Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Bones of Leadership

Backbone, Funnybone, Wishbone
By Rev. Kit Ketcham
Oct. 3, 2010

Okay, I know what song is on your minds right now, so let’s give into the temptation and go ahead and sing it. But after we’ve sung it, I’d like to tell you a little bit about where the song comes from and why it is meaningful in the context of our service today. And I know we’ve all learned slightly different versions, but don’t worry about that!

Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"
Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"
Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"
"Oh, hear the word of the Lord."

The toe bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the foot bone, 
The foot bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Oh, hear the word of the Lord.

The head bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the foot bone, 
The foot bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the toe bone,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!

When we sing a song from another culture, I think it’s valuable to know something about where the song comes from, and African American spirituals, most of which came out of the misery of slavery, are songs with powerful, often hidden, meanings. They were communications, they were maps, they were sources of hope or despair. And this song is no exception.

In the ancient story of the prophet Ezekiel and his mystical encounter with the Valley of Dry Bones, I hear more than its message to the Israelites in exile; I hear a message of freedom and vision that can be and has been used by many peoples to breathe life back into a hope that has died.

I like to think that African slaves in the Americas centuries ago, as they were forced to learn the religious stories of their masters, heard that message and leapt from the literal story about Israelites to a prophecy of release and power for their own people.

I like to think that out of that story emerged a secret song of renewed power and hope for an oppressed people, a song which gave them strength to endure, a song that expressed their faith that their people, their lives, their culture could and would rise again even in a new land.

I wanted to know more than what my imagination told me, though, so I turned to St. Google and, in my search, uncovered a little bit about the origins of “Dem Bones”. But this old song is not merely an anatomy lesson for children, as Wikipedia seems to think. And African American author Zora Neal Hurston confirms my suspicion that this song means more than just a linkage of one bone to another.

To her and to other African American thinkers and writers, it did mean hope and vision and freedom, renewed life, vindication after terrible oppression and death. For them, it wasn’t just about the Israelites returning home; it was about African slaves receiving new life, new hope, new promise, new freedom. And it was emphasized by that most powerful of religious statements: Now hear the word of the Lord. That meant it was going to happen and naysayers be damned.

African Americans identified with this story, for, like the Israelites of Ezekiel’s time, they too had been carried off into exile and captivity. This story and the resulting spiritual celebrated the much-anticipated return of strength and power and freedom to a human community that had been imprisoned. Those dry bones would rise again!

Today we are considering the living, breathing bones of leadership, specifically moral leadership, the leadership that will keep progressive religious faith alive and thriving. These are not dry bones and we hope they never will be!

We have as our guests today the members of the board of directors of the Pacific Northwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are honored and proud to be your hosts for your fall board meeting. And I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you---to us all---about effective moral leadership.

The bones of moral leadership, the theme of our service this morning, are, as country star Reba McIntire and bank president Elaine Agather have dubbed them, Backbone, Funnybone, and Wishbone.

Whether you are a formally selected leader, like a treasurer or president or minister, or an informally selected leader, like the person who volunteers to make sure the kitchen is cleaned up after church or the one everyone looks to for the next bright idea, you need a backbone----that is, you need courage. You need a funnybone---that is, a sense of humor; and you need a wishbone---that is, a dream, a vision.

Backbone, Funnybone, Wishbone---how do these bones support moral leadership, the moral leadership that springs from our human sense of justice, freedom, and responsible stewardship?

When I think of moral leaders with Backbone, I think of our religious ancestor Michael Servetus, who confronted churchman John Calvin in the 16th century, insisting he consider the errors of the doctrine of the Trinity, which had become official Christian dogma. He was burned at the stake for his boldness. I think of Martin Luther, whose 95 Theses of disagreement with the Catholic church sparked the Protestant Reformation. I think of Harriet Tubman, who rescued slaves using a network of abolitionists and safe houses, known as the Underground Railroad. I think of Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership of the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s resulted in so much progress for citizens in this nation.

