My Unitarian Universalist diary entry
For a while I've wanted to take a peek at what the Unitarian Universalists were up to. I've been hearing about them for quite a while, and heard that they have many non-religious and non-theistic members. We're new in town and haven't met many people, so I was hoping that it'd be a neat way to hook up with some relaxed and interesting people. Also, they offer some kids' programs on religious education that would be great for my daughter, and a good place for her to play, do crafts, and meet other kids too. She seemed interested, especially in the "play" and "other kids" part.
So, after forgetting about it for several Sunday's in a row, we finally got out this morning. My wife was going to be busy studying all morning, so this was a good excuse to vacate the apartment.
[Editor's note: if this is too long, or you just want to check out the summary, see the Too Long; Didn't Read at the bottom.]
We walked in and went to the "welcome table" to be greeted by a very nice lady who handed me a small guest form (and kept pleasantly talking to me while I tried to fill it out), and gave us name tags. She asked if I wanted to be announced and introduced during the service. That triggered my social phobia a bit and so my response of "Ooh, no, that's alright!" popped out very quickly, but I was still smiling so hopefully it didn't seem too odd. She said that'd be fine: another new person was there today and also asked not to be announced.
We were a few minutes before the scheduled start time so she led us to the kids' rooms where the classes would be held. My daughter was a bit nervous with the teacher lady, but there was another kid there already, and more walked in while introductions were made, so it worked out OK.
I walked off to the main auditorium and found a seat close to the door in the back (in case my daughter wanted to bail, or me too, I guess). An older lady sat directly in front of me. She was the music director and told me a bit about the program for that day. Then somebody took the podium and kicked off the hour.
The were a few "church business"-type announcements, then a bit of a parable about two wolves and a ceremony with the lighting of the chalice. Then the speaker invited members to tell everyone about their own "two wolves". Only one person took up the offer, and told everybody about how he ended up accepting his kids' tastes in music. Then they asked about guests, and I surreptitiously hid my name tag in case this person didn't get the memo (there were three new people who took the passed mic and gave brief hellos).
The rest of the first hour was given over to a guest speaker from DCCCA, who talked about mostly about teenage substance abuse. It was a fairly interesting talk, even though it didn't apply directly to me.
Then it was time for the coffee break. I went out and found my daughter, and followed the others up to the snack room where I found some cheeses, summer sausage slices, and cookies of various types. Not bad.
My daughter said she liked the class and would like to come back again. She said they drew some pictures (she drew a Christmas tree), "talked about bees", and played a little game about bees. She also "walked through the labyrinth", which is part of their ceremony. I forget what it's supposed to symbolize.
Soon it was time for the main service. The kids join the adults for this part.
Things are kicked off with the "Gathering Song":
Here we have gathered, gathered side by side. Circle of kinship, come and step inside! May all who seek here find a kindly word; May all who speak here feel they have been heard. Sing now together, this our hearts' own song.
I was raised Catholic and that's the style of service I'm most familiar with, though I have visited a few Baptist and Lutheran services. Here's where a bit of awkwardness came in: I don't know the tunes to these songs!
There was a bit of a introductory speech by a "lay people". I don't remember most of what was said (then or throughout the service), but none of it was "religiousy". They "sounded the gong" (actually a bell), and began a very nice piano piece based on "Carol of the Bells".
A different "lay person" (I realize I don't need to quote "lay person", but it has always seemed an odd phrase to me), gave a few words and relit the chalice. The Rev "Jill" followed this by introducing the theme for the day: how we should/can find peace in the dark of winter. Not a bad topic given the bitter chill we've had lately.
There's another song I don't know the tune to: "Bells in the high tower". We have sheet music in the hymnals, but it's been decades since I could sight read. In keeping with the "dark winter" theme, the song sound melancholy, almost somber.
The offering plate is passed around while the reverend explains that part of the money will be donated to [some worthy cause I can't remember]. I don't have any cash, so there's no awkward questions in my mind when it comes by. Everyone also sings a little hymn/response:
From you I shall receive, to you I give. Together we share, and from this we live.
