Saturday, November 29, 2014

A UU Perspective: The Value of Gratitude

This sermon was given on 16 November, 2014, by Emily P.

 First Reading:

“Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.”

― Noam Chomsky
in an interview with the Observer, 2003

Second Reading:
512 from Singing the Living Tradition
We Give Thanks This Day

For the expanding grandeur of Creation,
worlds known and unknown,
galaxies beyond galaxies, filling us
with awe and challenging our

We give thanks this day

For this fragile planet earth, its
times and tides, its sunsets and seasons:

We give thanks this day.

For the joy of human life, its wonders
and surprises, its hopes and achievements:

We give thanks this day.

For our human community, our
common past and future hope, our
oneness transcending all separation,
our capacity to work for peace and
justice in the midst of hostility and

We give thanks this day.

For high hopes and noble causes, for
faith without fanaticism, for under-
standing of views not shared:

We give thanks this day.

For all who have labored and suffered
for a fairer world, who have
lives so that others might live in
dignity and freedom:

We give thanks this day.

For human liberty and sacred rites,
for opportunities to change and
grow, to affirm and choose:

We give thanks this day. We pray
that we may live not by our fears
but by our hopes, not by our
words but by our deeds.

O. Eugene Pickett

Sermon: A UU Perspective: The Value of Gratitude

A UU Perspective: The Value of Gratitude

How do you come to terms with your privilege? On Thanksgiving, how does one keep perspective on the gross injustices and the seeming randomness of our many fortunes and blessings? And how does gratitude connect to Unitarian Universalist beliefs? This sermon is about my relationship with gratitude and privilege as well as gratitude’s role in UUism.

When I was a kid, my family had the tradition of holding hands and saying grace before dinner. I was raised UU, but my parents were raised Presbyterian, and grace was pretty secular. Everyone had the chance to say what they were thankful for, usually along the lines of “I’m thankful for my family, my friends, this delicious food, that I got to go on a field trip. However, when I ate at my friends’ houses or with my granddad, grace was a bit different. My granddad was a minister and led grace. We had to bow our heads while he talked about God and love and world affairs. I’d ask my parents later why we had to look down. They said something along the lines of “to show respect and focus on God.” This bothered me; if God was above us, I’d much rather look up and speak directly to him/her/it. And my Granddad wasn’t being mean and not sharing grace, but rather it was part of his job and he’d been practicing a long time, so we wanted to show him respect too. I had to be polite but I never had to say Amen.

Even though the format for saying grace differs, it is still a practice of gratitude and an opportunity to see beyond ourselves. We can publicly declare how lucky we are and not take our circumstances for granted. Thinking about what we are thankful for also provides a chance to place our privilege next to seemingly incomprehensible violence and inequality. For example, I was 10 years old in 2001 when the war in Afghanistan began. I remember seeing on TV the eerie green flashes of light when the US was dropping bombs and I didn’t understand how some people could be celebrating--how could they call it ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’? Or why should we kill people just because some Americans were killed, do American’s lives matter more? Why does God bless America? I thought Christians said “we are all God’s children.” It is simple to say how fortunate that we live here, but  I would much rather think about the reasons behind poverty or war and the implications of our actions, like where our taxes go.

With this in mind, I want to frame gratitude as a means of bringing people together, of minimizing the distances, and recognizing our interconnectedness, even if it is just in our thoughts. There’s the saying “finish your dinner--think of the starving children in Africa, China, India, etc.” It isn’t that the starving kids in those countries suddenly feel better because an American kid went to bed with a full stomach. Nor should this saying make a kid feel guilty--they aren’t depriving the starving kid of food. If anything, it ends up reminding children of the injustice in the world--why do we have food and those other kids don’t?

Practicing gratitude and thinking of others’ lives helps children and adults alike gain empathy. Postcolonial and feminist theorist Chandra Mohanty, makes an excellent connection between our framework of seeing the world and our ability to envision justice. She explains:
If we pay attention to and think from the space of some of the most disenfranchised communities of women in the world, we are most likely to envision a just and democratic society capable of treating all its citizens fairly. Conversely, if we begin our analysis from, and limit it to, the space of privileged communities, our visions of justice are more likely to be exclusionary because privilege nurtures blindness to those without the same privileges (Mohanty, 231).

