Minister’s Column September 2020

Dear Ones:

And so our 2020 – 2021 congregational year begins. Welcome home! I really mean that. Even though I can’t welcome you back to our beloved UUS:E meeting house on Elm Hill at the Manchester-Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River; even though I can’t welcome you back to that physical space where the ashes of our deceased friends and loved ones are interred, where hawks fly, where deer forage, where an ancient spring hides in the woods; even though I can’t welcome you back to our beautiful, green, accessible building, I still say “welcome home.” It’s always been true that the congregation is not the building. The congregation is those of us who gather for worship in whatever form it takes, education in whatever form it takes, performances in whatever form they take, community time in whatever form it takes. I wish we could gather in person, face to face. But as you know, prudence, safety, an abundance of caution, and the guidance of our principles counsel otherwise.

While I wish I could say “welcome home” in person, there’s a part of me that is relieved I cannot do so. As I write these words, so many of us are bracing for a return to in-person school. So many of us, whether parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or friends have had to contend with the excruciating process of deciding if in-person schooling is the right path for our children. Some of us are teachers or school administrators who’ve had to prepare for in-person school knowing there is no guarantee of safety, knowing there is risk even under the best circumstances. So many of us are waking up with knots in our stomachs, wondering how back-to-school is going to play out, wondering what detail we may have forgotten to consider. I’m mindful of those words in our hymnal from the poet Wendell Berry: “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound of what my life and my children’s lives may be.…” I’ve had my share of these moments in the lead-up to sending Mason off to college, and now getting ready to send Stephany off to teach and Max off to 9th grade. “When despair for the world grows in me.…”

I am relieved that we aren’t trying to make in-person church happen in the middle of a pandemic. I am relieved I don’t have to convince any of you that it’s the right thing to come back to in-person programming at UUS:E. Churches are proving to be frequent sources of outbreaks across the country. In my view—and certainly in the view of our leaders at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston—we have no business returning to in-person services, especially not right now. I am relieved that at least one important touchstone in our lives doesn’t have to wrestle at all with the decision to re-open. We remain virtual!

With that, let me write the words again: Welcome Home! Welcome to the 2020 – 2021 congregational year at UUS:E. To be sure, it will be different. My prayer is that it will be spiritually nourishing for all of you—a source of comfort, sanity, peace, love and, within the bounds of safety, engagement. May it be a good year.

With love,

—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column August 2020

Dear Ones:

I’m very excited to share with you our Sunday Service schedule for August. In short, we will be virtually visiting a number of different congregations in the region. Here’s the schedule:

August 2nd: We visit the UU Society of Bangor, ME, where UUS:E member, the Rev. Drew Moeller, serves as the minister. (Rev. Drew and the folks from Bangor visited us on July 26.)

August 9th: We visit All Souls UU Congregation in New London, CT. They are offering a service jointly created with the UU congregations in Chelsea, MA and Groton, MA.

August 16th: We visit the Universalist Church of West Hartford.

August 23rd: We visit the Unitarian Society of Hartford.

August 30th: We return to UUS:E, and welcome our friends from the Hartford, West Hartford and New London congregations.

For each of these services, instructions for logging in will be sent in our regular Wednesday and Saturday eblasts. For most of them, you will be able to log in to the UUS:E Zoom site (as you regularly do on Sunday mornings) and experience the service from there. If there are any changes to this procedure, we will do everything in our power to get the word out in a timely manner!

I’m excited about this sharing of worship services for a few reasons. First, this sharing of services will enable our UUS:E members and friends to experience how online worship looks, sounds and feels at other UU congregations. It’s not like having a guest minister visit us in our meeting house for the morning. It’s literally having another congregation’s entire worship experience for the morning. This will be a different for all of us!

Second, at least for some of the services, we will be able to interact with members of other congregations, either through the Zoom chat or through the breakout rooms following the services.

Finally, this sharing ensures that our staff and lay-leaders who regularly work on our Sunday services will get a break. (It also ensures that the staff and lay-leaders at the other congregations will be getting breaks too!)

For most of us, our primary experience of Unitarian Universalism is through our local congregation. This sharing of online services reminds us that we are part of a larger association of congregations. It reminds us that we can work with other congregations to fulfill our purpose. It reminds us our congregation is not alone, that there are others very much akin to us on the religious landscape. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic we rarely, if ever, would have thought to share services in this way. It just wouldn’t have happened. But given that we’re all living with the pandemic, and we’re all conducting online worship, it makes perfect sense that we would begin to share services on Sunday morning. A pandemic silver lining perhaps….

