Last week’s Dear Friends letter was written in preparation for today’s annual meeting—to encourage you to attend, but also to simply say something about the implications of having an annual meeting—beyond a sense of duty. I wrote:
“During the cold spell, a week ago last Saturday, I was sitting alone in the kitchen reading the book review section of the New York Times. Lory had taken Carlyn to orchestra rehearsal. The house was quiet. I was enjoying late-morning coffee and time alone.
“I could hear water running. I checked the toilets—you know how they sometimes keep running and you have to jiggle the handle. I went around the house and down into the basement, but couldn’t find any reason why the water would be running. But it was. The water meter was spinning. Something was wrong.
“Finally I looked outside to see to my horror that the water pipe for the hose connection on the patio had burst. I immediately shut the water off at the main valve and got out the tools. I removed the elbow that had frozen and burst, went to the hardware store, found the right one, came home and fixed it.
“That incident forced me to finally find the shut-off valve for the patio hose connection. It’s been a mystery for the near-ten years we’ve been in our house. I gave in and called for help. The plumber was puzzled, but he kept looking. Finally he found it—he cut a hole in the basement ceiling and there, hidden away, was the shut-off valve.
“The frozen pipe calamity was a reminder of all the things we take for granted: hot and cold running water, electricity, the heat that comes on automatically, the car starting in the cold. Most of us have had problems that remind us not to take those basic things for granted.
“About fifty-five years ago there was no Unitarian church in Fairfield County. If you were a religious liberal and you wanted to go to church, you had to listen to things you didn’t believe. You know what I mean.
“Some folks knew about Unitarianism, so they decided to get together in their own homes—a dozen or so, to start. One thing led to another and soon they needed a larger space—they wanted to have something for their children’s religious education. They rented space at the Westport Women’s Club. In time they outgrew that space and rented a bigger space at the Saugatuck School. They hired a minister.
“Some dreamed of having their own building. They made it happen. They got the land, they hired an architect, came up with an exciting design that symbolizes openness and our assertions about the relationship between spirituality and Nature. They built it, and you and I came.
“Now we’re in charge— the growth and development of The Unitarian Church in Westport is our shared responsibility. On Sunday, February 27, at 12:30, Frances Sink, our Board Chair, will call the annual meeting of the congregation to order. We have important decisions to make about our future. I hope you’ll be there–don’t take it for granted. Don’t let the pipes freeze!”
Now I’m going to do something I’ve never done before—I’m going to deconstruct that letter. Usually that’s your job: I construct it and you deconstruct; you take a piece here and there–a word that stands out, or an idea that hits home.
I was conscious of wanting to write something about the danger of taking too many things for granted, and thereby failing to nurture a sense of appreciation. A sense of appreciation is the key to spirituality. It’s what the poet had in mind when he wrote, ‘i thank You God for most this amazing day…’
When the pipe froze and burst I realized how I take so many basic comforts for granted—the heat in the winter, the hot and cold running water all year, the telephone, all the electric appliances that provide lights, cooking, refrigeration and fresh hot-air popcorn!
Then the pipe burst.
The bursting pipe is a symbol of all the things that happen to us along the way to doing whatever we do. John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
For example, when Barbara announced that she was resigning her position as Associate Minister, a pipe burst. I’ve come to rely on her, as many of you have; and I wondered if I took her ongoing tenure for granted, or if she thought I did. She assures me that I didn’t ‘take her for granted.’ But it made me wonder.
I didn’t think about the pipe bursting as a metaphor for Barbara’s busting out of here—not until I read it over again when it came in the mail. I always read what I’ve written when it comes in the mail. I look at it through your eyes, knowing you are reading it.
Now we’re asking what we should do with regard to our Associate Minister position—we hear the water running and we have to figure out what needs fixing.
As I indicated in my letter, there are some things I can fix myself. I got out the tools and went to the hardware store. I like the sense of accomplishment that comes with fixing things myself. I feel that sense of accomplishment with my work from day to day and week to week—the sense of putting words together to make a sermon, or write a Dear Friends letter for Soundings, or preparing an appropriate and effective memorial service or a good wedding ceremony—one that fits the couple.
One of the many things I like about our Unitarian approach is the fact that we don’t have funeral or memorial services prepackaged, in which we simply insert a name; we don’t have Unitarian weddings in a box, where the bride and groom simply choose from a Chinese menu in column A and B.
