Our monthly spiritual themes provide structure for our worship services as well as our covenant group discussion guides. We use a four-year cycle of monthly spiritual themes, which reflects the four-year curriculum cycle used in our religious education classes for children and youth.
September. Our spiritual theme for this month is Hospitality. Hospitality can mean welcoming, sheltering, introducing, encountering. Hospitality can mean building bridges. Hospitality can mean discovering the common human connections between people who might otherwise regard one another as mysterious, foreign, threatening, other, or alien. Hospitality can be a demanding yet rewarding spiritual practice. How might we develop and deepen our hospitality here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh?
October. Our spiritual theme for this month is Enlightenment. Sometimes we learn and grow by taking small steps. Gradually, over time, many small steps may bring about big changes in our perspective, our understanding, or our values. Occasionally, however, we learn and grow in more dramatic ways, taking big steps that change our perspective, our understanding, or our values more quickly. Either way, we may have insight or awareness that some religious traditions refer to as enlightenment.
November. Our spiritual theme for this month is Mortality. Finitude, Transience, and Mortality are three challenging existential realities we all face as human beings. We can explore the theme of mortality by asking questions such as these: Does the fact of mortality necessarily imply anxiety or despair? Can we turn our knowledge of mortality into an urgency to get on with life, an urgency to set aside what is distracting and unimportant and instead move ahead with our personal “bucket list”? What ground can we stand on if our own lives are subject to end? Where can we find refuge from mortality?
December. Our spiritual theme for this month is Incarnation. Incarnation means moving from theory, speculation, possibility, plans, hopes, and good intentions into actual existence. Envisioning may be an essential ingredient of incarnation, but bringing a vision into actual existence requires effort and determination and desire and confidence and resources and patience – and sometimes, according to many religious traditions, it also requires an openness to creative forces beyond ourselves.
January. Our spiritual theme for this month is Mindfulness. To be mindful is to live with appreciative awareness of each passing moment. To be mindful is to be aware of what is happening here and now – the sunlight outdoors, the taste of food, your own feelings. To be mindful is also to be aware of the larger context of your personal experience – the joys and sorrows of other people, the story of how the present moment came to be. To be mindful is to be more fully alive.
February. Our spiritual theme for this month is Duty. To live our lives in accord with our principles, we may need to do things because it is our duty to do so. Sometimes this is easy and straightforward, but sometimes this involves a personal cost that we might otherwise wish to avoid. When have you done something out of duty? Is duty an adequate source of motivation for you?
March. Our spiritual theme for this month is Prayer. Is there a place for prayer in Unitarian Universalism? What aspects of prayer do you appreciate? What are your reservations about prayer?
April. Our spiritual theme for this month is the Hero’s Journey. Unitarian Universalist minister Kathy Fuson Hurt writes, “Not just any model, [the Hero’s Journey] possesses a special authority by virtue of its timelessness and universality, partaking of human experiences in seeking truth from all cultures in all ages. This model is set forth with the greatest clarity and detail in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a basic structure of myths and fairy tales of the quest, quest being a poetic term for a spiritual search for truth. According to Campbell, all questing activities unfold in an invariable sequence of stages. First comes a call to adventure, an odd event or experience that leads an individual out of the everyday world. He or she must then undergo an initiation, a series of ordeals that test physical and mental skills. If the seeker passes the trials successfully, a revelation, a bit of truth, or some sort of treasure like the Holy Grail is granted. Ultimately, the seeker returns to the community he or she originally left to share the treasure and the wisdom gained from questing experiences.”
May. Our spiritual theme for this month is Freedom and Responsibility. What is the link between freedom and responsibility? What encourages us to use freedom in constructive ways and restrains us from using freedom in destructive ways?
June. Our spiritual theme for this month is Humility. The presence of humility in our personality may allow us to request and receive help more easily, to consider the beliefs and ideas of others more easily, and to avoid despair by recognizing that our efforts on behalf of justice and human rights are part of a larger effort that stretches across many generations. On the other hand, we do not want to be “humiliated” against our will. Yet we may need to learn to acknowledge our limitations.
