In the final session of the Belonging series, our orientation to Unitarian Universalism and UUFSB, I introduce a two-page accounting of the rights and responsibilities of membership called The Meaning of Membership. In it we read, "When you become a member, you covenant with the congregation and fellow members to extend a warm welcome, respect and appreciation to fellow congregants...and to respond to them with compassion and help in times of celebration and need."
In the words of George Odell, often read in the course of UU memorial services: "We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted." The older I get the more I understand how important it is to attend memorial services when I can, even for people I may not have known well or at all. It "takes a village" to do the work of remembering and celebrating a life. Those who gather for the service bring into the sanctuary the accounts and images that survive the loss of the physical body. Together we recall the whole person, assembling, facet by facet, the story of the who, where, when, what and how of that unique life. At the close of the service, with this whole memory cozied into our hearts, we each walk into a new phase of our relationship with the person who has died. The relationship doesn't end with the death. It changes. Sometimes, it begins there.
Each time I prepare and lead a memorial service, or even just attend one, the little nerve of my mortality is plucked and the little muscle of my humanity grows stronger. The experience opens my heart, knocks me out of my certainties and delusions, messes with my theology, and pushes my own "scared" button. I realize again that any of us could die at any moment. Will it be a crash, a fall, a stroke, a cancer, a heart attack? Will we suffer? Who will come into the room to remember us? What minister will hold my family in that crazy space of devastating loss?
To those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, so much good comes out of the planning and remembering and writing, out of choosing and discussing and arranging the photographs, out of bringing in the art and artifacts of a life, out of reconnecting with family and friends, out of the sharing of stories, some well-known, some new. Every special object, every contribution to the service matters. The new order that emerges from the process, a realignment of priorities, reminders about what matters most in life, stories of mistakes and achievements alike, amount to such a sweet gift for everyone - minister, family, friends, strangers. Some of our Sunday service newcomers first encounter us in the context of a UU memorial service. What a powerful way to witness our faith touching its core theology: the deep worth of each individual and our profound interconnectedness in community.
When someone in our Fellowship community dies, whether you know the person well or not, please do all you can to join us for the memorial service. This is one way love moves through our interdependent web, welcomes the stranger, nourishes our connections, strengthens the little muscle of our humanity, and transforms the lives we are so blessed to be still living.
Breathe in peace, breathe out love,
Just in case you didn't get enough sweets or chocolate during the winter holidays this year, here's this year's favorite recipe. It is the perfect indulgence with which to foil your New Year's weight-loss resolution! This is a recipe that my mother frequently made for potlucks, holidays and dinner parties. It never failed to get kudos. I thought it was one of those "old family recipes," but I Googled it on a lark and found out that many daughters of women in my mother's generation have and love this recipe.
Turns out it was originally publishedin Family Circle around 1970 and reprinted in a Family Circle Cookbook in 1974. Looks like many women my age still have the original page clipped from the magazine with the Winston cigarette ad on the back. I don't have the page, but when I moved to Long Island, I came across several bottles of aromatic bitters. This past summer I found three more while cleaning out a cabinet at the Cape!
5 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 1/2 cups water
2 cups flour, sifted
2 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp aromatic bitters
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup sliced almonds
4 oz. sweet cooking chocolate
1 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp water
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Combine chocolate and water in a small saucepan. Heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate melts. Cool to lukewarm. Sift flour, sugar and salt into large bowl of mixer. Cut in butter with a pastry blender to make a crumbly mixture. Add cooled chocolate mixture. Beat at medium speed for 5 minutes. Chill batter in bowl for at least one hour. Return bowl to mixer. Beat at medium speed for 1 minute. Add eggs, one at a time, beating one minute after each addition. Add aromatic bitters and vanilla and beat 2 minutes. Add baking powder and beat 2 minutes more. Pour batter into an 8-cup (10") Bundt pan which has been greased and lightly dusted with dry cocoa powder. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour and 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and dry. (Start checking 15 minutes before time elapses.) Cool cake in pan on wire rack and cool completely before glazing. Frost with chocolate glaze and garnish.
Break chocolate into pieces. Beat with butter and water, stirring in a small pot over low heat until chocolate melts. Remove from heat. Beat in sugar and salt until smooth. Stir in vanilla. After all is smooth, return to heat briefly so the glaze is slightly runny, and then pour quickly over the cake to achieve an uneven, drizzled effect. Glaze sets quickly, so garnish with almonds immediately, if desired. Makes about ½ cup.
Feeding people good food is a wonderful way to minister to the world. Add this to your specialties! Yum.
I love wood. I can think of my life as an accumulation of affections. Sounds like that might be mostly about people, and of course I have loved and love and will love many human beings and animals over the course of my life. But there is another category of affections that nourish me in a different way, though no less powerfully.
