Small Group: Universalism


First UU Church of Nashville Covenant Group Session Plan #142
Meghann Robern, Intern Minister

February Worship Theme: Prayer/ Meditation/Equanimity

Opening Words: Clarence Skinner, The Social Implications of Universalism p12-13

But the fight for freedom is never won. Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition. Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar. Therefore those have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.

Chalice Lighting and Covenant

Check-In and Sharing


Clarence Skinner, The Social Implications of Universalism, p20-21:

A democratic people demand a democratic God, a robust deity who likes his universe, who hungers for fellowship, who is in and of and for the whole of life, whose sympathies are as broad as the “rounded catalog, divine, complete,”

“The devilish and the dark, the dying and diseased,
The countless (nineteen-twentieths) low and evil, crude and savage,
The crazed, prisoners in jail, the horrible, rank, malignant,
(What is the part the wicked and the loathsome bear within earth’s orbic scheme?)
Newts, crawling things in slime and mud, poisons,
The barren soil, the evil men, the slag and hideous rot.”

The Universalist idea of God is that of a universal, impartial, immanent spirit whose nature in love. It is the largest thought the world has ever known; it is the most revolutionary doctrine ever proclaimed; it is the most expansive hope ever dreamed.

Modern Unitarian Universalism has moved beyond the two Christian doctrines from which it gets its name. But there are still lessons to be learned, and stories to be told, about our current identity and the future of our faith from where we came.

What speaks to you in the passage from Skinner’s book? Even by his own declaration, he says a free religion should be constantly evolving, so he was aware that his definitions and models of theology would fall short in the future if we were truly Universalist. What in his Universalism do you think doesn’t apply to us anymore, and why? What can be adapted with some word changes, but keeping the idea intact?

Who in your life challenges the idea of Universalism? Who might you balk at welcoming into the congregation, and why? Should there be limits on who receives radical hospitality and expressions of love at all, or just adjustments to what is offered? How can we reconcile Universalism with what we know now about toxic people and relationships?

Closing Check-Out and Chalice Extinguishing

Closing Words: Clarence Skinner, The Social Implications of Universalism, p23

A universal faith demands a universal application. This vast idea cannot be confined in one human mind, or in one favored class, but escapes beyond the narrow limitations of individualism into every conceivable relation of life. It cannot be calmly accepted by one and denied to the many.

Snow In My Bones

Snow In My Bones

This was originally posted to the Patheos blog Nature’s Path.


IMG_6755I’m writing this from Nashville, TN, which is currently under a Level 3 State of Emergency due to Winter Storm Jonas. Mayor Barry opened emergency and overflow shelters four days ago in anticipation of the storm. Residents cleaned out the grocery stores and stocked up on firewood. Power is out is patches all over the city.

This kind of weather is disastrous for those who depend on every single day of work to pay their bills every month, and that for some kids, school is often the only place where they find reliable warmth and food. I’ve spent lots of time the last few days in discussions with congregational leadership and my supervisors over whether we could open this Sunday morning (we couldn’t). As part of the interdependent web of which I am a part, I know people are suffering in various ways.

All of that is relevant to my outward self, to my work as a minister in my congregation and in my community. My inner self, however, that sustains my outward self, is having a great time.

We woke up Friday morning to a landscape covered in perfect, powdery snow. It fell all day long, creating that particular precious kind of quiet that only nature can make as the flakes dampen the movement of sound waves through the atmosphere. My young children, who have only lived in Los Angeles until last August, are learning a whole new way of interacting with the world, seesawing between joyous playtime and sudden shock when their brains register their wet, frozen limbs.

IMG_6723And while I have always known I loved the snow and the cold, I’ve discovered this weekend that after nearly twenty years in southern California, I have been missing, at a deep, primal level, this connection with the snow and the cold. All my ancestors are European, from Scots to English to Vikings and beyond, and it shows in my complexion and my enormous bones. A couple of weeks ago I even had a congregant say that she can imagine me as some kind of Norse goddess.

Hours of meditation and prayer on my part paled in comparison to the effect of mindful walking in the snow, feeling it crunch under my feet with that distinctive sound. I stare at how it sparkles, in sunlight, and moonlight, and how it reflects the man-made light so powerfully that one can walk around in the winter night as if it’s barely sunset, despite it actually being hours later.

All this is to say that in the last couple of days, I have reconnected with that part of me that I had forgotten, or perhaps didn’t even know existed when I moved to the searing desert as a young girl. I can feel the memories of thousands of years in these bones, genetic memories rising up into my consciousness and feeding me for the long, hard work that is still to come to create justice in our communities, a part of which is making sure that weather like this doesn’t cause harm and suffering like it does today.

What are the seasons like where you live? How do they call to you?


