We, this people on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we discover
A brave and startling truth…
~ Maya Angelou, 1928-2014
One of the real surprises for me this spring has been the television series “Cosmos,” a documentary television program about science that debuted recently. “Cosmos” is actually a “revival” of a famous program of the same name that was originally produced in 1979 and featured the astrophysicist Carl Sagan. The current version stars another well-known physicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, but has some of the same writers as the original show, including Carl Sagan’s wife and writing partner.
What I love about the program is how it weaves the worlds of science and ideas and metaphysics effortlessly together, simply by describing our world and telling the stories of outstanding individuals who have asked questions about it over human history. It places our lives, our communities, our nation and this planet in a remarkable context in terms of time and space. We live on a planet that is almost six billion years old in a galaxy that is perhaps ten billion years old. We are so far away from the sun (our star) that is takes sunlight over eight minutes to travel to the earth and yet the sun is so big and powerful that this light is enough to support all life on this planet. Our sun is one of approximately 400 billion stars that comprise the Milky Way Galaxy, one of billions of galaxies in the known Universe. The Milky Way galaxy alone is over 100 billion light years across in diameter.
This television show explores the absolutely remarkable reality that we inhabit and often take for granted and can easily overlook amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There are two great insights of which I am reminded when I watch this show. The first is that we depend upon a narrow window of physical conditions for our very existence: windows of temperature, radiation, certain kinds of elements and molecular compounds. Life as we know it requires a very narrow range of conditions in order to develop and flourish. The second insight arises out of this: the remarkable truth that life has evolved out of these cosmic processes and resulted in beings who can apprehend the cosmos and wonder at its grandeur and beauty. Human beings are remarkable, sometimes in spite of ourselves.
That’s what Maya Angelou’s lovely poem above is about. Angelou passed away a few days ago and I, like many of you, have been taking the opportunity to read some of her poetry. The Brave and Startling Truth that she describes so poignantly in this poem is that we human beings, with the capacity to hate and to love, are a remarkable manifestation, at least in this part of the galaxy. Part of life for Angelou and many of us is waking up to this reality and the power of human love:
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
And without crippling fear
I am not sure if I would describe the upcoming month here at the First Church as “out of this world,” but it will definitely be uplifting and soul-feeding. And it will conclude with several of us attending the UUA’s General Assembly in Providence June 25-29.
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 give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth… 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.
— William Ellery Channing, 1837
Every once in a while I meet someone who tells me that while they grew up attending a church or a synagogue, they no longer do so since it didn’t mean very much to them as a child. They were “forced to go.” I guess that makes it all the more remarkable that we are a community where people of all ages want to be here on Sunday mornings. They like coming to church. We like coming to church. We come for a variety of reasons: to see our friends, to participate in the service, to hear and sing music, to socialize over fair trade coffee and tea, to be a part of a creative and dynamic community where we are invited to consider the moral and spiritual dimension in their lives and where the "spirit is working."
We have 16 young people currently participating this year’s Coming of Age program. This is a large group of teenage kids in our midst who have committed to a half-year process that culminates next month in a ceremony where each is recognized as a mature member of our community. Many different traditions have as part of their practice a rite of passage for adolescents. This is our way of recognizing and celebrating our children’s growth and maturity. Deb DiGuilio and Denise Granniss have worked hard to organize this program, as have the 16 adult mentors who are each working with one of our youth as they think about what it means to be a part of this progressive minded community and prepare a faith statement to be shared with everyone.
I encourage all of us to ask the kids you know in the church what they are doing as part of their Coming of Age program. Ask them how their Faith Statement is coming along and what they think they are going say. Perhaps one of the best gifts we can offer our kids is our full attention and our authentic selves. We don't have to try too hard to be "spiritual." We just have to pay attention, have a little sense of humor and make sure they know we are all glad they are here. If the famous quote above by the well known Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing is any indication, we have a long tradition of not just teaching our kids lessons but encouraging them to learn and discern for themselves. There are a several events and programs planned for this month dealing with our upcoming Coming of Age service. I invite all of us to celebrate this and the many young adults in our midst.
