Begin at the Beginning

Rev. Kristen Rohm
SouthWest UU Church
Sept. 14, 2014

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

This is the opening line to Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice in Wonderland. I never considered this book to be a spiritual road map, but I heard this line “Begin at the beginning” at my son’s Convocation, the day he entered college, and I thought that’s a great sermon title. Then I did some research and found the line came from Alice in Wonderland and thought more about the whole story and realized there is some whimsical wisdom and some helpful caution there. So, this morning we’ll use Alice in Wonderland quotes and vignettes to help us highlight our journeys in life and as we begin our shared ministry.

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

This seems quite obvious, maybe not that useful as far as advice goes. Of course you begin at the beginning. Until we consider how often we try to do something else entirely! Like in Emily’s poem where it’s a challenge to focus and dig in and actually begin anything at all! Have you ever procrastinated and had a hard time starting on anything? It can take discipline or strategies to simply begin a project or assignment. Other times, we resist being at the beginning, we try to jump in at the middle, skip the first step or two because they seem simple or boring or that we’ve done them before. How often do we rush in, only later realizing we’ve missed an important early step.

It can take courage to be and stay at the beginning. For those who have just recently joined us here at SouthWest, it can be a very brave thing to walk into a new church. To acknowledge we are looking and longing for something – for community, for a safe place to explore our beliefs, to encounter the mystery, to find the god of our understanding, to be accepted for who we are. Please know that this is that place and that you are welcome here. If you have come for the hundredth time or the thousandth, may you also feel deeply welcome and may your courage, in being willing to begin again and yet again be recognized. To return to the comfort and the challenge of living in community, of patiently attending to your spiritual journey as it unfolds.  If you’re returning after a time away to a fresh start this also takes courage. Know that you are welcome. Your absence has not offended the holy or this community. You are here now and that is what matters.

So in our own ways, we are all courageous here this morning.  Because life can be hard and we can all have resistance to actually being at the beginning. And really, this morning is about respecting the journey. We can’t get to the end till we start at the beginning and make our way through the middle and all the other points along the way. Rushing doesn’t help, leaping over critical steps doesn’t help. Let us enjoy being here together at the start of our shared ministry.

The whole reason Alice fell down the rabbit hole was because she felt compelled to follow the rabbit, who was in such a hurry.

“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” said the Rabbit, who actually took a watch out its waistcoat pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on.

Alice jumped up to chase him and slid down the hole after him! This may seem foolish, but aren’t we also sometimes fascinated by those who are harried and hurried? They seem so important. It can seem that something quite compelling must be behind that hustle and bustle! At the very least – it grabs our attention.

Yet the reality is, being harried and hurried can also create mistakes. I know that when I feel I must make a decision quickly, I must respond right now, I must solve this problem post haste, that is when I am acting out of ego, that is when I hurt someone’s feelings, I err in judgment. Feeling rushed is a signal to me, that I have become stressed, that what I truly need to do is take a breath, resist the temptation to rush in. I must take a moment of reflection, to calm and ground myself, then my actions and my words can come from a place of thoughtful response rather than hurried reaction.

The most important teachers in my life have been calm and patient, they have resisted the faster is better, busier is best, way of life.  Wayne Muller, author and healer puts it well in his book entitled Sabbath, “When we allow the rush and pressure of our days to fall away, even for a short period of time, we are more able to discern the essential truth of what lies before us.”

So kudos to all of us for not rushing past this Start Up weekend looking at our pocket watches, missing this opportunity to truly begin at the beginning. It has been valuable and I thank all of you for your participation.  It felt good to me that 18 of our leaders came to share goals and to ensure we all are starting out with the same expectations and understandings of who is responsible for what.  I so appreciated hearing stories of times you’ve shone and times you’ve made mistakes, it is invaluable. I encourage everyone who wasn’t here on Friday night to stay after the service to look at the pictures and words from those stories, getting a sense of who the community is, which returns me to Alice’s story.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

It is an encouraging opening to our shared ministry to ask “Who are you?” We did some of that as a group this weekend. Let us continue to do this, asking one another, Who are You? And to continue to tell our stories – because we change and grow.  It can leave one feeling shy as it did Alice, and it can also help us to feel connected, cared about and seen in important ways. We can feel our hearts soften and open. This is why I want to meet with each of you and hear your story. It is a wonderful thing.

