Posts Tagged justice

The G-Word

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 14th 2018.

I’m going to begin by asking for a favor.

We’re in the South, more or less, and there are a few foods that are known for being popular in the South. To pick a couple of them, one is fried chicken and another is watermelon. Maybe you don’t eat either of these at every meal, but perhaps you’d eat one or the other if they were served at a picnic or a potluck. So how many of you would eat fried chicken? Hands up if you’d eat fried chicken. And how many of you would eat watermelon? Hands up if you you’d eat watermelon. Okay, so that’s pretty much everyone, whether vegetarian or not, who’d eat one or the other.

Now I picked these two foods because there are parts of them that you can’t eat. In fried chicken there are bones and in watermelon there’s the rind. When you’re eating these foods, those are the parts you leave on the plate. So here’s something you might not have thought about, but it’s an important question: Do the bones and the rind stop you from enjoying the parts of fried chicken and watermelon that you do eat? No, they don’t. Much less would it make sense to get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind because you can’t eat them.

The reason I bring up fried chicken and watermelon and the fact that there are parts of them that you can’t eat is because a lot of discussions about religion are the same way. A friendly discussion about religion is, in fact, a lot like a picnic or a potluck. There are parts that appeal to us, that we like, that we enjoy, and there are parts that are, essentially, inedible.

Now I want to stress the “friendly” part of “a friendly discussion about religion”. I’m not talking about somebody making religious claims that are actively harmful, that promote inequality or prevent injustice. That would be like bringing a plate of poisonous toadstools to a picnic: they’re not going to be good for anyone!

So imagine you’re in a group with other friendly people — such as the Sunday Morning Forum or a Fellowship Circle — and the topic is how we view and understand the world and our place in it. You’re sharing your answers to questions such as: Why are we here? How did reality come into being? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens to us when we die? More importantly, you’re going to hear the answers that other people have to those questions.

Some of their answers you’ll like; they make sense to you, maybe even helping you to understand something that’s been puzzling you. Some of those answers will challenge you, but then you figure out they’re actually familiar ideas expressed in unfamiliar ways, or they use different words than you’d use; you’ll have to work at translating those answers into your own terms to appreciate them. And some of those answers will simply be unacceptable to you, with ideas that are clearly incompatible with your own experience; they make no sense to you no matter how you try to translate them.

Here’s the favor I’m asking of you, and why I asked you to think about fried chicken and watermelon: enjoy other people’s answers that work for you, with or without translation, but don’t get angry at answers that don’t work for you. For one thing, other people’s answers belong to other people; if you like them, if they make sense to you, great; if you don’t like them, if they don’t make sense, well, they’re not your answers anyway. For another, getting angry at somebody else’s ideas, experiences and feelings, that does more harm to you than it does any good.

So when it comes to discussions about religious matters between friendly and well-meaning people, please, do enjoy the fried chicken and the watermelon of the theological potluck that’s offered to you, and please, don’t get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind just because you can’t eat them, too.

I asked for this favor up front because our subject today is God, and I don’t think there’s any subject about there’s more disagreement. For many people, it’s the most important part of their faith, and they don’t understand how any religion can exist that doesn’t put God front and center. Only, ask them and the person in the pew next to them how they actually understand God, and you’ll quickly find that even people going to the same church don’t really share the same theology.

Many religions got their start because of disagreements about understandings of God, and Unitarian Universalism is no exception.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism began with quite specific theological ideas that departed from Christian orthodoxy. For the early Unitarians, it was their belief that God was one — a unity, not a trinity — including the specific belief that Jesus was fully human and thus a viable role model for what it means to be human. For the early Universalists, it was their belief in God’s love as the strongest force in existence, stronger than the ability of any mere human to do wrong, such that every soul eventually reaches heaven.

Over the centuries, both Universalist and Unitarian belief systems evolved, growing much broader than their Christian origins. The Unitarians did this, as I see it, largely by accident, thanks to such spontaneous movements within Unitarianism as Transcendentalism and Humanism. The Universalists, on the other hand, did it much more intentionally, embracing the implications of Universalism as a religion that could truly be for all people. Either way, by the middle of the twentieth century the Universalists and the Unitarians found themselves in such similar places theologically that the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined together, consolidating to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.

