Reflections October 2015

When I heard about yet another mass shooting--this time at the Umqua Community College in Oregon--after my initial sadness, horror, and anger, I thought of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, #563 in our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition: “A person will worship something—have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out. That which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.” It seems that guns and violence dominate the imagination of our country. Our culture worships them, in the truest sense of the word—lifting them up as having a greater worth than the lives lost to them. We will see what this nation becomes. I fear that if we continue to worship a culture of violence, our nation will become more violent, the threat and fear of it becoming what governs us. I say this every time one of these mass shootings occurs, but it is not just these events. It is the day-to-day violence that happens that we never hear about because it is so ordinary. It is the vitriol of the public exchanges on social media that happens afterwards, a violence itself that prevents any dialogue that could move us toward a thoughtful and sane response.

In the wake of events such as these, I am grateful for this community and for our Unitarian Universalist faith. They remind me that I am not alone in imagining and practicing a different culture—one that values human life more than violence. Unitarian Universalism is not alone in this, but having a place and a people gathered around love and justice, freedom and hope, joy and gratitude gives me courage and reminds me that a worship of violence and guns is not the only kind in our culture. There are people worshipping other things, and building communities around them.
This brings me to another quote that I have been carrying around with me lately. Author and community organizer, Margaret Wheatley writes, “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams. Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty. Invite everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert in something. Know that creative solutions come from new connections. Remember you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”

I think her words are very wise and imagine a culture grounded in the practices she lifts up: Discover as a community what we care about; Be brave enough to start conversations that matter; Be intrigued by differences; Treasure curiosity more than certainty; Listen to bring ourselves closer together; Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. In fact, we are trying some of the right now as we engage in conversations and discernment about whether or not start a capital campaign in order to raise money toward making our building more accessible. It is not easy. We all have different stories, perspectives and priorities with regard to what we care about. We are not all created equal in what we can offer of time, talent and treasure. It takes courage to listen with curiosity instead of certainty, to ask “what’s possible?” instead of “what’s wrong?” However, in order for us to discover what we care about as a community and how to prioritize what we can do, we have to be in conversation with one another. While it can feel risky, it seems to me that this is how we truly build trust and deeper connection and community.

I appreciate the work of the Next Steps Task Force to guide us into this discovery of what matters to us and inviting us into meaningful conversation around our building and how it serves our covenant and how it presents obstacles to it. In particular, I appreciate Ruth Whalen Crockett creating and facilitating conversation and listening for the three congregational forums. I am grateful to the folks who have already indicated that they would be willing to make start-up pledges to a campaign. I continue to be humbled by the culture of generosity in this congregation, where so many give freely of the time, talent, and treasure you each have.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Reflections September 2015

Joan Coyne, Joan and Dennis Keane and I just returned late on Saturday night from New Orleans. As usual, we were there to help rebuilding homes with the St. Bernard Project. However, instead of going during our usual April week, we went for the special 48-hour rebuilding marathon to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It was, as one of our dear friends in New Orleans said, “bittersweet.” New Orleans loves to throw a party, so there was definitely that aspect of it. Three presidents—Obama, Bush, and Clinton—literally dropped by, each for a different afternoon. New Orleans is bustling with activity and with young people, many of whom came to volunteer and decided to stay. You could feel the energy. We were blessed by beautiful weather: dry, upper-eighties, with no sign of the humidity or thunderstorms that mark this time of year. And as usual, we were well fed. I consider it a triumph of restraint that I only gained 2 pounds.

At the same time, the anniversary brought up many painful memories, particularly of those who died and those who had left permanently. We spent a good amount of time listening, as well as working. For the first time, we worked with mostly New Orleanian volunteers. (When we go in April, almost all the volunteers are from Massachusetts.) Most of them were young adults, who were 12 or 13 years old when the city flooded. They grew up in the shadow of Katrina. I witnessed, as we worked together, how every now and then, one of them would be suddenly overwhelmed by a memory and stop and choke up. And then pick up the paint or the mud (joint compound) and continue again.

