A Message Delivered to the
Bismarck Mandan UU Fellowship and Church
On February 9, 2014
I hate this place.
Understand, I’m not talking about this fellowship, to which you’ve so kindly invited me to return, or Bismarck, or even North Dakota. By “this place” I mean the Midwestern midwinter.
Those are the words I greet almost every day with at this time of year. I ask myself constantly, what am I doing here? It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s smelly. Recently, an illustration appeared on Facebook in which a bundled up child is saying, “The wind hurts my face. Why do I live somewhere the wind hurts my face?” When the sun does shine, it’s almost blinding, and it’s a sour sun since if I go by how brightly it shines and how warm it feels to sit in the window and let it beat down on me, and then I go outside, I’ll be tricked into stepping out and freezing portions of my anatomy I’d prefer not to have frozen.
I’m talking about my fingertips.
What am I doing here? What are we doing here? People were not intended to live under these conditions. Look at us—we don’t have fur or feathers to puff up. We are a species meant to be basking in the sun day after day, rising only to get another mango from the tree or another pina colada from the cooler. It’s been said UUs are god’s frozen people, but this is overdoing it. This place is simply too cold. If I believed in hell, I’d say this was it.
Not all Christian traditions describe Hell as a hot place, by the way. In Dante, hell’s concentric circles lead to the figure of Satan at the exact center, stuck in a crucible of ice, and the closer one gets to him the colder it is. I would say we’re in about the third ring.
Many people ask why UUs don’t meet during the summer. It gives the devil time to catch up. Alternatively, it may be Unitarian Universalists are the only ones god trusts enough to be out of sight for a while.
We are guilty, I suppose, of not taking hell or punishment seriously. Three clergymen were bathing in the lake of fire and one turned to the others and said, “Well, I guess I’m here because I was a Baptist minister and although I was married I guess I just liked the ladies a little more than I should have.” The second said, “I understand. I was a rabbi and even though it’s against the kosher law, there’s nothing I loved more than a ham sandwich.” The third clergyman just glared at them and said nothing. They said, “Come on, we were honest with you, tell us why you’re here.” But he just glared at them. They kept at him until he sputtered, “I’m a Universalist minister, this place is not hot, and I am not here.”
It’s been said that after we die we’ll find ourselves on a road, a new spiritual journey, that comes to a fork. At the fork there are two signs, one saying “This way to Heaven,” and the other saying, “This way to arguing about Heaven.” And all the UUs are going down the latter road. Overthinking is a problem we’re often accused of and I guess it’s something we give into often. It can be a serious UU problem. You might have a thinking problem if you crave at least three thinks a day. Or if your thinking begins earlier in the day than it used to. Or if you think at a specific time each day. Or if you’ve blacked out as a result of thinking. Or if your thinking caused you to do something that you later realized was incredibly stupid. Of course, just because you don’t think every day doesn’t mean you don’t have a thinking problem. Many problem thinkers go for days or weeks without thinking, only to eventually find themselves unable to keep from going on that inevitable three or four day thinking binge.
Unitarian Universalism is where all your answers are questioned. We walk hand-in-hand which is why we don’t often see eye-to-eye. One fellow I know, a hellfire and brimstone fundamentalist of the old school said to me once, “I hear you folks let in a lot of weirdoes. Pagans, atheists, the unchurched…” I said, “That’s true. We even let in Christians. We’re very open-minded.” I used to teach in prison and one of my students was imprisoned in Illinois where he heard about this one con on death row. It was coming up on the poor guy’s sentence date and the warden came in and said to him, “Son, you’re going to be heading homeward soon.” The con says, “Yes, warden, I suppose.” And the warden says, “Well, most fellows are comforted knowing what it is they’re heading into. Would you like me to ask the chaplain to come by the day before and give you a little counseling?” The con says, “Well, warden, that’s awful kind of you, but it wouldn’t be of much use to me. I was raised Unitarian.” The warden isn’t deterred by that, he asked, “Well, would you like me to ask the math teacher to come by then?”
