A staunch humanist minister, while serving a historic humanist congregation, had a steel plaque hanging in her office that read: poetry is prayer.
She had a lyrical heart, and mind, and spirit—recalling and reciting prayer and prose, favorite writings and readings by memory and by heart. It is as if the words that point to meaning and depth and intention and hope and love found their way into her mind and settled into her heart as a guide, an inner poet—and she held it like a prayer.
Prayer isn’t a word to fear. We tend to get lost in the questions of who prayer is addressed to, or what good will it do. I find it helpful to think of prayer as a verb—something active, a practice—like mindfulness and meditation. Then, it doesn’t need to be addressed to anyone, necessarily, but rather it can be a time for breath, centering—a posture of reverence and humility to the mystery of life, and a moment of intention toward growing more compassion and strength and courage in the rest of one’s life.
It’s like a phrase I recall from my grandfather, a Lutheran minister: When you pray, move your feet. For him, prayer was about centering your heart in the values and teachings of scripture, and then enacting those values in the world through service—to love thy neighbor.
Prayer can take many forms—as Muslim mystic Rumi said, There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. From walking meditation, to music, to old forms of “Lectio Divina” where one reads a piece of scripture or poetry over and over to find more layers of meaning. Prayer can be about expressing gratitude before a meal or during a commute or at day’s end—alone, or with others. It can be about grounding and bracing oneself for a task ahead, or about setting your intention, your heart, toward holding someone who is struggling—which grows your compassion and, if shared, can be a source of strength and support for your loved one.
Sometimes, prayer needs old words that you know by heart that connect you across generations and speak of ancient truth.
Sometimes, prayer needs new words that you find in the moment with fresh metaphor that use the vernacular of the now.
Sometimes, prayer needs lyric and harmony, to lift our spirits and blend our breath.
Sometimes, prayer needs sighs and silence too deep for words.
And sometimes, when the words and forms and philosophisizing get in our way, we would do well to remember the words of Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you said was “thank you, ” that would be enough.
-Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer
“I’ve been a Christian all my life,” said one man, who said he was a Baptist, “but if my church can’t say yes to this, I’m not sure what my church is for.” One woman, a Roman Catholic, stood to say, “The Church can’t exist just to give me the sacrament once a week and make me feel good about myself.” Three people at our table, all members of a synagogue in the western suburbs, nodded their assent.
We were at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, a small group from WBUUC on an icy, late November night. We joined 200 others from many congregations, at a quickly convened meeting, to which organizers had hoped 30 might show up. Alarmed by pre-election rhetoric now frighteningly real, interfaith leaders, clergy and lay, came out to say no to threats of massive deportations in a new Administration. In the midst of holiday planning and terrible weather, we came to say no to racism and fear. We came to say yes to neighbors, friends, students, colleagues, the undocumented people we know and the many we don’t; we came to say yes to our principles, as Americans and (in our case) as Unitarian Universalists. Organizers asked if our congregations would consider offering sanctuary (housing and support) to undocumented people who might be faced with deportation. One by one, clergy and laity in that church basement said yes.
More members have attended more meetings, and your Board (along with lead staff) has signaled its unanimous support. “How could we say no, and still be true to our UU Principles?” asked one member of the Board. Questions abound: Will anyone be assigned to us? How long will they stay? What country will they be from, and what religion? Could there be a backlash from our local community? What are the legal implications, and what might be the costs?
We are learning as we go, but it’s clear that this must be, at least in part, a leap of faith: a brave and principled religious response to an unprecedented threat of oppression and exclusion. Already, I’m amazed at members and friends who have stepped up to help, and at others from beyond our own walls.
The choice to help with Sanctuary is both a personal decision, and a congregational decision. The timing last month was urgent as this work began, and while we went forward with a clear public statement, that can yet be amended. Over the next few weeks the Board will host a number of open meetings to hear your questions, responses, concerns and ideas. Please attend, and speak with me, with Luke, or with Laurie Kigner, congregational President, if you have questions that can’t wait or if you’d like to help.