This is not to say that we can assume what disenfranchised or marginalized people are feeling or speak for them instead of in solidarity with them. If privilege nurtures blindness to others lacking the same privileges, her words caution us from limiting both ourselves and the potential for transformative justice. Does our ability to strive towards our 6th principle, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all” change based on how we interact with our privilege? How would communities formed be different?

That Mohanty quote brings to mind a story I heard recently. W.F. Strong on “Stories from Texas” on the local npr station spoke about how if the world population was represented by 100 people, only one person would be from Texas and wasn’t that sad that only 1 person had the privilege of being Texan. That everyone has a bit of Texas in them and wishes they were Texan. He also said that school children in Venezuela and Japan would recognize Texas even if it was drawn in the dirt, (though I doubt most American school children could find Venezuela). The privilege of being a Texan is debatable, and I mean no disrespect, but I do think that it is a bit ethnocentric and limiting of other perspectives because it assumes that being Texan (and American second) is desirable for everyone.

Now that I’ve, hopefully, made the connection between gratitude, empathy, and privilege, I’m moving on to the origins of gratitude and the role it plays in UUism.

I was paging through a book by Andrew Weil, Spontaneous Happiness. Parts make come across as hokey, but he did have some interesting views on practicing gratitude. He says “I consider expressing gratitude to be one of the very best strategies to enhance emotional well-being, right up there with fish oil, physical activity, and managing negative thoughts.” (190). This is somewhat inwardly focused, but it goes along with the thought that you need to love and respect yourself before you are in a position to care for others. He then states, “To be grateful is to acknowledge receipt of something of value--a gift, a favor, a blessing--to feel thankful for it and be inclined to give kindness in return” which for me, can serve to build solidarity and community, especially along the lines of our 6th principle (190). For the etymologists out there, he explains “Gratitude comes from the Latin gratus, meaning “grateful.” To get something gratis,from the Latin gratia, meaning “favor,” is to get it for free, without expectation of payment.” He continues, “Another word of the same origin is grace, defined in theology as the “freely given, unmerited favor and love of god” and sometimes combined redundantly with yet another closely related word in the phrase gratuitous grace, meaning grace freely given by god to particular individuals without regard to their morality or behavior” (190). In UUism, I doubt that we would say that god gives grace to some people over others--UUs who believe in God presumably don’t believe that God favors people or a group of people. This goes back to my frustration with God favoring Americans or a particular football team--if there is an intervening God, why should it show favorites?

There have been times, especially when I didn’t want to get into an in-depth conversation about UUism, that I’d tell my peers. Remember the Council of Nicea, in 325 (I never actually remembered that date, but would you believe Wikipedia doesn’t mention Unitarians in that entry?). There was a division between people who believed in the trinity and those who believed God is one. Unitarian= one God. Universalism is the belief that no one goes to hell--everyone is saved. I would then explain that not all UUs believe in God nor in heaven, but a unifying factor is that we don’t believe that if there is a god that he or she would condemn people to hell. We believe that religious figures from around the world offer value and can be learned from. We have Seven Principles, but no dogma. If I was feeling particularly feisty, I’d say that I don’t believe Jesus was God, but instead was a teacher who taught about the importance of love, forgiveness, and treating people equally. As I was checking my facts the other night, I came across a pamphlet on the UUA website that I wanted to share with you. Mark W. Harris writes:

Thomas Starr King, who is credited with defining the difference between Unitarians and Universalists: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.” The Universalists believed in a God who embraced everyone, and this eventually became central to their belief that lasting truth is found in all religions, and that dignity and worth is innate to all people regardless of sex, color, race, or class.

If we see gratitude as connected to freely given grace, gratitude is an integral aspect of Unitarian Universalism, at least from a historical perspective.  If we think about espousing our 2nd principle, “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” practicing gratitude is an acknowledgement of both power imbalances and an opportunity to think about how to deal with our privilege.

