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Charting the Waters of Change

A Service by Barbara Wells & Jaco B. ten Hove

In a packed meeting room in the Sheraton Colony Square Hotel in downtown Atlanta, the Revs. Barbara Wells and Jaco ten Hove began a worship service, which creatively connected participants to one of the themes of the mid-sized church conference, on navigating change in UU congregations.

Wells and ten Hove are a "clergy couple" recently settled as co-ministers at Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, Maryland. They were both raised UU, got married in 1990 and served last year as Interim Senior Co-ministers at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado. Barbara is a 1985 graduate of Meadville/Lombard Theological School. She began her ministry that year as Associate Minister of East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington. From 1991-98, she was the founding minister of the Woodinville (WA) UU Church. Jaco is a 1988 graduate of Starr King School for Ministry. He was called that year to the Edmonds (WA) UU Church where he served until 1998.

Prelude

Call to Worship

Barbara: We come together this morning to remind one another to rest for a moment on the forming edge of our lives,

Jaco: We have come here to take a moment, to pause and recognize that each of us is constantly growing.

Barbara: We come together to resist the head long tumble into the next moment, until we claim for ourselves awareness and gratitude,

Jaco: Let us be grateful that we are here in this special community to celebrate and remember.

Barbara: We come together to take the time to look into one another's faces and see there communion: the reflection of our own eyes.

Jaco: Look around you. What a beautiful collection of creatures we are.

Barbara: This house of laughter and silence, memory and hope is hallowed by our presence together.

Jaco: It is good to be with one another.

Based on reading #435 by Kathleen McTigue in "Singing the Living Tradition."

Song #346

Come Sing A Song With Me (by Carolyn McDade)

Flaming Chalice Dedication

Song #188

Come, Come, Whoever You Are (Words by Rumi; Music by Lynn Ungar)
Additional words "…though you've broken your vows a thousand times" in the original poem by Rumi, music by Harold Brown.

Homily

Charting the Waters of Change

I know a lot about change. In the last 18 months I have moved twice, left two different churches, and started a new ministry with my husband Jaco. In the next few months I'm going to turn 40, Jaco and I will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary and I will recognize the 15th year of my ordination into the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Despite the fact that most of these changes have been positive ones, I have to admit that there are times when I am very tired of change.

But the older I get the more I realize that change is not only inevitable it actually is something to look forward to. Without change we die.

I've thought a lot about change, and particularly how change impacts congregational life. I started attending Unitarian Universalist congregations when I was a baby with my parents. So I can say with truthfulness that I have been a part of Unitarian Universalist congregations my whole life. But the congregations that I was a part of as a child not that many years ago have all changed so much that they are hardly recognizable as the places I attended as a youth. But they are still Unitarian Universalist congregations. People of all ages continue to attend them; ministers have come and gone; buildings have been replaced or remodeled; many of the elders I loved have died and the children I've played with have all grown up; but the churches are still there. The truth is that all of these congregations have navigated the transitions that came about through the natural process of moving through time.

But I also know that it hasn't always been easy. Just as some of my changes have been harder than others, so too have these congregations chartered the waters of change in different ways. Learning how to navigate through the inevitable transitions that occur in congregational life is something ministers and active lay people eventually have to learn how to do. For if we don't we will find ourselves sailing these waters without a map or even a paddle. And our ship may founder and maybe even sink.

There are many maps that we can use to help us move through the transitions of our congregational lives. This conference has given us many good tools already. But I want to look at one that has been helpful to me both personally and professionally. And that map is a poem put to music that we sang just a few moments ago.

When I first heard the song, "Come, come, whoever you are" I liked it immediately. But I did not realize that it would become an important tool for me in understanding change and community. The poem, like so many by the ancient Persian mystic Rumi, it is packed with meaning in just a few short lines. A man I met at a Unitarian Universalist summer camp told me that these are the words written on Rumi's tomb where he is buried in Turkey. Given the number of beautiful poems that Rumi wrote, it says a lot about this one that it ended up on his grave. The poem, in my opinion, is a powerful statement about community, particularly community that is moving through change. So, let me take a little while this morning to reflect on what this poem might have to say to us about charting the waters of change.

First of all, the poem is an invitation. "Come, come, whoever you are" is inviting people to join in the journey. Ideally, this is what our congregations do. They invite others to join us on this adventure we call liberal religion. Unitarian Universalist congregations have not always been very good at reaching out to others. Far too often, we have waited for people to come to us thinking they'll find us on their own. And of course, some people do. But we all know that there are people out there who would love to be a part of our Church communities if only someone would ask them to join us. This poem reminds us to do just that.

Healthy and exciting congregations are churches that are constantly inviting new people to join them. But such an invitation doesn't come without a cost. For when others join us, even by invitation, their presence in our lives changes us and the community of which we are part. It certainly is not uncommon to hear people in our congregations complain a little bit about " all those new people " whom they don't know. And even as they complain, they wonder when the new people are going to start doing the work of the church.

Rumi's poem helps us here as well. If these words are indeed about community then it is plain to me what he might mean by "wanderer " and "worshiper. " As I interpret it, the worshipers are those people in our congregations who are already committed to it. They're the ones who come to church regularly, staff committees, and support the congregation with their resources. No church community can function without these pillars.

