Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cleaning up after Christmas

By Jessica Gray
Director of Faith Development Ministries

Two days after Christmas, and place looked like it had been hit by a tornado of toys, wrapping paper, and more. Forget spring cleaning. Today was a day of winter cleaning. Now our recycle bin is full of boxes and gift paper, all of the excessive packaging that came with all of Ariana’s new toys. And I’ve learned a few things about myself, my child, and our process.

I usually try to get my cleaning done while Ariana is at school, but as school is out this week, I discovered a new form of parental torture – cleaning with an eager four-year-old helper. As I swept the dirt into a nice pile, she would come behind me with her little broom and move it all around again. As I picked up toys and put them where they belong, she would come behind me and pull them out again. When I tried to control the situation, I got frustrated time and again. But I realized that when I let go of my control, it no longer bothered me as much. It was the essence of impermanence. Sweep, allow for chaos, re-sweep. It reminded me of a Tibetan sand mandala, carefully constructed only to be blown away.

The second thing I learned was patience. Pretty soon Ariana tired of sweeping and moved on to a new toy. This gave me the brief window I needed to sweep up the pile and get it out of the way. I just needed to wait and watch for the right moment. Breathe in, breathe out. Pay attention to the moment. Cultivate consciousness.

Third, I found ways to engage her that worked with her strengths. Sweeping was a problem, but she really enjoyed dusting. I just had to move the breakables out of the way as she did it. She also enjoyed sorting her toys into types, and she even agreed to let go of some broken ones.

Finally, I learned that these are the joyful moments. All too soon my girl will be grown. She might help clean if I insist, but she won’t volunteer to be my helper. Instead of struggling with the challenges, I have an opportunity to really be here now. So we didn’t get the entire apartment clean. We only did two rooms. And several of her toys have already made their way back onto the floor. But we shared the day together, and for this I am grateful.

No matter what age your children are, I wish to gift you with these four things: acceptance of impermanence, patience, an honoring of your kids' unique strengths, and gratitude for the joyful moments. I hope they are as useful to you as they have been to me.

Later this week I’ll likely repeat the process with the other rooms until our apartment is clean. I like to clean just before New Year’s – metaphorically sweeping out the old year to make room for the new. Letting go of the past, so I can look forward to the future. And I wish this for you, my new congregation. May this new year bring blessings we cannot even imagine.

I also hope I see you on Sunday (1/1) for our multigenerational Winter Celebration – I heard it’s going to snow in the sanctuary! Don’t miss it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Little Store gets Big Help from BYKOTA!

by Lesa McWalters, Youth Ministries Coordinator

On December 4th, ten youth and three adults walked over to the old Sha-Booms building on MLK Blvd, knocked on the door, and walked into a phenomenon! Hundreds of “shopping bags” were laid out on the floors of three large rooms, all with a tag with information about a single child, who would otherwise not have a gift to open on Christmas morning. Some shopping bags were filled; others were waiting to be filled. Our job was to sort through huge boxes of donations of toys and clothes, and determine where to place them in age-appropriate boxes. We were challenged with emptying 7 large boxes, each box large enough to fit 10 youth inside! In a matter of two hours, our job was complete.

This year the Little Store will provide gifts to a record breaking number of children: almost 2,000 kids living in Worcester County. All the gifts, mostly toys and clothing – including winter coats – are donated by local churches, schools, and other organizations. Sorting and bagging the items is a big challenge, and BYKOTA met this challenge with enthusiasm! Special thanks to Stacey Hill, Jerry Bellows, and all the kids who helped out with a smile! You all made Christmas a little merrier for the children in your community!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Faith Development Ministries Classes on Sunday, 12/18

I'd also like to give a big shout out to all who helped with the Christmas Pageant last Sunday! It was a beautiful morning, with amazing natural lighting effects. I got so many compliments, but honestly you all did the work (you and Kris Johnson, our fearless pageant director). Thank you for participating. You can see pictures from the pageant here: http://www.firstunitarian.com/christmaspageant2011.cfm

This Sunday (12/18) is all about Hanukkah! All of our Spirit Play classes will be working with Hanukkah stories, and then afterwards is the Hanukkah party in Unity Hall (with help by our BYKOTA kids). Come celebrate this festival of lights with us.

Compass Points (6-7 grades) will have a lesson called "Our Living Tradition." The 8th Grade Coming of Age class will be setting up for the Hanukkah party.

Teachers for this Sunday are:

Red (Pre/K): Tania (S) and Carrie (D)

Orange (Pre/K): Sersia (S) and Jen (D)

Yellow (1st): Kelley (S) and Hope (D)

Green (2nd): Kattia (S) and Amy (D)

Blue (3rd): Laura (S) and Seth (D)

Indigo (4th-5th): Colleen and Henry

Violet (6th-7th): Christy & Mary

White (8th): Christina

I have also elaborated a bit about the upcoming Winter Holiday services from a family perspective. You can find out more here.

I hope to see you on Sunday!

Bright Blessings,

Jessica S. Gray, Ph.D.

Director of Faith Development Ministries

First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA


Holidays at First Unitarian

‘Tis the season to be busy, right? There is so much going on at this time of year. Parties and shopping and baking, oh my! In the midst of the craziness, take a deep breath. Remember that the season is meant to be about family and togetherness. And, if you’re wondering whether or not you bought the right presents, just remember this list of the 5 Best Toys of All Time. :)

I do hope you will take the time to join us for some of our many worship celebrations this month and next. Many of these are specifically family oriented. (Note: this listing includes more information about some of the services than the listing in the newsletter, so it's worth the read.)

Mandala Dance Solstice Ritual, Thursday December 22, 6-7:30 PM
The Winter Solstice is the most personal winter holiday for me. On the darkest day of the year, we await the return of the light. It is a beautiful reminder that the cycles of life continue. We will honor the return of the light through a simple earth-centered ritual led by Jessica and Rhye Gray. Join us to celebrate the season in meditation, movement and song. All are welcome (including older children and youth). The Solstice Ritual will be held in the chapel, and childcare will be available for younger children who don’t want to participate.

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2011-3:30 PM
I am really looking forward to the Sing-A-Long Holiday Service on Christmas Eve. I will offer a Winter Solstice blessing, a participatory “Living Menorah” for Hanukkah, and a special Christmas story. Join us for an hour of music-making with guest director Jim Scott. Lots of singing, new songs, traditional songs, Hanukkah Song, solstice songs, Christmas carols and more, many with a Latin flavor. We will end with the traditional candle-lit Silent Night. A great occasion for the whole family.

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2011-5:30 PM
Our later service will be more traditional, though it will still have family-oriented moments, including one of the stories I am telling in the early service. This is First Unitarian's traditional Candlelight Lessons and Carols Service led by Rev. Tom Schade and First Unitarian's Music Director Will Sherwood. The ancient nativity story told once again in scripture, poetry and music, ending with the traditional candle-lit Silent Night.

There will be no childcare offered for either Christmas Eve service, but children are welcome in either service.

Christmas Day, December 25, 2011-10:30 AM
My family and I are new in Worcester. I actually offered to lead the service on Christmas morning for several reasons. I do have a young child, but she will be finished opening presents pretty early. We don't have family in the area, so we have nowhere to go and no one to see. I figured that there are likely other small families and singles in our congregation who may be in the same situation. This is an opportunity for us to spend Christmas with others. We will join together in the Bancroft Room for a short, informal worship, including stories and songs. There will be no childcare or classes offered. After the service, we will share in a potluck Christmas lunch.

New Year's Day, January 1, 2012-10:30 AM
New Year's Day will be a full worship service in the sanctuary. This is the continuation of our four seasonal services we began in autumn, “A Winter Community Celebration,” with Jim Scott as our musical guest, magic snow, and lots of other fun things. Kate Popinchalk and Amelia Nadeau-DaCruz will help me enact the story “The Weight of a Snowflake” (which a lot of kids know from their Spirit Play classes). The snowflakes kids made during pageant rehearsals will be displayed. We will have a special “sharing of snow,” and every child who attends will get some magic snow to take home. We do have nursery that day, but no classes. It will be a holiday service to remember!

And looking ahead…

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 15, 2012 – 10:30 AM
“Oh Freedom!” A couple of our YRU2 Senior High youth will read several interviews of people who were intimately involved in the Civil Rights movement. These stories are powerful and poignant. Lesa McWalters, our Youth Ministries Coordinator, will offer a reflection. Our third grade class will lead other children in a “protest” during the service. And we will sing the songs of freedom. This service will be a powerful reminder that “We Shall Overcome.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

This Sunday (12/4) in Faith Development classes for children and youth

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas! We begin pageant rehearsals this weekend, and the Jingle Bells Choir will have their final rehearsal on Sunday. To simplify things a bit, the classes will not meet any earlier than usual. After the first 15 minutes in the service (10:45), they will be led by Carrie West in a short rehearsal in the Bancroft Room before they go their classes. They will be released at the usual time (11:45).

