MeMe and UU

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Every now and then, I encounter a situation where my thoughts return to the question of “What is Unitarian Universalism?” The most recent occurred when a conversation I was involved in turned to the topic of one person switching churches. She had moved from a church in a nearby small town to Shoreline. The reason she gave is her previous church had done away with the smaller touchstone groups commonly used in large churches so its members do not feel lost in a crowd. A few more comments were spoken about the purposes and uses of such groups and the topic shifted again as conversations tend to do. I came away from that conversation pondering, not the topic of churches and religion, but the attitudes and assumptions made by the others in the group.

The first is the unsurprising (given where I live) assumption that everyone you meet is Christian. The second is that everyone goes to church. No one asked anyone else, “What church do you go to?” or even “Do you go to church?” From there, my mind wandered a bit and it eventually landed back on the question, “How do I define Unitarian Universalism?”

One of the first things I keep coming back to is, while the words “unitarian” and “universalism” can be defined, Unitarian Universalism can only be described. There is no central creed, though there are principles by which we follow our path. This has caused lots of problems in creating dialog with those of other faiths. Here’s a simplified example conversation I’ve had many times:

Other person: “I believe in Christ the Redeemer. What do you believe in?”

Me: “I believe.”

Other: “Believe in what?”

Me: “I believe.”

You can imagine how frustrating this can be for both sides. I recently came up with two analogies, one for the religion and one for the church.

Members of a UU congregation go through life as though going on a hike with a bunch of friends. No one person experiences the same hike, though they go through the same terrain. One may focus on the trees, one may focus on the creeks they cross, one may focus on the sky or the mountains in the distance. It is not the object of focus, but the hike itself that brings enjoyment.

As for the church itself, think of greeting cards. There are lots of greeting card companies, each with its own type of artwork, its own character of message. I tend to view many churches in this way. “Here is what we offer,” they say, “and here is how we approach life and the divine.” Walking into a UU church is far more likely to be like walking into a crafts store than walking into a Hallmark. “Here is everything you need to make your cards. Try not to tear up other people’s cards to get your materials.”

Does this mean we believe whatever we want? No. Our beliefs follow seven principles we call “basic”. (That doesn’t mean they’re easy.)

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

 

What do these have to do with God? Nothing. What do they have to do with religion? They are the boundary markers for how we search for, express, and tie ourselves to that which is beyond ourselves and our total comprehension.

 

 

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The Marque of Marquees

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Religion is a sensitive subject for many people. It is always a risky business to deal with beliefs. The very nature of faith and belief precludes rational critique. Yet people insist on attacking beliefs as if they were a debatable point, and therefore cause people to further entrench themselves. Maybe it’s my UU background, but it seems to me that that is an excellent way to generate hate.

Rather than debating beliefs, it seems as though looking at what people say and comparing that to what they do may be a more productive activity. I’m not event talking about specifics like birth control or response to the LGBT community. I’m talking overarching ideas.

For instance, one of the church marquees near where I live has the following message: “Nothing is stronger than the power of God’s love.” I find this a positive message no matter denomination, religion, or lack of either. Yet the denomination the marquee is in front of is known, not for spreading God’s love, but for threatening the results of his wrath. These are the same people who are out there holding “God hates (fill in the blank)” signs and insisting if you don’t follow their way exactly, you will go to Hell. How do they expect to attract people with words of love when their actions spread discord?

Looking at the alignment of spoken beliefs with observable action is the best way to evaluate a group of people from a committee or ministry to an entire denomination. It is also the best way to make yourself a better _______ .

Another marquee, down the street in the other direction, has this message: “If God brought you to it, He will bring you through it. To me, this is much more in line with professed belief. If you put faith in God to lead you through your life, you will also be open to the tools He puts there for you to use. It is a message about the benefits of faith, rather than a statement of strength that comes off as simplistic or braggadocio.

The irony between these two marquees is that they are from two separate congregations of the same denomination. I wanted to point that out since in every discussion there needs to be an acknowledgement that the words “all”, “every”, and “none”, are as inaccurate and divisive as “never” and “always”. I have friends whose political and social beliefs I abhor, yet when it comes down to it, on a one on one basis, they are good people who genuinely try to live with the love in their heart that their religion dictates.

Playing “Catch-up”

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I’m afraid I’ve fallen off on reporting my candle meditations. I don’t have the dates for each one, and I’m not even sure of the order, any more. Suffice it to say, each one is a reflection of where I was at the time, emotionally speaking. Some of them feel forced, so its a good thing they’re translations of wordless meditations rather than actual attempts at poetry.

This flame is fragile,
Yet bright enough to light the path.
This flame is small,
Yet strong enough to accomplish its purpose.
This flame is temporary,
And provides relief at its reliability.
This flame pales beside the sun,
And it takes deliberate effort to extinguish.
Let me be as fragile, as small, as temporary, as pale
As this flame.