I think of countless others who have gone to bat for moral causes---the freedom of women to control their own reproductive lives, the opportunity for marriage for same sex couples, the preservation of wilderness, the attention to the issues of climate change and human responsibility, advocacy for women’s rights in theocracies and non-democratic nations of the world, civil rights for immigrants, whether documented or not.

To have a backbone means to stick one’s neck out, to confront wrongdoing, to be a presence in the fight against oppression, injustice, and hate. It can mean ridicule, separation from loved ones, loss of earning power, prison, sometimes even death.

And Funnybone? What would a Funnybone do for a moral leader? Well, anyone who has gotten involved in nonprofit causes knows that most of the work is done by volunteers. Churches are largely operating on volunteer help, whether it’s the board of directors, the choir director, the religious education teachers, the potluck organizers, the folks who create the newsletter and the website, who put out the hymnals and play the piano. Even the paid staff often put in far more hours than they can be paid for.

And volunteers, as committed as they may be, can’t do everything we ask of them. They have emergencies, they have vacation plans, they have families and lives that require much of them. Volunteers, unlike paid staff, can say no; they say yes to the jobs that appeal to them and sometimes have to cancel at the last minute.

A Funnybone comes in handy in these situations. The leader has been left in the lurch but doesn’t want to lose the precious volunteer, so he or she laughs instead of crying, knowing that this is one of the inevitable challenges of moral leadership.

Speaking of moral leaders with a Funnybone, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s scheduled rallies in Washington DC on Oct. 30: the Rally to Restore Sanity and the Rally to Keep Fear Alive.

You know Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as two of the funniest so-called “newscasters” of our time. Many of our younger folks today get their news from these two comics. Stewart and Colbert, with the freedom they have to say anything they like on cable television, have a perspective on the news that dares to parody and satirize the newsmakers of mainstream television, particularly those they disagree with. The Fox channel comes in for most of their ridicule but no stodgy newscaster with his or her limited viewpoint is immune from the needle of the Stewart and Colbert Funnybones.

And they don’t shy away from controversy, inviting public figures to join them on the show and then asking them the hard questions that reveal their guests’ biases. Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, is not a comedienne, but she finds humor in the blunders of public figures and invites them to explain themselves on the air; her courteous but pointed prodding puts them on the spot.

In our own tradition, we have the Rev. Meg Barnhouse, whose tongue in cheek reflections often skewer her own and our religious foibles. Rev. Barnhouse regularly appears in our UU World magazine, copies of which are available in the leaflet rack in the foyer here. And though we’re sometimes a little nervous about including him, the entrepreneur, parttime politician, and circus founder, P.T. Barnum is one of our Unitarian moral ancestors. He stood against slavery and for women’s rights, as well as humor, in the 19th century.

Those of us attempting change through moral leadership need a sense of humor, a strong Funnybone in order to survive the disappointments and challenges that history and everyday life throw at us.

And then there’s the Wishbone. How does anything get done without a wishbone? The wishbone I’m thinking of, of course, is Vision, a Dream, a Sense of what could be, beyond what is.

The poet Langston Hughes once wrote: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field, frozen with snow.”

There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the American Dream and how it has been denied to many of the people in this country. Many of those speaking are talking about the dream of home ownership, of a white-collar job, of kids doing well in school and going on to college with generous scholarships---the whole dream of “let me and mine prosper financially”. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, as a dream.

It’s just that it’s not the dream of dreams, the vision of visions, of a world that is generous, that is just, that is merciful, that is encouraging, that is spiritually solid, that is peaceful, that is not beset by the consequences of human greed and destruction. That’s the real dream, the dream that enables all other dreams. That’s the dream, the vision, of moral leaders.

Whose dream, whose vision, are we heir to, in this progressive religious tradition? Well, there was John Murray, our Universalist ancestor, who said “Go out into the highways and byways, give the people something of your new vision…give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God”.

