April 2014 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

It is my sincere hope that by the time you read these words we are no longer pining away for spring, but that it has actually arrived. It is my sincere hope that by now you have felt the first true warmth of spring—warm sun, warm breezes, warm rain. It is my sincere hope that the beauty of spring has begun to set­tle around you—that you have felt it, smelled it, seen it, heard it, tasted it. It is my sincere hope that any win­ter-induced depression that may have set in through February and March is now fading into the returning green. It is my sincere hope that Nature’s steady rebirth inspires your own steady rebirth in these early days of spring.

Our ministry theme for April is reconciliation. I am, at least as I write these words, wondering about the role of reconciliation in our lives. I’m toying with the general idea that reconciliation is a path to personal peace and contentment, whereas a lack of reconciliation can lead to inner struggle, dissonance, turmoil. On one level this is obvious. We ought to seek reconciliation whenever and wherever we can. We ought to seek reconciliation with those we’ve harmed and with those who’ve harmed us. We ought to seek reconciliation in the midst of conflict between those at war. We ought to seek reconciliation with the human condition, with the reality of death. We ought to seek reconciliation with the earth. We ought to seek reconciliation with whatever it is we hold sacred.

And yet we know sometimes reconciliation is not possible. Perhaps the person who harmed us has died. Perhaps the warring parties are beyond anyone’s reach. Perhaps the earth has already suffered too much damage. Perhaps the sacred is too veiled in mystery. What happens when reconciliation is not possible? Is it not true that a state of being unreconciled may be the genesis of remarkable creative energy? Is it not true that a state of being unreconciled – as painful as it may be – may inspire us to achieve in some way, serve in some way, love in some way?

With love,  Rev. Josh

March 2014 Ministers Column

 

Dear Ones:

In our Feb 2nd service I shared a meditation from the Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox in which she said, “Creation gives us snow.” Well, that may be true, but I am also very hopeful that by the time you read this message, we will be well beyond the worst of this winter’s snow. Right now, writing in mid-February, I’m looking out my window at somewhere in the vicinity of two feet of snow on the ground, and much higher piles that have resulted from my seemingly endless shoveling and snow blowing. I feel, at times, that I’m losing track of days because so many events have been cancelled and re-scheduled, and the kids have had so much time off from school. With heart-felt apologies to any skiers and winter-sports lovers in the congregation, I’m ready for an end to this year’s winter weather.

Creation gives us snow—especially here in New England—but it also gives us seasons. Not just winter, spring, summer and fall—though those are important and beautiful, each in their own way—but seasons of our lives. While transitions between the seasons of the year happen very naturally and usually right on schedule, I’ve observed that the seasons of our lives can come with a little more difficulty. It may be a cliché, but I think it’s worth naming from time to time: we don’t always transition gracefully from life season to life season.

Our March ministry theme is surrender. This has been one of my favorite sermon themes over the years, and I’m looking forward to raising questions about the place of surrender in our spiritual lives. Creation gives us snow, but winter inevitably surrenders to spring’s thaw, which in turn surrenders to summer’s heat, and on and on. It strikes me that any transition we make in our lives involves a certain amount of surrender. I suppose we are always at some level surrendering certain aspects of our prior years in order to live more grace­fully in the coming years. For example, watching one’s children come into adulthood requires a parent to sur­render their role as primary caregiver. I know no parent who has gone through this process and not encoun­tered some internal challenge surrendering their old life to make room for the new one.

Part of what it means to be wise is having an understanding of what is and isn’t possible. We gain wis­dom as we surrender our attachments to dreams that, it turns out, weren’t practical. I’m not suggesting that we abandon all our impractical dreams, especially if they still call to us. Certainly the world needs dreamers of impractical dreams. But I am suggesting that as we look back over our lives, we will likely see that we have made choices along the way. And often those choices involved surrendering some earlier dream of what our lives could be. I think about my own adolescent and young adult dream of becoming a rock star. (By the way, before that it was becoming a professional baseball player; and for a few brief moments in college I dreamed of becoming a politician.) Somewhere along the way I chose a different path. Somewhere along the way I sur­rendered. I feel sad recalling this. But I also know there was wisdom in surrendering.

