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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Presented by Rev. Russ Savage, John Bartoli, and Rev. Diane Teichert, with Jonathan Mawdsley, Worship Associate; Dayna Edwards, Director of Multigenerational Religious Exploration; and The New Way Band


A Sermon delivered at the

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

January 25, 2015

Rev. Russ Savage, Interim Caretaker Minister

Committee on Ministry Member John Bartoli

Rev. Diane Teichert, Minister

Including Chalice Reflection by Worship Associate Jonathan Mawdsley


The theme of today's service is "Transitions."  We had a significant transition in our household just this past week.  Our beloved old car, a 2002 Toyota Echo, flipped its odometer on Thursday evening for the second time, meaning that the car has now driven over 200,000 miles.  To put that number in perspective, that’s more than eight times around the earth at the equator, over four hundred trips to and from the International Space Station, or over 80% of the distance between the earth and the moon. 

That milestone now means that we will have another, more significant transition in our household very soon.  The fact that the car has now surpassed 200,000 miles means that my wife and I can now officially admit to ourselves that the car is, in fact, old.  To be honest, our mechanic has been telling us for some time that the car really is on its last legs, and that it’s time to buy a new car, or at least one with fewer miles on the odometer.  The transition on the car’s odometer is leading us inexorably to a more significant transition in car ownership.

And that brings up an important point about transitions, is that one transition often seems to lead right into another transition.  I spent the last year, what I call the "year of three jobs," going through multiple significant transitions in my professional work life, starting the year with one job, working for most of the year as a contractor at a different organization, and then transitioning to another full-time job at yet another organization in the fall. 

I learned a great deal about myself by going through this series of work-related transitions.  Mainly, I learned that I really do not like transitions, and that change – even good change – can be stressful and challenging.   But I also learned that there is a wealth of wisdom and knowledge in the world’s religious traditions that can help us cope with and manage difficult transitions in our lives.  Much of this wisdom emphasizes the fact that the world is constantly in transition, and that transition and change are very much the normal course of events.  The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said “you cannot step twice into the same stream” and that ancient saying does a very good job of describing my own experiences with life over the past year.

I have found a good deal of strength and support in Buddhist traditions as well.  Buddhism teaches us that change is the normal course of human existence, and that much of our suffering is due to the fact that we try so hard to keep things the way they are.  We create suffering for ourselves and others when we cling too tightly to anything that is in the process of changing, whether that be a car, a job, a pet, or a beloved family member.  Learning to accept change can be very hard, but it is a key insight along the path towards relieving our own suffering and the suffering of others.  

I am grateful that I have a church home that encourages exploration of the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions, where we can come together to share our joys and sorrows, and help each other through the major transitions in our lives.  I very much hope that each one of you can find the strength and support that you need to deal with your important transitions right here at Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church.


Russ Savage

            When something major changes in life, it’s human nature to want to be done with what is ending and quickly get on with whatever is coming next.  "OK, I graduated from college; I’m going to grab the first good job that comes along and get started!" "My marriage is over; what I need to do now is find somebody else to share my life with." "I’ve retired from my job; I’m going to start right in playing golf every day!"

            We want to jump from the old thing to the new because we are anxious about what is going to happen.  We’re uncomfortable without the old and we want to find the comfort of the new to take its place right away.  This is natural, but it may not be the best way to proceed.  In his book Transitions, management consultant William Bridges outlines his theory of transitions. 

            He says the old thing—job, marriage, career, education, place we live, whatever—comes to an end and we should mark that consciously; grieve for it would be one way to put it.  A new thing is going to start and we don’t know for sure what it is going to be.  Bridges says we should not be in a hurry about it.  We should concentrate instead on the transition in between the old and the new.  Take time to be in this in-between space where we don’t know for sure what is coming next, and simply let it happen.  Trust that the outcome is going to be OK, and we can’t get there by forcing it.

            Bridges describes five stages which often happen in this in-between transition time, much like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grief in her book some years ago.  The transition stages—which don’t necessarily happen in the same order or with the same intensity for everybody—are:

All this must happen before we can move to the new thing that is coming.

