Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Retracing our Steps — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on August 30th, 2008

Change has long been a constant in my life.  Growing up as a child of the military, we were always moving from post to post, from assignment to assignment.  My parents tell me I attended three different kindergartens.  To this day, I regularly have to re-arrange the furniture in my house, just so I can feel as if I have moved.

When I joined the Army myself at 18, I re-entered a transient life that made sense to me, because it was how I was raised.  Studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry has been the same, with regular moving around to take courses and internships.  When I recently had to fill out information for a background check, there were twenty-five entries to the question “List all the places you have lived”.

Life in our ministry, in or out of the Military Chaplaincy, will continue this moving around for me.  My transient nature is probably a part of my call to the ministry.

Through all of this wandering, I have noticed that there is a special, spiritual feeling that comes from retracing my steps… from going back to somewhere I have lived before.  There is a sense of both familiarity and unreality, a sense of change and sameness.  It took me many years to realize that it was not the places themselves that had changed.

I remember one time, when I was 21 years old, I went back to one of the Army posts where I had grown up.  I drove around until I found our old house, our street.  I found the house my friend Josh had lived in.  It was all the same.  The Army is very good at keeping things the same.  I then found the dirt bicycle ramp in an abandoned lot that we had ridden our bicycles down, and sat and watched the kids doing the same for about an hour.

I remember that jump.  I remember the fear as I would tip my bicycle over the edge of a seeming cliff, build up speed as I hurtled down, and then hit the ramp and shoot off into the air like Evil Knevil.  I only landed on my bicycle and kept peddling once, one of the proudest achievements of my childhood.  Usually, I would come off my bicycle in the middle of the air, and earn a well deserved set of bruises for my trouble.

The hill was just as high as I remembered… the jump was just as dangerous.  The kids were jumping their bikes just as far, and they were wrecking just as much.  But I had faced real danger from drug cartels in Latin America, I had been shot at by former guerrillas turned bandits in El Salvador.  Looking at that jump, it no longer seemed exciting… it seemed downright stupid.

The place had not changed… I had.  Seeing that bicycle jump became a marker for me in my life of how I had changed.  It helped me to see that, though I still at times ran some grave risks with my life, they were towards some purpose other than the elation and the adrenaline rush that I would get as a child, looking down that hill at the jump over my handlebars.  I soon thereafter found myself taking fewer risks, and asking myself if a risk was worth it before I committed.  I ceased what my mother used to call “Stupid David Stunts” such as hang gliding, white water body surfing, and bungee-jumping… for which my mother was very thankful.

Seeing that bicycle jump, and fearing for the lives of the children using it did not change me, it only brought me to realize the change that had already occurred… shifted me out of patterns that had been created by who I was before, not who I was at that moment.

I have had the same moment of awakening to the changes within me many times, brought on by going back to somewhere I have lived before.  It is almost as if who I was then gets to meet who I am now, and have a conversation about our similarities and differences.

It does not have to be a physical location to have this conversation between who you are today and who you were before.  Every once in awhile I will pull out the papers that I wrote when I was working on my Bachelor’s degree.  Those papers were written when I was just beginning the transition from Conservative Republican to Liberal Democrat, from anti-Christian Deist to Liberal Christian Universalist.  To say that they are different than who I am today would be an understatement… if a few of those papers ever landed in the hands of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA, I might have a little explaining to do.  Yet, reading them gives me a deeper understanding not only of the spiritual and intellectual journey that has brought me here, to be with you this morning, but it also helps me to see where some of those ideas and thoughts still affect how I think today, for good and for ill.

I have even found myself, while I am living in these moments, anticipating those future conversations.  During this past year, in this church, I have wondered what it will feel like, when I come back to visit and perhaps fill this pulpit again two or three years from now?  What changes will seeing my old office, hugging my former congregants, and staying afterward for coffee highlight in me?  Where will my path have taken me, and how will being with all of you again, in this space, shift my perception of who I am?

Will I think of all of the military funerals I have performed for soldiers who have died, by remembering a ministry in which I performed no funerals at all, only weddings?

Will I think of the times in which I am the only clergy person around, certainly the only Unitarian Universalist minister, by remembering how wonderful it was to have Barbara and Nancy and Connie just a few doors down when I needed advice or just an ear or a shoulder?

