of people on the Mall, expressing their enthusiasm, joy, and the hope for America that Obama inspired in them. In the midst of reading, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, I remembered something this exceptionally literate historian had written about how Lincoln had inspired hope in his followers even in the darkest times. She quoted someone as saying that having hope means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges. It is not the sunny view that everything will turn out all right, but believing that you have the will and the way to accomplish your goals. I saw that hope in the faces and actions of the throngs on the Mall. I think most Americans recognize the tremendous challenges our nation is facing, but have a hope, perhaps even a faith, that we will overcome them. The election of Barack Obama is evidence that we have overcome much in the past, even though the road ahead of us is not smooth.

I love Sky’s story about the experiences she and her partner Lynn had on Inauguration Day:
As I told Lynn, it’s a story about relationships, discovery, surprises, and cooperative endeavor. So is the new leadership. So will the new followership be! Their willingness to be “disturbed.” Their walk through chaos and darkness, even fear, going forward with common purpose and inspiration, but not really knowing the steps. Emerging from the dark tunnel, humanity self-organized without violence. No arrests were made .

This is how we shall go forward.. beginning, perhaps, in what Peter Steinke, in Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, called the “germinating darkness” .. learning to walk, together, through uncertainty and indecision. “Impatience has its source in anxiety..” writes Steinke. “Being hasty is low-road functioning.”

Higher Ground!

Finally, the story of our UUA President, the Rev. William Sinkford:
The language in Washington, Sinkford said, “has changed, almost overnight. We are now in a conversation about how to bring people together, not about what keeps us apart, and it is dramatic, and powerful, change that we need to pay attention to. Years from now the question of ‘Were you there?’ will become a question on everyone’s lips….."

On January 20, Sinkford had the experience of trying to get to the National Mall to see – at least through Jumbotrons and speakers – the inauguration ceremony. While he and his spouse, Maria, held tickets, they found themselves unable to enter their assigned area. Even so, Sinkford said, “The most striking thing is the sense of community that I, and we, have experienced here. On the street, in the hotel, on the Mall, the attitude is one of friendliness, of people trying to help one another. It’s as if we allowed our hopes to come true, around a different way of being together.” Sinkford also noted: “The presence of people of color here is different… .Whole families have come with their children. People have come representing generations long gone, all wanting to be able to say, ‘We were here.’ The importance of Barack Obama as a symbol of those hopes is not to be denied.”

Steve wrote: I'm not sure I see President Obama as someone who will do great things, as much as I think we will be able to work hard, together, and do great things with him (moderating? facilitating? inspiring? leading? - can't find right word).

Maybe… quarterbacking?


Friday, January 23, 2009

At Last.....

I didn't cry during the swearing in. I didn't cry during the prayers. I didn't cry at the beautiful picture of the Obama family, grandmother included, or the amazing Inaugural Address. I surely did not cry when George Bush climbed aboard the helicopter that would take him back to Texas.

But later, that night, I cried.

It happened when I watched Beyonce sing At Last, the Etta James song she chose to honor the new first couple with at their first Inugural Dance.

So many things came together for me then.

My son, now 27 (same age as Beyonce) forced me to watch an MTV special about her almost ten years ago, when they were both eighteen and she was barely known. He told me then that she was the best thing since sliced bread (ok, he used some other descriptive words) so I watched it with him, and I have adored that young woman ever since. Unlike her peers, Brittany and Jessica and Lindsay, (and sad to say, my son, who also filled the intervening years with some serious missteps and our lives with the heartbreak of addictions) she has been unfailingly gracious and graceful... she oozes class and dignity. And she is so talented, and beautiful beyond belief. The MTV special, I recall, told all about how her mother made all of her outfits for Destiny's Child and showed home videos of her early singing attempts. Like the Obamas, Beyonce is a real American from a regular family.

Please watch carefully the emotion in her face, especially at the end of the song, when she breaks character and is nearly overcome as she and the first couple stand in mutual admiration. She is a superstar, mega-rich, and internationally known. But she is still the little girl from humble beginnings, the one my son made me watch a TV special about.

