Last month, our Worship Team collaborated with the folks at Evergreen UU Fellowship in Marysville to do a collaborative service honoring Easter and Passover. It went well, and I think everyone involved learned a lot by shaking things up and doing things a little differently than we normally would. The EUUF folks taught us some things about how they do worship, and we showed them some of what we’ve learned from transitioning to hybrid (in-person and virtual) worship services.
The lesson that sticks with me most from that experience, however, wasn’t about how to use our technology better, or how to construct the Order of Service differently; the lesson that sticks with me most is about the mindset we approach our worship planning with. The Evergreen folks live by the mantra: It’s about connection, not perfection.
I’ve noticed that since going to hybrid services, there have been a lot more roles and volunteer positions added to the Sunday morning worship team. We’ve got people who operate the cameras, people who run the sound board, a Zoomkeeper managing the online experience with the help of a Zoommate ready to jump in if needed. And then there’s the Worship Leader, who works with me to plan the content of the worship service. There are a lot of details to manage, and if I’m being honest, sometimes we get bogged down in the details. Sometimes we get so focused on making sure that all of the details are perfect, that we forget that our goal with the Sunday worship service is not about creating a slick, highly-produced piece of entertainment; it is an opportunity (an invitation, really) to come together, have a communal experience, and renew our spirits. It’s about connection, not perfection.
Now, of course I want our worship services to be interesting and engaging. I want them to be warm and welcoming, whether you attend virtually or in person. But I do find that when I plan and lead worship, I show up more authentically (and the services generally are better quality) when I remember the mantra that Evergreen uses: It’s about connection, not perfection. When this is my orientation, the end result is often better.
I think that this applies to other areas of church life too, not just worship. Have you ever been to a committee meeting that had way too much of the agenda left at the end of the meeting because everyone discussed the details of one item for way too long, trying to get it just perfect? Or have you ever missed the point of what someone tried to share with you because you were focused on the way they worded their statement, rather than what they were trying to express?
I’m guilty of all of these, by the way. And that’s why, when the folks at Evergreen shared their mantra, it really resonated deeply with me. It spoke to a truth that I hold close: we are in community to connect with each other. To support and love one another. We are not in community to perfect (or fix) each other. This is why those “religious” words like Grace and Forgiveness are important: they help a bunch of imperfect people (and we are all imperfect people) get along together. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.
For now, just remember: It’s about connection, not perfection. Repeat as necessary.
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.
As we continue to search for a more normal way of life on the other side of this pandemic, it occurs to me that we are in a liminal space. “Liminal” comes from Latin, and means “threshold.” Physically, it is the space between two other spaces. But often it is used metaphorically to refer to transitional moments in our lives. It is where we find ourselves when we are neither in the place that we have come from, nor at the place we are going. Being in liminal space means in between, and in transition.
Liminal space can be very uncomfortable. Often, we don’t know what waits for us at the other end of our transition, where we will arrive once we have made it past the threshold. This uncertainty can leave us feeling anxious and fearful. The other unsettling thing about liminal space is the uncertainty around how long the transition lasts. Sometimes, we don’t know (as is the case with this pandemic). Not knowing where we are headed or when we might get there can be very uncomfortable.
But liminal space has a positive side, too. Liminal space often leads to opportunities and new possibilities. The uncertainty of liminal space also means that nothing is determined, and much more is possible than when we are definitively “here” or “there.” This means that liminal space often is a place or time for discernment, growth, and transformation.
The pandemic has been (and continues to be) a long, extended liminal space. We’re not intended to be her forever, and eventually, we’ll have gotten through it. As we navigate the late stages of this pandemic, may we look for opportunities and new possibilities as we spend our remaining months of uncertainty deciding who we want to be when we come out the other side.
As we go from summer to fall, the changing season reminds me of how beautiful times of transition can be. May the signs of autumn inspire us, and bring with them the comfort of our favorite fall sweater.
It’s September, which means our ingathering service is just around the corner. Ingathering is the time each year when we return from summer adventures, students prepare to return to school, and we ramp up our church programs and activities. It is a time of joy and celebration at our returning to community again.
I know it was my hope, and the hope of many in our congregation, that we would be able to celebrate our ingathering this year in person. The rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19, however, has made that plan unsafe; and so, we find ourselves preparing for a virtual ingathering for the second year in a row.
Though necessary, this is disappointing to many of us who were hoping to return to worship and fellowship in our beautiful building, and to see each other’s smiling, maskless faces. That day is still coming, just not as soon as we’d hoped.
This year’s ingathering also marks the start of my second year with you as your settled minister. And while it will be the second time going through the cycle of the church year, this year will still hold a lot of firsts. We still have yet to have a worship service in our sanctuary together. I have yet to meet many of you in person. I have yet to teach an Adult Religious Education class, or attend a potluck. Many of the tried-and-true ways of being together in community are not available to us right now, and so, in many ways, our first year together was just a “getting to know each other as we get through this weird and difficult time together” year.
The year we are now beginning together (albeit, still virtually for now) will likely hold more of the hallmarks, practices, and customs that we will engage in together for years to come. And so, I like to think of this coming year as our second “first year” together. We still have a lot of “getting to know you better” to do. We have a lot of breaking bread to do. We have a lot of learning and growing and serving to do. And we will. We will do all of these things in due time.
This year holds many opportunities. I know our hearts are ready and our spirits our willing, but our bodies are vulnerable. So we will wait just a little bit longer. And I know this: our patience will be rewarded. When we do finally have that first worship service in the church building, when we attend that first potluck, or sing together for the first time in months, it will have been worth the wait. Our sacrifice will be rewarded, and it will taste all the sweeter knowing that we did what we had to do to protect ourselves and others.
It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but that second step is just as important. As we continue our journey together, may our second first year hold much-longed-for reunions, many beautiful firsts, and abundant blessings for all.