Posts Tagged flaming chalice

Assembled Here

This sermon, delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 22nd 2016, was rather unusual.  The service began without hymn books, without a chalice, and without myself or our student minister present…

Lay Leader, Scott:

You may have noticed that I’m all alone up here. If you’re a member or have otherwise been here long enough to know how we usually do services, you may have noticed that some things are missing this morning. If this is your first time here today: welcome, and I’m glad you’re here, and I apologize for everybody else’s confusion, but all will become clear, I promise.

So what’s missing? The lay leader doesn’t usually have this much responsibility on a Sunday morning. We usually sing out of hymn books. We’d have lit our chalice by now, and in fact there’d be other flaming chalice symbols around the place, too. Even the Order of Service is missing a few words, such as calling this congregation the “Fellowship of the Peninsula”.

Imagine that, then. Imagine this as some non-denominational congregation, a “Fellowship of the Peninsula” all alone in the world, without any larger faith tradition of which it is a part. Imagine, in other words, that there’s no Unitarian Universalist Association. How would a congregation like ours make do without the benefits and resources deriving from being part of that wider denomination?

Well, let’s consider just one of those benefits and resources.

[He pulls out a copy of our hymn book from under the pulpit.]

Consider this hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition”. It’s published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and was the result of five years’ worth of work by the UUA’s Hymnbook Resources Commission. We’re used to singing hymns out of it every Sunday, maybe a reading from it, too, but without the UUA creating the commission and subsidizing their work and paying for copyright licenses and so forth, there’d be no hymnal.

What would we use instead? Well, that’s a good question. Maybe the New Century Hymnal from the United Church of Christ, but perhaps only the hymns that are particularly liberal even for that liberal denomination. Maybe we’d be able to find more songs like “Weave”, songs that are appropriately “spiritual but not religious”, though without the Unitarian Universalist Association there’d be far fewer of those sort of songs, too.

Thankfully the UUA does exist and does publish hymn books, so let’s bring in our copies of “Singing the Living Tradition” and hand them out now.

[The ushers wheel the hymnal cart into the Sanctuary and give out the books.]

There, that feels better, doesn’t it?

Now, let’s see what else is missing.

Well, there’s the chalice, but we’ll come to that in a moment. Before that, though, let’s talk about who else is missing.

A very important function of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to evaluate and certify new ministers. And a big part of preparing ministers to be ministers is, of course, the training. There’s the academic work, which takes place at a seminary; there are two of those that are associated with the UUA, namely Starr King in San Francisco and Meadville Lombard in Chicago. And there’s the practical work of becoming a minister, which takes place at hospitals and in teaching congregations. We’ve been fortunate to be one of the latter these last two years, so it’s time to bring in our student minister, Christina Hockman!

[Chris enters the Sanctuary and takes a seat on the platform.]

Now Chris graduated from Meadville Lombard one week ago — congratulations, Chris! — and came to us from her home congregation in Richmond. But if there were no Unitarian Universalist Association, we’d have no connection with Meadville to have one of their students here, and without the UUA, we’d have no connection with Richmond to have one of their members here. So thank goodness the UUA does exist!

Student Minister, Chris:

Yes, if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association, I wouldn’t have been your student minister these last two years, I wouldn’t now have a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School, and I wouldn’t have been been evaluated and certified ready for ministry. And maybe my life would have been rather simpler over the last three years were all of that the case, but my life would also be much less full and rich, given the wonderful people and the many experiences that have helped me become the person I am today. As I’ll describe next Sunday, it’s made a world of difference for me to be a part of this wonderful, warm, loving congregation.

As most of you know, another major event for me this month was being called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Church of Corpus Christi in Texas. What you may not know is that, in addition to the schooling and training and certifying, the UUA plays a vital role in the search process, too. After all, most congregations don’t go directly to the ministers they want and offer them the job. There’s no magic to finding a minister who seems like a good match to a given congregation, and professional headhunters who would do the work cost more than almost any congregation can afford.

