Living in the Future

Sunday, May 28, 2017
Rev. Rebecca Benefiel Bijur
Rev. Rebecca's last full sermon from our pulpit, which will conclude her ongoing series on leave-taking with reflections on her seven years at UUCCSM.
Sermon Text: 

Living in the Future
A Sermon on Leavetaking for the UU Community Church of Santa Monica
Rev. Rebecca Benefiel Bijur
May 28, 2017

As my time with you in ministry comes to its close, some of you have asked me what I wish I had known when you called me as your minister seven years ago. This week as I thought about all the memories we have made together, I realized I wanted to write a letter to my former self, offering some hard-won advice and counsel to the minister I was seven years ago. Here is that letter, written as if it had been delivered to me on the day I accepted your call, which was May 9, 2010...
Dear Past Rebecca,
Congratulations on accepting your first call! Years from now, the people who were with you today will still remember what it felt like to watch you and your husband and your infant daughter come forward through those packed pews, as the congregation rose to its feet and clapped and cheered to see you say YES to their call. They will remember that you came to the microphone and said, I don’t know what to say, and that people were laughing and people were crying, also.
Right now all you can think about is getting everything set up for your cross-country move, saying goodbye to your life in Boston and heading about as far West as you can go. The last thing you need, or have asked for, is advice and counsel from a more experienced minister. But now that I’ve served in parish ministry for ten years – you’ve done 3 – there are seven things I hope you will consider as you begin this ministry with the good people of Santa Monica.
1. Practice self-compassion. The Buddhist author Pema Chodron often teaches about maitri, a Sanksrit word meaning “unconditional friendship with one’s self.” She believes that to befriend oneself is a fundamental practice of compassion, without which we are unlikely to be able to be kind or generous with others. And as another colleague told me recently, you can’t get through life without making mistakes. So since you are going to make mistakes, practice taking responsibility for your mistakes, making amends when you can, and learning from them if possible.
Remember that no one can learn when someone is being mean to them. So be kind to yourself. Practice maitri and help your self-compassion muscles get strong. It will help your compassion muscles get stronger, too.
2. Direction is more important than speed. In some ways, a congregation is a lot like an aircraft carrier. It’s built for endurance and for what it can carry more than agility and how fast it can go, and turning the ship to move in a new direction takes a long time and usually follows a long chain of command. Remember that all ministers are ultimately interim ministers, because we will come and we will go, but if we do our work well, the congregation will live on and on. So choose to value direction more than speed; moving in the direction of clarity, caring communication, of connection, learning, and growth is more important than how fast you are seeing results.
3. Don’t be afraid to say “Ouch! That hurts!” Ministers, like leaders in so many other parts of our lives, are giant projection screens, and everyone brings pre-conceived ideas of what the minister – or the leader – should or shouldn’t look like, act like, say or do into every interaction they have. These projections not about you and you will not be able to control them. But from time to time, you may be tempted to go along with these projections, if they are positive, and wanting to be seen as more compassionate, more generous, and more forgiving than you really are. Try to restrain that impulse. Your humanity and imperfections are some of the most powerful parts of your ministry, too. When you get hurt, say ouch, that hurts. Try not to let people think that they hand out armor for your heart, or turtle shells to guard your back, at seminary along with the diplomas and advanced degrees.
4. Try to learn from your critics as well as from those who praise you. Just because someone is criticizing you doesn’t mean that they don’t have something you can learn from them. That said, it’s hard to learn when someone is being harsh, mean, or unkind as well as critical – see #1, self-compassion. Try to help the congregation figure out the best ways to deliver disappointing news so that it can be said and heard with compassion... keep moving in the direction of growth and learning.
5. When in doubt, hold up a mirror to your people. Reflect back to them what you hear and what you see from them, so they can see themselves in a new light, through your eyes and ears. Ask, is this what you mean? Ask, how might this serve our faith and our people and our community? Ask, what are we here to do together? What is our purpose as a congregation? Ask, not so much so what, as for what? What is the North Star that allows us to navigate and find our way forward, as a community not just as individuals? Keep asking these questions. Keep listening to the answers.
