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I’m participating in a religious exploration group, known as a Chalice Circle, at our local UU Fellowship. For about 8 weeks we are meeting one evening a week to discuss Unitarian-Universalism, our own beliefs, and how they mesh. Its a wonderfully diverse group, with a wide range of opinions, religious experiences, and beliefs. Amazingly, unlike many places on the earth, we can all sit down together and talk about it without resorting to violence.

Therein is where the beauty of UU lies, that while we may have Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, Agnostics, Humanists, Naturalists, possibly even a Unitarian or Universalist in the group, we are all together on a search for greater knowledge and meaning. So what if we have each chosen a separate path.

For me, it has been and continues to be a challenge emotionally and intellectually. In short, I’m enjoying it immensely.

Last week I put the following blurb together for our newsletter, and thought I would share it here today (since I’m home with the flu and not attending Fellowship).

Each Monday evening since early January, a group of 15 strangers has come together at UUFF to participate in an adult religious exploration group, known as a Chalice Circle. We all share one thing, that we chose to be there, to participate in an opportunity to explore our chosen faith, Unitarian-Universalism. We are quite a diverse group, with an equally divergent path of arriving at UUFF. We have people who are new to the Fellowship, having just discovered UU after a lifelong quest for spiritual meaning. There are lifelong UUs. And, like any good UU group, there are at least few recovering Catholics, myself included.

Our group is led by, facilitated by, and participated in by Jeff and Rebecca. They open each meeting by having one of us light the chalice, then each of us shares a high and a low of our week. We’ve had some great highs, and some tragic lows in our short time together. Our early meetings focused on sharing our spiritual journeys with each other, learning to trust one another with some of our most intimate thoughts and fears. We sit quietly, intently listening to each other’s stories, alternately laughing and crying together.

In our short time together, I think we’ve come to understand how we further our religious and spiritual understanding by sharing our questions, insights, and experiences with one another. Together, we’ve discovered many commonalities among our spiritual stories, despite all our other apparent differences.

We are close to the midway point of the eight week schedule now. As the tide slackens, we are turning away speaking about our spiritual past, and becoming more focused on the future. What we don’t know, but want to. What lies ahead for us in our spiritual journey. And what guidance we can provide one another as we move forward, and learn more about UU along the way.

When our Chalice Circle ends, what began as a group of strangers, I expect will be a group of friends. A group of people who have explored the past, but will share the future, in Fellowship.

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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 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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