Around this time of year, I always remember learning about one of the first worship services I would get to lead as a real, grown-up minister. It was a few years ago, as a ministerial intern. And one of the first things that happened in the internship was to go over the worship calendar for the first half of the church year, from September through December. We were in a meeting at the church and the whole staff was going over the calendar. Then we came to December.
It was a full month, like it is at every Unitarian Universalist church. We strive in our tradition to honor many of the practices and traditions that form the tapestry of our faith, while we also strive to honor those holidays that are special favorites of many of our members. So we marched through December with the calendar, handing assignments out to musicians, preachers, readers, and more. And then we came closer to the end of the month and there it was: The Solstice service.
It was important to be ready of this service. There were stories circulating about how past interns had kind of dropped the ball on it. There were other stories about past interns doing it really well. I confess that the latter stories might have been the ones urging me on in my quest to get this service just right. At the first meeting with the associate minister, he did a pretty straightforward rundown of the event. He explained the traditional songs, how we call the directions, the ritual at the heart of the service called “What We Give to the Night,” when the people attending call out things they want to give to the night, things they want to be rid of. He gave me a good outline of the evening, but said I should speak with some others around the church, too.
So next I spoke with the Director of Family Ministries. I had a good idea of what the ceremony was about now, so mostly we worked through how to be in touch with the right volunteers for which elements. And as we’re going though how many kids we’ll need when, she says it: “Oh, and I guess you’ll need the headdresses and bells here.” I’m sure my silence spoke volumes because she kind of smiled. As an eminently gifted and experienced educator, who’d seen the learning process take shape in minds of all ages, she knew that I was processing this new information. She kindly showed me where the instruments and the headdresses were and I added this to my things to remember and do.
Next I met with the person in charge of adult learning, who had traditionally played a part in this service but was going to be away this particular solstice. I explained all the elements to her like I’d learned them. I even mentioned the addition of the headdresses and bells. And she listened and said it sounded wonderful. “Yes,” I thought, “I’m getting it now.” But as we were going through the order of the evening she asked, “Well, when is the Yule log procession?” I was again surprised, but we worked out when that would be. And as we approached the end of the order she noticed something amiss. “Oh, this is the place where Grandmother Winter appears.”
So at this point, I started to wonder. Am I involved in a carefully constructed Unitarian Universalist initiation rite? Are my colleagues going to keep mentioning more and more and more elements of this service until I finally crack up in a heap of holly, tin whistles and headdresses?
We eventually got through it and had a wonderful night. The lighting cues all worked, all the processions happened, and I even managed to keep it together when I asked what people wanted to give to the night and one person suggested, “The US Congress.”
Here we are in this winter month—this time of year feels like the universe decided to get in one last holiday for every tradition in the last thirty days of the year. Of course, even saying that statement completely misunderstands some of the traditions celebrated during this time of year, like Hanukkah, that are based on the lunar, not the solar calendar. And these details are part of the many ways this time of year presents a challenge to doing everything right…even if I’m a Unitarian Universalist.
See, there is something about our faith tradition that seems to attract people who are really, really good…at doing things right. And I confess that one of the things that attracted me to this tradition, is that intellectually, I think it’s right. And who doesn’t like to be right sometimes? I have a bit of that stripe in me for sure. Yesterday I was answering a few questions with some arcane knowledge and one friend began saying, “OK, Google.” And looking right at me. But it doesn’t end at music trivia or baseball stats. Being right sometimes bleeds over even into my professional relationships.
Every, every time a ministerial colleague in another tradition is telling me a story about how they are having a challenge or a crisis of faith, I quietly think to myself, “Ah, now maybe they’ll see I’m right! Maybe they’ll come over to the winning side.” I’m only partly kidding.
But think about it. The Mothers and Fathers of our Unitarian strand entered into thoroughly biblical, translational, philosophical arguments with some of the greatest minds and greatest powers on earth, all to say that the doctrines of the wider church, to which so many of the earth’s children were devoted, were not true. They claimed they were right. Some were burned at the steak for it, set fire with a copy of their offending written works strapped to them.
And not too far off were the Parents of our Universalist faith, who looked at the bible, right where it says that Christ died for all sins and conquered hell, and decided that we are all saved. They definitely were making a big statement about being right. And they promised an end to the idea of fire and brimstone.
And since the merger of the Universalist and the Unitarian strands of our faith fifty seven years ago, when we as a tradition stepped officially outside of the Christian or any other tradition, we have been blessed to add to our numbers those whose inspiration flows from a wider and wider, more and more beautiful range of traditions reflected in the six enumerated sources of our Living Tradition, and not. This adoption of all who seek to be so fully themselves here is one of the beautiful ways, one of the beautiful reasons, many of us choose to be here.
And truly, in quiet moments with friends of other faiths, many acknowledge that the idea, the goal, of Unitarian Universalism makes some of the most sense on this planet, that it might be right. Some even yearn for and wish that it were their tradition. But even after my urging that we welcome any and all to our churches, many of them respond, “I just don’t feel it in my heart. It doesn’t feel right.”
