The official blog of Susan Landis-Steward, writer of whatever she likes, and co-founder of Puddletown Publishing Group

Archive for January, 2010

Unity in Difference: Becoming UU – Sermon 1.24.10


From the cartoon series The Simpsons, as told by Dr. Richard Grigg, Unitarian Universalist theologian:

It is the annual church picnic, and Reverend Lovejoy is manning the ice cream booth. Lisa Simpson, by far the most gifted and probing of the Simpson clan, approaches the stand, only to notice that the different flavors of ice cream are not identified in the usual fashion but have been given the names of religious denominations. In her usual thoughtful manner she pauses, and then says, “I’ll try the Unitarian.” Reverend Lovejoy hands her a bowl. She looks at it and says, “But there’s nothing in here.” Lovejoy responds, “That’s the point.”

From Rabbi and Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Religious thinking, believing, feeling are among the most deceptive activities of the human spirit. We often believe it is God we believe in, but in reality it may be a symbol of personal interests that we dwell upon. We may assume that we feel drawn to God, but in reality it may be a power within the world that is the object of our adoration.  We may assume it is God we care for, but it may be our own ego we are concerned with. To examine our religious existence is, therefore, a task to be performed constantly.


My first experience in a Unitarian church was Fire Communion six years ago. After a lifetime in the high church world of the Episcopal church, I was not prepared for long lines of people waiting to ignite little pieces of paper in a chalice flame as a symbol of what they wanted to put behind them. This was so outside the norm for me, it’s a wonder I came back.

But come back I did, and I brought questions with me. One persistent one (I posed it to Dana in yet another form just last week) is this: What is the underlying mythos of Unitarian Universalism? Or, to make it more black and white, What do Unitarian Universalists believe? What ties us together? Is there something significant at the center or, as Lisa Simpson’s ice cream bowl would suggest, is the chalice just empty?

Having spent over half a century with Anglicans, and having attended both an Episcopal School and an Episcopal Seminary, I wanted something from the Unitarians that was as rich and mythic as the history of the Christian tradition. I wanted something that spanned the centuries, something that wove in and out of world history. I wanted something I could pin my faith and hope to. But I just wasn’t finding it.

Before I dipped my toes in this particular stream, I thought the common perception of Unitarians was the correct one. You know the one. It says Unitarians can believe anything they want. I thought it was like this Wheel of Wisdom. It says Choose Your Own Religion: A Guide for the Savvy Convert. Just match windows until you find one you can agree with, then become a Unitarian.  Unitarian Universalism, by the way, is one of the many options on this wheel.

I have pestered Dana with questions, read books, talked to many of you over the years and asked you to tell me your stories of how you became UU.  And in many ways, I’m still unsatisfied.  But in other ways, I think I’m getting a glimpse of what it’s all about.

Back in the early 90s, Oregon was embroiled in the No on 9 campaign.  For those of you who missed it, Measure 9 was a ballot measure that wanted to write into law that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people were “abnormal, unnatural, and perverse.”  While I may be all of those things at times, it’s not because I’m lesbian.

A group of Roman Catholics formed a group called People of Faith against Bigotry that proved to be one of the most effective groups in fighting the ballot measure and its later evil spawn. But not without their own internal struggles.

The first issue came when the Protestants decided they wanted to join PFAB. Well, it’s not a far stretch from Catholic to Protestant: After all, they are both Christian denominations.  Not long after that, some Jewish folk wanted to join.  Well, it is the Judeo-Christian tradition so, after some discussion, the Jews were in.  Then came the Buddhists. More debates, but Buddhists are fairly harmless so they were also welcomed. Then the Pagans wanted to join.  Now what? The Judeo-Christian tradition has spent centuries trying to suppress all things Pagan or Wiccan. But, being reasonable People of Faith Against Bigotry, we finally decided that anyone who based their political action on their faith, whatever that faith might be, was welcome.  Eventually we had members of all different traditions from Society of Friends Quakers to the Wiccans of SisterSpirit, from high liturgy Christians to Muslims, secular and religious Jews, Buddhists, feminist Roman Catholic nuns, and everything in between.  We came together and we made a difference for the queer community in Oregon, not once, not twice, but three times as three different ballot measures attempted to make us legally less than human.

