Rev. Ellen's Reflections, May 2018

As we prepare the building for the accessibility project, I would like to share excerpts from the sermon I gave on Sunday [April 29] about the distinction between attachment and commitment. In a year when we have had to make some difficult decisions about what to keep and what to let go, in terms of items, traditions, and practices, I found this distinction helpful.

As I clean out my office in preparation for the building renovation, I find that I constantly need to discern the difference between attachment and commitment. I have accumulated a lot of stuff over the last fifteen years. It is amazing how hard it is to let go of it all, even things I didn’t realize I had in my drawers and on my bookshelves or buried on my desks. Candles; colored rocks; and lots of articles and books. With the books and articles in particular, I am realizing that I am attached to the idea of reading them someday, rather than committed to actually reading them. So, I am fostering a discipline of letting go: if I can’t remember when or where I got a book or article, then I am obviously not going to read it. Or, if I am someday, I trust that it will find its way back into my life. Meanwhile, I see also the books that I use often, the ones that articulate and reflect my faith and my ministry. These, I am carefully packing to keep for the journey.

I realize too that discerning the difference between attachment and commitment is an ongoing spiritual practice. The world around us is constantly changing, and therefore we are constantly called to change with it, to let go of things that no longer serve. In Unitarian Universalism and in our country, we are engaged in difficult and often bitterly divisive debates about privilege and power with regard to race, gender, class, and social status. It can be difficult, especially those of us living within the privilege of one or more of these things, to discern the difference between attachment and commitment. No matter where we stand, there can be no healing if we remain attached and entrenched in anger, fear, greed, or self-righteousness. Attachments are those things that offer us a sense of security or safety, that help us feel that we are in control. Commitments are those things that call us to live into our deepest hopes and possibilities, and as such, challenge us to take risks and step out of our comfort zones. Often, we are required to wander in the wilderness for a time until we find our new bearings.

I just returned last Saturday from another service trip to Louisiana. For last decade or so, members of our congregation have gone down there to rebuild homes damaged by the flood waters first of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and then a terrible storm in Baton Rouge in August of 2016. There is nothing like a crisis to clarify the difference between attachment and commitment. We have worked on the homes of people who literally lost everything that reflected the stories of their lives before the floods. When I listen to the stories of what happened when they realized they had to flee their homes, I hear over and over again about how they went first to help ensure the safety of those they knew were most vulnerable among their family, friends and neighbors or how they themselves were rescued. There was deep grief for what was lost. Photographs, family heirlooms, handmade pictures. I will never forget Chef Earl telling us how he lost all his cookbooks, passed down through the generations of cooks and chefs in his family. And yet, amidst all this loss was a sense of gratitude and commitment. For ten of the twelve service trips, we have stayed at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans. This is a congregation that has lived into its commitment, its faith. After Katrina, the church was flooded, and the membership reduced to less than fifty members. The congregation committed, however, to rebuilding not only their church but their community. They went $1 million into debt to refurbish their building, renovate their kitchen and office space to house and feed volunteers, to reopen a community nursery school and to house staff. Every year we go, they have reorganized their building to meet the changing needs of their church and the surrounding community. In order to pay off this debt, they have sold property and assets they no longer need. They became the central gathering place for the diverse neighbors and groups in Broadmoor to meet and plan for the area’s recovery and rebuilding. It is a remarkable story to have witnessed over the last decade. And New Orleans’ Mayor Elect, LaToya Cantrell, the first woman ever elected mayor, started her political career as part one of the community activists working with Annunciation and Broadmoor.

I don’t think that attachment is necessarily a bad thing. Our attachments are often concrete symbols of our commitments. My wedding ring is a symbol of my commitment and love to Josh. Family heirlooms and photographs tell the story of my family and my life. My stole is a symbol of my call to ministry. Many of items that I am attached to describe my connections, my relationships, my history, my identity. They carry meaning. Our building and all its contents embody the story, the history of First Parish through the generations. But understanding that relationship, the commitment beneath, is important. My stole is not my call to ministry—that is something I live into and if the stole were to disappear, I would still have my call. This building is our home. But First Parish itself is all of us: generations past, present and future, gathering for worship, mutual care, and service to the common good. That is our commitment.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Rev. Ellen's Reflections, April 2018

Thank you for being so gracious and caring in the wake of the sudden loss of Tom Wight. I have said to many of you and to Edith and Rick, Marion, and Dan, Tom was involved in every nook and cranny of our congregational life. We feel his loss deeply. We will honor is life at a memorial service on April 7, at 1 pm at First Parish.

