I will be on vacation from July 6-August 3, 2018.

Gloria Kozlosky, Membership and Hospitality Ministry Team Chair, is the Summer Caring Coordinator.  Please let her know if you think someone needs a call or visit. She will contact me if there is a pastoral emergency.

Liz Weber, UU seminarian, is happy to receive inquiries for non-member rites of passage (weddings, funeral and christenings) through August 13.  Inquiries about the church program can be made to the church administrative staff or to Mark LaPointe, Acting Interim Director of Community Life and Learning.

Some pertinent dates for Rev. Vicki:

Wedding Rehearsal and Ceremony, July 27-28 (Salem, MA).

Peace Conference at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center, July 21-22 (Interfaith Environemental Studies).

Funeral and Interment, August 3 and 4 (Milford, NH and Concord, MA).

OWL (Our Whole Lives Sexuality Curriculum) facilitator training, August 17-19.

I am out of the pulpit in August and spend much of that month in “study leave.” Technically, I am “free from parish duties” during that time but I meet with staff to plan worship, I work with a consultant (this year on our home base plans), I meet with team leaders and the board president, and I coordinate community work with other religious leaders. I also get to attend church as a worshiper and visit various houses of worship in our area.

Blessings of peace, rest and renewal to you all,

Rev. Vicki

Although we definitely slow down during the summer, we do not stop being a church: a community that cares, that responds, thatlearns, that prays.

If you’re looking for a community of action this summer, don’t let our sleepy appearance fool you. We do a lot less programming in July and August and our minister is on vacation for much of that time, but she and many others are using their time away from the regular round of meetings and programs to put faith into action.

Some of us will be volunteering for Kids In Community, a summer camp for kids in Lynn located at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the Common. Suzanne Forgione can help you connect with opportunities to volunteer by reading to the children the week of July 16-20. Call the church office for information on how to contact Suzanne.

Are you concerned and angry about the current administration’s policies toward immigrants in America? Learn and engage. Our county community organization, ECCO, also slows down in July but will be back in full swing with regular meetings in August. Please  follow ECCO on Facebook and get on their email list. You can join us in our work for immigrant advocacy, building relationships with the police in Lynn toward more community-accountable and anti-racist practices, legislative campaigns (our most recent were raising the minimum wage and putting into law earned sick time for all MA workers) and building strong relationships among our faith communities in Essex County.

I would also recommend following Cosecha Boston, another immigrant-advocacy and justice organization that can help you put your faith into action. There is so much you can do: learn, educate others, write letters, attend deportation hearings, be a witness, become part of a response team for immigrants who are arrested, detained and in fear of deportation. Many of them have lived in this country for well over a decade and their children, American citizens, need our support when they are abandoned. Cosecha Boston is focusing right now on working to interfere with ICE. It is not hard to take action from your computer.

Are you dedicated to the rights and safety of LGBTQ people? So are we, officially, as a Welcoming Congregation. We march as a congregation at North Shore Pride every June. We supported and worked toward Marriage Equality and we will do it again if those rights are ever threatened. We support transgender individuals in their right to be safe and protected under law. You might want to learn about the ballot initiative to repeal transgender public accomodations law.  Connect with Freedom For All Massachusetts become an active ally.

Our Social Justice Ministry Team, together with LUUP (Lynn UU Partnership), urges us all to read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton as an all-church read for the 2018-19 program year. It’s an easy read. Please let Rev. Vicki  know if you would like to be reimbursed for a copy. She is happy to do so. We also have some copies available at church.

Check out the Green Sanctuary Ministry Team blog and read about their recent programs and efforts to educate our local community on environmental issues.

 

 

 

[I offered these reflections during our Annual Meeting on June 10, 2018. – VW]

We shaped the arc of this year as a circle. “Draw the Circle Wider” was the theme of our ministry, the metaphor we used for our mission to think expansively and to prepare for a future where we would not fairly passively expect people to find us on Sunday mornings but would intentionally create a program and community life that reached out to them.

We drew the circle wider, doing and thinking differently.

But as I reflected over the year just concluded, it occurred to me that a circle is an interesting configuration for a progressive institution to embrace.  There is more to it than meets the eye!! As Americans, as Westerners, we stand in a tradition that has instructed us that time marches forward and so should we, questing always for the new, and ever moving FORWARD. “Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,” says the words of one of our most cherished hymns (those are the UU lyrics to the old chestnut “Onward Christian Soldiers”).

