So – here we are. My last sermon with you. And we’re both setting off on new adventures.
Now it may not seem like that to you – after all, this isn’t necessarily an adventure of your own choosing – but here’s something important that I have learned: when something happens, you have a choice: you can let the event define you, or you can define what the event means to you.
Many of us have lost someone very important to us – for me, it was my partner Tricia, who was – or so I thought, The One. But Tricia died in 1998, when she was 37 and I was 33, and the entire future that I was on the precipice of – heading into a masters of fine arts program, home ownership, a commitment ceremony – that future died with her. And I spent many years measuring every choice by that moment “If Tricia hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be moving to New York, or taking this job, or struggling to date again, or following a religious path.
It’s oh so easy to let every decision be about that one moment. But over time, I realized that I was so far away from that moment, and the situations I found myself in, and the decisions I was making, had actually nothing to do with her death. Now I could have chosen to let every decision be about that, in which case I would not have lived – I would have just existed. But in 2004, in the depths of a debilitating depression, I made a choice to reclaim life.
And in 2010, when it seemed things were professionally falling apart, I made a choice to listen to the call to ministry. In 2011, knowing I had to go to seminary somewhere, I chose Union, knowing it would challenge my world view…in 2014, needing to do an internship, I chose Key West, knowing it was far away and possibly difficult… in 2015, knowing I needed to work in a place that would make space for the completion of my ministerial fellowshipping process, I chose to take a chance on a congregation whose historic building had burned down, knowing this wasn’t going to be the easiest situation to drop into.
And now, in 2017, knowing I needed to pursue the next stage of my call, I chose to leave and start an entrepreneurial ministry in the arts, knowing it’s risky and uncertain but oh so right for the ministry I am called to do.
For me, those choices stopped being about Tricia over 15 years ago. And while every choice is informed by the past, it is its own choice, brought about by a new perspective, a new experience. And sure, every choice leads to unknowns. And that can be scary, until you remember that this isn’t about right or wrong, it’s about this one or that.
In Norse mythology, there are three sisters, known as the Norns. The first, Urdh, is known as “all that is known” – it’s all of our memories, histories, stories, the collective unconscious, all that we know. The second is Verdandi – “she who is becoming.” Verdandi is the eternal now, the moment of choice, the decision point that happens now…and now… and now. The third is Skuld. Now Skuld isn’t “the future” per se – this system doesn’t believe in fate. Rather, it’s simply “all that is unknown.” There are so many choices – some make sense given what we know, Urdh – and some make sense given what we hope will be. But in that moment of becoming, that moment of deciding, we make a choice out of many possible choices. And maybe it’s the right one for now, and maybe we realize the other path might have been easier, or more fruitful, but we are still in that eternal now, that moment of deciding, and we can choose to shift course and choose a different adventure.
It’s scary, not knowing. And yes, one decision is not to decide.
If I had not decided, I would have stayed in NC. I would have muddled through. I would have probably remained depressed. I would have let my pain define me. I would have let my sorrow define me. I would have stayed in a soul-crushing job. I would have remained in stasis.
But that’s not what we’re meant to do – sure, as Isaac Newton taught us, an object at rest stays at rest – but we are part of this wild creation, called to move and grow and create and do. And so we can STAY at rest, but our nature is to create, and act, and move, and grow, and choose. It’s Mary Oliver asking us “how will we spend this one and precious life?”
Of course, Oliver’s question is pretty open ended. But writer Anne Lamott implores us to approach the question with joy; she writes, “Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.”
So how do we do it? How do we, as individuals, and as communities, choose our own adventures and not be beaten down by the adventures chosen for us?
First, it takes the right tools. As Lamott writes,
“I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”
We already have the tools – you have them already as individuals, as you consider the choices before you – maybe you’re considering a move, or a relationship change, or a new job, or retirement, or new investments, or a new undertaking. And as a congregation, you have them too. So what are you going to do with them? What adventure will you choose?
I’m sure you are already thinking about choices you’ve made, and choices you have before you. So let’s test this out a bit on the congregational level and see what happens. First, let’s all acknowledge that the biggest adventure – rebuilding – has already been chosen. You’re well on your way there, despite some hiccups along the way. But that’s not the only choice you have to make, although more choices will come as construction begins and then once you have your new space. But more immediately, as you transition from one minister to the next, you have some other things to consider.
Now the truth is this: you can sit back in stasis and let the congregation happen, and that is a valid choice. Or you can make an active choice to your own future, choose your own adventure. Not based on a decision made five, ten, or even twenty years ago, but based on this moment.