We are in the midst of so many things within and beyond First Parish, as spring (hopefully) arrives, including preparing our building for the upcoming renovation and holding our annual canvass campaign. In order for First Parish to function, we ask all members and friends to make a financial commitment, a pledge, so we can determine our operating budget for our next fiscal year that begins July 30.

In preparing this past Sunday’s sermon on our annual canvass drive, I came across the quote by Matthew Fox from his book, Confessions: “Community is another source of grace. In community we are meant to grace one another; to be sources of grace; healers by way of grace.” And what follows in an excerpt from the sermon:
By definition, grace is a gift—unexpected and unearned. We cannot know when or why grace will come or even that we were in need of it. However, I believe we can create and nurture the conditions in this community so we are attuned and welcoming of grace’s presence; to name it and lift it up; and to embody its possibilities. Grace does not require us to reach a state of spiritual purity or perfection to give or receive it for one another and our world. Rather, I believe our commitment to the ethics and practice of gratitude and hospitality opens us to its persistent possibility and presence.

Two Sundays ago, I talked about membership in the congregation as having two different but overlapping spheres: the corporate, secular definition of membership we need to function as an institution—to handle our financial, legal, employer and property owning responsibilities. Then there is the religious and spiritual sphere—belonging to a community engaged in seeking and making meaning; engaging with the sacred and the holy; gathering for worship, in joy and sorrow, for the seasons and celebrations of the year, of our lives, and of life itself. Gathering in love for the world as it is and in hope for what it could be, healed and whole. Gathering in love for each as we are, and in hope for what we could be, healed and whole. We need both these spheres. Beloved community, spiritual community doesn’t just happen. It requires a commitment from all of us to do the best we can to create the conditions for it to thrive.

While we are very uncomfortable about talking about money, we need to learn to do it. We are an economically diverse congregation. It is difficult to talk about money because it is a measure of success and prestige in our society. However, in this, our spiritual community, we value equality. Talking about money means recognizing that we are not “equal” economically and that can make people feel vulnerable, judged or even ashamed. I understand this but I think we also need to work through it. Our congregation, our “spiritual body” is like a human body: every member is important and needed for the body to live a healthy life. We cannot sustain what supports our religious sphere, our shared spiritual life, the ministries of our congregation: worship, music, religious education and faith formation; mutual care and fellowship, outreach and social justice—if we do not take care of our secular institutional responsibilities: compensating our staff justly and fairly, paying the bills for use and upkeep of the building and grounds; purchasing the equipment and supplies we need to support our programs and ministries. We have to talk about money as part of our spiritual commitment, our spiritual practice, as part of how we walk together in covenant. Because money is a currency that we use in our daily lives, throughout our society, to express what we value, what matters to us. I also want to be clear that if you cannot afford to pledge, this will in no way prevent you from being a welcome and important part of our congregation. Because as a community, we take care of each other, including if we can, to give at a higher level as an act of hospitality and mutual care.

I am not only asking you to pledge. I am asking you to participate in the whole of the stewardship process: reviewing the proposed budget, attending the budget hearings to ask questions and discern priorities and, if you have officially signed the membership book, voting at our annual congregational meeting. I am asking you to learn about what it takes to keep First Parish healthy, alive and growing: the ministries of the staff, the ministries of our elected lay leadership, and the ministries of all the committees and groups in the church. Yes, the canvass and the budget express the corporate and secular needs and responsibilities of the congregation. They also express the concrete witness to how we live into the values and commitments we express in our covenants. They are our faith in action.

Thank you for your generosity and your graciousness.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824

978-256-5133