We worked on the family home of Johnny Jackson, a long-time community leader in the Upper Ninth Ward. He and other members of his family were on site, and we had chance to chat with them and hear their story. They live in Dallas, although Mr. Jackson often returns home to organize and advocate for his neighbors. They hope to be back permanently by the end of September. He described the experience of seeing volunteers working to restore his home as “being rescued in reverse.” NPR did two interviews with Mr. Jackson: one in the immediate aftermath of the floods and one just last week. Here are the links if you are interested:

There is much more I could share, but it is also time to focus on the new church year. I always look forward to our “re-gathering” in September and this year is no different. There is much to look forward to: Steve Zocchi will begin his second year as our permanent music director. Justine Sullivan will join us as our part-time intern minister for the next two years. Dolores, Jill, and the Religious Education Council are planning for an exciting year in the Religious Education Faith Formation program. I am excited to hear our choirs. Most of all, I am excited to be in worship regularly again. I would like to thank the Worship Committee (Jayne Boissonneault, Colleen Leary, Jane Collins, Ellen Ford, and Donna Mitchelson) for coordinating the summer services, and offer my thanks to everyone who led a service and who volunteered your musical talents. The services were well-attended and well-led.

As I think about the coming year, the image of “crossroads” came to mind. Our congregation is at a crossroads with a decision about our building. The Next Steps Task Force is preparing to present the consultant’s report on our capacity for a capital campaign to make our building more accessible. I am preparing to go on sabbatical in January through the end of March. While this does not involve any decisions (no, I am not leaving!), it is a time of exploration for me, and you as a congregation about who we are and what our ministries need to be in the coming years. The Sabbatical Committee will be talking about this more as the year begins. Unitarian Universalism is also at a crossroads. When the two traditions merged in 1961, our Unitarian side— with its emphasis on individual freedom and reason—was the dominant voice. More recently, Universalism— with its emphasis on the spirit and power of love in community—has felts its voice heard. We need both because we are both. We are also discerning how to practice congregational polity in an age where there is just not the individual commitment of time, talent and treasure to religious communities as in previous generations. The demands of work, family, and the myriad of other groups and activities mean that many people don’t give or just cannot commit as much of these resources to church. How do we “do” congregational polity in an age when folks don’t seem to have the time or energy to do it as we have in the past?

Our country is at a crossroads with regard to race and racial justice. Institutional racism continues to eat away at the heart and soul of who we claim to be as Americans: a land of equality and opportunity for all. A new generation of African American leaders is confronting this racism through the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. We will see if we as a country are willing to engage in difficult conversations or whether we will continue in denial that systemic racism is real. Either path brings its own pain but only one will walk us toward healing.

Our planet is also at a crossroads. Despite what some politicians say, climate change is real and we need to learn to be better stewards of our environment. This is complicated by the politics of nations, economics, ethnicity, religion, and culture. At its heart, though, it is simple. We share this planet and we will have to learn how to live together with each other and with the rest of life on it if future generations are to survive.

To stand at a crossroads means choosing a path where all is not clear, taking risks, experiencing unknowns, and leaving things behind. Change itself is not the problem. Rather it is the fear and grief of what we have to let go of. Sometimes, as with a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, we are given no choice. You take what is essential and go. The experience of loss is huge, and some lose everything. However, from what I witnessed in New Orleans, people do find ways to articulate what is essential, what matters most and rebuild from there. It is a bittersweet thing. Other times, we have time to discern what is essential—what we should take with us as we choose our path, and what we have to leave behind, what we need to mourn.

One of the purposes of religion and religious community is to help us discern and celebrate the ties that connect us to each other (at every level), to life, and to what we name as sacred. Sometimes the work is hard, requiring us to ask uncomfortable questions about justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Other times, it is joyful as we invite ourselves to experience gratitude, beauty, and wonder. This is why I believe it matters that we exist: as First Parish and a Unitarian Universalist community of faith. We can stand at the crossroads together and pool our individual experiences into a larger collective wisdom, discerning how to move forward together. That is the heart of our free, covenantal, congregational tradition—a walk together.

This coming Sunday, September 6th, we will have our opening worship for the church year (AT OUR NEW START TIME OF 10 AM) where we will hold our annual water communion. I invite you to bring a little water from somewhere special—whether your kitchen sink, a favorite place to contemplate life and nature, or a summer vacation—to pour into our common bowl. And as you pour, I invite you to share a word or phrase about what you seek or bring to these crossroads. What is essential to you about this community and Unitarian Universalism? What will you carry on this walk together?

In faith,

Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824