‘Pup’tial Bliss

Dogs and Weddings – Two Wonderful Things.

If you’re a dog person and you’re planning a wedding, I’ll bet you’ve thought about having your pup or pups involved. So many dog-loving couples think about their fur baby walking down the aisle. But can it happen? Maybe. Before you take that leap there are several obstacles to consider. Read on!

To state the obvious: first and foremost is the well-being of your dog. Is the task a good fit for your (certainly perfect) pet? A jumping dog, a nervous dog, a senior dog probably won’t work well, especially if you expect a little interaction with your guests. You need a well-trained, socialized dog to participate in your wedding.

I love this photo from Rhinehart Photography!

And before you fall further in love with the idea, check with your venue to see if dogs are allowed on the property. Be prepared to ask and answer a few questions.  Will your dog will be allowed to stay with you – if there is on-site accommodations? Think about your time frame – will you have to leave her alone for too long when you go to your reception?  And to facilitate this dream it is very helpful to have a designated handler for the dog.

The most popular task for a dog is the walk down the aisle, often as a ring bearer or flower dog, or just walk on in and be awesome. Here’s how it works: obviously, someone has to escort the pooch down the aisle – a flower girl or ring bearer, Jr Bridesmaid or Jr Groomsmen are great choices, but really anyone can fill the bill.  Then, have your pup whisked away to the dog friendly pre-arranged location (or back home) after a nice walk and a cool drink of water, of course! 

Another wonderful photo of the dog with the happy couple!
Rhinehart Photography.

Having your dog stay throughout the ceremony could take the focus off of you! He had his moment, now it’s your turn. If you do you want him to hang around for some post-ceremony photos, have him exit the ceremony site until it’s time for the photos or social interaction. Either way, your pup will probably have to leave before the reception. This is why the dog handler shouldnotbe a guest, but someone specifically designated and paid to do this important job. Yes, hiring someone gives it importance and accountability – so please consider that.

Including your dog in your photos is worthwhile. Engagement photos, wedding photos, or save-the dates, are all great opportunities for dogs to be their most adorable. The photos also provide a lifetime of memories.

Can’t get enough of this dog and her people!
Rhinehart Photography

If you can’t arrange to have your dog with you at your wedding, consider including a few words about her in the ceremony, in the program book, or at the reception. How about using photos of your pup incorporated into your table markers? (Side note: this is, in fact, probably the only way you could involve cats.) Take your pet’s photo, add a graphic, such as the table numbers, frame it, and place on the tables.Voilà!

How about a big cardboard cutout of your dog for photos or as photo-booth material?

You don’t have to dress up your dog,  but some people do love that. Maybe just a special collar. You certainly want a freshly bathed and groomed dog for the big day. Schedule a spa day for your four legged friends as well as your two legged ones.

If you think this is all ridiculous, you’re probably not a dog person. And please give me a hand (or paw?) for not including all those silly dog puns! It was a ruff, ruff effort. And it wasn’t too much of a fluff piece, was it? I gave you’re the real poop! Vow wow wow! It was pawsitively off the leash!

find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman

Thank you Lisa Rhinehart for the use of your gorgeous photography! @rhinehartphotography

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Six things you need to know about weddings – Number 3 will amaze you

Did that headline grab you? It’s called click-bate. And while I do have things to share with you about weddings, I don’t want to trick you into reading. Too much of what passes for information is merely a means to make money, one way or another.

A little rain won’t spoil things! Rhinehart Photography

But the catchy title does beg the question: what are the important things to know about a wedding? Is it the cost of flowers? Or is it the meaning of a milestone in life? People easily get lost on this path and while planning a fantastic party, don’t lose sight of who you are and where you are going. Try, I know it’s difficult, try not to get pulled into too much on-line craziness.

With a wealth of information at our fingertips how do we discern the good advice from the bad? The useful from the mundane?  An overall problem with internet wedding sites is the one-size-fits-all approach.  And I have noticed that most of the wedding advice is aimed at women, leaving out  half the population! 

Some of the worst wedding advice on-line has to do with budgets. Everyone’s budget is different, and you should not expectto spend a certain amount, but rather, determine what you can afford or are willing to spend. Costs also vary in different areas.