I am very curious to know what your experience of these other worship services. Please feel free to let me know what you like about the services at other congregations. And please let me know if you’d like to do more Sunday morning sharing as long as we’re still conducting services online.

With love,

—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column July 2020

Dear Ones:

We come to the end of the 2019-2020 congregational year. Our congregational life now slows down for a few months. I’m looking forward to time off for vacation (“staycation”) and study leave. I desperately need some time off at this point. And while using the world “desperately” in that last sentence, in a regular year, might seem overly dramatic, I trust you all understand that I— and all our UUS:E staff—desperately need some time off this summer. I am tired after these last three-and-a-half months of pandemic church. I am feeling raw, drained, worn out, worn down, not at my best self—not even close. Many of you feel these things too.

How could it be otherwise? We’re making our way through a global pandemic that will likely result in more than 200,000 American deaths—many that could have been prevented had we had competent national leadership. We’re making our way through the pandemic-related hyper-exposure of racial and class inequities in our nation, and vowing not to return to that old normal. And we are making our way through a national Black Lives Matter uprising in response to police violence, figuring out our place in it, figuring out how to work for substantive change. As liberal and progressive people of faith, we face these difficult and painful realities. They draw our attention, and we feel called to address them, called to engage, to struggle, to fight. This call is inherent in our seven UU principles. It is a central part of the mission of our UU faith. And of course, in order to pursue our mission, in order to uphold our principles, we also have to run the day-to-day operations of our congregation, manage the finances, maintain the building, educate our children, tune our pianos. And since March we’ve had the added challenge of working with new technologies, dealing with weak Wi-Fi signals, figuring out how to teach classes online, how to organize food drives, how to respond to a local police shooting, how to keep in touch with each other. So, yes I am feeling tired, raw, worn down, worn out, etc. How could it be otherwise?

But I also feel pride. I’m proud of our UUS:E staff for responding with grace to the realities of the pandemic. None of our staff has been perfect, but what they’ve given us is better than perfection. They’ve given us devotion, patience, heart, creativity, and love. I am so proud of them, and grateful too.

I’m also proud of our lay-leaders, our Policy Board and Program Council members, who have kept us moving along as a congregation under very difficult and quite novel circumstances. No, they have not been perfect either. But like our staff, they’ve given us better than perfection. They’ve given us commitment, flexibility, optimism, and love. They’ve made hard decisions. I’m proud of all of you for rolling with us through these frightening, unnerving, technologically challenging and isolating times. The trust you have put in the UUS:E staff and lay-leaders have been critical. The support you’ve shown us has made all the difference.

And, last but not least, I’m proud of myself. It’s been a rocky ride. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve not been my best self. But I look back now on everything that’s happened, including an 11-day sun-up to sun-down fast to urge the legislature back into session, and I feel pretty darn good about it. Raw, worn-down, worn-out, not my best self—yes. But I am beaming we pride too. Please know that about your minister.

Have a great summer friends! I will definitely “see” you along the way; and I look forward to the coming year. It will also be exhausting, but full of opportunity, full of ministry. With love,

—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column for May 2020

Hallelujah!

Dear Ones:

I hope and trust you are well. I write these words as we begin approaching the end of April. The COVID-19 infection curve in Connecticut appears to be flattening at this time, though the data isn’t consistent enough for us to know for sure. I am hopeful that by the time you read this we’ll have slightly greater clarity. And I am hopeful that as we enter more fully into May, we’ll start to hear reasonable, scientifically-based predictions of when we might safely open our meeting house to more regular activity.

Having said this, please know I don’t expect we will be able to resume regular activity in the very near future. Some statistical models suggest July as an earliest possible time. Others suggest much, much later. There are still so many unknowns. Even when we finally are able to return, we will likely do it in phases. Only small meetings at first, always with social distancing. Safety will be our highest priority. Can we return safely? What is our definition of safety? How will we measure safety? These will be our questions. Even though return is likely still many months away, the UUS:E Policy Board will begin discussing return scenarios at its May meeting. We want to be ready when the time comes.

