Nudis Verbis

(Plain Talk)

May 27, 2001
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL

Text: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." Ecclesiastes 3:1

In Robert Browning's poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", the town of Hamelin was overrun with rats. The mayor and council were at their wits' end. A traveling piper offered to get rid of the pests. They agreed, promising 1000 guilders if he succeeded. The piper walked through the town playing his pipe. The rats followed him to the nearby river where they were drowned. When the piper returned to be paid the mayor and council refused. In retaliation the piper again walked through town playing his pipe. This time the residents watch horrified as their children followed him out of town and up to a nearby hill where they disappeared into a wondrous portal never to be seen again.

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

It is time for this sermon. Recent events here at First Parish have placed some issues squarely before us. We need AND MUST consider these issues in order to renew a sense of community. In reflecting upon this recently, I remembered an article that appeared in the most recent issue of Time magazine by Roger Rosenblatt. In it, he posited the question, "Does anyone recognize America these days?"

Rosenblatt was saddened to realize that the old values about which America traditionally prided itself have all but vanished from the scene: purpose, commitment, integrity, generosity, consideration, to name but a few. His thoughts were not far off the mark. I feel that perhaps the same sentiments have been said about this congregation in the past few weeks.

First Parish has prided itself for some years for having a distinguished history. The congregation is solid, grounded and caring of its members and friends. It boasts an excellent religious education program for children, a creative music program an active choir, and possesses excellent facilities in a good location. In addition, it supports any number of outreach projects to assist those in need. That's the good news. The bad news is that, in regard to those projects, nobody in particular knows that the church works in their behalf. Not even the majority of the church membership.

As your Interim Minister I am trained to assess and give an overview of the church I serve. It is my view that this church has made various efforts by a number of people to find a first class "All-church Project". The dream has always been that it would be a project which the entire congregation would support. Those efforts always seemed to fail for one reason or another.

ENTER "FRIENDSHIP HOME" and (as the saying goes) THE "FAT IS IN THE FIRE!"

Most of you know what happened - OR WHAT YOU PERCEIVED HAPPENED. The Special Parish Meeting called for Sunday, May 13th, was confusing, frustrating and for some, divisive. I say this because as a recent "Lightning Rod" who received input from BOTH sides, I have concluded that I must preach this sermon. Lorna and I considered ourselves attendees. I made it very clear before the meeting that I would not speak to the issue since I was the Interim Minister and would not be here as "called minister" to work with the results of the vote that day.

We had a sense that people on both sides of the issue still wanted to be heard. Unfortunately, and with honest intent, debate was shut off due to the time. A number of people were visibly upset. Apparently they had brought carefully prepared statements which they were unable to make.

The truth of the matter was, however, that everyone who entered that room, or most at least, had their minds made up and knew how they were going to vote. And that's when the question was called. We left the church - all of us - with various feelings of anger, disappointment, confusion, sadness or satisfaction.

I need to explain something to you. Had you not decided to have an Interim Minister; had you, as a congregation gone ahead and called a settled minister right away, it is highly likely that as a result of this issue, he or she would already have been looking to move on. His or her tenure would have been "toast". The reason I am saying this is that as your Interim Minister I have now heard all the pros and cons on Friendship Home for the last three weeks. I've been pulled this way and that. But be not dismayed. I can take it. I have 40 years of ministry and have been trained to do it. But I am telling you that you need to heal yourselves before you even begin to ask someone else to come here to join you and your lives.

Your challenge now is to calm the waters and to navigate together and head your congregational "ship" into the wind of cooperation and purpose. I want to work with you toward that goal.

There are a number of recommendations I wish to make in order to assist you in accomplishing the same. But you need to know that I have wearied of being that "Lightning Rod". As your spiritual leader I do not consider myself the reason for your discontent and frustration.

Also, and before I share those recommendations, here are some other facts for your consideration. I am not happy to be the one to relate them but they do belong in the process.

1. Member growth has been down. Part of this, of course, is do in no small part to the fact that Dick Fewkes announced his resignation three years in advance of his leaving. The result of this announcement made so early on seems to have been the creation of a kind of three year vacuum of lessened efforts at member growth. When I arrived there was no functioning membership committee or effort to welcome, orient and keep new members. We've had a sort of "revolving door" for visitors. I would also mention that n addition there was no worship committee, no denominational affairs committee or no personnel committee.

2. The operating budget is down. This is due in part to a wonderful gift - slash - burden (and I will get to that later) received from the estate of Helen Fogg. This has resulted in a lack of commitment on the part of a number of members of this church, thinking that "the endowment will carry us.".

In reference to point number two, currently First Parish is carrying 75 names on its rolls as members WHO MAKE NO FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION OR PLEDGE OF RECORD TO THIS CHURCH AT ALL!!!! Frankly, I am bewildered that you would continue to permit this. Now I am sure there is a valid point in recognizing long-standing members who were once very active. And it may be that the congregation might wish to designate them "Life Members" and pay their costs for their dedication. But listen to this and hear me clearly.

It costs the church approximately $133 to keep a single person's name on the rolls as a member. This is because we pay the UUA $44 dollars as our fair share for its services per member; we pay the Ballou Channing District $14 dollars as our fair share for its services per member; and it has been estimated that, due to production costs and postage, we pay $75.00 per year per person to mail The Spire (our newsletter) to each recipient per year.

I BRING THIS UP BECAUSE THERE WERE PEOPLE AT THE SPECIAL PARISH MEETING THAT I HAVE NEVER MET. SOME MADE PLEDGES BUT NEVER PAID THEM. WHO WERE THEY? DO THEY PARTICIPATE IN THE LIFE OF THE CONGREGATION AT ALL? I DON'T UNDERSTAND. THEY WERE ALLOWED TO STAND UP, SPEAK AND TO VOTE.

ALSO AT THAT MEETING WERE FRIENDS OF THE CONGREGATION WHO PAY SUBSTANTIAL PLEDGES, PARTICIPATE IN EVERY LEVEL OF THE LIFE OF THE CONGREGATION BUT DID NOT VOTE AND NEVER SAID A WORD.

Our recent canvass resulted in a $19,000 deficit. Subtract the approximately $10,000 you would have if 75 people merely paid this minor sum and you would cut that deficit by half. So the congregation pays approximately $10,000 of the church's funds each year just to keep those members on its lists - and they contribute not a "sou". That's unreasonable and, from my way of thinking, outrageous.

3. There is disenchantment among those whom I suspect would consider themselves "progressives" or "activists" in the congregation. There is some anger, as well. I experienced something in a Special Parish Meeting which, in my 40 years of ministry I had never witnessed before. I had never experienced pounding on pews or audible sighs and making someone feel uncomfortable when they were trying to make a presentation or a point. In this, the conduct of some at the Special Meeting was less than adult. While I realize that the proposers took more time than the rules stated it was because the congregation continued to press the proposers with question after question. But such actions by a very few was astounding and I hope it will never occur again in this sanctuary.

4.I have also feel that a sense of frustration remains among those who voted against Friendship Home. Many of them have stated to me over and over again that they "agreed in principle with the concept." I will repeat what they said. They said, "I agree with Friendship Home in principle". To which I say, "Congratulations, you have comported yourselves well and are "politically correct" but so what?" What now?

One of the UUA's Seven Principles admonishes us to believe in and support the "supreme worth of every human being." On that Sunday I am sorry to say I did not witness this principle being in effect ON EITHER SIDE. There were those of you who voted FOR Friendship Home who later criticized those who felt they honestly voted their conscience. In addition, there were those of you who those who had come forth with what they believed to be a wonderful "win-win" opportunity. You believed that this was a chance for the congregation to seize the day and make history. You, too, were criticized as being foggy idealists. Well....a pax on both houses. What do we do now?

