Minister's Musings

NOVEMBER 2017

October 31 is not just Halloween but also a worldwide ecumenical observance.  Reformation Day marks the anniversary of an event that has had far-reaching effects on the history of the West and the world as we know it.  500 years ago this week a young Saxon monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed his “The Ninety-Five Theses” to the main door of All Saints Church (Die Stadkirche) in Wittenberg, Germany. And so began one of the more significant events of the last 1,000 years: the Protestant Reformation.

The timing of Luther’s act of defiance was no accident.  This first act of protest occurred on the day before All Saint’s Day, what we here in North America call All Hallows Eve or Halloween.  All Saint’s Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2) have been special holidays set aside for more than 1,200 years for remembrance and veneration of dearly departed loved ones.  Considerable legend and theology built up around these ancient observances, including beliefs and practices that involved supposedly helping the deceased get into heaven.  Over the centuries, the Church introduced the notion of purgatory, an otherworldly “weigh station” where souls who lived less than exemplary lives would go while their ultimate fate was being decided.  The Church also began to give out and later sell “indulgences,” by which Church authorities could award or “credit” departed souls with “merit,” thus increasing the likelihood that they would gain entrance into a heavenly afterlife.  This bizarre cosmology of sorts became a major source of revenue for the medieval church in Europe, and it is these sorts of innovations, or corruptions, in church doctrine that prompted an idealistic young monk to go public with his simmering frustrations.  Clearly Martin Luther was not alone in his protests: within a few years his declaration had been circulated throughout Europe (thanks to the invention of the printing press several decades before).  Thus the new protest movement went “viral,” one that focused on the nature of Jesus and salvation, and asked enduring questions about ecclesiastical authority and morality that have reverberated down through the centuries.

500 years later the specific protests of the early Protestants have prevailed more or less, but there remain real challenges and questions about the nature of the Church and its doctrines.  To this day, some of us question the Church’s positions on homosexuality and the treatment of women and children.  Even so, I find these days that the biggest divisions are not always between Catholic and Protestant, or Christian and Jew, etc., but rather between those who yearn to transform the world and those who wish to keep it as it is: the visionaries versus the status quo.  The human tendency to draw lines of distinction among ourselves is still all too prevalent. 

There is at the heart of Christianity, Judaism and from what I can tell Islam, this ancient assumption that the world can be better than it is and we have a role to play in that transformation. This is especially true in our own diverse movement, the “Protestantism of Protestantism.”  While many of us have moved away from traditional church doctrine to varying degrees, we all must still wrestle with the nature of belief and authority.  These are some of the questions that our own movement has held up over the decades, as part of the reform wing within Protestantism. After all, some of us believe that the real goal of religion is not to get humanity into heaven, but rather heaven into humanity, and such transformation is not easy.  Indeed, to return to Luther, it may only be truly effected by a source of love and grace that is not our own.  We are all, after all, on a journey.

November brings a virtual cornucopia of opportunities for celebration, community, service and giving thanks.  Happy Thanksgiving.

 

OCTOBER 2017

On Friday, October 6, the First Church welcomes former CIA Officer John Kiriakou as part of our ongoing Resistance Speaker Series. Kiriakou was one of several government officials indicted by the Obama Administration in 2007 under the Espionage Act, in his case for "blowing the whistle" on the CIA's torture and interrogation program. Several years before the Bush Administration granted the CIA covert authorization to pursue a program of torturing captured soldiers and terrorists as part of our country's "War on Terror." This decision was not disclosed to the American people and was in violation of longstanding international treaties including the Geneva Conventions.

By going public with this information, Kiriakou joined a growing chorus of Americans calling into question the policies of the American government and asking whether or not secret torture programs and the use off-shore prisons truly advance our country's long term interests and protect the American people. Lest we forget, our country has now been at war with both Afghanistan and Iraq for a longer period of time than at any point in our history.

There have always been moral questions concerning the means used by our country's military and espionage agencies. This is inevitable in a democracy in which our public officials and national policy ultimately answer to the people. There can be a temptation by some officials in government to assume that the "end justifies the means," and that covert operations can and should be evaluated by a different set of standards. The problem with this way of thinking is that America seems to be creating more enemies, not less.

The world is getting smaller and more interconnected. The rate at which we interact with people and communities all over the planet has sped up. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman likes to describe this new reality as the world becoming more "flat." Double standards are becoming harder to ignore and more difficult to accept. Increasingly it is hard for our companies, communities and governments to have differing policies. It leads to inequities, resentments and unavoidable moral challenges.

The well-known minister and writer William Sloan Coffin once observed that "the world is too small for anything but truth, and too difficult for anything but love." As world grows smaller and “flatter,” those words ring truer today than when they were first penned.

We have an inspiring and enjoyable month of October in store. Our new Music Director, Michael Kraft begins his work with us October 1.  Then we have the CIA program on October 6, a story slam on October 13, and a unique “Scarlet Letter-esque” event on October 14. Plus we are hosting four homeless families for a week as a host congregation for Family Promise of the North Shore. There are so many opportunities to make a difference and enjoy ourselves along the way.  See you in church!

 

SEPTEMBER 2017

It’s been a lovely summer here in New England amidst a tumultuous and anxious world.  The weather has been great locally, but the climate and national mood elsewhere has been scary and concerning. 

 On Saturday, August 19, a group of us from First Church made the short trek down to Boston Common for the “counter protest” that occurred that day.  This was in response to the deeply concerning events that took place the weekend before in Charlottesville, VA, with hundreds of “alt-right” and neo-Nazi activists gathering for a series of protests in that city.  The events in Charlottesville turned dangerous and violent.  Tragically, a young woman who took part in the counter demonstration against the alt-right groups was killed and close to 20 others were injured by a white supremacist, who literally drove his car into a group of peaceful protesters.  By all accounts, she was a decent person.

 This then was the backdrop for the August 19 events on Boston Common, with a “free speech rally” hosted by regional alt-right groups scheduled for 12 noon.  While some of us were concerned about the potential for violence, we decided to attend anyway.  As it turned out, some 35,000 peaceful and almost entirely pleasant protestors showed up from all over eastern New England.  We literally surrounded the 40 to 50 alt-right rally participants, who forlornly stood and sat around the Bandstand on Boston Common until being escorted away by the Boston Police.  I was very proud to be a part of a community and live in a region that stands up for free speech and repudiates false ideologies that foster hate and separation.  Standing on Boston Common, I felt like I was among a sea of diverse, open-minded and decent Americans.  It made me feel less anxious and more patriotic.

 We live during a time when the values of our community matter.  Our message of compassion, justice and inclusion are what people need.  What we stand for as a free-thinking, progressive minded UU congregation is important.  As a historic congregation deeply informed by the ideals of freedom, reason and tolerance, the values on which the American Republic was founded, it is important that we find ways to be a beacon and raise our voice.   

I know a lot of folks who are anxious these days, a few even scared.  I know people who are not sure always what to believe.  They feel disoriented, uneasy and sometimes disconnected.  As a Unitarian Universalist congregation anchored in the Biblical tradition, we have a message and a way of being religious that makes a real difference.  You really can have a progressive minded and inclusive religious community grounded in tradition but open to the best stirrings of mind and soul.  You really can gather as a diverse group of folks who believe that you “don’t always have to think alike in order to love alike” (to paraphrase one of the great Unitarian reformers of the 16th century.)  We are one of those communities, and I think many of us draw considerable inspiration and strength from the values and people that make up this congregation.

 We have an active fall season in store with some new programs and staff, including our new Director of Music, Mr. Michael Kraft.  Please join us if you can for Homecoming Sunday and our annual Water Communion service on September 10.  Here’s to fall.  Here’s to the power of a loving and decent community.  Here’s to First Church.

JUNE 2017

The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own;  Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;  Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment;  In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.”        ~ The Rev. William Ellery Channing, 1837

I have now been privileged to serve as the minister of this church for 18 years.  Typically I don’t measure this period by years but by lives.  Like many of you I track my life through the moments and milestones of my children.  My oldest son was born just a few months after we arrived here in Salem and he now is 18 years old and just graduated from high school.  I want to thank you the members of this congregation for being such a loving and supportive church community for my kids and for all the children in our midst. 

I am a big believer in the vital role a community like ours can play in the life of children and youth.  I myself participated in a liberal minded congregation when I was in high school and college.  Those experiences in youth group and working with older members of the congregation inspired me to become a better person and helped me realize the importance of goodness and decency in this life.  In the words of William Ellery Channing above, it helped me “awaken my own soul.” 

When I started in Salem, I set out with a long-term plan to build a program for children and youth that would be worthy of their time on Sunday mornings, one that would show, not just tell, the value and importance of community, of practicing being good and cultivating soul, all while having a good time!  This is not always easy to do here in the 21st century with families who have increasingly busy schedules and a culture that increasingly looks askance at organized religion.  But persisted we have over the years.

Our church has a long history of nurturing children and cultivating soul.  The woman who introduced kindergarten to the United States in the 1870’s, the Unitarian activist and writer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, grew up in this congregation along with her two well-known sisters.  We have one of the longest running pre-school programs in whole state, Henny Penny Nursery School.  And we have this great program on Sunday mornings led by our own Deb DiGuilio, who puts her heart and soul into it each Sunday.  However, it’s not just Deb, but rather all of us who make this such a good program.  The longer I do this the more I realize that it is not just in our programs but in our interactions that a real religious education takes place.  We are a community where people of different ages and backgrounds are able to get to know one another and make friends, and souls grow best in friendship.  

During the first two Sundays in June we will celebrate our youth and children, first with our Coming of Age Ceremony and then on Religious Education Sunday.  I invite you all to join us for the presentations and celebrations.  Thank you for all you do.  

 

MAY 2017

“Hey, are you that church that hangs mittens and hats on their front fence?” 

“Isn’t your congregation the one that does that program with the homeless families?”

“I know that church! You’re the one that flies a rainbow flag from your tower.”

“Wait, are you that church that looks like a castle and does a lot stuff over at Lifebridge?

“Is your church the one that had a lecture program about Islam?

“You’re the UU church that’s still Christian, right?”

“How old is that place?”

I spend a lot of time meeting and chatting with people locally.  Over and over again I have the opportunity to introduce myself and our congregation to the larger community.  And over and over again, I hear questions and comments like those above from people who have some association with the First Church from afar.  These lines above are all “real life” examples that I have heard recently during these quick interactions.  It’s nice to have a reputation, especially when it is one that most people like.

No community or church is perfect - there can be no doubt.  But if my informal conversations with folks out in the community are any indicator, the First Church is doing well these days.  The members of this congregation are finding ways to make difference in a variety of local, tangible and meaningful ways.  This is something that all of us who are members and supporters can be proud of.  We are part of community that is making a difference.

The Stewardship Committee is busy with our pledge campaign for this year.  I know they have increased our annual goal with the hope of raising modestly more funds to support our growing programs and work.  I do hope all of you will join me in making a pledge of support to the First Church and perhaps increasing your pledge if you are able.  It’s clear to me that our donations make a difference locally: by paying our staff fairly, by funding our outreach efforts, and supporting our music and religious education programming. In addition, we are supporting a progressive minded religious community, one that respectfully and compassionately projects its values out into the community.  This is something that we can all be proud of and feel good about.  Our way of being religious is worth our support!

Our Annual Meeting is on Sunday, May 7.  We will hear reports from some of our committees, elect officers and board members, and welcome new members.  We will also have an opportunity to celebrate our outreach efforts over the last year and the good work we do in the community.   I thank all of you for your support and your good will.  The First Church is a fun and inspiring place to be and we have a message that’s only becoming more important. 

 

APRIL 2017

Recently I received in the mail a rather innocuous looking form letter addressed to “American Clergy serving our country’s churches.”  It had the look and formality of an official document from a reputable research institute but the content was shocking.  In three short paragraphs the letter declared that Islam was an evil religion and that all Christian clergy needed to join in the struggle against Islam and be weary of any Muslims in our midst.  The gross and ignorant assertions almost took my breath away. 

Over the last 12 months, the number of hate groups in the United States, focused on Muslims has almost doubled.  According the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups in general have grown in number and activity since last year with many documented instances of attacks on immigrants and their communities around the country.  While many of us support common sense measures to protect our territory from foreign extremists intent on attacking the United States, it would appear that recent headlines and national policy proposals are having the effect of threatening the 3.4 million US citizens who happen to be Muslim.   There is a coarsening of our national dialogue about immigrants and Islam that is uninformed, mean and even dangerous.

Last year, the church hosted a series of programs called “Islam and America.”  Our goal was to feature and hold up articulate Muslim voices that are not featured in mainstream, commercial media.  Speakers included Robert Azzi, Dr. Majed Ashi and Yusef Hayes.  Many of these programs were taped and are available on the First Church YouTube Channel created by our own Alan Hanscom. 

Encouraging tolerance and engagement while holding up the peaceful themes we see in the world’s great faith traditions are long time missions of our congregation.  Informed by our own tragic history, we seek to encourage peace, understanding and good will.  Life here in the 21st century is not made better by scapegoating one of the world great religious traditions, but rather by encouraging all of us to take the ethical teachings we find in each of our faiths more seriously. 

We have learned first-hand over the centuries that any faith tradition can be used to heal and transform or lash out and scapegoat. The real measure of any religion is how it manifests itself in the life of its practitioners- in the fruits of people’s lives, to use the metaphor Jesus invoked.

This sort of approach to the religious life is I suppose unusual but it’s part of what makes Salem and our larger UU tradition so engaging and compelling.  I thank all of you who support the First Church financially since a community like this one relies on the generosity and support of its members.  Our voice and presence as a community is important and your support makes this happen. 

April and May will bring warmer and hopefully sunnier weather and many opportunities to celebrate our community and enjoy one another’s company.  During this season of rebirth I wish you many moments growth and warmth. 

 

 

MARCH 2017

Can I just give a big shout out for our 387-year old community?   Since last fall we have been busy amidst a variety of different activities and events that celebrate our history, engage our community and promote our values.  In the last six weeks, we have marched in some of the largest protests in modern American history, and hosted a stimulating book group featuring J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up poor in Ohio, Hillbilly Elegy.  We also opened our doors to host an excellent documentary film about the urgent need to respond to the threats posed by climate change.  Last but not least, we co-hosted the first reenactment of Leslie’s Retreat since 1975, commemorating that famous event from 1776 that involved the minister and members of this very congregation.  Many thanks to Charlie Newhall, Alicia Diozzi, Stephanie Diozzi and Jonathan Streff for participating in such a fun morning and afternoon on February 26.

Add to this toy drives for Syrian refugees, serving dinner at the Lifebridge shelter twice per month, getting ready to serve as a host again for homeless families as part of Family Promise, preparing for our third annual Yard Sale in April, and you get the picture that we are a busy and engaged congregation.

The month of March will continue this trend.  On Sunday, March 5 we welcome local story-teller Tony Toledo to our pulpit.  There is a rich tradition of humanism and skepticism in our larger Unitarian Universalist “faith,” and Tony will share his experience as a fellow UU and a skeptic, in a way is engaging and fun.  On March 12, we will host our annual Stewardship Luncheon and Celebration.  It will be a day to hold up all the great ways that members of our congregation minister to one another and to the larger community.  On March 14, we will host a lecture on the November Elections with Pam Wilmot, the Executive Director of Common Cause Massachusetts.  Pam is an expert in campaign finance and electoral reform and this program should be one of the best of the year.  Finally on Sunday, March 26 we welcome back Robert Azzi to our service.  Robert is a practicing Muslim and a well-known writer, speaker and photographer, who hosted our “Ask a Muslim Anything” program last year.  Later that afternoon, we will have an organ recital featuring Doug Major, which will then be followed by a “Special Reception to Honor and Celebrate Paul Madore,” who will be on hand.  There is so much happening this month that we will need to pace ourselves! 

