Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Mysterious Us, a goodbye sermon to DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church by Reverend Tom Capo


Once upon a time, there was a puppet made of salt who had traveled a long time through dry places and deserts until one evening he came to the sea.  He had never before seen anything like it and didn’t know what it was…  The puppet asked the sea: “Who are you?”  “I am the sea” it replied.  “But” the puppet insisted “what is the sea?”  “I am.”  “I don’t understand” said the puppet made of salt.  The sea replied, “That’s easy, touch me.”  The salt puppet timidly touched the sea with the tip of his toes.  At that moment he realized that the sea began to make itself perceptible, but at the same time he noticed the tips of his toes had disappeared.  “What have you done to me?” He cried to the sea.  “You have given a little of yourself to understand me,” the sea replied.  Slowly the salt puppet began to walk into the sea with great solemnity as though he were about to perform the most important act of his life.  The further he moved along, the more he dissolved, but at the same time he had the impression that he knew more and more about the sea.  Again and again the puppet asked, “What is the sea?” until the wave covered him completely.  Just before he was entirely dissolved by the sea he exclaimed “I exist!”


When I first started the called minister of DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church (DUUC) four and a half years ago, I wrote this in the August 2014 newsletter:  “So it begins.  Your newly called minister has finally come to join you.  After all he said during Candidating Week, what will he actually do?  Is he going to change everything? No, I am not going to change everything.  But I will bring some new ideas.  As Francis David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”  This is how I hope my ministry with you will be—we do not always need to think alike as we work together but we will love alike as we share our lives with one another.   I want to hear what your ideas and beliefs are, and I will share with you some of my ideas and beliefs.  I will always keep in my heart and mind that this is your church, and that I am here to serve as your minister.  And that what we do here is a shared effort.”

When I looked over the search packet that you put together about this church I remember reading that one of your interim ministers once told you that this was your church and that you were the ones responsible for its welfare.  And that you took that to heart.  I wasn’t surprised; I was really amazed that you not only believed that, you acted on it.  I remember that within two months of my arrival, the Board planned to have a congregation-wide visioning workshop.  Well over a third of this congregation participated.  This sanctuary was filled with flip charts, while small groups of you considered what you have had here, what you have now, and what you want for the future of this church.  I thought “Wow, these people don’t mess around.  When they say they are going to do something they do it. I may their spiritual leader, but this is their church.”  I had not experienced such a high, active level of shared ownership before in a congregation.

         One of the memories that I cherish from my time here was early on in my ministry.  I put an ad in the October 2014 newsletter asking if anyone was interested in starting a Social Justice Committee.  Hoping maybe 8 or so people would show up I reserved the Clara Barton room.  When I went up to that room on that November 9 afternoon, it was overflowing, people sitting, standing all around, 30 plus people crammed in that small room, all hungering to do justice work.  We introduced ourselves and told each other why we felt compelled to attend this meeting. Some of you wanted to work on reproductive justice, some domestic battery, some income equality, some animal rights. Some just wanted to be part of a group effort to accomplish effective change in the world.  Some were interested in not only helping people in need but also in addressing the roots of the issues by changing laws.  In that first meeting, you chose co-chairs, decided to talk with more people in the congregation, decided to find one social justice initiative that the whole congregation could get behind, considered resources you had available, what outreach you wanted to do, how you might energize the congregation about social justice, so many things.  This congregation’s hunger for justice work has tremendous energy, resilience, and creativity.  And soon your hard work toward those dreams of a better, more just world resulted the SMILE Project, a summer mentorship program.  You truly are a “deeds not creeds” congregation, fairly unique in my experience.

         Differences can be difficult to manage in any church, but even more so in a Unitarian Universalist church with people of broadly diverse beliefs.  But while I have been here I have had experiences that affirm for me that it is really possible to own our differences and still grow in love.  One of the memories I treasure is the Sunday service that Scott Thompson, one of the leaders of Science Sunday and the Humanist group here at DUUC, and I put together called “Perspectives on Science and Religion.”  I began that service by telling you: “[Scott and I] had dinner a month or so ago and talked about the relationship between science and religion.   You probably will not be surprised to hear that our perspectives were different, but it may surprise you to hear our points-of-view shared some similarities.  What we hope to do here this morning is recreate, in part, the dynamic we shared that night in a convivial, relaxed setting where everyone involved shared their points of view with no goal of trying to persuade the other into changing their own viewpoints.  Rather, we simply wanted to learn more about each other’s perspectives on some the essential questions of life.  Our deep affection and genuine respect for each other meant that we could have meaningful conversations about our different understandings of the relationship between science and religion.  It was a great night where we truly lived our values with regard to our Unitarian Universalist Principles of accepting one another and affirming that our individual searches for truth and meaning may lead to different places.”  While differences of perspective have influenced my leaving this church, I treasure the many times when we were able to share our differences with love, respect, and affirmation, grounded in and living our Unitarian Universalist Principles.  The service that Scott and I led that Sunday was unscripted; it was a genuine conversation that engaged all the people who were present.  That Sunday is a treasured memory. 

