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Minister’s Letter for 2009-10 Pledge Drive

Dear Members and Supportive Friends,
I am confident that right now all our members and friends are searching their conscience, evaluating their financial capabilities, and reflecting on the importance of UUSS in their lives and its impact on the lives of so many others in the larger area. I have faith also in our church leaders to make hard but wise choices—even to challenge us to dig deeply and stretch ourselves to make UUSS stronger and more effective in the coming budget year.

This is what the pledge drive is all about. It’s about putting our faith and trust in one another. For a financial pledge is not a typical legal contract, it’s a personal commitment to support the church over a given year at a certain monetary level.

Imagine putting your trust in about 400 people that they will come through for you. Imagine that 400 people are putting their trust in you to do what you can.

Religious community in our tradition is based on the trust that we will be there for one another, that we will do what we can, and that we will ask for help if we need it. Our trust in one another is a blessing. Our trustworthiness is a blessing as a well.

So, trusting that I will be working for UUSS and serving with you in the 2009-10 church year, I am making my financial pledge in the Stewardship Campaign.

Folks who are new to congregational life may not have thought much about pledging, and may feel some stress or lack of clarity about how to think about making a pledge for the coming church year. As with all aspects of participation in a voluntary organization, the amount of your pledge is your own decision.

We ask only that everyone give the pledge drive thoughtful consideration and be as generous as they can in making their commitment. We have a wide range of pledge amounts, reflecting that as a congregation we are an economically diverse community. Indeed, some people pledge more because they realize that for others a much smaller pledge is a significant and generous one. We are in this together.

When you see the pledge card, you’ll see the suggestion that we think of our pledge in terms of a percentage of our anticipated total income. This has been a helpful practice for me, and I began learning it (at a fairly low percentage level) as a new UU and newly employed 20-something a long time ago in a church far away from here.

My percentage level has grown, and my feelings of connection, generosity, gratitude and personal mission have grown. I look at my charitable and church giving in total, and every year strive to give away 10-12% of my income to causes and organizations that feed me spiritually and put my values and hopes into practice.

To UUSS I’ll pledge 5% of my income for 2009-10. In addition to a church pledge, I give yearly to both of our our UU theological schools ( and and a number of other UU-related organizations ( , for example), and to public radio, health, human rights, hunger and arts organizations.

Why am I’m telling you all this? Well, I just sent my records off to my tax preparer and it’s all fresh in my mind. I also wish to thank you, because it’s your money I’m giving away! (At least it has been since I started here on August 1.) Your generosity supports my income, which enables me not only to eat, sleep and get around but also to support organizations that make a difference in the world. I didn’t use to think I could give away this much of my income, but I’ve learned that I can, and it makes me feel grateful and blessed to do so.

I have faith that as the nation goes through these economically tough times, we at UUSS will be here for one another.

I have faith that we all will do what we can to stretch ourselves and support the values we care about and strengthen this congregation which cares deeply about us and our world.

Thank you for the many blessings you’ve brought to my life so far!


The Fire of Commitment: Stewardship Sunday

The Warmth of Community and the Fire of Commitment
Stewardship Sunday, February 8, 2009, the UU Society of Sacramento

Homily I: Doug Kraft (see church web site)

Homily II: Roger Jones:
From 1997 until 2007, the first decade of my life as a UU minister, I served a congregation with about one third the membership of this one. In those 10 years, the part of parish life that would spike my anxiety without fail, year after year, was the annual stewardship campaign. Also known as the pledge drive, this is when members and friends of a congregation ask one another to make a financial commitment to the congregation. It happens in the winter—now, in fact—and the pledge commitments you and I make now will cover the budget year that begins in the summer.

Five years ago I was talking with an older colleague as we were both planning our sermons for pledge-drive kick-off Sunday. After 40 years of ministry, this elder told me, the pledge season continued to be a source of stress. Really? I asked, with dread. Yes, he said, but at least he no longer has diarrhea every year on the morning before he gives the kick-off sermon. At least I’ve not had that problem. Night sweats and insomnia? Yes. Dread and the urge to flee—yes, but that’s all.

Every pledge season, I’d consider other career options: a barista at Peet’s Coffee? I’d still be serving people, after all, and they do have a health insurance plan. Once I spied a listing of job openings in San Jose. One that stood out was for a part-time puppeteer. But it had no health plan. And, of course, I’m not a puppeteer. I’m a minister, I told myself. The anxiety of the pledge drive is just part of the package.

Why is there anxiety for a minister? Sometimes it might be the hope of a raise, but this time it could be just hoping to have a job next year. More often, however, it’s the longing to fund program improvements, add a staff position, or pay more competitive wages to current staff. Then there is a minister’s feeling of ultimate responsibility for the success of the campaign, even when most of the leadership and leg-work is done by devoted volunteers–and these folks have their own hopes and worries.

But for me, there was something else at the heart of my anxiety. It was the hope that the congregation would care as much as I cared about what we did and what we were. Would they believe deeply in supporting what we stand for? Would they put their faith in the future? Would they believe that a better, stronger congregation is within our reach? If I dared to care so much, would I be alone, left out on a limb?
And one more ministerial worry of mine: Would church members allow personal discomfort about money to become an obstacle to self-examination? Would it cloud thoughtful decision-making about what they could really do in support of the congregation?
People in our congregations, of course, represent a range of circumstances and attitudes about money. We have different comfort levels about money. Feelings vary from person to person, family to family. Indeed, there are even differences within families about the meaning and use of our financial resources.
How much is enough? How much is enough to earn and keep? How much is enough to save for the future? How much to give away and share in order to support the people, places and causes that we care about? We face these questions, or we avoid them, as family members or as single people, whether we belong to a congregation or not. These are major questions, and they have a spiritual dimension.

Attitudes about money are shaped by the culture in which we live. In prosperous times: What do I need to do to feel successful and secure, to keep ahead of the pack? In times of rising unemployment and declining asset values: What have I done to deserve this? Will I survive this, and what does survival look like? What plans can I keep, and which goals must be deferred?

Attitudes about money are shaped also by powerful experiences in our upbringing and messages given by our families of origin. Growing up, I received mixed messages about money, frugality, and generosity. My family lived comfortably. My father was a physician, and Mom didn’t need to work outside the home, yet there was a sense of insecurity about money.

My late father used to voice his resentments about taxes and government intrusion into his professional life. He would complain about not having enough money to pay for upcoming expenses. I now think that he was exaggerating, but as a child I didn’t know. When I was in first or second grade, my school handed out application forms for subsidized, free lunches, and I took one home. My mother had to explain to me that this was for low-income families, and we were not one.

If money was tight, it certainly didn’t keep him from indulging himself in a series of new cameras or a boat, or a nice new car every few years. I suspect that his problem was an attitude of scarcity and a lack of money management, not a lack of income. Though my mother was generous in giving to our church and local charities, she was a coupon-clipper, a frugal shopper. She studied the prices for things at the various grocery stores in town and bought only certain things from each one. Thanks to her, I’ve been known to stand in grocery store aisles agonizing to figure out the better deal on this or that product. My childhood messages of insecurity persisted into adulthood.
I didn’t learn how to face my finances, in a thoughtful and honest way, for a long time. What helped me learn how…was my UU church, when I was a new Unitarian Universalist, starting in my 20s. Thanks to ministers and lay leaders in my life, I learned a practice of generosity. I was able to stretch myself beyond my initial doubts and fears.

My invitation for you, and my request—is this: whether you are a member, friend, regular guest, or just a visitor on your way through the area—when it comes to feelings about money, don’t feel you need to hide from yourself.

Notice your feelings, urges, worries, and longings. Treat your reactions about money as only that—reactions, and treat yourself with acceptance and kindness. What we are about, I think—what we are about in these UU churches of ours—is to ask one another to explore our hearts and our minds with an attitude of compassion.

Every year, after the stewardship drive is over and the new budget is put in place, I ask myself: “Now, that wasn’t so painful, was it? Was it really that hard and stressful?” Well, yes it was. But it was worth it.
It was worth it because it invited me to look deeply inside myself and notice my reactions and emotional obstacles. It inspired me to give more generously than I had imagined I could.

Pledging to a congregation is an act of trust.

When it comes to the needs and goals of this congregation, you and I put our trust in one another’s spirit of participation and generosity.
We trust that our giving makes a difference.

