Some flowers bloom early in the season, some late. Some bloom gently, others bloom boldly and loudly. No flower experiences a diminishment when another blooms. We are like these flowers. We are a diverse gathering of people, each of us unique, no one more important than the other, and the beauty of each person is augmented by those around it. We need each other as these flowers need each other. Each of you belongs here and is treasured. Together we are a magnificent bouquet.
This message was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI and the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL in May 2020. You are welcome to use with attribution to the author.
Reading: “The Greening Breath”, by Rev. Meg Barnhouse, from “Did I Say That Out Loud? Musings from a Questioning Soul.” You can order this awesome book of readings here: https://www.uuabookstore.org/Did-I-Say-That-Out-Loud-P16735.aspx
One of the things that has filled my heart during this pandemic is seeing all my people share on social media what they’ve accomplished because of the stay in place orders. Craft projects. Gardening. Home repairs. Renovations. Cooking. Organizing. Making music. Sometimes I’ve been one of those people. My gardens do look great this year. I’m making music too, finishing projects. I’ve crocheted two shawls. I organized the garden shed. I had no idea that I owned 3 snow shovels. Who needs 3 snow shovels in Missouri!
But sometimes, these same posts leave me feeling anxious, because for every day that I’ve accomplished a lot, there is at least 1 day, maybe 2, maybe 3 where I haven’t, and the posts of art projects and personal accomplishments leave me feeling like I’m not rising to this occasion. Not using this pandemic time like I could. Sometimes one hour stretches into the next, and one day stretches into the next, and it’s an accomplishment to unload the dishwasher. It’s like Rev. Barnhouse sitting in her home during the summer, escaping the heat, and having little energy for anything.
The experts, whoever they are, are telling us that this is not unusual. Although our lives have become smaller, sometimes quieter, sometimes emptier, it’s nothing like a vacation or a Sabbath because this has been imposed upon us by the urgencies of our day. Many of us are isolated from our support networks. We are caring for children 24/7 and it becomes an accomplishment if they put on a clean shirt in the morning or have only one melt down a day. We are trying to work online. We aren’t going outside without masks. We watch the news headlines, which are not uplifting. We often feel angry, tired, lonely, and sad. This is not a restful time. Not being productive, whatever that means, is a natural human response to trauma, and this is a traumatic time.
And yet, while we hunker in our homes and venture out with caution, nature is, as always, throwing caution to the wind. In La Crosse, the lawns are greening, the trees are budding, the daffodils and tulips are flowering. In Quincy, the dogwoods are in full bloom. You should see the dogwoods in Quincy! There is nothing like it! Here in St. Louis, the snowball bushes, the irises, the lilacs, and those pesky honeysuckle bushes are flowering and their scent perfumes everything. While we grieve the lives we had before all this started, lives that now look remarkably free with little worry about shaking a hand or giving a hug, spring marches on.
As Unitarian Universalists, with an intentionally pluralist theology in which we have many different ways of naming that to which we give ultimate value, nature has often provided us with a common language and common imagery to understand the cycles of life and our place in those cycles. We find deep meaning in seeds that seemingly lay dormant through the cold winter months, germinate in darkness and push through the soil into the light. We find hope in a sun that returns on the darkest day of the year. We use the imagery of roots and wings and wind to describe our experience of the spirit. The glorious colors of fall help us to see that even in endings there is always beauty. Winter is a time of sacred emptying and waiting. Spring is about hope and new life. Summer is about the fulfillment of the promises of fall, winter and spring.
In La Crosse, summer is about being out under the sun and soaking in all the heat you can and living as richly as you can before the cold days return. In Quincy and St. Louis, summer is about enjoying the brief cool moments each morning, respecting the heat during the day, and emerging in the evening to breath in the moist cooling air. Just like Rev. Meg in our reading, we often look out the window, watching the blooming of the roses.
Our Unitarian Universalist rituals are connected to the natural world. We light a flame to symbolize our living faith tradition. Our communions are named after plants and elements. Water communion. Fire communion. And the Flower communion that we celebrate today.
