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What is a Devout Unitarian Universalist?

November 25, 2007


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What is a Devout Unitarian Universalist?

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Opening Words

Our opening words are from the King James Bible, Matthew, chapter 6, verses 5, 6 and 7. Jesus' followers had asked him how to pray. He said:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Chalice Lighting

Love is the doctrine of this fellowship - the quest of truth is its sacrament. Service is our prayer. To dwell together in peace, in knowledge and freedom, to seek humankind in friendship - this is our pledge.

Hymn, Litany and Children's Time

We sang a hymn, "Comfort Me". We read a litany inspired by that hymn, then I told the children the Sufi parable about six blind men and the elephant.


Ted Pack Good morning. I'm Ted Pack, your web master. Thank you for coming out on a holiday Sunday. This is the fourth time I've spoken on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The date gives some of you a chance to end the four-day weekend on a humorous note, especially if you like underwear jokes, and others a good excuse to stay home instead of listening to me again. This morning I'm going to talk about other people's perception of us Unitarian Universalists, and about some devout Unitarian Universalists.

Back in 2006 Yahoo!, the Internet giant, established a section called Yahoo! Answers, whereby people with questions could ask them and people with advice, experience or opinions could answer them. It became enormously popular; by the end of the year it had logged more than 60 million answers.

That number reminded me of a cartoon in the New Yorker, back when McDonald's restaurants had a marquee to advertise how many millions of hamburgers they had sold. The cartoon showed an anonymous hamburger stand with the legend "100 million sold!" And, in smaller letters, "80 million eaten, 60 million digested". Not all of those 60 million answers are calm, reasoned and informative. The average Yahoo users are in their teens and either can't spell properly or don't bother to do so when they are on-line.

Some of us who give advice to these poor lost waifs are older than that and, although we type poorly, we're smart enough to use a spell checker. I have been giving advice to my children since 1985, out of the goodness of my heart, sometimes before they even asked. They took it three or four times. Children differ; when you give advice to yours, they may take notes and thank you profusely. For me at least, a place where people actually ASK for advice is a powerful lure, and I spend too much time there, trying to shed some light in the darkness.

Yahoo Answers has categories and sub-categories, so people with questions about serving red wine or white with turkey don't have to contend with those who want to know where to find free sites to trace their family tree. They have a category for religion and spirituality, which is usually cluttered with fundamentalists and liberals arguing about evolution and creationism.

I search Yahoo Answers for the term "Unitarian" every once in a while. They usually call us that, giving short shrift to our Universalist half. It is a common problem with organizations that have two names. Mr. Roebuck must have rolled over in his grave when Sears finally stopped trying to use both names, and while Mr. Royce is still in the corporate name, most people call that luxury car a "Rolls".

The two most common misperceptions about us out there in cyber-space are that we are a cult, and that we are "the church that doesn't believe in anything". The two slanders are common in regular space, too. My sister and one of my sisters-in-law think I belong to a cult, and at least two of my friends asked me, after I mentioned which church I attend, if that wasn't the church that doesn't believe in anything. You may have had a similar problem with friends, relatives or neighbors.

The first slander, that we are a cult, is easy enough to disprove if you have a dictionary and know a bit of UU History. Cults have five hallmarks, according to the standard definition:

  1. They are small;
  2. They are unconventional;
  3. They are relatively new;
  4. They have a single, charismatic leader;
  5. They share a single mindset.

By contrast,

  1. We are small; there are only 200,000 of us in the USA.
  2. We are unconventional; not many churches welcome agnostics or atheists.
  3. But, we have been around for 200 years. President John Adams and his son, John Quincy, were Unitarians.
  4. But, our leader, the president of the UUA, changes at least every eight years. They are usually passionate, eloquent leaders, but calling them "charismatic" would be like calling me a talented singer.
  5. But, some of us believe in God, some don't. That is the widest variety of "mindset" you'll find in any religion today.

A side note from my high school days: In 1964 my parents were Republicans, so I figured I should be one too. I wore a "Goldwater for President" pin to class one day. Jeff Papeman, who sat behind me in homeroom for all four years, saw it and told me Barry Goldwater was a communist. Looking back, I suspect Jeff knew as much about political theory as the little chrome bulldog on the hood of a Mack truck knows about internal combustion engines. I think his reasoning was simple:

  1. He knew Barry Goldwater was bad, because his parents told him so
  2. Barry Goldwater was involved with politics, somehow
  3. Communists are bad
  4. Communists are also involved with politics, somehow
  5. Therefore Barry Goldwater must be a communist.

People who call us a cult know that we're small and unconventional, and any other distinction blurs, so they think we must be a cult.

I've known cults. My college girlfriend joined the Moonies. They lived communally, sharing their housing space, income, food, household chores and even their underwear. The mind boggles. Every time Jack Lackey and I turn out for a Buildings and Grounds work day I notice his waist is still a 34, while mine is a 40. I imagine trying to wear a pair of his Jockey shorts and I thank the Lord we're not a cult.

On to beliefs. Back in the 1970's and 1980's, the membership card we signed read "No statement of creed or belief, including this one, shall be a requirement for membership." That's how we gained the reputation of being the church that doesn't believe in anything.

I usually try to explain that one this way: There are Presbyterians who vote Democratic and Presbyterians who vote Republican. No one calls them "The church that doesn't vote for anything". There are Lutherans who eat lima beans and Lutherans who do not. No one calls them "The church that doesn't eat anything". There are UUs who believe very strongly that there is a God, others who believe just as strongly that there isn't, and some of us who, after a lifetime of pondering the subject, believe that the nature of God, is beyond human comprehension. People call us the "Church that doesn't believe in anything".

If you join a Christian church, you have to say that you believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that Jesus was born of a virgin and, if you are Catholic, that Mary was born without Sin. Then you swear you believe that everyone else was born covered with Original Sin the way seagulls get covered with goo when an oil tanker springs a leak. We don't make you say any of that to join us. We assume you will make up your own mind about the nature of God, and we'll provide interesting questions to help you.

There is a vast difference, to my mind but not to many outsiders, between a church full of individuals believing different things about the nature of God, and a church that doesn't believe anything.

I don't know all of your views on the nature of God. I know you don't all have the same idea. Some of you may feel, like I do, that mortals will always be like those blind men in the parable, never able to fully comprehend more than a small part of the elephant. Although you don't have the same views, I know you've thought long and hard about that nature, or you wouldn't be here; you'd be in a church that gave you a pat answer, a church with a new roof and a grand piano. As it is we have to thank Stephanie Stolte for patching our ceiling, hope the roof holds for another couple of years and listen in wonder to what Elizabeth and Kathryn can do with our little keyboard.

Besides, we DO have common beliefs. We believe in the worth and dignity of every person, for one. Someone who was racist or sexist or homophobic would be as unwelcome in our denomination as a Jew who took ham to a potluck, a Baptist who smoked, drank and gambled or a Zen Buddhist who didn't care about the sound of one hand clapping.

The question on Yahoo that inspired this sermon was:

What is a devout Universal Unitarian? I saw someone saying he was a devout Unitarian. Is that possible? Seems like some kind of contradiction to me.

I answered that question by saying devout UUs are is just like devout Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Pagans and Sikhs; people who lived by the principles of their faith and whose lives were a shining example of their faith's teachings. In our case, it would be someone who asks lots of good questions and values the worth and dignity of every person.

To take one example, I help a devout UU feed the homeless. His name is Bill Greer. The very first evening I helped, he asked me to put the dinner rolls into a serving tray. I dumped them out of the bag. He said "Could you arrange them nicely? Presentation is important."

My first thought, I am ashamed to admit, was that presentation might be important to me, but it shouldn't be to them. When I take my wife out to eat at a restaurant with cloth napkins and real flowers, I expect to pay $80 a couple. I expect the dessert to have two different sauces, with that trick the dessert chef does with a fork to make it seem like there is a flowering vine of raspberry sauce in the brown pool of chocolate. Sure, I thought, presentation is important to people willing to pay for it, like me. Why should it be important to bums living on charity?

Then the light dawned. Had I suited my actions to my thoughts, several people on the serving crew would have heard the sound of one hand smacking, as I smacked myself on the forehead. It is louder than the sound of one hand clapping. I realized the homeless were our dinner guests that night, even if some of them smelled bad. I also realized that Bill was living the principle of honoring the worth and dignity of every person and I hadn't been.

That was enough for the person who had posted the question on Yahoo. His question inspired me to think about other devout UUs, and about devotion itself.

Devout Jews, Christians and Muslims pray out loud. We rarely pray out loud in this church, and when we do we don't use vain repetitions. In that, we are following the passage from Matthew, which I read in our opening words. We aren't in complete harmony with it because we don't go into our closets when we pray. Indeed, this fellowship is a place where some people have come out of the closet.