For now, we continue in lockdown. We continue with social distancing. We continue trying to figure out how to be of service to those who are struggling. We continue trying to figure out how to live in this strange, isolating reality. In my pastoral conversations with many of you, and in my small group meetings and virtual office hours, I often ask the question, What are you looking forward to? Some of you respond that you are looking forward to online gatherings with family and friends, favorite TV shows, going outside for a hike, moments of creativity. Some of you respond with “I’m looking forward to going back to UUS:E!” Understandably, some of you have trouble answering the question. Especially now that we’re two months into the lockdown and the days and weeks are starting to blur together, it’s sometimes hard to know what we’re looking forward to. There’s another question I am starting to ask, which is a more difficult question to answer. What are you grieving? I started asking this question when I recognized that my oldest son turned 18 in April. That fact alone is hard to believe. But turning 18 feels like such a milestone. It signifies a transition to adulthood. There should be some public right-of-passage. High school graduation? Well, he’ll graduate, but it won’t be the quintessential high school graduation. There won’t be a public celebration. There won’t be a big party. I realized I am grieving the loss of this moment in his life. I was looking forward to it. As his parent, it’s my achievement too. It’s my time to feel pride. I’ve lost that.

I’m sure you’ve lost something to COVID-19 too. Or perhaps you’ve lost someone to COVID-19. What is the content of your grief? It’s important to ask what we’re looking forward to. Answering that question keeps us hopeful. But I don’t want to underestimate the loss we are also experiencing. We know it is good and right to grieve when we experience loss. We know it is spiritually healthy to feel the loss to its fullest, to let it live in us so that we can learn to live with it. So I ask you this questions as well: What have you lost? As always, I am available to talk further with you about this. I welcome your calls or emails. And I also encourage you to talk to each other. Naming our losses is part of the healing. And, ultimately, it will be part of our return to our beloved meeting house on West Vernon St. in Manchester.

With much love and care,

—Rev. Josh

 

Minister’s Column April 2020

Dear Ones:

Let me begin with a heartfelt expression of love and care for all of you. This coronavirus pandemic has upended our lives in ways none of us could have anticipated just a few months ago. To say the least, it is frightening. As I write these words in mid-March, we don’t yet know how long it will last. We don’t yet know the scope of the economic impact, though we know for sure it will be massive. There are still so many unknowns. I’m mindful that there are times when I’ve preached a message of “embracing the unknown.” Well, that sounds a bit romantic right now, perhaps even naïve. This pandemic is not an unknown any of us wants to embrace. Yet, we also have little choice. The pandemic is here. It is frightening. In the midst of it, please know that I love each and every one of you. I love our congregation. I love our UU faith. I will do whatever I can to keep us connected, to keep us caring for one another, and to keep us resilient as a spiritual community.

As I write we are in the midst of a transition to “virtual church.” We are learning as we go. Already there are many meetings and small groups happening online, usually using Zoom. By the time you read this, I hope we have ramped up our capacity for online engagement so that many more of you are able to connect on a regular basis. If you are at all unclear about how to use Zoom or how to engage with UUS:E’s emerging online life, please do not hesitate to contact me at minister@uuse.org, (860) 652-8961or Annie Gentile in the UUS:E office at office@uuse.org, 860-646- 5151.

We are getting good advice from congregations in hard-hit areas like Washington state and New York City. They are telling the rest of us not to try to replicate normal congregational life online. People aren’t necessarily looking for the same kinds of programs. They are looking for experiences and interactions that address our immediate situation. If you have an idea for a kind of online experience you’d like to have with others from UUS:E, please let us know. We will help you set it up and publicize it so that others who are looking for something similar can have access to it as well.

Regarding Sunday services, we conducted our first livestream service using Zoom on March 15. As I write these words, we have been addressing some of the technical issues we encountered that morning, especially the sound quality of the music. Special thanks to Jane Osborn, Dan Thompson, Phil Bognar, Gina Campellone and Mary Bopp for their work on addressing this particular issue. They’ve done such a good job that we are planning to start a weekly virtual concert series on Wednesdays at 7:00 PM with Mary and some of the UUS:E musicians. By the time you read this we will likely already have held a concert or two.

We are not going to plan Sunday services too far in advance. For example, you won’t see in this newsletter any blurbs about upcoming services. This will allow me, Gina, Mary and the Sunday Services Committee to design live stream services that are as relevant as possible to what we are going through as a community, nation and planet. But please be assured our plan is to have a consistent live-stream service every Sunday morning at 10:00 AM. Instructions for logging in or phoning in will be sent every Saturday.

For sharing Joys and Concerns on Sunday morning, we now have a specific email address. Send your brief joys and concerns to joysandconcerns@uuse.org. We will share them during the service.

