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October 30, 2007: “Roberts Rules of Rituals”


While UU minister Robert Fulgham is best known for the best seller, Everything I know I learned in Kindergarten, his most ‘religious’ book is From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives (1995) Some of his “Propositions:”

‘Rituals are timed by beats of the heart, not ticks of the clock.
Most of our major holidays are connected to seasons.
They are flexible feast days adapted to human needs.
Heart time is not clock time–rituals should never be hurried.

Rituals are frames around the mirrors of the moment.
Rituals are the coin by which attention is paid to the moment.
Nobody lives without rituals. Rituals do not live without somebody.

The rituals change when the forms of celebration no longer fit our yearnings to celebrate the realities of present circumstances. The rituals change when we reach for a more authentic expression of our deepest human experiences. What does not change is the yearning.
This change is nothing new.
It has always been so, is so, and shall ever be so.
It is the nature of life itself, always forming and reforming.
It is neither right nor wrong–it is the way it is.

To spend time in the company of others who have our concerns, values, interests, beliefs, or occupation is to get confirmation of who we are – to feel connected to a larger image of ourselves.

On the surface of it we come together to accomplish work, to share ideas, to make plans….every gathering has business to do…We go to get new ideas, new energy, confirmation of who we are and what we do. This is recreation. A serious word re-creation – a re-newal of self.

The rite of self-affirmation by association – being with people like us.
The ritual of relevance – of belonging to a community of significance.

From beginning to end, the rituals of our lives shape each hour, day, and year. Everyone leads a ritualized life. Rituals are repeated patterns of meaningful acts. If you are mindful of your actions, you will see the ritual patterns. If you see the patterns, you may understand them. If you understand them, you may enrich them. In this way, the habits of a lifetime become sacred.”

October 21, 2007
East Shore CHurch

On their way to an inter-faith conference was a Hindu holy man, a rabbi, and a Unitarian Universalist minister. Late at night, lost on a country road, their car broke down. Together they walked along the dark road until at last they saw a farmhouse; hopefully, they could at least get a place to stay for the night. This is kind of a traveling salesman joke, only it’s traveling clergy. At the farmhouse, the farmer said he could put them up for the night, but he only had room for two of them. One of them would have to sleep in the barn.

Well, the Hindu said that he was probably more used to roughing it and that he would gladly stay in the barn. The rabbi and the UU minister were just ready to get in their beds when there was a knock at the door.

The Hindu came in and very apologetically said that he couldn’t sleep in the barn because his religion forbade him to be so close to the cow, a sacred animal. So the Rabbi said that he would sleep in the barn, but he, too was back after a few minutes saying that he could sleep there because there was a pig there-a ritually unclean animal that Jews had to avoid.

So that left the UU minister, and he went out to the barn, saying- “I’m a Unitarian Universalist and we have no dietary restrictions except for certain vegetables which I don’t like; we have a liberal approach to religion. I’ll sleep in the barn”
About five minutes later there was another knock at the door, and this time the Hindu and the rabbi looked at each other confused. They opened the door and there was the cow and the pig.

It has been said that while Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in the Bible literally, they believe most strongly and live their lives if not their meetings, by “Robert’s Rules of Order.” I have a confession to make. I don’t know who Robert was and I don’t remember studying him in the Bible. If we can’t all agree on who or what God is, we seem to agree that this mysterious parliamentarian saint Robert is someone to whose authority we should listen . Not “God says,” but “Robert says.”

Another famous Robert with Unitarian Universalists and indeed, all the country, is best-selling author and UU minister, Robert Fulgham. Perhaps the most famous UU minister today,he is the author of such wonderful books as Everything I needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten, It was On Fire When I lay Down on It, Uh-Oh, and Maybe(Maybe Not) His best book, I think, is titled From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives. I have re-titled it, ” Robert’s Rules of Rituals.”

“My thinking was set in motion.” Fulgham writes,” by those who, knowing I was a parish minister for many years, have asked me for advice about ceremonies and celebrations. They wanted words to use at graduation, funerals, and the welcoming of children. They inquired about grace at family meals, the reaffirmation of wedding vows, and ways to heal wounds suffered in personal conflict. People requested help with the rituals of solitude, such as meditation, prayer, and contemplation.”

It is amazing to me how much we all need and want ritual, or to be more precise, meaningful ritual. Participating in a religious ritual and perhaps we are transported to another world, another reality, to heaven and beyond, even to the stars. We are comforted, we are brought to a religious peak, we are filled with joy and love. How many of us in this technologically advanced but spiritually retarded society yearn for a magic ritual which can for us today what the sages of old wrote about the religions of the past or even certain approaches to religion today.

Indeed, some our rituals we do make up as we go along, like the water service, which many UU churches celebrate as homecoming Sunday, bringing back water from their travels. The childrnen especially like this one, and will often remind their parents to bring back some water. And in good UU fashion, some people who haven’t brought real water will pour virtual water ! The chalice lighting is another, a relatively recent ritual, in the last 20 years or so.

I also think that the rise in the number of UU’s in religious surveys claiming ‘Earth-Centered Tradition’: is a result of not getting enough religious ritual in their worship services. Ten years ago, there was not even a designation like that to claim; today 20% are now claiming that designation. Perhaps the main reason for attending UU worship services, intellectual stimulation, is leaving some of us cold. There is a definite increase in UU spirituality and even UU Christians. The first weekend in November, West Shore Church in Cleveland is hosting a UU Christian revival!

Indeed, ritual is needed even for psychological/emotional/family system reasons. Rituals are about more than just certain religious practices. Some years ago, there was an edition of the (NOV/DEC 87) Utne Reader: The Best of the Alternative Press (kind of a leftist, intellectual Reader’s Digest. ) The cover story was entitled “In Search of Meaningful Ritual: On finding customs and ceremonies that reflect your values” I saved it because I wanted to write about rituals. It has taken me this long, because perhaps I needed to be in a different place theologically in my religious searching than I was 10 years ago. The older I get, the more important for rituals, but also even more important, that the rituals be meaningful for me.

The article in Utne quotes anthropologists, Sally Moore and Barbara Meyerhoff: “Rituals share much in common with drama and games, yet are distinguished by the meaning and effect of their messages…Since ritual is a good form for conveying a message as if it were unquestionable, it is often used to communicate those very things which are most in doubt.”

Another article called “Ritual to build a community” was taken from the book Truth or Dare , by the neo-pagan writer Starhawk, who is represented in our new hymnal with some responsive readings: “Ritual affirms the common patterns,. the values, the shared joys, risks, sorrows, and changes that bind a community together. Ritual links together our ancestors and descendants, those who went before with those who will come after us. It helps us face together those things that are too painful to face alone…Any ritual is an opportunity for transformation. To do ritual, you must be willing to be transformed in some way.”

The neo-pagan movement is one approach to creating new rituals based on ancient ones, one way of trying to rediscover meanings of nature, the earth, the divine force called by many names including the Goddess, and her seasons intertwined with humanity. It is a movement starved for ritual which it has not been able to find in traditional religion, and the movement is creating its own rituals with a blend, like New Age practitioners, of fact, fantasy,myth, and parts of Native American rituals.

Another article: “Creating Rituals in Therapy,” by Evan Imber-Blackwas an excerpt from his Book, Rituals in Families and Family Therapy: where he talked about five themes in any family’s rituals–membership, healing, identity, belief expression, and celebration.”

As we can see, rituals have a tremendous significance-both positive and negative as well as both psychologically and religiously- on our lives. Often we may even be unaware that we are participating in a ritual- like the secular and family ritual called Thanksgiving Dinner, for instance. Growing up, where did we sit? What was the order at the table? Was Dad at the head? Who carved? Who cooked? who cleaned up? Who watched football? and so on. Think of the rituals which we grew up with and that we now create and participate in. What holiday rituals have we continued? Created? What do we miss? Don’t like the rituals? Change them! Therapeutically, we might want to create new rituals for healthy change and growth in our relationships. Perhaps we need a ritual for divorce, for instance. The coming holiday season is chock full of ritual-both conscious and unconscious. Beware!

What Robert Fulgham wants to do is to help us become aware of how much ritual does affect and influence our lives, yea even in UU churches, and even in our private lives. Religion and ritual is not our Sunday morning behavior only, but all that we do. Here are what Fulgham calls his “propositions:”

“To be human is to be religious.
To be religious is to be mindful.
To be mindful is to pay attention.
To pay attention is to sanctify existence.”

I am convinced that Fulgham is a Zen Master, a playful mystic.

“Rituals,” he goes on, ” are one way in which attention is paid.
Rituals arise from the stages and ages of life.
Rituals transform the ordinary into the holy.

Rituals may be public, private, or secret.
Rituals may be spontaneous or arranged.
Rituals are in constant evolution and reformation.

Rituals create sacred time.
Sacred time is the dwelling place of the Eternal.
Haste and ambition are the adversaries of sacred time.”

Rituals are part and parcel of our lives. Religion throughout the recorded history of humanity has addressed all the deep-seeded needs which humanity has had and will have from birth to death, from beginning to end. Religions which have developed formalized rituals, like the Roman Catholic church, may have a section in prayerbook for any of life’s passages or problems. Just fill in the blanks with the proper name. Yet all religions also caution practitioners against getting so caught up in the ritual, that the danger is the ritual becomes idolized and then empty and hollow like a metal statue of a divinity. At the very beginning of the book, Fulgham writes:

I get calls frequently from couples who want to get married and want a religious ritual for their wedding, but not a traditionally Christian or Jewish one. They are no longer practicing their childhood religion, or perhaps they have never had any formal religion, but they want a religious ceremony. not a civil one. They can’t find a minister, priest, or rabbi who will marry them unless they are members or unless they believe a certain way. They are looking for a ritual-maker who might create a ritual for this momentous occasion, this uniting of hearts. It is not easy to shop for the ritual one wants, because one usually have a practitioner along with it.

