Dir. of Religious Exploration, First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans:
We call forth the life of our faith by igniting our chalice.
This spark of new beginnings invites us into a sacred space
to reflect where we have been and where we are going.
Even knowing that this particular flame will intentionally end
with our ritual extinguishing, we fear not its end…
For we know, with brave hearts,
that from every ending of our lives,
We are sent forth to make a new beginning.
READING: The Path, by Rev. Lynn Ungar
Life, the saying goes, is a journey,
and who could argue with that?
We’ve all experienced the surprising turns,
the nearly-impassible swamp, the meadow
of flowers that turned out not to be quite
so blissful and benign as we first thought,
the crest of the hill where the road
smoothed out and sloped toward home.
Our job, we say, is to remain faithful
to the path before us. Which is an assumption
as common as it is absurd.
Really? Look ahead. What do you see?
If there is a path marked out in front of you
it was almost certainly laid down for someone else.
The path only unfolds behind us,
our steps themselves laying down the road.
You can look back and see the signposts --
the ones you followed and the ones you missed --
but there are no markers for what lies ahead.
You can tell the story of how
you forded the stream or got lost
on the short cut that wasn’t,
how you trekked your way to courage or a heart,
but all of that comes after the fact.
There is no road ahead.
There is only the walking,
the tales we weave of our adventures,
and the songs we sing
to call our companions on.
HOMILY: Praying Way Will Open, by Rev. Cindy Davidson
We have come to the end of the so-called “church year,” when it is customary to take
time to reflect upon the accomplishments and learnings of our shared ministry this year.
We recognize the strides that have been made as we remember:
the many meaningful worship services that have been shared,
the mindful beginnings of bringing back some programming for our children,
the ongoing dedication and service of your leaders and incoming leaders, and
our deep gratitude for the many acts of caring and connection that have sustained the congregation.
We also recognize what remains yet to be accomplished: to needs to bring on board a new minister, to plan for and execute a stronger online presence, and to “walk the talk” of all that you and your social justice team have dreamed of being in the community and world at this time.
We acknowledge that this year has been anything but what we had planned for:
Whoever would have thought we could successfully hold an annual meeting by Zoom?
Or that staying socially connected by phone, emails and Zoom during these months of physical separation would become more important than driving into the parking lot on Sunday mornings?
It is true that we are feeling the loss of the camaraderie and the warmth of fellowship that we have known over the years by sharing meals together and showing up in the same space and time to work together, to be together: Maintaining the grounds, hosting coffee hour, sharing heartfelt reflections in the small group ministry, and participating in Board and committee meetings.
Under normal circumstances, you would absolutely be chomping at the bit to have this last service of the year wrap up quickly -- so you could roll your sleeves and get our space ready for the annual tag sale. You would be saying your goodbyes to each other today or at the end of June, sharing your plans for vacations and family reunions, and then dispersing for the summer.
You would be planning for the future for when you get back together in the fall. Your new board members would be getting up to speed and penciling in the date for the next Board retreat. Your search committee would be eager to introduce you to your next minister.
I would be clearing out my office for the next minister, making several trips up and down that staircase to load things into my car. And, I can assure you, I would be making time to have another sit in the memorial garden and walk through the building, before driving out the driveway one last time.
Yes, our paths will be diverging soon as my time with you comes to an end.
And, yes, we will each carry on in our own ways, following our own paths.
One of the constant companions through my own ministerial discernment and journey has been the writings of Parker Palmer. You may know his work. He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and author of many books and was as a columnist for NPR’s On Being for several years.
A story comes to mind that he tells in his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.
I share it with you for your consideration and reflection at this time of transition and great uncertainty.
Listen for what speaks to you not only in relation to your own sense of vocation, or avocation, but also in relation to this congregation’s sense of calling and how wish to become more fully known in the world.
Palmer wrote this when he was in his late thirties, while living and working at Pendle Hill, the Quaker living-learning community near Philadelphia. He was struggling to find a new direction for his life. He writes:
“If I were to discover a new direction, I thought, it would be at Pendle Hill, a community rooted in prayer, study, and a vision of human possibility. But when I arrived and started sharing my vocational quandary, people responded with a traditional Quaker counsel that, despite all the good intentions, left me even more discouraged. ‘Have faith,’ they said, ‘and way will open.’
‘I have faith,’ I thought to myself. ‘What I don’t have is time to wait for “way” to open. I’m approaching middle age at warp speed, and I have yet to find a vocational path that feels right. The only way that’s opened so far is the wrong way.’
