June 16, 2013
“The golden twilights of June want attention paid.”
- James Carroll
I hope that on this last Sunday of our regular church year, you will indulge me in wandering a bit. I find myself torn, on this beautiful, mid-June Sunday, between looking ahead to the long, empty, carefree summer days which beckon, and backward to all of the wonderful things that we have accomplished together this year. I couldn’t make up my mind which way to go, and so I have decided to go in both. And, who knows, perhaps in more.
I can’t help but feel that this has been a year of significant growth for us, not so much in numbers, though there has been some of that, but especially in terms of the strength of our community. And, I would like to think, that growth in strength has resulted in some individual spiritual growth as well. We have weathered some storms, both personal and communal. We’ve had some successes and some failures. But mostly, I think, we have made some progress.
A look back at some of our accomplishments may help us to see that. Some of them have been quite visible, and some have been of the more quiet and subtle variety. I mentioned some of them in my annual report.
You may remember that we began the year needing to resolve the E. Maria Stern bequest process, which had threatened to divide our congregation. Not only did we successfully weather that potential storm, but out of it emerged a community-wide, interfaith effort, with significant leadership from the First Religious Society, which has raised over $45,000. to date to build a playground for some of Newburyport’s least advantaged residents at the Kelleher Park housing project. That’s something all of us should feel proud about.
Thanks to Maria Stern’s generosity, we were able to complete the fundraising for our Joseph Alley organ renovation project, replace the old and dangerous room dividers in the upper Parish Hall, and complete the long overdue painting of that building as well. Planning for renovation of our church kitchen is ongoing, as is planning for improvements to the alleyway which divides our two buildings. Also thanks to Maria, our annual music series, named for Maria’s dear friend Jean Wilson, will be better able to continue its mission of bringing great music to the greater Newburyport community.
Less noticeable, perhaps, but also important were improvements that were made to the sanctuary sound system and to this lectern, which for the first time in my eighteen years as your minister is actually adjustable to my height! We replaced most of the lighting in the lower meeting house with more efficient fixtures and bulbs, which resulted in a huge savings on our electric bills. Making improvements and repairs to our buildings is a never ending, yearly chore of the Building and Grounds Committee and our Sexton, Ed Mair.
How many of you noticed the subtle change that the Worship Committee, at Jay Lane’s suggestion, made to the order of service? The institution of “Gathering Music” before the Welcome and Announcements and the Prelude means that we can continue our beloved habit of meeting and greeting one another as we enter the church, but also have the opportunity to enter more quietly into worship and to actually hear the Prelude played.
The imminent retirement of our current Business Administrator, John Mercer, resulted in the formation of a task force to consider the many tasks that John has performed so ably over the last decade and to assess the future staffing needs of the church. The result was a recommendation to split John’s job into two parts: a Business Administrator and a Community Engagement Director. Hiring on the one position is complete, and on the other will take place over the summer months. This process has also led us to consider the efficacy of engaging in strategic planning as we look forward to a time of ministerial transition in the not-so-distant future. A Communications Task Force led by Tom Stites and Lynn Kettleson has looked at the ways that we can improve our outreach both within the church and outward into the wider community.
I’m very excited at the formation of a lively Climate Change interest and action group with both adult and youth participation, and I look forward to what I am sure will be some challenging recommendations issuing from it. An end of the year, ad hoc meeting to discuss our annual canvass actually attracted a lively group and promises some new energy and ideas around fundraising for our beloved community. With the help of our prospective new Community Engagement Director, we are hoping to increase participation in all aspects of our church life.
Our Young Church program continues to thrive under the effective leadership of our Director of Religious Education, Julie Parker Amery. Our church is blessed by the large number of youngsters who participate on a regular basis in religious education, youth programming, and music. What would our community be without them? Our adult choir, as mentioned earlier, has grown in numbers and ability under Jay’s skillful guidance. We have an incredible staff who care deeply about your church and its facilities and work tirelessly on your behalf. Our usual round of fundraising events was amazingly successful, thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many of you, and indicates to me a high level of commitment to this church and all that it represents. And, of course, there are all the volunteers, committees, and groups who do the real work of the church. There are simply too many of you to thank!
Last summer, I led an intergenerational group of thirteen on another wonderful pilgrimage and visit to our Unitarian Partner Church in the Transylvanian region of Romania. This remarkable partnership has resulted in 46 adults and young people from our congregation making that sometimes life-changing journey to the Holy Land of Unitarianism over the past fifteen years.
All of this is indicative of a church that continues to move “onward and upward,” if not, well, “forever,” then at least for the foreseeable future. And, of course, there is still plenty to be done. But the foundation is solid, and I am certain that the people and the resources are here to make most, if not all, of our dreams come true.
If all of that isn’t enough to excuse me, and many of us, from looking forward to a few less active weeks during our annual summer hiatus, I don’t know what is. I know from experience that this “off” time will allow us to return to our community in the fall refreshed and renewed, glad to see each other’s faces again, and reenergized to continue the work of building the beloved community! And while I look forward to some down time, I also look forward to the time when we shall re-gather our community and continue the important mission of this great and historic church to change ourselves and our world into the people and the place we want to be.
My colleague and mentor, Charles Stephen, once wrote that “June comes along right when we need it. Even the word ‘June’ has a comforting tone”:
It’s a month that arrives just in time to cure our ills, to bring balm to our spirits. . . . For many of us, the daily activities are fewer in June, the schedules less demanding. There is time to do less and to do it less deliberately. . . . Far away and near, wrote Charles, life’s difficulties persist, of course. But in June we can take a backward step and see them with more clarity, see them, that is, in a context that includes rejoicing that for another year June has returned.
Of course, as someone has also written with truth, “June is when college graduates take their diplomas in hand and go out to conquer the world. July is when the world counterattacks.”
Be that as it may, we would do well to heed Shakespeare’s lament that “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”
“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me,” said novelist Henry James, “those have been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” And to me, as well.
In closing, I share with you a wonderful poem by poet Gary J. Whitehead, entitled “First Year Teacher to His Students”:
Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,
to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver
dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else’s house
in a land you’ve never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret
things await. Be glad, be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.
Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you’ll never now forget of someone’s lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,
where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas . . . and all your life it’ll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.
I wish you all a wonderful summer, blessed with warm and gentle breezes, until we meet again. In the benedictory words of my colleague Sylvia Howe,
Until we meet again
Remember that you are
A good and loving people.
Go forth into the summer
With peace, hope, and joy in your heart
Until we meet again,
Until we meet again.
- The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
Reading: from “Sweet summer solstice balances life’s bitterness,” by James Carroll