Does Pentecost Have a Role in Unitarian Universalism?

Pentecost — all of us liturgical Christians know its meaning on the calendar.

But what does it mean to us Unitarian Universalist Christians who understand Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure… a rabbi, a role model, a prophet… anything except a risen Saviour?

For Trinitarian Christians, Pentecost stands as “the birthday of the church.” It marks the empowering arrival of a Holy Spirit among a finite group of apostles and friends. Fortified after ten days of devastation – the second devastation, for prior to Ascension they’d been seeing their executed friend in familiar places, doing his comforting things – this time the Apostles experienced the implanting of a formerly exterior power –a Holy Spirit. As if someone had clothed their feet in winged shoes, as if someone had wrapped their spines in solid steel, they ventured forth at last, ready to fulfill his mandate to go forth and baptize the world in his name.

Speaking for no Unitarian Universalist Christian except myself, I admit this year – after decades of trying to pretend – that nothing about that story works for me.  Entering my tenth year in a wonderful home – Vermont – which nevertheless is not the home of my heart – Cambridge and greater Boston, MA – I’ve finally got the words to express my Pentecost sadness.

When I was nine, my father got an excellent job in a different part of the country. It happens to a lot of people; this is the time of year we see relocation industry ads on tv. Your parents carefully hand you the toy your best friend gave you ten days earlier, when she swore she would love you forever. When her parents took her away for her own vacation.

She would return to familiar haunts, beloved places and people that you would not see again. There you sat in the back seat, clutching the toy and knowing it could never be enough. This is where a Unitarian Universalist Christian parts company with Partialist Trinitarian co-religionists.  The Holy Spirit for them is no mere replica, no image, no doll, no ethereal being.  For them it will make sacred the place they arrive, without which it lingers in danger of death eternal.  Not only will it find them friends, but open the eyes of those friends to what makes  a newcomer special, elevates her  even beyond all the friends they’ve had before. At least when they sit in the back seats of their Father’s car, that’s what they firmly believe.

My Unitarian Universalist theology has no part in that.  Believing in One God who lives everywhere and finds something worth saving in everyone, I come to the new scene with eyes not so much open as empty. Yes, we’re supposed to call it spiritual curiosity and rejoice that it broadens our being, but that’s not how it often feels to me.  Because why, if the new place is already sacred, if the new friends are already special, should I think we have anything to add? Not for Unitarianism the planting of churches, the preaching of good news. What is the value of our testimony—the testimony, anyway, that I came here to bring? If we come to hold up a gilded mirror, as so many deride us for doing, then why should we bother with Pentecost’s most basic mission, the founding of a church? Why should we offer support and nurture to folks already living someplace special?

After ten years in one of America’s most beautiful cities, I’ve come to learn that a new place that does not feel like home to me doesn’t even feel like home to everyone who already lives here. There is no heaven on earth, and for that reason, our gilded mirror, our open and empty eyes are just the good news  that many folks need, want, hunger, crave to receive. For the good news we bring – self-affirmation – has been denied to them despite their natural birth there.

Emerging adults need our support when they want to leave the ways and homes of their parents and grandparents to choose their own life partners.  Huge swaths of the planet deny this right not only to homosexuals, but also – maybe even more so — to heterosexuals. People cannot choose their parents, but lots of aspiring grandparents want to correct that lack of power in reverse. The world is full of parents and grandparents putting property rights and social status ahead of personal fulfillment for their own young.

Some otherwise happy families need our support as they fight to assert the value of personal and planetary health ahead of rigid economic and social structures built on unsustainable extraction.

Unexpected folks – every age, every gender, every location — need our open eyes and gilded mirror when inner energy drives them to produce new forms in music, of words, by movement, with paints and found materials.

And then are those who need our gilded mirror to fight a culture which despises or derides their very being.

It doesn’t help me much, this gilded mirror and open eyes, when first encountering some unfamiliar place and different people. Unfamiliar voices too often send me back to a corner, a book or movie that brings back memories of joy. Nothing is going to lead me anywhere. No one is going to hold me up, at least not for a long while. Maybe that’s why we’re such a performance-oriented religion: for some among us, the moment is always Pentecost, that empty, lonely interlude when nothing we can clutch or imagine will bring back the one place we’ve always called home.