John Bartoli

Recently, I went to Cash Lake at Patuxent Wildlife Refuge for an hour of peace and quiet. It is a place that soothes me and re-connects me to nature. It calms me to be there, even in the coldness of winter. There is life and death all around. No good no bad, no plus no minus, no black no white, just being/not being all mixed together.

I saw a pine tree that had been bent over by wind and storm until it hit the fork of a tree next to it and then bent even farther down toward the ground. Its top now pointed directly down but the pine needles had turned back up towards the light and its pine cones still hung down towards the ground.

As upside down as this tree was, it was surviving, still taking in sunlight with its needles and still nurturing its pine cones.

Then I thought about January of last year when things went upside down for me. I was diagnosed with colon cancer and believe me that was a shock. But my interior  "Mr. Fix-It" took over...I found out more information about colon cancer...I talked to people who'd experienced this type of cancer... interviewed doctors to perform the surgery with a list of questions to ask. I canceled all my volunteer commitments and appointments until further notice. I even started a blog on a cancer site.

I was ready!

Luckily, surgery and recovery went fine. Even more luckily, I didn't have to get chemo or radiation therapy. I was clear of the cancer, at least for now.

But something was missing. My "Mr. Fix-It" had done well and got me through the emergency intact. But there was something I couldn't "fix." I had lost contact with all the things that had defined me—volunteer work at Washington Ear, Mankind Project, and AARP. I'd cancelled  them all for the "emergency" and I didn't feel like starting them up again. I was going through the first phases of a transition.  As William Bridges says, "Transitions are the changes, good and bad, that unsettle us."

I thought again about that upside down tree. Was it really flourishing, or just surviving, hanging on to the old ways of doing things?  

Maybe it's time for me to turn to a new chapter of my life. Maybe it's time to redefine myself. Or maybe it's just time to sit back and just observe whatever's out there, and decide whether I want to keep it, or not.

I was approaching the Neutral Zone, the space between Endings and Beginnings.

Russ Savage

What does John’s experience with his cancer have to teach us about things that are happening here at PBUUC?   The parallels are fascinating.  Just like John got a jolt with his diagnosis of colon cancer, we got a jolt when Diane suffered her stroke last April.  In an instant things were changed.  The old was over, and we didn’t know what the new that was coming would be. 

Just like in John’s case, Mr. and Ms. Fixit jumped in right away to fix things.  Congregation members and leaders did a fantastic job of mobilizing support from both inside and outside to keep things going.  I’ve been pleased to play a small part in that effort.  Remember, one of the words in the title you’ve given me is “caretaker,” and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. 

Now things are rolling along in caretaker mode pretty well.  Programs like RE and Social Justice and Music are running just fine.  Worship attendance is right on track with the past.  We’ve had a trickle of new members, about in line with our customary membership growth.  Diane is recovering and we’re always pleased to have her back among us as she is today. 

But still, we’re in that neutral zone, that unknown area, that waiting place.  Some of us may be a little anxious, and that anxiety might manifest as pushing to get to whatever is coming next quickly.  That’s a natural reaction, but there may be some value in waiting…waiting to see what the future has in store for us.

John Bartoli

Just outside the Greenbelt Co-Op stands a cherry tree that has been severely cut back. All its branches have been trimmed to stubs. But it was proudly displaying an incredible array of blooming cherry blossoms, in the middle of December! People told me this tree bloomed every time the weather got warmer and the sun came out, even in the winter.

I call this tree the "Inside Out" tree because, despite all the troubles this tree has gone through, it still sent out blossoms from deep inside. It still had the will to survive like a lot of us do when confronted with life  changing situations.

I have recovered from my bout with cancer. But I'm not the same person I was before. Something is very different. And I'm at a loss to figure it out. I'm feeling disoriented.