Be yourself!
photo: Rhinehart Photography

So, what the heck, I’m going to weigh in, too, and give you those six things after all. Here goes!

1. Best Day Ever.  It is truly a wonderful day when you marry your best friend. But you’re setting the bar a little high perhaps in calling it the ‘best day ever.’ I understand this is just hyperbole and now a popular phrase … But what if it’s not?  Could you deal with a few disappointments? What if something goes wrong? Will you be devastated by that? Just remember to keep some perspective and go with flow. Keep the bar at a reasonable height!

2. The Perfect Look. Many women get extremely caught up in the beauty tips, dieting, hair and make-up, not to mention the dress… this is all fine but don’t forget to look like yourself and be yourself. As I like to say, don’t do the ‘up-do’ if it’s not you!

3. It’s YOUR day.Unless you’re eloping, no, not really. A wedding is an event that brings in the whole family and community. You declare your intention before them (and if you are religious before God). That is kind of the point of having them there. So remember, this is not only about you. Don’t make it into a big egotistical show.

4. Don’t worry about trends. Its ok to see what’s going on around us, and even fun and inspiring, but don’t feel pressure to follow the latest ideas especially if you prefer something else.

I love how natural the bride looks!
Rhinehart Photography

5. Every detail will be perfect. See #1 and #2 – and  to that I will add that DIY doesn’t always save you money, and don’t freak out if it rains.

6. Traditions should be followed.Traditions, customs, rituals and rules can be meaningful, if they work for you. I’ve written about this a million times. Don’t feel bad about not wanting to include something that doesn’t makes sense to you. Remember, traditions evolve, so lean forward! 

If you read to the end I guess this click-bate thing isn’t so bad after all!

find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman
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The open-ended Beauty of Spirituality

Spiritual. This is how many people describe their beliefs. But what exactly does this mean? Literally, spiritual means ‘relating to things of the human spirit rather than material or physical things.’ But in a more religious context it can mean a wide range of ideas.

What does it mean to be spiritual?

For some it means they embrace the idea that there is more to life than what we see, while rejecting the dogma of organized religion. They feel a connection to something beyond themselves they may call the Divine, the Universe, the Sacred, God, or it might even remain nameless. 

Spirituality can be a very open-ended concept and therefore it is not incompatible with religion or belief in God. 

In the latest Gallup poll of Americans from 2018 reports:

48.5% Protestant

22.7% Catholic

2.1 % Jewish

1.8% Mormon

0.8% Muslim   

2.9% Other non-Christian

21.3% No religious identity

Other polling sources come out with similar results. If you think everyone is honest when responding to polls, I have a nice bridge to sell you. These are how people self-report and I think many people are afraid to say they are not religious.

Additionally, Gallup did not offer the category ‘spiritual’ as an option. If they had, my guess is the numbers would have looked very different. 

I have met with many couples who want to connect to their faith traditions, but in ways that are more compatible with a 21stcentury view of the world which includes science and our evolving ideas and knowledge. Think about Galileo and the Church in 1600s for a great example of what happens when dogma trumps progress. 

So how does one honor spiritual ideas and values in a wedding ceremony? There are as many ways to express it as there are different paths of spirituality itself.

Sometimes I simply make a statement of fact, saying that the couple share a sense of spirituality, and perhaps try to describe it, if possible. For example, ‘they find peace and meaning in nature.’

Other times we include specific poems, excerpts or quotes from various sources, that reflect their worldview. There is wisdom everywhere, and it doesn’t take long to find it. 

Some of my favorites sources are in poetry and literature, along with classics such as Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, Celtic writings, Lau Tzu, and Buddha; but it is the couple themselves who will direct me to the right inspiration. The texts of Hinduism (the Vedas), and of course the Torah and the Bible all contain beautiful and meaningful words. There are scientists such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Carl Sagan, and naturalists such as John Muir, who have written eloquently about our place in the universe.  

Beyond words, there are rituals that connect us to earth, air, water, fire, nature, culture, ethnicity, history, art and family. The possibilities are endless, and it’s always challenging and exciting to explore how we humans view our place in the world. 

To me, being spiritual means putting great value on love and goodness in the world. What could be more beautiful than that?

