Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
- Khalil Gibran
The existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.
- John Green
Soul Matters worship themes are set months, if not years, in advance. The theme for December 2021, “Opening to Joy” was set in the early months of the year, as vaccines rolled out and we looked forward to the end of the pandemic. “The end may be near for the pestilence that has haunted the world this year.” I quoted Zeynep Tufeki is last December’s newsletter, “Good news is arriving on almost every front: treatments, vaccines, and our understanding of this coronavirus. We now know not just that pandemics end, but how this pandemic will end.” Of course that is not quite how the story ended- as I write this article, we are seeing another winter surge of COVID-19 cases in Lincoln, with all the worry and uncertainty that the ongoing pandemic entails for our city and our church community.
At the same time, John Green reminds us that the existence of the pandemic does not affect the joy that is being alive. We have learned a lot in the last year. Our understanding of the pandemic is more nuanced, and most of our congregation is now vaccinated. Some time around Christmas, the first children to get shots last month will complete their full vaccination sequence.
It is in this context that we gather this holiday season, opening to joy. While we will still take precautions and act in response to the pandemic, it does not dictate the joy we feel- if anything, we have deepened in our capacity for joy in the last two years. The simple joys of being together, cooking a meal, or sharing a conversation are more poignant now than they were two years ago. In this season, eat the broccoli and savor the chocolate.
To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves. - Alice Walker
When you walk into our church building this month, you are greeted with a new stained glass window facing our entryway. “She rests from her labors and her works do follow her” is wrapped around a bouquet of wildflowers, “in memory of Mary Monell.” Of course this is not actually a new piece of stained glass, but a very old one, commissioned in memory of one of the founders of this congregation.
150 years ago, Mary Monell was part of a group of about a dozen people who gathered together to form a Universalist society in the newly established capital city of Lincoln, Nebraska. They had come together convinced and convicted by the words of a traveling Universalist Evangelist, who helped them raise funds to build a church - and then promptly disappeared westward, along with those funds. Mary Monell worked for years to track down that evangelist, and when it was clear that they would not be able to recoup the lost funding, she worked to raise it again. After her death in 1886, Eben Chapin, the first minister of the Universalist Society of Nebraska, preached: “Whatever this church might be in the future, it will be that, in no small degree, because Mary Monell was so faithful to the cause she loved in her day and generation. It is not usual for the Universalist church to canonize its dead, but I cannot think of this woman…without feeling that she was (our) patron saint.” The stained glass now hanging in our entryway was commissioned after her death, and moved from our congregation’s old downtown location to the basement at 6300 A Street, until our members hung it up in October.
Our theme for the month of November is “Holding History,” and it is appropriate that it falls at a time when we are marking our 150th anniversary as a community. Over the last two years, a group of our members have been working through our congregational archives, pulling out stories to celebrate. Many of those stories are on the wall in our gallery and will remain there through the month. When you have an opportunity, I hope you will take some time to browse what they have put together: we are part of a much longer story than any one of us will see. At the end of the month, we will take down the presentation in the gallery, but we will leave up the stained glass celebrating Mary Monell. May her memory be a blessing.
October is the month of our pledge drive at the Unitarian Church of Lincoln. Our pledge drive chair, Dorothy Ramsey, puts it this way in a recent letter to the congregation: “It’s the time of year when we look at our financial support for the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, our chosen spiritual community. Like last year, this year has given us many challenges. We had the short time of being back together this summer and we are all looking forward to being back together again soon. Now we are again challenged to stay connected. Like bagels and cream cheese, puppies and children, and best friends, some things are just better together. I believe that includes our spiritual community. I know we want to continue to be better together when the pandemic is behind us, but in the meantime, we must stay committed to the community and our support of it.”
Congregations depend on pledging. It is as simple as that. At the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, financial pledges and gifts from members and friends make up well over 90% of our budget each year. Over the past two years, this giving has been supplemented by our participation in the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but we cannot count on that program continuing into 2022.
Churches are generational projects: they are not ours to own, but institutions that we are stewards of while it is our time, leaving them for the next generation as a sanctuary and lighthouse. They are sustained from generation to generation by the generosity and grace of hundreds, if not thousands of members and families.” In the next few weeks, you will get a phone call from a member of the congregation’s board, asking to talk about your hopes for this community. I hope you will join us in that conversation, and in giving to sustain this community of sanctuary and transformation.