Kids can also pick up their Advent calendar kits this Sunday (we will mail them after Sunday).

This Sunday all of our Spirit Play classes will be sharing in Christmas stories. Our youngest two classes (Orange and Red) will explore "The Miraculously Ordinary Baby," while our older three classes (yellow, green and blue) will explore "Advent."

Teachers in Spirit Play this Sunday are:

Red: Lou (S) and Audrey (D)

Orange: Jody (S) and Jen (D)

Yellow: Katherine (S) and Gina (D)

Green: Amy (S) and Phil (D)

Blue: Gina (S) and Jen (D)

This Sunday our Bibleodeon class will have a lesson on "Christmas" with Marilyn and Alison as teachers. Our Compass Points class will have a lesson called "United by Diversity," led by Mary and Gerri. And I will be the special guest in Coming of Age for a lesson called "Spirituality in Movement," with teacher Richard Laprade and assistant Rhye Gray.

See you on Sunday!

Also, a note from 3rd grade teacher Seth Popinchalk about their class on 11/18:

"Sunday we baked bread. I did make a batch of dough before class, and we pulled a TV style switcheroo so the kids could get the experience of kneading the bread, baking AND mixing the ingredients. We made Naan using this recipe, but I left out the Garlic.


It was a great class, and the kids reported it was the best bread they ever tasted."

Thanks, Seth, for going above and beyond to give the 3rd grade advanced Spirit Play class a great experience.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Boy and the Drum (story and reflection)

The Boy and the Drum
as told by Mark Nepo in "Finding Courage"

There is an old Hindu story. In it, there is a boy who wants a drum, but his mother can’t afford a drum, and so, sadly, she gives him a stick.

Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he shuffles home and begins to play with the stick. Just then he encounters an old woman trying to light her woodstove. The boy freely gives her the stick.

She lights her fire, makes some bread, and in return she gives him half a loaf of bread. Walking on, the boy comes upon a potter’s wife whose child is crying from hunger. The boy freely gives her the bread.

In gratitude, she gives him a pot. Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he carries it along the river, where he sees a washerman and his wife quarreling because the wife broke their one pot. The boy gives them the pot.

In return, they give him a coat. Since the boy isn’t cold, he carries the coat until he comes to a bridge, where a man is shivering. Riding to town on a horse, the man was attacked and robbed of everything but his horse. The boy freely gives him the coat.

Humbled, the man gives him his horse. Not knowing how to ride, the boy walks the horse into the town, where he meets a wedding party with musicians. The bridegroom and his family are all sitting under a tree with long faces. According to custom, the bridegroom is to enter the procession on a horse, which hasn’t shown up. The boy freely gives him the horse.

Relieved, the bridegroom asks what he can do for the boy. Seeing the drummer surrounded by all his drums, the boy asks for the smallest drum, which the musician gladly gives him.

Reflection by Jessica Gray

Mark Nepo, the writer who told this particular story, also wrote a bit about its meaning:

“The true nature of generosity is only fully visible if we let the story – whatever it is – unfold. If we limit the story to the boy asking for one thing and his mother bringing him another, we have a lesson in not getting what we want but accepting what we are given. If we end the story when the boy gives the woman the stick, we have a moment of altruism or sacrifice, depending on how we look at it. If we end the story when the woman gives the boy half a loaf of bread, it becomes a lesson in barter and fair exchange, trading what’s timely and of use. But if we let the story take its full and natural course, we are given something quite different…. Often, this courage – to wait and let the fabric of the Universe reveal itself – dissolves our individual sense of ownership into a sense of guardianship over gifts that no one owns.”

During this Thanksgiving week, I felt a great sense of gratitude from many directions. For weeks my “friends” on Facebook made gratitude lists, naming everything large and small, from family and friends to little things like soap and water, food, clothes, shoes… But are those really little things? To a person in need, those are not little things at all. When you need a stick to build a fire, that is the greatest gift one could give you.

In many ways, this story is about “Paying it forward,” cultivating generosity on many levels. Instead of being upset when his mother gave him something different from what he wanted, the boy accepts it and then gives it to someone who needs it more. He never shows any sign of expectation that his generosity will be returned. Rather, he sees people with needs and gives of what he has to help fill those needs.

Now, the story wraps things up nicely by giving him what he wanted in the beginning. Life does not always work like that. Sometimes we are called to give up things we desperately want, the things we cherish and cling to, the things we would rather die than sacrifice. All is impermanent. But we are always given blessings in return. Often these blessings take forms we are not expecting – a horse instead of a drum. But if we keep looking for the next “upgrade,” then we miss the moment. We miss the possibilities that are right in front of us. We miss the fact that the stick can be a drum.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me that God would always provide all we needed. Matthew 6:26 - Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? From my adult perspective, knowing what I know now, my parents must have struggled so much to provide for us. My folks were part of what is sometimes called the “Jesus Freak” movement of the 1970s. They were hippies, but they were high on God instead of being high on anything else. They were called to their ministry, but often that ministry did not pay very much. I remember both of my parents taking all sorts of jobs – driving school busses, substitute teaching – so many things to keep their family afloat and their ministry alive. And yet, I never knew that we were “poor.” I never felt “poor.” Sure, we wore hand-me-down clothes. And we didn’t get everything we wanted. But we always had everything we needed.

I no longer believe in the same transcendent, omniscient and omnipresent God. For me, the Universe is much greater and more complex than any single cultural representation of God could encompass. But I still have everything I need. Certainly not all I want, but all I need. And that includes sometimes learning the lesson of the things I cannot have… at least for right now.

I hope we can cultivate a sense of gratitude each day, not just during the Thanksgiving holiday. I am impressed that this church begins each worship service with a statement of gratitude: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” And so I count my blessings, large and small. On Thanksgiving Day, I shared my own gratitude prayer on Facebook: May everyone counting their blessings today join into one great force of gratitude. With that force, we can change the world.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pageant Time

Early Season's Greetings!

As many of you know, we began our sign-ups for the Christmas Pageant on Sunday. This continuing holiday tradition is one of the favorite memories of many kids who have grown up at First U. We still need a few more kid participants and a LOT more adult help. You can send an E-mail to Jgray@firstunitarian.com and tell me what you would like to do, and I'll be glad to sign you up!

Also, would any other parents have need for childcare for their younger children during pageant rehearsals? Would that make it easier for you to volunteer as a Kid Wrangler, costumer, etc.? I'm going to line up childcare for my own child, Ariana (who is in PreK and thus too young to be an angel). Let me know if this would be useful for you.

Pageant Rehearsals:

Saturday, December 3rd
Narrators, Herod, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the innkeeper, and wise people:
9:00 am – noon
Shepherds & Angels: 10 am - noon

Saturday, December 10th
Narrators, Herod, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the innkeeper, and wise people:
9:00 am - noon
Shepherds & Angels: 10 am - noon

PAGEANT - December 11th
All Participants should arrive by 8:45 a.m.

Thus far, the following kids and adults have signed up:

Grades 1-4
Shepherds: Darren Belanger, Mason Ronn, Connor West, Evan Ronn, Xavier Zinkevich, and James Ricardi

Angels: Talia Smith, Maia McKean, Maeve McKean, Caroline Zinkevich, Amelia Nadeau-DaCruz, Naima Masiki, and Riley West

Grades 5-6
Herod: Parker Ronn
Mary: Erin Hancock
Joseph: Andy Phan
Innkeeper: ???
Gabriel: Hannah Ennis
Myrrh Wise Person: William Hayman (myrrh)
Gold Wise Person: ??
Frankincense Wise Person: ??
Star: ??
Alternate: ??
(If others are interested in the part of Herod, we plan to have auditions on Sunday, November 27 at 11:45 am. All the rest of the parts are first come, first serve.)

Grades 7-8
Narrators: Alana Wyatt, Madeline Hayman, Nori Needle, Solomon Bellows, Ariana Cordova. (We could use one more narrator and two alternates.)

Kid Wranglers, 12/3
1. Kelley Zinkevich

Kid Wranglers, 12/10
1. Abigail Hannaford-Ricardi
2. Shari Belanger

12/11: All of the above

Holiday Crafts People
1. Laura Zick


Snack Kings and Queens
1. Laura Zick

1. Cindy Cordova

Props Assistants:

Hair Accessory Masters:

Director's Asst.

Let me know if you'd like to be part of the pageant magic!

Pajama Party on December 3

While the parents play, the kids are invited to a
Saturday, December 3

During the Dinner and Dance Gala, our kids will have their own celebration downstairs:

6-7 p.m.
(during the adult Cocktail Hour)
Kids' Dinner - Pizza and snack foods - Parents are encouraged to bring a snack to share, but we'll have the basics covered. Let me know if your children have any special dietary needs we should consider.

