Posts Tagged prayer

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:

GaOT_box

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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The Church of Last Resort?

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 20th 2013.)

Back in the Spring I happened to notice that a newspaper article had been pinned to one of our bulletin boards.  Curious to see what it was, and knowing that I hadn’t pinned it there myself, I took a closer look.

The article was an opinion piece by journalist Lisa Miller, a prize-winning religion columnist for the Washington Post.  She began this particular newspaper article with the following paragraph.

The joke about Unitarians is that they’re where you go when you don’t know where to go.  Theirs is the religion of last resort for the intermarried, the ambivalent, the folks who want a faith community without too many rules.  It is perhaps no surprise that the Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, ballooning fifteen percent over the past decade, when other established churches were shrinking.  Politically progressive to its core, it draws from the pool of people who might otherwise be “nones” — unaffiliated with any church at all.

Well, I experienced a number of emotions in response to reading just that first paragraph.  First, I felt a certain exasperated weariness.  After all, the joke about people who tell jokes about “Unitarians” is that they can’t get our name right.  I don’t know if it’s ignorance or laziness.  For the last fifty two years, we’ve been Unitarian Universalists, and the Universalist side of our heritage is as essential as the Unitarian side.

(And, as one person who commented on the Washington Post’s website put it, starting an article about another’s religion by joking about that religion is probably not wise unless the writer is already committed to the even greater folly of writing a series of articles beginning “The joke about Baptists …”, “The joke about Catholics …”, “The joke about Jews …”, “The joke about Muslims …” and so on.  The commenter concluded, “I will get a bag of popcorn to watch the responses you get to those articles.”)

The next emotion I experienced was, well, pride.  Let’s be honest.  It’s good that we’re here for people who can’t find a religious home elsewhere, and if we are growing because we embrace “the intermarried, the ambivalent”, the “people who might otherwise be ‘nones’”, then, well, bully for us.  There’s certainly a common idea that many mixed faith parents find their ways to Unitarian Universalist congregations for the sake of appropriately inclusive and respectful Religious Education for their children, and it’s no surprise that Beacon Press has published books for interfaith families and that UU World has run articles on the subject.  There’s also the fact that, though more and more people are coming to us with no prior church-going experience, there are still plenty of people who were treated badly by other religions and need Unitarian Universalism as a place where they can, after nursing their wounds for a while, find healing and spiritual wholeness.

But then, looking back over the article, I experienced annoyance.  I don’t want Unitarian Universalism to be, in Ms. Miller’s words, “the religion of last resort”.  I don’t want our Fellowship to be what’s left after somebody has checked out all the other churches that come before us in the alphabet.  I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.

And apparently Ms. Miller isn’t the only one who sees us that way.

In early August, the Southern Baptist Convention filed a brief with the Supreme Court concerning a lower court’s ruling that government meetings may not be opened with a religious act of prayer.  “Th[is] case is about a government seeking to establish a state-ordered civil religion that crowds out the most basic rights of freedom of speech,” the brief stated.  “That is not what our ancestors, and their allies among the American Founders, meant by religious liberty.  We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church, [we] agree, but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”

So, just like Ms. Miller, the people who wrote the brief apparently know something about us, but not enough to get our name right.  Maybe their only source of information is “A Prairie Home Companion”.

In any case, the Southern Baptist Convention does seem to be making explicit something that Ms. Miller only implies: that if you take “religion” and remove from it all of the actual religious “stuff”, then what’s left is Unitarian Universalism.

Now by “religion”, let’s be honest, what’s actually meant here is “Christianity”.  Nobody crying “freedom of speech” and “religious liberty” in this case is for one moment thinking about the possibility that government meetings might be opened by a Hindu swami leading a prayer to Vishnu or by a Pagan priestess calling on the spirits of the four directions.  In the Town of Greece, New York, on the other hand, a Christian minister has given just about every opening prayer and that’s why the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the town had violated the First Amendment.

(By the way, of the fifty-two chaplains who have served the United States House of Representatives, guess how many have been Christian?  Methodists and Presbyterians count for more than half of them, and though there are actually two Unitarians and one Universalist amongst that number, they served back when both traditions were still pretty much Christian.  Oh, and there have never been any female chaplains, though some, as well as male clergy of other faiths, have been guests.  You might be interested to know that September 2000 marked the first time a guest chaplain was Hindu.  Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala opened the House session with a prayer that, in spite of invoking a generic “God” rather than, say, Shiva, resulted in protests from conservative Christians.  I don’t know if there’s ever been a guest chaplain who was Pagan, but I really, really doubt it.)

