You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Unitarian Universalism’ category.

Earlier in this third week of devastation throughout the state, a member of UUCPA emailed us the news that a fire was burning near Yosemite, just a few miles east of Bass Lake. Bass Lake is the site of Skylake Yosemite camp, where the congregation holds a “getaway weekend” each summer. This year’s was cancelled due to COVID-19. Now the camp itself, not to mention Yosemite and its nearby communities, are approached by a wildfire that has grown very quickly.

The man who sent the email included a photo from Caltopo, to which I guess he must subscribe. I hope they won’t object to my showing it here:

I shared it on Facebook, with a few words about all the loss and sorrow we are holding. Then, a while later, I checked my Facebook page, saw this image in tiny, thumbnail format, and had three thoughts in quick succession: “What is that?” / “It’s beautiful” / “Ohhh. The Creek Fire map.”

I knew right then that I needed to draw it, to spend time with, if not make sense of, the swirl of feelings it evoked. The above are three very small drawings, each 2 x 1.5 or 2 x 1.75 inches, in colored pencil, done earlier today.

Day 49 of #100days of making art

I retrieved this collage from the pieces-in-progress box, where I had filed it just the other day in the course of going through some piles in our home office. (The Onion, as usual, is sardonically accurate; after two weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, our house task list is noticeably whittled down.) I began it, a few years ago, with some playful, purposeless clipping of an old Thomas guide, which I had bought when I moved here in 2003 and which was rendered redundant within a few years, when I got my first smartphone. Redundant for navigation, but a gem in the collage-materials collection.

As soon as I started playing, the similarities between map features like freeways and anatomical drawings of veins and arteries appeared. Also, I kept noticing places that had a strong emotional tug: hospitals where many of our congregation members have been patients, a cemetery where some have been interred, and, snaking their way down page upon page of the book of maps, the railroad tracks where two have died. And just like that, it became a portrait: of a place, of tender moments from a shared history, and of relationships.

It’s complicated. Many of the moments have been sad, even heartbreaking ones. There’s a tremor of trauma running through this landscape. But joy runs through it too, and sometimes in the same places. Finishing this collage helped me integrate them.

Any ideas for a title about the body, loss, place, lives and deaths, finding one’s way . . . ?

I had a kaleidoscope pattern in my office window that I’d made during one of the sessions of Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart through Art I lead monthly. Dan Harper, our Associate Minister for Religious Education, asked if I’d like to make some more to be coloring pages for kids to do during services. So that’s what I’ve been happily doing with a lot of my art time for the past few weeks. Here are four in various stages of completion.

I love this art form, which I discovered when my daughter did some in school last year. I immediately introduced it in our monthly class at church, Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart Through Art, and then offered it as a spiritual practice at a ministers’ retreat this week.

The mix of a found- and (for lack of a better antonym) created-art approach helps me get rolling. Words on a page suggest associations, and then the associations stimulate original ideas.

Here are two I made at the retreat.

20181019_1610491894239536744286385.jpg

Beyond, more time for dreaming

For the first one, the words “an answer” and “caught” caught my eye first. I’d been pondering mystery and my own “irritable reaching after fact and reason” against which Keats counseled. Sometimes an answer prevents me from dwelling in the “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” from which wisdom might emerge. So right away I knew I wanted to draw the bars of a cell across the part about the answer. I also wanted the piece to suggest a happier alternative, and while the words I found seem obvious now, it took some searching and thinking to figure out which ones to use, and how. When my eye lit on “beyond,” I had that second half.

The second piece ended up being about creativity itself. “A passage opened to her fingers.”

20181019_1609578251954966027660988.jpg

A sigh hollowed out the chamber of The heart

Our unwitting, but I trust not unwilling, collaborator was Lloyd Alexander, since my copy of The Black Cauldron, from his Chronicles of Prydain, was in several pieces. I hated the cover anyway, which was the poster from the forgotten, and, judging from the drawing, lamentable, Disney version. I’m going to look for the edition with the cover I remember and loved in my childhood, and buy Taran Wanderer while I’m at it: my favorite of the series, which we don’t yet have. (My sister loved them too, and our set was hers, so I’ve acquired my own set piecemeal in adulthood.)

Look at that. I started out writing about art, and ended up writing about books. That tells you why I love this kind of art.

I’d like to share the ones colleagues made as well, but I only asked their permission to put them out on a table at the retreat, not online.

Try one yourself! If you don’t have a falling-apart book or can’t bear to write on one, a photocopy works. To see lots more examples, the best search term is “blackout poetry.”

Sometimes, being a minister means working with some prickly people. They’re among the congregational leaders or visitors or–particularly tenderly–among the people I visit when they’re sick or sad. Not long ago, I was on my way to meeting with a member of the congregation when I passed under a stand of sweet gum trees (I think that’s what they are), whose seeds I love whenever I see them, and have never dared to draw. I went on to the meeting, and in our conversation, the person was both prickly and, to me, very beautiful: honest, caring, vulnerable. When I left, I picked up one of the fallen seeds, and I drew it that evening. In my private thoughts, it has this person’s name.

I keep trying to write long pieces about this and feeling like others have said the same thing better. So I will just put it in two sentences.

I am thrilled that the UUA Board has committed significant money to Black Lives of UU (BLUU); identified white supremacy as one of the biggest challenges facing us, and the dearth of leadership by people of color in high positions in the UUA itself as one of the expressions of that challenge; and chosen a three-person, all-people-of-color team for the acting presidency. This direction not only seems wise, prudent, and moral, but it gives me a surge of hope for the future of our faith.

For me to rest and renew during this sabbatical, I need not to be in regular contact with my congregation. I just don’t have the ability to turn my concern on and off; if I knew what was going on with them day to day, I would worry and plan and respond and, in short, work. So we are incommunicado except in the case of an emergency. The election is one such emergency, and I wrote and sent this letter this morning:

Dear wonderful people of UUCPA,

My heart is with you so much today. In times of trouble I want to be at home with you, and the distance between us feels very long right now. Whatever your political views, I know there was plenty that happened over the past 24 hours to discourage you. I am aching for the hugs and conversation we’ll share when I’m back.

Did you ever hear this from Mister Rogers?: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’ve observed (maybe Fred Rogers did too) that if we really want to transform our fear into hope, what works wonders is to become the helpers. That’s why our life as a congregation is so important.

We at UUCPA have been forming relationships with Muslim communities in our neighborhood. We will ask these vulnerable communities what we can do for them, and do it. We have been striving to be a sanctuary for people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities, immigration statuses, and religious backgrounds. At a time when our country needs those kinds of sanctuaries more than ever, we will offer the welcome that this country is meant to offer to everyone. We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be among the helpers.

We’ll have to be gentle with each other. This has been a harsh election, and when our feelings are raw, we seek someone to blame. Let’s promise each other: there is no one beneath our notice or excluded from the circle of dignity and worth, no matter who they voted for or what they believe, and no matter how afraid, hurt, or angry we are. Just being there for each other is another way to be among the helpers.

Friends have been joking (or maybe not joking) about how California should secede from the rest of the country. But we are one country, one world, bound as closely to those on the other side of the planet as to those across the street. There is no elsewhere to run to. Like many people, I spend too much time in an echo chamber, and for me this election chides us to practice dialogue instead: in other words, truly to listen to people with whom we disagree. Not in order to change each other’s minds–maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t–but in the faith that if we approach one another with curiosity and openness, it can only be an improvement. As a politician has been telling us recently, we really are stronger together.

I’ll be back in Palo Alto on January 2, and spending as much time as possible hearing how you have been feeling and what you need. I’ll have hugs and tea for you in my office. And then together, bit by bit, we’ll build a promised land that can be.

With love and blessings,

Amy

During one of our weekly staff meetings several months before my sabbatical began, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, said, “Well, not that you’re looking for another sabbatical project, but if you were . . . ” It turns out that he sees a real need for a book of stories from the Bible for Unitarian Universalist kids around nine or ten years old. There are UU curricula introducing kids to this heritage (e.g., Timeless Themes), but he would love to have a volume to give each of our Religious Education students at that age. We could publish it ourselves, as he has done with his early history of Unitarians in Palo Alto and the Yuletide Song and Carol Book. In fact, we have funding for such a project thanks to a memorial book fund generously created by the family and friends of Sherwood Sullivan, a former president of our congregation who died late last year.

I wasn’t particularly in search of a project. Living in another country, learning Spanish, making lots of art, meeting regularly with my spiritual director, and expanding a program to teach Unitarian Universalists about modern slavery seemed like enough to grow on for six months. However, this idea sparked my imagination. The book Bible Stories retold by David Kossoff was a staple of my childhood, with its beautiful painted illustrations by Gino d’Achille and the writer’s vivid, down-to-earth voice. For example, when I think of the story of Absalom, who was killed as a traitor in the civil war he’d launched against his father King David, I always, always hear how Kossoff prefaced the famous passage:

The news was brought to David, and the people saw no triumph, no elation. Just a heartbroken man who’d lost a son. “O, Absalom,” they heard him say. “Would to God I had died instead of you. O, Absalom, my son, my son.”

(You can actually hear Kossoff himself, who was an actor as well, reading some of these stories on YouTube–see link below.)

As a religious educator, Unitarian Universalist, minister, parent, and lover of literature, I also have a voice to bring to these ancient, abiding, disturbing, inspiring, confusing tales. When Dan mentioned the idea, I immediately thought of some of the religious questions and ideas I’d developed around the age of nine or ten, and the stories that inspired them. I’d have to tell the story of Jonah, who is one of the most humanly flawed, and thus one of my favorite, characters in the Bible: a prophet, called to summon people to repentance, who is angry and disappointed when they actually do repent and gain forgiveness. And the story of Abraham bargaining with God to gain mercy for the people of Gomorrah and Sodom, which our Hebrew School teachers taught us as evidence that Jews’ God does not desire unthinking obedience, but respects a principled argument–in other words, that we are meant to use our reason and conscience to challenge even the God who gave them to us.

The fact that the same God, four chapters later, told the same man to sacrifice his beloved son like a sheep, and honored him for being willing to do it, raised so many painful questions. Were we supposed to be obedient after all? What the hell kind of God would ask such a thing? How did Isaac feel about it?

How will I introduce “texts of terror” like this? . . . that’s one of the many questions before me. But however I manage it, encouraging children’s questions and independent thinking is one of my goals for this book. Whether they’re UUs or just curious, engaged thinkers, they should wrestle with the text and the tradition, just as the Biblical Jacob wrestled with his brother, God, and himself–another story that will probably need to be included.

And I’ve got a reader on hand to raise questions and give me feedback from the target readership: a bright, questioning Unitarian Universalist nine-year-old. She’s also interested in creating illustrations, which I have promised she may do. I might do a few of my own as well, if the spirit so moves.

What stories would you include?

Bible Stories: the story of David, part 1, as read by the reteller

Dear Maria,

I read your very thoughtful blog entry, UUA, Why Aren’t You Nurturing My Spirit? right after General Assembly. I hadn’t attended, myself, and I had plans to listen to the Service of the Living Tradition and Sunday morning service and Ware Lecture and other treats from the week. As a humanist, I read your piece with growing trepidation, especially when I got to your characterization of Marlin Lavanhar’s sermon in the Service of the Living Tradition.

In Marlin’s story . . . I am the oppressor. I am his oppressor because he did not feel comfortable being open about his authentic self.

After that, I was braced for a rough half an hour watching his sermon. But instead, in what I agree with you was a wonderful sermon, I didn’t hear “you are the oppressor” at all. I heard his discomfort, but I didn’t hear him blaming it on anything but his own failures of courage and integrity. I do think, and it’s clearly implied by Marlin’s sermon as well, that there is some blame to go around. It falls on each of us when we let it show in our faces: “you believe that?

We are each other’s oppressors. We can try to stuff each other in the closet with a look, with a roll of the eyes, with a “maybe you should try the UCC church down the street,” or “the Buddhist temple,” or “the Unity church,” or “the Humanist community.” There’s plenty of blame to go around, sadly. But I was looking hard for a finger pointing at humanists for shooting down theists, and what I saw was a little different from this description from your article:

What is wrong with Unitarian Universalism and what is holding us back from growth is our failure to embrace those who embrace God.

I really tried, I really expected it, but I didn’t see quite what you saw. Marlin did focus particularly on how hard our congregations are for those who embrace God; we do focus on it quite a bit these days, and there’s a good reason for that. If I may use an even more loaded metaphor than the closet (Marlin used it glancingly also), affirming God-believing UUs is like affirming the value of black lives.

“Black Lives Matter!” a person declares.

“Why do you say ‘black lives matter’?” the reply shoots back. “Don’t all lives matter?”

Yes, all lives matter, and since our judicial system and so much else about our country keep saying that black lives don’t count in that “all,” I’m gently, persistently pointing out that they do. And I am saying “We need to embrace those who embrace God” (lovely phrase, by the way) because in my congregation, although we say all theologies are welcome, we do convey, too often, that theist theologies, in particular, aren’t included in that “all.”

Thus the pendulum. Though I’m pretty tired of it too. I agree that it would be lovely if the pendulum were to stop swinging. Where would we like it to stop?

When I discovered Unitarian Universalism after decades of being a “None”, I was amazed and happy. It truly was amazing to this former Catholic — a place where I could take my authentic self and my Humanist family and be loved and supported in ways that I thought were only available to theists or others who could accept the supernatural.

My experience too! It sounds to me like we’re in a pretty good stopping place for humanists. What else do we need to do to nurture your spirit? Well, you spell some of it out.

So, where are the GA sessions on Grief Beyond Belief? Where are the services that take their inspiration from our creation story, the universe story, and the truth that we are star stuff and part of a grand, magnificent, messy, wondrous, interconnected world? Where is the advice for what to tell my son when he can’t sleep because he’s afraid that he is going to die some day, or that I might die and leave him alone? Where is the training in UU seminaries of how to minister to people like me who need to rely on human hands and human love to find hope and purpose? Where is the sense of mission to reach out to people like me who have nowhere else to turn for solace and inspiration and community because we don’t fit the religious norm? Where is the joy, and the celebration of life and love from a humanist perspective?

I know the answer to your question, and I hope it makes you happy: these things are to be found in UU congregations. I don’t know about the GA workshops—I haven’t done more than scan those for a couple of years—so maybe we do need more distinctly humanist presentations at GA. But the rest? Either I am particularly lucky, or you are particularly unlucky, because I have found those everywhere. Not only in my own congregation, not only in my collegial gatherings with ministers whose theologies do not all agree with mine by a long shot, and in the nondenominational Christian seminary I attended, but in every UU congregation I’ve belonged to. In fact, I’ve never attended a UU congregation that made me feel as if my theology were unwelcome. They might have said the Lord’s Prayer or mentioned God, they might have sung a hymn whose theology I find irksome, but I’ve always found lots of room for my beliefs and my preferred language and symbols. And I know for a fact that the ministers were not always of my theological stripe.

In fact, we have very few congregations in which the dominant theology is liberal Christianity. I’m glad they’re there, anyway—King’s Chapel should remain its badass high-church Christian self—even though I wouldn’t want to attend every week and they would certainly not want me as their minister, nor would I want to serve there. It’s fine that we have a few congregations that are explicitly atheist, pagan or Christian. But all in all, I much prefer the ones that try to be a home to all of those folks and more, and that is the kind in which I always hope to serve.

Will all humanists feel welcome in such a multitheological congregation? I fear not, because what I hear from a few humanists—not most—is that what they need for their spirit to be nurtured is to be in a place where everyone appears to believe as they do. I’m sorry to report this, because I’m a humanist myself, I don’t believe in God except in the sense of religious naturalism, and I most emphatically do not want people like us to die out. But from a few, particularly outspoken folks, I hear: “You have to stop using that ‘language of reverence’ or I don’t feel welcome here.” “Why use words like ‘God’ or ‘spirituality’ at all? Why not just use words we can all agree with?” “That was a great sermon except for the bit about Indra’s net. I don’t know why you need to talk about gods.” In other words, in order for these folks to feel “nurtured” in our congregations, we must all act like humanists all the time—and, more than that, we must act like a very particular strain of humanist, one who does not use any term that sounds “religious,” including the term “religious,” and also “sin,” “grace,” “redemption,” and indeed, “spirit.”

Like the great humanist Universalist Kenneth Patton, I like all those words and find them deeply meaningful. Others, I would rather leave out. You may not like any of them, and I’m not going to compel you to. But Maria, when you ask, “Where is the nurturing of my spirit that is in my language of poetry and nature and human relation that isn’t based on traditional religious words and symbols that have no meaning for me?” I have a question to ask you in response. It is “Why is your spirit only nurtured when you are spared all words and symbols that have no meaning for you?”

See, I get the nurturing of my spirit in the language of poetry and nature and human relation in a place where it’s mixed right in with the traditional religious words and symbols that have meaning for other UUs. That mix is how it has always been—which doesn’t mean it’s how it has to remain, of course, but let’s not rewrite history. The mythical time when you could spend a lifetime in Unitarian Universalism without ever hearing the words “Jesus Christ” except when the sexton tripped over his bucket, is just that: a myth. It never happened.

And even if it had, all those words and symbols belong in our congregations because all of us belong in our congregations. Oh sure, there are theologies that will probably never belong there. But do you flunk the UU test because you believe that there is a creator of this universe who can appear to us in human form and save us from our worst tendencies? Do you flunk out for believing that there is some kind of life after this one? Do you flunk out for believing that the universe is just, an idea I criticized in no uncertain terms in my most recent sermon? I hope to _______________ not (fill in the blank with the term of your choice). I want to be in community with all those people. I’ll come back to why in a few paragraphs.

I love that you want an option besides “organs and pews, hymns and sermons.” We might need to set them aside for liturgical reasons—that they don’t resonate with the practices people find most inspiring. However, we don’t need to set them aside for theological ones. There is nothing, nothing at all about a sermon or a pew that is incompatible with humanism or atheism.

And I love this: “You are not serving my needs, UUA, by having the only two options be gospel or classical, speaking in tongues or reading a science journal, listening to a sermon or listening to NPR.” Amen! These wouldn’t serve my needs either. But are these really the only two options you’ve found at UU churches? Please, come to services at my congregation. But more than that, come to services in Santa Monica, CA, Brewster, MA, San Francisco, CA, Warrington, PA . . . all of them have offered me a third alternative.

Most of all, what they offer me is connection to other people, whose hearts are so close to mine even when their theologies, practices, and beliefs are not. There’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut—then honorary president of the American Humanist Association–that’s been rising up in my heart recently, and so when Marlin began his sermon, my eyes welled up as I recalled it again. It’s from Timequake, in which Vonnegut appears a great deal as a character—the author as Himself–and he is speaking of his real-life first wife, to whom he remained close all of their lives, even after their divorce. She was a devout Episcopalian and she died of cancer. He writes, “She died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.”

I am so glad Marlin walks with God. Why? Because I love him. I would like to hear about his experiences, his attempt to have just a closer walk with his god, for many reasons: because they would undoubtedly illuminate my own spiritual path, because I would learn so much to help me in my own struggles to walk more closely with my own deepest highest realest best thing (which I do not call God except when translating to another’s theological language). I hope he will preach from that experience and that longing, because when preachers preach from their longing, I hear my own and that helps me. But most of all, I want it because I love him. I want him to be able to bring his full spirit for its own sake: that he may thrive, that he may live fully, that our congregation may be a place of wondrous transformation for him.

Sometimes I don’t feel quite so welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with others’ longings. Oh dear. Marlin walks with God? Is he going to be telling me he speaks in tongues, too? Or believes that there’s a grand design to this universe and that there’s a starring role for our species? I worry that I won’t be able to listen to those cherished beliefs with an open heart. I worry that my inner judgment will appear on my face.

But there’s one thing I don’t worry about; I don’t worry that Marlin is going to tell me that I should believe in a God who walks with us, that I should speak of my longing for the holy with the anthropomorophic language that he uses himself, because it’s all over that sermon and his ministry that he doesn’t want to do any such thing. Bless him, he wants to welcome me exactly as I am. So what’s really uncomfortable is the challenge to me as a minister, as a Unitarian Universalist, as a humanist, as a person trying to live out the promise of love: will I do the same for everyone who crosses our threshold with a thirsting spirit?

Let’s keep talking. I hope to meet you in person sometime soon.

Be well,

Amy

Sometimes when you plan for the Sunday service, you’re not thinking about the impact on Saturday night. I just went to an event at church (Mary Pipher speaking about how to do sustainable, hopeful, joyful citizen activism) and saw the brand new bulletin board–which I’d asked our administrator to create–in a new light. We’re going to fill it with our elevator speeches, so its heading is “Unitarian Universalism, Briefly,” and below that: nothing. Nada. That’s brief, all right.

The service came about because in last year’s “question box” service, someone asked, “Can you give your ‘elevator speech’ about Unitarian Universalism?–please don’t use the word ‘don’t’.” So that will be the bulk of the sermon: concise, positive answers to the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” or “What do you all believe, anyway?” or the like. Since I was brought up on poetry, of course what popped into my head was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Unitarian Universalism,” and that’s how many I wrote. We’ll end with many more than a baker’s dozen, though, because everyone present is going to have a chance to write down their elevator speech and take one copy home, and leave another copy on that board. That way, the people who come to the next event at UUCPA won’t think we have nothing to say about ourselves.

Enter your e-mail address to receive e-mail notifications of new posts on Sermons in Stones

Follow me on Twitter

Links I like

%d bloggers like this: