From the Minister > Minister's Musings > 2010 Archive December 2010
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. — Isaiah 40: 3–4
It used to be a twelve-day community festival, not a one-day consumer driven event. For the last fifteen centuries, Christmas was observed as a series of celebrations and events clustered around the darkest and coldest days of the year. Replacing the older Roman holidays, it was a time to celebrate the harvest and the (re)turning of the light. It was also a period during which revelry and social role-playing were permitted. The “last” of a community was treated as the “first” for a brief and shining moment. In many traditions, the social order was inverted with landowners serving the peasants for a socially sanctioned few hours. No doubt this was cathartic for a society characterized by extreme inequality with little or no social mobility. It also pointed towards to the vision of a God’s Kingdom in which justice prevailed with “every valley ...exalted.”
There is at the heart of the Christmas holiday a radical vision for our world. The ancient prophecies about the coming of an Anointed One (i.e. a “messiah”), a Servant of God, always invoke some deliverance of the poor and oppressed, some reconciliation of the social order in order to usher in peace. Quite often this aspect of Christmas gets lost amidst shopping sprees and frenetic preparations. It’s been covered up and co-opted.
We live during a time of growing gaps. It truly is a Dickensian Christmas in the US this year, with it being the best of times for some and the worst of times for many others. The growing divide between the haves and have-nots is a real problem, both morally and economically. The fact that unemployment is still hovers around 10% while Wall Street reports its highest earnings ever should be a concern for all of us.
It is a concern to me. I have never had so many requests for help from so many people as I have this year. Some folks are doing great. Many, however, are not – and not for a lack of trying. I hope all of us will bear this in mind as we go about our preparations this year. There always remains the potential for peace in this world and the doorway is charity and compassion. I do believe that Dickens wrote a short story about that once… I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.
Over the last year, I have developed a sort of “built-in” prompt for counting my blessings. Twelve months ago my youngest son had open-heart surgery for the second time in order to correct a congenital and fatal heart defect. He responded well to both surgeries and now has in front of him the prospects of a long life with no physical restrictions. That enough is cause for any parent to want to give thanks: for high-tech medicine, for a supportive community and family, for living here in the 21st century.
If history is the judge, I should have one less child than I do. Before 30 years ago, children born with “Transposition of the Great Vessels” and related heart defects would die shortly after childbirth. “Blue Babies,” as they were called, were a rare but known phenomenon, causing heartbreak and duress. It amazes me all the details that have to go just right as an embryo develops for a healthy baby to be born. A slight miscue at a sensitive point in gestation can lead to a dire set of circumstances.
In an odd sort of way, I have spent the last twelve months with this awareness in the back of my mind. Each time my son smiles, each time he takes off running down the sidewalk, each time he rides his bike, and yes, each time he says something obnoxious or misbehaves like a normal five-year-old boy, I find feelings of profound gratitude welling up from deep inside. I feel as though I have been given a gift never available to previous generations. I am keenly aware that things could be otherwise.
All of us have experiences that I think similarly prompt us to count our blessings. They are those events, people or situations that remind us of the many gifts we have in this life, the ones that we didn’t earn and quite often take for granted. Those moments and experiences can be doorways to finding the world – and ourselves – transformed. The Rev Forrester Church, the well-known UU minister from All Souls Church in New York City who passed away last year, was fond of saying “Life is a gift, not a given.” Much duress and frustration in this life can be avoided—and much happiness is possible—by heeding this one insight.
Last January, a major earthquake struck Haiti, a country of nine million people. An estimated 250,000 thousand people were killed and approximately one million were left homeless. In the days and weeks that followed, our government and our citizens stepped up and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Haiti Relief. It was the right thing to do when it came to helping some of our poorest neighbors in the Western Hemisphere.