Christmas Eve

Mainline religion — of which Unitarian Universalism is a reluctant part — has been struggling with how to attract or retain young adults. lots of experiments. This week our local congregation said good-bye to a few and hello to a few others. Small numbers, probably about thirty at the outside, and of active participants closer to fifteen.

Two of them mentioned the central role, in their hearts, of the Christmas Eve traditions of their growing-up years. 

So I’m just saying…

Why is there no central and portable anthology of the brilliant and open-minded Christmas Eves our clergy have put together over the decades?

Why do we assume that what attracts young adults is novelty, the unexpected — which it often is — without remembering that in the ever-more-violent fluctuations of their emerging years, they also yearn for anchors?

Closing Down Christmas @UUholidays @childless

Our (Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship) beloved leader, Rev. Dr. Ron Robinson greets us this morning with the reminder that it’s the last day of Christmastide once again.

We didn’t have much of a Christmastide, because bad weather kept both of us apart from most of our families. But it was snug for us, and being stuck at home put great joy into domestic trinkets and rituals that sometimes seem superfluous. Over the years, like my mother before me, I’ve acquired special dishes (Spode), bath towels (Lenox), table cloths, even socks, and shirts. Our little artificial Season Tree announces the full sequence of changes from All Hallows’ Eve (orange lights), through Advent (blue lights) to Christmas tide (multicolored lights) to Epiphany and Ordinary One (green lights) — all ending with Vernal Equinox. 

I mention this as a reflection on what is often decried as materialism during Christmas. Yes, in the years I was accumulating these things, it felt sinfully secular. I worked retail in Macy’s Home Store, specifically so I could linger over each possibility, get customer feedback as returns came in (“this towel lost its shape the first time I put it through the dryer” “I bought one of those dishes last year and it chipped right away”), and, most of all, see which ones stayed attractive as I handled them, cared for them, looked at them day after day. Plus, I got an employee discount, which really helps when you’re mostly an underemployed religious professional and completely unpaid blogger and writer. 

The first validation of all this came one year when I visited my parents in October, and my mother, already somewhat struggling with such activities, dug out a collection of salt-shakers, mugs, placemats announcing the imminent arrival of Halloween. Her grandchildren had long since grown up, her nursery school teaching career had long since vanished out of the rear-view mirror, and my father took no notice of such things. She did it for herself, and it gave her joy. Friends dropping in would get a smile. And outside cultural trivia — music, food features in the newspaper, advertising circulars — would harmonize with the decor. She didn’t exactly explain all this, just smiled and testified to the joy it gave her.

Seeing her persist in seasonal decor for its own sake let me know that my own joys in such things– and I do mean *things* — had genetic foundations and cultivated strengths. Over the years, I’ve learned that I probably will not employ all these things in every single season, but it’s hard to predict in advance which ones will shine in which year. This year, it was definitely the clothing that got no notice. As more and more outside activities got canceled due to dangerous cold, even Lynne’s Christmas shirts spent weeks on the blanket frame, waiting for ice to melt and winds to retreat to their caves. (Today will probably be that one lonely day). I had bought enough Christmas socks over the years to wear them nonstop the entire time from Advent One to Epiphany, but this year, once they settled into the sock drawer, they never left: it’s been rag wool socks with silk liners all the way.

But years when the clothes get a workout, the dishes sometimes “seem like too much trouble.” This year has been all about new recipes and old dishes. Lynne has a red tablecloth, to which her cousin Mark has now had delivered a poinsettia decorated with a cardinal nesting on a big red bow. The plant isn’t doing that well, but we love that Mark sent it, and the bird (which I confess I didn’t discover at first, because I had that side turned toward the window light) will have lasting value. There are white snow-celebrating dishes to bring out when the Spode goes back into its boxes, welcoming back the sun’s returning light.

I belong to a religion which annually casts opprobrium on any effort whatsoever to enjoy the material manifestations of Christmas — and anything else we shop to enjoy. Apparently now that it has been corrupted by corporate excess, there was never any good in material self-expression. So annually, as I pull out these long-ago purchases and revel in the memories they bring to hand, mind, and heart, my religious identity weakens for awhile. Never is our Puritan heritage so fully on disgusting display as in the children’s homilies that teach them to turn away from trinkets and seek the riches in someone else’s heart. preferably a stranger, someone they would ordinarily not see and hear.