How many stories will be told about you in 40 years? That is an odd sort of question to ask around Easter but it gets to the heart of the Christian and Jewish traditions, oddly enough. We are fairly certain that the earliest Gospel about Jesus is Mark’s, which was probably not written down until sometime just before or after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Before this time there most likely were various collections of stories about Jesus being told and retold by different groups with some of them being recorded on paper scrolls, which was expensive and hard to come by. What this means is that the Gospels are not first-hand accounts of the life of Jesus written down by people who were actually there. Rather they were, and are, recountings and retellings of the teachings of and stories about Jesus of Nazareth that eventually found their way into a written form. Anyone who claims the Gospels are verbatim accounts of Jesus’ life does not really know their history.
That is what makes the stories that were told and eventually written down all the more remarkable. How many stories do you think will be told about you in 40-50 years and by whom? For Jesus’ listeners his words and the way he presented himself made a lasting and memorable impression, so much so that his movement began to grow after his crucifixion. People began telling and retelling the parables he had used to teach his listeners and the stories they remembered about his life.
The actual Jesus of history is forever shrouded in uncertainty. What we know for sure is that he touched and inspired a growing number of beleaguered people who were suffering under the oppression of a brutal Roman Empire. He brought them hope in a profound way and this turned into a movement. We know that he saw himself as playing a part in delivering his people from their suffering and that his coming kingdom was ruled by love, not by violence and outright force that his followers encountered all around them. We know all this because his followers and their followers remembered his teachings and life story, so much so that they began to write it down into a narrative.
The stories we choose tell others and ourselves have a great deal of power in our lives. They can shape and frame who we are. Stories that survive over time do so for a reason, in our families and in our religious traditions. The ancient Jewish Festival of Passover celebrates the story of Moses leading his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. And the Festival of Easter, flows out of that older narrative, by recounting a story about a radical Rabbi declaring the coming Kingdom of God and encouraging his followers to love their enemies and forgive those who have wronged them.
I have now preached and lived and breathed these stories for a quarter of a century as a student and later a minister. I have been to the Holy Land myself and walked the streets of Jerusalem, the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the rugged landscapes of the Sinai. And I can tell you that these ancient stories survive and flourish for a reason. As we hear these tales of deliverance and salvation, we can find ourselves inspired, renewed and transformed, sometimes in ways we cannot anticipate, which is their purpose. I wish you a happy and joyous springtime, Passover and Easter Season!
I am always surprised when I encounter people from near and far who find our way of being religious irksome and even upsetting. These folks typically fall into two groups. First, there are the fervently religious who have a very definite and specific view about their beliefs and about the Bible. They read the opening statement on our website or listen to me describe the First Church and they recoil in irritation or worse at the suggestion that a community that calls itself a church would be this open-minded and tolerant. “What do you mean you have no creed?!” “What do you mean that you don’t have to believe that Jesus is Lord to belong to this community?” What do you mean that the Bible must be read and interpreted thoughtfully and with a thorough understanding of its history and context?” Usually I receive a “snippy” comment or email objecting to the First Church in this way and that’s the end of it.
The second group is a little more challenging at times. These are the folks in our own larger tradition and the wider community who take issue with our religious society being grounded in the Biblical tradition, but open to many other religions as well. Almost always, these are folks who have never set foot in our meetinghouse or attended a service. There are times when I will meet these individuals and when I describe our church, they practically “turn their nose up in the air” at the thought of a UU congregation regularly having readings from the Bible or saying the Lord’s Prayer or using a covenant that is almost 385 years old. If I engage these folks, I am often surprised at their lack of basic biblical knowledge and the assumptions or caricature they have in their minds about Christianity and Judaism. “What do you mean that you talk about Jesus?” What do you mean that you use the Bible on a regular basis?” Too many of our fellow UU’s have conceded the Bible to less informed and meaner spirited traditions in my opinion. I have learned to treat these short encounters as opportunities for me and the other person.
In current parlance, the First Church could be described as a “hybrid congregation,” one that grounds itself in the Jewish and Christian traditions that we know best but is open to many authentic forms of spirituality and practice. (Did anyone attend our Diwali service last November? It was great!) Like all of our fellow congregations in the UUA we have no creedal test for membership, but rather a covenant, a “pledge” we make to one another and to the transcendent each week to “walk together.” When the music is playing and the kids running around and the sermon is being preached it works. Like all communities we are always in process, never complete. But what we do here makes a difference and I like the voices and perspectives and life decisions that I see emanating out of this place. As Rev. James Luther Adams famously wrote years ago, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” By that standard, we are doing quite well these days.
