Reflections October 2016

First, let me say “YAY JUSTINE!” She successfully passed the Ministerial Fellowship Committee last Saturday with the highest mark and is now a fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister. This is no surprise. We have all seenthat she is a compassionate, wise, and skilled minister, even as an intern. I imagine that Justine will share what lies ahead and her hopes for her future in ministry. However, now that she has completed this important step, we can take the rest of her internship with us (through June 2016) to celebrate and enjoy.

My sermon this past Sunday was a reflection on congregational ministry—specifically what I have learned serving here over the last fourteen years. Here is an excerpt from this reflection:

At my ordination in Virginia, the Rev. Bob Whitten, who led the laying on of hands, charged me to carry ministry as a sacred trust. In the first years of ministry, I understood the sacred trust to be grounded in my experience of being called by that larger spirit of love I call God, and going through seminary and all of the steps involved in being accepted and affirmed as a professional in the ministry for the Unitarian Universalist Association. I still do. But walking with you as I have over the last 14 years, I have come to appreciate and hold with a growing sense of awe and love that sacred trust. It has offered me so much more than I ever imagined... Like so many things in congregational life, this sacred trust grows slowly and steadily. As I have tended it with you and given it its seasons, I find it reveals its treasures of grace, of joy, and of deepening connection. Around year eight or nine, I sensed a significant shift in this congregation’s trust of me as your minister. When I have spoken to other colleagues who have been in their ministries as long as I have about this, they say they have had similar experiences. We have walked together long enough now for me to be entrusted with your grief, your struggles, your failings and your doubts. With your hopes, your spiritual growth and your wise and graceful growing older. You have trusted me even when my sermons weren’t the best, when I said the wrong thing or failed to listen as well as I promised, when I have stumbled and not handled something well. You have trusted me twice to go on sabbatical and come back. And I’ve trusted you with the same. I’ve been here long enough now that your losses are my losses also, and I grieve with you in a way that I could not when I started. We understand that we don’t have to see eye-to-eye theologically or spiritually or on the issues of the day to share the same religion. We can honor each other’s different names and understandings for the sacred without having to convince each other who is right. I can speak truth to you in ways that I wouldn’t have presumed a decade ago because I know you know I am trying to speak out of genuine love and respect rather than my need to be the expert. I also trust you to be honest with me in that same way, and you have. This sacred trust grounds my authority in more than my professional training or the office of minister: it grounds it in the honesty, authenticity and humbleness that comes in witnessing to your sacred stories, to the imperfect beauty, and power of your souls.

If I could give Justine one thing as she enters the professional ministry, it would be a congregation that offers and receives from her the same sacred trust. Thank you.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

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 

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824