“Keep Calm and Carry On”
Sermon and Worship Service for
My Final Sunday in the UUCC Pulpit
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
Sunday, June 25, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Prelude “Bridge over Troubled Water” [Elizabeth Harris]
Lighting the Chalice [Scarlet Lowry]
Call to Worship “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Children’s Story and Singing the Children Out
Choral Call to Worship [the Adult Choir] “The Road not Taken,” by Robert Frost
*Opening Hymn #41 You that have Spent the Silent Night
Candles of Community
Offering [Share The Plate: Harvest Hope Food Bank, Denise Holland]
Offertory: Blake’s, “Jerusalem” performed by Billy Bragg
Sharing Sentiments in Farewell to Rev. Jennie
First Reading: “Riveted,” by Robyn Sarah
It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.
Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.
It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious dénouement
to the unsurprising end — riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.
Responsive Hymn #1 May Nothing Evil Cross this Door
Second Reading: “Ordinary Life,” by Barbara Crooker
This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch’s little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa’s ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken [is] diminished to skin & skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
into the winter night.
The Morning Sermon: “Keep Calm and Carry On” [Rev. Jennie]
It has been my honor, as your Interim Minister, to companion you through two years of life events, some of which have gladdened our hearts, and some of which have left us shaken and saddened by grief. I am very grateful for how well we have done together in partnering, communicating, and collaborating so that so many of those experiences could be as rich and helpful as possible. Being the sole minister of a program size congregation is a really big job! I confess that often, on weekends, I felt like UUCC could use another “Mini Me.” But even as I look back on some experiences that we could have shared more fully, I feel that you were doing the best you could do. Please know that I was also doing the very best that I could do.
Our shared experiences have included funerals; child dedications; attending to the pastoral care needs of members and friends (with the compassionate care of your Pastoral Care Associates Team); joining hands with other religious people and social justice organizations; saying goodbye to some staff or volunteers, and welcoming in new staff and new members; fundraising that exceeded people’s expectations, including a wildly successful Capital Campaign; planning for renovations to the building; presenting programs through Adult Religious Education and Social Action to educate others, and ourselves, including our focus on institutional racism and standing against gun violence. To their great credit, your search committee remained hardworking, thoughtful, and unruffled till the end, culminating in a happy and successful vote-to-call your new settled minister. In worship services, we marked anniversaries such as September 11, 2016, and the historic floods of October of 2015. And we honored Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, Evolution Weekend, Easter Sunday, Earth Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the “bridging” of our children and youth. I am deeply grateful for all of our staff, and for all of our chairs of our standing committees and Ad Hoc committees, and for our Board of Trustees. And it was inspiring in ways I will never forget to collaboratively break new ground in fundraising with the leader of your Capital Campaign, Pat Mohr, and the Chair of your Finance Committee, Joe Long.
I have loved ministering among you at special gatherings at the church and in your homes; at committee meetings and September Set; for the Blessing of the Animals; at CYRE events like the Chili Cook-Off; and at the Cabaret to benefit our Partner Church.
The hardest thing, for me, this past year, centers around the Presidential Election. A few months before, I began saying that, if Trump won, I would delay my vacation plans, write pastoral remarks, and deliver them on November 13th. It continues to pain my heart that that’s how that week in the life of our nation unfolded. In some ways, I think that we have been grieving ever since that week. People’s emotions have jumped around like popcorn, from anger to fear to depression, to encouragement and inspiration at signs of resistance to policies that are motivated by self-interest. We, in our nation, our city, and our congregation, have been through a lot this year– a lot of heartache. Please know that I have engaged in radical self-care to tend to my spiritual and emotional needs, and physical well-being. And please know how helpful UUCC has been for me to experience.
What with the successful Capital Campaign, and a pledge drive that exceeded last year’s pledges, and the triumphant Candidating Week and vote to call the Rev. Jeff Liebmann as your new settled minister, and the excellent start-up of the building renovation plans, and the noticeable increase in members, visitors, and attendance in CYRE, UUCC is definitely on an upward trajectory.
