In Search Of Context

I went to a Unitarian Universalist church this past weekend.

After several weeks of intense blogging I felt exhausted, emotionally. With all of the new traffic to BITG, there has been a wave of new readers who have no context for why I write or who I am. Without context, without a sense of where I’ve come from, my posts can look rather different from how I intend them to. I’ve felt misread, misunderstood, mistaken for someone who wants to tell everybody how it is — or worse — how it should be.

There have been moments when this lack of context for me and for this blog led me to feel as thought I had no context for my own writing.

It’s been lonely.

So I sought out something different. After writing about why I left church, I went to church. Funny how that happens.

I didn’t go seeking Jesus, or even a return to Christianity. I went in search of peace, comfort, encouragement, and a little context.

Photo by Keddy Ann Outlaw, Flickr

I wasn’t raised a Unitarian Universalist, and much of the liturgy of this small church was foreign to me. I’m not sure everyone was on the same page about Jesus, as evidenced by the man beside me looked rather perturbed when the name showed up in the first African American spiritual.

But I don’t think that being on the same page, or at least thinking the same thing, was really the point. UU seems to acknowledge that one religious path, one way of thinking, may not satisfy every one’s spiritual needs.

It may not be polytheism, but at times it felt a little pagan.

Here’s what I loved about this UU service:

I sat and listened to three different people reflect on ethics, morals, and human character. They spoke about a commitment to caring for one another, and they did not sugar coat the challenges we face when trying to do that. They encouraged an entire congregation of people to be reflective. In fact, the whole service seemed to be geared toward inspiring stillness, contemplation, and reflection.

I sat there in a pew of lined up chairs beside old men, young women, couples, singles and children, and I was given something to think about.

I’ve missed that so much.

I wish that just once I could go to a CUUPS ritual, or an ADF Druid ritual, and someone would get up and speak. I wish they’d provide me with context. I wish they’d say — this is how all of this fits into my life, and this is something for you to reflect on as you stand in this circle, or sit before this altar. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the leader of a ritual and wished that they would just start giving a sermon.

I could label this desire as evidence of my “unresolved issues” with Christianity, but I give myself more credit than that.

A sermon, in the tradition of my youth, was not a moment to drill in dogma or beat us over the head with the Bible. Sermons were the moment when the priest became human. They were the point in the service when everyone got to see the one person with all of the credentials, the titles, the experience, as being no less human than any of the rest of us. She demonstrated her humanity by telling us about her life, about her attempts at integrating the disparate parts of herself, and about how sometimes she succeeded, and other times not so much. She had the floor, and when we heard her our hearts softened.

If the sermon was effective, her life would be the launching point for greater reflection, and we would all walk away with something meaningful to consider.

I watched the leaders of the UU service do this same thing, and something stirred inside me.

There! There it is, I though. There’s that feeling.

Meister Eckhart, by Hartwig HKD

I got what I went there for. I got to feel like my humanity was acknowledged, like there were others who shared in my struggles. I felt understood, and not because I’d make the best argument. I felt understood because someone else in the room was willing to stand up and say —

I’m human, too.

That’s all the context I need.


40 responses to “In Search Of Context”

  1. E J Avatar
    E J

    Yes, this:

    ” I wish they’d provide me with context. I wish they’d say —
    this is how all of this fits into my life, and this is something for you
    to reflect on as you stand in this circle, or sit before this altar.”

    I absolutely agree; I’d love to have these pithy conversations and moments of reflection, and opportunities to listen and share. I wish we polytheists had more of it in our interactions, online and in person.


  2. Blake Octavian Blair Avatar

    My husband and I, as gay and public Pagans, have been welcomed warmly by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh, NC. They have quite a variety of beliefs among the congregants and the self proclaimed faith titles are too numerous to list. What is nice about this particular congregation is their flavor is to focus on those spiritual elements we all face, common to all traditions, as well as social justice. This truly puts a particularly relevant light on the concept of being “universalist.” They also have Sabbat celebrations/services eight times a year in their garden. While they do not specifically label it Pagan, preferring the term “Earth Centered”.

    The point of the flavor, focus, and spiritual acceptance climate varying from congregation to congregation is definitely true. We had tried another UU Church prior to the Raleigh group, and they were much less accepting of Paganism and snubbed their nose at theism of any kind in general. The congregation’s membership was weighted towards older individuals who were staunchly Secular Humanists. A congregation will indeed take on the flavor of whatever “spiritual thought set” predominates the membership. Especially if the congregation is smaller.

    However, in many areas there are multiple congregations with multiple flavors to choose from.