Galen Guengerich wrote a sermon titled “The Heart of Our Faith,” which can be found on the uuworld website. His daughter was having difficulty explaining UUism to her Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends on the playground. It made me think of all of the times I’ve explained UUism as I’ve grown up. His daughter responded, “we believe what we want to believe.” In both my experience and Guengerich’s, this answer isn’t sufficient, and for me, it opens the door for people to assert that UUism isn’t really a religion and dismiss my beliefs. Guengerich looked for a central tenet for UUism: gratitude. He asserts:

Our usual way of describing ourselves doesn’t even begin to suggest that we are a religion. In my view, religion is constituted by two distinct but related impulses: a sense of awe and a sense of obligation. The feeling of awe emerges from our experience of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. This feeling becomes religious when a sense of obligation lays claim to us, and we feel a duty to the larger life that we share. In theological terms, religion begins as transcendence, which is the part about God, and then leads to discipleship, which is the part about the discipline of faith.

I realize the idea of faith as a discipline may also sound like heresy to many Unitarian Universalists. Unless our faith is mere intellectual affectation, however, the defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What kind of practice? For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah. And what of us? What should be our defining religious discipline? While obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude.

In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude.
Why gratitude? Two dimensions of gratitude make it fitting as our defining religious practice. One has to do with a discipline of gratitude, and the other has to do with an ethic of gratitude. The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters. From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.

The two forms gratitude takes in our lives (a discipline and an ethic) are natural outcomes of the two elements of religious experience (awe and obligation). The experience of awe leads to the discipline of gratitude, and the experience of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude.

There are many potential defining virtues from which to choose. Why gratitude? It has to do with the role of religion and the nature of the universe. The role of religion, in my view, is to help us find our place as human beings within this universe we call home. You may recall that the word religion does not mean to liberate or set free, but rather to bind together. Religion unites the purpose of our lives as human beings with the purpose that animates the universe. Religion unites the meaning of our lives as human beings with the meaning that pervades the universe. Religion unites the spirit of humanity with the spirit that keeps the stars shining, the planets spinning, and the flowers blooming in springtime. I believe that gratitude is the appropriate religious response to the nature of the universe.

What do you think about the discipline and ethic of gratitude for UUism? Would you use it to help explain UUism?  In terms of uniting us with the nature of the universe, Guegenrich’s words bring to mind a quote by Henry Thoreau, a Unitarian and Transcendentalist; “I am grateful what I am and have. Thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.” (

A friend once told me not to be paralyzed by privilege. She told me this after a class where we discussed something like the School of the Americas or US interventions in Latin American and I was having a hard time dealing with being a US citizen and its implications. This sermon today was not designed to make you feel guilty but rather acknowledge how closely gratitude, privilege, and justice are tied and they have a role in our faith. As Noam Chomsky said, “people like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility.” Let that statement motivate us to be the change, recognize our interconnectedness, and broaden our perspective.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reverence and Rituals

This sermon was presented on 16 November, 2014, by Doug Trenfield.

Reading 1:
Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or
against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own
journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that
is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a
modern dance about your personal relationship with your
light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb
Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light
bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way,
long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to

Reading 2:

for Julia
By Julia Kasdorf
In the third grade all the girls got confirmed
and had their ears pierced.  They flaunted
those dingy threads that hung from their lobes,
telling how the ice stung, how the cartilage crunched
when the needle broke through, how knots
in the thread had to be pulled through the holes,
one each day, like a prayer on the rosary.

At recess I turned the rope
while Michelle skipped and spun and counted to ten,
and a scapular leapt from the neck of her dress.
She dangled that pale pink ribbon,
a picture of the Blessed Mother on one end
and the Sacred Heart on the other,
saying, “This is my protection, front and back.”
That was when I called them Catholic
and said, “Your people killed my people;
your priests threw a man into a river,
tied in a sack with a dog, a cat, a rooster, a snake,
think how they scratched going down,
think how they drowned.  Your priests
burned holes in the tongues of our preachers,
and put pacifists naked in cages
to starve and rot while the birds
pecked off their flesh.”

Michelle and Vicki and Lisa just looked at me,
the jump rope slack as a snake
at our feet.  But in my memory
I want these girls with fine bones and dark eyes
to speak up:

those priests were not me,
those martyrs weren’t you,
and we have our martyr stories too.

I want to take their slim girl-bodies into my arms
and tell them I said it only because
I wanted to wear a small, oval metal
I could pull from my T-shirt to kiss
before tests.  I wanted a white communion dress,
and to pray with you
to your beautiful Blessed Mother in blue.

Sermon: Reverence and Rituals by Doug Trenfield

A friend of mine, Felicia, raised sort of UU -- that is, if her family went to church, it was a UU church -- told me this story years ago when I knew her. In deference to my friend, I want to make sure you know she wasn’t raised willy-nilly with odd, dissonant influences. But for reasons that go beyond this story, but which might be revealed (we’d have to ask her) in my talk today, UU-ism just didn’t stick with them. So here’s her story. She was maybe eight when she and a group of friends were talking about their churches. (Here of course I’ll make up dialog.) One friend said, “We’re Catholic, we worship this-and-that.” Another said, “We’re Methodist, and we worship thus-and-so.” And on. Felicia was quiet. Someone asked her, “Felicia, what do you believe?” She answered shyly, “Well, I’m Unitarian,” not really being anything since she didn’t go that often. “So what do you worship?” Felicia stammered, then the smarty-pants in the group said, “Oh, I know what Unitarians worship. They worship trees.” Felicia, anxious to get out of this pickle, nodded in agreement.

UU-ism is tough to get your mind around, even if you’re not an eight-year-old. What we believe must be written in long complex sentences with lots of qualifiers, not simple sentences -- one subject, one verb, one direct object. Our beliefs are expressed more like in the joke about the light bulb. It could be this. It could be that. The joke reminds me of how I’d teach writing. Students would ask me, after writing a paragraph or so, “Did I do this right?” And often my answer would be, “It depends on what effect you want.” Oh, and they’d be so frustrated. They just wanted to know, Did they do it right, and then they wanted to move on. They didn’t want to think too much.

This joke and how my students responded to my vague (but I think appropriate) responses to their writing gets at why so many people find Christianity appealing. (I will only contrast UU-ism with Christianity because, one, that’s what I know best, and two, that we all share that milieu.) Presbyterians, the Christian denomination with which I am most familiar, have their Book of Order. You want to know what you believe, you look it up. And every Sunday, you say the Apostles’ Creed, which begins with two simple declarative statements, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth.” and, “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” So each Sunday, in a reading that takes 45 seconds, you are reminded of what you believe.

And you know what? I miss that certainty. Well, not that certainty, because I never really believed. But I miss the rituals that spring from such certainties. Like the girl in the poem “Catholics,” who berated her Catholic friends, but really only wanted to be enjoy the little rituals of Catholicism:
I wanted to wear a small, oval metal
I could pull from my T-shirt to kiss
before tests.  I wanted a white communion dress,
and to pray with you
to your beautiful Blessed Mother in blue.

What does a Christian revere? The Bible. Jesus. The Trinity. The Resurrection. What do we revere? Trees. No, we do revere many, many things (trees among them), but we can’t state them simply. And that’s not bad! I like it. Anyone who sounds certain about most anything is oversimplifying. (And now I want to take a moment to thank Laurie for these wonderful banners that I review every Sunday. I haven’t memorized them yet, not like I still have memorized the Apostles’ Creed.) I loved the poetry of the Creed [example]. And I miss singing the Doxology [“Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . .”]. And the Gloria Patri [“Glory be to the Father . . . “]. And I miss greeting people in the ritualistic way we did before I started speaking. If I was sitting among people I knew, we’d break into brief conversations, but we’d always start, “Peace be with you.”

But just as we, UU’s, are not without things we revere, though they be harder to state than those things Christians revere, we, UU’s, are not without rituals. We have an order of service. We drop stones or light candles for our joys and concerns. We have certain readings we’ve selected for certain parts of the service. But they’re not as entrenched as readings and rituals in a Presbyterian service. And that can be a good thing! We’ve selected the readings from a menu of readings for particular places in the service, whereas Presbyterians all over the U.S. say and sing pretty much the same things each Sunday.

A little sidebar. I hatched the idea for this sermon only last Sunday. Something Rachel said inspired me. And I thought, sure, I’ve got twenty minutes on this. I approach sermons as research papers, so I started reading UU stuff on reverence and rituals. Dang, what a deep well! If I were a better writer and had more time, I’d synthesize what I’ve read and report it to you in a personal context, but jeez, I found one sermon that is what I’d write if I were a better writer.

The rest of my talk today will be that sermon, condensed a bit because of the time I’ve taken so far. Well, it was actually a lecture given by The Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, at the 2004 General Assembly. The title is “Human reverence: The Language of Reverence Is the Language of Humanity.”

Since I first engaged in conscious thought, I have been searching for a language of reverence. I am a child of humanist parents and the product of Unitarian Universalist religious education, shaped by the philosophy of the religious educator Sophia Fahs. She advocated allowing children’s own experiences and growth to lead them naturally to discover wonder and sacredness in life, rather than imposing religious texts or ideas on them. But this approach had its drawbacks.

As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality -- accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame. I longed for the white shirt and red First Communion ties and the menorah candles of my neighbors. I yearned for someone, anyone, to take my childish capacity for devotion seriously. But seeds planted in paper cups on the Sunday school windowsill, the dead bird discovered in the backyard, and the annual flower communion were the scant resources my liberal religious education offered. To my parents and teachers -- almost all of whom had grown up in other religious traditions -- the absence of texts, rote prayers, sacraments, holy objects, and moralistic picture books represented freedom. But without any language for my emerging sense of mystery and wonder, I came to feel the contrary: deprived of the tools with which to understand or express those experiences.

I floundered in a kind of guilty yearning until I became intellectually mature enough to claim the rich heritage of humanity’s religious cultures for myself. I did so greedily, with none of the literalism that afflicts fundamentalists, whether orthodox or humanist. What I sought was some way to bring order to what had always been going on inside of me. And I encountered a whole universe of souls, across every culture and tradition, who knew all about it.

 Thus, with great interest and personal investment, I have followed the recent conversation among Unitarian Universalists exploring the call for a language, or vocabulary, of reverence. As one raised within our tradition, who claims our peculiar humanist dialect as a native tongue, I bring yet another perspective.

I see at least three different purposes for which we might find a language of reverence useful: to respond in the moment to our experiences of awe and communion; to describe those experiences to others; and to solicit such experiences, both in ourselves and in others.

It’s a great gift when those reverent moments of ecstasy and agony that demand expression yield a novel, spontaneous response within us. But rarely do new hymns rise to our lips fully formed. Most of the time we will find our responses in the images and music, the gestures and customs that we have learned. We learn what to do with our feelings by observing those who demonstrate what love in action looks like, or how to endure pain -- or indeed, how to express reverence. We learn to pray by seeing those we admire do it and find comfort. We learn how to behave in the presence of death by moving through our culture’s rituals. We learn the hymns we hear sung.

The experience to which we must reply is uniquely our own, but our options for responding in a way that fulfills us are widened by knowing how other people have done it. I came away from the movie Schindler’s List desperately longing for a prayer to recite, an act of contrition, an acknowledgement of holiness, a blessing for the dead, something that carried the weight of human history and usage. At such a moment, the blank slate of theological freedom and diversity is a sterile mirror. One needs a vocabulary of reverence ready at hand. Often I do not find it.

Religious humanists have long held that the phenomenon of reverence is a human experience that occurs regardless of theological belief. The feelings of reverence may be experienced in a context of atheism, agnosticism, or polytheism just as much as in monotheism. In a tradition as diverse as Unitarian Universalism, the language we use to describe our experiences of reverence will be most helpful if it is truthful, clear, and well-informed.

In contrast, when we seek to evoke experiences of reverence, as ministers or laypeople, what will serve us best is language that is poetic, evocative, and metaphorical. That means acknowledging that what is powerful is not always rational. The vocabulary that has been engraved on our neural pathways over the course of a lifetime has its effect, regardless of our intellectual opinions.

But mere repetition of what we know eventually creates boredom rather than reverence. When we use familiar words, symbols, and actions in creative ways, we can break through our habitual perceptions, open ourselves again to the wonder and tragedy of the world, and thus evoke reverence. The best wedding ceremony neither mechanically repeats the same prescribed text as every other wedding, nor indulges the random impulses of a particular couple, leaving the gathered congregation mystified. Rather, genuine reverence is evoked when we use the language and symbols of tradition in creative ways so that the universal is expressed through the individual.

The individual perception of reverence, like that of love or suffering, is not arguable. No one else can deny the reality of those sensations, when you feel that you have them. Former UUA President William G. Sinkford speaks of a long night sitting in the hospital with his teenage son, who lay near death: “I felt the hands of a loving universe reaching out to hold. The hands of God, the Spirit of Life. The name was unimportant. . . . I knew that I did not have to walk that path alone, that there is a love that has never broken faith with us and never will.” No one can argue that Sinkford didn’t have the experience he says he did. The question is whether our faith community is collectively prepared to help him understand, process, and honor it.

I submit -- and I believe this is the point that Sinkford was trying to make in that sermon -- that a religious tradition that does not help its members discover meaningful and satisfying ways of expressing and responding to the human experiences of reverence that happen in the course of their human lives is missing a crucial and central piece of its function. We are not dealing in debate or persuasion here. We are talking about how we “each of us, in our uniquely constituted beings” recognize and understand and make sense of that unbidden, overwhelming awe at the wonder, magnificence, danger, demand, and delight of being alive.

How can we best enrich the options that will be on hand for us when we need them? How do we structure our practices -- both personal and communal -- so that we can interpret our experiences of reverence in satisfying, life-giving ways? How might we better support one another in recognizing and honoring the reverent moments of our lives? To engage in these kinds of reflection is to nurture the virtue of reverence, and that process is made considerably more difficult when we lack a vocabulary for it.

Some in the humanist community find traditional religious language so defiled by irrationality as to be deemed unusable. I believe, on the contrary, that we need not invent a new vocabulary of reverence out of whole cloth. Such an arbitrary system, no matter how unobjectionable and even true its expressions, will not have, at least within the first generation, the profound resonances of lifelong memory.

Moreover, if we are to have a deep engagement with the challenges of our own time, we need an awareness of our historical context. To think that we must dispense with all traditional language, symbols, and concepts in order to speak about that which is deepest and dearest, the precious source of human good, is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever, so profound, or so committed as we are; that those who have been down the path of life before us have no wisdom to teach, that we can learn nothing from all that they have left to us.

One of the things that most reliably draws out of me a feeling of deep respect mixed with wonder, fear, and love, is the knowledge that I am not alone in this enterprise. We are not the first to walk this path, to stutter in the presence of mystery and power. The awe and gratitude, the affirmation and praise go back generations and centuries, to the first dawning of human consciousness.

What we feel on the shores of the ocean or the mountain heights is no special insight of our own; it is the common heritage of the human race. There is nothing so petulant as to throw away what our ancestors have tried to pass on to us, in stories and stones, in scriptures and songs, in rituals and prayers, because we think that we in our adolescent hubris know better now.

Genuine human language is a collective enterprise. It evolves organically in response to the demands of experience and interaction. Each of us is born with the capacity to learn a variety of such languages. Indeed, that learning process shapes our understanding of the world and our very physical brains. I see no reason to suppose that the realm of the spirit is structured any differently. What we can comprehend is to some extent a function of what we have been given names for -- even the awareness of that which is ultimately unnamable.

Each generation and each of us as individuals must make the language of reverence our own. The call for such a vocabulary is a call to move forward, not backward. It is a call for creativity, for experiment, a demand that we speak the truth as we know it. It summons us to recount to one another those moments that left us with a lump in the throat or a song in the heart; those night vigils in the hospital that ended in an embracing peace; the hours of soul searching that ended in remorse and a resolution to do better next time. It is an invitation to build from the wrecked timbers of old ritual the new structures of ceremony that can give shape to our reverence in the most awesome, meaning-laden moments of our lives.

The language of reverence is, finally, the language of humanity. The human experience of finding ourselves in the presence of that intense, fleeting, and demanding moment when the dull surfaces of things become transparent to a significance almost greater than we can bear belongs to all of us. Only by not paying attention can we avoid it. It doesn’t need gods or angels or magical other worlds. The world we have is magical enough, holy enough, sacred enough. We are the ones who bring the eyes to see, the minds and souls to marvel. We are the ones who must build the meanings of our brief days out of what we find to be deeply and powerfully important, right here, out of the utterly natural stuff of life. The holy is nothing but the ordinary, held up to the light and profoundly seen. It is the awareness of a creativity and a connection that we do not control, in a universe that is always larger, more intricate, and more astonishing than we imagine. It is the acknowledgment that we are formed by the earth from which we arise, and in which we live and move and have our being; and that we are, finally, not alone. For our very humanity is illuminated for us by our fellow beings, each of whom offers the authentic presence of the divine.

We ought to be about the business of re-examining and reclaiming the treasures of articulated reverence that star the landscape of human history -- if for no other reason, for the sake of the children we must otherwise raise in the spiritual vacuum of our own resentments. In the process, we might find ourselves improved in modesty and maturity, as well as vocabulary, and that in itself would be no bad thing.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Death Sunday- A Celebration of Life

This is complete service by Ashley Hummel.The chalice lighting/extinguishing and call to worship are from the Hymnal: Singing the Living Tradition. Pictured here is an altar set up for members to bring photos or other sentimental items. We had photos, dolls, and wood carvings people brought, as well as a place for candles to be lit during the meditation. The photo was taken before everything was brought in, and to the left is our normal altar with the chalice.

Ringing Chimes
Call to Worship: #420 We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.
                -Annie Dillard

Chalice Lighting: Flame of fire, spark of the universe that warmed our ancestral hearth—agent of life and death, symbol of truth and freedom. We strive to understand ourselves and our earthly home.  
Opening Hymn # 10

First Reading: #445 The Womb of Stars (responsive)

Joys and Concerns: Our joys and concerns, like our lives, are fluid in nature. As we take a stone, we acknowledge the weight of our lives, the perceived permanence of our daily affairs. We cast the stone in the water, acknowledging all things must pass, and observe the ripples as a reflection of our interconnectedness. May we always be mindful of the impact we have on each other. In the spirit of building a stronger fellowship, we invite you to come forward now, tell us your name, your joy or concern, and drop a pebble in the bowl.

Second Reading: # 470 Affirmation (responsive)

Preparation for Meditation: In place of our usual silent meditation, we invite you to come forward and light a candle in remembrance of a loved one. As you return to your seat, take a moment to reflect on the light this person brought to your life, and how your own light shines on those around you. If you would like to speak a name aloud during this time, feel free. 
The preparation for Meditation is in your order of service, let us sing it together.

A Time for All Ages: Badger’s Parting Gifts, read by Emily Pfleiderer

Offering Chorus: We believe it is a blessing to be able to govern and support our religious community ourselves, to make possible by our generosity everything we dream of and do to live out our shared values.

Sermon: Life Finds a Way

There are many paths to the afterlife—many ways to live on. In confronting my own mortality, I take comfort knowing that as my body decomposes, my energy will convert to other things—beetles, flowers, and so on. In confronting the loss of others, I am not quite so Zen. We have discussed death a few times here and what is hard to believe or unsatisfying about the many narratives. 

I can’t believe that my friends and relatives are smiling at me from Heaven, or worse, that some of the less-than-perfect are being tormented in Hell. I don’t necessarily believe that reincarnation of spirit occurs, or that “living on in memory” is a thing, because we so often forget what people look like or how they really were. Not speaking ill of the dead leads to eventually not remembering any ill of them at all, which makes their afterlife-in-memory a sort-of informal canonization. Even so, I believe that people live on, in one way or another. 

My Granny Goose had the greatest laugh. It was a deep, backwards sounding laugh; steady, and slow, something between a chuckle and a Hust. “Ah-huh, ah-huh, ah-huh.” I can’t replicate it. This laugh is known to be Granny’s. Years after Granny died, my cousin Sara, then only six years old, had a fit of giggles. As she began to wind down she made this noise, “Ah-huh, ah-huh, ah-huh.” We all stared in amazement, and my uncle just grinned and said, “Yep. Sara has the Granny Goose laugh.”

Granny Goose lives. She was momentarily with us, not metaphysically, but in an indescribable, heart-warming way. She was there. We cherished her memory. We told Granny stories. Sara learned about her great-grandmother who died before she was born. 

By Teutonic mythology, Sara inherited Granny’s Hamingja, the fragment of self that is her “luck,” or distinctly hers. According to this particular mythology, the body and soul fragment at death. The body nourishes the earth, the Hamingja is passed to a descendent that hasn’t been born yet, and the Fylgja, the animistic portion of our spirit, is assumed to be reborn into its proper animal body. Still other parts of our souls pass into the next phase of living, either in Valhalla, Volkvang, or Helheim, to await Ragnarrok. What I find so fascinating about this is that fragmentation neither degrades nor harms the spirit. 

I know, it doesn’t make much sense. You have to sit with it a while. You have to see the youngest generation unintentionally exhibit a fragment of the eldest generation you remember to wrap your head around this truth. You might not call it Hamingja, you might not believe in spirits, or other worlds, but you will recognize the truth that we inherit bits and pieces of our ancestors, even if you just call it biology.

Another way the deceased live on is through the lessons they gave us. In The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the entire first book is a list of what he learned from different people in his life. 

Of my grandfather Verus I have learned to be gentle and meek, and to refrain from all anger and passion. From the fame and memory of him that begot me I have learned both shamefastness and manlike behaviour. Of my mother I have learned to be religious, and bountiful; and to forbear, not only to do, but to intend any evil; to content myself with a spare diet, and to fly all such excess as is incidental to great wealth. Of my great-grandfather, both to frequent public schools and auditories, and to get me good and able teachers at home; and that I ought not to think much, if upon such occasions, I were at excessive charges.


Of him that brought me up, …to endure labour; nor to need many things; when I have anything to do, to do it myself rather than by others; not to meddle with many businesses; and not easily to admit of any slander.


Of Diognetus, not to busy myself about vain things, and not easily to believe those things, which are commonly spoken, by such as take upon them to work wonders, and by sorcerers, or prestidigitators, and impostors; concerning the power of charms, and their driving out of demons, or evil spirits; and the like. Not to keep quails for the game; nor to be mad after such things. Not to be offended with other men's liberty of speech, and to apply myself unto philosophy…


He goes on, in twenty-seven sections, to describe each influence in his life. Alexander the Grammarian, his sister, brother, the Gods, even people who introduced him to other people he learned from. This writing, though it may be tedious to a modern reader, is important work. When it comes to honoring the dead, we should do this work. We should recognize that none of us developed in a vacuum.

None of us developed in a vacuum. 

That recognition is a wonderful way to honor our ancestors. The oldest relatives I can remember are my great-grandparents. Granny Goose did not develop in a vacuum. She learned lessons from her parents and grandparents, who also did not develop in a vacuum. In this way, we are connected to everyone who came before us, whether we realize it or not, and whether we knew them or not. To get connected, tell stories to the youth in your family, and listen to the stories of your elders. 

Halloween, known to Pagans as Samhain, is believed to be the time when the veil between worlds is the thinnest. It is the best time of year to commune with the dead, as the thinning veil allows spirits to pass fully into our world for a night. Samhain celebrates the final harvest of summer; it is a time to mourn in community and to learn from those who have passed. This manifests itself in many ways throughout many cultures—in this region, it is most noticeable as the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Altars for Day of the Dead are for both the living and the dead. For the dead, they are a guide back home—the pungent flowers, incense, and favorite items are intended as a guide, to help our ancestors find their way back to us. For the living, they are a tangible reminder of those we love. As graves are decorated, people tell stories about the dead, sometimes they are funny. Day of the Dead is not just about mourning a loss, but celebrating a life, and how our lives were touched by a life that is no longer. 

Of course, whom we remember, and when, may be completely random. I remember my cousin, Tyler, every time I hear the song ABC by the Jackson 5. It was his favorite song and they played it at his funeral. Ancestor celebration is more than this casual, flickering remembrance, though. The altars, rituals, and traditions surrounding the Halloween season create a sacred space in which to celebrate lives that were and the many ways our loved ones live on. As we consider all this, it is wise to remember that the interdependent web of existence does not just consist of right now. It is everything that was and will be. What legacy did you inherit? Which lessons will you pass on?

Closing Hymn: #6

Extinguishing the Chalice: May the blessings of life be upon us. May the memories we gather give us hope for the future. May the love we share bring strength and joy to our hearts, and may we carry the light of this community until we meet again.

Closing Chorus: The closing chorus is in your order of service, let us sing it together.

Welcoming of Visitors and Announcements:

Closing Words: I’ll close with words from Liam Callanan, “We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.”

As we leave this community of spirit, let us stay strong in our commitment to our values, stay wise in our decisions, and grateful for our many blessings.  Blessed be.