Sunday, September 19, 2021

Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days:: Lessons for UUs


Did you hear that?

The sound of the ram’s horn is sharp. It is like no other sound.

It pierces the armor of the heart.

 It calls us to pay attention to our relationship with the Divine.

 It calls us to be in Right relations with ourselves and all others.

 It calls us to reflect and repent for our shortcomings

and wrongful deeds as we enter a new year.  

The Jewish New Year – also known as Rosh Hashanah

began at sunset on September 6 –

the day that I actually wrote these words. 

So, I was called on what little bit of Jewish heritage I can claim

from my long ago Altman ancestors and searched for the lessons

that we, as Unitarian Universalists, can learn from this Holy Day

 and the following Holy Days, sometimes called

 “The Days of Awe” which are upon us.


As a refresher for some of you – and perhaps a new lesson for others,

 I’ll take some time to go in more detail

than our children’s story about these Holy Days.

Rosh Hashanah meaning "head [of] the year", is the Jewish New Year.  The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah,

literally "day of shouting or blasting",

and is also more commonly known in English as the Feast of Trumpets.

It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days specified by Leviticus 23:23–32

 that occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the civil year,

according to the teachings of Judaism, and is the traditional anniversary

of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman

according to the Hebrew Bible,

and the inauguration of humanity's role in God's world.



Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar

(a cleaned-out ram's horn), following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to "raise a noise" on Yom Teruah.

Its rabbinical customs include attending synagogue services

and reciting special liturgy, as well as enjoying festive meals.

Eating symbolic foods is now a tradition, such as apples dipped in honey,

hoping to evoke a sweet new year.

We say Shanah Tovar to wish others a good and sweet year.

But like other Jewish words,

it takes often takes a paragraph to truly explain the whole meaning. 

It’s not just a substitute for our “Happy New Year.”

No, there is deeper meaning.

 Shanah Tovar implies a return to our truest and best selves. 

It is a journey of rediscovery requiring

 an inward reflective gaze of self-evaluation.


Indeed, we are called to look at the sins

we have committed this past year.

In our prelude, the group Six 13 sings,

I’m starting over.  I’m looking back.

Cause I’ve done things that I’m not proud of

In this year we’re coming out of

Now’s a time for introspection

Time to forge a new direction

Decide who I want to be

A brand-new year, a brand new me.

You may say – well, that’s kind of like making New Year’s Resolutions –

but it’s more than that.

If folks truly do their reflections during those 10 Days of Awe –

then they look at who they may have hurt

through things done or left undone –

or how they have hurt themselves –

and they prepare for that day of Yom Kippur –

also known as the Day of Atonement –

when they can forgive themselves and each other

and begin again in love.

So, as I wrote these words at 5:00 pm on September 6 –

knowing that Rosh Hashanah was arriving at sundown,

I knew if I were going to take this seriously, I needed to make a big shift.

You see, recently – I have felt like the Prophet crying out to people – telling them how they have sinned – how they have “missed the mark.”

I say to the workman who made a home repair for me:

 “Why aren’t you vaccinated?  You need to protect yourselves and others.

It’s not good for you to go unvaccinated.”

I said to the Bulloch County school board.

 “You are not protecting our school personnel and children.

 Your lack of actions has put our community in crisis.”


I complain to my grandsons:

“You have got responsibilities

and you need to organize yourselves better.”

I tell my mom,

“You should not answer the door at 9 pm

when you are here home alone.”

I tell my husband, “Move over, quit hogging the bed.”

I yell at the Texas lawmakers on TV – well, I better not say that in church.

I mean – I’ve been on a tear sharing with others how they miss the mark.

But today – it’s not about them.  “It’s me, standing in the need of prayer.”

I don’t need to confess everything to you folks,

I do need to take stock, and recognize, that I have work to do. 

I have folks I need to reconnect with  - somehow -- ? 

So, during these days of awe,

 I’ve been reflecting a little more on MY part. 


That’s an important part of what folks do

when they are in 12 step programs.

 They take a look at their resentments –

and then ask –well, what’s my part in this? 

And even though others may have done some harmful things,

 there are probably things we need to hold ourselves accountable for.

And if there are things we can do

that will help repair what we have done, we need to do that. 

Sometimes, there may not be anything we can do. 

And we have to accept that as well.

These holy days are not only a time to take stock –

but it’s a time to let go of the past with its associated pain

 so that one can embrace a future of goodness. 

We can look at where we are – and contrast it with

where or who we want to be.  Setting good intentions.


And this pandemic – being such a liminal time for us anyway –

may be the best time to contemplate what was and what might be. 

This can be that time between summer and fall;

 regret and repentance; guilt and renewal.

According to Jewish teachings, the “Book of Life” is open but once a year

 and remains so only during the Days of Awe. 

This is the time for truth telling and forgiveness. 

And then the book is closed – the door is closed –

and some believe you have to drag this heavy stuff

around for another year.

Of course, I do not believe there is a time frame

for this kind of self-reflection. 

But I can understand why folks have these special days and special rituals

 to call them to this special time.  Otherwise – it may go undone.

This is just one of the ageless and timeless stories

 of humanities yearnings for connection.

 It is a time of repentance and more importantly forgiveness.

 It is our passage from brokenness into wholeness and blessing.

Rev. Paul Daniels states that

“The only whole heart is the broken and wounded one.

Atonement is in a word an At-One-Mint with humanity and the Holy.”

The door is open –

challenging us to begin again in love and walk through that door of hope.

As our online choir sang

Be the change you want to see in the world

Be the voice you want to hear in the world

Be the light you want to shine in the world

And change will come to you.

Shanah Tovah, dear ones!

May you have a Good and Sweet Year. 


Sunday, September 5, 2021

Renewal and Rebirth


The title for the August 22nd message that I wrote back in July for the August Newsletter was “Renewal and Rebirth:  After the Pandemic.”  Of course, at the time, we really thought that this would be “after the Pandemic.”  But someone failed to send a memo to Miss Delta.  And she’s come roaring in, taking advantage of regions with high vaccine resistors, and bringing all our post pandemic messages, celebrations, and now our in-person services to a halt.

So, I deleted the “after the pandemic part.”  This message is simply entitled, “Renewal and Rebirth.”

Has anyone ever asked you, “Are you born again?”  What has been your response? Mine has changed through the years.  I walked down the aisle of the Baptist church during a revival when I was nine years old, shook the pastor’s hand, told him I was ready to be saved and born again, and had the experience of being dunked under the water and brought back up as a representation of my rebirth.  As an adult, I was more likely to question “what in the world people meant by that” – and to question my own self as to whether I could give a positive response to that question.  Now as a Unitarian Universalist, I respond with a joyful YES, I’ve been born again, ….and again, and again, and again.  I am still Jane – but I’m not the same person I was at 9, or 29, or even 59.  Sometimes the changes have been gradual, and sometimes they have been through some enlightenment I received through my reading or dreaming or by the grace of lived experiences, including losing loved ones and welcoming new life.   And along the way, my faith has been subdued, and renewed, realigned, and refined.  I imagine that many of you have had similar experiences.

Now we know that we don’t have the same bodies we had when we were children or younger adults.  Did you know that the body's cells largely replace themselves every 7 to 10 years? In other words, old cells mostly die and are replaced by new ones during this time span. The cell renewal process happens more quickly in certain parts of the body, but head-to-toe rejuvenation can take up to a decade or so.

You may wonder why if we have this renewal, some of us are getting old.  Well, we’re all getting old if we live long enough – it’s just that some of us are ahead in that game.  But that cell renewal slows down as you get older.  That renewal button doesn’t get pushed as often.  And I’ve got some places in my body that I think have forgotten how to renew. 

I haven’t found that to be the case for my psyche, though.  The person I am continues to change.  And how does that happen?  Our body changes are affected by what we eat.  When I was a child, I used to love reading the poems in my Childcraft book.  One of my favorites was the one you heard earlier in the service by Poet Walter de la Mare about Miss T.  The lines at the beginning and end remind us that “Whatever Miss T eats, turns into Miss T.” 

 And whatever Jane eats turns into Jane – and makes Jane a Healthy Jane or an Unhealthy Jane.

 I think the same is true of our psyches and souls.  What we take in, stimulates a new model of ourselves.  We are renewed – and some may say reborn. 

 I’ve shared with you all before that my old high school classmates sometimes ask me what happened to me – to make me so different (and some have even said weird) – and I just say, “I read.”  

 I’ve wondered recently how our experiences with this pandemic have affected who we are.  Are you different in any way that you were before?

 I asked my Facebook friends to help me with my sermon by responding to that question and got quite an array of responses.  I’ll read some excerpts of some of the responses to you. And I’d like for you to see if some of these reflect your own changes in who you have become– or not.

 One Said:

Spending so much time at home has been trying, but it's been a chance to go into a safe cocoon and do a lot of healing like a caterpillar morphing gradually into a butterfly. It has been a lot of becoming.

 Another wrote:

It's been a liminal space for me - a time of reconsidering and evaluating and preparing (and hanging out with the fur babies). I'm getting ready to walk into the classroom next week with no mask mandate and with no vaccine requirement for students (or faculty/staff) and I'm trying to do this without it being from a place of fear. I AM different, though. I have learned more about personal boundaries - when to set them, when to take them down; I have become more centered; I have become more observant (I think); and I've also realized how much time I waste doing some things when I could be doing more productive things (Ohhh, FB..... lol).

 Another response was:

I’m Less extroverted. I’m less in shape. My concentration and attention span are both greatly reduced.

And here’s one more that’s more positive:

he pandemic reaffirmed the connectedness of all people. I now feel more responsibility in being a good citizen.

Someone who had a tough battle with COVID responded:

Well before I had Covid-19 with Pneumonia, I was going through the stages of life, get up, go to work, pay rent and go back to sleep. But now I see life a little bit better. I no longer think that life is short. I think of it as an adventure, and just because I'm not where I want to be yet, I’m at a better place then I was before. I always told myself that the best years of my life are coming soon and yes, they are. But like the song goes "You know you have to go through hell before you get to heaven." And that is because you appreciate the rewards that you are given.

Another shared what they had learned:

The pandemic has taught me the importance of being "the change." If I want to live in a less chaotic and harsh world, I need to focus on showing kindness and empathy to all.

Another learner said:

I learned to cook so many new things! I changed my diet and lost weight and have been staying at home with my kids. My spiritual practice has been to make a home and to learn to be patient as I manage my second son's early intervention therapies.

Here’s another honest reaction:

I’ve lost much of my belief in people innately caring for one another. The selfish responses to protecting others by wearing masks, getting vaccinated or even simply distancing has made a strong impact on how I view the community and country.

One of our members shared:

I wonder if my parents would have been able move out of their home of 40 years were it not for the gripping impact of the pandemic on the economy. The lowered interest rates on loans seemed to be an economic impetus for the community of folks edging to make the move to the next chapter in their lives.

 Another shared:

There is no more "normal" in my life. I'm so thrilled that I made it through one more e admitted:

I'm pissed a lot of the time. Does that count? It's not what I think of as good sermon content, but there it is.  (This comment got more likes than any others)

 My colleague David Messner wrote:

I see beauty in the smallest places, kindness is now the main touchstone of my practice. My sense of joy and power of creativity have just opened up!

      Then replied -- No not really, I am cranky, achy, and exhausted.

 A 55-year-old said:

I am more in touch with the possibility of my mortality. Hearing and knowing of others my age or younger losing their lives because of the ugly attack of covid on their body is terrifying…. This heightened awareness of immortality has caused me a great deal of anxiety and increased depression. So, for me, the pandemic has caused this 55-year-old human a great deal of personal turmoil.

 Another shared:

I am so very tired from the anxiety and isolation…

Children in daycare or school are getting sick, that means they return home. Parents will lose work. There is zero financial back up. I feel the weight and anxiety of the people doing the right thing crushing my bones. And I feel for our medical system.

 And finally – one person summed up what some others were implying.

I’ve Lost faith in humanity. I’m Angry A LOT.

These mixed messages – some brutally honest about their more negative outlooks – are not what I wanted to preach about when I chose the topic of Renewal and Rebirth.  I wanted sunshine and rainbows – not storm clouds and tornados.  But here we are.  And these experiences have affected us and our psyches and souls. 

Maybe that’s a good thing.  In order for birth to take place, there’s usually labor and pain.  As one of my respondents shared, “You might have to go through hell to appreciate heaven.”  But I do think we have to look for the heaven – for the paradise – in our lives, even in difficult times, and work together to bring that more loving, peaceful, healthier world to others.  That’s one reason to come to worship services, to be with others in community who are also working for that beloved community.

When I chose the topic of Renewal and Rebirth – I did not just want to look at our personal journeys, I thought that our “after the pandemic” time might be a great time to think of how we might work to renew our congregation – rebirth it – not just bring it back to the way it was before the pandemic, but to bring back something better because of the pandemic.  And I still have that hope for us, even as we’ve had to move back to online only services.  We don’t have to be back in our building to push our renew buttons for this congregation.  How can we labor now for the birth of something even better?

COVID-19 has highlighted the interdependence of all people and the natural world. The pandemic's disruption presents an opportunity to rebuild a congregation, a community, indeed, a world in which the whole of society is considered in what we do – not just our tribe or family.  Our seventh principle lifts this up.  We say that we affirm and support Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part. 

This pandemic has highlighted that we can’t just do this by singing songs and lighting candles.  I believe we have to have a more radical response.  A Radical Love.  If Unitarian Universalists can’t do this – then I fear for the world.  We must renew our own spirits and the spirit of this congregation – and we may have to do it from a distance from one another, but we can’t wait till we can all gather in the same building. 

Because of the effects of this pandemic and others that will follow – and climate change which already is devastating many places, foreign and domestic terrorism, and the resulting physical and mental health crises that are a result of all these possibilities, we must renew ourselves and encourage one another.

One way we can do this is by recognizing all these crises, while also being intentional about looking for the joy, the beauty, and the love all around us.  It is there.  It is healing.  And just as we must pay attention to the problems, for our own health and that of our congregation, the community, and the world, we must also pay great attention to the goodness, the connections, the love in the world. 

I encourage you to think of three people you will reach out to today and express your appreciation and love for them.  It matters.  It pushes their renewal buttons and yours too.  And we could all use a little renewal. 

There will be other ideas and possibilities we can explore as we go forward.  But just for today – let’s connect, care, and share.  The butterfly will come out of the cocoon, the rainbow will appear after the storm, and we will shout Hallelujah with each renewal and rebirth, again, and again, again.

May it be so!