Reflections September 2016

Dear First Parishers,

Despite the heat, I have been enjoying a relaxed summer. While I have been at First Parish for occasional meetings, worship, or just to check in on things, I also took time away to visit family and old friends whom I had not seen for a long while, and a trip up north to Vermont with a quick foray to Quebec City. I also attended the summer session of my sabbatical’s seasonal retreat series in Sewannee, Tennessee. As fun as this has all been, I am excited and ready for a new church year.

Each summer, I spend time thinking about the year ahead and see if any themes arise. It is a tumultuous time in our nation, as we prepare for a presidential election with a deeply divided electorate around a host of social justice and economic issues and who gets to frame the moral narrative. The environment is making its own voice heard, from the exceedingly hot weather and drought we have witnessed in New England to wild fires out west and terrible floods down south. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and unmoored.

In June, I attended the Ministry Days portions of the UUA’s General Assembly. Much of the angst I described above was spoken of in every worship service and workshop. We had gathered in the wake of the terrible massacre at the nightclub in Orlando. Difficult conversations and protests were happening around several social justice issues and the language of inclusion (or exclusion). While I did not stay for the whole General Assembly, I know that these conversations and protests continued throughout. There was also a lot of discussion about the changing religious landscape of America, about how involvement in religious community is now only one of many choices vying for people’s attention and resources and that upcoming generations have neither the inclination nor the resources to support the religious institutions at the same levels as current and past ones.

Amidst all this, I attended a keynote address by the Reverend John Dorhauer, who is the President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ. He is among several theologians and religious leaders who believe that Christianity is in the midst of another Reformation, where all the traditional doctrines, practices and rituals are up for scrutiny and challenge. While Unitarian Universalism is no longer (only) Christian, we were born out of the Reformation, and face some of the same issues. I also think that we have already struggled with and worked our way through some of the theological issues that the United Church of Christ and other liberal Christian traditions are facing once again. Rev. Dorhauer said that in times of like these, discerning what is essential to our faith and keeping true to that while being willing to let go of everything else is the way of not just survival, but adaptation and growth. He defined the purpose of religious community this way: 1) to create the capacity for us to stand in the presence of the sacred; 2) to offer hope; 3) to transform human community; and 4) to serve the common good.

I was moved by his words and thought back to how our congregation engages in these essential religious and spiritual tasks. I thought about how you gather for worship, encounter your experiences of awe and wonder, with the sacred and holy through words, music and community; how you bless children, honor our youth coming of age, welcome new members into covenant, witness marriages, and walk with each other through grief and loss; how you listen to one another and offer care and hope in difficult times; how you reach out to our larger community to serve meals, rebuild homes, and work for justice. I find it grounding in these tumultuous times to remember the core purposes, the core tasks of our Unitarian Universalist religious community. So, I would like to offer the theme of grounding for this year, as we face questions within and beyond First Parish about what matters most and how we should live in world as beautiful, fragile and fractured as this one.

This theme complements the theme of family that Dolores and the Religious Education Council will be exploring with our youth, families and all of us throughout the year. We will begin at our intergenerational Ingathering and Water Communion service on September 11th. We invite you to bring some water from home or from somewhere symbolic of your summer, for our common bowl, as we gather our congregational family for a new year. As you pour the water in, we ask you to share a couple of words about what grounds you, as a part of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist family.

I have many other exciting things and ideas to share, but this is enough to start! I look forward to seeing you all and the adventures this coming year will bring.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen 

Reflections June 2016

I would like to thank all of you who pledged and who increased your pledge to make it possible for us to meet our financial goal for next year’s budget of almost $250,000. Reaching this goal means that we can continue to engage in all the ministries we do, and we can support increases in pay for staff, and in hours for our music director. I would also like to thank Jim Curley and his Canvass Team for their dedication and determination. It is not easy to talk about money, let alone ask for it. That said, to be a free church means that we must sustain ourselves. That does require a lot of time, talent and treasure.

On Sunday, I gave a sermon on the Soul Matters question, “What Does It Mean to be a People of Blessing?”. It was a really, really big topic to address in one sermon. There were so many paths of thought to follow. One of the paths I did not have time to go down in the sermon touched on the idea of “self-blessing.” This was a topic for discussion at my third seasonal retreat with the Center for Courage and Renewal in Sewanee, Tennessee. The theme of this retreat was “Spring: Finding New Life and New Possibilities.” We read poems about doorways, jailbreaks, sprouting plants, hope, Easter, and new beginnings. I liked them, but none really touched me the way that the poems and readings at the previous retreats had. I had spent a lot of time during this retreat on the phone, talking with folks about pastoral concerns, including the impending loss of two beloved parishioners, Mildred and Tracy. It was hard to get excited about spring.

On our last day, though, we read “St. Francis and the Sow” by Galway Kinnell and this one did grab me: “The bud/stands for all things/even for those things that don’t flower/for everything flowers, from within, of selfblessing; though sometimes it is necessary/to reteach a thing its loveliness/to put a hand on its brow/of the flower/and retell it in words and in touch/it is lovely/until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing/as Saint Francis/put his hand on the creased forehead/of the sow, and told her in word and in touch/blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow/began remembering down all her thick length,/from the earthen snout all the way/through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail”. It seems to me that part of living out our first principle, “to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” has something to do with this teaching each other the power and wonder of knowing our own loveliness, especially when the world seems to tell us otherwise.

This power of self-blessing is not just an individual thing. We can be self-blessing as a community. Choosing to commit to who and what we are as a community of faith is re-teaching ourselves to trust in our loveliness, our capacity to bring joy, beauty, and hope to the world, and to bless ourselves for it. Through your generosity, we do that very thing.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824