Questions abound, but some things are very clear: All people are beloved and all have dignity and worth, including those caught within and imperiled by a broken immigration system. Our congregation stands in a long tradition of radical hospitality. From the underground railroad to the founding of our UU Service Committee during the Holocaust, we have welcomed the stranger, sheltered the refugee, offered safe home, and resisted racism, fear and exclusion. That’s what our church is about—and our theme this month, salvation, the practice of healing, couldn’t be more fitting. In our tradition, we are saved by love.
We’ll hold congregational conversations on these January dates:
Sunday, Jan. 8 at 7pm
Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 7:30pm
Sunday, Jan. 15 at 12:30pm
Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 7:30pm
Sunday, Jan. 22 at 12:30pm
Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 7:30pm
Sunday, Jan. 29 at 12:30pm
-Rev. Victoria Safford
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
September 1, 1939
The snow came just in time this year, just before Thanksgiving, to blanket our beleaguered world in quiet beauty for a time, softening the harsh, excruciating edges of November’s desperate news. It’s only weather- and in the midst of climate change, we can’t let ourselves be fooled by the cold loveliness snow.
But yet we welcome it, this snow, and in the turning of the season remember once again that still the Great Wheel turns, and some things, thankfully, are out of our clumsy control. The quiet darkness deepens now, and winter stars shine down, a gentle, ancient, and ferocious light.
Old stories and songs of tyrants and kings, and a baby born in poverty, undocumented and in peril, remind us that the work of hope is ancient indeed, and ours is not the first generation on this earth to wonder as we wander out under the sky. “Fear not, ” said the angel, speaking to shepherds but also to us. What peace we hope to know, this year or any other, will be borne of light- the light of truth, the light of love, light that shines from one soul to another, one candle to another, one promise of justice and mercy and hope to another, in dark and dangerous times.
The darkness deepens now, but even as winter officially begins, you know the light is already returning. Shine on, friends. Hope on, and rekindle your resolve in this warm and welcome house. Ours is no caravan of despair, and together we shine a mighty bright light.
-Rev. Victoria Safford
The tools of the trade in Worship, for what we do on a Sunday morning and what communities of faith all around the world over centuries have done before us, are ancient and yet modernly powerful tools: silence, scripture, spoken word, music, presence. In an increasingly fragmented world, filled with immediate information any time we want it, schedules and task lists too overwhelming to even begin— our Sunday mornings together have a seemingly foolish and unproductive message—sit. breathe. be. reflect. notice.
To hold the things that matter most, which is the root of the word Worship (from woerthscippe, to consider things of worth) — it takes intention and a dual purpose. The first is to celebrate and name our lives and this world as sacred, where the ordinary is sanctified. The second is to be counter balance to messages which cause shame, despondency, or hubris.
Annie Dillard, writing about Sunday morning worship, writes: It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.
What we do on Sunday morning is an act, a communal experience, where we are set smack dab in the middle of the largest questions life has to offer. We come face to face, heart to heart, soul to soul with justice, compassion, love, life, death, hope, resilience, meaning, purpose, sorrow, joy. You need a crash helmet, sometimes, to be woken up to a world that is filled with the potential of more justice and compassion, and a life preserver to stay afloat in the sea of clarifying truths that can surprise us at any moment.
Worship need not have a direct object to bow to. It can be an intransitive verb, like play, meaning it can have a direct object like play the flute, or, it can be a state of being: playing, like children do. One can worship something or someone or someplace, or someone can be in the state of worship—leaning in reverence toward something larger than ourselves, rapt in wonder and awe at the beauty and mystery of life and love and hope. Lean in, with reverence, to what matters, with good companions, and it will surely take you to where you may never return.
–Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer
The THEMES we choose each month for Sunday services (carried into discussion groups and classes) seek to reclaim a powerful spiritual vocabulary from the dusty dungeons of outworn theologies. Some strong old words still carry useful power, even if we’ve left behind the religions where first we learned them. To me, COVENANT is such a word.
Someone (one of you, a member here) said to me not long ago, “Covenant is a promise I keep to myself, about the kind of person I want to be, the kind of life I mean to lead, together with all kinds of other people, and with all other living things.” When we welcome babies in our church, when we welcome new members into the community, when we celebrate the love of beaming couples, when we ordain new ministers, when we gather round a family we may not even know, serving food and coffee at a memorial service for somebody they’ve loved and lost—we speak not in the binding language of contract, but in the life-sustaining fluency of covenant, from co-venir, to travel together. We will travel with you, child; we will go together with you, friend; we will companion one another toward the lives we mean to lead, toward the world we mean to have a hand in shaping: the world of compassion, equity, freedom, joy and gratitude. Covenant is the work of intimate justice.