Another beautiful photo from Lisa Rhinehart

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God’s Knot and other Unity Rituals

While it’s usually me suggesting the ideas, and that is, after all, my job – from time to time couples come to me with a request for a specific ritual for their wedding ceremony. Perhaps they saw or read about it somewhere.  There are many ways to find  this stuff, especially on the internet, whether Pinterest, Instagram or other on-line sites we can go to for inspiration. 

One example was a request for a ‘God’s Knot.’ It’s a simple but clear concept. It consists of three strands of cord – purple, white and gold – attached at one end and open at the other so the couple can weave it together. Sometimes called a Unity Braid or the Cord of Three Strands, it symbolizes the joining of one man, one woman, and God into a marriage relationship. The gold strand represents God, the purple one is for the husband and the white strand is for the bride. You do this together, right in the ceremony. Of course, there is text to accompany it, so people understand what they are doing.

This ritual can be very religious, or it can be stated in a simpler manner, still with clear a reference to religion. The couple I worked with wanted to keep it more on the minimal side, and they especially liked how it shows cooperation. Any ritual that involves both partners doing something together is always good in my book!

The ritual in action. (Kiwi Photography)

A similar ritual is the Unity Cross – another one a couple brought to me. This involves a sculpture of sorts, one that the couple assembles during the ceremony. The groom places the outer part of the cross onto a base or into a frame and the bride adds the pieces that fit inside it. You have a nice keepsake to remind you of your wedding day. Like a unity candle you can add family members, for example mothers can bring sections of the cross if you buy a set that accommodates that. This is something you’d have to purchase, unless you or someone you know is a fine woodworker.

Some of the explanations I’ve read for both of these rituals do not appeal to me – they seem a bit patriarchal and old-fashioned. For example, with the Unity Cross, the empty cross represents a strong man, defender of the family, yet incomplete without a woman. And the woman’s part is more delicate and is designed to fit inside the cross shape, with lots of references to God commanding this view of the world. But you don’t have to use this language. I modernized the idea and made the focus a more honoring the Christian faith, commitment to their marriage and again, that cooperation of putting it together. It’s like pieces of a puzzle that fit, exactly how some couples describe themselves.

On example of the many styles of the Unity Cross

I don’t get to work often with unity candles because I officiate so many ceremonies outdoors. 

The language often used for this includes the idea of two becoming one. I find this concept inaccurate. You don’t give up your identity in marriage. What really happens when two people join forces, is that together they create not one thing, but a third thing – something stronger and larger than themselves. 

And candles outdoors just don’t work well. Trust me on this. Even indoors if the space is well lit, you don’t get much drama from a candle.  Now candles at night – that’s another story. And if you do want to use candles, leave them all lit. The candles represent the couple, each partner, and their ‘marriage’ candle, the joining together part. If parents are coming forward to participate, I like having four candles plus the bigger marriage candle. The mother’s pass the flame to their children who then light the larger candle. Don’t blow them out – leave them all burning, it is much more meaningful, symbolic and dramatic. 

Candles makes the best impression when the lighting is correct.
Rob Lettieri Photography

One time for a wedding on a stage (at the Shawnee Playhouse) we set up candles all along the edge of the stage and as each attendant (bridesmaids/groomsmen) entered, they stopped, lit one, and then came up the steps to take their places. This small action illustrated their support, and then the parents, and the couple themselves played a role in this ritual, too.

People are always looking for something unique, but I hope they will look closely at the meaning and decide if it’s just the unique action that is attracting them, or the deeper meaning. 

find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman

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Timing is Everything for your Wedding Day

Today’s column concerns something very practical, with two issues related to timing because, as they say, ‘timing is everything.’ 

The concerns are: the gap between the ceremony and reception, and the time involved in a receiving line. Both of these topics impact your guests’ experience because standing around doing nothing is not fun.

If you are having your ceremony at a house of worship, you may have little or no flexibility about the time the ceremony will take place. If your desired time slot is too close to regularly scheduled services, or there is another wedding scheduled on your date, you may have to settle for the time that is offered. Then, if the ceremony and reception are too far apart, in both time and distance – what do your guests do in that gap?