Closer to home, the Newport News City Council opens its meetings with an invocation by a local minister, though they’ve had to change how that’s done, perhaps as a result of the ruling against the Town of Greece, New York.  I’ve delivered that invocation twice: once before anything was changed, when I spoke facing the audience, and once after the change, when I spoke facing the members of the city council.  Either way, everybody in the room could hear me, thanks to the microphone, and I was even on television!

I guess the intention of the change in having the minister speak facing the council is that the invocation is then for them, rather than being for everybody.  That seems pretty flimsy to me, though.  Both of my invocations were much as you’d hear for a chalice lighting in this Sanctuary.  If I was actually praying to anything, it was to “the spirit of life and love”, but otherwise I was praying for the members of the city council, that they might speak the truth in love and listen to more than others’ words, and that their work on behalf of our town might be their prayer.

I suspect that that made my invocations rather different from those of most of my clergy colleagues.  On the one hand, the letter from the city council said that “The invocation must be generic and applicable to citizens of all faiths. Invoking Christ, Mohammad, etc., has been deemed by Courts to be improper in this setting.”  On the other hand, an attached document from The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities included a recommendation that “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”  I think my reaction when I first read that was something along the lines of “Huh?”  Let me read it again so that you can appreciate the glorious incoherence of it: “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”

For starters, to talk about denominations is to pretty much frame this in terms of Protestant Christianity from the get-go.  To talk about Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy as denominations is actually nonsense, because the very idea of denominations is at odds with Catholic and Orthodox theology.  I guess some might consider, say, the different schools of Buddhism to be like denominations, if they insisted, but what would “non-denominational” Buddhism have to say about “the nearly universal belief in God”?  Theravada Buddhism is actually atheist while Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of deities, and with many of those gods depicted as wrathful and fearsome, I suspect the people at the The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities would wet themselves if they actually knew.  (Or maybe they do know, but wrote in thoroughly sloppy language.)

So in the sense that a Unitarian Universalist invocation should be at least somewhat meaningful to everyone from theists to humanists, and from atheists to pagans, then yes, the perfect “non-denominational” prayer to open a government meeting would indeed be Unitarian Universalist.  But the Southern Baptist Convention is wrong in claiming that that’s only because what we’re actually doing is starting with something Christian and then removing all of the Christianity from it.

Now if you know anything about Unitarian Universalist history, you might at this point object by saying that that’s indeed what happened.  After all, just a few minutes ago I made reference to three ministers from our traditions, the Unitarians Jared Sparks and William Henry Channing and the Universalist Henry Couden, each of whom served as Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives sufficiently far back in the past that both Unitarianism and Universalism were, at those respective times, both still pretty much Christian.  So didn’t both traditions evolve by shedding their Christianity?

Well, I guess you could view it that way.  To my mind, though, that’s definitely a “glass half empty” way of looking at it, and rather misses the point.  And to try to look at it in a “glass half full” way is to still be stuck in the mindset that’s something’s missing.

I prefer to look at what happened in terms of a bigger glass, with more in it.  Yes, both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged from Christianity.  They were both viable schools of belief in that chaotic, frothy mixture we simplistically name “the early church”, present right from the start two thousand years ago, and a lot of politics took place before both the Unitarians — who believed in the full humanity of Jesus — and the Universalists — who believed that everybody would ultimately go to heaven — found themselves cast out as heretics.  And yet pockets of both Unitarianism and Universalism persisted in springing up again and again through the centuries.

In the United States, both faiths thrived thanks to the Constitutional guarantee that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  And both faiths continued to be Christian well into the nineteenth century, differing only from “official” Christianity in their specific theological points.  It wasn’t even until the 1820s that the Unitarians started calling themselves by that name, setting themselves apart from Christians who believed in the Jesus of the Trinity, but apparently that started a ball rolling that nobody saw coming.

First, there was the Transcendentalist Movement, which featured many Unitarians.  That made the glass bigger by refusing to accept the Bible as the only sacred text.  The scriptures of Eastern traditions became accessible in English translations and Nature itself became a source of religious inspiration.  The Transcendentalist Movement eventually disappeared, but the Transcendentalists themselves were absorbed back into Unitarianism.

Something similar happened a century later, when Humanism appeared on the scene.  That made the glass bigger again by refusing to accept theism as the only valid theology, and it opened the way to add pantheism and atheism into that bigger glass.  Humanism, too, at least in that original form, also disappeared, but the Humanists were, like the Transcendentalists before them, absorbed back into Unitarianism.

