In keeping with this month’s theme at First Parish, Right Relationships, let’s start by acknowledging that relationships can be complex, so getting them “right” can be difficult. Compounding the challenge is the fact that we each have many kinds of relationships and no two are the same.
In the face of such complex and indeterminate forces, it’s not surprising when we approach relational interactions with more protective personas, pre-conceived posturing or perfunctory patter.
Open, honest and direct communication can be fraught, even perilous. If I tell you what I really think and believe, will it jeopardize our relationship? If you are forthright with me, can I really hear your sentiment without being defensive or reactive?
Being forthright feels risky because it could change the relationship – for better or for worse. And change is risky. So it often seems like we must choose between honesty and the relationship (in its current form). When one impinges on the other, can that still be a right relationship?
Because of the inherent risk, these interactions are sometimes referred to as courageous conversations.
The dynamic goes beyond our close relationships. Within our professional and/or public relationships, there can be other forms of risk and impediments to forthrightness.
And yet these days we may feel increasingly called to take that risk, to be courageous, to speak out in public on behalf of ourselves or someone else. There are occasions when our silence is a form of complicity in a relationship that is far from right.
In this month’s Big Question Forum we’ll talk (openly and honestly) about the challenges, impediments and imperatives related to forthright communication – at home, in our community, at work, and in the more public sphere.
You may not remember, but this coming spring, I’ll be going on a sabbatical so that I can work on rewriting our “Lessons of Loss” curriculum. We are currently making plans to cover the many things I do and to spread out the work a bit during my absence. While Alexis will take on some additional hours, this will only cover some of the time needed. With that in mind, please let me or Reverend Catie know if you’d like to give a bit of your time toward making the RE program run smoothly even with the DLRE out of the church. Taking on a single project can make a big difference and your gift of time will be most gratefully accepted.
If you want to read the original sabbatical post, click here.
Have you ever wanted to think through your perspectives on the big religious questions related to God, Heaven/Hell, spirituality, human nature, ethics as a way of articulating your current religious theology?
Well, here is your opportunity to do just that via the UUA course being offered at First Parish in February and March entitled “Building Your Own Theology.”
Through individual, small group and larger group reflections, activities, and exercises we will investigate these topics in a way that allows each participant the ability to document their perspectives culminating in an “I believe” credo statement of their current personal religious beliefs, or theology.
It has been said that liberal religion is a “do it yourself” approach to personal belief systems. The purpose of this course is to provide some of the tools for building a personal theology based on the materials of an individual’s life experiences.
The structure of the topics and exercises we will do will provide the framework that allows participants to navigate this “do it yourself” philosophy in a way that results in a refreshingly satisfying supportive environment to develop their personal theology.
If you are interested please contact Don Leathe or Phil Griffith by January 21st.
As many of you know, since December 14th, my free time, thoughts, and savings have gone toward the latest edition of the Star Wars film universe, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It was a thrilling movie, which I’ve now dragged my spouse to three times. I’ll say I felt much better about my rabid fandom when I bumped into one of my local clergy colleagues having his own repeat viewing at the Jordan’s IMAX just before Christmas.
(You may be wondering, “Is Rev. Catie going to include ‘spoilers’ — information about the movie’s plot — in her public blog article?!” Yes, yes I will!)
During this month at First Parish when we delve deeper into the spiritual theme of “right relationship,” I find my thoughts returning again and again to the relationship between two Last Jedi characters: our heroine and Jedi-to-be Rey, and our villain and “murderous snake” Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren is a fallen Jedi (like his grandfather, Darth Vader, before him) who uses his gifts with the mysterious and powerful Force to support a despotic military regime, The First Order, which is modeled in many ways after the Nazis. Rey is a new and strong Force-user who intends to offer her gifts to the small but committed Resistance (led by Kylo Ren’s own mother, General Leia Organa), which hopes to restore democracy and hope to the galaxy.