With love,

Rev. Josh

 

February 2014 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

“Love will guide us.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can   do that.”

“There is more love somewhere”

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you your  age.”

“Love is blind, and lovers cannot see, the pretty follies that themselves commit.”

“Doubt that the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move his aides, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never   doubt I love.”

“You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

“Love stinks!”

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you…I could walk through my garden forever.”

“Love, love me do.”

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people   by halves, it is not my nature.”

“Love me tender, love me sweet.”

“Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures   of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

“What’s love got to do with it?”

So much has, is and will be said about love. The risk is always that we lose sight of what love is. Of course, love is more than one thing. And because it is rooted in those places in us that so often lie beyond words—and often beyond understanding—it is difficult to say with real precision what love is. But I’d like to try. Our ministry theme for February is love. I’m mindful of a poem from WH Auden, “So Tell Me the Truth About Love.” Well, that’s what I’d like us all to do this month. Let’s explore what we mean in those instances when we use the word. Let’s try to tell the truth about love.

With deep and abiding love (which I will try to name),

Rev. Josh

January 2014 Minister’s Column

Hallelujah!

Dear Ones:

Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had a peaceful and restful holiday season. Winter is here. Cold, snow

and ice are here. Snow-blowing, shoveling, sanding and salting are here. Freezing and shivering are here. Hats, mittens, gloves, heavy coats and boots are here. Frozen car batteries are here. The dark season continues, though we know longer days are slowly returning. I hope and pray that this winter treats you well. I hope and pray that 2014 treats you well.

Our ministry theme for January is evil. A number of you have already told me you’re not clear on why

we’ve chosen this theme. I’ve had to confess that I lobbied pretty hard to include it this year. Certainly evil is one of those haunting religious words that many liberal religious people find little value in discussing. “It’s something religious conservatives talk about, but not us.” I get that. But evil is used commonly in both religious and secular contexts, and it feels important to me that we name what we mean if and when we use it. So, here are a few of my preliminary thoughts about what evil is and isn’t:

  • Evil is not the result of the machinations of some divine entity or fallen angel. There is no so-called “prince of darkness.”
  • Natural disasters may cause much suffering, but they are not evil, nor do they originate from the wrath of a divine entity.
  • Evil is not in any way inherent in the world, nature, or human beings, though human beings and human institutions certainly have the capacity to act in evil ways.
  • In attempting to identify what evil is, I begin with human behavior and ask questions like these: What kinds of behaviors destroy the human spirit? What kinds of behaviors diminish human dignity? What kinds of behaviors prevent human freedom and agency? What kinds of behaviors cause physical and emotional damage among human beings?
  • It is possible for good people to participate (wittingly and unwittingly) in the evil of human systems and institutions. For example, if we agree that the current fossil-fuel-based global energy system is destroying the planet, and if we agree that this destruction is a form of evil, then what are we to make of our own participation in this system? And, if we can identify racism operating in various systems and institutions in our country, and if we agree that racism is a form of evil, then what are we to make of our own participation in those systems and institutions?
  • I don’t expect agreement (anywhere) on a single definition of evil. I expect a wide variety of views and a large grey area. However, the absence of agreement should not lead to the absence of action. Whether we use the term evil or not, there are atrocities that require our faithful response.

Evil is not an easy or pleasant theme to explore. But I do think it behooves us to explore it with intention from time to time. That’s my goal this month—an exploration. I hope you find this exploration meaning meaningful.

With love,

Rev. Josh

December 2013 Ministers Column

I love the way the natural world presents itself to us at this time of year. Daylight hours are short. The trees have let go of their leaves. Cold wind sweeping across now-barren yards and fields invites an inward turn—a turn towards rest and reflection, a turn towards silence, a turn towards peace. I suppose those invita­tions are always with us, but somehow I recognize them more in this season.

I love the glitz and the glam of the holiday season as well—I’ve said this many times before. The lights, the rushing around, the shopping and general air of festivity energize me as well. Still,  I feel most “at home” in this season when the sun sets early, the stars come out, and that cold pre-winter wind starts sweeping across the now-barren land. I’m never quite sure why I feel this way. Perhaps it’s because I finally feel I have permission to look inward for a time, permission to rest for a time, permission to slow down. Perhaps it’s con­nected to pleasant associations from my childhood. I’m never quite sure. But I know I feel at home in this sea­son.