5. In the last analysis, a philosophical division in thinking has emerged out of all this. It is typified by two disparate groups. I have called one group "the progressives" (their term) and the others I have called "the conservatores" (my term.) The recent publication of "The Unchained Spire" became a symbol of this division. It represented a frustration rising out of the "perception" that not all people were being heard.

The content of that instrument was open, precise and appealing..........to some. Unfortunately, it did not accomplish its real purpose which was to have a chance for people to speak their minds. (And its editorial policy stated this.) Perceptions gave rise to the fact that it was there ONLY for those who had lost the Friendship Home vote. In actuality it was an instrument created to encourage dialog within the congregation.

You all need to know that the Friendship Home folks wanted to send a letter to the congregation about their proposal weeks and weeks ago. I asked that they did not. My reason was that I believed the Parish Committee was wrestling with the issue and wanted to make a statement that would give the congregation all the facts, pro and con.

The Friendship Home people agreed to "leave it alone", trusting the process that would bring information to the congregation for the final decision. I was distressed to suddenly find that a letter had been sent to the whole congregation at the last minute by private financial means opposing the issue A number of facts stated in that letter were in error. My feeling is that there was not the same manner of consideration in this as there had been with the pro-Friendship people when I asked them to withdraw their letter.

Another fact is that many of those who would call themselves "progressive" regarding their vision of the church doing something beyond its own needs - are young people. Not all - but a great deal of them. As we thanked the teachers in a ceremony of gratitude for all their work for our children two Sundays ago, the image of the Pied Piper suddenly appeared as a metaphor of this church. Think about it.

What to do? Well, I can honestly say I've spent a lot of time on this and what I want to recommend to you now will seem radical for some. But!....I admonish you to think clearly regarding the future of this congregation. You need to begin practicing courage, patience and forbearance. You have to find a new focus together. In fact, this whole issue could, I say COULD be seen as an opportunity - an OPPORTUNITY for you to strike out in a new direction as a religious society. Such actions could bring you together under a banner of service that could last for years to come. But it seems to me that you have to do something more than merely taking care of yourselves as a community.

As I said, I have some recommendations which I hope you and your leadership will seriously consider as we begin to look to summer recess. The fall is a time of potential and we need to seize it with new attitudes and new ways.

Recommendation Number One:

My first recommendation will be that the Parish Commitee recommend to the congregation that it establish a "Minimum Voting Pledge" to equal the costs I have mentioned earlier; UUA, BCD and newsletter. This amount would not be counted as supporting the "program" portions of our budget - just an amount to keep one's name as a member.

As part of this there would be a process whereby a person could confidentially ask, due to financial need, that the amount be waived. The minister and another church leader could be designated to make such decisions.

I am sure there are those who feel that the gift of Helen Fogg obviates a need to have to pledge at all. "Well, we're endowed, aren't we?" BUT YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT, TOO THAT THIS CONGREGATION ACTUALLY FALLS ABOUT $400 BELOW THE AVERAGE NATIONAL Unitarian Universalist PLEDGE EACH YEAR!

Please be advised. Depending upon endowed funds to for ongoing programs for the living CAN KILL A CHURCH. I've seen it happen in more than one instance.

In addition you need to know (and I have checked it out) that the income, and eventually, the full amount of the Fogg gift were intended to be used for emergency situations or costs over and above the regular operating expenses of the church. So the dead should not pay for living programs. That's the responsibility of the living.

My first recommendation, then, will be for the Parish Committee to recommend a "Minimum Pledge" per person for the new fiscal year. Anyone not paying that minimum amount should not have voting privileges. A letter would be sent asking the person's intent. If no response is received that name shall be dropped from the rolls of the church's membership.

My second recommendation regards the issue of church leadership. Rightly or wrongly, the Parish Committee, (one of the hardest working church boards I've ever witnessed) is being perceived by a number of others as being "a closed shop - not open to issues, concerns, waffling on the issues, etc."

