Posts Tagged Unitarian Universalism

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.

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Open Doors to Many Rooms

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardLighting the Flaming Chalice

One of the activities that’s part of our quarterly Orientation to Membership workshop is the “values continuum”.  Laying out a piece of string on the floor, we describe a number of scenarios where one end of the string represents somebody holding one set of values and the other end represents somebody holding contrasting values.  For each scenario, we ask the workshop participants to place themselves on the string based on how their own values align, and then we invite them to share their reasons for where they’ve placed themselves.

For example, one scenario might have “Interior Isabel” at one end of the string and “Ollie Outreach” at the other.  Isabel believes that Sunday services should be primarily occasions for spiritual growth; she likes quiet sermons on pastoral topics and plenty of time for silent reflection.  Ollie, by contrast, believes…

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Five Ways to Be Welcoming

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

“Gathered in this friendly place,
love bring light to ev’ry face:
one and all, from far and near,
come on in!  We’re glad you’re here!”
— after V. B. Silliman, “This Friendly Place”

One piece of feedback I consistently hear from people visiting our Fellowship is how friendly we are as a congregation.  And I certainly see it on Sunday mornings, as we welcome people through our doors.  Much credit for that goes to our hospitality teams’ Greeters, who make a special point of speaking to newcomers, but there’s also a generally warm atmosphere of friendliness that helps people feel at home.  It’s wonderful that this is in our nature as a congregation, but it also makes a big difference to be intentional about it.

Of course, not everyone in our Fellowship should feel able to strike up…

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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.

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Embracing Our Identities

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

This time last year there were a couple of a widely shared articles criticizing Christianized versions of the Passover seder.  In “Why Christians Should Not Host Their Own Passover Seders”, for example, Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy describes how, as a Christian woman married to a Jewish man, she has become a “safe person” for her fellow Christians to ask about Judaism.  As such, she has been approached by Christians who want to hold Passover seders.  “Their logic,” she notes, “is that since Jesus was celebrating Passover during the week when he was arrested, tried, executed and resurrected, in a desire to be more Christ-like, they too should celebrate the holiday.”

While understanding that desire, Cynamon-Murphy goes on to make the case that Christians hosting their own seders do more harm than good, from ignoring thousands of years of persecution of…

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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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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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