(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 28 May 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)
(This was my final sermon as the intern minister of Throop Church, and, as such, it focused on specifics of the church and on my own life more than is usual.)
I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you […]
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
Our worship theme this month has been seeking, and when I started to think of what I would say in a sermon on this theme, one of the first things that came to mind was the song I just quoted, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. This was the second track on their album The Joshua Tree, which was released thirty years ago, in March 1987.
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
What am I looking for?
Thinking back on my own life at the time this album was released reminds me that “What am I looking for?” is just one of several questions we can ask of ourselves.
“What was I looking for?”
“What was I really looking for?”
“What did I get?”
And, “How did that change me? What did I start looking for next?”
For me, in March 1987 I was reaching the end of my first year of graduate school in mathematics. What I was looking for was education and training; I was hoping for a career as a professor at a research university. But what was I really looking for? What were the deeper longings underlying that particular career goal?
Well, I wanted to be able to spend time thinking clearly about complicated questions. I wanted to share the beauty of mathematics with other people. I wanted to help students learn — to connect with them.
These were the deeper longings that have been part of my life for many years.
What did I get?
After I graduated in 1993, I worked at the University of Michigan for a few years, teaching and doing research. When that three-year position was over, I moved on to my current job, doing mathematical research at a think tank in San Diego.
Of course, between then and now a few things came along that I didn’t know I was looking for. Bella and I met in 1989 and were married in 1994. Our children Cee and Robert were born in 1997 and 1999, and there’s no way I could have predicted the beautiful individuality they each have grown into.
What about you?
Think back on some formative time of your life. What were you looking for? When you look back, can you figure out what your deeper needs were? What you were really looking for?
This is a valuable exercise. I’d ask you to take some time this week to really consider some moments in your past, and, with the benefit of hindsight, see if you can figure out the things that were motivating you.
After you have experience looking this way at times in your past life, you can try moving on to the more difficult practice: Figuring out what your deepest desires are today.
In ministerial circles, the practice of figuring out what you really want — figuring out what life path to take, what important choices to make — that practice is called discernment.
You can take it to extremes: A few years ago, when I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to enter seminary, I made a point of exercising my discernment muscles every morning when deciding what to have for breakfast. While I was making the coffee — because of course breakfast includes coffee, don’t be ridiculous, there’s nothing to discern there! — while I was making the coffee I would consider: “Do I want something on the sweet side, with fruit and granola? Or something on the savory side, with sautéed potatoes and greens? What do I really want?” It sounds silly, but getting practice deciding between those two choices helped me get better at making harder decisions. I learned how to tell when I wanted to eat potatoes and greens because it would taste good, and when I wanted to eat them because I felt a responsibility to clear out some leftovers.
A few years ago, some seminarians at Harvard made a funny video about what a seminarian’s life is like. One clip shows a student standing in the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store, saying to his friend offscreen:
I’ll be there in a minute — I’m just discerning whether to go with ultra-soft or ultra-strong.
But even though it may feel a little awkward or silly at first, I recommend this practice: Start by thinking of what you are looking for, and then try to figure out what you are really looking for.
What was I looking for when I arrived at Throop two years ago? On a superficial level, I was looking for a way to satisfy a requirement to be a fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister — every UU minister has to go through an internship of some kind.
On a deeper level, I wanted to find out what parish ministry was like. Was it something that would be satisfying? Was it something I could do reasonably well? Was it something that would encourage and support other people? Would it be a way that I could be useful?
And what did I find?
I found a community that has been willing to support me, that has been willing to trust me — a congregation that welcomed me as a minister, and church staff that welcomed me as a colleague. I found — here, with you — a community willing to share with me your joys, your struggles, your hopes, your frustrations, your victories.
For me, being here at Throop has been a transformative experience.
What about for you? What about for the people who come to visit Throop? What are people looking for when they come here?
Some people come looking for friendship and community.
Some people come looking for God.
Some people come looking for strength, or peace, or respite from a world of pain and injustice.
Some people come looking connection to things that are deeper than everyday life.
Some people come looking for knowledge, or wisdom.
Some people come looking for music.
What do people find when they get here? What do you find?
This is an interesting and critical time for Throop.
Many of the things you have been looking for, you have found!
You’ve called Rev. Tera as your settled minister… the first time that you’ve called a minister in more than 20 years.
You’ve committed to being a teaching congregation, training intern ministers who will go out and serve the wider UU community — and you’ve survived your first intern!
You have a regular children’s religious education program, so that parents with children can come to services and know that their kids will gain something from their time here.
You are taking care of critical aspects of this wonderful historic building. A committee is actively working on how to raise money to maintain these beautiful stained glass windows. The project to remodel the bathrooms is under way. Other basic maintanence is being taken care of.
Throop is known throughout the wider Pasadena community as being a hub for permaculture and for environmentalism… and the active “Thirty Days for the Earth” program is spreading that reputation even further.
You’ve had more and more members join, inspired by the energy here.
So, what next? You’ve found so many of the things you were looking for.
But what are you really looking for? What will you look for next?
I think it’s time for some discernment.
And my one parting piece of advice is this: I would suggest that you and your board of trustees create a mission statement for Throop Church. Not a long list of everything you would like and hope to be, but something short, focused, memorable, something that captures the essence of what you dream of becoming.
Then, when someone suggests a project that Throop could get involved with, you can stop and ask: Does this fit into our mission? Is this something we really want to do?
A few years ago Apple produced a short video about the philosophy behind their design process, which included a memorable phrase: “A thousand no’s for every yes.”
You want to say yes to the world. You want to say yes to the projects that will really further your goals. And you will need strength and self-knowledge to know when you have to say no. A mission statement will help you find that self-knowledge.
As I have been preparing to leave Throop, many of you have asked about my plans for the future. You should understand that I am a part-time student, so my future is coming very slowly. I still have about two years’ worth of classes before I finish seminary. And I still have to do a five-month part-time internship as a chaplain in a hospital, which I hope to do in the fall of 2018. But assuming everything goes smoothly, I will be an ordained and fellowshipped minister within the next three years.
I will be glad to keep you all informed of my progress in this. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, the guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association say that for the next twelve months I should not have any intentional contact with you all. This will give you a chance to get to know your new intern minister as their own person; and it will give me the chance to experience one of the painful but necessary aspects of ministry: Saying good-bye.
I am so lucky to have been able to spend time here with you. I will carry this experience with me for the rest of my life. And after our year of separation, I hope to come back to visit, and to see how this church has thrived.
Bless you all. Thank you. And good-bye.
Image credit: Southern Sierras, Late Afternoon, copyright 2008 by Everett Howe.