Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

August 10, 2014: “What We Call Ourselves”

Sounding the Singing Bowl (Nancy)

Prelude (Choir)

Welcome and Announcements (Board Member)

Opening Hymn #188 “Come, Come, Whoever You Are”

Come, Come whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again, come.

Call to Worship (Denis)
Mother Earth, Father Time,
Energy of the ever-expanding Universe,
That which holds all:
You are here with us this morning,
To celebrate your creative abundance, and your verdant generosity.

As we gather here this morning, in this week halfway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox,
May we be mindful of your presence and your gifts of the season,

As we gather here this morning in celebration of the covenant which binds each to all in service,
May we be mindful of the suffering in the world
From bombings in Iraq, to the expired ceasefire in Gaza, to the continued war in Ukraine. 

Let us celebrate our blessings, in solidarity with the world. 

Chalice Lighting (Denis)
Nancy, would you come and light the chalice for us, as I share the words of my favorite theologian, the Reverend Joe Cherry?

If we have any hope of transforming the world and changing ourselves, 
we must be bold enough to step into our discomfort, 
brave enough to be clumsy there, 
and loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.

May we, as a people of faith, 
be granted the strength to be so bold, 
so brave, 
and so loving. 

Reading (Denis) 
“ The True Story of the Three Pigs,” By Jon Scieszka

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I like telling stories. So this morning, even though the children and youth aren’t here in the sanctuary, I’d like to share a story with you all. Because it’s funny, and it makes a point.


Everybody knows the story of the Three Little pigs. Or at least they think they do. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Nobody knows the real story because nobody has ever heard my side of the story.

I’m the Wolf. Alexander T. Wolf. You can call me Al. I don’t know how this whole big, bad wolf thing got started, but it’s all wrong.

Maybe it’s because of our diet. Hey, it’s not my fault wolves eat cute little animals like bunnies and sheep and pigs. That’s just the way we are. If cheeseburgers were cute, folks would probably think you were Big and Bad, too.

But, like I was saying, the whole big bad wolf thing is all wrong. The real story is about a sneeze and a cup of sugar. 

Way back in Once Upon A Time time, I was making a birthday cake for my dear old granny. I had a terrible cold. I ran out of sugar.

So I walked down the street to ask my neighbor for a cup of sugar. Now this neighbor was a pig. And he wasn’t too bright, either. He had built his whole house out of straw. Can you believe it? I mean, who would build a whole house out of straw?

So, of course the minute I knocked on the door, it feel right in. I didn’t want the just walk into someone else’s house, so I called, “Little pig, little pig, are you in?” 

No answer. I was just about to go home without a cup of sugar for my dear old granny’s birthday cake, and that’s when my nose started to itch. I felt a sneeze coming on. Well, I huffed. And I snuffed. And sneezed a great sneeze. And you know what? That whole straw house fell down. And right in the middle of the pile of straw was the first little pig – dead as a doornail. He had been home the whole time.

It seemed like a shame to leave a perfectly good ham dinner lying there in the straw. So I ate it up. Think of it as a big cheeseburger just lying there. 

I was feeling a little better, But I still didn’t have my cup of sugar. So I went to the next neighbor’s house. This neighbor was the first little pig’s brother. He was a little smarter, but not much. He built his house of sticks.

I rang the bell on the stick house. Nobody answered. I called “Mr. Pig, Mr Pig, are you in?” 

He yelled back, “Go away, wolf. You can’t come in. I’m shaving the hairs on my chinny chin chin.”

I had just grabbed the doorknob when I felt another sneeze coming on. I huffed. And I snuffed, and I tried to cover my mouth, but I sneezed a great sneeze. And you’re not going to believe it, but this guy’s house fell down, just like his brother’s. When the dust had cleared, there was the second little pig – dead as a doornail. 

Wolf’s honor.

Now, you know, food will spoil if you just leave it out in the open. So I did the only thing there was to do. I had dinner. Think of it as helping. I was getting awfully full, and I still didn’t have that cup of sugar for my dear old granny’s birthday cake. So, I went to the next house. This guy was the first and second pig’s brother. He must have been the brains of the family. He had built his house of bricks.

I knocked on the brick house. No answer. I called, “Mr. Pig, Mr. Pig, are you in?” And do you know how that rude little porker answered?

“Get out of here, wolf. Don’t bother me again.”

He probably had a whole sack full of sugar, but he wouldn’t give me one cup for my granny’s birthday cake. I was just about to go home and maybe make a nice card instead of a cake, when I huffed. And I snuffed. And I sneezed again.

