“The Promises We Make”

Rev. Julie Kain

This afternoon, after our service today, and the Religious Education Committee meeting, and a lunch with the co-chairs of Social Action here at church, I will be embarking on a personal pilgrimage.

This afternoon I will get into my car and head north. I have a sacred destination before me. No, I am not returning to my Yankee homeland. I’m not going nearly that far north but I am returning to the state that was my chosen home for thirteen years. I am going back to North Carolina. The Mountain is welcoming me back home.

No, this is not Dr. King’s mountain and it is not even Little Scaly mountain. The mountain that I long to see, the mountain in whose presence I long to be, is the UU retreat and learning center called The Mountain, just outside of Highlands, North Carolina.

From Monday to Thursday of this coming week, I will be attending the South East UU Minister’s Association (SEUUMA) fall meeting at the Mountain. Although the date has been looming on my calendar since our arrival from California in mid-August, it’s just been these last several days that I have begun reflecting on what it’s like for me to be returning to a place I love after my first visit in 1997 and my last visit six years ago.

I was invited to go to the Mountain in the summer of 1997 by my home church, my first UU church, Eno River Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina. I’d been a member there for six years and had gotten progressively more involved in a variety of activities, ranging from sound room attendant, occasional guest musician, workshop and class participant, and even office volunteer. But it was my service on the worship committee for four years that eventually led me to becoming chair of that committee in 1997 and it was time for me to be sent to the Mountain for Leadership School.

Now I really had no idea what to expect of UU Leadership School. As a young person I had been to Girl Scout camps and even church camps, and I had wonderful experiences there but it had been over twenty years since I had done anything like that!

When I got to the Mountain I discovered more than fifty other people who had also been sent there from all over the southeastern region of our country. Usually one or two people each from congregations of all sizes and kinds and locations, from rural to small town to big city. This week was very well planned out for us participants by an eclectic and devoted faculty which was comprised of a nice mix of outstanding UU district leaders and a few ministers, as well. Our curriculum ranged from UU Heritage and Values to Worship Arts to Group Leadership Teams and Credo Groups. A good portion of the day was scheduled with presentations and group activities, but there was also a morning and evening worship service, and time for socializing, too. We got just a little bit of “down” time.

The setting is beautiful. Once you leave the little highway that takes you there, you drive up a curvy paved road into the woods. You pass some playing fields, an obstacle course, and various outbuildings. You keep going and then you see a rustic parking lot and signs showing the way to various lodges, cabins and of course – the mess hall.

I’m not sure if it’s still scheduled this way but when I was at Leadership School it used to coincide with the Youth Camp. That was really great. While there were sixty of us adults clustered around one lodge there were over seventy-five teens from all over the southeast clustered around the other main lodge. We enjoyed some meals together and one amazing worship service.

It’s a fantastic setting of hiking trails and grand vistas provided at lodge decks, overlooks, and the fire tower.

A lot of things happened for me at the Mountain that first year, but most significant was the love and commitment that had grown within me for my home church over the six years of being a member, was now expanded to a burgeoning love and commitment to our wider UU movement. Now even though we have these nice bright blue bumper stickers advertising Unitarian Universalism as the “Uncommon Denomination”, technically we are not a denomination but a free association of congregations, united by our common principles. We are really a religious movement rather than a centralized denomination.

And while we’re on the subject, you sometimes may hear of the time we became Unitarian Universalism in 1961 when the two denominations joined together as a “consolidation”, but really it is more accurately called the “merger”. This acknowledges the distinct strains of our Unitarian and Universalist histories, and the distinctive characteristics of their congregational personalities.

Leave it to UU’s to be enthusiastically specific about our non-creedal approach to religion!

The love and commitment I had for my own home church was very easily expanded to this great group assembled at the Mountain, representing the wider UU community throughout the southeast.

After a wonderfully fulfilling experience as a student at Leadership school, I was understandably delighted to be invited to return and serve on the Leadership School faculty for the following three years, my first three out of four years in seminary.

It hadn’t been until I went to Leadership School that I discovered my home church was one of the flagships of the region due to its size and accelerated rate of growth. From the time I joined in 1991 to the time I left for seminary in 1998, Eno River grew from 300 members to nearly 800. I didn’t really know any different, until I was at the Mountain and realized this was an unusual success story.

Now…finally…in 2006 I am returning to the beloved Mountain, and this time to join my ministerial and district colleagues from all over the southeast.

Now…after eight years, four years of seminary and five years serving three different congregations in northern and southern California, I am back home and back home to stay as your newly called minister here in Pensacola. It’s been quite a journey and as this Thanksgiving approaches I have more blessings to count in my life than I’ve ever had before!