A flame everburning,
A flare of light.
A fire to show,
Which way is right.

To guide, to shine,
To glow and warm,
I light this beacon
From which hope is born.

And this prayer I make,
With this burning I call
A blessing on friends new made
And of hope rekindled.

A beacon, a star, a guide;
A life, a hope, a light.
These a flame provides,
These within abide.

A symbol, a sign, a portal;
A focus, a warmth, a path.
These a flame is,
These within abide.

Marquee

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One of the nearby churches has this as the title of the next sermon: If God is your co-pilot, guess who’s in the wrong seat. Amusing as it is, there’s something at the root of this statement that I find disturbing.

I’ve never liked the co-pilot analogy. My reaction upon seeing a bumpersticker with “God is my co-pilot” for the first time was: Dear Lord, how arrogant. It could be read a couple of different ways. The first: “God is my co-pilot…because I am just that awesome,” is not just egotistical and arrogant, but bears hints of a slightly delusional nature that the world must conform to the driver’s wishes. A second way the bumpersticker can be read: “God is my co-pilot…because he is my shield and my sword.” Really? So you’re using the divine presence as a tool to intimidate? Again, this is an arrogant and slightly delusional view point. The third way it could be read: “God is my co-pilot…he tells me where to go.” Of the three immediate ways I read it, this is the most disturbing to me.

Before I say why it’s the most disturbing, let me define some of my terms:
Egotistical: an exaggerated sense of self-worth
Arrogant: exaggerating or disposed to exagerate one’s own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner; showing an offensive attitude of superiority
Delusional: a persistent false psychotic (i.e. loss of touch with reality) belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary

Breaking it down, the bumpersticker smacks of an inflated sense of the person’s importance and the idea that rubbing it in people’s faces is a good idea. As for the slightly delusional aspect: most people would say that making a statement does not necessarily make it a fact, yet that’s what this bumpersticker is doing. It is stating that God is manifested in the seat next to the person driving the vehicle.

I understand what they’re trying to say, but I had to think for a bit before coming to the conclusion that no, the driver of that car didn’t necessarily believe he or she was superior to everyone else on the road. What I think the bumpersticker is saying is God is an integral part of the driver’s life. Only “God is an integral part of my life” is not a catchy phrase.

So why is that third interpretation so disturbing to me? Because it sounds like the most reasonable interpretation, and is thus more likely to be true. The implications of the statement, though, is that the person driving isn’t thinking. Driving jokes aside, by “not thinking”, I mean that the driver relies on someone else to provide the answers. And that, to me, is very disturbing. It is disturbing in the sense that by relying on someone else to provide the answers, the driver may lose, or have lost, their ability to think critically about their own fundamental beliefs. (An ironic situation, because they rely on OTHERS to do that in order to bring in “converts”.)

Looking back at that sermon title (“If God is your co-pilot, guess who’s in the wrong seat.”) it seems to be the next step on that third interpretation. That is to say, if the third interpretation is more true than I could wish, this seems to escalate the message. Now instead of “God tells me what to do,” the sense is “God is driving and I have no choice.” Doubtless, some would say that’s exactly how it should be. Me, I question that answer. It seems counter to one of the central concepts believers often espouse: choice of whether to follow or not (granted not following has its…disadvantages, but the choice is there).

Personally, I’ve always liked the imagery of “Footprints in the Sand” by Mary Stevenson. God as Companion. And not in an enclosed, man-made vehicle, but in a wide open vista. As with any companion, you can wander away, you can wander back, you can talk, you can be silent. A companion shares the ordeal and helps you through, provides opportunities or a supportive hand. And if necessary, will carry you when you can’t make it on your own.

Who wants a “God is my Companion” bumpersticker?

Into That Good Night

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It’s been a very long time since I posted something. My apologies. And I’m afraid this one will probably be depressing for any readers still out there. I won’t be offended if you read no further. It’s why I’m opening with this paragraph. And if you’re the type of person who thinks sharing to work your way through a tough time is merely complaining and whining, please leave. Now.

I almost walked out of choir warm-up today. Choir, church, community, there’s supposed to be a feeling of inclusiveness, yet everything we sang, warm-up pieces or service music, emphasized and re-emphasized my apartness, aloneness, and loneliness. It is really hard to sing with your throat tight with tears.

I tried to come up with an affirmative meditation for candle lighting. I failed.

This flame is a beacon, a call, a summons
To all who can hear.
It is a flare, a warning, an alert
That all is not well.
It is the light of hope, of community, of healing
That in me has been extinguished.

Transition is Difficult

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I didn’t actually get a chance to light a candle today. The choir provided the candle meditation music (“Cantique” by Faurre). But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going through the motions in my mind during the reading. Without the candle and flame directly in front of me, I had to work at the words which usually come easily. This week’s meditation is at the end of the post.

On this day of transition, I’m spending time thinking about the effort it takes to move from one state to another. Today is Easter, the day of the ultimate transition in Christianity. And yet transition is with us every day. The forming or breaking of a relationship. A drastic change of mood. A switch of careers. Transitions bring pain, and yet there is promise of a new life with each. Keep in mind, I am not talking about the simple changes that life forces upon us. I’m talking about alterations in the very foundations of character and personality.

The day my last relationship ended, I died. The period of transition was hard to work through, and yet looking back at it, I do not regret it. Change hurts, but the penalty for not changing is the death of spirit. With every transition, two forces fight within me: the transformative force wars with the impulse of stubbornness. Thus far, with every major transition, I have been able to change and accept it…though rarely without a struggle. It is that struggle that causes a transition to be so painful.

And yet after the transition, there is a sense of completeness. Not happiness or contentedness, but a feeling that something has definitively ended for good or ill. Whether that ending is positive or not, it provides a solid foundation on which to continue life. When the ending is negative, it is often extremely difficult to begin building again. It is tempting to keep that chapter open and keep writing, hoping for a happier ending. But in doing so, the foundation for continuing life remains in flux, and the impossibility of building a future is overwhelming.

Transition can be broken into three broad periods: the initiating event, the interregnum, and the resolution. Sometimes the initiating event can be predicted, sometimes it can’t. I could predict that my last relationship would end (though the timing of the actual event was a bit awkward), but the request for a divorce several years ago came as a complete surprise. I’m not sure which is worse. I don’t think I really care. In both cases, it launched a period of wailing and gnashing of teeth, which eventually led to a period of self evaluation and exploration as I sought to reestablish my foundation. In the case of my divorce, the resolution occurred after years of the interregnum; but when it came, it came suddenly, like the breaking of a fever. After the more recent relationship, the interregnum was much shorter, but the resolution came slowly, like the healing of a broken body.

I look around and see people in all three periods of transition. Given my personal history and propensities, it is no surprise that it is very easy for me to see which people are still reeling from the initiating event, or are still on the downswing of the interregnum. It takes a little more effort for me to see when people begin the upswing, but there are fewer pleasures more poignant than being with someone (or even helping them) as they reach their resolution.

I saw one person in church today who appeared to have just gone through an initiating event. I won’t use exact words, but when I asked if this person was okay, s/he thanked me for my concern but couldn’t yet say that s/he couldn’t talk about it, much less actually talk. Given what I know about this person, I have a couple of guesses I think are pretty close. In any case, my thoughts, my love, and my prayers go out to this person in transition.

Today’s Meditation:

Let this beacon burn bright.
Light it be a guiding light
To those who seek.
Let it be a shelter
For those without peace.

Let this beacon burn bright.
Let it give warmth
To those in the cold.
Let it give strength
For climbing from the valley.

Let this beacon burn bright.
Let it promise hope
To those in despair.
Let it promise life
To dying souls.

This is Ridiculous

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I posted this link on my Facebook page this morning. The caption was: “Happy April Fool’s Day! Here’s a sample of what we’re doing in choir today…though the words have been changed a bit.” I wonder how many people thought it was an April Fool’s Day prank. Certainly the expressions in the congregation were of incredulity the first time we whacked our heads with our choir folders. There were a few “they’re doing what?” expressions. I even saw a few “they’re not….” faces. But my favorites were the hand-covering-gaping-mouth-and-eyes-popping reactions.

As an introduction to the sermon, it was perfect. The anthem for the service was a variation on Pete Seeger’s version of “Old Time Religion”. Trust a Unitarian Universalist church to celebrate the ridiculous in a service. The sermon itself was along the theme of what UU jokes reveal about us. Much laughter ensued.

For those (two) people who are anxious about what my words of reflection today were:

I look into this flame I’ve lit,
And I watch it
Laugh and dance
And sparkle and spit.
I say to myself and to God:
This.
This is what I want to be.

And for those who want to know which lyrics to “Old Time Religion” we used:

Chorus:
Give me that old time religion (3x)
And that’s good enough for me.

We will pray to Aphrodite
Even tho’ she’s rather flighty
And they say she wears no nightie
And that’s good enough for me.

O-old Odin we will follow
And in fighting we will wallow
Til we wind up in Valhalla
And that’s good enough for me.

(Chorus)

Let me follow dear old Buddha
For there is nobody cuter
He comes in plaster, wood or pewter
And that’s good enough for me.

We will pray with Zarathustra
Pray just like we useta
I’m a Zarathustra booster
And that’s good enough for me.

(Chorus)

We will pray with those old Druids
They drink fermented fluids
Waltzing naked thru the woo-ids
And that’s good enough for me.

I’ll arise at early morning
When the sun gives me the warning
That the solar age is dawning
And that’s good enough for me.

(Chorus) x2

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