The First Parish Blog

Spirit Play

By , September 21, 2017
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This past Saturday, RE Committee co-chair and volunteer teacher, Dana Robinson and I trekked over to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Northborough for an 8-hour training in Spirit Play, an exciting new addition to our RE line up.  Part of the multi-year curriculum change that we launched two years ago, Spirit Play builds from the Montessori method and Jerome Berryman’s Godly Play to engage children in Preschool through First Grades in Unitarian Universalism, ethics, world religion and spiritual exploration.  

The basic premise of Spirit Play is that young children learn best when given room to explore in their own way through play.  Each Spirit Play class begins with a story that tells a moral lesson, or perhaps a bit of UU history, or some unanswerable mystery of life, and so on.  Unlike reading a children’s book, however, the stories are told using what we educators call manipulatives (material items that can be touched and moved).  The storyteller ends the lesson by raising up wondering statements such as, “I wonder what it’s like to break a promise,” or “I wonder if you’ve ever experienced unfairness.”  The children are left to contemplate and wonder without being given answers.  As one story notes, “sometimes there are different answers to the same question. Sometimes there are no answers to a question. But, we keep on asking anyway.”

Ask me or Dana or any of the RE Committee members a bit more about Spirit Play if you’re curious.  Sometime this fall we will present one of the Spirit Play stories as the Time for All Ages during worship.  We are excited about this addition to our RE program and want to share this excitement with the church.  

In peace,

Mark LaPointe

Director of Lifespan Religious Exploration

Seeds Beginning to Sprout

It’s a strange time of year to be thinking about seedlings. In our backyard, an old apple tree is filled with small red fruits, the hostas’ flowers have gone for the season, and some of the trees are just beginning to yellow; we are approaching the autumnal equinox, not the vernal.

Yet, I am thinking about seeds planted at First Parish that are growing into seedlings this season. Many years ago, the Trustees of Invested Funds and other finance-minded members of the congregation offered an idea of developing a formal legacy giving program at First Parish; a seed was planted to offer a meaningful and effective way for First Parishioners to help grow our endowment. Two and a half years ago, we read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior as a congregational common read, and our interest was piqued by the café option at the main character’s church; a seed was planted for an alternate style of worship that could afford us dozens more seats during Sunday worship. Last year, many members of First Parish and our surrounding community learned about congregations across the country reviving an old model of civil disobedience — sanctuary — to faithfully push back against harsh immigration and deportation policies; a seed was planted for further discernment and conversation about how we could contribute to that effort.

Now, this fall, our new Legacy Giving team is launching just in time to participate in our denomination’s Wake Now Our Vision challenge — the Worship Café is set to open in the Parish Hall on (we pray!) September 24th, thanks to the efforts of our Worship Café Working Group — and our social justice teams are hard at work planning opportunities for all First Parishioners to learn more about the new sanctuary movement and how we could serve as a “Level 2” supporting congregation. And, this is not to mention that we retired the Bellman this summer and we are in our second year of major changes to our children’s religious exploration curricular map, both ideas that took years to germinate into seedlings!

As we “ingather” again this month for another incredible year at our church home, I am filled with excitement for these seedlings to flourish and to nourish our spiritual community. I recognize I have some trepidation, too; for me, it’s anchored partly in discomfort with change and partly in my old personal pattern of freezing in the face of possible failure: “How will the Worship Café change how we do common rituals? What if no one wants to participate in the legacy giving challenge? Will we ever have enough information to feel comfortable supporting another congregation offering live-in sanctuary to a family in need?” There’s much one could choose to worry about!

When I feel such fears, I shore up my courage with words like these from Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Robin Tanner:

Blessed are they who fall in the mud, who jump with gusto and rip the pants, who skin the elbows, and bruise the ego,
for they shall know the sweetness of risk.

Blessed are they who make giant mistakes, whose intentions are good but impact has injured, who know the hot sense of regret and ask for mercy,
for their hearts will know the gift of forgiveness.

