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The Seven Days of Chalica

I am coming out of blogging silence to share today’s inspiration.

Each December, Unitarian Universalists celebrate a relatively new holiday known as Chalica.  It is held from the first Monday of December through the following Sunday (7 days) and honors and celebrates the 7 principles of the UUA.  I posted a status update on Facebook today and mentioned that it was the 5th day of Chalica.  A friend commented: “on the 5th day of Chalica, my true love gave to me…

That got me to thinking what the end of that sentence would be, and what the other verses (1st day, 2nd day, etc) would be.  I decided to give my creativity a try and came up with words to The Seven Days of Chalica, sung to the tune of the 12 Days of Christmas, with each verse about the principle for that day.  I am thinking it might catch on!

The Seven Days of Chalica
Sung to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas

On the 1st day of Chalica, the UU gave to me
Inherent Worth and Dignity.

On the 2nd day of Chalica, the UU gave to me
Kindness to All and
Inherent Worth and Dignity.

On the 3rd day of Chalica, the UU gave to me
Spiritual Growth,
Kindness to All and
Inherent Worth and Dignity.

On the 4th day of Chalica, the UU gave to me
Free Search for Truth,
Spiritual Growth,
Kindness to All and
Inherent Worth and Dignity.

On the 5th day of Chalica, the UU gave to me
Free Search for Truth,
Spiritual Growth,
Kindness to All and
Inherent Worth and Dignity

On the 6th day of Chalica, the UU gave to me
A Peaceful Free World,
Free Search for Truth,
Spiritual Growth,
Kindness to All and
Inherent Worth and Dignity

On the 7th day of Chalica, the UU gave to me
The Earth Which We Value,
A Peaceful Free World,
Free Search for Truth,
Spiritual Growth,
Kindness to All and
Inherent Worth and Dignity


Peter and the Rock

I am currently participating in an Adult R.E. (Religious Education) class at my Unitarian Universalist church.  The minister is leading a course titled “Owning Your Religious Past” that is designed to address where we have come from in our spiritual journey.  She described it this way:

“Few UU’s are born into the faith, and when we find our way here, it can be with significant baggage from past church experiences. This class will help us sort through what was, what is, and what can be in our experience of religious community, its tools of self-exploration and sharing, finally enabling us to realize a faith that is powerful, nurturing, and relational.”

Last Sunday, the 2nd in the 5 week curriculum, we spent some time with our eyes closed, remembering a church from our past that had a big influence on us, either positively or negatively, mentally walking through the entire building, recalling sights, sounds, and smells.  We then spent a few minutes drawing a floor plan of it and sharing with the other members of the class what we remembered.

My memory was of the Catholic church of my childhood.  I remembered walking up the large flight of marble steps, through the heavy wooden doors, and into the sanctuary with my family.  We were usually late, rushing in as the first hymn, or even the first reading, was already underway.  We sat in the same general area each week – near the back, on the left side of the center aisle.  I still do that at my new church – although now I move to the right, near the side aisle, and am a bit closer to the front.

I think we are all creatures of habit and tend to gravitate to our “comfort zone”.  I remember often asking my dad why we had to sit so far back.  Looking back, it was probably because we were late, and he didn’t want to make a bigger scene than necessary.  He was never one to draw attention to himself.  But his usual answer at the time was to suggest that I look at all the candles on the altar and then tell me that if the place caught on fire, he wanted to be as close to the door as possible!

One of the sights I remember from many Sundays sitting in the pews was the Bible verse painted around the clerestory, just below the upper level windows. In letters edged with gold, it read


For those as lacking in biblical knowledge as I am, that verse is from Matthew 16:18.  As you can see, it was in Latin, which I never took, and it wasn’t until I was in French class in high school that I deciphered what it meant.  In French,  the name Peter translates as Pierre, while the word for rock is pierre.  Yes, the same word.  Sometime after I learned that, I was sitting in church one Sunday, looking at the words high above my head (probably trying to keep from falling asleep during the sermon), and realized that Petrus/Petram looked a lot like Peter. Aedificabo looked like “edifice”, which had to do with buildings, and all of a sudden I put it together.  I was sitting in St. Peter’s Church!  And there was a Bible verse I vaguely remembered hearing at some point in my Catholic school education about “You are Peter, and on this Rock, I build my church.”

It all began to make sense.  At least, the choice of Bible verses made sense.  (I mean, it was St. Peter’s Church!) I never did make sense of the dogma that was preached.  Which is why I no longer consider myself a Catholic.

I have been thinking about my childhood church a lot lately.  Taking part in this exploration of our religious past is bringing up lots of memories, but I also have realized this week that St. Peter’s is still a part of my present.  7 weeks from today*, I will be back in St. Peter’s Church.  This time, though, I will be sitting in the front row, listening to my brother eulogize my father, and missing my rock.  I just hope the church doesn’t catch fire!