Contrast this response to what has occurred in Pakistan in the last eight weeks. In late July, this country of 170 million people endured the worst flooding from monsoons in the country’s history, perhaps in any country’s history. Twenty percent of the country was flooded and left submerged. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives. At least nine million people were affected and at least six million of the poorest people in this country have been left homeless, with not so much as a tent for shelter in many cases. U.N. Secretary Ban-Ki-Moon said this was the worst disaster he had ever seen, and he had been in Haiti at the beginning of the year. In large swaths of the country, roads are gone, bridges are washed out, and all the requirements for civilization (like power plants, hospitals, schools, factories, etc.) have been inundated or damaged. This is by far one of the largest weather-related humanitarian disasters in modern history, one clearly made worse by a changing climate.
And here’s the truly awful part about this: the story here in the U.S. has barely been covered. Instead, we have been treated to countless news cycles about Islamic Centers in New York, election year politics and a certain renegade (and ill-informed) pastor in Florida. A recent issue of Time magazine illustrates this beautifully – or sadly as it were. Around most of the world, the September 20 issue of Time featured a cover story about the floods in Pakistan with an article entitled “Through Hell and High Water.” However, here in the U.S., Time featured a cover story showing a school bus entitled “What Makes Schools Great.” The story about Pakistan barely made it into the issue, a story that has enormous geo-political and security implications for the United States.
Our country has a problem that is being fed by our commercial media about the growing impact of climate-related disasters. For-profit corporations are doing the American people a huge disservice by not focusing on the growing threat of climate change. That is why movements and projects like 350.org are so important. On October 10, 350.org will be hosting a worldwide community workday, inviting people to plant trees and weatherize buildings and talk to one another about the dire set of circumstances we potentially face if our country does not reduce our CO2 emissions. There are events happening here in Salem and around Boston and I hope all of us can find a way to participate. Some would say climate change is a non-issue. I disagree. Given the overwhelming scientific consensus, I fail to see how one can “love your neighbor as yourself” here in the 21st century without at least working to change our country’s polluting ways.
We are here to abet creation and
to witness to it,
To notice each other’s beautiful
face and complex nature
So that creation need not play to
an empty house.
– Annie Dillard
I don’t know about you, but I find I have some of my most awe-inspiring, “religious” moments out in the open during the summer. When the weather is warm and I am walking or running or rowing or biking under a magnificent blue sky, I find myself predisposed towards marveling at the beauty I encounter amidst the natural world, the Creation. While some places around the world have had a most difficult summer season, here in New England (and elsewhere in North America), it has been fantastic; with ample outdoor opportunities for fun, frivolity and wonder.
I know some of you have been on trips and journeys of various kinds this summer. Some were hiking mountain ranges, while others were sailing off to adventure and still others were flying to somewhere they have never been. The change of scenery and pace opens one up to the wonder and majesty of the world around them. And even if you were like me and kept your outings closer to home, there was still plenty to behold and take in. Venturing out to Winter Island or Devereux Beach or the Great March in Newbury or the Cape, all provide ample opportunities for wonder and re-creation. There is the simple primordial experience of rounding a bend of a trail or a road and being struck by the beauty and wonder the scenery before you. For some this experience is a moment of awe, for others a spontaneous instance of reverence.
Part of what we do as we resume our new church year is invite ourselves to bring a little of this reverence and wonder back into our community. There are a variety of ways for the soul to re-energize and rejuvenate. The beauty of the natural world and a community of faith both have a role to play in this process. As Annie Dillard observes, we human beings are “here to abet creation and to witness to it.” I read that line as inviting us not just to marvel at the gifts of the natural world, but then find ways to share – and cultivate – that beauty with those around us.
I have a “friend” who comes by the church every so often to visit me. Usually when he drops by he is looking for a “few bucks” to help him buy some groceries. Every once in a while, he shows up looking for a more sizable donation when he going through some difficulty. Over the years, I have learned not to give him any more than a few dollars and some food. I then ask him how he’s doing and he tells me a little about what is happening in his life. Sometimes he is working. Sometimes he is not. His life is not altogether stable and he is certainly not entirely in control. This man is not a bad person. He is just an addict. He has a chemical addiction that leads him to make harmful decisions for himself, his friends and family. People make poor long-term decisions when they are in the grip of an addiction.