As I write this, we are about two weeks out from the start of our congregational year, on September 5. COVID-19 cases have been rapidly rising in Lancaster County, and as of this week 1) the county risk dial is in orange, 2) Bryan hospital has announced that they have reached capacity, and 3) the school year is starting for both public school and the University.
When we started this summer, we were optimistic that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. Many of our members are vaccinated, and cases were very low in June and July. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Because of that, we’ve been working to put together a clear stepwise plan, that will help us to modify our work at the church in response to events around us, rather than trying to make it up as we go along. This plan is an evolution of the stepwise plan we used last spring, and case be summarized this way:
This plan in available in more detail on the ReEntry page of this website at https://www.unitarianlincoln.org/reentry.html, and in video form on our church’s YouTube channel, linked here: https://youtu.be/aXGQvqbEho0
Dr. Bob Rauner, president of the Partnership for Healthy Lincoln and a member of the Lincoln school board, equates measures like these to an umbrella. Unlike last year, when we were in an extended lockdown, we are now in a place where we will regularly check the weather report (the risk dial) to find out if we should bring an umbrella (masks, online programing, etc) with us when we leave the house.
This is not where we thought or hoped to be at the start of this congregational year- I wish I was writing that the storm has passed, and we can put away our umbrellas for good. However, even though we are still in this pandemic, the message that we will preach at the Unitarian Church of Lincoln remains the same: that each person has inherent worth and dignity, and that we are all interconnected. If anything, the events of the last year have strengthened those convictions. We will be a people of hope, and a church of love, whether that is in person, live-streamed, or prerecorded.
In the meantime, the pandemic is both an individual and a collective challenge. While we are seeing case rates this high, and breakthrough infections occurring, please wear a mask while out in public, and if you have not yet been vaccinated, please do so. The pandemic ends with enough of us as individuals do the concrete actions to care for all of us in the community. We know this in our faith, and we are living in a time to practice this.
See you soon,
From the Minister
A few days ago, I had the first of what I assume will be many similar moments: a meeting that I thought was on Zoom turned out to be in person. An easy mistake to make, since so many meetings over the last year have been on Zoom. The most important piece of my job is connecting with members and friends of the congregation, whether on Zoom on in person. In lieu of a newsletter article this month, I’m running two items that show up every year or two in this newsletter: How to get in contact with me, and an article originally written by the Rev. Peter Lee Scott in 1957, for the newsletter at the Elm City Universalist Church in New Haven, CT.
How to Meet with Oscar
The most straightforward way to set up a meeting with me is to go through Calendly, a scheduling system I use to manage my calendar and avoid double bookings. If you visit https://calendly.com/revsinclair, you can set a time and a type of meeting (30 min, 1 hr, at UCL, on zoom, etc.), and it will automatically show up on my calendar, as well as sending you a reminder email the day before our meeting.
You can also reach me directly by email at email@example.com, by calling or texting 402.937.9145, or by dropping into the church office most afternoons Mon-Thurs. If I am unable to meet with you immediately, we can set up a time for an appointment.
When to Call the Minister
“When To Call The Minister” has been recreated and revised, attributed and mis–attributed, over the years, as things in newsletters often are. Universalist minister Peter Lee Scott wrote the original for the Elm City Universalist Church in New Haven, CT in 1957. He reports being amazed and amused to see it appear in so many other newsletters.
When you haven’t met me yet, but would like to.
When you have problems to discuss—about anything.
When a sympathetic ear might help.
When you’re going in the hospital or know someone else who is.
When someone close to you dies or is critically ill.
When you’re planning to be married, or might need to be.
When you return from vacation.
When your daughter graduates from college.
When you have a child to be dedicated.
When you’re pregnant but wish you weren’t.
When you’ve been arrested, or ought to be.
When you want to learn more about Unitarian Universalism.
When you’re scared.
When you’d like to make a bequest to the church.
When your son gets a big promotion.
When you’re considering joining the congregation.
When you’d like to show us what a good cook you are!
When a friend of yours wants to know more about our faith.
When you have suggestions about the programs for the church.
When you have a suggestion for a sermon or worship service.
When you’d like to help with committee work or other congregational activities.
When you want to discuss community issues or would like my involvement.
When you’re mad at me.
When you’d like to talk religion with me.
