Monday, September 10, 2018

Another New Beginning!


            Over the past six years, as I’ve gotten to know you pretty well, both as a member of the congregation and as your minister in residence, I’ve felt welcomed and appreciated.  I’ve appreciated you all in return, as I’ve seen you reach out to new folks, rally around when folks are struggling, eagerly show up for coffee or pizza or a cool drink at a happy hour or coffee klatch.
            And now we are preparing to make another new beginning together, with each of us heading into a new stage of our lives.
         When I arrived at PUUF, you had been hungry for a minister for awhile, and…..I was  hungry too, because once you’re called to the ministry, you can’t just drop it.  I had to find a way to be useful.  So together, we started a new phase in the life of the Pacific UU Fellowship and in my life.  It was exciting times together and has been a source of joy, I hope, to you as well as to me.
            But time moves on and we change as we make our way through our lives.  We’ve experienced many changes together, we’ve experienced losses and joys, troubles and successes.  And here we are at the start of a new church year which will end in a different way than our previous years together have ended.  We will have transitioned yet again---you to the excitement of a new minister next fall, we hope, and I to a retirement in which I will be in a different relationship with you all.
            Many of us are a little nervous about the change----you hope for a new minister who will bring good changes, though maybe even slightly uncomfortable ones.  I’m a little nervous because I want to stay in the area but have to be careful not to interfere with the new minister’s relationship with you all.
         So to celebrate this new beginning and to think about its challenges, I’d like to tell you a story which comes from the Sufi tradition. You may know already that Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. This is a story about a stream and a desert.  We know about streams around here; we may not be so familiar with deserts, but this story, I hope, will illustrate an important point.

          High on a faraway mountain, a little stream flowed out of a hidden source. As the water flowed down the mountain, it passed through all kinds of places, rocky ravines, quiet meadows, past beaver dams and through lakes and ponds.
Sometimes the little stream leaped and danced and bubbled as it raced down a canyon or sometimes it drifted lazily through a forest meadow or even disappeared underground for a short distance. It had never encountered an obstacle that it couldn't surmount, either by leaping over it or going under it or around it or wearing away the rock that captured it.
But one day it reached the edge of a vast desert. "Hey, no problem," said the little stream to itself. "I've never been stopped by any obstacle before. No desert is going to stop me now!"
So the stream flung itself at the desert. And its waters disappeared, absorbed by the sand. It threw itself at the hot desert sand again and again. And every time, its waters disappeared.
"This can't be," said the stream. "If the wind can cross the desert, certainly I, a stream, can cross it too!" And it continued to fling itself at the hot sand. And every time, its waters disappeared.         

         "But it is my destiny to cross the desert," cried the stream, in despair. And as it rested dejectedly at the edge of the desert, getting its strength back, and wondering what to do next, it heard a small, still, whispery voice. And this is what the stream heard the desert say.
"You can't cross the desert using your old ways," said the desert. "I am not like a boulder or a tree or a rocky ledge. It is no use hurling yourself at the desert like that. You will never cross the sand this way; you will simply disappear or turn into marshland."
"But how I can get across?" cried the stream. "I don't know any new ways; I only know the old ways. The wind can get across the desert. Why can't I?"
"The wind is your new way," said the desert. "You must let the wind carry you across the hot sands."
"How can that be?" asked the stream. "How can the wind carry me?"
"You must let yourself be absorbed into the wind," said the desert. "The wind will catch you up in that way and carry you across the desert."
"No!" cried the stream. "I am a stream with a nature and an identity all my own. I don't want to lose myself by being absorbed into the wind."
"But that's what the wind does," said the desert. "The wind will catch you up and carry you across the desert and set you down again very lightly so you can become a stream again. Trust me and trust the wind."
"But I might not be the same stream on the other side of the desert, if I've been absorbed by the wind and carried a long way. I won't be myself if I let the wind carry me and set me down again in a new place."
The desert understood the stream's fear but it also understood the mystery.
       "You're right," said the desert. "But you won't be the same stream, no matter what. If you stay here, you will turn into a marshland and that's not a stream either. If you let the wind carry you across the desert, the real you, the real heart of you, the essence of everything you truly are, will arise again on the other side to flow in a new course, to be a river that you can't even imagine from where you are standing now."
"How can this happen?" asked the stream, mystified by this new idea.
"The wind has always done this," said the desert. "It takes up the water and carries it over the desert and then lets it fall again. The water falls as rain and it becomes a river, joined by waters from all over the world which have crossed the deserts to come together."
"But can't I just stay the same?" asked the stream.
"You cannot in any way remain the same," whispered the desert. "Movement is your very nature. It will never cease until your true destination has been reached."
As the stream considered this, it began to remember where it had come from and it had a memory deep in its heart of a wind that could be trusted and a horizon that was always out of reach but always a new beginning.
So the stream took a deep breath and surrendered itself to the power of the wind and the wind took the vapor of the stream in strong and loving arms and took it high above the desert, far beyond the horizon, and let it fall again softly in a new place.

