Four years ago this month we began our walk together, you and I. We began carving our path, blazing a trail, if you will, you and I, our living tradition, my friends. We are the current carriers of the dreams and hopes and aspirations of those who founded this place in 1889—who believed enough in their vision to raise the money to build this beautiful, now beloved building here on Main Street. We carry the dreams and aspirations of women and men through the ups and downs of the Gay Nineties, the Twentieth Century on into the New Millennium to this day.
We are the current holders of that vision that “revelation is not sealed” and the living testament that a community can form itself around the words I John, “Beloved, let us love one another.” (I John 4:7). I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the discussion of that verse being chosen for our Sanctuary skylight window.
I wonder if you wonder about who the people were who sat in these pews ten years ago, twenty years ago, fifty years ago, one hundred years ago, or more? Can you imagine what they were thinking when they saw the light slanting through the very same stained glass windows that we gaze through this morning? Do you wonder what my predecessors of the early days might have said from this very pulpit? What did the very first minister, Lindley Murray Andrews, have to say? Or in the late twenties and early thirties what would the Reverend Edson Reifsnider say? One thing that was very different back then was that all those ministers before Marjorie Leaming were male!
Of course, some of you WERE here ten and twenty years ago and more. Those of you who have been here longer, how much change have you seen during your time within these walls? How much have things changed outside these walls in the larger world in twenty or thirty years?
When I think about the changes in our world, it really can seem overwhelming! My Dad who died at almost 100 in 2007 often used to talk about the changes he saw in his lifetime—from the first automobiles in Waltham, Massachusetts, private homes getting telephones, air travel and so much more. In my own lifetime, I remember my high school boyfriend who was somewhat of a science nerd waiting for the school bus with his slide-rule hanging from his belt. That slide-rule was made obsolete just a couple of years post our high school years with the coming of the calculator that an individual could afford.
I can still remember a sermon given by Ken Sawyer in my home church sometime mid-80s when he talked about how getting his first personal computer was transforming the way he wrote sermons. I can remember myself making the switch from a typewriter to a computer in 1992 when I was writing a thesis on my work with the elder chorus, the Golden Tones. But the changes kept coming! VCRs and DVD players, live-streaming, Netflix and Amazon, all manner of kitchen gadgets, and who knows what else! Just listening to music means that in my house I have thousands of records and a still working turntable, piles of audio-cassettes and CDs…but, wait a minute, now you don’t even need to store music in your house! You can listen to it on your iPod, your cell phone or other device and have your music on the Cloud. Whether we like it or not, the changes keep on coming. Makes me think of Alice—you know, the one from Wonderland: “Who are you?” said the caterpillar, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changes several times since then.”1
Anthony G. Pappas wrote:
“Members of small churches feel an awful lot like Alice. We thought we knew who we were, what church was, how the world operated. But things have changed several times since then. Even when we retreat inside the small church (not all our being inside the small church is retreat, but it sometimes can be) we find that the small-church world, which we loved and in which we felt so at home, has itself changed several times—or at least in several ways.”
So how do the changes all around us affect us here in this faith community, in this historic building, with the changes in demographics all around us, not to mention the dwindling interest in churches and synagogues in our culture at all? Or we could ask the question that UU Minister and Consultant Robert T. Latham did in a white paper back in 2010, “Does Unitarian Universalism have a future?” What does our faith offer that the secular world doesn’t and how can we optimize on that to make what we do around here the best that we can be (I sound like some kind of commercial for the Super Bowl)? Or we might ask ourselves in Latham’s vein, “Do we have a future?” I suspect some have been asking that question for many decades. In fact, I know that from talking with some of you.
Even though we are small—and let me tell you that there are a number of UU congregations much smaller than us, in case you didn’t know—our destiny is in some ways tied to the larger world of Unitarian Universalism. Early in our former UUA President Peter Morales’ reign, back in 2010, he met with us ministers at General Assembly and issued a warning I had heard before: membership in Unitarian Universalism is declining. And it still holds true. No matter how you tweak the numbers, there is a decline. It has to also be said that there has been a decline across the board in all denominations since the seventies, and there are many reasons for this one could speculate on. Robert Latham believes that it all comes down to mission. Latham writing in the same year Morales was elected said,
“Here is a cultural truth: institutions succeed to the extent that they effectively fulfill their mission. Yet, nothing has been more troubling in our religious movement over the past fifty years than the notion of mission. We have been confused about its definition, wondered why it was important and replaced it with ineffective substitutes. We have even divested the larger religious movement of any responsibility of definition. Instead, we have placed the onus on the back of local congregations. We have declared that the mission of our religion is up for grabs. The outcome has been diffusion of definition with its consequent social impotence.”
In my now over four years with you, I have heard much of your history of these same last fifty years Latham talks about. UU Santa Paula has never been big in that time frame. In fact, official membership ebbs and flows with the years but stays around 50. One wonders why. It is probably a mix of things. But the Board of Management and I figure that now is a good time to focus on that notion of mission and vision, it seems time to revisit our Mission as a congregation and how we actualize that mission into a vision. How will we make the decisions that move us forward, with whatever that might mean? How do we think about where we want to be in a year, two years, five years or twenty years and beyond? What do we think it will look like here in 2039? What will we sound like? Who will be sitting in these pews on a Sunday morning…or a Tuesday evening? How is this precious, beloved space being used in downtown Santa Paula. What is its mission?
