Enabling the Dreams of Others

Sunday Service - December 16, 10:00am
Rev. Julie Stoneberg

Music by The Occasional Singers

During these holidays, many of us buy presents for others, hoping to give them exactly what they dream of.  In what other ways can we give such a gift to others?

Enabling the Dreams of Others
The Rev. Julie Stoneberg
Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough
December 16, 2012

Opening Words                                                                - Carol Meyer

We are people of all ages who enter this space bringing our joys and our concerns.  We come together in hope.
We greet each other warmly with our voices and our smiles.  We come together in peace.
We light the chalice to symbolize our interdependence and our unity.
We come together in harmony.
We share our growth and our aspirations.  We come together in wonder.

We share our losses and our disappointments.  (On this particular morning, we share our horror and anguish at the Friday's shootings in Connecticut, and the recent death of a Trent student.)  We come together in sorrow.

We share our concern and our compassion.  We come together in love.
We come to this place bringing our doubts and our faith.  We come together as seekers.

We sing and pray and listen. We speak and read and dream. We think and ponder and reflect. We cry and laugh and center. We mourn and celebrate and meditate. We strive for justice and for mercy.
We come together in worship.

A STORY FOR ALL                       The Best Hanukkah Ever                    - Barbara Diamond Goldin

READING                          Orange                              - Robert Fulghum[1]

This reading comes from a story in Robert Fulghum’s book, “What on Earth Have I Done?”  This is just a portion of a story, which begins with Fulghum telling of how when someone his congregation noted that Unitarians don’t have saints, they came to bestow sainthood on a man named Wilbur Saxton, the title of angel on Joan Anderson, and on a woman they call Gussie the Viking...a classy, graceful, loving, energetic member of the congregation...the title of archangel.  He then goes on to re-tell a story from Gussie’s childhood in Alberta, a story she once shared as part of a Christmas Eve service.  Here it is: 

             “Well, you know, life was so desperate out there on the prairies, and we were so poor that the most we could ever expect for Christmas was to be alive, warm, and have something to eat.  The worst Christmas of all came after a week of heavy snow.  Firewood was scarce.  We were burning dried cow pies for heat and huddling together in a heap under all our blankets in all our clothes to keep from freezing to death.  We were living off boiled potatoes and turnips, and there might not be enough to last until spring.

On that Christmas morning my father got up and made a fire as usual.  He was a solemn, stubborn, hard-working man.  We knew he loved us, but like most Icelanders, he didn’t express his feelings openly.  It took all he had just to keep us alive.  But he did that with all his heart and soul and strength.

My mother was ill – too sick to get up or eat.  When father called us kids to the fire, we didn’t expect much – least of all presents.  As we crawled sleepy-eyed and shivering out of bed, we stopped, astonished.  For there in the dim light we saw on the table – an orange.  A single orange on a white napkin.  We were dumbstruck.  An orange.  An ORANGE!  Out here in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter.  An honest-to-God orange, glowing in the dim light like a golden ball.

“Merry Christmas,” my father said, “the orange is for you.”

How on earth did he get that orange?  Where?  When?  How long had he had it?  It was two days’ ride on horseback to the railroad line.  Three days to the nearest village.  He was capable of doing something like that, but we wanted to know the exact details.  We begged him to tell us.  But all he would say was, “It’s a miracle.”

And we might as well believe that, because there it was.

We sat still as he so carefully peeled the orange and divided the sections to give each child an equal share, along with pieces of the peel.  The smell filled the room.  Our mouths watered in anticipation.  We were almost afraid to touch the miracle in front of us.  And then, oh my, what a moment, we began to eat the orange, the juice dripping on our fingers and down our chins.  I can still taste it.  The sweetest thing I ever ate.
My oldest brother suddenly said, “Wait.”
He pointed at Dad.
We saw that Dad had given all of the orange to us, the children.  Every bit.  None for him.  So my brother took a knife and cut a piece of his orange and placed it in front of my father.  And the rest of us did the same.

My father divided his share into two parts.  “These are for your mother when she’s better,” he said, and then we all watched as, slowly, like a man taking holy communion, he ate his share of the orange.

It was the only time I say my father cry. 

As the years went by, the story of the orange became a family legend, told by generations of the family.  We kids always said it was the finest gift we ever got.  My father said it was not the same for him.

He said that his best Christmas present ever was the moment when his children noticed he was without and gave back to him part of what he had given them. 

You know, he was a stubborn man, and he took his secret with him to his grave.  We knew he had gone to a lot of risky trouble to surprise us.  There was nothing supernatural about it.  Our dad had done it.  But no matter how hard we pled to know how he’d got that orange, he would only say, “It was a miracle.”  And I guess it was and will always be. 

MESSAGE                            Enabling the Dreams of Others 

I don’t know if it was poor planning, lack of forethought, or simple denial, but it wasn't until about a week ago that it sunk in that this would be my last Sunday morning sermon before my sabbatical.  When I realized that, I struggled with whether I ought to change the topic I'd selected, or stick with it and try to make a square peg fit into a round hole.  In the end, I decided to keep the topic, because as it turns out, "Enabling the Dreams of Others" does fit the occasion. 