We are a contentious people. A friend of mine, a rabbi, told me once, “You know, we Jews are pretty argumentative. You’ve got two Jews, you’ve got three opinions.” And I said, “How do you get such unanimity?” There are things we’ll agree on. In this town I used to live in, a fire broke out on Church row. The priest ran into the sacristy and brought out the communion wafers and wine. The rabbi ran into the synagogue and ran back out with the Ark of the Torah. The UU Board ran into the flames, held a discussion group about what should be saved, and came back out carrying the conference table. The minister had already saved the Holy Book, Roberts’ Rules of Order.
There’s a recorded incidence of Jesus and a proto-Unitarian Universalist meeting. It runs something like this: “Jesus said unto him, ‘Who is it that you say that I am?’ And the UU replied, ‘You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.’ And Jesus said, ‘Huh?’” Some scholars hold that Pontius Pilate was the first UU since he asked “What is Truth?”| and didn’t stay around to hear the answer.
I recall being in second grade and we were asked to bring in something related to our spiritual tradition. The first kid got up and said, “This is a crucifix and I’m Catholic.” A girl stood up and said, “This is a Star of David. I’m a Jew.” The third kid stands up, says, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist and this is hotdish.” A UU is an atheist with children, after all. Or another way, a UU is a Quaker who can’t shut up. Unlike Quaker meetings, which might last four or five hours with no one saying anything, UU meetings often have one person talking a long, long time, saying nothing, nobody listens, but everybody disagrees. My mom, a staunch Seventh Day Adventist, walked with me into a church I was serving and she said, “Now isn’t that nice? There’s a woman in that pew on one knee with her head bent. And here you told me you don’t pray in this church.” I said, “Momn, she’s tying her shoe.” There are a number of us who take our Bible courses seriously, although we’re rarely looking for inspiration so much as loopholes.
Of course, there are differences we’d be foolish to deny. There was a little boy out on the steps of the Catholic Church with a big box and a sign saying “Catholic puppies looking for a good home.” A few days later at the Methodist church there was the same little boy with the same box but a different sign. This one said “Methodist puppies looking for a good home.” A few days after that the same little boy was in front of the UU Fellowship with the same box, and this time the sign said “Unitarian Universalist puppies looking for a good home.” I asked him, “I’ve seen you for days with these puppies. Weren’t they Catholic and Methodist puppies before?” And the little boy said, “Yes, but their eyes are open now.”
Which isn’t to say we don’t try to capitalize on those differences. An unchurched fellow, before he died, got a vague feeling he needed to join a church, just about any church, so he spent a day investigating different ones in town. He went to one and asked, “What church is this?” He was told it was a Catholic church. He asked, “Can I join?” He met with the priest who told him all about the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed and what he’d have to study, and then, to see how much the man might know, asked him, “Where was Jesus born?” The man said, “Pittsburgh.” The priest yelled, “Get out, you heathen!” So the man went to the next church and asked, “What church is this?” He was told it was Southern Baptist. He asked, “Can I join?” So he met with the preacher who told him he’d have to learn certain Bible verses and give up dancing and drinking and other sins, and then, to see what he was working with, asked the man, “Where was Jesus born?” The man, a little wary now, says, “Philadelphia?” The preacher yeslls, “Get out, you heathen!” So the fellow goes on to the last church on the block and asks what kind of church it is. He’s told, “This is a Unitarian Universalist church.” Man asks, “What do I have to give up or believe in to join?” He’s told, “You don’t have to do those things, you just sign this card and join a few committees.” The man says, “Then I’ll join! But listen, tell me, where was Jesus born.” He’s told, “Bethlehem.” The man says, “Dang, I knew it was somewhere in Pennsylvania!”
I had an argument with a friend in seminary who said, “Prove to me there is no God.” And I said, “You can’t prove something like that. That’s one of those things you have to take on faith.” This was after a batch of us were in trouble with the UUA in Boston after we’d gotten together a roaming group of UUs we based on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, except we knocked on people’s doors and asked them what they believed. This was unpopular as it had come to close to the one Unitarian Universalist miracle when someone in Texas saw Ralph Waldo Emerson’s face in his tortilla.
