Reflections 03/04/12


Looking up the other day, I saw that the scaffolding is off the steeple! So, while it is not quite done, we are in the home stretch. It does look lovely.

Our building is one of our ministries. We might not think of our building that way, but let me explain, for ministry is service, and our building serves both our own and our larger communities. First, it is a ministry of stewardship. Our meetinghouse is a prominent symbol of the town of Chelmsford and its history. The banners around the common that say, “Welcome to Chelmsford” have pictures of our church. Our congregation’s beginnings and the town’s beginnings are linked all the way back to 1655. And we do take seriously our stewardship of this historic place.

Our building also ministers to the community. We rent or provide space to all kinds of groups that in turn serve others: the Open Door Nursery, the Girl Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, Table of Plenty, 4-H, the Middlesex Singers, the Buddhist Meditation Group to name a few. In the past, we have housed a Muslim community that met here until they were able to build a mosque of their own. Our parking lot serves as a significant part of the annual July 4th Town Fair, the Chelmsford Farmers Market, visitors to the cemetery, and other events on the common.

And our building ministers to us. It gives us a space to gather, to worship, to bear witness to the child namings, weddings, and memorial services, the joys and sorrows, the hopes and struggles we share with one another. It gives us the space to encounter the sacred, to give voice to our Unitarian Universalist faith and values, to find comfort in our times of need and challenge in our times of spiritual growth.

Many of the conversations we have had about our building center on its physical aspects: how to make more space, how to increase parking, how to add office. We have hired architects to look at our building and present us with plans based on our dreams of what we would like our building to be, inside anyway. The steeple has pulled us away from this focus for awhile, but that project is finishing up.

If we do return to conversations about our building, I would like us to consider our building as a ministry. We have been around the block so many times on the technical issues: how to increase parking; putting up dividers on the stage to create another classroom; converting a closet into office space; etc., etc. But what are the ministries of our building? And as currently constituted, how does our building serve us and our larger community effectively and ineffectively? Its history, its location, its beauty and simplicity are all strengths. Its inaccessibility, not just to people with handicaps, but in general, create barriers to welcoming and hospitality. If our building is part of our ministry, what are we and it called to do and be, as Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps this approach can help us discern what questions to ask and how best to answer them in ways that help our building express our ministries more effectively and more faithfully.

In faith,


Reflections 2/5/12


Last month, I attended a “service of leave-taking” for my colleague, the Reverend Tom Barrington, at All Saints Episcopal Church. The bishop delivering the sermon told a light bulb joke: “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Change the light bulb? My grandmother bought that light bulb!” That is when I realized that we Unitarian Universalists are not alone. Of course, in our version of the joke, we have to form a committee to study whether or not to change the light bulb. There is a version for every denomination and faith, it seems. But one thing all religious communities seem to share is a reluctance to change: whether a light bulb or something else.

When I returned to Unitarian Universalism after the college/young adult hiatus, I was taken aback by the changes: gone were the familiar blue and red hymnals replaced by a gray one with many of familiar tunes but words changed here and there. While I understood the reason: to be more inclusive and reflective of our diversity, I missed the poetry and the familiarity. While I didn’t mind giving up “Lord of all” in For the Beauty of the Earth, “Source of all” seemed somehow vague and academic. (I went with the UCC on this one, and generally sing “God of all” as a compromise position, for myself at least.) The other big change for me was this thing called a chalice that had somehow become a symbol of Unitarian Universalism when I wasn’t looking. This was really hard, because I was not used to symbols in my UU faith. I guess that was part of the Puritan heritage that stuck. It took me awhile to get used to the whole idea. Now, I love that we have something that binds our congregations and our faith together. I love the story of how it came to be our symbol. It started with Jan Hus, a Czech priest in the 1500’s, who was burned as a heretic for serving communion wine to all. His story and the image of a flaming chalice became a symbol of strength and courage for the Czech people. When the Unitarian Service Committee, hundreds of years later, came to Czechoslovakia during World War II to help refugees escape, they needed a symbol to let people know they could be trusted. And so, the Reverend Charles Joy, head of the Service Committee, asked Hans Deutsch, an artist and former refugee, to create one. Deutsch was inspired by the Czech symbol and created one for the Service Committee. The rest, as they say, is history.

When I first arrived, I was rather startled to find out that the source of the flame for our chalice was an open can of sterno. While it made for a lovely flame, the thought of it spilling over frankly scared the heck out of me. It took awhile but we found a compromise between the sterno and a candle with a lovely little oil lamp, bought by Edith Murphy. Soon after, people began asking about the possibility of a new chalice. It was brought to the Worship Committee who discussed it at length. The chalice did look a bit beat up and listing more each year. We asked around about its history. Jane Drury told us that it has been purchased by the Reverend Arthur Hover to replace one taken by a previous minister. Don Hayes gave a wonderful history of the chalice a couple of years ago, and talked about how he appreciated its slightly off-kilterdness. While there is affection for this chalice, there did not seem to be any compelling connection that would require us to keep it. We could risk the change.

Of course, for a variety of reasons, it took YEARS and several generations of Worship Committee meeting agendas to make this a reality, as this is much more than a light bulb. Last spring, the Worship Committee asked those of us going to General Assembly to scout out chalices while we were there. We were sadly disappointed to find nothing that struck a chord. Finally, at the January Worship Committee meeting, we went modern and got on-line and looked at various UU websites. And suddenly, there it was: a chalice we all loved. So, all this is to say: PREPARE FOR CHANGE--we have a new chalice that the Worship Committee would like to give to the congregation. Because it is sacred, because it is a symbol of our faith, we want to do something that will honor both the old and the new chalice. So, we will unveil it at the February 19th service, where we will pass the flame from the old one. Meanwhile, the new chalice is living in my office if you need a preview. Many thanks to the Worship Committee for making this happen and sticking with it.

And for all you mourning the Pats’ loss, remember that pitchers and catchers report in less than two weeks!

-Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824