CHURCH LITE?

led by Carolyn Laceky

All this month as we have welcomed new members we have been focusing on UU and BSUU, its history and what it has meant to us.  Nicky shared her experience as a newish member, Joyce presented her well-researched and informative history of UU in Montana and in Helena.  Nicky asked me, as one of the older members, to give my perspective of how I have seen BSUU change and grow since I first came and how it has made me change and grow.

Those of you who have been here a while have heard my story: In 2004 I first came to UU feeling sad, angry and rejected by the traditional protestant religions I grew up with.  Coming from Bible Belt country I was a dutiful Christian daughter until I grew up and faced the fact that I believed none of the things I was required to pretend that I believed. As a child of the “Greatest Generation” growing up with the “Silent Generation” I was too young for that Old Time Religion,  too old for the New Agey “spirituality”  and too nice to admit to being that abomination — an atheist.

During a long period in my life I likened myself to a big rock in in the surf; the sea came over me and washed back over me, came over me and washed back. I didn’t change it and it didn’t change me. I passively went through my life doing what was expected of me as responsibly as I could, taking life as it came and for the most part going along with it without question.  I’m very good at adapting.

Then, in the 80’s Tom had a journalism fellowship at UM and I enrolled as a grad student in History.  Did any of you have classes with Dr. Drake there?  He was a great lecturer.  One of his exams asked us to choose the best outcome of a historical event.  I started my answer with “Well, if I have to choose…..” and Drake wrote on my exam “If not now, when?”  That struck me.  When do I choose?  When do I allow myself to choose?”

We inherit our religion, our culture, our values, our identity.  Our life story is a tale of choosing what to keep and what to change. (I read that in Grace Without God, a recent Buuk Cluub book).  Approaching age 60, I felt an urgent need to finally make those choices.    In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt said something that helped me a lot.  He says that we are all living and creating our life stories and that the stories have four major elements: relationships, work, spirituality, and posterity.  How we love, what we do, what we believe and what we leave behind.

At my age, making a coherent story becomes important. I felt good about my relationships and ok about my work and posterity but my story was missing spirituality… 25%!  I was still seeking answers to what I believed.  What am I missing that church people have?

I read a lot searching for answers.  And then my minister friend said, “You should be a Unitarian Universalist.”  Having never heard of UU, I looked it up on Belief Net and took the Belief-O-Matic test there and sure enough, I was firmly UU.  So I chose to try UU, and changed my life.

At that time UU met at The Waterford (Touchmark, now) in a meeting room on the second floor.  When I first walked in, wonderful Bill Elliot, Jeannie Powell’s husband, welcomed me with such a warm, open smile that I was immediately at ease.  There were about twelve people there with chairs in a circle and a little lectern.  Not much of a church, but as the service went on and the people there spoke of their heartfelt joys and concerns and reflections on the message, I thought to myself, “This is the first time in my life I have been in a group where I want to hear what everyone has to say!”  There was such wisdom and sincerity. I had found my tribe!  In was in! As Nicky said a couple weeks ago, “You had me at ‘Hello'”.

Not long after that, a few of us showed up one Sunday when most of the members were gone to a traditional BSUU skiing weekend at Yellowstone.  When we realized there was no service planned we decided to put one together ad hoc. We arranged our circle of chairs and the lectern.  Winston Swift played the piano. We sang “Spirit of Life”.  I found the UU article in the supply closet that had the famous Forrest Church sermon on the “many windows” (In the church of mankind there are many stained glass windows depicting the stories of the world religions. The one sun shines through them all illuminating the church with beautiful light).  We lit the chalice and shared joys and concerns. I read the sermon and we did all the other things we do in our services.  When we finished we joined hands and sang Shalom together. We made church together.  I love that about our UU.  We are not a flock (of sheep) dependent on the creativity and authority of a minister.

I eagerly signed The Book.  I chose UU!  I liked it that when I signed and paid my fees it was made clear what I was paying for — membership in UUA and regional UU as well as what became one of my favorite magazines, UUWorld.

I was excited about UU!  I told people about what I had found.  But some were skeptical.  They said it sounded like a civic club like Kiwanis or Toast Masters. One friend called it ‘Church Lite’.  I asked him what made my church light and his heavy.  Being the conscientious government bean counter that he is, he made me a chart showing what a real church has compared to what he thought UU has.  Here it is in brief:

  1. Church building: Real church has building built for church activities and with church symbols. UU has none unless using another’s building.
  2. Funding: Real church members make financial commitment to keep church running.  UU, none.
  3. Minister: Real church has paid minister with retirement benefits who is responsible for all church activities.  UU has none
  4. Community:  Both have.
  5. Inside church symbols: Real church has “crosses, statues, Bibles, hymnals, pews, organ, pianist of high quality, overhead projector, place for church band, place for Sunday School.
    UU doesn’t.
  6. Relevance of sermon to daily activities. Both have.
  7. Relevance of sermon to Jesus’ teachings.  Real church, yes. UU, no.
  8. Beliefs: Real church is all about belief. As for UU, he says, “I have not observed an inner core belief.”

I share this because I believe his is a thoughtful representation of how we are viewed from the outside. People don’t know that we have hundreds of years of history.  That we have core beliefs in our 7 Principles and that we respect the teachings of Jesus as well as other spirit leaders. We also have symbols and music and all the other things churches have.