7-8:30 p.m.
(during the adult dinner)
Active games led by me (Director of Faith Development Ministries, Jessica Gray) - I know all sorts of fun, cooperative games that are good for all ages. These games will be simple but fun, and I look forward to getting to know some of the kids better. (That's one of my biggest frustrations here thus far - I haven't had many chances to interact directly with the children).

8:30-11 p.m.
(during the adult Dance)
Quiet activities and movies - We will choose which movies to watch as a group. Your kids are also welcome to bring a favorite (G rated) movie to add to the options.

Kids should wear their pajamas and bring a pillow and blanket (or sleeping bag) and a stuffed animal from home (but we've got extras here if you forget). The games are designed for kids of all ages. We will have a quiet room available if the kids get tired at any point. And the adults can stay as long as they like, knowing their kids are in a safe space. It's like camping out at church! Parents must stay on site, but kids can attend all or part of the evening. Adult volunteers are needed to help with each shift. Sign your kids up when you buy your tickets to the Dinner or Dance Gala! You can sign up in the fellowship hall.

Or, if you want to send me an E-mail so I can add your kids to the list, that's fine too. I'll even add your names to the grown-up list if you want.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We Remember

Everything was ready. The kids rehearsed and learned their lines. Abby and I spent hours making monarch butterfly wings (and then fixing them after several broke in the first rehearsal). The youth had cakes baked and ready for the cake walk. All was poised for a dramatic and interactive All Souls Community Worship last Sunday.

And then the snow came. The wet, heavy snow landed on branches still covered with leaves. And branches broke. And power lines fell. And the city shut down. I don’t know if any church in Worcester had services this past Sunday. Schools were closed for two days. Even the celebration of Halloween was delayed. Everything stopped.

I feel a great disappointment for what was lost. Some things can be recreated. The Cake Walk will happen this upcoming Sunday with whatever cakes the youth saved (and froze to keep fresh). I take my little girl Trick-or-Treating tonight. But there is not another opportunity for the “Ghost Wings” worship service this fall, and as it is quite seasonal it won’t fit later in the year. We will have many opportunities for Community Worship experiences this year, but October 30, 2011 has passed. It is gone.

I find this especially interesting because of the story itself, a Mexican story related to Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. In it, a young girl and her grandmother visit the “Magic Circle,” a place in the forest where hundreds of monarch butterflies migrate every year. Her grandmother tells her that the butterflies carry the souls of the “Old Ones,” and while they leave each year, they also return. When her grandmother dies, the butterflies help her remember.

We remember. We remember that life goes on. We remember that snow melts (though I know in a few months it might seem like it never will). We remember the great joy when the power comes back on! In some ways this surreal Halloween has prepared us for the winter, for the seemingly unending darkness. The cycle continues, and when it is time, all things return.

On a bright note, our UNICEF Halloween Festival and Dance Party last Friday were quite successful. I am now especially glad we made the decision to have it on Friday instead of Saturday or Sunday (though no fortune teller or meteorologist could have predicted the events of the weekend when we made that choice). You can see some of the pictures here.

By our current count, we raised $230 for UNICEF. If any kids take out Trick or Treat for UNICEF boxes tonight, make sure to bring them back to church so we can add to our total. The Cake Walk this Sunday also will go to support UNICEF.

A lot of people worked to make the Festival and Dance Party a success. I feel so lucky to have a great team of professional staff: Abigail Hannaford-Ricardi and Lesa McWalters went above and beyond in their work. Church member and professional deejay Jeremy Champlin donated equipment and expertise. Anita Kostecki donated prizes for the costume contest. Cindy Cordova and Amy Borg, co-chairs of the Family Ministries Team, and Rudy Cepko, YRU2 advisor, helped with set-up and during the event. Christine Sugarman and David Gendler took photographs. Rhye Gray gave Tarot Readings. Kattia Yauckoes, Linda Wyatt, and Carrie West also helped during the event. And our BYKOTA and YRU2 youth kept the activities going. My apologies if I missed someone, but I just wanted to give a big shout out to everyone who helped.

There are so many exciting things ahead. But thank you for taking a moment with me to remember what was lost. For this, too, is part of the magic circle.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

All Souls Sunday: Talking to Children about Death

This Sunday there will be no faith development classes. All ages will gather in Community Worship for All Souls, honoring our beloved dead, be they grandparents or goldfish, friends or family. A group of children and youth will dramatize the story Ghost Wings about the Mexican legend of the Old Ones returning as butterflies, and congregants will have the opportunity to name their beloved dead in a ritual of remembrance.

Parents, especially those with younger children, we strongly recommend that you take a moment to talk with your children before the service about those they would like to remember. Talking with children about death is never easy, and it's especially challenging since different UUs have such different ideas about what happens after we die. I suggest you follow your children's cues in sharing a developmentally appropriate discussion. On Sunday we will focus on remembrance rather than loss, but I urge you to be prepared for questions and discussions.

There are a lot of great resources available for talking with children about death.

Information for parents:
Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion by Dale McGowan. Written from the perspective of an atheist, this book offers advice for parents in many categories, including death.
The Kid's Book About Death and Dying by Eric Rofes. This is a very helpful book that helps parents find kid-appropriate language for these discussions.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. One of the most important ways a parent can help their kids understand big issues is by approaching the topics in their own beliefs. This book has helped me personally in my search for understanding.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives David Eagleman. I have not read this one yet, but I am very intrigued by it based on a review in UU World. It explores forty different ways of thinking about the afterlife, and it’s on my “to read” list.

Storybooks to share with children:
The Next Place by Warren Hanson. This book offers a vision of what might happen to a person after death. It does not specifically mention heaven or hell, but it opens to the possibility of an afterlife.
The Mountains of Tibet by Mordecai Gerstein tells the story of the death and reincarnation of a Tibetan woodcutter. It gives a beautifully gentle look at one human being dealing with life's choices and possibilities.
Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert is a beautiful book on the process of grief, appropriate for children but also poignant for adults. This book has meant a lot to me personally in times of sorrow and grief. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

I also have learned some very helpful language from books like Harry Potter, which deals a lot with issues of life and death. Professor Dumbledore reminds Harry that those we love never truly leave us for they live on within us. That is one version of the afterlife that we all can understand – those we love are still with us as long as we remember them.

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday. Our service will be joyful and possibly tearful as we remember All Souls.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Learning to Share

“Mine! Mine!” The animators of the Pixar film Finding Nemo gave the seagulls in just one word: “Mine!” And yet, I remember when it seemed that was the only word my little girl knew. Everything belonged to her, and she was very reluctant to share – food, toys, mommy or daddy’s time and attention. As a toddler, it was developmentally appropriate to see the world revolving around her. Everything she saw (even things she didn’t really want), she claimed as “Mine!” While I was working on this article, a friend of mine “shared” an anonymous humor piece on Facebook called “Property Laws of a Toddler”:

1. If I like it, it's mine.
2. If it's in my hand, it's mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it's mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.
5. If it's mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I'm doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it is mine.
8. If I saw it first, it's mine.
9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10. If it's broken, it's yours!

So I immediately “shared” it. Sharing is quite easy on Facebook, right? But in life, sharing is a bit harder to learn (and many adults still hold fast to the above laws).

In the miracle of growing up, my now preschool child is learning to share. This is also normal between the ages of 3-5. First it started with “proto-sharing” – showing others their toys but not being willing to let go of them. But children of this age imitate the adults, so we tried to give healthy examples of sharing. Sharing food was easy. Sharing toys has been a little more challenging, though preschool is helping. But the abstract sharing of something like “money” with people she can’t even see… way too abstract for her little mind!

We want our child to grow into a compassionate and giving adult. So I am consciously creating an atmosphere of giving now. Once a child reaches elementary school, he or she can begin to understand the abstractions – that there are people in this world who are suffering from lack of healthy food, clean water, medicine, education. Some of them even live right here in our country or our community. When we have resources, should we keep them to ourselves? Or should we share? As Unitarian Universalists, we live our faith by learning to share. We share our search for truth and meaning. We share acceptance with one another despite our differences. We share our worship experiences. And, yes, we share our resources.

One way we share our resources is through action. The Interfaith Hospitality Network families move into the church this week, and it will take an active sharing of many in the congregation to share with families who need so much. Sharing time is so valuable, and families who share together in helping with IHN have an opportunity to grow together in so many ways.

We also share financial resources, both within the church and in the world. First Unitarian relies entirely on financial donations to continue its work, but we also make a conscious effort to raise funds for others several times during the year. We support local organizations, family-based organizations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and disaster-relief. And, once a year each Halloween, we participate in raising money for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

“Trick or Treat for UNICEF” was started by kids who decided they wanted to make the world a better place so all children can grow up healthy and safe. They began taking the orange boxes with them while they went door to door, asking for donations along with their candy. Since 1950, when Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF started, kids have raised over $164 million in total! All together in 2010, American kids and other contributors collected more than $4.35 million to help UNICEF help kids — isn’t that incredible? Kids have the power to change the world, because it only takes pennies to save a life! When we raise money by Trick-or-Treating for UNICEF, our donation helps UNICEF get children basic, but very important things they need to stay healthy. Things like medicines, safe water to drink, food, and education.

We have the power to make a difference. For example, nearly 900 million people around the world don’t have access to clean water. And nearly half of those people are kids —just 25 cents would pay for enough clean water in a day for 10 kids. So if we raise a dollar, how many kids would we be helping with clean water? 40 kids. What if we raise $10? 400 KIDS. What if we raise $500? We could help UNICEF give 20,000 kids clean water for a day!

First Unitarian Church of Worcester has a long history of participating with Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Every year the YRU2 Halloween party proceeds have gone to UNICEF, and individual kids took boxes to collect donations when they went trick-or-treating. This year the Family Ministries Team is working together with YRU2 and BYKOTA to host a UNICEF Halloween Festival and Dance Party on Friday, October 28. The festival, from 5-7 pm, will include a costume contest, arts & crafts, games, a Tarot reader, a toddler room, and a pumpkin decorating contest. Parents are asked to attend with their children. We will collect donations at each of these stations. We also will have information available so people can really see where their donations are going. Then we will transition into a Dance Party for youth and adults. Our goal is to raise at least $500 for UNICEF.

I look forward to sharing with you all next Sunday how much our festival raises. As the icing on the cake, so to speak, the YRU2 will sponsor the traditional UNICEF cakewalk next Sunday during coffee hour. And then our children will be encouraged to take the boxes out again as they Trick-or-Treat on Halloween. UNICEF does not ask kids to sacrifice their Halloween candy. Donations are usually collected in addition to the candy. So even though they are still collecting candy, they are also collecting donations that will help other kids.

My little girl may not be old enough to understand what we’re doing and why, but we’re going to take the little orange UNICEF box with us when we go trick-or-treating on October 31. In this time of the year when we recognize harvest, together we can create a season of giving. We can teach our children to share through our example. May our efforts truly make a difference in the world.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Upcoming Events in Faith Development

• We will have a rehearsal for “Ghost Wings,” our dramatic story for All Souls Sunday, this upcoming Sunday (10/23) from 11:50-12:30 in the sanctuary. A dozen kids are signed up to be “Butterflies and Monsters” and should attend this first rehearsal along with our 8th grade main characters.

• UNICEF Halloween Festival & Dance Party! Friday, October 28. The family-oriented Festival will be from 5-7 pm and the teen and adult oriented Dance Party from 7-9 pm. Come in costume and invite your friends to this community-wide event. (And if you’re unable to attend but still want to support our UNICEF cause, go to our party website to donate. .

• You can also create your own “costumed” UNICEF photo. If you “buy” the upgraded “costumes,” it adds to our UNICEF total contributions. You can also continue to raise awareness of UNICEF by posting your photo on Facebook.

• We will continue the UNICEF weekend with the traditional Cake Walk on Sunday, October 30. With more than 20 cakes and pies to choose from, you’ll have fun trying to win your favorite! The Cake Walk will be after church during Coffee Hour in Unity Hall. This is sponsored by the YRU2 Youth Group.

• We are eager to begin developing an organized adult faith development program, and we need to hear from the adults in the congregation about their wants and needs! There will be an Adult Faith Development Listening Session on Tuesday, November 15 at 7 pm. We are also actively working to form the Adult Faith Development Team. If you would like to contribute to the church through this team, please contact Jessica at jgray@firstunitarian.com.

A Gentle Journey H.O.M.E.

An account of an inter-church U.U. Youth Mission trip
by Robin Caracciolo
Director of Religious Education at our sister church,
Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester on Holden St.

Last Friday morning, 35 of us gathered in the UUCW parking lot. There were 14 high school teens from UUCW, 2 from First Unitarian, 2 from Brookfield UU Church and 5 from the UU Church in Westboro. Together with the twelve adult chaperones, we circled up and looked at each other. We were suddenly co-journeyers full of high hopes, fear, excitement, and apprehension. Our individual threads were in small clumps, and some entirely separate. Aaron Payson, in a worshipful send-off, spoke to us about our journey. Still, we wondered what was in front of us, and how we all, so different, could become the woven volunteer “group” helping at H.O.M.E.

The 5 hour trip to H.O.M.E. in Orland ,Maine took 8 hours including stops, lunch and traffic. Traveling with a convoy of 5 vehicles proved to be a challenge.

Our arrival at H.O.M.E. was a rude awakening to many of us who were returning for the second time. With a heavy heart, I saw that the shelter had suffered a tough year and fallen into disrepair. Our accommodations were “rough”, most showers were not working and the two that were had no hot water. The water pressure was extremely low and the toilets were clogging. The kitchen was dirty and Friday night’s dinner took a long time to arrive. People felt tired and hungry, and wary

At our evening “circle” we processed the joys and challenges that were part of our day. There were many challenges present in that circle. The joys were the new friendships that were forming and the weather report of sunny skies and 80 degree temperatures. The challenge was the “sweaty work” we’d all be doing with the prospect of no showers.

Then, the magic happened. The tapestry was rapidly woven. The amazing kitchen crew led by Lee Hill and Lydia Proulx got the place sparkling and the food cooking. Bart Hill , Art Shea and Paul Vigneau Jr. got the showers, lights and toilets fixed. Paul Vigneau Sr., Robin Ganesan, Mohammed Salmassi , Pauline Sciarappa , Nancy Ackerman, Nick Choquette, and Sue Bartlet and crew cut the wood, stacked it, cleaned out the bargain barn and the community garden, and stocked the food pantry.

In our final circle on Sunday night, we sat around the fire and lit sparklers. Shoulder to shoulder with our fellow co-journeyers and the beautiful families living at H.O.M.E., the joys of accomplishment, perseverance and community (and a warm shower) outweighed everything else.

Thank you : Alison Lanyon, Cameron Root, Susan Mayes, Katie Cooney, Dessie Fung, Kahlia Salaices, Drew Lanyon, Robbie Johnson Erickson, Olivia Mandile, Joannah Houghton, Althea Ostrow, Charlie Buress, Luke Sciarappa, Paul Vigneau Jr., Nicholas Smith, Juliana Ruivo, Mithra Salmassi, Jenn Ostroff, Alex Ostroff, Lydon Davis, Rebecca Siegal, Natalie Ackerman, Gillian Ganesan. Thank you, adult chaperones.

H.O.M.E. Inc., established in 1970 as a craft cooperative, is a multifaceted organization involved in economic reconstruction and social rehabilitation. In its 30+ years of existence, it has grown from the single retail store where home crafters could sell their goods into a small community offering jobs, food, education, temporary shelter and home ownership to families in need www.homecoop.net

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Well Begun is Half Done

I like movies – a lot. And books. Stories in general. In fact, they are like myths to me. But when Tom asked me to speak to the adults and older youth about my philosophy of religious education, I planned to focus on something more “serious.” But then an idea just “popped” into my mind, and whatever I did, she wouldn’t leave. So, I decided to speak to you today about Mary Poppins.

When I was a child, I was enchanted by the music and the magic of this film. She was my heroine. I wanted to live in a world where toys cleaned up after themselves and carousel horses left the merry-go-round. For many years I considered myself “too old” for movies like “Mary Poppins,” but when I watched it again as an adult, I was blown away – and not like the nannies at the beginning of the movie with their umbrellas. Pretty soon I found myself saying “Poppisms” – short aphorisms or sayings from the movie that embody general truth. When I began working as a professional Religious Educator, Mary Poppins quickly became an avatar - an embodiment of who I would like to be.

I titled this sermon after one of my favorite Poppisms: “Well begun is half done.” I have this quote at the top of the “To Do” list in my office. I like to look at it every day because it inspires me to get started. Sometimes beginning is the hardest part of any project. When I was writing my dissertation in graduate school, I remember countless days of staring at a blank screen. Anyone who has written something knows about the blank screen of death. Beginning is at least half the work.

Mary Poppins calls the first game she plays with the children “Well begun is half done.” Basically, the game is cleaning up the nursery. But Mary keeps it interesting. Another Poppism: “With every job that’s to be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and –snap- the job’s a game.” When she snaps her fingers, the nursery cleans up after itself. When I approach a task, I try to think about how it could be fun, especially if it involves kids, but most adults like to have fun, too. Granted, it would be more fun to do tedious tasks if I could make things fly through the air by snapping my fingers, but there are plenty of ways to find the fun in everyday life. Of course, fun looks different to everyone. Jerry Bellows told me the other day that he carries Sodoku in his pocket for the moments in between when he can just get lost in the numbers. Lisa McWalters, our new Youth Ministries Coordinator, likes to listen to audio books on long drives or while doing tedious tasks. She once had a job where she was scanning item after item into a computer, and she listened to a whole library of audio books.

My husband does most of the laundry at our house (lucky me), and he likes to sort our clothes into the rainbow colors. We’re colorful people, so sometimes we actually have a load for each color. He sorts them into the rainbow colors, washes them in that order, and then even hangs them in order of the rainbow in the closets. Sometimes he even hums the song “Rainbow Connection” while he’s doing the laundry – that was our wedding song. Like I said, we’re colorful people. When I clean the floors in my house, I like to turn on music and dance with the broom and mop. I especially like showtunes – imagine that. At the airport or in other public places, I like to make up stories about the people I see going by – where they are going, what they will do there.

I even turn parts of my spiritual practice into a game. When I’m waiting for the extremely slow elevator here at the church, I say mantras. That’s something I learned in India – waiting in line is a great time to do repetitive prayers – and there’s a lot of waiting in India. But while waiting for the elevator, I make it a game. How many mantras can I do between the first and third floor? My current record is 76.

But life is about more than games. In “Mary Poppins,” once the nursery is clean, she gives another Poppism: “Enough is as good as a feast.” It’s very interesting that this has become a mantra for me because it seems to contradict another of my personal mantras: “More is more.” Some people say “less is more,” but for me, “more is more.” I like to do things in a big way – dramatic, colorful, exciting. I especially like organizing special events – like the Halloween Festival we’re having on October 28. When Linda Wyatt brought up the idea of an evening event instead of the smaller coffee-hour carnival, I jumped on board. (Yes, I stuck an advertisement in the middle of my sermon – but it’s a big deal!) A friend of mine recently told me that he could not remember a time when I said a job or event was too big. But, at the end of the day, “Enough is as good as a feast.” The best dissertation is a finished dissertation. My deadline in this job is Sunday – I’ve got to get everything done by Sunday. I will always have more ideas than I can bring into reality. Whatever gets done, that has to be enough. I am enough.

Poppism: “Never judge things by their appearance... even carpetbags. I'm sure I never do.” When she first arrives in the nursery, Mary Poppins surprises the children by pulling unexpected items out of her carpet bag, including a lamp, a full-length mirror, and a potted plant. The children are encouraged to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary, to look at the world through mystery and wonder. Liberal religious education has always placed a high value on the direct experience of mystery and wonder. Sophia Lyon Fahs was a foundational religious educator who worked from the 1930s to the 1960s. She wrote curriculum and trained other religious educators, teaching that children naturally explore sacred truths through their direct experience of the world. In the early 19th century, William Ellery Channing spoke on the subject of religious instruction in the passage we read earlier today. He reminds us “not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own… to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” Even prior to Channing, in the 1828 Christian Teacher’s Manual, teachers are encouraged “not to infuse a soul into the little being before him, but to bring out the soul that is there in its native purity.” Each person has the ability to wonder, to explore, and to find their own answers at each stage in their growth and faith development.

What is faith development? One of the many factors that contributed to me choosing this job over other professional opportunities was the unique job title this congregation developed. My fellow religious educators have many different job titles: Director of Religious Education, Director of Religious Exploration, Coordinator of Religious Education or Exploration, Lifelong or Lifespan Learning Director, Program Director. The list could go on and on. In this church, I am the Director of Faith Development Ministries.

Faith development is the process by which people attempt to discern answers for the big questions - life, death, the Mystery. It is more than “education,” and it’s especially more than babysitting. Mary Poppins may be a nanny, but she is never just a babysitter. Faith development indicates a process of discovery that extends throughout one’s entire life. It is a process rather than a product, a journey not a destination. The vision statement this congregation created for Faith Development Ministries includes a broad spectrum of spiritual exploration. Our Sunday classes for children and youth are incredibly important, but you envision vibrant educational programs appropriate for all stages and ages. It is my job to help you bring your vision of faith development into reality.

Poppism: “Practically Perfect in Every Way.” The final item Mary Poppins pulls from her bag is her all-important “tape measure.” She wants to see how the children “measure up.” Michael’s measurement is “extremely stubborn and suspicious.” Jane is “rather inclined to giggle; doesn’t put things away.” Finally, Mary Poppins measures herself as “practically perfect in every way.”

This measuring could be seen as a sort of judgment, a label of who the children are, but I see it more like a continuum. Both of the children are still growing. Mary Poppins uses the tool of the measuring tape to see where the children currently are, but also to show them where they could be. Through the course of the movie, she helps the children and their parents begin to recognize and transform their obstacles. They are on the same continuum as Mary Poppins, and they all have the opportunity to someday measure as “practically perfect in every way.”

I believe we are each “Practically perfect.” The foundation of our Unitarian Universalist covenant is the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Each person is completely unique and practically perfect in his or her own way. In our elementary Spirit Play classes, we use the symbol of a “gift” to represent this first principle of inherent worth. The teacher shows a small gift box and says, “Each person is like a gift. You are special just by being yourself. You are a gift. We don’t know all the wonderful things about each other until we learn about each other and find out all of our gifts. We are all precious so we treat each other as a little part of the Mystery.” This is what we teach in our youngest classes.

The scripture we read earlier speaks of how we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made…intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” You are a child of the universe, just as valuable, just as important, as the trees and the stars. You have been practically perfect since long before you were born, and you will be practically perfect long after you die.

And this takes us back to “Well begun is half done.” How do we begin? We are not born with original sin. We are born with original blessedness. I first heard this term, original blessedness, from a real-life heroine of mine, the Rev. Rebecca Parker. As a Unitarian Universalist theologian, she teaches that our inherent worth and dignity stem from the human relationship with God. According to Rebecca Parker, early liberal Christians argued against the dismal view of human nature taught by Calvinists. She writes, “The liberal message emphasized instead that humanity’s divine origin is never fully defaced or erased by human folly and sin… Radical inclusiveness is the mark of Christian love, for all bear the image of God.” We are able to be inclusive because of our recognition of inherent worth. The Hindu greeting “Namaste” recognizes the value in the other, “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” You bear the image of God. You are practically perfect in every way.

If this is true, why are there some times when we just don’t “measure up”? Remember, we’re “practically perfect,” not completely perfect. “Practically perfect” is still human – full of flaws and challenges. But perfect nonetheless. Complete perfection is not necessary, but recognizing our inherent perfection is good enough. We are perfect in our imperfection.

The final Poppism I wish to speak on was not said by Mary Poppins but by her friend, Bert, the chimneysweep. Throughout the movie the children’s father has long since forgotten how to balance work and fun. He loses control and loses his job, and as he is bemoaning his misfortune, Bert reminds him that “childhood slips like sand through a sieve... And all too soon they've up and grown, and then they've flown... And it's too late for you to give.” To give.

The father has to learn how to give to his children before it’s too late. He has to find and use his own unique gifts. Clearly he has gifts in business and finance, and he gives his children a financially stable home. That has much value. But the children want and need him to give them time and attention. Like so many of us, he learns that he needs to find balance between work and home. His greatest gift is time.

The final word in my job title is “ministries.” The word “ministry” literally means “service.” A minister is one who serves. I am honored to serve this congregation, and I look forward to helping you find your own unique ministries, the many ways you will share your gifts with the congregation and the greater community. Service brings “faith” into action. Ministry is our opportunity to share our practical perfection with others.

Each person’s idea of perfection is different. What is your practical perfection? And what will you do with it? Will you lose track of it in the tedium of everyday responsibilities, the grind at the grindstone? Or will you seek to find the element of fun in every job? Will you give your precious and unique gifts to the world? You already have everything you need - if you are willing to open your heart and mind. Rebecca Parker writes, “God’s imagination and longing, felt by every event-in-process, invites each particular thing to its potential part in the advance of peace, joy, healing, beauty, zest – abundant life.” We can change the world with our abundance.

Well begun is half done. We are made in the image of the divine. Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are, you are well begun. Life is short. You may not even be half done. Share your gifts. And take joy, for we are “practically perfect in every way.” Namaste.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Halloween Festival and Dance Party!

Friday, October 28

First Unitarian Church of Worcester
90 Main St.

Halloween Festival
5-7 pm
And “Dance Party with a Purpose”
7-9 pm

The Festival will be focused on family-oriented games and activities, while the Dance Party is intended for teens and adults (though kids are welcome if supervised).

• Costume Contest for all ages
• A preschool area with games (the “Lil’ Pumpkin Patch)
• Games and crafts
• B.Y.O.P. (bring your own pumpkin) for pumpkin decorating and pumpkin fashion show.
• “Ghoulish” snacks (feel free to bring some to share)
• Tarot readers and/or fortune-tellers
• A live DJ with lights, music and more!

All proceeds benefit UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund). We will accept donations at all activities and ask a $5 donation if you’re only coming for the dance party. Questions? jgray@firstunitarian.com or (508)757-2708 x105.

Every dollar raised will help UNICEF save children’s lives by providing nutritious food, medicines, clean water, and access to an education, all luxuries we take for granted daily. Thank you for joining UNICEF to do whatever it takes to save children’s lives!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Many Leaves, One Tree

Our Community Worship service on 9/25 was both meaningful and a lot of fun. If you missed it, I hope to see you next time! The following is my sermonette, followed by the script acted out by Solomon Bellows and myself:

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. It is a well-loved story of a tree and a little boy, though many parents have expressed concern about how codependent the tree seems to be. As the boy grows, the tree gives and gives and gives until she has nothing left. This makes her happy. When he asks for money, she offers her apples. When he asks for wood to build a house, she gives him all of her branches. When he asks for a boat, she gives him her trunk. And when he returns to find only a stump, she offers him a place to sit.

Have you ever done that? Given more and more and more until you had nothing left to give? I know I can get so involved in a project that I forget to eat. Or I can work until the wee hours of the morning. I take care of my family, but I don’t take care of myself. I become the giving tree, but in the process I lose myself. I know this happens to many in church leadership. They enjoy giving to the church community, but it’s easy to get so involved that you lose sight of your own boundaries. That sort of selflessness causes so much more harm than good.

As you can tell, the story we told today was a bit different. This version was re-written by a retired UU minister named Jerry Wright. In this alternate version, the tree says “no.” She sets limits. Instead of basing her happiness on the happiness of the boy, she takes care of herself. And, in the end, he is grateful that she set limits. He learns to show appreciation for all he has been given. And we even get a hint that new life can grow from the passing of the old. It shows the cycle of life for both the tree and the boy.

Do you want to be the giving tree or the nurturing tree? It feels good to give to others. Giving is a very healthy thing to do. But know your limits. Know which gifts nurture your spirit and which cost you too much. Listen to your own boundaries. And learn to let go of the things that sap your energy.

Think about the autumn leaves. In your order of service, there is a printed leaf. Get it out now and look at it. Leaves are absolutely necessary to the life of a tree, for they gather the nutrients the tree needs to live. They are kind of like the tree’s food factories. But in the autumn, the tree has to be willing to let those leaves go. A tree's roots, branches and twigs can endure freezing temperatures, but most leaves are not so tough. If they freeze and die while they are still connected to the tree, the tree could die. The best way for the tree to nurture itself is to release them.

What do you need to leave behind? Do you need to let go of fear? Or anger? Do you want to let go of specific habits that no longer help you grow? Specific obligations? I want you to take a few moments to write on the leaf the things you want to release. (pause) Now, crumple it up, and let it go. (throw the ball). Seriously, let it go. (leaves start falling).

We have let go of many leaves. The leaves return to the soil as mulch, and the soil sustains the tree. And now that we’ve let some things go, now that we have set some boundaries, this community is one strong tree. As we enter into this harvest season, may we sustain each other. May we respect one another’s limits. May we take opportunities to nurture each other, to grow a strong community, but may we also nurture ourselves.

The Nurturing Tree
Adapted by Jerry Wright from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree
Dramatized by Jessica Gray


Once there was a boy who really enjoyed a tree. I am that tree.

The boy enjoyed the roughness of my bark when he climbed on it.
(BOY mimes climbing)

He enjoyed the springiness of my branches when he swung on them.
(BOY mimes swinging)

He enjoyed the crackle, the smell and the pillowy feeling of my leaves when he gathered them into a big pile and jumped into them, in the fall of the year.
(Leaves fall, and BOY mimes catching them)

He enjoyed the crunch and tart taste of my apples when he bit into their ripe fruit.
(BOY mimes eating an apple)

And when the sun was hot, he enjoyed sitting in my shade, leaning against my sturdy trunk, thinking about all the things he hoped to do and have and be as he grew older.
(BOY leans against the tree, dreaming)

As the tree, I enjoyed knowing the boy, too. I enjoyed watching him grow stronger, able to do more things. I enjoyed his company. I enjoyed being useful.

(BOY exits skipping)
But there came a long time when the boy stayed away.


As the tree, I missed the boy, until one day, he returned. But he was different. Older, but not necessarily wiser.

(BOY enters, a teenager)

Hello Boy. Would you like to play in my leaves?

I’m too old for that. I need some money.

"Well, money doesn't grow on trees, but apples do, and you're welcome to gather my apples and sell them for money."

I guess that’ll work.

I was delighted to have the boy climbing about, gathering the apples I had grown. I enjoyed his company and I enjoyed feeling useful.

(Exit BOY)

But then the boy stayed away for a long time, again.

(Enter BOY as a young MAN)

As the tree, I missed the boy. One bright, sunny day I saw him coming toward me-older now-a man-and I was very happy. I really enjoyed his company. He was bigger and looked stronger than when I had seen him last.

Hello Boy. Would you like to eat my apples?

I’m too busy for that. I want a house. A house to live in and raise a family. Would you give me your branches?

I'll give you a few of my branches, and you may ask my neighbors for some of theirs. If I gave you all of my branches, I'd have nothing to support my leaves. Without leaves to turn sunlight and water into food, I would die. But as long as you take only a few of my limbs, I can grow others; so, you're welcome to a few.

BOY: (gathering branches) Thank you, Tree. I will also ask your neighbors.
(he exits)

TREE: I am glad to see he has enough to build his house. But now he stays away for several years.


TREE: As the tree, I missed the boy. One day I saw him coming toward me-a man in his middle years now.
(BOY enters, a middle-aged MAN)

Hello boy. Would you like to swing in my branches?

I’m too tired for that. I've been thinking that I'd like to have a boat to sail on the lake, and I'd like to have your trunk to use for a hull.

Hmm. I like you very much- I have liked you since when you were a small boy, climbing my trunk and diving into piles of my leaves-but I like
myself, too. I must say 'No' to your request. If I gave you my trunk, I would die, and while I like to give of myself and feel useful, I
know better than to give myself away.

You’re saying no? You’ve always given me at least some of what I asked for.

I've noticed that you only come around when you want something for yourself. Other than that, I never see you. I would really like for you to come visit me from time to time.

I guess you’re right. I do only come see you when I want something. When I came here as a young boy, we both were giving each other something. But now you have been doing almost all of the giving and I have been doing almost all of the taking.

Would you like to have children play in your branches again?

Oh yes!

I’ll call my grandchildren! Come up here! (calls to any children from congregation to play). This is a great tree. You can play in it, climb it, swing from its branches. You can eat the apples.

Oh, and look, we can also plant some seedlings to make more trees. When they grow up, they can keep the tree company.

Part 5:

Like all living things, I grew older and older and finally died, and the keepers of the forest cut me down, leaving only a stump of a tree.

(Enter BOY, an old man)
The man grew older, too, and returned to me one day, only to discover that nothing
was left of me, but my stump.

I could offer no shade to sit in-no sturdy trunk to lean against-only my stump to sit upon, so the old man sat.
(BOY thinks for a time)

Thank you, tree. Thank you for being there when I was a boy.

Thank you for the shade you provided, and for being there to lean upon when I just wanted a place to think thoughts and dream dreams.

And thank you, most of all, for setting limits and saying "No." Thanks for liking yourself as well as you liked me. I think that liking yourself enough to tell me "No" was the best gift you ever gave me."

(The tree raises new branches behind the boy)

The end. And the beginning.

C 2006
Jerry D. Wright
Adapted for stage by Jessica Gray, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Welcome autumn!

In the past few weeks, I have closed the windows in my apartment and gone searching for my long-sleeved shirts and jackets. I have seen the first tinges of autumn in the leaves. I enjoy autumn immensely (especially my pumpkin-spice lattes), and, but this season also brings with it some challenges for many families. One of the greatest enemies of the modern family is the incredibly full calendar. So many families rush from school and work to other sports and activities and barely even take a moment to pass in the halls. My own child, Ariana, just started preschool, and my husband and I are both working new jobs. Some days I don’t get home until she is already in bed, and often we’re so exhausted that our family meals are in front of the TV.

We all know how important it is to spend time with our families. Those important moments of connection, whether they are the bedtime rituals or family dinners, are the moments that bond us together with the people we love the most. I think my favorite moments are the times we can never plan: a sleepy-eyed Ariana stumbling out of bed in her pajamas wanting to snuggle, evenings when she falls asleep without a struggle and Rhye and I have just a few minutes to talk, or even times when we’re navigating through traffic, discovering something new. These are moments worth treasuring.

