"Persistence"

Worship Script 4


Worship Script (4 of 4)

Learning the Practice of Persistence

 

OPENING WORDS

Be Still With Me and Enter by Marta I. Valentin

 

Be still with me and enter

ino the crescent fold of my arm

as I gather you to this time and space

wind your thoughts like a river

toward the center of who we are:

this morning as one body, and out among others in the world.

Be still with me as enter into this celebration

of resilience and resurrection.

for we are vessels eternally rising

out of the water,

alive,

with a purpose and strength unknown to us.

Be still with me and enter, quietly,

into this place of unbound love and gratitude.

 

HYMN #338 I Seek the Spirit of a Child

 

FIRST READING
Good Intentions and Incomplete Efforts,  by Sean Parker Dennison, from Braver/Wiser

I’ve been doing a lot of guest preaching lately and it’s always a little awkward. I often don’t know how the congregation is used to doing things. Recently I’ve tripped on my robe, forgotten to extinguish the chalice, called someone by the wrong name, and gave the wrong musician the head nod to cue the anthem. Oops. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by my mistakes, but all-in-all they are relatively small things. Except one.

I preached recently in a building that was a beautiful old chapel in the country. Because it was old, it was one of those buildings where accessibility was a challenge. The congregation had just finished (I think the paint was still wet!) installing an accessible entrance and bathroom. They’d installed a small elevator before that. They were understandably and appropriately proud and I was enthusiastic in my gratitude as they showed me the improvements.

Then they took me upstairs to the worship space and showed me the pulpit, which was up four steps on the chancel. Those steps are not a barrier for me, but they would be for others. And we’d just been celebrating their good work in making the rest of the building accessible. And I choked. I stammered out something like “too bad those stairs are there…” which was neither very polite nor very helpful in reminding them there was still work to be done. And then I preached from their pulpit, even though it was inaccessible and even though I have a commitment to preach only from an accessible place in the room. (In this case, that just would have meant preaching from the floor rather than going up the steps to the pulpit.)

The hardest times to hold ourselves and each other accountable compassionately is when the work has begun but there's more to be done. We want to acknowledge the effort, and it feels a little awkward to say “What a great start! You did something great, but you’re not quite there.” And sometimes, when we’re the ones who have begun to change, it’s hard to hear, “I’m still going to preach from the floor since not everyone can access your pulpit.”

And yet, as Dr. King says, we have to grapple with our incompleteness. We have to understand that we, like everyone else, are always going to be a mix of good intentions and incomplete effort; good results and some things that don’t turn out that well; and yes, even good and evil. We are sometimes selfish, sometimes complicit with systems that do harm, sometimes the cause of pain and injustice. Until we can hold compassion for ourselves and others—until we can be forgiving when we fall short—our love is incomplete.

Prayer

Dear Spirit of Love, help us understand that to be human is to be always learning, always growing, always incomplete. Let this knowing enlarge our compassion for ourselves and for others. Help us grow in our capacity to forgive and to accept forgiveness when we make mistakes and in this way, become more capable of loving ourselves and each other. Amen.


SECOND READING
Ready by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

"So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders." —Exodus 12:34

You’ll need to travel light.
Take what you can carry: a book, a poem,
a battered tin cup, your child strapped
to your chest, clutching your necklace
in one hot possessive fist.

So the dough isn’t ready. So your heart
isn't ready. You haven’t said goodbye
to the places where you hid as a child,
to the friends who aren’t interested in the journey,
to the graves you’ve tended.

But if you wait until you feel fully ready
you may never take the leap at all
and Infinity is calling you forth
out of this birth canal
and into the future’s wide expanse.

Learn to improvise flat cakes without yeast.
Learn to read new alphabets.
Wear God like a cloak
and stride forth with confidence.
You won’t know where you’re going

but you have the words of our sages,
the songs of our mothers, the inspiration
wrapped in your kneading bowl. Trust
that what you carry will sustain you
and take the first step out the door.

