Remember when you were young enough to say how you’d like to change or grow without feeling embarrassed at all? On the first Sunday in January, the kids in religious education set their intentions for the year, and I was delighted (as usual) with their honesty and their sweetness.
It was a Faith in Action Sunday, so the kids and helping adults were working on our Kids Care! blessing bags. These are ziplock gallon bags stuffed with a handwritten note from a child, personal care items, snacks, socks, gloves, water bottles, and other items meant to help out a person in need that families may encounter in Asheville. The work of creating and sharing these bags also helps families “take it home,” supporting them as they teach our children a valuable lesson about how our faith compels us to “choose to bless the world,” as theologian Rev. Rebecca Parker said. Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper joined our group and shared the story of The Good Samaritan, asking the kids to really consider “who is our neighbor?”
Then kids got to process the story and the Faith in Action activity by considering how they’d like to grow and change in the upcoming year. This is the second time we’ve done this exercise at the New Year, and it amazes me how focused and clear they are in this work. I know that not all of you can join us to experience firsthand how transformative and deep the faith development we do in RE can be (but I encourage more of you to take the time to do so)! In the spirit of bringing more of you into awareness of our work, here is a sample of the kind of faith development our children are doing in RE.
A tree on the wall provided the backdrop for our conversation about growing up from where we are planted, from our roots, and putting out branches, leaves, and fruit. Kids were asked how they want to change and grow in the upcoming year, and here are some of their responses. How many of these are what you would expect to hear from 5-10 year old children? How many are ways you would like to grow in the upcoming year?
I want to read more
Not to fight with my sisters
To help more people
I will ‘lern’ more
Climb a tree barefooted
Eat less sugar
Don’t be mean
Stop fighting with my brother
I will help more
I want to meditate
I want to learn something new every day
I want to be nicer
I want to play outside more
Are these intentions that would be good for people of all ages?
Intentions set last year by children in RE. We considered what progress we made this year.
One of my greatest hopes is that we will recognize that children and adults are not nearly as different as we sometimes like to think when it comes to faith development. James Fowler, faith stages researcher and thinker, said that we all move in a spiral through six stages of faith, coming back to the same lessons, stories, parables, challenges again and again as we grow more spiritually mature. Famously, UU Robert Fulghum said, “All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten,” and that’s what I am getting at: our children in RE already face the same spiritual, ethical, and moral issues as adults, in slightly different packaging. The difference, often, is that they are still willing to name how they want to change and grow. They feel safe enough and supported enough and good enough to be vulnerable and honest in their intention-setting. What could we adults learn from their teaching?
Now is the time, my friends, this is THE moment. Or if not the ONLY moment, it is a moment not to be missed. If you care about the future of social justice work here at UUCA, if you want to see energetic and engaged programming, and if you want to participate in making this program the best it can be, do NOT miss the Earth & Social Justice Ministry meeting on January 27 at 6:30pm. I am so excited to invite each and every one of you to this essential meeting about our work for freedom, justice, and love. We will gather that night to give an update on the work that has been done so far, and to hear your ideas and help you find ways to get involved!
Initially, 15-20 people participated in the Doing Democracy Study Group, which used the book Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Justice Movements, by Bill Moyer (not to be confused with Bill Moyers!) to learn about social movements and organizing. The model is straightforward, in particular suggesting that there are four roles for individuals in social movements, and eight stages of the movements themselves. We explored the question are you a Reformer, a Citizen, a Rebel, or a Change Agent? What role is most comfortable for you? What role might you want to try on? Discussions were lively and engaged, helping people to articulate ways that movements can be more efficient and effective.
We also used the roles and the stages as a way to assess our congregational social justice work. Four members of the study group (Gay Lambirth, Tom Blanford, Cecilia Rawlins, and Jim Lee) agreed to serve as a temporary Core Team for up to six months. They are charged with assessing our current systems and structures, and making recommendations for how we might move forward as a congregation. They will present some of their ideas at the meeting next week. If you are interested in seeing the notes from the final class session, you can see them here.
