The Story of the Flower Communion

Dr. Sharpie, Rolf, Possum, and Nicky ask to be told the old story of the UU Flower Communion, or Flower Celebration.

Click on the image above to view the video on Vimeo.

Full script below the fold.


Rolf: Dan, can you tell us the story of the Flower Communion again?

Dan: Don’t you know that story already?

Possum: You tell it better. But you don’t have to tell us that Unitarian churches in the Midwest did flower services starting in 1875.

Rolf: Just start with Maja Oktavec, when she came to the United States from the Czech Republic.

Sharpie: And we already know that she was a librarian in the New York Public Library.

Nicky: And she fell in love with Norbert Capek, and they married in 1917.

Dan: OK, I’ll start there. Norbert was a Baptist minister, but he started to doubt his Baptist beliefs. Maja encouraged his doubts. After they married, he resigned from the Baptist ministry because of his doubts.

Rolf: They sound like Unitarians to me!

Dan: One day, their children wanted to go to Sunday school. Each week, the children chose a church to try. Afterwards, Maja and Norbert asked them what they had learned. It always sounded like the same old religion they had left behind, so they’d ask the children to try a different church next week.

Possum: Until the children went to a Unitarian church.

Dan: And they told their parents that they had been encouraged to wonder and to ask questions. So of course they returned to the Unitarian church. And Norbert and Mája decided that they’d attend the Unitarian services, and then they became Unitarians.

Nicky: Meanwhile, back in Europe….

Dan: The Capeks’ homeland became an independent country. The American Unitarians helped Norbert and Mája to go back to Czechoslovakia to start a Unitarian church in the city of Prague.

Sharpie: And they didn’t want to be reminded of the religions they had left behind.

Dan: In 1923, Norbert and Mája created a new Unitarian ritual that wouldn’t be like anything in any other religion. They called it the Flower Celebration.

Possum: Now we call it a Flower Communion.

Rolf: Yeah, and everybody gets to exchange flowers.

Nicky: Exchanging flowers symbolizes how all we are all connected to one another.

Dan: Soon the Unitarian church in Prague had three thousand members. It was largest Unitarian church anywhere. But next to Czechoslovakia, in Germany, the Nazis had taken over the government. In 1939, the Nazis began invading nearby countries.

Rolf: This is the scary part.

Dan: Maja came to the United States to raise money to help refugees who were escaping from the Nazis. While she was here, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Norbert was arrested because he spoke out for freedom. The Nazis put Norbert into a concentration camp, where he died in 1942. After the Nazis were finally defeated, Mája stayed in the United States. Norbert’s death made her sad, but she watned to keep working to make the world a better place.

Nicky: Now for the good part!

Dan: Maja decided to bring the joyous Flower Celebration to Unitarians here in the United States. What better way to remember Norbert, and all the Czech Unitarians who fought for freedom?

Possum: I’m glad Maja Capek brought the Flower Communion to the United States.

Sharpie: I like the way the Flower Celebration honors the connections between all beings.

Rolf: I like the flowers!

Nicky: Now I can’t wait till next year’s Flower Communion!

Mind-numbing

The State of California has been updating its COVID regulations over the past three or four weeks. As a religious educator, I have to familiarize myself with three separate sets of regulations: “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” “cohorts for children and youth in supervised settings,” and “daycamps and other supervised youth activities.”

Reading through these regulations is a mind-numbing experience. Many of the regulations start off saying “you have to do thus-and-so” but then refer you to another Web page or PDF which says “you have to do this-and-that,” where the two different sources don’t exactly contradict each other, but don’t seem to be in full agreement either.

And sometimes the rules are vague. In my favorite example, the state rules frequently say that “physical distancing” is required, but then they don’t tell you exactly what distance is required. Are we supposed to assume six feet? But a year ago, some of the physical distancing requirements were greater than six feet, as for example the distance required to be maintained between two stable cohorts of children. And now federal recommendations from the CDC are saying that three feet might be enough physical distancing; is the state trying to be deliberately vague about the amount of physical distancing, so they can decide later whether to adopt the CDC guidelines or not?

And I’m glad I don’t have to deal very much with the “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” because those regulations contradict themselves. Due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, California is not allowed to have regulations for places of worship that differ from the regulations for other large gatherings. And the first page you hit on for “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies” basically says to see the guidance for large gatherings, which should make things easier, right? — but then there’s also a link to a PDF with rules from 2020 that are clearly not acceptable under the Supreme Court ruling, but because they’re linked to from the current “guidance” mean that still you’re supposed to follow them — I guess?