But there was still trouble in paradise. Being People of Faith, we wanted to worship together. Being against bigotry, we didn’t want to offend anyone. We tried for quite some time to develop a liturgy all could participate in and feel comfortable with. To no avail. Everything we came up with was either mealy mouthed and watered down to point of meaninglessness, or it contained an element that someone found offensive.  Finally, someone said, “I have an idea.” Since leadership of worship was going to be passed from person to person, it was proposed that whoever was leading worship would lead from their personal tradition. So simple. So elegant. And so life-changing. When it was my turn, I used Compline from the Book of Common Prayer. When the Quakers took over, we sat in silence and spoke if we felt called to do so. The folks from SisterSpirit taught us to call the corners and raise a cone of power. And in each ritual, we all found something that spoke deeply to our own sense of who we were and what we believed, and we found deeper understanding of the beliefs of our fellow members. This simple act: Sharing our individual understandings of the greater Mystery that some call God and others give different names or no name to, led us to become a community of believers able to find unity in difference.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my first experience in Unitarian Universalism.

The chalice is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. And, unlike the wine-filled chalice of Christian tradition, our chalice is empty. Not empty in the way Lisa Simpson’s bowl was empty, but empty of all dogma, of all preconceived notions of what that sacred mystery is, of all prescriptive belief systems that tell us what we are to believe and what path we are to follow. The only thing in our chalice is light; there is plenty of space for whatever each one of us wants to fill it with.

That doesn’t mean that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want. We have our Principles to guide us. (You can find them about six pages into the large hymnal) Anything that falls outside of those Seven Principles also falls outside the purview of our tradition. That means that any belief system that does not respect the human dignity of every person; does not strive for justice, equality, and compassion; does not allow for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; and does not honor the interdependent web of all existence, including the planet that sustains us, does not belong in this sacred space.

But, what do we believe? What do we have in common? One friend I had lunch with this past week pointed to our liturgy. Now, coming from the Episcopal Church with all its pomp and circumstance, linens and vestments, silver dishes, wine and wafer, and trappings and words that date back centuries, I had a hard time at first even finding the liturgy here. For one thing, it seemed to change. One week we’d do candles, another week we wouldn’t. Sometimes there would be one offering, sometimes two. Special music. No special music. Things seemed to move around. The sermon wasn’t always where I thought it was going to be. The readings weren’t proscribed and seemed to come from all over, even from irreverent cartoon shows. Sometimes there was one reading, sometimes two.  It wasn’t predictable, and there was no book where I could turn to page 355 and follow along until the end. I didn’t know what part I was supposed to play, and liturgy, after all, is the work of the people. I just didn’t get it.

Fortunately, Dana invited me to be a worship associate, and I’m finally able to see the larger framework of what we do as a community on Sunday mornings. We do have a well-defined liturgy, even if the individuals leading worship get to tweak it a bit.  So, in part, what we do is what we believe. We have a liturgy, a work that we do together, and that we can all relate to as our common thread. But that’s not all, nor is it enough.

As a person who is drawn to symbols and meaning, stories of faith, and to the greater Mystery behind it all, I still want to know what Unitarians believe.  But it’s tough. We had dinner a few nights ago with another friend and her faith is rooted in evolution. What she believes both touches on and veers far away from what I believe. And my partner, Jenny—who is worshipping at the Episcopal Church four blocks away right now, singing an anthem for a Bishop—intersects and veers from my path in even different ways. Yet we were able to carry on a respectful, animated, and interesting conversation with moments of shared Aha! Along with moments of shared Huh?

Dr. Richard Grigg, a Unitarian theologian if there can be such a thing, says the business of the UU tradition is to re-enchant the world.  Old ways of understanding our religious experience have fallen away. There is no longer magic in traditional understandings of faith.  And the New Age traditions that have sprung up often seem rootless and more intent on lining some self-proclaimed guru’s pocket than on helping us deepen our understanding of the Mystery of Being. To Grigg’s way of thinking, the world has become disenchanted with traditional forms of piety, and the Unitarian Universalist tradition is uniquely positioned to lead to re-enchantment of the world.  UU tradition is unique in that it combines many different spiritualities within one affirming community.

Getting closer.  But, on the surface, that still looks like the old “Unitarians can believe anything they want” clap-trap.  To find a shared thread, I had to look even deeper. What is it we are all searching for?  I came up with several things: meaning, truth, understanding. But one stands out. We are looking for self-transcendence. We know that there is something beyond our finite beings, something larger than we are.  Because I have chosen to live out of the faith I’m most familiar with, I call that thing God (although usually with a feminine pronoun).  I relate to God through a person named Jesus. Not because I believe Jesus is the only way, but for the same reasons I speak English most of the time. I can fake good in French and Spanish, but I dream and think and contemplate in my milk tongue. Same with Christianity. The symbols and myths of that tradition are so deep within me, I find it much easier to do hard theological and meaning-full work in that symbolic language.

