"The Truest and Most Beautiful Story" by Zachary Helton
A reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:
We have the same spirit of faith that is mentioned in the Psalms — ”I believed and therefore I spoke”—so we, too, believe and therefore speak, knowing that the One who raised Jesus to life will in turn raise us with Jesus, and place you with us in God’s presence.
You see, all of this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow, to the glory of God. That is why we don’t lose heart. And though this physical self of ours may be falling into decay, the inner self is renewed day by day.
These momentary troubles train us to carry the weight of an eternal glory which will make these troubles insignificant by comparison.
May we have no eyes for things that are visible, but only for things that are invisible, for visible things last only for a time, but the invisible are eternal.
We know that when the temporary is folded up, there is waiting for us a truer, more real house built by God, an everlasting home not made by human hands. And while in this tent, we lament—longing to be sheltered by our eternal home. While we are in this tent we groan and find it a burden, because we don’t want to be exposed, but to be sheltered, so that what is mortal is swallowed up by life.
God made us for this very purpose and gave us the pledge of the Spirit to safeguard our future.
This is one of our sacred texts,
Thanks be to God.
The Second Reading
A reading from “The Way it Is,” by William Stafford:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.
The word of God still speaking,
Thanks be to God.
As the majority of you probably know by now, this has been a difficult week. Claire and I sent a letter to everyone on Friday resigning as co-pastors of Northminster. Now, at the risk of being repetitive, there are a few things from that letter I’d like to restate here, some things I’d like to say, more or less, face to face.
This past year has impacted us all in different ways. For some, it’s been a time of uncertainty and instability. For others, it’s been a time of sitting still, of reflection – a time to come more deeply in touch with ourselves. This season has pushed us, in the words of Parker Palmer, “all the way down” until our feet stand firmly on the Ground of Our Being. For Claire and I, in that wilderness, we have been brought face to face with difficult realization that pastoral ministry, while it has given us many gifts, is not ours to do. We’ve discovered that it’s not something we can do for any length of time without exhausting our roots, leaving our branches bare, with little to offer.
In the last year, our primary spiritual language has changed, our practice has changed, our awareness of what gives us life and what takes it away has come more in tune, and it has led us to the difficult realization that the time has come for us to let go, to let someone fill this office who can be with you as you need them to be.
Trying to figure out how to share this news with many of you this week, I couldn’t stop thinking about the words of Glennon Doyle in Untamed, in an essay she wrote called “Imagine.” Let me paraphrase.
“We are all bilingual,” she writes. “We speak the language of should and shouldn’t, right and wrong, good and bad, but we need to get beyond our training and into our imagination. Our minds are excuse makers; our imaginations are storytellers. So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, easy or hard, we must ask ourselves:
“What is true and beautiful?
“We must honor our discontent rather than dismiss it, bury it, deflect it, blame it on someone else or tell ourselves to shut up and be grateful. We must listen to our Knowing whisper, ‘Not this,’ to sit with it for a while, and then to conjure up, from the depth of our souls: The truest, most beautiful lives we can imagine. The truest, most beautiful community of faith we can fathom. The truest, most beautiful world we can hope for.
“We must allow these to become our marching orders and our plans.
“We must continue asking ourselves: What is the truest and most beautiful story about our life we can imagine? Then live it. It may take a lifetime, but that is exactly how much time we have.”
Northminster has been an oasis for us. Two years ago, we could not have imagined the ways you all would show up for us – to embrace us and our children so wholeheartedly. We could not have imagined how meaningful this work would be – how much joy you all would share with us. Your creativity and social consciousness, your friendship and support are gifts which will we carry with us and keep close to our hearts.
However, in asking ourselves – what is the truest and most beautiful story for our vocations we can imagine? we’ve realized we must move, again, from the oasis into the desert.
I know this is something to which this community can relate. It’s a move Northminster carries in its bones, this turn towards imagination, because you have many, many times stepped out into the wilderness in pursuit of beauty and truth. You have honored your discontent, your “Knowing,” and it has rewarded you with new life.
Before Northminster was even an idea, only a vague notion, a longing, a “not this,” there was a small community of who dared imagine a truer and more beautiful story for themselves. It was a difficult decision to stand up and to walk out, but they knew in their bones the direction they were being called, invited towards something. Though they might not have yet seen the destination, and they took to the wilderness all the same.
Moving from meeting in houses and living rooms to meeting in a synagogue, this company growing in number, continuing to ask: what is the truest and most beautiful story we can imagine for ourselves… and they set about bringing it to fruition, incarnating their truth with creativity and courage, crafting a liturgy and a practice and a worship space that was uniquely theirs, knowing that it was what was truest for them.
For years, this group continued without a pastor at all, trusting only in your own Knowing, in the Spirit within you, to take the next step, and the next, doing the work of ministry and worship as only you could have imagined it. And then, when the time came to leave the synagogue, to venture back out into the wilderness, so in tune were you to this Knowing, that you stepped out again and found that you did not diminish, did not let go of anything you didn’t find again in abundance and fullness. This is the story, the perennial pattern of the People of God.
The circumstances will keep changing, but what matters are not the circumstances – not the building you’re in, not the number of people who have gathered, not the songs you sing or the instruments you sing them with, and not the one who stands in the pulpit before you. What matters is the Knowing. What matters is the Spirit that gives you the ability to imagine, to re-imagine, and to continue imagining the truest and most beautiful story for yourselves and for this congregation. This is not exhausting work, not work that takes away without giving back – you know better from your own experience, your own story. This is the work of becoming - the work of discovering and digging your roots down deeper and drinking up the Spirit, to take it in and bear new and nourishing fruit – this is and always has been the work of being the church. It is in our core story that letting go of everything, even our own lives, is not the end, but the beginning of a truer and more beautiful life.
We know, by many standards, our resignation could not come at a worse time. It was supposed to be a time of coming back, of rediscovering normal – of new hope in the future, and it is still. In truth, it is also no less than another chapter in this story that has been unfolding here for 30 years, ever since that first group of people dared to imagine the truest and most beautiful story for themselves.
Whatever you are feeling this morning, whether it’s disappointment, fear, frustration, (or relief), those have got to be felt, cannot be pushed through or rushed, and also… this is a time to trust your Knowing. This is a time to trust the imagination of your truest selves, which regardless of the circumstances, continues to call us into a future of expansiveness and light and fellowship and truth.
We are both stepping into the desert again – our family and yours. We may do this with grief and with fear but also with the unshakeable trust that it is what is right, it is what must be, and that the Spirit of Love makes beautiful things from the raw material of any pain.
So Northminster, it is our wish for each of you that you continue to be bold in following that which brings you to life; to be able to shed, with courage and trust, that which no longer serves the God-in-You, and to continue to imagine the truest and most beautiful story for yourself.
It is our wish that this trust and courage and imagination might pervade our lives and vocations and relationships and communities of faith as we do hard things, as we make decisions that might make little sense by any standard other than: What brings us to life? What is truest and most beautiful? In the end, after all, that will be the only standard worth a damn.
It is our wish that, as we trust and follow that Wild Spirit, you may as well, knowing that it is only through change and challenge that hope is possible.
This will be a season of hope. This will be a season of imagination. This will be a season of truth.
May it be so.