September. Our spiritual theme for this month is Faith. Does faith imply conscious assent to something contrary to reason or contrary to evidence? Or is faith reflected in how we live? What is the difference between faith and belief? Is faith something one receives all at once, or is it something that one develops over many years? Might faith be a willingness to put forth effort even when one is uncertain of the result? How do we sustain our faith when traumatic events take place?
October. Our spiritual theme for this month is Forgiveness. If all of us behaved perfectly all the time, there would be no need for forgiveness. But sometimes we behave imperfectly. That is, our conduct sometimes falls short of generally accepted standards, or our own personal standards. How shall we understand this persistent gap? How can we best live with ourselves and others, given that our conduct may be imperfect? Can there be forgiveness without justice? What is the difference between guilt and shame? Does the possibility of forgiveness reduce our need to behave as honorably as we can?
November. Our spiritual theme for this month is Transience. Finitude, Transience, and Mortality are three challenging existential realities we all face as human beings. We can explore the theme of Transience by asking questions such as these: How can we accept that even our most enduring personal accomplishments may fade into obscurity over time? How can we accept that we are part of the story of life on earth for only a brief span of years? How can we wholeheartedly embrace life even though the time of this embrace is limited?
December. Our spiritual theme for this month is Advent. The traditional Christian calendar includes a preparatory season called Advent which precedes the arrival of Christmas. The stillness and darkness of the natural world at this time of the year may complement the anticipation and preparation associated with Advent. How might we cultivate a spiritual appreciation for waiting, for emptiness, for living with aspirations that are still in the process of being fulfilled?
January. Our spiritual theme for this month is Sabbath. Leonardo da Vinci said: “Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation. For when you come back to work, your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at work, you lose power of judgment. Go some distance away, because then the work appears smaller, and more of it can be taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or proportion is more readily seen.” The Book of Genesis called for one day each week to be set aside for spiritual reflection and renewal and thus created the Sabbath. The labor movement called for an additional day of rest and thus created the weekend. Do you consciously plan for adequate rest, renewal, and reflection in your life?
February. Our spiritual theme for this month is Love. Christian theology has used three Greek words to identify three different meanings of love: philia, or personal friendship; eros, or romantic love; and agape, or commitment to the well-being of humankind. How do you express love in your life? In what ways are you motivated by love? What does it mean for Unitarian Universalists to say that we are “standing on the side of love”?
March. Our spiritual theme for this month is Lent. Lent extends from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Like Advent, Lent is a season rather than a specific occasion. The forty days of Lent recall the forty days that Jesus lived in the wilderness. Spiritual practices associated with Lent include fasting, prayer, and giving to those less fortunate, reflecting a spiritual mood of relinquishment, self-discipline, resisting temptation, and a sharper focus on what is most important. Historically, Unitarian Universalism emerged from the so-called “Radical Reformation” which tended to avoid sacramental practices. Nevertheless, we may find meanings of our own in the reflective season of Lent.
April. Our spiritual theme for this month is Renewal. Easter celebrates new life emerging from despair, loss, hopelessness, and tragedy. Passover celebrates new life emerging from oppression. Spring brings along new life emerging from winter. How have you experienced new life? How have you experienced renewal in your life?
May. Our spiritual theme for this month is Spirit. What do we mean by “spirit of life”? What do we mean by “spirituality”? What does it mean to be a “spiritual” person? What do we mean by “spiritual growth” and “spiritual maturity”?
June. Our spiritual theme for this month is Justice. “And what does the Lord require of you?” asked the Prophet Micah. “To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Our Unitarian Universalist covenant mentions the word “justice” twice. What do we mean by “justice”? Is justice the same as fairness? In what ways does our Unitarian Universalist history display an evolving understanding of justice? Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10, 1948, offer an adequate framework for justice that both respects and transcends the many different cultures and religions in our world? Can you think of instances where something was unjust even though it was legal?
September. Our spiritual theme for this month is Covenant. Covenant is a theological theme which lies at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. Covenantal relationships demand personal responsibility, but covenantal relationships are not automatically broken or severed by inevitable human shortcomings. Following in the footsteps of our Puritan ancestors in Massachusetts, contemporary Unitarian Universalists continue to use covenantal relationships as the basis for organizing our congregations.
