As we consider life after the pandemic, what direction do we imagine our shared ministry will take? Setting goals and priorities as a community is important, but just as important is our capacity for staying in touch with all that is emerging in, among, and all around us. This Sunday, we lean into the mystery, welcoming that which we can’t control and which is beyond our imagination to lead us into a future of possibility.
Whether or not you are moved by Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue, Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama, or Hamilton the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, you’ll probably agree that all three are works of great creativity. The creative imagination is what makes possible all kinds of new ideas. It’s the seed of every artist’s greatest pieces, works of literature, even new discoveries in science and math.
Human beings have wondered about the source of inspiration, of creativity, for millennia. The ancient Greeks worshipped nine goddesses known as the Nine Muses, each a source and giver of a different kind of knowledge. In Norse mythology it is the goddess Freyja who bestows knowledge upon women shamans. In the Hebrew scriptures God fills h’adam, or Adam, with divine breath, a word which has the same root as the words for spirit and inspiration.
But ask any painter or composer, inventor or even preacher, and they will tell you: inspiration, “the muse,” whatever name they use for the creative spark, is rarely something summoned at will. It is elusive, fickle. It’s not transactional; it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes it strikes without warning, at inconvenient times, even waking us in the middle of the night. This is why artists of all kinds talk about creativity as a process, and about the importance of creating the conditions for the creative spark to ignite, for “the muse” to appear.
Have you ever gotten stuck when trying to write a paper or a poem or figure out a problem? What do you do when that happens? It doesn’t always work for me, but often when I’m feeling stumped I’ll stop working for a while and take a walk, do a load of laundry, start some bread dough so it can rise in time for dinner, anything to take my mind off my project. Sometimes I’ll even wait to start work on my project again until I’ve had a good night’s sleep. However we do it, interrupting our thought process so that we can open our minds and hearts up to things beyond what we’ve been able to conceive of so far is one of the conditions for the creative spark to ignite.
Another way to think about this way of inviting the creative spark is being willing to leave some empty space, resisting the temptation to begin writing ideas on the page or outlining something on the canvass or even humming the beginnings of a melody. Sometimes we have to open ourselves to the infinite possibilities that exist both *out there* and *in here* before inspiration sparks its magic in our minds.
Ancient Jewish teachers even imagined that God’s very first creative act was one of making space. If at the beginning of time only God existed, God would have had to constrict the divine-self to make space to place creation, to hold all that is. From what I understand about the big bang, the material in what was once a small universe first contracted in on itself before it exploded out, beginning the many processes that led to each of us being here.
There is something powerful about interrupting our well-worn modes of thinking. There is power in making space in ourselves, our lives, our ways of being with one another so that the new, the previously unimaginable can ignite within and among us. As busy and intense a time as it has been for many of us, this pandemic has forced very different time and space upon us than almost any of us have experienced before. Some of that time and space has been painful, lonely, hard to bear. It has required us to establish new patterns, new habits, learn new skills, figure out how to meet needs in new ways, and led many of us to inventory our lives and cull those activities and people which aren’t life-giving and nurturing and deeply meaningful.
In many ways this congregation has been through a similar journey these last ten months. Suddenly life as we knew it was no longer possible, this community pivoted on a dime and figured out how to do most everything we could virtually. Some things no longer happen because they can’t. Some of those things are missed, and maybe the pandemic was the shove the community needed to let go of other things. New connections are being forged, relationships deepened in new ways, things that we couldn’t have even imagined two years ago are the new normal now, and likely will continue to be even after the pandemic is over.
And just as the pandemic has inspired many of us to consider our lives in new ways, I think it’s leading us to consider this beloved congregation in new ways, too. Our values are strong, but the way we’re being called to live them out is shifting, changing, evolving with the needs among and beyond us. Things we planned years ago to focus on may no longer be as relevant anymore. Things we worried about years ago may no longer be challenges.
A few weeks ago, about 40 of you participated in the Leadership Retreat. This is something the Board and Program Council members do every year, as a way to learn together and focus together on shared goals. This year, I invited participants to consider the ways the pandemic has refocused our sense of what’s most important right here and right now. Or, as Frederick Buechner writes, we are called “where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
It was a joy to hear everyone share about all of the things that bring this community deep gladness, things like our amazing music program with so many dedicated and talented musicians, our worship, our Deaf Access Ministry, the work we do together for justice, and the way people here enjoy just being together. It was humbling to see how tuned in you all are to the deep needs in our wider communities, needs like hunger and housing, the need for connection during this pandemic, fear and uncertainty, support for parents and families, protecting democracy, and work for justice.
But I was inspired by the places where participants saw our deep gladness and our community’s deep hunger overlap. The relationships UUCSS has had for years with organizations like Shepherd’s Table and our gladness supporting their work can help us feed our neighbors who are hungry. We can deepen our work for justice with our anti-racism work, and we can broaden that work by serving with other congregations as part of the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland. And we can serve the need for connection by improving deaf access in everything we do and by gearing up to continue offering worship and other activities online even as we one day return to in-person activities.
These are compelling and inspiring goals, goals developed in the service of our values and that which is greater than we are. We will face challenges as we pursue them, just as we’ve faced challenges before. But rather than try to ignore those challenges, what if we treat them the way the diamond carver treated the scratch in today’s story? What if our challenges are a chance for us to make some space, to take some time, to welcome in the spirit of inspiration? What if we began to lean into the places where things don’t come easily, where people don’t always agree, and create something beautiful and transformative out of that challenge? What if we focus on trusting that community takes time, that it’s worth it, that even if we miss some items on our agenda, it’s the way we are together that will lead us into the future we seek?
It will mean we have to make some space in our hearts and our minds for something different, something new to take root. It will mean we have to work at creating the conditions for the creative spark to set us all aflame. It will mean remembering that we are more and we are better together, and that our goals, our vision, are just the beginning – just the broadest of broad strokes on the canvass that is our shared ministry as a whole congregation.
And it will mean trusting the source of our inspiration, this spark of creativity over which we have no control and yet upon which we are so dependent. It will mean trusting inspiration to help us create and live into something we can’t even imagine yet today. It’s that kind of trust in what’s possible, in what we dream of and what lies just beyond our imagination, that brought this community to where we are today. And it’s that kind of trust in what’s possible that will lead us into a better tomorrow. And I’m so glad I get to be a part of it. Amen.