Dis-orientation, one of the five processes of transition, is defined as where the ordinary assumes an unreal quality. Things that I was sure I liked before are confusing me now. For example, I love Shakespeare and I recently searched online to buy tickets for The Tempest. For three nights in a row, I went on line to choose my seats but I could not click on that "Buy Tickets" button to complete the purchase.  Something held me back.  I sensed something was wrong. Finally it came to me: I really prefer theatre, especially Shakespearean theatre, in a more intimate venue, rather than a large showy production. I hadn't realized that before.

I am in the Neutral Zone, that time between the ending of one phase of Transition and the beginning of the next. It is not a happy time. It's a time to listen and become aware of what attracts you, what moves you,  what you think your purpose is. It's not a time to "fix" things. 

Maybe there is another interpretation of this "inside out" tree. Maybe it shows how its creative soul can't help but burst out, changing previous definitions of itself, creating something new.

Perhaps, like this tree, I am turning myself "inside out" to see what's there, to pay attention to what I really want, to observe the possibilities, to try something new on.

Perhaps it may be time for us as a church to observe all the possibilities for our future. We too have suffered major change in the last year. Our minister was suddenly taken away from us, yet she was not taken away. Our "Mr and Ms Fix-It" moved into crisis mode to "fix" the problem by mobilizing members, friends, and ministers to take care of what was suddenly missing.  "Mr and Ms Fix-It" served us well. But what do we do now?

            How do we figure this out? I don't know. I suggest being open to whatever happens. Give each idea its space. Don't jump on any one thing right away. Give yourself permission to be "lost" for a while. We will know when and where it will be time to move on to whatever we are becoming.


            I want to conclude by reading a poem by David Wagoner.  It’s called Lost.  Look out the windows here at the forest.  Imagine you are in a forest someplace and nothing looks familiar.  You don’t know what direction you’ve come from; you don’t know which way to go.  You are lost.  That’s where this poem begins.



Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

                        --David Wagoner



Russ Savage

David Wagoner’s poem says it well:  “You are surely lost.  Stand still.  The forest knows where you are.  You must let it find you.”

Standing still and waiting is hard to do, but it may be the healthiest way of preparing for the new thing which is to come.  Standing still and waiting gives the Universe a chance to tell us and show us what it has in mind for PBUUC.  That doesn’t mean we should simply be idle in this in-between time, this neutral zone.  We should be listening, listening for the forest to find us.  That may mean listening, patiently listening, deeply listening, to one another.  Each of us may have an idea, a vision, a hope of what the ministry of PBUUC might be like in the future—the new thing which is taking shape before us.  Over the coming weeks and months let us patiently listen to one another about what we hope the future holds.  Let us each slowly, gently, articulate our vision of what the future might hold for us together.

Diane is here to tell us about one vision of the future which is in her heart.

Diane Teichert

            My hemorrhagic stroke on April 18 came as a total shock.  It was not a transition I chose or even expected. I had none of the predisposing medical conditions – no diabetes or high blood pressure and I'm not overweight. I had even roused myself out of bed and out of the house early that morning to go to the university gym. I swam laps for 30 minutes and went home for breakfast. I remember telling Don, my husband, as we parted ways to go to work, that I felt great. Only a few hours later I was in an ambulance for the first time in my life on my way to the stroke center at Holy Cross Hospital.

On the way there, my speech was becoming garbled and a funny thing happened. The medic who was trying to insert an IV despite our bumpy parking lot, and the hills and turns on Powder Mill Road, said to me "I've never been in your church before. I hear it is a unique church. Can you tell me about it?"  I groaned inside! "Yes, Unitarian Universalism is unique, but  I can't answer that question right now. It's too complicated! I can hardly talk! And he said, "That's exactly why I'm asking you, to keep you talking."

That was the first of a series of humorous incidents in the first week. I began to compose a sermon in my mind, so I could share them with you. I even asked a colleague, a friend, to visit me so I could dictate it to her because I could not write or type and my speech wasn't clear enough for dictation software. I pictured myself being back here in May to give that sermon. Two weeks later, she came with her laptop, but by then I had realized how bad off I actually was. No way would I be back to preach in May! I couldn't even move from bed to wheelchair without assistance from two staff people! My friend brought me a beautiful prayer shawl made by women in her congregation and we just had a really good visit, no dictation.

