“Why I am a UU Pagan”
A Sermon by Ken Langer
Delivered on November 3, 2013
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder:
“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living crea-tures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.” —Albert Einstein
If there is a heaven, it is right here, right now,
in this particular arrangement of nature,
this happening of earth, moon, and star,
this constellation of instants,
this laden moment,
this flash of recognition,
this particle of time.
If there is a god, it is all around us, everywhere,
in every blinking eye,
in every pulsing possibility,
in every ugliness, every beauty,
in every wholeness, every part.
If there is an axiom in the universe
it is life,
it is love,
it is death,
it is hatred,
it is wanting and needing to be
in this crystal of creation.
Sermon[Plug in and turn on the lava lamp.]
I want to take this opportunity to explain to you why I identify myself as a UU Pagan and why I think it is important that both UUs and Pagans take time to understand each other. I am a UU because I enjoy being in an open and accepting community of people with diverse spiritual viewpoints and I am a Pagan because my spiritual inspiration comes primarily from nature.
Now you might say to yourself, “Unitarian Universalists are tolerant of all religious traditions and accepting a Pagan into the fold should not be a problem,” and you would be right. But, to be honest, the two have not always been so compatible. I can tell you many stories of Pagans in UU churches who have felt animosity or even outright distrust and anger from other members of the church. For example, just a few years ago I was contacted by an RE director at a UU church who was also a Pagan and who had formed a Pagan circle at her fellowship. She was asked to leave the her job by the board when the minister found out she was performing handfastings (non-legal union ceremonies) and the minister felt that doing so usurped his authority. On the other hand, I have also heard stories of fellowships that warmly welcomed Pagan circles only to have the members of those circles use the space for their rituals while giving nothing back to the church either financially or physically. Those same Pagans also felt no hypocrisy in speaking badly of the very same members of the church who had made it possible for them to meet there in the first place. I experienced some of these same things myself when I was a full-time music and arts director at a UU church in North Carolina where I also started a Pagan group. In all fairness, many of these problems could have been diminished or even alleviated through some open and constant communication but they help to showcase some of the tensions that currently exist between Pagans and UUs. It is my hope that my little talk today can help you understand what these Pagans are really all about so that dialogue and understanding can take place.
I have identified myself as a Pagan for about 20 years and have written over 20 books on the topic and whenever I start a book I like to take some time to explain the terms that will be used. So, before we begin let us look at the terms UU and Pagan and see if there is any common ground between them. Let us start with examining what it means to be a UU. I fully realize that I am standing in front of an entire room full of UUs and that all of you are aware of what it means to be one but, just for fun, let’s take a look anyway. A good understanding of what it means to be a UU comes from the following humorous story.
It just so happens that a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Unitarian Universalist minister developed the habit of having breakfast together once a week in a small coffee shop near each of their own respective institutions. On one such occasion the office administrator for the Catholic church comes running into the coffee shop exclaiming to the Catholic priest, “Come quick! The church is on fire, the church is on fire!” “Have you called the fire department?” asks the priest. “Yes,” responds the administrator, “but they have not yet arrived.” Upon hearing this the priest dashes from his seat, runs to the church, gathers up the sacred materials of the holy communion, and takes them out of the church thus saving them from damage. The very next week the three are again gathered for breakfast when the office administrator of the synagogue comes rushing in saying that the synagogue is on fire. “Have you called the fire department?” asks the rabbi. “Yes,” responds the administrator, “but they have not yet arrived.” This prompts the rabbi to run to the synagogue and collect the sacred scrolls before they can be ruined. Well, as you might imagine, when the three meet again the following week the UU minister is a little nervous. After all, the Catholic church and the synagogue both experienced fires in the two preceding weeks and she wondered if it was her turn. Sure enough, before the coffee had arrived the office administrator of the UU church ran in yelling that the meeting house was on fire. “Did you call the fire department?” the minister blurted out to which the office administrator quickly responded “they have not arrived yet but don’t worry. I’ve already removed the photocopier and the coffee urn.”
This story pokes fun at the idea that UUs do not hold the same things sacred as other traditions might. We hold dear not sacred objects but sacred ideas. We do not find a need to save the soul as much as we do to enrich the soul. We prefer to live in the here now and seek our own personal truth. The coffee cup IS sacred because it is the instrument of community for us and it is through a shared and welcoming community that we can learn and grow with one another. This type of thinking suits me very well. When I first discovered the UU ideal I knew I was seeking something that did not have a nice neat package to it. I didn’t want answers; I wanted a place that invited more questions. I came upon UU ideals while I lived in the deep South and it was like taking in a breath of fresh air. After a while, though, I felt like something was still missing. I felt like a spiritual traveler. Weary and worn I found a peaceful hotel but I hadn’t yet found my own room. You see, I came to see UUism as a wonderful religion but it didn’t meet my need for a deep spirituality. What’s the difference between the two? Religion comes from the latin word religare meaning to bind fast. Religion, to me, is a communal thing. It happens when people with a common set of theological principles come together. Though UUs rarely agree on any religious ideal we do still have seven basic principles which bind us together and we agree on the five sources from which our religion originated and we continue to draw upon. Both of these can be found on the inside of our hymnals. Unitarian Universalism is a great religion (I think the best) but it cannot define a personal spiritual practice for everyone because that would require a common dogma. To illustrate what I mean I want to tell you the story of the Three Pigs.[Display the Three Pigs book.]
