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Trees Full of Angels or Infinity in Your Hand — UUSS Sermon

 UU Society of Sacramento

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shared Offering for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes

Dance with Music:  Sarah Bush Dance Project with “Sing When the Spirit Says Sing” by Sweet Honey in the Rock and “The Last Bird” by Zoe Keating.

Hymns:  #126 “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” #21 “For the Beauty of the Earth,” #163, “For the Earth Forever Turning.”

Reading (followed by “The Last Bird”) with Dance: William Blake:

To see a World in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour…



“A spiritual awakening is taking place in the world today.”  So writes Macrina Wiederkehr, a Catholic sister who lives in a Benedictine monastery in Arkansas.  She says: “An authentic yearning to touch the depths of who we are is urging people to seek out ways to rekindle the soul.”   In her book about “seeing the holy in the ordinary,” she finds this a “promising sign” for the future.  But as a spiritual teacher, she does offer a warning.

She explains:  “I am concerned about the many people today who are lured to extraordinary spiritual phenomena that are manifested, … in sensational ways.  Stories abound about visions and trances, weeping statues, rosaries turning gold.  Celestial beings are emerging everywhere, and angels are in danger of becoming trendy.”  In other words, across the wide landscape of spirituality, she sees a few “cautionary flags.”  These flags look like angels. Too many angels for her, and she’s a nun!  Too many supernatural events.

Of course, questionable accounts of unnatural occurrences have been splashed on the cover of tabloid newspapers in the supermarket for decades.  Now the Internet provides a nonstop supply of sensational spirituality.  This may not be just a harmless and amusing distraction.  It can be spiritually dangerous.  This is because, when we look outside our own lives for spiritual validation, we may neglect our own gifts.  We may diminish the ability to find meaning in our own lives and comfort in our everyday surroundings.  When we seek the sensational, out there, we cannot explore the depth of our own souls, in here.

The nun seems to say:  You want miracles? Go down to the river or up to the mountains.  Visit a local park, or a nature preserve, and look up at the trees.  You want angels?  A tree is “full of angels,” Sister Macrina says.  She’s talking about leaves, flowers, and fruit, about the miracle of growth and the web of nature.  There is holiness in the here and now.  Whether we identify as religious or not, too many of us today are suffering from a lack of noticing the grace of the world at hand.

Yet she is not blaming us, only diagnosing a problem for us.  She says:  “The fast pace of our lives makes it difficult for us to find grace in the present moment, and when the simple gifts at our fingertips cease to nourish us, we have a tendency to crave the sensational.”

Yes.  It’s hard to find grace in the moment if we’re struggling “in the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life,” as Henry David Thoreau pictured our situation, and he was writing back in 1854.  We live with a stressful pace of life, and the distractions of technology, media, and a consumer culture that doesn’t know the meaning of enough.  We feel the tensions of economic uncertainty, the growing inequality of wealth, the pressing demands on our time.  We see suffering around the world, and in our own towns and in our circles of care and kin.

So much can weigh on the spirit.  We need spiritual comfort and nourishment.  I know I need it, and I think some of you feel the same way.

Sister Macrina’s message reminds me of something from our own religious tradition.  The Unitarian Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson made a similar pronouncement.   In 1838, a few years after he left parish ministry, he spoke to the graduating class at the divinity school at Harvard, nearly all of them freshly minted Unitarian ministers.

In Boston in 1838, Unitarianism was barely two decades old.  Many Unitarian ministers still believed that Jesus of Nazareth had conducted supernatural miracles.  Even some Harvard professors still taught the miracle stories as literally true events.   To the Boston Unitarians, even though Jesus was not God, the fact that Jesus conducted miracles was evidence of God’s favor.  The miracles proved that the moral teachings of Jesus were true.  This name for this doctrine is supernatural rationalism.

Emerson would not have it.   According to Emerson, “the word Miracle,” as most churches use the word, “gives a false impression.”  By their worn-out literalism and limited imaginations, he said, they’ve turned the word miracle into a  “monster.”

A true miracle is the life of a human being, of every human being.  A true miracle is visible through nature.  A miracle, he said, must be on par “with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Whatever faith you preach or practice, Emerson said, “[that] faith should blend with the light of rising [suns] and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.”

You want miracles?  Go outside on a clear night and look up!  Emerson said:  “Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. [Any person] under them seems a young child.”

The Reverend Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar is a Unitarian Universalist from New Hampshire.  She says that children are inherently spiritual beings.  Naturally open, children are predisposed to experience the world as a place of mystery and wonder.  They are “natural poets and natural mystics,” she writes.  They can become totally absorbed in the progress of a caterpillar or the movement of the clouds, losing all sense of themselves.” (Nieuwejaar, 65)

Nieuwejaar recounts a story about Howard Ikemoto, who is an artist.  He said: “When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work.  I told her I worked at the college, that my job was to teach people how to draw.  She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’” (Nieuwejaar, 62, citing Gregg Levoy)

As an adult, Henry David Thoreau kept and cultivated his childlike wonder.  As another of our Transcendentalist spiritual writers, Thoreau devoted his time to doing just enough ordinary work to sustain his life, and used the rest of his time to reflect on his life.  Thoreau said:  “I see, smell, taste, hear, [and] feel that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves.”

The good news from our Unitarian Transcendentalists is this:  everyone has the right to a sense of connection to life, to all the forms of life around us, to the Mystery of life.  We may not wish for mystical visions, but in any case the sense of connection and wonder is not the privilege of the few.  The wonder of life should be available to all, here and now.  It should be open to us if we but open our hearts!

Yet some people may still ask—what’s all the spirituality stuff about?  Some of us may feel left out, uncertain, non-mystical, un-poetic, even spiritually inadequate.  Sometimes I can be one of those people.  As today approached, I worried what to say in my sermon about seeing the holy in the ordinary.  But then I decided to take some time, a few moments every day to slow down and watch. Slow down, take some time.

As I sit in the morning light at the kitchen window of my apartment, I decide to trust that miracles will reveal themselves to me, or at least I will be able to say I tried to be open to them.   Just outside the window between the sidewalk and the street is a big tree with narrow tapered leaves.  This week, they look so yellow and full on the tree, even though the tree has shed many already.  A few of its leaves still have a trace of green in them, but mostly it’s a big ball of yellow fire coming out of long, rough angled brown limbs.  Wow–I have a kitchen window with a big bright yellow tree just outside!  How did I forget that?  Even though I’ve sat at that window more than at any other window in my apartment, for five years, it feels as if I haven’t noticed it before.  Noticing.  I want to remember to notice.

This is what I take from the notable spiritual teachers of our heritage and those less famous ones who on Sunday mornings are seated in the chairs of this sanctuary, this Unitarian Universalist congregation.  If we are open to noticing the feel of every day and every night we’re given, maybe we can sense the power and energy around us.  If we decide that we wish to take some time to slow down, sometimes, we might be surprised.

Thoreau said:  “We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery.  May we not probe it, pry into it, … a little?” (Journal 1851)

Thoreau did his daily chores, but he did not let practical concerns get in the way of his open study of life.  He said:  “The things immediate to be done are very trivial.  I could postpone them all/ to hear this locust/ sing.”  How wise he was!  And how lucky, that he did not have to worry about making a house payment.  And how convenient that he did not have children to shuttle to school or medical appointments or athletic practice.  How lucky that he did not have to prepare a sermon to deliver on Sunday!   His simple and single life made it easier.             Yet he was not writing to boast about his spiritual depth, he was writing with care and compassion for our shared spiritual hunger.  He was suggesting:  Just say that you wish to notice life’s miracles.  Just be open.  You deserve it.  You deserve to be nourished by the ordinary miracle of life.

This past Thursday morning I rose early, shaved and brushed my teeth, and walked to the nearby YMCA to exercise.  It still was mostly dark outside, but sunrise had begun.   I walked to the corner and turned east.  The dawn sky was cast with a bold purple-pink light.  A long stretch of wide, flat ruffled clouds glowed with that beautiful color.  I gasped:  “Oh my God.”  I usually don’t speak out loud when I’m walking alone, but I did.  As I turned another corner, heading south, I kept my eyes on that view, knowing that as the sun and clouds moved the view would not last much longer than my walk to the Y, where in any case I would be indoors.

I must confess that right after I gasped at the texture and color of the dawn, I felt a sense of relief.  I thought:  “Sermon illustration!  I found an ordinary miracle with days to spare before Sunday. Whew.”  Perhaps I was not as deficient in the spirituality department as I had feared.

Perhaps it made a difference that I had told myself that I wanted to notice.  I had made the intention, had actually said that I wish to be open to seeing ordinary miracles.

