Rev. Ellen's Reflections, December 2017

I hope that everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. Our Thanksgiving was busy, as our schedule is driven now more by our sons and where they need to be. Our eldest, Sam, was home briefly from college, and tried to visit with as many relatives and friends as he could before he headed back early on Saturday. Henry is in his high school's marching band where, it turns out, Thanksgiving is one of their busiest weekends. We watched him play for the half-time show on Thanksgiving Day before driving out to Stockbridge for a visit with Josh's parents. Sunday, we drove into Quincy to watch him in the Christmas Parade. I never imagined that I would ever be doing either of these things during Thanksgiving.

When I was pregnant with Sam, my mom told me that the hardest part of parenting is the letting go. As I watch my boys grow into young men, I think about that more and more, and how this letting go, as hard as it is sometimes, is also infused with gratitude. I am well aware that this may the last Thanksgiving for a while where Sam will be able to join us, given the career in the Army that lies before him when he graduates this June. While this makes me a little sad, I am also so glad to be with him and Henry, and to just watch them grow into the young men they are becoming. I am grateful not only to be their mom, but to all the people who have been part of their lives-Josh, my partner in parenting; my parents; my in-laws; our extended families, all their teachers and mentors; and of course, this congregation, which has been such an integral part of their lives, offering them a place to explore their values and their faith. As I must let them go to live more and more into their own lives, I find that any sadness or sense of loss I may have is graced by this experience of gratitude.

Letting go-and the experiences of sadness, grief and loss that accompany this process, is a constant. It is not just in parenting, but in so many things in our world, where change seems to come so quickly. At our congregational retreat, one issue that came up was how to deal with the reality that the increasing busyness and stress of people's schedules made it harder and harder for us to "do church" in the ways we used to because we just don't have the volunteer time and energy. In making the decision to change the way we do the Holiday Fair-to piggy-back on the town's tree lighting ceremony on Sunday December 3rd with the selling of donuts and greens instead of the full-blown event we had been doing-is a concrete example of how we are facing this truth. This decision certainly comes with loss. We are having to let go of some fun traditions and community building that came with doing a full-blown Holiday Fair. I think it is important that we honor that we are letting go of something precious here. By naming what is precious, we are also naming what we are grateful for in these traditions. Perhaps this can illuminate how we can give these precious things expression in new ways as our traditions take new forms. Who knows what will emerge?

Walter Brueggemann, one of my favorite biblical scholars, said: "We think in terms of systems and continuities and predictability and schemes and plans. The Bible is to some great extent focused on God's capacity to break those schemes open and to violate those formulae. When they are positive disruptions, the Bible calls them miracles. We tend not to use that word when they are negative, but what it means is that the reality of our life and the reality of God are not contained in most of our explanatory schemes. And whether one wants to explain that in terms of God or not, it is nonetheless the truth of our life that our lives are arenas for all kinds of disruptions, because it doesn't work out the way we planned." The stories of this season, whether from the Solstice, Hanukkah or Christmas, are about trusting in a time of unknowing and darkness, in a Spirit of Mystery, in the possibility of these positive disruptions and what might emerge that we do not expect. Hope is born out of our letting go and meeting with gratitude more than fear the unexpected possibilities that find an invitation to emerge.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Rev. Ellen's Reflections, November 2017

Those of you in church on Sunday know that our guest speaker from the Merrimack Valley Project Interfaith Sanctuary Network had to cancel due to illness. I appreciate everyone's understanding. I know that immigration and sanctuary were named at our all-congregational retreat on September 30th as one of the issues calling our attention. We will reschedule a time for her to come back to share with us about the MVP's Sanctuary Network at a later date.

I have been encountering sanctuary in a couple of different contexts. The one we hear most about in the news is sanctuary for undocumented individuals facing deportation. Congregations around the country, including several Unitarian Universalist ones, have chosen to become sanctuary churches. In Lowell, Christ Church United (UCC) has voted to do so. The MVP Interfaith Sanctuary Network is working with them to provide volunteers and logistical support. I am on the coordinating committee and have learned a lot about the level of commitment required to be a sanctuary church. It is hard to plan ahead since we can't know what will be needed until we know the individual's particular situation. It can also happen fast and volunteers are needed to mobilize quickly, to provide logistical support (i.e., medical, legal, tutoring, translation, laundry, shopping) and site support (to be present in the building while the sanctuary guest is there to deal with any crises or issues that may arise).

I spoke with several you via email and after church on Sunday who are interested in learning more about volunteering with MVP and Christ Church United, should sanctuary be requested. There will be three opportunities for volunteer trainings for volunteers interested in accompanying a potential Sanctuary guest: Thursday, November 9th, 7-9pm; Friday, November 17th, 7-9pm; Tuesday, November 28th, 7-9pm. They will take place at Christ Church United, 180 E Merrimack St. in Lowell. You only need to attend one. If you plan to attend, please let me know so I can pass the information along to the trainers. I do know that individuals from First Parish have already indicated an interest in attending the trainings on November 17 and November 28. As we discussed at the retreat, we don't have to re-invent the wheel. We can find opportunities right in our own neighborhood to get involved with the issues we believe our UU faith calls us to address in these troubled times. This is one such invitation.

Sanctuary is also something we offer each other at First Parish-through worship, spiritual exploration, music, and all of the other ways we find to give space for our souls and to deepen our sense of connection and belonging. I spent this past week at a retreat center run by the Benedictine Sisters in Racine, Wisconsin, to learn about a curriculum called "The Geography of Grace." It comes at sanctuary from this angle-creating space for our own and one another's stories to be shared and held within a "circle of with trust" using natural landscapes as inspirational starting points. The curriculum was developed by two facilitators from the Center on Courage and Renewal, founded by the Quaker teacher, Parker Palmer. I am looking forward to offering it here at First Parish. Another topic that came up at our congregational retreat was healing the growing divisiveness and acrimony in our public discourse. There is something in this curriculum that gives me hope for doing just this. It is a general enough curriculum that we could use beyond First Parish. I have been thinking about how we practice "circles of trust" conversations in our larger neighborhood.

It is so easy to be overwhelmed by all the issues that call for our attention. When things get crazy, the wisest thing is to go back to what is at the heart. As we heard at the retreat, what brought people to First Parish and what keeps us at First Parish is community. I believe that gratitude and hospitality are the core practices of beloved community, and thus at the heart of worship, what we do together in our sanctuary. The purpose of sanctuary is not to hide from the world or pretend that bad things aren't happening. Instead, sanctuary holds a space-physically, emotionally, spiritually-for a sacred pause, to give room for deeper, more thoughtful responses and alternatives to emerge. Sanctuary is a countercultural response, a peaceful resistance to the escalating busyness, chaos, and divisiveness in our current culture.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824