Now there was a habit, particularly within Universalism, of writing statements of belief, articulating who we are and how we understand the world not only for the benefit of other people but also for ourselves. Our Seven Principles and Six Sources are part of that long tradition. Such statements have been crafted in different ways at different times, but one of the favorite tools is, of course, the survey. And while a survey is rarely an effective substitute for getting people together and talking with them, it is an easy way to get a lot of people to answer simple questions.

So in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the UUA sent surveys to UU congregations. Somebody at the UUA deserves credit for having the presence of mind to include some of the same questions each time, to see if anything was changing. Specifically, there was a multiple-choice question, “Which one of the following comes closest to expressing your beliefs about God?” What’s striking is that, in all three decades, the distribution of responses was very similar and, though I don’t think there’s any more recent data, my own unofficial experience suggests it would be pretty similar today.

The first answer choice (out of five in all) was “God is a supernatural being who reveals himself in human experience and history.” We might consider that the traditionally theistic belief and, like it or not, such a traditionally theistic God is usually imagined as male. About three percent of UUs selected this answer choice.

The second answer choice was “God is the ground of all being, real but not describable.” If you’ve ever heard of theologian Paul Tillich, the phrase “ground of being” comes from him. This answer choice spans deism, mysticism and some agnosticism, and close to thirty percent of UUs selected it.

The third answer choice was “God may appropriately be used as a name for some natural processes within the universe, such as love or creative evolution.” This is the answer of choice for many humanists and neo-pagans, from physicists to pantheists, and it’s not surprising that almost half of UUs selected it.

The fourth answer choice was “God is an irrelevant concept, and the central focus of religion should be on human knowledge and values.” This is more hard-core humanism, as well as atheism, and a fifth of UUs selected it.

And the fifth and final choice was “God is a concept that is harmful to a worthwhile religion” and about two percent of UUs selected it.

As I said, this distribution of responses matches my own experience in talking with Unitarian Universalists over the years. A small number of UUs are pretty traditional theists, while about three-quarters of UUs have broader conceptions of divinity, even if they’d never apply the word “God” to them. About a quarter of UUs think that God is either an irrelevant concept or actively harmful.

Here’s a question, though. If a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists are at least okay with some concept of the divine, then why do we use the word “God” so infrequently? (To the point that we can joke about it being “the G-word”?)

In 2011, when the Unitarian Universalist Association was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the Religion News Service published the sort of article that causes ministers to pull out their hair. It began:

A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology. Laurel Mendes explained that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from the hymns in the congregation’s Sunday program. But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in ‘Once to Every Soul and Nation’ might upset the humanists in the pews. ‘I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,’ said Mendes, 52, after the service. ‘We did say “God”, which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.’

Let me get my pedantry out of the way. The hymn “Once to Every Soul and Nation” doesn’t include the word “God”. Just in case Baltimore was doing something oddly retro, I even looked it up in the 1964 hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, where it was called “Once to Every Man and Nation”, but still no “God”.

I should note that many of those hymns that went on to be in our current hymn book were indeed edited in the late seventies, but in most cases that was to remove unnecessarily gendered language that privileged men. When it came to the word God, there was no attempt to “scrub” “religious doctrine” to make hymns “politically correct”, whatever that much abused phrase actually means these days. We still have lots of hymns that refer to God— just not the one in the article. Rather, the problem identified in some of the old hymns was always referring to God as male.

By way of response to the article, here’s my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein.

So right away we come off as bizarre-o. This isn’t just a word I’m throwing out there to be funny; it’s one Unitarian Universalist’s reminder to the rest of us that when it comes to our image in the broader culture, we appear to be so far off the beaten track of what constitutes religion [that] the wheels have fallen off our truck. That first paragraph reveals us at our weirdest and worst: irrational, ‘pre-offended’, entitled, immature and quarrelsome. […] I’m not sure if the reporter edited Mendes’ remarks or not, but there is the further issue about why a profession of faith is in the least objectionable in a [UU congregation]. It is not: we recite them all the time[.] But someone has taught this conscientious lay woman well: she is on red alert for offense and is obviously walking on eggshells, the hallmark of a highly anxious system.

Weinstein does acknowledge that the rest of the article almost redeems itself from what she calls “the wackadoodle impression made in the first paragraph”, though she notes that, in contrasts to the five ordained men quoted in the article, “the one woman interviewed is also the only lay person the reporter talked to, and she is portrayed as being insecure and apologetic.” Clearly there are bigger problems than whether a hymn uses the word “God” or not.