After a few months of deepening frustration, I took my troubles to an older Quaker woman well-known for her thoughtfulness and candor. Ruth,’ I said, ‘people keep telling me that “way will open.” Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I’ve been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do. Way may open for other people, but it’s sure not opening for me.’
Ruth’s reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking: ‘I’m a birthright Friend,’ she said somberly, ‘and in sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax?
Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.’”
Palmer notes that his own experience has long-since confirmed “there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.”
Now, This Quaker concept of Way Opening is based, it’s important to note, on a Christian concept of a God who will reveal the way. The way or will of God cannot be forced, but must be revealed, in due time.
I, too, have been counseled with those words, “Way will Open” when facing a situation where I’ve known some kind of change or action has to take place, but I hadn’t been able to figure out the pathway. The how, the next steps, the overarching plan eluded me. And my anxiety, my confusion, and sometimes my despair grew.
I can tell you more waiting and patience than I would have liked was involved. Much like the Advent season which precedes the arrival of the Christ Child, so, too, the revelation of The Way is preceded by a time and place of expectant waiting.
Today, you are in such a place. A place of expectant waiting … great uncertainty -- with the pandemic, the building closed, and a looming ministerial gap, all during a time of economic uncertainties, challenges to our democracy, and civil unrest.
It’s a really difficult time to be in be waiting mode.
Waiting patiently …. even when it feels like no progress is being made.
Waiting patiently …. even when it seems there are no viable solutions….
Waiting patiently …. even when our minds are flooded with too many possibilities to consider and weigh and choose from. When confusion and anxiety set in.
I urge you to commit to the process and it may be that solutions appear that you never would have imagined:
Pay attention to what is moving beneath the surface for you.
What is shifting in your relationship to the congregation?
Which priorities are becoming more important than others?
What longings are growing stronger and stronger?
What is your still small voice inside telling you about how you are called to show up in the world, and here in service to this digitally connected congregation?
Remain curious and explore ideas without judgement. Imagine what an outside, neutral observer might notice or advise about the congregation’s situation.
Consider these things and keep meeting and staying connected to discern your way together. For, I charge you to bring forward into the next chapter of your future the best of your values and commitments to one another.
Whether it is the God of your understanding who reveals the Way, or the universe, or the collective will and spirit of this gathered congregation, I pray Way will Open for you and your leadership, with or without your next minister in place as a guide. Remember, your next minister is a guide, not a hero or heroine who sweeps in to save the day!
I want to close by saying, a proper and Good “Good-bye.”
“Thank you” for the opportunity to serve you these past two years, and for the goodwill and concern you have shown to me.
I have appreciated your patience with me as I asked so many questions, poked and prodded to learn more about who you are, your history, your calling in the world. My efforts to identify and offer up what I thought would serve you best have not always been spot-on or well-received, so I say “Thank you” for your willingness to suspend judgement and, as a friend of mine says, “like an idea for five minutes.”
I also want to say “I’m sorry” for arriving without the depth of experience with small congregations that would have served you best. “I’m sorry” for the many things I was not able to accomplish in our shared ministry.
“I’m sorry” for the ways I may have disappointed, offended or hurt you, either by my actions or by failing to take action. “I’m sorry” for all those times I stepped back when you needed me to step forward more boldly, and for stepping forward when you needed me to hold back.
For all my shortcomings and missteps, and all that is left undone or lacking, I offer my apology and ask your forgiveness.
Ours has been a dance of shared ministry, one for which I have yet to see a perfect model worth emulating. Like any meeting on the dance floor, there has been plenty of improvising around stepped on toes and missed leads. For those missteps and lost opportunities on your part, I offer my understanding and forgiveness.
I get it! We’re human! And, we have, I believe, been doing the best we can, given reality. Fortunately, we have stayed in right relationship and covenant together, always coming to the table to do better and to serve the mission of the congregation.
I also want to say, “I love you” and care about you, individually and collectively.
I wish you well and trust you continue to treat others with the kindness you have come to expect from one another. My hope is that you continue to grow, bear the sorrow and joys of congregational life with reverence, and are a beacon of hope in the community.
Finally, comes the time to say “Good-bye.”
From every ending of our lives, we are sent forth to make a new beginning.
My path is going one way, and yours rests here.
I pray you have faith, and way will open.
I pray your path becomes more clear day by day.
Someday, when you look back and see the signposts, I pray there may one among them that marks our having spent our time together well.
Fare thee well, my beloveds,
May your ministry flourish, and
May the longtime sun shine upon you.
May it be so.
In love and with blessings for the journey,