August 28, 2008
On Friday, my one day off in the week, our home phone rang. Usually I find it best to ignore the phone on Friday or else it becomes just another work day. But this call was about a funeral and I would never ignore someone in grief, and I worried about who might have died.
It turned out that the call was not from a member or friend of my congregation. It was from the brother of someone who had lived in Chicago, and who had never been a UU, but who had once said , “If I went to church it would be a Unitarian church.” What is more: the service was the next day, and it was not in my town but in a smaller town some thirty minutes or so north of Muncie. Well I was ambivalent but I said yes. As I hung up the phone my wife said, “What? You are adding to your work on the last day our daughter is in town?!” (Our oldest is moving to Austin.) I argued that I already had three hours of work scheduled for that day, my sermon was in great shape, and I would not spend more than three hours on this service.
On the way there I hit a detour and almost got lost in the countryside. I began to think that gas alone would take up a quarter of the honorarium, and I wondered if this was worth the trouble. Happily, I made it with time to speak with the family, especially the brother who had called me, and to prepare my thoughts.
The man who had died was a true activist: he had worked as a social worker and a labor union organizer and had marched with ML King and had been arrested in protests. He was a quirky guy, intelligent, compassionate and dedicated to making the world a better place. He had a sense of humor and a deep sense of hope. He had loved a passage from Job (20:4,7) “Surely you know… that the mirth of the wicked is brief, the joy of the godless lasts only a moment. Though his pride reaches to the heavens… he will perish forever, like his own dung…”
Perhaps if he had not found community in AA he would have made a perfect UU. It was easy to evoke his values, his faith in humanity and a higher power, and his scepticism about religion. It was easy to talk about the worth and dignity of every person and the essential unity of humanity. My usual words about sorrow and gratitude seemed especially meaningful this time. During the service one little boy burst into tears in his father’s lap. We played a recording of John Lennon in the middle of the service, followed by wonderful, heart-felt sharing by some of those present, evoking his love for “Its a Wonderful Life” and the card game Euchre.
Afterward the family seemed very moved by the service. I stayed to tell the family I felt it was an honor to do this, and to talk about faith and hope and worship with some. A few individuals came up to thank me, and to add to the honorarium! I stayed to see the casket opened for the last time, and I almost went to tears seeing the loss of this person, who I had just learned about, so very tangible and present. I felt I had done something with my day very worth doing: To help other people celebrate life, consider what makes life worth living, to offer hope, and laugh and cry together.
As a minister you never know if something you do is worth doing. You never know exactly what your schedule is from week to week. Usually when you schedule three hours of work it takes four. But this past Saturday was one of those days that remind me why I am a Minsiter.
August 15, 2008
As I preached from the pulpit this last sunday I quoted the Knoxville, TVUU, website on how they had worked for “desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women’s rights and gay rights” and I read that their current minitries involve emergency aid for the needy, school tutoring and a cafe that provides a gathering place for gay and lesbian teens. I read this because my own congregation has served the same causes.
Yet, what ran through my mind at that moment (wich I did not speak out loud) is that the role we play and the people we serve are usually those on the margins, those oppressed by convention, those who are not affirmed by the mainstream culture. I wonder if we grow as a movement if we are going to have to learn how to serve those who are in the mainstream too? Or perhaps that will never be our calling.
Sara Robinson, on her Orcinus blog on the Knoxville shootings, opened with the idea that “We are an odd group, we Unitarians. Conventional wisdom says that we are soft in all the places our society values toughness” (I wonder if we are less odd if we include the Universalists…) She went on to affirm our solidity and toughness, but she never countered the idea that we are odd. In fact, though we are often at the forefront of progressive movements, and we may even help progressive ideas become mainstream, we are not those who make progressive ideas conventional. Could we be, or will that never be our place in the world?
One of the significant moments in my life was when my eldest daughter came home from school with a new vocabulary word that had provided a revelation. “I just realized why our family is so different” she announced, “It is because we are ‘intellectuals.'” Ah yes, it was so true. Later that day I remembered when I was a teen and a young woman left UU-ism in tears after proclaiming (at the end of a youth retreat weekend) that we proclaimed we were so tolerant and open minded, but we were intolerant of people like her who liked shopping for the latest fashions, and cheer-leading, and pop music. We did not accept a girl who wanted to wear makeup at a youth retreat and who was smart enough but not at all intellectual.
So it is that Unitarians have always been associated with a small group of people; a group limited by education level, economic level, and social status. Often we are very powerful people, movers and shakers, but that is a minority nonetheless. This makes us distinctly capable of empathising with other minorities, and less comfortable with the conventional (even though we are terribly conventional in many ways.) In contrast I think of how my Universalist congregation built its first building in the center of town, held famous revivals, and one year won the city-wide Sunday School attendance contest.
Currently we serve those who are soft where conventional society is hard, and thoughtful where conventional society is thoughtless. Even if we were to grow ten times larger we would still be a small minority in this world. We still serve religious atheists and neo-pagans, and intellectuals above all. I hope we do not lose sight of that purpose, but I also think we are at our best when we speak our purpose in a way that even the most conventional can understand.
August 8, 2008
When I began interfaith activities I never thought about the Flaming Chalice needing to be included as a symbol among the rest. My daughter, a life-long UU says she finds it odd to see a collection of religious symbols without the chalice.
Some time ago our local Interfaith group began a practice of beginning large events with a ritual, adapted from Rabbi Joseph Gellman, of lighting one central candle to represent the “one truth” and then to light an “interfaith menorah.” Each votive in the menorah represents a particular religion; the Star of David for Judaism, a nine pointed star for the Bahia tradition, a quartered circle for “Native American Traditions,” and even a Yin-Yang circle to represent the Taoist Tradition. As we lit each one we say, for example: “We light a candle for the the Sikh tradition. We welcome its wisdom.” Or words to that effect.
When my friend George Wolfe first introduced this practice I remembered a Muslim friend who once told me that some Muslims don’t like the Crescent and Star image because it is associated with the Ottoman Empire and is a little too much like an idol. I asked him what he would prefer and after a bit of thought he wrote down the word ‘Allah’ in Arabic.
But as I looked at the eight symbols I felt that my issue was not to promote Muslim, but UU, awareness. There was no Flaming Chalice. For a few minutes I wondered if the chalice really was equivalent to the others, or fit just fine in that funny cluster of stars that represented “All other traditions present.” But then I realized that the Yin-Yang does not represent an active tradition in Muncie so much as the religions of East Asia in general. So I asked that we change that one with a Flaming Chalice.
Now, in Muncie, we are flaming Unitarian Universalists and proud of it.
August 6, 2008
Oh, Callou Callay, a Red Letter Day;
A great grand victory for the U.S. of A!
After years of struggle, loss and sorrow,
Now there’s hope for all tomorrow,
And our glory against terror is sure,
Since we’ve convicted BinLaden’s Chauffeur.