Sunday January 3, 2016: Altars, Shrines, and Every Day Practice


Chalice Lighting:

Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, said, “Separate not thyself from the congregation and its concerns, nor postpone thought for thy spirit until the day of thy death. Say not, ‘By and by, when I have leisure, I will care for my soul,’ lest perchance thou never find leisure.”


Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Love yet again come


Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages: Flame of Learning, Chalice of Love by Janeen Grohsmeyer

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: from The House Beautiful by William Channing Gannett

What a difference it makes in the feeling of the home if things graceful to the eye and ear are added to the things convenient for the flesh and bones.

Our eyes and ears are parts of us; if less important than the heart and mind, still are parts of us and a home should be home for all our parts.

Eyes and ears are eager to be fed with harmonies in color and form and sound; these are their natural food as much as bread and meat are food for other parts. And in proportion as the eyes and ears are fed, we are not sure, but apt to see a fineness spreading over life.

Where eyes and ears are starved we are not sure, but apt, to find a roughness spreading.

A song at even time before the little ones say Good night; the habit of together saying a Good morning grace to God; perhaps a silent grace among the other greetings of a happy breakfast table; a picture in that bare niche of the wall; a vase of flowers on the mantel piece; well matched colors under foot

— these all are little things; you would hardly notice them as single things; you would not call them religion they are not morals; they scarcely even class under the head of manners.

Men and women can be good parents and valuable citizens without them. And yet and yet one cannot forget that as the years run on these trifles of the home will make no little of the difference between coarse grain and fine grain in us and in our children when they grow up.

Not splendor but harmony is grace; not many things but picturesque things

Music: You Gotta Stop and Smell the Roses (Mac Davis)

Responsive Reading 426 (HCL) For You – Walt Whitman

The sum of all known reverence I add up in you, whoever you are;
Those who govern are there for you, it is not you who are there for them;
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it;
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments;
The sun and stars that float in the open air; the apple-shaped earth and we upon it;
The endless pride and outstretching of people; unspeakable joys and sorrows;
The wonder everyone sees in everyone else they see, and the wonders that fill each minute of time forever;
It is for you whoever you are – it is no farther from you than your hearing and sight are from you;
it is hinted by nearest, commonest, readiest.
We consider bibles and religions divine – I do not say they are not divine;
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still

Lesson: Altars, Shrines, and Every Day Practice by Lisa deGruyter

There are a couple of memes that float around: Be the Change You Want and many on the theme of taking care of yourself first. We have “Comfort and inspiration” and “Spiritual Practice” as two of our rotating themes so that we remember that we shouldn’t spend all of our time telling each other just about the work we need to do to put our principles into action, but also how to take care of ourselves so that we have the strength to do that, and how to remind ourselves and to focus on those principles in our daily lives.

When I was a branch librarian, my branch was in a Jewish neighborhood, and we had a lot of what are called “Jewish household books” – books that tell you all the details of how to arrange your kitchen, clean your dishes and keep them separate to keep kosher, how to clean the house to prepare for Passover, how to set the table for Sabbath dinner, how to feed your family on the Sabbath when you can’t cook or turn lights on or off. I grew up in a Christian household where the only rituals of religion were grace before meals, a picture of Jesus in the bedroom hall, and a bedtime prayer. I was fascinated and impressed at how Orthodox Judaism built reminders of the holy into the acts of everyday life.

So I was pleased when I found not one, but two books by UU ministers on the holy in everyday life at home.

The reading earlier was from William Channing Gannet. He was the minister of the Hinsdale, Illinois, Unitarian Church, a hundred years ago, and the author of the essay “The House Beautiful” which his friend Frank Lloyd Wright made the centerpiece of an illustrated book, which in turn inspired the magazine House Beautiful. House Beautiful, which is no longer published after a run of about a hundred years, strayed far from Gannet’s ideas. It became all about the homes of the rich and famous, interior designers and expensive furnishings, the worst sort of consumerist perversion of “taking care of yourself first.” Gannet was about beauty through simplicity and comfort, about living frugally but gracefully.