These folks, as well as the other participants in the study group, have done some great work learning the model and sharing their ideas and observations. The ongoing work of creating a vibrant social justice program, however, is the work of the whole congregation. Over the past year, you have given feedback to the Board that you want broader and deeper engagement in social justice work. The Core Team is working to recommend some adjustments and fixes to our system, but ultimately, this work can only be successful if it is taken up by each and every one of you. This is the moment to show up and participate, to have your ideas heard, and to find a way forward together.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Cornell West argues that the prophetic message of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been tamed and softened over time, so that we tend to overlook the truly radical nature of his ministry. Today we’ll explore the theme of resistance in Dr. King’s life and work. <i>Click on the title to continue reading and/or listen…
From Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates “Our world is physical. Learn to play defense – ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve The Dream. No one directly proclaims the schools were diesignated to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well, We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.”
From “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
There is something about history that conveys a feeling of inevitability. So, it is easy to look back at Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963, pencil stub in hand, and imagine him confidently writing what he knew would be a work for the ages, words that would propel one of the most successful social justice campaigns in history and be proclaimed by presidents, recited by elementary school students, emblazoned on billboards and greeting cards.
I bring some of those words to you today from King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” to remind us that the truth is far different. In fact, the 34-year-old preacher who landed in a bleak cell on Good Friday was unsure whether the act of civil disobedience that brought him there – trumped up charges of violating a parade ordinance – had made any difference at all.
The Civil Rights movement was still young and had turned to its most ambitious target yet. Birmingham was a contradiction: a fast-growing city that was a center of the steel industry, it was also a town where racial segregation and the indignities of Jim Crow laws were locked in tight. Even though steel-working wages paid to blacks were half those paid to whites, they offered the best jobs around, and few were interested in rocking that boat.
Only a couple of years before, a white mob had attacked an integrated bus of Freedom Riders, beating passengers for 15 minutes before police arrived and they were allowed to move on. The mayor had closed all city parks and playgrounds rather than allow them to be integrated under a federal order.
Still, in January 1963 as Governor George Wallace was declaring “segregation now, segregation forever” in Alabama, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to target Birmingham with an economic boycott during the Easter shopping season. Just before Easter, though, the city of Birmingham had changed its form of government, shifting from a three-member commission that ruled with an iron fist to a mayor and nine-member council. And Bull Conner, the bitterest opponent of integration, had been defeated as mayor, though he remained in charge of the police.
The new mayor, Albert Boutwell, promised changes, and as the SCLC protests began few joined in. Many middle-class blacks and about three-quarters of black clergy joined most whites in opposing the protests, arguing that the city should be given a chance.
Sitting in jail, wondering what to do next, King found the inspiration for his next step in a front-page column in the Birmingham newspaper by eight prominent Alabama clergymen. They appealed for calmness and forbearance, describing the SCLC leaders as “outsiders” and their protests as “unwise and untimely.” They urged “our own Negro community” not to support the demonstrations and to “unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.”
Now, let’s pause a moment and consider that appeal, framed as it was in such reasonable language. You recognize the tone, right? We’ve all heard it, and I’ll bet many of us have used it. I know I have.
“Let’s just calm down now.
I’m sure we can work something out.”
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nobody likes conflict. We all want to get along, to resolve things. And that’s a good.
But what happens when what appears to be “reasonableness” is just a way of masking obstruction, a way of sweeping under the rug valid complaints of injury and oppression, a way of discounting the felt experience of people who see no hope of remedy?
It’s a problem stated perhaps most famously in that ancient Hebrew scripture, the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet complains, “I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying ‘What have I done?’ All of them turn to their own course like a horse plunging headlong into battle. . . . They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:5-6, 11)
There comes a point when we must pivot from the response that is reasonable to the one that the writer Cornell West calls, “radical,” a solution that goes to the root of the problem, that questions the most fundamental assumptions and argues for new ways of looking at the world.
In a collection of King’s writings that he compiled for our own Beacon Press, West argues that now nearly a half-century after King’s death we have lost sight of the radical edge of his work, of all the ways that his work questioned fundamental structures in American society and called us to larger lives.
