After the Fire
There is story about the Buddha that goes something like this. After he became enlightened, the Buddha began to travel around India. A man who encountered the Buddha recognized he was somehow extraordinary. So he asked the Buddha, “ Are you a god?”
“No,” the Buddha answered.
“An incarnation of a God?” the man persisted.
Still stymied, the man countered, “Perhaps you are a wizard then?”
“Are you a man then?”
“Well what are you then?” the man asked, utterly mystified.
“I am awake,” said the Buddha.
At 1:20 A.M. on June 6, the telephone beside my bed rang. I picked it up and heard a man’s voice announce, “I am Officer ______ from the Brunswick Police Department. I’m looking for Reverend Stocker.”
OK, I’m awake now.
“Ma’am, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but the Unitarian Universalist Church is on fire.”
OK, now I’m really awake.
From that moment, to the moment I arrived at the church 20 minutes later, to this moment now, our congregation has been awakening to a new reality. We cannot claim to be enlightened like the Buddha, I suppose, but we have embarked on a journey that has caused us to think carefully about who we really are and to move forward with both speed and intention.
Over the summer, the congregation sang, over and over again, a home-grown hymn (lyrics penned by my mother, Mary Lou Stocker, and music written by Grace Lewis-McLaren, a musician in our congregation). Titled Our Church is More than Framework, the chorus goes, “Our church is more than framework, more than windows and ringing bell. It is people close in spirit who in sharing worship well.” Our congregation is awake to that reality more than ever before.
We did not ask for this tragedy. Indeed, we had been steadily engaged in updating our buildings to make them as fire-safe as possible. But, one can never prepare for every eventuality. Safety is never absolute. The unexpected, as it turns out, is actually something we can all expect once in a while. And so it was that some old wires between the basement and sanctuary floors somehow sparked in the middle of the night and ignited the fire that devastated our Victorian Queen Anne building. We are awake to impermanence, one of the Buddha’s great lessons.
We are also awake to the loving spirit in which our congregation is being held by the wider community. At our service on June 12, the first held after the fire, we gathered at the Curtis Memorial Library. Members of the wider community joined us – clergy from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, First Parish UCC, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church; a former minister of our church, Will Saunders, now retired and living in Portland; members from other Unitarian Universalist congregations, some from as far away as Ohio. Even the news media were on hand, with two television channels filming our service and interviewing many of us afterward.
Help came in other guises, too. We had to set up a fire recovery fund especially for the many donations from individuals and congregations near and far. Today that fund now has over $31,000 of combined contributions – a little start to the capital campaign we are beginning to plan. The Reverend Aaron Payson of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Ministry has visited us twice, once to meet with leaders and once to facilitate a congregation-wide discussion. Musician Jim Scott organized a series of concerts at UU churches all over Maine, the proceeds of which went to our rebuilding fund.
In September we began meeting on Sundays at the Minnie Brown Center in Bath. Part of the Beth Israel Congregation’s campus, the Minnie Brown Center, in an odd twist of fate, actually stands on the same site as the former Bath Universalist Church. We are on hallowed ground not only because of the wonderful hospitality of the Beth Israel Congregation, but also because of the history of that little corner of the universe. (You can hear something about this story by listening to the September 11, 2011, Homecoming sermon on this website.)
With such an outpouring of support, we are awake to blessings that come unbidden from people with big hearts. As the weeks and months go by, we will have opportunities for increased learning and growing. This time will not be easy for us, but it does promise a rich harvest if we pay attention. Ours is to tease opportunity from tragedy. Ours is to deepen in spirit and increase in love. Ours is to recognize and extend our gratitude to all who have helped us, from firefighters, to cleanup crews, to the wider community that has reached out to us with such caring. We are not gods or incarnations of gods or wizards. We are flesh and blood people. And we can learn from this how to be more awake.
With love and gratitude,