First, let me tell why I initially chose this topic.  The theme of the month is peace, and as a community of diverse beliefs, including those with no belief, we are always looking for ways to best negotiate that difference...to make peace in the space between us.  Paying attention to the dreams of others, may be a way to that peace.

Some Unitarian congregations welcome their newcomers with words like... “We hope you’ll try us out again, because every week is a little different.  If you didn’t find what you’re looking for today, maybe you will next week."  It’s true...we turn to many sources for wisdom and guidance, not all from the same tradition or philosophical system.  We have folks who like ritual and those who almost cannot abide it.  Some of you love to sing from the hymnal, some like more contemporary music, and some don’t like to sing at all.  Some are humanist, some are theist, some are pagan.  The list goes on and on.  And we try to make room for everyone.

What that means, I guess, is that we try to please, or speak to, everyone at least some of the time.  Which also means that we are not pleasing some of you on any given Sunday, or with any given decision we make.  There always exists a balancing act between, on the one side...comfort, familiarity, agreement and belonging...and the other side...exposure, stimulation, challenge, and discomfort.  We want this community to be a home for each person, yet it will always be a home where there is a mix of familiar and foreign, like minds and disagreement, the way it's been and the way it is becoming.  How do we live this reality with grace and compassion and openness?

Picture it this way.  We are all Goldilocks (of course, each with a unique style and hair colour) and have found ourselves in a place filled with chairs and beds and soup bowls of different styles and sizes and temperatures.  Once in a while, with stomachs growling, we are given a bowl of soup too hot and too spicy to eat...yet those around us are slurping big spoonfuls, and obviously loving it.  They must have gotten different soup, we think!  Other times, and maybe it's just one time in three, we happen to find a chair that is the most comfortable chair we've ever sat in...and we wish for this chair to always be empty and available, just for us.  And then there are the times when we just want to rest our heads, and find that the pillow just doesn't feel right...it's too lumpy, or too soft, and we wrestle with it, punching it and kneading it, until, surprise, surprise, we find that it's just right after all.

This is not a place where everything is just right, all the time, because you see, unlike Goldilocks, we are not alone in this.  This is a community.  We don't get to have it our way all the time.  When we are in the 'too hard' chair, someone else is sitting in the 'just right' chair, and if we want to be here, we'll just have to live with being uncomfortable for a while.  And to top it off, about the time we get the 'just right' bed, the three bears come home. 

You figure out what that means.  I'm done with that analogy. 

It's been suggested that when there's something here that you don’t like, or if there are words being spoken that don’t sit well with you, that the best advice is to look around.  Perhaps you’ll notice that someone else is lapping it up, enjoying it, feeling like it is 'just right' for them.  In other words, when you're uncomfortable, to see if you can enjoy the fact that someone else is getting just what they need in that particular moment, even if you are not. 

The tricky part is that this only seems to work...or maybe it's only possible for us to be this generous of spirit...when we have experienced and can trust the reality that on some days and with some programs, we will get exactly what we want.  Being generous of spirit is much more challenging if we never get our turn to sit in the 'just right' chair. 

The phrase “enabling the dreams of others” comes from The Last Lecture, a book by Unitarian Universalist Randy Pausch, who was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.  His book is built around a very intentional ‘last lecture’ given before Pausch died of pancreatic cancer.  You can easily find the lecture by googling it.  He speaks of how fortunate he’s been in accomplishing most of his life’s dreams, but mostly fortunate because of the many people in his life who helped him to do so.  And then he switches gears and speaks of how his most fulfilling times have been working with students and enabling them to achieve their dreams.  He said that this is a legacy he can live with, and as it turns out, one which he died with.

Enabling the dreams of others.  A few days ago, I watched a movie called "I Am."  It's a documentary done by Tom Shadyac, the director of Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty.  After making a fortune and entering the world of the rich and famous, he had a life-changing brain injury and made this film to tell of his discoveries.  (I won't give it away because you should see it for yourself.)  Anyway, the film mentions 'mirror neurons'... you've probably heard of them.  Essentially, a mirror neuron is one that fires when we observe something happening to, or being done by, someone else...and the 'firing' in our brains creates the feeling that it is also happening to us.  Mirror neurons help to explain why we tear up when someone else tears up, why our hearts expand when we see someone experiencing great joy, why we wince when we see someone else get hurt. 

I got to thinking that mirror neurons may also explain why serving others, doing something for others, makes us feel good....why seeing that we have made a difference in someone's life makes us feel that our own lives have been changed.   Maybe I'm stretching the science around mirror neurons.  Still, we all know that fulfillment and gratification and purpose are most often achieved when we are giving of ourselves... like when we work to enable the dream of someone else. 