Star Wars is a great love of mine, and in that love I can say it’s not a complex philosophical universe. On the contrary, it’s quite simple: there is a “Light Side” and a “Dark Side.” Though these new movies seem to be moving toward a more “gray” moral philosophy (including commentary on the complicity of bystanders), it’s easy for the viewer to know who is “good” and who is “bad.”
Rey and Kylo Ren have many encounters throughout the film as they each try to “turn” the other — Rey striving to bring Kylo Ren back to the light, and Kylo Ren striving to have Rey join him as unstoppable, Force-wielding authoritarian rulers of the galaxy. As one could expect from a “bad guy,” Kylo Ren manipulates and emotionally abuses Rey in his efforts, and is responsible for the torture and deaths of many of her comrades. It is clear he wishes to control her and her Force gifts for himself and the First Order. They are clearly not in “right relationship,” personally or politically.
So, it was my great surprise to learn there is a large subculture of people who believe that Rey and Kylo Ren should be a romantic item! Some say Rey should become “bad” too, entirely missing the point of Star Wars — others say that Rey’s romantic love (and her emotional labor) is all that will “save” Kylo Ren, disregarding or twisting his treatment of her.
This romanticization of an abusive relationship is sadly common in fiction and in life, and, horrifyingly, quite common in stories geared toward teenagers. In Twilight and its somewhat spin off series, Fifty Shades of Grey, young women are controlled and physically and emotionally abused by powerful and cruel men (one a vampire, and the other a wealthy man misusing BDSM practices to harm women). Both of these series conclude with the portrayal of “happy” marriages of the pairs, supposedly mutually transformed — though the women were fine to start with, and the men still engage in controlling, manipulative behaviors.
In a reflection on literary abusive relationships billed as “romantic,” Emerson College’s Ploughshares contributor Janey Tracey remembers the bizarre romanticization of Heathcliff and Catherine in Emily Brontë’s classic, Wuthering Heights: “There is no ‘love story’ within the pages of Wuthering Heights (at least not between Catherine and Heathcliff…). Indeed, Wuthering Heights is a story that deeply believes in evil, and aims to expose the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff himself warns Isabella against ‘forming a fabulous notion of [his] character,’ and thereby warns the reader against the naïve supposition that an abusive sadist can necessarily be redeemed. Wuthering Heights serves as a refreshing antidote for the tired love-as-pain narrative, but nearly two hundred years later, we still haven’t taken its wisdom to heart.”
(I realize all of these fictional examples include men mistreating women, which simultaneously shows how common this type of abuse is in our patriarchal world and erases the reality of abuse experienced by men and between partners of many genders. Let us not forget that abusive relationships are present in many forms across many identity groups.)
It seems Tracey is right that the wider culture is still struggling with unhealthy conceptions of relationships — the #MeToo movement shows that, too — but I pray those who are involved in our Unitarian Universalist community have. Our children participate in three age-appropriate levels of the Our Whole Lives program, learning how to apply our UU values in the context of family, friendship, and romantic relationships. Though I quip to our senior youth group to “not engage in OWL behaviors” on our service trips, I don’t mean they shouldn’t engage in healthy emotional intimacy; respect their own and others’ gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression; or remember intersectional justice and self-worth in their interactions. At all times, we absolutely should carry these values with us, holding each other and ourselves accountable to treating all people with respect and kindness.
When another person engages in cruel and unskillful behaviors, we can offer them (or accept ourselves) redirection and encouragement. We can avail ourselves of therapeutic and healing resources, both within the church and in the secular sphere. But, it is never the responsibility of one person to “fix” another; particularly between adults, we are only responsible for ourselves in maintaining right relationships with those around us. I encourage all of us at First Parish to think critically about how our Unitarian Universalist values apply to our relationships (and ones we consume through literature, film and TV, and the news), and how each of us can strive to improve the way we care for ourselves and treat those around us.
Do you yearn to have a deep, meaningful, conversation about religion, life issues, any other subjects?
Do you find that you’d like to know people better?
Would you like to feel more a part of First Parish?
This you can find in small group ministry
What is Small Group Ministry?
