I fell down a lot when I was a kid, so many times that I can’t count them. I always had skinned and scabby knees. All kids fall a fair amount I suppose, my own children certainly took some tumbles. I may have fallen more than is usual, however, as I had polio when I was just a year old, and my legs are a bit uneven which can throw my coordination off. It was hard to learn to skip, and I never learned to skate. I am just not physically graceful.
As adult I have only had three falls that were at all serious, which is really quite miraculous.
Once was just this last Sunday, thankfully just after and not just before I lead my first worship service at a new church. There is a step in the back of the chancel that was not yet embedded in my memory. While I was putting my things together before heading to the social hour, I tripped on that step, and down I went. No major damage, but my shoulder is still sore from where I landed. The first service at a new church is a big deal.
The time before was in my driveway in Ogden, Utah. I was on my way to the church where I was to lead worship for the congregation and for the attendees of our district assembly. There were Unitarian Universalists from all over the western states, and the sanctuary was packed. It was very big deal to be leading worship for that gathering. I preached that day with a black eye and a scab on my chin. I also damaged one of my knees in that fall, a knee that still gives me some trouble.
The first time I took a big fall as an adult was after going out to Thai food with an old and very dear friend. We left the restaurant and crossed the street on our way to the car. The pavement was uneven, and I tripped and my face landed on the curb. I broke my glasses that time. The next day I got on a plane to DC for my very first meeting with the then Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Kenneth Apfel. The meeting was an extremely big deal, something the organization I worked with had put a lot of effort into setting up. I met him with a black eye, taped-up glasses, and a few scabs on my face.
I don’t fall often, obviously, partly as I tend to be fairly careful knowing how clumsy I can be. I do trip a lot. But it seems my serious falls have all been at times where something significant is happening. It is likely just a random coincidence. I don’t always fall down at momentous occasions. I might have stumbled a bit at my wedding, but I definitely did not fall to the ground.
We can draw some meaning even from random events, if we want to do so.
These three falls of mine all happened around events that were highlights of my professional careers, moments that I felt both lucky and honored to have experienced. Moments of grace, if you will.
We can’t all be graceful, but our lives really can be full of grace.
How’s that for finding an accidental blessing?
Call to worship (here)
I love the story of John Murray that we shared with the children this morning. True or not, it is one of the very few miracle stories we have in our faith tradition. The wind blew Murray’s ship to Thomas Potter’s farm back in 1770. The wind then stalled just long enough so he was there on a Sunday. After he preached only once, the wind came up and he was gone again. It was a very short dance he had with those good people, just one sweet song where he preached about love. Just like the old sailing ships needed wind to move, so congregations need the music of the spirit to help them dance into their future.
The story doesn’t say really what happened after he left, but I imagine the congregation’s life went on, just as Murray’s did. They probably did great things, just as Murray did – or maybe not.
The particular character and possibilities of a religious community are much deeper and stronger than any change any minister might bring. I believe that congregations have metaphorical hearts and that those hearts beat out a singular rhythm when the community gathers for worship in its sacred space. It creates a living breathing space, a place of comfort, and a place of hope. It is more than the roof and walls that give us shelter this morning; you were a community before you moved to this building. Like a plant that has been repotted, you have given yourself room to grow. But it is your plant, the one started from a tiny seed of just a few people, that will flourish here, not anyone else’s.
The flaming heart of this congregation was kindled by people like John Murray, centuries ago.
That spark was then carried here by the founding members of the UUP. With grace it will warm the hearts of other people who will be here long after all of us are gone.
But any living breathing creature changes as it lives. A new minister does bring some change to a church, sometimes simply by being new, a different face, a different voice.
The poet Robert Frost said that:
Ends and beginnings – there are no such things.
There are only middles.
Frost was right in some ways. All of us have come from somewhere. We are here together now, but our individual journeys did not begin today. We are in the middle of our lives.
We are beginning our time together today, however, and I know that for me it will be a day that I will remember.
A beginning can be also be an anxious time.