Ready to leave the church and head to the reception.
(photo: Lisa Rhinehart Photography)

Think this one through carefully. Out-of-towners won’t know where to go or what to do, and even locals may struggle. You don’t want them sitting in their car in a parking lot, which is actually what frequently happens. So, if at all possible, tighten up the time between the ceremony and beginning of the party, usually a cocktail hour.

Give your guests great directions from location to location and if you must have that gap, include some places for them to stop along the way. But this is still not ideal. After all, folks are usually dressed up for a wedding and stopping for coffee, or to go shopping just feels silly. And who wants to eat before a reception?

If your reason for a longer gap between the ceremony and cocktail hour is for your photos, consider extending your cocktail hour so you, the couple, can still be a part of it. Be clear with your photographer about the amount of time you are willing to give up to do this. There are other photo opportunities and getting to your own party to be with your guests should be a priority. This is one reason many couples are doing some or most photos before the ceremony and why the ‘first look’ photos have evolved. You might want to make an entrance (after the ceremony and into the reception) but don’t make it an hour or more later. 

Bottom line: when booking venues check with your ceremony location (church, synagogue, mosque, etc.) first, then figure out your reception time from there. This is one of the biggest reasons so many couples choose to have their ceremony and reception at the same location. It’s a great experience for everyone.

Making a great entrance (without making your guests wait too long)
Photo: Lisa Rhinehart Photography

The receiving line is another time thief. I’m glad this is waning in popularity, because after sitting at the ceremony (and hopefully it was a wonderful experience) most folks are anxious to get a drink, visit a restroom, or start mingling and celebrating. But remember, without a receiving line you have to be very committed to visiting every single guest at your reception. Don’t mess this up! 

Sometimes an unintended receiving lines starts, so after the recessional be sure you know where you’re headed. If you stop at the end of the aisle, a line will form. Yes, it will!

If you areplanning on having a receiving line, consider having drinks and even hors d’œuvresprovided by wait staff. Taking it a step further, have your DJ or ceremony musicians continuing with music, something festive and upbeat! Or have some activity for your guests to participate in as they wait, such as signing your guest book or learning the Merengue.

If you want your wedding to be a wonderful experience for your guests think about it from their point of view and you’ll know what to do. Consider what you liked or disliked about weddings you’ve attended, and let experience guide you.

As they advocate when getting on board trains in England: Mind the gap!

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What is the UU? Who are Unitarians?

After writing this column for many years, sometimes I feel as if I’ve already written about every religion and cultural tradition, but of course that’s not possible. Not even close.According to some estimates there are roughly 4,200 religions and 195 countries in the world. That should keep me going!

But I try to focus on traditions and cultures that we here in Pennsylvania might interact with, or that readers of this space will find interesting. It occurred to me there is one group that I’m very familiar with that I have yet to write about: Unitarians, or Unitarian Universalists.

First let me try to differentiate between these two terms. Unitarian means one, not three or as known in Christianity, the Trinity. Unitarian Universalism (UU) is the result of a merger between American Unitarianism and American Universalism groups. While it has roots in Christianity, UU is not Christian. However, no one is asked to give up beliefs if they attend or join. With roots in both Jewish and Christian traditions, they really are neither. For my purposes I will simply refer to them as Unitarians or the UU.

Minister Joanna Herren (l) Rev. Kim Wilson and Congregational District Executive Andrea Lerner dedicate the UU Fellowship of the Poconos on May 29, 2015
(Pocono Record File Photo)

Although Unitarians started out more like a religion, most contemporary Unitarians base their beliefs on reason and experience. They are closer to Humanists, who I recently wrote about.

You could come from any background, whether Jewish or Christian, as well as Buddhist, Muslim, Pagan, atheist, or just about anything and find yourself at home in a UU congregation if you are looking for something without dogma.That is perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of UU groups for people who do not necessary believe in a super-natural power, or God; they can find fellowship, friendship and meetings that resemble a church or religious service.

The flaming chalice is another symbol for the Unitarians.

I love how they put their philosophy into action and often are involved in social justice movements, not to be confused with politics. They are interested in social issues, not political parties.