So it is therefore a little more countercultural than we may have realized to suggest that we draw a CIRCLE.  After all, “you’re going on circles” is not a compliment but an expression of concern. To draw a circle wider is an expansive notion but still… are you just going in circles?

The circle is a symbol of eternity. It is sacred. It is the shape of the sun, the planet, of wholeness. To embrace the circle is potentially, an interruption and rejection of the violence to self and to creation that can be the result of endless questing, endless forward motion —  the kind of quest that we know can lead to obsession with conquest. To abide within a circle of motion is to recognize that our job and our journeys are not linear propositions, where we move forward in exhausting and eternal pursuit of some unattainable ideal beyond the horizon, but are cyclical: we are born, we live, we die, we leave a legacy that helps to root in the next cycle of gentle growth. And so this cycle, this circle proceeds not in competition and quest but in blessing, as the indigenous American poet Joy Harjo writes,

Like eagle rounding out the morning

Inside us.

And as we have sung many times this year in our signature anthem:   “Draw the circle, draw the circle wide! Draw the circle, draw the circle wi-i-ide! No one stands alone, we stand side by side. Draw the circle. Draw the circle wide.”

Five years ago today I was getting ready to lead the second of two candidating week services at UUCGL. We had had a busy, exciting week of discernment together. I met a lot of church members and talked with you about your hopes and dreams. I explored the area and found the house I wanted to buy – my first home.  At the conclusion of that service, I drove away from the church and parked in the middle school parking lot to wait for the results of the congregational vote to call me as your Parish Minister. I was elated when I got the news that you had voted unanimously to entrust me with this honored position.

Five years have flown by! I have loved every year and every season with this church. UUCGL is in a beautiful setting and the community is warm, smart, creative and committed. Our staff and lay leaders work incredibly hard and care deeply about the living out of Unitarian Universalist values through our institution and our individual members.

I can’t write as much as I’d like right now because not only am I putting finishing touches on my sermon for this morning, there is a crew of roofers arriving to finish putting on an entirely new roof on that little house I first toured exactly five years ago today! It seems a good metaphor for the work we are doing as a faith community: making stronger and sturdy the structures that support life.

 Love, Rev. Vicki

 

Beach Service Crew!!

Summer is coming! We need a Beach Service crew for our annual service on Fisherman’s Beach on June 17 (Father’s Day!). Bruce Campbell, our stalwart set-up guy of so many years, is going to be celebrating his and Clare’s beautiful daughter’s wedding that weekend (*sniff*). Can someone/s with a truck or big car get the little tent and chairs to Fisherman’s Beach and set them up? Let me know.

Some of you will be participating in March For Our Lives protests today, March 24, 2018. I am still limping around on a “sore chop” after slipping on the ice last weekend but I was there in spirit.

What a sad, sad state our country is in. It feels like madness, like a possession by a violent god. Maybe it is. Jungian psychologist James Hillman, in his powerful book A Terrible Love Of War, suggests that to get at the love of war we have to get to its myths, “recognize that war is a mythical happening, that those in the midst of it are removed to a mythical state of being, that their return from it seems rationally inexplicable, and that the love of war tells of a love of the gods, the gods of war…” (p 9)

I think about this idea a lot lately, replacing “war” in Hillman’s statement with the word “guns.” Those who love guns and think of guns as protective, powerful and a necessary expression of freedom are in a rationally inexplicable condition — in thrall to the wrong gods.

 

The youth who survived the shooting in Parkland, Florida are like those who have returned from war and survived it. Or they are perhaps like mythological figures like the goddess Persephone or Orpheus who went to the place of death and came back to the land of the living with profound and frightening wisdom that must be heeded.

These issues are not merely constitutional and legal. They are spiritual, issues of the soul and psyche.

The dead cannot speak. In the season of resurrection, we must witness to life and advocate for those who are not here to tell us what tragic fools we have been, and continue to be, to worship the Gun God. We have made too many human sacrifices to them already.

 

Our videographer, Steve, has been out with an arm injury so we haven’t been posting as many sermons online as usual. This was one I gave on January 14, 2018.

