Goodbye, My Friends

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on December 3, 2017

Reading – “A Salmon’s Journey,” from Salmon’s Journey and More Northwest Coast Stories, by Robert James Challenger (Heritage House Publishing, Toronto, Ontario CA: 2001)

The little creek was bright with fish swimming through the shallows and searching for a place to lay their eggs. It was fall, and Sockeye Salmon had returned to the very stretch of creek where she was born. It had been a long journey, full of adventures.  

In the first year, Sockeye Salmon emerged from her egg beneath the gravel and made her way to the surface. For the first while she hid in the shallow waters along the stream bank to stay away from the bigger fish and the birds. When she was a few months old, she and all the other newborns began their journey down the river towards the sea. It was spring, and as the sun shone brightly, Sockeye Salmon’s color became shining silver.

She stayed together with the others in a large school, for she knew that they would be safer if they kept together. Drawn by instinct she began a long journey out into the deep ocean. At first, she ate the little shrimp and plankton that drifted in the currents. As she grew, she began to feast on the herring and anchovies. Sockeye Salmon became larger and stronger every day. She practiced swimming and became one of the fastest in her school.

That was a good thing, because she had some close calls. Once she was chased by Sea Lion and another time by Orca. Both times she just managed to escape their snapping jaws.  

One day she felt the urge to turn around and start back towards her birthplace. AS she swam closer to the river she started to smell the fresh water. Mixed in was the unmistakable scent of the water that came from her own spawning creek.

The battle up the river was hard. The rushing water battered her against the stones, and the rapids and waterfalls used up much of her energy. Luckily Sockeye Salmon’s years of swimming in the ocean had prepared her for this part of the journey.  

As the days grew shorter, Sockeye Salmon began to turn red, like the glow of the autumn sunsets. This bright color was a sign that her life was now nearing its most important time.  

She turned off the main river into the small stream where she had been born. She dug her nest and, with her mate by her side, laid her eggs into the gravel. It was the end of her journey.

It was time for the next generation to begin their journey through life.

Sermon –

Today’s salmon story is one I found in a children’s book that I bought when Gail and I were visiting Canada in October. When I read it, it wasn’t hard for me to see the parallels between Sockeye Salmon’s journey . . . and your journey here at Northwest.

Your journey? Wait! Wasn’t that a story about my journey we just heard?

Some of you know that I had been ordained for less than two years when I was called in 2012 to serve Northwest. I was a real small fry then, getting my start in clear and shallow water. And, since then, I’ve been swimming my way through the streams, rivers and ocean of congregational ministry.

And, like Sockeye Salmon and thanks to all of you, I have changed along the way. You have helped me become surer of myself and stronger in my ministry. You have helped me find my voice and use it to speak up about the plight of our earth and the oppression of racism and bigotry. You have helped me identify and practice ways of living more sustainably, and you have supported my involvement in social justice causes and activities.

Ministry at Northwest has been more wonderful, more challenging, and more rewarding than I ever imagined.

Throughout my journey, you have shared your joy and love with me. You have invited me into the most intimate places of your hearts and souls. You have asked me to accompany you in your grief and pain. You have showed me how a community stays together during controversy and in spite of differences. You have practiced forgiveness and demonstrated resiliency.

Together, we’ve experienced powerful moments of hope, healing and connection. Together, we grew and became shining silver like the salmon that reaches maturity in the deep blue ocean.

Being your minister has been a great privilege. And, so yes, the story of Sockeye Salmon, who swam and grew and finally came to the end of her journey is certainly a metaphor for me and my time with you.

But, I also see this story another way. I think that you are the Sockeye Salmon, too. I think that, for the last 5-1/2 years, you, too have navigated streams and rivers and ocean to build a strong faith community.

During your journey, you have accomplished some amazing things.

For instance, you have done the incredibly hard work of clarifying your vision and focusing your priorities. You have initiated and followed through on the under-the-hood stuff that can make folks cringe or yawn, but is so necessary to help make a congregation healthy . . . things like improving by-laws and policies . . . streamlining decision-making processes . . . implementing new information technologies . . . and revising staff roles and responsibilities.

In these years of swimming, you have really strengthened your commitment to justice ministry. Northwest’s Share the Plate program, where you give away over 50 percent of all funds collected each Sunday has, in just a few years, provided tens of thousands of dollars to local nonprofit organizations that are making a positive difference.

It’s an extraordinary act of generosity for a congregation this size.

In addition, you have showed up to help out at several of our partner organizations, including the Community Assistance Center, Habitat for Humanity and the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. And, you’ve joined me downtown for participate in marches and rallies for justice.

Your participation in the January Atlanta Women’s March – where nearly 60 of us joined 63,000 others to demonstrate on behalf of women’s and girl’s rights – I believe was one of Northwest’s shining, silver moments.

With strong leadership and much excitement, you have made a significant financial commitment to expand this building to make it easier to welcome others who seek our inclusive faith.

