Good morning. My name is Agnes Vandergang, and I have been a UU, and a member of this congregation, for more than 12 years. During that time I have insinuated myself into just about every corner of this place. I have sung in the choir, deliberated church policy around the board room table, led adult programs on topics dear to my heart, crawled on my knees through the Haunted House set up in Shaw Hall for Halloween, and danced up a storm right here in this sanctuary. I have served more cups of coffee than I can count, exhibited my photographs on these walls, and planted perennials in the secret garden. This year I finally agreed to be a teacher in the religious education program. I have laughed out loud, stamped my feet in rage, and wept with despair in this building… In fact, in case the ministers have failed to inform you… I own this place. Oh, don’t worry or sigh with relief, I’m not talking about the mortgage. I’m talking about belonging – I am an integral part of this community and it (and that means you) are a part of me. This is my home. You are my family.
Wherever I go, I end up talking about this place and how much it means to me. Truth be told, I brag about this congregation the way some people brag about their grandchildren. And when I see new faces among us, I get excited. I love to share my experiences here with newcomers, and invite them to discover for themselves who we are and what we have to offer. Even though, like the majority of Unitarians, I am an introvert, I don’t feel the need for a reminder about the “3 minute rule” (that’s the suggestion that’s been made in recent months that we all spend the first 3 minutes of coffee hour talking to people we don’t know)… But, it wasn’t always so.
There was a time when the exhortation to welcome newcomers made me as petulant as a 2 year old with a new toy. I had spent two years seeking an alternative religious community, didn’t even hear about Unitarian Universalism until I went away to Boston one summer. Having found this gem of a religion, and made it my own by jumping in with both feet, I did not want to share. As members we were regularly invited from this pulpit to take the time to talk to newcomers, who were given green mugs at coffee hour. I confess to you today: I hated hearing about the “green muggers”. I’m ashamed to recall the things that went through my head:
“I found my way here without any help – they can too”.
“This is the only time of the week I get to connect with my friends;
no one’s going to take that away from me ”.
“I do so much work around here; let someone else talk to new people”.
You see, as a young woman with a questioning mind and strong feelings, growing up in a conservative Dutch Calvinist community, I had felt like an outcast for as long as I could remember. I was starved for a sense of belonging. I was not unlike the broken cup Donna described a few weeks ago – feeling I could never get enough. Trying to make up for lost time, I thought I needed to safeguard my resources. I could not yet trust that what I had found would last. Perhaps the sense of community I experienced was only superficial, and would come apart when individual differences surfaced, as they inevitably must. Or worse yet, I would discover that once people got to know me, my ideas and feelings would not be any more welcome here than they were in the tradition I grew up in. Not yet sure of my new-found home, I held on to it for dear life. I would not, could not open my heart to others seeking the very thing I hoped I had found.
What are you holding on to for dear life? What keeps you from living deeply, engaging fully, and giving freely? Allow yourself to imagine letting go. Consider allowing this community to support you in the process. Are you prepared to open yourself to the glorious possibility of transformation?
Not wanting to share; holding on tight for fear of losing what we have. These are such human feelings. Children articulate them fiercely: “Don’t touch that! It’s mine! You can’t have it!” And are adults really any different, except that we have learned that “selfishness” is not socially acceptable? We pretend to be nice, even when we feel mean and think nasty thoughts. We quietly resist, complain and undermine. What does it take to let go of the wish to have sole possession of something? How do we become, not wholly selfless, but truly generous? How do we let go of the things that hold us back?
You may wonder why I am talking about this on New Year’s Eve – the service during which we are invited to let go of the past, and welcome transformation. Well you see, with all the talk about growth over the past year, I kept thinking back to my resistance to talking to those “green muggers”, and wondering whether other members might be less than happy about being asked to share. I thought I might not be alone in having had mixed feelings welcoming others into our circle. And I knew for sure that each person here would be familiar with the feeling of not wanting to let go, even when the time is ripe. And I wanted to testify to the fact that this common, human experience can be transformed, here, in this community of faith.
Let me tell you what happened to me in during the time between wanting this congregation all to myself, and becoming eager to share it. In the choir, I developed a camaraderie with others who enjoyed singing. As a board member, I struggled with issues of responsibility and authority. At one meeting I ranted about some voices carrying more weight than others. Everyone heard me out, despite the less than fully mature presentation of my concerns. I met women whose concerns and circumstances were similar to mine, and developed rich and enduring friendships. I witnessed difficult issues and tensions within the congregation aired openly, and dealt with in love and compassion. Flirting on this dance floor, more than a few times, in this “safe” setting, I finally understood that I am valuable for much more than my sexuality. As it became clear in the past few years that I wouldn’t be having children, I befriended a young family, and hope to be present at the birth of their second child next spring. And, teaching a class of eight-year-old boys, I am moving through trepidation towards (occasional) gratification.
Having been embraced so often, in so many different ways, my cup is over-flowing. I have, almost without noticing, given up safeguarding what I have. I now experience the most joyful imperative to share my abundance. I have been transformed within and by this community.
What about you? What do you need in order to let go and embrace the new? Whatever your struggle, there is a place for you here. There is enough understanding, support and love to go around – open yourself to it. The wonder of our diverse, multi-faceted community is that you can customize it meet your own needs – we offer do-it-yourself transformation! We boldly proclaim to be “a community serving each person’s spiritual journey”, and let me tell you, it’s no mere slogan. It’s an open invitation, and a challenge. Ask yourself what you need to let go of on the cusp of a new year. Take a step on the journey. Believe me, it’s worth the trip.