          I would be delinquent if I didn’t mention the quality of music here at DuPage.  When I was installed as your minister in March of 2015, I asked Vickie Hellyer, our choir director, to have the choir perform “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles, and she was happy to do so.  But here’s the thing, she didn’t just have the choir sing, she asked Art Freedman and the brass section he had recruited for the service to play during “All You Need Is Love”.  I swear when the choir sang, with the brass backup, I felt like I was listening to the Beatles live in this sanctuary.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Art also insisted that the brass play a joyful fanfare when I entered the room for the installation.  I was overwhelmed. And this choir doesn’t just sing.  No, I believe you have a Show Choir here.  Vickie choreographs where the choir will be, how and when they will move, always keeping in mind what will most effectively support the worship experience.  In addition to the choir, there are so many talented singers and musicians in this church who have performed in Sunday Services, like Jim and Becky today.  The quality of music I have experienced here, music that has supported the Sunday services, really has surpassed much of the musical programming I’ve experienced before coming to this church. 

          I ran across this poem by Robert Bly, called the “Third Body”, while preparing for this sermon:

 A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long

At this moment to be older, or younger, or born

In any other nation, or any other time, or any other place.

They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking.

Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.

The man sees the way his fingers move;

He sees her hands close around a book she hands to him.

They obey a third body that they share in common.

They have promised to love that body.

Age may come; parting may come; death will come!

A man and a woman sit near each other;

As they breathe they feed someone we do not know,

Someone we know of, whom we have never seen.

          What is this third body that Bly speaks of in his poem?  It is the liminal shared edges where two or more people dissolve into one another, like the salt puppet and the sea, becoming so interconnected that their relationship unfolds into a mysterious us, in addition to what each person is individually, fed with love and shared experiences.  And sometimes the mysterious us creates and achieves amazing things. 

            As I wrote these last words, I thought not only will I have to grieve leaving each of you in this wonderful, amazing congregation, I also have to grieve leaving this third body, this mysterious us.  The things we have been to each other, the experiences we have had with each other, and all the things we have accomplished together.  Recently I was talking to Ian Evison, the Regional Lead for the Mid America Region of the UUA, doing my exit interview as part of leaving this church.  He asked “what were the positive achievements of the minister and congregation during your ministry?”  So I started listing all the things the congregation and I have achieved while I have been here.  The staff and I developed into a collaborative working team.  The congregation and I developed a social justice committee that now operates under strong, effective leadership.  The Social Justice Committee and I developed the SMILE project.  The congregation developed a strategic plan.  The AV Team began live-streaming services.  Jean McCullum and the Green Sanctuary Committee got solar panels for the church.  Steve Cooper, Director of Religious Education, Mary Law, Congregational Life Director, and I started whole church ministry.  The Social Justice Committee started a monthly social justice forums. Congregation members started a new pagan group.  I, with a team of dedicated facilitators, started spiritual direction groups.  I started a thriving Christian theology and history group.  The Christian Theology and History group and I brought the Jesus Seminar on the Road to this church three times. This congregation hosted the Parkland high school students.  And the list went on and on.  I noticed that my answers to Ian’s other questions were much shorter than my answer to this question.  And I felt sadness thinking about losing the mysterious us and all that we have accomplished together.  I felt I had dissolved myself into this congregation, like the salt puppet dissolved into the sea, and now I have to leave.

          But recently, as my heart has begun to open a little, I realized something; I am really not saying goodbye to the mysterious us.  I realized that you are part of me now.  You have given me a taste of what a can-do congregation is like, so within me now is a hunger to help other congregations own their churches, to help them understand that the church is about them, not about their minister.  You have given me a taste for social justice that changes people’s lives, now within me is a hunger for social justice that impacts real lives as well as changes laws.  You have given me a taste for having difficult conversations that are respectful and loving, so now I have a hunger for difficult, and loving and respectful conversations, conversations that many people can engage in together, so we can better understand one another.  You have given me a taste of beautiful music with talented and creative performers, and now I have a hunger for consistently outstanding music, music that brings people more deeply into worship and offers them a different path to transformation.  I know how to satisfy this hunger because I know what of my experiences with you.

The mysterious us is not just about who we are together, it is who we have become by being together and that mystery will continue when we are separated from one another.

As in all meaningful and mysterious relationships, the deeper the love the deeper the pain when separation occurs.  Thus it is that I feel a piercing sadness over leaving each of you.  And while we each will experience this change in different ways, I have some solace in my heart knowing that I will continue to carry the mysterious us that we created together within me.  It is with that I say from deep in my heart, Namaste.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering Life's Gifts and Grace by Reverend Tom Capo