It’s a do-it-yourselfer in ministry, in a do-it-yourself faith. We don’t hand out the answers to the big questions—we encourage you to keep searching; it’s a life-long quest. Each of us has to do it for ourselves, but we don’t have to do it by ourselves.
We have to know when to call for help, like calling the plumber; the specialist, who knows things we don’t know. He helped me find the shut-off valve to the patio hose connection. I’ve been intending to do that for years. When the pipe burst I knew I had to bite that bullet. Sometimes we’re forced to do things we should have done long ago.
When our ten-o’clock service was bursting at the seams, we knew we needed to have two services on Sunday. Once we did that, our membership grew to the point that we needed another minister. We found John Tolley, and called him as our first Associate Minister, ever. When John’s success here got folks to pay attention to him they pulled him on to Meadville to be Dean of Students.
That’s when we called and ordained Barbara.
Now we need to find the ministry pipe—to turn a problem into an opportunity.
First we need to turn off the water. I love Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. Look at it, again, with me:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We would do well to stop awhile, today. We’re not ‘one traveler,’ but many. Decisions need to be made, but we don’t need to rush it. “Long I stood,” he says. Sometimes you have to stop. He ‘looked down one to where it bent in the undergrowth, then took the other as just as fair and having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear.’ He saw ‘leaves no step had trodden black.’ Fresh leaves. New paths.
That’s the line that stands out for me today. We need to step on fresh leaves, to try new things, while keeping our commitment to the long journey.
When I read, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, ages and ages hence,” I thought of the people who got the idea for a Unitarian group in Fairfield County back in 1949. No doubt the idea was probably bubbling around for years before that. They couldn’t see into the future—none of us can. They couldn’t see this sanctuary, filled with people who wanted, needed and would appreciate what they started.
Think was would be missing in and around Westport if this place didn’t exist. It would be like turning off the liberal spiritual flow—like a frozen pipe. There would be a lot of folks thirsty for the spiritual nourishment that happens here–people who have come to rely on a religious education for their children that does not indoctrinate, but educates; people who want encouragement in their own spiritual growth, without creeds or dogma.
Something important would be missing for those of us who need to be reassured that we’re not alone in our questioning, that our doubting is okay–even more than ‘okay,’ it’s natural; it’s honest. We doubt because we take our beliefs seriously. We don’t need traditional religious rhetoric, but we do need one another.
We must not take this place for granted.
We have a church school with nearly 400 children and young adults, under the leadership of Jamie and Janet, and all those who volunteer to teach and help out in so many ways.
We have a music program that is lively and varied, under the direction and inspiration of our minister of music, Ed Thompson, whose talent and dedication is acknowledged throughout the country.
We have two services every Sunday, September to June; and lay-led services in the summer, in the spirit of a Unitarian Fellowship; a reminder of those early days, rooted in the Fellowship model…which emphasizes lay leadership.
We have an energetic adult education program, Odyssey. We have the small-group ministry program which promotes the development of personal relationships while encouraging the inner journey.
We have this most-amazing facility, this sanctuary, and our meeting house, cared for by our super sexton, Bobby Santiago.
It’s so easy to take things and people for granted; as easy as taking running water for granted, till the pipes freeze!
What would Sarah Taylor, who invited like-minded religiously liberal friends to gather in her living room in Bridgeport, think if she could see what happened to what they started back in 1949?
If this place was not here, would you think of starting a Unitarian Universalist congregation?
As our annual meeting approached I kept thinking about the Kevin Costner film, “Field of Dreams, the movie about Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Eight players from this notorious team come back as “ghost” players to redeem themselves and once more play baseball together.
Costner’s character is told in various ways that if he builds a baseball field in his cornfield, they will come. It’s not until later in the movie that we find out that they are the old baseball players.
They built this place. They started a small-group ministry in people’s living rooms back in 1949. They sat together; they talked together; they got to know one another. They exchanged ideas and concerns as the world was recovering from the devastations of World War II. They must have spoken about the evil of the holocaust, the newly formed state of Israel, the dream of a United Nations.
They must have talked about their children and grandchildren, sharing joys and concerns. We don’t know if they lit candles…we don’t know, for sure, what they talked about. What we do know is that they had a dream, and they ‘built it,’ and we came.
This congregation has been on the move; we need to keep it going. To do so, we need to think together about the direction we’d like to see it take.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Divinity School Address in 1838 too a step onto fresh leaves when he extolled the virtues and wisdom of ‘…the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine…but in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius, its divine impulses.”
