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This year, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, and I have been talking a lot about the congregation’s ministry to and with teenagers. He and members of our Children and Youth Religious Education Committee will be leading a town hall-style forum on youth ministry in our congregation next week. Since there’s also been a lot of conversation on the topic among people in our district, at the retreat of the district ministers last week I and a couple of colleagues shared models of how youth ministry looks in our congregations. I didn’t have enough time to talk about all of the programs at UUCPA because they are burgeoning.
A core of our youth ministry–and the part I’m most frequently involved in–is the proactive inclusion of teens in the leadership of the congregation. In the past few years, teenagers have been on the Board, Membership & Growth Committee, and Finance Committee, and have taught Children’s Religious Education. They are responsible for the wildly popular, very well-run Children’s Auction every year during the congregation’s auction, our biggest fundraiser. Rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders can be CITs in our pilot Ecojustice Camp.
This year, two representatives from the “Purple Class,” early teens, made a proposal to the Board for $250 to install an experimental rain barrel on church property. The Board members listened carefully, asked good questions, and voted unanimously to support the project. In fact, none of this leadership development would be possible without the support of our adult leaders, who are enthusiastic about youth taking on leadership and treat them with the respect of any congregational leader, and accommodate the particular scheduling issues of teenagers. For example, our Board terms are three years, so if a teenager doesn’t come onto the Board until their junior year, they will probably not complete the term. The Board and Nominating Committee are fine with that.
One of the most important and visible leadership roles in the congregation is that of the Worship Associates (WAs): they write and deliver a 3-5-minute reflection, confer with the service leader to help choose the readings and music, play important roles during the service (speaking the chalice lighting words, etc.), and if the speaker is a guest, emcee and coordinate the entire service. The Worship Associate’s reflection is frequently the most meaningful part of the service for the rest of the congregation. This year we have ten WAs, three of whom are under 18. This is leadership development for the teens, but face it, it’s to the congregation’s benefit as they hear the insights of the youth leading the service, and to my benefit as the minister responsible for services. I’m always looking out for good Worship Associates, and these people are good. I have my eye on so many articulate, responsible young people for next year’s Worship Associate team that if I invited them all, we wouldn’t have enough adult representation among the WAs.
Youth ministry also, of course, takes the form of groups and classes especially for youth. A Senior High Youth Group, quite independent in its leadership though there are adult advisers, meets every Sunday night. Our Whole Lives (OWL), the sexuality curriculum that we teach at all age levels and make freely available to the wider community, also meets on Sunday evenings for the 7th-9th-grade level; it’s been so popular that we are planning to offer that level every year from now on. (We need more facilitators, so we’re hosting the upcoming training.) On alternate years, we have a Coming of Age group, mostly composed of 8th graders; this is one of those years, so I’ve led three of their Sunday-evening sessions, including the planning session for their ever-popular Sunday service, coming up on May 17. They articulate their own beliefs in a written credo (Do they believe in God? What are their values? What’s most meaningful to them?) The junior-high age kids also have a Sunday morning program–their curriculum is Neighboring Faiths, where they learn about other traditions through visits and interviews–and many attend both. Youth are welcome in Adult Religious Education classes, something I realize we need to make more explicit.
This July, nine teens are going on a service trip to Belize, where they’ll be doing real, needed work rooted in the longtime relationship one of our members (now a parent of a teenager) has there through the non-profit she co-founded, Teachers for a Better Belize. They will paint one primary school, help install solar panels on another, plant an environmentally-friendly demonstration garden at a third, and stock children’s books in the libraries of several schools; they’re currently soliciting book donations and raising the funds to ship the books and buy the supplies, and they successfully petitioned the Action Council and congregation to make this project the recipient of the 10% of our offering that we give to one justice partner each month (again: congregational support for youth ministry). In the process, they’ll learn about the culture of Belize’s poorest region, where most of the people are indigenous (Mayan in this case), like so many of the Latin American residents of our own area. In recent years, other service trips have taken teens to Los Angeles and New Orleans. One of Dan’s and my goals for this aspect of our program is to fund enough scholarships that travel costs are not a barrier to any teenager who wants to go.
One of the needs we perceive is family-based youth programming: church activities that teens and other family members, especially parents, can do together. Teens need space apart from their parents, and we provide that; but they also need to negotiate the changes in their relationships with their parents, and family-based programming helps facilitate that process. We’ve been thinking about what kind of Sunday evening worship we might create, for example, that would engage parents and teens while they are here for the increasing number of Sunday-evening groups. The Adult Religious Education Committee is looking at supporting this direction by offering more of its programs on Sunday evenings–the parents could go to them while the teens are in OWL, Coming of Age, and Senior High Youth Group.
All of this is a matter of saving lives and saving souls–not from Hell, since we’re Universalists, but from the earthly hell of fear, pain, and meaninglessness. Since long before Palo Alto’s woes hit the New York Times, our congregation has grappled with the stresses that our local culture puts on teenagers. They suffer a high level of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, worry incessantly about school, lose sight of passion and joy, and not surprisingly, report that the stress levels cause them physical pain, chronic sleep deprivation, and missed periods. How can we, as a faith community, ameliorate these problems and offer a counter-cultural alternative to the high-pressure world of Silicon Valley teenagers? We know that a positive peer group, connections with caring adults in and beyond their families, meaningful opportunities to serve the community, unconditional support for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and a religious community where they can search for truth and meaning are all developmental assets that help teenagers thrive. That’s what we’re doing when we do youth ministry.