We find the ground laid for that radical King in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Who knows? But for that front-page appeal from his critics, King may not have had the occasion or impetus at that point in his life to gather his thoughts in that way. We know he was depressed from the lack of response to the protests, editorials from national newspapers criticizing his action, and President Kennedy’s resistance to requests to help him. He was also sad at being away from his wife, Coretta, two days after the birth of their daughter, Bernice.
That column, though, ignited a fire in King, and he entered a white heat, writing so feverishly that some of his supporters worried for his state of mind. He began scribbling on the edge of the newspaper, then writing on sheet after sheet of toilet paper, all of which was passed in secret to his secretary, who did her best to decipher his crabbed script.
It is here amid personal reflections on his family’s experience with racism and musing over passages of scripture that he lays down how he understands his calling to a radical activism, non-violent but centered in a love that refuses to see the separations that Birmingham’s laws enforce. You know the words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he writes. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
He acknowledges that the purpose of his action is not to make peace but to stir things up: “To create such a crisis,” he says, “and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
Those words may sound shocking, he says, but he makes no apologies: “There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth,” he says, and “now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Nothing much happened to the letter right away. Its addressed recipients never saw it until it was published elsewhere, and few newspapers were interested. It wasn’t until months later, when the Birmingham campaign entered a new stage with high school students leading the protests and TV cameras capturing images of them being sprayed with firehoses and attacked by dogs that people returned to the letter and found in it a blueprint for King’s actions.
King’s letter comes to mind on this Martin Luther King Sunday as I reflect on another “letter” of sorts that’s made its way into public consciousness – Ta-Nehsi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me.
Coates, a writer for the Atlantic magazine, wrote the book in the form of a letter to his teenage son as a way of sharing with him his own reflections on how race has shaped his life and pervades the way that each of us makes our way in the world.
It’s a hard book to read because it challenges us all to take stock – and in some ways, ownership – of the legacy of racism in which we each participate. And as Coates said in the excerpt I read earlier, people experience this racism, not in some abstract realm, but as a physical threat, as a threat to their bodies. And this separation we experience between white and black, he said, didn’t just happen. It was created over time as a way to elevate some people and diminish others.
“The elevation of being white,” he tells his son, “was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families . . . and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
It ranges from the brutality of slavery, to the horror of lynchings and Jim Crow indignities to all the ways that even today people who, in Coates words, are “different in hue and hair” suffer deprivation, loss and abuse because of it. We measure incremental gains in statistical measures without acknowledging how deeply this state of affairs remains marbled throughout American society.
We lose sight, he says, of the fact that the loss and suffering of African-Americans provided and continues to provide part of the underpinning for the success of what we call the American Dream: the idea that with enough gumption any of us can make it in the world, can achieve success and material comfort and be safe and secure. What our idolizing of “The Dream” omits, he says, is that in many cases what white people achieve depends on there being an underclass of black people to service them.
“The Dream,” he says, “is treehouses and Cub scouts . . . . And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs.”
It’s why, he says, black children growing up are taught different lessons than white children. “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good.’ . . . These words were spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as if they evidenced some undetected courage. . . (But) no one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good.”
Too often, as you heard in our reading earlier, Coates says that the lectures young black people receive on “personal responsibility” seem offered up more to the point of exonerating practices that have been tools of oppression for generations.
Coates tells his son something of his own growing up, how he escaped some close calls on the streets of Baltimore but found his way into an orbit of people who provided support for him. But he tells his son that he still fears for him.
“I’m sorry that I cannot make it okay,” he says. “I’m sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life.” And, he says, “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible, beautiful world.”
Like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Coates’ is a radical analysis of the state of affairs in this country. It goes to the root of the struggles we face, white and black, in seeing justice served.
And this gives us a moment to reflect on this word – “radical.” It’s got some buzz to it, doesn’t it? It feels disruptive, disorienting. And, let’s face it: we are comfort-seeking creatures. We want things to be OK, and we will go to some lengths to create some calmness and stability, if not serenity, in our lives, whatever the actual circumstances may be.
At the same time, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to his Alabama clergy detractors, there are times, for the health of a person, a system, a community, that we need to name the tensions that are among us, go to the very root of the problem, however indelicate that may be, and commit ourselves to bringing them to light so that they may be cured.
