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Thursday, June 26

Morning

Today should answer a question I've been wondering about since I first saw the General Assembly (GA) Program: Will Forrest Church really be here?

Usually when a person's name appears in the program, you just assume that he'll appear in person at a podium. But Church's new book Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow confirms publicly something I had heard second-hand. "On a February day in 2008," says the front flap of the book cover, " Forrest Church sent a letter to members of his congregation, informing them that he had terminal cancer; his life would now be measured in months, not years." The flap openly presents the book as " Forrest Church 's final work."

That was February, this is June. Months. Will he be here?

The Minister of Public Theology at All Souls' Church in New York City and one of Unitarian Universalism's most popular and prolific authors, Church is in the program twice, each time with co-presenters fully capable of carrying the ball themselves. Today at 11 he, Rob Eller-Isaacs, and Sarah Lammert are scheduled to lead a worship service called "A Ministry of Love in Fearful Times." Tomorrow at 11 he and Lee Barker are talking about Church's new book.

Yesterday I picked up Love and Death at the Beacon Press booth at the Exhibition Hall and I read the first two chapters while waiting for the opening ceremonies to start. It has a powerful premise: Forrest Church has been talking about death for his entire career; now is not the time to stop. "When I was young I thought death took courage," Church writes. "I was wrong. ... It is love that requires courage, because the people we love most may die before we do."

The opening worship service last night was spectacular. The banner parade, in which representatives of the various Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches carry their church banners down the center aisle, is a charming bit of annual pageantry. The drums were beating, the crowd clapped in rhythm, and the banners went past in an order that kept me guessing where my church's banner would be. The banners themselves, with their diverse colors and designs, make an excellent metaphor for the unity-in-diversity of Unitarian Universalism. Many banners, one parade.

But the real hit of the evening was the performance of the Sources cantata written by Kendyl Gibbons and Jason Shelton. Sources is a series of musical pieces based on the UU Sources. I had heard two of them performed at the Church of the Larger Fellowship service at the 2006 GA, but not the full cantata. This is an amazing work that I think we'll be hearing for many years.

Night

For the last two days members of my church have been sidling up to each other and having cryptic conversations like prisoners planning a jailbreak.

"It going to be Thursday night," a woman staffing a booth in the Exhibit Hall said to me yesterday afternoon.

I picked up a pamphlet and pretended to read it. "Where?"

"Still undecided. Check back later."

By this morning it was all worked out: The annual Bedford GA dinner would be at a seafood restaurant on the Intercoastal, in the time slot just before the Service of the Living Tradition.

I'm not sure whether other churches have their own little GA traditions, but ours goes like this: One evening during the conference we all have dinner together. And at some point we go around the table and ask each person for their personal GA highlight.

The most surprising thing is how seldom two people mention the same event. This year our dinner came earlier in the conference than usual, so I thought we might get a few duplications. But no: One person's highlight was the Sources cantata during the opening service. One liked her UU University course. Walter Bruggemann's talk from the minister's program got mentioned, and so did Forrest Church's sermon about hope and fear. For me it was all the one-on-one discussions with people who had previously just been names on the Internet, and for my wife it was the session on classism.

You'd think we'd each been to a different conference. The same thing happened last year.

The person who came closest to a duplication was probably me. I might have highlighted Forrest Church's sermon too, if I weren't still frustrated by my attempts to write up a report on it for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) website. Church looked quite good, his voice was strong, and he stood at the podium for the full twenty minutes of his sermon. (I discussed Church's illness in my post this morning.) His talk was full of image and metaphor—very evocative to hear, but difficult to sum up. I'm going to sleep on it, and hope its inner structure becomes apparent when I look at my notes tomorrow morning.

Reported by Doug Muder.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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