Compost and Other Teachers / Rev. Lyn Cox
You saw a little glimpse of my garden earlier. I hope you didn’t mind the weeds, and were able to hear the invitation to beauty. One of the things I have learned in the garden is that it will not and I cannot be perfect. I do the best I can, I don’t do everything that an imaginary perfect gardener would do, and also there is a great deal that is not up to me. Nature and random chance and the collective consequences of human-caused climate change all have an impact on what happens in my garden.
Gardening isn’t the only metaphor available to talk about congregational life, or about the cycle of taking hold and letting go, but it’s a good one.
So, one of the things we learn together is that we can always try to do better and to be better, and also to let go of perfection. Congregations are filled with human beings, and human beings are beautiful, quirky, deeply flawed, and also capable of deep love. I’d like to think that this is part of what Norbet and Maja Čapek had in mind with the Flower Ceremony. The bouquet of community is different every time, it changes moment by moment. There will be some wilted leaves, there will be stems of all different lengths, there may even be a hitch-hiking insect, but somehow the vessel of community, watered by love, can hold so much.
This congregation is filled with brilliant, loving, human people. You have been through difficult times. In my two years with you, I think this congregation has been able to find more room for differences, more room for working toward life and beauty even when things couldn’t be perfect. As Ms. Frizzle says, take chances, make mistakes, get messy. There remain opportunities to work on your understanding of conflict and covenant, and that’s in the strategic plan, but I hope you can take a moment to appreciate how you have grown. I have experienced moments of grace, times when I have acknowledged my mistakes and you met me with an opportunity for repair. Blessed is the imperfect.
Something else I’ve learned from gardening is that everything is related. Strong-smelling herbs next to vegetable plants helps keep away pests. Tall plants with broad leaves can help shield plants that prefer cooler temperatures. Growing flowers helps bring bees to pollinate the tomatoes and cucumbers. The parsley you all planted at our Tu B’Shvat service in February did all right indoors under a plant light, but once I was able to put the containers outside around other plants, receiving the rain, and in the fullness of the sun, they really took off. Context is everything. A garden is a system, every living thing affects every other living thing.
In congregations, people and teams and traditions are all woven together in a tapestry of community. The strategic plan you have worked so hard to put together helps you get on the same page. It helps you understand each person’s contributions and each team’s contributions as part of a larger whole.
The systems perspective is also relevant to justice work. There is no true liberation except collective liberation. Queer liberation and Black liberation and disability rights and environmental justice and gender equity and justice for the poor are all related. This congregation has done some transformative learning and reflection on dismantling white supremacy and other oppressions, and your justice teams are growing ever closer in communication and collaboration. I hope you are proud of that work, and proud of the ways that members are finding to apply that work in the world.
Liberation is also a theme in the flower ceremony. The freedom that the Prague congregation was so proud of and committed to was not guaranteed, and it has not been constant since their founding. During World War II, while Maja Čapek was in the United States raising money for relief efforts, Norbert was arrested by the Gestapo. In addition to his thriving congregation, he had a pro-freedom radio program. He died at Dachau. The ideals he was committed to live on, partly because he was able to communicate them through an enduring ritual of beauty and meaning. The Čapek knew that freedom for them meant also freedom for Jewish and Romani people. They knew that safe passage and comfort for refugees was part of that freedom. Welcome, inclusion, strength, and beauty are rooted in the same soil as resistance to fascism. As Fannie Lou Hamer said, nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
Yet another thing I have learned about gardening is that moving forward means letting some things go. The soil that nurtures my sunflowers and chard would not be so rich without compost. What has come before feeds what is yet to come, and cannot stay forever in the same form if it is to be part of the circle of life. Even as things do grow, sometimes they need pruning for optimal health. My tomato plants were ready to tip over until I shaped them to gather sun from the top rather than spreading out. There are choices about how to focus the available energy.
As a congregation, you have let go of some things that no longer served you. I have seen growth here in your interdisciplinary cooperation. The Finance Team — which has always included talented and committed members each working in their roles — has become a true team, with members working together and communicating with each other. The new Communications Team is making great plans about managing the flow of information within and beyond the church. When we switched to online operations in March, great doorways of imagination opened up. You could have decided to just shut down if we couldn’t do things the way they had always been done, but instead we emerged together into a new era of doing church differently, still rooted in values of inclusion and accessibility, focused on creating experiences to transform and strengthen your connections with each other and with Unitarian Universalism.
In celebration of your ability to make choices and focus your energy, my parting gift to you is a 16-foot pole pruner, a tool for shaping the future of your gardens. I asked the garden committee for a gift idea that was practical and meaningful, and that’s what they requested. May this congregation move forward in health and discernment.
One more thing I want to say is about gratitude. Having a garden teaches me that it always could have been otherwise. I can cooperate with growing things, yet I know that the miracle of life is beyond my power to control it. I owe thanks to the people in the furrows beside me, to those who came before me with seeds and tools, to the earth that sustains us, and to the larger circle of life.
Thank you to my colleagues on the staff team. Thank you to Michelle McMorris and Phi Thi Thach for their care and understanding for our youngest UU’s. Thank you to Juan Vargas for helping to make sure our sacred spaces are maintained, especially during this pandemic where his care for the buildings keeps us safe. Thank you to Bruce Marquette, our bookkeeper, for keeping us on track so promptly and meticulously. Thank you to Phyllis Stanley for her gifts of music, her flexibility, and her kindness. Thank you to Michael Knaapen for his voice and his creativity and his patience. Thank you to Congregational Administrator Melinda Yalom for holding us together with administration and communication during this extraordinary time. Thank you to Interim Director of Religious Education Marsha Thrall for jumping right into a time of change that was even more exciting than we could have predicted, and for helping us understand that religious education can equip us to live our faith all week long. Thank you to Michael Holmes for his talent and dedication, and for his examples of care and support for members. Thank you, colleagues.
Thank you to the leaders of this congregation: Board, Program Council, Ops Council, committee chairs, and volunteers. Thank you to our Annual Budget Drive Team. Thank you to the Lay Ministers. Thank you to more leaders than I can name for loving this congregation and letting me journey with you as you show that love. Thank you to all of the members and friends, to the children and youth, thank you for letting me be your minister for a little while.
We never know what may come of what is growing now. Seeds can be dormant for years, and spring up when the time is right. I have a lot of confidence and hope in your future as I leave you, and I look forward to hearing what might spring up in the times to come. Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.