Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Feminist Seder with Neighbors

Sam and I were invited to a Feminist Seder by our dear neighbors, complete with honoring Miriam (instead of Elijah) and having a large orange in the center of the Seder plate. Susan Heschel first introduced the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are included in Jewish life. The tradition morphed into being about empowerment for women.

Celebrating Pesach in a Jewish home is infinitely more meaningful. The prayers really spoke to me this time, in Ricki and Jane's living room, at the long table set on an angle, an extra foursome on the couch (with Seth on the footstool). We contributed bowls and five forks. The bed served as an extra buffet, covered in casserole dishes.

We make do with what we have, remembering our strength and resourcefulness so that we know we can handle whatever happens. We may have to struggle and endure hardship, but we will survive. The family Haggadah included remembering how we've grown and become more free this year and dedicating ourselves to pursuing freedom and wholeness this year. Here is part of the Haggadah: "We can use our own experience to accept ourselves just the way we are. We have in this Seder a chance to create a community of Jewish and non-Jewish people that will welcome and embrace all people."

Right before the Korech (making the sandwich), we recited a blessing:

For the times when we do not know which way to go, but move forward anyway;
For the times when immediate action is the easy answer, and we wait and let the truth ripen;
For the times when we have a hunch, a flash, a knowing that comes to us without our knowledge, and we use these things to guide us;
For movement, despite our fears, despite their obstacles and delays, in times when movement means growth and life.

Several families came together for this celebration of spring and freedom. Ricki was the only one of us raised Jewish, raised with a more traditional Seder where girls were relatively passive. Her most vivid memories are of running around, trying to find the hidden afikomen. This time, she and the children hid the afikomen so well that we had to play "hot and cold" to find it!

Thanks to Jane, Ricki and Marka for a beautiful Seder!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What Comes After Answering The Question?

Great news! I got asked the question, "What is Unitarian Universalism?" by a seeker. While I was working (getting paid actual money) as a church administrator, someone telephoned to ask that. Yes! And, I wasn’t in an elevator, so there was time for the conversation. You know what I found out? Answering the question is much less important than listening to the other person's reply.

All this business about having a short stellar speech leaves out the fact that those who might want to join with us need us to listen to their stories: their struggles and hopes, their fears and their sense of the holy. And we need to be prepared to listen with our full attention and compassion!

The crucial part in my interaction with the caller, a young woman, was my validation of her. I only said two sentences about UUism, after which the young woman told me a little about herself, her religious background, her spiritual outlook and what she wants in a church. She lives a block from the UU congregation where I work. I told her about the next two Sunday worship services and that she might really like it. Before we hung up, she expressed her enjoyment of the conversation and said that she would check us out on Sunday.

Here is what I said: UUism has its roots in Christianity, but now we’ve broadening into a liberal religion where our individual beliefs are not that important. What is important is that we are seekers on a spiritual journey who come together to help each other on that journey and help make the world a better place. See, not at all stellar.

That conversation made my day! The only hard part was telling the young woman that I won't be there Sunday, because the next step after such a conversation would be to welcome a seeker in person at church. Except on Sunday, I'll be across town at the UU congregation where I'm a member.

Compassionate listening, everyone!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Worship Service or UU Variety Show?

I recently attempted to describe my idea for a UU variety show, sort of a UU version of A Prairie Home Companion with musical acts, singers, skits, jokes and stories. And, we would sing a few of our favorite hymns ("Now Let Us Sing" and "Blue Boat Home," for example).

One person said that he didn't see how this would be any different than a regular worship service. Good God -- could some of our worship services be confused with variety shows? Say it isn't so!

The typical worship service at my congregation does contain a myriad of elements: music, poetry, stories, singing, a sermon, a meditation and (once a month) joys and sorrows. But to consider it akin to a variety show? I think the sacred is invoked throughout our worship services, throughout the time we come together to hold up what is worthy (worth-ship). A feeling of reverence and acceptance envelops us during worship. We're accepted as we are, into beloved community with fellow seekers. Aaaaah!


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Will You Pray for Me?

I get asked, "Will you pray for me?" by cab drivers. It happens when I'm travelling to or from a UU function: invariably, the driver asks why I'm in town. "I'm here for a religious conference (or workshop or camp). A UU -- Unitarian Universalist -- Conference (or workshop or camp)!"