It was the Transcendentalist movement that first divided American Unitarians, before the came back together. I thought this was interesting. Transcendentalism is  an idealistic philosophical and social movement that took place in New England around 1836 in reaction to rationalism. Developed in part by Immanuel Kant, and embraced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, it is based on the idea of theunity of all creation, the innate goodness of humanity, and the supremacy of insight over logic to find the deepest truths, through intuition. A kind of ‘new age’ philosophy for its time. But I digress. 

Back to the UU. Another interesting fact about the UU is that they have their own seminaries – theological schooling, and so their ministers are highly trained and credentialed individuals. They have had women ministers for over 100 years – and I think that in itself tells us a lot about them. The UU approach is one of open-mindedness. They encourage freedom and equality, and you would be correct to brand them as liberal.

Unitarians are interested in the whole range of challenges facing our society and our world. They believe that their liberal religious beliefs, their affirmation of human dignity and a one-world vision have something important to offer. In the UU you will also find a way to have ceremony and ritual for all of life’s milestones, something I strive to provide as a well as a Humanist Celebrant. 

There is no set liturgy or format for a Unitarian wedding ceremony, so like me, they can create whatever fits for the couple. In fact, you do not even need to be a member of a Unitarian congregation to get married by them. That’s great news!

As one congregation, the UU of Palo Alto, CA, puts it:

  • We are united not by a single creed, but by a covenant of mutual respect.
  • We encourage spiritual curiosity in our children and continue that learning journey throughout our lives.
  • We are inspired by music and the arts, science and the beauty of the earth.
  • We are building a world that is more just, peaceful, and sustainable.
  • We support each other in community, building relationships with depth and caring concern.

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Advice for a better ceremony experience

I don’t alwayswrite about religion, ritual and culture, although I find it so fascinating. This is, after all, a wedding column and in that spirit I have advice to offer. These suggestions are based on officiating countless weddings, and the focus here is on the ceremony, my area of expertise – so here goes:

Guests: don’t be late.Too often I see people rushing in just before the processional begins, and sometimes I see them sneaking in after we’ve started the ceremony, standing in the back afraid to take a seat. Guests should give themselves plenty of time to be sure to arrive before designated start time. Remember, the ceremony is when the couple is getting married, the reception is a party. If you care about the couple, be there on time for their ceremony. Brides – don’t be late either. I know it’s your big day, but the entire day has a schedule – be gracious and be ready on time.

Parasols for shade – at Harmony Gardens (photo: Garth Woods)

Pick an officiant with whom you share values. How to do this? Research them and  meet them when possible to ensure the service will accurately express your beliefs. I often hear stories about things said by clergy that elicited gasps of shock from the couple and guests. Here’s a basic example, if you don’t want the words ‘love, honor and obey,’ be sure to make that clear. Most folks do not say that anymore, but you want to know you’re on the same page. Another custom that is falling out of favor is the line: ‘who givesthis woman.’ Some ministers will automatically do this, if you don’t want this part, you’d better let that be known. Whatever your beliefs or perspective on life, take the time explore that with the person performing your ceremony. Continuing on that topic….

It’s probably best that you not have a friend marry you (unless your friend is a professional officiant.) An untrained person just doesn’t bring it, but sometimes, if that person hasgood presentation skills, and is willing to do the research to make it meaningful, it could work out. But be sure it’s legal. Here in Pennsylvania it usually is not, but in some states you can get a license for a day, and some other states accept internet ordinations. It is the states that have control over marriage law, so check carefully. I have lots of training and background to do this work, does your friend?

Have enough chairs for everyone. Enough said!

A beautiful space in the shade at The Shawnee Inn (photo: Garth Woods)

Don’t have the ceremony in the hot sunwithout providing some shade and/or cold drinks. Parasols are great!

Talk to your photographerto be sure he or she will not be coming in too close during the ceremony. Most photographers will not intrude during the ceremony, and isn’t that why they have those long lenses? But I have experienced one or two who came in way too close during the most poignant moments – and it was really distracting and inappropriate.

Don’t have an aisle runner outdoorson grass– it usually doesn’t work out well. On a bumpy surface a runner doesn’t lay flat and tends to trip you as you walk on it. Check with your florist and make sure you are not paying for an aisle runner that you don’t want.