It’s been quite a journey, with its share of trials and tribulations, and treasured moments.  I will be thinking about the journey that has brought me to Pensacola quite a bit over the next few days as I drive toward and re-experience my time at the Mountain.

You know, when one becomes a minister a question you tend to hear a lot is – “why did you decide to become a minister?” or it’s more traditional variation, “how were you called into the ministry?” Well, in my case at least, there was no red phone and no historic phone call from on high.

My genuine interest and devotion to Unitarian Universalism grew steadily over many years. And once the opportunity to become a minister was apparent, the deciding factor for me became very simple. I compared the decision to a prior major decision I had made in my life.

Out of all my childhood and high school friends, believe me, I was the most unlikely to marry and have a child at a young age. But you know as it was happening I had this deeper knowing. It went against all common sense and the expectations of most people who knew me, including my family – that this was the thing for me to do, the path that was mine to take, laid out before despite all my internal resistance. There was a deeper knowing that even though I didn’t understand how this could possibly work out

I needed to trust that it would.

And there was something else beyond that. Not only was I being asked to surrender to the unfolding of my life in an unusual direction, I felt the need to commit myself to it. And for me that meant that even though I felt I knew nothing about motherhood, I made the decision that I would try my best, one day at a time, for the sake of my daughter. Her life was worth everything I could find in myself to give for her.

I was scared. I was resistant. But there was something much more important at stake and I just had to try my best.

By the time I was considering the ministry my daughter was fifteen years old. We’d seen lots of good years and a few very tough times mixed in them. My devotion to her had kept me in Chapel Hill, North Caroline for thirteen years so she could have what I hadn’t as a child – one place in which to grow up. The continuity of school, friends and larger community that I hadn’t known, having attended nine schools in three different states.

As I was considering the ministry the big surprise was that my daughter Caroline was the most encouraging. She was and has continued to be my “number one fan”, with my husband Rudy having now joined her as my second “number one fan”.

It’s really nice to be loved and to have the full confidence of another person. I know it helps me to push beyond my personal limitations and keep trying all the time to reach my best.

I was able to surrender myself to pursuing a path of Unitarian Universalist ministry once I had realized I had no idea of where it might take me but I was willing to commit myself to showing up each day and trying my best.

There is a beautiful saying from Estonia that says “The work will teach you how to do it.” And that’s really how it is in life.

Our hearts lead us into situations where we take on things beyond our knowledge or everyday confidence level. We find a way to get past our insecurities and anxieties, and we commit ourselves to some unknown path because even though we can’t explain why – it just seems to be the thing that’s good for us to do.

Surprise, Surprise!

In a few weeks from now, there will be an historic event taking place in the life of this congregation. The members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola will ceremonially install me as your first settled full time minister. I thought that I had to wait a long time to have a church of my own, but this community has had to wait nearly fifty years for someone like me to come along!

I am privileged and honored to receive your trust and I hope to fulfill the promise of a long and fruitful ministry among you.

When we make promises in our lives to other people or to the principles we hold most dear, we are entrusting ourselves to the fulfillment of our ideals. We are making a statement of faith in things yet to be seen, with a trust that our commitments will keep us steady in the times we are rocked by uncertainty or disappointment.

A promise is a pledge to stay for the long haul and a willingness to weather all that’s intertwined into our journey of life.

We know the heartbreak that comes when promises are not kept. There are good reasons for which promises should not be entered lightly. The vulnerability that we expose ourselves to is real and the stakes are high.

We need to be intentional about those relationships and principles to which we entrust both the best, and the worst of ourselves. Whether it is parenthood, or committed partnership, or even a genuine friendship that is hoped will endure the changing of the years. Whether it is a profession, or an avocation, or the choice to become a member of a religious community, we are wise to consider all the practical realities involved, and lucky to be foolish enough to take a chance on something great coming out of it.

We need to be careful not to let our insecurities and anxieties hold us back from growing into more of what we’re essentially meant to be – joyful in our uniqueness and accepting of our human frailties.

The promises we make are an affirmation that we commit ourselves to the best we have to give, and to receive. Our promises not only hold our ideals, but they hold us in account. They are a measure of what we say is most important in life.

In a few weeks we will be celebrating the promises we are making, I to you as your minister and you as a community that shares the ministry with me. We will be beginning a journey of our own and we can anticipate that all kinds of adventures lay before us. I look forward to our discovering this place to be as sacred as a mountain.

May we find it to be a place of community and hope, love and commitment, grand vistas and treasured moments.

May it be so.