Reflections 4/6/14

John Schneider, Deirdre Heck, and I have been leading a pilot adult faith formation class called, “Soul of a Leader,” exploring with some twenty brave First Parishers the spiritual practices of being a leader, what we as individual Unitarian Universalists can draw upon for our own leadership, and how Unitarian Universalism can offer leadership for our communities. We had a good discussion this past Sunday evening about a sermon delivered by the Reverend Vanessa Southern at last year’s General Assembly in Louisville. She preached about Unitarian Universalism’s potential in the changing landscape of American culture. We touched on the sermon I gave this past Sunday morning about Unitarian Universalism “coming of age” at various times in our history, as the cultural landscape has shifted. We talked also about how our particular congregation has “come of age” at various times in its own history and context.

For several generations after its founding in 1655, First Parish was the religious and civic center of town of Chelmsford. Many of the church leaders were the town’s leaders. It was the church of the establishment. However, to the dismay of the Reverend Ebenezer Bridge (1740-ish to 1790-ish), First Parish’s religious dominance was challenged by the arrival of the Baptists in South Chelmsford. So concerned about these religious rivals, someone (or someones) snuck in and stole all the pews in the new Baptist church. The new congregation took down their meetinghouse by night and rebuilt it in stealth at Heart Pond. Before long, came the Universalists, the Methodists and the Roman Catholics, as well as the reality of disestablishment and the town hall moving across the street. First Parish could no longer claim to be the center of Chelmsford.

Since that time, we have changed in some significant ways. While our church still stands on the town green, and our building remains an historic symbol of Chelmsford, our congregation is no longer centered on the town. Unitarian Universalism is probably a mystery to most of the folks who drive by our church or who attend our breakfasts and buy our donuts.

I believe that one of the most significant “comings of age” we have experienced is outgrowing our roots as a small town church. We have become a regional congregation, drawing our members not just from Chelmsford but from Lowell, Billerica, Dracut, Westford, Tyngsboro, Tewksbury, Acton, Littleton and even Nashua, New Hampshire. We no longer know all the same town leaders, serve on all the same town committees, and have kids in all the same schools. While we are no longer the center of Chelmsford, we are a center for Unitarian Universalism and liberal religion in the greater Lowell area. As we have grown more comfortable in our willingness to look outward beyond our sanctuary walls and beyond the town common, we have invited more community groups like the Table of Plenty and the Buddhist Meditation Group into our building. We are also learning to take our community and our faith on the road and put it to work, whether in New Orleans, Rockaway, NY, Lowell, or Dorchester. And we are learning to make public our values by becoming a Welcoming Congregation, and hanging our “Standing on the Side of Love” banner on our front pillars.

What do we want to be as we grow in our Unitarian Universalist faith and presence? What does it mean to be a regional church, a UU presence in our part of the Merrimack Valley? How do we move beyond sustaining to strengthening our beloved community and its covenants?

We are in the midst of a couple of things that touch upon these underlying questions: our annual canvass, the Next Steps Weekend with UUA consultant Barry Finkelstein, a shift in our Sunday school and our congregation from a model of “religious education” to “faith formation,” and some pilot projects like evening services, the Touchstones project, the “Soul of a Leader” class and the mentoring program for new members. We are coming of age. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable at times, as we recognize that some things don’t fit the way they used to and we have to learn to adapt who we are to where we are. But it also points to the energy and possibilities in us, as we strive to discern what it means to be our Unitarian Universalist community of faith here and now, to do justice now, to love kindly now, to walk attentively and humbly now with our Spirit of Life.

In faith,

Rev. Ellen

Reflections 3/2/14

On Saturday, I attended a district workshop in Boston on congregational singing with Cyndi Bliss, WillReiter, Maura Snow and Carrie Little. It was led by Ysaye Barnwell, an incredible singer, composer, and historian of African and African American music. She started the Jubilee Singers at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington, D.C., and is a recent retiree from "Sweet Honey in the Rock', the most amazing African American women's a cappella gospel ensemble I have ever heard. She led us through some remarkable singing in the African American tradition: no hymnals, no words up on a screen. Instead, call and response, and simple repeats. She created out of us a four-part chorus, wherein each part sang a different song that melded with the other three in incredible ways. Then she gave room for us to play with harmonies, melodies, and rhythms, helping us create what was prayer and worship and praise, all wrapped up in one.

Ysaye Barnwell making us into an impromptu choir was a metaphor for me for worship—held in a container of shared rhythm and melody, we could move from moments of unison, to parts, to call and response, to our own riffs and harmonies, until she brought us back together and led us out of the song. Attention and awareness of each other’s voices and the container of the song made it possible for us to both explore on our own and come back together. Together, we created something sacred, brought it to life.

As I have said before, our congregation has been through a lot this last year: deaths, illnesses, and other losses. In addition, it has been a long, cold winter. Folks have suffered broken bones and concussions from falls on the ice. In the last couple of weeks, I have experienced what I would call a kind of "fraughtness" or underlying angst during some of the moments of our Sunday morning worship services, perhaps a response to the weight of grief and fatigue of winter. To help reset, I asked the Worship Committee last Tuesday evening at our meeting: "What is the purpose of worship?" We had a great conversation (this is a really awesome committee!). Donna Mitchelson defined worship as "coming together to create a sense of joy." We talked about the other things we come together to create in worship: healing, hope, courage, community, and meaning, to name a few.

The "coming together" is a key part. Worship is a communal and community event where we create and hold sacred space together. We use music, words, and quiet; stillness and movement. Our gathered community is intergenerational—not just adults, children, and youth but generations of adults, and generations of Unitarian Universalism. We are theologically and spiritually diverse: theist, atheist and agnostic; Buddhist, Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, and none or some of the above. Some of us having been coming for years, others of us have just started. Some of us are inspired by personal sharing, while others feel uncomfortable by it. Thus, worship cannot have a goal of making every person happy, meeting each person’s individual needs. We can, instead, commit to creating something powerful and worthwhile out of our coming together, grounded in the mission of our Unitarian Universalist faith—to reflect together how to do justice, love kindness, and walk attentively and humbly with our Source of being and meaning, by whatever name we give. Each of us has a responsibility to hold our piece of this sacred space and time together. The Worship Committee and I are responsible for articulating the "container"—the expectations and guidelines with regard to worship, most often the chalice lightings and the sharing of Joys and Sorrows. We do this not to try to control what people say but to help clarify and hold each other accountable to worship’s larger purpose. The chalice lighting is meant to open worship with a brief (two minute) reflection, poem, or meditation related to the speaker’s experience or expression of Unitarian Universalist faith. Cheryl, Jeanette, Ashanti and Kiema gave a lovely example of this on Sunday. Joys and Sorrows is a time to share simply and briefly a personal joy, sorrow, or appreciation, which we can then all weave together into a larger community pastoral meditation and prayer.

Over the last few months, I have grounded myself again and again in these words by the Reverend Nancy Shaffer: "To find again and again both the stillness and the community that recall you to your being held in love, so that you know indelibly: there is nowhere you can go that God is not." Worship is our weekly reset, recalling ourselves to what matters most, finding the sacred in ordinary, and coming together to create the joy, the healing, the meaning, the hope some among us might need to get through the day. It is a sacred and holy task we share.

In faith,

Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824