Blessed are they who have seen a D or an F or C or any letter less than perfect, who are painfully familiar with the red pen and the labels as ‘less than,’
for they know the wisdom in the imperfect.

Blessed are they who try again, who dust off, who wash up, who extend the wish for peace, who return to sites of failure, who are dogged in their pursuit,
for they will discover the secret to dreams.

Blessed are they who refuse to listen to the naysayers,
for their hearts will be houses for hope.

Blessed are they who see beyond the surface of another,
for they will be able to delight in the gift of compassion.

Blessed are they who stop running the race to help a fellow traveler, who pick up the fallen, who stop for injured life,
for they shall know the kindness of strangers.

Blessed are they who wildly, boldly abandon winning,
for they shall know the path of justice.

Even when we feel unsettled or afraid, I pray we find our courage together to move forward with both our most bold and our most simply-sensible ideas. May we rejoice that we are on this communal journey together, with our faith to guide us and our deep love for one another to sustain us!

Thoughts on Charlottesville: We Must Always Take Sides

By , August 13, 2017
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“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [one] is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor [one]’s,
            Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.”

      ~ “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes

Clergy from a variety of faiths stand face-to-face with armed white nationalist protesters

With a heavy heart, I write to you about the state in which I was raised, the Commonwealth of Virginia. On Friday, hundreds of white supremacists representing many racist organizations from across the country descended on Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia and Unitarian-friendly president, Thomas Jefferson. Ostensibly, Saturday’s rally was booked to again protest the removal of Confederate statues and names from public spaces in the city, but it had another goal: to normalize white nationalism and terrorize Americans of color.

There is so much to say and write (and much has been) about this second large gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here are a few of my thoughts: as Pastor John Pavlovitz wrote, it is necessary for us to name what has and is happening in the United States: racism, domestic terrorism, religious extremism, a “terrible, putrid sickness.” Author James Baldwin wrote that no problem can be changed if it is not faced, and we must face that racism has infected the body of the United States if we mean to cure ourselves of it. I am proud of the interfaith clergy, including our new UUA president Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who arrived in Charlottesville to put their bodies between armed white nationalists and counter-protestors (see photo); you can read her blog about the experience here . I am amazed by the huge response of anti-racists who showed up in Charlottesville to declare racism an un-American value. I also recognize most of those rallying for white supremacy were young adults — it shows we have much work to do in my own generation to stop the spread of racist ideologies. I am appreciative of police officers who worked to stop violence on the streets of Charlottesville, and sit with the reports that they did far less than what was needed to keep counter protestors safe. I find myself surprisingly proud of politicians who have the courage to speak out clearly against neo-Naziism — shouldn’t that be simple, nearly reflexive?

And, of course, my heart breaks for thirty-two-year-old activist, Heather Heyer, who was killed by another young adult who, poisoned by white nationalism, drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protestors. Many are calling Heyer a martyr to the cause of racial equity, the latest in a long line that includes our spiritual ancestors Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, who were killed at the marches in Selma. I hold her family and friends in my prayers, as well as the communities of the two police officers killed in a surveillance helicopter crash and of those who were injured by the rampant violence on Saturday. There are GoFundMe campaigns both for Heyer’s family and to support all those who were injured.

Oddly, I write to you from Virginia itself; while Charlottesville roiled, I was engaged in what I often do when I return to my home state: meeting a friend’s new baby, spending time with my parents, attending a wedding. Many of my high schools friends attended UVA or have lived in Charlottesville, and were devastated by the images popping up again and again in the news. I was comforted to attend my home church where the senior minister, Rev. David Miller, spoke about his experience as a clergy counter-protestor and the guest preacher, UU candidate for ministry John Monroe, called us all to greater love, creativity, and unwavering dedication to justice. I recognize that my relative freedom and safety to live in the United States as a progressive clergywoman — able to take a weekend to kiss a new baby, toast an old friend’s marriage, and attend worship as a congregant — was hard won by activists through the generations. The work of marching, calling our representatives, getting out the vote, serving the underserved, and demanding equal treatment, protections, and opportunity for all is not done yet.

