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One of the interesting things I find about attending a Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship is that it is a wonderfully undefined entity. By self-definition, it is a group that avoids adherence to any creed. As a result, we have a wide variety of faiths, traditions, and beliefs melding under one roof. In short, unorganized religion.

In contrast, organized religions exist under a very strict structure, a result of adherence to tradition and scripture. It is a system that relies onunquestioned belief and faith. By default, dogma rules the day and diversity of beliefs do not exist.

Unlike organized religion, unorganized religion (as I like to call UU) operates under a big umbrella. There are no creeds or dogma to guide the process, or to answer our questions. Our closest attempt at creating structure are the seven principles.

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

One can question how these differ from the dogma, or creeds, of organized religion. The difference, which I feel is significant, is that the principles are rules of conscience, and require the person to use thought and reason to arrive at the proper action in concurrence with the principles. People followtheir own course of action, given it concurs with the principles.

Organized religious dogma, on the other hand, gives you no such liberty to use internal reason. “Thou shalt keep the Sabbath Day holy” is pretty straightforward. It externalizes personal responsibility and eliminates conscience . You simply do as told. If a person runs upon a problem where the proper course of action is not delineated like the 10 Commandments, they are suddenly placed in a position where they must think for themselves, or allow a minister to do it for them.

While unorganized religion has its benefits, it also has its challenges. I suspect the only thing we might agree upon is that we should have service on Sunday. Anything other issue is likely subject to more opinions than congregation members. God settles that dispute for the faithful, and if he doesn’t, his mouthpiece theminister does. We have no such authority in unorganized religion, and it leaves us with a challenge, getting organized.

Which isn’t to say we are ineffective. Our fellowship, the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks (UUFF), has succeeded in building a new sanctuary, growing membership, and provided a rich variety of lay led sermons. But it isn’t easy.

Another challenge with unorganized religion is how to invite people into the membership. People who have stepped off of the path of traditional religion are notoriously independent. And private. And a little bit defensive, having been beaten about the head with those same traditional religions for a lifetime. Likewise, those of us who are members don’t want to impose ourselves or our beliefs on anyone, anymore than any one of us would want to be imposed upon.

Which leaves us in a difficult position in engaging new people without overstepping the boundaries of telling them what they should believe. That is the tactic of organized religion, and they employ it effectively. It is important that we remain true to our principles, and don’t adopt those practices that run counter to our principles.

Due to our unorganized nature there is a strong chance we will hit a limit in growth, a capacity of disorder, where ability to function as a group becomes impossible without finding some unifying element to organize around. A minister is a possibility, their leadership may bridge the gap between organized and unorganized, allowing for continued growth among the interested.

As it is, unorganized religion has much to offer. Freedom to explore the spiritual, without judgement, and encouragement to ask, and to seek out answers to, the hard questions. Unlike organized religion, we won’t pretend to have all the answers, just a community within which to ask the questions, where we can share the struggle in seeking answers.

Many of those questions, despite our quest, will remain unanswered in this lifetime. It is their nature, as it is human nature to attempt to organize the unorganizable, to plant trees in rows when they are meant to be scattered randomly, to build square houses on round hills.

It is important to remember the beauty and organic nature of an unorganized, or human, fellowship.

In closing, I remind myself; What is more divine, and which is more human? The heights of a gothic cathedral, a metal warehouse turned mega-church, the rigid construct of organized religion? Or the sublime beauty and randomness of a summer thunderstorm, of Nature, of unorganized religion?

Will we find god in chaos, or in order?

In organized religion, you’ll find an answer.

In unorganized religion, you’ll find the question.

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I woke up and got moving early (for me) this morning. I got on the computer, checked the headlines, answered an e-mail or two, deleted all the spam, and got Jane (wife) and Jolie (8-year old) up to go to work and school, respectively. Normally it works the other way around, I get them out the door then get on the computer for a few minutes. OK, it may be longer than a few minutes. It used to be I never worried about checking the news. But ever since 9-11, when I walked into the doors at work to be met by my boss with the news that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Towers, followed a few weeks later by a similar meeting where I learned a client and friend had died in a plane crash, that now it is rare occasion that I step out the doors without checking the headlines.