There are many ways to experience the holy in the ordinary.   Whatever that might be for you….  Merely take time–with others or by yourself–for a practice, an activity, or a pastime that has no obvious practical purpose.  Just say to yourself that you wish to be more open to the miracle of ordinary life.

Thoreau asked:  “What kind of gift is life unless we have spirits to enjoy it and taste its true flavor?”  [8/10]

There are many ways to make our spirits ready to enjoy the gift of life.  Let us remember that we deserve this enjoyment.   You deserve it, and I do, and so does everyone alive on this earth.   May we strive to shape a world more just and fair, in which the whole human family can taste the true sweet flavor of life.

May we live with openness to the miracles of the ordinary day.  And, being open to them, let us enjoy them, and give thanks.   So may it be.              Blessed be, amen and Namaste.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Divinity School Address,” July 15, 1838.  See

Nieuwejaar, Jeanne Harrison. Fluent in Faith. Boston: Skinner House, 2012.

Thoreau, H. D. A Week on the Concord & Merrimack River  and Walden.

Wiederkehr, Macrina. A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009, p. ix.




Wow, am I tired! But a good tired. Happy Thanksgiving!

Our holiday at UUSS began with a brief circle worship in the Fahs Classroom, a first for us since I’ve been here and perhaps for a very long time.  We had 14 folks for candle lighting, music, silent contemplation, readings of scripture, poetry, devotional reflections.  We remembered those who are departed and named those who are away from us this holiday, and named what we are thankful for.

Then the decorating of the main hall began, and more folks came in to bring dishes of food, plus the turkeys and hams that volunteers had cooked at home.  We began just after 2 PM with words of welcome, a reading from the back of the hymnal and a song.  We had about 75 people, including at least four grandchildren of church members plus friends and relatives of members.  We had new and long time members.  Every table had its own unique centerpiece.

And we had food.

There was WAY too much food.  And I ate WAY too much food.  I rested and table hopped before feeling that I could justify any dessert.  By then there was less of it.  Just as well.  For the past two hours we have been cleaning, tossing, recycling and storing.  Thanks to Randy, who comes every year and runs the dishwasher/sanitizer for hours.  He’s still there. Soon I’ll go over and lock up the building and set the alarm.   My feet are tired.  I can’t imagine that I can sit and read without dozing off and it’s not even 6 PM!

God bless us, every one.

hymn for Thanksgiving Sunday “We Gather Together” etc.

I’m looking forward to the sermon by our guest speaker, the Rev. Beth Banks, senior minister of our UU Church in Davis.  Sermon title is “Unlocking the Treasure,” using Lynne Sweet’s book The Soul of Money.


Thanksgiving Sunday Hymn 2013


Words by Rev. E. T. Buehrer, 1956 (UUA hymnal #67)

Music:  A Dutch folk tune arranged by Edward Kremser, 1890s.


We sing now together our song of thanksgiving,

rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought,

for Life that enfolds us, and helps and heals and holds us,

and leads beyond the goals which our forbears once sought.


We sing of the prophets, the teachers, the dreamers,

designers, creators, and workers and seers,

our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding,

their deeds have made immortal their days and their years


We sing of community, now in the making

in every far continent, region, and land;

with those of all races, all times and names and places,

we pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.


Please Be Seated for the Next Verses


Story about the 1963 Words


New words by Dorothy & Rev. Robert Senghas, 1963 (UUA hymnal #349)


We gather together in joyful thanksgiving,

acclaiming creation, whose bounty we share;

both sorrow and gladness we find now in our living,

we sing a hymn of praise to the life that we bear.


We gather together to join in the journey,

confirming, committing our passage to be

a true affirmation, in joy and tribulation,

when bound to human care and hope, then we are free.


Local Holiday Music Concerts or Performances by Unitarian Universalists and our Friends in Local Groups

Feel free to add your choral, instrumental, dance, theater or other group’s blurb for holiday events. Include the website address, of course.  You may email it to me for posting, or just post it yourself by putting it in the Comments section.   I will publicize a link to this blog posting so UUSS folks can go to one place to see all that is available.   Break a leg!  –Rev. Roger


Kathryn Canan  is a long-time member of UUSS, a former Board member and Adult Enrichment Chair, and now serves on the Candidating Committee.  She’s also a musician in many venues and a teacher.

