Embracing Change

A sermon delivered by
Peter House
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 29 August 2004

I didn't suspect a thing. June 2 was "Portfoliio Day' at school. My students work all year on portfolios and during the first week of June every year we have a day in which they display them in the conference room and the rest of the school comes to admire them. I had just returned form the conference room when my classrom telephone rang. It was Judy, my principal. "Can you come up here for a minute?" she said very matter-of-factly although now that I look back I also heard a certain gentleness in her tone.

My teaching assistant, Amanda was instantly aphrehensive as soon as I told her Judy wanted to see me. "This isn't good" she said. The first week of June is always the week that the budget is released and typically it's the week that lay-off notices are given. But despite that, I had no thoughts at all that this might be why Judy was calling. I assumed there was some issue with a student or parent. That is typically why Judy calls us to her office.

She was waiting in her dorrway when I arrived smiling sweetly. Judy is always smiling though. She is gentle, kind hearted person and the teachers love her. She ushered me into her office and invited me to sit down as she closed the door. Uh-oh. She almost never closes her door. But still I didn't even consider that Amanda was right. I assumed I was in trouble. The next thing she said "You know we have a $600,000 deficit". Then I knew. My position had been eliminated. Judy had tears in her eyes as she gave me the news and I ended up comforting her a bit. "I'll be ok" I said. "I've lived lots of different lives" I told her how I had lived in Chicago and Toronto and that I have been a teacher, a minister, and a vocational counselor. I told her that change was an old friend to me. I told her how I was coming back here this summer and that I would be fine. And while I was in her office, I believed it. She also wanted me to tell my assistant Amanda that she would be staying.

I walked back to the room and Amanda was waiting anxiously at the door for me. The students had left by then. She got teary-eyed and hugged me when I told her the news. I comforted her. I assured her that she was staying. I gave her the same spiel I had given Judy about the many lives I had lived, that change is a friend. I was that afternoon what we call in the ministry the "non-anxious presence", the one person who comforts everyone else.

It was not until I was driving home that I let myself feel what i was really feeling. I was not fine. Yes, I had lived many different lives and yes change was not a stranger. But the truth was, I had grown weary of change. I was tired of up-rooting myself every few years. I was sick of being the new person. I had naively thought I was finally settled for good. I loved that job and I loved the continuity. The sameness. In four years I had started to internalize the cycles of the place. Open house was always the first Thursday night in November. We had coffee and donuts every Friday morning (I know some of you heard about that). I knew where in the auditorium my class sat for graduation each year. I knew that everyone teased George Kramer for being a cheapskate. And I knew that in the morning kids from Bloomfield, Honeoye, Seneca Falls, Waterloo, and Penn Yan were dismissed five minutes before everyone else. I knew 12 differnt routes to get to school as I had taken all of the back country roads. I was settled. I was home. Suddenly, it all evaporated.

I was upset. I was sad. I was angry. The good news is that i am not unemployed. I have enough seniority that I am being transferred to another school this fall. It's a school that is closer to my house. It's a school with an excellent reputation and a marvelous principal. But at first, none of that mattered. It was like losing a pet and everyone saying "You can get another one". But you don't want another one. The only thing you want is that familiar pet. I could have been offered a hundred thousand dollars a year to work one day a month and I wouldn't have been happy. I did not want a new job. Period. I wanted my same job with my same assistant and my same classroom.

The new program I will be working in is a special program for severely emotionally disturbed kids. At the end of June I was required to attend a three-day course entitled "theraputic crisis intervention". The theory was that crisis can be a growth experience if we handle it right. The first thing they told us was that the chinese use two symbols to represent the concept of crisis - danger and opportunity. Inherent in all crisis is opportunity. It occured to me that I had been experiencing a crisis of sorts. Whenever change is thrust upon us, we go into crisis mode.

And while the Chinese use the two symbols to reflect the danger inherent in crisis along with the growth opportunity, it occured to me that the danger we face when change is forced upon us is that we will miss the opportunity. That we will be so traumatised by the change, so stuck in grieving what we have lost, so hung- up on what is not to be, that we will miss the opportunity that is being presented to us.

To seize the opportunity is to embrace change. Embracing change is hard. I am not talking about adapting to change, or accepting change, or adjusting to change. We all have done that. And I am not talking about the changes we choose to make either, but rather those changes that are forced upon us.

But often even though we adjust, we accept, we adapt, we still view change as an unwelcome intruder, an interloper, a false reality that has been suddenly subsitituted for the real thing.

My mother's best friend has been widowed for ten years. She has adjusted ,adapted, accepted, gone on with her life. Yet still, I get the feeling that she views her life as a rather ersatz existence. "If Neil were here I'd never be doing this" she is fond of saying. Neil was a pretty oppressive guy and sometimes abusive. Her life wasn't her own when he was alive. Now she travels, spends lots of time with friends, and buys whatever she wants. She recently bought a car. When I was admiring it she said "Of course if Neil were here I'd never have bought this car, no sir. He hated Fords. Found-on-the-road-dead he used to say". She hasn't embraced the changes that have been forced upon her and have also given her the first true freedom she has ever known. She'll settle if she has to but she'd rather have her "real life" back thank-you-very-much. Many nice men have shown interest in her but she brushes them aside. "Why Neil would never approve of such a thing" she'll say.

It's hard to embrace change. It's hard to open our hearts truly to the experience. I have difficulty doing it. But I think that to embrace change is to fully live. The Buddhists teach us that grasping is the cause of all suffering. Trying to hold on to things, to people, to experiences, to time will only causes pain because we can't hold on. And while we are holding on to what was, we are missing out on what is.

I am trying to keep this in mind as I am about to begin my new job in my new school. I have visited there and have met a lot of very nice people. There is a full time therapy dog on staff. It is a nice place. But if my heart is at the old school on the first day of classes, I'll miss truly engaging with these new people and this new place. I can easliy see myself that first day, thinking "I bet Judy is addressing the staff right now. I bet Dan Paddock is lecturing everyone on school spirit like he always does. I bet Jill McLellan has baked cookies like she always does". Thoughts like these are seductive. They will help to insulate me from the discomfort of being the new guy. If my body is sitting in a brand new place but my mind is firmly rooted in a familiar place of comfort, I will feel better. But I will also miss being present to the new colleagues who will want to know me and I am likely to miss their offers of friendship.

Before you know it, there will be a new ministry at The First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. What an opportunity. How much danger is there that this opportunity will be wasted? There are people at the First Universalist Church of Rochester that still have a hard time getting through a meeting without saying "Well this would never happen if Mark and Donna were here. What we need is a someone like Donna and Mark". In the meantime, there have been two gifted ministers since Mark and Donna. It's been fifteen years. For some of these people it has been fifteen years of a susbstitute reality. What a waste. What opportunities have been missed.

This is why when ministers leave a community, they leave it completely and totally, and permanently. And whether or not you realize it now, you are very lucky to have ethical ministers who will follow this guideline of our minister's association. In seminary, I heard a few horror stories about ministers who retired and then installed themselves as members of the congregation, continuing to perform weddings and memorial services, constantly over-ruling the new minister when changes were proposed, and subtley perpetuating the myth that they were indispensible. Talk about creating an ersatz congregation, a substitute for the real thing.

When a long and successful ministry comes to an end, there is, of course, sadness and grief. But there is also opportunity for all involved. There is an opportunity for new relationships, new ideas, new programs. There will be a new energy among you and that's exciting.

When embracing change it helps to remind ourselves of our strengths. I have been doing that this summer as I prepare for my new teaching assignment. This congregation has many strengths as well and as you prepare to embrace change I'd like to share with you the strengths that I see. You are already embracing change.