In short, and this is why I asked up-front for a favor about not getting angry at things that don’t feed us, we need to get over ourselves when it comes to “religious” language.

Actually, we are doing better in that regard than we were fifteen years ago, when then-recently elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, suggested that UUs should reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence”. The uproar only calmed down when Sinkford issued an open letter promising that he wouldn’t make anyone use the word “God”.

Now, I have to say that I stopped using the word “God” back in high school when I realized I was an atheist. A decade later, I learned about pantheism, and I was okay identifying the Universe as God on the basis that it didn’t say anything about the Universe but rather said something about us and our emotional response to existence. Then, in the UU congregation I joined, it was clear that “God” was not a helpful word because so many people had been hurt by churches and people with unhealthy ideas about God, particularly in how God has been used to justify oppression and suffering. And going to seminary, I learned the art of theological translation: Could I simply accept what someone else said? Or should I translate it into my own terms, such as replacing “God” by “Universe”? Or did I just need to set what they’d said aside and leave it?

I still don’t use the word “God” without good reason, but I am realizing that there is a time and a place for it. For instance, I reject male-centered ideas about God, but I have found that I am quite okay with — and even enjoy — the lifting up of female divinity. Did you hear, for instance, that Roy Moore was actually correct when he said that the election in Alabama was in God’s hands? Only, what he doesn’t know is that God is a black woman.

Aside from the delicious subversion, there can be a playfulness that nonetheless delivers an important message. Consider this poem, for instance, by Oklahoma poet (and preacher’s daughter), Kaylin Haught:

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

So let me finish with this.

During the debate over Bill Sinkford’s call for Unitarian Universalists to reclaim a vocabulary of reverence, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker wrote an open letter. Parker was president of the Starr King School for the Ministry, our UU seminary in San Francisco, and when it came to the word “God”, she noted that

over the course of the past two hundred years, in the name of justice and liberation, religious liberals have hastened the death of God. We have presided at the funeral of God the King, God the Father, God the Unmoved Mover, God the Old White Man in the Sky, the Able-Bodied God, the Straight God, the All-Knowing God, the Leave-It-All-to-Me-and-I’ll-Take-Care-of-It God, and more. In place of God, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.

I will qualify this by saying that the problem was never God. The problem was that God was too small. The problem was that God was made in man’s image — and I do mean “man” because the problem was that God was imagined as a man, a supposedly powerful man, the sort of being that men imagine themselves to be if only they had all the power (and none of the responsibility) in the world, a justification for men to act as they please in the cult of toxic masculinity. Have you ever noticed that whenever someone declares that something is what God wants, it’s also what that person wants? Amazing! That’s how you know that their God is only a small god, and is no bigger, in fact, than their own ego. And not only is such a small god an excuse for selfishness and greed, but it’s also an excuse for failing to act when there’s a real need.

So, with respect, I’m going to edit Rebecca Parker’s words: “In place of a small god, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.”

Furthermore, while we have hastened the death of a small god, we have also midwifed the birth of a God who is a working mother, a God who is gay, a God who is black or brown, a God who is transgender, a God who is disabled, a God who is sick, a God who is imprisoned, a God who is poor, a God who is in recovery, a God who rejects toxic masculinity and white supremacy, a God who sides with the oppressed and downtrodden, a God who is begging us to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

And that’s the place where, no matter what we mean by the word “God” or even if we choose not to use it, we can find common ground. I have long said that it doesn’t really matter what each of us believes; rather, what matters is how we behave. Sure, our beliefs determine our behaviors, but we are judged by our behavior. When someone works for justice, equity and peace, when they are kind and charitable and generous, maybe they don’t believe in God and they’re doing good because it’s the right thing to do, or maybe they believe in God and they’re doing good because that’s how God manifests in the world. Such beliefs are not incompatible when it comes to making the world a better place, because what matters is making the world a better place.

May that be the true measure of our beliefs, now and always.


I am grateful to the Rev. Michael Piazza, in whose “Future Church” workshop I was privileged to participate a few years ago, for the fried chicken analogy. (I added watermelon as a non-meat option.)


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Go Vote!