At last.... we have real human beings in seats of power.

At last.... my son is in recovery from his addictions of all these years.

At last... we who have longed for a return to sanity, waiting to exhale, can breathe free.

It is, we know, not an end but a beginning, and nothing can guarantee this moment will endure. In fact, we never get to say "at last" once and for all, because we are always arriving. But it is so good to rest on a plateau now and then. So good. At last.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

NEW DAY... That Means US, too!

Bishop Gene Robinson...Lexington, KY native
As a Unitarian Christian, Rick Warren's prayer itself did not offend me! I fully agree that the choice of Warren to give the Invocation was troubling. I support those whose anger is righteous, and I take my clue from Bishop Gene Robinson, who has mingled grace and understanding with clarity and outspoken rage. But the prayer itself was just fine.

Two magic words words made it so: I, my. He said this, "I humbly pray in the name of the one that changed my life..." Warren did not try to impose his notion of Christianity upon those listening, and he made what I will be gracious enough to say was a legitimate attempt to be at least as inclusive as his own authentic beliefs would allow him to be.. including the shema, translating the name of Jesus, and mentioning several times "all people."

I watched the Inauguration at the home of a colleague.. no, not a UU minister.. a Baptist minister! Baptists (liberal), Catholics, an Episcopalian rector, and a Unitarian watched it together, and, guess what? Each and every one of them was more irked by Warren's prayer than I was. "We knew he would make it exclusively Christian!" They were barely listening because they were prepared to be disgusted. We all laughed about the fact that I was the only one who found it even marginally acceptable.

I admit that I listened closely and that I cheered inwardly for him to do the right thing. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, not because I am any less exhausted and furious at those who will not allow GLBT people their full rights, but because I think he is key to some new ways of crossing bridges and changing hearts. The fact that he agreed to pray for this otherwise liberal love-fest was impressive. And I want to celebrate him for what he did not say.

He didn't call Jesus "Christ." He didn't say "saved me," he said, "changed my life." He didn't say sinners, Hell, wrath, born again, salvation, resurrection, or use any of the language that makes me feel excluded.

I heard that some GLBT folk who were there turned their backs on Warren. While I understand this gesture, I want to turn toward, not away from those who disagree with me, so that we can meet somewhere, and so that their hearts can be touched and softened. I want to take to heart Rev. Lowery's words: we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

I get a little weary of our liberal/ UU/ "progressive" self righteousness. If all we do is attack and cry foul, we shall never make progress. It's a new day! That means us, too.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

One HUNDRED years ago today...

....My father, Gilbert W. Cain, was born.

He was raised in suburban Philadelphia and the Eastern shore of Maryland.

He had a brother named Don and parents that died before I was born.

He went to Penn and was at the top of his class.

He was an engineer with the US Army at Frankford Arsenal in Philly.

He lost his first wife Marjorie (my mother) to an early, sudden death only 8 years after they married, retired early & puttered for about 25 years. He died at 86 in 1995.

He was really the only parent I ever knew... I think about him every day. Happy Birthday, Daddy.

Shoes & Pudding

I read with dismay a fellow minister's blog quoting an article about how Turkish fans screamed and threw shoes at the visiting Israeli basketball team in protest of the violence in Gaza. Dismay, because Turkey and the Turkish people have a very special place in my heart. Dismay, because now that the event has reached headline and blog-mention proportions, I have no doubt that it will color the perception in the West of the Turkish people. Color them unfairly.

When I mentioned the incident to my sister, she asked, "What's with everybody throwing shoes all of a sudden? Didn't they throw shoes at Bush, too?"