As Joyce told us last week, technically,  we are a fellowship rather than a church because we don’t have a minister. When I first came to the Waterford we didn’t have a lot of the other accouterments of a Church, but to me it has always felt more like church than any other I have experienced. To me it is the people united in a covenant of love and service  that makes a church. And as I mentioned before, I like it that we don’t have to listen to the same person every week.  I much prefer to hear your stories.  As Jessica said a while back, “It is in sharing our stories that we heal each other. ”

A lot of the members from the Waterford church  are gone now: dear Bill Elliot, Bill and Ellie Furbush, Joe Goldes, Winston, Peg Hunter’s dad, Carl Junkerman have died– Peg and her husband Pat have moved to Port Townsend, WA, where I am sure they are contributing lots to the UU there.  We still have Ruth and Lowell Luke, Karrie and Leila, Jeannie, Joyce and Bill, Tempe Daigle, Becky Warren Lynda Saul.  In the next couple years we gathered more people, some with children.  It became clear that we needed a larger space with rooms for religious education so young families could join us. We needed to make some choices.

We chose to accept the Christian Science Church’s offer to share their building .. and we began to grow!  Families did come.  And children.  We began religious education for the kids and eventually hired people to teach and care for them.  We no longer sat in a circle facing each other. (I miss that.) But we had a place for coffee and potluck in the meeting room downstairs and, in addition to Winston at the piano, we had several musicians, who have since moved on.  Except for a minister we had everything that makes a church.

I began to realize that besides just admiring the people in UU, I felt like they were family.  Some fell in love and I rejoiced with them. Some had babies and I melted at their precious smiles. Some died and I was moved by their beautiful, interactive memorial services.

Being here in Helena with only Tom, Mark and Adam, far from old friends and family, I welcomed my UU family.  It filled a  space in my happy life that I didn’t know was empty, and it was a bigger space than I could have possibly imagined!  Just thinking about it chokes me up.  “I once was lost and now am found…”

I want to say here that watching your babies grow, I wish I had known you young parents when I was a young parent.  I could have learned so much from you.

While we were at the Christian Science Church I prepared a talk on what I had learned about creativity since I became UU.  I discovered that thinking and writing about that taught me things I didn’t realize I knew. Putting it down on paper made me examine myself as I had never done …. and I thought I had been a pretty introspective person. You liked my talk.  You really liked it!  And since then I have given over a dozen more. I have discovered that I have something to say.  And saying it has given me a sense of agency I didn’t have before.  I no longer feel like that rock in the surf. So, Thank you, dear UU family!

The Christian Scientists do not approve of eating in the church and that became a problem for us.  In 2009 we had to leave and after looking at several options, we chose to move here to Plymouth Congregational.  Ours is a good relationship: We help them with our rent and they have been most gracious and generous to us.

At first we felt small in this spacious sanctuary.  For a while we roped off the back pews to encourage us to gather at the front, but as we grew we no longer felt the need to do that. We filled our cupboards in the Fireside room and Room 7.  Later, Judy came bringing her songs. Pad and I created the BSUU screen.  Here I want to tell you thank you for your continuing kind words about it.  Having a purpose I believed in made painting it a joy.  It just seemed to come magically from my brush.

Being in this building with our sign firmly planted out front and our RE for the kids and our symbols and hymnals and our music and our pledges of support, our weekly messages of peace and love and our activities make it clear that we are valid. We are heavy.

Speaking of activities.  Even without the guidance of a minister we have put on a lot of activities. Pad sent me a list. We sponsored a Walkin’ Jim Stoltz concert at the Loy.  And a Valentine concert with Jay and Laurie Bahny.  And two Harvest Festivals.  And the Lion Harp concert last year. We have participated in MTUUA gatherings and hosted one at Camp Child.  Joyce and Bill have hosted greatly-attended summer brunches and we have had many Circles of 8 dinners and Wednesday evening pick-up dinners and picnics. We are great at eating! We like being together. As Nicky pointed out, she hosted summer Sunday gatherings just because she didn’t want to stop the fellowship in the summer. We hosted for Family Promise and helped with Habitat for Humanity.   We renovated a room at the YWCA. We have volunteered for Food Share and marched together in NAMI walks and Gay Pride parades. The Goldes family hosted us on a Gates of the Mountains trip. Together we have been able to help people in need in Tibet, Africa, Paraguay and, of course, Helena.

Right here I think a big shout out is due to all of you who have created our activities and committees and kept them going through your volunteer service. Thank you!

And then there is  BUUK CLUUB!

Buuk Cluub has changed me.  I have learned so much from Buuk Cluub and the things you have said. You have introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Epicurus and Lucretius, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, David James Duncan, Margaret Fuller …… Mary Oliver!! So many, many gifts from your books, your thoughts and messages have enriched my life.

From time to time we talk about hiring a minister, having our own building, changing our meeting time ..  choices we will have to make as we continue to grow into the future.

As Big Sky UU has grown, I have grown.  Along the way I realized that I had become a “church lady.”  The atheist is a church lady — bringing food and serving on committees. I have felt an important part of something bigger than myself, allowing myself to be part of things that before UU I would have resisted. I am willing to sing out loud.  Once Judy had us dancing around the Fireside Room waving our arms and chanting “Om Tara.”  I would never have done that before, but doing it with you I found myself weeping with joy.

I hope you new members allow yourselves to become “Church Ladies and Men”, serve with us,  join a committee, prepare a message, share your story, sing with us, march with us, eat with us and find the same joy I have as we all grow and change together with our dear Big Sky UU.

Let’s all Sing We Will Be One.

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