And this is just some of what we have been doing as a growing, progressive minded church here on the North Shore.  Some of us are finding that as the culture and mood changes in the country, communities like ours are becoming more relevant, not less.  Our approach to religious faith, our views on people, community and society are perspectives that some folks really need right now.  At our best, a UU church like this one is a beacon for compassion, decency, tolerance and reason.  It is so very gratifying to see the many ways that we have found – and our finding – to let our light shine. 

 

FEBRUARY 2017

The best protection any woman can have... is courage.

~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902

Women’s Right Activist, Abolitionist, Suffragist, Unitarian

On Saturday, January 21 one of the largest protests in American history took place in 60 different cities around the country.  The day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, over 500,000 people attended the Women’s March in Washington.  At the same time, marches were held in major cities all over the country including Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, (where over 700,000 showed up!).  It is estimated that some 3.3 million people took part in protests all over the country, or 1% of the population.

I was so proud that several members of our own congregation travelled to Washington for the March, and another 50-60 of us attended the “yuge” gathering in Boston.  I have never seen so many people on Boston Common.  It was a remarkable site!  Standing there with my daughter and many of you, I was humbled and amazed at the outpouring of support and good will on display. I thank everyone for sharing some of their photos from that afternoon.  We created a slideshow and watched it after church on Jan 29.  We will have it available to view during Fellowship Hour during the month of February.

Our country is heading in a surprising and unnerving direction in which the values of a corporate elite and conservative evangelicals hold sway.  It is important that churches like ours and people like us step up and speak out with words informed by hope, kindness, intelligence and courage.  We believe that our country and world need to move in a direction where all people’s rights are respected and defended, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.  We believe that our society and world need to heed science and reduce our carbon emissions and live more sustainably on this planet.  We believe that our government has a place in helping people less fortunate, be it public schools, healthcare, and food and housing assistance when needed. And we believe that our religious beliefs and values call us to take these stands.

Walking around Boston Common with my daughter and many of you, I couldn’t help but sense the connection to our history as a church and a larger movement.  Lest we forget, it was people like us marching for the rights of women a century ago.  Many of the leaders of the Suffragist and Women’s Rights movements from the 19th and early 20th centuries were people who were a part of a church like ours.  The more things change, the more they stay the same! 

We have a busy month of engaging programs and fun activities, including Chocolate Sunday, “Family Fun Night,” and a Revolutionary War Reenactment of Leslie’s Retreat. 

 

JANUARY 2017

For the last year our congregation has hosted conversations and talks with people representing different points of view, cultures and ideas.  We here in Salem have a long history of engagement and exploration, be it by boat or by book.  Our congregation learned first hand centuries ago what can happen when hatred and ignorance take over a community.  As a result we charted a different course as a tradition and congregation.

Last January we hosted our first “Islam and America” program with Robert Azzi, a well-known Muslim writer, commentator and photographer.  We continued that series with several other speakers last year, all with the purpose of engaging with and learning from ideas different from our own.  Likewise we also have hosted a series of discussions about the state of race here in America and considered critically the significant ongoing issues and concerns that African Americans have as citizens of our fine country.  This resulted in the church hanging up a “Black Lives Matter” banner above our main door and posting a statement about our actions on our website for all to consider.

We continue our journey this month with our new “Conversation Circles” program after church.  These are intended to be 15-20 minute gatherings where we can be in dialogue with one another, sharing concerns, ideas and suggestions about the emerging political and social reality in which we find ourselves.  In person discussion and dialogue is underrated in this age of portable electronic devices.  It’s too easy to avoid a conversation in the real world and instead pull out our phones or tablets and read a story of our own choosing, one that often caters to and reinforces our preconceived notions of our selves and world.  We need more actual face time with people.

I do not pretend to know what is in store for our country and society over the next few months and years.  What I do know is that progressive minded religious communities like ours become more important, not less, during times like this.  And we do this in a decidedly old fashioned way: through dialogue, by engagement, by working together and trying to make a difference in this flawed but beautiful world.  Like you, I am anxious about these emerging times, but I take heart in being a part of - and supporting - a church like this one.  Here’s to a healthy, productive and engaging 2017! 

December 2016

Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each one of us.

Dag Hammarskjold

As months full of turning points and surprises go, this last one was a quite something.  Regardless of where you might fall on the political spectrum, I think we all can agree about the last few weeks being memorable.  I know a lot of members and friends of our congregation had concerns going into the election and have concerns now.  At least one of the most mean-spirited political seasons in living memory is over.

I believe that communities like ours become more important, not less, during times like this.  Our way of being religious, our values, our vision for our community and nation, matter.  They really do matter.

Lest we forget, we have been a community that makes a difference for a very long time.  Members of this congregation were patriots fighting for the founding of this nation.  We were abolitionists struggling to end slavery.  We were reformers advocating for the creation of public education, social relief organizations, and prison reform.  We were suffragists laboring for the right of women to vote.  We are a community that is part of a larger tradition that strives to make our world a better place.

And that tradition continues to this day.  The torch is handed to us at a time like this, as we stand up for our values, our interpretation of religion and scripture, and our belief that diversity does not make us weaker but rather contributes to our vibrancy and strength as a people.  And we are a part of larger tradition that believes God is found in this sort of work.  In the words of a former minister, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.”

During this season of Advent, we are invited to reach out to the world in acts of hope, peace, joy and love.  I hope all of us will take one of the many opportunities we each have to do just that, be they large or small.  Our youth are practicing “random acts of kindness” this month.  Our members are finding ways to converse and connect about things that matter to us. (See information about our new “Conversation Circles.”)  During this season of merriment and festival of good tidings, there are so many ways that we can bring light to the lives of others, and then ourselves.  This is what this time of the year is all about.

November 2016

Almost four years ago I found myself travelling around Egypt on a tour bus.  I was on sabbatical visiting Israel and had the opportunity to cross over into Egypt on a special visa, driving through the Sinai Peninsula and then onto Cairo.  This was during the short period of time when the Muslim Brotherhood were in power.  (Since then, there has been another coup…).  Hence there were very few foreigners visiting Egypt at the time.

For the six days I was there, my group travelled with an armed security guard dressed in a dark suit carrying a military style rifle.  We were told this was necessary to protect us.  In addition we travelled with two tour guides and a bus driver, with whom I struck up a “friendship” of sorts. Between Google Translate and their “okay” English we found we were able to communicate.

Apparently I asked my guides unusual questions, to the extent that they both wondered if I were a journalist.  I was curious what it was like to live under a new political regime and what their experience had been growing up under the 30 year leadership of Hosni Mubarak, who had just “stepped down” the year before.  Each time we had one of these conversations, I was struck by their behavior: they would look both ways and ensure that the security guard or any other Egyptian official was not nearby.  They then would lower their voice almost to a whisper as they spoke.  Clearly there were repercussions for having these sorts of conversations with foreigners.

During this tumultuous political season, I have thought about my Egyptian acquaintances every so often.  Amidst this “rough and tumble” election it is clear to me that we still are “blessed” with freedoms and opportunities that many people in other countries do not enjoy.  While our system of government has its problems, I for one still feel fortunate to be here and not somewhere else.  Lord knows there are huge challenges ahead – challenges barely mentioned during this campaign season, (such as climate change and the undue influence of corporate money in our legislative process.)  Even so, there are also many opportunities to express ourselves freely and without the explicit threat of intimidation.  As we turn out attention away from politics and towards the season of giving thanks, this is one of the many blessings that I will count.  Quite often our blessings are revealed amidst the perfunctory details of our everyday lives if we but open our awareness.

November seems like it is bursting with activity, between pancake breakfasts, hosting four homeless families for a week and several talks and programs.

 

October 2016

Ye shall know them by their fruits.  ~ Matthew 7:16

I know many good people who are Christians, and I know a few not-so-good folks who consider themselves followers of Jesus.  I know many Jews who are wonderful people, and I have met several “mashuganas” over the years.  I know Muslims with whom I would trust with my life and I have met a few others whom I find difficult and mean.  I know Hindus and Buddhists and Pagans all of whom are wonderful people, and I have met others who are selfish and less than honorable.

There are good and decent people living their lives amidst all the world’s major faith traditions, and there are mean people doing the same thing.  There are people who have found ways to use the particular teachings of their faith tradition(s) to inspire them to become better, more loving people, and there are those using their religious faith to justify mean-spirited actions and self-centered agendas.  Sometimes our beliefs inspire our better natures and sometimes they enable our worst tendencies and darker impulses as people.

We are a part of a faith tradition and community that has lived and wrestled with this awareness for a very long time.  While what we believe is important, how our beliefs inform our actions and lives is what is crucial.  We here in Salem have learned from first-hand experience what can happen when we allow uninformed and self-righteous beliefs to influence our actions and decisions.  Maybe that is why we have a long history as a religious community of practicing an open-minded and tolerant faith.  Many of us are still influenced and inspired by the Bible but we are mindful that the real measure of any belief is in how it affects and informs our lives.  How are our religious beliefs and practices salvific in our lives?  How are they inspiring us to become better people?  These are the questions we have learned to ask over the decades and centuries.

This month we continue with our Islam and America Speaker Series whose mission is to foster interfaith understanding and hold up the voices and perspectives of several thoughtful and decent Muslims here in United States.  Prof. Yusef Hayes returns this month with what will be a fascinating presentation about how our major media outlets in this country often inaccurately portray the one billion people around the world who identify as Muslim.  If you missed his talk in September on Sufism, you can check out the recording of it on our new YouTube Channel (set up thanks to the work and talents of Alan Hanscom).  The world is made safer and more compassionate by offering these sorts of events, conversations and opportunities for engagement.  I thank you the members of this congregation for supporting this type of programming in the larger community.  Hosting programs like this is part of our own distinctive path as a congregation in our “walk together.”

We have myriad ways this month to feed your body, mind and soul. 