 

Sources of Faith

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, if you were Jewish, you learned Jewish tradition and Jewish Scripture. If you were a practicing Catholic, you learned the catechism and took the sacraments. You read the Catholic Bible (which is a bit different even from the Protestant Bible). If you were a Buddhist, you practiced Buddhism according to whatever lineage your tradition was. If you were a Jain child in India you practiced the dharma and did not know anything at all about the Kabbala. And so on. You get the idea.

And if you were a Unitarian Universalist, in post WW II era, you were part of a humanistic religious tradition that proudly announced its appreciation for the wisdom of all world religions.

Nowadays, Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Buddhists practice an ancient Hindu form of embodied spiritual practice called yoga. The Episcopal priest is reading the Upanishads in order to better understand the texts that were foundational to the life and thought of Mohandas Ghandi, who was himself reading the 19thh century Unitarian Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau for inspiration. The Buddhist priest is part of a study group that is spending the year studying the works of Baptist minister and civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. She cross-references Bible references as she reads through King’s speeches and letters.

The young Muslim attends a Taizés service on Thursday nights because she finds the simple Christian chants to be centering and the music beautiful. An elderly Greek Orthodox woman joins her Muslim neighbors in their Ramadan fast because she is interested in understanding and experiencing the spiritual effects of fasting, a practice that is part of her own religious tradition. The Jainist child grows up, goes to university and dates a Brazilian Pentecostal woman.

The Unitarian Universalists are no longer unusual. What was once fairly unique kind of “selling point” for them has become mainstream. What they once fantasized, that they are a world religion in their own right by virtue of borrowing smatterings from other great faith traditions, turns out to be a far more problematic and complex assumption than anyone imagined: at the best, naïve, and at worst, colonialist, entitled and prone to cultural appropriation.

Who knew? Not UUs. But we evolve, and we learn, and we get humbler, and we hopefully get better.

Unitarian Universalism is confronting its terminal uniqueness and coming to terms with what that means. We know now that it is not at all unusual for people in a wide variety of socioeconomic and cultural contexts to find spiritual inspiration from a variety of sources. The internet, patterns of human migration, doctrinal evolution and globalization have made it commonplace for people to weave a personal tapestry of meaning from a wide variety of sources: world religions, spiritual philosophies, the New Age movement, metaphysics, the occult literature, the arts, science, futurism, technology, the recovery movement, and secular self-help gurus. While this evolution is occurring, awareness of cultural appropriation has caused Unitarian Universalists to consider that it not always responsible or ethical to freely take from and adapt rituals and theologies not original to Unitarianism and Universalism for our own use.

When someone suggested in our General Assembly a few years back that we identity the religion of Islam as one of our official sources of “wisdom and spirituality,” there was a fast rejection about which many of us were relieved. It isn’t a bad desire to want to show special respect for Islam at a time when Muslims were being targeted for harassment in the United States, but Unitarian Universalists generally know very little about the Muslim religion  — and furthermore, we have no permission or authority to declare ourselves to be formally affiliated with the Muslim religion.  What begins as a desire to be more inclusive can wind up looking a lot like colonization. Hopefully we are getting wiser.

Let’s take a look at what UUs identify as our sources of spiritual wisdom:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Where do you find yourself and your own theological grounding in this roster? You may find, as I do, that some years you’re more of a first source UU – other years or seasons, more of a sixth source UU. This is not a hierarchically ranked list, nor is it proscriptive or exhaustive.

The broad categories of our sources leave each of us individually with lots of room for us to explore, to study and to investigate whence we find most profound religious meaning. That is the joy and the huge responsibility of this non-doctrinal tradition: it asks each one who participates in it to do that investigation in an intentional way.

Have any of you seen the film “Lady Bird?” It just won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Comedy or Musical. and I loved it. It is a coming of age story that centers around a mother-daughter relationship. The lead character, Lady Bird, is a dramatic, intense high school senior who attends an all-girl Catholic high school in Sacramento. One of the things I loved best about the film is its affectionate treatment of Immaculate Heart, and of religion, which is depicted as a sometimes irritating obligation in the students’ lives (there’s a great scene of Lady Bird and her best friend lying on their stomachs on the floor and munching communion wafers) but often the thing in their lives that opens up their minds to important growth. Two of the most sympathetic and beautifully written characters of those of a priest who runs the drama club and Sister Sarah Joan, a wise and funny nun who is the school’s principal.