One way we’re different from Alice is that we are not part of late 1860’s upper class England with very strict rules about polite engagement. We are part of a church community and we are meant to go deeper, to create a safe place to engage with life’s big questions and meaningful topics. I encourage you to find ways to gently ask each other – what matters to you? What is close to your heart these days? When we take the risk to participate in deeper conversation, we create the bonds that form and firm relationships.

Telling our stories and knowing who we are as individuals and as a community will also help us to clarify where we want to go. In an encounter with the Chesire Cat, Alice asks, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”And the cat answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”  Part of our conversation yesterday was to begin to address this question: “Where do you want to get to as a community?” Your leaders articulated that we want to get better and better at welcoming newer people, younger people and we want to have more opportunities to meet in small groups and classes to deepen our spirituality and our connections with one another. So these were set as goals for our year.

Though we are at a beginning, we each bring along with us, our whole history of experiences before this one. We come with expectations and blue prints and we pull them out to help us interpret new situations. That may or may not be helpful.  Alice brings her politeness down the rabbit hole and this confuses everyone. I haven’t fallen down a hole to join your world, but I have come from another part of the country and so it’s likely that I will make an assumption about how something could or should be based on my experiences in southern California and the Pacific SouthWest district which may not the way it is handled here in Ohio. Or vice versa. Our expectations of what is ‘normal’ may bump into each other, because an awful lot of what we consider ‘normal’ is cultural, is local, is based on how we and the people around us do things.

So when these moments happen, let us be patient, let us laugh a bit and recognize, oh we are at the beginning of learning each other’s ways. Let us be at the beginning until we’re not anymore.  And let us aspire to be more patient than the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who’s response to nearly everything that annoys or perplexes her is, “Off with her head!”  Since it’s likely to be my head under discussion, I’m hoping that we will find other strategies for when we encounter a bump in the road!

It is definitely helpful to me to have you explain things to me. Because I don’t know the history of why you do things the way you do. So please be patient and willing to back up a few steps and tell how and why a particular process developed. It can be interesting for everyone to think in those terms: Why do we do it this way? How did it start? Have those reasons or conditions changed? How flexible or adaptable are we willing to be?

Remember that Alice, right after falling into the rabbit’s hole finds herself trapped in a room with the key needed to open the door far out of reach. What makes it possible for Alice to finally open that door is that she was willing and able to drastically change her perspective. She shrank and grew a few times to enable herself to see the challenges and possible solutions. She took the risk of drinking the drink and eating the cake to empower herself to take the steps to open the closed door and to embark on an adventure that changed her life. Let us be so willing.

I’m hoping that we will not need to shrink and enlarge to the same extent, but let us be open to trying new things, to shifting our perspective. To look at one another and any challenges we face from a new direction, from higher or lower. Let us be willing to change how we define a situation, to set new boundaries, to shift our priorities — whatever we need to do to empower us to open doors, to embark on adventures, to ready ourselves for transformation as individuals and as a community.

In his convocation address to the Class of 2018, DePauw University President Brian W. Casey said, “Act out of possibility, never act willfully out of fear. No one will care about your missteps-even frankly notice them as much as you do.” Let us use this wisdom to begin at the beginning of a new experience. Let this spiritual home be a safe place to do new things, to try out new behaviors and possibilities. Let us not holler at one another when things go awry, “Off with his or her head!” Instead let us nurture a relaxed place and pace, where we have time to deepen our knowing of ourselves, each other and the Mystery. Let us trust that our missteps will be handled gently if they are even noticed at all. Let us be willing and able to shift our perspective and try things in a new way, so that we can open the doors in front of us.

May we end up in a place where we know as Alice did, “So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Very few things are impossible.

May we believe, may we know in our bones, that great things are possible for us!

May we be willing to be transformed.

May it be so.

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Excerpts from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865.

“‘A Remarkably Talented Group of Students’” is Welcomed to DePauw on Opening Day 2014.” http://www.depauw.edu/news-media/latest-news/details/31146/