Vision and Focus

Vision and Focus
preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 9, 2012

I got new glasses on Thursday.  I was finding that particularly as I read and write on the computer, I was having to lift my head at a strange angle to look through the bottom lens in my bifocals for reading, rather than the lens for distance.  So I got myself a pair of glasses just for reading that would also work on the computer screen.  The weather was nice on Thursday, and I decided to work outside, as I often do when I have the luxury of that option.   But every time I lifted my gaze to the trees and grass and sky, they were out of focus.  It actually helped me stay focused on the words on the computer screen since looking at nature wasn’t as rewarding in that blur.

So I got to thinking about the metaphor of vision and focus.  Our theme for the month, vision, isn’t about the sense of sight.  But I was having a hard time defining it without visual imagery.  I’m sure that if it’s about time, it’s about the future.  If it’s about space, it’s a very large space – wide view, worldview.  Or, a particular space.  But that was about as far as I could get.  I was having trouble defining vision without the specific goal or content of that vision.

And so that’s why I’ve gone back to the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam – the repair of the world.  For me, it’s the clearest explanation of what we’re about – humanity, at its best.  I think of great visionaries, and their accomplishments fit into that category – Mohandas K Gandhi, using nonviolence to achieve self-rule and self-determination of the Indian people, Margaret Fuller and the women’s movement of a century and half ago, Martin Luther King Jr., using peaceful protest to achieve civil rights for African Americans and the poor,  Harvey Milk, in San Francisco, working locally for gay rights.  I think of Kenyan environmental activist, Wangari Matthai.  These visionaries were all seeking to repair the world – to free a people or save an environment or to somehow set right what has gone so terribly wrong.

But, Hitler had a vision, too, as did Osama Bin Laden – so I’m not saying all vision is created equal.  But what Hitler and Osama Bin Laden have in common with Gandhi, Fuller, King, Milk, and Matthai is that they all made a significant impact on the world.  I don’t need to explain to you who all these people are – you may not have heard of one or two of them, but you know most of them because their impact on our world and our lives has been so great.

We know that none of these leaders or visionaries could have succeeded on their own.  None of them worked in isolation – they were articulators of a vision, such that the movements they led get associated with their names, but they are not the movements themselves.

I had an opportunity to take a Civil Rights Pilgrimage of the South in 2011 where I learned so many more names of people who impacted the changes in this country than I had ever encountered, names of people other than Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks: Bayard Rustin, for example, and Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and Viola Liuzzo, to name a few.

I remind you of this because it may be that you are thinking, I’m no Jesus or Mahatma Gandhi, what does vision have to do with my life?  I’m just trying to get by.  But you may relate to Viola Liuzzo, Detroit housewife and Unitarian Universalist, who was killed driving marchers back to Selma in 1965.  Viola Liuzzo had a vision that she should somehow help, and she left her family drove to Selma, and participated in a movement greater than herself.

One reason I accepted a call to serve this congregation, was the clear articulation of its vision at the time.  The search committee described this congregation as one which had struggled to stay in right relationship with its ministers and fellow congregants – one that was learning and longing to develop healthier relationships and better patterns.  My vision was to find a church that I could serve for many years, creating longtime stability and health.  I had personal motivations – wanted  raise our son, Theo, and make a home with my husband, Stuart, without having to leave, but also had larger reasons – a belief that congregations are places where people find healing and health in order to go out into the world to make it better.  I believed and still believe that we become better people and create a better world when we work through our conflicts and build relationships, rather than leaving in disappointment to start anew elsewhere. 

We largely carry our troubles with us, and a lifetime of moving has taught me that left unresolved, our problems just move right along with us.  I had a vision of helping this congregation develop long term staying power and health so that our faith could be spread out into the world from a place of strength and vitality, purpose and vision.

In large measure, we’ve done that.  I’m of the opinion that we’ve been searching for a new vision together, Perhaps since I returned from Sabbatical in 2010 – a seven month period of reflection for both the congregation and this minister.  I’ve now been your minister longer than any minister you’ve called.  We certainly haven’t fixed every problem in the church, but we have developed a long-term relationship with a minister, are more fully staffed, deeper theologically and spiritually, and moving more thoughtfully into social issues such as immigration, food justice, and the environment .

We have an emerging vision of being a teaching congregation, which we recognized this morning as we commissioned our second ministerial intern.  We have a vision for a closer relationship with MSU, and a student-organized student group is meeting after/between services this morning.  Our new director of music is an assistant at MSU assigned to us, and our pianist is a student at MSU. 

We have a vision, though we have not accomplished, a vision of a building that is fully accessible and more welcoming.  The building process has stalled and I know is a source of frustration for many.   The congregation voted to keep looking for a building that would be accessible or could be made accessible more easily than this site.  Having a vision, as we painfully know, does not guarantee success.   Without a vision, however, we are even less likely to succeed.  I find hope in the fact that we are generally limited, not by our abilities, but by our vision.

In this presidential election, we’ve been hearing the competing visions of various candidates – it’s interesting to note how each party frames their own story and that of the other party.  In fact, story is a good way to discover your vision.  What story do you want to tell?  What story do you want to tell about your life?  Your work?  Your relationships? Your impact on the world?  If you can identify the story you want to tell, you are beginning to define your vision.  Vision is a description of your preferred future.  Something tricky about vision, however, has to do with focus. 

For visionary idealists, and liberal religionists, there is hardly anything we cannot see as important to fix.  We want to end hunger, save the planet, teach the children, heal the wounded, create more bike lanes and libraries, stop violence and end shame.  We want to create beautiful art and music, and develop intimate and meaningful relationships with each other.  Vision, like progress, can be never ending, can be an appetite that we cannot satisfy.  And since we can’t do it all, and we can’t do it all at once, we have to focus.  I had to decide to spend my time writing this sermon, rather than basking in the beauty of the trees in my backyard.  Both are worthy endeavors. However, only one of them served, at that point in time, the greater purpose of having something meaningful to say to you this morning.

Perhaps because I am an idealist, I like to see the possibilities in the world and pursue their completion.  But sometimes that appetite for improvement can lead to a scattered lack of focus.  School is starting, church has gone to two services, do we have enough volunteers for this Sunday, did the power point get corrected,  did I remember to buy coffee for the morning?  I can forget what it is I’m doing right now, for all my concern with the future.  I don’t know about you, but what inevitably happens for me when I’m so distracted, that I am neither focused on the present nor the future, and will generally have to start whatever  task I’m attempting all over again.

Once you get down to it, once you’re able to focus, what is your preferred future?   What is the story you want to tell?  What is the story you want us to tell, collectively?  Either this church or your family or this city or country?

Jonathan Swift said that vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.  That line reminds me of Maria Hinajosa’s Ware Lecture this summer in Arizona.  Hinajosa is a journalist who articulates her work as making the invisible visible.

She names and describes and calls out people and situations and realities that get ignored, or dismissed.  Later this month, her program America by the Numbers will air on PBS – it explores the demographic changes in the US and looks at how the rising multicultural population is influencing our culture, our conversation, and may impact the 2012 elections.
In the pilot episode, “America By The Numbers: Clarkston Georgia”, Maria Hinojosa visits one of the most diverse communities in America with residents from over 40 countries speaking over 60 different languages. “America By The Numbers: Clarkston Georgia” explores the lessons that can be learned by a divided nation from our newest Americans about democracy and getting along.
In the Ware lecture this summer, which you can view or read online at, she tells her story – and by doing so, we see her vision.

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.  We all see things that others don’t see, do we not?  So, we are all visionaries.  We need only find our particular sphere of influence.  Where does our unique vision fit into the scheme of things and how can my vision influence for good?

Rabbi David Cohen, from Congregation Sinai Milwaukee puts it this way:

On the first day of creation, God creates light - va’yar Elohim et ha-Or Ki Tov - and God saw that the light was Good. The Torah mentions that God found practically every aspect of creation to be good – land and sky, vegetation and trees, sea creatures and birds, save for one: Human Beings. On the question of people, God is silent.

From this single omission, Judaism makes a statement about the nature of, and reason for, our existence. We are unlike the rest of creation. We have free will to choose right or wrong. Our choices, our actions, will determine whether we are judged good, or not.

If it is our nature as human beings to have free will, then why were we created? An answer comes from the Kabbalists, the mystics who lived in 16th century Israel on a remote mountaintop called Tzefat. Their leader, Isaac Luria, taught a creation story quite different than the one found in Genesis. Luria’s story begins as God realizes that since God fills all time and space, God will have to contract, to create a space, in which to create the world. God then pours sparks of light into clay containers. But something goes wrong. The containers are imperfect and shatter. The shards of broken pottery fall to earth, along with the newly liberated sparks of divine light. Creation gives way to calamity, as the world’s building blocks lie shattered and broken across the landscape. The role of human beings, Luria concluded, was to do tikkun Olam, to fix the broken world by picking up the broken shards of pottery and liberating the divine sparks of light underneath.

The role of human beings is to fix the broken world by picking up the broken shards of pottery and liberating the divine sparks of light underneath.

Peter Marshall said, “Give us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for – because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.”  Or another way to put it:  if you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there. 

This Jewish story from the Kabbalah tradition reminds us that we can choose.  We can choose a destination,
and the particular path which will get us there.   What is your vision?  What is ours?   What is the story you wish to tell of your life?   On what will you focus?

Let’s take a moment together to focus.  If comfortable, you may close your eyes.  As you tune into your breathing, consider this day.   What is your focus today?  What is the story you want to tell about how you spent this day? Then, ask yourself about this week.  Is there a particular vision for the week, a necessary focus for your life in the next 7 days?  That’s it.  Let’s stop there. 

Focus on today and this week.  We’ll be exploring vision the entire month of September.  But every great vision, begins in one particular moment.  May ours begin right now.

* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.