So today I was up early, which not only gave me time to read the news but also to fix a hot breakfast. Jolie had been asking for an egg-muffin, a fried egg and cheese on a English muffin, so I decided to make her one this morning. As a bonus, Jane also got one. I was going to wait until later when 4-year old Ali got up, then I would make her and I each one.

All of this would have been well and good, but as of last night we had decided the girls needed to share a bedroom so that we could make the 2nd bedroom more of a playroom. So Jolie, in what I’m sure was her quietest, most considerate, sisterly way went into the shared room to get dressed. And emerged, with Ali fully awake. So much for letting the little sister sleep, who also happens to be fighting off a cold.

I set to work making Ali’s and my egg muffins. Note, I asked if she wanted one before making it for her. Not because I needed to know, but because I wanted to use her answer against her when she refused to eat it.

Janie and Jolie got out the door, so Ali and I set down to eat.

“Its too hot Daddy.”
“No it’s not, it has been cooling while I cooked mine.”
“No, the bottom is too hot.”
“OK, while just turn it over and wait for a minute.”

I proceeded to eat mine, which came off of the stove after hers.

“Ali, eat your muffin. It isn’t too hot, see I’m eating mine.”
“Its too hotttt!!!”
“No it isn’t, mine was done after yours and it isn’t too hot.”

Repeat the above three lines at least twice more.

Following that, I resorted to feeding it to her. She always feeds herself, except when I’m present. For some reason, I have to feed her. And I acquiesce. Maybe because I’m a wimp. Maybe because I spoil my kids. Maybe because we may not ever have another child and feeding her is as close as I’ll ever get to feeding one of my babies again. So, when she graduates high school, and college, and again at her wedding, and you see me feeding her at each of the celebratory dinners, please take pity and don’t embarrass her, or me, especially me, by asking why.

So, I picked up the muffin and moved in for the kill. Finally, after some coaxing, she took a bite.

“It’s too cold.”

Pause here to avoid any irrational but entirely justified acts of parental desperation.

Breathe deeply.

And again.

Alright, I’m back.

There are a few more instances of contrarianism gone awry in our household. I’ll begin with Ali, then end with Jolie. Note there are no stories here about Janie or I being contrary. Neither of us are. The trait skipped our generation entirely, landing squarely in the personalities of Jolie and Ali. It is entirely the grandparents fault, though no doubt they won’t admit it. They are contrarians after all.

Like the egg muffin, Ali has taken to disliking certain foods, at random times, and with no regard to what she ate and liked days or even hours before. Her dislikes also have no regard to flavor, texture, or appearance. It all has to do with a 4-year old’s attempt to establish her right of refusal. I’m alright with that, the girl needs to establish her own likes and dislikes. However, it makes it increasingly difficult to prepare meals for the whole family.

One of her latest victims is the hapless bean. Not green beans, but baked beans or kidney beans. We eat a lot of chili in our house, with kidney beans, so it makes it hard to feed her from the same pot. So, in a fit of exasperation, I applied my slightly skewed but effective sense of creativity and a dash of dishonesty to get around the impasse. Diplomacy, I think is what the politicians call it. Anyways, the negotiation went like this.

Ali, “I don’t like beans.” Add some cheese and crackers to that whine and we could have a party.
Dad (me), “They aren’t beans, they are frijoles.”
“Frajoles.”
“Frijoles.”
“They look like beans.”
“That’s right, they look like beans. But they are frijoles.”

She then proceeded to pick up her spoon and feed herself the whole bowl, and like it. Actually, I fed her the whole bowl, but she did like it.

Next up, mushrooms.

“I don’t like that pizza, it has mushrooms.”
“They aren’t mushrooms, they are toadstools.”
“Toadstools?”
“Toadstools.”
“They look like mushrooms.”
“They do, but they are toadstools.”