Kathryn Canan, recorders and flutes:
Saturday, Dec. 14, 2 p.m., Capitol Rotunda with Renaissance Choir of Sacramento, Free.

Saturday, Dec. 14, 7 p.m., Pioneer Congregational Church, Songs of the Season, benefit.

Sunday, December 15, 1-2 p.m. Capitol Rotunda with Sacramento Recorder Society

Thursday, December 19, 7 p.m., with Renaissance Choir of Sacramento, Christ the King Retreat Center, Citrus Heights.

Wed, Dec. 11 and 18, 5 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 22, 1:30, caroling at Nevada City Victorian Christmas

Rick and Paul are lay leaders from the North Bay UU Fellowship in Napa.  They come all the way to Sac to rehearse and sing with the Gay Men’s Chorus.  Rick and I have been talking about having them sing at UUSS on a Sunday in 2014.  

The Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus will be presenting its concert, “Cool Yule (A Big Band Theory)” early next month.  Performances will be at the First United Methodist Church of Sacramento, corner of 21st and J Streets in Midtown, these dates and times:
Friday, December 6 — 8 p.m.
Saturday, December 7 — 8 p.m.
Sunday, December 8 — 4 p.m.
Tuesday, December 10 — 8 p.m.
The program features a lot of seasonal tunes arranged with a big band jazz/swing style uptempo feel — you’re sure to love it!  There will be some surprises on the bill as well.
Tickets are $40 for VIP seating, which includes a pre-concert reception; or $25 for general admission seating.

Please visit to purchase tickets.  They are also available at The Gifted Gardener, 18th and J Street.


Meg Burnett is a member of our UUSS Board of Trustees and our Program Council.  She’s our volunteer choir director.  And she is president of her chorus organization.

River City Chorale:  “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Directed by Dale Morrissey

Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 7:30 PM–Northminster Presbyterian Church, 3235 Pope Avenue, Sacramento

Saturday, Dec. 7, 7:30 PM–Faith Presbyterian Church, 625 Florin Road, Sacramento

Adults $15 if preordered, at the door for $20.  Youth under 12 are $5.

Discount for orders of 10 or more tickets.  see to order yours!


Rev. Lucy Bunch–our Assistant Minsiter at UUSS– is a member of Sacramento Master Singers.  She often leads our singing on Sunday morning or offers an a capella solo!  

Sacramento Master Singers:  The World of Christmas

Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, at 3:00 PM; Saturday, Dec. 14, at 8:00 PM; Sunday, Dec. 15, at 3:00 PM; Thursday, Dec. 19, at 7:00 PM.  All the above held at St. Francis Church at 26th and K Streets. Order tickets at

Master Singers Children’s Holiday Concert:  Jingle All the Way!  Saturday, Dec. 14 at 2:00 PM.  Order tickets at

Master Singers:  The World of Christmas at the Harris Center in Folsom–December 22.  Order tickets at

#5 (with 3 listings!)

Tom Derthick, UUSS member and bassist

12/7-8: performances by the Chamber Music Society of Sacramento. As opposed to various styles of holiday music, CMS always does a all-Baroque concert of popular classical concerti and chamber music. This year features Bach’s E major violin concerto with Kineko Okimura, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with William Barbini. I will be in the tutti (backup band). Saturday at Bet Haverim Temple, Davis; Sunday at St. Paul’s Church (right next to the Convention Center, 15th and J); both shows 7:30.

Also opening this weekend: Sacramento Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Last year, the ballet used recorded music for all performances to save money. Needless to say much December employment for professional musicians was lost, and many audience members were very disappointed. This year they are trying an experiment: for about half of the shows, live music will be provided by the Sacramento Philharmonic (12/7, 8, 12, 15, 20 and 23) at a slightly higher ticket price…but without the riveting score performed live, you miss half the experience! Be sure you support the live music shows!

Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra December 14th, 8 PM at Memorial Auditorium–the premiere choral ensemble in Sacramento presents its annual Home for the Holidays Concert. Don’t be late and miss the candlelight entry of the chorus! Happy Holidays! Hope to see you at one of these events!

Death, Loss and the Spirituality of Mortality, sermon at UU Society of Sacramento, Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hymns:  #1003, “Where Do We Come From?”;

#123, “Spirit of Life”; #86, “Blessed Spirit of My Life”.  Also, parody of “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Nicaea) by Christopher Raible:  “Coffee, Coffee Coffee,”  verses 1 and 3.