Do members of our church ever pray? Constantly. As the words on the wall say, "Service is our Prayer". There is an old Quaker anecdote about that, which is at the top of this week's order of service. A Quaker takes his Lutheran neighbor to a meeting. As you may know, Quakers sit in silence until the Holy Spirit moves someone to speak. At this particular meeting, no one spoke. After an hour they got up to go home. The neighbor asked, "When is the service?" The Quaker told him "After the meeting, of course."

Bill doesn't work alone. Aynslie Frederickson and her son Adlai spend most of Sunday and Monday morning helping Bill with the meal for the homeless. They buy the groceries and cook parts of the meal. A whole team of people from our church spends Monday afternoon preparing the bulk of the meal, and another team serves it. They are praying with their actions.

My next example is, again, drawn from 55 years of learning by experience. If life was a new house and social skills were the wiring, I'd be the electrician who learns which circuits are live by touching each pair, then picking himself up off the floor every time he finds one.

I vividly remember going to a circle dinner at Jerry Jackman's house, and standing in line at the sink to wash a fork. We'd all assumed he had dessert forks for eight, thrown our dinner forks into the sink, then found out he didn't; his service for eight was a fork, knife and spoon each. If you ever eat escargot at Jerry's house, don't expect to use snail tongs. At the time I thought "Good grief! He's older than I am and still living like a graduate student!" Later I again whacked myself in the head, (figuratively) and realized he took the seventh principle, respecting the Interdependent Web of life, seriously; you don't need a dozen utensils per person to furnish a dining table. You can live simply and make less of an impact by doing so.

Do others of us pray with our actions? Certainly. For this next part I tried to come up with some examples that didn't involve someone else setting a good example and me whacking myself in the forehead afterwards. I thought it would be nice to have one person for each of the other five principles. It would also be nice to win the Lotto in a good week, and that isn't going to happen either. There are too many of you who do too many things to make a nice neat package. All I can do is hope the people I mention agree with my pick and the people I don't mention don't whack my forehead for me after the service.

Our second principle, "Justice, equity and compassion in human relations" was tough, because about half of you work on that one way or another. I picked Phyllis Young, who is the membership coordinator for the Memorial Society. Death is never fun, and I can't think of another life event that needs more compassion.

Our third principle is "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth". It is no accident that the Catholics use bread and wine for their communion; eating and drinking together is a universal act of community. We have communion too, only we serve more than bread and wine and we call it circle dinners or potlucks. People who do circle dinners accept each other, with all our flaws and, at our house at least, the fact that our cats beg at the table. Carol Lackey has coordinated circle dinners for years. Debbie Adiar and Shannon Lewis coordinated potlucks until this Tuesday, when the press of other duties led them to resign.

Many of us encourage spiritual growth; Ted Huering does it formally by chairing the adult RE program.

Principle four is "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Half of the charter members of Friends of the Library came from this Fellowship, back in 1973. We have a number of librarians among us; Sharon Arpoika is still working. Katherine Holmberg and Martin Zonligt have retired. They all spent their professional lives supporting the freedom of speech, even when what was said made people uncomfortable. Martin works with MICL, the Modesto Institute of Continuing Learning.

For our fifth principal, "The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process," I chose Dorothy Schmidt. She has worked with the League of Women Voters for years; she's been President of the county chapter numerous times. Democracy doesn't just happen; you have to work at it, and she has.

Our sixth principle is "The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all". I chose to emphasize the "justice for all" part, which means not just rich white straight people. Fred Herman and Tracy Herbeck helped found the local chapter of the ACLU. It fights for justice for the people who can't just call the lawyers their family keeps on retainer.

That finishes our list of principles, since I mentioned Jerry and number seven out of order. It doesn't finish all of the service our members do. I apologize again to those I didn't mention. I know many of you pray with your actions instead of your words. I know many of you speak for those who have no voice, and comfort those who need solace. If you are following along with the principles in the order of service, good. You may have thought of one, two or fifteen people who epitomize a principle. I hope you do. I hope you realize it without having to whack yourself in the forehead. I hope they inspire you to do a little praying yourselves.

[Delivered 25 November 2007. In my youth I hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney, was tear-gassed while watching a student riot at the University of California at Berkeley and served two years in Borneo as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The rest of my life has been rather dull.]

This is one of a series of homilies I wrote for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, in Modesto, California, from 2003 - 2014.

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