So as Fulgham describes, Unitarian Universalist ministers are often called on to create meaningful ritual for those life passages from beginning to end, for child dedications (yes, it’s then OK to tell your parents that the kid is baptized!), for Sunday School ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, for weddings, wedding renewals, sometimes for divorce services, and then finally for the memorial service. For those who have left traditional religions, ritual must be found elsewhere from civic clubs and masonic or fraternal orders to sports teams.

Perhaps we need ritual as much as we need sleep. We need to be aware- a very Buddhist term-truly aware of our lives, of the rituals in our lives and of building more rituals, of finding the rituals in the places and with the people we need.

Another UU minister, William Houff, in his wonderful book, Infinity in Your Hand , talks about a tribe of Africans called the Mbuti, who believe that each of us are all surrounded by a kind of sphere, our own invisible bubble,. If someone moves too fast, one could get ahead of one’s bubble. Then an impostor could take our place. Someone who is not really us. When we go too fast for our individual sphere, we get in a state of “wuzi-wuzi.” If we don’t slow down and pay better attention to our personal speed through life, for finding the fulfillment of our need for ritual, we operate in a state of ‘wuzi-wuzi.’

Some of us left traditional religions because the ritual there had ceased being meaningful for us. The ritual was tied to words which didn’t make sense any more, as if we had entered another realm of reality and could no longer understand the words which had once been pregnant with meaning, which had once sustained us. Many people leave traditional religions and find nothing to replace the need for ritualizing from beginning to end. Maybe our lives were lived too fast for our bubbles and we outgrew the rituals or were unclear about them. I call this stage ‘fuzi-wuzi.’

The conscious renewal of ritual and celebration,” says Houff,” is a way to return to the sacred from the clamor of the world. Ritual and celebration give us the revelation that the spiritual is part of life. We are religious beings. If we make a conscious choice away from religious ritual, we will fill the vacuum with other unconscious rituals, such as habits, neuroses, and symptoms.”

Like sleep deprivation, one can suffer too from ritual deprivation, from spiritual dryness. Children need ritual in family and school, and young children especially need ritual of going to bed, the same story or lullaby every night, the same routine. Ritual is comforting; it creates the illusion, at least, that we are in control of this crazy, out of control world.
“Like a bowl catching rainwater,” Houff continues, with one of my favorite sentences of the book, “ritual is the form we put forth to catch the spiritual. We must leave some part of our lives ‘out of control’ so the unexpected can happen. We must leave a hole in space and time. Sometimes it’s scary to decide how much to structure and how much to leave out of control. The hole in time is the sabbath, the holiday, the feast, the celebration. It is the time we take to play with the gods, the Great Spirit interacting with our own, in order to be fully human.”

Just coming to church is a ritual, isn’t it? There’s no guarantee on Sunday that church will change us or comfort us or challenge us. Maybe it will be the wonderful music- of the organ, the piano, the choir, a violinist or a flutist or a guitar or even a hymn. Maybe it will be a story or even a joke. Maybe it will be a reading or a phrase that, for some unknown reason, becomes stuck in our subconscious, becomes an enlightenment into our particular situation. Maybe the ritual of the chalice lighting or the lighting of the candles for Joys and concerns, or the ritual of greeting the minister after the service will be what we needed this day, and maybe nothing will click. But the Sunday ritual is a crucial one. The ancient idea of sabbath was to set aside one day of the week to reconnect with the sacred, perhaps because of the busy week of hunting and gathering, of plowing, or of child rearing or business or a hundred other things we do in our everyday lives of survival and beyond. Our psyches need ritual, need Sunday, need holy days, need religious connection to ultimate meaning.

The function of ritual is paradoxical: to both anchor us to high places on the steep slopes of this world on which we are always losing our footing and to free us from the despair of being stuck in the world’s mud. Ritual behavior softens the phases of life when we are reminded how hard it is to be human. Ritual behavior enriches the phases of life when we are reminded how fine it is to be human.”

From beginning to end, we need rituals to somehow connect to what it means to live life to its and our fullest. It is in the major life passages that it becomes the most obvious, but deep down, when we listen to our heart and mind come together in our inner religion, that we most truly know the religious needs of ritual. We must reach out to the world of which we are a part as we discover a ritual of working for social justice as well.

We gather to create a religious community, to search for truth and meaning, to help one another, and to experience rituals which will sustain us. We live our lives ritually, with both positive and negative rituals in family and in society. Let us be aware of our rituals and work to make sure they are positive and meaningful rituals which add to our lives and to the lives of others. Let us get rid of the negative rituals, the harmful rituals, and listen to the loving rituals of the spirit, of the heart, the mind, and the hands. We need each other, and we need this worshipping together, this common ritualizing. So be it.