October. Our spiritual theme for this month is Simplicity. “Simplify, simplify!” urged our Unitarian ancestor Henry David Thoreau, who lived for two years in a one-room cabin on the shore of Walden Pond. One of Thoreau’s great messages was the importance of mindfulness in daily living. What distractions make mindfulness challenging? How might simplicity be practiced in the age of cell phones, email, and social networking websites? What matters most in our lives and how might we focus more of our attention on what is most important to us?
November. Our spiritual theme for this month is Finitude. Finitude, Transience, and Mortality are three challenging existential realities we all face as human beings. We will explore the spiritual theme of Finitude by asking questions such as these: How might we come to terms with the reality that our knowledge is incomplete, that our influence is limited, that our years of living come to an end? What saves us from despair or deep dismay about our finitude? Can we participate wholeheartedly in struggles for justice even though those struggles may be incomplete in our own lifetime?
December. Our spiritual theme for this month is Grace. A second chance. Generosity. Forgiveness. A warm welcome. A gift. Extra time. Being alive. Self-acceptance. Something undeserved and unearned. These are some examples of what we mean when we speak of grace, which is our spiritual theme for December. How have we experienced grace in our lives? What does it mean to be a gracious person? If all of us were perfect, we would have no use for grace. But since none of us are perfect, we can either focus on our shortcomings, or we can graciously accept ourselves as we are and get on with our lives as best we can.
January. Our spiritual theme for this month is Right and Wrong. What does our Unitarian Universalist tradition say to us about right and wrong? How do we know what is right and wrong? How can we best instill in our children a sense of right and wrong? How do we account for the discrepancy between knowing and doing with regard to right and wrong? Can we grow in our capacity for doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong? Are some wrong actions unavoidable?
February. Our spiritual theme for this month is Accountability. In what ways are you accountable to others? In what ways are others accountable to you? Do you believe that you have a duty or a purpose or a responsibility toward something or someone larger than yourself or outside yourself? Are you accountable only to people in positions of authority, or are you also accountable to people who live on the margins of society? Are you accountable for social injustices engineered by your ancestors?
March. Our spiritual theme for this month is Calling. Ministers can usually identify a moment when they felt a “call” to ministry. For some ministers, this comes unexpectedly; for others, it follows a long journey of intentional discernment. But the sense of being “called” to religious work is not limited to professional religious leaders. Any of us can sense within us some persistent urge to serve others or to make the world a better place. Any of us can sense within us some inward need to express our wonder and awe about the world through music or painting, through writing or dance. In what ways do you feel a “calling” that animates and sustains your religious life?
April. Our spiritual theme for this month is Liberation. People may be internally oppressed by habits that do not serve them well. People may be externally oppressed by unjust social and political systems. Obviously, liberation from these two forms of oppression happens in very different ways. How do the liberation theologies of socially and politically oppressed communities challenge Unitarian Universalism? How might Unitarian Universalism be strengthened by a deeper acquaintance with liberation theology?
May. Our spiritual theme for this month is Spiritual Growth. The belief that the human soul can grow goes all the way back to William Ellery Channing, the leading advocate for Unitarianism in the first half of the nineteenth century. What do we mean by the term “lifespan faith development”? Is it an indication of personal weakness for an adult to be engaged in a process of spiritual growth? What are the characteristics of a spiritually mature person?
June. Our spiritual theme for this month is Service. So many things may get in the way of serving the needs of others: Preoccupation. Hurry. Boredom. Stress. Discouragement. Yet service is at the heart of what we do as a congregation: We serve one another within our religious community, and we serve other people in the larger community. What qualities might we develop within ourselves and within our congregation so that we could become more capable of service? Within our religious tradition, what exemplary stores of service can we find?
