Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

June 12, 2016: “Change is like Steering a Freight Ship”

Centering Thought: “Showing up is eighty percent of life.”- Woody Allen

Reading from Lessons in Belonging, by Erin S. Lane Nancy Tozer

This morning’s first reading is from a book called Lessons in Belonging from a Church-going Commitment Phobe, by Erin S. Lane, a millennial who works for the Center for Courage and Renewal as an assistant director for clergy and congregational programs.

I am a twenty-nine-year-old who wears skinny jeans, man boots and Mac’s Red Russian lipstick. I live in North Carolina but was born in Nashville, reared in Ohio, raised near Chicago, schooled in Ann Arbor, married outside of Charlotte and awakened in San Francisco. I want to live in Seattle someday, but these days I’m making my home in Durham. I call myself a Christian, but I’m a feminist, too.

I believe in being the church. I believe in attending a church. I just don’t like to do it. I don’t like it when the older people talk too long even though I need to be reminded of our history. I don’t like it when the young babies cry too loudly even though I need to be reminded of our shared need. I don’t take well to authority figures telling me what to do. And yet I have a lot of opinions on what they should do.

I have a master’s degree in theology, but I don’t want to hear your dissertation. I want the specifics, like…what to say to the beggar on the street who asks for money. I am interested in women and men who want to belong and are ready to do so with people who don’t look and think and act like them.

The trouble is I have a hard time committing to these people, because as pastor Lillian Daniel puts it, “In church, in community, humanity is just way too close to look good.” (1)

Reading from “On the Docks” Justin Simons

This morning’s Second reading is from “On the Docks,” the online newsletter of the Port of Cleveland. The author is unacknowledged on their website.

Several times each week, giant freighters the length of two football fields travel up the Cuyahoga River to deliver iron ore pellets to ArcelorMittal Cleveland’s steel complex, a journey that is both critical to the economy and a navigational feat.

On a recent September morning, the American Courage – an American Steamship Co. freighter – began a trip upriver at the Port Authority’s Cleveland Bulk Terminal, where it picked up roughly 15,000 tons of iron ore. This was the 635-foot freighter’s second trip that day up the 5.5-mile ship channel to ArcelorMittal, where workers would later turn the iron ore into steel used to produce cars, construct buildings, and make household appliances.

American Courage Captain John Chidester is a veteran of 400-plus such trips, and appeared unfazed by the daunting task of maneuvering the massive freighter up the famously crooked river. Asked about the toughest part of the journey, he said “the beginning and the end.” From a perch atop a pilothouse six stories high, Chidester eased the ship away from the lakefront dock, using a control that resembles a video game joystick.

Even for a veteran, the narrow, sharply curving river is difficult to navigate, especially on summer days when the river is teeming with commercial and recreational boats of all sizes. That’s a big reason why the freighter – whose top speed on the river is 1.9 miles an hour – will take three hours to make its way up the ship channel through tight turns and other logistical challenges. And it will pass what The Coast Pilot navigation publication lists as 34 structures across the river, including viaducts, overhead power cables, a conveyer, a pipeline, and 21 bridges, some operable, others not.

Captain Chidester directs 20 crewmen, with the first and second mates and watchman strategically placed on deck and calling out distances so that Chidester knows just how close the freighter is to the river’s edge. The chatter between them is constant, but the sound ratchets up as the ship nears Irishtown Bend, Collision Bend, Marathon Bend, and areas where concrete vestiges of railroad bridges obstruct parts of the channel.

“Thirty-four feet, twenty-feet, twelve feet, ten-feet, six feet,” one or another crew member calls in tightly coordinated signals that allow the captain to squeeze through tight turns and successfully complete a trip without schedule delays or damaging contact with the bulkheads that line the edge of the ship channel. Chidester registers the distances as they are shouted out, making a series of turns that leave no room for error. His tools are hand controls that adjust the rudder and engage the bow thrusters to propel the freighter, causing the surrounding water to bubble and wave. (Rowers beware: the strong currents generated by these turns can sweep someone into the water and possibly onto the shoreline.)

Coordination is also critical between the captain and the bridge tenders, who in some cases must raise a bridge for a freighter and then quickly lower it for a train that will zoom along the bridge’s track just minutes later. The trip is like a lesson in bridge architecture and mechanics, as the freighter passes by ones that lift vertical, rise up from one end, or swing open. The Center Street Bridge, which swings to allow boats to pass, is the only one of its type remaining in the area.

During its three-hour trip, American Courage passes by industrial facilities that underscore the importance of Cleveland’s lake-and-river system for companies that depend on waterborne transportation to move the raw materials that help drive our economy. …

About 5.5 miles upstream from the mouth of the river is the head of the federal navigation channel. …. There, the American Courage docks and the iron ore is removed from the freighter’s hold via a conveyor belt and then transferred to shore on a 250-foot boom.

Three hours later, with the freighter now empty, the American Courage begins its return down river, through three Great Lakes, and back to Silver Bay, Minnesota where that September voyage first began, and where another pile of iron ore awaits. (2)

Sermon Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

Joe gripped with white knuckles the handrail at Rivergate Park as he watched the 600-foot freight ship pass him, headed in the same direction I had departed in an hour earlier. As he watched the bow thrusters powerfully but slowly turn the ship around the bed to the left, then blow its horn as a signal for the Columbus Road bridge to be lifted, all he could think about was me in my 10-foot plastic kayak, with our little dog sleeping between my knees. All he could think about was the contrast in size and power on my return.

Poor Joe pictured the worst case scenario: that Toulouse and I would be thrown into the water by the power of the current caused by the bow thrusters. Or that we’d be knocked into the steel sea walls. Or that the captain and crew of the ship wouldn’t see our little red boat, and that somehow, I wouldn’t see the giant ship coming toward me, and we’d collide.

Joe needn’t have worried. It wasn’t the first freighter I’d encountered on the crooked Cuyahoga, and I passed this one on a short straight away in the river, where it runs almost parallel to Tower City and the Q. It passed me slowly, as the crew waved with smiles, leaving no perceptible wake.

Paddling past these freighters is kind of like walking past a rusty, windowless building. But it’s moving, which makes it a wee bit thrilling. And very humbling.

A few weeks later, I was back in the Cuyahoga, this time approaching its mouth at Lake Erie. We were close to the train tracks by Wendy Park along the East Bank of the Flats, headed out toward the lake. A freighter was coming in, so I kept right, and waited. A pedestrian on the walking trail along the water stopped to ask me if I was worried about the freighter, suggesting that I should hand him Toulouse by the handle on the top of his little yellow floatation device.

“I’m not worried at all about the freighter,” I told him confidently. “The river is wide enough for both of us, and the crew are professionals. They know what to do, and how to tell me what to do to stay safe.”

He looked dubious.

“I’m much more worried about little pleasure boats,” I said. “Cabin cruisers, especially when they’re operated by people who’ve been drinking, are a lot scarier.”

Then, right on cue, a 24-foot Criss Craft came tearing around from the other side of the freighter, all four blonde people on board laughing as they raised their beers to us in celebration. Four seconds later, their wake knocked my little kayak violently into the seawall, bouncing Toulouse half out. We took on about three inches of water. The next day, I had a bruise on my right side.

My point was proven. Trust the freighters, not the partyers.

I have absolute faith that the crews of ships are professionals who communicate impeccably about their shared mission.

After all, if they were careless, we’d hear about collisions and wrecks more often than we do, especially considering the vast number of ships that go in and out of ports every day in the United States.

The bottom line is that I am an institutionalist. I firmly believe that organizations of people are often more likely to be attentive to the needs of others than are individuals or small disorganized groups of individuals. It’s why I believe in the power of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and why I have committed myself to this congregation.

Last week six youth in our Coming of Age program, with the assistance of their mentors, led the Sunday worship service in which they shared their credos, their statements of belief.

