What would a Unitarian Universalist revival be reviving?
© Trey Ratcliff (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Rain thudded on the roof and wind tossed the bare branches of the trees outside the windows as the Honey Springs Unitarian Universalist Congregation’s worship committee sat around the wooden table in Classroom 12. The chalice was lit, and check-in had been accomplished. When it came time to talk about new business, the Rev. Cotton Lovingood, the new minister at the mythical UU congregation where we are all the way we are, only more so, said, “We’ve been asked to talk about hosting a revival here. Two other congregations want to work on it with us.”
“Two other—what kind of congregations?” Gladys asked. She was a tall woman, dressed tonight in blue layers with a pattern stamped on the blue with black ink.
“UU congregations,” Cotton said. “It’s supposed to be a UU revival.”
“Revival?” asked Al, a rangy man with bright blue eyes and a full head of white hair. “Isn’t that a bit evangelical for us? What are we supposed to do, recite our Principles and shout Hallelujah?”
“Evangelical is something UUs can be about this faith,” Cotton said. “We certainly have good news to share, and that’s what the word evangelical means.”
“Yes,” Gladys said. “I think we have a lot of good things going on here, and I think we should talk them up a little bit! I mean, just saying ‘There is no hell’ would be telling the good news, don’t you think?”
“I think a revival is an exciting idea,” Ben said. Ben pushed his glasses back up onto his nose and smiled at Cotton. “We could have gospel choirs from the church down the street. They would raise the roof on this place! We could get some fired-up preaching and really start appealing to more folks around here.”
“Who would that appeal to, though?” Al asked, leaning back in his chair, spreading his hands. “Would we want a bunch of people in here that wanted to whoop and holler and jump around?”
“Al, nobody’s talking about jumping around,” Cotton said, “although I think you may have pointed up a class issue in this whole concept. The emotional tone of a revival may be uncomfortable to people whose idea of reverence is sitting quietly with hands folded in their laps.”
Al looked stung. Cotton had the sneaking suspicion that he should have shut up about the class stuff.
“I just think people are tired of our congregations pussyfooting around the word ‘God’ and feeling afraid to use it for fear of being mocked,” Ben said.
“I have to say I’m very uncomfortable with this,” Gladys said. “It sounds like we’re going to be doing a pale imitation of Christianity here, mining it for its emotional energy or luring people into our congregation with a promise we can’t keep. I mean, we’re not a Christian church, and if people want Christianity there are 11 million places they can go.”
“The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity,” Al said. “Emerson said that in his Divinity School Address. The cure for deformed religion is soul, soul, and again soul. Something like that.”
“We do have Christian roots,” Ben said, “and I think it would be good to celebrate those.”
“We also have Transcendentalist roots,” Gladys said, her face turning pink, “and the pagan group here celebrates that nature mysticism of our forbears. Maybe we could have a kind of pagan revival.”
“I have a question,” Phoebe, the retired anthropologist, said, looking up from her laptop. Four expectant faces turned toward her. One never knew what was going to come out of her mouth in that crisp British accent. “What is it we would be attempting to revive if we had this revival?”
“Good question,” nodded Cotton. The five of them sat contemplating for ten seconds or so.
“We would revive our sense of awe as we stand in this miraculous world,” Al said. “That’s a religion that’s never hurt anyone, never caused a war . . .”
“You can’t blame the religion for the things people do in its name,” Ben said. “It’s human nature to fight and control and conquer. All those new atheist books about how bad God is are only about how bad Christians have been.”
“Buddhism is non-harming,” Gladys spoke up. “It’s a very peaceful . . .”
Phoebe leaned toward her and muttered, “Vietnam. Sri Lanka.” Gladys closed her mouth and sat back in her chair.
“So what would we be reviving?” Cotton said, attempting to bring back the focus of the conversation.
“Our sense of connection to everyone.”
“Our sense of responsibility to making the world a better place.”
“Oh, I think we are already flagellated with that enough in this church—it’s our own UU version of hellfire and brimstone! We need fuel to run on, a way to keep going when what we are doing seems like not enough, when we get weary and guilty.”
“I think we also need to revive hope in the capacity of humans for love, for finding the Divine within ourselves, for walking into wholeness.”
“Isn’t any of this about a sense of God? I want to revive some talk about God.”
“I don’t think revivals are about talk. Not talk about anything. I think they are for reviving a direct sense of the sacred, of being filled with light and love, about singing openheartedly and including the body in worship—if we are connected with all beings, we can feel that in our bodies as well as our minds and spirits.”
“A revival is about feeling the Holy.”
“I don’t want a lot of God talk. I think that word holds too much pain and baggage for people. Maybe we used to be a Christian denomination, but we’re not any more.”
“I think you can talk about God without having to swallow Christianity,” Cotton said. “After all, God is not a Christian.”
“God is not a Christian!”
“But there are UU Christians.”
“And UU Pagans.”
“And UU Humanists.”
“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my friends,” Cotton said, “I am asking us here at Honey Springs not to think of ourselves as anything hyphenated. Not UU Christians, or UU Pagans, or UU Buddhists. We are UUs. There is room for all of us in this faith. If you love the Christian story, you can be a straight-down-the-line, middle-of-the-road UU. If you love the Goddess and the drum, you can be a middle-of-the-road UU. If you love science or stand in awe of nature or delight in the capacities of the human spirit, you can be a straight-. . .”
“Watch who you’re calling ‘straight!’” Phoebe’s finger was pointed at him, in good humor.
“. . . down-the-middle Unitarian Universalist, okay?” Cotton finished, shooting Phoebe a smile.
That stopped the brainstorming session. Again, Cotton wondered whether he should have spoken. He took comfort in the thought that if he were the pompous bag-of-wind minister he feared being, he would never be wondering whether it had been a good thing to speak up.
“Thank you all for thinking about this with me,” he said. “To be continued.”
“I may want to read that Divinity School Address of Emerson’s, Al,” Ben said.
“Just Google it,” Al said, looking pleased that someone remembered what he’d said.
The meeting ended with each person assigned to ask their friends the “What would we revive?” question and to design some elements of an event that would lift up and energize the joys they each found in their faith.
Ben offered Gladys his umbrella as they made ready to dash to their cars through the rain.
See other stories about Honey Springs UU Congregation: “The Honey Springs worship committee plans its Easter service” (3.29.10); “The Honey Springs congregation confronts its ant problem” (9.6.10).
Photograph (cc) 2008 by Trey Ratcliff (Flickr.com).
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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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