First Universalist Society in Franklin
Rev. Jenny M. Rankin
September 25, 2015
Reading: Crossing a Creek by Martha Courtot
crossing a creek
requires 3 things:
a certain serenity of mind
and a sure trust
that the snake we know
just beyond our vision
will choose to ignore
that cuts through
and we will pass through
some people think crossing a creek
but I say this—
all crossings are hard,
whether creeks, mountains,
or into other lives
and we must always believe
in the snakes at our feet
just out of our vision
and we must practice believing
we will come through.
* * *
So this is my third Sunday here with you in this sanctuary. It is all still very new for me, and I would hazard to guess, for you as well. You had Carol here with you for 29 years. That’s a long time. From listening to you in these past few weeks I gather there is a whole range of emotions here. There’s some loss, probably some anxiety, some confusion about what’s going to happen next. All of that is natural and normal. It’s what congregations go through after the departure of a settled minister.
So thank you for being here this morning. I don’t take it lightly. It’s not always easy to shift over from the lazier rhythm of summer. It’s not always easy to get the kids packed up and dressed and out the door on a Sunday morning. Getting here today was a commitment for you, with or without kids. I appreciate that. Perhaps it feels odd not have your familiar leader up here. Perhaps the last year or two, with its transitions and challenges was almost too much for you, you questioned whether you could come back to church this fall. Thank you for being here.
Some of you can’t imagine not being here on a Sunday. This is your spiritual home and your community and this time together is essential to you. Thank you for your faithful presence. And if you’re visiting today, we are so glad you are with us. Thank you for being here. I don’t take it lightly. People make different choices when it comes to an interim period like this one. There are those who choose to step up and get more engaged. There are those who choose to sit out an interim period, Sit it out and wait for the “new minister.” There are those for whom it doesn’t make much difference, one way or another. Whoever you are, whatever you carry here in your heart today, I’m glad you’re here
I called my sermon “Crossings” and I chose the poem above because I wanted to talk about those times in our lives that we cross over, from one chapter to another. Some are small, part of the natural course of life– A child crosses over from pre-school to kindergarten, from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, or moves out of the house to live away for the first time.
Some crossings are less routine– Crossings happen to us when we sit in the doctor’s office and they come back with a piece of news, when we decide to end a relationship, or begin one, when we start a new job or take something to the next level. Right now, this community is beginning a journey from one chapter to another. That is a kind of crossing, if you will.
Transitions—the in-between times in our lives—can make us feel unsettled. That’s normal, yet it can still surprise us. Somehow, it can seem like we’ve lost our footing. Things are a little off kilter. As human beings we struggle to make sense of it, to come to terms with it, wanting, with a part of our selves, for things to be back the way they were even though we know, with another part of us, that cannot happen.
“Crossings are hard,” writes the poet, “Whether creeks, mountains or into other lives”
* * *
So it’s early days. We’re just getting started. It’s going to take some time for us to get to know one another, to begin to find our way forward together on this new expedition. Its early days here. And I can’t really venture a guess at all what you are thinking and feeling at this time. I’m hoping in the days ahead, as I begin to meet you in smaller groups, I’ll get a chance to hear from each one of you—to hear about your experience here, get a chance to listen to your perspective on this community at this critical time in its history.
In October, we’ll hold a series of Listening Circles, small groups of 10 or 12. These are not for debate or discussion, but literally, a time to listen to one another, to hear one another out. “How’s it going?” Tell us about your experience here What do you appreciate? What do you worry about? It’s a chance for take the pulse, if you will, of where you are at and how it’s going, as you begin this journey together, this crossing, his in-between time, this time between settled ministers.
Before you can forge on together to call a new minister, you need to regroup, to figure out who you are as a community, what you most deeply care about, where you want to go.
This transition time is for you to listen to each other, to all your different voices, to all your different visions of what this place is now and what it could be. It’s a chance for you to listen to each other and then to try to pull together the wisdom of the group. The group conscience if you will. And to spell it out for any new minister candidate to see.
This is our unique identity. We are the First Universalist Society of Franklin. This is who we are and what we most deeply care about and what we feel called to do and to be in the world.