Some of you may be anxious today. Who is this new minister anyway? What will her sermons be like? Will they irritate me or put me to sleep? Will I like her? Will she like me? Will she help our church grow? Will she want to change it too much and too quickly? Will she listen to us? Will she care about us, and will she love us? What is the deal; is she an interim or not?
There may be other questions on your mind as well. If you are new, you may be wondering how you will fit in here.
Will you be held and valued for who you are and not just what you bring? Will this become a place of sanctuary for you, a place of inspiration, a place of comfort, a place of spiritual growth?
Will you be able to “Live your sacred and learn to Transform through love and Act with courage?” That is the commitment to action that this congregation has made. It is a challenging and worthy one.
Many of you may also be missing Reverend Mary today.
Some of you may be excited, eager for whatever the future might bring. Some of you may just be tired.
All of those questions and all of the emotions that may be stirring within you right now are OK. Whatever you are thinking and feeling right now can be held here. Just breathe a minute and recognize and honor whatever is going on within you.
All your questions won’t be answered today. All those feelings won’t be resolved right away either. More questions and more feelings will also come to the surface over time.
All of us have come from somewhere. I want to share some of where I come from with you now.
I was born and grew up in Watsonville CA. I am 66 years old, married, finally, to my wife, Anne, who I have been with since 1975. We have three adult children all currently living in the Bay area.
I went to UC Berkeley from 1968-1974, getting a BA in demography and a MA in sociology. I then worked for the Social Security Administration for twenty-five years in Richmond, CA, mainly in management positions. I took early retirement in 2001, partly because George Bush was elected, but that is a long story and not appropriate for worship. I was an active lay leader at our Congregation in San Rafael from 1994 until I started seminary at Starr King. I did my internship in Annapolis, Maryland and served as the minister of the UU Church of Ogden from September 2007 until June of 2014.
From mid-August 2014 until July of 2015, I served as the 3/4-time developmental minister for the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists in Berkeley, CA.
Last year, I explored being retired.
Those are barest details, the resume if you will, of where I have come from, to be here, with you, now. But those facts don’t explain any of the reasons why.
So why am I here?
I was enjoying being retired. After all, I had an incredibly satisfying full-time settled ministry in Utah. My work as a developmental minister with the Berkeley Fellowship was good too in some ways, but it was also frustrating. Their history had wounded them in ways that made healthy relationships difficult to create. After I resigned from that position, I resolved not to take a position with another congregation unless it was 1. An easy commute from my home in San Rafael, 2. Relatively healthy 3. Needed and wanted what I had to offer and, most importantly #4. Sounded both exciting and fun.
I thought I’d likely just stay retired. But then, but then, Rev. Mary told me that she would be leaving.
Petaluma. Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, a young congregation without a lot of baggage, a growing congregation, with good energy, and a very positive reputation. Nearby, healthy, and in the middle of discernment about the transition from a family style congregation to a pastoral one. It is a transition that I helped lead the Ogden church, I know the dynamics and have ideas about how make that transition go relatively smoothly. Could anything be more exciting or fun?
I am here in what I am calling, for lack of a better term, as a transitional minister. I am under a contract approved by your board, not the congregation as a whole. It is a two-year contract, with an option to renew for an additional year. I know that the congregation was looking for an official interim minister, but official interim ministers can only stay for a maximum of two years. That was the position I applied for, but as the search committee, the board, and I discussed it and thought about it more, we realized that with a half-time position, two years might not be quite enough time to help decide if you wanted to a settled minister and to prepare you for that possibility. You have not yet had a “settled” minister, one that is called to serve you by vote of the entire congregation. Rev. Mary was also hired by the board. A called mister has a very different relationship with a congregation compared to a minister that is hired. That difference is one of the things we will be talking about, in sermons and other conversations as our time together unfolds.
Hopefully, I have answered a few of your questions this morning, although I know you have many more. You have a sense now of my preaching style and I don’t see anyone sleeping yet. If you are really exhausted some coming Sunday though, feel free to rest your eyes a bit. Attending church should renew your spirit and simple sleep can be healing too.