As I look back on our time together, I can’t help but wonder how we got through so many sad losses, sudden tragic events, and other struggles. Even back at the very beginning, shortly after I signed my contract to come here from Little Rock, Arkansas, there was the shooting in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. And then, just a few weeks after I began serving here, there were the historic floods of October 2015. We have also gone through a Presidential election that was extremely vitriolic. And the outcome of that election left people in our nation, at the very least, surprised and confused, and, at the other end of the spectrum, angry, depressed, and fearful, especially for vulnerable people whose well-being and liberties are at risk. And there have been shootings, and terrorist attacks, and, closer to home, we have mourned the passing of beloved members of our church family. How did we get through all that? How did I even figure out what to say, Sunday after Sunday, and in all of our personal conversations, and in minister’s columns for the newsletter twice a month? The answer is, we figured out together. We figured it out through heart-to-heart talks that were open and honest and filled with compassion. And in some of those conversations, all I could say was, “I don’t have an answer to that,” or “I don’t have an answer to that yet, but let’s stay in conversation about these things that are troubling us.” And we have stayed in conversation with each other. And, somehow, we have maintained hope.
Last weekend, I went down to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort, South Carolina, to attend the funeral for Jim Key. He was the Moderator of the UUA, and a founding member of that Fellowship, and a dearly beloved friend and neighbor to them. On the back of the Order of Service for his funeral, his family had printed a favorite poem of Jim’s. It sums up his philosophy of life. It’s called, “Hope,” by Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovakian political dissident and philosopher who wrote about life under a Communist regime. It reads:
Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world.
Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit.
You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy
when things are going well,
or the willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.
Hope is definitely not the same as optimism.
It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.
It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things,
even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing
to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily,
without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.
I have read that poem over and over again, since it was handed to me at Jim Key’s funeral. It has been a great solace to me. Through the hard times of these last two years, we have maintained hope, not through unrealistic nor magical thinking, but by continuing to live out our UU values in ways that make sense, regardless of the hardships that may befall us, regardless of what the outcome of our efforts may be. We have gotten through the hard times by turning to each other, and extending compassionate care, and, even more difficult for many of us, by asking for and accepting compassionate care. And we have noticed and grasped those moments of grace, light-heartedness, celebration, and camaraderie along the way, and have availed ourselves of them, to the fullest. The way we have gotten through the hard times has been that, together, we have “kept calm and carried on.”
That phrase, to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” is from a poster that was created by the British Ministry of Information, in late 1939, out of concern for the morale of people in London, as World War II began. [Two of the other posters that were created said, “Freedom is in Peril,” and “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory.”] Hardly any of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters have survived. But in 2000, in Northumberland, England, a copy of the poster was found in a used bookstore. The phrase has since become iconic in its help to people living through all manner of hardship. And it remains a quintessential summation of British resolve, stoicism, and courage in trying times.
I found this little book at some point in October of 2015, maybe as news of our impending floods was breaking, or maybe during those floods, or maybe in that long period afterward as we were trying to navigate around closed roads and bridges. And our Administrator, Andrea Dudick, and I chose this picture for the cover of the Order of Service, of a poster valiantly proclaiming, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Doesn’t that poster look like it has been through South Carolina’s historic floods of October of 2015? Andrea and I thought so.
Malcolm Gladwell writes about what life was like in London in those years during World War II. His insights are in his book, David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. The thesis of his book is that hardship and adversity can be to a person’s advantage. He is not saying we should treat suffering as noble, nor glorify it– of course we shouldn’t. But when a person, with support and care from others, gets through a situation of adversity, they can end up more capable, more brave, and more hopeful.
What people in London at that time endured is almost unimaginable. Tens of thousands of people were killed, as many were injured, and a million buildings were damaged or destroyed. But the widespread panic that the British Government predicted did not come to pass. In summary, Malcolm Gladwell writes that, yes, people died, and, yes, the people for whom an attack was a “near miss” were traumatized. But the people for whom an attack was a “remote miss” came through the experience feeling strong, courageous, exhilarated even, because they had survived.