Briefly, this is the story of how the Flower Communion came to be. A Unitarian minister named Norbert Capek and his wife Maya, who was just as much a minister as him but wouldn’t get the recognition because our denomination didn’t ordain women at the time, planted a Unitarian church in Prague Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. It became the largest Unitarian church in the world, with over 3000 members. They had a strong social justice ministry to those displaced in the transition from monarchical to democratic governance. Many of the movers and shakers in this new democracy joined the Capeks’ church as a rejection of the Catholic Church and as is often the case, when many of your members join as form of rejection and may be struggling spiritually with religious abuse, sometimes you replicate your battles inside the new institution. Some members wanted no mention of God. No hymns. No prayers. No ritual. Nothing spiritual. Some wanted God, hymns and prayers galore. Some wanted a new blend with a deep spiritual foundation. Somehow the Capeks were supposed to serve all these people and it proved impossible. If they did not mention God, the theists felt deprived. If they mentioned God, the non-theists started complaining. The conflict grew deeper and deeper and the Capeks considered leaving.
One Sunday, as Norbert walked to church, his heart heavy, he saw the flowers in the ditch on the side of the road. He filled his arms with them. When the sanctuary filled with his people, he said to them, these flowers are beautiful. Some bloom early in the season, some late. Some bloom gently, others bloom boldly and loudly. No flower experiences a diminishment when another blooms. We are like these flowers. We are a diverse gathering of people, each of us unique, no one more important than the other, and the beauty of the flower is augmented by those around it. We need each other as these flowers need each other. Each of you belongs here and is treasured. So take one of these flowers home with you and honor who you are and who the people of this congregation are. Together we are a magnificent bouquet.
Once again, we have here an example in our rich history of a ritual, grounded in the rhythms and beauty of the natural world, that held us in a time of trial and helped us to find common ground. The flower communion was born that morning and it became a piece of what held that community together.
When we gather in person for the Flower Communion, each individual brings a flower that symbolizes the essence of who we are. Together we fill a vase and create a bouquet, a symbol of the beauty and power of beloved community, and then we each take home a different flower to symbolize that we hold each other, we are each other’s keepers. That is a core principle of our faith – that we hold each other and we are each other’s keepers. Our differences in belief, our differences in personality, the way we name the sacred, how we love and live, these are important but they are not the ultimate. They are but a conduit to the ultimate. The ultimate is who we become together when we live out our shared values – the equity of justice, equity and compassion.
Today we are faced with some of the same challenges that Maya and Norbert faced. We all have division in our communities that we manage well sometimes and poorly at other times. We often debate language, what can be said in our congregations and what can’t. In these divided times, we may disagree about what is political and what is not. And we wonder, should we even identify ourselves as liberal or progressive?
Let me offer a few comments on these questions. Firstly, In our pluralist tradition, there is no language that is out of bounds for us. In our two congregations, we use different language. In Quincy, we sing hymns. In La Crosse, we sing songs. In Quincy, we call it worship. In La Crosse, we call it a Sunday Service. In Quincy, we call ourselves a church. In La Crosse, saying the word “church” is often met by saying that no, we are not a church, we are a Fellowship. We use different language and sometimes argue about what language is right or wrong. I would say the answer is that no language is right or wrong. What matters instead is the meaning behind the language and what is in the heart of the person who speaks it. Any language bears the seeds of its own meaning in the action taken by those who speak it. If you are living in love, if you are living in beloved community, it doesn’t matter what language you use.
Secondly, Unitarian Universalism is a profoundly political faith. You cannot have your core values be justice, equity and compassion and not be political. To be political does not mean to be partisan. They are different. For us to live grounded in love is political because politics is ultimately the practice of how we share power and how we take care of each other. To live in solidarity with the marginalized and with the earth means being unabashedly political. Not everyone in our society is able to bloom. There are human flowers that take too much soil, too much air, too much water, that crowd out the sun for the rest of the garden. For us all to bloom means taking a stand of some kind, and that is going to be political.
