And so, it is REALLY HAPPENING! Our building renovation to make it accessible for people with disabilities and just generally more user friendly. It has taken a lot of effort, a lot of commitment and a lot of time for us to get here. I hope that you are as proud as I am. It is going to be a bit chaotic for the next five or six months. As the staff keeps saying to one another: “Flexibility and patience; flexibility and patience” as our watchwords for months ahead. We are going to have to be creative and adapt around a few obstacles. Two be aware of right off are that our old elevator gave up the ghost, and given the cost to repair it for the short time we would need it, we have decided not. So, we will stream the last couple of regular church services in the vestry for those who cannot or do not want to tackle the stairs. Also, after demolition starts (target date, Monday June 4), we will not have indoor bathrooms. There will be a porta-potty. This is not ideal, we know, but it is only for two Sundays.
We start our summer services, moving the worship time to 9 am, on June 24th. We have been able to rent space at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts across the street for June 24, July 8, July 15 and July 22. July 1, we will be back at First Parish. And we will return here permanently July 29. Hopefully, by then, we will have indoor plumbing back. If you have not already, please sign up for the First Parish events list. Things may change over the summer, and we may have to cancel or move a summer service. If you want to be kept up to date, please, please join this list.
To mark the start of the building renovation, we will hold a groundbreaking service during worship next Sunday. It will be an opportunity to appreciate the people who have led, organized and continue to manage this project; to acknowledge our contractor, Walter, and architect, Jay; and to celebrate what we have accomplished. It should be a lot of fun.
Finally, I want to share excerpts from my sermon this past Sunday, where I talked about the “Geography of Grace.” I chose a reading from a book by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Life of Trees: A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.
And here is my reflection on his words: Wohlleben demonstrates how trees live together in community—connecting and communicating through their roots systems, through fungi that grows underground, through their leaves in the wind. When I think of the geography of grace of this place, I think of the forest community he describes. Deeply rooted through the generations in the tenets of our tradition: in covenant with reverence for the sacred ties that bind us to one another, to the creation, to the many names of the holy, the Spirit of Life; gratitude and hospitality; memory and hope; freedom and love, we stand solidly and we grow, helping one another withstand the wind and rain, dry, hot summers and cold winters. Yes, like trees, we lose branches and limbs; and like trees, we die—sometimes too young, sometimes after a long, long time. But still, the forest remains. Together we do what we cannot on our own: create a local climate, an ecosystem to help one another through the generations stay rooted and growing in gratitude and grace, moderating and healing the extremes of pain and loss, harm and cruelty. To expand on the words of Theodore Parker: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” I would add “It bends toward gratitude. It bends toward grace.”
As we prepare the building for the accessibility project, I would like to share excerpts from the sermon I gave on Sunday [April 29] about the distinction between attachment and commitment. In a year when we have had to make some difficult decisions about what to keep and what to let go, in terms of items, traditions, and practices, I found this distinction helpful.
As I clean out my office in preparation for the building renovation, I find that I constantly need to discern the difference between attachment and commitment. I have accumulated a lot of stuff over the last fifteen years. It is amazing how hard it is to let go of it all, even things I didn’t realize I had in my drawers and on my bookshelves or buried on my desks. Candles; colored rocks; and lots of articles and books. With the books and articles in particular, I am realizing that I am attached to the idea of reading them someday, rather than committed to actually reading them. So, I am fostering a discipline of letting go: if I can’t remember when or where I got a book or article, then I am obviously not going to read it. Or, if I am someday, I trust that it will find its way back into my life. Meanwhile, I see also the books that I use often, the ones that articulate and reflect my faith and my ministry. These, I am carefully packing to keep for the journey.
I realize too that discerning the difference between attachment and commitment is an ongoing spiritual practice. The world around us is constantly changing, and therefore we are constantly called to change with it, to let go of things that no longer serve. In Unitarian Universalism and in our country, we are engaged in difficult and often bitterly divisive debates about privilege and power with regard to race, gender, class, and social status. It can be difficult, especially those of us living within the privilege of one or more of these things, to discern the difference between attachment and commitment. No matter where we stand, there can be no healing if we remain attached and entrenched in anger, fear, greed, or self-righteousness. Attachments are those things that offer us a sense of security or safety, that help us feel that we are in control. Commitments are those things that call us to live into our deepest hopes and possibilities, and as such, challenge us to take risks and step out of our comfort zones. Often, we are required to wander in the wilderness for a time until we find our new bearings.
I just returned last Saturday from another service trip to Louisiana. For last decade or so, members of our congregation have gone down there to rebuild homes damaged by the flood waters first of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and then a terrible storm in Baton Rouge in August of 2016. There is nothing like a crisis to clarify the difference between attachment and commitment. We have worked on the homes of people who literally lost everything that reflected the stories of their lives before the floods. When I listen to the stories of what happened when they realized they had to flee their homes, I hear over and over again about how they went first to help ensure the safety of those they knew were most vulnerable among their family, friends and neighbors or how they themselves were rescued. There was deep grief for what was lost. Photographs, family heirlooms, handmade pictures. I will never forget Chef Earl telling us how he lost all his cookbooks, passed down through the generations of cooks and chefs in his family. And yet, amidst all this loss was a sense of gratitude and commitment. For ten of the twelve service trips, we have stayed at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans. This is a congregation that has lived into its commitment, its faith. After Katrina, the church was flooded, and the membership reduced to less than fifty members. The congregation committed, however, to rebuilding not only their church but their community. They went $1 million into debt to refurbish their building, renovate their kitchen and office space to house and feed volunteers, to reopen a community nursery school and to house staff. Every year we go, they have reorganized their building to meet the changing needs of their church and the surrounding community. In order to pay off this debt, they have sold property and assets they no longer need. They became the central gathering place for the diverse neighbors and groups in Broadmoor to meet and plan for the area’s recovery and rebuilding. It is a remarkable story to have witnessed over the last decade. And New Orleans’ Mayor Elect, LaToya Cantrell, the first woman ever elected mayor, started her political career as part one of the community activists working with Annunciation and Broadmoor.
I don’t think that attachment is necessarily a bad thing. Our attachments are often concrete symbols of our commitments. My wedding ring is a symbol of my commitment and love to Josh. Family heirlooms and photographs tell the story of my family and my life. My stole is a symbol of my call to ministry. Many of items that I am attached to describe my connections, my relationships, my history, my identity. They carry meaning. Our building and all its contents embody the story, the history of First Parish through the generations. But understanding that relationship, the commitment beneath, is important. My stole is not my call to ministry—that is something I live into and if the stole were to disappear, I would still have my call. This building is our home. But First Parish itself is all of us: generations past, present and future, gathering for worship, mutual care, and service to the common good. That is our commitment.