Best of UU

“each of us can rise above. . .”

Filed under: Reflections — Jess at 12:17 pm on Thursday, May 8, 2008

The struggle between individualism and communalism is a common one in many religions, but Unitarian Universalism has a unique position, being without a central creed for the community to fall back upon in times of disagreement. However, we are able to find common ground in our values, our ideals, and our belief that Unitarian Universalism has a saving message that the world needs to hear.

In this short excerpt from his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama articulates the tension that exists between balancing these two ideals, the good of the individual and the good of the community, on a national and cultural level. I find that his words aptly describe the challenges in our church communities as well, particularly churches that are going through times of transition and change.

Senator Obama is not a Unitarian Universalist; he belongs to our sister-denomination, the United Church of Christ, whose core ideals are very much in line with our own.

from The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream

by Senator Barack Obama

At its most elemental level, we understand our liberty in a negative sense. As a general rule we believe in the right to be left alone, and are suspicious of those–whether Big Brother or nosy neighbors–who want to meddle in our business. But we understand our liberty in a more positive sense as well, in the idea of opportunity and the subsidiary values that help realize opportunity–all those homespun virtues that Benjamin Franklin first popularized in Poor Richard’s Alamanack and that have continued to inspire our allegiance through successive generations. The values of self-reliance and self-improvement and risk-taking. The values of drive, discipline, temperance, and hard work. The values of thrift and personal responsibility.

These values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will–a confidence that through pluck and sweat and smarts, each of us can rise above the circumstances of our birth. But these values also express a broader confidence that so long as individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole will prosper. Our system of self-government and our free-market economy depend on the majority of individual Americans adhering to these values. The legitimacy of our government and our economy depend on the degree to which these values are rewarded, which is why the values of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination complement rather than impinge on our liberty.

If we Americans are individualistic at heart, if we instinctively chafe against a past of tribal allegiances, traditions, customs, and castes, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all we are. Our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends. We value the imperatives of family and the cross-generational obligations that family implies. We value community, the neighborliness that expresses itself through raising the barn or coaching the soccer team. We value patriotism and the obligations of citizenship, a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of our nation. We value a faith in something bigger than ourselves, whether that something expresses itself in formal religion or ethical precepts. And we value the constellation of behaviors that express our mutual regard for one another: honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy, and compassion.

Source: from Chapter 2 of The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama.

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“to dance across the great void. . .”

Filed under: Reflections — Jess at 1:32 pm on Thursday, May 1, 2008

Today is May Day, Beltane, a celebration of spring for many people, especially including those who choose the path of earth-centered, or pagan, religious traditions. This creation story comes from Lady Abigail, high priestess of the Ravensgrove Coven in Greenfield, Indiana, and was taught to her by her great-grandmother. It strikes me as a story that would be most welcome in our Unitarian Universalist circles as well.

Mother Earth and Sister Moon: A Beltaine Story of Creation

by Lady Abigail, remembered from her great-grandmother

In the beginning, there was no land and no water, no stars and no sky. Only a great void filled with all that could be. Living within the void was creation, not yet by name for no words had yet been spoken. Silence was the void.

Then like a whispering wind gentle on a summer night, a sound crossed the great void. Our Grandmother of the Night called to the Grandfather of the Day. “Grandfather, do you see we are alone and have no children; our sky is empty and our hearts alone.”

Suddenly, Grandfather Day spoke in a deep thundering voice. “Then we shall have Children: daughters, two daughters.”

(Read on … )

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“connected to something larger, or deeper. . .”

Filed under: Reflections — Jess at 1:40 pm on Thursday, April 3, 2008

Today, another perspective on the use of religious language in our Unitarian Universalist churches, this time from lay preacher Bruce Arnold, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, New Bern, North Carolina.

Mr. Arnold argues that avoiding certain aspects of religious language does more harm than good, particularly in a congregation that aims to welcome a greater number of people into their midst. He offers a challenge to his fellowship, to reach deeper into what it means to be a religious community and engage with that depth.

Note: I am always looking for more good material by our lay members, not just ministers or historical figures, but these pieces are hard to find. If you’ve written, or heard, something that you think belongs on this site, please drop me a line!

A Rose by Any Other Name

by Bruce Arnold

Words have power.

They say sticks and stones will break your bones but words can never hurt you. They are wrong about a lot of things. Over and over, my domestic violence patients have said that the bruises heal and the broken bones knit up, but the cruel words last forever.

Words have power.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword. They are right about a lot of things also. During World War II, when Churchill warned Josef Stalin against conflict with the Pope, he replied scornfully “The Pope! How many divisions does he have?” The Soviet Union no longer exists. John Paul II left the papacy stronger than it had been in a century.

Words have power.

Talk about power: In May of 1961, John F. Kennedy gave a stirring speech about putting a man on the moon, at a time when we had not even worked the bugs out of the Atlas rocket. Just over 8 years later, Neil Armstrong fulfilled that promise, with stirring words of his own.

Words have power.

(Read on … )

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“In view of the future or possible. . .”