  3. Ywen DragonEye Avatar
    Ywen DragonEye

    Hi Teo – like Saule we are a small eclectic group. We rotate who composes and leads ritual and are relatively casual in our circle. We talk about issues, laugh and cry, all in sacred space. We have some magical moments too, the Fae Folk seem to enjoy our little group and are a mischievous lot!

  4. Dave Avatar

    The local Buddhist temple does rituals at the shrine and then dharma talks (sermon like lectures on Buddhist teachings and beliefs and how to apply them to your life) in addition. I think it’s a good combination and it might be applied to a Pagan model, particularly an ADF one (I go to the local grove’s rituals too) with great success.



    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Glad to get your take, Dave, and thanks for sharing that tidbit about the Buddhist temple. I imagine that there are many examples of how religious leaders (they don’t necessarily need to be priests) can take a moment to offer perspective.


  5. Saule Avatar

    The need for that connection is totally understandable. Having never been a “church goer” I don’t really understand the sermon style fulfilling of that need though I expect its pretty effective.

    In my small Grove we have, in a way, come up with a solution, very organically. Since we are very small, in our group rituals its almost like we all contribute a tiny little sermon, often prepared before hand individually.The sharing in the middle lets us have an interactive connection in a sense. Its not as uniform as a real sermon might be but it helps us feel connected.

    Additionally, some of us in the Grove feel more connected to certain high days so on those days the connected people end up preparing more then just a little blurb, in a way “adopting” the high day for the Grove and giving a related talk.

    It works well but it does depend on the existence of a small Grove, even if its quite small.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Saule. I’m glad you’re a part of the conversation here. These are great ideas, and I think I’d really enjoy being a part of one of your Grove’s rituals.

  6. Jen Avatar

    I can really relate to this post Teo. My attendance at my Baptist church’s services long outlived my belief in Christianity, simply because my pastor was such an inspired speaker. I miss that kind of ‘church.’ The sermon that you can appreciate regardless of your faith. The speaker that touches your humanity and sense of connection outside of what label you put on, or what group you place yourself in.

    I do find that here at your blog. The questions you pose, the relating of your experiences, and those who comment and share in that earnest way of wanting to really unpack a topic and not just say “you’re wrong.” These are the things I appreciate about BITG.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you, Jen. This is a really kind thing to say, and I’m glad that you value what takes place on BITG. I certainly value your contributions to the dialogue.

      Peace to you.

  7. WitchDoctorJoe Avatar

    Wonderful post Tio, pardon the pun but you’re preaching to the choir. Although I’m Wiccan I come from a long line of preachers and a large portion of my ritual services are spent standing on a soapbox, before opening the topic up for sharing and discussing the practical application.

    I strongly believe Pagan liturgical practices would greatly benefit from growth and development in this area.

    BB, WDJoe

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Joe, and for sharing a bit about who you are. I think I might love to be at one of your rituals! I can’t say I’ve ever heard a Wiccan preach! 🙂

  8. Molly Remer Avatar

    I met the Goddess specifically through attending my local UU Church, which I jokingly refer to as the Church of Democracy and Evolution. There is another UU joke that the only time you’ll hear the word “Jesus” in church is when someone drops a hymnal. ;-D

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Molly. Glad to have you as part of this conversation. I’m curious to know more about how you met the Goddess through your UU church. That sounds like a fascinating story.

  9. Lorraine Ellis Avatar

    I’m glad to hear you say you’ve often wished for people who are leading ritual to stand up and deliver a sermon. When I lead ritual with my UU Earth-Centered Spirituality Group, I often include 5-10 minutes of personalized mini-sermon-like material. I’m the only one in my group who does that, but I’m also the only regular ritual leader who’s also a member and regular attendee at UU services. It feels natural to me, but I’ve worried that it won’t be well received by others in the circle. Most of the people who attend our public rituals (averaging 45 or so per ritual) are not members of the church. No one has ever said anything negative to me, but I also haven’t had any specific positive feedback either. I think I shall continue.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Lorraine. I think it’s great that you’ve created a space to speak within your rituals, and I wouldn’t read anything negative into people’s silence. It could be that people are simply taking in what you have to say.

      Do you write out in advance what you say during ritual, or is it off the cuff?