I see this in the history of this Fellowship....specifically in the founders and other long-term members that I am, and have been, privileged to know.  They are UFP's saints and angels and archangels.  But, this congregation was not only the dream-child of 14 people in Peterborough.  It was also the dream of many people over many years at the American Unitarian Association, who implemented the "fellowship movement" to support start-up congregations.  And, it was also the dream of individual ministers such as Bill Jenkins from Toronto First who wanted to help seed new Unitarian congregations.   And so, when Rev. Jenkins first met with an interest group here in Peterborough, just who was enabling the dreams of whom? 

I don't know if the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough is exactly what the AUA or Rev. Jenkins envisioned it would be.  Probably not.  And, I suspect that who we are today is not exactly what our founders dreamed of either.  And yet, here we are, together, passing dreams among us like a ever-evolving knitting project, sometimes crafting sections that are our own, and sometimes helping someone else, and then stitching it all together in one diverse yet connected undertaking.  We are here to support others on their spiritual journeys, and by some miracle of mirror neutrons and mutual support, we are, in turn, encouraged on our own journeys. 

Professional ministry is a lot like this.  One of my central tasks is to enable your dreams.  Sure, I have dreams of my own.  I have a personal spiritual journey unrolling before me.  But my job here, as your minister, is to guide you in your dreaming, and then to help you in achieving those dreams.  This is the reason for our 'Weaving Our Future' project...to encourage you, as a congregation, as a communal force, to name who you are and who you want to be...because to achieve your dreams, you must first be able to clearly name them.  And, for as long as I can stand behind your dreams, and for as long as you find me capable of supporting your dreams, I will continue to be your minister.  But in the long run, ministers will come and go, and what remains is the congregation.  You.  What remains is you and your dreams...your unfolding, ever-evolving project, created out of the stuff of dreams. 

For the next three months, I will be away in order that I can return better able to be your minister.  Ministry is, for all of the joy it brings me, a draining and relentless profession.  I need to re-charge my spiritual batteries, to learn more skills, and to create and re-stock reserves that I can call upon in times of emotional and physical scarcity.  An email during the coming week, as well as an article in the January newsletter, will contain more specific information, but basically I'm spending the time on three projects...1) enriching my ministry 2) focusing on my own spiritual journey and 3) doing some personal work that I hope will make my ministry here more sustainable for the long haul.  That's a lot to do in three months.  

This is the first sabbatical I've ever had...and it's the first sabbatical you have ever supported as a congregation.  We're all going to learn a lot in the process.  I feel so very fortunate to be given this time.  I feel so very fortunate to minister with such a talented and able congregation, because I can leave knowing that everything you need to carry on in my absence, exists among and between you. 

But this certainly isn't as cut and dry as saying that when I'm here, I'm working to enable your dreams, and that when I'm on sabbatical, you're stepping up to enable my dreams.  You see, I expect that as I leave, my mirror neurons will be firing, feeling your resilience and your commitment to this congregation, and thus reinforcing my own.  And, as I go off in hopes of improving my ministry, I also hope that your mirror neurons will be firing, feeling a sympathetic urge to examine the ministry of this congregation...to ask what will keep it alive and healthy.  This time, while I'm away, is an opportunity for you to take a deep collective breath and continue to reflect on who you are, who you want to be and what will help you to get there.  Use the time to appreciate your own leadership and role, individually and collectively, because together, and apart, in an ongoing dance, we continue to enable the dreams of each other and of this congregation.  This is a living, breathing, dreaming community...a community of people who have individual needs and unique perspectives on what makes something 'just right' for them, but who also share collective dreams.

The beloved community, that place we’re both already living in and striving to achieve, is a place where we create the space for all who enter in friendship, no matter their beliefs, their history, their age, or who they love.  And the peace that exists in beloved community is created by the capacity of our hearts to put ourselves aside in order to enable the dreams of others. 

I'm here for another week...and in these last days will be doing my best to prepare the way for you...and then I'm gone until the end of March.  If you happen to see me in Peterborough during this time, please don't be offended if I give you a nod and turn the other way.  Honour the fact that I'll be on something similar to a silent retreat, during which time I will shut down one part of myself...my ministry to UFP...in order to focus on and build up other parts.  I know, it's only three months, but I do hope to come back to you at Easter better equipped to enable your dreams.

We'll all be different then.  You will have had experiences together that I will not have shared.  I will have been on journeys without you.  But for all of the ways that we are different, we will be together again.  May you greet me then with the words spoken in our new member ceremony and to all who enters our doors:  Welcome to the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough...a house of hope, challenge and far-dreaming. 

May all be well with each of you.  May all go well with us.  May all your dreams come true.    Amen. 

CLOSING WORDS                         - Lauralyn Bellamy

If, here, you have found freedom,
            take it with you into the world.

If you have found comfort,
go and share it with others.

If you have dreamed dreams,
help one another,
that they may come true!

If you have known love,
give some back
to a bruised and hurting world.


[1] Fulghum, Robert, What on Earth Have I Done: Stories, Observations and Affirmations (St. Martin’s Press: NY, 2007), p. 249.