And there it is. This is not only a struggle that people who are not part of a UU community face. This is a struggle that many voices in our movement face.
And it’s like this: I know that this kind of expression of faith, where we truly try to hold close to the deep meaning of all faiths, of all expressions of understanding and belief or non-belief, is right. It’s correct…but…where is the heart? Where are the ways that old hymns or old traditions, crack open something deep inside and connect me to this universe, this world, this place, these people. Where is that? Where is the fire? And that reminds my of a story often repeated by Anthony Demello. It goes something like this.
There’s this woman who invented fire. She takes the tools for making fire and goes up to the north, where there are some tribes shivering in the cold. She teaches them the art and the advantages of making fire. And the people become interested. They learn. And what do they know? Pretty soon they’re cooking, they’re using the fire for building. And before they had time to say thanks to the inventor, she had disappeared. She didn’t want any thanks; she just wanted people to benefit from her invention.
She goes to another tribe, and she attempts to interest them also in her new invention. But she ran into a snag there, see? The priests began to realize how popular she was becoming and how their own influence on the people was diminishing. So they decided to poison her. A suspicion arose among the people that it was the priests who had done it, so you know what the priests did?
They had a huge portrait made of the woman. They put it on the main altar in the temple. They devised a liturgy by which the woman would be honored, a ritual; and year after year, people came to pay homage to the great inventor and to the instruments for making fire. And the ritual was faithfully observed. But there was no fire. No fire.
Ritual. Remembrance. Gratitude. Veneration. Yes.
But no fire.
This evening, at sunset on this Twenty-Fifth Day of Kislev, set in time by the power, the pull of the moon on our world, on our hearts, the children of our Jewish Mothers and Fathers will kindle the first of eight candles. Many of us know the history, the truth of this tradition. In many ways, Hanukkah is the celebration of a military victory in the second century before the common era, in a period called the Second Temple period, by the Hebrew people over the Greco-Syrian forces that should have easily outmatched the small but mighty Hebrew force. Our earliest Jewish ancestors fought bravely and with enough power, enough zeal, to force back the invaders. They lived. They were enough.
And there in the temple, as so many know the story, they lit a lamp, and oil that should have lasted only day, went on and on for eight days. There was enough. And the special nine-candle menorah used at Hanukkah honors that single lamp that lit the way out of the pain of oppression and military domination, that lit hope in the hearts of parents, who wanted only to see the light in their children’s eyes go on and on, who hoped there would be enough.
Some scholars who like to spend time talking about what different traditions do best, or what traditions get really, really right, like to look at Judaism and say that the sacredness of family and one’s membership in a family is the thing that the tradition does really, really well, what it gets really, really right. I was explaining this once to someone I know who stood up for Jewish people often, even though he wasn’t Jewish. When there were attacks on Jewish people in the news or when he detected anti-Jewish sentiments, I saw how seriously he took it. I remember telling him about the importance of family in Jewish teaching. I’m sure I sounded a little like a know-it-all to him. But without my asking, and without him saying something like, “It’s nice how much you think you know.” He simply told me this story.
“Growing up, there were hard times. There were times when we didn’t have enough money for much food. My parents did the best they could. But sometimes it wasn’t enough. There was a Jewish family that owned and operated the butcher not far from our house.” He began to tear up now.
“And when things ever got really bad, somehow that Jewish family always made sure that our family had enough to eat. Sometimes a cut of meat would just show up. And we could eat. I’ll never forget that. I never have.”
The fire Jewish families across the globe light tonight is a fire of life that has stretched now across centuries. And in that fire blazes the powerful lesson of what it means simply to have enough. What it means to let go of doing everything, or worse doing everything…right…and to feel the glow of just one candle of fire and to wonder whether that one candle, one flame, one fire, kindled in one heart, your heart…is actually enough. That you are enough.
When I want to feel the feelings of our faith, that is what I think of. Here we search out and kindle fires shared among all the children of all humanity. We’re not going to do it perfectly. We might not even get it right all the time. But when I wonder if our faith is doing it right, I remember the heap of holly, tin whistles, and headdresses I wanted to make of myself, and I remember the closing of that Solstice service when candles kindled from one flame lit the faces of all those in attendance, when children called out what it was they wanted gone from the world. When they called on the turning season to turn hearts from hate. To turn minds from prejudice. To turn bodies from violence.
Nobody knows where the first fire was struck. It might have been a divine spark that flared forth into the world and across the interdependent web of life, or it might be the fire in every body sparking across the interdependent web of neurons that move our bodies and minds. But we are here in this space because both, either is enough. We are here because we know that even if we can’t get it right, get it perfect, all the time, committing ourselves to finding, to tending, to growing, and to feeding the fire we feel in our souls, is right. And no matter what any of us might have been told, about our faith, about our love, about our bodies, about our selves, trust me when I tell you, you are enough.
We are a faith that does not love you in spite of some of your shortcomings. We are a faith that loves you because of them. You are just right, and we love you for it. For all of it.
And may it ever be so.