*For those who don’t know, we have had to wait for my father’s funeral until we were given a burial date by Arlington National Cemetery.

A play-by-play of our wedding day

Last week was the worst week of my life and the best week of my life.  On Wednesday evening, my Dad passed away (a blog post for another day).  On Thursday, I left for Iowa to get married.  Jeanne and I had been planning our wedding since the end of September, and since the date for Dad’s funeral is up to Arlington National Cemetery and may be several months off, there was no reason to change our plans. We had planned for it to be a very small affair anyway – just us and 2 attendants – so we decided to go ahead and leave.  Between the original plan and the date of the wedding, we did add one guest – a cousin who lives close enough to drive to the location we had chosen.

Jeanne & I, along with our dear friend Lorena, drove about 1/3 of the way the first day.  We got back in the car Friday morning, arrived in Davenport at 2:15 pm, and met up with my sister-in-law who drove in from Wisconsin.  We got there in plenty of time to pick up our license at the court house, check into the Bed & Breakfast we had found, and get to the church for a 4 pm rehearsal.  All went smoothly that day, and we went to bed early to be well rested for the big day.

Saturday – our wedding day – was almost perfect.  The day began with sleeping in (which we all needed), followed by a yummy breakfast casserole, cinnamon rolls and a trip to the mall to get our nails done.  My color matched my flowers and Jeanne’s color matched her blouse.  It had been sprinkling as we walked into the mall, but when we left, the sun was shining – yay!  After a quick bite at Panera to make sure we all made it through the afternoon, we returned to the Beiderbecke Inn to get ready.  Jeanne was ready first and went downstairs to wait.  My cousin Michelle arrived and kept her company while our 2 attendants helped me get into my dress.  Michelle then came up to see me and give me two tokens to have with me during the ceremony – a hankie that was her mother’s and a pin that was one of Dad’s other sister’s.  The pin belonged to my godmother, and was a silver shamrock with a pearl at the center.  Both gifts were very meaningful and gave me a sense of having part of Dad with me on this special day.

When I was finally ready, I came down to meet Jeanne.  As I rounded the corner in the staircase, I could see her waiting at the bottom – her mouth hanging open as she saw my dress for the first time.  I was so happy she liked it!  We took tons of photos, inside and out, and then headed for the church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad Cities, a UU congregation very similar to our home church of Neshoba.

When we got there, several cars were already in the parking lot.  Our minister in Memphis had emailed the minister in Iowa to suggest that he invite members of his congregation to attend, since we couldn’t have our church family with us.  When we went inside there were already 2 families and a couple of other people.  More arrived before the start of the ceremony – we were amazed at how many people came to see 2 strangers get married.  One couple, Dana and Betty, told us that they had been married over 2 years ago, and when they had their ceremony, they had also been together 19 years.

The ceremony itself was lovely.  The minister said a few words of welcome, and talked about love.  One phrase that stuck with me was he told us to “knock gently on each other’s hearts, and open them to each other in gladness”.  Our friend Lorena, who we gave the title of “Best Woman”, read the chalice lighting words. Lori, my sister-in-law, who was the “Matron of Honor”, read a passage from Robert Fulgum.  Following that was a prayer that Lorena and Lori read together.

Then came the vows – we had each written our own and not shared them at that point.  I was already a bit teary because Lori & Lorena had each teared up a bit during the readings.  I went first because I didn’t want to cry at Jeanne’s and then not be able to get through my own.  Turns out I cried during mine anyway.  But I got through it.  Jeanne’s were touching as well, so I was glad I had a hankie in my pocket!

We exchanged rings and then all of a sudden we were married!  Our recessional was “Can I have this dance” by Anne Murray, so we danced for a bit in front of everyone, and then walked down the aisle.  As everyone left, we stood by the door thanking them for helping us celebrate.  Several of them gave us cards, and one woman actually gave us a gift.  It was a small figurine of 2 people (of indiscriminate gender) embracing – we found out later, it was crafted by a famous local artisan, Isabel Bloom.

We took more photos, went to the minister’s office to sign the paper work, and then went outside to take even more pictures.  Our Matron of Honor, Lori, is a wedding photographer by profession, so she knew just what poses to capture and how to take advantage of the light.  Most of the photos were taken on her camera, so we will get those after she has a chance to upload and edit them.

A few photos were taken on iphones. This one turned out well!

It was quite breezy on Saturday, so that presented a challenge, but Lori is experienced in dealing with challenging situations, so I have no doubt the pictures will be amazing.  As we got into the car to leave the church, the rain started up again – just a sprinkle, but we were thrilled that it waited until we were finished with pictures.

