“Walking the Pilgrim Road Together” 2964 words
January 27, 2019
Rev. Jenny M. Rankin
The First Parish in Lincoln
Readings: Exodus 17:4
Emily Dickinson: “I Dwell in Possibility”
657 I dwell in Possibility —
I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—
Of Visitors—the fairest—
The spreading wide of narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—
The end of January in New England—
Last Sunday in Vermont it was minus 6 when I woke up
Coming home we found snow upon snow,
And blessed the kindness of an unknown neighbor who had shoveled a path to the back door.
But this is New England after all so by mid-week it had warmed and I saw mist rising from snow as I drove past Walden Pond on my way to work.
The black wet bark of trees, the white mist rising. Beauty on Route 126.
The end of January and I’ve been with you five months as your interim minister
(It seems longer, doesn’t it?)
I’ve told you that sometimes,
when I arrive in a new congregation
I like to imagine I am travelling to a new country.
I love to travel and I learned to love it when I was young.
My parents took us on car-camping trips around the United States and Canada.
This was not “glamping”—far from it!
This was three kids squished into the back seat of a dark-red Ford wagon—
This was a cream-colored tent from Tent City near North Station
That we put up every night
Took down the next morning.
This was not eating out in fancy places
But lots of picnics on a blue plaid tartan blanket we’d pull from the back of the car.
We hiked trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, ran on beaches at Cape Hatteras, and endured hours in the car driving west to see the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Yellowstone, the Tetons.
My father loved history and he took us to places that would tell a story.
We learned about the Civil War on the battlefields of Gettysburg and about the Founding Fathers when we visited Jefferson’s home at Monticello and rolled Easter eggs on the lawn.
So I guess it makes sense that I’m kind of a pilgrim minister now
That I sojourn for a time with a people in a place, their country.
We walk this interim road together, this pilgrim road, accompanying one another on this journey
This journey from what has been here, what you’re used to, life as you’ve known it (ministry with Bill or Nancy or Roger to Manish) to something new that you can’t yet see but know is coming.
This new chapter in the life of this spiritual community
A chapter that you are writing together, right here right now.
In these first months of arriving here
You have welcomed me with kindness and I thank you.
It’s been a rough patch these past few years—
You called a minister with great hope in 2015
He left after three years, a short tenure in the ministry world, unusual.
You’re trying to sort it out.
What happened, why, the different perspectives you all bring.
“Community,” said M. Scott Peck, psychologist and author of The Road Less Travelled, “Community is people who talk to each other.”
Easy to say not always easy to do
This month in the Listening Circles you tried to do that
(122 of you showed up! thank you)
Especially when emotions run deep
And we know that the friend sitting across the circle—
The one we see in the pew on Sunday
Or up in the choir loft
Has had a very different experience than us,
Has a really different take on things than we do.
For some this is tender territory.
We listen to one person say “Manish was a holy person to me.”
And the next voice their sense of distrust, not being listened to, anger.
It has been moving for me to sit with you
To witness as you
Trying to speak the truth in love to one another.
It reminded me of words by the medieval mystic Hildegarde of Bingen
“Dare to declare who you are.
It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech.
The path is not long, but the way is deep.
You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.”
I witnessed a lot of courage this month as you sat with one another and dared to leap.
Dared to put out there what was in your heart and on your mind.
When issues arise in a community
When there are differences
We tend to gravitate to people who think as we do
We tend to talk in separate corners, over dinner tables, out in the parking lots
This is natural. Completely normal.
But if a community is people who talk to each other
When discussion of important issues moves out of the public space
Into private conversations
That’s where it gets sticky.
Something breaks down.
It can feel like we’re walking on eggshells
Like there’s an elephant in the room or
Like the energy has been sucked out of the room.
We know this from our lives, don’t we?
The family, the workplace
We know that silence isn’t always helpful and
That secrets aren’t always healthy.
But let’s admit it, difficult conversations are, well, difficult
They are hard!
We don’t have a lot of practice.
Maybe especially here in New England.
As a minister, I’ve seen it in congregations again and again—
Issues arise, differences surface
People get anxious
We go to our own separate corners
Humanists over here, people who want to hear the word “God” more in worship over there
People who like a capital campaign—people who think “we are spending too much money on ourselves”
I’ve heard someone say (not here) they’d rather lie down and be run over by a bus than see the church vote to spend less money on social justice.
And in the same meeting, a few minutes later, I’ve heard a person passionately speak about how the social action line item is too high and not financially wise.
Issues develop, anxiety rises, and we tend to go to our separate corners.
Or we vote with our feet and stop coming at all.
However we do it, we opt out of an open conversation in a public space.
Well, if Scott Peck is right and “A community is people who talk together,”
What I’m hearing from you is one of the things you’re learning
Is that you need a better forum for doing this kind of talking,
You think you need better skills at having difficult conversations.
(don’t we all!)