I have been thinking about my friend periodically during the last month as I read about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of this writing, somewhere between 22 to 45 million gallons of oil have “erupted” from an out of control oil well almost a mile underwater in the Gulf. The spill is already at least twice the size of the infamous Exxon Valdez spill. The CEO of British Petroleum is himself describing this as an “environmental catastrophe.” Clearly this spill will have devastating environmental and economic impacts for years to come, to say nothing of destroying one of the most productive fisheries in the world.
Amidst all of the reports and updates, I have heard very little commentary about the larger context of this toxic oil spill. While some voices have called for BP to be held liable and responsible (they are only liable for $75 million in damages under Federal Law), I have not heard very many pundits ask the bigger question of why we are even drilling here in the first place. Certainly the answer to this question is complicated, but I would submit to you that it is not as complex as some would like you believe, especially if you don’t own shares in a large oil company or accept their political donations.
Our country has an addiction. We have become dependent on a substance that ultimately is not good for us or the planet, at least in the amount that we consume. As a result of this addiction, we are permitting groups and companies to take big risks (and make possibly huge returns) to help us feed our insatiable habit. And when someone suggests that we need to stop or reduce our consumption, or when a voice declares that we could make major reductions through fuel efficiency improvements, public transportation and technology, they are criticized and dismissed, if not discredited. That is too bad, because as far as I can tell the fate of our country here in this 21st century will be determined at least in part by how we deal with this addiction of ours. Can we find the moral and patriotic resolve to make some changes as a society? Can we give up our dependence on vehicles that get only 18–20 miles per gallon? Can we find a way live more sustainably and reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 80% in 40 years time? Some of us think we can.
But it involves a sort of 12-step process for the country when it comes to energy. It begins with admitting there is a problem over which we seem to want to have little control. It begins by acknowledging the collective
impact of our many individual choices and realizing that the cheapest and best oil we consume is what we leave undisturbed under the ground. In that sense, what’s happening in the Gulf is not just an environmental problem, but a moral one as well. I hope and pray that we can find the resolve to make some changes. It’s not just smart, but it’s the right thing to do.
We look so typical from the outside that it is sometimes hard for visitors and even regular attendees to appreciate how different we are on the inside. Quite regularly, I have tourists from all over the world knocking on the door wanting to see our building. And quite often they assume at first that we are Catholic or perhaps Anglican. Once inside, the observant ones deduce fairly quickly that we are not, but then remain puzzled by the distinctions, other than the fact that the "priest" is married. When I explain to them that we are a Unitarian Universalist Church founded by English Puritans, typically their eyes glaze over. To those visiting the distinctions are not obvious. However, upon closer inspection, our way of being in religious community becomes much more distinct.
While we may have the "trappings" of a traditional church, and while we may sing hymns and read from the Bible, we are grounded in two distinguishing ideas and beliefs. The first is that we have no set list of beliefs to which all of us must subscribe. You will never hear a recitation of the Nicene or Apostles Creed within these walls. Rather you will recite a covenant, a promise "to walk together." We are a community that believes that religious belief must be tested by reason and experience. The ultimate litmus for any personal creed is its influence on our lives. As a result, we actually have a variety of viewpoints and religious views swirling and circulating under this roof, even as we encourage one another to be decent people and find ways to serve the community.
This leads me to second not-so-apparent, but essential aspect of our church: congregational polity. We were founded 381 years ago by English Puritans fleeing religious persecution and corruption in their native land. Since our inception, we have been governed locally and democratically by members of our church. We have no bishops, presbyteries, councils or Popes. Instead we have each other. All power and authority is vested here in our local church. As I watch the ongoing abuse scandals play out in the Catholic Church, I feel somehow very fortunate to be in a community and tradition that is governed locally and democratically.
We have a big month in store at the old First Church including a Jazz Sunday on May 16 celebrating the 200th birthday of Margaret Fuller and our Annual Flower Communion on May 23 followed by Sundae Sunday.
Before then, we have our Annual Meeting on May 2. We have officers to elect and a few important items to discuss. I hope you can come and be a part of our community and deliberations. Our front façade can be deceiving: our free-church tradition truly is different and is worthy of our celebration and participation.
"Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, how-ever virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. "
~ Reinhold Niebuhr
I have been thinking a lot about the upcoming Passover and Easter season and wondering how best to explain the significance of these ancient festivals to others in a way that is meaningful. I find that a lot of people my age and younger in our society don't always appreciate the depth of feeling and insight offered by these holidays. They do not perceive readily how and why these traditional observances impact and impinge upon their real life and how they choose to live it. I don't bemoan this state of affairs or judge people as a result. My job as a preacher begins with acknowledging where people are in their lives.
So, perhaps the best way that I can describe the real significance behind Easter is simply to state that your life matters. My life matters. How we choose to live our lives, matters. Easter and Passover are both holidays that remember a moment of suffering in the past and envision a life transformed and a world that is somehow delivered from that injustice. There is a radical dose of hope in each; that the world on the inside and the outside can be at peace, that our lives can somehow transcend our deaths.
I see a lot of people who are cynical about their lives and our society these days, who feel no connection to something greater than themselves and who are hurting and feeling as though few people, if any, care. Hope in this life is important. The message of Easter is that there really are principles and values worth pursuing in this life (even to the point of death)) and that when we live according to them, we can find some solace, perhaps even transcendence. We might not avoid the inevitable difficult moments, but we will feel assured that such moments are not the final response in this life. Easter assures us of the importance of working towards, even striving for, some decency in this life. We can each be a part of larger chorus, a greater community that makes a difference. As Reinhold Nieburh so eloquently described above: all of us are limited in scope and abilities. Anything worth doing requires time and faith. Even so, the hope that underlies Easter is bigger than those limitations. Our lives are a beautiful, wonderful, fragile and temporary reality. Easter encourages us to see how our own individual lives can contribute to some larger, more durable hope.
I wish you all a happy spring and hope that your Easter and Passover seasons rejuvenate and energize your soul.
Every 80-90 years or so, the First Church decides to make some major changes to its space. I am not sure why there is this cycle but it seems rather consistent. Our current building was built in 1836 by members of the North Church. It replaced a wooden structure that was situated along North Street where the parking lot for Wesley United Methodist Church is now located. Then in 1927, we decided to add a social hall and a rear addition. The First Church and North Church reunited that year (after having split in 1772). The combined congregation decided to sell the First Church building (i.e. The Daniel Low Building - or where Rockafellas is located) and make their new reunited home here on Essex Street, at the North Church. They then proceeded to dig out a basement social hall, install steel I-beams below the Meetinghouse to support it, and add the two-story addition that we know and love on the back (i.e. The Cleveland and Barnard Rooms and the upstairs classrooms). The work was completed in 1928.
And now, here we are 80 years later contemplating making another major change to our old building, following the Master Plan that we voted upon and approved at last year's Annual Meeting. The Master Planning & Implementation Committee has been very busy (as in meeting weekly) this winter, working with Menders, Torrey and Spencer (our architects) to develop and refine a set of plans for the first phase of our renovation. It is hard work and it is very exciting.
Religious buildings reflect and embody the values and ideals of the communities that occupy them. In some ways, the English Gothic design of our 1836 Meetinghouse directly reflects the refined and somewhat rebellious spirit of the Unitarians who built it. They wanted to make a statement about our community. They wanted to show how far they had moved from their whitewashed, Puritan past. And it is safe to say that they succeeded!
I think the current generation of church members aspires to see our values made manifest in our building in much the same way. We wish to make our building more accessible so that all people can gain access to our home and no one need be turned away. We are accomplishing that. We want to reduce our carbon footprint and make our facility more sustainable in order to be good stewards of our planet. We are most definitely moving in that direction as well.
On Sunday, March 14, we will host a special presentation about the church's renovation plans. This will be the first of several opportunities to learn about what we have planned and why it is important. I hope you each can be a part of this vital discussion. After all, the opportunity to witness such a proceeding is sort of like Haley's Comet: you can only see it once every 80 or so years.