We count on one another to follow through on our commitments to the best of our ability. This means that we trust that if we are having trouble, we can let the church know. If we need help, we will ask for it.
We put our faith in the leadership and staff of the church to manage our gifts with conscience, faithfulness, and gratitude.

We put our faith even in people we have not yet met, those who will set out on a quest for meaning, purpose, and spiritual nourishment in an inclusive religious community, those who will find us and join us in the years to come.

We trust that those yet to come will find this community to be the same precious gift that we know it to be, and will join with us to carry it forward into the future—in the words of a familiar phrase, to pay it forward.
To me, the pledge drive is an opportunity to learn more about myself, to dare and to grow, and above all, to trust in others. It is a lesson in commitment—the fire of commitment, which has motivated so many Unitarians and Universalists for so many generations.

So may it continue—our faith in one another, our community, ourselves, and our future. So may it be. Blessed be. Amen.

What Is the Religious Center of Unitarian Universalism—If Any?

What Is the Religious Center of Unitarian Universalism—If Any?

March 24, 2007

UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale, CA                                              

Hymns:   #305, “De Colores”; #194,“Faith Is a Forest”; #318, “We Would Be One.”


Reading:  “Some Questions You Might Ask,” a poem by Mary Oliver.

Is the soul solid, like iron?

Or is it tender and breakable, like

the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?

Who has it, and who doesn’t?

I keep looking around me.

The face of the moose is as sad

as the face of Jesus.

The swan opens her white wings slowly.

In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into

the darkness.

One question leads to another.

Does it have a shape?  Like an iceberg?

Like the eyes of a hummingbird?

Does it have one lung,

like the snake and the scallop?

Why should I have it, and not the camel?

Come to think of it,

what about the maple trees?

What about the blue iris?

What about all the little stones,

sitting alone in the moonlight?

What about roses, and lemons,

and their shining leaves?

What about the grass?





            What is the theological center of this faith tradition?  A number of Unitarian Universalist ministers and laypersons devote a lot of time asking that question, answering it, and even arguing about it.  A few doubt that it even has a center.  It’s too inclusive, too open to new beliefs, stories, and practices to keep its own theological center.  Some outside observers, critical ones that is, even doubt that this tradition of ours is a religion to begin with!

            If we are not a religion, when did we stop being one?  What was the tipping point?

Let’s take a few glimpses of our history.  In the late 1700s the untrained Christian preacher Hosea Ballou preached the gospel of universal salvation instead of a divine lottery of damnation. A loving God, like a loving parent, would not bring forth human lives only to torment some of them forever.  Hosea Ballou established new churches on this faith and converted many existing congregations, wholesale!  That was the beginning of Universalism in America.  Or was it the beginning of the end?  After great growth in numbers of churches and members during the nineteenth century, Universalism declined in size and influence in society.  It may have been a victim of its own success—or the success of its gospel.  Universalism lost uniqueness as other Mainline denominations held off the hellfire and preached less judgment and more love.  By the 1950s, less than two hundred years after its emergence, Universalism had become small and weak; what was left of it merged with the Unitarians in 1961.

In 1819 the educated liberal Christian minister William Ellery Channing preached a sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity.”  He advocated using our God-given ability to reason when reading the Holy Bible.  He preached on the inspiring humanity of Jesus, not his divinity, and promoted the dignity of all human beings.  Many traditional Christians, however would say then and say it now that you are not a Christian if you believe that Jesus was only a man.  Maybe Channing was the one who opened the way for us to jettison a religious identity.   But we point to that 1819 sermon as the pivotal event in starting the Unitarian movement in America!  Was it our beginning, or was it the top of a slippery slope? 

Perhaps it’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s fault!  In the 1830s he left the Unitarian ministry. With his Transcendentalist friends he wrote and spoke about a spirituality beyond words and institutions.  They opened us to the wisdom to be found in religions other than Christianity and Judaism.   Emerson wrote that a divine Spirit weaves through the natural world and through every person.  It is a spirit to which we can open ourselves whether or not we go to a church service.  He dared also to say that ministers should preach about real life, not really old books, and preach about our own lives, not lives long departed!  If we lost our center, maybe he’s the reason.  Maybe he threw it away—160 years ago!

