Tag Archives: prayer

Unsystematic theology: Salvation

Second in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Back when I was a Unitarian Universalist kid, I vaguely remember hearing an old Unitarian profession of faith that has long since been superseded in liberal religion. Written originally by James Freeman Clarke in the late 19th C., that old profession claimed that Unitarians believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever. I doubt many religious liberals would accept Clarke’s affirmation today, because second-wave feminism made us realize that gender-specific language doesn’t work. But the notion of “salvation by character” remains important for many religious liberals. Liberal religion wants to affirm that human beings are in large part responsible for their moral choices. We can choose to solve society’s problems, we can choose to address social sins; and when we choose to tackle social problems and social sins, we are exhibiting good character. Salvation happens through the conscious efforts of persons of good character.

Thus it appears that religious liberals link sin and salvation, where sin is understood primarily as social sin: we humans have to save humanity from social sins like racism, global climate change, and so on. If we think of religion as having both a horizontal dimension — relationships between human beings — and a vertical dimension — relationships between human beings and the divine — liberal religion characteristically emphasizes the horizontal dimension, and attenuates the vertical dimension of religion; so too with salvation. Many religious liberals do not affirm the existence of a divine being or beings, and for them the vertical dimension of salvation is vastly attenuated; salvation is a human responsibility, with a small vertical dimension insofar as humans respond to abstract ideals. Many religious liberals do affirm the existence of God, Goddess, or other divinity/ies, but they are very unlikely to say, “It is up to God [or whatever] whether or not the world is saved.” Religious liberals assume it is up to us humans, not a divine being, to solve problems.

All this seems to be generally true, yet at the same time I am aware of a fair number of religious liberals who would like to have a stronger sense of personal salvation: perhaps, these people say to themselves, it is not enough to try to save the world; we also long for personal salvation by character. Continue reading

An eco-universalist prayer

Yesterday’s post has the story of how the great Universalist Hosea Ballou did a preaching tour of the New Bedford region in May, 1820 — including an anecdote of how Rev. Le Baron of Mattapoisett unsuccessfully tried to keep Ballou from preaching. Never one to miss out on provoking a good controversy, Ballou wrote a letter to Le Baron the next day, which apparently had some kind of wider distribution. This letter is probably the first Universalist tract ever written in the New Bedford area.

Ballou’s letter contains one almost poetic passage, which could almost be a proto-eco-universalist prayer. I added snippets from elsewhere in the letter to make conclusion for it, and here it is:


     Does not the sun shine universally,
     and the moon likewise?

     Do not the clouds give rain to all,
     and the fruits of the earth grow
     for the benefit of all?

     Is not the vital air for the life of all;
     and are not all equally entitled to the waters?

     All people, every person,
     and the whole world are universal.
     This testimony, I believe, is Universalism.


For those of you who love to watch early 19th C. Universalists picking fights, I’ve included the full text of the letter below. Continue reading

Touching God

“I admit that through my adult life I have lacked religiosity. But I make no boast of it; understanding, as I do, how essential religion is to many, many people. For that reason, I have little patience with the zealot who is forever trying to prove to others that they do not need religion; that they would be better off without it. Such a one is no less a zealot than the religionist who contends that all who ‘do not believe’ will be consigned to eternal hell fires. It is simply that I have not felt the need of religion in the commonplace sense of the term. I have derived spiritual values in life from other sources than worship and prayer. I think that the teachings of Jesus Christ embody the loftiest ethical and spiritual concepts the human mind has yet borne. I do not know if there is a personal God; I do not see how I can know; and I do not see how my knowing can matter. What does matter, I believe, is how I deal with myself and how I deal with my fellows. I feel that I can practice a conduct toward myself and toward my fellows that will constitute the basis for an adequate religion, a religion that may comprehend spirituality and beauty and serene happiness….

“The human mind racks itself over the never-to-be-known answer to the great riddle, and all that is clearly revealed is the fate that man must continue to hope and struggle on; that each day, if he would not be lost, he must with renewed courage take a fresh hold on life and face with fortitude the turns of circumstances. To do this, he needs to be able at times to touch God; let the idea of God mean to him what it may.”

