Monthly Themes at All Souls, Tulsa, Help Congregants Go Deeper

At All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla., the theme for the month of January is “Creation.” In February the theme shifts to “Religious Authority.” When March comes around “Redemption” will be taken up.

Going out further, Senior Minister the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar knows what themes he will be preaching on for the next three years, at which time the themes will start over.

Theme-based ministry—adopting a specific topic for a month and focusing on it in depth in worship, religious education, and other aspects of congregational life—is catching on in Unitarian Universalist congregations. All Souls adopted theme-based ministry nine years ago, shortly after Lavanhar arrived.

“When I was in my first year of ministry here I realized I needed something with a little more structure,” he says. “UU ministers have to work a little harder to come up with sermon topics because for the most part we don’t follow the lectionary that traditional Christian ministers do.” A Christian lectionary is a list of specific scripture passages that are used in developing worship for any given Sunday.

Here’s how theme-based ministry works at 1,800-member All Souls: On the first Sunday of the month Lavanhar preaches on that month’s theme. On other Sundays of the month he is free to preach on other topics. As he does that he finds ways to also touch on the monthly theme.

The themes are not limited to sermons but are infused through the rest of congregational life at All Souls, including religious education and small group ministry. There are newsletter articles on the theme and take-home study materials each month to help congregants go deeper with the topic and talk with their children about it.

There is a more significant reason for using monthly themes than just Lavanhar’s need to be better organized, he notes. “I want our members to have a systematic theology. There are certain core topics that people need to know about to have a good grounding in liberal theology. For example, if I only preached about ‘evil’ every six or seven years there could be people who come and go from All Souls without ever hearing anything on that topic. With theme preaching they’ll hear about it at least every three years.”

The themes also provide a way to introduce Bible stories, he notes, giving children and adults a cultural literacy foundation that’s often missing in Unitarian Universalism. Stories from other traditions are also included “so children learn that stories about forgiveness, for example, are not just found in the Bible.”

Too often, Lavanhar says, we as UUs don’t have the theological grounding we need when we are confronted with life’s crises. “We get a diagnosis, or someone dies. Then we want a crash course on seeking redemption and forgiveness. All the big questions come up. What we need to be doing in our UU congregations is giving people resources when they are well, not when they’re in the middle of an issue. Then when there’s a crisis they’ll have the wisdom and the resources they need. Theme-based ministry helps with that.”

Case in point: Lavanhar’s three-year-old daughter Sienna died suddenly four years ago. Earlier that year death had been one of the monthly themes at All Souls, along with a discussion of brokenness and how it can be transformed into something of value. “We found that during this crisis the congregation had a spiritual maturity that we were able to draw on,” Lavanhar says. “Because we had talked about death earlier people knew how to respond. That brought home the value of the themes to us.”

Lavanhar meets with RE teachers quarterly to talk about themes for the next three months. Then the teachers create and design classes to fit those themes. The All Souls RE program for children and youth has adopted a “rotational” model. Children learn about the monthly themes by rotating through classrooms that use visual arts, drama, movement, yoga, and music to explain the lessons.

Having topics come up every three years means that by the time youth at All Souls have graduated from high school they have been exposed to each topic at least three times. Throughout their time at All Souls they are given journals and asked to write in them monthly. “When they graduate they have a stack of journals that document their theological and spiritual growth through their childhood,” says Lavanhar. “They can look back and see how their thinking on a particular topic, such as their view of God, has changed over time.”

Adults too, he says, can chart their own growth. “The themes become yardsticks for a spiritual life.” All Souls member Toni Willis says the monthly themes are her family’s spiritual practice. “We take the theme of the month and we talk about it all month. I have a son who is five, and he knows exactly what the theme is, and we have conversations about how we view it in the world around us, and that’s really beautiful.”

Kathy Keith, executive director of All Souls, and formerly the director of its religious education program, says the inspiration for theme-based ministry came in part from the children’s program, which had its own monthly biblical themes before the church-wide program was adopted. “Here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Bible literacy is a survival skill,” she says.

“Theme-based ministry has closed the chasm between ‘big church’ and religious education,” she adds. “It has knit our congregation together. And now adults can volunteer in RE for a month at a time without giving up their entire adult experience.”

Jaclyn Rusher, 17, believes the monthly themes and the opportunity she’s had to experience them during the past nine years through various mediums, has given her a better RE experience. “I don’t remember much of church before we started doing themes and moving from room to room and using drama and acting out what we were learning. But I remember many of the things we’ve done since then. Having something to focus on for a month and having different ways to look at it made church something to look forward to every week.”

