Sep 18, 2017
as preached at the Ashby First Parish Church, September 17, 2017
I am delighted to be with you this morning. It is the first Sunday of a new church year and I have the privilege of serving as your new minister. I am looking forward to getting to know each of you, the town of Ashby, and your wider community. It is my hope that in the coming months we will learn and grow together.
I join you at the beginning of your congregation’s, and your town’s, 250th year. It has been a long way from there to here and yet any time, any moment, can be an opportunity for fresh starts or re-imaginings. The poet Dante knew this. He commenced his great poem in, as it were, the middle:
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
We too find ourselves in the middle of this story we call the First Parish Church of Ashby. Thanks to the diligent work of Dorothy Wilder, we know how the story began. We know that the town voted to build a meeting house almost immediately after its incorporation. We know that the first meeting house was begun in 1771, completed in 1790, and replaced by the present building in 1809. We know that the church and town formally separated in about 1841. That was when the building was split into two floors. The top became the present sanctuary. The bottom served as the town hall until sometime in the late 1880s. We know the sanctuary was remodeled in 1927. The rooms that stand on either side of the chancel were added.
The story of First Parish Church is not merely its building. Amid Wilder’s litany of ministers and active members of the congregation, we learn that its liberals and conservatives split in 1820. The liberals became Unitarians and kept the building. The conservatives adhered to the trinity and formed the congregationalist church across the street. Evidentially, it has generally been the larger of the two congregations. Wilder indicates it was begun by “a majority of church members.” In reference to First Parish Church, she writes that its members “could not hope to belong to a large and comfortable majority.”
Reading Wilder’s history, we learn two further things about the life of this congregation. The first is that music has long been important to its members. The initial reference to music in the town’s records appears in 1768, one year after the church was founded. The other thing we learn from Wilder is that heating the building has long been an issue. She reports debates about how best to keep it warm in the winter months as far back as 1833.
Though this sketch of the story of First Parish Church leaves much unmentioned, I suspect it captures the major highlights. Certainly, the importance of music and the challenge of keeping warm in the winter were both shared with me when I met with the search committee. At least one person told that they come here largely because they love the music. I was also told that in the cold months you drain the pipes after services to make sure that they do not freeze.
The search committee did more than tell me about the Lizards in the Hayloft and avoiding frozen pipes. They brought the story of the congregation into the present. The last fifty years of congregational life are in many ways similar to the First Parish Church’s first two hundred years. Throughout all this time the congregation has been deeply entwined with the town.
Today is my third time in Ashby. The two other times I heard the same story about the congregation last fifty years. The first time was from a member of the search committee. The second time was from Pastor Ken, who serves the congregation across the street and who grew up in First Parish Church. The story centered on your former minister, Philip Zwerling.
I understand that Phil served here during the Vietnam War. He was an anti-war activist and, like many Unitarian Universalist ministers at the time, opposed to the United States military actions in Southeast Asia. He appears to have expressed his opposition in a rather imprudent manner. In 1973, I have been told, he denounced the American war effort on the bandstand in the town common during the annual Memorial Day joint service between First Parish Church and the Ashby Congregational Church. “This split the church and more than half of its members went across the street,” Pastor Ken advised me when I met him during the summer concert on the green I attended.
The congregation has yet to recover to the level of membership it had prior to Phil’s tenure. In the 1960s it seems to have had perhaps a hundred fifty members. Today it has forty or so. Listening to this story I was reminded that in our collective lives trauma leaves an enduring imprint. Much of the present political conflict in the United States can be traced back to the Civil War and through it to the twin traumatic sins of the nation’s founding: the enslavement and forced migrations of Africans to the North American continent and the genocide of the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. Trauma can narrate our collective life, suggesting what we imagine to be possible and what we imagine to be prohibited.
In the collective life of First Parish Church, the traumatic tale of Phil Zwerling on the bandstand seems to come with a subtext. The subtext is that the town of Ashby is conservative and that if I want to succeed as minister I would probably do my best to mind that.
I wonder the truth of that subtext. Certainly, Ashby is much more conservative than any place I have lived. The majority of its votes went to Donald Trump in the last election. And yet, the story of Phil and the bandstand is hardly unique. Lots of Unitarian Universalist congregations were split by the Vietnam War. No less a congregation than Arlington Street Church suffered the same fate.
Arlington Street is one of the flagship churches of our religious tradition. Located across from Boston Common, possessing sixteen beautiful Tiffany windows that glow with an almost holy light on a Sunday morning, the congregation was for many years the cathedral church of Boston Unitarians. No less a figure than William Ellery Channing served as its preacher during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. You might remember Channing as the greatest theologian of American Unitarianism. He was the promoter of the claim that each of us contains within “the likeness to God” and the author of memorable aphorisms such as, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.”
Arlington Street split in the 1960s over the minister’s support of the anti-war movement. Jack Mendelsohn served there in the during the Vietnam War and under his leadership the congregation hosted a massive draft card burning that garnered national attention. It resulted in a famous court case that included the conviction of the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., then the chaplain to Yale University, for obstructing the war effort. It also resulted in significant criticism of Mendelsohn’s ministry by a number of the church’s members. In one letter he received from a congregant he was told, “such demonstrations serve only to provide aid, comfort and encouragement to North Vietnam in prolonging the war and refusing to discuss any reasonable basis for ending the conflict.” The phrase aid and comfort, you may know, is legal shorthand for treason.
Arlington Street went into crisis and decline in the decade or so following the draft card burning. In the 1970s it actually ran as a fellowship, without a minister. It struggled through the 1980s to such an extent that the physical plant fell somewhat into decay. Yet, today, Arlington Street is a thriving congregation with a Sunday morning worshipping congregation of about two hundred. It weathered its crisis and returned to vibrancy. Why? Well, the answer is straightforward. After its crisis, the congregation was eventually able to answer a simple question: what is the purpose of the church? They respond by saying, we are “gathered in love and service for justice and peace.” And then they take actions to live out that answer.
I am not affiliated with Arlington Street and I am not intending to lift them up as the paradigmatic example of twenty-first century liberal religion. Instead, I share their journey to suggest that any religious community that wishes to recover from its past traumas must be able to answer the question: what is the purpose of the church?
I posed this question to the search committee and again to the Parish Committee when I met with them. Each time I got a similar answer. Members of both committees said something like, “the purpose of this church is to survive and preserve our historic building.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this answer. It is good to keep a keep small congregation afloat. It is important to meet Sunday after Sunday and offer each other emotional support. You make a difference in the world by maintaining a Unitarian Universalist voice in rural Massachusetts at a time when religious institutions across New England are in decline. You have a beautiful building. From the outside, it is picture postcard perfect. There is no reason to suspect that placing the survival of the congregation and the preservation of the building as your mission is inadequate for your community’s near future. First Parish Church has been here for two hundred and fifty years. It will be around for sometime to come.
But, I suspect, that if we want to see the congregation move from surviving to thriving we will need to come up with a different answer to the question what is the purpose of the church than the one you have now. Survival and preservation are good for current members. We may need a new story if we want to attract new ones. What is the purpose of this church?
This is not my question to answer. It is yours. In the coming months, I plan to work with the Parish Committee and all of you to answer the question, what is the purpose of the church? It may be that you decide that your current answer is sufficient. It has served you for the past few decades. It might also be that you decide you want a new answer, one that tells a different story about the life of the congregation. That will be your choice.
I close not by suggesting my own answer to the question what is the purpose of the church but by offering words from three of the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologians of recent decades: James Luther Adams, Rebecca Parker, and Mark Morrison-Reed.
Adams: ...the vocation of… the church, [is] to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsible to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.
Parker: Good religious communities convert people to the way of life our society needs to move to: from believing that violence is redemptive to practicing justice and compassion; from going it alone to giving and receiving care from others; from isolating oneself in individualism to sharing work on behalf of the common good.
Morrison-Reed: It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
What is the purpose of this church? What story will help the congregation to survive? What story will help it thrive? May we answer these questions well.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Sep 11, 2017
I am delighted to announce that I have accepted a postion as the minister of the First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, Ashby, Massachusetts. I will be serving the congregation part-time. Most of my work will consist of preaching twice a month. I will also be offering some adult religious education and pastoral care. Here is the email I sent to the congregation to introduce myself:
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Ashby:
I am delighted to be starting as your part-time minister! I know an email has already gone around sketching out my biography and telling you a bit about me. However, I want to send you all a brief hello to let you know that I excited to meet you on Sunday. I am looking forward to our time together.