This is so hard. I am praying. I am praying for health care workers. I am praying for first responders. I am praying for grocery store workers and everyone else whose work supports food production and distribution. I am praying for all those who have lost jobs who were already living from paycheck to paycheck. I am praying for all those who are trying to figure out childcare now that their children are home from school. I am praying for all those who are and will be sick with COVID-19. I am praying for the families of those who have died. I don’t know what impact my prayers will have, but I hope that as I pray I orient myself toward doing what I need to do for me, for my family, for my neighborhood, for the most vulnerable in our region, and perhaps most importantly, for all of you, the members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East. As a reminder, you called me to be your minister exactly 17 years ago (March, 2003). So now I begin my 18th year as your called minister. I begin in prayer that we may endure this global pandemic with as much grace and integrity as we can muster. I begin in prayer that we will get through this difficult time, and carry on for all the days to come.

Indeed, I pray:

May faith in the spirit of life,

and hope for the community of earth,

and love of the light in each other,

be ours now, and in all the days to come.

With love,

– Rev. Josh

UUS:E Special Message — Coronavirus

Dear UUS:E Members, Friends, and Visitors:

With sadness and an abundance of caution in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I write to inform you that the UUS:E Policy Board and staff have made the decision to suspend all large-group programming at UUS:E until further notice. This suspension includes Sunday morning services and religious education. For now, we are postponing or canceling any events or meetings with more than ten people, including the Annual Appeal pot luck meals. However, the meeting house will be accessible. If you have a small event or meeting planned at UUS:E and you would still like to hold it, you may do so. Even so, we urge you to consider using online meeting tools like Zoom, Facebook, Skype, etc. We can offer support in setting up online meetings. We have made this decision not out of fear or panic, but out of care, concern, and love for our community.

Given the strong advice from Governor Lamont, state health officials, the Centers for Disease Control, and our own Unitarian Universalist Association, we feel not only that this is the right decision, but that we have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to help reduce avenues for transmission of the coronavirus.

As UUA President, Susan Frederick-Gray, wrote on March 12, “we believe it is our moral obligation to follow the guidance of health professionals who recommend early action even before cases have been confirmed in an area because it is most important to protect public health and the most vulnerable people in our communities. This moment indeed reminds us of the interconnected web of which we are all a part. It also reminds us of our responsibility as religious communities to be mindful of our need to care for our whole community.”

This is a heartbreaking — but necessary — decision. It’s important to remember that it is only for the time being. This crisis will pass and in time we will be together in person in our beloved meeting house on Elm Hill in Manchester, east of the Connecticut River. And we will be proud that we made this decision to care for each other, our families, our neighbors, and our communities.

We are currently exploring how to hold a virtual worship service on Sunday mornings. Our best guess at this time is that we will hold one service at 10:00 a.m. We will use the Eblast to send information about how to login or call into the service.

We are also exploring how to continue offering religious education programming for children online. Families with children can expect to hear more from our Director of Religious Education, Gina Campellone.

Finally, we want to keep you connected to each other as best we can. The UUS:E Pastoral Friends Committee members will be reaching out to many of you in the coming weeks to check-in. We also urge you to reach out to each other. Make calls, send texts and emails, write letters. And if you have ideas for how our congregation can stay connected during this challenging time, we want to hear them. Please feel free to contact me at minister@uuse.org or (860) 652-8961. And if you are not receiving the weekly eBlast, please click below to sign up.

With love and care,

Rev. Josh

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Minister’s Column March 2020

Dear Ones:

I’d like to share some thoughts about raising MONEY at UUS:E!

First, our annual appeal kicks off on March 1st. Those of you who’ve been around UUS:E for more than a year know how this works. Sign up for a pledging pot luck. If you can’t, please expect an annual appeal steward to contact you for a one-on-one meeting. Please get back to them in a timely fashion. They want to know why and how UUS:E matters in your life!

The cost of operating a nearly 300-member congregation never seems to decline. It only seems to rise. So, as always, we’re asking for increases in financial pledging for the next fiscal year. What drives our projected increases? The Policy Board has set a number of important goals: matching our staff compensation and benefits to UUA guidelines; supporting initiatives to enhance building security; paying dues to the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, and providing sustainable funding for our Membership Coordinator (we hope to rehire this position over the summer).

