Memory and hope—these are two essential tasks of religious community. We remember, as best we can, the sacred stories of the people who have come before. We remember the commitments and practices that inform our covenant so we can ground ourselves in them, even when the rest of the world seems to tell us they don’t matter. And we hope. We imagine the possibilities in the moments of beauty and generosity of spirit we experience and even create. There is a Spirit of Life and Love, I believe, that is stronger than hate and fear. Our call, as a Unitarian Universalist community of faith, is to do our best to embody the memory and hope of this Spirit.
Some days, this is much harder than others. Lost in the news of the horrific massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was the story earlier in the week of a white man who shot two African Americans at a Kroger’s in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. The shooter had apparently gone first to an African American Baptist church. These murders are being treated as hate crimes. Another important piece of the Pittsburgh story is that the killer targeted the synagogue not just because it was Jewish but because the congregation was active in helping immigrants and refugees.
I have received numerous emails from my Jewish, Muslim, and Christian colleagues in Chelmsford, Lowell and beyond condemning these attacks—a reminder that we are not alone. There have been and will be vigils and other events to commemorate the dead and call for action—many more than I can forward in a timely manner.
As I said on Sunday, we are in the middle of the story of our very troubled and angry times. And when we are in the middle of the story, we cannot know how it will turn out. That is true in our individual lives, our community, our nation and our world. While we can’t control what goes on around us, we can choose the path that we will walk together in this story. It doesn’t matter whether or not the values and ethics we commit to in our Unitarian Universalist and First Parish covenants are “winning” the day. What matters is that we trust they are best way we know now to walk together, no matter what the news of the day. Our religion has never claimed that life is fair, that everything happens for a reason or that one people are more righteous than another. Our religion claims that this life and this earth matter, and this in turn lays a claim on us to live with one another on this earth with as much gratitude and generosity of spirit as we can safely and honestly offer. We don’t walk this path naively or with blinders to reality of human violence and evil. We must be honest and accountable to that.
We are a community of memory and hope. We resist the homogenization of the human story by remembering and celebrating the beauty, the diversity and the resilience of the human spirit and the experience of divine presence. This is my story and I am sticking to it.
If nothing else, remember to vote.
Our worship theme for September was “Home”. On September 16th, I gave a sermon called “A Sense of Place” about trying to find ourselves again in our newly renovated building. Here is an excerpt:
Change can be hard, not because it is change, but because it can be accompanied by loss. I don’t think any of us will miss our old bathrooms. No big loss there. They were well past needing a major renovation...On the other hand, we do have lots of committees and groups—both within and beyond our congregation—who are used to meeting in their familiar rooms. And that is where we may bump up against loss—when the building doesn’t feel like home the same way it did. In upgrading our elevator, adding bathrooms and creating an accessible entrance, we have not only reconfigured but lost space. We are going to have to share it differently with each other and with our tenants. And this may be another way we feel a sense of loss of place: when we bump up against each other, as we bump against the new walls and the new limits that we used to work around unconsciously if not always gracefully.
As we put things back together and try to find our sense of place again, we will feel the messiness and imperfections of community. As we have gone along in this project, as we have in all areas of our community life, we have and are going to disagree. We have and are going to get annoyed and frustrated. We have and are going to feel disappointed. We have and are going to flake out—on something that will matter deeply to some of us individually while others of us wonder what all the fuss is about. We are an imperfect and messy community. We are also a beloved community. These two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they work together. Our willingness to risk belovedness is what sees us through the messiness and imperfections of being human. As we think about this year and what lies ahead, reminding ourselves of the spiritual practices of beloved community can help us negotiate the messiness and imperfections, the disagreements and disappointments, the annoyance and flake outs.
Gratitude and hospitality, attentive listening with kindness and patience, forgiveness, and accountability, commitment and service—simple old fashioned spiritual practices we can bring to our covenant and our community. They are not the big, inspiring ones that UUs tend talk about most often, like justice or truth, or even compassion, wholeness and peace. I appreciate these simple, more humble ones that we can actually attempt on a daily basis. When we do them well, they move us toward the bigger, visionary ones.
Most of all, as we move back into our renewed home and find our sense of place again, I hope that we will remember to celebrate. WE HAVE DONE AN AMAZING THING! We made our space more reflective our covenant, our UU faith and values. We have made it so that any and all souls, who are committed to living in covenant with us, can get in the building to do so. We have made it so that our building is safer and up to code. We have made it so that new people know where to come in and how to get upstairs. Our building feels more hospitable and less like an orienteering test. When we started this conversation over a decade ago, there were many times when we thought we could not do this—that we did not have the resources or the will or the capacity. And yet, we have done it. We raised over $650,000. We discussed architectural plans and finance plans and held special congregational meetings and we voted our values and our covenant. This was not an easy thing. Yet here we are. It is not perfect. It’s still pretty dusty. It is behind schedule. We are still wondering where we are going to meet or put our hat and coat or where the box with the prayer shawls went or how we are going to fit all the stuff in the closets. But as messy and imperfect and dusty as it may all be, we did it. We lived into our covenant and our faith. We carried out a real and meaningful act of justice and love, through sacrifice and commitment. We have been not just good stewards, but awesome stewards of our congregation, our heritage, and our Unitarian Universalist principles.
As we move into October, we will be continuing to find our sense of place. Meanwhile, the world around us continues to be fraught with conflict, division and disaster. Our neighbors in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover face months of disruption and chaos, as do our neighbors further south in the Carolinas. New revelations from about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church and the nomination hearings for a new Supreme Court Justice have brought the issue of sexual assault to the fore. While bringing light and air to a wound can help the healing process and empower survivors, there are also the angry, even cruel, voices that blame the victims and re-traumatize them at every turn. In gathering reflection materials for our October “Sharing Our Stories” theme, Colleen Leary from the Worship Committee shared this quote by Margaret Atwood from Alias Grace: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
One of our ministries in as beloved community is to provide the sanctuary of sacred space and time to discern our stories, to make sense of the ordinary and extraordinary joys and sorrows of our days. It is a sacred trust. May we walk together in the simple spiritual practices of beloved community: gratitude and hospitality, attentive listening with kindness and patience, forgiveness, and accountability, commitment and service.