As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” May we each and all offer our unique gifts to the cause of justice so that our church’s children’s children will not live with the fear of white supremacy and its violence.

Thanksliving and Thanksloving in a Challenging Time

By , June 30, 2017
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Thanksliving and Thanksloving in a Challenging Time

By Kay and Clark Taylor

Introductory note: The following was given as the sermon on June 25.  It introduces two made up words, which you can see italicized in the title just below, and it seeks to define and enlighten the notion of “Beloved Community,” which Martin Luther King Jr. used to describe what he was working to create.  It is based on a powerful love that transforms enemies into people we can work with to find the way to justice and peace.  In the sermon, we drew on our own spiritual practices and the deeply real sense of community that infuses this church to point out that the Beloved Community that we find in our personal relationships and this church will lead us to work to create it in the wider world.

K: How do we — any of us — deal with life “in a challenging time”?  Clark, you and I struggled early in our marriage to have a family and came through it with one wonderful biological son and two wonderful adopted daughters.  That was a challenging time for us, for sure.  During that time we found ourselves agonized over the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, which was a different form of challenge to make sense of.  And there have been many other challenges along the way.  But now both of us find that, given our health and aging issues, this time stands out as particularly challenging.  As all of us sit here this morning, each of us can think about the challenges we have faced and are currently facing in our own lives.  And most of us can probably agree that as we currently experience life as citizens of our nation, with our cherished democracy hanging in the balance, this is a challenging time indeed.  

C: The two of us experience this church as a warm and loving community of people that is helping us in a powerful way to meet both the personal and societal challenges of our lives.  And we have become aware of the ideal of the Beloved Community, which the UUA has taken as a central part of its belief system.  Three years ago, 21of us heard Meck Groot, an official of the UUA, speak in this church about Beloved Community, including its use by Martin Luther King Jr.  It is based, she said, on the belief that love is the greatest force in the world, which is to be expressed through right relationships of love and respect.  At times, she said, the love of Beloved Community is confrontational, bringing to mind the recent huge demonstrations that have been organized to resist the negative, backward-looking policies of our President and the efforts of the rich powerful oppressors to become ever more rich and powerful.  But underlying the resistance and protest is a disciplined love, respect, and iron will that is determined to stop the oppressors in their tracks.  The goal is to make their oppression too expensive for them and too much getting in the way of what they are intent on doing.  At that point, they may find it necessary to sit down to work out a constructive solution based in our mutual humanity.  Martin Luther King said about it: “It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

K: Beloved Community, in other words, is not based in a spineless weakness, but in tough love and strength. Within that framework it provides plenty of room for respectful tenderness and love. At this point in our 59 years of married life together we also experience our own love as an expression of Beloved Community.  And we also find that our church community participates in it, as well.  Our deep love and this church community are imperfect expressions of it, to be sure, but the vision of it inspires and guides us.  Because I know I am loved, I have strengths and energy to reach out to each of you and the world beyond.

C: Let’s start logically with thanksliving in our personal lives in the context of our church.  We think of thanksliving as an outward impulse.  It reaches out from us for this or that good experience, friend, family member, or aspect of our lives.  The two of us have spoken before of our practice of lighting a chalice in our home every day when we are first together in the morning.  Regardless of the kind of sleep we have had or the various pains in our bodies, we start with a simple candle of thanks that, in effect, lights a fire within us.   We are first of all thankful for a precious new day as a gift of life and love to share with each other and with others.  We used to just take a new day for granted.

K: Then we are thankful for the particulars that come to mind, including family, church friends, and the challenges that are before us in that day.  The hope is to set a pattern for the day to make the whole time we are awake lived in a thanksliving way.  Realistically, it never lasts through all parts of the day—especially when we are deeply frustrated by some problem in our lives. You can fill in the blanks of points in your day when you lose all sight of living thankfully.  But the challenge is there to find ways of centering ourselves to recover the fire of the thanksliving spirit.  And this church helps us do it.