September 2016

You should not be reading this.  Given the demographic trends in this country and changing opinions about organized religion, you should not have this newsletter in your hand.  And yet you do!  Hurray!  It turns out that while the fastest growing religious category in the U.S. are the "Nones" - those that check "none" when asked about their religious affiliation - there is still a real need and hunger for healthy, active, dynamic religious community in people's lives; in our lives.  I meet a lot of people these days who do not attend any religious service (but are "spiritual") and who don't even realize what they are missing in their lives. 

Part of why I do what I do is that I am convinced that I am a better person and we are a better people when each of us sets aside moments when we remember our best selves and our highest values.  An active and welcoming congregation is a really good way of meeting that tacit need in each of us.  The ancient Jews called this Sabbath.  This was a time each week when people were invited to set aside their daily work (and worries and to-do lists and Outlook Calendars...) and reconnect to something greater than themselves.  Wayne Mueller observes that "Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us (for even a short while) from the need to be finished.”  Setting aside even one hour a week for reflection, for rejuvenation, for singing, for laughing, for dreaming and for serving can make a big difference in our lives, not over night but over time.

That is what we do here as a congregation - we gather together and remember what an amazing, crazy, beautiful and challenging life this really is.  And we do all this with good music, inspiring preaching, engaging programs for kids, great fellowship hours, and meaningful ways to serve and make a difference.  There really is a role for progressive-minded organized religion in people’s lives.  We prove it each and every Sunday. Thank you for being part of one countercultural group defying the odds and social trends.

Homecoming Sunday is September 11.  We will gather for our annual Water Communion service as we greet one another after the summer season.  I will look forward to seeing you all. 

Here's to another great season as a community and reaching out to one another and the world in ways that heal, inspire and make a difference. 

June 2016

Six years ago this summer my family and I went to visit my father where I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina.  This pretty area is called the “Piedmont,” as it lies in the foothills of the Appalachain Mountains.  Looking to the north and west, you see “purple mountains majesty” rising in the distance.  To this day I miss the dogwoods and azaleas, the swimming pools and tennis courts, the barbeque and “sweet tea.” I also miss many of the people.  What I don’t miss is the religion.

This brings me back to the visit with my father six years ago with my wife and three children.  We were invited to attend church the Sunday we were in town and we graciously accepted.  They belonged to a large, evangelical “non-denominational” congregation.  To this day there are some wonderful people who are members.  I have known some of them a long time.  My wife and I attended the main service with my father and step-mother while our children were whisked away to Sunday school, “southern style.”  So off went my three Unitarian Universalist children to their respective classrooms in another wing of this large, pre-fabricated metal building.  Things were going relatively well I thought, (I only had to bite my lip twice during the service!), until coffee hour after the service.  It was then that my eight-year old daughter, just dismissed from her Sunday school class, came running over to me with tears in her eyes, clearly upset.  I bent down to see what was the matter and that’s when she blurted out: “Daddy, is it true that gay people can’t get married here?”  Her tone was a mix of sadness and indignation. 

I hurriedly took her aside and explained to her (with the hushed voice one might use in a library…) that “yes, it was true: South Carolina does not have the same laws as Massachusetts.”  Again, the tears welled up and a flash of anger shot across her face, “But why, Daddy?!  That’s not fair!” 

It’s moments like this when I realize how good our religious education program really is here at the First Church, and the amazing “testimony” we present to our children in our lesson plans and in our lives.  I love being part of a religious community where all couples and all families are welcomed, celebrated and treated equally.  And I love that my children have grown up assuming that this is the way it should be; namely because it is. 

I am very proud of our religious education program.  We teach good values and nurture a healthy faith life here in the 21st century, one that seeks to hold up the themes of justice and compassion we see in the Bible.  I see that in my own children and in the lives of many of the other kids in our midst.  It is also clear to me that our community and what we stand for matters, even if we sometimes take what we do for granted here in eastern Massachusetts. 

Sunday, June 12 is Religious Education Sunday this year.  We will take a few minutes to celebrate our children and their work together this year.  We also will celebrate the principles and values we stand for as a progressive minded congregation; one that believes in religion’s power to encourage love, service and making a difference in this life. 

As I write this, there is a good chance that the Governor of Massachusetts will sign into law protections for the Transgender community.  Once again, I am proud to be part of a movement that inspires this sort of civic response in one of the oldest states in the US.  What we do here in Massachusetts, and the example we set in a community like this one, matters.  It really matters. 

May 2016: From the Standing Committee Chair, John Wathne

On May 1st I will be concluding my tenure as chair of the Standing Committee.

The Standing Committee is essentially the “board of directors” of the Church and according to the bylaws is responsible for the custody and control of the Church building and the property, hiring of all employees and appointing all “agents of the Society” except the Minister, Deacons and Deaconesses, and the officers, and authorizing of all expenditures.

Committee members this past year were Jim Ognibene, Liv Radue, Eric Kenney, David Helen, Ben Waxman, Patti Roka, Carol Hedstrom, Mary Collari as vice chair, and myself.

Some of the items accomplished during the year:

° Expanding our stated mission to the greater community by recognizing our joint Universalist roots with a change in the bylaws that redefines ourselves as the “First Church in Salem, Unitarian Universalist”, after the closure of the First Universalist Society of Salem.

° Allocating funds to update the website, and funds to underwrite the on-going “Islam in America” Lecture Series and a “Black Lives Matter” statement at the front of the Church.

° Starting to work with the Finance Committee and the Religious Education Committee to try to fund a part-time Youth Coordinator to help energize and sustain the Youth Group.