All Souls has created a website for its resources on theme-based ministry, including newsletter articles, sermons, discussion ideas for small groups, poems, music, and video clips. Lavanhar says other congregations are also contributing to this database. “We’re increasing the possibilities for what Unitarian Universalism can offer. If we take theme-based ministry seriously it can really raise the quality of Unitarian Universalism and help us have a larger role in shaping U.S. culture.”

The Rev. Thomas Wintle introduced theme-based ministry to his congregation, the 600-member First Parish Church in Weston, Mass., in 2006, after learning about it from Lavanhar. He does a three-year rotation of themes and preaches on the theme all four or five Sundays in a month.

As a Christian UU minister he’s used a lectionary for 20 years to determine worship topics. He was intrigued by the possibility of exploring a topic for a full month in worship and RE. “You can go much deeper than if there’s just one sermon or one RE lesson,” he says. “It assures we have a theologically literate congregation. Our families go home on Sunday and I hear later about these amazing dinner table conversations. And I have to say theme ministry has rejuvenated my preaching.”

He says monthly themes help him collect information for sermons. “I have a file for each topic. When I read something about mercy, or redemption, it goes in the file.”

At the beginning of each year First Parish creates a five-page brochure laying out the themes and mails it to every resident of Weston. “It’s a terrific PR piece,” says Wintle.

Other congregations using or exploring theme-based ministry include West Shore UU Church in Rocky River, Ohio; Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn.; First Parish in Concord, Mass.; the UU Church of Arlington, Va.; Pathways UU Church in Southlake, Tex.; and the UU Society: East in Manchester, Conn.

RESOURCES

More information on All Souls Unitarian Church’s use of theme-based ministry can be found here, including a list of themes, resources for each, and an explanation of this approach to ministry. All Souls and several other congregations using theme-based ministry have created another website, ThemeBasedMinistry.org, with additional resources. Congregations using theme-based ministry are invited to submit resources to this latter site.

The “Journeys of Faith—Year at a Glance” brochure for theme ministry at First Parish Church in Weston, Mass., can be found on the church’s website.

 

The above article from the Unitarian Universalist Association website.
Article Dated 1 January 2011

 

 

Surrender

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

 

“Surrender is simple and yet complex. It can be inviting, not threatening. It can be fulfilling, not defeating. It is an act that does not merely effect a natural progression of change; it is alchemical in its magical ability to transmute us from one state of being into another. It is a tool that we can willfully employ for beneficial devel­opment” – Mary Beth G. Moze, from her piece “Surrender: An Alchemical Act in Personal Transformation.”

Surrender means different things to differ­ent cultures. Eastern cultures tend to value trans-formative surrender for providing insight and wis­dom in a curative process. Western cultures often view surrender as the therapeutic result of insight and wisdom gained through intellectual or experi­ential analysis.

Surrender is often paired with the concept of resistance, but it all depends upon if you be­lieve that you have something to resist or if resis­tance is a natural condition. Surrender can be about growth and development as opposed to overcoming obstacles.

Western society is heavily focused on in­dependent achievement. It emphasizes the separa­tion between ourselves and others. Surrendering to something outside of ourselves often means defeat, humiliation and destruction of our own individualism. As a result, we see great resistance to the concept of surrender in the West.

But what if this was not the case? What if surrender was simply a transformation of the self? What if surrender meant access to a greater under­standing of the self? What would you not resist if you knew surrender meant growth of your iden­tity, your life, your soul, your community and your connection to the interdependent web of all existence?

Freedom

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

 

Have you ever found yourself saying “Being a Unitarian Universalist means that you can believe anything you want?”

The Rev. Liz Strong writes: “Unitarian Uni­versalism is not the freedom to believe anything or nothing. It is the freedom to reason and feel your own way to what the evidence leads you to believe. You have the freedom to form your own beliefs. [But] there are responsibilities that go with this freedom.”

The Rev. Tim Kutzmark takes it from there: “Just because Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have a rigid structure doesn’t mean there is no structure at all. Just because Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have a rigid set of beliefs doesn’t mean there are no beliefs at all. Just because Unitarian Universalism has an open embrace doesn’t mean that any belief is welcome here. Just because Unitarian Universalism affirms us as individuals doesn’t mean that our own mind is the be all and end all of religious discernment.