The title of my message is “Cold Comfort.” You may know what that means. What it usually refers to is a result that’s of dubious comfort to someone dealing with a larger misery. Now it’s true that, given our presence in the more glacial climates, UUs have been referred to as the Frozen Chosen. So if you’ve wandered in here this morning to get out of the cold, first, you are welcome. But you may not be certain that you are a Unitarian Universalist, which of course means that you are. But if there are still some doubts, let’s go over our creed, as it were.
We are an angry, friendly people. If you’re not friendly, get the hell out. We’re a genuine people. Even our phonies are real phonies. We’re absolutely sincere no matter how much we have to fake it. We aren’t quite sure how ambivalent we should be. But we are a tolerant people who hate intolerant people. We are optimists. People who don’t look on the bright side depress us. We are much more non-competitive than other groups. Every UU is a feminist, so he’d better watch his language. Our organization is run democratically because the leadership insists on it. It’s true we have our critics. They are paranoid. And we are promptly being late to services.
I knew myself to be a Unitarian Universalist when I attended a retreat at a UU monastery where we were counseled to spend the weekend in absolute silence. Unless we thought of something really good. Of course we all believe in the four UU sacraments: dedication, marriage, memorial service, and argument.
If you’re still not certain whether you’re a UU, this might help. You might be a Unitarian Universalist if you believe in the Ten Suggestions; if you’re unsure about god’s gender; if you’re unsure about god; if your holy trinity is “reduce, reuse, recycle;” if instead of a bible you bring your day planner to church; if you’ve ever found yourself in an argument over whether breast milk is vegan; if you’ve been invited to join a bible study and bring your own bible and pair of scissors; if your communion is coffee hour; if you believe in life before death; if you address prayers, “to whom this may concern;” if you dress for a formal evening in a little black dress, pearls, and Birkenstocks and your wife thinks you look terrific; if your idea of a Holy Day of Obligation is the Sunday it’s your turn to come early and make coffee; if you know at least two people upset that trees had to die so this fellowship could be built; if you gave up pot because you weren’t certain it was organic; and finally, if you receive email from committees you didn’t know you were on.
Our comfort, cold as it may be, is that we’re a faith that refuses to take itself seriously. How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb? UU’s aren’t afraid to sit in the dark. How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb? The board at one of my churches came up with this answer: “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found light bulbs work for you, that’s fine. You’re invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb to present next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service. At that time we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, long-life, tinted, and three-way, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.”
Finally, it’s true that Unitarian Universalists are the world’s worst singers and there are two reasons for it. The first is that we’re reading ahead to see if we agree with the next line. The second is that if we don’t we’re changing the wording. This song is a result of the latter.
“I am the very model of a modern Unitarian
I’m not a Cath’lic, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew or Presbyterian
I know the world’s religions and can cite their roots historical
From Moses up to Channing, all in order categorical
I’m very well acquainted too with theories theological
On existential questions I am almost wholly logical
About most any question I am teeming with a lot of views
With many fine ideas that should fill this church’s empty pews
I quote from Freud and Jung and all the experts psychological
I’m anti-nuke, I don’t pollute, I’m chastely ecological
In short, in matters spiritual, ethical and material
I am the very model of today’s religious liberal
“I use the latest language, god is never Father or The Lord
But ground of being, Source of Life, or almost any other word
I never pray, I meditate, I’m leery about worshipping
I serve on ten committees, none of which accomplish anything
I give to worthy causes and I drive a gas-conserving car
I have good UU principles, although I’m not sure what they are
I’m open to opinions of profound and broad variety
Unless they’re too conservative or smack of right’us piety
I can formulate agendas and discuss em with the best of em
In short, in matters spiritual, ethical, and material
I am the very model of today’s religious liberal.”