The writer and director of the movie is Greta Gerwig, who based much of the feel of the film on her own Catholic school years in Sacramento. When she was recently asked by interviewer Terry Gross if she was Catholic, Gerwig said that no, she was actually raised Unitarian Universalist, which gave her a great respect and appreciation for ALL religions. Gerwig then talked about how powerful she found the Catholic religion to be, with its rituals and mystical theological tradition.

And I laughed, because it seemed so classic a UU thing to say: “My religion taught me to appreciate other religions so much that I decided to leave UUism.”

I too was raised Unitarian Universalist and got the impression for a very long time that Unitarian Universalism was nothing but a place to contemplate interesting ideas posed by other world religions and spiritual philosophies. I definitely got the idea that UUs were not their own legitimate religion. I graduated from Sunday School never having any idea that Unitarianism and Universalism were two distinct religious traditions that have ancient roots but flourished during the Protestant Reformation  — or that each had a huge influence on the development of American culture from the founding of this nation through the mid-19tth century.

No one informed me that Unitarian Universalists are heirs of the far left wing of Protestantism, or that our form of governance (polity) and congregational structure was created at great sacrifice and bequeathed unto us courtesy of the Puritan movement in England. No one explained to me that our focus on love and acceptance did not emerge from the 1970’s “free to be you and me” movement but had theological origins way back in a third century argument against the development of a punishing God concept, and that when our forebears argued that point again in the Reformation era, they were called heretics and persecuted.

I wish I had been taught that our fervor for debate, interpretation, over-thinking, learning and reading were not contemporary developments but centuries old, influenced by the Enlightenment, classical Humanism and historical criticism of the Bible. Someone in one of my Sunday school classes might have explained that our church was built in the woods and we spent some of our Sunday school classes communing with Nature because of a group called the Transcendentalists, who flourished way back in the 1840’s and had a huge influence in the creation of American culture. It wasn’t because we were hippies.

I would have been fascinated! I would have so appreciated having some knowledge of this!

But when I was born into a mixed marriage in the mid 1960’s to parents who were married in the UU church, the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists were what we call “come-outers,” that is, refugees from some other religious tradition to which doctrine they could not subscribe or even tolerate.  A lot of people were rejecting religion altogether and were gathering in lay led fellowships in a sort of ethical culture society model to discuss important ideas and to study religions in some cases – educational forums were very popular – but often to assiduously avoid anything that smacked of, you know, religion. There was a serious skepticism about the necessity or advisability of having clergy around. Some of that suspicion was based in generational suspicion of authority figures.

The word “spirituality” was treated with some horror as a mushy, irrational concept not fit for sharp minds.  God was dead, or so said existentialist thinkers at around that time, and Unitarian Universalists weren’t so much interested in knowing their theological heritage as they were in social change and intellectual inquiry (as if though those things couldn’t be compatible.  Of course they can be — and marvelously so).

Unitarian Universalists were aiming to be modern and relevant and culturally cutting edge, and so they buried their Protestant origins in their libraries and didn’t mention or teach them much, and kids like me grew up not even knowing that our religion was a religion.  I learned that it was when I won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller with Professor David Robinson at Oregon State University in 1992. I went into the summer seminar a tired high school English teacher. I came out four weeks later with a burning passion for the ideas to which I had been introduced over long days of study and the long nights of reading, and a suggestion by Dr. Robinson that I apply to Harvard Divinity School – Emerson and Thoreau’s alma mater. David is not just the author of several books on Thoreau, he is also the author of the seminal Unitarian Universalist historical text, The Unitarian And The Universalists, and a graduate of HDS himself.

Funny how the universe works.

That is my story. But the broader story of our religious community is that Things Have Changed. The world has changed. The derision toward “spirituality” is resolving as staunch opponents of anything “mushy” realize that new generations are not only not afraid of it, but are perfectly capable of joining science and soulfulness, ritual and intellectual approach. They are rightfully dismissive of humanist fundamentalists.

I learned a lot about Unitarian Universalist theology and religion in seminary. But I have learned just as much in the parish ministry, in congregational life. After twenty-one years in the parish I believe that it is the practice of community that is the essential theological foundation of Unitarian Universalism. Whether or not you are a fan of the Puritans, we must give credit where it is due and appreciate their legacy of organizing and establishing congregations not around doctrinal conformity but around covenant; the relationship between God and humanity and humans with each other.

