Faith Communities, Virtual and Real

Order of Service 7/14/13

Welcome and Announcements               
Martha Pedersen

Shaker Hymn Fantasy, mvt. 1, by Sam Cardon
Karen Allendoerfer, violin, Nick Woebcke, piano


Love is the spirit of this church
and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
to seek the truth in love,
and to help one another.

From all that dwell below the skies
Let songs of hope and faith arise.
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
Through every land by every tongue

Chalice Lighting                                  
Karen Allendoerfer

Transcendental Wild Oats by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, MN

Do you ever say to yourself, I’ve had it! My life has just become too complicated. There are too many demands on my time and worse yet on my conscience. I need a change, a big change. I’m outta here. The slow accretion of shoulds, the long litany of ways we tell ourselves we fall far short of living lives that meet our own moral standards, that stern self-judgment we inherit from our Puritan forebears all combine insisting that we change our lives. And then what?

For those of us for whom this one life, this one beloved world is life and world enough, those moments of psycho-spiritual desperation present a real problem. If we can’t simply sigh and hope for heaven what can we do? We can work for it. We can plant the seeds of paradise right here on earth. We can live our lives as though we already live in the Beloved Community we long for. That temporal understanding of the Christian message took form over the course of the 19th century as the Social Gospel movement that has helpful to transform both the church and world in a wide variety of ways. It also inspired a number of social experiments, most notably, the Shaker communities, Brook Farm, Fruitlands and then, a hundred years later, the communal movement of the 1960’s.

You and I know how it feels to long to live a purer, less encumbered life. Some of us have even tried it. Many of our transcendentalist ancestors shared that longing. Some even withdrew from the life to which they were accustomed to live in small communities bound together by shared values and a blazing desire to bring their lives into accord with their beliefs.

OffertoryJoanne and Adam by Kim DeForest
Karen Allendoerfer, fiddle

First Reading: welcome to soc.religion.unitarian-univ            
Martha Pedersen

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The Charter of soc.religion.unitarian.univ

This group, soc.religion.unitarian-univ, is to serve as a forum for discussion of issues pertaining to liberal or non-creedal religions, particularly Unitarian Universalism.  Discussion of other religions is acceptable insofar as it is relevant to UUism, but keep in mind that another newsgroup (e.g.,soc.religion.christian, soc.culture,jewish, etc.)

may be more appropriate. Acceptable topics include, but are not limited to, discussion of UU principles and practices, questions regarding locations of UU congregations, organizing, running, administering, and living within UU churches, moral/ethical/philosophical discussion in a UU context, and comparisons of Unitarian Universalism to other religions.

Sermon: Faith Communities, Virtual and Real
Karen Allendoerfer

These days it seems like you can’t even scroll through your Facebook news feed without being reminded that the Internet is ruining modern society. The internet is being blamed for a decline in social skills, an increase in ADHD, and a loss of community. “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?” lamented Stephen Marche in a particularly apocalyptic example of the genre in the Atlantic Magazine in May of last year. He opens the article with a horrifying story of a forgotten B-movie star who dies while sitting at her computer. Her mummified body is not discovered for almost a year afterwards. “We were promised a global village;” he intones, “instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.”

Even I admit that there are times when I, like the mother bunny in Good night iPad, have wanted to take all the electronics away, dump them out by the curb, and leave them there in a grand gesture of protest and change. “Good night pop stars, good night MacBook Air. Good night gadgets everywhere.”

But in spite of its modern trappings, this urge isn’t new. Neither the urge to find a scapegoat or the urge to simplify your life are new. As the Reverend Eller-Isaacs pointed out in the chalice reading, the desire to change one’s life and create heaven on earth has led, over the years, to not just one great utopian experiment, but many. And many of those were right here in this area, some by Unitarians. When I was doing a little research for this service, I became temporarily fascinated by the Shakers. I’ve always admired their furniture, and the song, Simple Gifts. I’d heard some good things, too, about how they were ahead of their time with regards to gender equality. But I had–maybe conveniently–forgotten about some of the more outre practices, like strict celibacy for everybody. It’s virtually a joke now. Why did they die out? Well, duh. And Fruitlands, Bronson Alcott’s utopia, apparently lasted only a few summer months. His daughter, Louisa May Alcott, wrote that “About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away.” Wisely, no one stayed at Fruitlands once it got cold outside. Some of them left to join the Shakers.

About 18 years ago, I was having one of these moments too. I’d broken up with a long-term, live-in boyfriend, and was living on my own. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. If Fruitlands, or the Shakers, had been around in Pasadena CA at that time, I might have signed up. Instead I got on the internet. This was before Facebook, or Yahoo, or even Google. I got involved in usenet groups through the educational institutions I was attending at the time: first Caltech, and then Columbia, where I was working on a postdoctoral fellowship.

In time, I joined a real church too–Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena–but it was online, on soc.religion.unitarian-univ, where I figured out what I believed and why. I can still find some of those old postings, if I google them, both in that group and in other groups devoted to religion or lack thereof. In 1998 I was already debating same-sex marriage with a guy who was putting forth the same tired arguments against it that we’re still hearing today. That group also discussed the role of rituals and worship, the prodigal son, C.S. Lewis, feminism, the OWL curriculum (which used to be called AYS), among other things. I learned that there were UU pagans, and UU Christians, and UU polyamorists.