      1. Lorraine Ellis Avatar

        It’s a blend. I usually have a bulleted list of the things I want to make sure I’ve covered, and in the right order, practice it a couple times (usually while driving), then aim for a “conversational feel” during the ritual itself. I keep the bulleted list in my ritual script so that I can refer to it if I go blank, but for the most part I’m speaking from the heart. Usually it goes as expected, but sometimes it takes an unexpected turn or two, because things come to me as I’m speaking. I’ve tended to trust those things that come to me unbidden. They haven’t embarrassed me yet. : )

  10. joegonzo999 Avatar

    The first UU service my wife and I attended happened to be a Spring Equinox celebration. People were paranoid that this was our first experience there. We changed minds just by telling them we were pagan and felt welcomed. Since then we elevated to high priest and priestess, formed a pagan group that at one time had as many as 30 attendees at each monthly meeting, ran four pagan rituals each year as the Sunday services, and teach an annual pagan class as a neighboring UU church. We felt welcomed and loved, and the minister’s sermons were inclusive and thought provoking almost every week. I even became the president of the Board of Trustees, and my wife the church’s administrator.
    Unfortunately when he resigned, the interim minister we hired ended up being non-pagan friendly, on top of being demeaning and divisive in every other aspect of her personality. The context was lost for us. Her sermons were horrible. She alienated the pagan group so we were relegated to running one ritual annually during the lay-led summer services. Perhaps worst of all, the lay leadership let her get away with it, and rather than fight alongside us, told us to just wait until she left since she was only allowed to be there a set amount of time as an interim. Though there is now a new minister who is more pagan friendly, we are again adrift, looking for a place where we feel welcome and loved. We can’t yet bring ourselves to go back because the lay leadership is still making horrible choices, and that clouds our Sunday experience. I’m glad to see that one of your other commenters mentioned the Quakers, we were thinking of checking them out locally as well. I hope things change at our UU church. It helped us grow as people and as pagans, and to give us an opportunity to dispel a lot of the myths that follow our religion. The services we ran were often the highest attended of the year, and the day we hung a pagan banner in the sanctuary alongside the six major religion ones was a proud day, and the highest attended service of that year. It is a shame that feeling has been lost. This place was truly our home, and we are struggling without one.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Hi @joegonzo999:disqus. Thank you for your comment.

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had such a trying experience with your church community. People are falible, and we make terrible decisions sometimes; decisions that have far-reaching repercussions. If it doesn’t look like the church leadership has made amends or grown in any way, perhaps looking into a new community would be the healthiest thing to do.

      I’ve heard wonderful things about Quaker gatherings, and it sounds like you might really benefit from having a religious home again.

      Wherever you end up, I wish you and your wife peace in your journey.

    2. Lorraine Ellis Avatar

      I have a funny story about UU Spring Equinox services. A few years ago my group was having an open equinox ritual in the chapel of our church building. A couple arrived and joined the circle. We hadn’t seen them before and they were both dressed up – him in a suit, she in a dress… We had a typical ritual – planted seeds, sang songs, did a little dancing… Then afterward the couple came up to the leader and said “that was very interesting… but… was that the Maundy Thursday service?” The service they’d been looking for was down the hall in the sanctuary… oops!

  11. Wendy Callahan Avatar
    Wendy Callahan

    I’m a Pagan who loves her UU church back home. Oh, how I miss it. Where I grew up (Massachusetts), there is a UU in almost every town. Each church has it’s own “flavor” and character – some are more earth-based, others are more “high church”, still others more Buddhist-leaning, etc. Some focus more on spirituality, others on social justice. I am so looking forward to returning home to the U.S. next year and becoming involved with a UU once more!

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I’ve heard that there are *bunches* of UU churches on the east coast, Wendy. Perhaps I’ll have to go on a UU tour next time I’m in that part of the country!

      Thanks for the comment.

  12. Eran Rathan Avatar

    Take this how you like Teo, but I get a sense of that from reading your posts here. So thanks.


    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks, Eran. I appreciate that.

  13. Christopher Bogs Avatar
    Christopher Bogs

    I used to attend a UU fellowship and very much enjoyed my time there. I chuckled at your remark about the man who looked discomfited at the
    name of Jesus in the spiritual — it’s an old chestnut among UUs:

    Why can’t UUs sing very well?

    Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Wow… that sounds like me.

    2. Josh Pronk Avatar

      Christopher, I’m a UU Pagan and that’s EXACTLY correct! As a recovering Catholic even 15 years later, I do read a little ahead before I sing the verse to make sure I agree with it. Spot on! =)

  14. Eric Riley Avatar

    For my part, sermons were always the most demoralizing part of the church service. Mostly because the Baptist traditions that I was experiencing as a young person in the 80’s and 90’s were loaded with right wing political propaganda, and that really turned me off. I felt singled out by it, and that my views should be subject to the views of the preacher. As someone who was raised by free-thinking people, this did not sit well.

    That said, I have attended UU services, and felt at home. And most especially I’ve attended Quaker Meeting and felt absolutely at peace. I don’t want a lecture when I go to church. I want an experience. I want to connect with the Divine. That’s the ecstatic part of me, and why I was drawn to evangelical Christianity in the first place. The descent of the Holy Spirit was something that made absolute sense, and gave me the fire that I needed in my life. And today, that type of invocation is something that I still do, though in a wholly different context.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, @facebook-519796001:disqus. I understand where you’re coming from, and I’ve also attended services like the ones you’ve described.