I will be preaching more about this because it is so important for us to understand, and to embrace and to own, and to explain: we are ultimately and essentially a religious tradition that believes in growing the soul in community.

Where each one of us personally finds profoundest meaning, whether in the Bible or walking meditation by the beach, or Jewish rituals learned from our youth, or dream work, or choral singing, or a combination of any or all of these and other sources, is interesting and important. However, when someone asks you, “What is a Unitarian Universalist” you can say, “We are a religious tradition with historical roots in the Protestant Reformation but that has evolved over the centuries to include a wide variety of sources of spiritual wisdom. We personally believe many different things but what we practice is spiritual and ethical growth in community. Our shared spiritual practice is community. That’s what we understand what it means to be the church: to be in relationship, and it’s demanding. It holds us accountable. It gets intense. It’s creative and dynamic and sometimes frustrating.”

And then you can quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to them and say,

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and
this will require a qualitative change in our souls
as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

To be a Unitarian Universalist, or in fellowship with UUs, is to carry within an inextinguishable flame of faith that humans are capable of moral evolution. To hold confidence in that possibility and to work toward it is our heritage and our mission. It is a journey, and let us sing praises to it.

I was having breakfast the other day while in Mexico and struck up a conversation with an American woman. She asked me if I had ever been to that region before, and we talked about solo travel in Mexico and Central America. She asked me if I thought that it would be safe for her to travel to another part of Mexico, Oaxaca. I paused for a few seconds. And then I said — and we locked eyes as she had the same thought at the same time –“But… we have mass shootings pretty much every day now in the U.S.” She was nodding with me before the words were even out of my mouth. We both realized it. What are we doing acting as though other countries are somehow more dangerous than our own?

The very next day, Nikolas Cruz went to school with an AR-15 that he acquired legally, and murdered Alyssa Alhadeff, a fourteen year old. He killed Scott Beigel, a teacher. He killed Martin Duque Anguiano, a 14 -year old. He killed high school senior Nicholas Dworet, and football coach Aaron Feis. He shot and killed 14 year old Jaime Guttenberg, and athletic director Chris Hixon. He killed Luke Hoyer and Cara Laughran, 15 and 14 years old. He killed Gina Montalto, 15, and Joaquin Oliver, 17 and Alana Petty, 14. He walked through the halls and killed 18-year old Meadow Pollack, and 17- year old Helena Ramsay. Alex Schachter’s life ended at the age of 14 that day, as did the lives of Carmen Schentrup, who was 15, and Peter Wang, the same age.

He terrorized an entire community and shattered countless lives.

I won’t read any articles about Nikolas Cruz. I know only that he was radicalized by our culture of violence and shooter celebrity and that he sent out enough warning signs and exhibited enough disturbing behavior to be expelled from school and reported to the FBI. Further analysis is a waste of time — a distraction from the real issue, which is the United States’ worship of the god of guns.

We must stop assigning the descriptor “mentally ill” to all the young, white men who obtain guns and go on killing sprees. It is too easy an explanation and implies that any of our mental health is a thing that exists outside of the context of culture. “Mental illness”  is far too broad a term to be productive as a talking point after these mass murders, and it stigmatizes everyone who suffers with any kind of mental illness.

I prefer to look at societal illness, cultural illness, sick leadership and spiritual sickness.

It is devastating to think that there are over 100,000 young people living in the United States today who have the shared experience of having survived a school shooting.

We have become a nation of whom prospective tourists now legitimately ask each other, “Have you been to the United States? I’m not sure I would go — it’s too dangerous.”

In many ancient Scripture stories, God punishes hard-hearted leaders or communities. I don’t believe in that kind of God, nor does our UU religious heritage teach that theology. We are punishing ourselves. And it is for us, the people, to turn the hearts of the corrupt rulers who take money from the National Rifle Association with one hand while wiping crocodile tears with the other and mouthing empty platitudes about “thoughts and prayers.”

We are so lucky — even when it feels like an overwhelming responsibility — to belong to a faith tradition that has always taught that service and justice-making is a form of prayer.  Our thoughts and prayers have action behind them.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are those who work for change, for they shall not fall into despair.