Then the apparently newly-founded kids' choir comes up and sings "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas"… Well, tries to sing: most are pretty young, but it was cute.
All of the kids (including my daughter) are led out to play and do activities in the other rooms. Good thing too: my daughter is not used to sitting quietly and has been informing me that she is bored. She did like trying to sing the songs, though. Leaving is voluntary, but she wants to play.
Then some new UU members are introduced and have a little ceremony. One of the new members is a single mom homeschooler (woo!).
This is followed by a reading of Myth and Miracle, on how we should not say "Ba Humbug" to the winter holidays (I simplify).
A pretty-good-for-a-small-church choir of about 20 gets up and sings some cool and funny Christmas song mash-ups: Ding Dong Merrily On High and Various Themes On Fa-La-La (that's just some random choir, not theirs).
Now comes the sermon, or as the program calls it, the "Meditation and silence". First, the good reverend reads "The Nourishing Dark" and continues the the discussion about the dark winter times. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing, but I don't pay too much attention to the sermon and take the time to look around at the people: The audience is "mostly" older people, but not a small number are my age or younger. There are families. There are nose rings. There are gay couples. The older music director and her husband (who runs the sound) both sport peace-symbol necklaces. Most people are not in their "Sunday best".
After a brief moment for the meditation and/or silence, there's a brief reading. It was a "be OK with darkness/winter" theme, but I can't remember exactly. The choir takes the stage again and sings Beautiful December and The Snow Carol (again, random choirs). One of the choir members (who is also a piano player) looks a bit familiar, like someone I know, but also a bit like Julianne Moore. I still can't figure it out.
The choir clears the stage, and the third reading begins. It's a longer piece titled Hanukkah. Not a bad inspirational little story. There's a bit of a commentary on how Hanukkah is not related to the darkening/lengthening days (like a lot of other winter holidays), but still a celebration of light.
Another song I don't know the tune to: "Light One Candle", a hymn about Hanukkah.
There are some closing statements, they put out the chalice, and the members sing (to a tune I don't know):
May a song of peace be yours May a song of hope be mine May a song of love be ours Until we meet again
I liked the Lawrence Welk send off. Then everyone chit-chatted their way out.
My daughter was singing some Christmas songs with her playgroup, reading the words off of a computer. So I talked with one of the church people who was standing there. She seemed nice and told me about upcoming events, and that the kids programs in December we more free form, so no regular classes, just loose activities and fun.
My daughter liked it, and wants to go back. And I do think she'll enjoy learning about other people's religions with other kids (it's different than when Dad does it).
So how did it go for a non-religious, non-spiritual guy? A few things were referred to as "holy" or "sacred", and "infinite" popped up a few times, but nothing was overtly religious or judgey, and I get the impression no one there would blink at any (non-hateful) beliefs or non-beliefs.
For me, though, the service didn't offer much. I do like listening to music and insightful commentaries, but I'm not good with large crowds, and I'm not into rituals and ceremonies (and the music we sang was all a bit somber).
It seems like a place for those who don't like the rigidity of other religions, but do want and enjoy the ritual and ceremony of a traditional Christian-ish service. It seems like it's for those who think the baby might be overrated (or doesn't exist), but that nice, warm, comforting bath water shouldn't be thrown out just yet…
It probably isn't a bad place to meet relaxed, open-minded people, and there's nothing objectionable about it, but, in the end, it's product I don't have a need for. I know there are atheists and agnostics who go there and they get something out of it, but I don't think it's for me. It's like a Christmas sweater: it's not bad and might keep you warm, but I'd rather just have something without all the bells and decorations.
I could do with the community, the events, and the interesting speakers, but I'm not looking for "holy" and "sacred" things, and definitely can do without the ceremony. I don't hold it against those who do want those things, but it's not something I'm looking for.
However, my daughter will probably get something out of it (some amount of religious education and some play time), so we'll probably go every once in a while.