And along the way, social movements from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage made the glass bigger too, not just for the Unitarians but for the Universalists as well.

The Universalists were exclusively Christian well into the twentieth century, but while the Unitarians had grown bigger and more inclusive in an organic fashion, or at least by repeated happy accidents, the Universalists actually made a conscious decision to make their glass bigger and more full.  They chose to aspire to be a truly Universal religion, and in this realized they had natural partners with the Unitarians.  Both faiths agreed that together they would make the glass even bigger and even more full, and so in 1961 Unitarian Universalism was born.

In other words, Unitarian Universalism is far from the result of starting with Christianity and then removing everything Christian.  Rather, it’s what you get when you make, to switch metaphors, a big enough tent for people of different religious beliefs and different spiritual practices to gather under the same roof.  To talk of what’s left is to miss the point entirely.  To talk of what’s left is to somehow think that the process of growing that tent and becoming more open and inclusive to more people has actually diminished us, when in fact it’s quite the opposite.

Now don’t be misled by the regrettably persistent strain of anti-Christian sentiment that occasionally pops up amongst Unitarian Universalists.  As I mentioned earlier, some people find themselves here because they’re seeking healing from the hurts inflicted upon them in other churches.  Not that I want to justify bad behavior, but a certain amount of appropriate venting can be cathartic, so long as it eventually leads to wholeness.  And not to make excuses but there’s also the inevitable stress of being a member of a minority religion within a culture that clearly doesn’t understand us.

But then, we’ve contributed to some of that problem ourselves, too.

Unitarian Universalists went through a long phase of describing ourselves, as a faith, in terms of what we are not, what we don’t believe, what we don’t do, and so on, leading to ridiculous ideas that we’re the religion where you can believe whatever you want or that we’re the faith community with no rules.  No wonder we’re seen as the church of last resort!

It’s only within the last decade or so that we’ve started talking about Unitarian Universalism in terms of what we are, which is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the original motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”, or “Out of many, one”.  Let me say that again, in case you ever want to use it as an “elevator speech”:  Unitarian Universalism is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the real motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”.

So I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.  And, in fact, we’re not.  It’s only the ignorance and laziness of others that lets them label us that way, aided and abetted by our historical inability to clearly identify ourselves as a religion.  But fixing those things doesn’t mean we automatically become the church of first resort.

But we could be.  We could be the church of first resort.

Unitarian Universalism could be at the top of the list of religions where people who have not yet joined us know they can find uplifting worship and music, where they know they can participate in outstanding religious exploration for all ages, where they know they can engage in faithful witness for progressive values, where they know they can support tireless advocacy for justice, and where, above all, they know they can be supported by a loving community where we tend our own souls by caring for one another.  Unitarian Universalism can be the church of first resort … but that’s my topic for next Sunday.

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Transformation in the Sharing

“In our community of caring we take time to share with one another what is in our hearts — our joys, our sorrows, and important milestones.  I invite you to receive and light a candle, tell us your name, and briefly share what is changing your life.”

Each Sunday these familiar words introduce what our Order of Service names as “Sharing Joys and Concerns”.  For many people, such sharing is an important part of the service, an opportunity for members whose lives are being changed by either joy or sorrow (or, sometimes, both at once!) to speak briefly about that personal transformation.  It’s important because heart-felt sharing develops and deepens fellowship in a way that nothing else can.

What we call Joys and Concerns was introduced into Unitarian Universalist worship during the 1960s and 70s.  It’s generally a combination of the candle-lighting remembrances of Catholicism and Judaism with the personal confessions or petitionary prayers of Protestant churches.  From what I’ve seen, though, it’s done differently in just about every UU congregation.

Some do Joys and Concerns every Sunday while others only do it once a month.  Some have a limited number of candles or a limited amount of time for sharing or a limited number of chairs for people to occupy in advance of their sharing.  Some have candles lit or stones dropped into water, but no sharing.  Some have people write their joys and sorrows in a “book of life” and then they’re blended into a pastoral prayer offered by the minister or a lay leader.  One in seven congregations do not do Joys and Concerns at all.

