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,
I am writing this mid-summer "Letter from Nearby" from my berth at the 25th Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI) in Radford, VA. Last summer, Linda, Matthew and I traveled back here to my home country, the Blue Ridge foothills, for our first SUUSI. We found a whole new UU world. There are 1100 of us here this year, UUs from all over the country, a true intergenerational mix, everyone so ready to relax, worship, recreate, volunteer and learn together on a college campus that is ours for five magical days. Check it out at http://www.suusi.org/pubfiles/Suusi%202011%20Catalog_0.pdf.
The day includes worship together after breakfast and dinner every day. There is a concert after the evening service, but outstanding music breaks out everywhere you turn -- in the dining hall, under the trees, in the bookstore. Here are some of the performers: David Roth (http://www.davidrothmusic.com), Brother Sun (http://www.brothersunmusic.com), Don White (http://www.donwhite.net/main.htm), Tret Fure (http://www.tretfure.com/).
Linda and I join six other UU couples in a Couples Enrichment class every morning. In the afternoon, we have circle dancing or drumming. On Monday we went on a trip to a swimming hole near the Appalachian Trail called Dismal Falls. Tuesday we went with a vanload of kids and adults to a Pulaski Mariners baseball game. Trips like these into the surrounding countryside are a SUUSI specialty. You can choose from a wide variety of options, including canoe and kayak, swimming, tubing, biking, hiking, horseback riding, slogging up waterfalls, lunches at wineries and herb farms, visits to cultural centers... Join us next year!
On the way down here, we stopped by Tandems East in Pittsgrove, NJ, where we worked with the genius owner to create a tandem that fits our bodies. In tandem-math, one plus one equals more than two! We love the fluid feel of being a tandem unit. We bought a blue da Vinci Grand Junction -- rolling soon down a Long Island byway near you! On our way home from SUUSI we will be spending an afternoon at Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. Linda has never visited.
Over the next few weeks I'll be hunkering down to another set of study leave projects and outdoor adventures: setting service themes for the 2011-12 year, doing some more prep reading, planning our August and September Sunday services, moving along in my new Rosetta Stone Spanish language course (!), swimming in Cape Cod Bay and my favorite kettle pond, Sheep Pond, and making some more biking muscles.
You take care of your minister in part by making sure I have time during the year to rest, learn, care for my body and my marriage, and refill the spiritual well from which my ministry arises. Thank you so much for this time away. Please know that I am using your gift well. See you soon!
Our Flowers and Passages Sunday service on June 19th included a recitation of our congregational milestones. I wanted to be sure those who were not there could also contemplate and celebrate our awesome first year of ministry together. Look what we accomplished!
We hired our new Consulting Minister on a three-year contract and are putting in place a process to guide us dependably when the time comes to consider a call to ministry together.
We hired Gretta Johnson-Sally as our new Director of Religious Education and have already seen a significant increase in RE attendance and new families.
We were one of nine "threshold congregations" chosen for a special program of the Central East Regional Group, a cooperative group of four Districts of our Association of Congregations. Our application showed that we are "ready to break through to the next level of activity and effectiveness," and they want to partner with us in making that happen.
Last September we successfully launched a new major annual fundraiser, the Woodlands Folk Festival, which replaces the 1890's Fair, a summer festival for which this congregation was long well known on Long Island. Woodlands happens again this coming September 24th. "Come, come, whoever you are." Help and enjoy.
We began to offer regular classical concerts here, Le Petit Salon de Musique, in an intimate parlor-like setting on Sunday afternoons, brainchild of Linda and Ed Mikell.
In January our Communications team launched a brilliant, flexible and useful new website that can be managed communally, a website that reaches out as much as it reaches in.
Ten UUFSB leaders and our minister attended the Long Island Leadership Institute's Healthy Congregations workshop series -- six day-long Saturday workshops -- where they learned the principles of supportive, non-anxious leadership in congregations experiencing change.
We piloted a new Orientation to UUFSB and Unitarian Universalism called Belonging, a series of three 2½-hour workshops for newcomers and oldcomers alike. We offered the series three times and nearly 50 people attended at least one workshop.
We started monthly "Inquirer's Gatherings" in the minister's office after the Sunday service - a place and time to ask those first and nagging questions about the service, the Fellowship, and Unitarian Universalism.
Together we Stood on the Side of Love: rallied on Nicolls Rd., for an end to bullying, for peace in our world. We engaged in a Common Read about people caught in our nation's immigration dilemma. We spoke out about civil discourse. Thirty of us took the UUFSB bus to the state capital in Albany in early May to lobby for Marriage Equality. We became newsmakers as we walked our social justice talk.
We welcomed 22 people into membership at the annual New Member Sunday service in May.
We started a Shawl Ministry, a circle of knitters and crocheters who create beautiful shawls as a spiritual practice and give them to people who are going through hard times or celebrating something wonderful.
We started a Buddhist meditation community, called a "sangha," which meets here weekly on Saturday mornings. In the wider Buddhist world, our group is known as "Stony Brook Sangha."
UUFSB was given the Hobbs Neighborhood Gardens 2010 "Helping Hand Award" at the Bethel Hobbs celebration at Bethel AME church in March. We were recognized for our volunteer activity in organizing and in the fields.
We celebrated the last Passover Seder under the auspices of Shelly Psaris, who has been organizing the Seder for twenty-five years, and we enjoyed the last Goods and Services Auction Ed and Linda Mikell will manage. Next year new leaders will be in charge of both.
We raised our pledges to the congregation by nearly 20%, bringing in just about $230,000, an amazing show of commitment to this new phase in the evolution of the Fellowship.
We created a new structure for the practical management of our gardens and poetry walk, allowing long-time gardening leaders Milly and George Michos to scale back into supervisory roles.
We put the horn back in the Unicorn's forehead and considered his place in our history and future.
We asked Hal Usher to raise the pulpit 4 inches and he did and nicely.
We hired Kelly Johnson-Sally to set up and clean up our Sunday morning coffee hour and she does and nicely.
Our Small Group Ministry Program, called here "Sharing Circles," completed the first cycle as a new ministry here. Thanks to Gil Hanson who brought the idea back from General Assembly and to the Rev. Carol Wolff for partnering with Gil to create it here.
A company of ten UUFSBers, among them our four official delegates, two workshop performers and one presenter, attended the 2011 General Assembly in Charlotte, NC.
We have had a very good year.