  — So wrote James Weldon Johnson, in his autobiography Along This Way, back in 1933. Reading this, I imagine that Johnson would have felt quite at home in one of today’s Unitarian Universalist churches. He would even have felt at home in one of our more progressive Unitarian or Universalist churches back in 1933, except for the fact that he was black, and in 1933 both the Unitarians and the Universalists were basically lily-white denominations. Well, be that as it may, I still like to imagine what Johnson would have felt if I could have said to him: That’s pretty much what I preach from the pulpit, and in fact I’m going to steal that last line of yours for my next sermon. And what you say is pretty much what we do in our church: we don’t have religion in the commonplace sense of the term (which is these parts means orthodox Christianity); we try to practice conduct towards ourselves and our neighbors that constitutes our basis for religion; we feel Jesus is a great spiritual and ethical thinker who inspires us; and each day, if we would not be lost, we take a fresh hold life life, and we renew our courage to do this by touching the face of God, whatever God may mean to each one of us individually.

Independent prayer groups and engaging worship

Meg, an old friend back from the days when I was under 35 and heavily involved with Unitarian Universalist young adult programs, recently sent me an article about “the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country.” You can find the blog of one such independent prayer group here.

The article, written by Neela Banerjee, was titled “Challenging Tradition, Young Jews Worship on Their Terms,” and ran in the November 28 issue of the New York Times. Bannerjee claimed that these young Jews and their independent minayim “are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.” But Bannerjee also quotes a rabbi who sees these independent minayim as being a very positive force:

“If we were to say, ‘We are sticking to one institutional form or go away,’ then we would die as a people,” said Rabbi Feinstein, who is at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., a Conservative synagogue. “Is it going to take young Jews that synagogues are counting on? Yes, unless you offer something better. Or better yet, invite the emergents in and make common cause.”

Indeed. Why not invite the emergents in and make common cause? That’s one of the reasons I fully supporty having CUUPS pagan groups affiliated with Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In any case, hearing from Meg reminded me about my days in Unitarian Universalist young adult groups. Lord knows those groups had their problems — chaos, disorganization, and conflict being chief among them — but when we managed to do worship, it was mostly very compelling. Indeed, the only time my partner Carol has regularly attended Unitarian Universalist worship was when we were going to young adult worship together.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: most Unitarian Universalist worship is pretty boring. Now that I’m middle-aged and no longer belong to young adult groups, where would I go to get a deeply spiritual experience? Personally, I would teach Sunday school rather than attend worship at almost any Unitarian Universalist church — not only do I find hanging out with Unitarian Universalist kids to be spiritually challenging and life-affirming — but most Unitarian Universalist worship doesn’t engage me, challenge me, help me to deal with my life or the wider world, feel like a celebration, or do any of the things that I want worship to do.

I can count the exceptions on my fingers: one worship service at All Souls Church in Washington, DC, where I felt truly uplifted in spite of a mediocre sermon; once at Church of the Open Door in Chicago’s South Side back when Karen Hutt and Alma Faith Crawford were ministers there; two or three worship services in the outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach, the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine, led by Paul Boothby and one or two others. And I’ll add that I attended worship services regularly at First Parish in Concord, Mass., when I was in my early twenties and Dana Greeley was preaching there — his sermons managed to be spiritually fulfilling and outwardly directed at the same time.

Not that I know how to create truly dynamite Unitarian Universalist worship services that result in redemptive, transformative experiences — I’m all too well aware that the worship services I lead often leave a lot to be desired.

So, dear reader — even though there’s no such thing as a sure-fire recipe for truly good worship, tell me your ideas. What makes for truly kick-ass worship? How do you feel about independent UU prayer groups? Where do you go to find “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to [your] days and weeks and give meaning to [your] lives”? I’d especially like to hear from people in their 20s and 30s, and from middle-aged folks like Meg and me who are kinda bored by the usual Unitarian Universalist worship.

One more Bible quote for religious liberals

Mark 12.28-29: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one…”

…in other words, Jesus declares that the Shema Yisrael, the most basic of all Jewish prayers, is one of two greatest commandments. (Somehow Christians tend to forget the Jewish origins of this prayer.)


The laundromat I go to, Marianne’s Laundry out Route 6 almost in Dartmouth, is right across from a cemetery. I put my clothes in the wash, and stepped outside. It was a perfect late summer evening, a clear blue sky, just the perfect temperature. It’s supposed to rain all weekend. I decided to take a walk in the cemetery.

I’d never been in that cemetery before. Just inside the entrance there are trees lining the roads, and the gravestones, lined up in rows and columns and all of a size, had been softened by wind and rain. Not that they were old gravestones; the earliest one I saw was from 1920. At the top of a little rise, a statue of the Virgin Mary holding her baby looked down at me. She was made of some light-colored stone which had been darkened in places by soot and lichen.

Up ahead the graves looked newer and cleaner. The cemetery got much wider this far back, and there were no trees, just rows and rows of gravestones. A car passed me, stopped a hundred yards down the little road, and a white-haired woman got out and walked to one of the graves. I turned right down a gravel road to leave her in peace.