I will be leading worship twice a month. In September, I will be in the pulpit on the 17th and participating in the camp meeting on the 24th celebrating Ashby’s 250th anniversary. I have never been to an event quite like what is being planned. I anticipate it is going to be a meaningful and moving experience. In the next few days, I will be reaching out to a few of you about helping with music for the service on the 24th.
In general, I will be answering emails and making phone calls about congregational business on Mondays. This will usually happen in the mornings. I will be available to you throughout the rest of the week but might not be able to get back to you immediately. If it is urgent, it is always better to call or text me than to send an email.
It may interest you that I keep a blog at www.colinbossen.com. The text of my sermons will be available on the Monday following a service. So, if you can’t make it to the service on the 17th, you should be able to read what I said on the 18th. A link to the text will put up on the parish Facebook page. From time-to-time, I may post other things relevant to congregational life on my blog or on the parish web-site. If that happens I will be sure to let you know.
In addition to preaching, I am also going to offering adult religious education and providing some pastoral care. If you would like to meet with me please reach out and we can arrange something. I will be working with the Parish Committee in the next few weeks to develop a plan for both adult religious education and pastoral care.
Since I write on September 11th, and against the back drop of the devastation in Florida, Mexico, and Texas, it seems best that I close on a note that reflects more than just my joy and excitement about our coming time together. I offer you this fragment from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” a poem that captures so much what it means to me to be alive:
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
I pray that whatever sorrows, horrors, and challenges the world brings us in the coming months we will all find some beauty and joy in life, both as individuals and as a community.
I hope to see you Sunday!
PS I apologize for the gendered language in Blake’s poem. The way he wrote and thought in the 18th century doesn’t fully reflect the beloved community we aspire to create in the 21st.
Aug 30, 2017
Jul 31, 2017
Yesterday I had friends over to make Czech fruit dumplings. When I make dumplings I usually proceed the dumpling course with a course of salads. In this instance, I made a raw beet salad, a grated carrot salad, and a dish of cinnabar chanterelles and sour cream with fried potatoes. I am fortunate that there’s a nice patch of cinnabars growing a few blocks from my house. I have been able to forage meals from it on three occasions over the last month. I adopted a recipe from the New York Times for the meal:
Cinnabar Chanterelles and Sour Cream with Fried Potatoes
1 lbs cinnabar chanterelles
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 lbs small potatoes
1 cup finely chopped onions
3 tablespoons sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
Clean the mushrooms. Take three medium bowls. Place the foraged mushrooms in one bowl and fill the second with water. Working one at a time, quickly place a mushroom in the water and shake it to knock loose any debris. Then put the mushroom on a cutting board and, using a small paring knife, cut or scrape away any remaining debris. Place the cleaned mushrooms in the third bowl.
Place the potatoes in a small saucepan of salted water. Bring to a boil and then cook until they are just about fork tender. Remove from heat, drain, and then cut into halves or quarters, depending on the size of the potatoes. Ideally the potato pieces should be bite-sized.
Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in an iron skillet over medium heat. Add the potatoes and fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes. When the potatoes are ready, remove them from the heat and place in a small bowl.
Return the skillet to the stove, add the butter, and melt the butter over medium heat. After the butter has melted, add the onions and cook until they are translucent.
Add the mushrooms to the onions and continue cooking until all of the liquid has evaporated. Cinnabar chanterelles give off a lot of water so don’t be surprised if the mushroom and onion mix initially has a soupy consistency.
Once the liquid has evaporated, stir in the potatoes and cook for another minute or so. Then add the sour cream and cook for an additional two minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Note: If you want to make this recipe with yellow chanterelles (the kind you can sometimes buy in the grocery store) increase the butter to 2 tablespoons. They are a lot less watery and, consequently, do well with a bit more fat from the butter.