        And the stream began to understand who it really was and what it meant to be a stream. And over the years, it allowed the wind to take it again and again until at last it found itself in the ocean, from which all life comes and to which all life returns.         (Story adapted many times from the original.)
            We are the stream right now.  And the desert, the challenging place, is the year ahead of us.  We will be placing our trust in each other to find our way to the next part of our lives.  If we have faith in ourselves, our values, and our hopes, we will allow the wind, i.e. the process, to carry us through the work of selecting a new minister and whatever that will mean to the living water that is the Pacific UU Fellowship.
            It’s both scary and thrilling, as many of life’s challenges are.  We will work our way through whatever comes and if we heed our commitment to our UU principles of love and understanding, we will find ourselves in a new place, with new adventures and new friends, both as a group and as individuals.
            In the words of Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, let us clasp this immortal quote to our hearts and remind ourselves:  “DON’T PANIC!”
            There will be plenty of time for questions and discussions and decision-making and voting before anything is put in place.  The board will offer an informational service on Sept. 23, two weeks from today, to start the process, announcing and commissioning our chosen search committee, and getting us underway with the capable support of our search committee and board.  We are in good hands with them.
            Let’s trust the process, refrain from panicking, and at this moment, pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Reverie of an Accidental Minister



            Something about Astoria, Oregon, had always called to me.  When my family would visit Cannon Beach, some 30 miles south of Astoria, for a week at the Cannon Beach Bible Conference in my childhood, I always hoped we’d go up to Astoria and explore.  This Victorian city on a hill, with its towering column atop the aptly named Coxcomb Hill, represented its significance to me and I wanted to know more.
            We always went to Tillamook to the cheese factory and Astoria wasn’t that much farther, but we rarely went north on our brief expeditions, so my hopes were mostly unfulfilled.  I had to wait till I was independent and traveling on my own to explore the far North Coast more thoroughly.
            All that was years ago, when I was an entirely different person, with a different world view, with a different set of values, and now I explore with a new awareness of my ageing self and my life’s purpose.
            In the fall of 2012, a bit vague about what I would do with my retirement freedom after leaving Whidbey Island, where I had served UUCWI for 9 years, I rented a little house in Gearhart OR and installed my two cats, my belongings, and my more mature personhood, wondering how this new life would all shake out.  I was 70 years old and had been working fulltime since 1964—48 years!  I was ready for a break.
            I’d chosen the North Coast for my retirement because of my longtime sense of connection to the area and I’d checked out some of the volunteer activities available there.  But mostly I wanted big water, the familiar water---the ocean, the river, the small creeks---of my early life.  Puget Sound just didn’t cut it for me.  The waves were too little, I thought.  Give me big breakers and sandy beaches, I thought.
            I also wanted a church home and there was a small UU congregation in Astoria where I had been a guest preacher several times, so I knew I would have that connection to the religious home I craved.  I’d been a Unitarian Universalist since about 1976 and an ordained UU minister since 1999; yes, a church lady from away back!
            So I settled into Gearhart, which was several miles from Astoria, made friends there, and explored a few options for volunteering, choosing to get more deeply connected to the North Coast Land Conservancy, where some friends volunteered, the local senior activities group called ENCORE, and sniffed around a few others.  But I attended church at the Pacific UU Fellowship in Astoria regularly; I hardly missed a Sunday service.
            As I observed the Fellowship, I watched the same people doing everything on Sunday morning, with an occasional guest minister, enjoying each other but clearly tired and struggling to stay afloat as a congregation.  They were on life support, with a membership of about 20 people and attendance on Sundays of about 15-20, according to one of those tired members.
            There were clear pastoral needs in the congregation as well, two people with terminal illnesses, at least one person with memory issues, and little energy for investing in social justice work or programming.
            One day I offered to help with pastoral care, which quickly developed into an occasional sermon (with honorarium), then to a monthly sermon and a contract.  A year after I began attending, they started referring to me as their quarter-time minister, though our contract was more limited initially.
            Attending PUUF meant driving up to Astoria at least once a week for the service, plus ENCORE activities were mostly in Astoria.  I was doing a lot of driving from Gearhart north.  After three years of living in my cozy little place in Gearhart, I made the decision to move north to Astoria, and after the move I realized I had found my true home.
            Of course, the move also made it possible to get even more deeply involved with PUUF, which led to raises in pay, increased activity on my part, and a sense of excitement among all of us as PUUF began to grow and grow.  We had started with 20 members and within a couple of years of steady growth, we knew we needed to find a larger space than the tiny Congregational chapel on the south slope.
            After many months of working with a facilities committee, the decision came down to “stay and work with the space we’ve got” or “move to the Performing Arts Center downtown”.  The vote was decisive and we got ready to move.
            The PAC has many good features but it hasn’t been perfect.  Nevertheless, we have instituted some work-arounds to help with the cramped social hour and RE spaces in the lower level.  Potlucks are held across the street in the Masonic Temple, and other functions require rented halls as well.  Set-up for services has led to the development of a sexton team to help lug the worship items onto the stage, a greeter team to prepare the foyer for visitors and members alike, and a hospitality team to setup and put away social hour items.

