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One of the reasons I’d like to see more ministers blogging is that it can help demystify what ministry is all about. Some of the best minister/bloggers out there seek to make transparent the processes behind much of what they do: from planning the liturgical year to writing their weekly sermons. And in the spirit of true blogging, they even actively solicit feedback on what they’re up to. So…I thought I’d take a moment to share a sermon project that I’m currently working on. You see, since I don’t preach in the same place every Sunday, I have the luxury of writing only one or two sermons a year. And with two preaching gigs coming up right after the new year (January 6 in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, and January 13 in Northfield, Minnesota), I figured that I’d better get working on a new sermon.

I’ve already come up with a title and a blurb (something congregations always ask for, sometime several months in advance, other times the week before my visit). I’m calling it “Starting Small,” and the blurb goes something like this:

Sometimes it seems UUs believe that the bigger the idea, the better. But when it comes to building the Beloved Community, starting small makes much more sense.

Of course, often times the title and the blurb end up having nothing at all to do with the actual sermon (which is why “Something about [fill in the blank]” is the best sermon title imaginable!), but in this case, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I want to preach about, and it does include the notion of starting small rather than big. So here’s my line of thinking as of today.

Unitarian Universalists do, indeed, love big ideas. Our Universalist forebears had the audacity to believe–and unashamedly promote–the big idea that God was just too loving of a being to condemn anyone to eternal damnation. In fact, Universalism has often been described as “the biggest word in the English language.” And even when humanist Unitarian Universalists remove God from the equation, our ideas remain just as grand, if not grander. Consider this vision of the future from Humanist Manifesto II (which was signed by such notable UUs a Khoren Arisian and William Schulz):

The next century can be and should be the humanistic century….We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age, ready to move farther into space and perhaps inhabit other planets. Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life-span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.

Phew! Why not throw in world peace while you’re at it. Which is, of course, exactly what we did in our relatively down-to-earth Principles and Purposes, where we couldn’t help but include such grandiose concepts as “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” Heck, even Prairie Star’s mission statement gets into the game when it proclaims that “The purpose of the Prairie Star District is to work to achieve…a world which lives by UU principles.”

But there’s a downside to these big ideas. If we stare too long into the bright and shiny future they present, we can lose our ability to see the less spectacular (but no less important) opportunities to change the world that are right in front of us.

(Okay, so that’s where I am at the moment. More on this sermon as it develops!)


When I preached last Sunday in Manhattan, Kansas, I added something to my evolving sermon on the need to take our Principles and Purposes more seriously. It’s a quote from the cover story of the latest issue of Tikkun, an article called “Science and Spirit.” The article’s a recap of a round table conversation among some noted scientists (including George Lakoff) and some of the Tikkun staff, including Michael Lerner. The author, David Belden, is the managing editor of the magazine. Here’s the part that really struck me:

In my denomination, the Unitarian Universalists, we have seven guiding principles. The two that I think underlay the others are:

1) The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
7) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

I wholeheartedly espouse those principles. Where do they come from? Not simply from a rational argument: rational arguments can be made for and against them and there is no proof. Some people appear to have no worth and dignity and I find good reasons every day for trashing the web of life for my personal gain (e.g., I don’t bother to approve or even know where much of my food comes from). Those principles come from a collective process of spiritual intuition and exchange engaged in by a whole denomination drawing on centuries of uninterrupted spiritual practice and development. They are among the most important things I know in my life and I hold them in common with many other people. I have spent years in a community that cohered around them, and around the daily practices of learning to live them together. They are provisional, in the sense that the process of drawing in more people, more experience, more honest sharing of spiritual intuition, in response to historical developments, may lead the denomination to change the wording or add another principle. How these principles are enacted in daily life is also subject to trial and error, group learning, prayer, meditation, heart–to–heart exchanges, small group process, exchanges with outsiders, and so on. Thus we build our spiritual knowledge.

Rarely have I seen the importance of the Principles and Purposes presented so powerfully in a non-UU publication. It’s rare to see them defended so well in a UU publication for that matter. Belden really gives voice to the way I’d like to see our Principles and Purposes used in our congregations!

Here are the outcomes for the Unitarian Universalist Identity thread of the new Tapestry of Faith curriculum series, as presented by the Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group of the UUA at last weekends LREDA Fall Conference in San Antonio, Texas. The Goals and Elements for this strand relate to the second, fifth, and third components of the LFD Vision Statement (I’m not quite sure why they’re out of order, though).

  • Affirm that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living,
  • Recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships and connections between and among the generations, and
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith.

Here are the Goals;

  • To be grounded in UU history and heritage
  • To understand what Unitarian Universalism is and stands for
  • To confidently articulate what Unitarian Universalism is and stands for
  • To identify Unitarian Universalism as one’s religious home
  • To share a common UU vision, language, and identity.

The Elements include:

  • UU history and heritage
  • UU Worship, rituals, symbols, and traditions
  • Meaning of covenant
  • Principles and Sources: understand, articulate, and live
  • Universalist legacy of love, faith, hope
  • Unitarian legacy of freedom, reason, and tolerance
  • Rites of passage
  • UU identity (personal, communal)
  • UU stories
  • UU language
  • UU polity.

In some ways, this may be the most difficult of all the strands. Unitarian Universalists are, on the whole, just not very good at talking about what it means to be a UU. That’s not too surprising given our relatively brief existence as a merged tradition, which is why I’m glad that there’s some awareness that we need to include understanding our separate Unitarian and Univeralist legacies here. After all, we didn’t arrive out of the blue as a fully formed religion in 1961.

Rather than taking the third, I was preaching on the third last Sunday–in Rochester, Minnesota. About two weeks ago I got a call from Carol Hepokoski, the minister there (and a professor of mine when I was at Meadville Lombard). She wanted to know if I was free to preach on September 30. I was and more than happy to make the 90 minute trip from Saint Paul to spread the good word. Or good words. I titled the sermon “Acceptance and Encouragement,” and it was all about how we should be 1) using our principles as tools to assess how we’re doing in our spiritual journeys, and 2) using the third principle (acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth) as the number one principle for assessing what we’re doing together as a religious community. I mean, if we’re not accepting one another and encouraging each other in our spiritual journeys, then what are we doing?

At any rate, I mentioned a few resources during my sermon (mainly books from the UUA about the Principles and Purposes) and some folks asked that I post them on my blog. So here they are:

Our Seven Principles in Story and Verse: A Collection for Children and Adults
Kenneth W. Collier
Creative responses to the seven principles, each one illustrated with a story, a poem and a brief essay. For all ages, for worship and individual reading.

With Purpose and Principle: Essays About the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Edited by Edward Frost
A short history of the Principles and Purposes followed by essays from present-day UU leaders including John Buehrens, Marilyn Sewell, Earl Holt and Barbara Merritt. Excellent for use in new-member classes, as well as for those seeking insight into this essential piece of our living tradition.

Stories in Faith: Exploring Our UU Principles and Sources Through Wisdom Tales
Gail Forsyth-Vail
Stories in Faith is an invitation to begin a unique spiritual journey, one in which stories help us to develop our faith and make meaning in our lives. This is a distinctly Unitarian Universalist collection of wisdom tales. Nineteen in all, the stories are culled from many cultures and traditions and presented using the seven Principles and six Sources as a framework for reflection and further exploration. Forsyth-Vail offers thoughtful advice for respectfully approaching materials from a culture other than one’s own and encourages engagement with wisdom tales as an opportunity for lifelong inspiration and spiritual growth.

The Seven Principles in Word and Worship
Ellen Brandenburg, Editor
The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism continue to be plumbed for meaning, depth and inspiration. This elegant volume presents fresh perspectives from seven ministers who joined the ministry after the Principles took their current form. Here are essays, prayers, chalice lightings, litanies, meditations and worship readings on each Principle–helping us reflect on their significance and the ways they call us to ethical action and deeper spirituality.

All of these books should be in every congregation’s library. Heck, they should probably be in every UU’s library! At any rate, I don’t have an action shot from last Sunday, but I do have a picture of the Wanted Poster they had taped to the main entrance. (You can find more photos from my Rochester set here.)

Wanted Poster

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