Choral Music: Autumn Vesper, words by Emily Bronte, music by Audrey Snyder

Shared Offering  for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.

Testimony by Diane O.

Jean’s mother, Lucille, was lying silently in her bed, her breathing labored, and her face was pinched in pain.    Her morphine didn’t seem to help much.

We kept her lips moisturized, and frequently dabbed her face with a warm washcloth.  We placed a soft cuddly toy in her hand to hold.  We had created an altar of sorts on her rolling bedside table with her favorite objects, fresh yellow roses in a vase, and photos of those she loved including a picture of her husband, Warren. When we repositioned her each time we made sure Warren was in her line of sight.

We made up the futon and spent the night in Lucille’s room.   We startled throughout the night anytime Lucille’s breathing seemed to stop but then she would take in a deep breath.   By morning we were all exhausted.

Jean had left the room momentarily as I finished repositioning Lucille.   I leaned over and carefully wrapped my arms around her so I wouldn’t add to her pain.  I cried as I told her I loved her and was glad she had come to live with us.

I told her I loved Jean and would take care of her for the rest of my life.

I whispered to her… that I was worried about her struggling so hard to live.   I Told Lucille that it was time to dance a Strauss waltz with Warren again.  He was waiting for her, and she would be safe.

I tucked her covers, wiped my tears off of her face and gently kissed her cheek. When Jean returned we left her alone to quietly rest while exiting through the door of her bedroom onto the porch.   A few minutes later I looked through the door and noticed the cuddly toy on the floor.  –Jean!!!!!!!    We rushed to her bed.  Lucille had moved on to a gentler plane of existence to join her husband and family.

Good-bye, Lucille, and thank you for teaching us about the honors we are bestowed in life.

[Addendum: Death and I are familiar old friends.  Death is as beautiful in its pain and sorrow as is the joy and promise while holding a newborn covered with placenta fluids screaming its first cry.   This little story is meant as an adieu  to Lucille as much as a thank you for teaching us to live, dance, laugh and cry with honor when life can be a struggle. ]


Sermon by Roger Jones

            This has been the weekend of All Souls Day and All Saints Day in the Christian calendar.  In the Pagan tradition, it is the time of Samhain (SOW-in), the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.  In Mexican cultures, the Day of the Dead, or el Dia de los Muertos, is a time to laugh at mortality, remember our ancestors, and celebrate life with art, music, food and fellowship.  Our mortality is the cause and the reason for all of these ritual days

            We are all bound together–all of us–in the common experience of being alive, and knowing that each one of us will die, and having to make some response to this reality.  With those words I begin most of the memorial services at which I officiate.

            Death comes to us all.  Loss hurts us all, sooner or later.  Yet it is not easy to talk about death, especially if it’s near.  To speak about our vulnerability to loss and death… perhaps this makes us feel even more vulnerable.

            Yet when we take the risk to open our heart, we may gain a stronger heart.  When we dare to reach out in times of loss or fear, we may find a warm embrace, a kind word, or a quiet, listening presence from another person.  To exchange such gestures of welcome and honesty is a spiritual gift.  It can be a source of spiritual growth.

            All of us can be enriched by the honest gifts of sadness and love, the mix of memories, gratitude, grief, and fear which are part of dying and part of mourning a loss.   One of the gifts of being a minister is the invitation to hear what it means to lose a dear friend, colleague, family member or another loved one.  Also, it is an honor to bear witness to the feelings and thoughts of a congregation member who is facing the end of life.   These experiences have enriched my life.  They nourish my spirit, with gratitude for the gift of life and for the moments I have with others.  As a young person, I was afraid of life in many ways.  As a minister, learning about loss, death and grief has deepened my love of life.

            I think the main ingredient is honesty.  I learned this the hard way, and only in looking back over the years.

When I was nine years old and my brother was in his junior year of college, he married his high school sweetheart.  This was against our father’s wishes and loud protestations, but I had a new friend in my young sister in law. Her name was Lynn.  I had fun watching movies and shopping with her, and going to stay with them in their new mobile home.  Within two years they had a baby boy, and I was an uncle.  They gave him my middle name.  Not long after that, my brother’s wife began having serious physical symptoms.  Weeks and weeks of tests at the university medical center revealed a rare type of cancer.  Because my father was a physician, he learned from his medical colleagues that her prognosis was fatal.  He told my mother; Mom told her sister.  In a moment of upset, Mom told me, sort of.   Standing over the bathroom sink, crying as she brushed her teeth, she blurted out:  “Lynn might have something terminal.”   Nobody else in my or my sister in law’s family heard it straight, including her.   My parents did not talk any more with me about what was happening.