There have been many other instances of unrealistic expectations on my part. I even worried that being here today would be one of them. But here I am, and there have been many other challenges that I set for myself and met.

I am so deeply grateful for the love and support I have received from the congregation from the beginning, and the gift of time and space given to me by you to experience this as a transition, as a time of waiting and recovery, rather then being rushed into a premature decision about when I return to work.

This gift of space and time has allowed me to focus solely on my recovery at first and then to slowly begin to  discern what this shocking change – my stroke – was to mean for me. What did the universe have in store for me and for the congregation?

Attending services starting in September, once a month was my way of beginning to test the water of returning to work. Would I feel overwhelmed, or agitated, or scared being here? Or welcomed, energized, or appreciated? I decided to feel my way, literally, to go on how I actually felt, not on what I thought I should feel or was expected to feel. Each visit positively paved the way for the next.

So my discernment process in this transitional time between shock and recovery is a time of active waiting. I am waiting, but not passively so. After attending services here once a month in the fall, plus twice at other congregations, with Russ and the Committee on Ministry, I developed a series of what we are calling "steppingstones" for the winter months.

They are:
Last Sunday I met with our youth group, today I'm here adding my part to this sermon on transitions. On March 8, for Stewardship Sunday, I will co-preach with Russ. On April 19 I will preach by myself.

If the steppingstones go well, if I feel good about myself and you feel good about me, I imagine preaching once each month through the summer, and if it doesn't crowd out my work toward the full recovery of my left leg, foot, arm, and hand, maybe I will also assume one quarter of the ministerial duties in the spring and summer months,  leaving the rest to Russ. Thank God for Russ!

It is as if I am trying out bits of my former work-life one at a time, seeing how I feel. "Step-by-step," as the old union song goes.

Where will the steppingstones lead us? I do not know. But I do want to tell you that, last winter, a year ago, I was feeling very burdened by conflicts here and heavy pastoral care responsibilities. I felt I was working more hours than I wanted or was healthy to be working. I developed a fantasy for the future: to share the job with another minister, preferably someone with a different set of life experiences from mine-- for example a man and/or a person of color and/or someone at least 25 years younger than I and/ or someone who is gay or lesbian..  More diversity of ministerial leadership would support our intention to be a more multi-generational, multi-cultural congregation, more welcoming of GLBT and queer people; I would be less lonely and you would benefit from two different personalities and sets of skills and passions, each minister working half time. My stroke occurred before I could begin to explore the possibility of this fantasy coming to life with the leaders of the congregation.

So the vision in my heart which Russ said I would share with you today is one of me working not more than 20 hours a week, job sharing the position much like the co-ministries by which you've been served in the past. Except that your prior co/ministries were both married couples and I am already happily married to someone who is not a minister!

However, I have successfully job-shared with someone who wasn't my spouse twice before, once prior to becoming a minister and once after. Furthermore if you had not called me to be your minister, I would have stayed where I was then serving, becoming Co-minister with the then senior minister there, both of us working full time. So, as you see, I have done it before and I think I can do it here.

On the other hand, what I am able to do now in twenty hours is not what I could have done in as many hours a year ago. Every task now takes me so much longer.

Also, I fully recognize that the congregation may not want this kind of job-sharing ministry at this time in its history; and it is also possible that once we have traversed across these winter steppingstones, either you or I, or both, may decide that even sharing the job by this fall is an unrealistic expectation, due to the remaining disabilities, visible and invisible, from my stroke, especially if I am not cleared to drive again by then.

We, you and I, will learn from my steppingstones in this time of major transition in both my life and in congregational life. I hope it will be, for all of us, a time of active waiting and deeply reflective discernment, in "sacred space,” in the forest, as we heard in the poem John read aloud a few moments ago.

This Transition is a time of discernment for me and for you- what and who are we called to be? What are we able to do and be? What does the world most need from me, from PBUUC?

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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church • 3215 Powder Mill Road • Adelphi, Maryland 20783-1097
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