Jul 29, 2017
Yesterday the New York Times brought news that famed photo editor John Morris died at the age of 100. Morris was the photo editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War and made the decision to publish two of the most famous images of the war on the newspaper’s front page--the informally titled “Napalm Girl” by Huỳnh Công Út and Eddie Adams's "Saigon Execution." He made sure that these images appeared on the top fold of the paper, which meant they were seen even by people who didn't build the Times. He was Robert Capa’s photo editor for many years and the founding photo editor for Magnum Photo. You can read the Times’s obituary of John Morris here. They've also made a nice video tribute.
John was a long time friend of my parents. I believe they met him through their friends Nicole Ewenczyk and Gilles Perrin--my father collaborated on a book with them a few years ago. Last summer, while I was visiting them in Paris, I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures. John’s talk focused on his century of experience as a photo editor. He spoke about his commitment to pacifism and his belief that photo editing could be a kind of anti-war activism. The selection of images that highlighted the horrors of war, he hoped, could engender empathy for the victims of violence and inspire people to oppose their government’s involvement in international conflicts.
After John’s lecture we all had dinner at the little bistro across the street from his studio. I was seated next to him and we talked about the civil war in Syria. A few years ago I penned a piece for the Huffington Post arguing against military intervention after the Assad government used chemical weapons. I have since had some ambivalence about the question of military intervention and come to support, in principle, the Kurdish anarchist movement, Democratic Union Party. I have never been convicted of absolute pacifism and, as in the case of my longstanding support for the Zapatistas, believe that organized violent resistance to various forms of fascism and totalitarianism can sometimes be the only way to arrest them.
John did not agree. After his experiences in World War II, he felt that violence always beget further violence. Any support of a military movement in Syria, he believed, would only extend the conflict and cause further suffering. I suspect that his position was also tempered by his Quakerism.
Unfortunately, the bistro was too loud for us to converse more in-depth. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience. It deepened my already deep respect for the photographers, and their editors, who strive to document our world as political and ethical acts. Social documentary photography is an art form and art in all its forms can be a powerful act of resistance to the viciousness of human brutality.
Jun 21, 2017
I will be presenting a paper entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theoligical Imaginary" at the 2017 meeting of Collegium. Here's the text of the accepted paper proposal:
This exercise in comparative theology will contrast the white supremacist theological imaginary with the theological imaginaries of two Unitarian Universalism’s foundational figures: Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing. The paper will begin with an analysis of the white supremacist theological imaginary as crystalized in one of the most explicitly religious and powerful white supremacist organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The Klan was vocally Protestant and attracted modest support from some Unitarians and Universalists. The Klan’s founder held Unitarianism in esteem and Klan publications frequently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. This suggests a certain resonance between some aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism and individuals within them and the white supremacist theological imaginary.
After summarizing the Klan’s theological anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of the history and place of the United States in the world, the paper will then turn to examinations of the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing to attempt to answer the questions: What was it about liberal theology that appealed to members of the Klan? To what extent should the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing be understood as inherently white supremacist?
The paper will conclude with a reflection on the theological imaginaries of figures contemporary to Ballou and Channing who articulated unitarian and universalist theologies but have not been incorporated into the institutional history of Unitarian Universalism. It will argue that while elements of white supremacy can be found within the writings of both Ballou and Channing they are not found in the works of figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Constantin Francois Volney. These figures formed a part of a Trans-Atlantic multiracial revolutionary abolitionist antinomian tradition which included significant numbers of individuals who held universalist and/or unitarian theologies. Incorporating their theological imaginaries into the theological imaginaries of contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prove to be a helpful antidote to whatever aspects of the white supremacist theological imaginary contemporary Unitarian Universalists have inherited from the movement’s foundational figures.
Jun 17, 2017
I will be returning to preach at First Parish Cambridge on August 6, 2017. I am a member of the congregation and my kids both participate or participated in the excellent religious education program. I am especially excited to be leading worship there again!
Jun 16, 2017
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching at the First Parish Church of Berlin, Berlin, MA on August 13.
Jun 15, 2017
I wrote the introductions for two texts in the just published A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism; from 1900 to the Present, ed. Dan McKanan. I authored the blurbs for Jack Mendelsohn, "The Church and the Draft Resisters," and Common Ground: Coming of Age, A Report of the 1982 UUA Youth Assembly.
May 25, 2017
I will be returning to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn on July 9, 2017.