Having said that, I am aware from conversations with many of you over the years that this is the part of the season you like the least. Many of you, quite frankly, can’t stand the darkness, or the cold, or the wind. And for others, the holiday season is challenging for different reasons: remembering loved ones now gone; dis­appointment with the commercialization of the season; the general stress of preparing for family visits, shop­ping, fighting the traffic, etc. For all these reasons and more, many people report feeling blue during and after the holidays. The term “Blue Christmas” has become common. For the first time in my ministry I will offer a “Blue Christmas” service this year (Dec. 15). It seems important. Our ministry theme for the month is joy— and I really want to acknowledge and honor all of us who struggle to find real, authentic joy in this season.

Of course, I don’t want to lose sight of joy either. There is much joy to be found in the midst of the holiday season. There is joy to be found in songs of light and gladness, in opportunities for connection, in fes­tivity, in moments of quiet, solitude, rest and peace, and even in the mad rush of shopping, cooking, decorating and visiting. There is much joy to be found.

My prayer for us is thus twofold. First, I pray that in the midst of all our Blue Christmas times, we may find the support and comfort of people who understand what we’re going through and are willing simply to be with us in whatever sadness or pain we may feel. I hope UUS:E can be one source of such people in your life. Second, I pray there will be moments of joy for each of us, perhaps in unexpected places and at unexpected times. I hope UUS:E can be one source of joy in your life during this holiday season. May it be so.

With love,  Rev. Josh

November 2013 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

This is the month when, among many other things, we’ll celebrate the 10-year anniversary of my call to serve as UUS:E’s minister. I’m excited to have one of my important mentors, the Rev. Mel Hoover, joining us for this occasion and preaching on November 10th. Mel will talk about the journey of Unitarian Universalism as he has encountered it in recent decades. And on November 17th I will preach about the next leg of our jour­ney together at UUS:E: hiring a new Director of Religious Education and implementing a new vision for the future of religious education at UUS:E. With the 10th anniversary celebration, the Holiday Fair, Thanksgiving, Transgender Day of Remembrance and much more, it’s going to be an exciting month!

My anniversary is one of the reasons we selected journeys as our ministry theme for November. For me, our partnership in ministry has been an incredible journey. Perhaps the most visible fruits of that journey are our expanded building and its various green energy features. I am still so proud (and suspect I always will be) to take visitors on tours of our meeting house!

When I reflect on the less visible fruits of our journey in ministry together, a number of things come immediately to mind: our small group ministry program, our growing adult religious education program, our presence on the world wide web and the quality of our website, the continuing high quality of our Sunday wor­ship services, the recent growth of our high school youth group, and our role as a faith-based leader in a num­ber of social change efforts in Connecticut: marriage equality, transgender civil rights, the environmental jus­tice law, the “aid in dying” movement, and much more. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together.

But I’m also mindful that the journey of congregational ministry never ends. We pass it on from one generation to the next. Each generation has its opportunity to shape the ministry. One of the themes I keep reading about in books and articles on ministry is that there comes a time in the life of any congregation when the ways in which previous generations have “gotten things done” no longer work for new generations. For a number of reasons I’m beginning to suspect that our way of “getting things done” at UUS:E may not be as ef­fective as it used to be. We rely on committees to do the work of the congregation; and we rely on individuals to step up and lead committees. But it appears to be getting harder and harder to find people who have the time and energy to serve as leaders on committees. There are many reasons for this, but I want to be clear: the fact that the realities of peoples’ lives make it harder to engage in congregational life in the traditional way does not mean that people aren’t excited about UUS:E’s ministry. I think people are very excited and feel there is potential to do amazing things at UUS:E. But it also means that people want to engage differently. This raises questions for me. Can we figure out new ways for people to engage? Can we adapt to changing times? How can we make it easy and simple for passionate people to pursue the ministries they long to pursue at UUS:E? These are new questions for us. But I think they’re right questions. I think adapting to changing times is part of our journey in the coming years. I, for one, am looking forward to it! I hope you are too!

With love,

Rev. Josh

October 2013 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

Our ministry theme for October is abundance. I’ve been struggling to find my footing with this term. I’m mindful of the notion that abundance is a matter of perspective. That is, if you view life as a competition for scarce resources, or if you assume the world is a place of limits, stringencies, insufficiencies, etc., then you will encounter scarcity everywhere you go. But if you view life as an effort to share the gifts of the earth and all that humanity holds in common, or if you assume the world is more or less able to provide for all its inhabi­tants in a more or less unending way, then you will encounter abundance everywhere you go. It’s a matter of perspective.

I think this notion is way too simple. The person who notices scarcity is not necessarily just imagining it. We know there are many examples of real scarcity in many parts of the world: scarcity of clean drinking wa­ter, of healthy food, of breathable, unpolluted air, of decent educational opportunities, of access to work that pays a living wage. We know that for people who live in poverty in the United States and elsewhere, scarcity is a daily reality. For anyone who lacks access to clean drinking water, scarcity is a daily reality. I don’t think it is fair to say to people living with scarcity that abundance is a matter of perspective, that if you change your view of the world you shall have abundance. It just isn’t true.

Of course, talking about abundance in these terms points to questions of our material existence and relative comfort—wealth, access to shelter, food, water, educational opportunities, work, health care, etc. But what about our spiritual lives? What might it mean to have abundance in our spiritual lives regardless of our material condition? And is that a fair question? I ask because I don’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that an abundant spiritual life makes material comforts unnecessary. I don’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that an abundant spiritual life is a fine substitute for social and economic poverty. The meek may inherit the earth, but that doesn’t mean they expect to stay poor.

Having said all of this, I’m also not yet prepared to jettison the notion that abundance is, at least at times, a matter of perspective. I feel there is something valuable worth exploring here. That is, when we talk about abundance, what is the relationship between our material lives and our spiritual lives? I’m only begin­ning to gather my thoughts at the time of writing this column, but somehow an abundant spiritual life ought to lead to balance in our material lives. And here’s my best statement (so far) about what that balance might look like: 1) A desire for sufficient (enough?) material comfort as opposed to a desire to hoard wealth. 2) A willing­ness to work for a world in which all people have access to sufficient economic resources. 3) A generous orien­tation towards others; a willingness to give. 4) A capacity to find joy and value in spiritual things (worship, family, community, learning, growing, spiritual practice, spiritual experience) more than material things, with­out losing sight of the role material comforts play in our lives.

I hope these initial reflections seem worthwhile to you. I look forward to be in dia­logue with you about abundance.

With love,

Rev. Josh

September 2013 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

Summer seems to be fading quickly and I am revving up for the new congregational year! I’m ex­cited—and certainly a bit daunted—in response to all that lies ahead of us this year. Most significantly, as I’m sure you know by now, we will be looking for a replacement for Vicki Merriam, our long-time Director of Re­ligious Education. Vicki will be retiring next June after more than three decades of excellent, dedicated service to UUS:E.

Transformation is our ministry theme for September.  I’m becoming aware that this process of search­ing for a new Director of Religious Education will transform UUS:E. Certainly having a new program staff person will bring many changes to our congregation. But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what happens when UUS:E members and friends get together to express and to hear what they really, really want from our religious education program. I think answering this question in conversation with each other helps us articulate our most deeply-held values and our best vision for the future of our congregation. When we talk about what we want from our religious education program, we’re talking about the ways in which we support, nourish and prepare our children—the ways in which we express our love for them as a spiritual community. Further, when we have this conversation, we’re talking about the future of our faith. We’re acknowledging that we want our faith to persist in the world, that we believe our faith has a saving mes­sage for a world that is hurting in so many ways.

And when we talk about these things, I believe we cannot help but be transformed. No, we aren’t trans­formed in a blinding flash like Saul on the road to Damascus. We aren’t converted to a new world-view in an instant. We aren’t born again. But in reminding ourselves about our most deeply-held values, in reminding ourselves about how much we care for our children, in reminding ourselves about the great need for a free faith in a hurting world, our spirits are renewed, our resolve strengthened, our voices clarified, and our faith deepened. In short, we are transformed.

So, I urge you to watch for ways you can be involved in this conversation. Sign up for in-home pot­luck meals at which we will explore together the future of religious education at UUS:E. Watch for an online survey. Come to the fall congregational meeting on October 6th.

I truly hope you’ll be part of the conversation. I truly hope it will serve as a source of transformation for you.

With love,

Rev. Josh

July 2013 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

Welcome to Summer. Remember: we are holding single Sunday services at 10:00 a.m. for July, August and September 1st. How might you use the time before or after the 10:00 service to connect with each other? Might you meet for meals, coffee, hikes, discussion groups? I encourage you to be creative with this time and with each other!

I will be on vacation (mostly) through the month of July, and then on ‘study leave’ (mostly) through much of August. But, having said that, I want to let you know that I will be spending time this summer working on the first phase of our search for a new Director of Religious Education (DRE). While the full process is still emerging at the time of writing this column, one thing we are sure of is that our first step is to envision the Future or Religious Education at UUS:E. This envisioning will happen in a number of ways. I will be hosting multigenerational conversations about the future of RE following services on July 28th and August 25th. We will also be organizing in-home summer potlucks and an online survey to help us articulate our religious education future.

Following this period of envisioning, the UUS:E Policy Board, Religious Education Committee and Personnel Committee will work on a new job description so that the position is set up for success. That’s Phase 2. Then the Policy Board will establish a formal search committee that will conduct interviews and recommend a final candidate. That’s Phase 3. Again, all of this is still emerging. Nothing is etched in stone yet. But that’s a snapshot of a process that makes sense.

Karen Bellavance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Mass Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association visited UUS:E on June 11th. She offered some important advice about “best practices” for conducting a DRE search. She cautioned us that there will be bumps in the road, that it won’t necessarily be a smooth process. She even suggested we need to prepare for the event that we conduct a search and don’t find the right candidate. In short, she reminded us that searching for a DRE, like searching for a minister, can be a tense and emotional experience for a congregation. We may rub each other the wrong way from time to time. In these moments we need to come back to our covenant and our principles. We need to remember to listen deeply to each other and treat each other with respect. There’s a lot at stake. I look forward to this process and to realizing all the opportunities it presents.

Have a great summer!

With love,

June 2013 Minister’s Column

Dear Ones:

When I pause to remember our spiritual forbears in the United States, I’m mindful that many Uni­tarians (and some Universalists) were people who believed firmly that we human beings can know the world through our exercise of reason. If we put our minds to it, we can come to know the origins of life on earth. If we put our minds to it, we can come to know the inner workings of the tiniest bits of reality. If we put our minds to it, we can visit (at least in theory) the very outer edges of the universe. If we put our minds to it, we can discern solutions to life’s most intractable problems. If we put our minds to it, and give ourselves sufficient time for exploration, we can know just about anything. There is no wilderness so deep or so dark that reason cannot penetrate it with the light of understanding. As a spiritual heir of the 19th and 20th century Unitarians, I continue to place my faith in human reason as an essential element of the well-lived spiritual life.

However, it is also clear to me that reason alone is insufficient for the full flowering of even the most modern spirituality. I think there is wilderness all around us—not only in the cold depths of oceans, or the vast expanse of deserts, or the lush darkness of rain forests, but in the depths of the human soul and the vastness of the human heart. I think there is wilderness all around us—both literal and metaphorical— and reason alone cannot lead us to understanding or clarity in the midst of it.  We discover this wilderness in our encounters with evil. We discover this wilderness as we try to make sense of suffering—our own, or that of others. We encounter this wilderness when we witness human acts of selflessness, courage and love. We encounter this wilderness in our quiet, wordless moments; in our prayerful moments; in our moments of meditation; in our moments of losing ourselves in the greater whole. Sometimes, reason isn’t enough. What do we do then?

Our ministry theme for June is wilderness. I think there is a place for wilderness in our spiritual lives—a place of unknowing, a place of mystery, a place of blessed darkness, a place where wandering and searching are all we can do. I’m excited to wrestle with this idea as we pass from spring into summer. I’m excited to share my reflections on the wilderness in my life;and I’m excited to learn from you about the wilderness in your life, how you approach it, and what it teaches you.

With love,

Rev. Josh