° Endorsing the Citizens’ Climate Lobby Climate Action statement urging the U.S. Congress to sponsor measures that will acknowledge the serious threat posed by climate change; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a clear, transparent and effective way.

° Convening a Task Force to research the origins of the Church’s various restricted funds and confirming that budget allocations are consistent the intents of dedicated gifts that created these funds originally, some of which date back more than a century.

In addition, one of my personal “pet” projects, which I will keep involved in even after my SC tenure is done, has been to work on an organizational document that would serve as a master handbook or operational “owner’s manual” for the Church.  Although this will ultimately be a multi-year project, the initial focus has included the compilation of all of the committee missions and a description of their interactions and operations, with information gained from a “Committee Summit” of representatives of all Church Committees.

Out of this I attempted to create a rudimentary, present-state organizational chart that attempts to map interactions and money flow between the various missions, committees and ministries.

If nothing else, this illustrates that the First Church is an organic and complex institution.

I would like to express what an absolute pleasure it has been serving our growing and vital Church Community during the past year.  I leave with the realization that while there are many ways to improve, the First Church is at its core, a 380+ year old collection of interesting, well intended and often inspiring individuals, united in a common goal, and we are at the top of our game.

Thanks and Happy Spring!

John M. Wathne

 

April 2016

Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being
to receive, to carry, and give back.

~ Dag Hammarskjöld

Every once in a while I am stopped on the street locally these days by someone who does not come to church here, but has heard about something we are doing at the First Church.  Usually it is a quick question or a comment.  In the last few months, most of the comments have been about the "Ask a Muslim Anything" program we hosted in January and our work with Lifebridge and Family Promise.  We are increasingly known as one of the many groups in town that "does stuff" locally and most people seem to like it.

For me, these quick conversations comprise one of the more interesting metrics that assess how we are doing as a free-thinking, religious community.  This church has had a community presence from our founding four centuries ago, (when most of the town were members!).   We have never believed that our spiritual lives happen only within the walls of our Meetinghouse.  This is a place to get "charged up" for the week.  This is a community that supports and inspires one another in finding ways to make a difference.  To use Dag Hammarskjöld famous line above: this is a place to "receive, to carry, and give back."  I would add that this also a place to support each other and simply enjoy one another's company along the journey.

There is a line I quite often use during the service to announce the Offering: "the morning offering for the ongoing life, work and collective ministry of this church will now be given and received."  My wording here is quite intentional and reflects this community effort.  I am privileged to be the Minister of this congregation, but the ministry here is shared, by all of us, in many different ways.  Anyone who has attended a board meeting understands this first hand!

So when I get stopped on the street these days, I try to be open to the brief conversation.  It allows me to hear feedback, get new ideas and occasionally have the opportunity to beam with pride.  There is a growing number of people in our midst finding ways to cultivate soul in their own lives and make a difference in our community.  That is worthy of our applause and support.

There is much happening here this month between story slams, lectures, dinner teams, great services, and yard sales.  We then have our Annual Meeting on May 1.

March 2016

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.

                                 - Wallace Stevens

Recently, I was reading a sad account about a family being evicted.  The writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the scene in his very popular personal memoir and commentary about American Society, “Between the World and Me.”  In the account, Coates describes visiting a neighborhood in Chicago several years ago when a sheriff’s department was called in to evict forcefully an African American family who had fallen behind on their house payments after the husband lost his job.  It turns out that the wife was caught completely by surprise by the sheriffs banging on the door.  Her husband had never told her of the summons papers he had received warning the family of the impending eviction.  Coates describes the husband running around and screaming at the moving company workers as they proceeded with the difficult job of carrying the family’s furniture and possessions out onto the sidewalk as the family stood by and helplessly watched.  We forget how many families had a similar experience in 2008 and 2009 when the real estate market and economy crashed all at once.

It is hard for me to imagine the feelings of duress and sheer panic that these parents must have felt in such a situation.  Maybe they could have been more proactive and dealt with their situation earlier; maybe not.  Even so, the loss of home and hope must be devastating.  In such a circumstance it is hard not to despair. 

For me, the Easter story deals with this sort of despair.  The account of Jesus’ death can be glossed over with bunny stories and egg decorating, but at its heart it is a tale about a people facing utter despair only to find themselves transformed by an unanticipated and unimaginable hope.  I do not pretend to understand what did or did not occur on Easter, but what I do know is that a traumatized and beleaguered community all of the sudden had their outlook transformed and their prospects enlivened in ways they could not have possibly imagined.  And the direction the whole world took was transformed as well.  

One of the great invitations we can take from the Easter season is to be bearers of hope in this life.  This month we welcome back Family Promise of the North Shore, a non-profit organization that works with churches and synagogues and helps them “take turns” one week at a time hosting three to four homeless families.  The First Church became a host congregation for Family Promise at the end of December.  Starting on March 20, we will once again transform several of our upstairs classrooms into bedrooms so that a few homeless parents and their kids have a place to stay for a week.  Where once there was stress and despair, there is now some hope and possibility for a different and better future.

