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Merry Christmas, Garrison Keillor!

One of the great things about Unitarian Universalism is that, just as we don't all pray from the same prayer book, we don't all sing from the same hymnal.
By Fred Small
12.23.09

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Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor (Brian Velenchenko)

I’m the pastor of First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, where we were honored to host Garrison Keillor last week. Many in my congregation attended and enjoyed his talk.

So we were hurt and disheartened to read his ill-tempered attack on our church and our faith in his syndicated column in newspapers throughout the country and at Salon.com.

As a longtime fan of A Prairie Home Companion, I’ve often laughed aloud in rueful recognition at Keillor’s ribbing of Unitarian Universalists. (Who wouldn’t giggle at his Unitarian monastery in New Hampshire? “The rule there is complete silence, but if you think of something really good you can go ahead and say it.”)

Most of Keillor’s jokes about us have been good-natured and fair-minded. But in his latest column, apparently it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. He calls us out as “arrogant and unlovable people [who] imagine that their unpopularity somehow [is] proof of their greatness.” He accuses us of “spiritual piracy and cultural elitism.” (He isn’t very nice to “Jewish guys,” either.)

What launches Keillor ballistic is “Silent Night” as printed in our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, which closes each verse with “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect on Keillor.

As a folk music maven, Garrison Keillor knows the folk process. Music is constantly evolving, adapted by various communities with various needs. Somebody can copyright it (although “Silent Night” is in the public domain), but nobody ever owns it, not really.

Spirit is the same way.

Religions may try to dictate it in dogma or capture it in creed, yet “the wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Unitarian Universalists welcome worshippers of every age, color, sexual orientation, and religious belief (or unbelief). At First Parish in Cambridge, you’ll sit next to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, agnostics, and seekers of every variety. (No wonder we adapt our hymns!)

We have only one absolute requirement: We covenant to treat each other with respect.

As we call each other to spiritual growth, we also challenge each other to build Beloved Community—not just in our congregations, but in the wider world. We stand on the side of love—for marriage equality, for immigrant rights, for climate justice.

I invite Garrison Keillor to come back to First Parish in Cambridge this Christmas Eve for our Candlelight Service. On this holy night, we’ll relate the ancient Nativity story (using the King James Bible), light candles in the darkness, and sing “Silent Night”—the old-fashioned way, with “Christ the Savior is born” and “Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.”

That’s one of the great things about Unitarian Universalism. Just as we don’t all pray from the same prayer book, we don’t all sing from the same hymnal!

While he’s in town, maybe Keillor can help out at our Tuesday Meals Program, which serves a free hot dinner to hungry and homeless people, or ring our church bell 350 times to sound the alarm on global warming, or stand vigil to protect immigrant families from raids that split them apart. We take seriously Jesus’s radical message of hospitality, justice, and compassion for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

We close every Christmas Eve service with a benediction by the Rev. Howard Thurman, the great twentieth-century African-American preacher and theologian:

When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.

Yup. We changed those words, too—for gender inclusiveness.

Amen, and Merry Christmas!


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