Malcolm Gladwell cites Canadian psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy, saying:
“We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration… When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.” And Gladwell asserts that when we try to predict how fearful we will be during a possible future event, “we are terrible forecasters.” “The actual experience of the thing that was feared is a lot less scary than the person imagined.” [fn, p. 148]
Gladwell concludes with these surprisingly reassuring words:
“Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all. Do you see the catastrophic error that the Germans made? [Gladwell asks] They bombed London because they thought that the trauma associated with the Blitz would destroy the courage of the British people. In fact, it did the opposite. It created a city of ‘remote misses’ who were more courageous than they had ever been before. The Germans would have been better off not bombing London at all.” [p. 149]
We maintain that collective strength, courage, and hope, through bad times and good times, when we turn in the direction of what will continue to make the most sense, in the living out of our values, for our future, as best we can foresee it. We have reached such a time of turning. Largely because the Carolinas’ rainforest-y climate does not agree with me, I will be turning toward the North, specifically to Chicago, for my new interim job, with Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. This does not mean that you will no longer be in my thoughts and heart and prayers and very best wishes. You will always have a place in my heart, most dearly and gratefully. And, your congregation, too, will be turning– turning to the beginning of what I am confident will be a long, fruitful, and affectionate settled ministry with the Rev. Jeff Liebmann. And your sanctuary, too, will be turning, because of your building renovation project. You may not know that, right now, you are facing toward Jerusalem. This sanctuary has been facing toward the East. In the mid-1980s, we purchased our much-loved building and grounds from the Tree of Life Jewish congregation. For them, facing toward Jerusalem was a special thing, a necessary thing, a sacred thing. We can continue to remember and honor our friendship with Tree of Life and their noble religious values. But your congregation does not have to continue to face Jerusalem; you do not have to continue to face East. You can turn toward the South– especially for the pragmatic reason that that turning will give you so much more seating room extending back toward the Social Hall. That turning, and the extended seating it will create, will also give you, as a whole congregation, more of sense of solidarity and empowerment.
And, lastly, there’s another way I am asking you to turn toward the South. One thing I am most grateful for from my time here is the relationship I have cultivated with the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, SC, and its ministers. Our two congregations already had some relationships of mutual affection, respect, and collaboration. My final request of you is that you continue to cultivate that relationship as much as possible. UUFB recently completed a building renovation project beautifully. As such, they are a source of learning and inspiration for your congregation. UUFB will also be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding. It is amazing how well they have grown and developed in such a short time. UUCC should join with them in celebrating that. And UUCC also has a long proud history of accomplishments, advocacy, growth, and development that UUFB can learn from and be inspired by. And our congregation and UUFB are also trying to maintain hope through losses and challenging times, and can help and support each other in that. I’d like to see the relationship between these “sibling” congregations deepen and blossom.
These past two year, serving your congregation has been a true blessing for me, in your loveable way of befriending each other, and friends, neighbors, and travelers, meeting people wherever they are at in their lives, with compassion, without judgment, not sweating the small stuff, yet pausing for the momentous occasions. Compassionate listening, when we make space for it, can be literally healing. Though I wish we had not experienced the tragedies, losses, and struggles of these past two years, I have learned a great deal from processing them. The main thing I’ve realized is that, on any given day, some tragedies and some true blessings inevitably occur. When the tragedies seem to be plaguing us or people we love for a certain season, sometimes we cannot even figure out why. But if we feel we have been somehow cursed, we also have the capacity to believe we can reverse a curse. And we all have the capacity to convey some of that belief to a person whose faith and hope are wavering. So perhaps the most heartening thing to recall, when fear clouds our day, is that there are always groups of people –countless groups of people– congregations, and also neighborhoods, families, and strangers brought together by a shared loss, who will be present to the terrors that shake our world, and who will lend us those moments of beauty and tenderness that restore our faith. Though it can take a long time, by turning toward one another, we can help each other find the balance and the grounding we all need, in order to face all that each new day may bring.
*Closing hymn: #169 We Shall Overcome
*Benediction [Attributed to the Rev. Fred Lipp] [Rev. Jennie]
“Fix, Oh, Lord, our steps– so that we stagger not in the uneven motions of the world– but go steadily on our way– neither censoring our journey by the weather we meet– nor turning aside from anything that might befall us.”