Reflections 12/1/13

The Christian Christmas story tells of God incarnate, of the Divine taking human form and living among humanity. It is an ancient story, not unique to Christianity. But in most traditions, God Incarnate is a king, a warrior, a great leader, a god among women and men. In this telling, God is born a helpless child to a Jewish peasant girl, in the backwaters of a conquered land, a small, if troublesome, piece of the great Roman Empire. God’s power lies not in power itself, but in love and care for the most vulnerable.

The power of sacred stories is not in their factual accuracy. It is their power to relay an eternal truth, to open a place for us to enter in with our own lives and our own stories, and weave in our own particular experiences of truth, of beauty, of joy, of suffering, of doubt, of yearning, of hope—all that makes us human, all that makes our lives sacred.

I know that for many Unitarian Universalists, the idea of an incarnational faith is one they have left behind. In the season of its telling, I invite us to enter in to this story again, with new eyes, or rather with the eyes of our tradition. William Ellery Channing, the founder of Unitarian Christianity, wrote in his 1828 treatise “Likeness to God: “God becomes a real being to us, in proportion as his own nature is unfolded within us. To a man who is growing in the likeness of God, faith begins even here to change into vision.” Theist, atheist, or agnostic, we can live an embodied or incarnational faith—striving to live our lives as acts of kindness, justice, beauty, wonder, hope, hospitality, and gratitude. Jesus embodied God or a spirit of love that spoke so deeply and with such healing power to so many people, so as to transcend his own living and dying. I enter the story here: a model for ministry, a model for hospitality and gratitude, a model for seeking and creating peace on earth, a model for finding the holy and the sacred in the here and now, within us and among us. I also see a responsibility to change this faith into vision by living it out as I can.

This January, we will be piloting a new adult religious exploration program called, “The Soul of a Leader” which will invite participants to consider what it means to embody one’s faith as a Unitarian Universalist. This is not a skills-based training, or a how-to class. It is not just for people in leadership positions in the congregation, although hopefully it will help us feel more comfortable there. It is open to everyone and anyone who wants to explore what it means to lead a life grounded in one’s Unitarian Universalist faith or commitments. The class will be facilitated by John Schneider and myself and will begin with a day-long retreat scheduled for January 25th. We will meet monthly on a Sunday evening for a year, with a break in the summer. If you are interested, please let me know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or 978 256-5555. (If you have told me you are interested on a Sunday before or after church, I urge you to email me a reminder. I just turned 50, and my memory does not serve me as well as it used to!).

As we enter into this season of long nights and hopeful light, I wish you the best however you celebrate it—Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year!

In faith,

Rev. Ellen

Reflections 11/3/13

Welcome to November, this month of all souls and remembrance, of harvest and gratitude, of longer nights and colder days. This past Sunday, we held our All Souls service. On Saturday, November 16th, we will host a meal at our church following the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance’s interfaith Thanksgiving service at our neighbor church, Central Congregational. At 7 p.m. that same night, we will hold our annual Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil.  On November 24th, we will have our intergenerational Thanksgiving service, where we collect donations during the service for the Greater Lowell Open Pantry.

This past Sunday, my sermon was about the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer traditionally recited every day for eleven months, following the death of a loved one. I wanted to share an excerpt from that sermon for this column, for this month of remembrance and gratitude.

Ritual at its best uses a set of prescribed words, actions and symbols to ground us and engage us with the sacred, and with the sacred moments and transitions of our lives. Leon Wieseltier writes: “It is more than three months since my father died. My sister surprises me when she confesses that she still cannot bring herself to listen to music. I see again that the Kaddish is my good fortune. It looks after the externalities, and so it saves me from the task of improvising the rituals of my bereavement, which is a lot to ask.” (Kaddish, p. 39) The ritual of the Kaddish offers an anchor and a way through, when the mourner cannot find it her or himself. It provides the words and the actions when one is too overwhelmed to know what to do: the tether, the link, the words to offer when one doubts, or has no words or power to express.  For Jews, the Kaddish is an affirmation of life and God in the face of death. And because it is something that the mourner says every day, the ritual walks with the mourner through that year following the death: through the denial, anger, depression and acceptance, through the anniversaries and birthdays and all the firsts of being without, through the days, the weeks, the months and the seasons. It’s not just the words or the ritual that keep the mourner company, but also all the other people who are mourning at the same time for their loved ones. When the mourner stands up to say the Kaddish, they see the others who are saying it also and are reminded that grief is a human experience, not something that you suffer alone, even though you do. Furthermore, a ritual like the Kaddish gives Jewish mourners the company of all of the generations who have said this prayer before for the same reason, going back thousands of years, and the comfort of knowing that these words and this prayer will be said again for them, and for generations to come. Tethering the great grandparents gone before, the great-great grandchildren not yet born.

The Kaddish is not a ritual that I can use but it is one I can learn from. Affirming life, affirming creation, blessing the world and blessing my source of being even as I grieve: all this I see as offering a path through what is in a very alien and barren landscape, full of sadness and loneliness, anger and despair, emotions that come out of nowhere and pain that feels like it can never be healed. In the task of mourning...we have to hold the paradox that while the people we love die, while we know that we will die,  life goes no. Not only that, it goes on with the possibility of beauty, joy, hope, and healing.  Life isn’t fair but it is a gift that we have been given.

I did not go to the Red Sox parade yesterday in Boston although Josh took our boys. But I was listening on the radio and heard that when the duck boats reached the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a couple of players got off the boats, lay the World Series trophy down on it and covered it with the 617 Boston Red Sox jersey that had hung in the clubhouse all season while the crowd sang “God bless America.” Such is the power of ritual, to take a moment of violence, death and fear, hold it with a moment of celebration, fun and the playing of a game to join a community of people in reclaiming life in the face of death. This does not undo the violence and the trauma but nor does it allow them to have the final word.

This ritual that we do on the first Sunday in November is the same kind of thing. We take time to name those we love, and make room for our grief. We honor grief as sacred, as the last act of love we have to offer, again and again, year after year.   We see that life does and will go on, whether we are ready or not. We see that we are not alone, that we are tethered across the generations, across time, death and space between the stars.  How magnificent. How glorious. How blessed. May the Source of Peace indeed send peace to all who mourn, and comfort all who are in need of comfort this day.

In faith,

Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824

978-256-5133