Water from the Well

Water from the Well

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Ministry of Absence

A few of you have asked, and others might be wondering. What happens after I retire? Will I still come to church on Sundays? Can we get together for coffee? Will I be available to do a wedding? So I thought it might be good to share with you the guidelines that the UUA and the UU Ministers' Association have for retiring ministers. They ask that a retiring minister leave the congregation, and not perform any ministerial function for the members of that congregation following their departure. (So, no weddings.) They also ask that a retiring minister not attempt to become friends with their former members. It might sound drastic, but one source called it a ministry of absence.

If the former minister is absent, a space is created for something new to emerge. People are better able to connect with a new minister. First of all, this would be with an interim minister, whose work is designed to help the congregation in its transition. Then the congregation will vote to call a new settled minister. That minister will need time to get to know people, to make connections, to be there for you in a time of need, and inspire you with their preaching—to really become your minister. It is easier for that to happen if the former minister is not in the picture.

These guidelines for retiring ministers are put into place to support the ongoing health of the congregation, and the future of its ministry. They are also there to support the transition of the retiring minister. I will need time to sort out my new life, and who I will be in that life. I have not been making any commitments post-retirement, so that I can ease into that spaciousness and see what waits to emerge in me during the next phase of my life.

But there is another transition that happens maybe a few years later. Once the new minister is settled in, and things are going well, then the question can be opened up again about whether the retired minister might want to come to church or participate as a member or friend. Some retired ministers do become members of their former congregations, while others do not. At that point, it is a different kind of relationship. At that point, a retired minister might check in with the current minister to see how things are going and whether their presence would be helpful or welcome.

I was trying to think of an analogy that might help to explain it. Did you ever end a relationship with a partner, and wish you could be friends? I have had that experience. I learned that it can't happen right away. First of all I had to take time away from that person—to grieve the end of the relationship, and get really clear in my own separate life. But then, after a couple years of absence, I was able to become friends with some former partners. I think this might be true for ministry transitions as well. We need time apart to let go of the ministry relationship. But it may be that some day in the future, there could be a friendly connection.

Here is how I imagine the first couple of years. Margy and I will be staying in Portland, but neither of us will be actively connecting with members of Allen Avenue. We will go about our lives, and see what emerges. It may be that we will encounter members of Allen Avenue in that process—such as at a Permablitz or a rally in Monument Square or at the grocery store. It will be great to see you, and say hello, and do what we are doing together. We don't have to avoid each other in random situations. But we won't talk about church in that encounter. We won't ask how it is going at A2U2, and if you started to tell us, we would gently change the subject. Then we would go back to planting trees or carrying posters or getting our groceries. We live in the same town, so it would be natural to occasionally see each other.

One thing I do want to add—I will still care about you after I go. A2U2 will always be a part of me, and I will be a part of you. Maybe that is also why they call it a ministry of absence. It is another way to express that caring for this beloved community during this transition.

Affectionately, and still your minister for the next few months! Rev. Myke

Friday, January 26, 2018

What does preparing for retirement mean?

One of the biggest tasks is to pass along various bits of information or knowledge that I hold to others here at the church—this month, for example, I have been teaching our church administrator, Alice Alexander, how to do our UUA reporting each January. Each time I look around my office, I notice more such projects.

Realizing all that has to be done as a part of the leaving process, I wasn't sure how I would find time for it, added to what I already am doing each week. But then a colleague mentioned that her minister, preparing to retire after a long tenure in a congregation, brought back his “old favorite” sermons to preach during the last six months. That seems like a good idea to me on many levels—I like the idea of revisiting old reflections or important themes that are worth another exploration. Plus, there are many newer members for whom these would be totally new. And it will give me an extra day each week to tend to the tasks of leaving. I've started reading through many old sermons to determine which ones seem like they have something to offer for this time.

One old favorite that I want to share this month explores the story of Rev. Thomas Barnes, the early Universalist preacher who came to Portland and helped to lay the groundwork for our congregation to be formed in 1821. He is a part of A2U2 history and his message of love is inspiring even now. I also want to revisit “Gently Down the Stream,” about the wisdom of the Tao for living our lives with equanimity and flow. I imagine that I will still have some new things to say before I go, but it feels good to bring back words from other years as well.

