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.
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