I moved to Bend, Oregon, a year ago and have been attending the local Unitarian-Universalist church. I have been nominally a Unitarian since high school but my contact with that official organization began with the college-age arm of that church called Channing Club at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Later, after departing the US Air Force, I started attending the Berkeley, California Channing Club in 1960. The group there was made up of graduate students, but we were a cohesive group and over the years we were holding our meetings totally separate from the official church. It is still meeting now, fifty-two years later. Mostly it was a discussion group, but those were wonderful years and talks.
Here in Bend, my relationship with this UU group has been quite different because the structure of the assembled group of people is totally different and much more diverse. The Sunday meetings would be easily confused with any traditional Christian church. There are thoughtful sermons on uplifting subjects, there is singing of old churchy-sounding songs with a moral point, there is a basket passed around for collecting small sums of money for good causes, and there is a mingling of the people after the events with coffee and snacks. All of this is standard church meeting stuff. However, in this particular congregation there are some other events which are not so similar.
On the third Sunday, a portion of the whole congregation, usually about thirty people, gather in a circle and participate in an organized group discussion of some important topic – usually a moral topic. That is similar to the original Channing Club.
Another unusual thing that happens at the beginning of every traditional service is a ceremony of sending the kids off to Sunday school. It consists of forming an arch of hands across the main aisle and as the kids march out under the arch we sing a simple little send-off song. I really enjoy that minute because it has so much of a warm unifying feeling between the kids and the adults.
After the kids are gone there is a sharing of “joys and sorrows” by the members of the congregation who choose to briefly mention, in a few sentences, something significant that has happened to them or someone dear to them. It sometimes seems tedious, but it is amazing hearing just how much has happened in a single week to this group of people and I grow fond of hearing those soliloquies.
Then there is a brief minute-sermon about some inner thoughts that we might consider followed by a binging of a small bell and we all remain silent in contemplation for a minute until the bell sounds again. It is a programmed minute of the week where we have a chance to consider deeper things without distraction.
Those things and a few similar ones are done every Sunday, but then there are some other events which happen only occasionally. For example, this week every person who remembered brought a flower to the meeting and placed it in a vase on the large altar at the front stage. The flowers were on display while the other meeting things took place. They were quite lovely. Some were things that I have never seen before. At the end of the service we all went up and took a new flower for ourselves. It was a symbolic way for our congregation to share gifts with one another.
There was an event which happened a few months ago, based on the Mexican Indian tradition of Día de los Muertos. In this event each individual brought a small remembrance item of something or someone lost and placed it on the altar. This little ceremony was so very powerful because everyone, old and young, has had some grievous loss and participating even remotely in these ceremonies with a new-found friend’s loss is heart rending and unifying with those people.
These various experiences got me to thinking about what other ceremonies might be created and which might also serve to bind this group of people into an even more deeply shared human experience? We all owe so very much of our existence to things totally outside of our control that were given to us and of which we are aware but rarely have opportunity to acknowledge, even with a simple symbolic gesture. One event which comes to mind happened last summer where the service was conducted by one of our lay persons who was very familiar with American Indian traditions. She conducted a ceremony which blessed the four directions and gave abstract spiritual qualities befitting to each of them. The East for creation of sunshine and life, South for maintenance and growth, West for maturity and completions and North for abstract things. We are indebted to Nature but this was an opportunity to participate in acknowledging that debt.
I want to think about those things and create some new ceremonies for reflecting on old things which are not given enough recognition.