Chalice Flames and Bonfires

Chalice Flame and Bonfires

One of my fondest memories of growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church involves lighting the chalice as a part of our youth group and youth conference gatherings.

But we didn’t just light the chalice. We lit.The.Chalice.

We would gather together burnt, used leftover matches and pile them carefully into the center of the candle to create a magnificent, brilliant light. While we discussed the topic of the day, one or two of us would tend to our chalice flame, keeping it contained yet bright as possible. When we ran out of used-up match fuel for our fire, we would find a use for our broken crayon stubs and melt them in the flame, letting the colorful wax drip down the side of the candle. We thought it was more pretty this way.

Over time we learned that the bigger the flame, the quicker the candle would burn. Our beautiful fire would suffocate when the pool of wax grew too deep or when the wick simply met it’s end. We weren’t too concerned then with making the candle last through our whole gathering, though. This was more about experimentation, pushing our limits (and, as it turns out, the limits of our advisors), and the instant gratification of making that chalice REALLY shine.

Occasionally, but not often, this ritual might have gotten a little out hand; an especially overzealous youth might add a few scraps of paper in an attempt to add a little more height to our fire and discover that the now bonfire was too hard to control, or we would create a waxy mess trying to clean out the candle. Those were the times when we found we had pushed our limits a little too far and our advisors would step in to dole out the logical consequences, and sometimes we could expect to lose our fire privileges for a while.

But that seemed to be part of the role of our advisors once we reached high school- to watch us tend to our own flame (hopefully not in panic-stricken horror) and step in when it became too much for us to handle on our own. Since then, I have learned that the line between a manageable brilliant light and an out-of-control blaze is very thin, and it takes a unique individual to help youth walk that line.

Sometimes I wish I still had an advisor to help me find that line in my day-to-day life. I might wake up in the morning, feeling calm, peaceful, yet determined and focused. But I might find that by dinnertime, after encountering a day full of frustrating news– stories of children taught to recite hate, thoughtless violence, and fear-mongering politics– I have crossed the line and transformed myself into a fuming, sarcastic, out-of-control blaze.

When I have crossed that line, I respond to antagonistic articles, Facebook posts, and conversations with not an ounce of understanding; I find myself seeking out news stories filled with mudslinging and hate, just to keep that fire fueled. Then I spend hours reading the comments and adding pointless lectures that won’t be read by anyone other than the people who were trying to create a bonfire in the first place.

And I know that I am not the only one– I think that UUs in general can be pretty susceptible to crossing that line. We are a passionate people and we care a whole awful lot. But sometimes our flammability lands us exactly where we don’t want to be and we react in exactly the wrong way. We turn into blazing, out of control bonfires.

We need our congregations and fellow congregants to be our advisors; to help us discover that line and to help us sustain our calm, brilliant lights. We need to help each other remember to respond in love, and not in-kind, when someone tries to fan the flame. Most importantly, we need to hold each other accountable so that we are compelled to react responsibly, especially when the temptation not to is great.


Being UU at Home

Being UU at Home

When I was growing up it was always safe to assume that the only Unitarian Universalist kids attending whatever school I was enrolled in at the time also lived in my house. In other words, UU kids were kind of hard to come by outside of our home and church.

I remember how hard it was for me to know just how to handle conversations about religion when I was really young; I was acutely aware that my church was different from the churches that most of my peers attended, but I was always unsure of how to respond if religion ever happened into a conversation. Generally speaking, my anxiety would result in a giant lump in my little throat and I would hurriedly search for a way to excuse myself from the impending blank stares that were sure to come my way after I revealed the lengthy name of my home church. Religious discussions meant either chiming in and letting my faith be known, or simply keeping my mouth shut and avoiding eye contact in hopes that I would simply disappear.

For most people whose faith traditions are not the cultural norm, conversations like these can take a great deal of energy, no matter how old you are. Like other UU kids, I had experienced the heartbreak of losing a friend because her parents didn’t approve of my family’s faith, and this added yet another dimension to my anxiety. But as I got older, I found I could have religious conversations quite easily and, nine times out of ten, I knew more about the other person’s faith than they did (or ever wanted to). I even started seeking these debates and discussions wherever I could find them; but I still found it very difficult to make friends who could put up with my convictions, my love of debate, and…well… I was kind of on the annoying side.

My peers would innocently ask me what they thought was an incredibly simple question: “What IS Unitarian Universalism?” Of course, they were suddenly blindsided with my awesome religious history lecture as I shared with them more than they ever wanted to know about my faith and the history of the Protestant Reformation.

