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The Gift of WELCOME

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

We begin a new liturgical year this month, both as a UU congregation and at the denominational level. All of this year’s Soul Matters and congregational themes will explore the overarching theme of “The Gifts of our Faith.” Additionally, each of the monthly themes will sync with some aspects of the work being done by the UUA’s Article II Study Commission, which is considering changes to our denomination’s principles and purposes.

This month’s theme is “The Gift of Welcome.” At first glance, I thought this meant simple hospitality – flinging open our doors and shouting, “Welcome, everyone!” as our congregation moves into our newly renovated sanctuary and meeting spaces. But as UUs, being truly welcoming goes far deeper than that. We strive to be inclusive, welcoming all persons and creating structures that enhance everyone's participation; and we covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression, thereby creating diverse, multicultural communities

When I dove deeply into this month's Ministry Packet, I was reminded me once again that Soul Matters themes are always profound spiritual journeys, never simple ones.

Welcome can certainly be about thinking big. We open our arms widely, and we use phrases like widening our circle, making more room, expanding our minds, welcoming new experiences and big ideas. But the Soul Matters folks point out that welcome can also be about becoming smaller. If we are going to welcome diversity, for example, we must shrink our wants and needs, de-center our voices, become more humble, recognize – and admit – when we are wrong. “There is a deep spiritual connection between the smallness of self and the expansiveness of relationship,” explains Soul Matters, in this month’s thematic Overview. “The road to a wider welcome often starts with limiting our own size. By becoming ‘smaller,’ we paradoxically are better able to welcome in and receive the gift of ‘more.’”

Consider, for example, how our society could welcome the work of apology to those we have harmed, as described by Valerie Kaur, renowned civil rights leader, lawyer, filmmaker, educator, and author of See No Stranger. According to Kaur, the work of apology means “[t]o say to indigenous, black, and brown people, we take full ownership for what we did…we owe you everything. To say, we own this legacy and will not harm you again,” she asserts. “…[T]his non-repetition of harm would require nothing less than transitioning the nation as a whole…retiring the old narrative about who we are…embracing a new narrative…by doing the labor: reckoning with the past, reconciling with ourselves, restructuring our institutions, and letting those who have been most harmed be the ones to lead us through the transition.” [emphasis added]

At the heart of such work is a “real conversation” that offers a generous and open welcome, suggests David Whyte, an Anglo-Irish poet. “A real conversation always contains an invitation,” he explains. “You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want. To do this requires vulnerability.” This month’s Ministry Packet describes the real conversation Whyte engage in with his adolescent daughter – a conversation that transformed their relationship. “...[A]t last I was really inviting her to tell me who she had become,” he concludes, “not who she had been or who I wanted her to be – but who she was now.”

The work of becoming truly welcoming must begin with apology for our past, not just to others but also to ourselves. “We belong to every part of our lives and every part of our lives belongs to us,” suggests Rev. Scott Tayler, the founder of Soul Matters. “Even the failures. The cruelty. The betrayals. The addictions. The cowardice. Until we embrace and welcome back those scared and tender parts with the kindness and forgiveness we so generously give to others, we will never be whole. We will never be home.”

This month’s Soul Matters Ministry Packet includes far too many interesting and provocative ideas to cover in a single reflection. Each month, I choose to lift up a few aspects of the theme that have especially captured my attention – sometimes quite surprisingly. One such aspect cited in this month’s Ministry Packet is an article by writer, speaker, and activist Parker Palmer, entitled, Welcome to the Brink of Everything, which considers how to welcome the gifts of aging. As I note the prospect of becoming an octogenarian in just a few years (far sooner than I had previously considered), aging is a subject I find myself thinking about much more frequently.

“Every day, I get closer to the brink of everything,” says Palmer. “We’re all headed that way, of course…but when a serious illness or accident strikes, or someone dear to us dies – or we go to a class reunion and wonder who all those old people are – it becomes harder to ignore the drop-off that lies just over the edge of our lives.” Aging brings various “diminishments,” Palmer concedes, but those diminishments come with benefits, not the least of which is a clearer view and understanding of one’s past, present, and future.

We all have considerable control over how we welcome aging, of course, but Palmer’s version is filled with positive energy. “Old age is no time to hunker down, unless disability demands it,” he suggests. “Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good.”

Like Palmer, I am grateful to be living a life that seems longer than what many others are granted. So with nothing left to lose, I intend to welcome the changes that come to all of us as we grow older, take some bigger risks, and cultivate affirmation.

I welcome you to join me on that journey.

“Say yes to everything. Accept [and welcome in] all offers. Go along with the plan. Support someone else's dream. Say: yes”; “right”; “sure”; “I will”; “okay”; “of course”; “YES!” ... When the answer to all questions is yes, you enter a new world, a world of action, possibility, and adventure.”

-- Patricia Ryan Madson, from her essay on Cultivating Affirmation

Seeking more inspiration and wisdom about The Gift of WELCOME?

Check out this month’s Soul Matters Overview, and the complete Ministry Packet.


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