The far end of the cemetery backed up against an unmown strip of grass and goldenrod, with short scrubby trees beyond. I circled around the back edge, past some swampy ground. I could just see a family get out of their car to visit a grave, I could hear the voices of at least two children, and a black dog bounded through the gravestones.

It was time to head back to the laundromat. Back under the trees, I passed one grave with these words at the bottom: “Pray for us.” Why not? I offered a little prayer, for them and for everyone else. Of course it’s sad when someone dies, but it’s also inevitable. If hell is not part of your theology, death doesn’t seem so bad. Socrates speculated that either you get to go some place nice when you die, or you sink into an oblivion like the most perfectly restful sleep imaginable. Either option sounds fine to me.

A small flock of Cedar Waxwings chattered to each other in a small cedar tree off to the side of the cemetery. I watched a car speed out towards Route 6, going too fast for that narrow little road. By my left foot, a small bronze plate that marked someone’s grave was mostly covered over with grass now. Back at the Route 6, I pressed the button for the “Walk” signal, and while I waited for the traffic lights to change I realized that I felt refreshed. The sun was mostly gone, and I looked up at the moon, just a day or two away from first quarter.

Candlelight vigil at Puzzles Bar in New Bedford

In the wake of last night’s anti-gay hate crime in New Bedford, the Marriage Equality Coalition of the SouthCoast organized a candlelight vigil at Puzzles bar, the site of the hate crime at 426 N. Front St. I drove over with Ann Fox, minister at the Fairhaven Unitarian Universalist church, and Lisa Eliot, the director of religious education at the Fairhaven church.

“What street number is the bar again?” asked Ann, who was driving. Just then Lisa pointed out the flashing blue lights: the police had blocked off N. Front St. for the vigil. We found a parking place within sight of one of the police cars, and walked a block to the bar.

Several people already had lit candles. I brought over 100 candles left over from our church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service, and I began passing them out to anyone who wanted one. One or two gay couples felt safe enough to quietly hold hands. I saw the core members of NBPI, several ministers, and several Unitarian Universalists. The crowd kept growing, until I estimate over 200 people were present.

Right at 7:00, Andy Pollack from the Marriage Equality Coalition welcomed everyone, explaining that the Coalition organized the vigil because at the moment, they are essentially the only gay/lesbian political organization on the South Coast. David Lima, interim executive minister of the Inter-Church Council, gave the invocation. Then Andy introduced the bartender of Puzzles who was there at the time of the attack.

The bartender told essentially the same story you can read in the New Bedford Standard-Times Web coverage of the incident. He said what he witnessed was far worse than any horror movie, any gory slasher movie, that he had ever seen.

According to the bartender, the attacker came into the bar and showed an I.D. that said he was 23, though it now appears that was a false I.D. The attack started after the attacker had been in the bar long enough to have a couple of drink. The attacker struck his first victim from behind with a machete, and almost immediately the attacker was jumped on by the bartender and the other patrons in the bar. The attacker kept lashing out with the machete and a small hatchet that he carried; he was overcome by the others, disarmed, but then reached down and pulled out a 9 mm handgun, shot upwards at the bartender and another man who were on top of him. Everyone backed away, the attacker stood up, and then shot the face of the first man he had hit, and shot into the head of another man whom he had knocked down. The third shooting victim was a mentally challenged man in his early twenties who emerged from the restrooms at just that moment accompanied by his mother; the attacker shot him in the abdomen.

The bartender managed to get everyone out of the building, and went back in. As he went back in, the attacker grabbed him, put the handgun to the bartender’s head, and pulled the trigger; but the gun was out of ammunition. “That gun ran out of ammunition so I could be here tonight,” said the bartender, who cried intermittently as he told this story to us, “so I could be here tonight to tell you this story. He could not silence my voice! [cried of “yes” and “amen” from the crowd] We must not be silenced!” He urged us all to stand up and speak out against all hate crimes directed at gay and lesbian people.

Barney Frank was unable to be present, but he did send a statement which was read by one of New Bedford’s city councillors. Tony Cabral, state representative, spoke compelling about the need to be tolerant of all persons no matter what their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Bev Baccelli of the Marriage Equality Coalition spoke next, pointing out that while it is no longer OK to use words like “kike” or “nigger,” it is still considered socially acceptable to say “fag” or “dyke,” and this must change. Bev Baccelli also said that her office was getting calls all afternoon from news outlets across the country, and they all asked what kind of city New Bedford is; to which she replied, “New Bedford is just like any other city in this country. A gay man or a lesbian woman is harassed each an every day in some city somewhere in this country. New Bedford is just like your city.”