 

HYMN #334 When Shall We Learn

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES
Life Tips from a Pottery Wheel by Tim Atkins

 

“Your ego can become an obstacle to your work. If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity."
—Marina Abramovic

Over the past couple of years, what started off as a hobby has turned into a true spiritual practice: wheel thrown pottery. I would love to tell you that I picked it up immediately, that I’ve become an expert potter with showcases and gallery openings and… okay, I can’t stop laughing at that picture.

In fact, I’ve had some pretty epic failures with my pottery. Almost everything comes off a little off-centered and often my attempts on the wheel end up with a disaster of some sort. Just last month when I was trimming a bowl, it flew off my wheel, smashed into another wheel, and the formerly not-too-bad bowl turned into something that more resembled a pancake. 

I laughed it off. When I was learning to make bowls, clay ended up coating my arms, cheeks, hair, everywhere really. None of the bowls came out like bowls, and I left with a huge smile on my face, despite failure after failure.

Because what have I learned? Far and away, the most important lesson pottery has taught me is to not be attached to the final product. There are a lot of places in the process of making wheel thrown pottery where something different than you expected can happen. You never know how the final product will look after glazing until it comes out of the kiln. Every time I’ve put a piece in to the kiln with a certain expectation of how it’ll come out, I’ve been disappointed. When I don’t much care in the end how it looks, I end up pleasantly surprised. I can’t be attached to those final outcomes — the process matters more than the product.

The process matters more than the product: this is a universal truth in art and creativity, and it transcends every artistic medium, from architecture to YouTube videos. No matter what form the art takes in the end, no matter what artistic medium you use, the process of making that art changes who you are, as a person. How we’re changed differs from person to person, but we are fundamentally changed by embracing our creativity — no matter our creative outlet.

 

MEDITATION
For When I Really Don’t Want to Learn This  By Elizabeth Nguyen

 

Spirit, I would really rather not learn this.

Didn’t think I needed to.

I thought someone else could do it. Thought a leader was coming to do it. Thought the young people could do it. Or the elders could do it. Or the professionals.

Or I don’t want to learn it ‘cause it means letting go of something I hold dear.

Letting go of being someone who knows the answers.

Letting go of being someone who doesn’t know.

Letting go of the way I see the world.

Letting go of how I might have to change.

Letting go of certainty, of logic, of facts, of control.

Of the myth that you can live on this earth and not harm.

Or the myth that I can’t learn anything new.

Help me to learn it. Please.

And then help me to live what I have learned.

And do right by the gift of being taught.

  

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives.  As you do, you may briefly share what it is.  We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

SERMON

Swimming Lessons, by Jake Morrill, lead minister, Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, Tennessee

My first sermon at the first church I ever served (which is also the only church I have served) was called “Swimming Lessons.” Countless seminary papers and exams had brought me to this moment. Now, time had come to climb into the pulpit to impart the kind of great wisdom available to a young man with a Divinity degree on his wall.

Here’s the gist: as a swimmer learns to trust that water will hold a body, so, too, must a person learn to trust in the Holy. If you have attended any church in the world for, say, four or five Sundays, you yourself likely will have heard a take on this very same sermon. It’s like arguing that people should remember to floss when they brush.

But, with my pressed khaki pants, and a haircut that shone, I delivered the message with messianic conviction. I told the congregation that they and I would be learning to risk faith together. It would require of us allowing ourselves to be known and be held in the Spirit, as a swimmer is held by the water. As a sign of my willingness to be seen as imperfect—lest there be any doubt—I confessed to them that, at my advanced age, I didn’t know how to swim.

But, I assured them, I intended to learn. Indeed, I was willing to do whatever it took. So, as their new pastor literally learned how to swim, we would all learn to navigate the metaphorical waters of the newness we shared with one other. Everyone seemed pleased when it finally came time to sing the last hymn, and then go on to the social hall to drink coffee and gossip.

What I imagined the congregation would take from the sermon was a fresh understanding of the nature of faith. But, a couple days later, it became clear to me that this was not what most had gained from my talk. What seemed to stick, instead, was that the new pastor was bent at long last on mastering a basic childhood skill.

Obligingly, a few of the church elders had, on my behalf, already inquired at the Civic Center about adult swim lessons. They learned I’d be welcome in a morning class offered for seniors that met three times a week. It was all arranged. The coach would be waiting. The class was made up almost entirely of women several decades older than I was, and was called “Swimmin’ Women.”

After a lifetime on dry land, had I really intended to learn how to swim? Sure. Almost certainly. Well, probably. I would have, no doubt, looked into the matter. At some point in my life. But the congregation seemed to believe that, simply because I had declared from the pulpit my intent to take swimming lessons, that I actually had an intention to do so. They assumed, in other words, that I meant what I said, and would follow through.

Growing up, my sister and I had, in fact, spent a lot of time at the faculty club pool down near the University of Tennessee. But, while my sister had spent those summer days in the water, and ultimately competed for the swim team, her stout younger brother could be found outside the fence, on a hill overlooking the Tennessee River, with a steak and cheese sandwich from the snack bar, charged to the account.

It was not that I was afraid of the water. It was just that I knew when you get in a pool there were people who wanted to splash you in the face. Some wanted to grab you and dunk you, while others would stand in the shallow end, gazing in reverie at passing clouds as they urinated. If someone offered you the choice of spending summer days being splashed with chlorinated human waste, and then dunked in it, or else going out to a hill on a river by yourself to enjoy a steak and cheese sandwich, you too might end up as an adult who didn’t know how to swim.

Either I live in a small city, or else a large town. Whichever, news here travels fast. So, within a few days, it seemed that everyone around was aware of my future with the Swimmin’ Women. At the grocery store, at the video rental store, everywhere. Wherever I went, there were kindly smiles that only barely masked gentle smirks. People knew.

To that point, my history of physical exertion had been sporadic, half-hearted. I tended to sign up eagerly for activities, then not follow through. It was my way. No one seemed to mind, least of all me. But it seemed I was now living a life in which my preferred sluggishness might become a matter of public concern. Giving up before I’d really gotten started ceased to be an option.

Bobbie, the coach of the Swimmin’ Women and a retired gym coach, was all business. She lined up her charges according to skill. This meant that, while swimmers who had swum since the Truman administration took up the far lanes, where their perfect strokes sliced the water, I had the slow lane entirely to myself. Well, except for the kickboard. Bobbie, it turned out, was a stickler for form. I was not going to dog-paddle, nor run out the clock with my limb-draping version of the dead man’s float. No. More was expected of a Swimmin’ Woman.

Bobbie was determined. Consequently, I had no choice but to be determined. As I churned through the water behind a kickboard, making my way lap after lap, there she was, right above me at poolside, calling down corrections to whatever my legs were doing.

Four months later, at the Christmas party, the Women gave me a new swimsuit in recognition that, while any of them could have beaten me in a race, it could now charitably be said that I knew how to swim. The gap between my declared intent and my actual life, at least with regard to swimming, had been closed. In its place, a grudging pinch of integrity, a hint that I was capable of doing what it took to get the thing done.

Everyone knows that congregations are boring, old-fashioned, and more political than Congress before an election. But, on the bright side, they can also be judgmental. Think of an old friend who lets you know exactly the one thing that you need to hear. Now, picture a whole community like that in your life.

Maybe how things are for you matches precisely how you intended them to be. All I know is that, when it comes down to me, for a long time I was only floating. And it was a congregation that finally required me to apply myself to practice, and persist in the struggle of effort. Which, as it turns out, is what it takes to swim.

 

HYMN #1015 I Know I Can

 

BENEDICTION
“On the Brink” by Leslie Takahashi Morris

 

All that we have ever loved

and all that we have ever been

stands with us on the brink of all that we aspire to create:

a deeper peace,

a larger love,

a more embracing hope,

a greater generosity

a deeper joy in this life we share.