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"We are an inclusive community that encourages free thinking and compassionate living," said church board member Susan Weaver. "We have gathered here to consider the most significant issues in life and to make manifest in this world the beloved community of all souls." The space had the tasteful feel of a concert hall built with religion in mind; the flowers in front of the lectern, dedicated by ten-year-old Shane Jost, honored slain naturalist Steve Irwin. Three times the bell tolled to signal the beginning of the service -- a bronzed bowl of a bell, resting on an embroidered pillow, with a hand-held rod instead of a clapper. The tones hung on, warm and muted, for a long time.

Intern minister Victoria Ingram lit the candle in the chalice -- a broad, shallow bowl on a heavy, waist-high stand next to the lectern. "We now light the flames of our chalice, enkindling again the light of our heritage, the promise of our faith." The congregation then sang the Church Hymn and read the Church Aspiration: "May love be the spirit of this church. May the quest for truth be its sacrament and service be its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge and freedom, and to help one another in fellowship -- this is our aspiration." The voluntary that followed featured an oboe, playing a mellow, lilting aria enlivened by the instrument's characteristic twang.

"Come into the circle of love," said Liz Jones, director of religious education . "Come into the community of mercy, holiness, and health." The congregation sang, "Gather in peace, gather in thanks/ Gather in sympathy now and then/ Gather in hope, compassion, and strength/ Gather to celebrate once again."

Jones called the children to the stage for the Children's Affirmation. (A teen, goofing, pretended to warm her hands over the chalice.) "We are Unitarian (all made a U with thumb and forefinger of one hand) Universalists (then with the other), a people of open minds (forefingers to temples), loving hearts (hands crossed over chest), and welcoming hands (hands extended, palms upturned)." The children processed out to their own chapel service.

After the offertory, all sang an almost mournful meditation hymn. "Where there is faith, there is love/ Where there is love, there is peace/ Where there is peace, there is blessing/ Where there is blessing, there is God/ Where there is God, there is no need." Reverend Arvid Straube then honored the memory of "our sister in faith, Ethel Drake. We extinguish this flame" -- the one in the chalice -- "to mark her physical death." But he carried a wick, lit from that flame, to a candle on a pedestal. "Yet her spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of those she has touched on her life journey.... We now light this candle to symbolize her love and influence.... In mystery we are born, in mystery we live, in mystery we die."

The Responsive Reading praised doubt, "the touchstone of truth, an acid which eats away the false." Straube's sermon picked up the notion, saying that doubt was not the opposite of faith, because faith was not the same thing as belief. "Faith is that which we deem to be trustworthy." Buddhist scholar Sharon Salzburg called it "an 'inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.'" Straube noted that Buddhism distinguished three phases of faith. First, bright faith, wherein a person realizes "the possibility of their life," and seeks "a spiritual community" where faith is "articulated." But, he warned, when bright faith "is held onto past its time, with its reliance on an exterior source and the putting off of individual experience and reason," it can become rigid -- "blind faith."

The virtue of doubt, he said, is that it tests faith. "It's not just in Buddhism. Paul said, 'Prove everything; hold on to that which is good.' That's okay here; we expect you to test everything." The result? Verified faith, which culminates in the third phase, abiding faith. Salzburg again: "a bone-deep lived understanding, one that draws us to realize our ideals..." How to get there? "Be serious about spiritual practice...pay attention...act toward our fellow human beings with love, compassion, and generosity."

Straube concluded, "In the words of Paul, 'Whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on those things.' Amen."

What happens when we die?

"We don't fall out of the universe," says Straube. Beyond that, "we don't know. There are lots of different opinions within Unitarian Universalism, but we do know that there's nothing to be afraid of. The 'Universalist' part of our name means, 'No eternal damnation.' God doesn't give up on anybody."




Denomination: Unitarian Universalist Association

Founded locally: 1877

Senior pastor: Rev. Dr. Arvid Straube

Congregation size: about 850

Staff size: 8

Sunday school enrollment: n/a

Annual budget: n/a

Weekly giving: n/a

Singles program: yes

Dress: semi-dressy, lots of button-down short-sleeves, plenty of dresses, but also shorts and sandals

Diversity: mostly Caucasian

Sunday worship: 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m.

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Website: firstuusandiego.org

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