Filed under: History, Reflections — Jess at 10:14 am on Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s Walden has long been a source of wisdom for Unitarian Universalists. This excerpt, from the chapter titled “Conclusion,” calls us to a higher purpose than the deep meditation in solitude usually envisioned when Walden is invoked.

from Walden, “Conclusion”

by Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862)

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and confortuity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

. . .

I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression. Who that has heard a strain of music feared then lest he should speak extravagantly any more forever? In view of the future or possible, we should live quite laxly and undefined in front, our outlines dim and misty on that side; as our shadows reveal an insensible perspiration toward the sun. The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.

Source: excerpted from the chapter “Conclusion” in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in the public domain. For further reading, see Rev. Patrick O’Neil’s brilliant sermon, “Out from Walden.”

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“to seek the true, the good and the beautiful. . .”

Filed under: History, Reflections — Jess at 7:27 pm on Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Rev. A. Powell Davies (June 5, 1902-September 26, 1957) was remarkable in the way he could say and write deeply profound ideas in just a few, well-chosen words. This short piece is from the collection of his writings edited by Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion by A. Powell Davies. In it, an affirmation, and a challenge.

Is This Your Religion?

by Rev. A. Powell Davies (June 5, 1902-September 26, 1957)

We are the consummation of thousands of years of religious history. We are thousands of years that have stripped off superstition and battled with tyranny; thousands of years that struggled to take fear out of religion–to take it right out of human life; thousands of years that have marched, sometimes joyfully, sometimes in agony, toward spiritual emancipation. We are indeed the consummation of something.

Yet in this world of blood and sorrow it is scarcely important, hardly worth mentioning, unless in addition we are the beginning of something, unless our religion is new–the religion that has always been new in every prophet who died rather than forsake it; the religion that has been buried over and over again in creeds and rituals and sacred sepulchers and yet has always come to life; the religion that today is new all over the earth, stammering itself into utterance in every language known to humankind.

The religion that says freedom!–freedom from ignorance and false belief; freedom from spurious claims and bitter prejudices; freedom to seek the truth, both old and new, and freedom to follow it, freedom from the hates and greeds that divide humankind and spill the blood of every generation; freedom for honest thought, freedom for equal justice, freedom to seek the true, the good and the beautiful with minds unimpaired by cramping dogmas and spirits uncrippled by abject dependence. The religion that says humankind is not divided–except by ignorance and prejudice and hate; the religion that sees humankind as naturally one and waiting to be spiritually united; the religion that proclaims an end to all exclusions–and declares a brother-and sisterhood unbounded! The religion that knows that we shall never find the fullness of the wonder and the glory of life untl we are ready to share it, that we shall never have hearts big enough for the love God until we have made them big enough for the worldwide love of one another.

As you have listened to me, have you though perchance that this is your religion? If you have, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world you live in: the fearful cruelties, the enmities, the hate, the bitter prejudices, the need of such a world for such a faith. And if you still can say that this of which I have spoken is your religion, then ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?

Source: “Is This Your Religion?” by Rev. A. Powell Davies, as presented in Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion by A. Powell Davies, Edited By Rev. Dr. Forrest Church.

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“the circles of love radiate out. . .”

Filed under: Creative, Reflections — Jess at 12:29 pm on Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A video today, created by the Rev. Michael McGee, lead team minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA. Rev. McGee has made four videos titled “Two-Minute Timeouts,” in which he gives a short reflection, with imagery, on Unitarian Universalist spiritual life. This is the first.

Two Minute Timeout

by the Rev. Michael McGee

Source: “Two Minute Timeout” by the Rev. Michael McGee, lead team minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA, as published on YouTube. Hat tip, Shelby Meyerhoff at the UUWorld’s “Interdependent Web.”

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“our love of nature and our love of one another. . .”

Filed under: Reflections — Jess at 11:56 am on Thursday, March 6, 2008

The past few readings have explored the Unitarian Universalist perspective of the human place in the natural world, particularly in the context of evolutionary science. But what of our understanding of the concept of God, in the light of scientific progress? Indeed, many among our number have dismissed the idea of a deity as irrelevant.

However, evolutionary evangelist Rev. Michael Dowd has a way of bringing the language of faith into a marriage with scientific language in his new book, Thank God for Evolution! He argues that we need not abandon the language of religion as we discover more about the Universe around us, but that the use of metaphor is a valuable insight into the human experience of the Universe. His view of God is much larger than the traditional personal deity described in many faiths relying on what he terms “flat earth” theology, or theology developed when humanity knew the earth was flat and orbited by the sun. Science and religion can exist in a greater harmony, in this view, and enhance each other as we search for meaning in our lives.

The entire book is available as a free download at, and is very thought-provoking reading.

Experiencing God versus Thinking about God

from Thank God For Evolution!, by Rev. Michael Dowd

“Thinking about God is no substitute for tasting God, and talking about God is no substitute for giving people ways of experiencing God.” — MATTHEW FOX

Our hominid ancestors experienced Reality as divine. For them, Nature was majestic, mysterious, awesome, benevolent, occasionally severe, all-powerful, nourishing, and more. Virtually every human attribute (the bad, as well as the good) was not only mirrored but also magnified in the mysterious forces of the natural world. Our ancestors experienced Reality this way long before words would label the experience—indeed, before there were verbalized beliefs of any kind. Most beliefs, rational and irrational, spring from the womb of symbolic language.