“We covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Fifth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association

"I Voted" sticker with flaming chalice pinThe congregation I serve makes its major decisions by voting.  As a church belonging to one of the faiths descended from the early American congregationalists, we elect our own officers, we set our own budget and we vote to call our own ministers.  One of the primary benefits of membership in the congregation, in fact, is the right to vote on such matters, though we do not exclude sympathetic non-members from discussing the issues, too.  But it is a unique responsibility of membership to vote, to contribute in this and other ways to the collective wisdom of our decision-making.

We trace this tradition of congregational self-determination back almost four hundred years.  Indeed, with the rejection of religious hierarchy — rejecting both the king of England as the head of the church and the bishops as its officers — more than a hundred years before the United States declared their independence, the congregationalists were trying out democracy long before the country as a whole embarked on its similarly bold endeavor.  Liberty was the watchword in both cases, but for the churches it was specifically the freedom of mutual love.

After all, there is more to democracy than simply voting.  Being engaged participants, whether as members or as citizens, is essential.  And simply voting on an issue according to majority rule needs to be accompanied by a commitment on everybody’s part to stay in relationship, or else risk succumbing to divisiveness.  It is a fact of life that there will always be differences of opinion, so the real question is not which opinion is more popular, but how to live and work together before and after the vote.  The right to participate in shared decision-making is inseparable from shared responsibility for the health of the community, whether that community is one congregation or a whole country.

This makes efforts to rig elections all the more distressing.  I’m not talking about so-called voter fraud, which like other boogie men doesn’t actually exist.  Apply some reasonable common sense to the idea of repeated visits to a polling station while pretending to be a different person each time and it is clear that such a scheme would have little impact but require lots of effort and risk.  On the other hand, redrawing district lines to segregate certain voters or passing laws to prevent certain people from being able to vote at all are clearly ways to skew elections that, for all that they have the appearance of legality, are only sophisticated forms of cheating.  And since they inevitably target marginalized individuals — including women, people of color and poor people — they are also unjust and immoral.

We are already saturated with coverage of the various presidential campaigns in anticipation of next year’s elections, but this year’s elections — today’s elections, in fact — are just as important.  Candidates for national office often begin at the local or state level, working their way up as their political careers gain momentum.  Ensuring that we have capable officials who truly represent the will of the people, rather than special interests with deep pockets, begins — and is most critical — in so-called off-year elections.

For all those people who can’t vote or are prevented from voting, each of us who can do so should embrace with joy and gratitude the right and the responsibility to vote.  The purpose of an election is indeed to pick a winner, but when participation is low, whether due to voter apathy or deliberate disenfranchisement, then we all lose.

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Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardRev. Andrew Clive Millard

Many parents dread that age when their child starts asking “Why?”  Not because they don’t want their child to be curious, but because whatever the answer, it usually leads to another “Why?” until the final answer, out of frustration, is something like “Because I said so!”  (The theological problem that answer represents is a topic for another time…)  Olivia hasn’t reached that phase yet, but she certainly asks plenty of other questions and I know it’s just a matter of time!

While it’s a phase that’s usually outgrown within a few years, the question still sticks with us throughout our lives.  And “why” is distinct from the other question words: “what”, “where”, “when” and “who” often have concrete answers, and in fact the rule of thumb for announcing an event is to include those answers as the most important details.  Even “how”, though more…

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Liberal Religion in the Public Square

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“Ways of life we are all enmeshed in — economic systems, our whole patterns of living, our whole established world — are not adequate for the quality of life we know we ourselves capable of and that we want for the Earth’s people.  We must become capable of offering religious leadership to a society called to change its fundamental ways of living.”
— Rebecca Parker, “Rising to the Challenge of Our Times” (1997)

For the last few years, Unitarian Universalists everywhere have been invited to read and discuss a book selected as a “Common Read”.  As such, it “can build community in our congregations and our movement by giving diverse people a shared experience, shared language, and a basis for deep, meaningful conversations.”  Recent Common Read books include Margaret Regan’s The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories…

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Seeking a Song of Love

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

A hand that’s warm in friendship strong,
that lifts us up when things go wrong
and builds a church where — more than creeds —
we count our blessings in good deeds:
our hands can offer hope’s embrace
to make the world a better place.
— additional fifth verse to hymn 300, “With Heart and Mind”

While in Denver for my seminary studies at the Iliff School of Theology, I also worked for the Mountain Desert District, first as Youth Chaplain and then as interim Youth Ministry Coordinator.  Working with teenagers and their UU congregations from New Mexico to Wyoming, from Texas to Utah, I witnessed their youthful struggles with matters of personal and religious identity, with questions of morality and justice, and with attempts to put their hopes and aspirations into words.  In other words, exactly the same…

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Putting Gratitude into Practice

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters.  From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole.  Gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”  — Rev. Galen Guengerich (UU World, Spring 2007)

One Sunday morning last month, in announcing our Faithify project to help the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, Fellowship President Alan Sheeler shared with us the following story.