When I say this is my favorite worship in Unitarian Unitarian churches, I’m not exaggerating.

The kids are always amazing. Talented, thoughtful, insightful, challenging, they’re the kinds of kids we know the great parents in our congregations raise. The kinds of kids who inspired me to become a Unitarian Universalist a couple decades ago.

Aside from just loving these kids, I know that what they say and how they approach worship is a great indicator of how we are doing as a congregation. It shouldn’t surprise anybody to know that my biggest goal in ministry is to foster an integrated community, in which we are all working together, across generations, across social barriers. If the youth produce worship that looks nothing like what is usually going on in the Sanctuary, it’s probably proof that the youth don’t have a clue what we do or why, that they haven’t been fully included in church life.

But when, as was the case last Sunday, the service is respectful of our weekly liturgy, it tells me that these kids feel like they’re part of the congregation, and that they want to be part of worship. That it means something to them.

The credos are always fascinating to me. Often … most of the time … they reveal their family’s collective attitude toward the church. And life.

Most of the youth spoke of faith. More to the point, they spoke about their lack of faith, about how they believe in the scientific method and the primacy of reason, and not in any religion that tells them what to think or what to do.

They sounded just like most of the adults around here, not just their parents.

But I want to talk about faith. Not just because it’s my job, but because I think the concept deserves more thought. We deserve a more nuanced understanding of faith.

Teacher and writer Sharon Salzberg talks about three different kinds of faith.

She starts with word’s linguistic origin in her Buddhist tradition, in which the Pali word saddha,” most commonly translated as “faith” means “to place the heart upon.”

For me, “placing the heart upon” is like committing something to memory, or “learning it by heart.” You don’t know for sure you’re ever going to need those facts or the exact words to that poem someday, but you commit to learning it for the self-discipline and to be connected to something outside of yourself.

The three kinds of faith Salzberg describes are these:

Blind faith is taking something at the surface. “If people with authority tell me that this is how things are, then I believe them without question.” Blind faith is a lack of wisdom that can easily become gullibility.

Bright faith is like sitting in a darkened room with the door closed, shut in and oppressed. Then for one reason or another, that door swings open. We may not see what is outside, but we know there is an outside. That means there is light, there is possibility, it’s a far bigger world than what we might have gotten accustomed to.

“There are a number of things that push that door to swing open: friendship, love, inspiration, intense pain. It might be art, or music, or an amazing place, or a teacher. The feeling in that stage of faith is so extraordinary it is like falling in love – it’s a place of a lot of wonder and glorious expansiveness, a big ‘wow’ kind of place” (3) that serves as both aspiration and inspiration.

But bright faith can fade if there isn’t a steady stream of “wow” moments. It’s hard to sustain.

Verified faith is the most mature kind of faith, the beliefs that get tested against reality. Salzberg writes, “If you are going to put something into practice, that means questioning and wondering, examining what you’ve been told, investigating and seeing for yourself what is true. When our sense of truth is grounded in our own experience, not relying on the words of another or proximity to another, bright faith has moved into verified faith.”

Verified faith is the kind of faith scientists have. That’s right. Scientists have faith.

A scientist, through study and work in her field, comes up with a hypothesis, something she knows must be true, so she sets out to prove it. She gets funding, gets space in which to work at a university or other institution, hires and supervises a staff, develops a set of experiments and parameters, then spends years testing and retesting theories. The final results are published for peer review, and possibly picked apart. But she keeps moving forward until she can prove her ideas. There’s no guarantee. But she has faith in her work, and what she knows to be true. And she tests it.

That whole process is movement from bright faith to verified faith.
For Salzberg, sometimes faith just means trust, and for Buddhists that’s little more than trusting the practice. Showing up to sit.

Trusting that in sitting, the answer, the way sought, will be found. Trusting the process.

For the rest of us, it’s trusting that church leaders have the best interest of everyone at heart. Trusting that the captain and crew of that freighter know what they’re doing and want you to be safe in your kayak.

