President’s letters


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November, 2013

Most of my friends in Paris have left. Most of my future friends haven’t yet arrived. For the short time we spend between coming and going, each November we share “Friendsgiving” (none of us have family here, so we’ve adapted the name to fit). The meal serves as a reminder of the transient nature of our existence as young expats. Looking around the room, I can’t help counting: How many friends are new this year? How many of those who were here last year are now scattered around the world? The most sobering is: How many goodbye parties will I attend before Friendsgiving rolls around again?

We always have French guests who ask what Thanksgiving is. They know the name of course, but are fuzzy on its cultural significance. “What do you do on Thanksgiving?” they ask. It’s temping to say, “This is it—we just eat.” But honestly, what more is there? I’m often at a loss to describe the day as more than a special meal. Such a reductive explanation leaves our French friends wondering why we Americans are so fixated on turkey.

But for those of us with a long history of observing Thanksgiving, there is no question that it is an essential annual milestone. It brings family together and invites us to look back on the blessings of the year. These, we know, are the meat of the feast. Turkey, cranberry sauce and football are the most visible markers of the gathering, but they are really just side dishes. Focusing on the food misses the point entirely, but that is hard to express to the uninitiated, dazzled as they are by the array of New World dishes.

If I’ve chosen to reflect on the meaning of meals, it’s not because I’ve peeked at the theme of this month’s service. It’s because we’re in the thick of the most meal-intensive part of the UUFPyear. Many of us shared potlucks in October, and will do so again this month. Add to that our gatherings of families and friends, and social calendars start to fill up. As we come together to celebrate the life of Neil Smith, so closely tied to our fellowship, it’s no coincidence that we will remember him with a buffet. And when we have visitors at Sunday service, it is only fitting that we extend an invitation to join us for lunch down the street.

How fortunate we are to have a tradition of pausing to share meals and memories. If I’m thankful for one thing this year, it’s that we have inherited an appreciation for the communal breaking of bread—companionship—and the occasion it offers to look back on times with departed friends, and forward to those who will join us next time around.

Yours in fellowship, Joe

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June, 2012

Once the shock of the announcement about having to find a new home for the UUFP had worn off, I decided to try to view it as a spiritual exercise. Here I was faced with a decision that I had no power to change and the daunting task of finding a new place for us to go. But, rather than let myself be overwhelmed by it all, I decided to view it as an opportunity for the fellowship and for myself.

For the fellowship, it was a chance for us to look at what we really needed: what were the need –to-haves and what were the nice-to-haves; who are we and who do we hope to become.

For me, it was a chance to let go and trust that the universe, god or fate (I’m not sure which) would look out for us. This of course didn’t mean just sitting back and waiting for something to come to us, but it did mean getting the ball rolling and then not fretting about it, which is something I’m usually pretty good at.

I am grateful to all the members of the fellowship who offered their time and energy to the home search. It was a sometimes discouraging task since most places we contacted were either full up or couldn’t rent to a religious group, and it was nice to know that the burden was not solely on my shoulders.

Their hard work helped me feel that we were doing everything we could and we just needed to have faith that it would all work out in the end.

And it did work!

One of the pastors from the Pentemont suggested to Dorcy and Birthe that we take a look at La Maison Verte. Dorcy contacted them and unfortunately they were full up on Sunday afternoons but suggested we meet anyway. It was at the meeting with their Pastor that Dorcy, Birthe and I discovered that they could spare us one Sunday morning a month for the foreseeable future.

I really do believe that the universe was looking out for the UUFP. La Maison Verte meets all our criteria, both need-to-haves and nice-to-haves. On top of that, La MaisonVerte is not just a protestant church, it is also a vibrant community that is very involved in social justice and social actions which are very much in line with who we are.

It is too soon to tell, but I can’t help but think that one day we will all look back on this and think that our leaving Pentemont was for a reason. It was the beginning of an exciting new chapter for our fellowship.

In fellowship,
Claire

January, 2012

For me, after the flurry of food and gifts that is Christmas, New Year’s is a time for reflection and introspection. I’ve decided that 2012 will be the year of Gratitude.

I’ve always tried to practice gratitude in my daily life, but this year I’m going to make regular gratitude lists and I’m going to try and teach my children the importance of gratitude.

Deep down I’ve always known that gratitude is very important but now I have the scientific proof of just how important it is. A few weeks ago I saw something in the New York Times on gratitude that I think is worth sharing.

The article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/science/a-serving-of-gratitude-brings-healthy-dividends.html?_r=1) is about scientific studies that show that gratitude isn’t just a feeling but is actually good for you.

It promotes better health and sleep, less stress, anxiety and depression, and — the cherry on top — kinder behavior to others.

Which confirms to me that not only is gratitude important, but it is truly a Unitarian principle!

I hope you’ll join me in making 2012 a year of gratitude.

In Fellowship,
Claire .

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December, 2011

When I first started attending the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Paris, I thought it was odd that there wasn’t a regular minister. But now I must admit, I quite like the variety of ministers who come through our fellowship.

Having different ministers gives us different views on spirituality and life in general. I also really enjoy the lay-led services as they bring yet another perspective to our spiritual practice. November’s service was no exception. Chris Heinrich’s sermon on Grace was food for thought and truly resonated with me.

I must admit that I am biased toward the word grace as it is my daughter Isabel’s middle name. Her having it as a middle name is directly tied to the idea of grace and, as Chris said, being open to it. For my husband Denis and I, her being a part of our family is truly an act of grace and our willingness to let grace in.

Let me explain. At age 45, Denis was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which required him to have surgery that would render him sterile. We had often talked about having three children, but had figured that we had more time to decide; our boys were only 5 and 3 at the time.

Cancer changed everything. Once we had gotten over the shock of hearing the “C” word, we decided that we were optimistic about his prognosis and our future and we wanted to try to have the third child we had always wanted. That decision opened us up to the possibility of grace.

In fact, we were doubly blessed. We were able to conceive before the surgery, and she was the little girl we’d always imagined having. Using Grace as a middle name was a given for us, in fact, we would have called her Grace if not for the unfortunate French pronunciation!

It was our way of showing our gratitude to a Higher Power for having blessed us, not only with Isabel, but with having found Denis’ s cancer in time.

Now, almost 5 years after his surgery, all is well with his health, and we try and remember to stay as open to grace as we were in that tumultuous time.

May you all have a holiday season filled with the possibility of grace, and gratitude for all the small miracles of life!

In Fellowship,
Claire

May, 2011

The weather here in France has been exceptionally clement these past weeks. Unfortunately this has not been the case elsewhere in the world. The ink was hardly dry on our decision to give the May UUFP offering to the relief effort in Japan when news reached us of the terrible tornadoes in the south-east of the United States. This news threw all of us on the Executive Committee into torment.

There are a number of Americans in our fellowship, many of whom were personally touched by the reports from family or friends about this disaster. Should we reconsider our decision? It seemed almost obscene to try to weigh the two disasters – one much bigger on a humanitarian and global scale, the other almost certainly affecting more Unitarian families.

One of the guidelines we use in making such decisions is that the fellowship prefers to know who they are contributing their funds to. The recent UAA article about the UU Service Committee (UUSC) partners in Japan gives us solid ground to stand on and we hope the fellowship will be generous next Sunday. We were also comforted to learn that the UUSC supports the fund-raising effort of the Mid-South District of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the “2011 Severe Storm Fund”.

Capping the discussion was a personal testimony which put our dilemma into a general context. “I am not an expert in humanitarian crises and thus am not experienced enough to make decisions like these. Which is why I only donate to the few organizations on which I’ve done due diligence and then give exclusively for ‘best use’ purposes. The professionals at UUSC know much better that I do where my donation will do the most good, and because I’ve researched their giving policies and history, I trust them to make the right decision. A particular crisis may prompt me to donate at a moment in time when I may not have done so ordinarily, but It does not typically change my giving policy.”

Rereading this testimony while preparing this letter, I was struck by the thought that our traditional Guest at Your Table (GAYT) fund-raising effort is inspired by such a methodology. The guests that we invite to our table are selected by the UUSC from among the thousands of cases known to them from around the world: our coins are put to the “best use”. Our confidence in UUSC is justified by all we have learned about them over the years, sometimes even from personal contact as when we met Charlie Clemens, the former UUSC president. While we now are mindful of disaster victims in Japan and the American south-east, when our next GAYT box or envelope arrives, let us continue to give this on-going effort our generous support.

Yours in fellowship,
Karen, Shellie, Neil, Jennifer, Dave
The UUFP Executive Committee

April, 2011

In 1968, in a turbulent time in America’s history and in my own personal life, I found warmth and deep welcome when I walked into the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, Nebraska. This source of spiritual nourishment was taken from me when I abruptly moved to Paris in 1983.

Twenty years later, in 2003, another turbulent time in America’s history and in my own personal life, I again found warmth and deep welcome in the Unitarian Unitarian Fellowship of Paris (UUFP). Though I at once felt at home, I was surprised and somewhat bewildered by how much had changed since my last visit to a Unitarian church. I found many changes in the rituals of the services: the chalice-lighting at the beginning, the sharing of joys and concerns, the presence of children in the first part of the service, culminating in a children’s story for all ages and then singing the children out. I found a vigorous religious education program, both for children and adults. More disconcertingly, I found that the spiritual base of the church had vastly broadened. Where I had been accustomed to hear the voices of Bertrand Russell and James Joyce, I heard Rumi and Chief Seattle. I heard chimes and chants, I saw the candles of Hanukkah and our own candles of joys and concerns, I learned about Buddhism and Islam and native religions, I heard the challenging message of universal salvation, bringing me face to face with the second “U” in “UU”. I was confronted with a list of seven principles, wondering if these are meant to be the answers to the questions with which I’ve been wrestling all my life. All these changes stretched me to the limits of my tolerance.

The other day I read the Spring 2011 issue of UUWorld*, and discovered that there have been “UUs” for 50 years: the consolidation of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association took place on May 15, 1961. Thus the history of UUA neatly spans my personal odyssey. The changes that jolted me after my 20 years of hibernation have in fact come about gradually over the 50 years of the UU movement. Looking more closely, I see that there is a continuity within the change. The readers of James Joyce and Bertrand Russell are still there; the relentless search for truth is still there with its poignant sense that “even to question, truly is an answer”. This implies constantly striving to open my heart and my spirit to all aspects of the Sunday services and Saturday workshops. Signing the membership book was easy, being a member of UUFP has been deeply satisfying, and the association of our congregation with the UUA will continue to be a source of stimulation and challenge.

-Neil
UUFP Vice President

*[See the UUWorld article "UUA plans 50th anniversary celebration".]

February, 2011

I am reflecting today on the task I set for my young students in science class: be precise in your language; make absolutely clear what you mean; use details and examples to support your assertion of what is true. They find this very difficult. It is not a natural activity for most of them. And that is because they are young, and just beginning to learn this way of using language. But this is how we use language in science.

And I’m remembering numerous conversations with even younger children, where I gave too much information in response to a simple question — “Why does the flower grow there?” “Why is the cloud shaped like that?” “Why do people die?” I have the ‘facts’ but that’s not necessarily what those children were asking for. I have learned that sometimes, the precise and detailed answer is not best. There are things that cannot be expressed in the language of science.

Thank goodness for poetry, for impossible koans, for a young child’s imprecise but brilliant expressions. Thank goodness for the impressions of paintings. For the gray trees naked before my eyes, no words needed for me to see and be alive with them. At least by now, I’ve learned that my precise and overflowing vocabulary is not necessary for this. Truly there are times when “I wish I could speak like music!” I hope that you, too, can sometimes remember to marvel in the mystical reality that surrounds us all the time.

In Fellowship,
Karen

January, 2011

Greetings and Happy New Year! In this new year, may you have good health and all the resources you need in life. May you find courage to face your challenges, patience and equanimity when confronted with frustrations, solace in difficult times. In this new year, may we use our creative forces and have a compassionate vision to make this our world a better place.

In grateful fellowship,
Karen

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December, 2010

Is it really the beginning of December already? The busy activity of everyday living has been so absorbing that I am surprised. Despite the markers of cold and snow, the to-and-from-work in the dark, the passing of another turkey feast, I had almost forgotten. And then, two days ago, when I lifted my napkin to begin breakfast, I found a special chocolate hidden there. A sly reminder from an important family member that it is time to prepare our December count-down calendar. Another thing to add to my to-do list (bah!).

Clearly, the primary person in our family who is concerned with discovering daily December surprises has done her homework and recently talked the other parent in the family into buying a big box of favorite chocolates. I took the hint and now twenty-five long ribbons hang from a bamboo stick. All that remains is the preparation of a little note or joke for each of the upcoming string of days. And perhaps a tiny something that really will be a surprise.

Our child, like most, loves the fun of opening gifts. But more than that, she loves coloring rocks, weaving bracelets, personalizing paintings, creating something new in the kitchen. It has been declaimed recently, in our household, that what is best about the winter holiday season is the living of it, filled with the excitement of preparing surprises for others, and having this excitement build and last for a few weeks. And so I am grateful to be reminded by this young and wise soul, that what feels like a burden to me (sometimes) can be an opportunity to find joy itself — through giving something of myself, in every day life. It’s an invitation to lift my eyes off of the tasks at hand, to breathe, and to see and connect with people.

Our December 12th Sunday service will give us all an opportunity to drop the mundane, to feel those warm connections with others, to expand our lungs and create the joyful noise of life itself. It will be another one of the moments in the chain of days to come that will help keep the light of our shared humanity glowing. I hope we’ll see you there!

In grateful fellowship,
Karen

November, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! For those of us who celebrate it, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family – biological or chosen – and friends, and to reflect on our blessings. It is a lovely, creedless holiday.

As in past years, the UUFP is organizing a Thanksgiving dinner for members. It makes a lot of sense for our fellowship to come together to celebrate this holiday. For many of us, far from “home”, the UUFP has provided a sense of family in France. Moreover, we hope that the UUFP community is one of the very things for which you are thankful. For some of us, the UUFP provides a place for worship, for the sharing of joys and concerns, for joining with other families who are seeking to raise freethinking children. For others, it is a Small Group Ministry, the book group or another UUFP activity that brings meaning. If you haven’t been doing so, consider taking advantage of one of the many opportunities for connection, intellectual growth and spirituality that our fellowship offers. Just look in this newsletter to find a selection of upcoming events.

Building our community and reaching out to members are two of the goals that have come up over and over again in the UUFP’s Executive Committee meetings this fall. As you surely know, however, the UUFP is entirely volunteer-run. Our fellowship is only as strong as our members’ investment in it. That can take many forms: coming to services, volunteering to bring refreshments or flowers to the church, organizing or hosting an event, co-teaching a religious education class, suggesting social action . . . It also means supporting our fellowship financially. We do our best to limit the costs of our fellowship and, of course, our lay leaders are unpaid. But we do have a number of unavoidable costs – some fixed on a regular basis, some variable or occasional – for which money needs to be found. This is funded entirely by members and friends of the UUFP. You will receive your “pledge letter” either at the November service or by mail. Please be as generous as you are able.

Thank you!

In fellowship,
Jennifer, Shellie, Neil, Dave and Karen

June, 2010

Here we are at the beginning of a new summer season, in name if not yet in weather. During this month of June, we’ll see the equinox and the first day of summer, joined up with the Fete de la Musique. The school year will wind down for those of us ‘in it’. New members of UUFP will be formally welcomed into our fellowship at our June service and others of our community will say good-bye for now, as they will be elsewhere when we gather again at the rentree in September. As individuals, we are all experiencing our particular upheavals and transitions. As Heraclitus said, the only constant is change.

The changes of this time might bring hope, bring sadness, bring anxiety, bring excitement. And in the midst of whatever it is we’re individually experiencing, there are also the constants. I just catalogued a few that keep me on an even keel — my daily bike ride, a hungry meowing cat every morning, our monthly UU service, Friday pizza & movie nights at home, candles on the dinner table — that provide some stability in the midst of all the change. Thank goodness!

I hope that we might all find in our various communities — be it the Paris UU Fellowship or others — the companionship or encouragement or comfort we each need to balance the stress of inevitable change.

In fellowship,
Karen

May 2010

May – hmmm…mothers, flowers, sunshine, springtime, AGM (Annual General Meeting), membership, fellowship. This month, it’s the word ‘membership’ that intrigues me and makes me examine the labels we use for people. In our UUFP Directory, I see mentioned ‘members’ and ‘friends’ but then there are other people who have neither of those labels attached! What does that mean? I often use the term ‘participant’ and we greet ‘visitors’ and ‘first time visitors’ at our services. Are we so complex?

Members can vote at our Annual General Meeting (May 9) but anyone with ties to our fellowship is welcome to attend. Becoming a member of UUFP is as simple as signing our membership book, an action which confirms “sympathy with the purpose and convictions” of our fellowship. However, there are plenty of people who might feel that “sympathy with the purpose and convictions” but who have not chosen to become members. Some regularly attend Sunday services or one of the various smaller groups that meet monthly, or even volunteer significantly. So degree of involvement in our fellowship isn’t equivalent to being a member.

Of course, becoming a member of any religious organization demands some serious thought, as it’s a meaningful decision, no matter how light the external consequences. Here at UUFP, membership “imposes only those obligations you wish it to”. There is no financial or pragmatic obligation linked to membership, no credo to recite, no personal statement to make. The UUFP is what WE are: that which I seek from this community will result from that which I put into it. We hope that members will see their membership as a commitment to that which we share and create together, and will therefore contribute as they are able, to make our fellowship ever healthier and dynamic.

The best time to become a member is so very personal, as was the decision to attend that first Sunday service, or the decision to show up for a second service, to volunteer on a project, or to join one of the small groups within the fellowship. One of our newer members told me recently that he wanted to have a say in the direction and decisions of our fellowship. I joined four years ago because I felt at home and knew that I’d be coming regularly, so it felt right to become a ‘member’. Hopefully, all who are attracted to the principles and purposes of the Unitarian Universalist movement, and who are looking for a place to share that interest with others, will find their place within our fellowship, regardless of how they name themselves.

Our ‘UUFP Directory’ — which will be updated soon and distributed at our June service — lists the people who play a part in the life of our fellowship. Members and ‘Friends’, local participants and those who have moved far away, we are a complex mix of people.

In fellowship,
Karen

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