When I was learning to preach, that is, when I took my first formal class on homiletics, which is the fancy seminary word for the craft, science, or system of preaching, my model was a reform Protestant one. In most of the rural Southern churches where most of my classmates were going to be standing behind the pulpit, preaching, in fact Sunday morning worship, was not a messy business at all.
You looked up the lectionary or scriptural readings for that week, you checked out several commentaries on that text in the theological school library, you came up with a few — in fact, no fewer or more than three, real life stories linked to those words of wisdom or Bible stories — in which you startled or admonished or warned and then comforted your flock. And if it got too late on Saturday night or, God forbid, Sunday morning, there were places on the internet you could go to borrow or buy the pre-fab manuscript you needed and then deliver it verbatim. Give or take a line or two.
The structure of each service was pretty much the same, in fact, was the same — the same prayers (except the names in the pastoral prayer changed according to the cast of characters who were needing notice and intercession), the same creeds, the same communion language, the same rotation of hymns. And this is not all bad, not all bad at all. That’s what religious ritual is, that’s what liturgy is — the familiar binding work of a gathered people , seeking a common experience.
In case you haven’t already gotten the joke — or the sermon example — I did a little messing around (pun intended) with our own service order this morning.
When we forgot to ring the bells that always mark the start of our time together. When the generously given flower arrangements which grace our sanctuary, helping turn it into Sunday, went missing. When the standard welcome was marred by a cell phone call at a time when we covenant to put these distractions aside. Confess — you were alarmed, annoyed, or at least you noticed. We do indeed have our own way of holding things together, our own repetitions of word, song, and action.
When we accidentally or intentionally change this, our children, for one, notice it. Why did we forget to welcome each other, a child asked one morning? What happened to the part where the minister says a prayer for everyone, another duly noted.
Over time, of course, in any tradition, there are adjustments, even wholesale reforms. The Catholics drop the Latin (or they did for a few years), the Jewish liturgy either lightens up on, or at least interprets, the Hebrew, we Unitarian Universalists limit or abandon candles of community or change the chalice lighting refrain. People get rattled, even upset, but most of the time, we move on. And what was new and strange and uncomfortable becomes traditional and familiar — a source of comfort and inspiration.
The way we develop sermons in this liberal religious intrafaith has been for a long time quite different from how mainstream Christians, for example, and most rabbis approach it. It is, in a word, messier.
We do not start with a pre-determined scripture passage — the word from which all else flows. We do have quite a few regular liturgical observances now, holidays and holy days we mark on the calendar every year. But during what is commonly called ordinary time, we wing it. And primarily, in my view, we do this riffing, weaving, and crafting with the material we gather from universal human longings, from universal human values, from universal and unique, rich and dense and varied human experience. Experience above all.
Our sermon preparation requires us to invest in some amount of careful observation of the community we are embedded in and personal introspection. We use what is going on around us in this environment, this spiritual community, and what is going on within us as ministers, whose lives may contain some core commonality and some particular resonances for those who listen in.
So instead of running first to the Bible or another sacred or secular source of information and insight, in putting together my 20 or so minutes on the redeeming quality of mess, on perfect messes, I began by simply opening the door and taking a good and sobering look at what started as my college-age daughter’s temporary bedroom when she came to live with us for six months almost 15 years ago at a time of financial crisis, and then became the office where I wrote all my papers for theology school and my first nearly ten years of sermons. It has been in the process of being cleaned up — de-cluttered — for more than a year.
Okay, going on two years now.
Whenever my daughter has come home to visit, or there has been another guest with no where else to bunk, I have taken all the dog-eared, well loved books, papers, colored folders, and artifacts that are living on the top of the bed, put them in plastic crates and hidden them behind a Japanese screen in the corner. When they depart, the crates come out again. Which recreates the original disorder that results from the never-ending piles of things that need to be dealt with. Discarded or kept, recycled or trashed, stored or left out. Most of the year, most of the time, the door stays shut.
I keep telling myself this was not always the way it was, the way I was. As an adult I have tried my best to create order.
I grew up, you see, in a family pretty regularly on the move, in cramped, untended houses filled with all manner of disarray that comes from lots of humans, many projects, hobbies, and multiple pets (and some pretty fascinating objects like ancient Hopi Kachinas, a little dog-gnawed). With a mother who, after at least trying to focus exclusively on keeping house and raising four children for the first decade or so of her marriage, decided to go back to graduate school and then work outside the home. Leaving the house from Monday to the next Saturday in the hands of three active and oblivious sons and one daughter (me) who tried to stay one step ahead of the tumult and chaos. Unsuccessfully.
