Big Stuff/Small Stuff

Anna Mary Robertson Moses was born on a farm in upstate New York and though she lived for a few decades in Virginia, she spent most of the 101 years of her life very near to where she

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was born. She married and raised a family; farm work filled much of her days, particularly after her

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husband died. She had a love of embroidery and made crafts with a needle for a good long time, until arthritis made the work too difficult. Looking for some means of expression that would be easier for her hands, Anna tried her hand at painting, originally she said, in order to make something to give to her mail carrier, for Christmas.

She was prolific, and sold her paintings for very small sums to folks in her little town. This is how an art collector, passing through, happened to see some of her work. In a little more than a year, she became a sensation, known internationally as Grandma Moses. Her ‘big break’ came when she was nearly 80 years old.

When I think about Anna Moses’ story, I think about the incredible luck of happenstance: that a particular art aficionado stumbled onto her work, got excited about it, and spread that excitement to others. But I also think about the long years – an entire lifetime, really – that led up to that turning point. A life spent working farms gave her an eye for the pastoral scenes that she became famous for painting. Years of needlework trained the muscles in her hand that would later hold a brush. Her desire to have some homemade goods to give or to sell to friends and neighbors led her to take up that brush, and a diligent attitude even towards her hobbies filled canvass after canvass. It is often said that every overnight success takes at least ten years. In the case of Grandma Moses, it took more than half a century.

Each of our lives contain major turning points – some behind us, and some still ahead. The big, improbable moments of life aren’t usually things we get to choose or control entirely: they come and they go unpredictably. What we are able to choose, more often, is the small stuff: the little decisions we make moment to moment and day to day. How much effort and attention we will give to some minor task. How much time we will lend to some small goal. How we will treat the people we are with right now. Most of life is made up of decisions so small that we don’t notice we are making them. But it is the sum of these decisions that shape who we are. They do not guarantee success or ward against calamity, but the small choices of life so often seem to have led, invisibly yet inexorably, to big choices when they chance to come.

This past summer, we began our service together as a host congregation for Family Promise, opening our congregational home to families in need of homes themselves. This work was a possibility that came upon us unexpectedly, but it was preceded by thousands of small acts of hospitality, generosity, and stewardship that gave us a building to share and the spirit to put it to use. The continued hard work that is making it possible for us to be a host congregation (with more to come at the end of September – see Ann Geikie’s note later in this newsletter) is something that we have trained for, even long before we knew we were training for it.

The big moments, in our lives as individuals, and in our shared life as a congregation, will continue to come. It may be that the new prospect of partnership with another Unitarian Universalist congregation in Salem (see my report on this later in this newsletter) is another such grand, unexpected opportunity – or, it may not be. We will determine together whether this is a critical turning point in the story of First Parish, or minor footnote. But whatever comes, friends, let us be attentive to what is already before us. It is the big choices we make that others know us by. But it is the small choices by which we know ourselves. At the start of a new church year, I look forward to making many small and worthy decisions with you.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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