But making a generous pledge for the coming year is not just about reaching these short-term goals. It’s also an ongoing investment in our spiritual home. Indeed, your investment ensures there will be a home for liberal religion east of the Connecticut River for many years to come—a home for the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; a home for our children to develop their religious identities; a home for beautiful music and compelling visual art; a home for the growth of heart, mind, soul, and relationships; a home that sends us forth to work for justice and equity in the wider community. Our theme for this year’s annual appeal is “Building Beloved Community Through Generosity.” Please plan to make as generous a pledge possible for all we do to build beloved community at UUS:E.

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Second, as some of you are aware, our congregation, like many congregations around the country, is regularly harassed by scammers. They typically pose as me or our president, Rob Stolzman. Using fake email addresses, they send requests for gift cards to UUS:E members and friends. Please ignore these messages. And please know that we will never ask anyone at UUS:E for any kind of donation in this way.

Third, thanks to everyone who participated in February’s sixth annual UUS:E Chocolate Auction. Thanks to the bakers and the bidders. We had everything from good old-fashioned chocolate cake, to chocolate meringue pie, to black bean chocolate brownies and much, much more. The auction earned just under $1300 for UUS:E.

Finally, speaking of fundraisers, the UUS:E policy board is looking to develop our fundraising efforts over the next year. We’re about to put together a team to manage the UUS:E virtual tag sale on eBay. If you’d like to be part of that team, let me know. We’re also in the early planning stages for a vendor-based fair, the “All Creatures Great and Small Festival.” This is a day-long event scheduled for September 26th. It will showcase animal-related services: medical, training, adoption, therapy, etc. There will be live-animal demonstrations, crafts for sale, an art show, raffle and much more. We need volunteers for publicity, set-up, clean-up, parking, managing finances, food prep, and foodservice. We need you! Contact our office at uuseoffice@uuse.org to get involved.

There’s still more. Want to cook a gourmet meal for the UUS:E community to have a night out at Chez UU? Want to work on a team exploring how to rent out our kitchen to local food vendors for off-hours food prep? Contact me.

That’s it for now. Enjoy the end of winter and beginning of spring!

With love,
—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column February 2020

Dear Ones:
Our February ministry theme is resilience. Certain questions come to mind. What keeps us resilient when we encounter challenging times in our personal or family life—the death of a loved-one, news of a difficult diagnosis, loss of a job? What keeps us resilient as we encounter and witness the brokenness in our human family stemming from deep-seated oppressions—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism? What keeps us resilient as climate change continues to progress and our leaders seem incapable of taking action to address it? In my view, one of the purposes of a church like UUS:E is to help each of us answer these questions well.
Our Soul Matters resources remind us that resilience comes “from the Latin re ‘back’ and saliens ‘the beginning, the starting point, the heart of the embryo.’ Saliens also holds the suggestion of movement; to leap, to flow, to run, to hurry.” They point out that “one definition of resilience is the ability to return to one’s original shape after it has been unexpectedly jolted, stretched, flattened, bent, etc.” They ask, “Where are you in the journey of resilience? Starting to feel pulled? Already significantly bent? Stretched and worried about snapping? Slowly returning to form? Still trying to figure out what’s causing the kink? Gratefully back? Realizing there’s no going back to that original shape?” I like this line of questioning and I offer it to you for your contemplation during this cold, winter month.
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I want to highlight a few things I am looking forward to this month:

First, I am excited to be working with Rabbi Richard Plavin who will be offering a course at UUS:E on the Jewish Liturgical Year. While we discuss various Jewish Holy Days during Sunday morning worship, Rabbi Plavin will provide more depth and explain how it all fits together. Classes take place on Thursdays, Feb. 13, 20 and 27 from 4:00 to 5:30. Sign up in the UUS:E office.

Second, I will be running the UUS:E Chocolate Aauction on Sunday the 16th, following the 11:00 service. Always fun. Do not miss it!

Third, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “common read” this year is Roxanne Ortiz-Dunbar’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. From the UUA website: “This extraordinary book challenges readers to learn US history through a narrative that centers the story, the experiences, and the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. In 2019, Beacon Press published an adaptation for young people by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese. Upending myths and misinformation that have been promulgated by leaders and media, it asks readers to reconsider the origin story of the United States taught to every US school child.” Our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee will be coordinating book discussions in the spring. Now is the time to purchase the book and begin reading!

Finally, as many of you will remember, a year ago our Growth Strategy Team (GST) took a comprehensive survey of all UUS:E members and friends in an effort to discover what keeps people engaged in the life of our congregation. On Saturday, February 29 from 9:00 to 11:00, the GST will present the findings. All are welcome and highly encouraged to join us. On that same day from 11:00 to 1:00, the GST will work with UUS:E leaders and anyone else who is interested on how to respond concretely to the survey results. See our Policy Board Column in this newsletter for more info. I hope you can make it!

With love,
—Rev. Josh

Ministers Column January 2020

Dear Ones:

Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had a wonderful holiday season and are ready to begin 2020—UUS:E’s 51st year! Sorry, no big anniversary celebrations this year! But now that we’ve spent a year dedicating a good portion of our collective energy to reviewing the past five decades of our existence, it’s time to look forward. UUS:E leaders are beginning to envision a new strategic planning process. This process will be informed by the results of last year’s congregational survey. I am excited for us to now take a very intentional look at the future of our congregation!

Speaking of the new year, I’ve always loved a reading from the 20th-century Christian mystic Howard Thurman called “The Work of Christmas.” It’s #615 in our hymnal. He writes:

When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost, to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the [siblings],
to make music in the heart.

This reading says to me: “You’ve celebrated your values. Now that the festivities are over, put your values into action!”

Our ministry theme for January is integrity. Putting one’s values into action, living one’s values—which is what Thurman’s post-Christmas reading is about—is a definition of integrity. Our theme-based ministry resource, Souls Matters, reminds us that “Integrity stems from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. So integrity requires an inner sense of ‘wholeness’ and consistency of character. When you are in integrity, people should be able to visibly see it through your actions, words, decisions, methods, and outcomes. When you are ‘whole’ and consistent, there is only one you. You bring that same you wherever you are, regardless of the circumstance. You don’t leave parts of yourself behind.”

It has always been my hope that being part of the UUS:E community helps each of us to live with integrity—to be whole and consistent, to be fully ourselves. That is also my hope for us as a congregation. Within the context of our UU principles and our congregational covenant, what are our core values and how do we live them out? How do we put them into action? What is the shape of our integrity? How do people in the wider community recognize it? I suspect these will be ongoing, underlying questions for us as we begin taking that intentional look toward our UUS:E future. In the meantime, if you have thoughts about integrity, I’d love to hear them. Please feel free to reach out to me.

Once again, happy new year! Here’s to a great 2020 at UUS:E!

With love,

—Rev. Josh

Ministers Column December 2019

Dear Ones:
When I explain Unitarian Universalism to people who have no familiarity with our faith, it is predictable that those who have at least some exposure to Christianity will ask some version of this question: If you do not believe Jesus is the son of God, why do you celebrate Christmas? It might also be this question: If you do not believe in the virgin birth (or the star, or the wise men, etc.,) why do you celebrate Christmas? A corollary question, which is even more difficult to answer: If you do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, why do you celebrate Easter?

I am not sure why, but this year, I am finding these kinds of questions frustrating. It is not the people who ask them—they are usually genuinely curious. What is frustrating is the uncritical assumption that a full-on, heartfelt embrace of Christmas requires a very specific set of beliefs. I am frustrated at having to explain (or at anticipating having to explain) that belief is only one pathway into Christmas. So much of what happens at Christmas has nothing to do with belief. It has to do with culture, family traditions, and the survival of ancient pre-Christian rituals. And it has to do with hope. The earth begins tilting its northern latitudes back toward the sun on the winter solstice. For millennia that phenomenon inspired hope in human hearts. Christianity came along relatively recently in the grand scheme of human history and grafted its stories and beliefs onto a more ancient and diffuse set of celebrations.

I do not read the Biblical stories about the birth of Jesus through the lens of belief. I read them as stories of hope—hope for peace on our planet. And that is all I am going to say when people ask me this year. I am a hopeful person. Moreover, our Unitarian Universalist faith is a hopeful faith. We celebrate Christmas—we worship on Christmas Eve—because we are hopeful people. And like everyone else, we hunger for hopeful messages, hopeful stories, hopeful visions. Like everyone else, we need that reminder that love keeps breaking into the world, repeatedly, bringing healing, transformation, and peace.

Yes, that is what I am going to say this year. We are hopeful people. We celebrate Christmas as, among other things, a way to affirm hope, to instill hope in our hearts, and to spread hope into a hurting world.

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On another note: A friend of UUS:E is looking for housing, preferably an apartment with one bedroom that can accommodate two twin beds in the Manchester, Vernon or Rockville area, and preferably on or near a bus line. She can afford a maximum of $700. If you know of any leads, please let me know, and I will forward the info.

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Friends: I wish you the very best holiday season, a Merry Christmas, and a very happy new year.

With love,

—Rev. Josh