This is quite a time for our community. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, the world looks and feels much different than it did before. The old ways of “doing church” are changing to respond to our changing needs, and we don’t have all the answers yet on what the “new normal” will look like. This 2022-23 church year will be filled with experimentation, trial and error.
There will certainly be challenges.
After two years of virtual-only programming for children and youth (and the departure of our Director of Religious Education this past summer), we are needing to rebuilding our Religious Education program. The job search is underway for a new Director of Religious Education; but when we find that person, they won’t be able to rebuild the program on their own. We will need a team of faithful volunteers (including parents and non-parents) to bring our RE program to life.
Another challenge: before the pandemic, we knew how to do in-person worship. During the pandemic, we learned how to do virtual worship. Now, we are learning how to do hybrid worship, where both in-person and virtual attendance are possible. This is far more difficult than either in-person or virtual is alone. Not only are we adapting to new technology, but hybrid worship services require more volunteer roles to make them happen. We will need more people to greet and welcome, make coffee and provide snacks, run the camera and sound board, and help set up and clean up the church before and after services.
These are just the first two challenge areas that come to mind.
And, there will also be opportunities.
The fact that so many of our programs went into hibernation during the pandemic means we can be intentional about which ones to bring back, and when we choose to do so. This kind of intentional reflection and discernment can help us become a more focused church community, where we can go deeper because we are not spread so thin.
It also allows us to re-imagine the ways we have done things in the past. Do we really need so many committees with years-long terms of commitment? Or is there a way to operate with shorter-term projects and goals that allow people to show up and pitch in without being on a committee for years?
Another opportunity: can we address the shortages in our congregational resources (volunteers, money, etc.) by partnering with other UU congregations in the area to do some collaborative activities and programming? What new things might come to fruition when we let go of old things that are no longer serving us?
It will be a year of challenges and opportunities. We will try new things; some we will keep, and others we will not. The way we “do church” will certainly continue to change. But the reason for church remains: to be a place of acceptance, affirmation, and belonging; a place of healing, growth, and transformation; a place to love and support each other as we journey together, and know that we are not alone.
As the 2021-22 church year came to a close in June, it would seem like a natural next step to turn our attention to the coming year, and focus on getting the 2022-23 church year started. But before we do that, just wait a second. Pause. Breathe. I know it’s tempting to want to jump from one thing right into the next; but when we do that, we skip a very important part of the rhythm of life: the part where we rest.
Rest is essential to our well-being. And not just physically, but emotionally, socially, and spiritually as well. When I decided to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, I had to finish my undergraduate degree before going to seminary. It took me two years of coursework to finish a degree I had started nearly a decade earlier. I graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver in December of 2013, and three weeks later I started my Master of Divinity program at Iliff School of Theology. I had barely finished my BA before beginning the next phase in my ministerial formation path. I was excited and motivated, and because of this I didn’t rest. I didn’t think I needed it. And I did fine in seminary, so this is not a cautionary tale of how wrong things can go if we don’t rest. But I do regret not slowing down a bit. It took me more than a decade to finish my college degree, a significant milestone in my life. And I just jumped right into the next thing. I wish I had taken some time to reflect and process what I had been through; what I had accomplished; how I felt about it. I wish I had taken the time to mark and celebrate that achievement. Ironically, I went on quickly to the next thing because I didn’t want to miss out on the next part of my path; but in doing so, I actually missed out on the appreciation and reflection part that would have enhanced the whole experience. I missed out on the resting part, and the spaciousness that resting creates. I missed out on the emotional and spiritual growth I might have gained if I had
So now, as we end our church year (one in which we returned to in-person services, gatherings, and activities), I know there is a desire to launch ourselves fully back into a version of community we have been missing for the last 2+ years. And. This is a significant milestone in the life of our church community. We’ve been through a lot. Rather than rush into the next thing, let’s pause. Breathe. Rest. Let’s reflect on what we’ve just been through together, and how it has affected us. Let’s share our stories, and listen to each other. And let’s give ourselves an opportunity in the spaciousness to grow emotionally and spiritually as individuals, and as a community.
When I arrived here in Woodinville in August of 2020, I heard that our Black Lives Matter sign had been defaced, destroyed, or disappeared a number of times prior to my arrival. However, since my ministry here began, the sign has been on display and undisturbed at the bottom of our driveway on Woodinville-Duvall Road.
Until now. Sometime over the weekend, someone spray painted a red X right across the middle of our sign.
Tension has been rising here and all across the country due to ideological differences for awhile now; tension over race, tension over vaccines and mandates and mask wearing. On the surface, these tensions seem to be rooted in differences about having the right thoughts or beliefs. However, I have to wonder about the feelings that are beneath these assumptions.
Why is such a simple, straightforward, and non-threatening statement (“black lives matter”) perceived as a threat, and enough of one that someone thinks it needs to be spray-painted over? Clearly, the vandal associates our sign with more than the simple statement that is on it. This person must associate it with a whole movement, a whole way of being in the world that they disagree with, and probably feel threatened by. I’m guessing that this person is motivated by anger; and under that, fear.
Our response to this anonymous act of vandalism is to clean up our sign, or replace it if it is beyond repair (with gratitude to our Building and Grounds team for prioritizing this among their many responsibilities). The spray paint will not prevent us from affirming that Black Lives Matter. We will continue to say, and normalize, this simple message.
But what can this incident reveal about our internal response? If this person was motivated by anger and fear (as I am only guessing is the case, but have pretty good reasons for thinking so), then what are we motivated to do when we are angry and afraid? How do those emotions impact our actions when we feel them?
