I recently found myself in Corvallis, Oregon, on a Sunday morning with no definite plans. So I went to church.

This was not previously a regular feature of my Sundays, but for some time I’ve been interested in learning more about different religions and making time to attend services. A good friend recently started going to a Unitarian Universalist church and has spoken highly of the community she found there. Sure enough, there was such a church in Corvallis, and so a little before 10 a.m. I walked through its doors for the first time.

The churchgoers were all picking up nametags from a table—but not to worry, for there was a visitor’s desk clearly marked at which some other newcomers were already introducing themselves and writing out their own nametags. I felt immediately comfortable and welcome. I spoke with a few people, and then we went inside for the service.

The minister was a very impressive, prepared, and enjoyable speaker. She spoke about current events and encouraged us to think about what role we could have in improving things. She talked about how technology and culture can be both gifts and curses to us—enabling great convenience, great deeds, and great works, but also separating us from nature and from each other. One interesting quote she shared was along the lines of “waste [as in trash] is possible only if we believe that there is an ‘out’ to which things can be thrown,” which is really quite insightful. We do think of there being somewhere for trash to go that is away from us and away from our immediate world, and this is another kind of separation. If you remove that separation, then you see throwing things away as simply shuffling them around within what is, ultimately, all one place. Our place.

Two parts of the service really left an impression on me. First, at the end of the sermon, members of the congregation were invited to give their own views on what had been said (a kind of “talk back”)—and many did. Very thought-provoking (and enjoyably interactive). Second, at the end of the service, members were invited to come up and light candles for celebration or sorrow, and to relate to the group what major event they wished to commemorate. I can see how this is a great community-building exercise, and it was nice to be able to share in these people’s lives, however briefly. There were also several songs sung, and the minister led them all with her own voice (and sometimes her guitar). Very impressive!

Back home, I looked up some local UU churches and now have attended two more services (at different locations). The friendliness to newcomers was unvaryingly present. However, neither of the local churches featured a talk-back or a communal candle lighting, so those may not be standard features. But they also had their own nice touches, such as soloist vocal performances (music does seem to be a large part of the UU church!), and one even provides the sermons as a podcast!

There were two thoughts from today’s service that I particularly liked.

“A candle must give itself away. In the giving, the spending, the spreading, the sending, it finds itself.” — John Wood

And paraphrase, from memory:

What matters is not what we get by striving, but who we become as a result of our striving.

Both are full of important implications about how we choose to spend our time, at work and in the world at large. Time for some in-depth contemplation… and thought-provoking discussions with friends!