Reflections 5/4/14

It doesn’t feel too much like May yet. Things are blooming, but there is still a coolness in the air that suggests March more than May. Perhaps that is why I can’t quite believe that the regular church year is quickly coming to a close. We just had our May Breakfast and are finishing up the stewardship Canvass. This time of year is fun and very full with special services. We will have the Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace this Sunday in Dorchester. Next month, we will have the Coming of Age, RE, Bridging, and Flower Communion services. In addition, we will be saying farewell to Cyndi Bliss, our music director, who is leaving at the end of June. We will be having budget hearings and committees will be preparing annual reports as we get ready for the annual meeting on June 8th. We have a good-sized group preparing to go the UUA’s General Assembly in Providence, at the end of June. The end of year traditions and events are intermingled with sadness as we will be holding a memorial service for Johan MacKenzie on May 18th. I feel like I have been pulled between moments of great sadness and loss and those of excitement and energy. It has been a bit of a rollercoaster.

I would like to share some thank-yous for those of you who have worked so hard on all of the things that have been going on. First, I would like to thank Tom Coffey, Joan Keane, David Blackburn, John Schneider, and Chris Sweetnam for organizing the Next Steps Weekend with UUA consultant Barry Finkelstein, and helping us re-visit and re-energize important conversations around the relationship between our covenant and our physical space. I would like to thank Joan Keane, Cori Rose, and everyone who worked on the May Breakfast, and Ellen Mellen and all the May Basket makers. I would like to thank Jim Curley and the Canvass team for leading the pledge campaign, with a special thank you to Edith Murphy and Theresa Popoloski for running the Canvass Celebration luncheon. I would like to thank the Pastoral Care Team—Carla Corey, Carrie Little, Chris Boucher, Erica Boucher, and Liz Peterson, and the Caring Connection—Suzanne Wilson, Sally Seekings, Mickey O’Connor, and Sandy Johnston (with apologies if I have forgotten anyone) and all their helpers, for supporting folks in the church in need of a listening ear, a home-cooked meal, an inspirational card, or a ride to an appointment. I would like to thank Will Reiter for stepping up on several occasions to provide music when needed. And I would like to thank all of you for being such an amazing and thoughtful Unitarian Universalist community of faith. I brag of you often to my colleagues. I know that it has been a hard year, and you all have stepped up in so many ways. Thank you.

In faith,

Rev. Ellen

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

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824