One aspect of this group that never entirely went away was the potential for flame wars, the name for what happens when one person says something another person doesn’t like, and it goes from there. There were endless debates, there and elsewhere, about what was disrespectful, what was inflammatory, what was even comprehensible. I learned to take apart my own writing, and other people’s, in a way that I never had in 4 years of college or 5 years of a PhD program. It wasn’t always pleasant, either. I got flamed for not accepting Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. I got flamed by atheists for being too conciliatory towards believers. I got flamed for supporting abortion rights, gay rights, feminism, and the scientific method. I got flamed for making foolish arguments, and for saying stupid, and occasionally mean, things. Sometimes I just said too much. So I got used to writing carefully, contorting and qualifying every last word to avoid being taken out of context. But somehow, still, back then in those wild and wooly frontier days of the internet, I found community. I met my husband on alt.atheism.moderated and we’ve been married for nearly 16 years. And just before moving here to start my first real job, I asked my buddies on soc.religion.unitarian-univ if they had any recommendations for a church in the Boston/Cambridge area. A cousin of Andrea Greenwood’s, Kirk Olson, wrote back to recommend this congregation, and here I am.

I think that finding a church community on the internet was something of a gateway drug, because as I look back at my post-college life, whenever I took a new step, it was usually more successful if there was an internet component. For example, when I had my first child, everyone told me to join a mom’s group. I tried a few times but the few I went to were odd collections of people with little in common other than the age of their young children. And they met at times that really only worked for moms who didn’t work outside the home. But my alumni association had recently started up an online community called “tigernet” for alumni to come together on different topics of interest.  This seemed a little safer than usenet, because it was only open to Princeton alumni and their spouses with permission. I joined a tigernet group called parent-net when I was pregnant with Helena, who is now almost 14. I was working full-time in biotech then, and I appreciated that I could post anytime. I could read posts while nursing, for example. And I made friends with people across many class years, and around the world. Former New York Times journalist and creator of the MotherLode blog Lisa Belkin, class of ‘82, is a parent-netter. So is Allison Slater Tate, class of ‘96, who blogs for the Huffington Post about parenting issues, and Laura Vanderkam, class of ‘91, author of the time management book “168 Hours.” But most of us, without national platforms for our writing, are happy to hold to one of the parent-net mottos: “what you say on parent-net, stays on parent-net.” Parent-net has been unique for me in another way, too, in that in the 14 years I’ve been on it, it has never been consumed by the kinds of flame wars that regularly took down whole usenet groups. There have been a few touchy moments–September 12, 2001, for example. Or the alumnus from the class of 1942 who decided to let all of tigernet know that he thinks the university has been headed for ruin ever since it started admitting a certain type of people. Still, I think it’s a measure of the respect and thoughtfulness that characterizes parent-net overall, that the gentleman who posted this anti-affirmative action screed was calmly rebutted by not just one but several people who brought meaningful statistics and personal experiences to back up their arguments. And he took his comments elsewhere.

In the past couple of years, parent-net has moved onto Facebook, too, which is one of the ways that I, a self-proclaimed introvert, ended up with 395 Facebook friends. Another way I ended up with a lot of Facebook friends is music. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet about that long-ago time in Pasadena when I became a UU, is that that is also when I picked up the violin again, after a long break, and played in the Caltech-Occidental Symphony. I was to have another long break from the violin when my kids were born, and this time when I started playing again, wouldn’t you know, it involved the internet too.

Six years ago my daughter was taking violin lessons from a teacher who wasn’t a good fit. I wanted to help her, so I went on the internet to look for some folk songs that might appeal to her and for some general advice about motivating 7-year-olds to play the violin. I found a website called It has discussion forums, blogs, interviews with famous violinists. And interestingly enough, the editor of the site, Laurie Niles, runs it out of her home in Pasadena CA. Furthermore, she’s a UU who chose the religion as an adult, and a member of my first UU church, Neighborhood Church.

After reading the site for a few months, something stirred and I decided that I didn’t just want to help my daughter with the violin, I wanted to play it again myself. I’d already quit the violin twice, though. Maybe the third time was a charm. Or maybe I could start a blog on the site. It would give me some accountability, like a running buddy or something. If I didn’t practice, didn’t play, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, and people would call me on it.

A year after that, I started taking violin lessons, and a few months later, I joined the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, where I still play in the orchestra, and have become the concertmaster. I’m still blogging, too, and I still feel the pull when I haven’t practiced enough to have something to write about. Although more often, now, I have too much to write about and a hard time choosing what to put in the blog. And then before I know it, a month has gone by and there’s an empty space next to that month under my name.

While I’ve met many of my church friends, and my parent-net friends, in person as well as online, I haven’t met as many of my online violin friends in person. I’m thinking I may have to save this until my kids are older and I have time to go to music camp. I know that a couple of violinist.commies have met each other at the Interlochen camp for adults, or the Mark O’Connor fiddle camp at Berklee, or even Fiddle Hell in Concord. But I’ve never been to one.