            We pay quite a low rent at the PAC and, as a requirement of our status as a Partner for the PAC, we organize two fundraising events per year.  So far we have contributed a lot of energy and cash to the treasury of the Partners and feel we’ve upheld our end of the bargain!
            I took a look at what I have contributed to the life and health of the Fellowship and made this list of programming developed during my ministry here:
Satellite groups:  Nehalem, Astoria, Long Beach peninsula, South County (these are coffee groups—or happy hour, in the case of Astoria—that meet monthly on Saturday mornings---or 2nd Thursday evening for happy hour.  These are strictly social gatherings for an hour or two, but I always attend and have a chance to learn about people’s lives.
Growth:  from 20 members to 50-60
Facility:  moving to the Performing Arts Center, becoming a Partner for the PAC
Improved worship experience:  introducing enhanced experience and cohesion
Teams:  sextons, greeters, hospitality, potluck set-up in tandem with hospitality
PRIDE involvement:  annual Pride service as part of the weekend festivities
Fundraising events:  Skamokawa Swamp Opera, MJ New Quartet, Pete Seeger      concert
Public face of PUUF:  entries and stories in the Daily Astorian, Chinook Observer, and Facebook
Pastoral Care:  several memorial services, visitations in hospital, nursing homes
Sense of continuity and cohesion in the congregation
Preparing PUUF for the date of my retirement, working with UUA staff to smooth the transition.
UU 101 class as a requirement for membership
Renewed and upgraded Canvass process
Organized a local clergywomen’s support group

There are a few congregational areas that need to be addressed, primarily in the social justice arena; though individuals are involved locally in a variety of social outreach efforts, there is little congregational focus.  Bylaws are sketchy in places and reflect the mom and pop atmosphere of their earlier years.  I have not tried to stay active with UUA and regional programming; I’ve had a few health issues that made it hard to travel the 2 hour one-way commute to Portland or other urban centers for meetings, etc.

I think the success of my time here has been largely because I could afford to live here in Clatsop County; I had a moderate pension that has been my main source of income.  The $$ from the congregation augmented that to a very comfortable level.  I hope that the minister who follows me will have a similar financial situation and will be able to live in the community.  I have been active in community affairs and have given PUUF a public face through writing occasionally for the Daily Astorian and participating in local efforts like Indivisible and PRIDE, as well as organizations like the Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition, North Coast Land Conservancy, and ENCORE, a senior citizens’ continuing education group.  I have performed weddings and memorial services for locals and others who were not part of PUUF and have acted as an informal chaplain for ENCORE and NCLC.

PUUF had two experiences with ministers in the past ten years which were unsuccessful, largely because of personal issues in those two ministers’ lives:  poor health ended one ministry and the other minister was deeply grieving the loss of her spouse.  The PNWD helped to the extent they could, but it was disappointing to the PUUF leaders and members.  When I retired to the North Coast, it felt like a miracle to them that I was willing to help.  And it was a blessing to me to be able to be helpful.


Yes, it rains in the winter, but not every day.  And the days when it’s not raining are glorious.  Even the storms are interesting and, of course, the green slopes and meadows alongside the several rivers are the reward.

Astoria is a unique blend of old and new, with a history that goes back to Lewis and Clark Expedition days and looks forward progressively.  This is a city whose infrastructure is solid, progressive (mostly), and humane.  There is an ongoing effort in the leadership of the city to examine its history, to build upon its strengths, and to try not to repeat old mistakes. 

I have felt very much at home here from the first day.  There is a strong Scandinavian thread which I enjoy, but there are numerous others---fishing and logging were historical pursuits which are morphing into more sustainable occupations. 

There is strong interest in preserving the environment; an effort to build a liquid natural gas plant was defeated roundly, though Walmart crept in almost unnoticed.  But it fills a need.

There are enough big-box outlets to serve commercial needs as well as small businesses of all types.  Restaurants all up and down the “elegance” spectrum serve all kinds of needs.  Cannabis is legal in OR, so several outlets have sprung up in the city and enhance the local economy.

A strong Q community has just put on their 3rd (now annual) Pride weekend, in which PUUF has participated each year, with events day and night for two solid days in June.  Other social justice arenas are Immigration (local farmers and small businesses have lost many Latinx workers to ICE), Homelessness (because of its mild winters and cool summers, the coast attracts many house-less campers), and Environmental issues (forestry issues in particular).

But why do I love Astoria so much?  Partly because of its beauty and its history, partly because of the welcome I’ve found here, not only at PUUF but also in the larger community, partly because of the expansive vistas of water and Coast Range, partly because of the friendliness of my neighbors and other local friends.

I do plan to stay in the community, as it is my home.  I do commit to creating a covenant with my incoming colleague, so that my presence in the community does not adversely affect their relationship with the Fellowship.