So the Unitarian Universalist Association helps out, making the search process a lot easier for both congregations and ministers to find one another. There’s a website where both sides upload lots of information about themselves, about who they really are, about what they really want to achieve. It’s like match.com or eHarmony, only for congregations and ministers. Thanks to the UUA, then, ministers in search can identify congregations that seem like they’d be good places to serve, and then congregations can look at the ministers interested in them and decide who seems like a good fit. It’s thanks to the UUA, in other words, that I’m going to Corpus Christi. And since this congregation went through its own search process seven years ago, it’s thanks to the UUA that you have a minister, too.

[I enter the Sanctuary and take a seat on the platform.]

There’s something else that’s a feature of every Sunday morning that we owe to the Unitarian Universalist Association, and that’s our flaming chalice. It began as a symbol of hope and liberation, when it was created during World War II in support of the work of the Unitarian Service Committee as it helped refugees escape from Nazi Europe. A few decades later, the UUA adopted it as a symbol for its own documents, and as such congregations started using it, too. We have the flaming chalice on display here in this Sanctuary: on the wall, in a framed piece of the old pulpit; and on the front of this pulpit.

[I uncover the chalice symbol on the wall; Chris uncovers the chalice symbol on the pulpit.]

UUFP's Pulpit and Flaming ChaliceMost obvious, perhaps, is that we also have a physical chalice in which we light an actual flame, a chalice given to us by former youth, Keith Dixon, many decades ago, a chalice that survived the fire that burned down our old building.

[Ask ushers to bring the chalice into the Sanctuary and place it on its table next to the pulpit.]

Now that we have both hymn books and chalice, I would ask you to join me in speaking aloud, together and in unison, reading number 443, “We Arrive Out of Many Singular Rooms” by Kenneth Patton, while Scott lights our chalice.

Me:

“We arrive out of many singular rooms,” seeking the assurances of friendship, community, presence and human contact. “This is the reason of cities, of homes, of assemblies in the houses of worship.” It’s the reason of congregations, and also of denominations — in our case, an association of congregations. And given the presence of hymn books and the chalice, given that Chris and I are present, too, we are also aware of the presence of that association, here in our own singular room of this Sanctuary.

In some of the things we do, we draw attention to how they connect us with other Unitarian Universalist congregations. Last Sunday we celebrated the Flower Communion, as did other UU congregations that same day, and almost all UU congregations hold a Flower Communion service sometime in the Spring. And in the Fall, we and almost all other UU congregations hold a Water Communion service. Now for all that they seem timeless, it’s important to remember that these traditions had a beginning.

We know that Maja Čapek brought the Flower Communion to this country during World War II, sharing it with some congregations, who then shared it with others. If it weren’t for those congregations being part of an association with one another, there wouldn’t be a Flower Communion. It’s less clear how the Water Communion started. I once heard that it began at a conference, perhaps a UU women’s retreat, and the participants took it back to their home congregations, who then shared it with others. Once again, if it weren’t for the association of those congregations, there wouldn’t be a Water Communion.

And that brings me to the last thing that we need to uncover — the last thing we need to reclaim as part of recognizing that our association of congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, does indeed exist — and that’s our Joys and Sorrows table.

[Chris and Scott uncover the Joys and Sorrows table and prepare it.]

Now it’s also not clear how Joys and Sorrows began, and it may even have been created in more than one place, given the number of different ways of doing it, but what is clear is that this congregation did not create it. We practice Joys and Sorrows here — every Sunday at first service, less often at second service — because we heard about it thanks to being part of a wider association of congregations. And, of course, part of how we do Joys and Sorrows is sing “Spirit of Life”, number 123 in the hymn book. Carolyn McDade wrote her sung prayer for reasons that had little to do with Unitarian Universalism, but it wouldn’t be as known and loved by so many UUs if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

And so, in this community of compassion and gratitude, let us now take the time to share with one another what is in our hearts — our joys, our sorrows, and important milestones that are truly changing our lives. I invite you to receive and light a candle, then tell us your name, and briefly share what matters to you so much that you can’t not share it. You may choose to light a candle in silence, but if you do speak, please use the microphone so that everyone here this morning may hear your words.

