To Be of Use

Biddeford Pool Ocean view

One evening, during my first year in college, my best friend Lori and I were sitting in the quiet candlelit chapel of our campus. A few other people were also there, scattered about the pews. I remember feeling we each seemed so isolated in our private meditations. I was moved to reach out and take the hand of my friend. Little did I realize, at that very moment, she had been wrestling with her own inner spiritual struggles.

Feeling a certain despair, she had just prayed, “God if you are real, I need a sign. It doesn’t have to be a miracle; I just need you to touch me in some way.” Then, I innocently took her hand, and it was the touch of God she experienced.

I shared this story with my colleagues last week.  From Wednesday through Friday, I was on retreat with other Unitarian Universalist ministers at Biddeford Pool, by the sea.  They had invited me, because of my upcoming retirement, to share my “Odyssey,” my story of ministry.  So on Thursday evening, I talked about the long path and the many transformations that have been a part of that ministry journey, starting with this story of my being used unknowingly by the Spirit.

Years ago, even as a child, I had opened my life to that Spirit, that Mystery, that flowing River of Life.  Ministry has meant, for me, at root, that opening to be of use.  At different times in my life, that has included many different types of work.  Most lately, as a minister in a congregation, I have been preaching, offering pastoral care, teaching, writing, going to many meetings.  But ministry is not always about our intentions or our plans or our activities.

I shared another story that happened only a few years ago.  At that time, I was planning to join my congregation at our annual retreat at Ferry Beach.  We were happy to be including a visiting UU minister from Burundi, and I was going to drive him to the retreat.  But then I got sick with a bad cold or flu–can’t remember which.  I called a member of the congregation to see if she could give him a ride instead.  She did, and later she told me that it had changed her life.  She was transformed by hearing his story, and she eventually went to visit Burundi with other UUs.

I was struck by how even our limitations–even getting sick–even being missing–can be an occasion of unknowingly triggering a blessing for someone’s life.  If we are in the flow of Spirit, the flow of the River, even our flaws can be of use.  This gives me great comfort as I deal with health issues that drain my energy and interrupt my intentions and activities, and are the impetus for my decision to retire this year.  I remind myself to trust in that same Spirit who has been undergirding my life and my ministry for all these many years.  Trust in the flow of the River.

 

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Changes

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This coming summer, I plan to retire from my ministry at the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church.  I have loved being a minister and have loved serving this congregation for 12 1/2 years.  I think the congregation would also say that it has been a good match.  But last summer, I began to think I might need a change.  I have been dealing with auto-immune health issues for some time, and just don’t have the energy I used to have. I will be turning 65 this coming summer, and that means I will be eligible for Medicare–which in turn makes it possible to consider this change.

Unlike when Margy and I were searching for greener housing, and had such a clear sense of intention guiding our efforts, this change is more mysterious.  It comes from a deep place of weariness in my body, and a deep hunger for spaciousness in my spirit.  I am not sure exactly what the future will hold.  One thing I do know is that I need to tend the garden in our yard.

We’ve already ordered a bunch of trees and other perennials that will arrive in the spring:  one “Honeycrisp” apple tree, one “Contender” peach tree, an “Illinois Everbearing” mulberry tree (that one is mostly for the birds), three hazelnut bushes, two blueberry bushes–Blue Ray & Jersey varieties, a licorice plant, twenty-five Asparagus plants, and three goldenseal plants.

My spirit feels like the ground hidden under the snow, or the berries encased in ice.  I am trying to find quiet and solitude to listen to what it wants to tell me, to find out, as David Whyte says,

What shape waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky?”