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“Woyaya. We are going, heaven knows where we are going but we know we will. And we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.”
I have always loved that hymn because it’s humble, but determined, confident but clear that even our own journeys are not always under our control. The song knows we don’t know all we need to know to walk the path we set ourselves, but it also knows we’ll never know all we need to know to walk the path we set ourselves and if we waited until we knew all we need to know, until we had foreseen and provisioned ourselves for every challenge and potentiality – we would never go. We would never start.
So we start the best we can, and we go on the best we can, along the paths that we know we have to take, paths of compassion, paths towards justice and freedom, paths that require attention and courage, paths that are tricky, hard to see, little known – sometimes we even are not just following, but forging, a path through a wilderness, with all the attendant hardships and dangers that any wilderness holds, as we find our way through.
When I graduated college I had no idea what I should do with my life. Really none, and it wasn’t for lack of trying to figure it out. I just couldn’t seem to think of a path that felt like the right one. So with my English and Studio Art double major, I went into advertising. And hated it. I actually started having panic attacks on my way into work, (which I thought were symptoms of a brain tumor) because I had no idea what was going why I was fainting on the T each morning. When my doctor explained what was wrong, I couldn’t believe it. And I was embarrassed. I felt weak and stupid. Who has panic attacks just because they don’t like their job? But in the end, I stopped fighting it and quit my job.
Now that I know ultimately I was heading to ministry, it makes more sense that advertising was an untenable alternative – but at the time I felt like a loser, because I didn’t have the fortitude to persevere. I left that job and went to Greece, where I taught English in a foreign language school for three years. I loved it. Loved teaching, loved my kids and teens, loved Greece. I was – almost – perfectly happy there.
But I still felt something missing, something unfulfilled in me. When I finally thought of ministry, it was while I was still living in Greece and had read a novel where a really good minister was one of the characters. Of course I worried ministry wasn’t really what I thought it was, or that I wouldn’t be good enough. I had no idea what was required or even how to begin. But I asked questions and got answers and threw everything I had into it. I left my life, my friends, my work in Greece and moved here, temping for a year to make money for my first year of Divinity School. I took out massive student loans that I am still paying back. I worked every year half-time, while taking a full-time course load, and worked every summer as well. I loved it. I still didn’t know if I would be a good minister, but I knew that I would be the best minister I could be.
I got some comfort, therefore, when I was at a conference some years ago, for congregations and leaders who were working on growing their capacities and taking on significant challenges in the paths they were choosing. Part of the program featured a jazz ensemble who had come up for the conference from New Orleans, which was still in the early days of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. They were extraordinary artists. Their music was dexterous and compelling and fearless. Their notes soared and dove, they played alone and together, their melodies wove and ducked and bounced and drew you into them again and again. We heard them play, and then we heard them talk about their playing. One of the things one of them said was, “We know what this conference is about. We know you’re here to talk about forging new paths, about dealing with risk, about being faithful in ways that require courage and commitment. We know that can be intimidating. So here’s a lesson we’ve learned after many years of devotion to our craft that we want to share with you: ‘if you’re not playing at the edge of your ability, you’re not doing your job.’”
I’ve been a minister now for almost 25 years. And there are still days when I worry about whether I’m equal to some task or challenge and my fallback is still the same – that all I can do is be the best minister I can be. And that holds for congregations too – part of the journey we share has to be growing from what we already do, already are, already know, in order to respond to lives, challenges, learnings that we encounter as we go. This is why the great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said that one of the foundational truths of our movement is that revelation is ongoing – because we expect that life, as the hymn goes, life calls us on, that what we know and believe may change, may change later today, or tomorrow, even something we were pretty sure of may change because of an experience we have. And so our work as Unitarian Universalists is to stay open to experience, to keep our hearts and our minds open to what may come, and then to check whether what we experience changes what we believe – and when it does, to check what else we need to change, to do, in order to make sure that the ways we are in the world are still aligned with what we now believe about the world, about life, about our own faithful living.
In the week when I was meeting with you, before you called me here to be your minister, many of you shared a lot of your hopes and dreams for this church, your imperatives and commitments. You told me you wanted to be more involved in the surrounding communities in and around Providence. You told me you wanted to be less single-handed, more collaborative. You told me you wanted to be more of a presence and more of a force for good and justice. You told me you wanted to grow your membership and your capacities within the church. You told me you wanted to deepen the quality of experience here. You told me you wanted to bring more newcomers into the church, more young people and families, who are the future of the church. You told me you wanted to diversify the membership some, to be a little less homogenous in your makeup.
Having begun down a path to build those hopes into the realities of First U, it became clear to the leadership that we needed a chance for the church to think not just about how it wants to be, but who we want to be, what we hope for, and need from, and offer each other here. This is why we brought Thandeka in – to help us discern what we’re carrying, what we need from each other and this church, what we have to keep that’s precious and what we need to grow that will be essential for the nurture and future of this congregation.
What we heard from each other in the programs with Thandeka, especially in the weekend workshops that many of you attended, was a hope and a need for deeper connection here at First U. People shared that some of us feel a sense of loneliness, even sometimes having been part of the church for years. Sometimes it feels like there’s an inner circle, and it’s hard to find a way in. Sometimes it feels like there’s a veil between us that keeps us from feeling as connected, as bonded, as sharing and loving as we want to be, as we have it in us to be, with each other. So our time with her revealed that people want community – and this is not surprising in a congregation after all – but people want more community – deeper, more caring, more open, more connecting community.
And that makes all the sense in the world. These are hard times we’re living in. It takes a lot to get through these days. Everyone feels it. Every one of us feels it, and I feel it too. We dread the news, we avoid it, – or ration it in various and creative ways. A number of you have come to talk to me about how you’re feeling, and I can say without violating any confidences, that part of what many of us are carrying is just exhaustion, feeling anxious and tired all the time, oppressed and sad. And just as these times are hard on individuals, they’re also, therefore, hard on communities made up of suffering people. And not just you, and this congregation. I know from my colleagues, that most congregations and congregants are feeling the burden and pressures of these times. So of course we need community, now more than ever, to help us hold all we are holding. That is why we are here. For ourselves or our families to be able to share and learn and grow even now, especially now, when it’s so hard to deal.
The things we want for ourselves, for this church, for our communities beyond this church: compassion, comity, relationship, love, fulfillment and flourishing – these are the gifts of peace. Here we are in this month devoted to that eternal and elusive promise, and the thing about peace is that perhaps because it is so elusive we speak of it as if it is a goal. And indeed while it eludes it, is has to be our goal. But when you really think about it, peace is precious because of what it brings with it, what it makes possible. Peace is required for relationships to flourish, for people to be free to manifest their fullest, most creative expressions of theirselves, peace is necessary for life and for living the dreams of life and living all people hold.
And in this tumultuous and painful time, this church matters even more as a place to cherish and offer each other the gifts of peace even, especially, now. To do this requires deliberate engagement, patience and commitment. And nothing – here – matters more. This is what we need to do as a church to navigate these times, and keep ourselves and each other strong, nourished, loved – and also what we need to do to meet, as a community, to meet the needs and challenges of these days.
The details of this path aren’t always clear. Sometimes the choices we face are complex, sometimes the options are daunting, sometimes the challenges are tough, sometimes the stakes are high. But I know two things.
One is this: we are coming up on our 300th birthday in 2020; it’s not an accident that this 300-year-old church is still around – and thriving. This 300-year-old church has lived, and for the past 200 years has lived in this stirring, built-to-last building, for reasons. This congregation was founded in response to another time of challenge and difficulty, and stood as a bulwark and a sanctuary, across centuries and lifetimes of suffering and blessing. It has not merely stood, it has held its people, and welcomed more, just as now it holds us and welcomes more. It is the nature and essence of this church that we move with our times, expanding and stretching, rooting and deepening, because nothing less would have kept it, us, going right up to now. That has always been the journey of this church, and that is still the journey of this church.
The second thing is that the path forward is never wholly clear – we go believing that going will get us where we need to go, understanding that we do often learn by going where we have to go, and all we can do – and all we should do – is to go as generously and caringly as we can, together, into the future. We know what provisions we must carry with us – compassion, commitment, relationship, courage, openheartedness, willingness to learn, willingness to grow – and we have each other. And for this journey of this church – and for the journeys we are each of us also on – that is all we could hope for.
Woyaya. What a gift that we have each other. We will learn by going where we have to go. Amen.