There have also been debates about Joys and Concerns since it was introduced.  Aside from the amount of time it takes, which can vary unpredictably from two minutes to ten minutes or even more, just about every minister has at least one horror story of thoroughly inappropriate sharing.  Personally I value Joys and Concerns for the emotional warmth it brings to our community, and visitors often comment on how impressed they are that we take this time to care for one another.  For in our stressed-out, endlessly competitive lives in a culture that increasingly values what we have over who we are, Joys and Concerns is a rare time for sharing not what is on our minds but what is in our hearts, not what is happening in our lives but what is changing our lives.

When it comes to the joys, we want to hear about the new child or the new job — or the milestone of a major birthday or wedding anniversary.  When it comes to the concerns, we really want to hear about the family death, the loss of a job, or the illness of a sick friend whose name we should keep in our hearts.  We want to know what is truly changing your life, what it is that is transforming you such that, in the sharing, it can transform everyone who hears you, too.

And that’s because, when all is said and done, we are here to be transformed, to transform one another and our world.  Congregations, more than any other social institutions, exist to change lives.  Sunday services, religious education, small group programs, social events and even committee meetings are all means that serve the end purpose of transformation.  Our members and friends also pledge their financial support of our mission and ministry to change lives, from growing our individual souls and nurturing the life of the community to building the world we dream about.

On Sunday mornings, you’ll hear not only the joys and sorrows that are changing people’s lives, but also personal testimonials about how the Fellowship is changing lives.  These are stories of individual transformation and community deepening as well as stories of how we are changing the world for the better.  So, how have you been transformed?  What is your story of how your life has been changed by being a part of the congregation?  What is your story of how our Fellowship is helping to make the world a better place?  We want to know what is truly changing your life, what it is that is transforming you such that, in the sharing, it can transform everyone who hears you, too.

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Being and Doing

A few years ago I spent four months as a hospital chaplain, visiting patients and their families to offer spiritual support.  Some time in the middle of the chaplaincy I had a run of shallow visits, when it seemed that everyone I visited was fine, doing okay, looking forward to going home, all set and in no need of a chaplain.  They could have talked about whatever it was that had brought them to the hospital, but they had no particular desire to share those things with me.  After a while I started to wonder what I was doing wrong.

Reporting some of those visits to my supervisors, I realized something: I was repeatedly asking if there was anything I could do for the patients.  Perhaps that in itself wasn’t making much of a difference in how each visit went, but it said something about my attitude during those visits, and I really didn’t like what it said!

In my home church I led workshops on Voluntary Simplicity, a program of reducing clutter and distractions, resisting consumerism and cultural expectations, and rejoicing in community and the spirituality of everyday life.  We talked about saving our time and money for the things of real importance to us, considering such values as authenticity, mindfulness, gratitude and Sabbath.  In one workshop we asked ourselves: “Are we defined by what we do or by what we are?”  Making a point about the cultural emphasis on doing rather than being, someone in the group noted that we name ourselves human ‘beings’, not human ‘doings’!

In short, when it came to chaplaincy, I thought I had it mostly figured out.  I knew that there would be very little I could do for the patients and families I visited, and that the greatest gift I could offer was simply to be present, to be compassionate, to be myself.  I might listen to them or read to them or pray with them, but that would be secondary to the simple fact that I was there.  But then I realized that I didn’t have it all figured out, that I’d not fully embraced the concept of being and could slip back to an emphasis on doing at any time.

There’s a short movie that nicely demonstrates why we should struggle to be and not just to do.  It shows two groups of people passing basketballs amongst themselves and the instructions that come with it say to watch it twice.  The first time requires some concentration, counting how many times one group passes their ball, not counting passes by the other group.  The second time is just a matter of watching.  Most people are amazed to realize that, a little while into the movie, someone in a gorilla suit wanders in from one side, waves at the camera, and then ambles out the other side!

We can be so caught up in an ordinary task that we fail to notice the extraordinary that’s right in front of us.  And when stress, anxiety or looming dead-lines are involved, we’re even more distracted from being mindful, from being present, from simply being aware of being alive.  As a task-oriented person, I continue to be challenged to find a balance between doing and being, between ways of being in the world and ways of being with the world.  Supported through the spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, I recognize that sometimes my task is to simply be, reconnecting to myself, to others, to the world around me, and to see the spiritual in the everyday.

As we struggle with being and doing in our everyday lives, may we remain mindful that we are both embodied and spiritual, engaged in our tasks at hand even as we remain aware of ourselves as beings held in the web of life.  May we sense the sacred in the profane, finding that sacramental vision of being that centers us as both spiritual and embodied.  May we immerse ourselves in the spirituality of everyday life so that every breath is worship and every act is prayer.  So may it be.

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