© Barbara F. Meyers 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 3, 2008

This service was to be on the topic of "Letting Go," a way that our congregation can deal with the departure of our minister Rev. Chris Schriner. In view of the tragedy in Knoxville, Tennessee, I am going to begin this service with some of my reflections on that tragedy before I talk about Letting Go of Chris. In fact, "letting go" is something that people must deal with in the death of a dear one and it is a very real need for the congregation at Knoxville and for all UUs right now. It is not possible to make sense of such a senseless act but that by owning our feelings of anger, grief, hurt, helplessness and pain, we could work through this together.

The Reaction of a Unitarian Universalist Minister to the Knoxville

The shooting in Knoxville Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church last Sunday was perpetrated by someone at the end of his emotional and financial rope who reportedly thought liberals were the cause of all that is wrong with society. It is reported that he may have been against support of gay rights. And, he knew where to find liberals on Sunday morning - at a local UU church that his ex-wife had attended. He was also a troubled man - reportedly a Vietnam Vet, unemployed, and his food stamps were being cancelled. They say he wanted to do "suicide by cop" being killed by authorities who arrived at the church. Some have speculated on mental health problems, although there wasn't any documentation of this, as yet.

Let's talk about what we hold dear in our liberal faith. We have no specific religious dogma, we regard each person as worthy, we care for others and our world, we believe in representative democracy. Some believe that we are "softies, that we lack convictions, that we're open-minded to the point of soft-headedness, and impractically gentle in a violent world., as Sara Robinson a journalist who is a UU says. "All of this together leads to a public image of a mushy gathering of feckless intellectuals that somehow lacks cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose."

This view is belied by the history and the modern reality of Unitarian Universalism: We are and always have been people with strong convictions who have been given to acts of heroism against tyranny. Let me give a few examples,

These are hardly the actions of people who are "a mushy gathering of feckless intellectuals that lack cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose."

In the Knoxville attack last Sunday, congregation members reacted by subduing the shooter and holding him until authorities arrived. These people were smart, tough, fearless, calm in a crisis, and committed to right action, even when two of them were killed. I agree with other who have said that this could have been almost any UU church in America, and they'd have behaved pretty much the same way.

One can ask some "What if" questions to try and understand lessons from this tragedy:

If it is found that the gunman had mental health problems, I and many other UUs will be right there insisting that he gets adequate evaluation and care and is treated fairly by the courts. As a Unitarian Universalist, I could not do anything else.

I would like for you to stop for a minute and feel the power, influence and possibility of the living tradition that rests with all of us. When confronted with violence, we choose a non-violent response. What a gift this faith is to our bruised and hurting world.

Let us pause for a couple of minutes of silent reflection.

Letting go of Chris

I'll now talk about Letting Go of Chris.

I think some of the lessons we learn in this exercise will enable us to deal with the shock and grief we feel in the Knoxville tragedy. Having a minister leave can evoke a kind of grief reaction. Since Chris announced his departure in retirement, we have been through anticipatory grief: knowing that he would be leaving while he was still there. Some of us have felt sad, disappointed, abandoned or angry. Others might have felt relieved or glad but didn't feel able to say it. We as a congregation have done some things to help in the process - making sure people knew the process of finding a new minister and having a formal leaving taking of Chris and Jo Ann. That has been the anticipatory grief. I think we have weathered it well.

Now is the actual grief. Chris is gone. The loss will now begin to sink in. Of course he hasn't actually died, but he is gone for a long time.

The UU minister Rev. Frank Hall says, "We grieve because we love. To love is to feel a lasting, deep connection. Love feeds the soul. Love, in all its forms feeds this thing we call 'the human spirit.' Love defines us. It's love that makes us human; it's love that makes us suffer the pain of letting go."

Some of you in your grief loss may react in some of these stages:

Of course, not everyone will feel this depth of emotion, Chris hasn't died after all. But we should be aware of what might happen in ourselves and others, so that we can be better prepared to handle it.