Our faith is rooted in radical beliefs, revolu­tionary concepts about divinity and humanity and the nature of life that reach back several thousand years. Timeless truths taught by our Unitarian and Universalist forebears are at the core of our faith. These core beliefs are anchored in this present day and age by what we call our Seven Principles and Purposes. These Seven Principles and Purposes are not inconclusive or inconsequential vagaries. They are seven specific action statements, seven specific mis­sion statements that, if we really guided our day by them, would cause us to upend our lives and upend the world around us.

The Principles are the heart of our faith. We are called not just to affirm these, which is easy. We are called to actively promote them in our home, our workplace, our neighborhood, our town, our state, our country, and our world. And if our own beliefs are not in sympathy with any of these seven—then this Uni­tarian Universalist faith is not a place for us. I can’t be here, you can’t be here, we can’t be here, and simply believe whatever we want. Our own search for truth and meaning must be guided by these seven religious principles.

My mom used to say: ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’ Well, I’d echo that and say: ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free search.’”

Truth

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

“I call that mind free which…calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come…” – Rev. William Ellery Channing

“What may appear as Truth to one person will often appear as untruth to another person. But that need not worry the seeker. Where there is hon­est effort, it will be realized that what appear to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree.” – Ghandi

It requires a certain amount of freedom to be able to seek the truth. In April our ministry theme called us to consider freedom. We affirm and pro­mote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning in our lives. But what is truth?

We start out believing as true the things we feel, taste, touch, see and hear. Then we discover tangible evidence that sensory truth is distinct and subject to biology. It’s a surprise when we learn that humans interpret colors differently. We’re amazed to find that cilantro reeks of stinkbugs and soap to some and offers a sharp lemony flavor to others.

Our circle of learning expands: we begin to see that experiences shape truths as well. Family, home, neighborhood, education and religious up­bringing all contribute to how we filter truth in our lives.

As Unitarian Universalists, we seek to ex­pand the filters of biology and experience. We are invited to examine the validity of what we believe is true. We are asked to keep searching to stretch the boundaries of our beliefs as a part of our spiritual growth.

Consider these questions when you are thinking about truth this month:

What does truth mean to you?

Who gets to decide when something is true?

How do you seek the truth?

Has the truth ever changed for you?

How would you respond to someone who be­lieves their religious creed is truth?

Are the UU Principles & Purposes a form of truth?

Journeys

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

A journey is an act of traveling from one place to another. The journey might be physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Some folks plan their journeys. They select a destination and map out the route to get there. Others simply set out and go wherever the road leads them.

It is always a good time to stop and ask: what’s your journey? It’s a good time to imagine yourself on a plane, looking down over the landscape of your life. What does your life look like, viewed from 10,000 feet? Are you on a meandering path, wandering but not lost? Are you wandering and feeling lost? Are you on a path of your own choosing or are your steps chosen for you? For your life, is the journey more important than the places you’re going? When you look at your life, no matter how short or long, where have you been on your journey? What stories can you tell? What do those stories say about your life?

And then, take a moment to look ahead at the journey in front of you. What stories do you want to tell, a year from now? What life seeds did you plant last year that are coming to fruition now? What seeds do you want to plant for next year? What kind of journey do you want to go on this year? Where do you want life to take you? Do you need a destination or is the journey enough?

Atonement, Redefined by Hosea Ballou

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

Hosea Ballou, an influential 19th century Universalist preacher, redefined the Christian doctrine of atonement in his book A Treatise on Atonement. Ballou came from our back yard, a man of the central hill country in New England: southern New Hampshire and Vermont and western Massachusetts. He was raised a Calvinist Baptist and in his teens he became exposed to the concepts of Universalism and Unitarianism being preached in the pulpits of the time.

Atonement in this case would mean amends or reparation for an injury or a wrong that’s been committed. Strict Christian doctrine on atonement stated that Jesus was the source of expiation of the sins of humanity: his death satisfied divine justice and appeased the Christian God. This God was disillusioned and angry, but Jesus’s death managed to fix that by absorbing humanity’s sins and restoring the relationship of God to the world.

It wasn’t up to humanity to feel better about God; it was about God feeling better about us. And seeing as how only Jesus could do that, there wasn’t much hope for humanity. Combined with the doctrine of Calvinist predeterminism, Protestant Christian life was pretty harsh, stern and severe. You were either definitely going to burn in Hell, or if you weren’t going to Hell, chances were God hated you for your weaknesses anyway. I suppose it’s no small wonder that other ways of interpreting a relationship with God started developing, including a migration away from the concept of God altogether.