 

 

 

 

 

LOVE THE HELL OUT OF THE WORLD

Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

Delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn on January 7, 2018

Happy new year. I was in South Carolina visiting my mom and stepdad last weekend. It was normal winter weather down there, but Carolinians were not dealing with it very well, as many of them don’t own proper outwear. I saw people running around with sweaters draped over their heads. And of course we have been in a devastating deep freeze here. I hope you all made it through the storm with everything intact that should be intact. I seem to have a leak in my roof but– knock on wood– no pipes burst. I know some of you have lost water or power. I’m very grateful everyone is safe.

I’m sore from shoveling…

In 1976, on this very date, our beautiful Byzantine-Gothic Universalist church on Nahant Street that was built in 1873 burned to the ground. It was a six-alarm fire that called in 400 firefighters from Lynn and fourteen surrounding communities fire departments from as far away as Boston.  Wil Boynton was the church president at the time. After the fire had burned out, Wil picked up a foundation stone and carried it away. He held onto it for forty years and it is now on display in the hallway case. I have left some postcards out on the usher’s table if you’ve never seen an image of the church’s interior. It was at one time the largest Universalist congregation in the country but by 1976 the Unitarians and the Universalists had officially merged their denominations, and in Lynn, the Unitarian Church (another important historic congregation) had closed their building and merged with the Universalists, so the church that burned down was a UU church.

After the fire, the congregation worshiped at Temple Beth-El in Swampscott (because of a friendship between the rabbi and Rev. Robert Slater, which shows how important local clergy fellowship is) — and then in the Universalist church on Burrill Street, the so-called Chapel Of The Rugs where Rowe Austin grew up. The building was small so they had two worship services on Sundays and held congregational meetings in a variety of locations big enough to hold that large a crowd. Here are some of the organizations s that extended hospitality: the Seventh=Day Adventist Church, Nelson Darling’s Motor Inn on Preston Beach, the First Church UCC on the town green in Swampscott, the Masons

And then this lovely church was designed by Chinese architect Paul Sun and constructed in Swampscott. Ray King and Nelson Darling, both right here this morning, were members of the building committee.

So here we are, risen from the ashes of that fire so long ago. Huge cathedrals like the one that burned are extremely expensive to maintain, and the congregation was dwindling in size, so there is reason to say that the fire, traumatic as it was, and as much loss as it precipitated, was somewhat liberating. We reside now in a 30-year old building with a strong new roof. There is a new ministry team made up of members who are doing the heroic task of sorting through a huge amount of records and archives and all sorts of relics from the old building. Some of what they have found is in the display cases in the Fellowship Room. Take a look sometime when you go down the corridors. We hope the Church History Ministry Team might give a presentation at some point that acquaints us with more of our background

When I was visiting my mom, she and I had one of those Abbott and Costello conversations where you circle around each other in total confusion even though you’re using perfectly ordinary terms. She was telling me that there was “a new church” across the street from her neighborhood. There had been a church building there all along which I had seen many times so I said, “How is that church new?” and she said, “Well, it’s just opened, it’s a new church” and I said, “But it’s been there, it’s not new!” and it turned out that what she meant was that a new CONGREGATION had gathered in that same building, which caused me to say, rather haughtily, I’m afraid, “OH, well, a CHURCH isn’t the building, Mom. It’s not a new CHURCH it’s a new CONGREGATION there.”  I think she ignored me or changed the subject, and I don’t blame her. This can seem like a very picky distinction.

But I thought about the difference between a church and a congregation a lot in the days to come. I thought about this community around us – Swampscott, Marblehead, Lynn, Salem, Peabody –and I wondered: does the general public know or care about the difference between a church and a congregation? More to the point, do people understand that the churches they generally appreciate having around, (because they have the general idea that the church does good things and tries to help people, and stands for something they sense might be important to lend a solemnity and depth to such occasions as weddings and funerals and the birth of a child) do they realize that the churches don’t just do that eternally and mechanically but that they need a living congregation in them or else they are literally nothing BUT a building?

Do you see what I’m asking? Let me phrase it as a statement rather than a question, then:

I think that people generally have a vague sense that churches try to do good things. I think they are generally glad that churches are still around. I know from experience that a lot of people are especially grateful that churches and houses of worship are still around to lend a depth and meaning to rites of passage like birth, death and marriage. But I think that most people have not really thought about the fact that what they call “the church” would cease to be that if there was no congregation active within the building.