“Back in 1972 — I was a bit younger then — I spent the Summer in the Southwest, including a month in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. My camp was in the Needles District and was composed of my…

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Gifts of Being from Sources Beyond Ourselves

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 24th 2013.)

I’ve loved the thanksgiving prayer of Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Fewkes since I first heard it.  As we heard our youngest choir members sing it so sweetly this morning:

“For the sun and the dawn which we did not create,
for the moon and the evening which we did not design,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Elizabeth Alexander set these words to music, explaining that “my family has spoken this blessing as our table grace for the past twenty years.  This is no small praise, for I had exhaustive criteria for this prayer: it needed to be simple enough for a young child to learn, beautiful in language and form, and appropriate in the presence of a guest of any faith. It was a pleasure to set Richard Fewkes’ words to music, so that I could share his generous sentiment with others.”

Now I don’t know how many Unitarian Universalists engage in what they might consider prayer on a regular basis.  Indeed it has been said that prayer in most Unitarian Universalist circles is something like a dog walking around on its hind legs: the surprise isn’t from seeing it done well, but from seeing it done at all.  But some sort of blessing or grace at the dinner table may not be that unusual, particularly when taken as an opportunity to teach children about the value of gratitude, as was evidently part of Alexander’s intention. (She is, by the way, a Unitarian Universalist.)

Now expressing gratitude is one of the four classic purposes of prayer.  The other three are expressing wonder, expressing regret and expressing need, though the forms of those expressions obviously vary depending on your theology.  I think one of the reasons many Unitarian Universalists don’t consider anything they do as prayer is because we’ve fallen victim to the idea that praying is simply about asking for things, and to most of us that sounds pretty self-serving.  But let’s try to escape the trap of a narrow theological frame and broaden our thinking.

What about prayer as an expression of wonder?  I’m by no means a morning person, but whenever I get the opportunity to see the Sun rise into the dawning sky, I can’t help but marvel that I’m standing on a huge ball of rock that’s spinning as it circles through space around a vast ball of fire.  Moreover, the scales and distances are so immense that we actually see the Sun as it was more than eight minutes into the past.  That’s just one of the many wonders available to us every minute of every day.

What about prayer as an expression of regret?  There are all the ways in which I fall short of my own intentions, all the ways that I don’t live up to my own vision for who I want to be in the world.  Whether I make promises to myself or to others, I can run out of time or I can get distracted; I can forget something on my ever-growing “to do” list, and then there’s always just plain old-fashioned procrastination.  But I try to be aware of how I fall short, because it’s only by being honest with myself that I can fix what my mistakes and figure out how to do better next time.

And what about prayer as an expression of need?  This is not just asking for things.  If we’re willing to admit, particularly to ourselves, our limits and our faults, then we ought to be able to admit what we need, from one another, from the world, from life.  I need to feel connected to family and friends, for instance.  I need to feel like I belong.  I’ve found I have a real need to spend time with my one-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep, and so I also need the people who run our many evening committee meetings to be understanding of that when I arrive late.