[The sharing of Joys and Sorrows takes place, followed by the singing of “Spirit of Life”.]

Me:

Thank goodness the Unitarian Universalist Association does exist! Without the UUA, we wouldn’t have hymn books full of inspiring words and music. Without the UUA, we wouldn’t have the flaming chalice, either as a symbol or as a physical object. Without the UUA we wouldn’t have beloved, meaningful rituals like Flower Communion and Joys and Sorrows. And without the UUA, Chris wouldn’t have been here as our intern, and I wouldn’t be here as your minister.

Of course, there are many more benefits and resources we receive from being part of a wider association.

Elsewhere on our campus this morning, for instance, our children and youth are engaged in religious exploration. Three of the RE curricula we’ve been using all this year, namely “Sing to the Power” for elementary-school-age children, “Building Bridges” for middle-schoolers and “A Place of Wholeness” for high-schoolers, come from Tapestry of Faith, a curriculum series produced by the UUA that congregations (or anybody, for that matter) can download and use completely free of charge. And next year, we’ll be offering Our Whole Lives, the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for teenagers, which is a joint project of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.

And if you’re a member you should have received this magazine in the mail just this week. UU World is published each quarter by the UUA and sent out to all members of congregations, and there’s always lots of fabulous content in it. This issue made me chuckle, though.

The cover story is about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon and their rapid growth in recent years, and, as I scanned through it, I recognized a face in the pictures. So I looked more closely. It turns out that their first minister, hired in 2004, was Jeanne Pupke, my colleague at First UU in Richmond. Then, their first called minister a couple of years later was Heather Starr, who is now one of the co-ministers of my home congregation in Hartford, Connecticut. Then Central Oregon had an interim minister, Alex Holt, who I’ve met at Southeast UU Ministers Association meetings when he was in our region. And for the last couple of years, their minister has been Antonia Won, whose face I recognized in the article’s pictures, because she was student minister in Albuquerque immediately before I did my internship there!

Now I want to note that this isn’t about me, though my life has been enriched in many different ways for knowing these colleagues. And it’d be easy to say, as if everything was explained, “Well, it’s a small UU world.” But the fact is, I wouldn’t know these wonderful people, I wouldn’t be working alongside them, if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

After all, we tend to think of the Unitarian Universalist Association as an institution in its own right, doing its thing up in Boston. And we’ve already seen how, as an institution, it provides so much that we need as a congregation, but that’s an outcome, an end-result of what it means to be a congregation in covenant with other congregations, to be a member of an association of congregations.

So, take a hymn book, please, and open it to hymn number one. Then turn back a page. On the left, you’ll see a page of text that begins with the big word “We”. Well, you could argue that the big word “We” says it all, but maybe it needs some unpacking. So, please read with me the top three lines on that page: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote”. Then, what follows are the Seven Principles and the Six Sources, all thirteen of which, of course, only exist because the UUA exists. And then, at the bottom of the page are another three and a bit lines of text, so please read those with me: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”  [Emphasis mine.]

That’s the covenant that this congregation makes with all other Unitarian Universalist congregations, the promise we have made to be part of a wider association with a pledge of mutual trust and support. It’s what makes us, not just some non-denominational “Fellowship of the Peninsula” but rather the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula.

Just as members of this congregation covenant with one another to form the congregation, promising to support it with time, talent and treasure, so do member congregations of the UUA covenant with one another to form the association, promising to support it with the congregation’s time, talent and treasure. It’s a promise we make as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, a promise that’s also made by those congregations in Central Oregon, Richmond, Hartford and Albuquerque, a covenant that holds us in relationship with them and with more than a thousand other UU congregations.

“A pledge of mutual trust and support.” It should be pretty obvious why we make that promise: we can’t do it all by ourselves. Not even big congregations, like First UU in Richmond, can do it all by themselves.

Consider the fact that we’re sending two of our own emerging leaders to leadership school this Summer. It’s not cheap to send two people for a week-long, immersive, residential program like that — so a big thank you to the trustees for agreeing to pay for about half of the cost from Endowment income — but it would cost even more if it weren’t heavily subsidized by the UUA.

Or consider that, over the last twenty years, this congregation has benefited from two Chalice Lighter Grants, money that’s collected directly from participating members of other congregations in our region. The most recent grant was about $25,000 to pay for the renovation of our office building when we bought it six years ago.

Or consider that, thanks to the association, we have a voice on national, even global, issues. Earlier this month, for instance, UUA President Peter Morales addressed LGBTQ clergy and other leaders in the United Methodist Church, recognizing their bravery and offering them encouragement as their own denomination struggles to be fully inclusive and welcoming.

None of these are things we’d be able to do by ourselves. And recognizing that, we can be proud that this congregation has a long history of doing its part to support the Unitarian Universalist Association. Up until a couple of years ago, we were what is called a “Fair Share” congregation, meaning that we gave to the UUA an expected amount of money from our budget each year.

I’ll note as an aside that this used to be calculated as a certain amount per member, but now it’s simply a percentage of the budget. The new method of figuring Fair Share — known as GIFT — is actually more fair, particularly since some congregations now admit that they used to play games with their membership rolls to try to reduce what they’d pay. Please know that this congregation did not play such games. In any case, the amount of our Fair Share didn’t change much from the old method to the new, and going back twenty-five years or more, in fact, we had been a Fair Share congregation. We can, as I say, be proud of that.

Unfortunately, that changed a couple of years ago. Given our budget the year before last, we only contributed to the UUA about a third of our Fair Share. And in this year’s budget, as UUFP Treasurer Alan Sheeler pointed out last Sunday, there’s actually no money for the UUA at all. So we want to try to fix that today.

If, as Scott said earlier, you’re a member or have otherwise been here long enough to know how we usually do services, you may have noticed that we haven’t collected the Offering yet. And as we usually say in introducing the Offering, all that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money. Well, the same is true of our association: all that the UUA is and has are what we give to it. So today we’re going to share our Offering with our UUA.

Now I’m not deluding myself that a single Sunday’s Offering would allow us to pay our full Fair Share to the UUA. That would be truly fantastic, in the original sense of the word. But I do see this as a first step back to making good on the promise we make as a congregation, the covenant that we have entered in association with our sister congregations.

And so, in gratitude for the resources and services that come to us from the UUA, in recognition of the benefits and advantages that follow from being part of a wider association, and in keeping our promise of mutual trust and support to our sister congregations, let us now collect the offering, and, as is our tradition, receive it with the singing of hymn number 402, “From You I Receive”.

~ ~ ~

You can make your contribution on-line now. Just click here and look for the box marked “UUA GIFT Contributions.

Advertisements

Comments (2)

The Chalice and the Circle (and the Cross) [redux]

I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in August 2012, and the statistics gathered by WordPress tell me that it’s been viewed more than anything else I’ve posted, often as a result of somebody searching the Web for a phrase like “cross in a circle”.  In that time, however, most of the links I had used for examples of flaming chalice symbols have stopped working, and this month the Fellowship is running a competition to create our own symbol, so I’m bringing back this post to show those examples.  (I believe that they’ve been shared on-line for general use, but if that’s not the case, or if I have mis-attributed any of them, please let me know.)

In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices.  They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community.  You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry.  As shown in the gallery below, you’ll also find them in many different designs: enclosed in a circle or a sunburst; with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame; made up of letters that spell out a word or including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question mark; recognizing the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces.  Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.

Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years.  There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book.  The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976.  And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today.  So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!

What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism.  This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time.  This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:

The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch.  Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled.  That was probably the right move!  He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain.  Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.

In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee.  The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution.  From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.

Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy.  Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need.  Deutsch wanted to help.

In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization.  That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work.  Joy wrote, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism.  With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it.  The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  Unitarian Service Committee logoReporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:

“It represents, as you see, […] the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.  In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts.  This was in the mind of the artist.  The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit.  We do not limit our work to Christians.  Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.

Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity.  At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal.  In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!

But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice.  It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.

The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati.  The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble!  The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.

Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle.Humiliati symbol  The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.  When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry.  Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.

It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century.  The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation.  The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.  And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.

Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time.  Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands.Unitarian Universalist Service Committee logo  More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of  variations in design.  As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit.  One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right.  Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton, featuring a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion.  From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility.  The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness.  With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.

Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire.  Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot!  But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.

(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)

For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community.  The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it.  The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me.  In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.

Another archetypal symbol is the circle.  With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever.  What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love.  And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center.  If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence.  We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.

symbols of the religions of the world design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

And then we come to the cross.  Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed.  Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans.  We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.

Well, those are valid objections.  However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best.  First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity.  As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:

“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages.  Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences.  The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one.  The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.  Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”

Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us.  We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.

The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith.  Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution.  Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole.  And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.

So may it be.

Comments (1)

Mining for Gold

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 30th 2013.)

A few years ago I was on the receiving end of a telephone interview when I was asked to name my leadership style.  It wasn’t a question I was expecting, nor was it one I’d ever been asked before, so I tried to come up with something based on my experience in Unitarian Universalism.  I talked — though perhaps “rambled” would be a more appropriate word — about cooperative and collaborative leadership, about the ideal of sharing power with rather than holding power over people, and about companioning others in their own work toward the achievement of common goals.  It evidently wasn’t the sort of answer my interviewers wanted, since they asked me the question again, though all I was able to offer was a more concise version of my earlier ramble.

The interview as a whole certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, but I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get the job.  Since then, though, I’ve continued to think about leadership, particularly in terms of what leadership means — both as a minister and for lay leaders — within Unitarian Universalist congregations.  And given some of the trainings and workshops I’ve attended in recent years, I’m apparently not the only one who’s been thinking about this.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given what some might identify as a common Unitarian Universalist temperament.  “We may be a relatively small denomination,” former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens once remarked, “but look at it this way: we’re the largest, longest lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen.”

Then there’s the not unrelated fact that we are a people who value discussions as much as we value decisions.  You may have seen the cartoon that shows a Unitarian Universalist who dies and is pleasantly surprised to find that there is a realm of life after death, where stands a crossroads with three signposts.  One reads, “This way to heaven.”  Another reads, “This way to hell.”  And the third reads, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.”  Without hesitation the UU goes to the discussion.

Now this isn’t necessarily a character flaw reflective of little more than procrastination: it’s part of our tradition, too, to emphasize good process as much as good product, to not only value but also to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.  Historical Unitarianism, after all, emphasized its own trinity of freedom, reason and tolerance, while today’s Unitarian Universalist values include “acceptance of one another”, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right of conscience”.  So it makes sense that the ideal Unitarian Universalist leadership style is cooperative and collaborative, that the ideal leader is, in the words of the UUA’s former Ministerial Transitions Director David Pohl, someone who “listens as well as speaks, learns as well as teaches, shares the challenges and burdens of leadership rather than monopolizing or relinquishing them.”

Well, okay, that sounds great.  And though Pohl wrote those words sometime in the 1980s, I’d be prepared to bet that if we were to jump into a time machine, go back to the 1930s and show Pohl’s words to what was then the American Unitarian Association, there’d be little disagreement.  On the other hand, some of what they said back then still holds true today.

For example, a 1936 report of the AUA’s Commission of Appraisal lamented the denomination’s condition as being “anarchy mitigated by occasional flashes of brilliant but erratic genius. Leadership,” the report noted, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle. It is the product of careful and patient and far-sighted planning.”

Leadership, in other words, doesn’t come naturally.  It takes intentional and deliberate training, what is often named “leadership development”, a process of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth that equips both new and experienced leaders with the technical and visionary skills they need.

The good news is that, as Unitarian Universalists, we believe that just about everybody has some capacity for leadership; the challenge is that any given person’s capacity for leadership needs to be intentionally cultivated if it is to flourish; the added challenge is that, as Eric Wikstrom notes in Serving with Grace, we’re talking about leadership in the context of a religious community, something that is clearly distinct from a small business, a country club, a political action committee or a social service agency.

Now one of the ways that Unitarian Universalists have been responding to these challenges is to think not just about leadership but about what’s called “adaptive leadership”, so let me explain what is meant by that.

Many of the problems facing us in everyday life might be considered “technical” problems, in that it’s simply a matter of applying the appropriate knowledge and skills to resolve each one.  Should one of the tires on my bicycle develop a puncture, for example, it’s either a matter of taking it to a bike shop for the tire to be replaced or buying a new tire and then replacing it myself.  I come out of the process pretty much as I went in, at least once I’ve washed the dirt and grease off my hands!

A lot of what happens in the day-to-day life of a church involves technical problems, too.  If a light bulb burns out, we get a new bulb and replace the old one.  If the kitchen sink gets clogged, we clean out the P bend.  If the weather changes from cold and dry to warm and humid, we get the piano tuned so we don’t feel like we’re trying to sing hymns in an old West saloon.

Now you might have noticed that all of the examples of technical problems that I’ve given you involve things, devices, mechanisms.  If they break, they can be fixed, and it’s just a matter of finding the right knowledge and applying the right skills to fix them.  Well, people can break, too, so to speak — and the relationships between people are particularly prone to breaking — but they can’t usually be fixed in that technical sense, in spite of the fact that we base an awful lot of how we do education and medicine and economics on the hugely false assumption that we can.  It’s false because people and groups of people are not mechanisms to be fixed; they’re organisms that need to be nurtured.

So, many of the problems faced by groups of people — from congregations to human societies — are not technical, and addressing them isn’t simply about having or acquiring knowledge and skills.  Rather, they’re described as adaptive, requiring, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “developing the organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to meet problems successfully according to our values and purposes.”  Addressing adaptive challenges can be messy, as tends to be the case for organisms rather then mechanisms, but doing so is always transformative, for individuals as well as for their culture.

Let me give you an example of an adaptive challenge that just about every congregation — at least every Unitarian Universalist congregation — faces, and not just once but every year.  And that is completing a successful Canvass in order to fund the operating budget.

A Canvass is, in simple terms, the process by which we ask each member and friend of the congregation to figure out how much money they intend to give during the next church year — what is, in shorthand, referred to as their pledge — so that the Finance Committee can put together a balanced budget that supports the Fellowship’s mission in general and funds the specific goals determined by the Policy Board.

Now it might seem like ensuring that there’s a healthy budget is a technical problem: after all, isn’t it simply a matter of finding the right way to ask members and friends to submit generous pledges and that’s all there is to it?  Well, no.  It is far from being a technical problem, and there is no such thing as the perfectly written appeal letter or the perfectly designed Canvass brochure or the perfectly worded pulpit update, any of which would, thanks to their perfection, get everybody to pledge promptly, generously and with a minimum of fuss.  If such magic did exist, trust me, a whole lot of denominational staff and church consultants would be looking for other work.

Rather, each and every Canvass is an adaptive challenge.  Each and every year offers us, in Heifitz’ terms, a new opportunity to develop our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be the best congregation we can be.  Unlike a technical problem, where we come out of fixing it pretty much the same as we went in, responding to such an adaptive challenge requires us to examine our purpose for being, our attitudes towards risk and difficult decisions, our comfort (or lack thereof!) with disequilibrium and change.  That’s why this is not just about leadership but about adaptive leadership, requiring an organic rather than a mechanical approach to problems, and where a good process for problem-solving is, if anything, more important than a good product.

Let me give you an example of how we’re trying to do that in one particular case, something that really brought home to me one lesson from the program for leadership development called “Harvest the Power!” that I co-taught a couple of years ago.

At the start of this year, our chair of the Sunday Services Committee published an article in the Flame about the state of the pulpit, the physical object which usually stands on this platform and from which the lay leader speaks and I preach.  He wrote about how the pulpit was showing its age and had needed some repairs.  Now you’ll notice that I’m not using the pulpit this morning, and that’s because more repairs need to be made, and we don’t want to risk further damage by moving it again until it is repaired.

So, the article was the first step in a process of addressing the deteriorating condition of the physical pulpit.  Now it would be natural, given our cultural habits when it comes to problem-solving, to treat this as a technical problem.  Pulpit’s broken?  Fix it.  Can’t be fixed? Get a new one.  Find the money, repair it or buy a replacement.  Case closed.  End of story.

Well, not so fast.  We know the pulpit’s been here as long as this Sanctuary, about thirty years.  That’s a long time for people to develop not just opinions about it, but feelings, too, and different feelings depending on their personal histories and aesthetic senses.  And that’s just the people who look at it.  The people who use it, the people who use this space, even this platform, whether for worship or for other purposes, they have feelings about it as well.  And it’s not just a wooden box, like a maitre d’ might use to assign people to tables at a restaurant: it’s a pulpit, with the symbol of our faith on the front of it.  So it’s even more complicated than just listening to what people want and then taking a vote.

The deterioration of the pulpit then, is an adaptive challenge.  This was most obvious when we put the article on the Fellowship’s blog and linked to it on Facebook.  A conversation about the pulpit sprang up almost instantly, with some people sharing positive feelings about it and others sharing negative feelings.  The Sunday Services Committee already knew about some of that, which is why we had scheduled a town-hall meeting, to bring people together in person to share their feelings about the pulpit with one another.

Now that Facebook discussion turned out to be an excellent example of one of the lessons of the “Harvest the Power!” course, namely that getting people to talk with one another about their different perspectives on a particular issue is much more effective than having all those people provide their individual opinions to a single person or committee.  Here’s the simple explanation as to why: if you hold an opinion on something, it’s natural to think — in the absence of any evidence to the contrary — that most other people will hold that same opinion.  And if you feel very strongly about your opinion, then surely everybody else feels the same way, because no healthy psyche starts by assuming that it’s wrong to feel what it’s feeling.

So when people individually send in their individual opinions, they naturally assume that theirs is representative of the majority opinion — and they’ll keep assuming that unless and until they get some sort of feedback that indicates otherwise.  The problem is that the feedback usually comes only in the form of hearing about the final decision, in which case all the people who held minority opinions will be disappointed if not angry.  Whoever is responsible for making that final decision is, in fact, faced with the impossible task of satisfying many different people who all think that their own individual opinions are in the majority.

In a multi-directional conversation, by contrast, people can quickly recognize that other people have different ideas and they can start figuring out together how to meet on common ground.  The final decision emerges — or is, at least, indicated — naturally because that’s where everybody in the conversation ends up, given long enough.  The minority is usually okay not getting their way if they at least feel that they’ve been heard, while the majority has at least some understanding that not everyone agrees with them and owes the minority a measure of compassion.

And that, really, is the goal of having a good process to figure out what to do about the deterioration of the pulpit.  Adaptive leadership recognizes that it’s not just about finding a logical solution, something that is particularly true in this case.  Rather, it’s about developing our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be in community with one another, such as by learning how to avoid the temptation to use a simple vote as a bludgeon to beat a minority into submission, by learning how to be in that minority without holding everybody else hostage as the only way to prove the worth of your opinion, and by learning how to really listen to the people with whom you disagree.

There will always be people with whom you disagree, and if the wider culture is doing a thoroughly awful job of teaching us how to be in community with different people holding different beliefs and different opinions, we should at least make sure that our congregations do better.

And that is one of the reasons why, this week — starting this afternoon, in fact — we’re hosting a Youth Leadership School here at the Fellowship.  It’s known as GoldMine and it’s designed to train Unitarian Universalist youth not only in leadership skills but also in worship arts and religious values and heritage, which are the same three areas of emphasis as at most of the leadership schools for adult UUs.  GoldMine isn’t an extended lock-in or even a youth camp, but is an intensive series of workshops for learning, reflection and sharing, though of course fun and friendship are still important parts of it.  The intention is to provide a whole experience that is as much about faith development, the deepening of religious identity and community building as it is about giving leadership tools.

Now if you haven’t guessed by now, yes, I came up with the name of this sermon based on the name of the youth leadership school, but nowhere in two-hundred page staff manual did I see anything explaining the origin of that name.  The manual does say that GoldMine was created by Unitarian Universalist minister Jaco ten Hove who had himself been a UU as a child and then a youth.  He wanted to adapt the Pacific Northwest District’s leadership school for adults, while also drawing upon the energy of the young adults in that district, to offer a leadership development experience for youth.  So I wrote to Jaco and asked him how he came up with the name.  I’m please to say that he wrote back, explaining that “The name arose, as you might guess, from my musings on the value of the participants — golden! — combined with the goal of the school to bring forth — or ‘mine’ — their emerging abilities as conscious, UU-strong leaders.”

Now Jaco concluded by noting that “Despite understandable misgivings about the extraction industry, one generally thinks of a gold mine as a positive resource.”  Of course, taking a literalistic approach to a metaphor is, to paraphrase writer E. B. White, “like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  So let’s try to stick with the metaphor for a little longer.

Unitarian Universalist leadership development is a process of mining the spiritual gold that is everybody’s capacity for leadership.  Sometimes it gives us hints of its presence, the glimmerings of a rich vein just beneath the surface.  Sometimes it may even be out in the open already, small nuggets collecting where the streams of experience have washed them.  But leadership, as our religious forebears noted over seventy-five years ago, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle.”  Rather, it is up to us to unearth that spiritual gold, working with one another through faith development, community building and the deepening of religious identity to lift up our best selves.

May it be so.

Comments (3)

The Chalice and the Circle (and the Cross)

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 26th 2012.)

In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices.  They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community.  You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry.  You’ll also find them in many different designs, enclosed in a circle or a sunburst, with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame, perhaps made up of letters that spell out a word or maybe including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question markHere’s one that recognizes the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces.  Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.

Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years.  There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book.  The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976.  And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today.  So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!

What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism.  This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time.  This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:

The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch.  Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled.  That was probably the right move!  He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain.  Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.

In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee.  The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution.  From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.

Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy.  Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need.  Deutsch wanted to help.

In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization.  That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work.  Joy wrote, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism.  With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it.  The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  Unitarian Service CommitteeReporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:

“It represents, as you see, […] the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.  In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts.  This was in the mind of the artist.  The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit.  We do not limit our work to Christians.  Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.

Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity.  At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal.  In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!

But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice.  It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.

The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati.  The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble!  The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.

Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle.Humiliati  The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.  When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry.  Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.

It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century.  The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation.  The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.  And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.

Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time.  Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands.  More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of  variations in design.  As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit.  One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right.  Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion.  From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility.  The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness.  With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.

Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire.  Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot!  But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.

(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)

For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community.  The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it.  The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me.  In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.

Another archetypal symbol is the circle.  With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever.  What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love.  And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center.  If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence.  We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.

And then we come to the cross.  Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed.  Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans.  We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.

Well, those are valid objections.  However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best.  First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity.  As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:

“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages.  Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences.  The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one.  The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.  Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”

Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us.  We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.

The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith.  Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution.  Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole.  And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.

So may it be.

Comments (3)

%d bloggers like this: