Meg Riley, Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our largest congregation (http://clf.uua.org/#), wrote this for the April edition of Quest for Meaning, the CLF monthly for religious liberals (www.QuestForMeaning.org). I cried when I read it, because I have had this experience myself and have heard many similar stories over the years. I offer you this edited version of Meg’s story, one sweet articulation of the Easter story, the story of how we die and how, in various ways, we never really do.
The hawk or, in my case, the mourning dove and the fox, are messengers. They remind us that those whom we have loved well and lost do rise again in memory and that the basic elements and energy of which we are all composed are surely conserved in earth’s continuing creative process. There is much we do not understand. But there are, I believe, messengers.
Happy Easter, friends,
Thank you so much. Here is a big thank you to the UUFSB community for the gift of your hard work, love, risk and smiling presence in co-creating with Linda and me the perfect second marriage ceremony. On Sunday, February 12th, you stood on the side of love in a packed sanctuary to witness together the insertion of a critical missing piece into the fabric of our May 30, 2010 pre-NY-marriage-equality-law wedding. The pictures here (to the left and right), of our order of service and our wedding “colors,” are from that ceremony which was joyfully and efficiently hosted by the congregation Linda served for 18 years. That day we committed to one another for life in exactly the same way heterosexual couples do when they marry. May 30 is the anniversary of our wedding day.
But on February 12, 2012, we acquired another anniversary date that we will share with you forever. On that day we created in our sanctuary and in every participant’s heart a visible, visceral, vital symbol of justice being done. Dixie and Rich, as president and vice-president of the congregation, signed our marriage license on your behalf. The spirit of life moved in their hands “to give life the shape of justice” as they bore witness to your effort as a congregation to ensure that we too have the additional support that official legal and societal endorsement of our commitment provides. And all Long Island watched. Channel 12 News and Newsday were there. Many thanks to Catherine G. and Tom P. for their genius in drawing and managing the media’s attention.
You know, Linda and I planned all the details of our Kingston, NY wedding. Nothing was a surprise, so it didn’t matter much that we were typical brides on our wedding day, too nervous and emotional to really take it all in. Our Stony Brook wedding day was different. Many of the details were in your hands and you planned lots of surprises! And I worry that we were again too verklempt to notice all the sweet details you had painstakingly set in place. Regardless of what we missed, though, we were totally bowled over by your love and generosity. Thank you to Dan W., Tom P., Joan R. and Dixie C. for tending the idea over its months of gestation. Thank you to Deborah G. for stepping up to coordinate the team that made the final vision manifest. Thank you to Linda M., Barbara C. and Stefani S. and all who worked on the wedding aesthetics. You got it just right: a hint of wedding embedded in a justice theme. Thanks to Deborah G. for the cupcakes and Lisa S. for the fancy wedding cake that tasted as good as it looked! Thanks to the many hands that supplied a bottomless fount of champagne and sparkling juice, to Laura L. and Janet K. for their able assistance as liturgists for the service and to Dan W., Claudia J., Greg G., David K. and Bethany R. and members of the Unicorn Singers for music that opened the little door to the loving soul. Maureen S. and Gayle R., thank you for your creativity in assembling such an amazing array of gifts for Linda and me, including a week anywhere in the world and more than enough money to get us there, a handmade chalice, a wedding album, a bag of Valentine’s chocolates and more. Dan W., thank you for your just-right very Dan-ish toast that was not a song and yet was. Thanks to everyone who attended the service for putting $1116.00 in the plate for the national Standing on the Side of Love initiative. And three cheers for the Rev. Dr. Don McKinney! Thank you all for coming. Here’s to love and justice!
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,