Will I think of all the months spent apart from my wife, separated by continents and oceans, by remembering the occasional frustration I felt this year as I made the trip back home to Hyde Park, down Lakeshore drive through traffic?

Anticipating those conversations I may one day have with who I may become has taken me deeper into understanding this call to ministry that I feel, to understand the joys and challenges of this ministry, and to begin to understand the joys and challenges of the ministries yet to come.

So, in a way, my internship here with you at the Unitarian Church of Evanston never really ends.  The experiences of this past year, the sermons I have given, the conversations I have had, the classes taught and attended, all of it will continue on in my formation as a minister and as a human being for the rest of my life.  Who I am now, with you in this moment, is one of those marker moments, one which I will return to over and over, testing against who I am becoming, and learning from how I have changed and how I have stayed the same.

I will come back to the memory of working with Chris Peters, Curt Evans, and all the other teachers in the winter session course on the UU principles for our youth.  The memory of getting out the drums and the bells and playing music together will long be one of my favorite remembrances.

I will come back to the memory of standing in a Unitarian Universalist pulpit in my robe for the first time, and telling the story on Christmas Eve of my phone call home from Bosnia for Christmas, and how we had just avoided a war.

I will come back to the memory of serving tea to my internship committee, in a room in the basement, and then having a wonderful conversation about pre-marital counseling.

I will come back to the memory of Barbara and I, deep in supervision and conversation, both with tears in our eyes, as we explored the parts of my call to military chaplaincy that frighten us both.

I will come back to the conversation with Liam O’Connor, who had come up with a plan to increase the Church’s endowment, which involved the endowment, a trip to Vegas, and the roulette table.  That was one of those “marker moments” in itself, because it reminded me of a time when I too would have thought that was a wonderful idea.

I will come back to having lunch at an Asian restaurant with William Phillips, as we talked about his ideas for readings and chalice lightings for an upcoming service we were doing together.  Though I’m not sure he realized it, that was one of the hardest moments of my internship, because it was the first time I really had to let someone else into the creative process of crafting worship.  He did it with grace, as he always does.  Just as, with grace, he let me craft all of this worship imitrex migraine generic service.  Thank you, William.

Indeed, I will come back to the memory of each and every time I worked with one of our worship associates, with Annette, with Ann, and with Michael.  I will come back to each time I have worked with the summer worship associates, with Harry, with Ellis, with Matt, and with Eileen.  You all have taught me more than I bet you realize.

I will come back to listening in to the Peace and Justice Committee, and to the Young Adult Group, as each wrestled with questions of identity and mission, of purpose and of place.  Those conversations resonated with my own questions on these issues in my own life.

I will come back to the memory of Kate teaching a class for the food servers just before one of our soup kitchens that will always be one of the best lessons in Radical Hospitality that I will ever encounter.

I will come back to a meeting of the executive committee, in which the committee on ministry attended and began a conversation of how we relate to one another in this church that still boggles my mind.  That conversation continued at the board, among stewardship, at church council, and it still continues.  One of my deepest regrets in leaving is that I will not be here to see how what was begun that day percolates within this church.

I will come back to the memory of Dave, Bill, Dick, and many other men from the Men’s group all sitting Zen meditation with me at Lake Geneva during a retreat.  They did it with wonderful “Beginner’s Mind”… and don’t worry, that’s a good thing.

I will remember the few of you, who took me aside from time to time and gave me good council on how I was being perceived, usually about how my energy and passion was at times not what was needed in order to be a calming and considering ministerial presence.  Thank you for the reflection, the council, and for caring enough to risk.

I will come back to the memory of standing in this pulpit with Barbara on Memorial Day, my uniform behind me, her robe behind her, as we shared with you a little bit of the kind of conversation that has been the most important part of my internship.

Behind all of the sermons and classes, behind the retreats and workshops, behind all of the meetings and boards… throughout this internship there was Barbara and I, alone in room 2, sometimes with Ozzy the Dog, each Wednesday morning, deeply looking at my call to ministry, my ministerial identity, my relationship with my family, my grief over the death of my father, and so much more.  Barbara was willing to risk sharing her own struggles with life and the ministry, that I might know I’m not alone.  For each of those weeks, I now have a one page reflection essay on where my spirit was in that moment, a spiritual journal of the journey of this past year.