We are walking the pilgrim road together
The Listening Circles were the first “real chunk” of interim work”
I know there’s a lot swirling around—you want to work on your website, take another look at who makes decisions about what (governance), look at the role of the minister especially how it relates to board and deacons, you have a new personnel committee
There is work on identity and vision you say you want to do.
There is a lot swirling around and it can feel like a lot.
There are thickets and thorns, videos that surface, hurt feelings to attend to, healing to do.
But, believe it or not, you are on your way
To writing the next chapter in the life of this congregation called
The First Parish in Lincoln.
You are doing it. Right here, right now.
By showing up at church, singing in the choir, teaching our children, helping people out when they need help. Showing up at Listening Circles yes but fun stuff too like Sip, Talk, Learn.
You are doing it.
Little by little, one step at a time, you are making your way from what you have known here—
Ministry with Roger, ministry with Manish—
Towards what you do NOT know (yet)
The community you will become in time.
Yes, there is hurt to attend to
And you are attending to it.
There is healing to be done
And you will do it.
There are differences to understand
And trust to be restored.
None of this is unusual in congregations
And I am either idealistic enough or foolish enough or perhaps have watched congregations long enough
To believe that trust can be repaired
Nope, it’s not easy or fast.
It’s not Tinkerbell coming in and waving a magic wand.
We know life doesn’t work that way
We know we cannot force outcomes
Can’t manage, direct or control things to go the way we want.
But there are some things we can do.
We can take responsibility for our part
We can say we are sorry
We can try to make amends.
And over time in a community—just like in a family—
If each of us is willing to do this—
Some truth telling
Some asking and giving of forgiveness—
There can be healing
A community can begin to knit itself together
So it is no longer a little collection of lots of little camps or factions
But a community again—
People who talk to each other
(Even about the tough stuff.)
I think it’s when we try to go on without doing this healing work
Without naming what is going on
Without the courage to face things
That’s where we get into trouble.
I have to believe that the women and men and children who have worshipped here generation after generation
Stretching back to the 1740s
Have known something about facing difficult things together
And coming through–
New England congregations are long-lived.
It will take time to shift and grow into the next new chapter
Into who you are becoming
You are in the middle now
Beginning to work on healing the past
In time you will get to the part about identity, mission/vision
Who are you and what are you doing here on Bedford Road in this pretty little town of Lincoln with its open fields and farms and old history
You, the people, are going to take hold of yourselves
Figure out in a new way who you are and what you are doing and why
And then you go out and find the minister you think can walk with you in the same direction
There is no rushing it.
We can try, we can pretend, we can march on—
But inside of us, things take their own time
Healing takes its own time
Formation of new identity takes its own time
Renewal and revitalization takes its own time
Our job is to try and have the patience
The ego maturity
Not to rush but to be in the place where we are
To allow ourselves to grieve and heal and restore some trust
And then, look around—
Noticing what it is we love
What we are drawn to
What gives us joy
This is the sacred speaking into our lives
This is God calling us in new directions
Inviting us into new endeavors.
Sometimes that means leaving things that we have loved before, things that have been good, wonderful even—
But now it is a new chapter
A new day
A time for new things,
Things we can’t even clearly see yet.
“I dwell in possibility” said Emily Dickinson
I believe that you are a people of possibility
That there are possibilities on the horizon that you, the people of First Parish in Lincoln, can only dimly see
They are beckoning to you.
As you move forward,
They will become clearer,
The shape of your future will become clearer to you
The clarity of your vision will create an excitement
It will be palpable
Other people will be drawn to it
They’ll say “oh look at those people—
“They are spiritually alive—
“They are doing something good in the world—
“I want to be part of that.”
They will look at you and say, “They have purpose and meaning” or
“They are welcoming and kind.”
“I want to be part of a community like that one
Where I can feel like I am part of something bigger than my own little life
Where I can feel like I belong.”
“I want to be part of that
Energy, vision, vitality, purpose—
I want to be part of that!”
“I want to bring my kids here.”
“I want to worship here.”
“I want to learn about serving the world here–
I want to do social justice here.”
“I want to learn about a relationship with the holy here, with God.”
There is a new chapter in your future
It is not yet born
It will be born over the next few years
You are in the midst of writing that chapter right now.
You will discern it
You will invite each other into that creative process
It will not happen behind closed doors or in small groups
You’ll figure out a way to invite everyone in–
You will reach out to those who are disheartened
Those who are angry
Those who have left.
You will reach out and ask them to join you.
It is creative and exciting and arduous and sometimes difficult and sometimes joyful.
You do not do it alone.
You have each other and you have me
I will be cheering you on
I will be reminding you to not rush
To name what needs to be named
To face what needs to be faced
I know you can do it
I see it in you
I see the depth of your love for this place and for one another and for the Earth and for the wider world
I see your commitment to a future that you can’t really see yet but are feeling your way towards, by faith,
One step at a time.
It is the end of January and I am travelling in a new country, your country—
We are walking this pilgrim road together
I am grateful for you and this community and this rare opportunity we have together
To be brave
To have courage
To hold onto what is good
Even while allowing new things to take shape before our eyes.