Oh, I can hear you now. You think you know the story of the three pigs but you would be wrong. You only know part of the story. But now, for the first time, I am going to tell you the whole story. It starts out just the way you know. There were three little pigs. One lived in a house made of sand, another lived in a house of straw, and the third resided in a house made of brick. As the Great Recession fell upon our hapless trio the bank threatened to foreclose on them and sent their toughest agent, a certain Mr. Fox, to get them off the properties. Using archaic legalese he managed to send the first pig away and his house of sand was, shall we say, dissolved. The first pig sought refuge in the straw house of his brother but when he got there he found the house had already been shipped off to the local scarecrow manufacturing facility. Mr. Fox was not so successful at dismantling the the third pig’s house made of brick but he found that he had still completed his assignment because none of the pigs were inside when he arrived. Here’s where we get to the part of the story that few have heard – there was actually a fourth pig who lived on the grassy knoll. [Place the image of the fourth pig on the book with some tape.]
This fourth pig took some sand, a little straw, and the mud used to make bricks to build his house out of steel reinforced weather resistant concrete. More than that, he used sand to build a room for the first pig because his brother missed his sand house. He used straw to build a room for the second pig and he made a brick room for the third pig while he kept a concrete bunker stocked with a year’s worth of cornmeal rations for himself. The UU church is like that fourth house. It provides a solid foundation by building upon the unique personalities and philosophies of its constituents. Though it can provide a solid foundation it cannot, by definition, prescribe a single set of spiritual practices for everyone. That is why we have UU Christians, UU Buddhists, UU Jews, and so on. For me, I wanted to find my own spiritual room in the house. I found it on a dark and very cold night.
It wouldn’t be until many years later when I moved from the hot and humid South to the frigid temperatures of Vermont that I would find that room. Actually what I found was a bunch of people celebrating the Winter solstice on the Vermont State House lawn on a minus ten degree night in December – one day before my own birthday. They called themselves Pagans and I was attracted to them and their practice because it felt to me to be based on the two things I was seeking in a spiritual practice: reality and relevance. But, before I could get to that, I had to understand what it meant to be a Pagan. Like UUs, however, Pagans rarely agree on any matters of theology. “But surely,” I thought, “there must be something similar that Pagans share. I decided to search through as many mission statements and proclamations of belief that I could find from any group that called itself Pagan. What I eventually came up with was three ideals common to many modern Pagans and I call those the Three Pillars of Paganism.
I call the Three Pillars sources, choices, and cycles. I have even brought a visual aid that helps to demonstrate the characteristics and interactions of the three. [Point to the lava lamp.] The principle of Sources is that Pagans generally believe that all things are sacred. There are no special people, no special books, no special lands. All things and all beings come from the same source which makes them all equally sacred. I like to say that the father of modern Paganism was Albert Einstein because he taught us that all the things in the universe are based on energy. Remember his famous formula E=MC2? In that formula he uses E to represent energy, M for mass, and C for what he considered the constant of the universe, namely, the speed of light. From this formula we can understand that matter is energy slowed down. I think the C in the formula could stand for something less scientific but equally meaningful which is also a constant in the universe and that is Change – for that is what energy really is – constant change. Everything: every living being, every material object we have ever or will ever experience is constantly changing. Everyone and everything is constantly in a process of becoming something else; it is just that these changes occur at widely varying rates. A rock changes at a much slower rate than a butterfly but both are changing nonetheless. With this knowledge you can know that no matter how bad or terrible a situation may be – it will change – but so will the good ones. If something is good it requires a constant input of energy to maintain it. Being loved requires loving and being taken care of requires caring. With this knowledge we can also know that, because all things are essentially different manifestations of the same energy, all things are equally sacred. You, your neighbor beside you, the seat you are sitting upon, and the mud on your shoes are all parts of one source of existence.
The second Pillar is called choices. Pagans recognize that we are all responsible for finding and walking our own spiritual path. For many Pagans this includes honoring a particular pantheon of gods and goddesses but not all Pagans are theistic. Some choose to honor and worship nature and Earth. The choice is yours but the responsibility for your choices and your actions is also yours. We cannot blame a deity for our actions and we must answer for any harm we cause to others. On these points I think many UUs can agree. This is one clear place where modern Paganism and UUism intersects so I will not add much more to it but what is important to remember is that we value the ability to make choices in belief and practice.
The third Pillar is called cycles and it is here where the two traditions may diverge somewhat because it involves a certain commitment to action that some UUs are not willing to do. As you may well know, Unitarian Universalists can be a heady lot and prefer a subdued and non-physical form of worship. I’ve heard the moans of several UU ministers worried about crossing an invisible line of worship etiquette by asking members to take hands. Pagans, however, often crave a more physical form of worship in the form of a ritual that may include singing, dancing, holding hands, and dramatizing sacred myths. More often than not what they are celebrating in these rituals are the physical cycles of change between the earth, the moon, and the sun. Full moons, solstices, equinoxes, and even the cycles of life are often honored either in a solitary ritual or a group celebration.
If you look at the lava lamp you can see all these principles working together. At the base of the lamp is the source. From the source arises the individual blobs who rise to the top – each in its own chosen unique fashion. Once at the top however, the blobs lose their energy and return back to the source to create an endless display of cyclic transformations.
As I said, what attracted me to these three ideals and the practices associated with them is that they are based on reality and relevance. The sun is a real thing that affects every life on this planet. It is a provider and a sustainer of life. Earth is a real thing as well. Without it we would have no home and no place to roam. Earth gives us birth, feeds us, and protects us. The moon, too, is a real thing that genuinely affects our lives both day and night. The natural cycles that reflect interactions between these things are also real and have a significant effect on how we live. It seems right to me to honor all these things as sacred and divine – not in any anthropomorphic way but in a manner of deep respect and awe. These are the things that made me feel connected to the world around; they are what I felt that cold night in Vermont – at least I think I did. At ten below zero it’s hard to feel anything. I found those ideas to be meaningful at that time of my life.
I also found these ideas to be quite relevant to our own time. It is painfully obvious to many of us now that we can no longer consider the earth to be our own personal playground that we can tear up and then just walk away from. The world needs a spirituality that respects the earth and all living beings. We know that peace is not possible if there is no respect for different theologies and philosophies. The idea that one’s own religion is the only right and true way has been the justification for too many wars and killings. The world needs a spirituality that honors all sacred paths and ideals that do not advocate harm or injustice. We know that inner peace and joy happens most often when we appreciate the beauty of nature and find a way to connect to the natural rhythms and cycles of our own bodies and of the universe that surrounds us. Our modern lights, conveniences, and patterns of living have separated us from experiencing the natural ebbs and flows of energy with which our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls seek to connect. The world needs a spirituality that honors the seasons and the changes that we all experience together.
It is these things that attracted me to Paganism and from which I developed a personal spiritual practice that fit in well with my UU ideals. Because I walk in the house of the fourth pig made of concrete and share in the journey of many, I am a UU. Because I wish to honor the sun, the moon, and the earth as sacred and join in the swirling dances of the cosmos, I am a Pagan. It is because I can seek joy in meaning in my own practice while also sharing in the joy and celebration of many other practitioners and seekers that I call myself a UU Pagan.
Without a doubt there will always be people who are outspoken and flamboyant in any religious tradition and there will always be those who will claim that only they know the true and right way to live and practice their religion. The same is true for Pagans but there are modern Pagans everywhere – some may be sitting beside you. Like UUs they come from all walks of life. They are teachers and doctors and lawyers and mechanics and they may practice quietly at home or in small gatherings. If you are a UU I hope you that you will see Pagans (like Buddhists, Jews, or Christians) as another possible inspiration for community and growth and if you are Pagan I hope that you will see Unitarian Universalists as a welcoming community of support and enrichment. Most of all, I hope we will all see each other as part of the same sacred fabric.
To conclude I would like to end with this prayer from my book: Dewdrops in the Moonlight.
May we remember
This time is as sacred as any myth
This place is as sacred as any temple
This body is as sacred as any deity
This mind is as sacred as any tome
This soul is as sacred as any breath
This life is as sacred as any light
It is so for all times and all places
and for all manifestations.
Wondering if you might be Pagan? You don’t need to wear dark robes or large pentagrams on your cloth-ing to be Pagan. All you need is to feel a deep spiritual connection to the wonders and cycles of nature. Still not sure? Consider the following:
You might be a Pagan if…
You have strange herbs where your cereal boxes should be
You take Halloween off as a religious holiday
You talk to animals and plants on a regular basis (and they respond!)
When asked if you believe in god you respond “which one?”
You call it a Yule tree not a Christmas tree
You know what a Maypole really represents
You have more candles than light bulbs in your house
You look at the sky when someone asks you the time or date
You find yourself addressing the earth as her
You find yourself saying “blessed be” when you leave the room
Whether or not you are Pagan does not matter. What matters is that you are true to your ideals – that what you find is both real and relevant to you. Oh, and… Blessed be!