Dancing with Fire

Every January Unitarian Universalist congregations across Canada celebrate a fire ceremony.  For many, this ritual of burning paper in flame is a New Year’s ceremony, a release of the past.  But this has never felt right to me, I see this ceremony as one which honours the power of fire.  Our symbol is the flaming chalice, a lively, ever-changing flickering flame of life. It is a symbol of the vital, sacred spark of life that resides in every living being.  And like every living being, it has the power to destroy and to create. Yet we so often light a chalice in services and meetings without thinking about that flickering flame.  The fire ceremony gives us an opportunity to meet the flame and celebrate it’s power.

The Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga will be celebrating the fire ceremony this coming Sunday, looking at how we can focus our energy in the coming months.  Where do our passions lie? What can we do to make our passions “blaze with life”?

To me, fire is one of the most beautiful elements of life on this planet. Scary, energizing, mesmerizing, gorgeous. The fire dancers in these two videos highlight fire’s living beauty.

 

Sacred Water

As Unitarian Universalists we acknowledge the interdependence of life on this planet, and seek a healthy, respectful relationship with water. Our ecological sensibility is in harmony with other, ancient traditions, from India to the First Nations on this continent. The links below show us people dedicated to transforming our attitude towards water. We must re-learn that water, so necessary to life, has inherent value and is sacred.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a renowned scholar and environmental activist, here she speaks about the Hindu relationship to the sacred Ganges river.

In the video at the link below, Cree Elders in Alberta are seeking healthier relationships with water and all peoples.

Water: Sacred Relationship

In Peterborough, Ontario, indigenous and non-indigenous people are working together to care for water.

Sacred Water Circle

Treating Water Well

Water is life. We are water. If we accept the ecological connections between ourselves and water, what does that mean for how we experience and use water in our daily lives? Here in North America, we don’t treat water particularly well, offering gifts of plastic which create a giant ocean garbage patch to gifts of polluting chemicals, as well as the careless and wasteful use of fresh water. Hope lies in communities which are working to re-imagine our inter-actions with water.

Environmental magazine Orion has an extensive article exploring new approaches to city water infrastructure, including more details about the project explored in the video. Writer Cynthia Barnett also narrates the slideshow highlighting a Seattle neighbourhood’s water project which is also an ecological art piece.

Water is Life

We are celebrating our Water Ceremony this Sunday at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga. This annual in-gathering ritual begins our community year using the symbol of water. People bring water from their summer experiences and pour it into our communal bowl, honouring the community which brings us together, reminding us of our shared connections. Every day this week, I’ll post poems, stories and videos about the value and beauty of water.

While his description of humans as “blobs of water” is not poetic (!), David Suzuki in his book The Legacy of Nature reminds us of our deep ecological dependence on water.

“A visitor from another galaxy would surely call our planet Water, not Earth.  Seventy-one per cent of the planet’s surface is covered by oceans. If the globe were a perfectly smooth sphere, water would cover it to a depth of 2.7 kilometres. The air is filled with water vapour that condenses as clouds. Above the great Amazon rainforest, trees pull water from the ground and transpire it upward, where it flows in great rivers of vapour toward the Andes.

Every person in the world is at least 60 per cent water by weight. We are basically blobs of water with enough organic thickener mixed in to prevent us from dribbling away on the floor. The hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, and rain ensures that water cartwheels around the planet. We are part of the hydrologic process. Every drink we take has water molecules that evaporated from the canopies of every forest in the world, from all the oceans and plains.” (pg.76)

We are water.

Salvation Not Required

Christianity is filled with beautiful metaphorical language which tells a story of sin, of salvation and redemption. The stories are powerful and continue to hold great meaning for many people. To be broken and forgiven, to be hopeless and be saved by God’s love is a message of hope. Salvation – to be saved from sin or from evil – is an essential concept for most Christians.

Unitarian Universalism has a complex relationship to the word salvation. The Universalist tradition originated out of the theology of universal salvation – that God so loved people that all people would be reunited with God in death. No one was condemned to the endless torments of hell. Many contemporary Universalists experience a sense of an all-loving God and see salvation as a path of love. It isn’t so much related to a sense of Jesus as saviour, but that people need saving from all the hells that exist on earth  – the hell of addiction, oppression, depression, and more. People aren’t saved by Jesus, but by love.

For me, even this sense of salvation simply doesn’t resonate. I see our tradition as oriented to the interdependence of life, to the awareness that we belong on this earth. We may make it hard for ourselves, we may not always feel at home here, but this is our place. Love can not, in truth, save people from addiction or oppression. Instead, we might work with people who are struggling, be witnesses, be caring and stand in solidarity with them.