PLEASE ask people to turn off their phones and cameras. This has been a major problem for a long time, and not getting any better. People spend more time taking pictures and videos and looking at their phones than listening and respecting the moment. Besides, your professional will take way better photos than those phone shots with the tops of guests’ heads in them. Have your DJ, ushers or officiant announce that you are having an ‘unplugged’ ceremony and they need to turn off all their devices. Signage helps but often isn’t enough.

There is no guarantee that things will go perfectly but keeping in mind these simple do’s and don’ts will help your wedding ceremony go smoothly.

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Rituals are Everywhere

What?? She’s writing about rituals again? Yes I am, because rituals are a way to express something without words. A ritual can certainly express what your marriage commitment means to you and be a way to honor your culture or family. It might connect with your interests and values. Religious ceremonies are full of rituals, which are specific to their faith traditions. The Stations of the Cross, Confession, Communion, Shabbat candles, as well as prayers or songs are all good examples.

There are secular rituals as well, such as raising the flag, pledging allegiance and Thanksgiving. We heard a lot of fireworks this week, and I’d definitely call that ritual. 

Shared rituals, the ones we are all familiar with, provide comfort and continuity. That is why funeral rituals are so important.

Every wedding has the rituals of exchanging rings and vows. Consider how at the ceremony simply walking in separately and walking out as a couple is a clear ritual representing the journey of two lives now joining together on the same path.

Moving on to a reception – first dances, bouquet tosses, cake cutting – you know these things – they are all rituals. One of my favorites is the toast – but it is not that easy. A good toast is quite the art.

The Toast! Photo: Rhinehart Photography

There are many specific cultural rituals, such as the Japanese tea ceremony, the eastern European bread and salt,  jumping the broom for the African-American tradition, or breaking the glass in the Jewish wedding.

Side note: breaking the glass has no real religious meaning, it is simply a popular Jewish custom. Nobody breaks a glass in any Jewish worship service, it’s only a wedding ritual.

I want to suggest a few more unique ideas you may want to incorporate no matter what your faith or background, because, if chosen thoughtfully, rituals add beauty and character to any ceremony.

Using pebbles or stones can be wonderful. There are many variations, one would be to simply have guests hold small smooth stones throughout the ceremony. They can write a wish, blessing or message on the stone itself, and then you collect and keep them for display, or skip the writing, just think of it as infusing them with the love they felt through the ceremony, and then placing them in a keep sake jar.

Their own little ritual.
Rhinehart Photography

Tossing pebbles or stones into water is another way to go, representing sending your wishes out into the universe. Having natural elements like plants, water, sand or stone feels just right for some people.

I believe as modern people we may borrow from cultures as long as we are not using the customs in inappropriate ways, which is called ‘cultural appropriation.’  According to Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.‘To avoid cultural appropriation, we should learn about the diverse cultures that exist today. Don’t just borrow elements of a culture because “it is cool” or “exotic” but learn about the culture first and then decide if it is an element that makes sense to use in your life.’

Here is one I have borrowed from the Hindu tradition: The Seven Steps. This involves walking around a fire or in a circle while the officiant offers blessings or vows. These are loosely adapted by me, again, inspired from the Hindu Ceremony:

1. May this couple be blessed with an abundance of resources and comforts and be helpful to one another in all ways.

2. May this couple be strong and complement one another.

3. May this couple be blessed with prosperity and riches on all levels.

4. May this couple be eternally happy.

5. May this couple be blessed with a happy family life.

6. May this couple live in perfect harmony… true to their personal values and their joint promises.

7. May this couple always be the best of friends.

If you able to walk around the fire, you will toss small bits of puffed rice into the fire to indicate you agree. You can vary a tradition in many ways. Perhaps just walk around a candle. Traditionally the bride’s sari is tied to the groom’s clothing, but you can simply hold hands!

Blessing, invoking or addressing the Four Directions is a pagan ritual that is appealing to some. It is this belief, virtues are assigned to thedirections: East, South, West and North. Again, I have my own ‘take’ on this, a little too long for this column but keep in mind that the east represents air, the rising of the sun and a new day. South is for fire, energy and passion. West coordinates to water and emotion and true. And north is earth, providing sustenance, fertility and security. You can readily imagine how these characteristics relate to relationships and marriage.