      I love reading your second paragraph. Hearing someone say “The descent of the Holy Spirit was something that made absolute sense” is refreshing, because I think there are experiences within every tradition (including Christianity) that are true, real, valid, mystical. That you’ve found a way to have a similar experience of the HS within a different context point (to me) to that experience being bigger than one tradition.

  15. Mam Adar Avatar
    Mam Adar

    I wish I’d heard more sermons like that in my Christian life.

    1. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

      UUs aren’t Christian, but rather evolved from a Christian tradition (Unitarians). Many are Humanists or Atheists or Secularists, Buddhists, Pagan, Sikhs, Jews, Muslim, etc. All Unitarians are UU-[INSERT TRADITION].

      1. Teo Bishop Avatar

        Conor – you might take a peek at Mam Adar’s blog, Confessions of an Urban Druid ( She’s been doing some great writing about a lot of different things. I’m not sure if UU tradition has ever worked its way into her writing, but her blog might be a good reference for you in your own writing.

        1. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

          Thanks for the blog, have been reading on it, seems quite good!

    2. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I undertand how you feel, Mam. While I had positive experiences, I had my fair share of negative ones. I lived in Nashville for a time and had occasion to witness some really uncomfortable sermonizing.

      Did your experiences put you off from sermon-like speech?

      1. Mam Adar Avatar
        Mam Adar

        I think a good preacher, or teacher, needs two things: Some real experience of the tradition in which they’re speaking, and a feel for their audience. (And a little bit of LARGE HAM in the acting sense doesn’t hurt!) I’ve been overexposed to people who recycle the same platitudes week by week no matter what the theme of the day’s liturgy, or go off on tangents that mean nothing to their hearers. They become human in the pulpit only in the sense that they reveal their own shallowness of engagement with the tradition they’re supposed to represent and apply.

        And yes, I’m thinking of a couple Christian clergy in particular, but I’m not naming names, or locations. 😉

  16. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

    Higher traffic seems to be the “American dream” of every blogger. (Deliberately using that phrase, in quotes, to elicit the one-size-fits-all mentality that it invokes for me, and how it’s to this day still used in spite of the fact that no one can agree on what that dream is because we all have different dreams.) And it’s not necessarily a bad one; more traffic means more readers means more conversation. But it’s got to be hard when that transition hits you; that first paragraph up there says a lot, I think.

    This post also got me to thinking that I haven’t felt that way in a church in a long time. Not sure how I feel about that yet. But that was my first thought once I got to the end. “Whoa. I’d… I’d kind of like to have that, sometime.”

    1. Lauren Fotiades Avatar

      Oh, and now I feel all weird commenting again, as a new reader with *some* context, I think, since I’ve spent some time plowing through the archive (haven’t finished yet). Also, I’m supposed to be working now. I think I maybe need to unpack this some on my own blog.

      1. Teo Bishop Avatar

        Thanks for the comments, Lauren.

        I don’t begrudge the traffic, and I try not to let it become a huge focus or motivator. Sometimes people’s callousness affects me. I can’t help it.

        I will say that you shouldn’t feel weird for being a new reader and new commenter. You also shouldn’t feel pressure to understand my *entire story*! (Although, you should read as much of the archives as you like.) I’m glad you’re here.

        Please feel free to post a link to whatever you write to unpack this. I’d be interested to read it.

  17. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

    I’m glad you enjoyed the service. My career plan is to actually become a UU Minister (and there are a few Pagan UU Ministers, also a few who simply call themselves “Nature-Centered”) so it really excites me when I see people coming into a UU Church and really enjoying the sermon.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      That’s awesome, Conor! I didn’t know that about you.

      Can I ask — what inspired you to work towards UU ministry?

      1. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

        I had wanted to be a minister for years, then upon realizing I was gay and then eventually turning away from Christianity, I gave up that hope. The story is a long one (much longer than I’m capable of writing today, as that part of my brain isn’t working very well right now) but a Pre-Theo group at a Methodist center and some Methodist friends of mine caused me to start thinking in that direction again. After finding out that a UU Minister needs a M. Div from a seminary (as well as an internship and the like) and not from specifically a UU Seminary, I began heavily thinking on it. After thinking on it for several months, I felt like it is where I’m meant to go. My skills, my interests, and my passions all meet in Ministry (with, perhaps, the exclusion of acting). I strongly feel that it is where I can do the most good for society, and where I’ll be happiest. I’m still an undergraduate though, so I have quite a while before I’m there.