On February 4th, we are participating with a wider UU program dedicated to Black Lives of UU—all of our readings, reflections, prayers, and music will be drawn from the voices of Black UU's or from the Black cultural experience in America. The idea is to de-center whiteness, and center the experience of people who for so many years have been on the margins of our movement and our society. Our Share the Plate during February will be devoted to this cause as well.

The UUA is inviting congregations to give donations, or to make a pledge for future donations as part of a $5.3 million dollar funding campaign for Black Lives of UU. Our district will match all of our contributions, and if we can stretch to give an average of $10 per member, or a total of $2330 during this year and next, those donations will be matched by a donor at the UUA. Since our Share the Plate funds usually come to only about $400-600 during a month, it will take some stretching to reach their invited level of commitment. If you are interested in making a special donation to this campaign, please contact me, or you can write a check to A2U2 with a note in the memo that is it for Black Lives of UU. You can find out more at https://www.uua.org/giving/areas-support/funds/promise-and-practice.

Rev. Myke

Friday, December 29, 2017

What Does It Mean to Say Goodbye? (Part One)

I am writing this in the last days of 2017, in the bitter cold of winter. I wish for all of you many blessings in the coming new year.

As we come round into 2018, I know I must turn more intentionally to focus on the work involved in leaving this beloved community next summer, and what it means to say goodbye. Some of that work is inherently practical—I want to pass along to staff and volunteers, for example, the institutional memory that is now in my own mind, or in files in my office. So I will be sorting through files in my office, or on my computer, or just pondering what I know, to make sure that what needs to be passed along will find a good home among you. And what is not needed by you or me, I will let go of, so that the minister's office itself is ready for an interim minister to use in August.

Some of the work is spiritual and involves my consciously letting go of control, and leaning into trust. For example, I will let go of my role in the future planning of the congregation. I notice this already happening as the board talks about the process of hiring an interim minister—and I purposefully don't speak. In our UU way of transition, the current minister is not meant to offer any opinions about the future direction of the church. It will be up to the board, and to other volunteer church leaders, to do the work of preparing for the transition. I have been so accustomed to being in the thick of our planning for the future, and I have to admit that it is hard to let go of that. I have loved being the minister of A2U2, and so I feel a certain poignancy as aspects of that role begin to drop away. But as a spiritual practice, it is a growing edge that allows me to put my trust in the great River of Life and in all of you.

For your part, the spiritual work may involve realizing more deeply and clearly that this congregation's ministry and future belong to you. It will be your work to envision its hopes, to claim the aspects you cherish, to let go of what is no longer needed, and to imagine new ways to live its mission. And perhaps most of all, it will be your work to listen well to each other as you shape this future together. You may have different ideas about what is important, what you hope for, what you are concerned about—but if you listen well, the future will be more beautiful together than it could ever be if shaped by only one person or a small segment. You will grow spiritually by putting your trust in each other, and in the great River of Life.

Every ending is a chance to reflect on and practice for the larger endings in our lives, and the ultimate ending of death. They say that what is most important to those who are dying are four things—to forgive and be forgiven, to say thank you and be thanked, to express their love and be loved, and to say goodbye. The ending of a ministry also includes some of the same emotional tasks. It will be good for us to acknowledge the hard places, to ask for forgiveness for the ways we have disappointed or hurt each other, despite our best intentions. It will be good for us to reflect on our years of shared ministry, to celebrate that ministry, to express gratitude to each other. It will be good for us to express our love for each other. And eventually, it will be good to say goodbye to each other openly and with affection.

Of course, in the meantime, we will still worship together, we will still care for each other, we will still continue to live our mission in the best way we can, to offer hope and healing to a troubled world. If you have questions about any of this process, please let me know. I am your minister right now.

Affectionately, Rev. Myke

Monday, November 27, 2017

December musings

We're coming into winter soon now... cold mornings, early dark evenings, but the unreal politics goes on and on. I will be preaching on hope this month. And bringing back one of my old favorites for the holiday of Hanukkah. And in case you're wondering, on Christmas Eve we'll have three services—one Sunday morning service at 10, and two evening services at 6:30 and 8:30.

I seemed to be devouring books this past month as I wrestled personally with the potentially devastating consequences of climate change—you can see which books if you look at the sermon transcripts for the month on our website at a2u2.org. (And by the way, say thanks to Diane Oberbeck for our beautiful new website design! I understand that updating it is much easier—and Diane is looking for volunteers who would like to be a part of the website team—let her know if you can help.)

But back to books, after plunging into the depths of the climate change crisis, I found myself coming back to an earlier favorite book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, by Charles Eisenstein. I like it so much, in fact, that I would love to have a book discussion to talk about it. If you are interested let me know at revmyke@a2u2.org. If we have a critical mass, we can find a date after all the holidays. And by the way, you can get a digital copy for free online at https://charleseisenstein.net/books/the-more-beautiful-world-our-hearts-know-is-possible/. He reminds us that the paradigm shift we need—from a world of separation to a world of interbeing—means that the ways we have thought about social change might no longer apply. Maybe we need new methods to get to a new paradigm.

And speaking of books, if you are thinking about gifts for family and friends, consider whether they might like the book I published last year, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community. You can order it at your local bookstore, find it on Amazon.com, buy it through my site at http://www.lulu.com/shop/myke-johnson/finding-our-way-home/paperback/product-22972214.html, or talk to me at church—I have copies in my office for $15. (If you like the book, please consider reviewing it on one of those sites too—it is only by word of mouth that people will hear about it.) I appreciate your sharing it with friends who care about the earth. I also want to say that I had such a wonderful time with the group who shared conversations and rituals based on the book in the course I led this fall, called “A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.” Thank you to all of you for sharing your magical moments and deep feeling for our planet.

I look forward to seeing folks at the holiday fair on December 2nd, and bring a friend to church & RE on December 3rd. May we enter into the season of darkness and light with hearts turned toward celebration—community, family, friends, values, life.


Rev. Myke

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Hope in Our Times

During the “question box” service on October 8, the most predominant question written down and placed in the basket for me to answer was some version of: “With everything that is happening today, how can we hold on to hope?” I mentioned at that time some wise words of Rebecca Solnit about hope in the midst of darkness. So I went searching around to find more and wanted to share them with you here, along with some words from Howard Zinn. I will revisit and expand on some of these ideas in December, when our theme will be hope.

A writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit says: “To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.” In her Field Guide to Getting Lost she writes: “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from...” “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”

Professor and historian Howard Zinn writes: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction…The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

In her book Hope in the Dark, Solnit concurs, “...if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place... Make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.”

Howard Zinn continues: “The struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold onto it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, and patience.”

Rebecca Solnit explains, “Nobody can know the full consequences of their actions, and history is full of small acts that changed the world is surprising ways.” Like the antinuclear activist from Women Strike for Peace (WSP) who recounted feeling foolish and futile while standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House only to learn years later that Benjamin Spock, a high-profile activist in the anti-nuclear movement, was first inspired by “a small group of women protesting outside the Kennedy White House.”

Zinn writes: “There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability.”

And finally, Abby Brockman says: “In my own life, I’ve noticed an anecdotal relationship between engagement and hope, and between disengagement and despair. I don’t know if it is causal or correlative but I have found that the people who have the most hope are also the ones most engaged (in fighting poverty, sickness, inequality, injustice both here in the US and abroad), and the the most cynical ones are the ones who are distant and disengaged.”

May these wise words be a small light in the darkness, Rev. Myke

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Tools for Reflection and Action

Last May, we participated along with 600 other congregations in a UU wide Teach-in on White Supremacy. (See the transcript of our worship service at http://www.a2u2.org/services/resisting-white-supremacy/) From the teach-in website, [https://www.uuteachin.org] we read: “White supremacy” is a provocative phrase, as it conjures up images of hoods and mobs. Yet in 2017, actual “white supremacists” are not required in order to uphold white supremacist culture. Building a faith full of people who understand that key distinction is essential as we work toward a more just society in difficult political times. 