And then there’s prayer as an expression of gratitude.  Many people have noted that gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving Day.  It’s something to be done every day, a way of life that we should always be practicing because it helps to move us from dwelling on what we lack — and with that attitude what we need will always be scarce — to celebrating what we have — and appreciating how our needs are met in a spirit of abundance.  As addiction recovery specialist and self-help author Melody Beattie puts it, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Personally I think that gratitude is foundational to any expression of need, regret or wonder.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that gratitude brings depth and motivation and promise and usefulness to those other expressions.  After all, it’s no good to become so focused on what we need that we fail to appreciate what we already have; it’s certainly no good if reasonable and honest acknowledgements of our failings become drowned in self-pity; and it’s no less unhelpful to spend every waking moment in such a state of amazement that we are incapable of actually doing anything with the gifts we’ve been given.  It’s gratitude that frees us from the paralysis that can so easily come from need, regret and even wonder.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For food which we plant but cannot grow,
for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Any occasion to sit down for a good meal with friends and family is a chance to think intentionally about these gifts, to appreciate them and perhaps to express gratitude out loud.  A major holiday that’s actually called Thanksgiving does, of course, lend itself to doing this more readily, but Thanksgiving isn’t the only time to be grateful any more than Christmas is the only time to be nice to people or Valentine’s Day is the only time to be loving or St. Patrick’s Day is the only time to eat food that’s all been boiled until it’s the same color.  If, that is, you have some objection to vitamins.

Still, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking Thanksgiving as an opportunity to think more about those things for which we are grateful, and there’s some merit to the idea that if we focus on some particular good habit for at least a while, then some of it will stick with us afterwards.

So it’s not too surprising that, for the last forty years, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — the UUSC, for short — has been asking UU congregations to participate in its “Guest at Your Table” program, starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving and running through the Winter holidays.  If you’ve been to this or any other UU congregation on such a Sunday before, you’ll have heard the basic idea, which has a lot to do with gratitude.

The official mission and vision statements of the UUSC are as follows: the “UUSC advances human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies”; the “UUSC envisions a world free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights.”  As such, the UUSC is in Haiti, supporting people who are rebuilding communities that are still recovering from the earthquake that devastated the country three years ago.  And the UUSC is in Arkansas, helping people who are fighting against worker exploitation in situations where wages are stolen, where safety rules are ignored and where sexual harassment is overlooked.  And now the UUSC is in the Philippines, too, working with local and international organizations as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines to provide relief in communities where people lost almost everything to Typhoon Haiyan.

Those are all worthy efforts, of course, and the UUSC is engaged in plenty more all over the world.  For me, though, it all comes down to gratitude.  Most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  And that goes for Unitarian Universalists in general, at least within the United States: most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  The UUSC, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalists, collectively, can give back.  You’ve probably heard the saying that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  It’s one of the many sayings that people think are in the Bible, only this one actually is — it’s said by Jesus in the Book of Luke — though it was also paraphrased by Oliver Wendell Holmes and John F. Kennedy.  The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalism recognizes that obligation, and so it makes perfect sense to learn about and think about the UUSC’s work during that time of year when we are encouraged to express gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed.

And so for the last forty years, the UUSC has been asking Unitarian Universalists in congregations across the United States to support their work by participating in Guest at Your Table.  GaYT_boxThe idea is pretty simple: you take one of these boxes, and you take it home, and you put it on your dinner table, and every time you sit down for a meal — and perhaps say a formal grace or at least go around the table and have everyone speak of something for which they are grateful — then you see the box and remember to put a few coins or even a couple of dollar bills into it as a way to make concrete your gratitude for what you have and how you have been blessed.  Every year the UUSC selects four of their partners and writes “Stories of Hope” about them to help bring to life some of the valuable, vital work they’re doing, but that doesn’t really matter, because you know that everything they do is good, worthwhile work that reflects UU values and makes a difference in people’s lives, but that’s not why you put those cents and dollars into that box.  No, you put that money in because you are grateful for what you have and how you have been blessed.

But this year, the UUSC isn’t making these boxes.  They’ve decided that in keeping with their other efforts to be good stewards of the environment, Guest at Your Table will collect money through a website.  After all, producing thousands of boxes and printing them all in full color only for them to be used for a couple of months before they go, hopefully, into the recycling bin, well, that’s perhaps not the most environmentally friendly thing to do every year.  And I applaud that, but, you know, it worries me.  I worry about how well it will work, without the physical presence of the cardboard boxes on people’s dinner tables.  It turns out that it also worries J— who, I should note, has been the one who for so many years has maintained this Fellowship’s participation in the UUSC’s programs and for that we should all express our gratitude to her.  So she and I did some of our own thinking “outside the box” — yes, groan — and came up with our own UUFP way to do Guest at Your Table this year.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For this gathered company which welcomes us as we are,
from wherever we have come,
for all our free churches that keep us human
and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth and love,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we like food here.  We like eating together, whether it’s a potluck or a lunch after services at a local restaurant or a meal for six or eight offered by members as an auction item or a special dinner as part of the annual pledge drive.  Members of this congregation covenant to companion one another on this journey of the spirit that we call life, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering that to be a companion literally means to share bread with someone.  Well, we have a few people who can’t eat gluten, but the good news is that there’s always plenty more food than just bread here!