Some churches observe Holy Week with lots of services and rituals and prayers.  We are going to observe it this year by providing a little hospitality and hope; by being one of the places where people hear “yes” after experiencing “no,” to use the poet Wallace Stevens’ phrase.  For more information about Family Promise and how you can help out, see inside.   I wish you a joyous early Easter season and many blessings as the wheel of the year turns towards spring. 

February 2016

On Sunday, January 10 the First Church hosted a program called “Ask a Muslim Anything.” Robert Azzi, an Arab American Muslim writer, photojournalist and columnist, came and spoke at our morning service and then led an early afternoon “question and answer” forum open to the public.  I am pleased to report that we had close to 140 people attend the afternoon program with a variety of questions being posed to our speaker.  (See the link here and on our website to the front page article in the Salem News.)

This program is the first of a series we plan to host this year on Islam and America.  Currently in American society we see a caricature of Islam often presented; one that focuses on extremist elements of the faith and does not recognize the millions of decent, law-abiding Muslims who live and work in the United States, many of whom are American citizens.  Too often what is reported as Muslim is an extremist ideology espoused by a small minority (given the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims); an ideology whose hateful speech and actions are then presented as a general view of what is Islam is and who Muslims are.  Too often public personalities and media outlets in our country are allowed to get away with inaccurate and sensationalized depictions of Islam for the sake of ratings.

It is clear to many of us that the wars being fought in the Middle East are about land and oil as much, if not more, than they are about Allah and Jehovah or Jesus and Mohammed.  There are extremist elements in all of the great monotheistic religions of the West active today.  While I believe the United States should protect itself, what we need is not more threats and military strikes but rather greater understanding and awareness of different cultures.

Our church has a long history of encouraging interfaith understanding and compassion. Our congregation was the first established Protestant congregation here in the area to welcome Roman Catholic immigrants to Salem in the 1790’s, thanks to the leadership of the Rev. William Bentley.  Bentley also incidentally taught himself to read and write Arabic.  A century later, we welcomed and helped with the formation of the first synagogue in town as well, Temple Shalom, (which sadly closed several years ago).  We have a legacy of welcoming people and fostering understanding and community.

That is why we decided to move ahead with a series of lectures and programs featuring Muslim speakers this spring and summer.  As the rhetoric continues to escalate during this Presidential election year, we think it is vitally important to understand that extremism and ignorance here in this country is just as dangerous as militant extremists agitating outside of it.  Indeed if we as a country are truly honest with ourselves then we will realize that the latest manifestation of Islamic extremism is partly the fruit of our own foreign and military policies.

I invite you to support our efforts here and attend our programs.  Currently we do not have a budget for this “Bentley Lecture Series,” as we are calling it.  We saw a need and an opportunity and decided to sponsor these events as an act of faith of sorts.  Some of us believe that the road to any durable peace here in the 21st century lies in faithful acts like this and many others that facilitate understanding, create connection and foster engagement.  The Rev. William Sloan Coffin once observed that “the World is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”

We have a fun and inspiring month of special services, chocolate fundraisers, discussion groups and even a story telling event.  There is a lot happening around here these days. 

January 2016

Last month the First Church became a host congregation for Family Promise of the North Shore.  We are now one of 14 congregations (13 churches and a synagogue) in the area that “take turns” hosting up to four homeless families for a week at a time.  Our first week as a host community began on Sunday, December 27 and concluded on January 3.   We had four homeless families sleeping upstairs in our 2nd floor classrooms.

The effort and planning involved in bringing this program to the First Church was significant.  Jessica Kane led this effort, advocating and working to make this happen for over a year.  Lynn Taggart, Iana Plum, and Hannah Diozzi more recently have all played key roles in transforming the upstairs classrooms into bedrooms and coordinating linen and bedding donations, dinners and volunteers.  Some 42 people stepped up to volunteer or help out in some way, including preparing meals, hosting dinners, and sleeping overnight at the church for the seven nights our guests were here.

And even before we could host these families, we had to make some modifications to our building, including installing carbon monoxide detectors upstairs and obtaining a temporary occupancy permit (like hotels receive) from the City of Salem, which is no easy feat!  In all we spent close to $2,900 in order to welcome these families.  It was sort of a leap of faith that involved key support from the Social Outreach Committee and many others.  Some of the money came from a bequest to the church that “appeared” just at the right time.  Other donations came from members and from a café fundraiser run by the Religious Education program and Youth Group of the First Church.  I even had a six-year-old member of our congregation donate to the cause: he proudly presented me with a small plastic baggie full of change from his piggy bank.

This was truly a congregational effort and I have to say I felt very proud to be the minister of this community.  I knew that it was all worth it the moment I saw those little kids running around the Cleveland Room on the first night, met their parents and heard a little bit about their “story” and situation.  Family Promise of the North Shore is not only a great organization that helps local families down on their luck and truly in need; it is an agency that helps communities like ours remember who we are and who we can truly be, with a little vision, hard work and good will.

The best holiday presents involve presence, not things.  The most memorable gifts are usually the ones you give away, not the ones you receive.  That certainly was true here last month.  Lest we forget, at the heart of the Christmas story is a homeless family looking for a place to stay.  So I thank everyone who participated in our work with Family Promise as well as last month’s Stocking Project (see inside for how we helped 20 local families in a completely unrelated program).  And if you missed the chance to help out, don’t worry: we will be hosting again at the end of March!  Here’s to a happy, healthy and warm-hearted New Year!