But Unitarian Universalism is still here, and we are proud of Emerson.  He had a major influence on American literature, philosophy, education, religion, and politics.  A few weeks ago I heard a National Public Radio interview with U. S. Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who is running again for the Democratic presidential nomination.  He is proud of his populist economics, his plan for universal health care, and his pro-gay, pro-conservation and anti-war positions.  

The interviewer challenged him with some tough questions:  “Do you think you can get enough money to attract the attention you need to be credible?” 

In fact, Kucinich has drawn large and enthusiastic crowds when speaking around the country; so he told the journalist that all he needs is for the media to cover those events.  

“But don’t you need to make your message less liberal to gain popularity” the reporter asked.  “Don’t your advisors tell you to soften the message?”  Kucinich said [as I recall], “Well, one of my political advisors is Ralph Waldo Emerson.  And in his essay ‘Self Reliance,’ Emerson says:  “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”  Kucinich went on to say he trusts his message and he trusts the values of the American people.  He sees no reason to be someone he is not.  Given the shortage of political courage in these times, that’s remarkable! Listening to him brought tears to my eyes.  If a politician who is not a UU can find in Emerson the inspiration to say what he thinks, then I want to keep claiming Emerson as part of this movement.  I don’t think he took out our center, I think he enriched it.

By the 20th century, some Unitarians were promoting the movement of religious humanism.  In 1933 many ministers signed on to the first Humanist Manifesto, which called on religion to embrace reason, science, and ethics.  Humanism promoted an optimistic view of human nature and confidence in our potential for progress through science and education. 

Many Christian Unitarians resisted humanism.  They argued that the core of Unitarianism came from the Bible and the example of Jesus, and feared that humanism would cut out that core.  Outside our congregations, the humanist movement became antagonistic toward religion over the decades.  Inside our faith, many humanists suppressed or disparaged mentions of God, the Bible, prayer and the use of spiritual language.  In fact, the word humanist came to be another term for an atheist or agnostic.  Earlier, the dominant Christian Unitarians had been the inhospitable ones—they fought to keep the humanists out of the movement.  Their hostility was repaid once humanist ministers and congregations became the dominant ones, outnumbering the Christian one.  Most ministers took sides in the so called “humanist-theist controversy.”  I’m not sure when the controversy ended, but I experienced very little of it myself, and I’m glad. 

Did humanism take our center away from us?  I don’t think so.  The humanist-theist controversy was a fight not about our center but about our boundaries.  How big is the circle we draw to distinguish our faith?  Whom shall we let inside?  Those were the real questions.

These days our ministers make free and frequent use of theological metaphors and religious language, and many newcomers tell us they believe in God or they long to experience the spirit of the divine.  At the same time, in many UU congregations, our self-proclaimed atheists, agnostics and other humanists are pillars of the church.  Our circle has expanded again and again.  It has not weakened the core of our faith; it has enriched it.

Other challenges to prevailing notions of UU identity came from feminist theology and Neo-Pagan theology in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  After some resistance and debate, we embraced these approaches and integrated them into the UU movement. Now our seminarians study and wrestle with theologies from African Americans and other people of color, and from other parts of the world.  So many diverse ideas about the nature of God and humanity had been kept invisible or off to the margins; then our ministers became open to learning about them.

When people in a religious community have strong disagreements with one another about their community’s rituals, beliefs, values or structure they are validating that it has a religious identity.  It has a core.  And UUs have always disagreed about these aspects of our identity.  Identity matters…even if we don’t agree on what it is.  Such disagreements have taken place within most of the world religions—disputes can turn into scisms, provoke reformations, and generate new schools of thought and practice.  Denominations divide over disagreements, or new denominations form with new approaches.   

In my understanding of Unitarian Universalist history, when our people develop new theologies, or bring into our UU circle an unfamiliar approach or style, there has been resistance and controversy.  We UUs wrestle over the boundaries of our faith—we’ve wrestled over Transcendentalism, Humanism, Buddhism, Judaism, Neo-Paganism, and a recent resurgence of liberal Christianity among us—these paths have joined our faith tradition and communities, but not without with some struggles.  We may at first resist an unfamiliar religion’s claim to be included, we often end up including it.  We don’t split off into new denominations, we make room in this one.