C: Science itself is supportive in this endeavor to live thankfully and names amazing multiple benefits that come from thanksliving.  A Newsweek article quotes a psychologist from the University of Birmingham, who noted in 2013 that the “list of potential benefits [of living thankfully] is almost endless: fewer intellectual biases, more effective learning strategies, more helpfulness towards others, raised self-confidence, better work attitude, strengthened resiliency, less physical pain, improved health, and longevity.”  The author goes on to name five more specific ones, all scientifically demonstrated.  What’s not to like about thankful living?  You can be sure that the two of us are listening to ourselves even as we speak, to find a way more deeply into the benefits.  

K: Thanksloving can be singled out as a profound form of thanksliving.  It is relational at its core.  As human beings we find it difficult to impossible to love ourselves if we do not experience others reaching out to us in a loving way.  You may point to one person in your growing up life who inspired you with the will and confidence to live in a productive way.  For some it is a teacher, a grandparent, or a special caregiver.  We may well have several such people in our lives.  Thankful living, thus, incorporates thankful loving, but the loving aspect is worth focusing on in itself because of its profound importance in our relationship with others and, ultimately, with how we love ourselves.  

C: The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote of contrasting ways of engaging with others, as I-Thou, on the one hand, and I-It on the other.  I-Thou involves treating other people as holy or sacred loving others rather than as things, as “its.”  Every person, whoever we are, has an innate desire to have others care about us in a loving way.  In our defensiveness, we often have developed habits and attitudes that make it difficult for us to be easily loved and accepted by others.  But we can remind ourselves that all of us are alike in that essential way of needing to be lovingly accepted by others.  Quakers speak of “the god in us” and “holding one another in the light,” i.e., with reference to the holy Thou in all of us.  Kay, you and I have developed ways of working through the difficult differences of our lives.

K: I was and am more focused on creativity and beauty, while you have been committed to social change and activism.  Then you took up garden photography as a hobby, which served as a bridge for our interests.  Even with that, I found it hard not to think of your social justice work as more valuable than my focus on artistic beauty.  But I have come around to becoming very supportive of your justice work, which I also believe in. As a result, we have become each other’s cheerleaders. As we have become older and are now heading into some difficult uncertainty on the health front, our thankfulness and love for each other has become deeper and even more emotionally satisfying and life fulfilling.

C: We have been offering a window into our marriage as a kind of case study of how we have worked to become more intentional in our thanksliving and thanksloving.  But as all of us here today seek to become more thankful and loving people, both in our primary relationships, our friendship circles, and in our church, the further truth is that it opens the possibility for us to offer more as citizens in uplifting artistic beauty and the political justice struggles in our world. Another way of saying this is as we work to create the Beloved Community in our church, we are more prepared to work toward the Beloved Community at a grander loving justice scale as we join forces with others in the world around us.  As a church we can see that we are already on that journey:

K: Our church has tackled the challenges of Beloved Community-building in many ways.  To mention a few: by becoming a green congregation, with support for the health of the planet, and a welcoming congregation with an open love for all people, including LGBTQ, transgendered people, and folks of all gender identities. We have taken on the challenge of becoming a more racially just congregation and the cause of helping to release people who have been trafficked and try to support them.  We are in the process of deciding whether to become a sanctuary congregation that would support a faith community that has enough space to house an undocumented immigrant or family.

C: Given these outreach efforts and others, in which many of us have been involved, we can say that this church is engaged in helping to create the Beloved Community in the world around us.  And if we add up every single thing different ones of us are doing as volunteers or in our places of employment to make the world a more just and peaceful place, we would be impressed.  You who are volunteering or working for a just peace at work are unheralded ambassadors of the spirit of this church.  But clearly there is much more to be done.  We invite you to consider what you can do in light of your own spiritual practices to become more of an ambassador for beauty, justice, and peace.  Our hope here in sharing some of our own thanksliving and thanksloving practice is not that you will do what we do, but that you will draw on your own way of building and sharing in Beloved Community.





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