Change is hard for many of us. As we consider potential changes in the congregation as part of growth, how do we balance openness and honouring who we are? How can we remain true to ourselves and at the same time invite others in who have different needs to fill and gifts to offer?
The complete sermon can be read below:
Show of hands, anyone who loves change?
My answer, perhaps yours too, is it depends.
Is it change by choice?
Change by circumstance?
Change that’s exciting and anticipated?
Change in the mirror?
Change that is uncertain and confusing?
Change that’s dreaded.
There’s a proverb that says: People don’t resist change; we resist loss. Change is hardest when it is out of our control and means we lose something or someone we care about.
Today we all participated in one of the most meaningful things we do together: welcoming people to our community. And it also marks a change. Today our congregation has a slightly different constellation, where Simon and Charlotte understand themselves in a new way as part of this community, and we made aloud or commitment to and embrace of the whole Blomme family. With each person who comes into or leaves our community, we are changed.
And our relationships with our congregations, and with our personal faith, change inevitably, too. This is why our Coming of Age youth write and share a personal Credo that is not a creed imposed on them nor a creed for their lifetime, but rather a snapshot of their beliefs and values in a moment in time.
When I was growing up at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, the congregation was my sanctuary, my safe haven.
I was blessed to not only have a loving family, but a loving church family where I was accepted in ways I didn’t experience with peers or at school, and where I was treated as a person by adults who cared what I thought and felt, and who welcomed my thoughts from the pulpit at youth services.
When people asked me about my religion, I would get a lump in my throat.
Not just because we all have to find our elevator speech to describe a faith tradition that isn’t easy to put into a short description.
The lump in my throat was because I was sharing something precious to me, and central to my identity.
To risk criticism or judgment of my UU identity was to risk exposing a deep and vulnerable part of myself.
And thus to share my faith was one of the greatest risks I took as a youth.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that I had a crisis of faith.
Although I knew no one and nothing is perfect, it was the first time I experienced it firsthand in my Unitarian Universalist community.
Every congregation has its own unique strengths and struggles, and at that time, in the congregation I attended, I saw words of welcome that extended further in theory than in actuality, more talk than action on social justice issues, and financial anxiety in the midst of incredible wealth, especially when compared to other organizations I was involved with at the time.
To be clear, the congregation was — and is — a wonderful congregation of commitment and care and spiritual growth
But becoming aware of the gap between words and action for the first time, I felt it viscerally. I was hurt and disappointed and angry.
Ironically, it was also the time when I applied to seminary.
I carried that tension with me, and it shaped my path to ministry.
It became part of my decision to combine my master of divinity degree with a degree in social work.
It became part of my growing commitment to ministry that is transformational at the individual, the community, and in the broader community.
And it stirred my passion and exploration of what radical inclusion could look like in Unitarian Universalist communities.
Out of my angst came renewed certainty that our faith has something to offer, and a calling to continue to find ways to enhance and extend that offering further.
I know you’ve talked about the change that happens with growth in congregations. Congregational dynamics shift. You might not know everyone. Joys and sorrows may need to be done differently*. Et cetera. You’ve sat through the workshops. But not only do I think that spoken joys and sorrows can be done well — or poorly — no matter the size of the congregation; I think this understanding of congregational growth and change misses the mark altogether.
Each year the UU Ministers of Canada gather in May for a week together. In 2015, our professional development for the week was based on Joanna Macy’s “The Work that Reconnects”, finding active hope to help us face the mess we’re in here on Earth.
For one of the exercises, our facilitator, Rebekah, stood up and transformed into a teacher in front of our eyes. Not a teacher from the present, but a history teacher from 100 years into the future.
She asked us to pretend we were students in a history class in 2115 describing all of the ways that Unitarian Universalists helped to take the world from where we were in 2015 to the much healthier, more just, more sustainable world of 2115.
For 5 to 10 minutes, people talked in the past tense about how Unitarian Universalists helped in healing relationships with Indigenous People, tenderly caring for the Earth, interdependence, alternative energy sources, spiritual grounding, and much more. The story we wove was one of deep commitment and action for a better world.
Then, out of the blue, my friend and colleague Sean Neil-Barron shouted out “Do we still exist?” and after a bout of laughter, the room went quiet.
Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us that ‘we are all dying, our lives always moving toward completion. We need to learn to live with death, and to understand that death is not the worst of events.’
In congregations, too, we fear death.
We worry about losing this community for ourselves.
And we worry what would happen if we weren’t here at some point in the future for spiritual seekers, to be a community of meaning,
a safe harbor, a place to grow in relationship with one another, all life, and the divine.
It would be a huge loss for us who are here now if we ceased to exist,and we know it would be a loss for people who may yet walk through our doors.
I know that many of our congregations across the country worry about sustainability into the future, including this one.
When looking for books about world religions to augment my library, the first thing I would do in the bookstore was flip to the index and look for Unitarian Universalism. I figured that if they described our history and identity well, I could better trust their descriptions of other religious traditions (whether this strategy has merit, I’m not certain). Often, Unitarianism or Universalism would be just a small paragraph as an addendum to the section on Christianity; and even more often, it wasn’t in the index at all.
Now, thinking back to that history class in 2115, I realized I would vastly prefer that we made the history books as people who took huge leaps of faith – financially, socially, politically, and spiritually – and no longer exist, than to be an existing faith with a tiny, inconsequential footnote in 2115 religious history anthologies.
Unitarian Universalism in Canada is not dying, and may never be in our lifetimes. But nothing and no one lives forever. Our shared life together may someday come to an end.
And so how will we choose to live together in whatever precious time we have?
Today we all participated in the dedication of Simon and Charlotte to this congregation and this faith. As Kahlil Gibran’s wisdom reminds us, we did this not to make them think or look or act like us, nor to be “good” kids, which so often means behaving in ways adults like. No. We dedicated them so that we commit to helping them grow into the fullest expression of themselves. To become healthy and strong and passionate partners in earth’s ongoing creation.
So often I think our growth efforts would do better to learn from kids and the way we support them in their growth than any best practices, strategic plans, or measurable outcomes. Messages like ‘be yourself,’ ‘find and live your passion,’ ’get your hards dirty,’ and ‘play lots every day.’ Dance with abandon. Laugh. Sing. Spread joy. Love.
We don’t want our children to be chameleons, changing who they are to fit in. Nor should congregations feel pressure to take on characteristics deemed most desirable. Learn from each other yes. But be true to ourselves. Risk looking strange or even ridiculous. Don’t confine ourselves to the rational, the reasonable, the socially acceptable every time. Nor the newest trends or innovations just for the sake of them, or out of fear of the alternative.
Sustainability happens when we’re busy making other plans. Or rather, when we’re living fully and joyfully and authentically rather than spending our hours and days in meetings while life goes on outside.
It won’t be a solid marketing plan that will draw people to our congregations:
I firmly believe it will be living our values out loud:
Sharing our passions,
growing in depth,
and loving and serving one another and the world.
Not as chameleons, trying to please everyone, but by being ourselves with the confidence and comfort in our own skin that we hope for for our children.
A few years ago I sat at the back of a Unitarian Universalist sanctuary, not unlike this one.
I had had a difficult couple of weeks, which had included being uninvited from a speaking event when it came to the organizer’s attention that I am a Unitarian Universalist and culminated in attending a workshop where, because I was seeking funding for a Christian organization,
I decided, with regret, not to announce my heathendom by wearing my chalice necklace.
But wanting to hold it close to me, I kept it in my purse at my side throughout the day.
This particularly Sunday, I came to feel the embrace of my UU community, and realized during the meditation that I had forgotten to put on my necklace.
I found it knotted in the bottom of my purse.
Slowly, listening to the music for meditation, I began to undo the knots in the necklace and the knots in my chest started to ease as well.
As I untied the last knot and refastened the chalice around my neck,
I stood to light a candle of joy, a candle of gratitude for this community, my UU community, where I have found my place in the interdependent web, the place where I am called to live my life ever more fully and intentionally.
I trust in this faith of ours because I have been held in its embrace.
In a world where we are bombarded by ads and values and injustices that undermine our resilience, our message of love and hope is essential.
And so whether we’re here in 100 years or for 50 or 10, or 5000,
It matters how we live now.
It matters for us. It matters for Simon and Charlotte and all of our children. It matters for the people of all ages who may one day need a life-giving, even life-saving, community.
And so I pray, Spirit of life, ‘remind us today that we are dying, so that we can live, savour, and love with all our hearts’ (adapted from Mark Morrison-Reed).
Blessed be. Amen.
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