In this congregation, we keep our covenants by finding ways to grow our souls and serve the world, in love. Here is one I’m thinking of as October opens: SOULWORK FOR RACIAL JUSTICE Hosted by our Ministers and Racial Justice Task Force, a monthly open conversation will be held at two different times, so anyone can come: the 4th Sunday each month 12:30-2:30pm, and the 2nd Wednesdays 6:30pm. We’ll look at breaking news events, old history, Black Lives Matter, white supremacy and privilege, and more through a UU lens. This fall, our point of departure will be a new book published by the Minnesota History Center: A GOOD TIME FOR THE TRUTH: Race in Minnesota— essays that challenge, discomfort, disorient, galvanize, and inspire. Pick up a copy in the Social Hall.
Gathered here in the mystery of the hour, gathered here in one strong body
Gathered here in the struggle and the power—Spirit, draw near.
This has been a summer of great struggle, in our country, in our world, from the massacre at the Pulse night club in June to the killing of Philando Castile in July, and so many beautiful others, in Dallas, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, to the human catastrophes in Syria and Palestine to the seemingly more distant catastrophe of climate change—a summer of sorrows and struggle.
We come to church to hold all this, which is hard when the summer theme is “JOY” and September’s theme is “HOPE”— themes either wildly out of sync with grim reality, or… precisely powerful enough, radical enough, to gather weary spirits and restore discouraged souls. I think of the young members of our congregation who, with candles in their hands and tremors in their voices, spoke in vigils here this summer, with fierce and angry passion, their insistence that black lives matter, and that those lost in Orlando—mostly gay, lesbian, trans, queer, mostly Latinx and mostly young—will be remembered for their dancing, their resistance, and their joy. I think of church-wide task groups organized this summer, on gun violence, immigrant rights, racial justice, and closer to home, on pastoral care, bringing meals, music, prayers, and simple presence to other members in real need. I think with gratitude, through tears, of those who died this summer—Randy Castle and John Weaver—and the loving hands that hold their families. I look with wonder at babies dedicated, children growing like milkweed in the sun, weddings consecrated, kids off to college and the world … and I remember history begins right now.
We come to church to conjure joy and spin threads of durable hope out of nothing but love and lived faith. Gathered here every Sunday in the mystery of the hour, gathered in the struggle and the power, we sing, “Spirit, draw near,” and it does. Welcome back. Welcome home. We begin again on Sunday, September 11 at 9 & 11am—gathered here in one, strong body.
Sunday, September 11 at 9 & 11 am
Bring a small amount of water from your summer travels or your kitchen faucet as we celebrate the sacred sources of our lives. Music from the choir; Luke and Victoria speaking.
BLESSING OF THE ANIMALS
Sunday, October 2 at 4:30pm
All animals are welcome!
On this Sunday close to the Feast of St. Francis, creatures great and small are welcome as we celebrate the lives we share with non-human companions. Watch the Weekly News and Facebook for details. If you’d like to take part as a reader or wrangler, and help set up/clean up the potluck supper, contact Victoria Safford (email@example.com; 651.426.2369 x101)
LIVING WITH GRIEF
Sundays, Oct. 23-Dec. 11; 1-2:30pm
The most universal human experience we share is the death of a loved one. We will explore the often bewildering process of grief with readings, poetry, and sharing the personal experience of loss. Our hope is that ‘a grief shared will be a grief diminished.’ Even if you’ve been part of this group in the past, we welcome you to come again, as your journey of healing continues. Facilitators: Jo Ford, MSE and Sheryl Niebuhr, PhD. To register or for more information, contact Victoria Safford (firstname.lastname@example.org; 651.426.2369 x 101).
The Annual Meeting is a throwback, a remnant of a simpler time when it was still possible to imagine governing in person, voting with a literal show of literal hands, discussing and debating and applauding what deeply matters face-to-face and heart-to-heart, not by proxy, and not just calling it in. The Annual Meeting recalls a time when showing up was a sign not only of one’s own agency and self-interest, but a real sign, too, of caring for the institution and the people in it, and also democracy, the great experiment which relies first and always on engagement— everybody at the table.
