Safe and Sacred Space

A meditation and sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

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Meditation: Winter Lake

“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?  Or have you seen the treasuries of the hail?  From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?  The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.” (Job 38)

One crisp, frozen, winter night, as a snowfall was drifting to its conclusion, I walked with friends, down from my old cottage in NY State to a nearby lake.  As the last flakes wafted down, they fell from a sky of clear and darkest black.   The stars shone in number and allure unparalleled.  The lake was frozen solid and covered in fresh snow – a cleared expanse of white without even a branch to mar it.  We admired it – and then of course in human impulse irresistible, marred it ourselves.  We walked on water.  We came not to skate or laugh or cry out, not for any activity experience I had ever had on ice before.  We came in silence and walked out onto the lake and watched the wide night sky above, framed at the edges by the intricate patterns of snow-covered branches.  We bent down and brushed the snow from the surface of the lake and saw the gleam of the ice and the blackness of the sky reflected in the blackness of the iced lake with the white snow all around.  The air was cold and still.  The midnight, midwinter woods were silent.

It was a landscape without color or sound, yet filled not with bleakness but with magic and mystery and intense, unprecedented beauty.  This was not the lake I knew, that I mundanely jogged round, and fished in, and hiked near with my dog and cats.  This was not even the nightime woods I knew, full of insects and birds and snakes and sound, the rich smells of earth and fresh water and decaying leaves.

This was the garden of night in the land of the snow queen, a place of clarity and cold and black and white, sky and land and water and peace such as I had never beheld before.  Not inimical though there was no life evident in it, and not empty though it was so simple in its elements.  It was as though the universe came down and touched our planet there and they merged – simple and eternal, though all would be changed there in minutes and hours by the life that was in fact everywhere concealed, protected, waiting.

Perhaps part of the beauty was that we could choose it – choose to go out to the lake, choose when we were cold and tired, to go back to the small house with its lights and the warm wood stove burning.  If that is so, life is laden with such opportunities, moments of choice that bless us if we seize them, with miracle or beauty, even in a cold season.  I have entered the storehouses of the snow, seen the treasuries of hail, seen the ice birthed on the earth, lifted my face to the hoarfrost of heaven, walked on water hard like stone, looked into the frozen deep…and it was good.


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So – are you ready? – policies – one of the most spiritually exciting, irresistible, inspiring components of church life, am I right?  I know!

And yet here I am, preaching a whole sermon to lift up a new policy at our church because while policies are not, let’s just admit it, the most spiritually exciting, irresistible, inspiring components of church life, they are essential to church life, to our capacity to live and grow as a beloved community.  They matter that much.  They can even call us, sometimes, to the better angels of our nature.  In fact for all its formal language, for all its ‘thereof’s and ‘hereby’s, that’s what First U’s new safe and civil church policy does.

As I said in my newsletter column this month, the explosion of the ‘Me too’ movement, with its attendant revelations about bad behavior and ethical violation so broadly spread throughout our society, has opened a lot of eyes. We are aware, as perhaps never before, of the ways people don’t act the way we should.  Such violations seem to be everywhere.  In some instances, we’re not surprised at all.  In some instances, we’re blown away.

But a gift of this tumultuous time is the reminder that it matters a great deal how we are with each other, how we behave with each other. Not just in terms of sexual ethics, though surely also there, but in terms of respect, care, mutuality, support.  Sometimes we have to spell these things out with each other in order to be clear not just about what is not acceptable, but also to be clear about what is aspired to;  to focus not only on how we mustn’t be to each other, but how we hope to be with each other.

In recent years, First U has also been looking at these questions, and now here we are, rolling out our Safe Congregation policy.  This is an important, and long-sought addition to our church policies, outlining how we organize ourselves to make sure we’re being responsible and faithful with each other, to offer standards for our behavior here, for addressing important conflicts and concerns that arise, for delineating boundaries and commitments we make here.  And the point of this is not to police our church, but to strengthen it.  To make sure that all who come here seeking a place where they can be vulnerable, where they can be open, where they can speak from the heart, and lean on a neighbor or friend in a pew or in a meeting or in a chalice circle gathering, can do so, can do so in the knowledge that they will be met with care and respect.

Another way to look at this is that we have a covenant to hold up the way we wish to be together.  I don’t know everywhere it is used, but it is read monthly at the start of every Prudential committee meeting, and as I have said before in worship with you all, I just love it.  I don’t think we can hear it enough:

With deep joy and a profound sense of responsibility, we gather to do the work of this church.

We here gathered represent those who have gone before and those who will come after.

May we covenant to be together in fellowship – hearing and speaking with respect.

May we covenant to care for one another, whatever our disagreements.

May we promise to go forward from this meeting attending to the needs and feelings of us all.

We are bound together as members of one body:  the First Unitarian Church of Providence.

We rejoice in our shared love of this church.

We have the covenant hold up how we wish to be together.  We have the policies to fall back on if we fall short of our commitments in serious ways.   We hope that won’t happen.  We know sometimes it does.

Last week I was at a conference of UU ministers. At a lunch one of the days, the phrase ‘safe and sacred space’ came up – and I wasn’t even the one who raised it, though this sermon, with its title, was just around the corner and certainly on my mind.  In that conversation, I mentioned my belief that the phrase is actually a misnomer because some of the work of living our faith requires risk – and risk is inherently not safe. Sometimes risks are more unsafe, sometimes less unsafe, and certainly the point of taking risks in church, because of what we believe, the point of that isn’t to be unsafe.  We are not high-wire walkers whose every move is meant to be fraught and frightening.  We are people of faith whose every move is meant to be faithful and fulfilling.  But sometimes, living into al that we believe about the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, about justice, equity and compassion in human relations, about acceptance of each other and encouragement to spiritual growth, about a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, about the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, about the goal of world community, about respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part – these things are deep, and they ask of us, and sometimes what they ask of us feels risky, is risky.   We risk feeling foolish or – sometimes worse – looking foolish. We risk our comfort, our certitudes, we risk mistakes or rebuff or offense or censure or condemnation.  We risk being wrong, being hurt or causing hurt.  We risk trying and failing in something that matters.  All of this is part of living a faith that evolves, that is relevant in a world that is changing, a faith that says what we know or understand or believe today may change tomorrow and so may change us – or require change of us.  And that doesn’t always feel safe.

Another minister at that conference – yeah, remember the conference? – another minister said they like using the phrase that is increasingly common in UU circles: ‘brave space.’  But then a third minister said they didn’t like ‘brave’ because that suggests that whatever we’re encountering in the space can be inimical to us, might threaten or destroy us, which isn’t what the understanding they think we need to carry in our congregations, where a lot of the courage required is to engage with something intimidating but good, something that may be hard but that is actually healing, even sometimes saving.  So it would be great to use language that doesn’t make such important opportunities into something we are conditioned to dread.

Having reflected about this some in recent years, at this point in the conversation, I proposed my solution: ‘supportive’ space, which I actually think is a precious promise.  We all need to be supported, especially now, in these times that are troubled and deep, full of potential and peril.   But there’s a serious problem, obviously, with ‘supportive space’ – it is a really, really unsexy phrase.  It doesn’t ring in the ear, it doesn’t strike you in your heart.  Even though we must take it seriously, ‘supportive space’ sounds depressingly mundane, even to me.

And still, it is one of the most faithful, important gifts a congregation can offer its people.  A place that is truly supportive, even when the world is uncertain, even when the world is hostile.  A place that is truly supportive even when we are uncertain – we will not be hostile.  A place that says in this beloved community, we will not let our anxiety push us into antagonism, or our frustration push us into aggression or our insecurity push us into diminishing others.

A truly supportive community, one that is as safe as we can make it, one that is civil in the face of the increasing popularity of disrespect, one that upholds sacredness when prevailing powers attack the inherent worth and dignity of so many and so much in the world – all this is treasure. These are trying times and they require our attention, our understanding, our commitment to endure and to stay strong and healthy.

Any church that has lived long enough, knows that health cannot be taken for granted.  We come here with our hopes and care, looking for a place to be in community and share strength and celebrations and inspiration, to seek answers and make those answers manifest in our living.  We also come here with our hurts and challenges, seeking healing and renewal, all too aware of the ways we fall short of our own standards for patience and respect and generosity of spirit.   Any church is only as strong – not as each of us alone – but as all of us together.

Let me be very clear now, that when I was looking at coming to First U, everyone told me that this is a healthy and strong church, with healthy and strong leaders and laity, and a long tradition of healthy and strong ministry.  And it is obvious to me – and I am so grateful – that this is deeply true of this congregation.  Our health and strength is a great gift, and also, to me, an important charge, to be nurtured and safeguarded going forward. I am – we are – the grateful inheritors of all those who have labored for centuries for the health and strength of this community. As Rev. Otis Moss III preached on the last day of that conference last week, we are all connected.  We are all here because of others who were here before us.  Everything that has happened up to now, has created this moment when we are here together now with much to accomplish, and much to celebrate.  But also here, even here, because we are all fallible, there are times that people here have let their own moods or issues or hang ups dominate their behavior, even to the length that it has oppressed or threatened or injured another.  This is why we need safe and civil church policy and understandings among us.  Even here, because we are all fallible, there are times when ministers have let their own moods or issues or hangups dominate their ministry.  I know that there are still members of this church who are tender, who will always be tender, and rightly so, about what they went through during these times.  The early 1970’s, when the Rev. Brooks Walker had some affairs and encounters with women in this church that violated the sacred trust of his vocation; more recently in 2006, the year when newly-settled minister Rev. Don Cameron plagiarized many of the sermons and stories that he preached here as his own personal truths and experiences.

It’s painful to even to name those instances here.  It’s painful for me, as a minister, to name colleagues who violated the ministry that is, to so many of us, that ‘sacred trust of our vocation.’  But it’s important for our church’s health to name the hurts and scars we carry.  It’s a testament to the goodness and capacity of the vast majority of this church’s ministers that the congregation has been able to heal – as it has – including that lingering tenderness – from those betrayals of ministry.  And it’s a testament to the love and commitment of this church’s congregants that the people have been able to weather, and learn from, the times when a member has hurt others with their behavior or attitudes.

It’s important for our present and our future, to commit and recommit to what is required of us in order that we may be and remain bound together as members of one body:  the First Unitarian Church of Providence.  As the great 19th c. Univeralist minister Hosea Ballou put it: If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.  But if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.”  Therefore, he said ‘let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.’  Or as the brilliant 20th c. African American writer James Baldwin put it “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.  I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” (The Fire Next Time)

Call it what we will: our safe and sacred space, our brave space, our supportive space, our loving space, our safe and civil church – this commitment is essential to our capacity and our vitality.  The last and maybe most important thing I have to say about this is that to be a church like this is so important not for what it is in itself, but for what it makes possible.  To be a strong, healthy, caring, committed, united congregation – wonderful and sometimes rare as that can be, isn’t the goal, it’s the means.  The point isn’t to be a church like this, it’s what we can do when we are a church like this, what becomes possible.  What becomes possible?  Whatever we truly commit to, whatever really matters to us – whatever we know we need to do together, we will do, together.  Everything this church has ever done was done, all the quests and daring and growth, were because of strong, caring, connected congregants.  Everything this church will ever do, all our future quests and daring and growth, depend on those same relationships and commitments among our people now. Many thanks to all the people who worked to establish the understandings and processes by which we hold ourselves accountable and keep our community strong and faithful.  Now more than ever, the world needs our faith, our faith needs our churches, our churches need our people, our people need each other.  In the crucible of these times, may we give each other ever-greater strength, and ever-strengthened faith.  Amen.


Commitment Drive testimonial by member Joe Salvatore

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