On Friday, June 18, the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department announced the end of all remaining Directed Health Measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is still reason to be cautious, as we each are vaccinated, we will start to engage the world in ways that we have not over the last year. This process of reentry is complex and multi-layered. As a simple example: children under twelve are not yet able to be vaccinated, so my family has to take that into consideration when we decide what events to attend with our three-year-old. On top of navigating ongoing risk for children and other vulnerable groups, we are also learning how to be human together again.
This is not the first emotionally intense reentry process I have gone through. Ten years ago I came home from the Peace Corps, not quite sure how to interact with people. The last few months had been hard, and I was relatively isolated at my site. Bobete is a rural village, and I could easily go weeks or months at a time without being around more than the few hundred people that lived in the valley. Coming back to the states was an intense experience for an introvert.
The first apartment where I lived in Baltimore was three blocks north of Camden Yards. That whole first summer, I would come home from work, see the light from the stadium, and sit in the cheap seats, filling out a scorecard. It was a way to be around people, to do some informal exposure therapy, without any expectation of interaction. Keeping score is a meditative act- keeping score keeps your attention on the game, on each pitch as it happens. I wasn't really an Orioles fan before then, but I ended up seeing over thirty games in the 2010 season, as I put myself back together and figured out how I was going to be in the world.
So it is probably not a surprise that my first big event post-vaccination a decade after that summer was a Lincoln Saltdogs game, alone, with a scorecard to fill out. Midway through the sixth inning a guy walked up behind me to ask "Hey are you like, one of the team stats guys?"
"No, I just do this for fun."
Fun, yes, but also a way to engage with the world on terms that I chose and have some control over. As we move into a community without Directed Health Measures, and reenter communities we have been away from for a year or more, this is my hope for you: that you will find ways to manage that reentry on your own terms, paying attention to how you feel at each stage, and finding ways to embrace both caution and joy.
By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the announcement from the Lincoln Lancaster County Department of Health that we are now in the ‘Green’ on the COVID risk dial. This is great news, both for our Lincoln community and our church. Since early April, we’ve been moving towards reopening our building, and this is a major step for us. When we wrote our reentry plan in March, the step that corresponded to “Green” on the risk dial assumed that everyone, including children, would have access to vaccines by the time we got to this step. Unfortunately that is not currently the case, so we need to modify our plan in some ways. Two that I want to highlight now are our continued mask requirement, and our plans for Religious Education.
We will continue to require everyone to wear masks while on the property at 6300 A Street. This deserves a little unpacking: the CDC suggested recently that folks who have received vaccines can safely go unmasked in many situations. While the CDC’s guidance is valuable for thinking about individual risk and choices, at the church, our focus must be on the community as a whole. We know that our community includes children, who are not able to get vaccinated yet, folks in vulnerable populations that need to continue wearing masks for now, and adults who simply have not been vaccinated yet. The Task Force on Reentry made the decision early on in their process that we would not require proof of vaccination for anyone attending church on a Sunday morning. Because of that, and because a fundamental piece of our faith is care for the most vulnerable among us, we will continue to require masks while on the property at 6300 A Street.
Religious Education is an area of congregational life where we aren’t going to return to normal just yet. Currently, no children under the age of 12 have been vaccinated, and no children under 16 have been fully vaccinated (there has not been enough time yet). Our current plan is to have both an in person and online option each Sunday over the summer: ingatherings at 6300 A Street, and continuing Zoom Sunday School for those not ready to gather in person. This requires volunteers, however, and right now we do not have enough volunteers to run the program as imagined. If this is an area you have thought about volunteering in, we need your participation and enthusiasm.
It is good to be at this place, together. I admit it has happened more quickly than I thought possible, and there are still many reasons to be concerned. But it will be good to gather in June, to see many of you in person for the first time in over a year, and to hear laughter in this building again. Thank you for everything you have done to bring us to this point, and please continue to wear masks, get vaccinated, and do everything you can to ensure that we sustain this success.
On April 20, the Lincoln Lancaster County Department of Health announced that the COVID-19 Risk Dial has been moved from mid yellow to low yellow. This is the first time the Dial has ever been in low yellow, and it is the lowest risk level achieved since the dial was launched nearly a year ago.
This means that our congregations stepwise plan for reentry, which we published early this month, will move forward. At a meeting of the Reentry task force on Wednesday night, we agreed that we are now at Step C on our plan.