Because we have no state-sponsored religion, as was once the case in the early decades of the Unitarian religion, when a congregation can no longer support its own worship and program life, there will not be a lone minister rattling around paying visits and attending to the general spiritual welfare of anyone who stops by. So it is up to you and me, but mostly you, to convey the worth and value of the Church in society to everyone you know who has a vague, but largely disinterested opinion that the Church is a good thing for communities to have in them.

I have been thinking a lot about our Christmas Eve service just a couple of weeks ago, because this sanctuary was packed full of people I have never seen before.  I want to know who they are and why they attended church that night. It wasn’t all out of courteous tradition. Yes, some folks came as guests of family. Some folks just wanted to hear “Silent Night” and light a candle for peace. But there was an intensity here that night that I could feel.  I heard a need in the voices of people I greeted.

I feel very strongly that at this point in our congregation’s history we must go out and get those people and start a new congregation with them. I don’t mean a new church. I don’t mean that this congregation isn’t new enough or fresh or energetic enough, either.  I mean that I feel passionately that you and I – but mostly you – must go out and talk to those people and everyone else we know who might possibly be in need of religious community because people are terrified right now. And you and I are called to minister to that fear and anxiety and mounting dread by throwing our hearts and souls and arms around it and guiding those who feel oppressed and paralyzed or enraged by those feelings into the light of purpose, meaning and service.

I feel this so powerfully right now. I feel it every day, with every click of almost every article I read, in every conversation I have in the grocery store and on the street. It is an undercurrent, a powerful energy that we must harness with intention, love and courage.

When Mad King Donald tweeted a nuclear war taunt at Kim Jong-un the other day and then tweeted a day later that he is a “very stable genius,” I felt the shock and tremor of anxiety move through the air again. This is a time of intentional chaos presided over by an individual who loves chaos, who courts it and uses it to his personal advantage. We are nervous as cats because we have reason to be.

(I will add that the recent call for sanctuary for individuals suddenly threatened with deportation is another source of fear and rage in our communities. We know that this is not who we are, that a mother of six children who has lived in the United States since the mid-90’s and has no criminal record should be informed that she has days to remove herself from her home and family and return to Guatemala. We will be returning to the conversation about Sanctuary this year. We must.)

But the church stands against fear. It always has and it always must. Please remember with me that the ancient story of creation told in our foundational scriptures is one in which Order comes out of Chaos – order, and substance, and the beautiful heavens and earth and creatures and humans, and the day divided from the night, and that God called it good. Remember with me that we are heirs of an ancient faith tradition that is founded on the idea of that goodness and that order. That faithfulness undergirds and envelops the spirit of this congregation even today.  We rest upon it. When you consented to come through the door, even if this is your first time here, or when you consented to become a follower of this religious tradition as a member of this church, you joined yourself with that faith and reverence for this creation and its goodness.

Universalist Clarence Skinner put it theologically in these words, “The Universalist idea of God is that of a universal, impartial, immanent spirit whose nature is love.”

The fear and anxiety and shock we are living with right now is a kind of Hell.  It is a Hell already well-known by those who have always experienced themselves as expendable, unvalued, and endangered by systems of oppression, what the apostle Paul called “powers and principalities.” It is a humbling time, a sobering time and a time when those who are heartened or even minimally inspired by the church need to go out onto the “highways and byways” to gather in a new congregation from among those who may not even know how much they need to be among faithful people.

I did not say “Like-minded “people, for there is a danger in that presumption. Our minds are not alike, and neither need be our thoughts. What brings us together is not the same thoughts or similar minds but a shared yearning for hope, for meaning, and for daily encouragement to practice faithfulness even when we have little faith.  To practice faithfulness is to orient ourselves daily to the eternal and essential facts of love, of beauty, of human dignity and of possibility. The church helps us in this orientation. The church exists to put structures and rituals around love, hope and possibility and to connect all who participate in it with networks and partner organizations that promote dignity, justice, hope, decency and love.