I have worked with this Committee on Saturday mornings and on extra weekday evenings (which is their family time) and regardless of what has been said about them and how some disagree with "my support of them", I can tell you that with the exception of two people, I had no idea how ANY of them would vote on the issue of Friendship Home. They were more vitally interested in the fair process than their own vote. So live with it. Get over that fight. Let's stop painting them with that broad brush from both sides. They gave up a lot of their personal time and I am tired of the continued attacks upon them.

Thus, my recommendation will be that the Parish Committee institute "Members' Time". Meetings will be open to all members and friends. The first 20 minutes will be for any ideas, issues, concerns or suggestions which the membership wishes to bring to the attention of the Parish Committee. I shall also recommend that the Parish Committee announce that, with the exception of Executive Sessions for Staff Issues, that all meetings will be open to all members and friends. Of course, once business has proceeded, observers may speak only at the invitation of the chair person.

My third recommendation will ultimately involve a By-law change if the congregation sees the wisdom of my suggestion. I feel that the current Covenant in the By-laws which one must sign in agreement to be a member is troublesome for some. This being so, why not consider substituting either the Seven Principles of the UUA or the Affirmation or some other statement than the one presently used. This would open up the process of membership making it a more flexible decision some could then make to join.

My fourth recommendation is the institution of what I will call an OUTREACH BOARD. The purpose of such a body would be to receive suggested programs that would serve social needs, social justice or other avenues of church involvement outside its walls. Unlike the Social Service Committee, the function of an Outreach Board would be simply to gather all the available facts; costs, time spent, purpose of project and other appropriate data. If it seems a project worthy of consideration, as Friendship Home project was so designated, then it would be brought to the congregation by the Parish committee. Social Services is "hands-on" work. Outreach is informational and advisory to the congregation.

Such an avenue would avoid keeping people without information and make it possible for the congregation to feel they really "have a handle" on a program in advance of decisions. Discussions would be open and folks would have a chance to become excited about it and "own it" for the future.

My final recommendation - and this is one that I would suggest we do sooner rather than later - would be to hold what I have called "An Afternoon or Evening of Catharsis" here in the Parish Hall. I would choose five or six non-anxious people who would act as moderators of small groups. We would meet first as a large body and then break into those groups. The purpose would be to give folks a chance to vent; to speak their minds; to have a new understanding of where others "are coming from" as the saying goes. The function I would hope would be to take the first steps in healing that has to occur in this congregation.

My recommendations again are as follows:

1. Establish a minimum amount paid to continue as a voting member.
2. Members' Time on Parish Committee agendas.
3. A change in the wording of the Covenant for church membership.
4. An Outreach Board to educate and inform regarding social issues.
5. An Evening of Catharsis.

This is a wonderful congregation. You have proved to Lorna and myself that when you "wrap your arms around an issue" - whether it be a small project or a large - whether it be clothing for alcoholics; or money for Transylvanian students or love and support for two parents whose son is near death and paralyzed far away - you can do it. I know it.

I want to close with a story.
Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on state is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches.

To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an unforgettable sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.

By now the audience has become used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.

But this time. Something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap. It went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do. People who were there that night thought to themselves: "We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage to either find another violin or else find another string for this one."

But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.

When he finished there was an awesome silence in the room. And then the people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. The people were all on their feet screaming and cheering, doing everything they could to show how much they appreciated what he had done.

He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet the audience and then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can make with what you have left."

(Jack Riemer in the Houston Chronicle c. 4/2001)

That line has stayed in my mind these past days. Perhaps that is a way of life - not just for artists, but for all of us. Perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, often bewildering world is to make some kind of music - at first with all that we have and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.

This is no dress rehearsal folks. Whether we are playing with four or three or two or even one string in our lives, this is the real thing.

Let me compliment you as I close. You have so many aspects of your life together for which to be deeply grateful. You have so much. It is time to start playing on all four strings as individuals and as a religious community.

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

Amen.