But we also need the wanderers. These are the people who wander into our community looking for meaning and hope. Some of these wanderers become worshipers and for that, we bless them. But some of them wander away, particularly if we do not make them feel welcome. Others will always be wanderers, coming and going and never really settling down. I believe that healthy congregations must learn to accept that there will always be those among us who will not make as deep a commitment as others. Growing congregations, which by definition are congregations in transition, must find ways to accept the diversity of commitment that our members show even as we seek to create opportunities for people to move into the community and become a part of it.

Roy Phillips, former minister of Unity Church in St. Paul, Minn., has given us a valuable model of how to move people into a deeper relationship with their religious community. He calls it "our way of the spirit" and suggests that every member walk a path that will ultimately provide him or her with a deep and meaningful relationship to their church community. Part of the job of the church leadership is to provide a variety of opportunities for people to discover where they are on their "way of the spirit." One of the reasons that this model works so well is because it recognizes that people will be on a different place in their journey even as they are still part of one community. Long-term committed members, the worshipers of Rumi's poem, are a lot less likely to resent the wanderers if they see themselves and others as fellow travelers on a journey.

But now we get to that peculiar phrase in the song, the " lover of leaving." Why should community be filled with lovers of leaving? This phrase is, to me, one of the most profound statements about community that I know. For if community is constantly changing, as we know it is when it is strong and healthy, then the participants in it must be able to learn to accept the loss that is bound to occur. Religious community is a human entity and all humans are mortal and will die. Every single church I have ever been a part of, from the one in Lexington Massachusetts which was founded in the 17th century to the new congregation I helped to start less than 10 years ago, have members who have died. Their deaths leave a hole in the community that no one else can fill. But that doesn't mean that the community ceases to exist without them. That's the power and the beauty of community-it's designed to out-last us all.

And death, of course, is not the only loss that happens within a church community. Jaco and I live in the Washington D.C. area, which has one of the highest rates of turnover in the country. People come and go all the time and when they leave the church the loss we feel is real. But there is also a feeling of loss that comes simply because the community is changing. When we come to church and realize that many of the people that we know and love have either died or moved away it is easy to become disheartened and to feel that the church is changing too much. If we can learn to love the leaving, recognizing that such leaving is built into the nature of human life and human community, then perhaps we will find ourselves charting the waters of change more easily.

We can do this because "ours is no caravan of despair." Despite death and change, perhaps because of death and change, church can be a place where we can have hope in the possibilities that are inherent in religious community. For in these peculiar institutions we call Unitarian Universalist congregations, there is always hope for transformation. While there was much I disagreed with in the Rev. Bernice King's message to us yesterday, one element spoke deeply to my heart. She reminded us, in religious terms different from our own but true nonetheless, that real change in the world comes about through people who are spiritually connected and religiously motivated. Our religious perspective is one that is radically inclusive, truly Universalist. And that's where the usually unsung part of Rumi's poem becomes so important. For even though "you've broken your vows a thousand times" true religious community is a place where we will continue to be challenged and welcomed to walk the spiritual path. The poet knew that real community is made up of real people and real people, as the Bible reminds us "sin and fall short of the glory of God." We will try and we will fail repeatedly. But our liberal theology reminds us that it is in the trying that the Holy is found.

Churches that are moving through change are not unusual though sometimes we may act as if such transitions are strange. No, what would be unusual is a congregation that never changes. Perhaps we all know churches that like to think they don't change. Or congregations that navigate their transitions by getting angry with what to them may seem to be the source of the change. Fighting change just makes the change harder. Learning to sail through the waters of change with grace and style takes intention, energy, and a willingness to pull together. It also takes hope. Such hope is exemplified in the last phrase of the Rumi poem. For after issuing the invitation, recognizing the many different kinds of people who make up a community, acknowledging that we will fail again and again the poet continues to reach out. "Come, yet again come," he says to us. You are still and always welcome here.

I continue to struggle with change. It's hard to watch myself grow older and even harder to watch the people I love age. It's challenging to move from one congregation to another. It's just damn hard to change. But somehow, it's always worth it. The congregations I have left continue to do good work in the world. The congregations that I entered into learned to accept me and some even to love me. The Rev. Peter Raible once said that all ministers are interim ministers. And that's true for church members as well. Hopefully, few of us will outlive the congregations we served or are part of. We want them to outlive us and if they're going to with strength and hope they have to change.

Each of us will find our own maps for charting the waters of change in our lives and for sailing through the transitions that happen in our communities. The poem by Rumi, put to music so beautifully by my friend and colleague Lynn Ungar, is a map that has worked for me. I pray that you will find your own maps to navigate the challenging waters of change.

Song

Somos el Barco (by Lorre Wyatt)

(excerpted): ….The boat that we are sailing in has touched many sands
So in our hopes we raise the sails and face the winds once more
and with our hearts we chart the waters never sailed before…

Chorus: Somos el barco, somos el mar,
Yo navego en ti, tu navegas en mí.
We are the boat, we are the sea,
I sail in you, you sail in me.

Closing Words

We are the wanderers; we are the worshippers.
I dream a dream with you; you share a rose with me.

And together we bring hope, where hope is hard to find,
As we chart the waters of change and transition on our caravan of connectedness.

May the day that now rises before us inspire and fulfill you.
May your connections here and at home be enriched because of this time together.

Song

(Sung to the tune of "Come, come whoever you are"
"Go, go to your workshops, now go
Leaders and followers, note-takers, listeners
Ours is a conference abundantly wise
Go—don't dawdle—Go!"

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Friday, February 24, 2012.

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