Built on this same democratic model, Unitarian Universalist congregations are governed by congregational polity. The congregation rules, the members holding in their hands all authority to raise and spend money; elect leaders; ordain, call and dismiss ministers; and discern their own direction.
It’s not for lack of innovation or imagination that the congregation governs in this retro way, convening once a year not virtually and not online, but in person in the Sanctuary. It is sacred work you do. To offer to each other your most precious gift, the gift of time (real time) and presence, is a sign of deep respect, and even reverence.
Please come. If you have signed your name in the membership book, you need to come to make the needed quorum. You need to come and vote. Don’t assume that someone else will be there in your place. If you are a friend or guest, please come. We need your voice, too; you are part of this community.
You show up all the time: for Sunday services, for choir practice, for teaching in RE and cooking in the kitchen. You show up for Sharing Circles, for funerals and weddings, for demonstrations at the Capitol and quiet prayers when someone’s sick or needing help. It is such a retro throwback, to place your very body in the very moment—but that’s what church is all about. It is a beautiful, humble and humbling process, and it can only work if you show up.
On early Sunday mornings, when the sanctuary is still dark, I am alone there, straightening the chairs, checking the thermostat, setting the hymn books evenly among the pews. In a couple of hours, the people will start to arrive. What will they find in this space, set apart from other spaces, within the clearing of an hour set aside from all their other busy hours?
Unlike almost every other thing we take time to do on purpose, worship makes nothing, accomplishes nothing, sells nothing, yields nothing. It is its own end. In our liberal communion, it has no direct object; grammatically, the verb is intransitive. We don’t worship anything, but draw instead upon the oldest meaning of the word, worth-ship: to consider that which is of worth. To honor what is worthy of honor, to notice what is worthy of notice, to grieve the losses and the sorrows that are worthy of our tears, to tell stories about and sing about, to celebrate, what matters; to name, in the clearest possible language, with the most beautiful music, through the deepest possible silence, a few significant things. Of the 168 hours in a week, we set one aside precisely for this work that is not exactly work, this activity that isn’t very active (and yet nor is it passive), and which yields no product— except sometimes a kind of deepening. Sometimes, by luck or grace, there may come glimpses of a sense of reassurance, or comfort, or acceptance, or peace of mind or peacefulness of spirit sufficient for the hours, days and week ahead. There may come gratitude, forgiveness, resolution.
There may be felt an unwelcome and uneasy challenge to calcified conviction, or an unexpected stirring to more concerted courage, or a calling to actionable outrage, when outrage is what’s needed in the world beyond the self. These things are not felt by everyone at once. Worship for us is communal and yet essentially private; who knows how far anyone may travel between the Prelude and the Closing Words?
The service is not the Thing itself. The music, the silence, the speaking of names, the movement of the morning light (the way that it has moved for years and years), across the walls and over the faces of a beloved community—none of these is the Thing itself, but any of them may open the spirit to it. Ritual is art and sacrament. We stand available. We are alert and awake, mindful that we are alive and fairly fragile, aware that there are some few things that we can do together, on purpose, and many more things out of our control. The saving grace in Sunday morning is that it comes round again and again and again, whispering one way to try to grow a soul: Notice. Look. Wonder. Give thanks. Mourn. Repent. Rejoice. Repeat.
SETTING STRONG ROOTS TO SPREAD OUR BRANCHES WIDE
This month, we are asked to pledge our financial support to the congregation that in turn supports us, in so many tangible and invisible ways. No matter what each household is able to give, it is an honor to be asked, and a joy to respond as we’re able. This year, the request is two-fold.
First – Consider the contribution you’ll make to sustain the 2017 Operating Budget: the programs, services, ministry and staffing. Payments begin with the fiscal year in July 2017, and can be made in any increments over 12 months. We know the average pledge needs to be about $2500 per household, and we depend upon many gifts much larger.