The Small Group Ministry (SGM) Program is a network of small groups that draw us into mutual ministry, strengthen our congregation, build relationships, deepen our understanding of Unitarian Universalist principles and values, and challenge us to action and spiritual growth.
SGM is one of the largest ministries within the Parish. SGM groups have 6-10 members and are led by trained lay people. Groups meet twice a month for 1.5 – 2 hours and abide by a covenant or set of mutually agreed upon ground rules.
Each meeting includes a time for check-in, an opening reading, a discussion of a topic selected in advance, check- out, and a closing reading. Each group develops a way to welcome new members, stays connected with the larger congregation, and participates in projects to benefit the congregation and/or the larger community.
The kinds of topics that groups explore are wide-ranging and are usually tailored to the interests of the participants. Currently some of the SGMs are using the Parish’s selection of topics outlined in the monthly Theme-Based Ministry to focus their discussions.
What Are the Benefits?
Small Group Ministry is a unique experience that differs from Adult Religious Education, study groups, social networks, support groups, or anything else you do at church or in the community. Members identify a series of benefits from participating:
❖ Get to know other members of the Parish on a deeper level.
❖ Have the opportunity to reflect on and discuss topics that offer guidance and enrichment in our daily lives.
❖ Participate in an open, supportive, nurturing environment that promotes and facilitates spiritual growth.
❖ Practice respectful listening, reflection, and thoughtful engagement with other members of the group.
❖ Join other members of the Parish in undertaking a Service Project in support of the Parish’s Mission.
How Do I Participate?
If you are interested in learning more, please stop by the SGM table during Social Hour in Parish Hall throughout the month of January. Check the Bell Notes for contact information for the SGM leaders. Members are asked to commit to attending regularly and have the option to continue in the same group or join a new group each year.
This past Sunday, December 10, First Parish convened a congregational meeting to consider two articles related to sanctuary. The first article proposed that First Parish become a level 2 sanctuary congregation (“sanctuary supporting congregation”). The second article proposed adding First Parish to the list of Unitarian Universalist Sanctuary Movement Pledge Congregations & Organizations. Both articles passed unanimously.
With over 90 members in attendance, we well surpassed the quorum requirement, which was one of several signs of enthusiasm from parishioners for this initiative. The sanctuary task force of the Immigrant Ministry was heartened by this show of support and appreciates all the coordination and hard work that Gail Hedges (Parish President), the Parish Committee, Reverend Catie, and others put into making the vote a success.
We are grateful to have had the opportunity to share in this discernment with the parish body, and for both the words of support and tough questions that we received from parishioners along the way. It was beautiful to see different aspects of the church come together and make this milestone possible.
Now, the next phase begins. The Sanctuary Task Force will investigate which level 1 sanctuary congregations we can partner with. Once a suitable level 1 is identified, we will present that congregation and the parameters of a supporting relationship to the Parish Committee for approval. Once those steps are completed, you will start hearing about volunteer and support opportunities. In the meantime, we welcome anyone who wants to get involved or has questions or ideas to contact a member of the Immigrant Ministry.
Ultimately, the decision on Sunday was an act of faith, faith in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and faith in the love and strength of this church to continue to put that belief into action.
We yearn for holidays to be the same as they once were. However, when we’re grieving, the holidays remind us of what we have lost.
It’s an exceptionally difficult time for people who have lost a loved one within the months prior to the holidays. For others it may be difficult because of a death anniversary during this season, families far away, or a rupture of some kind such as divorce, estrangement, medical illness, etc.
There’s so much pressure to feel happy and festive—some comes from within but also from usually well-intentioned friends and family members who expect traditions to continue despite the loss. You don’t want to disappoint people but may feel guilt if you don’t participate. It’s common for grieving people to withdraw to avoid the pressure. It’s also common for family and well meaning others to get concerned and urge you to maintain the activities of the season in a misguided attempt to cheer you up.
If there’s one symptom of grief, it’s exhaustion. Unconsciously a lot of energy is going into that grieving whether grief is new or your loss happened a while ago. Holidays are packed with activity – parties, cooking, shopping, holiday cards, etc. Make time for rest.