Once again, she picked up her pizza and gobbled it down. Or maybe I cut it up and fed her. The point is, she ate the mushrooms toadstools.

Now Ali goes around telling people, “I don’t like beans, and I don’t like mushrooms, but I like frajoles, and toadstools.” In her mind, I’m convinced, she knows that frijoles and mushrooms are just beans and mushrooms, but because we changed the terminology she won enough concessions to go ahead and eat them. Which, I think, is what diplomacy is all about, skewing the truth until everyone looks like a winner. Even the contrarians.

A final story, which happened yesterday, about Jolie. The stories above may give the impression that Ali is our contrarian princess, but in reality I think she would have to get up pretty early to outdo Jolie. We have to deal with each of them differently, Ali has to emerge with the appearance of winning, ie, diplomacy. Jolie will listen to reason. Eventually, if Jolie and I talk long enough I can convince her that being contrary isn’t always the right or healthy choice.

Do what I say, not what I do. I mean what your grandparents say, but don’t do. Or something like that.

Even with all that reasoning, Jolie’s nature still comes out. At church yesterday, our friend Jeff was leading a story for children, which we do early in the service. For the story, the children are invited to the front of the sanctuary. The topic of the day was choices, and how they affect others and the world around us. In order to convey this to the children, Jeff was having them gather on one side of the podium or the other based upon their answer to a question. One question was, “Would you rather win a race alone or finish it together with a friend?” Some kids went left, others right.

After a series of questions, Jeff asked “Would you rather have a piece of cake every night for a week, or have it all gone at a big party?” The kids parted. Jolie moved dead center and remained. Jeff queried her as to which way she was going to go.

“Neither, I don’t like cake.”

I can’t think of a better response for a crowd of Unitarian-Universalists, who know more than thing or two about being contrary.

Except me.

And Jane of course.

Though I wonder about her sometimes.

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I was asked to give my “Unitarian-Universalist” story to introduce today’s service, and to light the chalice, which we do to kick off our Sunday gathering. I had put something together last night, in order that I could sleep on it and get it settled into my brain for presenting to the Fellowship this morning.

I rely on this process a great deal when presenting or speaking. I have to visualize the presentation, with its content, several times in my head if I am going to give it smoothly in front of people. I have a problem presenting ad hoc, though I have done it, and on occasion done it well.

However, at non-scripted social settings my speech-thought pattern completely disconnects, more accurately self-destructs, leaving me with smoke coming out of my ears and glassy eyed. As a result, I have a terrible time engaging in what I view to be lively or interesting conversation. A visualization of a successful presentation helps me get through this pitfall when in front of a crowd.

Well, today I ran into a few hang ups with the system. First, our house is for sale and we had a showing scheduled for when we would be gone at church this morning.  That means clean-up. Because we were out all yesterday and didn’t clean up last night, that meant this morning. Because of that, I didn’t get much time to memorize my “story”, as written. 2nd, I wasn’t very comfortable with my story, and kept editing it in my head. Right on up to and through my talk. Last, what I did visualize was much too rigid. I had, in my mind, my family sitting to my right as I was in the front of the sanctuary, where I could have them stand and introduce them. I can visualize presenting in a chaotic setting, but for some reason didn’t this time and it hung me up a bit.

Last, because we were cleaning house, we were late. Not unusual for us, but not a good thing on the day I had to start the service. It also left me a bit scrambled, I didn’t have time to settle in like I prefer to do.  (Postscript, the interestedpart never showed up.  All that cleaning for nothing.)

Did I mention this story only had to be 2-4 minutes long?

The end result, I think, was alright. I did mumble a bit, a few ums and awes, and it may have been longer than 4 minutes. But in the end I hit the high points of my own personal UU story. Everyone I spoke to said they enjoyed it.  Aren’t UU’s considerate?  I was going to say dishonest but thought better of it.

See below for the full version. Ums and awes have been excluded for your reading pleasure. And take all the time you want, the 4 minute rule doesn’t apply here.