Bodies In Motion

Bodies In Motion

Listen to the sermon:

Bodies in Motion

I’ve been blessed to spend time this week with Suzanne and Arnie Reed, who were lifted up in our Joys & Concerns this morning. Since I’m new to this congregation, Arnie’s been telling me wonderful stories about how they came to this community, and about why he loves Suzanne so deeply. And the more he spoke, the more I felt like Suzanne’s life had a place in our services today. When I asked Arnie’s permission to share with you all today, he said, “Oh yes! People need to know about Suzanne’s generous heart, It’s what drew her to First UU Nashville, and changed the way I look at life. It’s the ‘pay it forward’ philosophy put into everyday practice.”

Now, I don’t want to get too much into the pay-it-forward aspect, because Jason and Valerie will be digging into that next Sunday. What Cindi and I wanted to offer up today was an exploration of the multitude of ways we humans experience grace, and how that affects our bodies and our actions as we move through the multiverse of our lives. There is no one universal definition, nor one “true” way to have it enter our lives. What ties all these different graces together is what we do as human beings once we have had such an experience, and we learn what that is through the stories we tell.

Our first story, “The Umbrella Sanctuary”, is the pay-it-forward good deed. It’s a concrete action that has an immediate effect, and continues to ripple outward. We don’t know why it rains, but we can offer you shelter. Sanctuary.

Our second story, about “Amazing Grace”, is the story of a paradigm shift in perspective, a dramatic turn that leads a man to question the very foundation of the culture and economy in which he exists, a foundation that provides food and shelter for himself and his family. He survives a great storm, a natural disaster, that forces him to confront his own mortality and the limited life span in which he has to offer anything to the world. When confronted with death, he chooses to focus on the known life before death, not a life after it.

For Arnie, angels aren’t cherubim or the heavenly host. They’re the people who show up when he needs them — the ones who pick up the mail and mow the lawn when he’s holding his wife’s hand in the hospital. He feels grace from his community showing up and doing the little things so he has more room in his life to care for his wife. And when he talks about Suzanne herself, he describes how she taught him to be a better person just by watching her interact with strangers on a daily basis. Everywhere they go, he says, she finds something kind to say to complete strangers — their server at a restaurant, the cashier at store. She goes out of her way not only to notice the people around her, but to make their day better if she can. In Arnie’s stories, over and over again, I hear how Suzanne lives out Unitarian Universalist principles by offering moments of grace, and now he tries to do the same thing because he’s been so moved by how she’s lived her life. Each person is worthwhile. Be kind in all you do. Help each other learn. Search for what is true.

And then there’s the grace we experience when getting to know each other, and when we’re learning the ways in which we think differently from each other even when we share values. My favourite story about this comes from my own family. One day, when they were first married, my grandmother, a Southerner, saved up and brought home a beautiful steak for her new husband, who was a Yankee. She took that steak, and she beat it, battered it, and deep fried it, because where she was from, that’s what you did with steak. My grandfather ate every bite of that meal, because he understood how much it had cost and how much thought and effort had gone into making it. And it was only after dinner that he offered up an alternative way to think about cooking steak. For them, compromise was never about sacrifice, but about showing the other person that they matter. That they are worthy of grace simply by being.

This story is one of many about my grandparents, and how they lived their life together as a series of infinite kindnesses, both to each other and to those around them. They offered grace into the world, through awareness and understanding. I don’t know how they received grace. I never thought to ask them before they passed, and that’s something I’ll regret. But I think that desire to know is a want from the seminary nerd in me. What I *need* to know, to work towards being in right relationship with those around me, is the effect they had in the world around them, regardless of its source. How they put their bodies in motion to manifest their values.

The worship theme for this month is Grace and Safety. I feel like it’s often when we are experiencing grace that we feel the most safe, and it’s through that sense of safety, of sanctuary, that we can bring more grace into the world. And, when we are willing to manifest grace, we draw others to us who are willing to do the same. Over a decade ago, the grace this community offered to people who identify as queer, by being a Welcoming Congregation, had the added effect of drawing people like Suzanne and Arnie, who wished to be allies, through your doors and giving them a spiritual home.

So, in the spirit of Cindi’s meditation, I’d like to offer up an alternative to the traditional New Year’s list of resolutions, because I think we tend to set ourselves up for disappoint and a sense of failure that way, which is the opposite of grace and safety. What I’d like to suggest instead is a list of New Year’s Possibilities. For me, it might read something like this:

What if I tried to greet my family in the morning *before* my coffee instead of waiting until after it? What would that demonstrate to my kids?

What if I tried to be less messy at home?

What if I tried to make sure always to have a few dollars in my wallet in case I meet someone in need?

Now, if you’re paying careful attention, you’ll notice that not only do these examples all start with “what if” — the grammatical introduction of possibility and imagination — but they also include “I tried.” I know Master Yoda tells us that there is no try. Just do, or do not. But sometimes I think this lesson, while it does have its place and time, is can be too harsh. Sometimes, trying has to be enough. Sometimes, the most important grace we can offer in the entire multiverse, is the grace we give ourself.

May it be so.