A minister, a Pagan, a Christian, a Humanist, and an anthropologist set to work, in a congregation not unlike yours.
The Worship Planning Group at Honey Springs Unitarian Universalist Congregation—a mythical UU congregation where we are all the way we are, only more so—was seated around the table in Classroom 6 discussing the upcoming Easter Intergenerational service. Someone had put a scented candle in the chalice, and the room was beginning to list a little to the raspberry side. The Rev. Cotton Lovingood, the new minister, was having a little trouble breathing, and briefly wondered if it would be seen as sacrilegious to ask if they could put the chalice out for the rest of the meeting. Mindful of his previous two very brief settlements since seminary, and wanting to have a brightly successful ministry here at Honey Springs, he decided to endure.
“It’s in the name,” a tall woman dressed in gauzy green layers was saying. “Easter is from Eostre or Ostara, the Saxon goddess of spring. In ancient Greece she was called Astarte, in Assyria she was called Ishtar. Hear it? Easter, Ishtar, it’s the same word. Her worshippers would have egg hunts at dawn on the day of the Equinox, and the rabbits were sacred to her, too.” She looked at the minister.
“Easter is about Jesus, people!” A slender young man leaned both of his forearms on the table. “Why is it so hard just to let the church talk about Jesus once in a while? Is Honey Springs going to be like that place where the only time the name of Jesus is uttered is when the minister stubs his toe?” He looked at the minister.
“Let’s just have a Flower Communion and be done with it,” a blue-eyed man in his seventies said, spreading his open hands and smiling. “Norbert Capek invented it as a purely Unitarian ritual, so I say we use it and teach the children to be Unitarians.” He looked at the minister.
“Unitarian Universalists,” a couple of people murmured, with the air of barely realizing they had spoken aloud.
Wondering if it was time for him to say something, Cotton Lovingood scrunched his toes against the cork bed of his Birkenstocks. He opened his mouth, but an elderly woman in the corner beat him to it. Her name was Phoebe Something-or-Other.
Impeccable British accent. (Cotton’s mother would have fallen upon her like a long-lost sister. A shameless Anglophile, Cotton’s mother had been.) “The Langari people didn’t have spring, but every time the river flooded they made a nice stew of rabbit with a puree of mashed fire ants for a bit of zing. When Adrian and I were living with them we used to watch them try to keep the little ants in the mortars long enough to get mashed. Used to take bets in the beginning, Adrian did, on the ratio of dead ants to stings. Of course the cooks were highly skilled.” Everyone looked at her. Cotton couldn’t remember what he’d been about to say.
“Easter is about resurrection,” he began.
“Yes, new life! Green shoots! Bulbs!”
“The resurrection of Jesus. A particular resurrection,” said the young man.
“You don’t really believe in that literally, do you?” the blue-eyed man asked.
Cotton held up his hand. “Tell me what the resurrection of Jesus means to you,” he asked the young man.
“Well, he was dead and now he’s alive—in our hearts. The Christ-principle is an engine of love and compassion in the world, and love can’t be destroyed. That’s what it means to me.”
“So, love lives on?” Cotton asked.
“How can that be true?” sighed the woman in green. “Love ends. Everyone’s been in a relationship where love ended.”
“But love itself,” the young man stretched his hands toward her imploringly. “Love itself can’t be destroyed. It emerges like a green weed from the tiniest crack in the cement, and if there is no crack it will make one.”
“We could give the children seeds, I suppose,” the woman said. “Life, like love itself, unable to be destroyed.”
“We’re destroying life as we sit here,” the man at the end of the table said. “Do you know what the carbon footprint of this building is?”
“Love itself,” Cotton repeated.
“Yes,” the young man said. “And that is a perfect theme for an intergenerational Easter service. You all have got to stop marginalizing the Christians.”
“Isn’t that what the Flower Communion is about, too?” the man at the end of the table said. “We are all different. We don’t have to think alike to love alike? The strength of nature to stand up to the way it’s been treated these past two hundred years. And—speaking of marginalized! The Humanists are being pushed out of this movement by Christians and astrologers.”
Cotton smiled. “I would certainly say love is at the center for me.”
“So you’re a Humanist like I am,” the man said. “I’m a Humanist UU, and Jill is a Pagan UU. Jim is a Christian UU, and Phoebe is an anthropologist.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I’m just pagan,” said the woman in green. “I like Jesus just fine. I have felt marginalized about that. Well, about being Pagan, too,” she said, with the look of wounded righteousness that can bring a whole roomful of UUs to their knees.
“I certainly could do without hearing about Jesus any more for the rest of my life,” said the anthropologist emphatically. “So what are you?”
Cotton sighed. “Listen,” he said, “I’m just a plain old middle-of-the-road Unitarian Universalist. I think the human spirit is magnificent, and science is a great way to think about the world. It has limitations, though, and I’m comfortable with the idea of mystery, even mystery that may never be understood. The teachings of Rabbi Jesus are fine with me, especially the Sermon on the Mount, which, if it were all the scripture a person had, would be plenty to go on for an entire life. I feel connected with nature, and I think humans live more richly when they learn how the earth works, when they dance by bonfires at night, when they have a sense of awe at the wonders that inhabit this planet and beyond. I do not think that nature is sweet, nice, benevolent, or motherly, though. You’d have to have stayed indoors your whole life to believe that.”
His voice was beginning to rise.
“I also like to practice paying attention to my breathing and detaching from outcomes, but that doesn’t make me a Buddhist. I’m UU, which means I have access to all of that, and the freedom to draw on all of it. Unitarian Universalism is more than our history. It’s a big tent with room enough for me to have the faith I’ve just laid out and for you to have the faiths you’ve laid out, too, and we can all just call ourselves Unitarian Universalists and imagine ourselves at the center of this big free faith and not squeezed into its corners feeling marginalized.” His fingers had made sarcastic air-quotes around the word. He hated air-quotes, and here he was doing it. Wasn’t that always the way?
The anthropologist looked at him for the first time. The others suddenly became fascinated by the top of the table.
“So you want to do something about love’s power to create new life?” he continued meekly. That would be wonderful, everyone agreed.
The members of the planning group managed to get over their surprise at the new minister’s outburst, and they planned a nice mash-up of Passover, Easter, flowers, love, diversity, and new life. One of the readings and one of the hymns mentioned Jesus or the tomb. After the meeting the young man and the woman in green got to talking about relationships that had gone wrong. The blue-eyed man gave the anthropologist a ride back to her apartment. Cotton went home and wrote PATIENCE on a sticky note and put it on the bathroom mirror. Then he thought about the kindness of the people, about their being at an evening meeting they hadn’t been paid to come to, about their quickness to forgive his somewhat edgy description of his own faith, and he realized that wasn’t the whole truth about the meeting. He took another sticky note and wrote GRATITUDE.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)
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The first time, I emerged merely breathless, wet, and cold.