September. Our spiritual theme for this month is Making Amends. As many religious traditions point out, and as we acknowledge in our Behavioral Covenant here at First Unitarian Church, none of us is perfect. We make mistakes. We fall short. We miss the mark. Accordingly, from time to time we may need to say, “I’m sorry.” But sometimes words are not enough and we need to move beyond words to something more tangible. We need to set things right. We need to fix what has been broken. We need to restore the situation as best we can. We need to make amends.
October. Our spiritual theme for this month is Stewardship. We will explore the spiritual theme of Stewardship by asking questions such as these: What is the difference between stewardship and ownership? What would it mean for us to think of ourselves as stewards of the earth? As stewards of our bodies? As stewards of our financial resources?
November. Our spiritual theme for this month is Suffering. Most people experience suffering in one way or another during their lives. People may respond to suffering with resilience, or determination, or artistic creativity, or greater compassion for others. People may also have difficulty finding a positive or life-affirming response to suffering. An important first step can be simply acknowledging that suffering is a significant and perhaps inescapable part of our human experience.
December. Our spiritual theme for this month is Hope. We will explore the spiritual theme of Hope by asking questions such as these: How does Hope differ from optimism? Is Hope a gift? A duty? An achievement? What sustains Hope? How does our understanding of human nature inform our understanding of Hope?
January. Our spiritual theme for this month is Hard Times. We will explore the spiritual theme of Hard Times by asking questions such as these: What assistance do we most welcome when we are experiencing Hard Times? During Hard Times, how might our sense of responsibility toward others and toward the larger community change?
February. Our spiritual theme for this month is Sankofa. Sankofa is an African word which means “return and retrieve it.” Sometimes this concept is artistically symbolized by a bird looking back over its shoulder. Another way to express the meaning of Sankofa would be: “ When we go back and reclaim our past, understanding how and why we came to be who we are today, we can move forward with greater confidence.” Sankofa may have both personal and social significance. What unfinished business from your past would you like to address so that you can move ahead more easily and fruitfully with your personal spiritual journey? How can citizens of the United States effectively address the two “original sins” of this country (removal of the indigenous people and importation of enslaved Africans) so that the promise of our national aspirations can be more fully realized?
March. Our spiritual theme for this month is Letting Go. The traditional Christian calendar includes a period of seven weeks leading up to Easter known as Lent. This season begins with Ash Wednesday. The spiritual practice traditionally associated with Lent involves giving something up, or relinquishing, or letting go. When he built a small cabin at Walden Pond, our Unitarian ancestor Henry David Thoreau sought to simplify his life and thereby make more room for his own spiritual development. What would you like to let go of to make your life more spiritually fulfilling? What ideas or beliefs are you ready to let go of, even though you may have held them for a long time? What social privileges would you be willing to relinquish so that those benefits might be more evenly distributed in our society? Or is there a better path toward a more just and equitable society?
April. Our spiritual theme for this month is Courage. Here are some examples: It took courage for the Hebrew people to leave enslavement in Egypt and enter the wilderness. It took courage for Jesus to challenge the religious understandings and social conditions of his age. It took courage for people such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X to bear prophetic witness against the political and social oppression in their nations. What is the source of this courage? Is this path of spiritual courage limited to just a few special people, or can anyone venture down this path? What does courage look like on a smaller scale such as a family or an institution?
May. Our spiritual theme for this month is Beauty. In developing his concept of divinity, the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spoke of divine power not as commanding or fearsome, but rather as the appeal of beauty beckoning to the most elevated values within us. What experiences of beauty stand out in your own experience? How did these experiences change you or motivate you? What spiritual power does beauty have? If one thing is beautiful, does that mean that other things are not beautiful? Or can many different kinds of beauty flourish? What might this tell us about different religious understandings?
June. Our spiritual theme for this month is Gratitude. The Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Capek, who originated the Flower Communion with his congregation in the 1920s, was one of many remarkable leaders in the history of Unitarian Universalism. How might we best express our gratitude toward these people? Community is a prominent theme in the Flower Communion. How might we best express our gratitude for all the contributions our fellow Unitarian Universalists bring to this religious community and to the larger Unitarian Universalist movement? Nature is another prominent theme of the Flower Communion. How might we best express our gratitude for the gift of being alive and being part of the great web of life?