What I didn’t get at the time is that those who asked me about my faith really didn’t want to me to present a dissertation on the history of Unitarian Universalism (shocker, I know). What they really interested in was, “What does it mean to be a UU and what does this look like in your life?”

They didn’t want to hear about some guy they have never heard of being burned at the stake; they wanted to know if Santa still came to our house. They wanted to know if we said a prayer at dinner, if we went to church every Sunday and if we had a Bible. In short, they wanted to know how my life was different from theirs because of my religion.

I think that the tendency to lecture instead of opening a window into our lives is common amongst Unitarian Universalists. Sometimes we, understandably, get so excited by all knowledge we think we have obtained as a result of our faithful journeys and we forget that what we ought to share with the world is not a list or a lecture, but our passion for exploration and learning. There is always space for lectures and dissertations; they are a necessary element to our faith, but to someone who isn’t on this journey, or even for someone who is, the real power of Unitarian Universalism may just be when a UU kid stands up for someone else who is being bullied because, to him, that is what it means to be a UU. Unitarian Universalism shines when we lift the voices of those who would otherwise go unheard and when we strengthen our own spirits through a practice that fills our hearts. The power of our faith is in what we do every day of our lives. It is in how we celebrate our holidays and how we are with the people we love (and the people we don’t).

To me, our faith means that I never stop looking for new ways to grow and learn. It means that my family lights a chalice at dinner every night and we enjoy each other’s company in a sacred space. It means that I pray on some days and meditate on others and I celebrate holidays that make sense to me and in ways that honor me, my family and my earth home.

We should celebrate the ways in which our faith enriches our lives and the lives of those around us; perhaps even more than we celebrate the theologies we reject. Perhaps it is time to shift our focus: What does our Unitarian Universalist faith mean to you?

Cup of Joe

Cup of Joe
It is no secret.  I LOVE coffee.

Okay, I don’t just love coffee, I probably have what some might classify as an “unhealthy obsession” with coffee (not to be confused with an addiction, mind you).

I come by it honestly; anyone who spends any amount of time in a UU church is privy to one of our most widely-shared inside jokes: OUR communion takes place at coffee hour AFTER the service.

As a kid I fondly remember feeling the warm embrace of the lingering coffee aroma as I would enter the “Common Room” at our family church to join the adults after the Sunday service. I was captivated by the buzz of thoughtful conversations from grown-ups who were solving the problems of the world, pausing only to take an occasional sip from their mugs.

Even outside of our church, coffee became a staple in our family-gathering menus – coffee when we first woke up in the morning after spending the night away from home and coffee after supper to help dilute that bottle of wine that was polished off as we laughed about the latest game of trivial pursuit, won by the same person who wins EVERY time.

At times the coffee ran like water filling seemingly bottomless cups and, sometimes the cups were filled “only half a cup” at a time, especially for my Grandpa Joe.

Now, don’t mistake me for one of those people.  You know the type; totally dependent on the caffeine.  Although at times, I’ll admit, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Truth be told, there are days when I sip from the same “cup of Joe” all day—even after it gets cold.  On occasion, I’ll even sneak in a cup of decaf.  The reality is that the coffee is really less about that actual coffee and more about the comfort of the ritual.  My mug is sort of my grown-up version of a blankie.

As an adult, I find myself seeking out places to get my comfort fix.  Some of my fondest memories originated in coffee shops where I worked as a barista; engaging in philosophical conversations with customers I knew only by their preferred drink and listening to great music from struggling local artists.

I will forever cherish the terrible coffee at the “greasy spoon” closest to my college dorm room where many mornings were spent quickly finishing up philosophy papers due later that day, discussing with my classmates other philosophical issues totally unrelated to my project at hand.

Nowadays, my morning cup of coffee has become my daily respite; my time for meditation, my time to gather my thoughts and give myself my morning pep talk.  To me, there is nothing better than soaking in the silence of a cold, dark morning, hot cup of coffee in hand.  It gives me hope to think that when the world is seemingly so void of life that in five minutes or less, energy, warmth, and comfort can be brewed.

And, of course, there will always be coffee hour at church.  There is just something about sitting down to coffee with good friends, family, or even a total stranger that inspires blow-your-mind debates and deep heart-to-heart conversations.  It has often been over a cup of coffee that I feel the most alive.

If communion is supposed to be a time of sharing and of intimate fellowship, then I say that this certainly fits the bill.  “UU Communion” may not be about Transubstantiation or the remembrance of Jesus, but maybe the joke is so widely told because our coffee really is so near and dear to our hearts.  I know for me, nothing beats a “Cup of Joe”, or a half a cup, for Grandpa Joe.