Little Big Church

The Little Big Church:  Stewardship and Vision                                      © Rev. Susan Karlson                                                                                                               March 10, 2013                                                                                                                           Unitarian Church of Staten Island

          When I take the Myers-Briggs Personality test I score just one data point over the line that says I am an extrovert.  Yesterday when I arrived at Midland Beach for the Walk a Mile in Our Shoes Rally and March for solidarity in continuing the the Sandy Recovery efforts my introverted side thought, “Oh no, I am going to be here all alone. This is going to be really awkward”.  Then someone said “Have you signed in yet?  We want to know everyone who is here.”   Organizers offered me a hazmat suit if I wanted to put it on, a shovel and a construction hat.  I met people I know from the Long Term Recovery Group.  Our  El Centro friends got in the spirit, donning black plastic bags and spray paint to play the part of black mold monsters.  We began to laugh, talk and take photos of each other. And then I saw Eric and Lucas, new members of this church.

My fears were unfounded.  I belonged there.  I had a part to play.  Though we come from different cultures with vastly different experiences and yearnings we are one.  We chanted the Chilean motto—“El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido.”  “The people united will never be defeated.”

Fear can destroy your spirit.  It can weaken your commitment; leave you feeling purposeless and aimless.  Fear enters when we are disconnected from that which feeds our spirit, when we feel set apart, lonely, fatigued, and hopeless.  You don’t need to be an immigrant to feel that.  You don’t need to be in prison or hungry or homeless.  The antidote is expressed in the chant—“The people united will never be defeated.”  I believe it is useful here at church as well.  It’s part of our theme for this stewardship campaign—“Growing stronger—together!”

          Not that we all think alike, believe alike or feel alike but that we come together for something larger; some vision that captures our imagination, our focus and arrests our hearts.  Kahlil Gibran, expresses our common purpose this way,:  “and he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream”. 

           A nifty little bit of theology in that one sentence fragment—it is a reflection of the first and seventh principles of Unitarian Universalism –the ones about our interconnectedness and our worthiness.  In a world that seems to cry out to us, “you are so unworthy!”, Gibran shouts another message—“no, don’t you see—if you are born out of the “ocean of life” then you are connected to that cup of life that flows from your next door neighbor’s stream.  You are all in this together. You are not alone.”

          This is stewardship Sunday and so we’re considering how to support the church.  How does the Unitarian Church of Staten Island call to you?  The Psalmist in Psalm 42 inspires me, saying “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.  Why are you cast down, O my Soul?  Hope in God.”  I recall times in my life when I have felt case down, paralyzed by fear, almost sunk beneath the waves of despair, unable to see a clear path, a wider vision.  But then something comes—it can be God coming in the thundering waves but more often it’s a community spirit, something that lifts me up, someone that reminds me about the “ocean of life” we are all born into.

          I understand “deep calls to deep” in the broadest possible terms—that something holds me and loves me even when I feel I am the most unlovable.  Something deep inside recognizes my worth and my being-ness.   And in feeling that unconditional love for myself, I also know that it extends to those around me and those I may never know.  That message of “deep calling to deep” is in the Unitarian Church of Staten Island and it’s in each of us in all our diversity, in all the places we come from and all the places we grow towards.

          We are at a spell of hard times in this church.  The good news is that we recognize it and will be talking about it. It is not time to hit the panic button, as if this church is dying.  With all respect, I don’t believe that.  We are engaged in a process of change and revision. We are diagnosing where we have come to and where we are heading.  Our future trajectory may be uncertain but we are certainly not facing the final curtain.

          The Unitarian Church of Staten Island  will not be the same as it’s always been. Change is scary.  The Taurus in me likes to know the lay of the land, to plant my feet, to know what I face just ahead because  change can be scary.  But without change, comes stagnation.  Nothing new can grow.  If we impose what we know from the past on the present, we resist the future.  As was expressed in the webinar on “Part Time Minister, Full time church” that some of the Board members attended the other night, opportunities abound and hope and energy along with them.  The possibility of change itself creates opportunities and new growth.

          I read an article in the spring issue of the UU World, the Unitarian Universalist  national magazine (which by the way, mentions us in several paragraphs and our work post Sandy) about the Unitarian Church of Sharon, Massachusetts that struggled as a lay led church for most of the nineteenth and twentieth century, dipping from its norm of 70 members down to 40 members, its 1842 building in disrepair and its funds almost non-existent.  Then they had a consultant come in who listened to them and said, “Maybe you should call yourselves the First Masochist Church.  You’re beating yourselves up for the things you’re not, instead of appreciating the wonderful community you are.”  Well that got them going.  They began to climb their way up and now they are a breakthrough thriving congregation.  It’s taken them about 30 years and a great deal of intentionality. 

          I think we sometimes beat ourselves up like that.  We dwell on what we don’t do or can’t do. We talk about all that challenges us and keeps us stuck.  We seldom celebrate all that we are—which is an exceptional, beautiful church with so many good spirited and committed souls, doing incredible, creative, compassionate and just work—living, loving and growing together.

          Now I do believe deep down that we need to be taking a very deep look at our financial situation.  We need to address our dwindling reserves.  I’ve been saying that for the past four years and I’ll say it again.  We need to assess very carefully and plan and budget and increase our giving if people can.  That’s why the pledge cards will appear in your order of service every week and we encourage you to fill them out and welcome the steward who will talk to you about giving to this church that needs each one of us and all of us together. 

We need your support but we also need to set priorities and create a vision out of what matters most to us, how we see ourselves—what unites us as a people.  And we need to work and communicate together, respectfully, lovingly, with our whole hearts.  We have an opportunity to do that next month at the All Church Retreat on April 13th when the Rev. Peggy Clarke will be our facilitator.  I would hope that every person who is not ill or has to work or sit beside an ailing friend or relative will be here for that Retreat.  It is that important.  We need everyone to show up so that we can begin planning the future that will affect all for whom this church is a spiritual home or plays some important part in their lives. 

The minister in Sharon, Massachusetts, the Rev. Jim Robinson, asked everyone when he arrived at the church, “What would you be passionate about creating?” (Sharon’s Breakthrough by Donald E. Skinner, p. 33-35 (spring 2013).  I will share with you my passions and my vision in April;  what I think will help reinforce our relevance and our future now that we are very much in the public eye with our efforts around Sandy Recovery.  I want to know what you are passionate about here at the church. Imagine what we can create together, what we can sustain together, what inspires us individually and collectively.  Deciding who we are and what we want to prioritize in the years ahead will help us build a sustainable budget and a strong church.

          Imagine that we are the church that welcomes people; that makes people feel that we’ve been waiting all of our lives for them; that we are a more joyful community when we are all here together.  We will build a place of welcome for children even if we don’t have any young ones at home because they are all our children.  We will build a place of welcome for those who have accessibility challenges and those concerned about the future of the earth.

          We are the Little Big Church because we do so much even though we are so small in numbers.  We have a grand history and a bright future.   No matter what the future brings, the Unitarian Church of Staten Island will be a beacon of religious liberalism in Staten Island.  We are not alone. We have a place here among one another as the deepest part of ourselves calls to others.  If we change just one little word in that Chilean motto, we get a motto that can help us grow stronger together—“The people united can never be defeated.”

Benediction by Rev. Susan Karlson                                                       You come out of the “ocean of life”.                                                                                     You are always connected to it.                                                                                                You are never alone.                                                                                                                     Feel its power pulsing inside you—                                                                               Connect your tiny stream to your neighbor’s                                                                    And give whatever you can                                                                                                           For the good of us all.


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