And, as Ariana grows older, I also treasure sharing with her the religious rituals of my faith. We light a family chalice together and sing the chalice song she knows from Sunday School. We say bedtime prayers together. And, when she is ready, I look forward to sharing larger, communal worship experiences together. When I was a child, family devotions were an important part of our family life. My dad often said, “The family that prays together stays together.” While my prayers now may look or sound different from the prayers I said with my parents as a child, they instilled in me a love for worship. My spiritual connection was intimately connected to my family.

The etymology of the word “worship" derives from “worth” or “value.” What are the things we value? How will we shape the moments in our lives to recognize their worth? In addition to the beautiful spontaneous moments (which I encourage you to savor), this year we hope to bring many opportunities for you to share worshipful moments with your family at First Unitarian. The new format for Time for Community is intended to allow families to light candles together, to share their joys and sorrows, and to connect with others in the community. Many of the “Monday Night at the Church” programs are being designed for families to engage together in a spiritual way. And this Sunday I look forward to celebrating autumn with our first Community Worship Service, a time for all ages to join together in the sanctuary for the entire worship hour. For families with young children (early elementary and toddlers), we will offer “Extended Care” beyond our normal nursery services with activities connected to the theme, but older children and youth are strongly encouraged to join with the in this time of worship. Together, we will find new ways to express worth and honor in our community.

I hope each of us will find the time in our busy schedules to connect to our families and to our spiritual community. These are truly the moments of worth. Bright Autumn Blessings!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Upcoming Faith Development Events

The church year officially starts September 11 with Homecoming Sunday. On this Sunday we will recognize and honor our volunteer teachers - our Partners in Ministry for Children and Youth. All classes PreK-8th grade will have their first meeting. At 11:30, all parents are invited to a "Meet & Greet" downstairs in the Landers Room. This is your opportunity to meet me, the new Director of Faith Development Ministries, see your child's classroom, meet some of their new teachers, and hear more about the Faith Development plans for 2011-2012. Snacks will be provided.

There are also a few more upcoming events you may be interested in:

On Monday nights, the church has a fellowship supper at 6:30 then a program at 7:30 pm. They ask a $5 donation for supper (if you can afford it). Then the programs vary. I am responsible for the program the second Monday of each month. My first program is September 12:

Family-friendly Water Communion
The Water Communion is a specific Unitarian Universalist tradition practiced in many churches throughout the nation. We will join together as a community in this alternative, participatory worship with story and song. You are encouraged to bring a small bottle of water from your home or some other place, but this is not required. All are welcome.

On THURSDAY nights from 6:30-7:30, I will be leading the Mandala Dance Group, a spiritual practice of movement meditations from earth-centered, Tibetan Buddhist, and other sources. The practice is similar to Dances of Universal Peace. Our group will begin meeting on September 22 with an honoring of the autumn equinox. Each week we will explore the cycles of the seasons, the moons, and our lives through movement, music, and meditation.

Sunday September 25 I am leading the main Sunday service. The title is "Many Leaves, One Tree: A Community Fall Celebration." It's the first of four seasonal services I will be leading through the course of the year.

I look forward to meeting you as we come together this fall. May it be a fruitful and abundant time for us all.

Bright Blessings!
Jessica Gray

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Bardo, the Butterfly, and the Boy Who Lived

(Introductory sermon offered by Jessica Gray, DFDM, 8/14/2011)

“He moved on, and now he reached the edge of the forest, and he stopped.
A swarm of dementors was gliding amongst the trees; he could feel their chill, and he was not sure he would be able to pass safely through it. He had no strength left for a Patronus. He could no longer control his own trembling. It was not, after all, so easy to die. Every second he breathed, the smell of the grass, the cool air on his face, was so precious: To think that people had years and years, time to waste, so much time it dragged, and he was clinging to each second. At the same time he thought that he would not be able to go on, and knew that he must. The long game was ended, the Snitch had been caught, it was time to leave the air…

The Snitch. His nerveless fingers fumbled for a moment with the pouch at his neck and he pulled it out.

I open at the close.

Breathing fast and hard, he stared down at it. Now that he wanted time to move as slowly as possible, it seemed to have sped up, and understanding was coming so fast it seemed to have bypassed thought. This was the close. This was the moment.

He pressed the golden metal to his lips and whispered, “I am about to die.” The metal shell broke open.”
(J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 697-698)

“I open at the close.” Last week, in her final sermon here, Kim Hampton opened with a quote from T.S. Eliot “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” I find it highly appropriate that I open with the very same words in my first sermon here. With every ending, we find a new beginning. And with every beginning, we honor the ending of that which came before.

How many of you have read the final Harry Potter book? Seen the final film? Seen any of the films? Ever heard of Harry Potter? If you didn’t raise your hand for at least one of those questions, either you’re not paying attention or you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past ten years. For my generation and those after me, Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon, with the successful books and films, tons of toys and merchandise, wizard rock bands, and even a theme park. The stories became an important part of my life work as I was “Headmistress” of Hogwarts summer camp for seven years in Baton Rouge and also wrote a chapter in my dissertation about the series. I believe this story has had such a great impact because the imagery in Harry Potter transcends mere fantasy. I see it as a story of power, symbolism, and significance - a modern mythology.

And as with any myth, images can be interpreted far beyond their literal context. But some context is helpful. For those of you who may be less familiar with the series, let me explain something about the passage we just read. In the wizarding sport of “Quidditch,” Harry Potter plays the position of the Seeker. This player has only one job: to catch a small golden flying ball called the “Snitch.” Once the Snitch is caught, the game ends, and usually the Seeker’s team wins. As part of our camp we played Quidditch every year, and believe me, the snitch was well-sought. Much joy and many tears were expressed by the children who sought this little ball.

In the scene we read, Harry Potter is ready to face what he believes will be the final battle of his life. As he walks to his immanent death, he remembers that his mentor, Dumbledore, gave him an enchanted golden snitch engraved with the words, “I open at the close.” Let’s consider this image for a moment.

First, we have the Seeker. This is a classic image of one on a spiritual search. In Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus taught his disciples: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Our Unitarian Universalist principles encourage us each to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We seek the opening that will allow us to understand the big questions, the revelation of something more.

I have always considered myself a spiritual seeker from as early as I can remember. I was raised Southern Baptist, the child of a minister, but I knew early on that I wanted more. I remember when I was about five years old, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a minister, just like my daddy. But the good Southern Baptists always told me I could marry a minister, but since I was a girl I couldn’t be a minister. I was crushed. So instead I decided to be a missionary, and in high school I traveled on mission trips to Budapest, Hungary, Malawi in southern Africa, Venezuela, and Papua New Guinea. But I was frustrated with the exclusivity clause of Christianity as I knew it. I had an assignment in one of my missionary courses to write a paper called “The Destiny of the Heathen.” What happens to those who die that have never known about Jesus? Were we actually condemning them by telling them? I remember praying about this and determining that there must be other ways to know God. I left conservative Christianity. Academically, I studied other sects of Christianity, including Catholicism. I studied Judaism and Islam and other world religions. But soon I found a spiritual home in earth-centered traditions of modern Paganism and in a dance meditation of Tibetan Buddhism. I went on a dance pilgrimage to India and Nepal. I trained until I was considered a leader in my chosen spiritual practices. But I still valued my Christian roots, and I found that others could not understand why I followed multiple spiritual disciplines. When I found Unitarian-Universalism, it just made sense. I could honor many spiritual sources. With the principles, I found a framework for living my beliefs. And I found opportunities to minister to others through my work in religious education and now faith development. As a line from another of my favorite movies, Joe Versus the Volcano, says, “It's taken a long time meeting you, a long time on a crooked road.” My spiritual search has led me here to meet you.

Going back to Harry Potter, in this scene, the Snitch – the object of the Seeker - opens to reveal something extraordinary inside. But this moment of revelation, of openness, cannot come on an ordinary day. It can only be revealed in a moment of transition, a moment of change, a moment in between. Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep called this space “liminality,” based on the “limen” or the “threshold.” In his work studying rites of passage, he examined how religious rituals involve a separation from what was and a transformation into what will be. The boy becomes a man. The single individuals become a married couple. The girl becomes a mother. The moments in between are powerful, sacred, and transformative.

The Tibetan Buddhists call this moment of transition the bardo. Though this term often refers to the space between death and rebirth, the great teacher Sogyal Rinpoche explains in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that “Bardo is a Tibetan word that simply means a ‘transition’ or a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another.” Sometimes the bardo lasts for a fraction of a second. Sometimes we live in states of bardo for years. I’d like for you to think about a time when you experienced a transition or change in your life? Some of us may be in the bardo right now. For the past year and a half, I have lived in the bardo. We were ready to move on from Baton Rouge, but we were open about where we would go – uncertain of the future.