Reading: The Gift by Unitarian Universalist, Reverend David Blanchard
Sometimes I think I can teach my children things that will make life better for them as they grow up.  I want to believe I can protect them, or that there is some way for me to do their learning for them.  This line of thinking is routinely flawed, not because my children are poor learners, but because I’m not always the best teacher.  Despite my efforts to avoid repeating mistakes, I’m still learning things I thought I knew.  Just last year I mistook a gift for a present. 
This gift was a homemade potholder woven of colorful scraps of cloth.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t beautiful.  It wasn’t particularly unusual.  Accepting it as a present, I placed it into service beside the stove.
Four days before Christmas I was called to officiate at a memorial service for a friend.  Talking with her five and nine year old daughters, I asked what things they liked to remember about their mom.  What things did they do together?  What had she taught them?  They were busy, deep at work on a gift-making project, but they expressed some memories that mattered, and recounted some gifts their mother had shared with them: making cookiess…snuggling in bed…being their Brownie leader…planting bulbs.  Then the nine year old looked down and said, “And she taught us how to make these potholders!”
Of course!  A gift! How could I miss it!
 Presents are the sort of thing that fit on lists, complete with size and color preference.  Presents are the sorts of things we are smart enough to ask for.  Gifts are altogether different.  We don’t usually think to ask for them, perhaps we think we don’t deserve them, or don’t want to risk expressing the need.  Maybe we don’t even recognize the need ourselves.  Gifts differ from presents because no matter what form they take, they always represent something greater, something deeper, something more enduring; they are about things like love, respect, and affirmation…They can be easy to miss.

When preparing for the service today, I came across this reading about the difference between gifts and presents.  I wondered how often I notice that difference.  At Thanksgiving, the ritual is that my mother puts a piece of paper on the refrigerator and everyone is supposed to write what they want for Christmas and their sizes and color preferences.  Then on Christmas day, we generally get some of the things on the list.  But the unexpected, thoughtful, or confusing gifts are much more fun.  Isn’t that true for you too?  My aunt has been making pottery now for the past couple years, and everyone in the family gets something that she has made: plates, bowls, wall hangings—most of which have a Cajun theme or New Orleans theme.  They have crawfish or beads or floats or Mr. Bingle on them.  These gifts are reflective of who she is and of our family’s heritage.  In addition she makes sure to send something she has made especially for each of us.  A one of a kind item that often we have no idea what to do with, but love none the less.
            Recently, let’s say in the past few weeks, I have come to realize that gifts are not limited to things, just as Reverend Blanchard realized.  I have been going through a lot, and many of you, realizing this, have given me a number of gifts, not presents, gifts, things I didn’t think to ask for, wasn’t sure I deserved, or didn’t want to risk expressing the need for—either to myself or to you.  Gifts of love, respect, and affirmation.  Someone invited me on a walk in the woods and then gave some wooden worry birds he had carved; you know you hold them in your hands and rub them while you think, reflect, or worry; rubbing the wood is soothing and calming.  And someone offered me a helpful discussion on how to manage grief.  Some have offered hugs and some reference letters.  I didn’t even think about asking for reference letters until one of you came into my office and asked if I needed one.  Others of you have offered to go out to lunch, or dinner, or a coffee just to talk, not about anything in particular, just to talk.  These gifts--offered in the spirit of love—are things I very much appreciate and I will remember.   
            I know this might sound strange, but these gifts made me stop and consider how lucky I am, how blessed I am, how much abundance there is in my life.  I have more than things than I need, I have more love in my life than I could have ever hoped to have. I am blessed by the Universe or the divine or by life.  Now this might sound strange coming from a Unitarian Universalist minister, but here’s the thing, I believe that there is an abundance of grace in the world in every moment, if we just take time to mindfully take it in.   Grace is the unexpected, undeserved, wonderful, (often needed things) often unwarranted kindnesses that life offers.  I don’t think grace is found; I believe that grace is there for us to notice.
            Unitarian Universalist Reverend Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar wrote in her book Fluent on Faith:  “A cartoon in the New Yorker a while back shows bicyclists in four panels.  In the first, a young man in sleek cycling attire pedals away while the balloon over his head captures his thinking, “Fitness.”  In the second, a woman with baskets and saddlebags filled with bundles thinks, “Environment.”  In the third, a teenager thinks, “Independence.”  And in the last, a young child, smiling ear to ear, thinks simply, “Wind.”
            When I read about this cartoon, I remember how when I was in college at Texas Christian University, I used to take walks on winter nights, often all by myself, from my dorm to a little park about a six blocks away.   I remember the joy I felt just breathing in the cold air.  I felt the cold air was an unexpected special gift, invigorating me, making me smile, something just for me that I needed though until I breathed in I didn’t know I needed or even wanted it.  
            Right after that memory popped into my mind, I left my office here and went outside.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  The cold air filled my lungs and I felt the same joy that I did all those years ago.  I smiled and let my mind wander, opening my mind to all the other unexpected, undeserved, wonderful things that pass through my life every moment of every day.  The sound of a bird turweet turweet turweet.  The breeze against my skin.  Even the wonder of being able to balance on two legs or even one.  I know these may sound like little things, but they bring joy to my heart when I just stop and notice them. 
            In these past few weeks I am taking more time to notice the little things, embrace them, feel gratitude for them.  And I am feeling the abundance of gifts and grace in my life.  I have more than I need and my spirit is full.  I have more than enough to share. 
            When was your homemade potholder or Mr. Bingle plate moment? When was your last “wind” or “deep breath of cold air” moment?  Life will continue to offer these moments every day.  It's up to us now to stop and notice.