My first introduction to Unitarian-Universalism was in 1992. Jane and I had just gotten engaged, and at the recommendation of one Jane’s Mom’s friends we went to look at the All-Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is a beautiful church, had an opening that worked with our schedules (2 days after finals), and complied with our wishes to have a god-free (godless sounds so bad) wedding. I was particularly impressed with the rooms throughout the church, each named for one of our great freethinkers, Thoreau, Paine, Jefferson among others. In the back of my mind, I set aside the thought that I would have to look into this peculiar religion that celebrates free-thought some day in the future.

Our wedding was a success, a beautiful day by most accounts. We got married in their small chapel or sanctuary, which was perfectly sized for our small gathering. The ceremony itself lasted all of 5 minutes, if that. It took longer to seat the guests than to say our vows. The minister snuck God into the ceremony at least once, according to Jane. She was counting, I was just trying to get through the ceremony. If I had tried to make a break for it, all the exits were well covered. Leave it to the Unitarians to build a church without an escape route for the groom.

Following the wedding, we held a reception in the church’s courtyard garden. It was early May in Oklahoma, so the flowers were in full bloom, the temperature somewhere around 80. So perfect, I’ll never have to do it again.

Several years later, and several thousand miles away, we decided to return to a Unitarian-Universalist church, this time in Fairbanks. Our oldest daughter, Jolie, was getting old enough to ask questions about life, and death. And we were by no means ready to answer those questions.

On top of that, the tragedy of 9/11 had just occurred, followed quickly magnified by a succession of equally bad actions by our government. A client of mine tragically died in a plane crash a few weeks after 9/11. We had just received funding for to build a new head start she was the driving force behind. The push for war in Iraq was in full swing, and we were losing contact with friends and family because we wouldn’t get on the bandwagon. In short, we were isolated, and feeling quite alone.

We had a choice at that time to remain quiet and be part of the status quo, acquiescing to the demands of the majority and the Bush administration, or to speak up. If we hadn’t been parents, we may have let some of the slander slide by. As it was, every time I looked into Jolie’s face I felt we owed her more. How could we leave her a country and life full of fear, of persecution, of preemptive war, and not at least tell her we had spoken out against it? We spoke up, and have paid the price in friendships and relationships with family that will never be the same.

In the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks we found a group of like minded people, a group of friends and family who believed in free speech and free thought. What a discovery!! There were others like us. We felt at home, and were no longer alone in the mass of American society.

Meetings were still held in the basement then. In my memory, those were dark days. Perhaps because the basement was dark, but I think it had more to do with the political climate of fear, a dark cloud of hysteria hovering overhead, the stench of corruption permeating every breath. We would gather downstairs, in the gray and gloom, sharing laughter and tears, hope and anger.

Jane and I found rays of light, stars in the darkness, in the elders of the fellowship. Jane and Red, Susan, Art. They were people that had lived their values, and continued to. They were happy, brave, successful by our account. We saw our future ahead of us, we didn’t need to concede our values, like Jane, like Susan, like Art, we would survive this period of, for lack of a better word stupidity, and would succeed.

The laughter during those times was incredibly important. I’ve only laughed one other time like I recall doing here at the fellowship. My grandparents were visiting us in Wyoming. My grandfather developed pneumonia. In the middle of one night, we got a call from the hospital. My grandfather had passed. We sat around the table, light shining brightly against the darkness outside the windows. There may have been tears. What I remember most clearly is our laughter, laughter of sorrow and anguish, a communal release of stress and grief. That’s what I experienced here, at fellowship, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the prelude to war.

Now, on one of those grey mornings, with everyone crowded into the basement, everyone there had a thought. The bowl was literally turning into a bonfire. There were the typical fears, sorrows, and of course laughter. Art, one of the points of light, one of those stars I alluded to earlier, eventually got up to the candles to say his peice.

At that time, at the end of the candle lighting, the lay leader would say “to all the thoughts and concerns left unspoken” and light one final candle.

In honor of Art, I’m going to quote him from that morning as I lite the chalice.

“To all the thoughts left unsmoking.”