But are any of us ever certain of the future? As soon as we think we are, *snap* everything changes. A job disappears. A loved one dies. A diagnosis, a hurricane, a car accident, a war. I don’t know you, but I know that you have suffered loss of some sort. We all have. This is a fundamental part of the human experience.

Last week, my three-year old spent hours crying over the loss of a cupcake. She was supposed to wait until after dinner, but in her own inventive way she stacked boxes on top of a stool to reach it from the top of the cupboard. But she couldn’t eat it quietly. She came running into the living room to show us what she had achieved. We were so proud of her ingenuity that we didn’t want to punish her, but we couldn’t let her have the cupcake before dinner. She pitched a fit. She wailed over the loss of her cupcake. And her experience is just as real, just as valid, as those of us who have lost so much more. To her, this loss defied everything she knew to be right and good. She had a complete expectation that the cupcake would be hers, and when it was taken from her, she did not know how to handle that emotion. When we have good things in our life, we grasp and cling to them, trying to hold on, to prevent change. But they cannot ever remain the same. The only constant in this life is change. Oh, and by the way, she ate her dinner and got her cupcake. She only had to wait. But after she ate it, like everything else, it was gone again.

Harry Potter approached the bardo willingly. He believed he was walking to his death. He had already lost so much – his parents, many friends, his teacher, everything he knew and loved. He could not conjure his “Patronus,” the guardian that would protect him from the darkness and despair of the creatures called Dementors. And yet he kept going. And in this moment, the metal shell of the snitch opened, revealing a stone called “The Resurrection Stone.” This stone gave him a moment of connection with those he had lost. For this moment, he was strengthened by his sources of refuge and support. I asked some of my friends what they thought about this scene, and one told me, “For me it's that we never really walk this road of life alone, and it is comforting to know that others have walked it before us, made mistakes like we make, loved others like we love, and fought battles like we fight. Even when we feel alone and that the world is a horrible, cruel place, those we love have never really left, nor ever will leave us.” Those we love become our sources of protection, our Patronuses. From the Buddhist perspective, those who support our journey can be honored as our sources of “Refuge.”

I would like you to think about your own personal sources of refuge: If you will, bring your hands together in a symbol of reverence. Think first about your lineage of teachers. Who are the people that have guided your search? Perhaps your parents, your teachers, your ministers, your guides? See them clearly in your mind. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by the lineage of teachers.”

Next, think about your vision of the Enlightened Ones. Which spiritual beings have inspired your path the most? The Buddha, Jesus, Mary? Others? Prophetic men and women like John Murray or Martin Luther King, Jr.? See them clearly in your mind. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by the enlightened ones.”

Now I want you to think about the teachings themselves. What spiritual truths have you discovered in your search? What teachings have helped you with the big questions? Let them form in your mind. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by their teachings.”

And, finally, think about the community of Seekers. Who has traveled with you on this path? Look around. Today, at least, we travel the path together. Repeat after me, “My path is supported by the community of practitioners.”

These are your sources of refuge. When you find yourself in the bardo, remember that you are not alone. You are never alone.

“I open at the close.” Another way of looking at this looks within. We are not just the Seeker. We are the golden snitch. “We” open at the close. And we must break open to find new possibilities. What does it mean to break open? The word “broken” seems so violent – broken bones, broken homes, broken hearts. But we also can break ground, break bread, break-through, break free. We break the constraints holding us back. Like a seed pod breaks to allow a plant to grow, change must happen for life to happen.

When I look to nature, I see the bardo in the life of a creature with glorious wings that flies just like the golden snitch - the butterfly. While I was preparing for this sermon, I decided to watch some time lapse videos on youtube showing the butterfly life cycle. Did you know that most butterflies have an adult lifespan of less than two weeks? Many species of butterfly spend nearly twice as long in the cocoon, as much as a month or two. Their lives are so fragile, so brief, and yet so inspiring. First the caterpillar hatches from a tiny egg and lives and grows. Then, as we all know, to mature into a butterfly it must spin a cocoon. I always thought that the cocoon wraps around the caterpillar’s body. Instead, the first thing I noticed in the videos was that the cocoon forms from within the body, shedding the outer skin of the caterpillar. Just like the caterpillar, we each have all of the resources we need for transformation within. But we must give up all that we know, break through the outer shell, and shed our past like the caterpillar sheds its skin.

Then, after a significant amount of time and space, the caterpillar struggles to emerge from the cocoon. But the struggle is absolutely necessary. As some well-meaning people have discovered, if a person cuts away the cocoon to make it “easier” for the butterfly to emerge, the butterfly will never fly. The struggle through the tiny opening in the restricting cocoon is nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings. And even then, it takes a long time for the wings to expand. The butterfly, who has just endured great hardship, must continue to rest, to wait. Finally, the butterfly must be willing to release the familiar, to let go of the branch and fly. In our lives, we let go of the past. We wait. We struggle. We expand. And finally, we let go and fly.

“I open at the close.” In every ending, we find a new beginning. I graduated from Louisiana State University in May. Much like the caterpillar transforming into the butterfly, my academic work was full of ups and downs. My dissertation defense was quite a struggle. There were times I nearly gave up. But, do you know what they call a person who struggles but still passes a dissertation defense? Doctor. After 13 years of college, I thought it was important to attend my graduation, to walk the stage and receive the PhD hood, to formalize in a rite of passage the ending of this part of my life. And yet, like so many graduation ceremonies, I found myself impatient through the long wait of the day. I remember looking at all the other PhD graduates from different disciplines, thinking, “Can we just move on already?” It’s appropriate that the end of any academic program is called “Commencement,” for while it may signal an ending, it also is the beginning of whatever is to come.

At the end of June, my family and I packed and moved everything we own 1600 miles across fourteen states. In moving to Worcester, I have opened myself to a new home, a new job, a new church, new friends – a new life. And in bringing me here, you have also opened to me. While we can build on the glorious history of this church, your specific sources of Refuge, we are also breaking new ground together. We are beginning a new journey. I will do things differently than my predecessors. You are different from my previous congregation. We will likely disappoint each other at times. And I hope we can have a lot of fun together. I am a seeker. I open myself to what I will learn from you. And I hope you are open to what you can learn from me.

When you come to a time of transition in your life, the bardo between the past and the future, I encourage you to rest in the in-between. Breathe love and peace. Sogyal Rinpoche teaches, “When this kind of experience occurs, do not immediately rush to find solutions. Remain for a while in that state of peace. Allow it to be a gap. And if you really rest in that gap, looking into the mind, you will catch a glimpse of the deathless nature of the enlightened mind.”

I had a very visceral experience of loss and the bardo this past week. On Thursday, I took my laptop with me to the YMCA to work on my sermon while Ariana was in childcare. I was happy with my work, so we locked my bag into a locker and went swimming. After swimming, Rhye got our clothes bags out of the locker, locked it back, and we showered and changed. A mere 10 minutes later, we were shocked to find our locker empty – his shoes were gone, but my bag was gone – my bag with my computer, my phone, my glasses, my keys… pretty much my life. Shock. Tears. I could not believe that another human being could be so cruel. I was overwhelmed with how much it would cost to replace all of these very important things. I couldn’t even see straight since I didn’t have my prescription glasses. For hours we stayed in the lobby, giving a report to the staff and meeting with the police. But somewhere in the middle of that time, the lessons of this sermon really began to sink in. I breathed. I rested in the letting go. I was still sad and frustrated. I had a hard time sleeping that night. But I fully experienced the gap, the moment of the bardo. Even in the midst of a dramatic crisis, I found moments of peace. The next morning we got a call from the YMCA that our stuff was found stashed in a locker – all of my belongings intact! Our theory is that the thief figured it wasn’t worth getting caught, considering the police and security were quite visible at the only exit for hours after the stuff was stolen. But I also like to think there was some divine grace involved. I let go, and I was blessed in return.

We do not really own our possessions. And we especially cannot own our loved ones – our mates, our friends, our children. As precious as they are to us, we have to be willing to let them go. While stories like mine do not always have happy endings, when we let go we have the opportunity to receive blessings we cannot even imagine.

I would like to lead you in another short spiritual practice. If you are willing and able, gather your hands at your heart and imagine everything you hold precious and dear. This is your own golden snitch. But it’s time to open and fly. Raise your hands up as an offering and open. Release these blessings to the world.

The golden snitch is what we "seek." And when we find it, we win the game. But to win this game, we must “open at the close.” We have to let it go to move forward. With every ending comes a new beginning and new possibilities for openness. The future is not yet written. Are you ready for the next chapter, the next great adventure?