I promise to be honest with you and hope that you will be honest with me. All of us will make mistakes, and all of us won’t always agree about everything. That is OK, it is as it should be. I promise to listen to you, to try and understand you both as individuals and as a congregation, to care for you and to do my very best for you. I hope that you will help me with this and will invite me into your lives as your minister. I hope that you will tell me what you want and what you need.
I will work very hard to grow this church, if that is what you want to do. During the board meeting last Sunday, Carol said that you have always, whenever a decision needed to be made, chosen what you hoped would lead to growth.
I also want this congregation to grow, to fill these pews to overflowing, to maybe move to a larger space, one that would truly be your own. I want this congregation to grow, but not to make myself or even you happy. I know that there must be many people in Petaluma that are desperately seeking a faith community such as this one. It would be selfish to not welcome them in, to offer them warmth and caring, hope and healing.
As the Reverend Barbara Pescan has said, there are so many people down in the valley, looking for their way home. We must light a bright lamp for them, so they can find their way. Our lives will also be enriched by their presence.
There will be changes; there always are, even if we have no idea of what they will be. We will also change, all of us. I know I will. The relationship of a minister and a congregation, even a temporary minister as I am, is an organic one. We will bend in the wind together, learning to dance to the music that is calling out to our spirits.
Amen and Blessed Be
The curtain is up
On the stage of the world
The actor takes aim
Against all I believe
Is he speaking his truth
Or playing a game?
Lives are at stake
There have to be rules.
I’ve read my history
I’ve lived it too long
Lessons hard learned
We can’t feed this beast.
Hatred is catching
And fear no relief
There has to be love
Compassion at least
Bring down the curtain
Let’s change the game
Greatness is worthless
When bartered for souls
Do you hear the music blowing
Soft as wind in trees
Do you see people moving
To a rhythm all their own?
Does the pulse of your heart
Beat in time with a spinning world?
There is no other answer
We must learn to dance
On our feet or in our chairs
Across the walls that divide us
Into the rooms inside our souls.
Spacious the world is
After all is said and done
Mystery surrounds us
And to Mystery we return
The chorus of our lives is short
It is the melody that matters
Joe Biden got it exactly right last night during his speech (Click) at the DNC when he said Trump is most famous for telling people they are fired and looking like he is enjoying it.
That comment really spoke to me.
I have fired people. I don’t remember exactly how many, not a lot, maybe 5 or 6 when I was a manager in the federal service, and a couple of times as a minister. It is never easy and it certainly isn’t fun. Sometimes it has to be done, however. With only two exceptions, the people I fired had problems getting to work on time on a reasonably consistent basis. After repeated warnings, it became clear that the very basic job requirement of showing up, was not going to be met. The mission was suffering because their job was not being done. So I fired them, but I also felt bad for them. I hoped they would learn a lesson from the experience and do better in their next job. The other two were individuals that just weren’t suited for the jobs they were in. They weren’t able to meet the minimum job requirements at a satisfactory level. I could only hope they went on to find something else they could do well.
Each and every time, however, firing someone has been hard and has made me sad. Those individuals had inherent worth and dignity and being fired was a very painful experience for them. I felt of them, but needed to temper my sadness for them with my concern for the health of the organization to which I was responsible. Poorly performing employees can bring the whole team down. If the work is important, then it needs to be done well. Sometimes people need to be fired.
But sometimes, it is possible to fire someone up instead of firing them. I have done that too and it is highly satisfying to help turn someone’s poor performance around with clear expectations and encouragement when they make an effort to improve.
Someone who enjoys firing people is just not suited to leading our nation. Empathy, compassion, encouragement, inspiration are what I want to see in a leader. I don’t want to follow someone who will exclude large groups of people from the process, in essence firing everyone who might disagree. Instead, I want to follow someone who will fire us all up and inspire us to do our best. That is the message I am getting from the Democrats this week, one that resonates with me as a person of faith. I do wish the other party had fired their candidate, who is just not suited for the job.
