In February, Unitarian Universalism lost Rev. Jeanne Pupke, a friend and mentor of mine who served as the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Richmond, Virginia. Jeanne was, among many things, a dyed-in-the-wool institutionalist. She often critiqued institutions she was a part of, but always in the service of her care for them, wanting them to be the best versions of themselves.
A frequent topic of conversation between us after I moved to Lincoln was how to build up Unitarian Universalism in Nebraska, emphasizing that while I serve a church in a single community, Lincoln is part of a broader community of Unitarian Universalists living in this part of the world. We are one of four or five Unitarian Universalist congregations in the state (there is a congregation in Scottsbluff, but it is considered part of the mountain west district).
Since I moved to Nebraska, we’ve worked hard to build up formal and informal ties, renewing our shared identity as Nebraska Unitarian Universalists. Several of those formal ties are happening in the next few months:
I’ve used “we” very intentionally throughout these bullet points. These relationships are not just relationships among religious professionals, they are relationships between our communities. When we deepen the ties between our communities, we see difference, complimentary ways of living our Unitarian Universalism in the world. If any of these events sound interesting to you, reach out! We would love for you to join us.
Years ago, when I was grad student in public policy attending First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, I participated in a six-week adult education program on sermon writing. About a dozen members of the church met weekly, in the grade school Sunday School room, and talked about what moves us in worship. Each of us wrote weekly, starting with the seed of an idea, questioning and deepening it, until it became what Emerson called “life passed through the fire of thought.” The summer after the program, each of us in turn preached what we had written to the congregation.
What is remarkable about that program, looking back at it, was how wildly diverse our sermons were. From reflections on childhood experiences, to calls for justice, to reflections of how a particular spiritual practice brought meaning to life, the stories that group told from the pulpit reflected the mosaic of the congregation itself.
Unitarians are descendants of the Protestant Reformation. Part of that tradition is the priest and prophethood of all believers - in more contemporary language, the idea that each person in the congregation has a piece of wisdom to share with the rest of us. That idea is what grounds our Worship Associate program, where lay members assist with worship and, about once a month, lead Sunday morning services.
Over the last two years, our worship has taken many different forms. By necessity (it is hard to ask a volunteer to do video editing), it has centered the church’s staff more than in the past. As we move into what we will be next, we are revisiting what it means to include a mosaic of voices and stories in worship.
In the coming months we’ll be recruiting new Worship Associates to participate in and lead worship on Sunday morning. If this is something you’ve considered before, please reach out! If you have never considered it before, but in reading this article an idea for a sermon tickled the back of your mind, please reach out! Just as preachers, lay and ordained, grow and deepen an idea into a sermon, our community is deepened by every new voice we hear.
I sat down to write this column on December 21, the shortest day of the year, and just a few days before the Christmas holiday. As I write, I’m looking forward to wrapping up our service on the 26th and spending some time with my family, including a little sister I have not seen in person since 2019. It is also a day when I have spent much of the morning hearing alarming news about the oncoming Omicron wave, and the day that the Lincoln Lancaster County Dept. of Health announced that Lincoln’s mask mandate will expire.
A few reminders, then, of the intentions we bring to our community as we begin a new year: We Universalists have known for a long time that we do the right thing not because it is required, but because there is intrinsic value in doing so. Our theological ancestors argued that it is wrong (abhorrent, even) to base a system of morality on a fear of eternal punishment. If the only reason I do not punch someone on the street is that I am afraid of hell, what does that say about who I am? Better instead to assume that I am capable of embracing, rather than hating, and that doing so helps to mend a broken world.
This is the core of Universalist morality: we do not need some threat of divine punishment to care for our neighbors, we do it because caring for each other is its own reward.
This matters, in the midst of another winter of pandemic. Doing the right thing - wearing masks, getting vaccinated, respecting each other’s risk tolerances - is a thing that we do because of our commitments to each other, not because it is required by some external authority.
I am worried about what this winter holds. It is a season, as Wendell Berry writes when “despair for the world grows in me/and I wake in the night at the least sound/in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be.” But there is also consolation in this community. A community that shows that despite what the world looks like some days, there are a few hundred people in Lincoln, Nebraska who choose to gather together and help mend a broken world, simply because it is the right thing to do.
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.
Rev. Oscar Sinclair serves as the Settled Minister for The Unitarian Church of Lincoln, Nebraska.