I am writing this column from down in Canton, Mississippi, some twenty miles north of Jackson where I am attending a writing workshop for clergy entitled “Mapping a Geography of Grace.” I am grateful for the time I have here to write and to listen to other writers and to share in learning both about writing and ministry. It is also a broadening experience to be in the part of the country so different culturally, politically and religiously from my own. And, as is often the case, I am learning that realities here are much more complicated and nuanced than the current public narrative of division and difference portray. I am also learning how the experience of history from very different perspectives has fed these divisions for so long that it will be very hard to heal them. What is happening in Washington, D.C. is proof of that.
October’s worship theme is letting go. Autumn is the season for this, as the leaves turn and then fall; as the days grow shorter and the nights longer. I was going to say it is one of my favorite seasons, but then I realized that what I actually love is the change in seasons we have up here. Autumn is beautiful and cool. It also has a tinge of melancholy to it, as the colors slowly shed and the trees grow bare. It definitely lends itself to turning from what has been toward what is and will be.
When I think where we were last autumn, I see what a difference a year has made. At this time last year, the building was in the last stages of its renovation project and not quite ready for prime time. We had no heat and no electricity in some of the rooms. We were walking on unfinished flooring and the vestry was filled with tools and building materials. The kids didn’t have their own rooms for their faith formation groups. And the elevator, which was really the whole point of the project, was not working yet. It was a bit unsettled. However, everyone did a great job of working around the expected and unexpected chaos.
One of my colleagues told me that it would take a year to eighteen months for us to start to feel settled into the new space. I was glad for her wisdom as I bumped into walls that weren’t there before and looked for doors that no longer existed. Now, it certainly feels much more like home. And it is so welcoming and new. I love watching on Sunday mornings, when the front doors are wide open, people who are just walking by stop to look and even chat with those of us standing on the front steps. I love that folks who need the elevator can just get themselves where they need to be. It is great to have bathrooms upstairs. And new bathrooms at that!
Other pieces of “settling in” take more time and are less obvious: how to use and share our building’s newly configured space. While the renovation makes things more open, we have actually lost space. Two rooms upstairs were sacrificed for the elevator and bathrooms. The parlor, now upstairs, is smaller. While the nursery school that rents from us is using the same amount of space, the space is arranged differently and less flexible than it used to be. We have also become a more popular spot for rentals and requests are coming in. Jessica Volk, our Building and Events Coordinator, is new to the job and figuring out how to support all of us living into our newly arranged church home.
For it is a home, especially for those who have been attending for awhile and whose memory of where to go for what and which rooms is embedded in our bodies as much as our minds. We are having to re-train those muscle memories to accommodate not only a new physical space but new ways of sharing it.
So, we are almost at a year in our new building. We still have some settling and growing into to do over the next few months. Change—even good change, amazing change, transformational change—brings its losses. It requires letting go of familiar patterns. Even if the new ones are better and more in keeping with our commitment to welcome and hospitality, it takes some time to learn how to wear them comfortably. And that’s okay. By this time next year, we will probably think that we have always done it this way.
Among other adventures this summer, I headed down to Sewanee, Tennessee to attend a reunion retreat. During my sabbatical, I had participated in a five retreat series through the Center on Courage and Renewal with this group of wonderful folks. We had not seen each other for almost four years. A lot had changed, not just in our individual lives, but in our country.
I did not realize until I was there how much I needed a sacred pause. Like most people, I carry my share of worry, anxiety and grief within a busy life and full schedule. Once I had time to pause, I realized how disconnected I felt from God, that larger spirit of Love that I trust holds me and all life in “unity that binds us together across time, death and the space between the stars” (to quote David and Beverly Bumbaugh). I felt lonely, abandoned even. It was a dislocated and frankly scary way to start a retreat.
However, as the retreat work went along and I was invited into conversation with my fellow seekers, with the Holy and with my own soul, I realized that the sense of disconnection could be healed by taking the time to engage in this pause—to be still and listen to what was in my heart, even the sad and difficult fears and emotions. In doing so, I made my way back to gratitude and hope.
When I started to think about this newsletter column and a new church year, I initially intended to write about the beauty of the summer, the joy of coming back together and the possibilities of a new year. Then another natural disaster and another mass shooting appeared on the news. It felt trite to write about such things without acknowledging the pain, violence, and environmental threats that are relentless in their regularity. But as my retreat time reminded me, this is the gift and invitation of our beloved community: to offer time for a sacred pause. Tragedy, violence, pain and loss are real. So are joy, beauty, possibility and wonder. The purpose of religious community, I believe, is to hold all of these and honor the truth of them, to discern together how to live an authentic and examined life in beloved community. The more awareness, intention, compassion and care we bring to our lives and our expressions of faith, the more of gratitude, generosity, hope and grace we can both give and receive. Our worship time each Sunday is an opportunity to pause and to listen to what is happening within our own souls and each other’s—to deepen our awareness of what gives us life and hope, even as we name the realities that give rise to anxiety, fear, and even violence and hate. Hopefully, we can ground ourselves and renew our spirits.
For our opening service on Sunday, we will hold the annual water communion. You may bring water from somewhere special to add to the common bowl, if you wish. We will also have water up front to pour in. In preparation, I invite you to take a pause this week and to listen to what is sacred within and around you. Bring that word as an intention or blessing to pour into the common bowl with your water. We will gather these all together to bless our new church year.
We will also be welcoming two people onto our staff. Jennifer Johnson starts as our intern minister, part-time, for one year. She brings a fresh perspective and voice to our worship and ministry. And Jess Volk will serve as our new permanent building and events coordinator (aka sexton). Many thanks to Walter Cole who served as the interim last year after Leila Pelosi stepped down, after two decades. It is great to have both Jenn and Jess join us!
See you on Sunday!