I don’t want to presume how any of you might answer that; but for me, I often do not act as my most authentic and best version of myself when my motivation is anger and fear. And so, in those moments when I recognize that I am feeling anger and fear, I can pause for a moment (taking a couple of deep breaths helps), and then ask: what would a response motivated by love look like? What if I act out of love, rather than out of anger and fear? This reframe can often shift me away from the fear, and toward curiosity and compassion.
It’s not enough to take an ideological stance. In fact, taking that stance and digging in can often do more harm than good, as in the case of the spray-painting vandal. We have to be reflective, and go beyond what we believe. We have to be curious about why we believe what we say we do (the feelings that behind the beliefs), and then understand how that motivates us to act. This is as much the purpose of religious community as anything: to seek the truth and learn together. And the truth of our emotions (and how they affect us and motivate us) is just as real as provable facts. So let’s practice, together, being motivated by love.
It is December now, which means we are well into a season of celebrations and gift-giving. If presents are a part of your holiday observances, please remember to add one more person to your list of gift recipients: you!
And (if I may be so bold and presumptuous), I know exactly what you can get for yourself; and that is the present of presence. This time of year is often a busy one, and the ‘hustle and bustle” seems baked in to the season. Amidst this busy (and sometimes frantic) energy, one of the best things you can give yourself is a moment of pause, a moment to be still, a moment to breathe and just be.
A mentor of mine taught me about two kinds of spiritual practices. The first kind she called “on cushion” practices, which are practices that you plan and prepare for, and build into your schedule to do regularly. “On cushion” practices are things like sitting meditation, yoga, and praying before meals or bedtime.
The other kind of spiritual practices she called “off cushion” practices, which are practices that you can keep in your back pocket and use whenever you need to ground and center yourself. These can be as simple as stopping what you are doing to take three (or five, or ten) intentional, slow, deep breaths in… and out. Another one that is popular among Unitarian Universalists is the metta meditation (also called the loving-kindness meditation), which you can recite to yourself: “May I be filled with loving-kindness; may I be well; may I be peaceful and at ease; may I be whole” (then repeat it, but replace the “I” with “you”; then repeat it again using “we”; on the last time through use “all”). This is a way to return our attention and our energy to kindness when we sense ourselves slipping into frustration and anxiety.
I hope this season brings you joy and peace. However, I know that there are more difficult emotions that come along at this time of year too. Whatever you are feeling, it’s okay. The best thing you can do is be attentive and notice, and then be gentle with yourself.
I am thinking of you, and sending you loving-kindness.
A farmer lived in a small house with his wife, many children, and his aging parents. The house was always crowded, noisy, and often messy. The farmer could never seem to find a moment of peace and quiet; so he went to see the rabbi.
“Rabbi,” he said, “my house is full of noise and mess. I cannot get even a moment of peace!”
And the Rabbi told him, “Farmer, you should bring your chickens inside and let them live in the house with you.”
The farmer did this, but did not find peace. Instead, the noise and mess got worse. So he went back to the Rabbi.
“Rabbi,” said the farmer, “I have brought the chickens into the house to live with me and my family, but the noise and the mess have gotten worse, not better. What should I do?”
And the Rabbi told him, “Farmer, you should do the same with your goat as you did with your chickens. Bring it into the house and have it live inside with you.”
The farmer did this, but did not find peace. The goat was not just noisy and messy, but also destructive. So back to the Rabbi he went.
“Rabbi,” said the farmer, “I have done as you told me. The goat and the chickens all live in the house now. But now, the house is not just noisy and messy, things are getting broken. What should I do?”
And the Rabbi told him, “bring your cow into the house to live with you, your family, the goat, and the chickens.”
The farmer did as the Rabbi said, and brought the cow to live inside the house. But the farmer still did not find peace. Instead, the house was noisy and messy, things were getting broken, and it smelled like a barn. So off to the Rabbi he went again.
“Rabbi,” pleaded the farmer, “I don’t think I can take it anymore. I have done as you told me, and brought the chickens, the goat, and the cow to live inside the house with my family. But every time I have done what you said, conditions get worse, not better. I cannot take the noise, mess, and smell any longer!”
And the Rabbi replied, “Farmer, go home now and return the chickens to their coop, the goat to the barn, and the cow to the pasture.”
The farmer went home and did this. And suddenly, his house was so much quieter and less crowded. He felt a sense of peace wash over him.
– – – – – – – – –
I’m excited that we are on the verge of something great: being together again for worship.
And who would have thought that the prospect of simply going to church would be so exciting, or take so much time and energy to plan? Just 20 months ago, going to church was completely unremarkable. And now, the prospect of returning to our church building for worship services feels like a monumental task; and when we do it, we will celebrate it as a huge achievement.
We are going to do something that we have easily done before: we are going to return to in-person church. But like the parable, after a noisy, messy, destructive year and a half that really stunk, we are going to appreciate what we have with a renewed sense of gratitude. Enduring this pandemic has given us a new context, and a new lens through which to see our community.
Right now, most of my time, attention, and energy is going toward our reopening process. It seems strange to me that so much of my ministry right now is doing things my ministerial preparation never prepared me for.I’m looking forward to the peace on the other side of this transition, which is really a transition back to somewhere we’ve been before.
And, it won’t be just like it was before. We can take what we’ve learned (and dare I say, some of the things we liked) about our pandemic time (sweatpants all the time, less traffic/commuting, etc.), and keep them, even as we return to the things we miss from pre-pandemic times, like seeing each other in person.
We’re very close to taking a very big step. My hope is that we are back to in-person services (while retaining the option to attend virtually) by early December. There are just a couple more logistics to work out, but I assure you, we are working on them. In the meantime, just try to tolerate the goat, the cow, and the chickens a little longer. Soon enough, we’ll have our house back.