Changing Ourselves, Changing the World


Sermon #8 (6th October 2013 at  Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians) 

In the next 12 minutes or so we’re going to hatch a plan to change the world. I hope that doesn’t sound too ambitious! In the broadest terms, we’re going to consider what it is about the world that might need changing (where shall we start! you might ask), what might prevent us from taking action for the issues and causes we care about, and how we can hope to overcome these obstacles to help make a better world for all.

But first of all I want to highlight a fact which can easily be overlooked: Changing the world generally means changing people. That is: changing the way people think, the way people regard one another, the way people act, every day of their lives. Changing people’s minds, hearts, and habits.

I reckon we can get some insight on how to bring about such changes by considering the process of change in our own lives. Think about a time when you changed your mind on some important issue. What brought about the shift? Maybe you became aware of new evidence or information that made you think again and reconsider your old opinions.  But was it an entirely rational process? Was it more of a change of heart than a change of mind? Perhaps your emotions were swayed.  Sometimes the catalyst for change can be a real-world encounter with a fellow human being.  We may hold one view on an issue while it is just theoretical and abstract, but if we come into relationship with someone who is personally affected by that issue, then our perspective may shift dramatically.  A friend of mine told me that her own experience of change is entirely tangled up in loving relationships and that is my experience too. I respond better to being gently led and opened up to new ways of seeing than I do to being cornered and berated in debate.

After all, to change your mind means, at some level, admitting you were wrong. This makes you vulnerable – it can feel humiliating – and is potentially quite a significant barrier to change.  The need to avoid embarrassment can lead people to dig in their heels and become entrenched in their views. Something we can learn from this, perhaps, is that if we want people to change then we need to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.  Rather than instantly condemning someone whose views we would like to change – as tempting as that may be – perhaps we can hang in there, try to stay in relationship, and insistently bear witness in the hope that change will come.  Of course, sometimes that will be too hard for us to do.  Sometimes the gulf between us is too wide to build a bridge. But another friend of mine wisely observed that ‘if we want social change then we have to accept redemption.’

Many of us will also have had the experience of trying to change our own habits or our lifestyle (with varying degrees of success). Think about losing weight, getting fit, learning a language or a musical instrument, adopting a regular spiritual practice. You might have noticed the advice that goes up in Boots the Chemist each New Year: ‘Change One Thing’. It’s not advisable to try and make a lot of big changes at once. Small steps are often the way to go.  I came across this quote from Mary Pipher:

‘I favour incremental change… People rarely take giant steps, and if they do they often fall down. The trick is finding the step size that propels people forward but allows them to succeed with each move.’

Another bit of advice you’re often given when you’re trying to make changes in your life is to join together with others for solidarity and support and to help with your motivation by bringing an element of fun and companionship to a tough task. By all accounts this applies when changing the world as well.

So, to recap, to change the world we need to change people’s minds, hearts, and habits. We probably won’t win people over just by giving them more information, or wowing them with our debating skills, and we need to make it possible for people to change their views without feeling stupid. It needs to come from a place of love. And in trying to bring about changes in behaviour it helps to take small steps, join together with others in community for support, and make the process as enjoyable as possible.

Let’s shift our attention to the large-scale issues we might want to tackle if we are to bring about a better world.  We heard some thoughts from John-Paul Flintoff earlier, taken from his modestly entitled book ‘How to Change the World’. He offers a way of classifying the many things that we might want to change and suggests four main categories to consider:

1. Problems that affect everybody but for which hardly anybody can imagine a remedy that they could administer as an individual (living in war, dictatorship, lawless/corrupt/violent environment).

2. Problems that appear to affect only some people (rights excluded from certain racial or religious groups, women, children, LGBT, disabled, poor).

3. Problems that pose a threat to everybody but only a small minority have realised the danger (climate change, shortage of resources, civil liberties).

4. Opportunities rather than problems (ideas to improve infrastructure, creating beautiful art, music, literature, improving community relations)

Having identified these different spheres where change is needed, he makes the point that if – for example – we have a passion to bring more beauty into the world by creating great art, or to help build community by organising a coffee morning – then we don’t have to wait until there is an end to world poverty before we do that, or feel guilty that we’re not taking on the most weighty of problems. Any contribution we make is worth making, as long as we’re looking beyond our own self-interest, and acting for the greater good.

As I look around the room I am reminded of all the contributions, large and small, we are all already making to make the world a better place, and I want to acknowledge that. I don’t want anyone to go away feeling harangued!

But what might stop each of us from taking some sort of action to engage with the world’s many problems (and opportunities)? Well, for starters, we might just remain unaware of many issues that deserve our attention, as they are simply not covered in the mainstream media or are reported with such bias that we remain misinformed. Or we may have the opposite problem, that we feel we know too much, and we are simply overwhelmed by the scale of the world’s troubles and want to go and hide under the duvet to get away from the horror of it all.  We might want to engage but find that the pressures of modern life mean that we are at full stretch just trying to put food on the table.  If we do become an activist for our chosen cause we may meet resistance which can range from mildly unpleasant to downright frightening (being viewed as a troublemaker, being persecuted by strangers in a social media storm, or even in getting into trouble with the authorities). Even if we don’t face active hostility there may be pressure to shut up and stop rocking the boat so that everyone around us can have a quiet life.  If you want to change the world there are a lot of obstacles to overcome.

On that note, I want to introduce you to another ambitious little publication: ‘The Better World Handbook’.  The authors talk about the ‘cycle of cynicism’ which, in this modern world, we are understandably prone to get stuck in. We may hear about problems and want to help, but are unsure how we can make a difference, so we don’t take any action, and this increasingly leaves us feeling powerless, angry, and resigned. We start to shut down and look away.

The authors of this book also talk about an alternative ‘cycle of hope’ which we can use as a model for positive action instead (and they are both printed on the little blue sheet in your order of service). Start by taking some personal responsibility, they say, and develop a personal vision of a better world, based on your values. Seek information from trustworthy sources about the world’s problems and discover what the practical options for action might be. Then you will be in a position to act in line with your values – even if you are only able to make a relatively small contribution to the cause – and their final, vital, point is that you must recognise that you can’t do everything.  Beware of burnout!  And I guess there are a quite a few of us in this room know that syndrome well.

There’s another short excerpt from ‘How to Change the World’ on this point that I find to be simultaneously reassuring and challenging and so  I want to share it with you:

Flintoff says: ‘If we are to do anything, we need first to accept that we can’t fix everything. When we accept that, we allow ourselves to stop feeling daunted by the scale of what we hope to achieve. This kind of anxiety is understandable, but unnecessary. ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little’, said Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman.  If we make the mistake Burke describes, we’re likely to postpone action, deluding ourselves that we will do our great works at a later date, when circumstances are more favourable… When we wish for the landscape to change in this way we’re using ‘static’ thinking: imagining our goals as, essentially, finished paintings, beautifully framed, that we hope one day to hang on our wall. But the trouble is that nobody is doing any painting. It helps to use ‘process’ thinking instead. By all means keep an eye on the long term. But having identified your long-term target, focus on the present. Ask yourself: what can I do in the next 24 hours? Because if you don’t do anything in 24 hours, what makes you think you ever will?’

So there’s a challenge from John-Paul Flintoff! And, inspired by this, I’m going to invite you to join in with a little reflection on your own power to change the world, now. On the little blue sheet in your order of service there’s a list of 4 points for you to ponder, I’m going to take you through them, and perhaps you might like to jot down your thoughts. You’ve also been given post-it notes so that you can share your responses, and inspire each other, by putting them up for everyone to see in the hall over coffee.

Let’s start by acknowledging and affirming something you’ve already done to make the world a better place. As we heard earlier, you’re changing the world all the time by virtue of your choices moment-to-moment, and it’s encouraging to credit yourself for the good things that you’re already doing. Maybe you have changed the world for the better through your day job, or voluntary work, by campaigning or raising awareness for a particular issue, or simply by a friendly attitude to others, keeping up community spirit.

If you’re struggling to think of anything then may I suggest that even the fact that you have come here this morning instead of staying in bed has helped make the world a better place as you have showed commitment to building this community! And in that spirit I’d say it’s positively your duty to stay behind for tea and biscuits afterwards to carry on the good work…

Let’s move on to name the issues and causes that are closest to your heart. There are so many things in the world we might want to change. Name a few that you feel particularly moved by, or passionate about. Don’t worry about picking the most ‘worthy’ causes or what others think of your priorities. Remember, you can’t do everything, so we need to narrow it down a bit, and you’re more likely to get involved and take action for something that particularly stirs your heart.

In the piece by that Jeannene read for us earlier, we heard about ‘the discipline of thoughtful wishing that can lead to change’, and that’s what we’re going to do now.  I invite you to make one wish – write down just one concrete long-term goal – a specific change in the world that you would like to see. Feel free to think big and be ambitious or keep it small.

Finally, here’s perhaps the most challenging bit: what can you do towards this goal in the next 24 hours? If you can commit to taking even the tiniest action – maybe looking up some more information about your cause online, talking to a friend about the issue to raise awareness, getting in touch with like-minded individuals to sound them out about a joint project – then you are doing your bit to bring about a world of more peace, justice, and love.

I look forward to reading your responses over tea and biscuits shortly… but to close, for now, I offer one last echo of those words from Lisa Friedman:

‘If you had but one wish, What would it be? Take your time thinking about it. So much is at stake. For a wish is a thought, And a thought is an idea. An idea leads to commitment, And a commitment cries out for action.’



Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: