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!

5 of 5 people learned something from this entry.

  1. jim said,

    July 19, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Your description reminds me of the community spirit and humanism of the baptist church I attended in Tucson. When we moved, the Houston version was completely different: fire-and-brimstone, very judgemental, and viewing the Bible as something to be literally interpreted (versus a mythology). My parents tried going for a while, but soon felt (as we) it was a complete turn-off. (There were other things about the locale that shocked us, too, but that’s another story another day.)

    I’m curious what prompted you to attend church, though.

  2. Jim in PA said,

    July 19, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Great post! I am also not a regular church-goer, but I still enjoy learning more about religions, variants of Christianity in particular.

    Two books I’ve read in recent years that really intrigued me (maybe you have read one or both already):
    (1) Who Wrote the Bible (Friedman). This book really knocked me on my butt. The book summaries what is clearly an entire vain of research into deconstructing the Bible and reconciling it with the historical record. The main thesis of the book is that the Bible (first five books of the old testament) is actually a composite of separate accounts from different authors woven together into a whole. The main supporting argument is an examination of the writing styles and “dublets” that occur in the text. This was totally new to me. A great read.

    (2) 3:16 Bible Texts Illustrated (Knuth). I discovered this recently through the write-up of his “Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About” lecture series. Knuth took the 3:16 verse from each book of the Bible and really put it under the scholarly microscope. In some cases, he actually learned parts of the native language in which the passage was written and points out places where the modern translation distorts or loses part of the original meaning. Plus, he commissioned respected calligraphers to render each of the verses. In the lecture series he talks about the insane lengths he went to to faithfully render each work in the book. Also a good read.

    I mention these books because both really re-enlightened me to how far many rigid and organized religions have strayed from what really happened and what it meant.

    The experience your describe is a bit different from what I remember from my early days in Catholic School. I don’t recall the school encouraging much “talk back” during services. :-) I have always been curious about more inclusive unitarian-type services. When you are raised Catholic, you subtly pick up queues that other versions of Christianity are not really to be taken seriously. Think Catholicism:Unix::Protestantism:Windows (where the Priest flips you a quarter and tells you to “get yourself a real religion, kid”). I always thought that was rather unfortunate. It sounds like one of the draws of these churches is that you maybe get that sense of community without as much rigid dogma?

  3. Marcy said,

    July 19, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    It takes a lot of courage to go to an unfamiliar church! Go you!

    It’s my understanding that there isn’t a “standard” UU church or service. They don’t have a standard dogma. Heck, many of the members don’t even believe in God. However, they are united in their stance for gay rights, social and economic justice and other social values. This I admire greatly and have worked with many UU members in various organizations.

  4. wkiri said,

    July 19, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    Jim not-in-PA: I was just motivated by curiosity, and I think being in vacation mode, with no other responsibilities and with a sense of exploration and trying new things, finally tipped the scales and gave me a chance to indulge that curiosity. :)

    Jim in PA: Thanks for the recommendations.. I had no idea Knuth had embarked upon such a project! And yes, the UU folk (as noted by Marcy) seem to be specifically non-dogmatic. Some members believe in God, some don’t; those that do have a variety of different beliefs. None of the services I’ve been to had anything like what I’d call “worship” (as of a deity), although there was solemnity, ritual, and prayer. I’m gradually learning more about the history of UU (since both Unitarians and Universalists were staunch theists) and what it is today. Definitely interesting.

    Marcy: Indeed, I was a little nervous at first, but in all three cases the churchgoers hit just the right note of friendliness (welcoming to newcomers without trying to oversell the experience or the church). So it was even easier than you’d think!

  5. Claire Petersky said,

    July 20, 2009 at 7:57 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I’ve been to a lot of UU services in my time and have had a lot of UU friends. While there’s a lot of variety in UU churches, here’s my broad generalization about people are UU:
    1. not religious
    2. not even that spiritual – if they are, it’s kept private
    3. are intellectual in their approach and understanding of life, as opposed to intuitive or emotional
    4. like the idea of a community based on shared values

    None of the above except for #4 is me, so you won’t see me at the UU membership table any time soon. But I can really understand 1-4 above, and am sympathetic to those who have those beliefs – which is why, I guess, I’ve been to so many UU services and had so many UU friends!

  6. Katie said,

    July 20, 2009 at 8:30 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Very interesting!

    So my question is – WAS there any actual ‘religion’ involved in this service? I am NOT a religious or churchy person, and feel I can find my own spirituality and relationship with the world…but what you’ve described (particularly the sense of community and openness) is interesting to me. I’m pretty sure I won’t be finding a UU here in SE Utah. Glad you posted this, Kiri.

  7. wkiri said,

    July 20, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Claire: Thanks for the summary! I get the sense, though, that there actually are a lot of religious (in the sense of believing-in-God) UU members; they just (as you note) keep it private (it’s not part of the ceremonies). I do find it interesting that a single religion can be an umbrella over so much diversity, without discord.

    Katie: There wasn’t any religion in the sense of worshipping anyone or anything, but there was in the sense of affirming “we believe that X, Y, and Z are important”. It’s inspiring me to rethink what “religion” actually means. :) And yes… looks like your closest UU church would be in Grand Junction. :)

  8. Susan said,

    July 20, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I loved reading this account!

    I can’t remember: did you read A Chosen Faith? I found the essays about different types of religious belief and the role of religion in social life to be incredibly thought-provoking. I’m still crunching on the ideas there. And I learned some words to use to describe myself, which was pretty exciting.

    I’m highly curious about the UU church in Abq, which is actually more convenient to me than my current church. I don’t know if it will become a staple in my life, since (using Claire’s list) I am religious, spiritual, and church is my primary place for NOT keeping it private. But the philosophy speaks to me pretty strongly.

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