I explained that in the Middle East, showing the sole of the foot is considered an insult, because the feet are dirty, hence the throwing of shoes. When I visited Turkey last summer as the guest of a generous, hospitable, and noble organization, an affiliate of the Gulen Movement, I learned that it was impolite to sit with the soles of your feet aimed at others. Still, some people in our tour group "forgot" and did this. Our guides were tolerant, and assured us that it would not be highly offensive, as we were not expected to know all of the local customs. But, I thought... why not? Westerners' refusal to extend themselves to understand and feel compassion for the mores and modes of conduct that others value is a both a symptom of and a contributor to our insularity and our xenophobia. Nothing will change, and violent conflict will not end for good, until everyone makes an effort to do this. To understand and comprehend.

Two related events occurred. On Sunday, a few members of the UK Interfaith Dialogue Organization, young men who are also affiliated with the Gulen Movement, came to our Unitarian Universalist congregation, as they have done numerous times. They had asked me beforehand whether they could pass out some "Noah's Pudding," a dish that is concocted and shared in observation of the New Year. They did so generously, and also included lovely flyers that explained the origin of the dish and the custom of sharing with neighbors. They are Muslims, and they are Turkish. These young men have taught me volumes about how to live in harmony, peace, and kindness in spite of different beliefs. I know they disagree with many of our very liberal stances on issues, but they persist in treating us with honor and friendship. This, I reflected. is true giving. No strings. No expectations. One shares because sharing and giving are the right way to live in a world community.

The next day, I was listening to a local AM station on my car radio. A caller responded to the latest Bin Laden communique by asserting that he was fed up, and that if Muslims didn't put a stop to the terrorists among them, "we" should blow Mecca, their most significant holy place, right off the map, "flatten it." He went on to express his desire to personally kill Bin Laden and bury him with pigs. The host disagreed with him, but did not say clearly enough that his words were twisted, hateful, and born of ignorance about Islam and about the Muslim people. I was dismayed, again.

Now people are going to see the images of angry fans throwing shoes and decide that all Turkish people are violent and vengeful. I guess the fact that Philadelphia fans are pretty raucous and once threw snowballs at Santa Claus means that all Americans are rude and like to shatter little kids' dreams? The quiet but persistent image of two kind young men sharing Noah's Pudding will never make international headlines, and our divisions will be widened. I pray and wait for the day when the sharing of pudding overcomes the tossing of shoes, and we start the long and very difficult journey toward love and peace.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


"You are good."

These words of the guest speaker at our church last Sunday were met with an enthralled silence. The turnout, I noticed, had been unusually large, and there were at least fifteen visitors. I couldn't help wondering: Did it have to do with the title of her homily... "Innately Good," or was it a coincidence that some folks who almost never attend services any more showed up?

Perhaps, I mused, they came whenever they thought I was not speaking! After ten years in this congregation, and fifteen in parish ministry, I have reached two plateaus: I have an intuitive awareness of how people are responding to the message, the music, the whole Sunday event. Two, I don't take any of the slings and arrows, insults and gossip as seriously as I once did. So, it was fine with me that folks found our guest's message more appealing than mine.

She was stroking them.

Long ago, I learned that the best ministers are those who "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." If one is lucky, a perfect balance of these two necessary injections to the human spirit will occur at the same time, in the same Sunday service. People leave feeling both loved and challenged.

But, as our guest pointed out, some people have been afflicted so severely, usually since childhood, that they can't bear to have any more of what they perceive as "guilt" heaped on them... they want to be stroked. Part of me understands this well, and feels deep connection with it. There was a time for me, emerging from a childhood ruled by an authoritative father and a marriage with an emotionally abusive man, that I could not bear criticism. It was if I was so wounded that I had to keep a protective bubble around myself or I would die. Still, I know that staying in that vulnerable place is not spiritual progress.

Gradually, we can learn ways to be centered enough and at home enough in our own selves that what others say and do does not define us. We become, not perfect, but authentic humans, who can laugh at ourselves, acknowledge our flaws, and still feel loved and whole. We can accept the criticism that is rightly ours, and let the rest slough away. This is freedom.

Here is what one member of the congregation wrote to me after the service:

....there seemed to be something lacking about the whole thing. There was no methodology offered by which one could hope to actually put into effect what she was talking about. It is good that we all be reminded that our limitless sources of life-long acculturation have effectively buried who we really are, but she offered no way for us to peel away those layers of acculturation to discover our true identities.

I thought that was a little thin when she was talking about how love means having no fear. Good grief. As loving as she might think she is, I wonder how free of fear she would be if her husband got laid off and their only source of income was the royalties she receives on her paperback books. She would feel fear right down to the marrow of her bones.

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine too: Some people say, "God is Love," or, "We are love," and variations. What the hell does that mean? Even if you believe in a personal god, and someone walks up to you and says, "God is love," what on earth does that do? What if someone said, "God is mashed potatoes?" Just what is supposed to happen when you say that to someone? Here's another one: "God loves you." That one is usually reserved for when someone just gets told they have cancer or their wife has just walked out on him, or something like that. How does being told that change anything? What do people think they are accomplishing when they say that to someone? That stuff just drives me straight up the wall sometimes.

I don't know yet how others feel about what she said. But I did hear that most of her books, which emphasize the same theme, were sold! So I assume that her message, "You are good!" resonated with many people.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is: "We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person." I love it! Inherent worth is different than saying "innately good." Inherent dignity can be restored, even after many missteps. Perhaps the problem is the word "good." It plays right into the same duality that created all of this self-hatred in the first place.

I'll go on poking people, but I did have a big lesson about how much stroking they need, too. It's something to consider.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Why We Call it "Service"...

When members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington travel to Biloxi, MS, we help build a house for a family whose home was lost in Hurricane Katrina. We take high school and college students and foreign exchange students each Christmas. Of course, we could take the money we raise in order to travel and send it to the agency that helps coordinate our project so that they could hire workers. Even day-laborers would be more competent and efficient than most of us! But, we go. Why?

One could be cyncical and say that we go in order to feel better about ourselves and to ease the guilt we feel in our comfortable lives. But my experience of those who are willing to travel during Christmas Holiday, and work on something they will neither complete nor be lauded for, is that they go to stretch themelves: to learn, yes... but maybe more to the point, to understand. To be deepened, even if that deepening creates discomfort. The Gulf Coast will do this for you. Even a week a year will stretch and deepen you. You will move closer to the Holy.

You'll see the glittering casinos, rebuilt immediately, rise a few blocks from still-empty lots and still-gutted bungalows waiting for repair. You'll see the gnarly live oak trees, torn from their trunks by the force of the water, carved into graceful sea creatures. You'll hear stories, like the one told by Priscilla, a mother who watched the water rise from her church balcony, and considered mercifully drowning her two year old son so that he wouldn't be orphaned. You'll see that same boy, now five, playing and laughing, "adopted" by a couple who help with his school expenses and visit him regularly. You'll taste fresh catfish and shrimp cooked by hands that are also working to restore some order into lives as ravaged as the buildings. And after a while, you'll begin to wonder.

Where is the government that is supposed to protect and "serve" its people? Why are so many people still waiting for places to live? Why does it seem the rest of the world has forgotten?

These questions are good. They lead to deepening and they open doors of thought and feeling. That reveals a simple truth: we can not serve others without serving ourselves.

We often ignore the fact that service comes from the same root as "servant." It is interwoven with Christian faith. It is also tied to the Communion meal and hence to what even Unitarian Universalists still call the Sunday service, although few practice Communion. That Sunday service should also lead to questions that stretch and deepen. Unlike charity, philanthropy, or even advocacy, service can not be done from afar, but entails the hand-to-hand transfer of goods or labor. Traditionally, one serves the Lord through service to others. One deliberately places oneself in a position of servant to another.

We gain. We learn humility, and we truly comprehend the first of our Unitarian Universalist principles: inherent worth and dignity.

And it is here, in the midst of unanswered questions, unfinished projects, and unmet expectations, that I find the Holy. For me, God is a God who refuses to offer simple explanations or easy solutions, but who grieves and mourns and questions beside humans. In the midst of chaos, the Eternal appears. That's why we serve.