Shall we tremble and shake
Hide in our homes
Afraid of the streets
No neighbors around
Just a posse of hate
As a madman demands we
Cast our ballots in fear
I want to be brave
As the flowers that bloom
I want to be strong
As the mountains that rise
I want to be tender
As the small chickadee
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
FDR said that
It reminded me
What I fear most is fear
Shake it off, friends,
Shake it off
There is room here for all
Of our neighbors
Gay, straight, black, white
Christian, Muslim, atheist
Immigrant, and citizen
Everyone, no exceptions.
We need to build a wall
To keep fear out.
How full can a heart get
Until it can take no more?
How many tears can our eyes release
Until the well goes dry?
We move through a desert land
Where the winds of hate blow hard.
It shatters lives
And scatters despair
We can only hunker down.
Send me a dream, a mountain stream
A gentle touch, a kiss.
Hold me close
As I remember love
And find the courage to hope.
Give me enough strength
To help with the work
Of healing a broken world
There are times I want
To pull tight into myself
Like a small garden snail
Knowing the ground before me
Is covered in salt
Which will suck me dry
If I am not careful
The gardener watches
He does not like me
He will crush my shell if he can
Ripping it open
With his hoe.
But in the forest
Among the damp leaves
And the tall trees
I can simply glide along
Leaving my shell behind.
What a world there is
Waiting to be explored.
People understand post-traumatic stress syndrome a little better these days, primarily I think because so many of our combat veterans suffer from it.
It is one thing, however, to fall to the ground when you hear a car backfire, your body reacting as if it is still in a war zone, and it is quite another to have those feelings while you really are still trying to survive a war.
Many women and some men were triggered by the Stanford rapist story. 1 in 3 women have suffered a sexual assault. They know it can happen to them again. They know the perpetrator will likely go free. They are living in a war zone.
People of color are triggered when the police shoot yet another unarmed youth. They live with that violence everyday of their lives, knowing it can happen at any time to them or to their children. They know the perpetrator will likely go free. They live in a war zone.
There are so many terrorists who are out to do harm to some group or culture they have decided is not worthy of life, of freedom, of love.
Some terrorists allege they are Muslim, but terrorists, people whose acts terrorize whole communities, come in many forms.
The Santa Barbara shooter wanted to kill women. He, like every single rapist, was a convert of radical patriarchy.
And what of the white Christian terrorist who murdered people at prayer in a black church in Charleston? What of the white Christian terrorist who killed the people at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, or the one who murdered George Tiller while he attended church services?
What of Dan White who assassinated Harvey Milk and George Moscone in their city hall offices in 1978? (The memory of that day came to my mind this week, as did the fact that White only served 5 years for the crime. Clean-cut white Christian men, almost always get a pass no matter what they do.)
What of the white racist terrorist who killed his Muslim neighbors?
And now Orlando, yet another trauma, yet another massacre committed in a sanctuary.
Terrorists strike a lot of places these days: movie theaters, schools, shopping malls, marathons, and even army bases. These traumatize almost everyone. But those of us who live on the margins, who are not straight white cis-gender Christian men, suffer a deeper trauma. We are specific targets and we know it. And we know that some will cheer when we die.
There are ways to survive in war zones. The answer is not more guns. The answer is more love. I am going to keep reaching for love.
And I am going to remember Harvey’s words and keep fighting to burst down the doors of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and any attitude or philosophy that defines any human being as somehow less worthy of life, of freedom, of love. Blessings on all of us, who know, deep down in our gut, as Audre Lorde said so well, “We were never meant to survive.”
Where will our grief go
If our tears should ever dry?
Where will our fear go
If our heartbeats ever slow down again?
Where will our rage go
If our bodies ever stop their shaking?
Our lives, our loves, are a river
Try to damn it though they do
Kill us with bullets and Bibles
Ban us from bathrooms
And let the white rapists go free.
Still we flow
On forever on
Until we finally swim free
In that warm sea
Filled by our tears.