Give yourself permission. It’s not yes or no. You can make adjustments. Do certain things and not others. What you do this year to cope can be different from last year or next year.
Maybe skip the whole thing: It is actually okay if you decide to skip your traditional celebrations and instead go on a trip, go to a yoga or spiritual retreat, don’t send cards this year, etc. Give yourself permission to do what feels right.
Parties: If the party is called for 7 o’clock and goes to 10, call the host and let him or her know that you’ll come but only for a short time. You can explain or not. You can go or not.
Shopping: Use the Internet instead of the facing hassle of driving, parking and crowds. Keep a list with you so when you have energy you can go and do it in small pieces.
It’s okay to feel festive: When you feel like you WANT to participate in something festive, allow yourself to do it without guilt. Pain and happiness can live in the same house.
Plan. Think about what will make the holiday meaningful, what you have energy for and plan for how to make that happen. Don’t ad lib this one.
Communicate. Sit down with family and discuss what feels right and what is possible this year. How will you recognize the absence of a loved one.
Remember. For many people memorializing the loss can be healing. Tree lighting, candle lighting, saying the loved one’s name is very helpful. Make time for stories of the loved one when you’re keenly aware of their absence.
Please contact Rev. Catie or any member of the Pastoral Care Team if you’d like to discuss this or could use some extra support. The next Grief and Loss Group meets on Sunday, December 17th from 12-1:30 in the Keil Classroom, and is led by Andrea Goldberg. All are welcome.
I’m delighted to announce that after three years of copious paperwork submitted to our denomination by myself, the Parish Committee, and the Committee on Ministry, I received “final fellowship” from the Unitarian Universalist Association in November. Each year, three detailed reports, a letter from my “UUA mentor,” and a specific list of professional learning goals went to the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee for approval. It is a relief and an honor to have completed the process from “preliminary” to “final” fellowship as quickly as is possible for new ministers.
For members and friends of First Parish who aren’t serving on the Parish Committee or Committee on Ministry, my final fellowship status will not have a noticeable impact this year. I will continue to develop annual learning goals, attend professional development events, and have my ministry evaluated by the Committee on Ministry and Parish Committee — most of which happens behind the scenes of the congregation at large. For those of you planning to attend the annual national UU conference, General Assembly, in Kansas City this June, I will participate in the Thursday evening Service of the Living Tradition — which essentially means a photo of me will go up on the big screens and I’ll process across the big stage graduation-style. I would, of course, appreciate a cheering squad, and encourage First Parishioners to attend General Assembly this year! However, beyond this, my ministry at First Parish this year will remain more or less the same.
… However! My final fellowship status does reopen one important congregational ministry: First Parish’s ability to hire an intern minister who is in the ordination process.
Before qualifying for preliminary fellowship and ordination, all ministers-in-process are required by the UUA to complete one year of full-time or two years of half-time ministry in a congregational, chaplaincy, or faith-based non-profit setting. As some of you will remember, First Parish began a “teaching ministry” under the skilled guidance and enthusiasm of our last settled minister, Rev. John Buehrens. We’ve been blessed to have had Rev. Thom Belote, Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa, Rev. Lucas Hergert, Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, and Rev. Christian Schmidt serve our congregation as student ministers. These ministers-in-process led worship, offered pastoral care, guided our senior youth group, facilitated adult education opportunities, and launched new programming at our congregation — and now are each beloved and respected ministers in our denomination. They gave invaluable service and leadership in our parish, and future intern ministers will do the same.
Intern ministers must be supervised by a minister in final fellowship status, so we have been unable to recruit an intern minister to our congregation — until now!
With the blessing of the Parish Committee, the Committee on Ministry and I are working to submit our congregation to the UUA’s “internship clearinghouse” website (where potential intern ministers look for internship sites) and to create an interview process for prospective interns. We hope to have an intern minister selected by spring 2018, and for that intern to serve our congregation half-time for two years beginning in August 2018.
Of course, First Parish needs three things (in addition to a final fellowshipped senior minister!) to successfully host a teaching ministry:
We need a congregation-wide commitment to both respect an intern minister in our church community and support that intern minister in their ministerial growth, knowing they will come to us with many learning goals.
We need a caring and discerning Intern Committee to help interview, select, and then support an intern minister. The Committee on Ministry is in the beginning stages of recruitment for that Committee of five persons now.
And, we need money to fairly compensate this intern. The current recommended salary for a half-time intern minister is about $10,000 a year, with another $1,000 in professional expenses (allowing them to attend professional development workshops and General Assembly). As our Budget Drive kicks off in late January, please remember in your pledge our need to add a salary for an intern minister!
I know that an intern minister would bring great contributions to our faith community, and that our church is a healthy, dynamic environment for an intern to grow into their ministerial authority and gifts. I hope all of you reading this are as excited about this opportunity as I am!
I recently wrote a blog post called “Sanctuary in Practice” [http://uuneedham.org/sanctuary-in-practice/], about my conversation with Reverend Chris Jimmerson who serves as the Minister for Program Development at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, a level 1 sanctuary congregation. In this follow up blog post, I want to share how that conversation moved me spiritually.
Reverend Jimmerson first explained the process the Parish followed to become a Sanctuary Parish initially focused on the practical details involved. These were typical concerns: Would there be enough volunteers? Would the effort interfere with the Church’s other social action projects? Would raising money (if needed) divert financial resources from the Church’s fundraising efforts?
However, when their Sanctuary Committee met with the Parish Council to recommend becoming a Level 2 Parish, members of the Council challenged them to explain why they would recommend Level 2 as opposed to Level 1. The Council Members argued that if the process to become a Sanctuary Parish was viewed through the lens of the Church’s Mission and Values, the recommendation should instead focus on becoming a Level 1 Parish.
Later, the Congregation voted overwhelmingly to become a Level 1 Sanctuary. I was encouraged to hear this chain of events. Rev. Jimmerson believes the crucial element was when parishioners heard directly from the individual who had been a guest in Sanctuary at another church. This guest-in-residence shared his story, including the stress of living as an undocumented immigrant, the way his fears were realized when he received a deportation order, his challenge in deciding if sanctuary was the best option, and his explanation for why returning to his country was a dangerous option. Once congregants heard up close what many immigrants experience in their daily lives, they were so moved that the members voted overwhelming to become a Level 1 Sanctuary Parish.
Rev. Jimmerson said that his church’s spiritual growth since starting this process has re-invigorated his Church in a ways he had not imagined. He believes that having a guest in sanctuary has energized his members’ faith and their sense of empowerment, simply by recognizing how their actions and efforts could make such a profound difference in someone’s life. In fact, despite being less organized in their first time hosting a guest, he believes that more congregants stepped up to help the second time based on how people shared the positive benefits of living their faith. Their connection with the network of other Austin based congregations has also enriched them in numerous ways and provided additional insights, such as the additional danger one LGBTQ guest faced when some faith-based organizations refused to provide him sanctuary.
I wish I could better capture Rev. Jimmerson’s tone when he described these events to me. His passion and energy indicated both his joy in being a part of such an important movement and his renewed sense of purpose and love for his faith community and his faith. Yes, he admitted that at times at the beginning, when a guest arrived without the Church being fully prepared, it could be stressful, as if “the Church was building the bicycle as they were riding it.” But he takes pride that they now share these lessons with other congregations to make the process easier and enable more to join this movement.
I have been part of the Sanctuary Task Force that has been gathering information since June in order to enable our Parish to assess its willingness to commit to becoming a Sanctuary Parish. My efforts were guided initially by my belief in the importance of providing assistance to others who were experiencing suffering and disruption in their lives. But as often happens when working on such initiatives, my humanitarian impetus for getting involved became less visible as I became immersed In sorting through the practical aspects of such a decision.
