Happy Halloween! It has been a remarkably beautiful October, with the leaves keeping their color through the end of the month. Soon, we will be in the midst of Thanksgiving, and then...Christmas!
Our worship theme for the month of November is “Ancestors.” I have been thinking about my own quite a bit, as I have started to write down some of the family stories I have inherited over the years. They are good reminders for me in these anxious times about the resilience of the human spirit and that generations have survived much worse than this. They also remind me that we won’t know how it will all turn out, so to keep choosing as compassionately and hopefully as we can out of our core values. This is how we stay grounded.
Unitarian Universalism is not a faith that consistently honors its ancestors, especially outside of New England. In fact, it is often focused on the next new thing and dismissive of the past. I think this is in part because we are made up mostly of converts who have left something behind and who have been promised the opportunity to bring their own beliefs and ideas to their new faith. This is partly true. Revelation is not sealed. We do learn every generation from new ideas and new voices and new perspectives, as we are challenged and invited to consider them. At the same time, Unitarian Universalism is a religion—not just a movement—and it has ties that bind us one generation to the next.
The two core practices of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, passed down from our ancestors, are covenant and congregational polity. Both are flexible enough to adapt and change over the generations while still serving as touchstones. Last May, a team from First Parish attended a workshop on covenant led by the New England Regional UUA staff. Out of that workshop, we were invited to join five other of our area congregations in a year long “deeper dive” learning group with the New England staff to explore the meaning, power and purpose of covenant—not just within our own congregation but with our neighboring congregations. Our First Parish team consists of me, Dolores, Diana Keohane, Brenda Rogers, Carlene Merrill, Caroline Snow, and Ruth Whalen. It has been fun to work together on this and to talk more deeply about covenant, not just with one another but with other UUs, and to get to know them.
Our First Parish covenant helped us articulate why making our building accessible and welcoming was so important and provided a touchstone for the renovation project and capital campaign. I have experienced a deepening in the spiritual life and maturity of this congregation as we have come to understand in a tangible and real way what it means to walk together in covenant. This “deeper dive” into covenant comes at a good time, as we are standing in between what we have just accomplished and what is next. In the New Year, our First Parish team will be offering opportunities for “Deeper than Coffee” conversations about covenant and how we might grow even more into its practice.
Meanwhile, we will take this month to consider our ancestors—where we come from. We will also celebrate gratitude: welcoming into covenant our new members and renewing our covenant with our ten year, twenty-five year, forty year and fifty years members on November 17 and gathering food and donations for the Open Pantry at our intergenerational Thanksgiving service on November 24.
I am writing this column from down in Canton, Mississippi, some twenty miles north of Jackson where I am attending a writing workshop for clergy entitled “Mapping a Geography of Grace.” I am grateful for the time I have here to write and to listen to other writers and to share in learning both about writing and ministry. It is also a broadening experience to be in the part of the country so different culturally, politically and religiously from my own. And, as is often the case, I am learning that realities here are much more complicated and nuanced than the current public narrative of division and difference portray. I am also learning how the experience of history from very different perspectives has fed these divisions for so long that it will be very hard to heal them. What is happening in Washington, D.C. is proof of that.
October’s worship theme is letting go. Autumn is the season for this, as the leaves turn and then fall; as the days grow shorter and the nights longer. I was going to say it is one of my favorite seasons, but then I realized that what I actually love is the change in seasons we have up here. Autumn is beautiful and cool. It also has a tinge of melancholy to it, as the colors slowly shed and the trees grow bare. It definitely lends itself to turning from what has been toward what is and will be.
When I think where we were last autumn, I see what a difference a year has made. At this time last year, the building was in the last stages of its renovation project and not quite ready for prime time. We had no heat and no electricity in some of the rooms. We were walking on unfinished flooring and the vestry was filled with tools and building materials. The kids didn’t have their own rooms for their faith formation groups. And the elevator, which was really the whole point of the project, was not working yet. It was a bit unsettled. However, everyone did a great job of working around the expected and unexpected chaos.
One of my colleagues told me that it would take a year to eighteen months for us to start to feel settled into the new space. I was glad for her wisdom as I bumped into walls that weren’t there before and looked for doors that no longer existed. Now, it certainly feels much more like home. And it is so welcoming and new. I love watching on Sunday mornings, when the front doors are wide open, people who are just walking by stop to look and even chat with those of us standing on the front steps. I love that folks who need the elevator can just get themselves where they need to be. It is great to have bathrooms upstairs. And new bathrooms at that!
Other pieces of “settling in” take more time and are less obvious: how to use and share our building’s newly configured space. While the renovation makes things more open, we have actually lost space. Two rooms upstairs were sacrificed for the elevator and bathrooms. The parlor, now upstairs, is smaller. While the nursery school that rents from us is using the same amount of space, the space is arranged differently and less flexible than it used to be. We have also become a more popular spot for rentals and requests are coming in. Jessica Volk, our Building and Events Coordinator, is new to the job and figuring out how to support all of us living into our newly arranged church home.
For it is a home, especially for those who have been attending for awhile and whose memory of where to go for what and which rooms is embedded in our bodies as much as our minds. We are having to re-train those muscle memories to accommodate not only a new physical space but new ways of sharing it.
So, we are almost at a year in our new building. We still have some settling and growing into to do over the next few months. Change—even good change, amazing change, transformational change—brings its losses. It requires letting go of familiar patterns. Even if the new ones are better and more in keeping with our commitment to welcome and hospitality, it takes some time to learn how to wear them comfortably. And that’s okay. By this time next year, we will probably think that we have always done it this way.