From the Minister > Minister's Musings > 2012 Archive
We live during a magical time. You and I have powers of which previous generations could only have dreamed. At any given moment of the day, we can peer into an illuminated glass screen and call up images of almost any item we can imagine. But that is not the magic. No, the real power is that almost anything we find on this glass screen we can then make appear at our doorsteps in a neatly taped cardboard box within 5-7 working days. If I want a Cuisinart, poof, I can have one. If I need a new set of golf clubs or a flat screen TV or wish to find a banjo made of bamboo, or a necklace just like the one Katie Perry is wearing in her latest video (you can tell what age my daughter is!), within a miraculously short period of time, I can make any or all of these items magically appear. Generations before us would have been absolutely astounded by such powers and abilities that we take for granted. It’s like magic.
This time of year such power and resources can easily go to our heads. The messages we hear from our larger society say “buy, buy, buy.” In order to make the holidays truly meaningful, we need to buy our loved one a fabulous ______, and our children the latest game for their ______ console. Even those of us who try to be attuned to the world’s spiritual dimensions can get easily get caught up in the frenzy of holiday gift giving. Santa Clause is coming to town, indeed!
That is why I find myself increasingly trying each year to give at least a few gifts that cannot be ordered, delivered and placed in pretty wrapping under a tree. It’s not that I am spending less but that I am spending - and giving - differently. Experiences and time make wonderful and memorable gifts. Making something for someone else does too. Random acts of kindness or charity are gifts people will remember forever. You’ve heard of flash mobs? I yearn to have flash carolers! The real magic of the season lies in the less than tangible tidings of great joy that all of us can foster in one another.
Christmas used to be a 12-day festival of fun, food and frolic and community. Gift giving played a small and modest role in a much larger celebration with friends and family during the darkest days of the year. If you are like me and looking for ideas for celebrating the holiday in less material, albeit more satisfying ways, I invite you to check out the “Simplify the Holidays Pledge” at the Center for a New American Dream: www.newdream.org. There are lots of good suggestions there, and almost all of them place less demands, not more, on the increasingly ecologically unsustainable global supply chain that is the power behind the “magic” I describe above.
In the meantime, our December calendar here at the First Church is decked out with programs and events to keep the month merry and bright. I hope you can join us as we experience the true magic of this season.
We have many blessings for which we can and should give thanks this season. Most of us just endured the second largest storm in recorded history, Hurricane Sandy, with only minor inconvenience. (As I write this my home is still without power.) We find that our economy, at least regionally, is picking up slightly with people finding jobs and homes a little more easily than last year. We have roofs over our heads and food on our tables and a wonderful community of which we are a part.
I have been reminded recently of this last blessing while listening to other religious voices in our society making their views known. A few months ago, when I was visiting my father in South Carolina, I had ample opportunity to listen to the preachers on the local radio. This is a phenomenon in that part of the country with no real comparison here in New England. I remember driving along and listening to one "minister" declare that "Obamacare is evil and had to be repealed." The words stuck me with amazement. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (as it is really called) could be described in many ways. It puts rules in place that limit how insurance companies can operate and requires every citizen to have health insurance. It was modeled on the system we have (enjoy?) here in Massachusetts, a system signed into law by Governor Romney himself. It actually does quite a bit of good when it comes to protecting people with pre-existing conditions and ensuring that women have access to affordable healthcare and that senior citizens do not pay massive fees for their prescription medication.
Now, some might disagree with such a piece of legislation, as have many insurance companies. Some might even call it misguided or wrong, but how can someone denounce this law as "evil"? We live in the only G-8 nation (i.e. wealthy, industrialized) that does not have some semblance of a single payer healthcare system. Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and others all have a healthcare system that cost less per person and has better public health outcomes than we have here in the United States. We also live in a nation that was founded on Biblical principles, among them "...just as you did it to one of the least of these... you did unto me.” (Matthew 23:40)
Religion is a force that can appeal to people's basest instincts and prejudices or can encourage and enlighten the best parts of who we are as human beings, as souls on a journey. We here in Salem know a little bit about this. As various religious voices around the country weigh in on the issues this election season, I, for one, find myself thankful indeed to be a part of a faith tradition and community that encourages not just faith but reason, not just religious devotion but compassion. That is one of the many things for which I will be giving thanks this year.
We have many fun and inspiring events happening at the First Church this month. I hope you will join us.
On Sunday, September 23, the First Church took the final step towards becoming an official Welcoming Congregation. This designation is provided to all UU churches that have met all the requirements of being a community that welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. Over the last few years, we have gained the wholehearted approval of the congregation, hosted a series of programs on LGTB issues, and conducted a rigorous evaluation of our publications and programs, all with the goal of attaining this designation. The last piece occurred then last Sunday when we held a special meeting of the congregation to approve the proposal to add a non-discrimination clause to our By-laws. The vote was unanimous and the celebration during Fellowship Hour was terrific
I want to thank those church members who served on the Welcoming Congregation Committee and led us through the process we followed over the course of what has been three years. This includes Jessica Kane, Mike Mascolo, Trish Newhall, Tommy Leon, Nicole McLaughlin and Claire Donaldson. Their contributions and leadership are very much appreciated.
On one hand such a vote does not change one bit who we are as a congregation and community of faith. I am proud that the First Church has been quietly welcoming gay and lesbian couples for a comparatively very long time. On the other hand, a vote like this is important because we are definitively declaring to all those who choose to pay attention who we are and what values we espouse.
In the end, I think there is enormous value and “symbolic” power in the “Old Salem Church” attaining this designation. The most famous chapter in our long history is a case study in religious fanaticism and intolerance. For some people here in Salem and even for some individuals far away from our geographic borders, there is an opportunity for healing that comes from knowing that the “Salem Church of Old” now officially welcomes everyone. What a marvelous legacy of which to be a part. In that respect, I was very proud indeed to be the Pastor of this congregation last Sunday. We are a people with full of charity and hospitality with much to share with one another and with the larger community.
There are times when we renovate a building and there are times when we build a church.
We here in Salem are doing both. Make no mistake – there is a distinction, one that was
drawn quite clearly by the reformation theologian John Calvin in the 16th century, who influenced
and inspired the English Puritans who founded this church. Calvin refused to call
any building a church, considering that a corruption of original Christian belief. Rather he
called the building where members gathered a “meetinghouse” and reserved the word
“church” exclusively for the members- the actual people - who were gathered within.
As some of you know who have been around for a while, periodically I like to hold up this
Calvinist piece of theology (and only this one!) since I think it is helpful to us here in Salem.
Like many churches in New England, there is a temptation to think about and refer to our
impressive historic structures as our church. There can be a tendency to focus our limited
resources and energies on the protection and maintenance of a building while neglecting less
tangible aspects of church life such as worship, meditation and prayer, dialogue, and helping
one another and those in the larger community.
Here at the First Church, I believe we have been able to do both with increasing joy, excitement
and capability. And the fruits of our hard work and passion are starting to not just
show, but shine. For those of you who have not been in church since last spring, boy are
you in for a big surprise! The Meetinghouse walls and ceiling have been painted and the
lighting is being upgraded. Add this to the historic renovation project of the last year and we
find we have transformed our building more in the last 14 months than in the last 75 years
combined (since 1927).
But the transformation is not only in paint colors and additions. It’s in the renewed energy
and zest that we the members are bringing to this place and to each other. We started with a
plan to renovate a building, but we have found that in the process we are building our community
and finding our collective voice, a progressive religious voice that is important and
needed at this time and in this place.
September 9 is Homecoming Sunday. I hope you can all join us as we return to the old First
Church for our first service of the new season. It will be great to be home, and it will be
wonderful to see many of you.
We have lots in store this month with new programs and the resumption of ongoing activities.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5: 43-44
Recently someone sent to me a link to a video of an evangelical preacher in North Carolina.
It seems that this pastor had garnered some attention over the last month for his statements
about dealing with gay and lesbian individuals in this country, suggesting that they be
rounded up and detained in a prison camp.
It is amazing to me that a “Minister of the Gospel” could and would make such a statement
from the pulpit. It is based on a theology of hate rather than one of love, as articulated in
the famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount above. There is occasionally in this life
a tendency to discredit or disregard one’s opponents or adversaries. The temptation to
scapegoat is part of human nature. In this case however, it is not just bad theology, it is just
simply ridiculous. Self-righteousness leads many of us to trouble and can create enemies
that are not even there.