So, friends on this Martin Luther King Sunday let us with Dr. King and Ta-Nehisi Coates not hesitate to be radical in our work to free our own and our nation’s hearts of the scourge of racial oppression that dogs us still. Let us not turn to our own courses like horses plunging headlong into battle. Instead, let us own the work that is ours to raise our individual and community awareness. Let us join in common cause with those of all races committed to the ongoing work that frees us all.
“What Makes a Good Life” is the title of a TED talk by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger. As Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Professor Waldinger is the third to hold that position in the longest-running and most comprehensive longitudinal studies of happiness and satisfaction. Spoiler alert: this 75-year-old continuing study finds that the key to happiness and satisfaction in life is….. relationships. Deep, committed, nurturing relationships.
Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal religion. We aspire to do things together to improve ourselves, our congregation, and the wider community by forming relationships. I believe this is fundamentally what attracts so many of us to the UU Congregation of Asheville. We get happiness and satisfaction in the relationships we build in shared community.
You have, or will shortly, hear from Debbie and Ian Fischer, our Annual Budget Drive co-chairs. This year we are coming together in community, in a kickoff event on January 31 after the second service, to celebrate the success of the Welcome Project, to outline the priorities for the coming congregational year beginning in July, and to form new relationships in gatherings outside our normal UUCA events. We have a wonderful video of the congregation singing One Voice, put together by our talented Jules Smith, to share with you. Rev. Mark Ward will outline the priorities of UUCA for the next year and the challenges. You will get a chance to ask questions and provide input. And yes, we will ask you to consider your financial commitment to UUCA for the upcoming congregational year starting in July.
Please respond to the invitation from Debbie and Ian and attend this meeting. This is a unique opportunity to build relationships with your fellow congregants. So, what makes a good life? Relationships. Or as The Beatles put it: And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love, you make.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The chalice flame we light each week had its origin in our movement as a symbol of hope and resistance. We’ll visit that history today and what it calls us to now.
Reading from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
“This is what life is about: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and things, the split and burr of it all, the fizz into particulars.”
It was my junior year in high school, and I had transferred to a private school after mixed experience in public schools. I remember feeling a bit like a fish out of water, not sure how or where I fit in. Somehow it came up in my youth group at the Unitarian Universalist church where my family belonged that there were small, silver flaming chalice necklaces available for sale – a silver oval with the flame in the cup on a simple silver chain. I bought one.
I wasn’t particularly given to wearing jewelry, but somehow this necklace didn’t seem like jewelry. Instead, it felt like a declaration of identity, a way of representing what was important to me and the community I stood with.
I remember being comforted by the new feeling of the medallion bouncing around on my chest during phys ed classes, almost wishing that others would see it and ask me about it.
Our tradition takes pride in what we consider our thoughtful approach to religion, our commitment to a reasoned search for meaning that helps us articulate beliefs we can defend with intellectual integrity. And it’s good, it’s freeing, it’s refreshing. We’re not given a catechism to memorize or confession of faith to affirm. We weigh for ourselves what seems true, and we accept, even welcome, the broad diversity of faith stances that this exercise carries us to, knowing that those stances will shift and evolve as we change and grow. It is liberating to be part of such a community, and I am proud to be both a member and leader in our movement.
But here’s the thing: our attention to words and ideas, the products of the head, can lead us to neglect the role of the physical, the body in our spiritual lives.
The religion professor S. Brent Plate argues that it’s easy to mistake what religion is about. “Too often,” he says, “religion is explained as ‘a set of beliefs,’ which primarily exist in the thought processes of the brain.”
Look, for example, at that forbidding word “orthodoxy,” which translates from the Latin as “right thinking.” The notion, Plate says, is that the answers to religion are “guarded behind the fortress of the forehead.” Having sorted the options, we make our decisions about, say, theism or atheism, and then, in his words, “The quest is over, we’re all cleaned up, and life goes on.”
Yes, there are symbols and rituals and all the other ways that we dress things up, but those are seen to be “secondary expressions of some primary intellectual order.” In fact, though, this move reverses the actual order of things.
As Plate writes in his book, The History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, “there is no thinking without first sensing, no minds without their entanglement in bodies, no intellectual religion without felt religion as it is lived in streets and homes, temples and theaters.”