Mayor Scott Lang arrived a little late, so he wound up speaking last. He said the police and the city will not stop until the attacker is brought to justice. But, he added, we will have to do more than take care of the legal end of things. The city must come together and put an end to hatred of all kinds. Lang was very serious, and very compelling. Ann Fox gave a very short closing prayer, and led the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome.”

I saw maybe seven or eight reporters scribbling in notebooks, and there were at least three video cameras; I know the Associated Press picked up this story, so watch national news media for coverage of this vigil. Also, I heard a rumor that the primary suspect, an 18 year old New Bedford man, has been apprehended, but this could not be confirmed — follow news media for more on that aspect of the story, too.


I’ve been working on a booklet containing prayers, meditations, graces, words for lighting a chalice, and affirmations, to send home with families that have children or teens at home. One challenge has been to come up with copyright-free materials that today’s Unitarian Universalist families are likely to use. Another challenge has been to come up with materials that will appeal to the wide range of theologies we have in the New Bedford church.

Most recently, I came up with some prayers based on Bible materials, and I thought I’d share some of these here. First, a recasting of the prayer attributed to Jesus (though scholars say it’s based on a much older Jewish prayer). Traditionalists will cringe, but I rewrote it because I realized that, having heard it every week in the Unitarian Universalist church of my teens, I no longer heard it.

God of love,
your name is goodness and holiness.
May your love be present in all the nations of earth,
just as I feel your love in my heart.
Grant us the food we need today,
grant all people the food they need today.
Forgive me when I fail, and
help me forgive those who fail me.
May I not be tempted by evil or wrong-doing —
may your love watch over me, and over us all.

–a traditional Jewish prayer, adapted by early Christian communities, and further adapted by Dan Harper

Next, a short prayer that uses phraseology from pseudo-Paul’s alleged second letter to the Christian community at Thessalonika. I found a version of this in the old hymnal We Sing of Life, by Vincent Silliman, where it is credited to A New Prayer Book, 1923. I adapted it further.

May I go forth into the world in peace,
and be of good courage,
and hold fast to what is good,
returning to no person evil for evil.

May I strengthen the fainthearted
and help the weak,
and be patient with all persons,
loving all living beings.

So may I rejoice in life,
and give thanks for that which is good.

— adapted from A New Prayer Book and 2 Thessalonians 5.14-18

Finally, I got this old chestnut from Rev. Helen Cohen, minister emerita of First Parish, Lexington, Mass. I traced it to the old children’s hymnal, Beacon Song and Service Book, but I believe it’s older than that. At the request of someone in this congregation, I tracked down the likely scripture references contained in this prayer.

May the truth that sets us free,
And the hope that never dies,
And the love that casts out fear
Be with us now
Until the dayspring breaks,
And the shadows flee away.

— adapted from the Christian and Hebrew scriptures (John 8.32, Romans, John 4.18, Song of Solomon 2.17)

I’m thinking these short prayers will be useful both for Unitarian Universalists who are Christian, and those who have rejected Christianity. I’d be interested to hear your reactions.

Gandhi and prayer services

From Book of Prayers by Mohandas K. Gandhi, ed. John Strohmeier (Berkeley Hills Books, 1999), this passage in the introduction discusses why Gandhi took the time for daily worship:

Why, one might wonder, take the time to do all this [daily prayer services] in the middle of a revolution? Gandhi was not one to cling to empty forms. An answer may be found in the testimony of someone who observed Gandhi during one of those evening prayers. As you read it, bear in mind that the nineteen verses of the second chapter of the [Bhagavad] Gita, the description of the illumined man [sic], is widely regarded as the Sermon on the Mount of Hinduism:

“The sun had set when we got back [from his regular evening walk]. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in Some hymns were sung, then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the… Bhagavad Gita. Then it happened.

“Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I was what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man who had conquered himself to the extent that some force greater than a human being… moved through him and affected everyone.”

…Gandhi had the power to shake India, in part, because he drew on resources within himself that are not normally accessible. And that access happened, among other occasions, at the high point of these prayer meetings….

There is a tendency to think that meditation and action are opposties, that one chooses between one way of life or the other. But as the Bhagavad Gita insists, meditation and selfless action are inseparable. They are opposite sides of the same coin, as complementary as breathing in and breathing out….” [pp. 14-15]

While of course we might phrase this differently to fit the context of our Western religious tradition, it is still true that worship services in our tradition are not escapes from the world, but a way for us to change the world. Worship unleashes powers that can heal us and heal the world; and it is probably dangerous for us to ignore this point.