Call to Worship
Almost exactly a year ago, fire ripped through our religious
education and office building, causing so much damage that the
building became unusable. When we gathered as a congregation on
the Sunday after that devastating event, we came together to grieve
and to wonder: What are we going to do?
Today, a year later, we gather again. This time, we are not
grieving but celebrating, for in a very short time we will again
reclaim our beloved building and return to it with new vision.
Today, like a year ago, it is still appropriate to wonder-to wonder
at the many ways we cared for each other during those difficult
days; to wonder at the commitment to this church that people showed
during the rebuild process; and to wonder at the energy that has
emerged from beneath the rubble.
It is still right that we ask ourselves again this questionWhat
are we going to do? So much potential has sprung up from the ashes
that anything is possible.
As we enter into worship this day, let us give thanks for the
wonder-filled ways we come together as a church and a community.
And let us celebrate the spirit of life that has come to birth
from the ashes of our loss.
Advent Candle Lighting
Today we mark the coming of the holiday season. It is customary,
in this church, to acknowledge advent by lighting each Sunday
this earth candle, symbol of our connection to all of creation.
Today, it is lit in honor of those Unitarian Universalists around
the nation, who, when our fire engulfed us, reached out to us
with prayers, love and money to help us move through this hard
time knowing we were not alone. May the lighting of our advent
candle, remind us we are held in the hearts of many, even those
whose names we will never know.
Out of the Ashes - A Sermon by Barbara W. ten Hove
According to my Encyclopedia of Gods (by Michael Jordan),
there are nearly thirty gods or goddesses of fire. You may be
familiar with some of them. Vulcanas, the Roman god of
fire and forge, and Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth,
are two deities you might have discovered in high school. But
did you know that the Shinto religion in Japan has at least five
different fire Kamis (who are lesser Gods but still divine)
and that in Siberia that are at least two Fire Gods? Fire, one
of the four primary elements (alongside water, air and earth)
is one powerful force. So it is not surprising that we humans
have created images of God and other holy beings to try to give
a face and a voice to the flame.
Fire has also been used in rituals probably since people first
figured out how to make and keep a flame burning. Ancient ritual
sites around the world often include a hearth for building a sacred
fire. Even in monotheistic religions fire is used, if not to describe
God, at least to communicate with God. For instance, in ancient
Judaism, the burning of grain and meat offerings was understood
to be pleasing to God and burnt sacrifices were made in Jerusalem
at the temple until the time it was destroyed in the first century
of this era.
Christianity moved away from the idea of a burnt offering,
but continued to use fire in ritual. The lighting of candles is
common practice in most Christian communities, particularly during
the Christmas season. I believe candlelight services are popular
because of the fire that lies at their heart. And, of course,
Unitarian Universalists have created our own fire ritual, the
lighting of the flaming chalice. Something in the human spirit
seems to be attracted to flame. Fire is beautiful, hypnotic, and
A year ago, Worship Associate John Bartoli articulated this
wonderfully when he dedicated our chalice lighting-five days after
the fire-and said, Fire is our friend, it gives us light and
warmth. Fire is our enemy; it destroys everything in its path.
Fire is both friend and foe. It helps us by keeping
us warm and creating light for us to see in the dark; it nourishes
us by cooking our food.
But fire is also extremely dangerous. My great-grandmother
died when her long skirts were licked by a fire. Millions of acres
of trees are destroyed each year when lightening strikes a dry
forest. The old Prince Georges County courthouse recently went
up in flames, never to be used again. And, on a gray Tuesday a
year ago, the beloved building that housed not only our Religious
Education program and offices but also an entire Montessori school
When I arrived on the scene some five hours after the fire
started, it still smoldered and stank. Walking behind the building
to see what had happened, I was shocked and stunned. It looked
like a meteor had hit it. Crying and stumbling, I walked through
what was left. What hadn't burned was covered with soot and water.
Broken glass was all over the floors. Insulation from the roof
hung down in tatters and everywhere I looked, I saw what we had
lost. It seemed so huge, so awful. All I could do, at first, was
cry and shake.
During that terrible day, I talked with many of you. Making
calls to tell church leaders about the fire was a difficult task.
But each call, as hard as it was, gave me snippets of hope. I
heard so many comments of how lucky we were that no one was in
the building when the fire broke out, and I remembered to be grateful.
I heard you remind me how good it was that the fire did not spread
to our neighbors or even onto our deck or this beautiful building,
and I remembered that we had not lost everything.
I heard you speak of the strength of this congregation in a
crisis, and I took from you courage and hope. When, on the Sunday
after the fire, we came here together and made beautiful holiday
music together, I was struck so powerfully with the realization
that this fire, as destructive as it had been, did not destroy
anything that could not be built once more. And so we went about
the path of re-building. And today as we gather here, the move
back into our refurbished building is so close we can taste it.
It's an exciting time, no doubt about it.
This fire and its aftermath have given all of us, I think,
an opportunity to reflect on how we, as individuals and as a community,
rise up from the ashes of devastation. Fire, a powerful reality,
is also an apt metaphor for the challenges that beset human lives.
Each of us, I would posit, has likely encountered a time in our
personal lives when it seemed as if everything familiar had burned
to the ground. For some here, it may have been divorce or separation
that singed your heart. For others, the loss of a job or a dream
may be experienced as devastation. For some, you may have hit
bottom in your own life, and wondered if you would ever emerge
whole again. And for yet others, death and loss may be what burns.
I know in my own life I have had occasion to feel flames of
loss that were extraordinarily painful. I remember the moment
I heard from my sister that my father was dying. Alone, 3000 miles
away from the hospital where the bad news was being shared among
my family, I lay on the bed and sobbed.
And I remember when I first learned that I had a mysterious
condition called Fibromyalgia. My kind doctor assured me I would
not die from it, but that the chronic pain and fatigue I felt
would not go away, at least not permanently. I knew that the world
I had created for myself, built around an assumption that I would
stay strong and healthy, was falling into ash around me.
I did not know then how I would emerge from such loss. And
yet, both experiences have shaped me in ways that I can only say
are positive and growth-filled. My father's death taught me to
have less fear in the face of mortality, and his courage and strength
in the face of death inspire me. My loss of robust health has
also given me unexpected gifts as I have learned to worry less
about perfection. I have also found a well of compassion in my
heart for others as well as myself. The loss that burned so deep
in my heart did not destroy me. It might have. Some people are
never able to recover from devastating events. But for me, as
for many of us, the flames of loss created a fertile field from
which to grow. And for that, I find myself peculiarly grateful.
Nature understands this. Fire can destroy, yes. But it often
paves the way for new life. There are pinecones in some forests
that only release their seeds when enough heat is present. From
ancient times, we hear of humans burning fields to make them ready
for planting. Fire is essential for new life to occur.
Do not misunderstand me. I acknowledge and accept that fire
is dangerous and at times all too hurtful. I know that fire leaves
people homeless, causes enormous physical pain in those who get
too close to it, and can spread devastation that is so great that
recovery may seem impossible.
And yet I cannot help but look at fire-our own here and the
metaphorical fires that plague us-as something if not good, at
least essential to growth and change. Fires, real and metaphorical,
force us to start again in our lives and sometimes that is exactly
what is needed.
The fire that burned our building a year ago was an awful event.
But out of the ashes of that loss, something wonderful truly has
emerged. For not only will we soon return to a clean and shiny
building with many new and great things about it, we also have
discovered something even more important-a deeper sense of commitment
to this church and its community.
Over the past year, Jaco and I have watched in wonder as leaders
emerged from within this church to guide us through the maze of
insurance companies, architects and contractors. We have marveled
at the commitment our staff showed to maintaining a strong presence
even in the midst of really, terrible inconvenience. We have been
delighted at the depth to which people reached into their pockets
to pay for improvements and upgrades. We have been blessed by
the many ways you have reached out to us and to each other as
we work together to rise with energy and vision from the ashes
of our loss.
No one can say with truth that we wanted this fire to happen,
just as none of us wish for the inevitable struggles and losses
that come our way. Yet, loss and struggle will come. Fires will
burn. But out of the ashes, new and even wonderful things can
It seems oddly appropriate that last year's fire, and this
year's remembrance of it, come right at the beginning of the advent
season. Advent-the four weeks preceding Christmas-has many meanings,
but the two that strike me as particularly relevant are these.
First, advent is understood to be a time of waiting. For Mary,
the mother of Jesus, her advent season was a time of waiting for
her child to be born. Christians view this season as a time to
anticipate the birth of Christ.
But all of us can understand the concept of waiting. We are
all waiting, and waiting, and waiting-to get back into our building!
Waiting can be extremely frustrating, that's for sure. But it
can also bring gifts. I always find the anticipation of something
special can be almost as exciting as the event or thing itself.
Yes, it's hard to have patience, especially now when we want so
desperately to return to our home next door. But I challenge all
of us to take a deep breath and find the patience we need.
For eventually, if we are patient enough, our time of expectation
will end and a new beginning will arrive. For that is the second
meaning of advent I remind us of today. The advent of something
means the beginning of it. And soon, very soon, we will begin
again in our new/old building. Just as Christmas will come, our
building will be finished, even if it seems to take forever. It
will emerge from the ashes as something new and different and
maybe even wonderful.
And so it becomes appropriate to ask again the question we
asked ourselves a year ago when even this building smelled of
smoke and loss. What are we going to do? How will we use
this refurbished building? Will we find new ways to teach our
young people how to live out the values of tolerance and respect?
Will we develop classes and groups for adults that enable folks
to deepen their relationships to each other and learn more about
our faith? Will we discover better ways to help our neighbors
in need? Will we use this new beginning to re-commit ourselves
to grow and become an even stronger religious community?
I truly believe we will. For I have faith that along with all
the destruction and smoke and dirt and inconvenience this fire
brought to us, it also brought us something pretty wonderful-a
reminder that faith and community and caring for one another are
what really matter.
And I am excited by the upcoming opportunity (provided by our
former Master Planners, now called the "Imagine Paint Branch"
Team) to imagine what our future in this new building and in this
upcoming year and even beyond will be like. Plan to take part
in it, beginning with an important afternoon together on Sat.,
Jan. 8. Together, we will rise up from the ashes of our loss and
create anew this church home we love.
A few short weeks after our fire, Natalie led a children's
chapel during which she asked the children what they felt. Many
expressed anger and fear. But one youngster spoke the real truth.
"Things don't matter," he said, "people do."
May this holiday season bring to us such wisdom. For out of
the mouths of babes we are reminded what emerged out of the ashes.
Hope and possibility. Just imagine. Amen.
Fire can be an enemy: it burns buildings as well as hearts.
Fire can be a friend: it clears the ground for new life and love.
As we enter this holiday season, may we be mindful of the power
of new beginnings and be patient with each other as we walk new
And may the spirit of life burn into our hearts a commitment to
what really matters at this, and all times of year: compassion,
justice, love and hope.
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