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Moving up?
Rev. Katie Stein Sather, February 20, 2005

Thursday evening I had the privilege of attending a play with one of our own in the cast. Marcy Green was the helpful aunt in The Miracle Worker as put on by the Theatrix Youtheatre Society. You will probably remember the story of Helen Keller. She had an illness when just a year and a half old, leaving her both blind and deaf. Her mind was active, but locked in, unable to communicate with anyone. She became very frustrated and wild as a result. Her family spoiled her rotten, because that seemed to be the only way to live with her. They didn't realize that her mind was as sharp as a tack.

What Helen did need was education, if only a means of communication could be found. Her family was persuaded, with Aunt Ev's help, to find a teacher for Helen. Anne Sullivan arrives and proceeds to re-educate not only Helen, but her family. Helen quickly picked up the finger games Anne taught -- she was spelling the names of things to her. However, Helen didn't understand that these were names, that words had meaning.

Helen needed a new perspective, a new way of understanding things. Her family needed to a key to reach her. In a very real sense, she needed to see things in a new way. To mix our metaphors, her cheese had moved, if you remember the story of adapting to change that we heard last May. The goal of her life had changed.

Have you ever been walking in the mountains on an unmaintained but well-used trail? The path can be well below the level of the original terrain. I've seen them in the Rockies, especially trails that horse packers use. They are just barely wide enough to walk in -- it's quite a rut. We can get caught in our ruts. It can be a big step to take a different path. Sometimes, we've been told to stay on the path.

Al and I joke about having our ruts. Each of us drives to various places in our own way. Coming home from the Food Bank potluck supper at Como Lake United, a week ago, he wanted to head home in the opposite direction than I would have gone. Since he did this all the time on Food Bank Wednesday's, he was sure of where he was going. I learned a new path.

I didn't have much choice, as he was driving. I still had to decide I would learn something new, and not quarrel about it. At one time, that's what I would have done. Instead, I stepped out of my rut.

It's all very well to say, well, things have changed, the cheese has moved, we have to adapt. Period.

We all know that change isn't that easy. So how can we ease into it? Perhaps you have heard about a book called The Tipping Point. Its author Malcolm Gladwell has some suggestions about how change happens, and how to make change. What he means by "tipping point" is "that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire." What makes a idea become an epidemic?

Gladwell contends that contagious new ideas take hold much like epidemics do: they spread easily when the conditions are right. He holds that these conditions are less complicated than we might believe. He came to this conclusion after considering the nature of epidemics, how viruses spread and how quickly something can go from a nuisance to a full-blown crisis. It's true, we usually think of epidemics as unpleasant, whether it's illness, crime, or fear. Gladwell's primary hypothesis is that we can learn some important things from these negative epidemics to help us create positive ones.

The three dynamics that can bring an idea or movement to its tipping point are

  • the law of the few;
  • the stickiness factor; and
  • the power of context.

First, the law of the few says that little changes can have a big impact. Any epidemic for the greater good begins through the initiative and commitment of a handful of people. Some people are exceptional at connecting with other people. They collect acquaintances like others collect stamps. And they like connecting these people up. How many of you know someone who delights in combining the most unlikely folks at dinner parties, usually quite successfully? Only a few of us are good at this.

It's also true that a few people among us do most of the work. Yes, sometimes we lament this, especially when we need someone for a new task, but it's reality. At any one time, there are a limited number of people fired up and committed, with enough time to do it. Here's where the assistance of each of us who open up, and help set up and serve coffee and all the other tasks that make Beacon go on a Sunday morning matters.

Gladwell's second dynamic of epidemics is the stickiness factor: the degree to which the idea or concept being spread makes an impact. Once exposed to its message, can the recipient get it out of her head? Is the message so memorable that it can spur someone to action? Advertisers use musical snippets, or other gimmicks, to get their message stuck in our heads. The one that comes to mind is the "I am Canadian" Molson ad. Hymns and songs work the same way. Ideally, our mission statement would be this sticky. If only sermons were so sticky.

The third dynamic of epidemics is the power of context, which reminds us that humans are influenced by and sensitive to their environment... more than we might realize. Parents know that the group our children hang out with matter. Suicide experts understand that even knowing someone else who has committed suicide is an additional risk factor in a person's mental health outlook. Crime happens more often when the neighborhood is dirty and boarded up and painted with gang tags.

It's no wonder that we like to carry those guidelines for meetings -- they add up to "treat everybody with respect" -- beyond the meeting, to our everyday lives. True, we fail sometimes, but we keep trying. We want to keep Beacon a welcoming, even loving, place. Beacon is a community we want to be a part of, and we want to share it with others. We know that each of us, together, make the context.

What might be Beacon's tipping point? What will it be that will enable us to more fully engage in our mission of sharing this beloved community? I believe it is in all the little things that all of us do, here at Beacon, and for Beacon, whether here or not here. It's the passion with which we welcome a newcomer, or engage in a discussion on The Pagan Christ, as one Chalice Circle is now doing. It's in the stray comment to the guys about your Men's Chalice Circle or about the choir to a musical friend. Religion is not separate from the rest of your life. It is the context of your lives.

We have personal tipping points too. There are times when we need to adapt to change, just like Helen Keller did. I wonder, for example, what tipped me into deciding to move to the big city for a job? I'd always thought I was a country girl. I'm not sure, although I know that during my year in greater Detroit, I realized I could survive, even thrive, there. I imagined that greater Vancouver would be an easier place in which to live than Detroit. Someone there gave me a pin that proclaimed "Bloom where you are planted." And so I decided that I could do this. I decided I was able to move beyond my previous limitation. I could indeed learn to become someone different. I learned that I had to make an effort to get out of the city whenever I could, to touch the earth, and I continue to do that. It seems like such a small thing, but it matters. It tips the balance. I thank Shannon for tipping the balance with the pin.

The magic vase from our Story for all Ages was another tipping point. Small, yes, but it was the motivation for many good outcomes. Such examples encourage us to continue, even increase, such small kindnesses, such small changes, in our lives. They matter.

I'd like to close with a poem by Parker Towle, "Hooking rugs and ice fishing"

He volunteered with a dying patient
expecting to go through the five stages of grief
at the first meeting. Instead
she talked about hooking rugs:

the needle, the thread, the cloth,
the rhythmic movement of the hands.
He tried other matters in conversation -
she talked of hooking rugs.

On the next visit she spoke of the intricacies
and hardships of ice-fishing that her husband
had done before his death. Week after week,
hooking rugs and ice-fishing.

Angered, he said to friends,
"I can't go on with this
interminable hooking rugs
and ice-fishing."

One day as they sat
in the hospital cafeteria,
she going on, he bored and vexed
with hooking rugs and ice-fishing

the room
went silent, air turned
a luminous shade of green, hooking
rugs and ice

fishing stopped. She leaned over and said,
"I could not have done this
without you,"
then on again with hooking rugs

and ice-fishing. Soon after she died. At the funeral
relatives said to him, "Thank you,
all she ever spoke about
was you."

So ends our message for today. Amen, and blessed be.

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