I understand that this must be an incredibly difficult time for state regulators and state employees. I’m sure they’re doing their best. But as it stands now, the regulations are so disorganized that I sometimes find it impossible to understand what I’m supposed to do. I sometimes feel like they wrote these regulations assuming we’re all big corporations who can hire full-time staffers to sort through this mass of material. The things is, if you’re a small nonprofit or a small business and trying to figure it out on your own, the staffer who’s trying to make sense out of the regulations doesn’t have hours and hours of spare time because we’re already working overtime trying to deal with everything else the pandemic is throwing at us.

To top it all off, they keep updating the regulations. So I have to figure out if I should put in a lot of time now trying to figure out the regulations, or wait and see if they change things again next week.

My mind is numb.

Who writes the sermons?

Religions News Service (RNS) ran a story recently about sermon plagiarism in U.S. Christian congregations — and then, a few days later, they ran a story about why some U.S. Christian pastors feel they need to plagiarize sermons.

And before you say, “Oh those Christians, Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers would never do that” — UU ministers do indeed plagiarize sermons, and some have been caught doing it.

So why do Christian pastors — and UU ministers — plagiarize sermons? The RNS story suggests a couple of reasons. Well, writing sermons is exhausting and local preachers have other big demands on their energy (pastoral care, raising money, administration, etc.). And then people in a local congregation now get to hear those Big Name Preachers online, and they make it clear that their local preacher just doesn’t measure up.

But on the analogy that church musicians don’t write all the music they perform, the RNS article asks: shouldn’t local preachers be allowed to preach other people’s sermons? (That is, assuming they give credit to the actual writer, so it isn’t plagiarism.) Or at least, shouldn’t local preachers be allowed to rely on third party sermon prompts or outside sermon researchers to help them out? If we want congregations to hear the best, highest quality sermons, it makes sense for preachers to be able to search for, and use, the best sermons they can find.

On the other hand, maybe a sermon shouldn’t be understood as a weekly performance put on by a professional voice actor. In many Christian congregations, the sermon is often considered to be God’s way of speaking to one particular congregation, and the preacher’s sermon preparation includes both time spent ministering to the congregation, and time spent in prayer listening to God. UU congregations will understand this a little differently: I was trained to think of the sermon in a UU congregation as kind of conversation, where the preacher listens to what is going on in people’s lives and connects those personal events and stories to the big moral and existential questions.

I suspect that several pressures will drive UU congregations towards turning the preacher into a voice actor who puts on performances of the best sermons they can find. First, preachers have a limited amount of hours they can work each week, volunteers now have less time to devote to the congregation, so using other people’s sermons can free up the preacher’s time for other crucial tasks. Second, congregation members are increasingly aware of the excellent preaching available online, and this puts pressure on the local congregation to have a preacher who meets those high standards. Third, congregations compete for people’s leisure time in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and the demand for authenticity will not be as strong as the demand for polished production values. Fourth, as more congregations are unable to pay for full-time ministry, there’s going to be less time for sermon-writing and a greater demand for third-party sermons. In short, there are strong — maybe irresistible — economic forces that will change UU ministers from sermon-writers into voice actors.

I still prefer a preacher who writes their own sermons. I just don’t think most UU congregations will be able to make sermon-writing a priority as they budget money and staff time.

Dancing on May Day

It’s time for the annual Maypole dance, and the annual Morris dance — virtual, of course, in these pandemic times. But if the Morris dancers don’t dance on May Day, the sun won’t come up!

Click on the image above to view the video on Vimeo.

Full script below the fold….


Eric: Welcome everyone! It’s time for the annual UUCPA Maypole dance. This year’s dance will be a virtual dance. Everyone take a ribbon.

(Outdoor sounds)

Eric: You want a blue one? … If you’re following along at home, it’s fine to grab a virtual ribbon or an imaginary ribbon. When the music starts, half of you circle around one way, half of you circle around to the right. And make sure you weave between each other. OK, go!

(Music)

Eric: Over! Under! Weave!

(Music)

Eric: Over!

(Music)

Robert: Good morning. Morris dancing is an ancient English traditional dance form. And today’s dance is inpsired by one observed in the village of Adderbury about a hundred years ago. It’s meant to be danced in the spring to encourage the earth to wake up and produce goodness, fertility. So when it comes to whacking, you might want to whack something. All right Maestro, let’s dance.

(Music, and sounds of sticks hitting)

Eric: You know, of course, that spring will only arrive if the Morris dancers dance at May Day. Now that we’ve danced, spring can come. Welcome, spring time!

Anti-racism failure in a liberal college

My Philadelphia cousin sent me a link to an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer he thought I might find interesting: “Haverford College students launched a strike last fall after a racial reckoning. The impact still lingers”:

“In 1972 … [Haverford’s] Black Student League announced a boycott of campus activities over institutional racism. … Fast forward nearly 50 years: A 2018-19 campus report found that Black and Latino students at Haverford were less likely to feel they had meaningful social interactions on campus and that their academics were well-supported.”