Photographs from her baby son’s first birthday party show that the illness and the treatments for it had withered and weakened Lynn.  Three months later, she died.  I don’t know how or when the denial about her fatal condition ended.  I think she asked “Am I going to die?” and they told her no.

Those were the days when medicine was heroic and its inadequacies were cause for hushed words.  As I recall, many people with a terminal diagnosis spent long stretches in hospitals and often died there.  Death was a shameful enemy, something to fight so much that you couldn’t let up for a moment, even to talk about it.  As a boy, I didn’t know how to talk about it, didn’t know when or with whom it would be okay to talk about my sister in law’s prognosis, or my fears, or my love for her.  I was an invisible witness.  I was not an invited or included participant in this family drama, even though I had been foretold its conclusion. I was thought of as too young to visit her in the hospital.  Had I been able to go, it might have been a source of comfort for her, as well as for me.

When she died, my brother called my parents on the phone from the hospital.  I listened in on the telephone extension in another room.  After my parents expressed their sorrow, Mom told her son, “Come on home, Honey.” Then my mother called her sister, long distance. I listened in on their conversation too.  I wanted to hear how you say these things, and how one reacts to the news.  Just after my aunt said “Hello,” Mom said, “She’s gone.”  My aunt let out a sigh full of pity.

My sister in law died with the best medical care in the state, but maybe not the most complete care.  It was a time when people felt censored from speaking openly about death.  It was a time when the concept and practice of hospice care was just coming out of exile.    In the western world the first hospice opened as early as the 14th century, in Europe.  Of course, people around the globe have been dying at home instead of in an institution through most of history, with family and care-giving team often one and the same.  The modern ministry known as hospice has made it natural once again to face dying and mourning with honesty, and to face it as an opportunity for growth.

Hospice teams include medical, social service and religious professionals and trained volunteers. They strive not only to ease the last few months of patients’ lives, but to help them experience as much presence, kindness, truth and love as life can hold.

I wonder how my sister in law’s family and my family might have been enriched by a more open approach when she was dying. Instead of keeping everybody apart in our separate fears and sadness, we could have invited one another to come together.

The hospice movement has made a tremendous difference in how North Americans live with loss, and live through our own dying process.  Hospice programs are sustained by voluntary donations and by government grants, in recognition that health care includes care for our experience of the end of life.   Even if we are not a client of hospice care, its philosophy has affected our medical establishment and legal system.  No longer must we expect that every effort will be made to prolong life when the prognosis is that someone will die.  No longer are so many people afraid of talking openly about the coming separation.  We have more tools and encouragement to speak about loss as it approaches, to express appreciation, regrets, and forgiveness, to say farewell and “I love you.”

Of course, many of us die unexpectedly from an accident or murder or another violent cause, or from a sudden health crisis.  But many of us have a slow decline into death.  If this is how my death will occur, I hope to benefit from hospice care when my time comes.  The humorist Woody Allen says:  “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Thanks to the hospice movement, more people have more courage to be closer to death when it happens, at our own passing or in losing a loved one.

Orson Scott Card is a contemporary science fiction writer.  In his short story Mortal Gods, space aliens have come to earth.  They have established themselves in American cities as friendly neighbors. They build homes that look like houses of worship—temples, churches, mosques.  The aliens, however, are not human-like at all.  They are slithering green blobs that look like bunches of seaweed. These smart aliens inform humans that it’s not feasible for us humans to visit any planet with life on it, as getting to the closest one would take 500 years.  That’s how long it took the aliens, and the reason they could make it here is that they never die.  They are immortal.

The aliens meet an old man, a human one, and they explain their observations of us.  When human beings die, we leave behind the things we have created, built, given away.  The aliens, on the other hand, must endure the decline and loss of everything they create and give.  Nothing they build can outlast them.  For this reason, they worship human beings.  To these alien observers, because we are not immortal, we are worthy of worship.  Death causes us to fear, but it gives them cause to revere our lives.

