Soft Power

December 04, 2011

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

This advent scripture is typically anti urban. Or at least un-urban. It speaks of houses, as though people didn’t live in apartments. It speaks of watchman, as though people didn’t have doormen. It argues that more is happening than meets the eye. And it says that doormen may know more than you think they do, about you, about us, and about the street. The text advocates a spiritual strategy for living, which is basically to look beyond what you think is happening to what God is doing. This text – like many Advent texts – is about the second coming of Christ. We are to watch and wait and stay alert. We don’t know what is happening. We are not to watch out – for a terrorist deer in the car window, for example. Watching is different than watching out. It is a soft , steady power of vision. It is complete attention to infrastructure, which is as ugly a word as I can think of to say what watching means. Watching means attention to the whole, not the part, the vessel, not the wine, the door or gate, not the living room or root cellar. Watching is attention to the future in the moment. Everybody wants to be present in the moment. This text is advocating something different, which is to see the moment from the future. We are to look through the present to the future. We are to drag a Beautiful future into an under-designed present. Like it or not, this text is very nice to the Rapture people. They get it. Without a future, the people perish in the moment. With a future, the people invigorate the present. Ask your friend whose wife has end stage cancer what living in the present means and you will start siding with the Rapture people. At least they have a picture of what’s next.

Permit me five brief examples of what this noticing is about. The first has to do with our daily work. Many of us privilege the urgent over the important. We work all day and wonder what happened. We click as the inbox comes in rather than compose a message. I swear some of us do email as though it was an undisciplined martial art. Objective: Protect ourselves from what is coming at us. We react rather than act. Here at Judson I often say that the most important thing I can do with you is to see over the hill. To see what will happen in a year or in five if we do or don’t do x or y. Do or don’t say c or b. I now see the consequences of what we DIDN’T do to build the New Sanctuary Movement. We got lucky. I often see the consequences of our not having a good Master or Mistress or Long range plan. We get slugged by the present. We who are activists are not good at infrastructure. If the rapture were to come, we’d probably be buried in our email. We often build good urgency but not good watchtowers or scaffolding, spiritually, politically or personally. I try – and usually fail -- to divide my work into two parts, what I have to do today, responsively, and what I want to happen tomorrow, proactively. We are to watch the future like a hawk.

We who are headed for the rapture without the rigor want to be very careful to watch. Not watch out. But watch.

A second and more pedestrian example is hyphenated names. What were couples thinking of when they took the first hyphenated last name? The Vernon-Jones are now marrying the Astor-Lewis.’ Then when the Vernon-Jones and the Astor-Lewis have a child, what do they name the child? Samantha Vernon-Jones Astor Lewis. Then what happens.? Advent texts are about seeing the future in a present choice. They are about looking ahead. They don’t watch out so much as watch. Watching is a soft activity. It looks above and below and around. Watching out is a hard action in which we end up protecting the present from the future rather than opening the door to our best hopes, like the return of Jesus or even the rapture of romance. Watching out takes out a lot of insurance policies. Watching lives it life on a confident threshold. I have no gripe with hyphenated names. But they are a great example of thinking now as though there was no later. Advent texts want you to stand in the tower and watch for the consequences of your behavior. Advent brings out the inner doorman in you. Advent may love the power of Indian Point or even fracking but it also wants to know what happens next.

A third example is the doorman himself. Just notice what happens if you don’t tip your doorman, if you are lucky enough to have one. We by the way don’t have a doorman but we use the door services of the large building down the street. They keep an extra set of keys for us. They shovel our sidewalk. They sweep our porch. We tip them generously. Why? Because we want their eyes on our street. We want them to know our name. As some of you know, just recently the wife of a doorman in another building stole our cat. Yup. She did. She decided we were bad cat owners because we allow our cat into our backyard, which means that the cat goes into their backyard. She was convinced the cat was not spayed, which she is. She is also a firm believer in indoor cats in New York City because she thinks cats eat her birds. Now, all of her concerns were important and she has a right to them. My only recourse in this situation was our well-tipped doorman on the other side of this absurd drama. He assured me that the other doorman was “an idiot” and we remain in negotiation about the cats, the fences, the birds, and the backyards on 18th Street. What my doorman gave me was invaluable. He had been seeing the whole street for a long time. Advent advice is to see the whole street, to work everyday as though there was a tomorrow, to think everyday as though there is a tomorrow, to believe everyday as though there is a tomorrow and that what you build today is consequential to that tomorrow.

A fourth example is in one of the best things that happened at the UCC Synod this summer. Some of us helped midwife a vision for the next synod. We were watching. We were watching that the real energy in the UCC is in congregations that have become open and affirming. We dared the question, what if all congregations were gently covenantly futured and shaped into being O and A congregations? I am going to attach the statement on the web that Michael and Aja and Doug Brown actually wrote in the middle of the night to this sermon. In the middle of a hotel night, they were drafting a vision of four years from now. That vision has become the subject of a national conversation. It will be realized. Will such a posture become the second coming of Christ? Probably not. But without it there will be no such coming.

One final example, this time from South Africa. Albie Sachs1 wrote a prize winning book called the ‘Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter.” In 1988, an assassin found him where he was exiled in Mozambique and blew up his car. Sachs missed death but lost a leg and an eye. Upon return to South Africa, he meets the man who ordered the bomb. The man offers to shake his hand. Sachs says no. “I will shake your hand after you go through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Sachs went on to become responsible for constitutional protection for equality of marriage in South Africa. Why did he refuse the hand of his would be assassin? Because, in his words, “seeing a future, that has a process by which to arrive at it, is much more beautiful than ordinary punishment. It is to bet on a huge transformation of our country that will validate everything we went through.” We live in the present from the point of view of what our churches and countries might be. We don’t watch out so much as watch. Amen

Post Script: A Vision of the Next Four Years in the United Church of Christ

“So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” - Revelation 3:16

Here at the 28th Synod, we’ve been asked to imagine what’s possible. We’ve been asked to go beyond figuring out how to grow, and to ask what are we growing for? In the years ahead, we face difficult challenges if we are to survive, and though the questions are easy, the answers are not. Leonard Pitts challenges us “to make headlines for social justice," and indeed, if we are to be faithful to the Gospel, remain viable in the marketplace of ideas, and provide bold spiritual leadership to future generations of believers, Christians for Justice Action suggests that a radical new self-definition is called for.

So in the spirit of imagining bold new futures, we ask all of you: what if we became leaner, smaller, but more excited, and more awake? What if we framed an even deeper theology of prophetic witness, and true justice action? Specifically (let’s say, over the next four years) we see a future…

…in which all our churches are Open & Affirming.

…in which we focus our attention on churches that will and do give to the

…in which “God is Still Speaking,” in all our communities of faith.

Why? Because we believe that we’re the one church that actually gets the Biblical mandate of hospitality right. Because we believe we need to feed energy to where we are strong and vital and growing. Because we believe we can no longer afford to be lukewarm.

So what if we faced the future unafraid, without compromising who we are and what we stand for? What if we were willing to face our death head-on in order to find real life? What if all of us who quietly agree with this kind of future, no longer buried it with our doubts and fears, but lifted it up with our greatest hopes?

We’d love to know what you think. Reflect on it, pray on it, and to any or all of you who are moved by this vision, please to reach out to us at, or on the CJA Facebook page. We’ll be back to you with your reactions within the next two months.

In faith,
Christians for Justice Action (CJA)




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