To Know Where You’re Going, Know Where You’ve Been—Part II
October 22, 2023
Rev. Rita Capezzi—Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga
I spent five years in a settled ministry, and I was accustomed to doing things in particular ways on Sunday mornings. One thing that I chose to do and loved to do was welcome the congregation—the members and the visitors—the long haulers and the newcomers, I liked to say. I discovered here that you are accustomed to having a Service Leader, the person I call the Service Associate—feel free to ask me why, after the service—welcome the congregation. And so, I send a list of elements to be sure to include in the welcome—the land acknowledgment, a sensitive and inclusive invitation to be part of this whole, and a story about why the Service Associate comes to this church. I send to the Service Associate the Order of Service, with the hymns and the readings and the story, and the brief description of the direction that service will take. And I hope that the welcome and the service find some purchase with each other, something that amplifies and expands upon the message I imagine delivering to you. Sometimes my hopes are fulfilled, beyond what I hoped or imagined.
Charlotte said these words earlier this morning: “Years ago, when I was still working with the sunflowers, we used to start every Sunday by saying: ‘We are Unitarian Universalists, with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve.’ Sitting with all those kids and hearing them repeat those words back to me was a beautiful affirmation of my belonging in this congregation, of our shared belief.” And Charlotte said: “Our congregation has a way of being that we cling to, for better or worse – and it has been both better and worse. After all it’s called a COMFORT zone for a reason and getting out of it, like getting out of bed on a cold Winter morning, is hard to do.” And Charlotte said: “But when I look around this hall today and think back to what the services of my childhood were like, I can’t help but appreciate our capacity for communal transformation. And it’s this capacity that gives me hope for our future, that makes me care to find out where we’re going and what we’ll do next.”
Charlotte is a child of this church, a born and raised UU, rooted in the past, present today, imagining an alternative future. As she has grown and transformed from child to adult, Charlotte has been sustained by being a Unitarian Universalist within this congregation, attentive to and certainly enlivened by your capacity for communal transformation. Charlotte’s words this morning situate her singular and unique experience within the macrocosm of UCM, and her words situation UCM within the macrocosm of Unitarian Universalism. Circles within circles.
I imagine you were comforted and gratified by Charlotte’s words. And perhaps you were surprised, even angered, by Rev. Jensen’s words this morning, “How We Belong.” UUs often rail against anyone telling them anything. Tranquil streams we are not. We are raucous, contentious, too often at each other. And Rev. Jensen is pretty blunt. You can believe a lot of things about ultimate reality, but you can’t be a Unitarian Universalist if you don’t agree about some of the more important parts of this faith. As wide as our welcoming embrace is, there are some things that are non-negotiable for us as a people. Those non-negotiables are the inherent worth and dignity of each person, no matter who they are; the rigor of critical thinking about ourselves and our beliefs; and the bounty of the world’s traditions that each hold a piece of the cosmic puzzle about how we might understand these wild, wondrous lives of ours.
As Unitarian Universalists, we come together, maybe not as tranquil streams exactly, to build a free church—free of narrow doctrine and narrow minds, free from a social status quo that repeats oppressions of the past, free from living in the past as if it were merely some golden time, knowing we must change and transform in order to thrive. We seek to be a church of liberating ministry, offering to the world an alternative imagination. Not, however, a lot brain-washed into one idea, one belief, one way of thinking. But, still, One, United, singing the song of this place, this community, in ways that hold a vision for the future that is singular. We would be one in striving to be a place of greater understanding, to live for each other, to show a new way of being community, to search for meaning, serving with love and justice, striving for freedom, for liberation of those oppressed, liberating ourselves from tendencies to oppress. At least, that is what we ought to be.
But fear is getting in our way—fear of, as some folk say around here—no people, no money, no settled minister. My colleague the Rev. Kimberely Debus writes a weekly blog on church life—with the good, the bad, and the ugly making regular appearances. It’s called “Hold My Chalice,” and on March 21, 2023 she writes: “Consider these words from Rev. Lura Groen: ‘I fear that as long as the reason we invite people to our religious institutions is so they can fill our pews, take over our volunteer projects, and give us money, we’re going to end up hurting the people who come to us looking for a connection to the Divine and authentic spiritual community.’ Because it’s deeply painful to want to be in relationship with someone, and to find out they really only want us to keep their institution going.” We may verge on this thinking, driven by a feeling of scarcity, which drives us to forget who and what we are. Fear is understandable. But it is not sustainable. We can live this way, but we cannot thrive this way. And why should you not thrive?