The Shift

Hosea Ballou took issue with this doctrine of atonement, reflecting this theological shift in Christian thinking. He took the idea of a God of infinite love and ran with it. He said that a God of infinite love could never have been offended by humanity. Ballou said that instead of appeasing an angry God, we have the task at hand of figuring out how to reconcile ourselves with a loving God, especially given our human shortcomings. We have to figure out how to love God again, he said, especially because all God wants is love and salvation for everyone.

Ballou felt that people would naturally gravitate toward a life of love and good works if they felt it brought them closer in synchronization with their universal infinite notion of God.

What This Means for Us

My interpretation of Ballou, then, says that we are called to grow ever closer to that notion of universal love. The practice of atonement, then, brings us in sync with that universal love by addressing actions that may have caused harm or injury. Atonement, then, might be said to be an act of love.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are asked to consider the concept of the universal, interdependent web of all existence – some may include a concept of God or gods in their interpretation, some may not. When we contemplate making atonement for an injury or wrong that we have caused, we are considering our effect upon one locus of the web. But, our belief in the interdependent connections of existence lead us to the idea that our efforts at atonement affect the entire web, not just one point. How does this play into the role of atonement in your life?

Questions to Consider

What place does “love” as an abstract concept or an attribute of the divine have in your personal theology? How does it affect the way you approach atonement? Do you resent practicing atonement, expecting resentment in return? Do you approach making amends as if the world is an endless source of light and love? What is your core purpose for atoning for your actions? Do you practice atonement in order to feel closer to your God or gods? Do you practice atonement in order to feel closer to other people?

Meaning, from the UUA’s Spirit in Practice

From the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Spirit in Practice” set of workshops:

The things that are holy and sacred in this life are neither stored away on mountaintops nor locked away in arcane secrets of the saints. I doubt that any church has a monopoly on them either. What holiness there is in this world resides in the ordinary bonds between us and in whatever bonds we manage to create between ourselves and the divine. —Patrick O’Neill, ” Unitarian Universalist Views of the Sacred ”

For our Unitarian Universalist congregations to reach their potential as spiritual homes, we need to provide rich and meaningful opportunities for spiritual develop­ment. The Eight Spheres of Spiritual Growth is one model, one structure upon which such an integrated program might be built. Inspired by the Eight Gates of Zen training devel­oped at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, Spirit in Practice articulates eight spheres in which one can develop his/her spiritual life.

You can think of the eight spheres model as a spiri­tual analogue of the USDA’s “food pyramid.” To be well balanced in nutrients, you must eat from all of the different food groups in the food pyramid, yet not every meal need include food from every group. Similarly, engagement with each of the eight spheres over time can lead to a well-balanced spiritual life. To continue with the “food pyramid” analogy, our Unitarian Universalist tradition will not tell you specifically what foods you should eat, but the collec­tive wisdom of the world’s religions and the insights of modern psychology do point to a general outline of a “healthy diet” for spiritual well-being.

Personal Spiritual Practices: These are practices done alone and, perhaps, daily—such as meditation, dream work, journaling, prayer, and so on. They’re what most people think of when they hear the words “spiritual practice.”

Communal Worship Practices: Although Unitarian Uni­versalists affirm the uniqueness and individual nature of a person’s spiritual path, our movement is also founded on a belief that community is essential to that journey. Regular engagement with communal worship—the ongoing and collective search for truth and meaning—is one way of sup­porting this belief.

Spiritual Partnerships: Spiritual development is hard work, and most faith traditions affirm the usefulness of companions on the journey. A spiritual partnership can take the form of participation in a small group, a one-on-one relationship with another congregant, spiritual guidance with a minister, or one’s own personal therapy. What mat­ters most is the intentional relationship with another person and a mutual commitment to the journey.

Mind Practices: Could a program of spiritual development be Unitarian Universalist without an intellectual compo­nent? This is a role of adult religious education: book stud­ies, film discussions, lectures, adult forums, scripture stud­ies, courses in UU history, and other RE offerings are all ways to fulfill this dimension of a “rich, integrated pro­gram.”

Body Practices: We know that mind, body, and soul are interconnected. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that a well-rounded spiritual practice includes some kind of physical practice? It might be running, sitting, gardening, tai chi, massage, or virtually anything else that keeps us in touch with the miracle of our physical selves.