The drain under my kitchen sink started leaking last week with water dripping onto the floor. Praise God! The seal in one of the double-pane windows in my living room broke and water condensed inside and froze. Right now, it doesn't quite shut right. Amen! It took me 25 minutes one day last week just to drive from my house in South Salem to Route 128, all because of traffic. Praise Jesus! It turns out that my son will need additional braces. Alleluia!
I don't know about you, but I have had found myself in the last few weeks looking upon the mundane challenges of my everyday existence with a newfound appreciation. I almost feel like Jimmy Stewart near the end of It's a Wonderful Life, when he kisses wooden knob at the bottom of the stairs, the one that always comes off in his hand. Every morning for the last three weeks, I get up, open up the newspaper and read the latest news from Haiti. This country of 9 million people is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and suffered a catastrophic earthquake on January 12. Each morning, I sit there at my dining room table (which sometimes wobbles. Amen!) and I sip my morning coffee, glued to the paper. I find myself amazed and shocked by the horrific ordeal that the people of Port-au-Prince have endured. More than 200,000 people have died and millions more are finding themselves suffering from a lack of shelter, sanitation and drinking water. It turns out the real challenge in responding to this crisis has been the lack of basic infrastructure. Whole areas of the capitol have been reduced to ruble. Running water and indoor plumbing that works is a rarity. There is only one viable airport to fly in much need supplies.
I have noticed that reading about Haiti and finding ways to support the relief effort (see inside for details), has subtly changed my perspective about my own personal challenges. It is so easy sometimes to get caught up in the tiny bits of frustration of our own lives that we forget how remarkable and fortunate our existence truly is. We who are blessed with running water and windows that work (for the most part) are fortunate indeed. Anyone who believes otherwise should know that there are 9 million people (and that's just in one country) who would gladly change places with any of us.
Shakespeare once wrote that comparison is the thief of joy. True enough, but it is also, many times, the revealer of overlooked blessings. Beholding even from a distance what the world and our lives could be like can alter our perspective- sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad. I think that is one of the proper roles that religious faith serves- to foster an awareness of our blessings even amidst the vagaries of our ho-hum existence - and then encourage us to make a difference in this world as a result. The life of the spirit always calls us to discern the miraculous amidst the overlooked and everyday.
We are blessed with a fun and engaging assortment of events here at the First Church this month. I hope you can join us.
People go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.
So here’s an interesting riddle for you: what do the words above and the Puritans who founded this church have in common? The answer is Augustine of Hippo, the great Bishop from North Africa who is one of the major intellectual influences on how the West developed. Augustine started off life as a pagan philosopher and “playboy” and became one of the most influential theologians and writers in history. Later thinkers influenced by him are almost too many to count: everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther to John Calvin, to say nothing of more modern thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and Frederick Nietzsche.
His major work was The City of God, which he wrote as the Roman Empire was crumbling. In this landmark work, he used the metaphor of the journey and argued that each of us in this life must make a spiritual pilgrimage from the City of Man to the City of God, from selfishness to compassion, from evil to good. He also penned one of the first autobiographies as a literary form while a monk in Hippo, whose sentiments and writing leaps off the page almost as if it were written last year. The words above are one of many quotable excerpts from his autobiography, Confessions. (Another one is his famous and oh so human prayer contained therein: “O God, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”)
And what does all of this have to do with our Puritan founders? We know that the original settlers carried very few books over by boat in 1629. After all, there was not a lot of room for such extravagances as a library aboard a small, wooden ship. However, one of the volumes that did make the voyage was a 1617 edition of The City of God, along with a copy of John Calvin’s Institutes of Religion, himself greatly influenced by Augustine. The notion of the soul’s journey has been an abiding image down through the ages and centuries.
With that in mind, we will be celebrating journeys old and journeys new this winter. On Sunday, January 17, we will host an Archives Open House for members and friends who would like a tour of our collection. Then, a few weeks later, I will begin a brief five session program on Spirituality and Autobiography, in which participants will be invited to write a small piece about our own journey and read short excerpts from other writers about their spiritual path – including Augustine’s. To sign up, speak with me or call the office.
I wish you much peace and happiness at the turning.