Here’s what that means: we are going to start piloting in person services in May. On May 9, we will hold our first in person worship service since March 2020. It will be a different kind of worship service: we will limit in person attendance to 25% capacity, and have everyone masked and six feet from each other. Children are welcome, and we will have childcare for those under 5, but no separate Religious Education classes, and we will livestream the service on our Youtube channel for those unable to with us in person. In order to attend in person, we will ask you to register ahead of time, through our congregational database, Realm. More information on how to do that will be available soon.
On May 16, we will be fully online again in order to ensure as much participation in our annual meeting as possible, and then on Sunday May 23 we will have another service in person at 25% capacity.
During the month of May, small groups can start to meet in person in gallery with advance notice, while maintaining 6ft distance & masks.
As we were making this decision, at the end of April, I thought of May 14, 2020. That day, while I was in the middle of a D.Min class, the Unitarian Universalist Association released guidance asking us to prepare to keep our buildings closed through May 2021. At the time, it felt like an unimaginably long time- longer than the guidance from any other denomination, and a hard turn from expectations of returning in the fall. I remember recording an update that afternoon, unsure of how we would be able to maintain online presence for another twelve months.
That guidance turned out to be more prescient than anyone imagined. The pandemic continues to evolve, and the situation may worsen again. Each of us will choose, in the coming weeks and months, what our own risk tolerance is, and when the right time to return to in person event is. For now though, I look forward to seeing your (masked) faces in just a few short weeks.
It is the season of resurrection. In the liturgical sense, this blog post/newsletter column should be published the week of Easter. But it is also a season when we can start to see a world transformed: many of our members have begun receiving vaccines for COVID-19, and leadership at the church is working hard to put together plans for how we will regather in person. Most of us became aware of COVID-19 during Lent in 2020, and there have been times in the last year where it has felt like a single, unbroken season of fasting and doing without- an extended period in the metaphorical desert. With spring this year, we start to move out of the desert and toward whatever comes next.
Here’s the thing about resurrection: it is never a restoration back to what was. It is the creation of something new, related to what has come before but somehow transcending it. For much of this winter, we introduced our worship service with words from Arundati Roy, who wrote last March,
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
It is the season of resurrection. What is the world we imagine? What does Lincoln look like, in the aftermath of this year? What does our church? We are not simply going back to what was. As we begin to plan what comes next, how will our community be transformed?
Note: I will be out of the office from April 5-12, and will not be checking or responding to emails during that time.
Arundhati Roy article: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
One year ago this March we left our building at 6300 A Street, to ‘flatten the curve to buy time for our health care workers to respond to the pandemic.’ At the time it felt like a dramatic, short term step to get ahead of a pandemic that was rapidly escalating. While announcing that we were closing our building, I went back to the long history of this congregation, which has survived and prospered through pandemics, world wards, economic depressions, and civil unrest in the past. As we began this leap into the unknown, those stories of commitment felt prescient.
I do not know that any of us would have predicted, then, what we know now: that this pandemic would last for over a year, and that online worship would become the default for a time. That in March of 2021, we would still be out of our building, but starting to plan a return as the first members of our community began to be vaccinated.
This has been a year of many experiments, many new ways of trying things both out of opportunity and necessity. One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, which tells the story of the 1976 moon landing mission that had to be waved off, mid-flight, after an explosion on the spacecraft. There is a scene in the movie when engineers at NASA have to figure out how to fit a round air scrubber into a square hole, using nothing but the materials on hand on the spacecraft: much of congregational life in the last year has felt like that. From the first frantic months trying to figure out how to fit the square peg of worship into the round hole of the internet, to the worry about scarce resources, to the long wait before coming back home, there’s a lot in the story that resonates with the last 12 months of congregational life.
On one hand, Apollo 13 is a sad story, a film about a triumph missed, and opportunity that slipped by in the aftermath of catastrophe- but that is not how the story is usually told. The story instead is one about ingenuity, courage, commitment, and support.
As we mark one year since leaving our building at 6300 A St, I wonder what the story we will tell about this year will be? Will we tell the sad story, of how we were apart for a year? Or will we tell the story of commitment even in the midst of pandemic? We will remember this season for the rest of our lives. How will we commemorate it? And is it possible that we come out of it with a renewed sense of commitment to each other and our faith?