Soul Practices: These are the practices that exercise our creative selves—drawing, painting, sculpting, music, po­etry, and other creative endeavors. It has been said that the Biblical expression that humans are “made in the image of God” means that we are made to be creative.

Life Practices: Religious traditions from around the world agree that we eventually need to take what we do in private and in our congregations and bring it out into the rest of our lives—in our relationships with our family members, in our workplaces, in our interactions with strangers.

Justice Practices: A fully mature spirituality does not stop at the goal of transforming oneself, but must extend beyond oneself—to others—and include a vision of transforming the world.

Share the “Eight Spheres of Spiritual Growth” model with a friend, housemate, or family member. Talk about the kinds of spiritual practices you have engaged in and those you wish to learn more about, and ask the same of your conversation partner.

If you have children in your life, discuss spiritual­ity with them. Try coming up with a definition of spiritual­ity that is meaningful to you and also makes sense to them. Talk with them about things you do, and things they can do, to connect with the Spirit of Life—things like prayers at the table or at bedtime, or sitting quietly to meditate.

Take some time in your journal to reflect on your lifelong spiritual journey. When you were a child, what (if anything) were you taught or shown about practicing spiri­tuality? What practices have you engaged in as a child, youth, and adult? How have your spiritual ideas and needs changed throughout your life? What practices might speak to those ideas and address those needs today?

Vocation

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

“Vocation at its deepest level is not, ‘Oh, boy, I get to go to this strange place where I have to learn a new way to live and where no one, including me, under­stands what I’m doing.’ Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully un­derstand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”

– Parker Palmer

“The challenge for [Unitarian Universalists] is to make sure we are providing evidence of what we love and serve more than secretly. Actions speak louder than words. Do we care about conventional wisdom more than justice? Do we care about keeping up with our neighbors more than enlarging those who are truly our neighbors and inviting all persons to the party? Where are our hearts leading us, not just in secret, but here, publicly?

This challenge means we are talking about vocation— a calling to something. Here we are, having cove­nanted, having promised to affirm and promote these principles and draw upon these many traditions. Here we are answering this calling, which sometimes we might struggle to define, answering this calling here, to work in this church and in this faith.” – Rev. Naomi King

The ministry theme for January is vocation. This is at first glance a more secular choice for a theo­logical theme. We’re all familiar with the definitions of vocation – a life’s work, the purpose of a group, a strong inclination toward a particular state or a course of action. The word has been connected to a divine sense of work, traced to the Christian Bible.

But I am particularly interested in the etymol­ogy of the word for this month’s column.

The first known use of the word is from the 15th century. It comes from the late Middle English vocacio (1400-1500CE). This sourced from the Latin vocare, which meant a call or a summons. And vocare came from vox, which meant voice.

And what I see from tracing the etymology is that the call grew out of the voice. The voice became the call that became the vocation. The voice is the vo­cation. Out of the vocation comes the voice.

What is the voice?

The voice is what you hear inside you that calls you to grow, think, move, change, act.

The voice is what people hear together that causes movements, protests, changes. It founds new religions. Unitarians and Universalists heard a voice that they could not ignore and they answered the call to found a new religion. From this group vocation, they created a new voice that speaks to us today through the principles of Unitarian Universalism.

At some point, you made a deliberate decision to become a Unitarian Universalist. It might have been as a child, as an adult, as a senior. But something within in you spoke and you listened. It might have taken a few steps or many, but you followed the call to find a Unitarian Universalist congregation. And here you are today, at Unitarian Universalist Society: East.

So I would ask: now that you have been called here to be a part of this faith community, how are you participating in your vocation as a Unitarian Univer­salist? What is your work within this faith? The UU Principles begin with the statement “we affirm and promote”. If you affirm, do you also promote?

This vocational work of promoting the princi­ples is a core function of our covenant together. Uni­tarian Universalism is not a passive religion. At its heart is the deep justice work of building equity and compassion in human relations. At its heart is a stag­gering goal of a peaceful world community. The voices of Unitarian Universalists are heard the world over, promoting these principles.

This is the vocation of the faith community of which you are a part. I invite you to listen to your voice and ask where your UU voice fits into that com­munity vocation. What is your UU vocation? Where is your voice heard? Where is your voice not being heard?

If you are proud of this church, become its advocate. If you are concerned for it future, share its message.  If its values resonate deep within you, give it a meas­ure of your devotion. This church cannot survive without your faith, your confidence, your enthusiasm. Its destiny, the larger hope, rests in your hands.