Well, I’m all for community and all that, but God did make the hands, the senses, the imaginations by which we have, over the centuries, come to feather our little holiday nests with goodies like these. I no longer wonder whether Christmas shopping leaves out us childless families. It changes, but it takes us in. And as for lasting treasures, well — I don’t doubt that someday my nieces will look at this collection of holiday socks with delight. 

Whether anyone will want a full table-setting of Spode is another matter.Image

Ice and Tears

Perhaps you are one of thousands, if not millions, who spent a few hours watching that old movie, “White Christmas,” with Bing Crosy, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen. You might have noticed, while checking your weather report, that yes, this year, in Vermont we are having a White Christmas.

Well, that isn’t exactly what we’re having. It was an ice storm. Folks like my partner and me, with disabilities and limited funds for emergencies, have been inside for about a week now, avoiding all that beauty like the plague. The white in my Christmas this year comes from tears. Tears among my in-laws-to-be, as well, because the local grandchild, and her beloved parents, have had to stay home in Maine. Santa Claus even phoned on Christmas Even, to reassure the family that he would be arriving as scheduled. Lynne and I made it out that night, too, for worship and fellowship, despite the cold.

But a lot of New Englanders spent the holiday in shelters, thanking God that at least everyone is okay. One person died of carbon monoxide from running a generator in a garage. The local channels now run warning signals across the bottom of the programs, that if we feel woozy or our pets are acting weird, we need to open the windows and turn off the generators. This does not affect my family, but one worries for the others.

I did see, at Christmas Community Breakfast at church, a few ski tags on coat zippers; this does make fun and money, just as the movie explains. But right now, it’s all about the sadness of a lost holiday.

I haven’t made it out to the sales yet, despite the tempting ads: I went to the food co-op, because it looks like we’ll have more snow on Sunday. Hopefully, it will hold off until after church.

Captivities at Sixty — and Releases

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel…”

So far this Advent I haven’t been called to join formal worship, but this song — and the prophecies of Isaiah — ring strong in my heart and soul. My life, as I turn sixty, has so many worldly captivities, but my soul finds freedom at this rickety old computer, where I connect with kindred spirits on Facebook and blog rolls, where I read newspaper articles, even where I yesterday had a pleasant day managing recent photos. No, my body may be trapped by my partner’s illness, but my soul is rooted, a firm, strong tree lifting wider and wider branches to greet the snow.

So why was this phrase coming to me? The captivities that bother me are those that bothered Isaiah: the poor, the disabled, the encumbered, all suffering rejection from those whose assets — financial, physical, social — could make them whole. No, those whom God has given the means to provide completion have instead diverted these gifts into a system for grotesque self-fattening. I get angrier and angrier about this; I hope Isaiah is right.

But at sixty, I’m well aware that I cannot save the world. All I can do is turn my waning talents to strengthen my own group of assets toward the stewardship for which God intended them. At sixty, I have put aside the lifelong demon of curiosity. My next transition will not be a new career, a new home, but, as this one has been, to deeper zones of soul, higher zones of relationship. 

The tree, in other words, has finally found its patch of ground. My crown will reach up to higher suns, but my roots with thirst or thrive with their current ground. That ground might not be physical, but rather, the family, the friends, even the congregations and cultures, that turn out to have been my succor these closing decades already.

So last year’s experimental abandonment of The New Yorker and The New York Times were failures; nothing replaced them, despite my good faith efforts to graft and fertilize. My research and writing will stick with polity, history, civil religion, and Unitarian Universalism. My centerpiece remains Christianity, although my branches have spread far past it now.

It is telling that when I sat down to plan the spiritual and social observances of this season, which for me now begins with Canadian Thanksgiving and reaches to Epiphany’s opened light, I could see themes for the first month — friendships — and the second one — closing the garden and changing over the fall clothes to deep winter warmers. And then I stopped. What comes next?

It was a Homer Simpson moment. Doh! 

That third month is December. Its focus is Advent.

And so, despite so many and eclectic faith sources, the trunk declares its species. 

The leaves trust in the warmth beyond the snow. We will all be free. 



Wow! Tears came streaming down my face as I watched this incredible film about the Grab tradition of the Laguna Pueblo. Bigger than Thanksgiving. Bigger than Christmas. Blending Pueblo and Roman Catholic practices to support community on the reservation. Bringing back the young people — and not so young — who moved away.

A potmaker, a gardener, a history teacher, a senior center. Everyone together.

This one will go on the shelf next to the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.