Reflections 5/22/11


This past week has felt very full to me: a funeral service for Lynda Bigl, an amazing Coming of Age Service planned and led by our COA youth and mentors, and a packed evening service where Carrie sang publicly for the first time after her double lung transplant. These very different but powerful services had me reflecting on the meaning of religion and religious community. What follows is the brief sermon I wrote for Sunday's evening service.

According to my colleague, the Rev. Fred Muir, human beings are "...question asking and problem-solving creatures. When we are asking questions and solving problems—and this is being done for a great deal of our time—we are creating meaning. In this sense, we are meaning-making creatures too. And that's what religion seems to be all about: making meaning. We humans thrive on meaning, and when it doesn't exist, we create it. And when we can't create it, when there is no meaning in our life, we get frustrated, shaken, angry, depressed, disillusioned and unhappy. Religion, then, is the response to the feeling—happy, glad, sad, or mad—that arises from the gap (or the lack of one) between expectation and experience: the expectation (or hope) of having meaning to life and the experience (or reality) of missing it." (p. 162 in Heretics Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals).

The word religion comes from the same Latin root as do the words ligament, and rely. Religion then is a re-tying or re-connecting with what binds us together, or that with which we can trust to make meaning. Religion is what ties us across the gap between our reality and experience, versus our expectations and hope. Religion allows us to see the world as it is, to imagine the world as it can be, and to love them both the same.

Because we are a creedless religion, many people outside and within Unitarian Universalism don't see us as one. And if we understand religion only as the acceptance of a set of stated beliefs or as believing in a supernatural god, then we don't qualify. However, Unitarian Universalism is a religion, because we come together to create meaning, to build a bridge between experience and hope—to see the world as it is, to imagine the world as it can be, and to love them both the same. We rebind and reconnect ourselves to what matters, to what is worthy of our time, our talent, our treasure, and our trust. And we do it several ways.

First, we do it through the relationships we build here. We keep each other company in times of great joy and great sorrow, as well as through ordinary moments. We are a community that promises to care for you, and to ask you to care for others. We have seen much of this is recent days and weeks. And this care extends beyond our own walls to include the community around us: in Chelmsford and Lowell, in New Orleans, in our whole world.

Second, we reconnect through worship and ritual. We set aside time each week as holy, for the purpose of lifting up and naming what matters, what is sacred, what is worthy of our loyalty. Our individual spiritual paths may be different, but we lay claim to a shared theology grounded in reason, freedom, love, and hope. We gather to create meaning of our world and our lives through the lens of these religious ideals. We enact rituals that reconnect us as well: the simple act of lighting a chalice or speaking the words of our covenant; blessing a child, a marriage, a life that has ended; praying together, singing together, listening together are all ways to connect our bodies, minds, and souls with the meaning and purpose of our lives: to bear witness to what is happening and to hope for what can be.

Third, we reconnect too through our larger Unitarian Universalist faith: through our denominational covenant, known as our purposes and principles; through our stewardship and knowledge of our history and tradition; through constantly challenging ourselves to become the religion we claim we want to be. We are a religion as we tie and retie what binds us to one another, and to the larger Spirit of Life and Love, as we strive to make meaning in the midst of the hard realities that life and death throw at us, and in hoping and imagining ourselves, one another, and our world healed and whole.

Rev. Ellen

Reflections 5/8/11

I begin with a plethora of thank-yous. First, I would like to thank Joan Keane, chair of the May Breakfast, and Joanna Paulsen and Carlene Merrill, for organizing another successful May Breakfast. I had a great time and I hope that all of you who volunteered or attended did too! Many thanks also to Ellen Mellen, and all the May Basket makers. These are truly works of art, as well as a wonderful tradition. And of course, thanks to the fudge makers, who make the baskets sweet.

Second, I would like to thank everyone who volunteers in our Religious Education program, at every level. I was impressed by the service on Sunday, and by all our children and youth. One of the joys of my ministry is seeing everyone grow up. Watching the sixth graders receive their milestone gifts, I reflected that I had know most of these young people since preschool. And I was amazed by the combined Carol and Junior choirs' singing of "Inch by Inch." It was so beautifully sung, and I know it was not easy, with all the harmonies involved.

Third, my deepest thanks to Bonnie Rankin, Johan MacKenzie, Tom Coffey, Paul Windt, Bob Morse, Chris Sweetnam and anyone I might have missed for all their work and dedication in seeing the CPC grant for the steeple repair come before a vote at town meeting. I am thankful too that a significant majority of the town meeting representatives supported our request, despite the lack of support by both the town Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen. I was reminded that in politics, whether national, town or even church, that small minority voices, if they are vociferous and angry, seem to cast a shadow of fear making it is easy to assume that opposition is much greater than it truly is. I am relieved and glad that the town did the right thing. We now have some work ahead of us to do the right thing on our end, and raise the money to pay our half for the repairs.

Beyond our congregation and our town, it was an eventful week as U.S. Navy Seals attacked a compound in Pakistan, housing Osama bin Laden, and killed him in the ensuing fight. I sent out this message on our church email list in response to this news:

On September 11, 2001, I remember I was driving down Rte 2 when I heard about the first plane crash. By the time I got to work, it was apparent that something both horrifying and deliberate was happening: a terrorist attack on us, as Americans, in our own country. Having recently moved from the Washington, D.C. area, I knew people who had been killed there, and I knew people who were on the ground, responding to the crash at the Pentagon. I knew the exact path the plane there had taken and where it hit. What came to my mind was this passage about Elijah in First Kings:19: "And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice."

Today, as I heard President Obama announce the success of the operation against Osama bin Laden and his death, I found myself full of mixed emotions. I cannot be jubilant about any death or killing, even if it offers a sense of justice for people I know.  I do believe that evil is real, and also very human. Osama bin Laden masterminded acts of terror that killed many people, here and abroad. But he is not the first, nor the last.  I take my cue from President Obama, who announced this in a solemn fashion and with the comment that this is not the end of terrorism. I also know the dedication of those who serve our country, and I am grateful for their willingness to do what many of us could never have the courage to face. I was moved most deeply by the picture of the New York Firefighters, their heads bowed in prayer, at the site of 9/11. They know first hand the horrifying realities of September 11th, and saw things too terrible for words.

And so, the passage from 1 Kings returns to me again, as I strive to hear that still, small voice of God or the holy, whispering beneath the sounds of fire, wind, and earthquake. I pray for those who have lost loved ones, here and around the world, in acts of terror and the crossfire of war. I pray for healing, I pray for peace. For our country. For our world.


Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824