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Weird names, symbols and rituals

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In her wonderful sermon preached at the 2006 General Assembly, Gail Geisenhainer speaks of being “forthrightly evangelized into Unitarian Universalism.”  (Thanks, Andy.)

My path to Unitarian Universalism was less forthright, propelled by my own inner necessity, not any UU invitation.

When you’re an ordained minister in an unwelcoming denomination, coming out is a complicated process.  Like many of my colleagues in similar situations, my first option was to explore the United Church of Christ.  I joined a UCC church.  I took a UCC History and Polity class.  I began the paperwork and met several times with their credentialing committee.

My conversations with the committee soon made clear that the UCC needed a degree of orthodoxy from me that I was no longer able to give.  I was definitely not a trinitarian, quite possibly not a Christian, and maybe not even a theist.

Both the minister at the UCC church I’d joined, and my CPE supervisor suggested that perhaps I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist.

I knew nothing about Unitarian Universalism.  I’d met a UU once, years ago, when I was a first-year undergraduate at Drew, taking a Hebrew class at the seminary.  I thought she was a heretic.

And now I was a heretic, and Unitarian Universalism was looking like my last-chance religious community.

I was not enthused.  Unitarian Universalism is a weird name.  Sort of like the Anchovy Amour truffle sold at an Anchorage chocolate shop.

I attended my first service at the Anchorage UU Fellowship.  Reluctantly.  Timidly.  Without invitation.

And discovered I was home.

But I still thought that Unitarian Universalism was a really weird name.  And the flaming chalice was a weird symbol.  I mean, where I come from, “flaming” means flamboyant, outrageous, over-the-top.  A good thing, yes, but why a flaming chalice?

I “signed the book” in 2006, and while the commitment was meaningful, the act was perfunctory.

The rituals of Unitarian Universalism have yet to find a place in my heart.  I almost always forget to bring water for Water Communion, and flowers for Flower Communion.  It still feels strange to me that when we have communion rituals that include food, the first “station” is often the sacramental application of hand sanitizer.

Last summer at General Assembly, however, I began to have a change of heart about the name “Unitarian Universalism.”   In the time since then I’ve also come to embrace our strange symbol, as well.

At GA, we were asked to say in unison, “I am a Unitarian Universalist.  I am the UUA.”  The words did not come easily to me, and I wondered about my reluctance.  Fear of commitment?  Resistance to being told what to say?  Was I doomed to be a perpetual outsider?

Almost as a gift, an answer came.  A translation of our name.  What I think of as a “UU Shema.”

The light is one.  The light is for everyone.

And our strange symbol is the relationship between chaos and order, guest and host, speaking and hearing, moving and standing still, tradition and new life.  Our circle is a half-sphere, open at the top, welcoming strange fire.

Our weird name and strange symbol have found a place in my heart.  Most of our rituals have not yet done so, but my experience with Unitarian Universalism and its flaming chalice encourages me to be patient, to give it time.

Scott Wells at Boy in the Bands wrote this week about five habits and practices that would not be accepted in the new Universalist church he’s starting.  Among the unaccepted practices was the flaming chalice.

I applaud his iconoclasm.  I love the story Dan Harper tells in the comments about his mother referring to the flaming chalice as a graven image.

As a child in a fundamentalist church, I was handed a 2000-year-old faith, encrusted with layer-upon-layer of tradition.  Believe all of it, I was told.  It’s all true, they said, every last bit of it.  It was as gaudy a graven image as you could imagine.

Twenty years ago, I started the hard work of scraping off the layers of plaster and gold leaf.  And now I’ve got a lightweight sense of the holy that I’m reluctant to weigh down with unchanging names, symbols and rituals.

But iconoclasm needs balance.  The way of negation needs to dance with the way of affirmation.  We need to enjoy what works for us today, knowing its meaning may fade tomorrow.

For me, Unitarian Universalism offers a context within which I can practice a living, sustainable faith.  Where I can deconstruct yesterday’s Lego project, and use the pieces to make something new for today, knowing that tomorrow I will start again.  Where my project is not a solitary one, but a communal commitment to building and tearing down, swapping pieces, and sharing ideas, a living tradition stretching back forever, always ever new.

We have a weird name, a strange symbol, and unfamiliar rituals.  It’s not easy to explain ourselves to non-UUs, or to invite potential UUs to join us.  The learning curve for new UUs is steep.   But maybe there’s something about the degree of difficulty that makes the “Aha!” more sweet.  And maybe many of us who find our way to UUism are looking for a faith that mirrors life’s complex weirdness, rather than giving us straight and static answers.


One thought on “Weird names, symbols and rituals

  1. Pingback: Emerging Congregationalism | nagoonberry

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