That takes some work, some reflection, some thinking. It’s not easy. After a long settled ministry, now is the time for stretching your muscles for trying some new things, for experimenting, for taking a second look. What are we good at here? What are we not so good at? We’ve been doing these things this way. Do we want to keep doing them? Do we not? Why? Why not? What do we want to preserve here? What would we like to see be done differently?
This is a time for curiosity, for open minds. It’s a terrific time for learning– learning about who you are and What voices are in the room. Are there some new voices that perhaps you haven’t heard from yet? Are there some long time voices that feel like they’ve been lost in the crowd? A piece of your history that has been forgotten or pushed aside?
This is not easy work, figuring out ways for everyone to feel included, for every voice to be heard, to somehow take the pulse of the community, to somehow democratically decide on who you are and where you want to go. This is not easy work.
But that’s why you have this splendid team of individuals who have stepped up to serve as the Transition Team. That’s why you have me here as a guide. They will be finding ways for this community to come together this year, to have fun, to be engaged, to be learning from one another, and in the end, to articulate its unique identity and its ideas about where it wants to go next, what matters most deeply, how it can serve the wider world. All of this work we do this year will be a kind of foundation for what the Search Committee does next year. They can’t go out and look for a candidate until they have a clear picture, a kind of snapshot, of who this community is at this point in time, identity, vision, values.
* * *
So that’s what we’re about here, you and I, in the months to come. It’s quite an expedition isn’t it? It can be kind of confusing. It can be kind of exciting
Transition times can be hard. Crossings can be hard. No two ways about it. What helps? The poet suggests 3 things: bare feet, serenity of mind and willingness to believe we will come through.
I like all of these but especially the “serenity of mind” part which I translate into the word “trust.” I’ll end today with a story about trust, our ability to trust—in something beyond ourselves, trust in the divine, in the universe, in some goodness deeper than we can fathom.
Let me tell you a story.
Each summer I return to a finger of land stretching out into the Atlantic ocean where the air smells of honeysuckle and bayberry, the wind wraps around me, the waves roll in and my family and I slow down, recollect ourselves, let our souls seep and simmer in that beauty all around us. The stars and wind and water drench into us and we are made new again. And so one morning in August, one sunny blue-sky morning, I found myself swimming in the open ocean, head down, salt water in mouth and eyes, trying to do the front crawl in waves that seemed to get bigger by the minute. It was just a morning swim with a friend, no big deal. She is training for a triathlon; I’m along for the ride. But the waves are choppy today, and sea grass is everywhere. Intellectually, I know it’s all ok, that we are close to shore that there are no big fish in these waters, no, God forbid, sharks. That those dark mysterious shapes under the water are just rocks with seaweed, nothing more. My head tells me one thing. My stomach says something else. Butterflies, the first tinge of anxiety. “Swimming in the open ocean is not for the faint of heart,” I think to myself.
I pick my head up out of the water and through foggy goggles try to search for the shoreline. Ok, there it is, not too far away. Put my head back down, few strokes more, a little more sea grass, some more choppy waves, are they getting bigger are they pushing me this way or that? I raise my head and find the lime green bathing cap of my friend, bobbing nearby me. She’s a strong swimmer, taught high school in the Bronx for 10 years, the kind of person you’d follow almost anywhere. I see her lime cap and the panic recedes a little. And then I remember a poem that I love called “First Lesson” by Philip Booth. It’s about teaching his child how to swim.
“Lie back daughter….
Remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.”
I remember I can roll over on my back and float for a while if I need to, and my anxiety recedes even more.
I still believe that swimming in the open ocean is not for the faint of heart. But at least for today, I can do it. As long as I can look up and see that shore, as long as I can look up and see that lime-green bathing cap, bobbing along in the waves. As long as I know I can always flip over onto my back and trust that the sea will hold me, trust that life will carry me through.
* * *
We have started out on an expedition together, A crossing, if you will. I’ve had a few crossings in my own life. Like you, I know they aren’t easy. But with the authenticity of those bare feet, cultivating, always, a greater sense of trust, and with our believing that we WILL come through, I think we’ll be just fine. It’s an honor to be with you starting out on this journey together.