The pig yelled “Your granny can go sit on a pin.”

No, I’m usually pretty calm, but when somebody talks about my granny like that I go crazy. When the cops drove up, I was trying to break down the pig’s door, the whole time huffing and snuffing and making a big scene.

The news reporters found out about the two pigs I had for dinner. They figured a sick guy trying to borrow sugar wasn’t very exciting, so they jazzed up the story with all that “Huff and puff and blow your house down” stuff.

I was framed.

But maybe you could loan me a cup of sugar.

Joys and Cares (Nancy)

Silence (Nancy)
We will have a period of silence where we hold the joys and cares shared and unshared in our hearts. When the singing bowl sounds, please join in lighting a candle to remember a loved one, mark an event, or because you feel moved to do so. 

Lighting of Candles with Musical Interlude (Nancy)

Hymn #34 Though I May Speak

Though I may speak with bravest fire, 
And have the gift to all inspire
And have not love, my words are vain,
As sounding brass, and hopeless gain.

Though I may give, all I possess,
And striving so, my love profess,
But not be given by love within,
The profit soon turns strangely thin.

Come, spirit, come, our hearts control,
Our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed;
By this we worship, and are freed.

Offering of Gifts (Denis) 
One of the jobs we have as a religious community, is to keep the wolf at the door. In a social landscape as complicated as ours is right now, where the line is blurred between faith and politics, that’s a hard thing to do, especially for theological liberals of all leanings. 

Together, we have to figure out if the wolf is a predator, feeding us a line. Or if he’s legitimately in need. We need each other to make that distinction. We need this place….and that takes resources to keep alive.

So this morning, please give as generously as you can. And if you’re a visitor, please…let the collection basket pass you. You’re our guest. Not a wolf. 

Offertory #123 Spirit of Life

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Credo (Nancy Theofrastous)
About two and a half years ago here at East Shore, I had the privilege of telling the congregation about a lunch I’d had with a Catholic friend at the Chesterland Tavern on a cold December afternoon. I recounted how, with the sweep of a single phrase, my friend, Jennifer, transformed my embarrassing confession into a moment of enlightenment. 

At the lunch, I told Jennifer about the 40-plus years I’d spent envying people who feel a strong connection with God. I detailed all my experiences from the first time I learned about God as a child to a recent conversation I’d had with two young Mormon missionaries. As I used a chunk of bread to wipe up the last of the pasta sauce on my plate, I confessed to Jennifer that she was the most recent source of my envy. She folded her hands and said, “What I hear in you is not envy. Rather, what I hear is a longing for God.” 

Longing for God. So that’s what I had been feeling all those years I struggled to tag along with family and friends who meditate and chant and carry out earthly rituals. For a week on the beach in Mexico, I danced in a circle with friends and family and sang songs laced with Sufi worship. All I thought was, “The sand feels so good on my feet” and “My husband has a really nice singing voice.” I hosted a blessing way for a friend who was about to give birth and, try as I might, did not feel a womb-to-womb connection with the women sitting in my living room. I took the advice of friends and listened to guided meditations. I came to like them only because they helped me fall asleep. 

I felt completely on the periphery when I participated in those rituals and practices, kind of like the kid on the playground who walks the edge of the blacktop because he can’t figure out how to join others in play. I often questioned my intellectual and spiritual depth and my capacity for intimacy. How could I love those people and not feel connected to their beliefs and passions? Why didn’t I envy them? 

Very simply, because it’s not my path. In times of greatest need, I’ve sought out Christian leaders. When I was in the hospital after somewhat complicated surgery, I got nervous and thought I was dying. I asked for the chaplain and accepted her offer to pray for me. When my father became ill, I found a minister and asked her to pray with me. And, right before my father died, I called Judy Bagley-Bonner, a UCC minister, and, over 5,000 miles, melted into the prayers she offered over the phone. 

My husband recently suggested that I’m an agnostic who’s worried that the atheists are right. The moment he said it, I thought, “That’s apt.” But, I am more that. I rise every morning and retrieve my glasses from wherever I dropped them as I fell asleep the night before. I smooth wrinkles from the bedcover and look out the window to the trees in our backyard. Then, I seek God’s guidance. I pray for God to quiet my fears so that I can face my flaws and tread a bit more lightly than I did the day before. I pray for the stamina to serve selflessly and love unconditionally. I pray for God to temper pain so that everyone can wake with peace in their hearts. I’m an agnostic who really, really hopes that the God I long for exists.

Anthem “What I Meant to Say,” by Theodora Garrison and Les Kleen

Reading (Nancy)
“That Which Holds All,” by Nancy Shaffer

Because she wanted everyone to feel included
in her prayer,
she said right at the beginning 
several times names for the Holy:
Spirit, she said, Holy One, Mystery, God

but then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing
that which cannot be fully addressed, she added
particularities, saying, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,
Ancient Holy One, Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know,
Gracious God and also Spirit of This Earth,
God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou

and then, tongue loosened, she fell into naming
Superlatives as well: Most Creative One,
Greatest Source, Closest Hope – 
even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her 
probably redundant, but she couldn’t stop:

One Who Made the Stars, she said, although she knew 
technically a number of those present didn’t believe
the stars had been made by anyone or thing
but just luckily happened.

One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion,
she said, and no one laughed.

That which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning,
she said, and the room was silent.

Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,
others began to offer names:

Peace, said one.
One My Mother Knew, said another.
Ancestor, said a third.
Breath, said one near the back.
That Which Holds All.
A child said, Water.
Someone said, Kuan Yin.
Then: Womb.
Great Kindness.
Great Eagle.
Eternal Stillness.

And then, there wasn’t any need to say the things 
she’d thought would be important to say,
and everyone sat hushed, until someone said.


Sermon (Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul) 
“What We Call Ourselves” 
You never know what will come up at an Annual Meeting. I’ve seen them derailed for an hour over one expense that is a tiny fraction of one percent of the budget, and I’ve seen profound theological discussions simultaneously erupt. 

In May, I was at the annual meeting of the congregation I was serving in Grass Valley, California when an unplanned conversation caught me by surprise: a discussion of what we call ourselves in the by-laws. Are we the Community? The Congregation? Or the Society? The word Church never even came up!

Now, every congregation I’ve served has had somebody who hated its name. In fact, on the first day of my internship, at the end of the service in which my only role was to introduce myself, someone came up to me afterward spitting mad. 

“How dare you call this place a church! This is not a church!”

I was ….surprised, a little taken aback. For a second, I thought I’d gone crazy, or just gotten the name wrong, so I pulled out my brand new business card and looked at it, then showed it to her. There it was in print: the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach.

“I don’t care what that card says. This is not a church. I hate churches.” And she stormed away. Thankfully, within a couple of weeks, we got a chance to talk, and really liked each other. I just never used the C-word in her presence again.

The question of what we call ourselves got me thinking about the different ways to describe the groups who gather under the Unitarian Universalist umbrella every weekend. All of the words we use have a bright side, and a shadow side – a shortcoming or negative connotation that makes that word prickly for some, even as it works beautifully for others. 

Community is the word in the legal name, the 501(c)3 that establishes the Grass Valley group as an official religious non-profit: the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains. 

Many UUs come from religious traditions built around a particular creed that all are expected to adhere to, and we challenged the creed by asking questions. Many of us, whether we meant to or not, poked holes in the common understanding of the divine, and got a clear message that our questions were not welcome. We felt personally ostracized, so we came to UU seeking like-minded people, a theological safety zone, a protected enclave in a world that can be hostile to those of us with liberal philosophies, hostile to agnostics, humanists and atheists.

The problem with community-as-protected-enclave though, is that like the religious traditions we left, it can exclude people. If you’ve ever looked up enclave in the thesaurus, you know that virtually all of its synonyms relate to power: ascendency, domination, privilege, rule and sovereignty. 

For me, the word community is so used and overused that it has become meaningless. A gated community is a neighborhood that leaves out everyone who doesn’t “belong.” Using practices like deed restrictions and redlining to prevent minorities from moving in is no longer legal, but it’s perfectly acceptable now to use walls and guards keep them out. Communities of identity exist for those who’ve felt excluded or maligned in the places where they live: think transgender community, undocumented immigrant community, even sex worker community. 

I started feeling uncomfortable with the idea of community the first time I read the phrase “international intelligence community.” In the flash of a moment the idea went from being warm and fuzzy, to cold and threatening.

I use the word congregation a lot. As a person who grew up Catholic and went to school with Jewish kids, it’s one of those words that feel inclusive to me. Synagogues, churches and mosques – the houses of worship of all three Abrahamic traditions – call themselves congregations, and I’ve also heard the word used to describe Buddhist sanghas and Hindu Ashrams, so it connects us across time and space and belief. It’s about the coming together, the assemblage of a group of people for a common goal: Worship, celebrating that which has the most meaning in our lives. 

For many of us though, the idea of congregation is troublesome because of its religiosity. For an atheist who disbelieves in the existence of any god in any form, or for a secular humanist who sees the human mind and human experience as final arbiters of meaning, the word congregation is directly equated to worshiping a god. So, in the annual meeting a couple folks expressed discomfort with referring to ourselves as a congregation.

I forget how it came up, but somebody mentioned Society, and how many times it was used in the bylaws. The first Unitarian Universalist group I joined was the First UU Society of San Francisco. They ordained me ten years later, and the name still gives me pause. Actually, I have felt a little embarrassed by the name. 

You see, I grew up in a working class mill town in New England, where having a little above ground back yard swimming pool was a big luxury. The upper crust belonged to country clubs in the next town. The Jews went to their club to swim, golf and play tennis, while the goyim went to their own. They all appeared in the Society pages of the Springfield Republican, in articles about debuts and museum galas. I felt like it was a world I would never be allowed into, and if I ever got there, I would be instantly clocked as an imposter and thrown out into the alley by a butler in a tuxedo. 

But a society can also be a secular assembly for a common goal, like the Humane Society or the National Geographic Society. And it doesn’t even have to be just humans in these organized groupings. Prides of lions and packs of wolves are ecological societies, as are smaller clusters of plants within a larger setting. Birds of a feather stick together for mutual protection, if not some higher goal. But the word Society has a whole different set of connotations from either Community or Congregation. The thesaurus includes association and circle, and a whole lot of sexist-sounding words like fraternity, brotherhood, and fellowship. 

I guess that’s the problem with fellowship. It sounds sexist, dominated by men, as if women were finally let in by some legal ruling. When I was in my teens those country clubs in the next town joined forces and went all the way to the US Supreme court defending their practice of giving the best tee times to men, while women, whether they were chiefs of surgery or circuit court judges, got the worst tee times. 

But within Unitarian Universalism, we have a proud history of a particular kind of assembly known as a fellowship. In 1948 Frederick May Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association revisited an early 20th century plan for “lay centers,” which would help plant fellowships throughout the United States. As the postwar country expanded westward, fellowships were groups of “at least ten religiously liberal lay people who expressed sympathy with the purposes of the AUA, had bylaws and made an ongoing financial commitment to the AUA.” Today exist hundreds of UU Fellowships across the United States, many of which have long been served by full time ministers, or have ceased to support our denominational structure financially, but the name means a lot to their members.

Holly Ulbrich, in The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and its Legacy, notes that

The positive view maintains that the congregations planted as lay-led fellowships between 1948 and 1967 saved Unitarianism from near extinction and converted a regional religious movement into a truly national one.

Along with growing the denomination, fellowships brought innovation, vitality, and lay leadership into a religious community greatly in need of fresh air. At the other end of the spectrum is the view that the fellowship movement spawned small, introverted, even hostile groups that did not want to grow or welcome newcomers, did not identify with the larger denomination, and represented Unitarian Universalism in ways that did not reflect the larger movement’s self-understanding.

The truth is that there is good and bad that comes with each of these ways of naming ourselves. The words community, congregation, society and fellowship each have ways of including and excluding, or even conveying two opposite meanings to different kinds of people. Each names a piece of what we are and how we want to be together, yet each also leaves something out. We are no one of these things. We are all of them, and yet, they still leave something out.

We are a church. We come from the Universalist Church and from the Unitarian Church, which grew out of the Congregational Church. Both are firmly rooted in Christianity. We still govern ourselves the same way Congregational Churches do, and what we do on Sunday morning looks like church, right down to the orientation of seats toward the pulpit, the classical music, the choir, and the tune of most of the hymns. 

Personally, even though I know it makes some folks uncomfortable, Church is the name that resonates most for me. It reminds me of home. As I told the hiring team in my first interview, it’s one of the reasons I was interested in coming here to serve you. You call this place a church.

We are a Synagogue. For those of us who believe in God, that God looks more like the unified God of the Hebrew Bible than the Triune God of Christianity. That theology is what got us declared heretics in the first place. Plus, our worship can look an awful lot like shul, a Yiddish word for worship that literally means school: we value education, and expect that a spiritual life is also a life of the mind.

We are a Parish, marking out a territory that we serve. East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church serves the region east of the greater Cleveland Area, and near the shore of Lake Erie. 