My closing piece is called “Ashokan Farewell,” by Jay Ungar. The piece is a waltz in D major, composed in the style of a Scottish lament. It first served as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Music and Dance Camps that Ungar and his wife Molly Mason run at the Ashokan Center in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Honestly I don’t think my kids are the real reason I haven’t been to music camp like this yet. As comfortable as I am behind the relative anonymity of a keyboard and screen, in a well-controlled environment where words don’t move and subtle facial expressions and tones of voice and other confusing non-verbal cues are blessedly absent, it’s still hard for me sometimes, as an introvert, to take that next step. But without that first step, without that keyboard and screen, I wouldn’t be contemplating the second step at all.

Most people know Ashokan Farewell as part of the soundtrack to the documentary series, The Civil War, by Ken Burns. Its elegiac qualities make it a moving accompaniment to stories of longing and loss. I would like to dedicate it to four people I would have never have known without the communities I described in this sermon. The first two are Facebook friends who I never met in person, and never will: Barbara Smith and Dan Scharfman. Barbara is the mother of Deanna Smith, a friend of mine from graduate school. I first became her friend because she was a self-described Farmville addict who wanted as many neighbors as possible. I don’t play Farmville anymore because it took too much time, but back then, she had the most awesome farm of any of my neighbors. And if I ever needed a green cow or some water pipes to complete a quest, Barbara always had one. In real life, she was a Cherry Blossom princess from Arkansas in the 1940’s and as an adult, she lived in Plum Branch South Carolina. She passed away on February 12, 2013. I became Dan’s Facebook friend when he was running for Selectman in Belmont last fall. I voted for him, but he didn’t win. He passed away in January of this year.

The second two are Twyla Alvarez and Phyllis Spence, both of whom I had the pleasure to know personally for years. I met Twyla on parent-net. Even though we were only one class apart and had been on the Princeton campus at the same time when we were undergraduates, we didn’t know each other while we were there. We both trained as neuroscientists and met for the first time in person at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, with toddlers in tow. We saw each other periodically over the course of the next several years–at the Beaver Brook water park, at Blue Moon family restaurant in Cambridge. But I lost touch with her when we were both going through busy times of our lives and were off parent-net for a while. She reached out by email one fall and I said yeah, yeah, definitely, we should get together soon. And I never followed up. I signed back on to parent-net during my lunch hour at work one day and learned there that she had died of something unnamed that sounded like cancer at age 44.

I didn’t meet Phyllis on the internet, but I wouldn’t have met her without picking up the violin again, sticking with it, and joining the orchestra. She is 97 and played violin with the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra for more than 75 years, retiring a couple of years ago at age 95. She was the concertmaster for many of those years, and when I went to visit her most recently, she asked me, with a little bit of a twinkle, “are you doing your job?” She meant the bowings for the violin section, which is the glamorous life of the concertmaster of an all-volunteer, non-audition orchestra. I can never fill Phyllis’ shoes, but I can do that job, and do it gladly.

I think it’s time for a new picture of faith communities, one that has room for both Mark Zuckerberg and Phyllis Spence. One that includes both the global village and the information suburbs, and encourages people to be residents of both and move back and forth between them as they need to. You never know when that which you most want to leave behind turns out to be exactly what you need.

Musical Meditation, Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar
Karen Allendoerfer, fiddle, Nick Woebcke, piano

Spoken Meditation 
Martha Pedersen

Dreaming of Rural America by Linda Pastan

Dreaming of rural America,
I want to unbuild my city
brick by brick, dismantling
sidewalks and smokestacks
and subways. I want
to rush to the airport where planes
line up at their gates
like cows at their stalls for milking.
And taking the first plane out,
I want to enter the ticking heart
of the country and in a rented car
drive for miles past fields scored
with the history of wind; past
silos, those inland lighthouses,
where corn smolders to golden dust.

I want an RD number and a tin mailbox
filled with flowers instead of letters.
I want to bathe in a porcelain tub
under a ceiling sloping towards heaven,
and farmyard smells will drift
through the window like notes
of pungent country music.

When I am scrubbed clean,
let a child who has searched
the barn for the perfect egg
offer it to me on her open palm
as if it were the gift of a jewel
on a velvet cushion. In the dream
of rural America, farmers have lost
the knack of despair. They do not
breathe the diesel fumes of whiskey
into the faces of their women.
They do not wield their leather belts
to erase, on the backs of their sons,
the old stigmata of failure.

And on frozen nights no daughter,
dreaming of cities, leans
out of her window to cast wishes
heavy as iron horseshoes towards
the prong of an impossible star.

Joys and Sorrows 

Hymn #16: ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Closing Words from Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers

Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live 
and as if you were to die tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “Faith Communities, Virtual and Real”

  1. I also was an early adapter to newsgroups, but unfortunately I was also an early adapter to internet romance disasters. I am with you on the need for more, better virtual faith communities. There’s an opportunity there for Unitarian Universalism, maybe.

    Liked by 1 person

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