I learned about Gannet from a book I picked up on the markdown shelf of Half Price Books on a trip to Dallas a few years ago. It is called A Place of Your Own. After pulling it off the shelf and reading a bit, I discovered the author was a UU minister, Edward Searl, who was at Youngstown, Ohio, and is now at Hinsdale where Gannet served.

A Place of Your Own is a set of meditations Searl wrote over the years to use at his home altar, and he begins with the story of how he developed the altar. [Reading from A Place of Your Own]

Once when my brother was visiting, we were on the patio gazing down into the yard, and he asked, “Are you building a shrine?” He had spotted the half-circle of logs around a maple tree, with a cast-iron Green Man propped in it. “Well, yes,” I said. The Green Man is a face made of leaves, or peering through leaves, found in many cultures, and common in churches in Europe dating back almost as long as there have been churches. We don’t know what the original meaning was; usually it is interpreted as symbolic of rebirth. I think of our Green Man as the spirit of nature. He hung on a wall of vines, half-hidden, at our house in Austin; our log circle there held our Buddha which is now on the patio, another shrine.

An altar is technically the surface where sacrifices, generally burnt offerings, were made – a shrine is a place for sacred objects. We don’t usually make burnt offerings any more, but we often use candles and the flaming chalice, which recall the original use.

Like Searl, Robert and I have been making altars and shrines since we were first together. We have always had at least one chalice. When we travel, we gather natural objects and buy useful things as souvenirs. The spoon rest on our stove is a curved piece of redwood from Muir Woods, where we visited on one of our first trips together. Although we don’t notice it constantly, for thirty years it has been recalling us to both that trip and to the memory of the redwoods and our love of nature.

When I was working in an office, I had various objects arranged on my desk and in my cubicle; postcards of West Virginia and of paintings, fossils and shells and pine cones and a peacock feather, and this lobster, which is not beautiful, but which reminded me in a time of particular chaos that you can remain balanced as long as you remain centered.

The table under the window, which has been a coffee table in other houses, has become a shrine in our current one Robert’s room-mate who abandoned it claimed it was made from a bearskin stretcher, but to me it looks like it was a home-made ironing board. It is not beautiful, but it is ours. Here, it has accumulated a number of items – rocks we gathered from each of the Great Lakes on the road trip when we bought this house; Canada goose feathers from a walk along Lake Ontario at a friend’s house; cones from pine trees in Georgia where Robert’s sister lived and spruce trees on Dolly Sods here in West Virginia. There is a basket of oyster shell fossils from along Shoal Creek in Austin and modern shells from a Texas beach where we used to camp. There are matchboxes from various places, and our old Texas Parks passes.

The day before I found the book on altars, I had found this metal cross in a Mexican import shop in Dallas. For a long time, I had been looking for a Christian symbol to recall our Christian roots. Since I rejected the idea of an angry God who had to sacrifice his son to atone for people’s sins, clearly a crucifix wouldn’t do, and a picture of a saccharine Jesus didn’t seem right. But this cross made from calla lilies, with just a suggestion of Christ on the cross, and a suggestion of the universal idea of the sacrificed god reborn in vegetation, did seem right. And the calla lilies also reminded me of the flame of the flaming chalice.

When I started thinking about altars, I realized that in some senses our whole house is a shrine, with meaningful objects in every room. I think what Gannett was describing in The House Beautiful was a house that was also a shrine, where the decoration and the arrangement of objects had meaning, where daily rituals were held, and where the whole life lived reminded the family of their values. One of my favorite books is Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. He talks about Knowledge in the World – how things we use are designed so we can figure them out easily, without instructions – a well-designed door lets you know whether to push or pull, without a “Push” sign, for instance. I think the shrines and other design in our homes are like that – reminders of the things we know to be true, and reminders to “pray without ceasing,” as Paul said, which I think is the same as being mindful, as Buddha said. We need the gathering and worship that our churches provide, but we also need our everyday rituals and reminders to live our beliefs.

As part of my office altar in my cubicle, I had posted the words to this hymn.

Song: Here on the Paths of Every Day 180 (HCL)

Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it; or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: The Work Continues by Martha Kirby Capo

Our time together is finished, but our work is not yet done:
May our spirits be renewed and our purpose resolved
As we meet the challenges of the week to come.
The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.
Go now in peace.


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