This part of the Western Reserve belongs to us, and we belong to this place, responsible for its fragile ecosystem, and its people, whether or not they join us in worship. Titles like The UU Fellowship of Kern County, the UU Church of Arlington and the UU Congregation of Atlanta are typical for us in that they use different ways of naming the institution, but lay claim to a geographical area. In New England, in places like Bridgewater Massachusetts and Portland Maine, it’s still common for UUs to even use the word Parish in their name.

We are a Temple, as we occupy a building meant for the worship of the human spirit and its connection to the entirety of the universe, a connection that is defined in myriad ways. What matters to us in our temple is that we are public: not only are we open to all, we aim to occupy the public square in public discourse, as prophets in the halls of government, speaking truth to power and demanding ethical behavior and policies that are carried out in our name. In this Temple, we engage with each other, and our rituals are meant to deepen our connections and our understanding.

We are a Gathering. Like Pagans, we aim to make rituals that celebrate the milestones of our lives, the passage of time and the seasons, and the fragility of our relationships with each other and the earth. We commune with the natural world, the elements of air, fire, water and earth, and the plants and animals we live among.

We strive to be like the wolf. We know that, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “the Strength of the Pack is the Wolf/and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” We strive to be like the fictional humanoid wolf in this morning’s story. We long to share our stories, to know what the world looks like from the other side, to understand the motivations of the maligned. At one point or another, we’ve all been perceived as the wolf, especially as we have claimed our liberal philosophies among religious conservatives. 

When Nancy discovered her latent need for prayer as a form of connection to something larger than herself, she had to start thinking of herself in a new way. She went from being a lifelong Unitarian, raised to value reason above all else, without much need for individual or corporate prayer, to being, well…a prayer. A person who prays, something many here I’m sure find curious, if not downright bizarre.

The thing is, she didn’t separate herself from Unitarian Universalism. No, her goal was to be part of something else, something in addition to a UU, and realize that there is in fact room for prayer right here among us. In fact, we are made stronger by Nancy’s need to pray. And I think she knows that. 

That’s the challenge of the project that we are working on together. Our strength, like the strength of the wolf, is in our bond. For the East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church to work, to meet our goal of making justice in the world and being the peace we long to see, we have to be more than just a church. We have to be the community, the congregation, the society, the fellowship, the synagogue, the parish, the temple and the gathering if we are going to be as inclusive as we want to be. 

The religious discussion in the United States these days seems to be all focused on the origin of the species and the reason for our demise. Evolution vs creation, climate change vs. end times. But it seems like here, among Unitarian Universalists, we never really have that discussion, because we know, that no matter what we believe, our inclusiveness – our diversity – is our strength. Diversity is the glue that holds us together, no matter what we believe. 

So, on my second Sunday here, I have a request for you. 

When you hear a word you don’t like, a word like God or Religion or Church, a word that leaves you feeling uncomfortable or itchy, rather than requesting (or demanding) that others refrain from using that word, I’d like to invite you to look inside yourself to see what it is about that term that makes you feel uncomfortable. Figure out what the wolf is at your door, and what you’re missing out on by not letting it in. Imagine what you could gain by embracing some new practice, striving for the stamina to serve selflessly and love unconditionally. And when you see someone else struggling, have the courage to say something like “what I see in you is a longing for God.” 

If together we can approach discomfort, or intensity of feeling with a sense of curiosity about the world and about ourselves, we can do great work together. Instead of arguing about what to call ourselves, or what it is you we’re celebrating on Sunday, let’s wonder together about what it is that makes our hearts soar, or race with anxiety. And as we do so, as we wonder together, we’ll know this: we’re celebrating our multiformity and our distinctiveness in a world that desperately needs it. And truly welcoming in everyone in the process.

May peace be with us as we enter this new life together, whatever we call ourselves.

Now, I would like to invite you all to please rise, or sit with as much gusto as you can muster, for hymn #108, My Life Flows On in Endless Song.

Closing Hymn #108 “My Life Flows On”

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?

What though the tempest ‘round me roars, I know the truth, it liveth.
What though the darkness ‘round me close, songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love prevails in heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble as they hear the bells of freedom ringing;
When friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing!
From prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?

Bond of Union — Church Covenant (Unison)
We join hands in Unitarian Universalist fellowship, pledging ourselves to an individual religious freedom, which transcends all creeds, not to think alike but to walk together.

Extinguishing the Chalice “Be Ours a Religion,” by Theodore Parker
Rev Denis: Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
Nancy: its temple, all space;
Rev Denis: its shrine, the good heart;
Nancy: its creed, all truth;
Rev Denis: its ritual, works of love;
Nancy: its profession of faith, divine living.