And, there’s more! You bring yourself fully to this place on Sundays and throughout the week. There is a warmth that radiates from our Lobby on Sunday mornings that newcomers and long-time members remark is both comforting and rare.

You send food and cards to those who need loving support. You make phone calls and you make visits. You clean, you repair, you paint, you prune, you rake, and you decorate. You sing, you play music, you teach our children and youth, you offer social justice and personal enrichment programs that give our adults something to think about.

You serve faithfully and tirelessly on Boards and teams and committees. You volunteer for what’s needed, and when you take a break, you don’t stay away too long.

With all of this, I believe that you are the Sockeye Salmon, too. You, too, have been on a long journey of spiritual growth and personal transformation. Together, we’ve been swimming to the other side.

And, so here we are now this morning where it all began . . . in the clear and shallow water of this Sanctuary. What happens next?

If you know about the life cycle of a salmon, then you know that after a long and arduous journey and when her eggs have been laid and fertilized, the salmon goes off to . . . die. The journey is over.

But the cycle of life is not. The salmon’s eggs, nestled safely in the gravel and sheltered from the strong currents, begin to develop. Eventually, a new generation of salmon is born, ready to pick up the journey and swim on.

Our time together at Northwest is like that. While it’s true that our shared ministry is ending today, another journey for you and for me is about to begin. I feel confident that this congregation will find new life with the guidance of your interim minister and your strong lay leadership.

You will swim on to another adventure, and I have no doubt you’ll find new meaning and purpose in it.

And, while I think it’s safe to assume that you’ll encounter difficulties and conflicts along the way, my hope is that you’ll be there for one another when you do and that you will find your way back to love and peace.

****

I can tell you that leaving Northwest and all of you feels really sad. It also feels a little weird and even a little wrong. When expressing these feelings recently to a ministerial colleague of mine, she remarked that there’s an adage that says ministers often leave their congregations either a year too early or a year too late.

I’m not sure which it is in my case . . . but I will tell you that I had anticipated seeing the dirt dug and the walls go up for the building expansion. I had hoped that I might be with you for the birth of your babies and – when the time came – to continue to accompany you when the end of your life drew near.

I thought I might witness some of you growing up, see some of you graduate school and get married, and join some of you in welcoming the arrival of your grandchildren.

I had figured that we would continue to work and play together and to celebrate and grieve together.

I believed that we might courageously examine our ways of thinking and acting together so that we could change our hearts and grow in character. I had imagined that we would gather like we always do on Sundays to laugh and cry, to sing and pray, and to try to make meaning of our rich and complex lives.

I had anticipated, hoped, thought, figured, believed and imagined all of these things.

And, yet, while I truly thought I would be staying longer, the truth is that it’s my time to go. It’s time to turn my attention to some other priorities in my life, including my spouse and my family, my health, and my need for deeper personal spiritual work.

And, so I’m trusting the process, hoping as Rev. Richard Gilbert said in our opening words, “that there is something to be said for letting go, for risking putting oneself in strong life currents with a rich mixture of faith and fear.”1)Richard Gilbert, “Letting Go Over the Falls,” What We Share: Collected Meditations, Vol. Two, Patricia Frevert, ed. (Skinner House Books, Boston, MA: 2002), 40. I’m trusting that I will find other ways and places to do ministry, knowing that it won’t ever be like it is right now.

That’s the beautiful part and the scary part, and where faith comes in. And, I’m trusting, just as I fell in love with you and – at times – challenged you, that you will be loved and challenged by your new minister.

You are thoughtful and ambitious people and you have inspired me with your commitment to this community and our faith.      

****
And, so, as we near the end of my sermon, I have a few final things I want to ask of you.

First, I hope that, as a congregation, you will strive to remain curious and courageous. I believe your willingness to explore new things and change even a little will be your and this community’s salvation. Someone once told me that if something feels uncomfortable, that’s not a bad thing. It just means I’m growing!

Second, I’d like for you to consider that your greatest ministry opportunity may be seated right next to you this morning. Northwest’s children and youth need our time and commitment to gain confidence in themselves as Unitarian Universalists and to develop their faith.

Find out from Christina what you can do to support our Religious Education program. Your help, whatever you can offer, will make a difference in their lives and in our future.

Finally, I hope that, if you aren’t doing so already, that you’ll take time regularly to address the quiet needs of your spirit. I hope you will practice meditating, listening to music, sitting in silence, reading poetry or reflections, walking in the woods, or participate in some other contemplative activity.

I believe our chaotic and divisive world needs people who are grounded in their spirituality and approach life from a place of deep calm. We have an opportunity to be those channels of peace.

****

And, so . . . now it’s time to say goodbye, my friends. I have loved being here and serving you. You have changed me and helped me add deeper meaning to my life.

Thank you for all of it. I will carry you in my heart always.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Richard Gilbert, “Letting Go Over the Falls,” What We Share: Collected Meditations, Vol. Two, Patricia Frevert, ed. (Skinner House Books, Boston, MA: 2002), 40.