When I was 10 years old and new to a neighborhood in what was then the Santa Clara and is now the Silicon Valley, I invited a girl named Laurie after school one day to our especially small and especially untidy house. I tried to steer her directly into my front bedroom, which was at least marginally less unkempt, but she couldn’t help seeing, I soon discovered, the un-scraped dishes piled in the sink, the smelly sneakers and deflated basket balls and all other manner of stuff left in hallways. Even the good “stuff” — the shelves and shelves of books my parents bought and read, the folk and jazz albums, the shells and rocks and animal antlers collected from all the trips we took to all the natural wonders of this country.
It was made painfully clear the very next morning when I came into the fifth grade classroom that Laurie certainly had noticed, noticed everything, and had declared to all who would listen that “Marti has a messy house,” which in the town and times I lived in was as damning, damaging, and devastating a judgment as concluding that I was a child of beatniks or communists, or both, or worse. A messy house meant an unconventional, peculiar, even immoral life, a messed up life.
I carried that childhood humiliation, that moment of judgment with me into my own grown-up home-making, and with the exception of an unbreakable habit of leaving my shoes wherever I took them off, and maybe not washing the cookie sheet I used in the evening until the next morning, I made every effort to redeem myself, to erase the label of living in mess, being a mess.
One of my shining moments was when a man I was dating told me he thought one might be able to eat off my floor, and meant it as one of the reasons he thought we were not compatible.
Funny thing though, many of my closest and most idolized friends over time have kept messy houses, my friend Bonnie for example, a fellow Unitarian whose suburban ranch house and later on town house was always cluttered and even unclean. But she was warm and nurturing and artistic and involved in all sorts of causes, raising three daughters by herself, raising them well.
She was raised a Mormon, she told me by a very devout mother in Ogden, Utah, whose front parlor, which is what she still called it, was absolutely immaculate, with its polished wood furniture and blandly tasteful oil paintings. But behind the doors to this public room, the rest of the house was pathologically messy: filled with years and years of yellow newspapers and magazines, stacks and stacks of clippings and piles of papers. No place that wasn’t covered with masses of things — things in various states of disrepair and disuse.
There is a psychological term for this tendency to hoard, to irrationally amass and hang on to extraordinarily large and dense collections of mostly useless items. It is called compulsive hoarding or sometimes Collyer Brothers syndrome, named for both a police and medical case in the spring of 1947, when a New York City patrolman responded to reports of a dead body within a decaying Harlem mansion.
Once the door was broken down, waiting behind it was a virtually impassable blockade, according to reports, of stacked furniture and boxes, parts of a sewing machine, even a wine press. And not one but two bodies of the Collyer brothers, one of whom had suffocated under bundles of newspapers that had toppled over on him. More than 130 pounds of junk was excavated from the home, all of which raised less than $2,000 at auction.
And we all have heard tales of “cat ladies,” elderly women living alone with dozens of pets, most of them sickly, some of them deceased.
These are the rare and obvious cases of bad mess, observes Eric Abrahamson, a professor of management, who along with writer David Freeman, wrote A Perfect Mess, the hidden benefits of disorder, or how crammed closets, cluttered offices and on the fly planning make the world a better place.
Most messes are not this extreme, they say. And are what give the actual benefits of mess a bad rap — and professional organizers and container stores a steady and growing income stream. The common assumptions that messy houses, for example, produce disorganized children with low cognitive skills and diminished futures is simply not true. Actually, they reassure us, messy homes can provide a far more inviting environment than highly ordered ones. Cheerfully cluttered spaces provide ample evidence of and encourage rich, if quirky, inner lives. Furthermore, research has recently indicated that over-cleaned, disinfected houses produce more asthma, either from the chemicals in the cleaners themselves or the low level of allergens, so that children don’t develop the necessary and helpful antibodies.
These authors and others also debunk the major contemporary myth around effective leadership. The myth that to be productive, as one blogger noted, one must be inherently organized, able to clean off one’s desk, and have an in-box. The myth that the way to keep on task and achieve high productivity and results is to avoid distraction, plan the day, do the most important tasks first and manage time to the minute.