We here at the First Church have welcomed people of all sexual orientations for over 100
years. For a long time, it was not even really discussed. It was just accepted. We were a
small “oasis” amidst a larger, sometimes hostile society. To this day, all are welcome,
though no one comes to church here wearing their orientation on their sleeve. All of us
who attend the First Church are encouraged to cultivate soul in our lives and be decent and
loving in our personal relationships.
I am very proud of the fact that we will be applying to be recognized officially as a Welcoming
Congregation by the UUA this summer. And I am proud that we are a part of a tradition
and way of being religious that encourages good and healthy relationships.
This coming weekend, I will be performing a wedding for a church member and his partner.
In some ways, it is simply another wedding here at the First Church with yet another couple
making a solemn and loving life-long commitment to one another. Seen from another perspective
however, the wedding I perform will be remarkable since our state is one of the few
where same-sex couples can marry. Someday I predict this will be a non-issue. Until then, I
am glad to be on the “loving” and “open” side of the issue. I am utterly at a loss as to how
this undermines the “institution of marriage.” Indeed, it’s just the opposite.
The First Church will be busy this month with picnics, flower communions, RE recognition
ceremonies and Jazz music. In addition, Salem will hold its first-ever Gay Pride March at
the end of this month on June 30. I hope you can join us for some or all of our many
This will be a season of milestones and accomplishments for the First Church. The most
obvious one will be our official return to our building for worship services on Sunday, May
6, the date of our Annual Meeting. While we were able to hold Easter service here, our
building was not quite ready for a full return. This has been ten months in the making with
the largest construction project to occur here at the First Church in 85 years, since 1927.
If you haven't had a chance to come and visit the building, I do hope you will drop by and
see how we have made the old First Church more sustainable, more accessible, and simply
more hospitable. There is not one part of our 19th century building that has been left untouched
by this project, especially with the new 8-zone heating system. We also have addressed
some major water and drainage issues that I hope will allow us to open up Willson
Hall for greater use.
So this is one milestone worthy of celebration and acknowledgement. There is another. At
the end of March, an event occurred that never had happened before in the 383 year history
of our community: a woman was elected as Chair of the Deacons. Mimi Ballou has
served as a Deacon of the church since 1987, but being elected as a Deacon and being selected
to serve as Chair of the Deacons are two separate things.
As some of you know, we have had Deacons since our founding. Other than the Minister
(or Pastor) they are the only other officers elected without a term. They are elected to
serve for life. It is a big deal and something of an honor to be nominated and elected. We
know since we possess Deacon's records that go back to the 1640's and detail the many
ways that the Deacons have been asked to serve the church (That is, after all, what the
word "Deacon" means in Greek: "servant.") Down through the centuries and decades, it is
this group that has come to the assistance of members and maintained the church as an
institution. Most recently, it was the Deacon's who first recommended that the Church sell
some of its collection of communion silver, which in turn allowed us to proceed with this
latest renovation project. Mimi was instrumental in proposing and advocating for the sale
of some of the oldest silver pieces in our collection. She provided a real vision for how we
could use part of our legacy as a congregation to transform our building so that our physical
space more adequately reflects the needs and values of our growing, 21st century congregation.
And now, she has been elected by the Deacons to serve as their Chair. While in many respects, the position is ceremonial, it is still a great honor and most definitely a milestoneworthy of mention and celebration.
As we return to our building and take up residence, we still have much to do over the
spring and summer. There are a variety of volunteer opportunities to paint, to dig, to garden
and simply to help one another. This month however, we also plan to take the time to
celebrate and give thanks. I do hope you can join us for our Annual Meeting or attend a
service this month. We are even planning an open house for the Salem community on Friday,
May 18 from 5:00- 8:00 pm. (See inside for details.) Please join us as we recognize this
year of transformation and milestones.
As our construction and building renovation project comes to a close, it is amazing for
me to see the how much hard work goes into updating and transforming a 19th century
building. This was the largest project since 1926 when the Church decided to excavate underneath
the Meetinghouse to create Willson Hall and build the two story addition on the
back of the main building (including the Cleveland Room where we have Fellowship Hour).
I have spent the last nine months working amidst and dealing with noise, dust, no heat, more
dust and occasional moments of inevitable frustration. I have also spent the last many
months working with some outstanding people who have made this all worthwhile.
The church as been well served by the Site Supervisor for Essex Construction, Chris Serino,
whose talented hands, capable management skills and good humor have kept the job moving
along. Lynne Spencer and Patrick Guthrie, our architects from Menders, Torrey and Spencer
have been very involved and helpful, especially during moments when we needed to change
or add to our plans. Their original design conception for the new addition has proven to be
exactly what worked on our site. There have been many other talented tradesmen who have
contributed their share, including: cement contractors, framers, asbestos and lead abatement
contractors, finish carpenters, plumbers, insulators, masons, landscapers, elevator installers,
pipe fitters, tile installers, painters and electricians. It is amazing how much coordination is
required to complete a project of this size and scope.
And there is one more group worthy of mention: you the members and friends of the First
Church who have stepped up, contributed and volunteered in ways I would never have
thought likely one year ago. Indeed the most rewarding aspect of this project for me over the
last 12 months have been all the folks who have showed up to help out at the Church. Since
we did not have enough funds to do all the work we needed to accomplish, it has been you
our members and friends that have made the difference. People have cleaned, prepped,
sanded, scraped, painted, rewired, shoveled, moved, excavated, sawed, hammered, cleaned,
dusted and planted in ways both big and small, all in the name of breathing new life into our
beautiful 19th century building that needed very much to be updated. And along the way, I
find we are breathing new life into our community as old connections are renewed and new
friendships are made. This has been one of the most rewarding parts of this journey for me.
Churches in the end are not buildings. They are communities. While buildings are important,
they are tools and instruments that both reflect and enhance our values and hopes as a
I hope all of you will be able to join us for Easter Sunday at the First Church. This will be
our first Sunday back in our own building since last June. More importantly this will be a
celebration of the many possibilities for rebirth we have in our lives and in our community.
For those of you who have known me for a while, kindly sit down before you read any
further. I did something last month that I have been meaning to do for ten years: I
cleaned my office. I am not talking dusting and vacuuming, but rather excavating, defenestrating
(great word, look it up!), and in some cases recycling. Admittedly, I had developed
and mastered an unusual filing and record keeping system over the last 12 years. I
called it “piling.” Perhaps, you have heard of it? I liked to group similar items together
and organize them by date – or year at least.
I know some of you at times were amazed at how quickly and efficiently I could work in
my office amidst such seeming disarray. (Each succeeding Chair of the Standing Committee
would stand in the Cleveland Room in wide-mouthed disbelief as I would quickly return
from my messy office with the document or item we were discussing.) My secret I
suppose is that I knew where 90% of the items were in my office and the remaining 10% I
regarded as an “adventure.” Mathematically speaking, chaos is merely an undiscovered
order and that is how I felt about some of the mystery sections that I would periodically
unearth. “Oh look, here’s that book I had forgotten about!” “Wow! There’s that great
article that I overlooked and misplaced.” For me, it was in a way like looking back on entries
in one’s journal from a while ago, surprised and fascinated by what one found interesting
and worth writing about at that time.
But this chapter has now come to a close. The construction project and the resulting dust
that has infiltrated every nook and cranny of the building finally forced me to clean and
organize. Not to mention, I wanted desperately to remove the pink wall-to-wall carpet
that had been installed in my office just before I arrived in 1998. (God bless Grace Morrison!).
So, on Ash Wednesday, I finished emptying out my lovely old workplace habitation;
my stacks and folders, my file cabinet and desk all left the room. I sorted, organized
and threw away a lot of stuff. It felt good and somehow fitting to do this on Ash Wednesday,
the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. What better day to deal with massive
amounts of dust than on the day when we are all reminded that we are just that: dust – at
least in the cosmic scheme of things. As I moved my desk out of the way, and ripped up
the old carpet, and then swept and wiped the floor, I felt somehow cleansed and at peace.
I am sure that over time my desk will fill back up with clutter. There is an ebb and flow to
how much structure any of us can and should impose on our lives and our souls. In the
meantime, it feels good to walk into a clean, stark office with hardwood floors and a boringly
placid desk. You could say that I have given up being messy for Lent. Good thing it
is only 6 weeks long! There is a well-known quote that sums up this conflicting connection
between organization, innovation and creativity. Unfortunately, I can’t find it right
now. My office is too clean!
We have a busy month of March ahead of us with many opportunities to volunteer and
get to know new people. I do hope you will join us.