We have a busy month of book groups, Bible studies, homeless forums, organ recitals and special services. I hope you can join us for our weekly journey together.
On the first Sunday in January, we did something during the service that I do not believe has ever has before before at the First Church: we did a “reverse collection.” Instead of receiving donations and offerings, we gave something away. In advance of this, the Standing Committee had approved handing out $700 during the service, with the money coming from private donations and our Social Outreach fund.
During our reverse offering, each person was handed an envelop with either a $20, $10 or $5 bill inside and a short letter with the following message:
Please accept this gift and invitation from your friends at the First Church in Salem. The money in this envelope is a modest portion of our Social Outreach budget that we use to make a difference locally. The First Church supports many local social service and charitable agencies and helps individuals and families in need. We invite you then to take this relatively small amount of money from our "reverse collection" today and do some good with it. Is there a charity you wish to support or someone you know in need? Can you commit a "random act of kindness?"
The idea to do this was inspired by the story I heard on WBUR in December about my colleague, The Rev. Nathan Detering in Sherborn, MA, who had done something similar last fall. When I heard the story, I knew immediately that I wanted to try it here in Salem. The First Church has a long history of quietly making a difference in our larger community. A few of us get to see the results of our congregation’s generosity up close on a regular basis. The members of the Social Outreach Committee and yours truly meet several times a year to write checks and talk about ways that we can support the larger community. I probably more than anyone else here get to see the results of our Social Outreach programs in action, as I meet and speak with local folks in need of some help or support.
But why should I be the only one to have this opportunity and responsibility? In our tradition, the “ministry” of this church is shared amongst all the members and part of what I do is encourage and pastor people in discerning their own callings and opportunities to serve. I thought the reverse offering would be a fun and engaging way to get us all to think about the ways we can make a difference in the lives of others.
The letter included with the gift also invited everyone to share with us what they decided to do with their “offering.” Inside this month’s Herald, we have included excerpts from some of the reports we have received. For those who are still figuring out what to do with your offering, please feel free to share with us what you decided to do. This has been a fun and inspiring initiative here the beginning of a new year. Part of making a difference in this world is being open the many times when we can "come bearing gifts," both big and small. See you in church.
Psalm 90:12 …Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
I find that many people have little rituals that are a part of their everyday lives. Rituals are familiar actions that transform or transport our awareness if only for a moment. They shake us out of our immediate preoccupation, if only for a moment, and remind us of some transcendent, more permanent value or aspect of our lives. At least they can.
For the last year or so, I have developed an odd ritual that helps me put things that happen in my own everyday life into perspective. Sometimes we choose rituals. Other times they emerge by accident, or by serendipity. My ritual involves a newspaper clipping, one about a friend who passed away who was about my age. I keep it on a set of books near where I hang my keys each day when I arrive at the office. As I get up to answer the door or walk by my desk in route to meeting with a staff or church member, occasionally my eyes will happen upon this faded and folded section of newspaper. Now, I could be in a very good mood when this occurs or I could be amidst a moment of frustration, which inevitably occurs in any job. Regardless, the split second glimpse of this clipping and photo reminds me of how very precious and wonderful my time in the office truly is, of how precious my time in general is. It also helps to put my “first world” woes and challenges into perspective. When I catch a glimpse of my dearly departed friend, I am reminded that what is important and what is not. While details matter, it is important not to always sweat - or fret - about the small stuff.
The truth is that each of us has but 70 to 80 eighty years to write our stories, to take our journeys, to live our lives - with perhaps a little more time for the fortunate few and much less time for the overwhelming majority. Our lives correspond to one small phrase, one tiny utterance of the much larger story that is the history of this world. And therefore, they are precious and not to be taken lightly – or too heavily. Life is too short and the world is too small to harbor resentment and bare grudges. The purpose of life is to grow a soul and encourage others to do the same. Emerson was right on that count. Here at the outset of the year is a good time to take stock of what matters in our lives and makes sure we are being attentive to those things as we go about our daily activities.
January here at the First Church presents several opportunities to connect, to think deeply and to enjoy the company of some great people. See you in church!