And are we liberal or progressive? Or neither? We are both and admittedly what it means to be liberal and progressive has changed because of our polarized times. There are those who will dismiss us out of hand because we identify as liberal or progressive. So do we change how we identify ourselves to try and win over those who are dismissing us? I will be honest and say that I have come to a place where I increasingly care less about the words we use and more about our actions. How are we serving? How are living our values? How are we taking risks for our values? What would a risk on behalf of justice, equity and compassion look like in our very different communities – Quincy and La Crosse?
Let me share a risk that each of you has taken in the service of love.
Several years ago, before I came to Quincy, you wanted to be more active in the community. What was breaking your heart is that there is a high rate of child poverty in Quincy. One response to that poverty is to hold a back to school fair offering free health screenings and free backpacks stuffed with school supplies. You approached the organizers of the event and offered to take part, but you were met with distrust and rejection, refused the opportunity to participate because you aren’t Christian. It would have been easy to slink back home. But you persevered. You built the relationships, nurtured the trust and finally were invited to become a participant. Now it is hard to imagine the Back to School Fair without the Unitarian Universalists.
In La Crosse, you became a prominent voice in the city for the removal of the Hiawatha Statue, a culturally inappropriate wooden statue of an Indian that sits on the riverbank. The Ho Chunk Nation has wanted it removed for a long time. There is fierce division in the larger community about the statue, with hatred directed at the Ho Chunk every time the issue comes up. The Ho Chunk asked for white allies who would be willing to take the heat instead, to be the ones initiating the call for its removal. The Unitarian Universalists became one of the voices willing to deflect the heat away from the Ho Chunk and towards themselves.
These are risks you have taken for justice, equity and compassion. What will be your next risk?
For some of us risk has become part of our every day life. If you are a health care worker or work in an essential business, you are risking your life every day. Some of us live in communities where there is pressure to get back to normal living. Some of us are being mocked for wearing our masks or asking others to. In my partner’s clinic we are requiring everyone to wear a mask to enter. We expect pushback and will have to be courageous to hold the line. If the state opens up before you feel it’s safe to resume Sunday worship, or opens up schools before you’re ready to send your kids back, or if your employer asks you come back to work before you feel safe, what will you do? No doubt these will be hard decisions, and some of our decisions will beak our hearts.
Norbert took a huge risk filling his arms with those flowers. There was no guarantee that it would work, but he took the risk anyway. I think about Rev. Barnhouse’s proposition that those rose buds are pretty comfortable wound up tight and close, and that when the petals begin to spread there is fear, maybe even pain, and a desire to keep the change from happening. Risk is not fun, it is not comfortable, it is not safe, and it is not guaranteed to get the results you hope for. But today there is hardly a UU congregation that does not observe the Flower communion, employing its rich nature metaphors to help us recenter into our core values and to prepare ourselves to live them.
I introduced this message by talking about our expectations of using this time to achieve a series of accomplishments, how some of us are finding it difficult to stay focused, and how this is normal during a time of trauma. We are needing to redefine what an accomplishment looks like in altered circumstances and give ourselves a lot of room and lot of understanding. How we approach risk is the same. Risk is not measured by accomplishments. Risk is not measured by success. Risk is measured by truthful living of our values. Are we loving each other? Are we anchoring in compassion for ourselves and each other?
Today we are unable to have our Flower Communion in person, so I want you to imagine our respective sanctuaries. In La Crosse we set up a large table on the floor in front of the chancel with its two flaming chalices, with at least 3 vases to accommodate all the flowers. In Quincy we have a large crystal cut vase gifted to the church by Lynn Mercurio and her mother Libby Haggard, whose parents came from Czechoslovakia. The vase is a family heirloom made in Prague. In both congregations our musicians are called Carol, so our respective Carols start to play as you file forward with your flower. The bouquets grow. It is so beautiful, not only to see the flowers but to see our people. Then we take a different flower home with us and through the week reflect on how we create beloved community for each other.
Today our Flower Communion takes place virtually, through the photos that many of you sent holding your flowers or standing by your flowers. Let us see each other, be thankful for each other and the beloved communities that we have taken risks for, that we have created, sustained and nurtured for each other through perseverance, through gratitude, and through love.