What is a religion anyway, and how do you know you’ve spotted one?  

I’ve heard a variety of definitions and opinions about this—from people who claim to be religious and those who say they’re not.  Sometimes their definitions have a judgmental tone–about another’s religion or religion in general. In the nineteenth century some western scholars of religion looked at indigenous tribal cultures and said they had no religion at all.  That’s because the scholars didn’t see anything that looked like their idea of a religion!  By now the concept of religion and the study of it have become much larger, and more complicated.

I would say that a religion is a set of beliefs, rituals, and institutions. In some religious traditions, all three of these elements are powerful, but in other traditions at least one may have a subtle presence, and they are loosely held together.  But even in a loose relationship, the beliefs, rituals and institution structure depend on one another.  In the relationships among beliefs, rituals and structure, each of these elements carries the others along and is borne by them in return.

We do have rituals in this faith.  The structure of a worship service is a ritual in any tradition.  Even a Quaker meeting, when people spend most of the time sitting in silence, is a ritual.  In a UU church, a leader of worship might change the order of a service now and then, but not without care and thought.  Ritual patterns convey depths of meaning which words can fail to express.  (In the words of one religious encyclopedia, “Ritual is a language for saying things which are felt to be true and important but which are not [easily put in] scientific terms.

                        If I left the lighting of the chalice candle out of the order of worship, or if we skipped it, a number of people would notice, and some would say something.  If we omitted the weekly offering, people would notice.  They might not say anything, but they’d notice.  Imagine if we had neglected to schedule the Christmas Eve Candlelight service.  We’d probably hear about it. Some people might show up anyway, out of habit.

Some of you may recall an October Sunday afternoon in 2005, when the Reverend William “Scotty” McLennan led a forum here.  (He’s a UU minister serving as Stanford University’s Dean for Religious Life and the author of Finding Your Religion.) 

The title of his talk was, “Is Unitarian Universalism a Spiritual Path?”  He compares the world’s various spiritual traditions to various paths going up the sides of a mountain, all heading for the same point of fulfillment or discovery.  To choose a particular religious tradition in which we can immerse ourselves is like choosing one of those paths and walking it.  He asserts that making this choice is necessary to achieve spiritual depth.  He discourages “hiking alone,” wandering and weaving rather than taking one path.  It is a path blazed by generations of seekers and kept for us to find.  So, is Unitarian Universalism one of those spiritual paths?  Scotty says it’s not.  A path is a well-worn tradition, not an intersection of them.  What a UU church can offer is a place where seekers can bring their insights and spiritual practices together for mutual understanding and support.  We are not a spiritual path, he said, we are “a crossroads religion,” where Buddhist, Humanist, Neo-Pagan, Jewish and Christian seekers might meet one another.   Hearing his thesis, a number of us wanted to pursue this further, and asked about ways we can deepen in faith.  A few of us, however, were quite satisfied to remain at the crossroads and see who comes by.

These days it can be nearly impossible to find the time to give to such a path–to study, practice and deepen in one tradition.  This is a challenge even for some who were born on one of those paths, let alone for a newcomer to it. I know many people in Christian churches who have only basic knowledge of their tradition and its scriptures, and those who don’t even pray on a regular basis.  To find yourself born on an already-blazed path with a name like Christianity, Buddhism, et cetera, is not a guarantee that you will have an intimate knowledge of the path or understand how it was made and what you belong on the path.  Usually, to gain such knowledge takes intention, practice, and the support of a community—a religious infrastructure.

Several years ago I took a local civic organization’s walking tour of downtown San Jose. As our crowd walked from place to place I began talking with a woman a bit older than I am.  When I told her my line of work, she said that she was Jewish but non-practicing, more or less, and she had visited the downtown UU church on and off. Some years earlier she and her two children had lived in Dallas, Texas.  She took her two kids to the First Unitarian Church of Dallas nearly every week. 