Carrying the bride comes from way back when the groom carried his bride over the threshold of their new home.
Rhinehart Photography

Community vows, or support vows are a wonderful way to get everyone involved. This is a ritual where the officiate asks everyone to say an ‘I do,’ agreeing to support the couple. I simply adore this. What a great feeling to hear all your guests give voice to their support of this moment in your life.

Let your curiosity and creativity flow and borrow or invent traditions that work for you!

(find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman)

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Non-denominational? Secular? Sorting it all out.

When looking for someone to officiate their wedding, many couples  are not only unfamiliar with the terminology but may not be sure what they are actually seeking. Let me try to sort it out.

I often get requests for a non-denominational ceremony. After exploring this with the couple I discover what they actually want is a secular ceremony. Not always, but fairly often. There is a common misunderstanding of these terms. 

There are many circumstances, practical reasons for their confusion, as well as spiritual, emotional and family issues that add to the confusion. Perhaps the couple does not have a house of worship they are attached to, or they may be estranged from their faith traditions, they may be getting married out-of-town and don’t know anyone there, or they may not hold traditional religious beliefs. Often when couples don’t know exactly what they want they use the term: non-denominational, thinking it might fill their needs. 

Let’s be clear: non-denomination is literally any religious group that is not a part of a specific denomination, but usually open and accepting of most Christian practices. In other words, peoplefrom any and all Christian backgrounds whether Baptist, Methodist, Advent, Presbyterian, or any of the thousands of different sects, can attend. Sometimes the term ‘interdenominational’ is used – it’s basically the same thing.

Rhinehart Photography

The word some couples are looking is not non-denominational – it is ‘secular,’ ‘humanist,’ ‘ethical humanist,’ or ‘secular humanist.’ The main premise of these philosophies is the rejection the super-natural, with a belief in science. There is also an emphasis on morality based on learning, democracy and a perspective that strives to make life better for all people. In a word: progress. The Humanist Society (full disclosure, I’m a Humanist Celebrant) has chapters in 70 countries. They advocate for human rights and build strong ethical lives of personal fulfillment through rational thought. 

My grandson was recently confirmed in Norway through the Humanist Society. Just as with weddings, a confirmation gives voice to an important moment in life. Their program gives teens a way to explore and understand values and morals, not dogma, and mark the transition into adulthood.

My grandson’s Humanist confirmation
(note the Humanist Logo at top)

I believe we all need something  meaningful to mark the big milestones in life, a way to mark the moment. People look for someone or something to turn to for weddings, births, coming of age and death rituals. 

Going a little deeper, because a non-denominational church is not affiliated with a larger group, they can go in many different directions. It can be wonderful, freeing even, and congregants may find their particular church gives them the path they are seeking. People disillusioned with churches as organizations and hierarchies may gravitate towards non-denominational for those reasons. Many religions are bureaucratic and have suffered scandals. There are some excellent non-denominational churches.

Like anytime people get together, a religious group can undergo conflict. Some of my pastor friends have recounted terrible experiences with their board or other lay leaders in their congregations. It’s a two-way street – parishioners don’t like the pastor, the pastor struggles with the parishioners. 

A friend of mine, a Methodist minister (pretty mainstream, right?) tried to teach the gospel as he has studied it and come to understand it. He wanted to preach compassion, and that included victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It was enough to get him fired. His parishioners, he said, wanted to go to church to feel good, not feel compassion towards the poor or oppressed, as Jesus teaches.

Here I am at a recent ceremony.
(photo credit: Garth Woods)

Some non-denominational churches are more than happy to offer a feel-good approach. The bigger churches sometimes put on quite a show. It’s theater. And be aware that many leaders of non-denominational churches may have no background or education relevant to their role. They may not have attended seminary. Getting a good education when you are dealing not only with the spiritual, but the practical needs of a congregation, is pretty important.  Many pastors give counselling to members of their congregations, and if you don’t think this requires education, think again! 