Two events – both with their origins in Texas – brought me back to my center. The first was the news story that reported on a large church’s initial refusal to open its doors to flood victims in the Houston area. My immediate reaction led to my asking myself the question, “Will this be us – First Parish – if we choose not to get involved in the Sanctuary movement?” My conversation with Rev. Jimmerson in Austin served as the tipping point in revealing the clarity of why I hoped our Parish would ultimately choose to become a Sanctuary Parish. His enthusiastic description of the spiritual benefits for all involved in becoming a Sanctuary congregation was compelling, and it re-enforced for me that the decision flows out of our stated spiritual beliefs. It provides us with an opportunity to put our stated values and beliefs into action.
On December 10 at 12pm in the sanctuary, First Parish will vote on becoming a sanctuary supporting congregation. Please join us.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews, 13:2)
At our annual ministry theme brainstorming meeting, First Parish staff members and lay leaders discussed the desire for worship and programming addressing “whole health.” We understood the theme of “Wholeness” to mean that we would encourage church members toward self-care and communal support for each of our unique bodies, minds, and souls. Wholeness was understood in that conversation as something every person can strive for through personalized care of an individual’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health. However, as we now enter into our monthly theme of Wholeness, I am reminded that many are belittled and discriminated against because of the so-called “brokenness” of their bodies and health status. I wanted to be sure to acknowledge this cultural problem, in case it was unclear what the intent of “Wholeness month” was.
Particularly as a woman who grew up in the United States, I am acutely aware of the damage inflicted upon those with “non-normative” bodies and health status. One need only go through the checkout line at the local supermarket or watch a video advertisement to become well-versed in all the ways human bodies are expected to display “wholeness,” when that term is misused as “normative perfection and purity.” Magazines champion cosmetics and an ever-rotating set of diets (rarely for women themselves, but to accommodate what British feminist film critic Laura Mulvey first described as the heterosexist “male gaze”), and TV ads feature overwhelming white, able-bodied, and thin models (who still need diets and cosmetics to be “beautiful,” apparently!). Around the world, young people are trained to view their bodies and mental health through a restrictive, judgmental cultural lens, leading to lifelong low-self-esteem and even self-hatred.
This false kind of “wholeness” is not what we intend to promote at First Parish!
Black queer activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor founded the website The Body is Not An Apology and the associated movement in 2011, the name coming from her famous spoken word poem. Her movement promotes radical self-acceptance and –love, and pushes back against societal norms that devalue and oppress certain bodies and abilities. Taylor’s organization is also sensitive to the complexities of intersectionality, wherein “non-normative” bodies and minds can be denigrated for multiple “flaws” simultaneously, due to racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ageism, ableism, etc. Taylor recently spoke at Boston College, where she encouraged students to reject the dominant culture’s narrative about “good” and “bad” bodies and offered them “ten tools for radical self-love.”
As we support each other in our search toward wholeness this month and beyond, please know that First Parish in Needham supports happiness, healthiness, and wholeness for all people, who we know are embodied in diverse and wonderful ways. I am reminded of this poem by UU minister Rev. Sean Neil Barron:
“Your body is welcome here, all of it.
Yes, even that part. And that part. And yes, even that part.
The parts you love, and the parts you don’t.
For in this place we come with all that we are
All that we have been,
And all that we are going to be.
Our bodies are constantly changing, cells die and cells are reborn
We respond to infections and disease
Sometimes we can divorce them from our bodies,
and other times they become a permanently part of us.
Your body and all that is within it, both wanted and not wanted has a place here.
Our bodies join in a web of co-creation, created and creating.
Constantly changing, constantly changing us
Scarred and tattooed, tense and relaxed
Diseased and cured, unfamiliar and intimate
Formed in infinite diversity of creation
Your body is welcome here, all of it.
So take a moment and welcome it
Take a moment to feel in it.
Take a moment, to be in it.”
Each of us will go through periods where we feel more satisfied or more frustrated (or even pained) by our embodiment, but I hope we can each practice gratitude for the many gifts embodiment brings. I encourage you sometime this month to “take a moment and welcome” your body, “to feel in it, to be in it” — and, even to strive to love it as well as you can, in defiance of whatever cultural norm has previously told you that your body is “not enough.” We shouldn’t feel that we must apologize for our bodies — instead, we should celebrate them together!