Reflections January 2017

2017 is here. I am greeting it with a mixture of trepidation and hope. It is not clear what the New Year will bring, only that it looks to be a turbulent time, both in the U.S. and abroad. At our December Solstice service, I shared a story told to me by my friend and colleague, the Reverend Shayna Appel from her time out in Standing Rock, North Dakota. She and my other colleague, the Reverend Megan Lynes, went as volunteer chaplains to the Oceti Sakowin, the camp where the Sioux Water Protectors and their native and non-native allies have gathered to protect the Missouri River from the proposed Dakota access oil pipeline. I repeat it here because I think it has a lot to teach us about how to engage in our world, especially in turbulent and conflicted times. So here is what Shayna told me and my colleagues:

Sometime the week of December 5th, a number of young adults representing a few different Native tribes went to the Sheriff’s Department in Bismarck. This was in response to a call put out by the Department that they needed all these supplies because of the long "stand-off" at Standing Rock. As you may or may not know, among Native Peoples there is a deep commitment to own ones own actions as well as the impact those actions have on others...even if you disagree with them. So, the young indigenous people, who started the action at Standing Rock, immediately realized that the need of the Law Enforcement officials was a result of something they had started. Therefore, they felt an obligation to answer the call. They filled up a truck, maybe a few of them, with supplies and headed to the Sheriff’s Department. When they got there they knocked on the door. A sheriff answered in a simple work uniform, told them to wait so he could get his sergeant, and then left. Soon, another officer arrived in full riot gear...flack jacket, helmet, visor, and AK-47 semi-automatic rifle. A young Native woman was standing by the door when he appeared, and did the only thing she could think of at the time...she hugged him!

I learn, or learn again, from this story about the power of love as a religious and spiritual practice. As Shayna noted in the telling of this story, just the previous weekend, these same law enforcement officials had tear gassed, pepper sprayed, and used a water cannon in sub-zero temperatures against the Water Protectors. Yet, the young woman who hugged the officer fully equipped in his riot gear, never lost sight of his humanity.

I believe that the core purpose, the mission if you will, of our UU faith is simple: to love the sacred (however we experience it) with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves, to never lose sight of each other’s humanity. I see three primary practices we need to engage in to do this. First, there will be times when we need to resist on behalf of our neighbors, on behalf of what we hold as sacred. There will be times when we need to take a stand for the ethics and religious commitments we have made in our UUA and First Parish covenants. Second, there will be times when we need to engage in repair and restoration. We need to look for opportunities and offer invitations to reach across differences to engage in dialogue and healing. I know from online and in person conversations, people feel very strongly about engaging in one practice or the other. Shayna’s story from Standing Rock reminds me that this is a both/and. We will have to discern as a community how to work in the tension of these two practices, and see how they can work together to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Which brings me to the third essential practice: rejoicing. Let us not forget that worship—lifting up and celebrating the sacred, that which is worthy of our deepest love, loyalty, and hope—is the foundational act of religious community. Coming together to honor and celebrate all that which gives our lives meaning and purpose; which inspires in us gratitude and an appreciation for beauty and joy; that offers us comfort and hope when we are in despair; that names the sacred bonds that tie each one to the other, to the creation, and to our source of life and the sacred—reminds us why we need to engage in resistance and restoration with our neighbors. I find so much to celebrate, to rejoice in, when I am with all of you. The care you offer one another, the generosity of time, talent, and treasure you give to First Parish, and the compassion and desire for justice you demonstrate for our larger community and the creation are wonders to behold. These give me hope.

Happy New Year. 
Rev. Ellen

Reflections November 2016

I have been waking up in the middle of the night, with my stomach in knots about the presidential election. I know that the deep divisions, the emboldening of hate speech, and the propagation of conspiracy theories will make it incredibly difficult for the next president to govern a population so distrustful of their leaders and their fellow citizens. The election will not resolve the conflict, only move it to the next stage. 

To help me get back to sleep, I remind myself of history and all that this country has already survived: a civil war, four presidential assassinations, two impeachments, one resignation, and one contested election brought before the Supreme Court. Somehow, we have managed a peaceful transfer of power (for the most part--the Civil War, not so much). I also remind myself of the trust I have in our Unitarian Universalist values and practices that I believe are stronger than my fears. Here is an excerpt from a sermon I gave a couple of weeks ago:

I listened to a webinar by the Quaker teacher Parker Palmer called, “Healing the Heart of Democracy.” Palmer notes that our forbearers created a system of government that was intended to hold tension, that difference and conflict are not the enemy of social order but the means for creating a better one. The work of democracy is standing in the tension between what is and the realities of that and what is possible, what we hope for most deeply. The true political divide he says is not between the left and the right, between liberals and conservatives but between cynicism and hope. Cynicism is a deep mistrust that drives us to choose to act only for ourselves because we believe there is no hope. Fear and hatred are the tools of cynicism, used to manipulate and divide by those simply seeking power for themselves. Hope is the capacity to look honestly at our brokenness, at what is wrong AND to see underneath a hidden wholeness, the possibility for growth and change. It is not optimism or what Palmer calls irrelevant idealism, where you only see the good. It is bearing witness to the shadow side as well as to the potential in our humanity and yet trusting that we can make progress. We can only make that progress, however, if we are in community, if we are engaged, if we are a  Palmer says more committed to right relationship than we are to being right. The practices of right relationship are simple: welcome the stranger, listen and evoke the stories underneath their values and beliefs, making it less possible to dismiss, despise or demonize them; and engage in acts of simple witness to each other’s humanity. Do not let ourselves be threatened by difference. Instead, create the conditions for us to be uncomfortable, make mistakes and yet remain in conversation. We cannot heal the breach if we refuse to engage it.

No matter the election’s outcome, we are going to keep practicing hope, we are going to keep practicing right relationship, we are going to keep practicing covenantal community.

In faith, 
Rev. Ellen 

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Chelmsford MA 01824

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