So today, for instance, the Membership Committee is hosting the first of this year’s Fourth Sunday Soup Socials that run through the Winter months.  These aren’t potlucks, but rather R— and devoted volunteers will provide a variety of types of soup and an occasional chili that are available for anyone to enjoy.  In keeping with our own efforts to be good stewards of the environment, you’re encouraged to bring your own bowl and spoon, but you won’t be turned away if you don’t.  As R— explains it, “All are welcome to join in without having to bring anything except for your […] willingness to help out if needed for set up and take down.”

Then there’s the Thanksgiving Day potluck lunch that S— is coordinating right here this Thursday.  If you’ll be by yourself for Thanksgiving, or even if you’ll be with others who might also enjoy a friendly meal with a welcoming group, then you’re welcome to come; just let S— know today and she’ll make sure she has enough turkey.  In a similar vein, J— and I are coordinating a potluck lunch here on Christmas Day, and of course the Festival of the Season that we’re doing on December 7th will kick-off the afternoon’s festivities with a meal, too.  There are also many regular groups and programs that include potlucks or meals together in their activities, and looking out as far ahead as the Spring, we’ve already scheduled a Passover Seder — itself an ancient religious practice of companionship — for the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

Thinking about all these opportunities we have to share food together, J— and I very quickly went through the four classic purposes of prayer.  First, wonder: “Isn’t it great that we have so many times that people can enjoy food and fellowship here?”  Then, regret: “It’s a shame that we can’t always get to them and enjoy them ourselves.”  Then, need: “We should look for more occasions to do more of them and involve more people, too.”  Then, gratitude: “But we certainly owe great thanks to everyone who organizes these potlucks and meals as well as everyone who comes to them and makes them such fun.”  Well, okay, maybe we didn’t literally say those exact sentences out loud, but our conversation formed a prayer nonetheless, and out of it came an epiphany.  If the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is no longer making the many small collection boxes that can go home with each of you for Guest at Your Table, then perhaps we could instead have one big collection box that stays here at the Fellowship for Guest at Our Table.

And here it is:


This box will be on the table at those lunches and potlucks and dinners I mentioned, probably on the kitchen island where the food is usually served, and it’ll be the Guest at Our Table, reminding us to be grateful for what we have and how we have been blessed.  As always, putting some coins or dollar bills or anything into the box is entirely voluntary.  We don’t charge admission to any of these meals — they’re not church fund-raisers and the Fourth Sunday Soup Socials aren’t even potlucks — and in fact some of our own members who face daily financial hardships come to such events specifically for a meal that they might not otherwise get.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  We also have plenty of people who are able to put anything from loose pocket change to a few dollars into this box and, in a spirit of gratitude, will want to do so.  It’ll add up, and come the Spring we’ll send it all in to the UUSC as our expression of gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed, emphasizing as well that what we do as Unitarian Universalists, we do together, in community, rather than as individuals alone.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer concludes:

“For all things which come to us
as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves,
gifts of life and love and friendship,
we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

As we approach this week the primary holiday of the United States, an essential civic holiday named for the essentially religious act of expressing gratitude, I invite you to keep the words of Richard Fewkes’ prayer in mind.  They’re printed in our grey hymnal and you can find them in plenty of places on-line, too.  Perhaps, like Elizabeth Alexander and her family, you’ll make it a grace, saying it together as you’re holding hands around the table before your meal.

Or keep, at least, the spirit of Fewkes’ prayer in your heart.  Keep its spirit of humility, of wonder, of grace with you; let it open you to all the possibilities offered by life and love and friendship; let it lead you to join others in the outpouring of all those “gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves”.  There is much in this world for all of us to do — and, really, to do together — but to do any of it we must begin in a place of gratitude.

So may it be.

~ ~ ~

Update!  We collected $144.44 in our Guest at Our Table box, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, NY!  An additional $200 (also matched) was collected by on-line donations via our UUFP team web page.  (as of June 11th 2014)

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