My earth-centered theology and practice, the source of my own spiritual growth and renewal, teaches me that our world, in its earthy roots, is sustained by endless cycles of gracious sacrifice. This past Sunday I talked a bit about my love affair with bread. I said that one thing I loved about bread making is the feel of the dough in my hands. When it is coming out right, it is soft and responsive and smooth like a baby's skin. It feels alive. The bread has a kind of elastic body that fills up with the air the yeast breathe out. The yeast breathe the loaf into loafness and then give themselves to the loaf. The sweet beings of wheat and sugar cane and dairy cows and sun and rain come transformed into our bodies in that loaf. Their lives become ours, and ours, eventually theirs. Maybe they don't know that they are giving themselves, but we know. I know, and when I see it, I feel a fondness for the givers.
It is like that with wood. For five years earlier in my life I owned a little woodstove-heated farmhouse and 17 acres of a wooded valley in the Virginia mountains. We cut, split, hauled, and stacked all the wood we used to heat the house, about 4 cords of wood (a cord is a tight stack 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long). I learned about firewood, chainsaws, splitting mauls and wedges in those years. I learned to identify different kinds of wood from bark and leaves and grain patterns. I became intimate with wood, carried it in the cuffs of my pants, in my nostrils and in my arms. And I learned to savor gorgeous, pungent, exhausting and fulfilling fall days spent in the woodlot by the creek.
So when the hurricane in August brought down the trees in my neighborhood, I honored the loss by accepting the gift of the downed wood. I collected wood until my family thought I was a bit crazy. And Matt and I have been working together for months now to turn logs and branches into cords: black walnut, maple, oak, dogwood, locust, cherry, apple. Beautiful lives given to the wind, to my Virginia heart, to the fires that will warm my family this winter.
Beings fall around us every minute of every day. Human beings have brought unnecessary violence to the field of sacrifice that is the natural world. We give our children to war, our Earth to pollution, for instance. But the sacrifice of baby rabbits to the owl at midnight, the loss of trees in a terrible storm, our own bone-ashes to the welcoming ground, though hard and sad, seem fair and gracious to me. It is the way of earth. We receive much and we give much.
Loss is autumn's scripture, the gospel of gracious sacrifice, the gifts we give in giving up.
In June of 2009 Gil Hanson, Rev. Carol Wolff and a small host of pioneers in Small Group Ministry (SGM) facilitation took on the project of creating a new ministry at UUFSB. They called it "Sharing Circles": groups of 6 to 10 people who regularly engage in facilitated reflection, speaking and listening on a variety of topics.
As the Fellowship begins to concentrate more intentionally on welcome, inclusion, engagement and excellence in ministry, more people will visit and more people will choose to stay. This kind of influx is naturally going to foster changes in what we look like, how we function and what we do together. And change -- oh, how we all know -- can be stressful.
Change always creates both a sense of loss and a sense of exciting potential. Change also generates energy, a neutral natural resource. We can harness that energy to move us forward in the form of creativity and hope or allow it to paralyze us in the form of fear and anxiety. SGM is one powerful way to channel neutral energy towards the more hopeful, flexible, receptive pole of the dilemma of change.
Our Sharing Circles provide a way for newcomers to make strong connections quickly. At the same time, groups that purposefully foster meaningful new relationships and deepen existing ones reassure long-time members who might be nervous about "not knowing everybody" anymore. In other words, small group ministry tends to preserve the goodness of "small" in a congregation that has decided to grow simply because it doesn't want to weave even one soul out of the web of faith and fellowship.
Ministry programs grow in stages, deliberately, responsive to new ideas, new needs, new challenges. This year, Sharing Circles enters Phase II of its development and much is new. We reworked our guiding covenant. We trained some new facilitators. Nancy Koch, Mary Riley, John and Ginger Williams are new and Alexis Grasso and Mena Ostapchuk continue in the role. We created a Handbook to help us stay true to our intentions as a ministry. We also decided that all groups would meet monthly and use the same session topic. This means that with six full groups, about a third of our membership will be thinking about the same topic every month. We think that is pretty cool.
The mission of the Sharing Circles Program is topractice the art of speaking and listening from the heart as a path to personal growth." We work to achieve this by helping participants
connect to a cadre of new friends and deepen those connections over time;
build commitment to each other and to our faith community;
practice the art of covenantal relationship;
engage in the spiritual practice of attentive listening and deep sharing;
create a "safe space" in which to explore difficult-to-share feelings, needs and stories;
care for one another during times of trouble and celebration;
develop and clarify personal values, beliefs and theology;
teach, learn and model group facilitation skills;
contribute to the fulfillment of the mission and vision goals of our congregation.
Fondly, as always,
If you were at the Fellowship on Sunday morning, September 11th, you had the opportunity to be a part of this "moment in history" document. We gathered that morning on the green behind the sanctuary. There we remembered who we are, what we love and what we promise one another and the world as Unitarian Universalists and members and friends of this congregation. We carried the symbols we named into the sanctuary with us, singing "Come, come, whoever you are!" Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times, "come, yet again, come." This is a place for beginning again. Together we learn. Together we heal. Together we set our feet again on the path to wholeness and meaning.
Look at that panoramic picture. Even if you've been around a while and know most everyone, you'll spot at least one person there you've never even seen before. He or she may not know yet what you found out years ago. This is a place where the Spirit of Life comes to us, sings in our hearts, blows in the wind, rises in the sea, moves in our hands, shaping our responses to the beauty and pain in the world around us. This Fellowship is a place where a stranger can become a friend, can rest, be safe, be supported and challenged, a place where hope is alive.
You all who were newcomers on that Sunday, you have made an important and precious discovery. Please don't hesitate to discover more. Come back soon, introduce yourself to some friendly strangers, ask the awkward questions, sign up for the Belonging classes, make this your spirit's new home. You all whose place and faith this has been for some time, please offer your hand and say "Hello," share your hymnal, move over one seat, give a tour, make some introductions, answer some questions, tell everyone you meet how this place has changed you.
This is what Unitarian Universalist salvation looks like. Welcome, song, love, acceptance, connection, promises, support, partnership, hope, transformation -- this is what saves people.
Let no one be a stranger long,
Out of our various summers we roll now into the fall of our second year together! I am back, restored by rest and study and ready to be faith-full among you as best I can. And you?
We return, as we do every fall, minister and congregation, to find our fellowship home mostly comfortingly the same. But in some ways much has changed. Why? Because we have each changed, a little or a lot, and those changes make who we are when we come back together a whole different deal. So "roll with it," I say. "Roll in it," even. Revel in the changes, the news, the creations, the dreams. Tell those new stories. Listen to others talk about their discoveries and losses. Reach out to the many newcomers who may have moved right in while you were off vacationing or sleeping-in or visiting the church-of-outdoors. The new You, the new UU, is all around us these coming Sunday mornings.
I like to let you know early in the new church year how you can reach me and some reasons you might want to. Bottom line: I aspire to show up when you need me. When might you think to get in touch with me? Let me know when
- you need a sympathetic ear for problems or decisions you are facing regarding your job, children, marriage, relationship, or anything else;
- you are feeling confused, depressed, isolated or hopeless or have a joy to share; you notice that someone you know in the congregation needs support;
- you are trying to figure out how to respond to the needs of a friend or loved one who is ill or in trouble or you yourself are dealing with an illness, disability or facing surgery;
- someone close to you is near death or has died or and you need help with end-of-life planning or a service;
- you're planning to marry, struggling in a relationship or contemplating divorce;
- you're pregnant but wish you weren't or are thrilled you are;
- you would like to have a child dedicated;
- you are undergoing a major transition in your life and feel the need to ritually recognize, privately or publicly, the threshold you are crossing;
- you or someone you know has questions about religion or Unitarian Universalism;
- you are seeking to build your theology, deepen your spiritual life or are undergoing a spiritual crisis;
- you're considering membership in the congregation or have already joined and are wondering how you can participate more fully in congregational life;
- you would like to share your talents and gifts as part of one of our groups, committees, or classes, or serve as a volunteer in some other way;
- you have suggestions about sermons or programs or have a project you would like to initiate;
- you want to affirm something good going on in the congregation or would like to discuss a congregational issue that is troubling you;
- you're mad at me or someone else and want to air your feelings and work towards resolution;
- you'd just like to come sit with me and see what may open to us.
I am not a lone ranger in pastoral care. We do it together. The Pastoral Assistants lead the congregation in our mutual caregiving, keeping their ears to the ground, offering classes, making calls and visits, organizing to make hard times a bit easier and good times more special. Don't hesitate to contact any one of them as a first step when a little support will make a big difference. They are Linda Kirk (chair), Linda Mikell, Shelley Frankel, Ellen Pecchia, Karen Foernsler, Sue Serie, Alice Cialella, Wendy Engleheart, Joanne Gunther, and Joann Bengston.
Remember this, as we dance this sultry summer out into the bright lights of fall: our faith asks us to come out of our separate rooms into a common and sharing place where love brings help, where truth overcomes secrets, where conversation yields hope, solidarity strength, and clarity justice. Come out and risk being yourself. There are so few places in the world that aspire to offer that kind of freedom and light.
In that light,