We returned to the Beiderbecke to put our feet up and visit for a while.  Michelle had brought Prosecco and sparkling pear juice, so she, Lori & Lorena toasted us and our marriage.  We opened gifts from Michelle and Lorena, opened all the cards from the members of the church, and then got ready to go to dinner.  Fortunately, the rain had stopped again!

We had a 6 pm reservation at Biaggi’s, a wonderful Italian restaurant that has locations around the country, but none in Tennessee, so we hadn’t heard of it before.  I just found it the way I did most of the parts of this weekend – searching on the internet for “Fine Dining in Davenport”.  The atmosphere was warm – literally and figuratively. We were seated near a fireplace in a back room – a round table set for 5.  Lorena sat next to Jeanne, Michelle was next to me, and Lori was across the table from us – perfect vantage point for the photographer!

The waiter, a nice young man named Angel, informed us that the manager wanted to provide a bottle of wine for our celebration, so we went with Prosecco again.  For appetizers, we ordered calamari fritti and lobster artichoke dip, shared around the table. Then it was on to soup and salad – I had a Caesar and Lori & Lorena shared a beet salad and a bowl of lobster corn chowder.  The soup was passed around also so we could all taste it.   Everyone agreed that the food was all delicious.  Then came the main course.  Jeanne ordered a seafood pasta bowl that included shrimp, scallops, muscles, and clams in a tomato sauce.  I had shrimp & crab cannelloni in a lobster cream sauce.  Michelle had chicken piccata, and Lori & Lorena each ordered a ½ order of a pasta dish – the cannelloni and a black fettucini with lobster and wild mushrooms – and then shared them.   We should have all gone with 1/2 orders – Michelle, Jeanne and I all had leftovers, while Lori & Lorena cleaned their plates!

Finally, it was time for dessert.  Lori had brought a stunning cheesecake made at a Wisconsin bakery, Simma’s.  Besides being beautiful, with swirls and plum-colored dots that matched my dress, it was the most delicious wedding cake any of us had ever tasted!  It was two-tiered, and we used the figurine given to us by the member of the UUCQC as a cake topper – it was the perfect size for the cake.

We had to say goodbye to Michelle after dinner, but it had been a wonderful day and we were so grateful she was able to be there to help us celebrate.  Lori, who was doing triple duty as witness, photographer, and driver, got us all back to the B&B for a relatively early night.  The drive home the next day was going to be long, so we retired to our respective rooms by 9 pm.

Even if our marriage is never recognized by the state we live in or by the federal government, we are so happy we made this trip.  We have hopes that it be legal everywhere one day, but in the meantime, we know in our hearts that we are legally married and that we will continue to love each other … at least one more day than we have so far.

I am ready. Are you?

Today, Neshoba Church celebrated our 20th anniversary.  The actual anniversary happened in January.  Or maybe March.  It depends on what you count as the beginning.  The 1st service was held in January of 1992.  The charter, officially designating us as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in North America  (also known as the UUA), was signed in March of 1992.  The reason we celebrated in April this year was due to scheduling issues.  The church’s first minister, Rev. Jean Rowe, who retired to North Carolina 7 years ago, was going to be in town this weekend, officiating at a wedding for a Neshoba family, so it made sense to tie the church’s celebration to the date that was convenient for her.

Because we are in transition, and don’t have a settled minister yet, our minister emerita was asked to lead the service.  A long-time member, Anthony Culver, helped plan the details, and Rev. Jean gave a lovely sermon that helped paint a picture of Neshoba’s past while reminding us that we need to continue working on a vision for the future.  Members of the youth group helped with parts of the service, making it truly multi-generational.

Jean spoke of three charges she gave the congregation at that very first service 2 decades ago. What she told them then holds true today as well.  First, we need to remember to hold each other with “care-full” compassion.  We are a family, and as such are bonded together, for better or worse, so we need to care for each other as we learn and grow.

Secondly, we need to heed the words of hymn #311 – Let it be a dance by Ric Masten.

Let it be a dance we do.
May I have this dance with you?
Through the good times
And the bad times, too,
Let it be a dance.

Let a dancing song be heard.
Play the music say the words,
Fill the sky with sailing birds.
Let it be a dance.
Learn to follow, learn to lead,
Feel the rhythm, fill the need.
To reap the harvest, plant the seed.
And let it be a dance.

Everybody turn and spin,
Let your body learn to bend,
and, like a willow with the wind,
Let it be a dance.

A child is born, the old must die,
A time for joy, a time to cry.
Take it as it passes by.
And let it be a dance.

 Morning star comes out at night,
Without the dark there is no light.
If nothing’s wrong, then nothing’s right.
Let it be a dance.
Let the sun shine, let it rain,
Share the laughter, bare the pain,
And round and round we go again.
Let it be a dance.

Together, we should always let our church life be like a dance – joyful and full of purpose – through the good times and the bad times too.

The third charge was to allow ourselves to occasionally step back from leadership roles, trust in each other, and go along for the ride.  As the line in the hymn says, we need to “learn to follow, learn to lead, / feel the rhythm, fill the need.”  There are times when we need to step up and take on responsibility for various aspects of the church and there are other times where we need to trust in the leadership of our fellow Neshobans.  Let others be the guide while we just help paddle the boat.

Hearing about the beginning of Neshoba has renewed my commitment to this special place.  The people who started Neshoba had a dream.  They worked hard to plan and build and grow from a seed planted 20 years ago into the community we are today. On this Earth Day weekend, it seems appropriate to continue that metaphor.  The roots of the church are strong, and the body is growing.  We need to feed the soul of the church, prune her branches where necessary to remain healthy, and protect her from the storms of life that threaten to do damage.  With care, she will continue to grow strong and stable and will shelter generations to come.

20 years into our story, we are at a crossroads, getting ready to bring in a new minister.  There are exciting opportunities ahead of us. We need to continue to work hard to achieve the vision the founding members set forth.  I am ready.  Are you?

Proud to be a part of history

Last Tuesday, October 11, was National Coming Out Day (NCOD) – a day for members of the LGBT community to take a brave step out of the closet and share their authentic selves with the world around them.

click for source

This past Saturday was Pride Day for the Memphis & Mid-South area.  It used to be held in June, but was moved to October last year to coincide with – or at least be close to – NCOD.  I think the cooler weather also may have played a role in the date change!

For years, the festival and parade was held in a part of town known for its liberal-minded residents and its large gay and lesbian population.  This year, we came out of the “mid-town” closet.  For the first time ever , the festival was moved to a park in downtown and the parade marched up one of the most famous streets in Memphis, if not in the whole country – Beale Street.

Our church's parade contingent

The whole event felt historic – we had more vendors and organizations with booths in the park, more groups and people marching in the parade, and more spectators than ever before.

There were two 100′ rainbow flags, carried by members of faith communities and by members of youth- centered groups such as GSAs from schools and a support group known as MAGY – Memphis Area Gay Youth.

My small church, with just over 100 adult members, turned out 40 adults and 11 children to help set up our booth, hand out information, walk in the parade, and/or break down our display.

Me and our minister at our festival booth

The response from the public lining the sidelines of the parade was tremendous!  Applause, cheers, flag waving, and affirming signs greeted us as we turned the corner from 2nd street onto the cobblestones of Beale.

There is really no way to describe the feelings I experienced that day.  The beautiful weather, the friendly faces, and the party atmosphere made it one of the most memorable days of my life.  It gave me hope that, step by step, moment by moment, one person at a time, we are changing the world.  The time is now.  We are out of the closet.  We are who we are, and we aren’t ashamed to let the world know.  Be proud of who you are… that is what Pride Day is all about!

Praying for … vs Praying to…

When you pray, are you asking for something?  Being thankful for something?  Celebrating something?  Loving something or someone?

To whom do you direct your prayers – God?  The Universe?  Nature?

When I was growing up, my family went to church every Sunday.  We learned prayers that we recited every week.  We said Grace at every meal.  But I was just parroting what my parents did.  The prayers were memorized and could be said without thinking.  I didn’t pay much attention to what they were about, and I certainly didn’t make up my own.

When I moved out on my own, I stopped going to church, so I stopped praying.  At least I stopped the type of praying I used to do.  I felt it was hypocritical for me to pray to a God I didn’t believe in.  I stayed away from church for a long time.  It just didn’t fit with my view of the world and our place in it.

Then I discovered Unitarian Universalism – a denomination that didn’t dictate what I had to believe and that allowed for lots of different methods of worship and prayer.  I found a church and a community that lifts me up and gives me peace, that accepts my uncertainty while offering ideas to ponder.

During our weekly service, we light candles for those in our lives who are celebrating milestones or who are suffering in some way – we ask each other to “keep them in your thoughts” or to “send positive, healing energy”.  We don’t often ask specifically for prayers – I think because many people in the UU church associate praying with the religion of their youth, with asking God for help when they may not believe in God.  But we still want to ask someone for help.  So we ask each other, hoping that the collective energy that comes from being together will help those we are thinking of.

I often think about people I know who are facing a difficult time – perhaps they are suffering from an illness or have lost a family member.  Perhaps they are struggling financially or emotionally.  I hold them in my heart – it almost feels like a literal and physical holding – my chest feels fuller when I am thinking of them.   I “pray” for them by imagining myself wrapping them up in my arms and sharing strength.  I also envision guardian angels doing the same thing – wrapping their wings around the person, shielding them from pain and sorrow.

Is this praying?  Or is it only praying when the thoughts/words are directed to someone?  Not everyone will feel the same way about this.  It has taken me a while to figure out that, for myself, I do consider this kind of focused thought to be a form of prayer. I can pray for someone without praying to someone.

So today, I pray for:

Dad, that he may remain healthy in body, even as his mind continues to slip

Mom, that she have peace with the changes we are facing

My students, especially the one who lost her father last week

My school and its leaders, as they finalize the search for a new head

My church and its leaders, as they work to find a new minister

My family, both immediate and extended, that they continue to be well

All those who are suffering in mind, body or spirit, may they be happy, healthy and live with ease.

Finding Faith Through Doubt

This is a sermon I gave at my church, Neshoba Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, June 11.

Not long ago, I heard some good advice from a friend.  She was referencing Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, in which the author tells the story of her 10 year-old brother who had to write a report for school on the Birds of North America.  The young boy had been given 3 months in which to complete this assignment, but in the way of 10-year olds (and some 20 & 30 year olds and even some 40 year olds), he had put it off until the last possible moment.

As he faced a looming deadline, he began to panic and crawled under the kitchen table, crying that there was no way he could do this, it was too much.  He was completely overwhelmed by the prospect of having to write this report on the Birds of North America.  His father, who must have been a wise man, crawled under there with him and said it will all be OK.  You can do this.  You just have to take it one bird at a time.  Write the report bird by bird.

What great advice for all of us.  There are certainly days when I feel like crawling under the kitchen table because my to-do list seems impossibly long.  Or my workload seems extraordinarily complicated.  Or I have agreed to give a sermon at church and have no idea what to write.  I just need to remember that it will all be OK.  I can do this.  I just have to take it bird by bird.

I don’t have to write the whole sermon at once.  I just need to write the first paragraph.  Not even the first paragraph – just the first sentence.  Once I do that, then it will all start to flow.

Since I couldn’t even think of a first sentence when I sat down to write, I decided I would begin with a few jokes.  Break the ice, so to speak!  A quick Google search yielded plenty of results.  You may have heard these before, but as in most jokes, the humor is in the grain of truth that they contain!

So in the style of Jeff Foxworthy, who tells the redneck jokes, I have found several ways to tell if you are a UU.  Some of them I adapted to be relevant to us here at Neshoba.

You might be a UU if …

* you are unsure about the gender of God.

* you have ever been in an argument over whether or not breast milk is vegan.

* you dress for a formal evening out by wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and Birkenstocks (and your wife thinks you look great!)

* you get Newt Gingrich confused with the Grinch who Stole Christmas.

* the money you spent at Christmas last year on gifts for the Bond Homes was more than you spent on your mother.

* You think a Holy Day of Obligation means it is your turn to bring flowers.

And finally, you might be a UU if…

* you think the Holy Trinity is “reduce, reuse and recycle.”

I found another UU joke with a grain of truth:

To have a few doubts is normal.

To have many doubts is a crisis of faith.

To have constant doubts is a conversion to Unitarian Universalism

Doubt.  Now there’s a topic I can get behind!  My spiritual journey has been full of doubt – but according to Jose Bergamin Gutierrez, Spanish writer and poet, that can be a good thing.  He wrote “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” Another poet had similar feelings about doubt.  In his epic poem In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson penned this couplet:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Doubt comes very easily to me – probably to most people.  Faith takes more practice.  One of the benefits of doubt is that it has led me to learn more than I ever would have if I just blindly accepted the faith of my parents or of those around me.  Feeling doubt has given me permission to ask questions, to listen to others’ experiences, to search for answers in a variety of places.  It has given me reasons to explore my beliefs in the context of daily life.  And it has led me down paths I never would have explored if I had never questioned what I had been told to believe.

In doing some Internet research on the idea of doubt, I came across an author named Macrina Wiederkehr.  She is a Benedictine nun at an Arkansas convent and has written several books.  In one, I found a prayer that includes the line quoted in the order of service – May there always be a little faith in your doubt.   Gutierrez would probably say “May there always be a little doubt in your faith.”

Another of Sister Macrina’s books is titled A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary.  As a collector of angels, I was intrigued by the title.   Although there are a variety of ornaments on our holiday tree each year, there are definitely more angels than any other figure – it is truly a tree full of angels!   Really, throughout the year, you can find angels in my house.  I have quite a collection!

To me, angels represent the good in ourselves and in others.   They watch over me, helping me remember to treat others with kindness and to look for the good in those around me.  You can find images of angels everywhere.  They are depicted in art, sold as figurines and jewelry, even portrayed as characters in books and movies.  One image of angels that I like to picture in my mind was inspired by the Nora Ephron movie “Michael”, starring John Travolta and Andie McDowell.  In one scene, a small dog is hit by a truck and the title character scoops him up, wraps his wings around the lifeless body, and lo and behold, the dog jumps out of his arms, fully restored.  While that “miracle” may be a bit hard to believe, I love the image of our “guardian angels” holding us close, wrapping us up in their wings.

My mental image of angels is also partly inspired by Frank Peretti’s book This Present Darkness – a story of a spiritual battle between angels and demons, the classic conflict of good vs. evil, with the force of good embodied in the large, white-robed figures that are strengthened by the prayers of the faithful.

While the idea of praying is one I have struggled with, I do like the image of angels gathering strength from people who pray for others.  At the Women’s Retreat this past April, I attended a workshop titled “Praying in Color”.  In it, I learned that we can pray FOR someone without praying TO someone.  Praying can mean focusing one’s energy on one thought, one action, one person.  Holding that person in your heart, sending good thoughts out into the universe, blessing them with your love.  When I pray for someone, I like to envision them surrounded by light and love, wrapped in the wings of an angel.

Another inspiration for me is a song by the group Alabama called Angels Among Us.  It tells the story of a young boy who gets lost in the woods and a mysterious figure who appears and helps him home.  The chorus goes like this:

I believe there are angels among us

Sent down to us from somewhere up above

They come to you and me in our darkest hours

To show us how to live

To teach us how to give

To guide us with a light of love

Whether or not you believe in supernatural, miraculous events, in the battle between the forces of good and evil, in the appearance and disappearance of mysterious figures, the idea that there are people around us who help in times of trouble, who share our pain and our joy, who teach us how to live and give and love, can be very comforting.

Over the years, I have found some of those angels among us – friends who have offered support when I needed it, a shoulder to lean on when I was feeling vulnerable, a sounding board when I had to talk through a problem, a wise word when I was feeling unsure.  So while I often doubt the existence of God in the traditional sense, I do believe in angels. They are all around me.  Unfortunately, sometimes I get too caught up in my life to pay attention.  I need to remember to take the time in my busy days to look for them.

The second part of the title of Sister Macrina’s book, A Tree Full of Angels, is about seeing the Holy in the Ordinary.  One thing that I have learned in my quest for answers is that the sacred is not limited to religious figures, ancient writings, or dogmatic creeds.  I have learned to look for the Holy in the mundane, to experience the divine in others, to find those moments of grace between the pages of daily life.

As many of you know, I have talked before about my discomfort with the idea of God – at least the God of my childhood.  But I am fairly comfortable with the idea of a Higher Power.  For me, that Higher Power is manifested in ourselves.  I believe that there is something divine in each one of us, something sacred in all that we see and do and experience in this world.

When we join together in community, whether during Sunday morning service, a Friday night POW gathering, a Tuesday evening committee meeting, or a Saturday Circle Supper, we are creating a sacred space just by sharing ourselves with each other.

When we walk a labyrinth or serve at a soup kitchen or welcome a new member, we are experiencing the divine in ourselves and in others.   We are sanctifying the rituals of daily life.  By living fully in each moment, we can learn to find the holy in the ordinary.  We can find a blessing in the daily events of our lives.

Those blessings can come in many forms — the good, the bad, and even the ugly.  Blessing is an interesting word.  We can offer blessings and we can receive blessings.  We bless and are blessed by those in our lives who love and support us.  We are also blessed by the beauty of the natural world, by that which inspires and excites us.  We welcome the blessings of all the positive things that happen to us as we journey through life.

But we can also be blessed by the difficult times, by the challenges we face, by our doubts and by those who do not support us.  We are blessed by these trials because they present us with opportunities – even uncertainty is an opportunity.  Everything we do and everything that crosses our path – people, situations, ideas – all have the potential to contribute to our growth and understanding.

A faith that is tested can give us the opportunity to explore other traditions and learn more about who we are as individuals. An unexpected death can bring a family closer together in shared grief.  An injustice in the world can offer us the chance to stand up for what we believe.  A family illness can create an opportunity to learn things we might not have otherwise.

One of the challenges I have been dealing with recently is my father’s declining cognition.  While Alzheimer’s robs us of the people we know today, one blessing has been that I have learned more about who my father was as he moves further and further back in time.  I am learning about his life as a child on the farm, as a young man in the navy and as a husband and father working to support his family.  Another blessing in this difficult time is that I feel that in helping to care for him, I am, in a small way, repaying him for all that he has done for me over the years.

So back to the image of the boy under the table.  When I am feeling overwhelmed by the doubts and challenges of life, when I can’t see the blessings I know are there, when I am too rushed to notice the angels among us, I need to remember, it will all be OK.  I need to come out from under the kitchen table, face my challenges head on, and seek those blessings, those sacred moments, those hints of the holy in the daily rituals of life, one at a time.  Bird by bird.

On being Unitarian…

I am a Unitarian Universalist.  That is such a tongue twister that we are often just known as Unitarians.  I know there are other Unitarians out there, but most people probably don’t know much about this particular faith tradition.  Actually, I am still learning about it myself!  The Unitarian Universalist church has a rich history that involves the blending of 2 traditions – Universalism and Unitarianism – both of which started hundreds of years ago in Europe. The Unitarians were primarily known for their belief in the unity of God rather than the trinity – in other words, they believed in the moral authority of Jesus, but not necessarily his divinity.  The Universalists on the other hand were known for their belief in universal salvation – that everyone would eventually be united with the Holy, that no one would be condemned for eternity.  After these two denominations began to emerge in America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Unitarians and Universalists grew closer and closer in their theology. Eventually, by the early 1960’s, the two American branches combined and formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.

This relatively new denomination is not based on just one or the other of its predecessors, but a real blending of concepts from both, focusing on their commonalities of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance. It also incorporates lots of ideas from other faith traditions. In fact, people from many different backgrounds and faiths – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and even Pagan – all can feel affirmed in the Unitarian church.

Unitarian Universalism is very different from most other religions in that it doesn’t have a specific doctrine or creed.  How that works is somewhat difficult to explain, especially in under 1000 words, but I will give it a try!   I read recently that the word Religion comes from the same root as the word “ligament”.  I am sure you have heard of ligaments… muscles.  Both words have to do with that which holds us or binds us together. When someone talks about their religion, they are usually referring to a particular set of beliefs, shared by the members of that group, that bind them together.   For example, members of certain religions often share a belief in one or more particular deities, in a single written source as the word of God, in certain rituals such as baptism or Holy Eucharist, or in creeds that promise salvation to the believers.

Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, believe none of these… or all of these… or some combination of these. In the Unitarian faith, what binds us together is not a common set of religious beliefs but rather a common set of values and attitudes towards life.  Some Unitarians say that we as a group have many beliefs, but one faith, that we don’t have to believe alike to love alike.  In fact, within any Unitarian congregation, you will probably find lots of different beliefs, with no one judging anyone else as being wrong.

Unitarian Universalism is known as a liberal theology – meaning it supports broadminded thinking about spiritual issues and offers the freedom to choose our own beliefs. As I mentioned, the Unitarian church doesn’t have one particular creed that we all ascribe to or even one scripture that we all follow – instead we use lots of different sources of inspiration, both religious and secular, written and experienced.   It is a tradition that focuses more on how we live our life, how we treat each other, and less on dictating what we should believe – some people say we value Deeds over Creeds; service and diversity over dogma and unity of thought.

What Unitarian Universalists do have in common is a set of 7 guiding Principles that were written by members of the faith and adopted by the national association. These principles compel us to value and affirm every living being, to treat them with compassion, to serve the needs of others and to acknowledge the interconnected-ness of human life and all that is around us.

In simplified language, the seven principles are:
1. Everyone has worth and is important.
2. Be kind in all you do.
3. We are free to learn and grow together.
4. Seek the truth.
5. All people need a voice – democracy in all things.
6. Build a fair and peaceful world.
7. Care for the Earth and all that is in it.

The fourth principle – seek the truth – represents another aspect of the Unitarian church that is different from many other religions, particularly those that use the Bible as the source of all truth. Unitarians generally accept the view that Truth (with a capital T) is an evolving, growing, living thing for which we are, and will continue to be, searching. It isn’t limited to what has already been written; it continues to be revealed to us all.

Unitarians are known to be very tolerant of, even welcoming to, diverse points of view.  Many feel that everyone brings a part of the truth with him or her, and that it is through questioning each other and sharing our experiences and faith that we can continue to learn and that the ultimate truth will be revealed.

So, my story… Well, like many Unitarian Universalists, I was raised in a more “traditional” church – most of my family is actually Catholic, so I grew up going to Mass every Sunday. It didn’t take me long to realize that THAT was not the path for me to follow – even in high school, I remember feeling somewhat hypocritical when I would attend church with my parents because I didn’t believe what everyone around me seemed to.  Although I knew I wasn’t going to follow the Catholic path, it took many years and much introspection for me to find my own direction.

For a long time – all through college and for several years beyond, I didn’t go to church at all.  After college, I lived in Virginia and taught at a school that was not religiously affiliated at all, so we didn’t have chapel every day like we do here. I also didn’t feel the need to go to church on Sundays since I didn’t believe in all the things that church represented to me, at least not in the way that I assumed one was supposed to.  But after reading a book called “This Present Darkness”, and doing a lot of thinking about what I did believe, I realized that I didn’t have to be religious to be spiritual, that I didn’t have to believe exactly what a particular church taught to be a part of one.   So one Sunday morning, I decided to check out an Episcopal church that I had driven by many times.

The sermon that day really spoke to me and I started attending service there on a regular basis.  It was nice, for a while, but I think that was mostly because it felt familiar.  Not only was the ceremony similar to what I had been raised with – Catholic Mass and Episcopalian Eucharist services are very similar – but I had attended an Episcopal high school, so I felt fairly comfortable in that environment.  I thought at the time that it was a better fit for me than being Catholic – it seemed to be less rigid in what you were supposed to believe, but still had the structure I was used to.   After a while, though, I realized being an Episcopalian wasn’t quite right either.  I was still wrestling with what exactly I believed in and although St. John’s (the church I had been attending) was a friendly place, it still didn’t feel like “home”.

When I moved to Memphis 11 years ago, I started teaching at an Episcopal school where we have chapel every day.  I thought – OK, I go to church 5 days a week – I don’t need to go on Sundays.  And besides, where would I go?  I certainly wasn’t Catholic, nor did I feel like I was Episcopalian.  I wasn’t sure what I was, so I decided to be nothing.  But I did feel like there was something missing – I wanted to belong somewhere.  I just didn’t know where… I wanted to find a spiritual home that would match what I did believe and not admonish me for what I didn’t.

A few years ago, during one of our daily chapel services, we had a speaker who was a female Rabbi at a local synagogue.  Much of what she had to say resonated with me, so I thought hey – that’s it!  Maybe I should look into becoming Jewish!  From what I could tell, it seemed to fit my beliefs better than anything else had so far.  Well, in doing some research on the internet, I soon found a website on which I could take an online quiz.  If I answered a list of questions about my beliefs, it would point me in the direction of a religion.  Surely it would tell me I should be Jewish!  So I took the quiz, answered each question as best I could – including some “I’m not sure’s” – and lo and behold, the website told me I was a perfect match for….. Unitarian Universalism!  Who knew?

I had heard of Unitarian churches… I had seen one near where I lived in Virginia and knew someone who went there, but didn’t know much about it.  I also knew that there were 2 Unitarian churches here in Memphis – a friend had invited me to the Church of the River once and she mentioned that there was another Unitarian church further east.   At the time, I wasn’t looking for a church, so didn’t think anything more about it.  Well, when I decided to check out this “perfect match” religion, I realized that the Church of the River is all the way downtown and I live in Cordova. I didn’t really want to have to drive that far.  I wasn’t sure where the other one was, but I was sure it was closer than downtown… so I looked it up in the phone book.  Again, my research turned up a surprising answer!  I found out that Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church is in … Cordova!  About 5 minutes from my house!  I figured it was a sign!  So I went … the very next Sunday.  And the next.  And the next.  Each week I went back, I was more and more convinced that I had found where I needed to be.  Neshoba is a relatively small congregation, but very much a welcoming one, and that is nice – I found it was really easy to meet people and to get involved.  I had finally found a church that gave me the freedom to explore my own beliefs and to view the Divine in a way that was meaningful to me.

According to the weekly bulletin, Neshoba describes itself as: “an intentionally diverse liberal religious community” that “fosters religious growth and spiritual learning.”   The minister, the other members, and the printed materials that I was offered all let me know that no matter where I was on my religious and spiritual journey, with all my doubts and questions, passions and beliefs, certainty and uncertainty, I was welcome at Neshoba.

The more I spend time there, and the more I learn, the more I come to realize that I have probably been a Unitarian Universalist all my life, but just didn’t know it!  I have a long way to go in my spiritual growth, but being a part of such a supportive community makes the journey safe and fun!  By the way, if you are wondering about that online quiz… it is at beliefnet.com.

The church service at Neshoba isn’t that different than other places.  It involves singing, readings, prayers, a sermon and ceremonial candle lighting.  One of my favorite parts of the weekly service is after the peace candle ceremony when we all join in saying what we call our Affirmation of Covenant.  A covenant is an agreement that you promise to uphold.  This affirmation is a covenant that we enter into with God (however we define that) and with our fellow human beings.  It is the closest thing we have to a creed that we follow. I would like to end with it because it really sums up what being a Unitarian Universalist means to me:

Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is our sacrament and service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve human need to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine;
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.