On this Thanksgiving weekend, I give thanks for the UUCD and this opportunity to be in relationship with you in a new way as your minister. I give thanks, too, for the spirit that weaves this community together, and for all the twists and turns that have been part of your 20 existence as a congregation, and for all the blessings and challenges yet to come. Giving thanks for what has been, is, and will be, let's explore our potential for growth of many kinds, the seeds of which are already part of our harvest.
The complete sermon can be read below:
When I met Bob (not his real name), he was almost 70 years old and had been involved at Welcome Inn Community Centre for over 30 years. Bob is an Ontario Disability Support Program recipient, and though he only lived across the street, he spent more hours at Welcome Inn each day than at home. Welcome Inn gifted Bob with a strong sense of purpose and belonging.
And Bob in turn gifted Welcome Inn. And me.
One Saturday morning after a huge snow storm, responsible for dumping a 45 centimetre blanket of snow over our whole neighbourhood, I went over to Welcome Inn to check on everything, knowing we only had 24 hours to clear the sidewalk.
When I arrived, I found the walk already cleared, and Bob finishing up the last few inches of our rather long frontage.
It was a huge relief not to have to do it myself, or find someone to help on a Saturday morning.
But Bob wasn’t done.
He offered to come and help me with my driveway; together, we walked the 5 minutes to my place and started shovelling together.
My driveway isn’t short, either, for a city driveway, and mid-way through, Bob leaned on his shovel and said he wished we had a snowblower.
With chagrin, I admitted “I do have one. In the garage. I don’t know how to use it or if it even works.”
Bob looked at me as though I had grown a second head. And asked me to open the garage.
In no time, he had the snowblower going and had finished the driveway, with a generous spray of fresh snow on my neighbours’ garage. But that's another story.
Rather than frustration or anger at my omission, Bob’s response was laughter. It became a hilarious joke to him that we shared for years to come. Do you remember that time, he asks, when we were shovelling the snow when you had a snowblower?!?, slapping his knee.
Bob lived on a tight budget, and I’d always offer him money for his time when he volunteered generously. But at least half of the time, he’d refuse. He only took it when he really, really needed in; in those moments, he would offer a huge bear hug in thanks.
Living on social assistance, not many people saw Bob for what he could give. Sometimes not just the harvest but the harvester is unexpected. I learned far more from Bob about generosity and grace than I could from the best books on the subject. And I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to feast at the Welcome Inn with Bob and so many others with unique gifts to share with the world.
My partner Curtis was another unexpected gift in my life
I had done my fair share of dating, including internet dating, and longed for someone to share my life with. I wasn’t one for casual dating or a relationship just for the sake of a relationship. Which meant that I had spent the best part of the previous six years alone.
Toward the end of my time as Executive Director at Welcome Inn, work was all-consuming and I decided that I would put a hold on dating, with the caveat that “unless something wonderful miraculously lands in my lap.” Little did I know.
My mother had always told me, “it will happen when you least expect it.”
It was one of those moments where mother wisdom triumphed. And I had to be grateful even though I wasn’t eager for her to be right. Again.
I had said I’d never date another minister.
And as many of you know, Curtis is also on the path to ministry.
And I had thought I’d never date a UU young adult, as most of them felt more like family.
Curtis and I had been friends for several years, and I hadn’t thought of him in a different light.
I had said no dating til I finish Welcome Inn in June.
It was in March that Curtis asked if it would surprise me to know that he had a crush on me. It did.
And we’re still harvesting seeds of those early days and planting new ones, looking forward to what may grow in the garden of our life together.
Sometimes it's harder to receive than to give.
One day recently, I spent the morning planning how a life dream pay-it-forward fund might be set up. A fund that would make it possible for people to do things that would make their lives immeasurably better. Maybe dentures in time for a daughter’s wedding. A trip to visit castles in Europe, fulfilling a lifetime dream. A bicycle. A training course to learn a vocation. These were all real life examples of people I knew, who could perhaps pay part of, but never fully, for these things. And so go without.
Tasked with putting a workable plan together, I began to brainstorm: would people donate to this fund? Would it go to strangers or people known in the community? Would people pay what they could back to help the fund continue to pay itself forward?
So many questions.
And then I wondered… would some people have trouble accepting a gift? Though not intended as charity but as radical sharing and gifting, would people feel otherwise?
And so I used a person I know as a case study, and imagined giving her a cheque to go on the vacation she wished for but thought impossible in the midst of a hard time at work and in her relationship. I imagined inviting her to pay it forward if she protested she couldn't accept a gift. Either to the fund or to others she knows. I could hear her objections clearly in my mind, and tried out invitation after counter argument in our imaginary conversation.
And then that afternoon I had an opportunity to practice what I preached.
I was talking with my good friend who had been helping me with planning an important life event, and as we went over details I asked whether a particular component of our expenses should be paid for on the day by cash or cheque or in advance by credit card.
She said it was already taken care of. That it was her gift to us.
I was stunned. And not sure I could accept.
And then I remembered that just a few hours before I was trying to imagine how to help people accept gifts. Especially financial gifts, which are more complicated in our culture. It feels easier to accept the gifts we "earn" through hard work or generosity, even though I question of whether any earning is not just a series of gifts, gifts of talent and opportunity and relationship.
And so I said thank you. And that I would do my best to pay forward her generosity.
She answered that she knows I already do.
And although I try, I know I still have much to learn about truly giving and receiving with grace.
Which brings me to starting here with you this fall as your minister.
Yet one more unexpected gift in my life. For me, this has been much more than you looking for a minister and me looking for work. Rather, it feels like a gift… a second chance to walk with a
Congregation that I see as a unique and special one, with gifts that shine brightly amid the constellation that is Canadian UUism. It feels like the right time.
In a recent grant application I said:
“UUCD is a congregation that is remarkable in many ways, especially for (but regardless of) its size. They have an uncommon desire for and commitment to professional ministry, with deep appreciation of the gifts ministers bring to their congregation. They are also extremely committed to their children and youth, with consistently high quality programs, a fabulous Director of Religious Exploration, and multigenerational interconnection, with children and youth regularly participating in and leading different aspects of congregational life. In addition, they are a warm, dedicated, and healthy congregation with good friendships and working relationships with one another and an openness to growth and change. Given all of this, I am excited to work with them and to see where our partnership may lead; they have much to offer within and beyond their congregation.”
Those are some of the gifts I already know. I look forward to discovering others. And I trust that this congregation will continue to grow in strength, in depth, and in impact.
I hope that our relationship will continue to be one of mutual giving and growth as we learn with and from one another. And I trust we will gift each other many beautiful things.
And I also know there will be times when we -- probably unintentionally -- hurt or frustrate one another. In those moments, we have the opportunity to gift one another with gentle honesty and assumption of good intent, and for owning the impact of our interactions in tandem with our intentions.
Just as your first 20 years have not been without challenges, this year will be no different. Nor will it be without its unique gifts.
I look forward to the journey with you!
One more story:
John McKnight describes a hospital where communications between departments was sorely lacking. It was affecting efficiency and even patient care. The hospital administration wanted to fix it: they held seminars and workshops. They brought people in different departments together for team building events, without much change. They researched and implemented industry best practices in communications, but still they found that it was lacking.
And then one day along came Eddie. Eddie wanted to volunteer at the hospital. He had a developmental disability and a big smile and gentle way of being. At first it wasn’t easy to find a task that Eddie could manage, but finally they discovered a role: he loved to deliver the mail to all the departments.
And so Eddie would move from department to department, with his big smile, chatting with people on each level as he delivered envelopes.
Eddie was great at making people laugh and feel good. He was less skilled, however, in accurately delivering the mail. Inevitably, people would thank Eddie for their mail and then go through and realize there were letters for other departments in their stack.
And so they would go to the other department and deliver the mail themselves, and in the process would come to know and communicate with people in different parts of the hospital.
Doctors and nurses became secondary mail carriers. It was not efficient, a high value in hospitals where time is tight, and one of the goals of the communications improvements.
But it had another effect: interdepartmental relations strengthened. And so did communications. And, in turn, so did patient care.
Eddie accomplished what best practices couldn’t. His gifts of grace and relationship infected the hospital.
In the coming weeks and months, may we each find our inner Eddie, channeling the special gifts we have to build up this, our UUCD community.
May we know that if it is indeed more blessed to give than receive, sometimes the greatest gift we can give is graciously receiving the gifts of others. Something our dear Mary was so very good at.
May we challenge the story of our independence… that we can do everything ourselves, and not succumb to the false dichotomy of independence and dependence. Let us keep finding new ways to live our interdependence together.
I hope and pray that the grace of gifts from unexpected people who know how to use snowblowers and relationships that blossom unexpectedly out of the blue and opportunities to receive beyond our usual comfort continue to infuse my life, yours, and ours together.
May we rest in the grace of this community and the world and be free.
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