Messy desks, the source of frustration and more often shame for many of us, turn out to be an advantage for most people. According to one study, people who keep a “very neat” desk spend an average of 36 percent more time looking for things at work than people who said they keep a fairly messy desk, keeping separate piles for urgent, less urgent, and non-urgent documents, reflecting quite naturally the way they work and their changing and fluid priorities.
What we are learning from example after example, from the larger market share that Microsoft has always won with its thrown together technology and wide net marketing vs. Apple’s more focused and narrower vision; to a hospital in Connecticut that decided to respond to patients’ lists of requests in a survey by granting all of them, resulting in 96 percent client satisfaction and an impressive increase in admissions, that flexible leaders and organic organizations might look disorganized but work better and do better. And that less structured, indeed messy leadership is an art that uses detours, delays, and dilemmas as teachable moments, with great success.
So what does all of this mean in our context — as an organization, as a faith community that is part of a larger liberal religious movement?
The most obvious learning in all of this is the counsel to put up, even honor a degree of non-pathological physical space messiness. Which right now would be a very good choice as we take back many spaces after years of renting to private schools during the day. You will find evidence of this everywhere as we are emptying, sorting through, and then refurnishing classrooms, changing offices around, inviting new partnerships with a Parents Morning Out Program, possibly an after school program, and just this past week with the UU Service Committee’s Drumbeat for Darfur project.
We can go with the messiness of new and transforming structures of governance and ways we organize ourselves as we match what we want to give to the world with how to get this done. We will be trying out different teams and pods and clusters as we deepen our spiritual lives, celebrate the arts, teach our children and ourselves from the many wells of world wisdom, and go forth to create peace and justice.
On the individual level and as a faith movement, I hope we allow ourselves to follow the admonitions of Rabbi Irwin Kula to embrace the sacred messiness of life, theologically and spiritually.
For example, not only was the way I was taught to approach sermon writing in a mainline Christian seminary out of sync with the more experiental, less scripturally based pattern of Unitarian Universalist preaching — useful, but in need of constant translation and adjustment — but also the systematic approach to theology that became a graduation requirement the year I completed my studies.
In this way of studying God, of looking at meaning and purpose, we were expected to understand and unpack the various and necessary components of a forumula belief system: to have a firm belief about the nature of God the father, of Christ his son, of the Holy Spirit, of salvation, of sin, and about end times. No minister worth his or her weekly paycheck and collar could be called until he or she had either accepted an external dogma or at the least had put the finishing touches on one of our own.
Even when I went before the ministerial fellowship committee, there was one member, who after reading through a number of my essays and early sermons, found my spiritual sensibilities, my religious logic, wanting. I think she said contradictory, perhaps even deficient.
One day you seem to discover divinity in Bryce Canyon or Yosemite, she pointed out. Another day you find God in the Exodus journey. Still another, you seem satisfied with seeing holiness in the face of a homeless person, or in nothing at all — just an existential void. Sometimes you see the world as a place of goodness and wonder. Other times you see it as a place of hopelessness, despair, and moral blindness.
Momentarily flummoxed, I remember deciding to just go with a confession. That I was a Unitarian Universalist, born and bred, and quite messy, faith-wise. That my personal faith, my own evolving revelations, are deeply experiental and improvisational and highly influenced by what was happening in my life and in the lives of those around me.
From my reading of our collective faith history, we started as a systematically anti-Calvinist movement: believing that our destinies were not pre-determined, believing that Jesus did not die for all of our sins in perpetuity, but, rather, we were charged with working for our own salvation, believing that God was too good to damn anyone to hell. But with the breaking out of the Judeo-Christian box that came with our Transcendentalist forebears in the mid 19th century, we entered into and embraced the glorious chaos of an expansive religious and spiritual universe, one which a single system of theology could not possibly contain.
My hope is that we can find within these walls, times and places to freely share our own messiness — the messiness of our day-to-day lives — the illnesses, hospitalization of loved ones, loss, unemployment, divorce, and other times of crisis, and get comfort and support. To freely share disorder as well as accomplishment, to form community around meaning-making as the rabbi writes, in both the messy and the neat, the triumphs and disappointments, the weaving and the unraveling.
Throwing our spiritual antibacterial potions away. Kissing the dirt. May it be so.