(Read on … )

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“going beyond the surface understanding of life. . .”

Filed under: Reflections — Jess at 9:54 am on Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Religious naturalism offers additional insight into this exploration of the place of humanity in the natural world, and what meaning we can find in a more intentional approach to living in it. The Rev. Jerome A. Stone, Ph.D. wrote this piece (PDF) in the Meadville Lombard Theological School’s Journal of Liberal Religion in the Fall of 2000, explaining his own personal experiences and how they have informed his view of the world around him. Rev. Stone is Professor Emeritus at William Rainey Harper College, frequently serves as an adjunct faculty member at Meadville Lombard Theological School, and is the author of The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalists Philosophy of Religion.

from “What is Religious Naturalism?”

by Rev. Jerome A. Stone

The key word that I now use in articulating this approach [to religious naturalism] is “sacred.” I learned this word and how to use it by attending services as a child and early adolescent in a liberal Protestant church. We did not use this word often, but when we did it always carried a notion of respect. You held something sacred by treating it with respect. We referred to Sunday as a sacred day. Of course, we were explicitly taught that all days were holy, but that by observing one day a week as sacred it helped us realize that all days were holy. This non-dogmatic yet traditional upbringing is here noted, although its degree of importance calls for further reflection. Later through graduate study in both the Christian tradition and the major religions of the world I became familiar with the classical texts and theorists concerning the sacred.

Now I wish to select four events from my experience which I have learned to think of as sacred. I will briefly depict them. What I wish to emphasize is their overriding importance in my life.

I remember the day my father died. I was sitting in my apartment feeling rather sad when my daughter, at that time about eight years old, came home from school. When I told her what had happened, she said, “Oh, Dad” and put her arm around me. It was one of the most comforting and supportive moments of my life.

(Read on … )

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“a part of an interconnected, sacred whole. . .”

Filed under: History, Reflections — Jess at 11:18 am on Thursday, February 28, 2008

We’ve seen two historical contrasting approaches to a religious viewpoint of the natural world, particularly the theory of evolution, from Rev. Jabez Sunderland and French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and now we come to the present.

The 2005 report from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal, Engaging our Theological Diversity (very long PDF), also tackled this question. They took statements from current members of Unitarian Universalist congregations, conducted surveys, and looked at Unitarian Universalist publications, and came up with this summary of a typical Unitarian Universalist understanding of the universe.

How Do We Understand the Universe?

from Engaging Our Theological Diversity, the report of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal

One of the primary functions of religion is to provide people with a framework for understanding the physical world and their place in it. The Principle that most clearly expresses contemporary Unitarian Universalist cosmology is belief in the interdependent web of all existence. This guiding Principle fuels much of modern-day UU social justice and advocacy work related to environmentalism, animals’ rights, economic injustice, and homelessness, among other worthy and related causes.

The current UU understanding of an interdependent and interconnected cosmos has evolved from a theology that we can trace back through our Christian roots to the Old Testament book of Genesis. Genesis is the cornerstone for some of the basic cosmology evident in all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam): specifically, Genesis 1:24-31 and 9:1-17. The most common interpretations of Genesis hold that human beings are the pinnacle of all creation. We are God’s favored creatures, with everything in creation—all the resources and all the animals—existing for our explicit benefit. Competing liberal interpretations hold that human beings are the custodians of creation, and that our role as custodians invokes great responsibility as well as privilege. Regardless of the interpretation to which one subscribes, both interpretations create a human-centered cosmology—humans are the centerpiece of creation.

(Read on … )

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“Something binds them together. . .”

Filed under: History, Reflections — Jess at 12:19 pm on Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Last week, we read a passage from Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland’s 1902 book, The Spark in the Clod: A Study in Evolution, in which he approached the scientific theory of evolution from a religious standpoint. Today, an opposite approach, where religious ideals are found from a more scientific point of view, in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, but also a scientist, and his ideas were unsuccessfully quashed by the Roman Catholic Church. His primary work, The Human Phenomenon, was written in the 1930s but published after his death in 1955. While he was not himself officially a Unitarian or Universalist, it can be argued that his theology was very much in line with both forms of liberal religion, and informs liberal theology today. A rather comprehensive chapter on Teilhard from the book God and Science, by Charles P. Henderson, can be found here for further reading.

What I find fascinating in this excerpt, on the nature of matter, is Teilhard’s conclusion of the interdependence of all things, from our very atoms.

from The Human Phenomenon

by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

Moving an object back into the past is equivalent to reducing it to its simplest elements. Followed as far as possible in the direction of their origins, the last fibers of the human composite are going to merge in our sight with the very stuff of the universe.

The stuff of the universe–that ultimate residue of the more and more advanced analyses of science. To know how to describe it properly, I have never developed the kind of direct and familiar contact with it that makes all the difference between someone who has read about it and someone who has experimented with it. I also know how dangerous it is to take as material for durable construction hypotheses conceived of as only meant to last a day, even in the minds of those who originate them.

(Read on … )

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