This past year, we have seen all too many blatant white supremacists in the news. Perhaps you've wondered how to respond or to challenge such hate and racism. While it may seem counter-intuitive, one of the most important ways is to better understand the underlying structures of our society that are rooted in and support white supremacy. White supremacy has been defined as a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color. If we can begin to understand these assumptions and practices, we have the possibility of making changes.

This fall, a call came out for a Teach-In Part II, and Carolyn Barschow (our fantastic DRE!) and I have been talking about how we can participate here at A2U2. We decided to offer a film and discussion on October 15th following the services. The film is a lecture by Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, President of Starr King School for the Ministry, and African-American UU minister. She shares the personal story of her family's long history with UU Community Church of New York, and reflects on the challenges for our faith going into the future. She wonders what it might take to truly make changes that would enable her sons and other people of color to feel fully at home in our UU movement.

Her lecture was part of this spring's Minn Lecture Series in Boston & Cambridge, on the topic: “Historical and Future Trajectories of Black Lives Matter and Unitarian Universalism.” By the way, the other lecture was given by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, and you can read an article based on his talk, entitled “The Black Hole in the White UU Psyche” in the September issue of the UU World magazine. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/black-hole-white-uu-psyche.

In this time of transitions in our congregation and in our wider movement, we have a chance to stretch ourselves—to let go of the comfortable and familiar and risk new ideas and possibilities that might make a big difference in our world. I hope that many of you will join us for the film and discussion.

And in a related vein, you may remember when Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot activist, preached so eloquently at our church last November. Sherri will be returning to A2U2 on October 28th for a day-long workshop entitled, From Traumatic Paralysis to Unified Action. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and stuck with the bad news we face every day—Here is a chance to go deeper, to acknowledge our wounds and create ways to move beyond them.

I hope to see many of you there. If you are interested, but can't afford the registration, talk to me.

Rev. Myke

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Healing the World

I am writing this on the day following the eclipse of the sun—Margy and I didn't travel to see the totality—but it was exciting to see millions of people in our country gazing at the mysteries of the universe. Astrologer friends of mine say the time between the lunar and solar eclipses was good for introspection and reflection. I've been taking that solitary time during these last few weeks to prepare for this upcoming church year—thinking about sermons, thinking about teaching, thinking about what has been happening in our world, and how we can respond to it.

Two events stand out for me this summer. In July, I participated in a gathering led by Penobscot Sherri Mitchell, entitled Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island. Indigenous elders from across the continent came together in Passadumkeag Maine, for ceremonies to heal the violence in the history of our country. The gathering was open to anyone, and we learned that, actually, this was the beginning of a twenty-one year ritual for the healing of our country. There will be three more gatherings here in the East, then four gatherings in the South, four in the West, four in the North, four in the center of the country, and then one more back in the East. A big vision! On the first day, Sherri reminded us that all of us carry wounds from the violent history of our country, whether our ancestors were part of the oppression, were oppressed, or were witnesses to what occurred.

In August, the wound of white supremacy in our country showed itself overtly. A white nationalist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly, when a neo-Nazi man plowed his car into a group of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing a young activist woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring many others. One of the many clergy present there to counter-protest was Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, new president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I was proud to be UU on that day, even as my heart was broken. Since then, many other protests have sprung up across the nation, calling for cities and towns and universities to take down Confederate statues and plaques, and inviting us to affirm a nation that welcomes all, despite our violent beginnings.

Can we heal our nation? There are many Indigenous prophecies that speak of today as a time for healing. We need it so much! I believe we need to acknowledge the violence of our nation's past before we can heal the violence of the present moment. Perhaps we are beginning to do that. The ceremonies at Passadumkeag reminded me that often what is most powerful is not what we see in the news, but what is hidden close to the earth, in small gatherings, in communities of love and vision. I am looking forward to being with all of you again, as together we wrestle with the struggles of our times, and seek healing in the light of the larger mysteries.

Affectionately, Rev. Myke