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.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Dear First Parishers,

I hope that everyone has had a lovely summer, or at least a chance to take a breath! My summer was very full. I attended two writers’ workshops where I learned a lot and made some wonderful new friends. I also took a two-week family vacation up in Vermont, which is always a restorative place for me.

Each time I have returned from one of these trips and dropped by our church, I have been awed by the progress made with our building renovation project. It is definitely taking shape and it will be great to finally be back in. I have been surprised by how unmoored I feel by not having my office. Given my summer schedule, I did not expect to miss it all that much. It is a touchstone that obviously gives me a sense of place and purpose, a sense of home. It will be good to have it back.

Speaking of which, it is time to start thinking about the new church year. I am very much looking forward to seeing us all gathered together again. It’s funny, the rhythm of the seasons. In June, I look forward to the slower pace and lighter schedule of summer. But by August, I find that I am ready for the return to congregational life. I miss everyone and I miss the weekly work of preparing for and leading worship. Larry Peers, who is my clergy coach and who has led several retreats with us, including one last fall, always asks me to reflect on what season of ministry I am in, that the congregation is in. As we near the end of the renovation project, I feel we are in a season of autumn and harvest. We are seeing the results of our hard work and labor of love. I hope that we will take time to pause and celebrate what we have accomplished. We have made our building accessible to all as we can. It will be more reflective and less of an obstacle to our practice of hospitality and nurturing of all souls.

Autumn is also a season of letting go—the new configuration of the building means that things will not always be where they once were. It will take time to figure what belongs where and where to meet for this or that. The building as it was had been home for many of us for a long time. There is comfort in familiarity. And I imagine that very soon, it will feel like home again. While the building serves as a touchstone for our home, its true center is all of us, the people who gather in covenantal community for worship, mutual care, and service to the common good. While our building would not be First Parish without us, we learned this summer that we can be First Parish even without our building—meeting at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts, at the Java Room, at Blake Funeral Home, at the Senior Center, or in our backyard, to worship, to offer or receive care, and to serve our congregation and our larger community.

I would like to thank the Worship Committee: Jayne Boissonneault, Ellen Ford, Ami Hughes, Colleen Leary, Donna Mitchelson, Edith Murphy, and Bonnie Rankin, for facilitating the summer services, and helping our lay worship leaders and musicians negotiate our ever changing space. It was more challenging than usual, and I am grateful to them and to all the folks who led worship, provided music, and attended these services.

Last spring, the Worship Committee and I discussed coming up with our own monthly themes for worship, instead of relying on journals like Touchstones or Soul Matters. We had a great time last June brainstorming themes and their accompanying practices. This is an experiment, another new thing to try out, and we will see how it goes. So, for the month of September, we have chosen the theme of Home. It seemed very appropriate as we re-gather together after a summer apart; as we come back to a new building; and as we prepare to welcome new and returning individuals and families.

So, we will start our exploration and reflection on the theme of Home in the sanctuary at our Intergenerational Ingathering Service and Water Communion on September 9th, at 10 am. If you would like to participate in the communion, please bring a little bit of water to pour into the common bowl. As we are gathering in our home made new, I invite you to think about what make First Parish home, what connects you to this community and what we offer to those seeking a home.

I am so looking forward to seeing you all on September 9, if not before!

In faith,
Rev. Ellen