Service given on April 30, by Rev. Karen

A chalice
Is a cup,
A bowl,
An empty space with
A low rim around it.

A chalice is a bowl,
But it is also hands cupped
around a campfire,
protecting the flame from the wind,
willing the spark to catch.

The chalice is a bowl,
But it is also each one of us,
Gathered in a circle
around the flame.

Some of us are here to stoke the fire,
While others just want to feel a little bit of warmth
To carry them through their week.

For this moment,
This precious hour,
Set your burdens down.
Look around.
Feel the warmth Of the many cupped hands
That have built this space for you.

In this precious circle where all are welcome,
We light this chalice
For all of us who gather round the rim,
Creating the space for each of us to be
And to become.

This morning’s reading was a video of poet Naomi Shihab Nye reading her poem, link here  (“Gate A-4”:

How do we make this world that we want to live in? The shared world, where not everything is lost?

Albert Schweitzer once said that when own light goes out, it can be rekindled by a spark from another person. These are the people we remember with great gratitude all our days.

This saying of Schweitzer’s is one of the most popular of the chalice lightings in our grey hymnal, so I’ve heard it quite a few times over the years. In the early days of my ministry, it called to mind the kind of caring and reaching out that communities organize for one another when an individual is suffering from illness, or grief or tragedy. Who doesn’t feel gratitude for those who have been there for us in this way? This is one of the purposes of community—to be present with one another when times are difficult.

But this isn’t our only purpose, and this isn’t the only kind of spark that gets lit. Over the past couple months, our canvass team has been collecting spark stories — you will find them in the canvass brochure, and on the bulletin board in the lobby. Our Saskatoon Unitarian community is filled with these stories – sparks that encouraged risk taking, supported learning, and raised children and youth, among many others.

What would happen if we said that this was part of our purpose—to be a spark for change in individual lives and in the life of this city?

Last fall, your Board asked me what I saw coming next. We are a vibrant, growing Unitarian community. We are on the path to achieving sustainability of ¾-time settled ministry.  What is the next big thing?

The seeds of the future are often found in the present.

When we are at our best, I see us providing a place of acceptance, a safe place for people to be themselves.  When we are at our best, I also see us providing a place of encouragement, a place for people to try new ways of being or a new direction in life.

When I look around, I see people getting excited, finding their path, moving projects forward in innovative ways. I sense that we are becoming a place where people nurture and feed these sparks so they can grow into something beautiful. I see more and more Unitarians taking on leadership roles and becoming sparks for others, as they were sparked themselves.

Our next big step, I think, is learning to do deliberately what has been happening … if not by chance, at least a little bit hit and miss.

What does it take to make a spark come to life?

A spark isn’t a thing, an object, it is an event that happens when the right conditions are in place.  A spark generates energy, and that energy causes something else to happen.

To have sparks, we need to have oxygen and heat. We need fuel to burn (something that will get used up, transformed). If one of the conditions isn’t present, it doesn’t work, as anyone knows who has tried to light a campfire when it is very windy, or when the wood is green, or when the matches got wet.

So what conditions are needed for our sparks to flourish?

Some of the conditions we know already:

  • In order to feel that sense of both acceptance and encouragement, we need to be known, we need to know one another as people, as individuals
  • in order to try something new, we need to have a sense that we can trust the community, that it is ok to be vulnerable

Another way to look at this is to say that one of the conditions is freedom. Now freedom is one of the traditional cries of the Unitarian movement, originally it meant freedom of belief, and then expanded to include freedom from belief. And we still need those forms of freedom. But we also need the freedom to be who we are, the freedom that comes with being known in community.

Not too long ago, I was amongst a group of like-minded people who were trying to grapple with a difficult conversation, when the most surprising thing happened. One of the people who I thought of as central to the group started talking about how she felt she didn’t really belong. Her opinions and her culture put her at odds with everyone else. None of us, looking at her, would have guessed that she felt this way.

In the silence after she spoke, another person, taking that as their cue, talked about how he felt he didn’t really belong in the group, because of his life experience, and his identity.

We went round the circle, and discovered that not a single person felt they were typical. The difficult conversation wasn’t the topic of discussion, it was the culture of the group, and how the culture fit each person imperfectly.