Second – On the recommendation of the Board, and with the congregation’s overwhelming support by vote in October, we are launching a Special Campaign, to sustain our church over many years to come. Our goal is $1.25 million, and thanks to the generosity of early lead donors, we’re well on our way! We’ll get there if each household can make a gift equal to 3-5 times their annual pledge; it’s payable over 3 years. Ross and I will pledge to both campaigns because the love of this church and the light it shines in the world guide our path, every day. We hope you’ll join us!
When I asked two Board members why they’ve pledged early (and generously), here’s what they said:
“Jackie and I are making a pledge to the 2016 Special Campaign because the work of this church is important to us and financial strength is the foundation for all of our good work. We are grateful for so many things. One recent realization: With our daughters in their 20s, we can see the long-term benefits of the years of RE classes. The annual pledge is critical as that is how we pay our staff and pay for our building. Enjoy the sermons? Do your children participate in Religious Education? The annual pledge makes all that happen and more.
We have never contributed nearly as much to any cause as we are this time to the Special Campaign. We can visualize our church without furnaces and mortgage payments hanging over our heads and the image is thrilling. Sometimes people say they can’t give as much as they would like to WBUUC because of their other charitable commitments. One thought: How big is the pool for those other commitments? Other organizations also do good work but they may receive donations from hundreds of thousands or millions of families. The entire financial security of WBUUC rests on our 750 members. ”
–Steve Kahn, President
“This is the most generous gift we will make this year. We’re doing it because WBUUC makes a difference in our lives, in the lives of our community, and in the future of the world. It matters to me because WBUUC provides a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual home to many. It is a place where we can speak openly about our spiritual beliefs without risk of censure, where we can immerse ourselves in working for each other and for our community and beyond, where we can expect to be continually challenged to think more deeply, feel more compassionately, and to become who we are called to be. I am so grateful for the exceptional ministers and staff at WBUUC. We are pledging to both campaigns because WBUUC is an invaluable part of our lives. I am proud, excited, and inspired by our congregation’s vibrancy and ever growing work for social justice. My hope for our community is to continually see the power and impact of what we can do together. ”
–Laurie Kigner, Vice President
A philosopher has said, the line between good and evil goes through the center of each human heart. Martin Luther said it just slightly differently—simul Justus et peccator. Simul—simultaneously, Justus—justified, et peccator—and yet a sinner.
At one moment we are entirely whole in our beauty and brokenness – the tradition of our ancestors reminds us of our humanity – fully beautiful, fully broken; imperfect and yet proclaimed: beloved of earth, of sky, of God.
Sin is an edgy topic—especially for religious liberals. The practice this month, of turning, comes from traditional understandings of “sin” in philosophy and theology. To sin was to turn away: from the Holy, from the good, to fail to live up to your own hopes. And then to repent, which means to turn, was to turn back toward the Holy, the good, your highest aspirations and your best self.
When I was leaving Lutheran seminary I met with the Dean of the Seminary. I explained I had come to believe that Jesus was one among many mediators of God in the world. He said, “Sure. There are a hundred ways to understand Jesus—that’s not too radical.” I was a bit surprised.
And what he said next has stuck with me since: “I think the major difference we have with the Unitarian Universalists is human nature. We human beings are constantly failing to be our best selves, and regularly drawn to the vices of greed and hatred and division – and unless we name it as something as deep and substantial as sin, I think it becomes quite difficult to respond to it in any constructive way.”
And I said, “Yes, Sir.” And I babbled about each person having the capacity for good or evil; that it’s not “original sin,” and he said, “You know as well as I that original sin is a metaphor for why humans fail to be their best selves all the time. We’re not evil—we are just as flawed as we are good—and yet God always calls us beloved.”
And I said, “Yes, Sir.”
I think I like the edginess of thinking about sin because it forces us to re-examine the overly optimistic view of human nature in liberal religion. It challenges us to look at our language; how do we speak of individual and communal brokenness, wrongdoing, missing the mark, failing to be our best selves? Each day, we experience a world in which there are heart-shattering stories and experiences—loss, grief, destruction of our communities and the planet itself.
So I still wonder, and wrestle with the question: how might we use the language of sin, whether we end up using that word or not, as a gateway to deeper reflection on how to name and respond to our broken world, and our broken souls. Perhaps we can find language that names both struggle, personal and communal, as well as resilience.