Behind Door Number One or Door Number Two?
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI
My original intention for worship in February was to create a month-long theme, based on transitions and changes. It seemed to me a good idea would be to go deeply into that subject with this congregation, which is so engaged in transitions and changes at this moment. And, while this is a very vibrant and exciting moment in the life of this church, there is a certain amount of anxiety afoot that comes with knowing that things are going to be different, and with knowing that you will all be called upon to make choices that will significantly impact what many of those differences might be.
There is also a certain amount of anxiety that comes from not knowing just how your choices will impact the future of this church. What you do in the search process will surely make a difference in the future of the congregation, but no one has a crystal ball. No one can honestly predict what the choices you make will produce, or how things will turn out. There will be a good number of things that you can know, but you cannot know just what the outcome will be, or what the future holds in store.
It seems that congregational life and our personal lives have a lot in common when it comes to changes and transitions. So I thought my first sermon of this month would be "All My Life's a Circle," based on a song by Harry Chapin with that same title. But then a snow storm blew through causing us to cancel services on January 24. Because this congregation has identified stewardship as one of the areas you especially need and want to pay attention to this year, I rescheduled the sermon on stewardship for this past week instead of preaching on the theme I planned. Maybe unexpected changes should always be expected. If you missed that one, you can still hear it or read it by going to our website.
Just a few words of what I had intended to mention last week though. From the chorus of the Harry Chapin song:
All my life's a circle, sunrise and sundown.
The moon rolls through the nighttime,
Till the daybreak comes around.
All my life's a circle and I can't tell you why,
The season's spinnin' round again, the years keep rollin' by.
In the smallest nutshell I can contain it in, what I wanted to relate to you last week was something that we each already know, and that is that everything, every minute is always in transition, and that transition is always compelling and impelling us towards change. Sometimes we forget that reality, and we need to be reminded. Sometimes the rhythms of change and tempo of our transition are slow and easy. At other times, like now, they come at rocket speed and we are reminded in the flash of a moment, "Oh yeah, it couldn't have stayed that way forever, anyway." Seasons are spinning round again and the years do, indeed, keep rolling by.
What I would've said last week is this - if a congregation is alive and vibrant (as opposed to dead or sleeping), that means it is evolving. This congregation is quite alive, and after 300 years of history, it is still evolving dynamically. A transition year, from one ministry to the next, is an opportunity for this congregation to engage intentionally in the re-creation of the community that you all want to become, that you all want to be a part of. The point I wanted to make was: since we are in a constant state of evolving and revolving, we might as well make the most of what we have in the creation of what yet can be.
We can either sit back, accepting whatever comes down the pike, or we can choose to be co-creators in the process of building the road we'll use to travel towards our future. This is as true for congregational life as it is in our personal lives. We can choose to be actors or we can allow ourselves to be acted upon. This congregation is vibrantly alive and you can take that to the search process bank! That's what I wanted to say last week, so I think that brings us up to date.
This week I want to move into exploring the discomfort that often comes when we are actually faced with having to make choices that will have significant impact on the future. One of the things worth remembering at such times is that anxiety isn't usually very helpful - but a good sense of humor almost always is. I'm reminded of a story that speaks to both anxiety and humor in the face of making choices.
An angel suddenly appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean of the college that, in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, he will be given his choice of infinite wealth or infinite wisdom. Without hesitating, the dean (as so many of us might) selected infinite wisdom. "Done!" says the angel, who then disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning.
All the members of the faculty turn towards the dean, now surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of the colleagues whispers, "Can you say something to us that's wise?" The dean looks at them and declares, "I should have taken the money."
Spiritual healer and teacher Deepak Chopra makes another observation:
If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another.
The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience.
If this sounds too mystical, refer again to the body. Every significant vital sign - body temperature, heart rate, oxygen consumption, hormone level, brain activity, and so on - alters the moment you decide to do anything ... decisions are signals telling your body, mind, and environment to move in a certain direction. (Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life)
This congregation is in transition and facing many changes, in much the same way that many, if not all, of us here are in a state of transition and facing many changes in our personal lives. There are always choices to be made if we are not going to simply take what comes along. There are always choices to be made, if we are going to be actors and co-creators.
In our reading this morning we heard the sentiments of Goethe through the words of W. H. Murray, words that encourage us to take an active role, whether it be in our individual lives or in the life of the church:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth - that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no [person] could have dreamed would have come his way.
And so, to act in the midst of transition and change, we need first to relax (humor can help us do that!); then we need to discern the terrain, determining who we are, where we are, and what choice might best enable us to step towards the promise of a fulfilling future. This step requires that we muster our courage as well. And then we need to rely on our faith, a faith that the universe really wants for us to succeed when our attempt is to be in service to the universe, in service to All-That-Is.
I've had several conversations with your Search Committee and with individual members of it. One of the things we've talked about repeatedly has been that when the committee has identified the right candidate to bring before the congregation, it will have done so when all of the committee members together feel strongly and without reservation that they have recognized the minister who is the right fit for this congregation. They will simply know, because together they will all feel and experience the truth of it. And then they will bring that process back here to you.
In the period of an eight-day week, you all will have the opportunity to meet, talk with, listen to, and imagine with the candidate that they have selected. It's not likely in a congregation this size that you will enjoy the same unanimity which the Search Committee will rely on. But I trust that, in your deliberations, you will relax and employ humor; you will exercise due diligence in discerning the fit between you and the candidate. You will make your choice in confidence; and then, in faith, you will step into a future, a future which includes service to all of you here, service to the larger community, service to the environment, service to All-That-Is.
So, have faith. It's okay to choose what's behind door number one, and it’s okay to choose what's behind door number two. The more important thing will be, as it always is, what you will do with the choices you will have made. Remember, "Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."
In hope, in faith, in action, amen!