Even though you and I are not slithering green bunches of seaweed, we can learn from them, from those long-lived aliens.  We can praise and honor human life precisely because it is going to end.  We can affirm life, even in the face of death and even with the knowledge that we will lose what we love.  We can affirm life by going places in our world, communities, relationships and our hearts where life is not fun or clean or easy.

As the Dalai Lama writes: “No matter what is going on,” the opportunity remains to “develop the heart.”  Every day holds opportunities to develop the heart, pay attention, listen to life, listen to others, show kindness.  Every day is a new chance to be generous, and to speak with courage, honesty and love.  Life continues to offer such opportunities, both in the fullness of health and in those times when we face the end of life or the loss of another person.

We are all bound together–all of us–in the common experience of being alive, and knowing that each one of us will die, and having to make some response to this reality.   Let our response be that of coming together across the gaps of grief, uncertainty, or fear.

By coming together we affirm that we are connected.  Connected to one another and to all those beyond these walls, those living on this earth, those who are gone, and those who are here after us.

Together, let us rely on the power of love to help us face mortality with grace and embrace life with gratitude.  Together, may we strive to live with honesty, generosity, kindness and courage.

So may we live.  So may it be.  Amen and blessed be.

at UUSS, Which Minister Oversees What Programs and Staff Positions?

By the Acting Senior Minister

Given the revenue challenges in last spring’s budget preparations, we have only 1.5 ministry positions this fiscal year, versus the two ministry positions that UUSS enjoyed the prior 10 years.   Fortunately, we have an ideal match for our needs in our Assistant Minister, the Rev. Lucy Bunch.  She is here on a year’s contract on a half-time basis.

Lucy supervises our Bookkeeper, Facilities Coordinator, and Congregational Support Coordinator, who in turn oversee other dedicated staff members.  She leads our biweekly staff meetings.   Lucy provides ministerial support to the Finance Committee, Property Management, and Implementing the Master Plan (for our building project and the related relocation for the year when the renovation takes place).

Lucy will preach eight times this year and is at worship on the Sundays when she is here.  Often she leads a hymn or sings a solo.  As time allows, Lucy provides support to other committees.  She’s available for pastoral care, especially for any stresses and needs related to the many transitions we have begun or have gone through already.

As Acting Senior Minister, I supervise the Assistant Minister, the music program and staff, and the dedicated Religious Education Coordinator, who in turn supports our nursery staff and many volunteers.

I provide ministerial support to our volunteer teams for Stewardship, Religious Services, Music, Adult Enrichment, Child/Youth Religious Education, Social Responsibility, Family Promise, “Faithful Friends” Jail Visitations, Lay Listening Ministry, Membership/Greeters, Theater One, fundraisers, and the Endowment Trust.

I write the Ministerial Message for emailing to all.  I lead the Newcomers’ Orientation to Membership.  What am I forgetting?

I provide much of the pastoral care and, sadly, conduct our memorial services.  I’d like to do some baby dedications, soon!  In the senior minister position, I continue to be the minister who oversees Religious Education and All-Ages Community Building.  You could say that I am still a family minister–but for me, “family” now means the whole congregation!

Lucy and I both serve as ex officio members of the Board and Program Council and meet with the Executive Committee, which gives us input on management issues.  We share a Committee on Ministry, which meets monthly to reflect on the pulse of UUSS and the congregation’s overall ministry.  Lucy and I meet often, as well

I appreciate her wisdom, talents, commitment and energy!  I appreciate all the staff and volunteers who serve UUSS!

See you in church,


“Unitarian Universalism” and “Unity” Churches — similarities and differences

Sometimes people will ask me if UUism is the same as Unity.  It’s not the same, but there are several similarities. 

When I began a spiritual search as a young adult in a new city in 1985, I visited both a Unity Church and a UU Fellowship regularly.  I took a night class using the book The Story of Unity.  I liked both congregations, and though I retained a couple of friends in Unity, I was drawn to make a commitment as a member to the UU Fellowship.  At the time the UU congregation had a more explicit and regular mention of social justice and issues of the common good–a more external focus than an inward one.  Since then, I chose to pursue spiritual growth through various avenues, and our UU movement has expanded its embrace of spiritual and theological exploration, while never leaving behind the urge to build a more just world and promote understanding among different religions.   I think local Unity Church congregations may be less socially conservative than some of them used to be, and I know many of them have done good work in community service and interfaith relations.

Here is my take on the differences.  

Unitarian Universalism (UUism) has been more of an institution-based movement from the beginning, while Unity has been more of a message-based movement, with an extensive publishing outreach that touches people beyond its churches.  Of note is Unity’s “Daily Word” devotional booklet.

The Unity School of Practical Christianity was founded by a married couple in the late 1800s, as part of the New Thought Movement, which includes Christian Science.  Unity started as a movement, and became a denomination.  Its Unity Village headquarters is in Kansas City.

Unitarianism was a theological break within congregational churches, rejecting Calvinism, starting in the early 1800s.  While William Ellergy Channing delivered a foundational sermon in 1819, a manifesto of sorts, entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” there were many other founders of this liberal Protestant sect in the Congregational churches in Massachusetts.  The use of reason in studying scriptures, the humanity of Jesus, and the dignity of every person were founding ideas.  Less than 20 years later, the Transcendentalists added more ideas to the tradition.

 Universalism also was a revolt against Calvinism, and it started in the late 1700s.  It spread more like a movement of ideas, though new churches were started along the Connecticut River Valley.  Founding ideas were a denial of hell as a place for the dead and an affirmation of the boundless love of God as a loving, non-condemning parent.  Both denominations grew and spread across the continent, and merged in 1961.  Boston is the location of our denominational headquarters. 

Neither Unity nor UUism are considered orthodox or traditional expressions of Christianity, though both had Christian origins. 

Many conservative Christians explicitly say that both traditions are theologically and spiritually dangerous heresies.

Both UUism and Unity affirm goodness in everyone and divine love for all.  Both have a diversity of concepts of the divine in their literature and in their congregations.  However, there are very few UUs who like terms like Father or Lord, and Unity is often comfortable with it.
UUs include many self-describe Religious Humanists–who are atheists or agnostics and don’t respond to God language.  Most UUs, especially Humanists, disagree with the idea that there is a soul separate from the body. 

Unity, as a modern descendent of Gnostic theology, often includes expressions affirming that a soul exists apart from the body.  UUism does not have an official teaching on this, but I think most are not Gnostics.  Many UUs also are uncomfortable with the Course in Miracles, or would be if they took it.  It is popular in Unity and in Religious Science, another New Thought movement.

Unity and other New Thought churches affirm many of the spiritual ideas of the American Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians, like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 
But the spiritual philosophy of the Transcendentalists is only one thread of our heritage, and many UUs think it is too idealistic or too mystical for them.

Unity strives to be inclusive of the wisdom of all faiths, and so do we.   But Unity’s background and primary connection is Christian, and many of our Humanist atheist or Jewish UUs are uncomfortable with that connection on an explicit and regular basis.  While most UUs do recognize the liberal Christian origins of both sides of our UU heritage, they value our inclusive embrace of the wisdom of diverse traditions.  Humanists and theists and all others who are committed UUs join together in affirming the baseline of humanistic values in the UU faith tradition.

Most people who tried out a UU church and ended up in a Unity church made the move because they sought a more spiritual focus and spiritual practice, and explicit, regular talk about spirituality.  They may have found UUs too “cerebral,” and not “spiritual” enough–that is, with more head and less heart, and they found more heart in Unity.  I’m busy most Sundays, so have no recent eyewitness experience!

Unity affirms human possibility and human goodness, and we UUs strive to affirm that. However, Unity has a more optimistic view of human life which some UUs would find naive.
James Luther Adams (a minister and professor who saw the evils of the Nazi takeover first hand) and other modern UUs have stressed the tragic dimension of the human personality and human life.  In my experience, Unity teachings disavow evil as a real force in human life.

While many UUs would say that every event or accident or phenomenon has causes that can be explained, most of us would not agree that everything happens for a reason or according to a plan, while I often hear “Everything happens for a reason” in Unity and other New Thought traditions. Some things do not happen for a reason–they happen, and sometimes they are terrible.  We are here to reduce harm, ease suffering and help those to whom bad things do happen.

UU process theologians assert that there is an infinite variety of possible outcomes and events, rather than a plan for any person’s life or a plan for the planet as a whole.  Process theology imagines a Divine Lure toward the good, but the outcome is up to human choice, causal relationships in nature, and randomness.

I think the religious landscape is enriched by the presence of Unity churches and Unity publications.  We are not the same but our similarities are important and worth affirming.  Thanks to my Unity colleagues in ministry for all the leadership and care you provide.