Now, that we might miss this is not especially surprising, given our history. Our Unitarian heritage, after all, emerged out of the Puritan churches of New England, where worship consisted largely in listening to hours-long sermons in unheated meetinghouses.
When the camp meetings of the Great Awakening with their shouting and weeping were spreading across New England in the 18th century, our forebears took pride in their more sober and reasoned approach to religion.
It wasn’t until later that Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists challenged that approach to religion in a significant way. We don’t find religion, a sense of faith from studying texts, they said, but from our experience of the world.
Religion, he suggested, responds to the joy to being alive, the sense of wonder that comes simply from being. We don’t need to seek it out from some supernatural source. We only need to make ourselves available to it as we engage each other and our surroundings. From it arises a consciousness that guides us in community and in the larger world.
But this connection beyond ourselves can be hard to find, Brent Plate says, and that is what sacred objects can do. As he puts it, they help us “bring the spiritual to its senses.” There are many ways to approach this, but today I want to argue that it is one of the things that our flaming chalice can do for us – connect us to larger truth, to deeper understanding, to both our wholeness and our neediness, and to each other.
To tell this story I need to step back about three-quarters of a century. As central as the chalice has become to contemporary Unitarian Universalism, it is in fact a fairly recent innovation for us, born in Europe in the midst the conflicts of World War II.
We begin in Czechoslovakia, a nation that at the time had the largest concentration of Unitarians outside of the U.S., including a central church in Prague, Unitaria, with a membership of some 3,000. The Czechs had been in close contact with the leadership of the then-American Unitarian Association, and in 1938 as Nazi troops were invading the Americans began a fund-raising campaign to support them.
In 1939, they sent the minister of a Boston-area church, Waitstill Sharp, and his wife, Martha, to Prague to help. They brought funds, provided meals and helped several hundred refugees escape to neutral countries. It was not long, though, before their activities were noticed by the occupying Nazis. So, they fled to Lisbon, in neutral Portugal.
It was there in May 1940 that they helped set up a new organization, the Unitarian Service Committee, to help coordinate relief efforts. Over the next several years they and the USC helped thousands of refugees escape the Nazis.
In the shadowy world of espionage during the war, the USC was unknown. So, its director, Charles Joy, decided it needed to adopt a symbol to give it some kind of dignity and importance. He turned to his assistant, Hans Deutsch, for help. Deutsch was a Czech national and artist who had recently moved to Lisbon from Paris after getting in trouble drawing anti-Nazi cartoons. It was his pen that in 1941 gave us the first flaming chalice.
Deutsch drew the chalice without ever having entered a Unitarian church or having experienced a Unitarian worship service, but he told Joy that he admired the denomination’s spirit. “I am not what you may actually call a believer,” he said, “but if your kind of life is the profession of your faith – as it is, I feel sure – then religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy, and – what is more – to active, really useful social work.”
The director, Charles Joy, told the USC board in Boston that Deutsch’s thought was the symbol was “the kind of chalice the Greeks and Romans put on their altars as a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.” But he added that he felt it also connected to Christian theme of sacrificial love.
Unbeknownst to Deutsch, his symbol had also made a strong connection to an ancient Czech symbol of religious freedom. In the late 1300s a reformist Bohemian Catholic priest named Jan Hus had made a practice of reading the Bible in the vernacular and offering them the cup of communion wine as well as the bread. The church at the time insisted that the Bible could only be read in Latin and that only the priest, facing the altar, could receive the cup. For turning to face the congregation and sharing the cup, Hus was declared a heretic and burned at the stake.
His followers, the Hussites, rebelled, calling themselves “people of the chalice” and were said to have combined the fire of Hus’s pyre with the cup to create a flaming chalice that endured as a symbol for hundreds of years.
When the Unitarian and Universalist churches joined in 1961, the flaming chalice was adopted as the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Since then the chalice has been artistically re-imagined many times, and its role in our congregations has evolved.