We are not a social agency. We are not a social club. We are not a rental hall. We are a church, and as such we ought to expect to exist and function and thrive in ways different from other kinds of institutions. And what is a church? What is a church, but a place of alternative imagination, as the Rev. Cecelia Kingman Miller says reminds us: “Communities of faith perform a singular function. They have what sociologists call an alternative imagination, an ability to posit a future different from, and better than, the present we know.” In a busy and sometimes tragic world, church can offer us beauty of comfort most sure. In a lonely and sometimes frightening world, church can offer the friendship of support that upholds us. In a troubled and sometimes dangerous world, church can offer justice and hope that sustains us. Church can offer into our lives all that comforts, sustains and upholds us, and thus enables us to, now and then, awaken to grace, open to the larger liveliness within and yet beyond us all. And the mission of this congregation—to deepen the spirit, nurture community, act for an equitable and sustainable world—this is the aspiration that brings your church to life. You seek to live into these words, words providing a reason for this community to exist. Here is the purpose and the direction for your existence as a community. That DNA in the chalice lighting serves as a reminder and a challenge.
I asked you last week what has broken your heart here at UCM. Several of you left it blank. Several of you went out of your way to say nothing has broken your heart. I find that curious, having experienced heartbreak in most of the places in my life most important to me—my family, my relationships, my school, my church. And now you can hear a bit about what others have said about heartbreak. My heart breaks with yours if your church, your sanctuary, has been the place where you have been hurt, where your church-mates have been less, sometimes much less, than loving and kind, when the covenant of Right Relations has been ignored. My heart breaks with yours if you are one of the folk who has received nasty emails, or who have received the non-apology apology “I’m sorry if you feel hurt by what I said or did, but . . .”; you fill in the blank. My heart breaks with yours if you have been othered or excluded or seen others excluded or made to feel unwelcome because of your or their identity. My heart breaks with yours if you miss people who have stopped coming, if you raised your children in this congregation but if, as adults, they are not interested in attending. My heart breaks with yours in the losses you feel, the people who have died, once such pillars of the church and your experience of church.
But if your heart is broken because worship does not look the same as you imagine it in some mythological past, you will likely struggle in this period of transition. If you cling to your structures for getting things done around here—your committees, your practices—you will likely struggle in this transformation. If you think that going it alone and dictating to others how things should be—you will likely cause yourself, and others, unnecessary pain in this time of change. My heart breaks for you, if this is what is most important to you, for that is to be stuck, like a butterfly half emerged from its chrysalis, dead before the ultimate transformation can occur.
You are preparing yourself for new ministry, with a minister who will grow with you over time and in deep, covenantal relationship. What roads will you follow? From which will you depart? Road bend and detour, seldom taking a straight path. There are always choices to go or to stay. Roads merge what you expected and what you didn’t plan. Roads remember—where you fell and where you stood tall. Your job now, and mine, on this road of preparation and transition, is to look in the mirror, to be honest about the state of things. To hold together as a community as you sift through all that you currently are, selecting those good bits which are strong and sustaining—enduring because they are truth. Selecting those bits that hold promise for the future. Your job, and mine, is to see what is truly bad, what is harmful, what is destructive, and to do everything possible to root them out—the unconscious biases and all-too-conscious prejudices, all that holds the congregation back from being radically welcoming and fully Unitarian Universalist. And letting go of what is ugly, what is not working and what will no longer work. Letting go of the unsustainable in order to sustain yourselves as a living church, a community of diverse beauty and always emerging possibility, as a faith community worthy of your 70 years and capable of creating a future that can hold at least another 70.
Let us, with courage, reflect on the better and worse, challenge the comfort zone and pull ourselves out from the warm blankets and into the here and now of change. Please spend a moment with the ubiquitous slip of paper—What has to change in order for this community to transform? And how will you sustain yourself and give care to your feelings as the transformation occurs? I will welcome what you have to say, guided by your needs.
So, let us together, “Drink our tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Let us together, surrender to this life. Let us together give up the fight for some other moment, some life other than here and now. May we purge the past; forgive the future—for each come too soon. Our here and now, the work and the hope and the love before us, this is the only life, this day, this hour, not because it does not constantly break our hearts but because it also beckons with beauty and startles with delight if only we keep waking up. Drawing upon our alternative imagination, facing the mirror courageously, may we, together,
keep waking up, keep making a way forward, keep working together as one.
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