The following remarks were delivered by the Rev. Jeff Barz-Snell at the Community Celebration held on Saturday, January 21 in Salem. Some 70 church members were in attendance and a good time was had by all.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but typically you learn more about yourself on a journey than by
staying at home. The metaphor of the journey, or in the parlance of religion, the pilgrimage, is perhaps
the most basic narrative structure that exists. Going on a journey leads to knowledge not just
about the world but oneself as well. This is certainly true with the First Church in the last eight
For the first time in a very long while, we find ourselves homeless (at least on Sunday mornings)
and relying on the gracious hospitality of our neighbors and friends. Our fellow travelers at the
First Universalist Society have been nothing but pleasant and accommodating. I have enjoyed
working with the Rev. Matty and members of their church and getting to know more folks in the
larger community. I think many of us have gained some insight into what we like about our tradition
and practices and perhaps a few things about parts of our practice that we might want to
change. There has been a delightful exchange of ideas and ways of being a UU church in the last
six months and I truly believe that both churches are the better for it.
There have been a variety of surprises along this journey that have required significant attention,
thought and effort. Lynn Taggart and the Project Management Team have spent the last five
months, week in and week out, wrestling with the never-ending array of cost changes and design
decisions with both grace and good humor. And along the way there have been many talented
members and friends who have stepped forward to pitch in at key moments, including those who
arranged for this party. This is a great community, one we can all feel proud of.
When we return to our home this spring, we should all realize that we, the current members of the
First Church, will have accomplished something that has only occurred a handful of times in the
last 383 years of our history - we will have refashioned a building that was handed down to us by
previous generations. We should feel proud of this accomplishment - and perhaps slightly relieved
it is over!
But more than that, we should feel proud and excited to be part of an open-minded and warmhearted
religious community that dared to find ways to let its cherished ideals ring out not just from
the pulpit, but from its newly configured walls and stairs and gardens and yes, even its heating system.
This is a church that has always attracted thoughtful folks committed to making an impact on their
world. The First Church has a longstanding practice of combining open theological inquiry and
social improvement. That is part of what our “walk together” is all about. Perhaps that is why we
have been a place over the last four centuries that welcomed colonists and revolutionaries, patriots
and privateers, social reformers and abolitionists, suffragists and scholars, and freethinkers and entrepreneurs.
We are a community that cherishes our traditions, but values progress and change for
The First Church finds itself renewed and reinvigorated with this project and each of you has a part
to play in this journey and in our ongoing story. I thank you for your good will and commitment to
support the work of this church in the days ahead.
The purpose of life is to grow a soul. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every year at this time, people flock to the gym in the wake of freshly made new year’s resolutions. I am told it’s called the January Effect in the business. Starting now gyms all over the country find themselves inundated with well intentioned, out of shape folks hoping to improve their health and fitness in the New Year. Usually by February the flocks of new gym attendees thins out as people lose interest or become disillusioned with how hard it can be to lose weight and get in shape. It takes effort, focus and time.
In a very real way, the same can be said of one’s spiritual life. There is an old saying that “no one grows closer to God by accident.” If one wishes to find a more balanced, spiritual outlook – or simply find a greater sense of peace - it does not happen without some effort. It does not happen without embracing some daily or regular practice. Sometimes this is prayer. Sometimes this is meditation or devotional reading or journaling or playing an instrument or singing in the car or any of a host of other mundane activities. But it always requires some action, some level of intention. A good spiritual practice is a like a good gym routine: for either to work they must become a regular, habitual part of one’s life.
With that in mind, we will be offering an adult religious education program this winter on developing and practicing a devotional life. Instead of focusing on beliefs (we actually hope there will be a diversity of views present), we intend to focus on the actions – or mechanics – of developing a spiritual life, much like a dancer or singer would learn and then practice a technique. It turns out that there are several tried and true activities that have helped people down through the ages as they sought to cultivate a greater awareness of the sacred and what’s most important in their lives. As we put these methods into practice on a regular basis, we find our lives slowly altered and transformed, much in the same manner as one might experience a newfound level of fitness after working out for period of time. This process is what Emerson is describing in his epigrammatic statement quoted above. Part of life really does involve "growing a soul."
This winter presents many opportunities and challenges for the First Church as we continue with managing our largest renovation project in over 80 years. There is – and will be – a LOT to do in the coming weeks and months. Even so, winter is a good time to do some “inside” work. Information about the Cultivating Soul program can be found herein (page 2).
In the meantime, I wish you all a happy and healthy 2012. Here’s to new beginnings, great communities, good friends and timeless values.