A pause here to ask, how many of you know our Mission here at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula? (pause) “To practice inclusiveness, seek justice and foster spirituality.”
Montaigne once wrote, “No wind serves him who addresses his voyage to no certain port.” And R. F. Mager wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going you are liable to end up someplace else.” Where is we do want to end up? How do we even start figuring it out?
I once took a workshop at Andover Newton Theological School which was called “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading” from a book of the same name published by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I had previously read Heifetz’s book, “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” He was one of the lecturers in the workshop and it is from him I got the idea of going up on the balcony and seeing what we can see. Imagine if we had a balcony here at 740 E Main Street and we could go up and look down at what’s happening here. Getting the balcony view. Others might call it getting the big picture.
Few practical ideas are more obvious than the need to get perspective in the midst of action. Any military officer, for example, knows the importance of maintaining the capacity for reflection, even in the “fog of war.” Great athletes can at once play the game and observe it as a while—as Walt Whitman described it, “being both in and out of the game.” Jesuits call it “contemplation in action.” Hindus and Buddhist call it “karma yoga” or mindfulness. We call this skill “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back in the midst of action and asking, “What’s really going on here?”
It is a good process for each of us in our daily lives, developing the skill to step back and ask ourselves, “What’s really going on here? And I believe it is crucial for us in of this congregation to step back and ask ourselves, “What’s really going on here?” We get some busy, each of us, with the day to day, caught up in the minutia of living and the stresses of life, that it doesn’t come naturally to pause and take stock. The same is true of our congregation. There has been so much to do in the last years I have been here. Remember the putting the addition on the back of the church where the old rest rooms used to be? Putting lights over the piano area so that Vincent and the choir can see what they are doing? The chair rack for the folding chairs in the Parish Hall so that the chairs don’t fall all over the place? These are all what Heifetz calls technical fixes to technical challenges. But there are other challenges which he calls adaptive challenges. These are the ones we face when we want to think about who we are and how we want to be. These are the ones related to mission and vitality…so that we will be the “living tradition” we talk about, rather than a Universalist museum.
How do we do that? First of all we start with conversations. The board and I have started talking and I will be in touch with our Regional Contact, Jonipher Kwong, to see what resources he can point us to. What is hoped for is a significant planning process where we can step up onto the balcony—all of us—maybe not all at once—and get some perspective on how we can define our mission. Ultimately, according to Latham, all religions have the same mission which is to create a sense of purpose and direction for the community and ultimately for the culture in which communities are housed. All religions ask the great questions of existence: Who am I? How do I know what I know? Who or what is in charge? What is my purpose? And what does my death mean? The trick is, all religions may answer these questions differently.
So our business here is to ask these questions and transform lives. But at the same time, we are a non-profit with a building and bills to pay. At the same time we want to respond to the needs outside our doors. At the same time we want to have programs and potlucks and welcome newcomers and just plain find a little time of peace in a busy week. And we are a diverse and devoted group of people. How can we move towards a common goal? How can we have what Latham calls “Unity in diversity?” He cites a Hagar The Horrible cartoon. It is of a Viking boat. Some of the oarsmen are paddling with the blade of the oar and some with the handle of the oar. Some are rowing forwards and some are rowing backwards. The boat is moving in aimless circles and zigzags. And, Hagar, standing at the helm with hands cupped around his mouth, us shouting: “Will you quit saying different strokes for different folks.”
I suspect all of you have ideas for what you would like to see happen here in the next years. Some I have heard are:
More numbers—more adults, more children,
Handicapped accessibility so that everyone can access all parts of our building, including the religious education classrooms
A more active choir
What’s your idea?………..
I have my ideas too:
An outreach or membership committee to think how we bring a sense of radical hospitality to all we do
Renewal of our Welcoming Congregation status
More activities in our Spiritual Growth Center, along with Meditation, Yoga, Rise Up Singing, T’ai Chi Chih and the like
More collaboration with Ventura and beyond with the eye of perhaps sharing staff, working on social justice together, religious education activities and sharing our gifts
More collaboration with our community partners and groups in town to improve the quality of life for all
I could go on….
So it is time for discernment and discussion. There will be focus groups, circle dinners and potlucks in our future. How would you like to think together? I am sure we will not all agree all the time about any of it. After all, we’re UUs. And luckily we have our Covenant of Right Relations as we listen and speak. But if we are pointing towards a common purpose, we can transform lives and we can be transformed. Stay tuned for what the next steps will be and we hope every voice will be heard. What are your ideas? Let’s go to the balcony together, shall we?
I end with more wise words from Alice in Wonderland:
“Cheshire Puss”, Alice began…
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the cat.
“I don’t much care where….” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”, said the cat.
*BENEDICTION John W. Brigham, adapted
Go your ways, knowing not the answers to all things,
Yet seeking always the answer to one more thing than you know
Be searchers with your fellow [travelers];
Be adventurers in ways untrod.
Hold the hope of discovery high within you—sharing the hope,
And whatever discovery may come with others.