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wisdom

I presented this at our church a summer or two ago, as part of a presentation on wisdom. Several congregation members got up and spoke, each giving their own views on wisdom. This was my take, and hasn’t changed much to this date, a little over two years later.

First off, I’d like to begin by saying I’m not presenting this material today due to any abundance of wisdom on my part. In fact, I missed my opportunity to exhibit a real piece of wisdom when I agreed to speak this morning. Now the opportunity for a peaceful Sunday morning has been exchanged for a stomach full of butterflies.

When today’s topic first came up and Janie asked if I would introduce the topic and then follow up with my own thoughts on wisdom, I thought, “OK, this will be easy. Pull a few definitions of wisdom up, read them, introduction done.”

So I went to the contemporary source of knowledge and wisdom, the internet, and typed “wisdom” into Google. 187,000,000 links came up. Perhaps I needed to schedule a little more time for research.

Alright, time for a refined search. So I tried Wikipedia- where the internet itself goes for knowledge and wisdom. Once again, multiple definitions, each which could be considered wise in its own right.

Ultimately, I found that definitions of wisdom are very much like religion, where you can choose your own flavor. Or perhaps try them all, mix them, match them. In keeping with our UU principles, it appears wisdom flows from many sources and can be found in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

With that, everything from this point can be considered my own view of wisdom. As I researched definitions it became clear to me there is no way for me to present an overview of wisdom without making it my own, as the very act of choosing what merited presentation would violate my objectiveness.

Wisdom, I would argue, comes in many shapes and sizes. Can a 5 year old be wise? Can an 80 year old be anything but? I believe I’ve witnessed wisdom in my 3 and 7 year olds. I’ve looked for it in my dad’s mother, and been sadly disappointed in never seeing any, due to my blindness or her lack of wisdom I’ll leave for others to determine.

Wisdom is of fluid construct, constantly changing to the influx of experience and conditions of circumstance. As I wrote this on Saturday I’ve defined wisdom as “the ability to make to take the correct course of action relative to the time, place, and persons involved.” What may be a wise decision for me, today, may not be tomorrow. Likewise, it may not ever be for you. By the time I read my definition of wisdom to you this Sunday I may no longer find it valid.

I hope to pursue wisdom, in all its many forms, for the remainder of my life. For now, the immediate wisdom I seek is about making decisions and choosing the correct course of action. At 34, I now stand at a crossroads in my life, where many paths appear before me. Some are worn, guaranteeing comfortable travel for the foreseeable future. Others are less traveled, with more immediate uncertainty. And there is always the option to ignore the paths, and pursue my own route cross country.

Which route I choose will ultimately have an impact on my happiness and well being, as well as that of the girls (including Janie in the girls). I spend my days and nights seeking the wisdom to make the right choice, to define success on my terms but in a manner that will continue to provide for my family. I’m devouring books, entering conversations with people I know and respect, all in an effort not to find an answer but to gain the wisdom to create one.

I think of the wisest person I have known, my grandmother on my mother’s side, Aline. Our youngest daughter, Ali, is her namesake. A woman with a typical grandmotherly appearance, long white hair tightly wrapped in a bun, spectacles, and a flowered dress she was, in my memory, the epitome of a wise, old grandmother. Yet, as I turn to her in my mind I can remember no wise proverbs or flashing insights coming from her. No quotes to hang on the wall, no profound acts of guidance.

However, she was at peace. Without prescribing to any specific religious doctrine, she knew wrong from right and moved through life above the petty worries many of us struggle with. She and my grandfather lived on the brink of poverty, yet I can never remember a concern or complaint regarding their position. I find wisdom in those memories, and it helps turn the difficult decisions ahead into positive choices waiting to be made.

It is ironic that wisdom, in the form of wise people or wise actions, is not judged so until placed against a backdrop of history. Whatever choices I make, they won’t be judged as wisdom or folly for years to come. Yet today we have the opportunity to glean some glimpses of wisdom, as expressed by members of our congregation. Listen well; wisdom is rarely so easily gained as when offered freely by someone who gained it the hard way.

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