That is my stock answer. Notice that the question from folks is not "What is Unitarian Universalism?" Not at all! "Pray for me?" is the question, half in jest, but half earnest, too. What's my answer? "Yes! What is your name?" Because if I send gratitude and hope out from my mind to John, that is a type of prayer. When I do metta meditation for someone or just close my eyes and whisper, "May Jake have a good day," I am praying. To me, sending intentional positive energy out into the world is a way of praying.

The first time I heard "Pray for me," I felt compelled to explain that the word "prayer" is controversial for UUs and blah, blah, blah, on and on. That was eight years ago, at the Nashville General Assembly. I've learned a lot since then!

What about this new Ad campaign from the UUA: When in doubt: Pray. When in prayer: doubt? I don't know why this was chosen, but this prayer/doubt dichotomy has everyone buzzing. From what I know of liberal theology, doubt and faith have a long history together. The writings of Martin Buber and William James include this.

Over the last ten years or so, there has been an explosion of books about belief, prayer and doubt and how one complements the other. Many, many people have trouble with prayer because they don't have a clear idea about prayer -- do you have to believe in God to pray? I think the national marketing campaign taps into this question that many folks have.

Another thing that the general population seems to believe is that laughter is not allowed in church. Many people think of "churches" as somber, serious places. The national marketing campaign lets people know the importance UUs in general place on joy and humor.

We UUs tend to do everything amidst a storm of controversy, I've noticed. That can be good or very bad, depending on how you look at it.

Pray for me, okay?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

When is Sarcasm Destructive?

"As long as we get the check, that's all that matters!" This is apparently what an administrator at a UU congregation said upon learning that an elderly member had fallen while trying to put a check into a church mailbox. I heard this story at the Large Congregation Conference. An usher witnessed an elderly member fall down in the lobby when she (the elderly woman) was about to put a check into a donation box. The usher called 911. It turned out the 85-year-old woman had fainted and was okay, but paramedics came to make sure of this.

Later, when the usher described the situation to the administrator, the administrator made the sarcastic, caustic remark shown above. What a thing to say! I would be both hurt and angry if someone made such a mean remark about a member of my congregation. I want members to be treated with respect. The comment was probably meant to be a joke, but how cruel.... It sounds to me like something one staff member might say to another over a third beer, but in any other context is inappropriate (IMHO).

As I mentioned in a previous post, our keynote speaker at the Large Congregation Conference was Susan Beaumont of the Alban Institute. Beaumont shared an outline of what to do in cases like this, when someone seems to exhibit inappropriate influence. Susan's outline involves a series of steps, beginning with searching your own heart and ending with using "I" statements with a technique sort of like: when you W, because I thought X, I felt Y. I would rather Z.

After that, you just take up your relationship with the other person again. If the uncomfortable stuff happens again, go back to Step One. According to Susan Beaumont, if you've gone through all these loving steps four times or more, only to have the nasty behavior continue, then it is finally time for Step Four.

I cannot write anything more specific about Beaumont's outstanding presentation (because "the materials are not intended for general circulation"), but I hope that poor usher hears about it.

Here's to being seen as more than walking checkbooks at our congregations!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

UU Television on the Internet

Peter Bowden, a life-long UU, has launched UU Planet TV, a website devoted to good Unitarian Universalist videos. My favorite video so far is "Universalism for such a time as this" by Rev. Dan Harper. The video is very simple -- just a history of Universalism and how it continues to enrich our faith, especially now that Hell has made a "comeback." The best part is when Harper states that someone who believes in a God who sends people to Hell may lean toward vengence as a world-view (rather than compassion). If you want to know more, watch the video!

My imagination is running wild now, thinking of all the UU videos I'd like to make. I could film us doing a flag corps routine in the Madison Pride Parade! A few years ago, I helped my congregation form a small flag corps as part of our participation in the annual parade. I'll always be indebted to Stacy Harbaugh, who taught us the routine and was willing to carry the orange flag. I'll have to make a new Blue flag because ours disappeared...my head is full of fake UU commercials, the acting group at my congregation, my UU stand-up routine...a UU variety show....I'd better start saving for a camera!

If you would like to hear more from Dan Harper, go to his blog: Yet Another Unitarian Universalist. Notice how all the great blog names are taken? I wanted to name mine Elizabeth's UU Blog, but it was too close to Elizabeth's Little Blog! But, I am often exuberant, so this name fits.