So let me offer some choices for you, and you tell me by a show of hands which of these four adventures do you want to go on. Your choices are the membership and growth adventure, the financial health adventure, the social justice adventure, or the children and youth adventure. Now raise your hands… (At this point, the congregation determined which was most important to start with – the most hands shot up for Children and Youth.)
One of the longstanding truths of churches is that a healthy religious education program signals a healthy congregation. “how do we attract more families” you constantly ask.
Now it’s true that you only have three children right now – two, really, if you consider Jimmy is there mostly to help.
And yes, it takes time, effort, and money to run a religious education program. More if you offer a session of Our Whole Lives sexuality education.
And you could say it’s not really worth the time or money for just a couple of kids… and let that program fade away… and with it the families.
Or you could keep investing in religious education, knowing that at the very least, the children you have will grow up with strong Unitarian Universalist grounding and values.
Or you could make the program even more robust, anticipating growth with the help of a paid religious educator.
Or you could aggressively advertise and promote the religious education program outside of the congregation.
Or you could invite families you know to come to church and experience the program.
So if you choose this path, the children will be fed…. But what are you willing to do to reach out to the parents and keep them engaged?
You could do what you’ve been doing, which is essentially put an ad in the paper and occasionally put up flyers for special events.
And I know it seems hard, with no building to invite folks to, but by hardly trying, you have gotten four new members this year. Admittedly, only one of them started coming after I arrived, but eventually they signed the book. And given attrition, you have about as many members now as you did in 2015.
So either you choose to remain at about 50 members….
Or you choose to put some more effort into growth. Maybe it’s hosting more public events and advertising them more thoroughly. Maybe it’s restarting some programs. Maybe it’s just shifting how greeting and hospitality are done. Maybe it’s empowering the minister to do some things others haven’t done before.
So if you choose to grow and put an effort into growth, it will likely take some money…. And how are you going to raise it?
You are at a critical point; as your treasurer pointed out at the annual meeting, the congregation is facing a budget deficit, due in part to the closing of the thrift shop, part in some lower pledges, part to some deaths.
Now it’s possible you’ll make up some of that money in the insurance settlement, but if you don’t, you have some options…
You can tighten your belts even further, cutting programs, salaries, and other forms of giving.
You can dip into some reserves to try to make up the budget deficit and hope that new members show up.
Or you can approach stewardship with new eyes, and maybe a new campaign that energizes people to give more generously.
Or you can organize around more fundraising opportunities – goods and services auctions, arts and crafts fairs, performances and events.
Or you can be more generous and put the mission of the church first.
So if one of your choices is to invest in yourself by investing in generosity… how does those decisions get made?
It’s true that since the loss of the building, you’ve been unable to participate in Maureen’s Haven, and that is a loss to the community and the congregation.
You do still give away the plate on the first Sundays, and you hold our free Thanksgiving dinner.
And maybe that’s enough. Maybe it’s enough that you talk about climate justice, and racial justice, and reproductive justice, and maybe it’s enough that you have your individual charity that you donate to or occasionally help with.
Maybe it’s enough that you remember fondly the work our high school youth did with Project Bus Stop. Maybe it’s enough that you provide housing for a family of low income.
But maybe it’s not, and maybe it’s time to take on the adventure of social justice – the inextricable consequence of our Universalist faith.
So you can choose to participate more fully in local and regional justice events… perhaps begin hosting meetings and organizing events… perhaps make connections to other activist organizations and build coalitions… maybe just start something yourselves, with lawn chairs and placards on the lawn of the parsonage.
And in doing so, you’ll get some attention.
If you go down this path, you might see people get involved because they what you stand for…are you prepared to receive the new members …and the attention?
You see, one choice affects another, which affects another.
And these are just four areas – there are so many more choices to make. Some of these choices you will make as a congregation. Some choices will be made by the board, some by committees, some by your new minister. Some will be made in collaboration, through discussion and planning. But here’s the key: you get to choose who you want to be, in this moment – to be actively choosing who you want the First Universalist Church of Southold to be.
And the truth is, there’s no one right choice – for an organization or an individual. I don’t know for sure what the choices I’ve made will lead to; there’s no inevitable future. There’s no perfect ending. As Gilda Radner wrote,
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”
And so – as I charged you at the ordination, I charge you again – both as amazing, thoughtful, deeply connected individuals and as a beautiful, loving, committed congregation: approach each day with openness and possibility, kindness and generosity, wonder and curiosity, love. Approach each day by choosing to ask, “what’s next?”