6. Remember the past. Learn about the history of the church from the archives as well as from those who are still here who lived that history. Not only will it tell you how to live in the present, but it will also shine a light on how you can live into the unfolding future. It is your task, as minister, to honor the legacy of those who came before you – if not for the reasons I have just given then because you know that one day, it will be your picture up on the wall, and someone else will be telling your history from this pulpit. Tell the stories of the past so that others who were not here will come to know them. Celebrate milestones and anniversaries and traditions that will hold the community and make memories come alive as they return to them year after year after year. And when you do so, consider challenging yourself and others to tell both stories – what past UUA President, and current Co-Interim President Bill Sinkford called the “feel good” stories of when we got it right, as well as the “feel bad” stories of conflict, failure, all those times we wish we could forget, the times when we really got it wrong.
We need all the stories about our past. As I write this, from the future, the news is filled with images of statues telling one story about America’s history, statues that are finally coming down, statues glorifying the leaders of the Confederacy that have stood for decades in the public spaces of the historic city of New Orleans. Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of the city of New Orleans who has led the effort to remove the statutes, has received death threats for what his critics call his attempt to erase history. But Landrieu is not erasing history; he is telling another kind of story.
Landrieu speaks passionately about the pride of New Orleans in its history, but he also says, there are other truths...that we must confront; he means there are other histories, true histories, to which no monuments or memorials have yet been built.
In New Orleans, that story is the story of serving as a port by which thousands of enslaved people were traded, bought and sold; where hundreds of people were lynched; and where the courts made “separate but equal” the law of the land. These are some of the most “feel bad” stories we can tell about our American history. But they are true, too. The author James Baldwin told us, Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.'
And so, the time will come when you will need to tell not only the “feel good” stories about how we sent Ernie to Selma, Alabama, on a life-changing mission of spiritual commitment and moral courage, about how we have been affirming civil unions since the 1950s, but the “feel bad” stories, too: stories of failure, stories of values in conflict. These stories shape us, too. They are with us, hidden in the walls and under the floorboards. They are in our church and in our denomination and in our nation.
And it will be your work to face them, together.
7. Finally, and you may not believe me when I tell you this, but someday you’ll need to find a place to keep all the notes of appreciation and thanks you will receive for your work, for the work of the church that you have nurtured, and you will feel a sense of love beyond all measure. Try to let in the love. Try to amplify the love and send it back out again. When the cost has been high and the news is not good, when you are weary and in need of strength, when this ministry has come to an end and it is time to make a new beginning elsewhere, then the time will come when you will pull out those notes and mementos, and hold on to them, every cherished memory of the very best parts of your ministry: the lives and hearts that you have touched, and who have touched yours.
In those days you will remember the circle of grief that came together when tragedy came to the congregation, and to the community. How we lit candles together and shared memories together and held one another close.
You will remember the joyful news of a new baby on the way, and the way that child has been loved and cherished by the congregation every day since then.
You’ll remember wondering every Sunday if the people would come, and then seeing them come to church, again and again, all those brave souls.
You’ll remember the high heat of division and conflict among us, the days of being a lightening rod, and how we brought the heat down, how difficult and painful it was, and how the work continues.
You’ll remember the building projects and the constant work of stewarding the resources we have inherited for the future, and it will be your turn to plant the trees and dig the wells so that those who come after you will walk in the shade and drink from those deep springs.
You’ll remember the fundraising drives and the practices of generosity. You’ll remember how people gave to this church not only for all it is or has been, but also to its promise, to what it might yet be and become.
You’ll remember the weddings in the courtyard, covered in blossoms, and in the sanctuary, and the memorial services, too, every extraordinary life that we remembered together.
Yes, you will remember this. Long after the years of your ministry here have come to an end, as all ministries do, you will remember.
These things, you will never forget.
With love,
Future Rebecca
Please rise in body or in spirit and join in singing our closing hymn #1028, The Fire of Commitment, #1028.
When you leave this place,
Practice self-compassion
Remember that sometimes direction is more important that speed.
When you are hurt, don’t be afraid to say ouch, that hurts.
Try to learn from those who criticize you as well as those who praise you, but remember that no one can learn when someone is being mean to them. Be kind to yourself.
When in doubt, hold up a mirror to those around you, so that they can see and hear themselves more clearly.
Remember the past, both the feel good and the feel bad stories.
And finally, when all is said and done, never forget let the love in, love beyond all measure. If you forget everything else, remember that.
May it be so.

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