Others of you have found other languages that are more comfortable. Some of us are humanists, Buddhist’s, Jews. Other are drawn to Native American traditions, Wicca, or some find meaning in nature or science.  The important thing isn’t the name of God (or the lack of a name, or even the lack of a God). The important thing is the recognition that we—all of us—are searching to transcend ourselves and our finite needs and wants. And there are as many ways of doing that as there are people in this congregation, as there are people on this planet. Some of us meditate or pray, some think about the future and try to enflesh ways to bring that future into being. Some, like me, may sneak off to partake of Eucharist once in awhile. Others work hard to bring justice and compassion into being through work with the hungry, the homeless, and the damaged of this community. Others find self-transcendence in writing, or singing, or teaching prisoners how to make quilts to share with the less fortunate. Some of us put our faith into action raising the next generation.  We are all searching for the mystery of how we are connected to the world, to each other, and to the holy as we understand it. It’s facile to say that the journey is the destination. We are all travelers, and it is true that the journey is important. But we believe that there is a destination and sometimes we have glimpses of it right here in the unity of difference.

We all have made a significant choice in coming to this sacred space, entering this holy time, and sharing our different views of the sacred with one another while living out our shared principles and values.  That choice, to share our common and—at the same time—exceedingly individual journeys in one place at one time, is another part of what we believe.

Unitarian Universalists tend to be people who want to change the world. We tend to be people committed to peace, social justice, equality, compassion. We want to make this world a better place and we believe that we have the ability to do that. We are called to re-enchant the world, to provide as many opportunities for people to find self-transcendence as possible, to welcome all who share our values and principles, no matter what they “believe” about the great mysterious sacred.

I said earlier that I really wanted the Unitarian Universalists to have a story and a history that I could latch on to. Thomas Jefferson, while not a book-signing Unitarian, still hung out with them. One of the founders of the greatest experiment on earth, American democracy, he once stated that he believed all young men would be Unitarians by the time they died.  I believe that Jefferson was speaking to that re-enchantment of the world: that something new was coming into the world and that it would forever change the planet.

And we do have that ability. The flame that emerges from our empty-but-not-empty chalice can be the flicker of a re-enchanting fire that fills the world with new ways of transcending our individual existences and exploring the greater mysteries together. Not as a unified front of “true believers,” intent on converting one another in any way possible, but as a community united in our differences as a model sorely needed in a world torn apart by misunderstanding of some of those same differences.

We are called to re-enchant the world, and we have the spark, right there in our empty chalice to do it.

Blessed be and Amen.

Creative Every Day – January 24, 2010

So busy being creative, I forgot to post. Most of my creative juices went into the sermon I gave this morning. It was a sermon I was planning to give later in the year but a sudden cancellation gave me three weeks notice to pull it together. And it took every free minute of that time to figure out what I was going to say on the topic: What Unitarian Universalists Believe.  But I pulled it together yesterday and I think it worked. I’m going to post it here so tell me what you think.

I also bought yarn for baby gifts (my handspun isn’t baby friendly because I hate spinning superwash) and started plotting my knitting campaign for all the new babies (including a new grandchild!) coming this year.

I joined a postcard exchange so took myself on an artist’s date to buy a few items for postcards and collages. As soon as I wake up from my nap (preaching makes me tired for some reason) I’m going to make a few more postcards. Then I might start untangling the mess the cats made of my partially warped loom.

The cats not only love yarn and think looms are climbing toys, they have a new creative challenge: removing all heating vents from the floors. Seemed the heating vents aren’t screwed in.  But fixing the problem is Jenny’s creative challenge as she’s the one with the power tools.

I found the camera, a creative challenge in itself, so photos may follow. The next challenge is finding the charger for the camera and the download cable.

Last but not least, I figured out a surface to tap dance on. (tap shoes and wood floors make nice noise but ruin floors) Home Depot had this vinyl runner stuff. Won’t make as much noise, but it will still be satisfying.

Off to my nap…..

Creative Everyday Update Week 2.5

Okay, so I’m late. I’ve been busy. Yes, I was playing a new MMORPG, but that’s not all. This week my creative efforts have centered on writing a sermon. I’ve had this idea gestating for a few months but was hoping to preach it in April or May. Then a hole in the worship schedule wound up putting me on for January 24. Can you say pre-term birth?  As a result, I’ve been reading, talking to folks, and jotting notes and ideas. It’s going to be tight, but I’m going to have it together in time. Just need one thesis statement and then good to go.

I also carried on both parts of a conversation with Good Dog Gwyneth in which we determined that a) in her mind, it’s all about me and b) in our minds, the cats think it’s all about them.

Working on cleaning my office and finding lots of lost items which will allow me to be more creative when the desktop is finally found. However, new books on my desk (the kind I work on, not the kind I read for pleasure) may short-circuit desk cleaning for a while.

Oh, and I bought a new pair of tap shoes. My old ones have heels and I’m way too old to wear heels if I value my ankles, which I do. So I bought a pair of jazz taps. As soon as Christmas is put away (we celebrate through Epiphany) and I can find the office floor where Santa’s workshop lives right now, a wood floor will be built out of leftover laminate so I have a tap floor. (Right now I have to go outside since the taps will ruin the wood floors, and I won’t go outside because it’s raining.) (and, yes, my office is big enough to tap in…besides it’s the only room tap will be allowed in unless I build lots of tap floors which, while creative, I’m not going to do.)

On other fronts, more yarn has been spun, more knitting has been done (with less frogging), and more words have been written. Nothing spectacular, although I did choose yarn for a couple of baby projects for the impending new grandchild.

Hey, since birthing and raising the babe’s mom was a creative endeavor,  I think I should get credit for some part of creating the baby. Are you with me?

And I fessed up to a speeding ticket. Not sure how creative that is, but that’s two in one month. Both in Milwaukie. That town needs revenue.

Creative Every Day Update Week 1 — 2010

So, three days into the New Year and I’ve been keeping up with my Creative Every Day goal.  In the past few days I’ve spun many yards of yarn (lovely silks, merino, bamboo, and mohair), wrote a call to worship (a sort of very-mini sermon), agreed to preach in a couple weeks and started figuring out what I’m going to say, have done some “art” in my journal, and knit two rows of a complicated stitch and then tore out four rows of the same, all in the dark while watching Sherlock Holmes. I also did some creative kvetching about the new Sherlock Holmes movie until I figured out that they were young Holmes and Watson for a reason. Then I came up with some equally brilliant excuses why I didn’t get that in the beginning.

I also did another post on my not-favorite non-pastime, football.

There. I’m creative. Pour me a beer. Wait. I don’t like beer. Pour me some Baileys. Hell, why wait for you? I can pour it myself.

Oh, yeah, I also conned Pat and Hallie into bringing us dinner by agreeing to teach them how to crochet. Wow! I’ve got skills.

Football Redux

Two days ago I wasted time watching part of the Rose Bowl. I attended U of O so I sort of hoped the Ducks would win, but I don’t get football so in that sense I didn’t care. But I did learn (?) some new things about the game.

  • We need a larger TV. Apparently there were words at the bottom of the screen of our old 27″ television which showed things like the score, how many minutes were left in the quarter, and other important information. After I’d asked what quarter it was and how many minutes were left one time too many, Jenny pointed out that this information was readily available. I, however, being 58 with bad eyes, couldn’t see it. Nor could I see the ball. Hence, we need a new TV.
  • The dog thinks that Jenny yells because there are whole packs of wild wolves circling the backdoor. So everytime something happened (I have no idea what those things might have been as I couldn’t see the ball, the score, the clock, or what was going on) Jenny yelled, the dog woke up from her football stupor and looked hopefully out the back windows. No wolves. Just football. I’d prefer wolves. So would the dog.
  • Just when I thought I’d figured out the whole “1st in 10” thing, Jenny introduced the “1st in 15” thing which is just like the “1st in 10” thing except it includes a penalty. I didn’t recognize it as a penalty since no one hit anyone with a stick or got sent to a penalty box. I speak better hockey than I do football.
  • If your knees touch the ground, the play is over. Which begs the question, why do football players pray? And if they pray on the field is the game over?
  • If your knees, however, are on top of another player, and you put your arm over the goal line with the ball in it, it’s a touchdown even if the guy on the other team pushes it back. Unless, of course, you’re rooting for the other team. Then it’s a bad call by the ref.
  • Halftime is only important to me. I like cheerleaders. I like marching bands. What I don’t like is color commentary and instant replays. Which is what they had during halftime.
  • After the non-event of halftime, I left Jenny to her stupid game and took a nap. The Ducks lost. I’m sure the two were not related.
  • Sometimes when someone kicks the ball it’s called a conversion and it has one point. Sometimes when someone kicks the ball it’s called a field goal and has three points. Or maybe two. I’m not sure. Nor am I sure which is which.
  • I still don’t know what offsides is.
  • Instant replays are a thinly disguised way to hide the fact that a football game lasts for approximately 17 minutes but takes four hours to watch.
  • For further adventures in football see this

Happy New Year 2010

Okay, I’m a day late. And, after TWO trips to the mall today with the Divine Miss M (aka the Malliwog), a dollar or two short. But I do plan to do more blogging this year. For starters, I just want to post something I found on someone else’s blog. It’s by Dr. Frank Lipman.