That’s the college where I took my undergraduate degree in 1983. Reading this article makes it look like one thing hasn’t changed since 1983: the student body is still overwhelmingly white. Another hasn’t changed: in spite of its woke rhetoric, Haverford College still hasn’t confronted the systemic racism that was painfully obvious decades ago ago when I was a student.

Sadly, this is probably true of many of the so-called elite liberal arts colleges. As Haverford student Rasaaq Shittu put it in an op-ed piece published in The Inquirer back in July: “Primarily white, outwardly liberal institutions like Haverford have such a long history of talking the talk without living up to it.” Which is another thing that hasn’t changed since my day. No wonder non-white students called for a two-week student strike last fall to protest the systemic racism at Haverford.

However, one thing that has changed since my day is the cost of an education at one of these elite liberal arts colleges. Today’s students at Haverford pay an astonishing $75,000 per year for tuition, room, and board. When I was there, the inflation-adjusted cost was about $17,000 per year, so the inflation-adjusted cost has quadrupled. Thus while I completely agree with the goals of the student strike, I did not agree with one of the strike strategies. The strike organizers asked students to miss two weeks of class, and also to stop eating at the dining center for two weeks, and also to stop working at their campus jobs. If that strike had happened in my day, I wonder if I could have afforded to participate.

And maybe this reveals that another thing has not changed since my time as a student in an elite liberal arts college: as elite institutions, these colleges are pervaded with both racism and classism. Compare the Haverford strike with the Black Panthers, who provided both food and shelter for people in their organization. Or compare the Haverford strike with unions which build up a strike fund so they can give financial assistance to striking workers. This lack of awareness on the part of strike organizers about the financial realities of less affluent students demonstrates the enduring classism of elite liberal arts colleges like Haverford College. Since all oppressions are linked (as we used to say back in my radical days), we should not be surprised that an institution pervaded by unacknowledged racism is also pervaded by unacknowledged classism.

One conclusion: For those of you looking for a college to attend, be wary of elite liberal arts colleges. Very wary. Instead, try looking at community colleges and state university systems, where you can often get excellent teaching (from professors with degrees from excellent graduate schools), in company with a far more diverse student body (from whom you will learn more than from a heterogenous student body), for a hell of a lot less money.

And I will freely admit my bias: My older sister, who is an excellent teacher (I’ve observed her in the classroom and her pedagogical skills are superior to any of my Haverford professors), teaches in a branch campus of Indiana University. Well, maybe that’s not bias, maybe that’s just first-hand information.

Verdict

I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved that the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial took less than a day to reach a verdict of guilty on all counts. This was such a clearcut case of murder.

But you know Chauvain will appeal the verdict. And there are three more people facing charges in George Floyd’s murder. And there are so many more cases like this out there. This verdict is not the end of the story.

How to increase church attendance

A recent academic study examined 20,000 United Methodist churches between 1990 and 2010. Most experienced declining attendance from 2000 on.

Except multi-racial churches: on average, their attendance increased. “There’s a rising demand for opportunities to interact in diverse settings,” said [lead author Prof. Kevin] Dougherty [of Baylor University]. And racially diverse churches in predominantly white neighborhoods had the best attendance.

I’m willing to bet this trend holds true for Unitarian Universalism. That would help explain why most UU congregations have been in decline since about 2005. I don’t have access to the full text of the study, so I don’t know the authors’ criteria for determining when a congregation is racially diverse, but I’m guessing we’re looking at 30-35% non-white attendance; there are very few UU congregations with that level of racial diversity.

Assuming your congregation is interested in reversing decline, how can we change our UU congregational cultures to become less white?

Crystal DesVignes is pastor of the United Methodist church “CityWell” in Durham, N.C., a congregation that’s 45% non-white. She points out that you have to embrace an increase in the level of conflict, which can enable people to “come out of our comfort zones” and “be honest and vulnerable with each other.” And then she says you have to be willing to learn: “It’s one thing to say, ‘Come in and be just like us’ [but] it’s another thing to say, ‘Come in and we’re willing and open to be changed by your very presence.’”

Link to the abstract of the study.

Prince Philip on paganism

Prince Philip, the U.K. royal who died recently, was known for his commitment to environmentalism. Religion News Service reports that in 1990, Prince Philip compared Neo-paganism and the Abrahamic religions:

[Prince Philip said the] “ecological pragmatism of the so-called pagan religions” was “a great deal more realistic, in terms of conservation ethics, than the more intellectual monotheistic philosophies of the revealed religions.”

Though this statement proved controversial at the time, I have to say he was absolutely correct. In fact, I’d say it’s still pretty much true.