Then, one day driving in the car with her teenage daughter and son present, she remarked at something clever her son said.  She joked:  “What do you expect from a smart Unitarian kid!”  He barked he shouted:  “I am not a Unitarian kid.  I am a Jewish kid who goes to a Unitarian church!”  Before that, she had not realized the importance to him of his Jewish heritage.  She decided she should do something about it.  She began taking her kids to a synagogue in Dallas for Jewish services.  By the time of this conversation, her kids had grown up.  I don’t remember whether her son was continuing to practice as an adult, but she told me that her daughter is a Rabbi!  Whether Unitarian Universalism is its own spiritual path, or whether we maintain the religious crossroads, one of our gifts has been to help others relocate their own paths, or find a new one, even if it’s not the same as our path.

So, what is the center of this UU faith?  Though we have a theological history, as a movement we no longer have one theology, one historical narrative, or one set of spiritual practices—if we ever did.  It’s true that you do not have to subscribe to a creed to join a UU church.  Nevertheless we do have a religious center. 

At the center of our tradition is a faith in the interdependent individual.  This, I believe, is the core from which our aspirations and actions flow.  It is our starting point of our faith, not its boundary.  The circle of our tradition is not so rigid that it will not embrace people with new ideas and beliefs. 

The interdependent individual.  Every person is unique and unrepeatable, with dignity and worth.  Each one has a measure of freedom, or should have it. To have a faith in the individual is to affirm the worth and dignity of every person. 

At the same time, everyone is held by a network of relationships.  We are each embedded in the web of creation, not separate from it.  For our existence and enrichment, we depend on other people, other beings, the natural world, the cosmos, and on a holy mystery that exists beyond our naming.  We are dependent on generations of people before us who prepared the way.  Each of us is responsible for using our freedom with mindfulness.  Our actions affect the world—the world close by us, and the distant lands and people that seem a world away.

We have a basic faith in the interdependent individual—everyone with dignity–every one, every being, connected to the rest of creation. 

The center of this tradition holds many ways of speaking about it as a religion, so at times it may be a challenge to describe Unitarian Universalism in its fullness.  The center is always changing, growing.  It changes as we enlarge the circle to embrace those who bring to us unfamiliar words and new ways of being religious. 

This religious tradition of ours is an embracing faith.

 So may it always be, and so may we live.  Amen. 



“Religion,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., v. 12, p. 56.

“Ritual,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., v. 12, p. 65.

Letter to Explain the Pledge Process to New Members

Dear New Friends and Prospective Members,

Welcome to the congregation!    I’m glad you are considering membership here.

These words come from the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, a UU minister who is the president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley: “Over the years in ministry, I’ve learned that no one comes to church for a petty reason.”

I’ve learned that as well. People don’t call to make an appointment with a minister for trivial reasons. No person or family shows up on Sunday mornings just to kill time. Most of our visitors don’t seek us out unless something has set them on a search for belonging, for celebration, and for meaning.

Nobody joins this congregation and nobody supports it for trivial reasons. I think of the volunteers–trustees, committee members, Religious Education teachers, worship leaders, musicians, ushers, Ministry Circle leaders, Lay Ministry listeners, and cooks, among others.
I think of the devoted members and friends who stretch themselves to support the congregation with generous financial pledges every year.

Doug and I invite you to consider the enclosed materials and your own financial circumstances, and to make a generous pledge commitment for the current fiscal year.
Many people think of their pledge in terms of a percentage of their income. I encourage all Unitarian Universalists to aim toward giving, in the aggregate, at least 10% of their annual income to organizations that serve the greater good. One of these organizations, of course, would be their church. I have pledged at least 5% of my income to my churches and about 5% to other institutions, causes, and charities.

The current pledges to UUSS range from less than $10 a month to nearly $20,000 a year. This is an economically diverse congregation. This diversity is what it means to be part of a community. Contributions of all sizes are valued and appreciated.

Some can afford to give more than others, and some less. Indeed, some pledge more because we know others cannot.

Please know that if your financial situation should change in the coming months (for better or for worse), it is quite appropriate to revise your pledge (either down or up!) by notifying the UUSS Office or one of the ministers. One important clarification: the Stewardship Drive for the next fiscal year takes place in February and March, in anticipation of the time needed for budgeting for our next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
If you would like a personal meeting to discuss your pledge or any aspect of church life, please give Doug or me a call or an email. We strive to earn your trust and to keep it.

Your pledge is your decision, so please choose an amount that feels right.

Give till it feels good!

Again, welcome to UUSS.

Yours in the spirit,