Growing up in the church of my childhood in Princeton, New Jersey, even when I had the chalice on a chain around my neck, I don’t remember us ever having a physical chalice in the sanctuary or lighting it as part of worship. It is a practice that appears to have grown slowly and steadily, and not surprisingly seems to have spread first in children’s and youth worship. Children, after all, engage more directly with something concrete rather than lofty ideas, but are they really so different from adults in that way?
I wonder if there may yet reside in us some of that old Puritan suspicion of all the ways that we can be tickled, tricked or distracted by the concrete, by the sensual from those great ideals that we take religion to be about. But if Brent Plate is right – and I think he is – that “there is no intellectual religion without felt religion,” then it is worth our getting in touch with the felt experience that goads us to gather in religious community. And perhaps the chalice could be the tool that opens that for us.
I am struck that our symbol begins with a gesture of both hospitality and safe harbor. As Hans Deutsch intuited, the cup of the chalice has served for many years in many cultures as a vessel that is used to hold something precious that may be widely shared.
It celebrates a sense of abundance that underlies our liberal faith, a broad welcome to all and a community that cherishes diversity and offers compassion. At the same time, we recognize that none of us enters this community fully formed, having figured it all out. We will change and grow and sometimes suffer hardships and ill fortune. So, our chalice also offers us a crucible – contained space where we can be supported in our struggles, where we can bring our full and true selves without fear of judgment, and a place that offers loving arms amidst our difficulties.
A similar sentiment guides us as we extend our reach into the larger community. It is not through abstract reasoning that we are drawn to the work of freedom, justice and love, but as a visceral response to the hardship and pain that we see.
The sense of joy and wonder in being alive that we feel is not an experience exclusive to us. It is a heritage, a right of all human beings. We don’t have to figure this out. We know it simply by what our gut tells us when we experience the world otherwise. The abundance of our cup, then, calls us to share what we have and the vision of beloved human community that it implies as widely as we can.
I am struck by the image in David’s story of first man who finds his purpose by creating the world from what he draws out of his heart. It is, in a sense, a task that we all face: finding the joy, the heart-centered passion that drives us and building a life that serves it.
And so, we look to the flame, that symbol of warmth and light that casts out fear, that heats our dwelling places, that illuminates the world, that gives us the power of discernment. The chalice that we offer to the world is not empty; it is afire: afire with compassion, afire with hope, afire with love. . .
Afire, even, with impassioned reason.
A contradiction? Not at all. Mr. Spock of “Star Trek” fame notwithstanding, let’s not fool ourselves that there is no passion driving the well-reasoned argument. Rather, it is the energy of a refining fire that strips away foolish dross and takes us to the essential nugget of truth.
And that, in the end, is what we are left with: not our fantasies or all the things we conjure out of our fears, but what Annie Dillard called “the fizz of particulars”: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and the world around us.
So, into this space that we have created together we bring this symbol that gathers our community. As at other congregations it has evolved over the years here in different manifestations. Our newest, as you heard Lisa introduce it in September, is a design created by the late 1980s by Mordecai Roth, a UU artist who lived in Arizona and who died about two years ago: the bowl decorated as with branches from a tree holding lamp oil and a plate over it holding a wick, with interlocking brass rings representing the two religious traditions of our heritage.
I make the lighting of this chalice a ceremonial element early in our services and invite our worship associates to write words to accompany the lighting that invite us into worship. It is for me a moment of grounding and centering, a reminder of the context in which we gather, this tradition of memory and hope that we raise up each week. Later, then, we carry this flame to our joys and concerns table where we pass it to you in the hope that it might ease your sorrows and illuminate your joys, both of which we hold in community with love.
It is a way, as Brent Plate put it, that we bring our spiritual life to its senses. We connect with each other and with those who each week and for dozens of years have lit chalices in Unitarian Universalist congregations and meeting places around the world. And it can’t help but bring to mind beloved friends who are no longer with us.
We connect also with the fire within us, the passion that calls us beyond the narrow window of our lives to a covenant with all people, with all life.
It was a growing awareness of that covenant, I think, that occurred to me in high school with that little silver medallion dangling from my neck. I think what I wanted to tell my classmates in hoping they would ask about it was that I was linked to something larger than myself, to a community that carried a vision of compassion, integrity, service and joy – a fire that lives within me still.