This summer I have been impressed at how much more empowerment I see on the part of the members than I saw four years ago during my internship. When I was the summer minister in 2000, I did the entire service myself. This summer, I have only had to do the sermon. You now have a wonderful, competent team of service leaders.

During the summer of 2000, I was on my own. This summer I had a functioning committee on ministry who helped me negotiate challenges.

Tuesday morning meetings used to be just staff. Now members and convenors attend these meetings and make valuable contributions. Several members are now giving good sermons.

Every Sunday afternoon I see people tending the flowers and other aspects of the physical plant.

You are a community of dedicated and talented people.

Don't miss the opportunity that is at hand. Don't miss out on the adventure. If you belonged to this congregation at the time that the building was renovated, think about what an exciting process that was. Money was raised, plans were implemented, sacrifices were made and at the end was the excitement of moving into a brand-new larger space. If my memory serves me right, I have heard that a bag pipe procession led the way to the building on the move in day. How exciting that must have been.

What big project will happen during the next ministry? What long unfulfilled dream will finally be realized? What sleeping leader is sitting here in Sunderland Hall right now, as yet unaware of the fact that circumstances will make bring out the best in him or her?

Michael Durall's report to the congregation gave voice to much yearning in this congregation:

"More social action and more visibilty in the community" "More excitement" "A stronger core of something" "Willing hands to do the work that needs to be done" "A congregation that more effectively lives its values in the community".

Which of these yearnings are about to be realized? Which of them would remain forever yearnings if change were not being thrust upon us? Which of them will your new minister be uniquely qualified to help with? And what totally unforseen and wonderful things will happen as a result of the synergy between this particular congregation and your particular new minister? The only danger I can foresee is that you might miss the opportunity.

Embrace change. See it as a friend. Welcome it enthusiasically.

My neighbor Margaret lost her father last winter. He was 89 years old. Her mother is 87 and not really able to live alone. It was decided that she would sell her home of 55 years and relocate to California to be near her youngest daughter. Margaret was dreading the transition. Fifty five years in the same house. Fifty five years of memories. Fifty five Christmas trees in the same bay window. Fifty five anniversaries celebrated in that dining room. Twenty thousand seventy five nights in that same master bedroom. Her mother had lived in that house so long that it was impossible to imagine her anyplace else. Margaret had never experienced her mother in any other home. "It was as if she were a part of the house" Margaret told me.

Margarets' siblings came and claimed things - her brother took her father's tools, her sister had the diningroom set shipped to California, Margaret herself took the birdseye maple bedroom set that her parents had received as a wedding gift.

Then there was the public sale with strangers lined up on the sidewalk an hour before the house opened ready to swoop in and strip the place bare. Someone sold Margaret's wedding dress by mistake. Another customer broke several pieces of china. Somebody stole a lamp. Margaret had taken her mother out for the day to avoid the trauma.

The last night, there nothing left but a set of twin beds and Margaret spent the last night in the house with her mother. In the morning she would put her mother on a plane to San Diego.

Margaret told me "I had been dreading that last morning knowing that Mom would be seeing her home for the last time. I couldn't bear the thought of us pulling away from the house and watching Mom look back at the house knowing that she'd never see it again. I cried most of the night anticipating it."

Margaret was in for a surprise. That last morning they woke, had coffee for the last time in the built-in breakfast nook and then it was time to leave for the airport. But as they pulled away her mother never even looked at the house. And instead of crying, her mother chuckled. "Would you just look at me heading off to California" her mother said. "Who would ever think an old lady like me would get a chance to start a whole new life?" Margaret was astonished. In her own grief she had missed the fact rather than grieving, her mother was actually excited ,looking forward to one more big adventure before she died. She wasn't just accepting change. She was embracing it.

Wouldn't it be great to be like Margaret's mother? What an opportunity she might have lost! The only danger is that we might miss the opportunity.

Thank you for my opportunity to return here this summer. It has been good to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. This is a good place. You are good people. I know you won't miss your opportunity.