Some non-denominational leaders are charismatic people who, in my opinion, are con artists. They’re in it for the money. Joel Osteen is worth $40 million. You may have heard of Creflo Dollar – he’s worth $27 million – he’s the guy that needed another private jet (one wasn’t enough apparently). Pat Robertson is worth $500 million. They all lead non-denominational churches.  And they don’t have to pay taxes or report how they spend their millions.

You know how much a Methodist minister makes? The average salary is $44,219. 

Most non-denominational churches are fundamentalist, meaning they hold strict, literal interpretations of scripture. But of course, again, there is a wide range within this group, including those well-meaning, kind, loving churches who are doing good work in their communities, from day care to food banks. Many of these good churches exist in rural areas or small communities and neighborhoods – and the congregations are small, some so small they meet in people’s homes, or in store-fronts. It’s a very, very broad spectrum. 

And finally, it is a sad misunderstanding to think that who do not worship a Supreme Being (God, Jesus, or any number of incarnations or representations thereof) are without morals. This is certainly not the case, and thinking of this in the reverse – we can all recall people who claim to be religious only to discover they are completely without morals. 

If you look at humanists and people of faith you will find many shared values. According to Paul Kurtz, considered the father of secular humanism, the goals of humanism are to tell the truth, keep promises, be honest, sincere, benevolent, reliable, dependable, show fidelity, appreciation, gratitude, be fair-minded, just, tolerant. A humanist should not steal, injure, maim or harm other persons… a pretty good list of values, I’d say.

I think we can all agree on that.

(find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman)

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Quaker Values Stand the Test of Time

Sometimes I write about silly things in this column, but I also often write about religion, culture and ritual and explore how traditions might pertain to weddings. One important religion I have not written about yet (after all these years) is the Society of Friends, or Quakers. They are especially important to us here in the Poconos because the roots of this faith in America are deeply tied to Pennsylvania. William Penn established our state to be a place where Quaker values of equality, religious freedom, and open democratic processes could be put into practice in ways that seemed impossible in Europe at that time.

Quakers have been a significant part of the movements for the abolition of slavery, promoting equal rights for women, and peace. They are well-known as pacifists, but contrary to popular belief, pacifism is not strictly required.

William Penn

From the beginning Friends gave women and men equal status, believing that we are all children of God who bestowed an equality upon us all. They say that one person should not set himself above others and that human distinctions are meaningless to God. Not to be confused with the Amish or Mennonites, Quakers  also practice simple living, plain dress and plain speech, but these days there is room for fashion.

In the Quaker tradition a self-uniting marriage license is used, and here in PA you can obtain this special license designed for this purpose. Please don’t get the self-uniting license if you are NOT a Quaker. That’s not right, and perhaps technically fraudulent (not that anyone is going to challenge you).

A Quaker couple marrying at the Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia
(photo: Thomas V. Lallone)

The Religious Society of Friends, was founded in mid-17th Century England by George Fox (1624-1691) The name comes from the Gospel of John which says, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command.” (John 15:12-15).The original Quakers called themselves “Friends of Truth” after this verse. They were also known as the ‘Children of Light.’ The Society of Friends became known as Quakers because the original Friends were mocked for ‘trembling with religious zeal.’ 

I have had the honor of working with a few couples who had a Quaker  backgrounds. They were well aware of how to conduct a Quaker wedding,  but they wanted something extra added to  the traditional. I totally understand this – and you don’t have to be dress plain to have a Quaker or Quaker-influenced wedding! Nothing precludes getting dressed up.

Rhinehart Photography

A true Quaker wedding has little fanfare in its ceremony content. Like their prayer meetings, there is no ‘leader’ and anyone in attendance may stand up and say something. It’s pretty loose and spontaneous. I really like that aspect. Everyone is free to speak. However, if your guests have no background in this, it could go sideways. Then the couple exchanges their vows. Once the self-uniting license is signed – that’s it. But again, many modern couples want a little more.

At Philadelphia City Hall
(Rhinehart Photography)

Friends believe that if they wait silently, God will speak to them in the heart. The silent Meeting of Friends is their sacrament of communion with God. During this silence they  open to the Spirit. I grew up in Philadelphia and attended some Quaker meetings in my youth because I was attracted to their stand on justice. 

While the clothing and quaintness might be a relic of the past, today’s Quakers have beautiful traditions that live on.

(find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman)

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