That one brave person who was willing to say she didn’t fit taught us all that we are all affected by the culture of a group. We just don’t notice it because it is the water that we are swimming in.

When the circle became safe — because of that one brave spark who spoke up — we realized that we all have experiences of marginalization and by extension we all have ways in which we are privileged in a group.  Of course some of us have more identities that are marginalized than others, but we can each understand even if it is only in a small way, what it is to feel like we don’t fit, and how that wears at us, and limits us.

Whatever our identities, and the extent to which we are marginalized, or privileged, the nature of marginalization is that we notice it and feel it keenly.

And the nature of privilege is that it is invisible to me who benefits from it.

Creating a group culture where all free to find our spark requires us to articulate the waters that we swim in — the culture that is unique to us as Unitarians, and the culture of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

We have a head start on this with the Reconciliation work that we have been engaged in over the past couple of years, which has lifted up for me the ways in which some have been marginalized and some, like me, have been privileged.

Watching the film the pass system with a group of Unitarians last spring, I got instantly how unfair it was, to restrict freedom of movement, to not allow first nations farmers to take their grain to market when it was ready, and to restrict when and where they could sell it. The marginalization was easy to identify, and we talked freely about it.

My corresponding privilege wasn’t something that I noticed at that time … only later did I turn the question back on my own family history. For all their hardships and hard work, my family were never sent to the back of the line when they wanted to sell something, just because of the colour of their skin. If they wanted to drive to town, if they wanted to move cities or provinces, they didn’t have to ask and wait for permission. This is what privilege looks like.

[The following poem by Mickey ScottBey was used to invite us to consider creating a brave space.  Thank you to Kathie Cram, Rhett Sangster who shared their thoughts and experiences during this service. Watch for a second blog post on the white supremacy teach in, and why our congregation is going to be participating in this conversation!]

Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know,
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work in it side by side….

Kathie Cram, Rhett Sangster and Susan Shacter spoke, we sang the song “How Could Anyone Ever Tell You (You Were Anything Less Than Beautiful)”]

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem about the woman at the Albuquerque airport, we hear a story that goes in an unexpected direction. It starts as a story of fear — the poet wonders if it was safe to identify herself as an Arabic speaker. Then it becomes a story of courage — the brave spark step into the unknown — and then the story takes an unexpected turn into a communion of powdered sugar.

Understanding our culture is one step toward community, a step toward making sure that all are welcome. How do we encourage acts of courageous hospitality? How do we help people get to know one another? Because coffee time is not enough time, and the press of the people in the lobby after the service is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

We have experimented with a couple of different small group formats over the past few years. We developed second hour programming — small group conversation after the service — and we tried small groups that talked about the monthly theme and the monthly questions. At the same time, people in other groups have said that it would be useful to have facilitation training, and several committee chairs wondered how they could make their meetings more cohesive.

I’ve realized that in a congregation this size, we’re not going to run ten small groups on the same format.  Instead, we have a variety of types of small groups — committees might begin their meetings with a check in before getting down to business; teams get to know each other; informal drop in groups search for a structure that allows them to welcome new people; and traditional small groups take on a variety of formats.

What we need is a format and some training that allows people to learn the skills and adapt them to their particular needs — whether it is Sunday Services finding a way to talk about what went wrong in an open, affirming, non-judgemental way, or a small group trying to even out the different speaking patterns of introverts and extroverts, so everyone gets to participate.

The seeds of the future can be found in the present.

Several times over the past few years people have come to me with questions.  Life direction questions, or ethical dilemmas. And I have suggested, and convened, a clearness committee. This is a Quaker tradition where a small group gathers to listen to the person with the question, and then ask open-ended questions until there are no more questions to be asked.

There is no advice given, the listeners are scrupulous in avoiding any attempts to fix or make suggestions through pointed questions, and they are asked never to speak about the topic again.

The purpose of the exercise is to help the person with the issue get in touch with their own wisdom.  My advice, however excellent, gets in the way of that inner knowing.

It’s hard. People really, really want to give advice. I really, really want to give advice. The person with the question often really wants to hear the advice.  But there is no better way to connect with our first source, our own direct experience, than having a group of people gently and compassionately ask questions to which they do not know the answer.

These clearness committees have, by and large, been very appreciated.

Parker Palmer has noted that when people go to retreats and workshops, they typically take most of their notes on what the retreat leader says, and then a few notes on what others say, and rarely anything, if at all, of their own thoughts.

The Quaker tradition, and Parker’s Circle of Trust format, which derives from that tradition, turns this experience upside down.  Participants take notes on their own thoughts their own voice, not on what other people say.  People develop a trust in their own knowing, and along the way, are known by others.

Given that clearness committees have been so helpful, it is kind of funny that I have taken so long to come to this work as a format for helping us become more of who we are.

Next year we will study Parker Palmer’s book “A Hidden Wholeness” to see what the circles of trust format may have to say to us. If it is something that resonates with enough people, we will follow up with some deeper training, so that participants in small groups, committee chairs, and anyone else who is interested can build these concepts into their activities, gatherings and meetings.

This way, it doesn’t matter whether we are doing social action, or fundraising, or chairing a committee meeting, we will have a shared understanding of how we want to be with one another.

Becoming a community of sparks requires us to be intentional about getting people connected, and building supportive small groups. It involves taking what we are learning with Green Sanctuary and Reconciliation and becoming allies in the community. It also means developing a shared understanding of leadership, and training our leaders so they have the skills they need to speak on our behalf.

Next year we will be participating in a pilot project with the Unitarian Congregation of Mississauga. Using the circle of trust format, we will develop a supportive circle for our leaders, that will give them the training and knowledge so that they can take on a greater role in the wider community, speaking on behalf of the congregation from within a circle of community.  A minister is only one person, and the more people from within the congregation who can speak effectively to the community, the more impact we will have.

We also have another leadership opportunity coming our way, another way of growing in both depth and impact.

I told the Board several years ago more future for the congregation in having several paid professional leaders because each person brings their own gifts and contributions and this is much better than having one person trying to be everything to everyone. In reality, however, this is several years away. So I was particularly delighted when an exciting opportunity came our way.

… I’d like to invite Board Member Gary Groot too come forward to speak about it.

[Gary asked how many people know that we have an intern this year, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana, and over ¾ of those present raised their hands. Gary then asked how many people know that Fulgence’s internship ends in June and some hands stayed up. Gary then talked about the various forms of ministry, and told the congregation that Fulgence had approached Rev. Karen about being affiliated as a Community Minister. Fulgence’s paying work would be elsewhere, but we would participate in his outreach to the Francophone immigrant community, and we would support him with office space, communications support, use of the building and professional expenses ($1500). In return, Fulgence would preach 2x per year and assist with relevant congregational activities. The Board was excited to hear of this opportunity to continue working with Rev. Fulgence and will be bringing this to the congregation for a vote at the Spring annual meeting.]

Next year, if you are in agreement, we will increase our leadership impact inside and outside the congregation with stronger congregantional leaders AND a trained Unitarian minister.

This is why I am raising my pledge.

I am increasing my pledge for two reasons. First, because of the direct benefits I receive by being a part of this congregation.  Participating in this community as your parish minister has stretched and grown me in ways that I never would have expected.  You encourage me to learn about myself, to try new things, and to develop skills that I would never have considered on my own.

I am also raising my pledge because I see that my money has such an impact – I get good value for my pledge dollars. You haven’t just called me here to serve you, or even to serve the wider community on your behalf. You have called me here to serve with you.  Together, we have more influence than any one of us could have on our own. The ways that we are growing are having an impact in the wider community, and I want to be a part of this through my financial contribution — my pledge is my commitment to this shared world, where kindness, compassion and community are not lost, but held up, promoted and shared.

I see us becoming known as the place where people come to find their groove, their unique way of serving the world. I see us becoming a community that truly believes that we are all better when we are all – each of us – better.

As Kathie says, Sparkle on!

Amen. Blessed be.

Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz

[The sermon is an oral art form … the words as delivered on Sunday morning were likely slightly different than the text shared here, but the intent is the same.]


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