If you have been listening carefully you may have flagged that I said twice that “mostly you, not I”  need to be the ones to go get those new people to become part of this congregation, this place of practice of faithfulness. Why? Because I have finally figured out after over twenty years in ministry that to the unchurched, I am a weird “religious person,” suspect by virtue of my title and job description to be collecting souls for ego or financial reasons. I know this because I have seen the look in people’s eyes when I urge them to join with any liberal religious community, as they smile and pull back a bit from the crazy God-lady. I won’t stop inviting and urging. But I know now that it is you, lay ministers and leaders and lovers, who have to go out and talk to everyone you know. Go collect them. They need you and they may badly need this church, imperfect as it is.  They may know it but be anxious or suspicious about religious community. So you must talk to them and explain to them what we are about. I urge you to do so not in negative terms (“We don’t believe that, we won’t make you do this,” etc.) but in the affirmative! “I experience this from my involvement in my church, I love __________ I am fed and nurtured by __________. Here are our 7 Principles. Please come with me.” Speak not in sarcastic terms, which is an easy and common technique when we fear being too earnest (I use it, too) but speak from the heart. Give people you heart. Bring them in.

So I charge you today, church: I want every one of you commit to talking about this religion with at least three people in 2018.  You do not need to be ordained to do this. You do not need theological expertise. You only need your own experience of having been heartened and oriented well and rightly by your involvement with this beloved living tradition.

Do you accept this charge?

Go love the hell out of the world, and bring those who want to do the same into this community as you do.  This is our charge in this new year.

 

Happy Solstice!!

Here’s what Jane Rose of Mental Floss has to say about this phenomenon:

“Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2017, this moment occurs at 4:28 p.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). For those of us on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:28 a.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means “sun,” and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning “to make stand.” This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the Sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the Sun’s trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.”

The spiritual impact of the winter Solstice is easy for me to feel: even though I won’t actually be aware of the growing light for a few more weeks, it is a wonderful psychological boost to know that every day, we are gaining back a short moment more of sunlight. And while it is important for humans and all living things to have a season of rest, incubation, hibernation and to embrace the dark within and without, such seasons can bring those with a melancholic bent, clinical depression, anxiety and loneliness into a particularly painful struggle.

So on the longest night– dance, play music, cuddle with your sweetie (four legged sweeties count too!), craft, bake, visit, lifta glass of something sweet and warm and know that the light is returning. Blessings to you!   – Rev. Vicki

The inbreaking of the holy into our lives is as startling and inconvenient as an angel busting into a young woman’s life and telling her she is to birth the Messiah. Artists have depicted this scene for centuries, imagining the girl and the angel in a variety of poses and attitudes. One of the most haunting, to me, is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1895 version.

Mary looks quite like many of us would under similar circumstances: shocked, even a little appalled. Shrinking back in fear. Who, me?

 

This is the face and demeanor of many of us when we experience an urgent sense of calling that feels too big and too demanding.

The Bible suggests, though, through its many stories of human encounter with the Divine, that to do so would be not human, not fully and believably so, anyway. Here in the flesh is all that we can know. We are not angels ourselves, and when they break into our lives with their demands, we do what we can to take up the calling.

But let’s let Mary have the last word, in case we thought maybe all she managed to do in that moment of holy encounter with Angel Gabriel was to ask some questions and exhibit anxiety. Here is what the gospel author Luke reports Mary to have said. I want us to hear this in light of this past week, in light of what our Congress in this supposedly Christian nation is doing to the poor, the powerless, the vulnerable. Here is what Miriam, a poor Jewish girl who lived under Roman occupation, responded to the angel who told her she had a part to play in world history and in the changing of the social order:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

Mary immediately gets that her soul and the world soul are in a beautiful concord. She understands the nature of ultimate reality to be concerned with mercy, to be more powerful than governments and the elites that support them. She understands the holy to be a force that dispenses justice and equity. She understands God to be a covenanting power that makes of separate individuals a people.

And so does our Unitarian Universalist tradition make these same theological claims.

Mary belongs to us as much as she belongs to any other faith tradition. Her courageous and empowered YES to the profound calling of the holy inbreaking into her life can be our YES, too, no matter how overwhelmed we feel, no matter how initially shocked and dismayed and fearful.  Let us know with Miriam’s confidence that we too are aligned with God’s purposes. We pray for this confidence in the name of Miriam and all her children, and their children’s children – faithful people who respond to God’s inconvenient and demanding call generation unto generation.