General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Monday Afternoon Worship, General Assembly 2001

General Assembly 2001 Event 5048


Rev. Marta Morris Flanagan (co-minister with Rev. Will Saunders, of South Church in Portsmouth, NH)

Text of the Reading and Sermon (PDF, 6 pages)

The Public Auditorium of the Cleveland Convention Center was filled with the music of Pianist Marcellene Hawk as the prelude to Monday's worship service began at 1:30 p.m. Offering opening words, Rev. Marta Flanagan asked worshippers to join her in singing the opening hymn, "Life is the Greatest Gift of All."

Flanagan offered a prayer for the Association's new leadership and for those in need of our love and caring, particularly mentioning Jerry Davidoff, husband of moderator Denny Davidoff, who is scheduled to undergo surgery on June 26. The prayer ended with a chant from Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Flanagan's reading was about a baseball game where all people were encouraged to bring their gifts to the world and to be of use. Focusing on the story of a rather hapless child player, Shaya, she related the story of the team joining together to support Shaya's success: "The right fielder understood the pitcher's intentions. So he threw the ball high and far over the baseman's head. Shaya ran to second base, and the basemen circled him…the opposing shortstop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third, and said, 'run to third, Shaya, run home'…he stepped on home plate, and all eighteen boys lifted him on their shoulders, as if he had just hit a grand slam, and won the game. That day, Shaya's father said, 'those eighteen boys reached the level of God's perfection.'

The hymn was "Though I May Speak With Bravest Fire," and was followed by Flanagan's homily, lifting up all of us as "Universalists-in-Training."

"Each of us are here today due to the commitment of thousands of Unitarians and Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists…their presence will go unrecorded. Yet they are the ones who have made all of this possible," Flanagan said.

"Twelve years ago, the church I was serving restored its 1808 sanctuary. The sanctuary was filled with plasterers, and workers…" One worker, Flanagan said, caught her attention. "He listened to public radio…after each coat of polyurethane he would run his hand over the floor like a man making love. He said to me, 'I have figured out what you do... You read, you write, and you schmooze.' I could not argue with his definition of ministry.

"Jim Harrison was a minister. I invited him to our dedication of the sanctuary. He kept coming back…he said, 'you are a spiritual mechanic. I come here to get a tune-up. Some Sundays it works, some Sundays I figure it's a tune-up for someone else." Flanagan related that Harrison "signed the book after a time. He said, 'I can't call myself a Universalist. I call myself a Universalist-in-training.' He was not a theologian. He was loud-talking, and not impressed with false airs. He wouldn't have known what to make of a Transylvanian bishop or a Boston Brahmin…

"Jim knew that the spiritual game plan is to do what God would do, and to love as God would love. Nearly five hundred years ago, our Unitarian forebears wrote a treatise that said our purpose is to move religion into the category of love for God and neighbor.

"What lies at the core of our faith?… We believe in thinking, we believe not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. We question and we search. We work and worship together…the fidgety eight year old, the couple now together sixty years, the lesbians together, the person who cleans houses, the university professor. We see truths continually unfolding in our midst. There are lessons from the pursuit of justice. Those are the basics. But the heart of our faith is love. The apostle Paul said in the words of our last hymn, 'If I speak but have not love, I am nothing.' Nada. Love God, love your neighbor. This is so simple it risks being trite. But Jim Harrison understood that this was a tall order. Jim Harrison understood this and said, 'I'm not there yet, I'm in training.'"

Flanagan continued, "Jim squirmed about gay men kissing on the street, or the woman in the grocery line who spoke Spanish. He wasn't proud of his feelings. But when the local Spanish church needed a place to worship, he made it possible for them to worship at the church. When my marriage ended, he moved me out my beloved condo. He arrived with four men and a truck. He said, 'boys, the job is to get the woman out of here before the woman cries.' He got us out of there in an hour.

"Jim knew how to do, but not always how to be. He drank. Too much. He drank when he woke up in the morning. And when he was drinking he talked even more, and too loosely. He knew no boundaries. He was the kind of person it was easy not to like. And yet I loved Jim Harrison.

"In our churches, in small towns and big cities, we are trying to achieve a noble experiment. It is easy to love others when they have done good. But the time to love people is when they are at their lowest. We fall short of this goal, but we keep trying. Who do you need to love right now in order to live out this faith? We are all Universalists-in-training; it is the Jim Harrisons in our midst that keep us on our toes.

"Love what is difficult," she said. "Love the one who is irritating. Love the one who has disappointed you, brought you down. This love is not simply personal, it involves the commonweal…when we love enough, a new way on earth will unfold…"

Rev. Flanagan concluded, "James Melvin Harrison died of liver failure on November 21, 2000. He was fifty-one. He is one of the nameless ones who was forgotten, or soon forgotten. He will not be celebrated at an awards breakfast…his presence will go unrewarded. But such are the ones who allow us to train as Universalists, and to love one another…"

The service concluded with the singing of hymn 128—"For All That Is Our Life."

Reported by Deborah Weiner.

Order of Service

Please observe a respectful silence as you enter the Worship space for the Prelude. Thank you.


Gladys Rudolph

Opening Words

Hymn 331

Life is the Greatest Gift of All


The prayer will end with silence followed by a chant.
The words of the chant are from Julian of Norwich.
Please join in the chant.


Hymn 34

Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire


Rev. Marta Flanagan

Hymn 128

For All That is Our Life


Gladys Rudolph


Worship is led by Rev. Marta Flanagan. Marta and Rev. Will Saunders serve as co-ministers of South Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Gladys Rudolph has been choir director and organist for the Unitarian Church of Toledo, Ohio for over twenty years. Our thanks to Gladys for sharing her gift of music with us today.

Our thanks to the Rev. Doug Strong for his assistance in designing the cover graphic.

The Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  • 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 or all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience or that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle or life and (nstruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this
covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.