Transforming Milestones

Sunday, April 14th, 2019
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Rev. Diane Rollert and Normand Gosselin, with music by Sandra Hunt

Life is a spiral journey as well as a series of starts and stops. At each crossroad, we can choose to transform what greets us or allow ourselves to be transformed. Listen to this Sunday’s service for our annual lay chaplaincy service as we explore how milestones can surprise us as much as they change us.

Sermon by Diane Rollert:

I was supposed to be in the Philippines last week, but I had to cancel because of some things that were going on in my personal life (all good) and in this province (not so good, but I’ll save that story for another day). When I cancelled my plans, I consoled myself that the trip would have been too gruelling anyway. With five days out of ten in planes or on rough roads, surely I would have gotten sick, and you know how dangerous travelling can be. It’s always better to stay home and slow down, right?

So on Monday, as a gentle freezing rain was falling here in Montreal, I slipped on a patch of black ice. One minute I was upright, the next I was flat on my back with a concussion. I’m fine now — it was mild. Afterwards a friend said to me, “Don’t ask why this happened to you. Ask why this happened for you.” I admit, despite having stayed at home, I still failed abysmally at slowing down. Now I have no choice.

As many of you know, I was going to the Philippines to attend a graduation. In 2012, while I was doing a sabbatical ministry on Negros Island in the Philippines, I met a young woman who was a member of an indigenous Unitarian congregation there. She was 25 at the time, a mother of three, living in a farming village in the mountains. She had a dream to finish her high school degree and I agreed to help her financially, which I’ve been doing ever since.

Seven years later, this past Friday, she graduated from university. It broke my heart not to be there, but I’ll be helping her with the final stage of her studies as she prepares for her national teaching exam. The day after her graduation, she sent me a video of the children in her village lining up to receive a piece of her graduation cake. Joyful music is playing as each child receives a big scoop of cake directly into their hands. No plates. Each child says thank you, and many congratulate her. Today her Facebook page shows her smiling in her cap and gown, with words of thanks to her husband and to all of us who saw her through this major transition in her life.

She writes, “Success is the achievement of desired vision and planned goals.” After a long list of gratitudes, she ends with these words: “Graduation. It is not the end, but is a beginning for the next chapter of my journey. Good luck to me… God bless us all.”

 This incredible young woman has made astounding sacrifices over these seven years, stepping out of cultural norms to pursue her dreams, while still farming with her husband, taking care of her children and home, sometimes struggling with her own health, walking at least an hour downhill at the beginning of her day and an hour uphill at the end of her day to get to high school and then university, finding time to study and do well in her courses. She has become a star and an inspiration for all those young children accepting sweet frosted cake into their bare hands. This is a transforming milestone in her life.  

I admit, I often think of transformation as something that happens like a thunderbolt or the waving of a magic wand that instantly changes you into some new form of yourself. There are so many biblical and literary examples of instant transformation: Saint Paul on the Damascus road, falling off his horse only to arise as a new person with a new vision; Moses standing before the burning bush. “Hineni. Here I am, Lord,” he says. “But you know, you’ve got the wrong person. I can barely speak without a stutter.” Of course God is not persuaded by his excuses. In an instant Moses is transformed from a retiring shepherd to a leader.  

Or is he?

When does transformation really begin? I think of the first time I met my friend in the Philippines. She seemed so much younger than her age, timid and shy. But she had already known her share of pain. She was living through a time of great vulnerability that seemed to be pushing her forward, pushing her to dream of making a major change in her life.  

Brené Brown, a research professor who has spent decades studying the relationship between courage and vulnerability, says that when you find people who are wholeheartedly resilient, you discover that they are rarely lucky people who won the genetic lottery and were just born that way. On the contrary, they are people who have lived through tremendous adversity and have learned how to let their own vulnerability transform their lives.

Brown says that many of the students she meets today have never personally faced adversity, and yet they are living with tremendous fear. That makes me wonder. Do we fear more when we don’t take risks? Do we fear more if we never venture out of our safe cocoons? Most people I meet, here and elsewhere, have lived through tremendous challenges in one way or another. Who doesn’t face loss, disappointment, loneliness, heartache, or the death of someone we love? If we are human, we are vulnerable.

There are beautiful and joyous ways for us to mark the milestones in life, especially when we do so in religious community. We welcome babies into the world with stardust in their hair and the rush of planets in their blood. We invite couples to write honest vows as they make their marriage commitments. We create a space for mourners to celebrate the life of a loved one who has died. And in between are the private blessings, the birthdays, the graduations, the outward accomplishments. But what is it that transforms us internally in these moments? What is it that prepares us for the rest of the journey?

Nearly 39 years ago, I stood in the sanctuary of a Unitarian Universalist church and exchanged wedding vows with my husband, David. Of course I was in love, but I’ll be honest. I was very young and terrified. I remember clearly asking myself, “Oh my God, what am I doing here?”

 It took years of growing and changing to see how that moment had led to a transformation, that I would not be who I am today had I not shared those vows. So much of who I have become is thanks to the love and challenges David and I have shared together, but our journey could have just as easily meant growing apart. Every wedding I perform as a minister is transformational, even though I sadly know that not all of those marriages will last. People will move on; they will grow and they will change in ways that can be very healthy. These are the moments when it might be wise to ask ourselves, why did this happen for me?

There’s a funny cartoon I saw recently.  Two caterpillars are facing each other on a branch. “Will you still love me,” says one caterpillar to the other, “when I’ve metamorphosed into a hideous winged insect?” 

I think of my Filipina friend and her family. Her courage is transforming her marriage, her relationship with her children, and her entire village. May we find inspiration and transformation in her story and in our own stories.