How people let go Some things that help:

Rev. Joy Atkins, the interim minister, has the job of working with the congregation to reclaim the good, let go of the yuck, and figure out how we want to move into the future. Pastoral associates will help with grief issues and with getting up to speed on the pastoral care needs of the congregation.

Chris himself had a series of sermons some years back on the topic of "Letting go." I looked them up to see if there are any lessons for us in coping with his loss. Here is some of what he said:

"Letting go of inappropriate emotional attachments is a basic principle of many world religions. It's easy to become emotionally addicted to having things turn out just the way we want. But since the universe often ignores our commands, this attitude leads to frustration. "

He quoted Jack Kornfield: "It is only by letting go of the hopes, the fears, the pain, the past, the stories that have a hold on us that we can quiet our mind and open our heart."

He said that around 1977 he began exploring a three-step technique: "

  1. Notice when you're pushing and struggling to make some situation work out right
  2. Decide whether or not I want to keep it.
  3. If I don't want to keep it, choose to let it go. Make a conscious choice to let go of straining for control. In making this choice, allow yourself to feel easy and light. It would be ironic to struggle to let go of struggle! Release only a little bit of stress, just for now. Use less effort than you think you need to."

He said if you're like him, you'll need to repeat this three-step sequence many, many times, but it's a straightforward approach and it does work

I think that following these steps might not be a bad idea if you realize that you are struggling with Chris' leaving, or if you are struggling with the anger and grief about Knoxville. First, acknowledge that this is happening. Next, decide that you want to change it. Third, choose to let it go. Repeat step 3 as many times as necessary.

Spiritually growing

People often find when they have undergone a difficult time, they emerge stronger and better able to face the future. A recent [Houghton Mifflin, 2005] book by writer Joshua Wolf Shenk is entitled Lincoln's Melancholy - How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

The sub-title of the book tells it all. Lincoln had throughout his life bouts of depression. He learned how to handle them with a variety of coping strategies, among them writing, especially writing poetry, and by reading poetry and the Bible and by storytelling, especially telling funny stories. Here is a quote that occurs at the start of the Civil War when the Union had some losses in battle.

"Not long after McClellan's calamities at the Peninsula, O.H. Browning [one of Lincoln's friends] came to the White House. The president was in his library, writing, and had left instructions that he was not to be disturbed. Browning went in anyway and found the president looking terrible - 'weary, care-worn, and troubled.' Browning wrote in his diary, 'I remarked that I felt concerned about him - regretted that troubles crowded so heavily upon him, and feared his health was suffering.' Lincoln took his friend's hand and said, with a deep cadence of sadness, 'Browning, I must die sometime.' 'He looked very sad,' Browning wrote. 'We parted I believe both of us with tears in our eyes.' A clinician reading this passage could easily identify mental pathology in a man who looked haggard and distressed and volunteered morbid thoughts. However, one crucial detail upsets such a simple picture: Browning found Lincoln writing." [page 183]

On the subject of writing as a means to get through a difficult time, you may know that Beth Schaefer, a member of our church, has just published a book of her own on how writing helps cope with depression. Writing Through the Darkness. It is a wonderful book that I whole-heartedly recommend and I'm sure she would love to talk to you about it if you are interested.

What Lincoln, Beth and many countless others have discovered that having bourn the onus of a difficult time in their lives, and learned how to get through it, one can emerge a stronger, more authentic person, better able to take on whatever life will bring next.

I suggest that we, likewise, can come through the loss of Chris as our minister and the Knoxville crisis stronger and better able to make this church strong for its future.

What's Next

I invite you to get ready for the process of embarking on a new ministry. With the interim minister's help, we will be defining what kind of a church we want to be. This is so we can consciously choose a new minister who will partner with us in reaching our vision. This is an exciting adventure and will need all of us to engage in it. Here are some suggestions for the journey:

At the end of his series of sermons on "Letting Go", said the following: "Thoreau said, '... To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.' All of us are artists, and our medium is life itself. We may never fully master the art of living, but what a privilege to do our best, and then allow a larger hand to take the brush and complete the picture that we have only begun."

I couldn't have said it better.

So may it be. Amen.

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