-Michael A. Schuler

What does it mean to create a community?

Community

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

 

“With humility and courage born of our history, we are called as Unitarian Universalists to build the Beloved Community where all souls are welcome as blessings, and the human family lives whole and reconciled. With this vision in our hearts and minds, we light our chalice.

–“A vision for Unitarian Universalism in a multicultural world” by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Leadership Council, adopted October 1, 2008

What does it mean to create a community?

The New Member Ceremony is a deeply powerful and moving segment of our Sunday services, celebrated several times per year. During the service, we explain what it means to become a new member and a key part of that is our community. The ceremony is an important one to introduce new members but also to remind all of us that we are a part of a larger whole and a part of each other.

These brief moments of community commitment clearly explain what it means to create a community: sharing values, action, talent, triumph, struggle, learning, growth and fellowship.

So, how about we take a moment to consider and renew our commitment as a part of March’s ministry theme of community? As you read this, consider what the community of your congregation means to you.

Dear reader,

We welcome into our community all who have chosen to make a commitment to this congregation.

We are also glad to have you here with us and that you have chosen this community of fellow seekers to travel with you on your life journey.

Will you accept our gifts of fellowship, discovery, and service?

Will you offer us your unique presence and gifts?

Will you add your name to the long history of Unitarian Universalist women and men who spread hope with our living faith?

Will you engage with us as we seek to create a community and a world dedicated to love and justice?

Will you welcome all new members with the warmth and comfort of your fellowship?

Will you seek to add your strengths and talents to the gifts they bring to us?

Will you share our triumphs and our struggles as our community grows and changes?

 

Considering Relatedness

Considering Relatedness

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

…I love you because I know no other way than this: where I does not exist, nor you, so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, so close that as I fall asleep, it is your eyes that close. – Pablo Neruda

At first glance, “relatedness” as a ministry theme seems just about as dry and parched as a Steinbeck farm. But ’tis not so. Scratch off the dusty bits and a liv­ing, pulsing vortex of questions lurks within.

Process theology says, among other things, that reality is a series of events occurring through nature and that every event has physical and metaphysical aspects. It is by experiencing these events that we come to un­derstand the interrelated nature of ongoing reality.

Indeed, some would go so far as to say that real­ity does not exist without the physical, emotional and spiritual connections we have with other people, ani­mals, plants and all of the other tangible and intangible parts of our day-to-day existence.

Regardless of what we believe about the nature of reality, how we relate to each other and what that re­latedness means are fundamental questions that can be useful to think about, even if you prefer to stay away from esoterica.

Relatedness is important because it’s the idea that we grow when we relate to others.

Relatedness is important because it’s the idea that others have the opportunity for growth when we relate to them.

In short, it’s the idea that we’re all in it together, whether we choose to be or not.

Relatedness says that we experience challenges with each another and those challenges help us to move beyond our current state. It’s easier to have respect and dignity for all when we’re alone, harder when we have to respect and dignify others by looking them in the eyes. Put differently, are you really stealing a cookie from the cookie jar if nobody else is around to notice and point out the cookie theft?

To what extent is your life determined by your relatedness to others? When you think of the most joyous and most sad moments of your life, were those memories formed in the context of relatedness?

Do you make your easiest and most difficult moral and ethical decisions in the context of your relatedness to others?

Is your spiritual growth determined and guided by your relatedness to others and theirs to you?

Indeed, is your identity, the person you know yourself to be, the person you call yourself, the defi­nitions and labels you apply to yourself, independent of others? Or have you formed those ideas in related­ness?

We spend quite a bit of time writing living covenants that cultivate our relatedness with deliber­ate intent. We are constantly figuring out how to navigate this nebulous place where our individual selves begin and end with others.

Pablo Neruda had relatedness figured out in love: where neither existed as “I” nor “you” but as a single being. A seamless existence between two peo­ple, so much so that as one falls asleep, the other closes their eyes. As you read this, consider with fresh eyes the relatedness between you and your lover. Consider the relatedness you have with your children, your best friends, your parents. Where do you end and they begin? Could the line move? Could the line fade away until there is no more “you” and “them” but we are all one?

Funny, this UU principle that talks about the interrelated web of all existence. I think the first step is to consider the relatedness we experience in our local sphere of existence. I invite you to ex­amine your own “locaweb” of relatedness.