Salvation just isn’t a word that helps tell the story of my Unitarian Universalism. This is part of the tension of contemporary Unitarian Universalism: as Thomas Berry says, “we are between stories.”  Christian words and stories continue to resonate for some Unitarian Universalists, but no longer work for many. We haven’t figured out what our overarching story is. I see glimpses of the meta-narrative, it involves the universe and reciprocity and choice, but it hasn’t yet come together clearly.

Photo by Ali Harrison

Photo by Ali Harrison

I don’t think there is an UU equivalent of salvation, I don’t think we need one. I know I am not a sinner. I am a messed up human being, but my brokenness is held by my wholeness. I am never not whole, even if I often lose sight of that wholeness. We are like mosaics – each minor part of us is imperfect, at times damaged or broken – but we always, always comes together into a beautiful whole.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism is affirming “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This translates into the concept of original blessing: we are not born fallen sinners but as holy and whole human beings. We are born human into the world to which we belong. We struggle to see our wholeness, but in the end, no salvation is required.

This Tuesday blog was a little late! Next Tuesday I will consider “connection”,  which is part of the new vocabulary of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology.

Jesus was just this good guy, you know?

This is the second in a series looking at UU theology and language.

cast the nets

from Inherit the Mirth by Cuyler Black

The Unitarian Universalist tradition sees Jesus as a human prophet whose life and teachings provide us with an example of how people should care for one another in this world. The Unitarian side of our tradition arises out of a rejection of the trinity – emphasizing the unity of God – and identified Jesus as a person who was touched by God, but was not of the same substance as God.

With our roots in Prostestant Christianity, Jesus was the prophet for our faith community in the beginning, but as both Unitarian and Universalism moved away from doctrines and creeds, Jesus became one of many prophets from ancient times, comparable to Mohammed and the Buddha. UUs focus on how Jesus lived his life, not on his death or the promise of salvation, considering the essential message of Jesus to be love to God and love to humankind. UUism may have more in common with early Christian attitudes about Jesus. Two former professors from Starr King, our west coast seminary, found that the first 1,000 years of Christianity focused more on creating an earthly paradise then on the promise of heaven in their book Saving Paradise.

Jesus is considered an example of how to serve others with love, generousity and compassion. Jesus demonstrated a loving spirit, a sense of justice, and a fierce desire to serve God and humanity. UUs tend to emphasize the radical, trouble-making Jesus who stood up against authority, who sided with the poor, who looked beyond categories to see people in their wholeness. Some UUs have a strong sense of Jesus as a source of spiritual strength. Our fourth source is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbours as ourselves”.

UUs do not believe Jesus performed miracles, and not all UUs would even agree that Jesus was a rabble rousing activist. Some see Jesus as a mythic figure, not a real person, pointing to the lack of any contemporary accounts of his life and the story of his crucifixion resembling ancient Egyptian and Babylonian tales of death and resurrection. Others believe he may have been a visionary during his life, but his story has been so refracted and amplified by the Gospels, by Paul and church doctrine and systems, that it is impossible to know the truth about Jesus.

How do you understand Jesus and Unitarian Universalism?

Spirit

At last Sunday’s service at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga  I spoke about religious language (Found in Translation, January 11, 2015) and the struggles we have as Unitarian Universalists sorting out the words that shape our spiritual orientation. I committed to a blog post each week to explore a word and its meaning in the hopes of helping my congregants (and myself!) to better understand UU theology and vocabulary. We hope to figure out where our common meanings lie, what the differences are; where we can be on the same page, where we might have to compromise, and where we might need a new word altogether.

These comments reflect my current understanding of a word.  Please join in the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments.

by Alannah Lee Clamp

by Alannah Lee Clamp

Spirit

Spirit is the vital principle which animates life but is not itself material. I like to think of it as the whole which is more than the sum of its parts, that part of each living being which expresses its essence. Spirit is linked with breath, wind, air. Like air, spirit can be felt, but not seen, it is ethereal, but also a source of connection. Spirit brings us closer to the living world when we recognize its vital presence everywhere on earth. An awareness of spirit calls us to presence, to pay attention to the here and now. I don’t understand spirit as separate from the body, but rather see spirit and body as integrated expressions of life. I don’t see spirit as a guiding authority or independent presence but as an essential part of being alive and part of the whole.

A sense of spirit is hard to experience – it’s always just beyond my awareness, but I sense it during walks in the woods or when a group of people are caught up in a moment together.  Because of spirit’s ephemeral nature, it can be easy to not notice it. People can live well without consciously experiencing a sense of spirit.  For others, it is an invaluable experience of being connected, of belonging. Seekers are helped by an embodied spiritual discipline such as prayer or meditation or dance, part of that paradox of being present in the body opening us to the spirit.