20 New Year Resolutions

  1. More Real Food, Less “Food-like Substances”,
  2. More Fruit and Vegetables, Less Sugar, Wheat and Corn
  3. More Organic, Less Toxic
  4. More Chewing, Less Eating
  5. More Water, Less Soda
  6. More Recycling, Less Waste
  7. More Walking, Less Driving
  8. More Exercising, Less Watching TV
  9. More Outdoors, Less Indoors
  10. More Sleep, Less Worry
  11. More Calm, Less Chaos
  12. More Being, Less Doing
  13. More Consciousness, Less Ignorance
  14. More Smiles, Less Anger
  15. More Love, Less Hatred
  16. More Play, Less Serious
  17. More Letting Go, Less Holding On
  18. More Forgiving, Less Blaming
  19. More Generosity, Less Greed
  20. More Ubuntu, Less Me!

Ubuntu means what makes us human is the humanity we show each other. It is a Xhosa (South African) word and philosophy emphasizing community, sharing and generosity.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says
“Ubuntu is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging”.

Let 2010 be the year of UBUNTU.”

So, just as “TOWANDA” was the word of the decade for me back in the 90s, UBUNTU is my new personal slogan. (Don’t we all need those?)

This year I’m planning to do a lot of reading and reflecting on my own life and the way it impacts others.  I’m sort of in a family mode as my older daughters prepare to welcome new children into their families, and my youngest prepares for her great adventure: joining the circus.

I’m using several tools for the journey. Naturally I have journals, sketchbooks, watercolors, pens, and colored pencils. I have some nifty rubber stamps I won from my friend, Mar. I have several books stacked by my desk and several more recommendations courtesy of my Facebook friends.  I have a great therapist for exploring the weird parts, and a great partner for exploring the fun parts (although she might think those ARE the weird parts!) I have a deepening sense of who I am theologically, ethically, and in relationship. I’m ready.

For a framework, I’m using Carolyn Myss’ Sacred Contracts and her archetype cards. I’m not a big believer in divination, but I’m a huge fan of intuition and I’ve found that images are great triggers for my intuition. I will most likely share some, but not all, of what I discover in this blog. Some will remain just fodder for my journals.

The cards are laid out much like an astrological chart, in three levels. The first level contains the archetypes at work throughout your lifetime. Myss calls these the chronos archetypes. The second level is archetypes at work in the current situation (the kairos archetypes and, in this case, the coming year), and the third level are the cosmic archetypes, those chosen by the divine. It’s all sort of complicated but also quite intuitive. (Even if I do disagree with her use of the words Chronos and Kairos, two words I understand from a Christian theological perspective and have a hard time grasping the alternative meanings she has ascribed to them.)

So, in January (ain’t it convenient that a year has twelve months and a chart has twelve segments?) I will be exploring in depth the first house of the ego and the personality. My chronos archetype is the Addict, kairos archetype is the Scribe, and the cosmic archetype is the Alchemist. I can already see that this is going to be interesting.

Addict? Oh, my yes. And lots to address there. Scribe? Not in the writer sense, but in the recorder sense. Since I’d decided that a journal, blog, sketchbook, and lots of jottings and musings were in order on this journey long before I found a framework, I think it’s serendipitous that the scribe appeared where it did.

Alchemist? Ah! Transformation. My goal in all of this, after all. Yes, I see some interesting days ahead for me.  And, since you won’t be seeing the journal, I’ll just let you know that the particular rubber stamps I won off my friend, Mar, are absolutely perfect icons for some of the work I’ll be doing.

Back to the cards. Once you do the chart, you start looking at the interactions. And, wow, do they interact. My intuition is on overdrive just thinking about it. Should be an interesting year.

But right now I’m headed for bed. I’m worship associate tomorrow and the Desmond Tutu quote above is part of what I’m reading. That and a part of MLK’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Then we’re going to set the place on fire (for you UUs out there, it’s fire communion).


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