Since all of the youth involved in worship last week talked about how much they love and trust their families, their friends, and the people here at East Shore, I would argue that they do, in fact, have faith. Faith in the collective power of people. Faith in this congregation. Faith in each other and the adults who interact with them.

Robin McBride shared a story last week, and gave me permission to retell it to you now. I think it’s important for me to do this because, despite the fact the most of the seats in the sanctuary were filled, there weren’t that many adults present who didn’t have children participating in the service.

Robin told us about how a few weeks back, the Coming of Age youth and their adult mentors were getting ready to leave for their wilderness retreat weekend. As he packed his bag and headed off to meet the departing group, he just wasn’t feeling it. He thought of a million other things he’d rather be doing at home all weekend. But then he thought of his friends, and his mentor, and his promises to all of them that he would be there. He didn’t want to go back on his word, and he didn’t want to let them all down. He knew that one absence can totally change the mood of the group.

Part of the wilderness retreat weekend is that each youth goes off alone into the forest for a few hours. Don’t worry, there’s always someone within earshot, just in case, but they have to figure out what to do with themselves for that whole time. In silence.

Toward the end of his solitude, Robin had what he called an epiphany. I think that word tends to get overused, such that we call a minor philosophical revelation or just a good idea, an epiphany. Epiphanies are life-changing, and for Robin, this moment was life-changing. For a moment, he knew everything. For a moment, all of the knowledge of the world, the shared learning of millennia of humans was at his disposal. He understood, and for that moment, embodied the divine more profoundly than he ever had.

And then it was gone. Just like that.

Now, you could say that was the quickest puberty ever. Mark Twain once said that when he was 16 his father was so stupid, it was incredible how much the old man had learned five years later.

It wasn’t that at all. He realized that everything important in the world, everything humans need to live lives of meaning, could be understood simply, and he saw it with clarity.

Robin at only 15, experienced what the 29-year-old Erin Lane was struggling to learn:

that sometimes you have to just put your immediate needs aside; 
to listen when you feel like talking;

to remember the gifts of the people who present the most immediate challenges;

to make good on your commitments and promises;

and to just show up, even when you don’t feel like it.

Because if you don’t show up, you might miss something incredible. 
You might miss an honest-to-god epiphany.

You might miss another Robin saying something you’ll wish you’d been here for.

In the coming year, as with most church years, we’re going to be facing some challenges, some tight curves in the long and winding river in the life of this congregation. I and your new board of directors, the folks you will be electing within the next hour, are going to ask you to be present, to make good on your commitments. 

But first, the current board is going to ask you to help the congregation by being an active part of the crew. They’re going to ask you to serve on committees, help lead worship, make our building more beautiful and inviting, officially welcome guests on Sundays, and to care for each other by providing food, rides and company. After having spent a lot of time this week working on the front yard, I’ll be asking you to pull weeds. Seriously.

The board and the stewardship team might even ask you to increase your pledge if you are not already giving at a stewardship level as so many already are.

I know. What is being asked of you might sound a little different from what has been asked of you in the past. It sounds like a big sea change. Culture change. The old adage is that changing the culture of a church is like steering a freight ship, or an ocean liner. Slow. Very, very slow.

The thing is that I’ve seen from eye-level how responsive one of those ships can be. I’ve seen those bow thrusters work from the side, pushing the front of the ship into a turn. When there’s also a stern thruster pushing the rear in the opposite direction, it can turn on a dime. But. It takes the whole crew showing up, doing what they said they would do, and being loud and clear in their communication. Talking when they’d rather be listening. Paying attention to the people who’ve accepted the responsibilities of leadership, not just spouting opinions about their work.

I’m talking about belonging. Really belonging to this congregation.

If we can do that, I know we’ll be able to steer this thing together. I have faith in that. I have faith in you.

(1) Erin S. Lane. Lessons in Belonging from a Church-going Commitment Phobe. IVP Books. P. 27.

(2) Port of Clevlad. “On the Docks.”

(3) Sharon Salzberg. “The Path from Bright Faith to Verified Faith.”