Emerson wasn’t satisfied with the narrowness of the Unitarianism of his day—he wanted to extend the roots of religious faith to embrace all the religions of the world. That’s why he acknowledged ‘the minds of those in the devout and contemplative East.’ He was referring to the Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Shintoist—religions which preceded what we know as the ‘Abrahamic faiths,’ of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Emerson’s assertions in the Divinity School Address stirred things up. He was purposely provoking the graduates and the clergy who were there that night, and others he knew would read what he had written. He said in that address, ‘truly speaking it is not instruction but provocation that I receive from another soul.’
Emerson wanted to create a religious faith that people like Lincoln would be comfortable joining. Lincoln said, “The more a man knew of theology,” he once said, “the further he got away from the spirit of Christ.” When asked why he refused to join a church, Lincoln wrote to a friend, “Because I find difficulty without mental reservation in giving my assent to their long and complicated creeds. When any church inscribes on its altar, as a qualification for membership, the Savior’s statement of the substance of the law and the Gospel–’Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself’–that church will I join with all my heart and soul.”
I’ve often wondered if Lincoln would join this church. Of course I like to think he would. We haven’t inscribed his suggested words on some altar—we don’t have an altar! But we’ve inscribed words in our hymnal that we call our affirmation—a statement to which we can give our assent, with ‘all our heart and soul.’
We have to keep asking how we can turn those words into a living testament, acknowledging that one’s real religion is found not in words, but in the way you live your live.
Jan Park had an idea that extends what our forebears were thinking when they organized a fellowship that became a church—this church. She wants service to be our law—not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.
So she offered a monetary gift of $300,000 to help us to help others. With all such gifts, she’s challenging us, and she’s challenging herself, to take one more step toward becoming the kind of church Lincoln had in mind, and that you and I have in mind, that they had in mind back in 1949.
Jan Park knows when to call the plumber; we need help with our social justice work. We need make no apologies for our social justice work, thus far; now it’s time to step on fresh leaves.
We’ve been working with Beardsley School in Bridgeport, and Habitat For Humanity. The five ministers from this congregation officiate at more than 50 the New Palz same-sex weddings, an extension of our Welcoming Congregation work for the past 15 years. The spontaneous outpouring in response to the tsunami is a good indication of our desire to live out our affirmation: service is its law. The prison gift program headed by Doris and Mel Brenner for several years and our Partner Church work are other examples.
We acknowledge that “If there’s any good thing you can do or any kindness you can show to any person it must be done now; not deferred or neglected, for we won’t pass this way again.”
What ‘now?’ Where are the fresh leaves ‘in want of wear?’
Now we need to involve everyone who wants a part in the process to participate in these decisions—to hire a Social Justice Director, to determine our needs with regard to an Associate Minister and call the right person for the job.
We’ve been given gift. They called it The First Unitarian Church of Fairfield County. We call it, The Unitarian Church in Westport. This gift came to us from them; it came freely, no strings attached. We’re not here to pay them back. We’re here to assure that this place will be here for those who need it in the future.
Just as this place contains a portion of their lives, their dreams, so will it carry our dreams and a goodly portion of our lives. Those who come after us will know that we labored to preserve and enhance this place for them, and they, in turn, will carry it on.
We’ll close with some lines edited from Maya Angelou’s United Nations poem, A Brave and Startling Truth:
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule … globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace …
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it …
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
Addendum: Annual Meeting Opening ‘Centering’
Virginia Satir, who has been called ‘The Mother of Family System Therapy’ wrote a book called People Making in which she says:
“I am convinced that there are no genes to carry the feeling of worth. It is learned. And the whole family is where it is learned…Feelings of worth can only flourish in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible—the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family…
“The possibility for this learning lasts from birth to death, so it is never too late…there is always hope that your life can change because you are always learning new things.”
The business we’re here to transact today is not earth-shattering, but the fact that we are here in this place—this spiritual home, is extremely important; though it’s not unique, it is ‘unusual.’
We hope it is a place where ‘individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible.’
This is our spiritual home. Each of us contributes to the kind of atmosphere ‘found in a nurturing family,’ so that our sense of self-worth is enhanced and our sense of purpose in the world is reinforced. May this time together serve our highest values, reminding us not to take it for granted, and not to take one another for granted.