There was Julia Ward Howe, Unitarian poet and abolitionist who authored the Mother’s Day Proclamation in which she stated: “Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears! …Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.”

There’s Mark Morrison Reed, a contemporary Unitarian Universalist minister, who wrote, “It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.”

There is the vision, here in our island community, of those who organize for preservation of wild lands and wildlife, for energy conservation, for human rights, for kindness and mercy for unwanted animals, for financial help to those who can’t afford their medical bills, for building homes for Habitat, helping disabled children learn to ride a horse, reaching out to veterans, to the mentally ill.

There is the vision that created this congregation and this sacred space, dreaming first of a liberal religious community here on Whidbey Island and then dreaming of a sacred space that would be beautiful, would be open to the larger community, and would provide a home base from which we could reach out to gather in those who are looking for a religious home.

And there is the vision of all of you here today who are holding the Wishbone, ready to take part in building upon that vision, of making this congregation a beacon of love and justice in this community, standing faithfully together with Backbone straight and Funnybone sharpened, finding meaning and a sense of belonging here.

As Dave and I were preparing for this service, he gave me a copy of something he’d written several years ago, his personal philosophy of leadership. A few of his points relate directly to our message today, but I’m going to share them all. And I note that Dave is not only our worship leader today but also a leader in our larger sphere, as treasurer of our UU Pacific Northwest District. He has lived his philosophy as a moral leader in this congregation from the first days of his presence here.

My Personal Philosophy of Leadership
October 20, 1997
1. Trust is the foundation of all of civilization
2. Laugh easily, and at yourself.
3. Maintain both a healthy optimism and a healthy skepticism
4. Your strengths create your opportunities; your weaknesses cause your failures. Neglect neither.
5. Enthusiasm is contagious.
6. Gladly give the client more than is expected.
7. Set worthwhile goals.
8. Plan work to make success inevitable, but stay flexible to seize opportunities.
9. Be fanatical about closure.
10. Learn to lead people who are smarter than you are.
11. Require that jobs provide continuous personal development.

Dave went on to say that he sees being a leader as a personal ministry, that leadership calls for humility, for the courage to step forward, not waiting to be asked, and that it opens up the self for inspiration and greater commitment.

And I would like to add that each person here has that same opportunity to serve----as an usher, as a social hour host, as a greeter, as a teacher of children or adults, as a musician, as a contributor of time, talent, and money. In fact, if you haven’t signed up yet to serve in one of these capacities during this program year, I urge you to do so today. Whether you are a member or a friend of this congregation, we welcome your participation and promise that it will help you feel at home here.

There are countless opportunities for us as a congregation and as individuals to use our Backbone, our Funnybone, and our Wishbone, for all of us are ina position to offer moral leadership. All we have to do is look around our community and see the places where moral leadership is needed, from supporting our local schools as they struggle with the handicaps of a limited budget, to advocating for marriage rights for all citizens, and educating ourselves about issues such as immigration, climate change and peacemaking. As Mark Morrison Reed has said, we are stronger together as a community than we can be alone.

Our Bones of Leadership are not dead and dry, they are strong and vibrant; let’s exercise them in ways which will benefit our whole community. These Bones are gonna walk around and bring joy and new life to others. “Now hear the word of the lord!”

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have strength, courage, vision, and the sense of humor to support our moral leadership in this community. May we exercise that moral leadership both in our own sacred space and also in the world beyond these walls. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Mile High Pixie said...

I love that list of personal rules for leadership--they seem like they transcend political ideology, religion, gender, race, everything.

I've definitely got my funnybone in order, if nothing else. I've had people tell me that working with me is a pleasure (or at least not painful) because I keep a project team buoyant with my sense of humor and positive, action-oriented outlook. Funnybone *is* a valid part of leadership! :-)

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Pixie, I think that's a great thing your co-workers say about you.

And I learned that I had left off one of the rules he made: "Mentor often" or words to that effect. I apparently didn't copy the whole list!