I know that I will take those short spiritual reflections out and read them for years to come, and through them reflect on the changes that are always percolating throughout my life.  Those essays, those private and personal essays, shared with only a few other living souls, contain within them my hopes and fears, my successes and failures, my misunderstandings and my realizations.  They are a record, not of the outward events of this internship, but of the inward ones.  They are a gift beyond price… and they represent the true purpose of my time here with you.  You all are a part of those essays, and of the deep spiritual changes and realizations that have occurred within me this last year, and for that, I thank you.

I have begun the transition back into seminary life, and out of congregational life.  Its a hard transition.  One of the hardest parts of that transition is to change my language.  Rather than the accessible language and style that I try to use in the pulpit, I need to begin using the “secret language of the elect” that is a part of going to seminary again.

So, in a few weeks, when among my fellow students I am reflecting upon this internship, I will probably talk about it in terms of “being” and “becoming”.  I will talk about the “salvific nature of challenging community”.  I will talk about how my “ecclesiology has shifted from one of polity to one of transformative experiential imperative”.

Blah, Blah, Blah.  You see, I have not made the shift yet.

There is a story from our faith that I love, one that occurred at one of the churches here in Chicago.  One of my theologian hero’s, James Luther Adams, was serving on the board of this Unitarian Church, as they wrestled with a question of whether and how they were going to become involved in supporting the civil rights movement.  One member of the board was adamantly against any such involvement.  He believed that the church should mind its own business, not get involved in these secular issues.

The board meeting ran very, very late arguing the issue.  Tempers flared, passions were hot, and this normally very rational and cool minded theologian apparently lost his temper and yelled at the man “Just What Do You Think A Church Is For, Anyway?”

The man replied, in the same loss of temper, “Well, I guess It’s to Get Ahold of People Like Me and Change Um!”

I mention this story, because a year ago tomorrow, I walked into the doors of this church for the first time as the ministerial intern.  I had just graduated from the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School.  I had less hair than I do now.  I was quite defensive about my Unitarian Universalism, having spent three months defending my faith.  I was questioning the relationship between the pull I feel between Zen Buddhism and Liberal Christianity.  I was deeply afraid of whether I had the spiritual and emotional depth for the ministry, much less for military chaplaincy.  I was afraid that I would not have it within me to be a minister of our faith.

I know you all probably did not see that, but that is where I was.

You, this church, you did with me what our churches should do with all of us… you got ahold of me and you helped me to change.  That is the purpose of our faith, to provide the space and support for the kinds of experiences that can transform our lives, and from that transformation lead us to help transform the world.

I now can feel confident in the belief that I am a minister, I’m just working towards helping others, such as the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee, to realize that along with me.  I still have growth and work to do to continue to develop as a minister, but that will always be true.

I am no longer questioning my call to military chaplaincy, not because I am no longer afraid of it, but because I now understand in a deeper way where that fear rests, where it comes from.  Because I do, it can no longer control me.

I also now know that I am not called to stay a military chaplain forever.  You all have helped me to see that I am also called to someday take off the uniform, and to step back into the pulpit of one of our Unitarian Universalist Congregations… although my wife has requested that it be somewhere that rarely, if ever, sees snow.

The First Unitarian Church of Honolulu Hawaii kinda sounds nice to both of us.

My time here at UCE has also been my first opportunity to work closely and deeply with fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers.  At the church in Galveston, I was all alone as the Administrator and Student Minister, with no close example of what it meant to be a minister of our faith.  In Barbara, Nancy, and now Connie, as well as the other ministers in the Chicago area, I have found colleagues and mentors to learn from, both by their examples and by their reflections upon their own ministries.

Next week, I will have another of these “marker moments”.  I am going to show up, unannounced, for Sunday morning worship at that same church in Galveston Texas where I first felt my call to ministry.  When I walk in those doors, the conversation between who I was then and who I am today will in large part feature the changes in who I am that you have helped to form.

When one day, several years from now, I walk into the doors of this church on a Sunday Morning, and have that same kind of “marker moment” know that I am grateful to all of you for that experience as well.

You all mean the world to me, and I will miss you very much.  Know you will always be with me, and that who I am, who I will become, I in part owe to all of you.  In that way, you will always be with me, and I will always be with you.  Thank you, and bless you.







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