I know the Town Hall participants and attendees will add more.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel, who is so often wise and measured, kicked up a duststorm on the internet a few years ago among people who think about spirituality, religion, and the communities that make them possible, when she published a piece on her denominational website that was neither wise or measured. It was full of dubious statements such as “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself” and pure nastiness such as “Please stop boring me” (the latter was a headline, so it might not have been her writing).
As my colleague Jeremy Nickel responded at the time, Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Or we do to the extent that they aren’t put off by defensive and angry ministers.
Unfortunately because of messages like yours, instead of finding that safe space within our congregational walls, they have found them in Yoga and Meditation classes, book clubs, in small group ministry settings in friends homes, in volunteer associations and online in chat rooms and on blogs, and in countless other ways that all turn out not to be your church. And I think at this point, it is becoming pretty obvious why that is.
It is not, as you mockingly suggest, because they find themselves “uniquely fascinating,” but rather because they find us, and our congregations, predictably close-minded and judgmental.
I thought he eloquently said what I wanted to say on the subject, and pretty much hit it out of the park. But the “SBNR people are rabidly individualistic” meme is alive and well, and among people that hold the key to the problem in their hands, as I learned yesterday. I’m in a workshop on preaching and worship for the future church, by Mike Piazza of the Center for Progressive Renewal, formerly pastor of the largest LGBTQ congregation in the world, and it’s terrific, and I am inspired and aided by almost everything he says. He brought up the SBNR briefly, though, and made the same complaint about individualism. The applause made it clear that a lot of UUs agree with him.
I wasn’t clapping, because as irritating as “I can do it all by myself” religion is, I don’t think that it is the main impulse behind “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” My congregation is full of people who describe themselves the same way. Hell, I would describe myself the same way if I didn’t have a lifetime’s experience of religious community’s being a place for my spirit to flourish: a nurturer of spirituality, not its enemy. But that isn’t what many Americans think of when they hear “religion.” They hear–and this information was shared, later, by Rev. Piazza himself–
People in churches demonize everything outside the churches. (Rev. Daniel walked right into that one.)
It sets itself up as an opponent of science and intellectual thought.
Now, it’s easy enough for me to see why someone would conclude that their spiritual life was not going to be helped along by such an institution. Your average American has very good reason to think that churches are hotbeds of judgment, homophobia, and anti-scientific superstition. And the Barna Group study that yielded the above responses (it’s titled “You Lost Me”) wasn’t even of people who haven’t ever gone to church–it was a study of young people who grew up in Christian churches and left. As for Unitarian Universalism, as Rev. Piazza challenged us, we are none of these things (except sometimes boring) and very few people know we exist. Whose fault is that, and who’s responsible for turning it around?
If people don’t know that there is a religion that affirms the explorations of science; that celebrates our whole lives including our sexuality, regardless of sexual orientation; that is not concerned with defending its own dogma and doctrines; well, it’s mostly because we have hidden our own light under a bushel for all these years. Too many of us, which is why I don’t give in to the temptation to lie about my profession on airplanes, but tell those who ask that I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister. And when they start witnessing to me about their faith, which happens as often as their saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I tell them about us: that my congregation welcomes humanists and atheists (including me) as well as theists and Christians, that we encourage people to follow their own spiritual impulses in community, that we see the Bible as a document created by and for humans, that science and our observations of nature are one of the sources of our tradition, and of course, that we unreservedly affirm LGBTQ people (again including me). The very public fight for gay rights is helping to undermine the stereotype, I think–many of us have turned the media framing of “gays versus religion” to “look, here are religions that support gays,” and all those photos in the press of UU ministers, in collars and stoles to make it abundantly clear that they are ministers, officiating at the weddings of same-sex couples, are surely having an impact. Now we also have to let everyone–those outside and those inside our walls–know that we are a home for deep spiritual exploration.
Which is to say, we need to make sure we’re not boring. Time for me to get back to my preaching and worship class.
I’ve been following Ryan Bell’s Year Without God on and off, on Facebook and his blog. I’d heard him preach at a conference for clergy involved in PICO and been very impressed by this Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his passion for economic justice, so when I heard about his year-long experiment in “challeng[ing] his beliefs and let[ting] the world watch,” as his girlfriend Rebecca Pratt summarized it, there was no question but that I’d be among the watchers.
Now, the year has ended, Bell is firmly humanist and atheist, and the responses from many Christians, especially Adventists, are predictable: a sense of loss (“Very sad”), concern for his well-being (“I will pray for him”), anger (“He has made a calculated and sharp deal with his Master”), dismissal (“It is apparent that Brother Bell was living a lie for much of his life“), condescension (“Send him a Bible”), and running through them all, a powerful assumption that no one can be happy without the kind of belief that they themselves have (“Sad, dark and empty life”).
It’s tempting to see these responses as evidence that his former co-religionists are a particularly smug and self-righteous lot, and that if the tables were turned–if, say, a Unitarian Universalist became a Methodist–we liberal-religionists wouldn’t respond this way. However, I’m afraid many would.
Would we be able to let them go to their new spiritual home without criticizing it–“Christianity is just a myth–I prefer reality”? Would we insist on rewriting their life story–“You must not have understood science to begin with”? Would we proclaim our superiority with statements such as “Well, some people need a crutch”?
I cited the Christians whose responses to Bell’s journey have been defensive and judgmental. Fortunately, many others seem secure enough in their own faith to wish him only the best, accepting that spiritual paths other than their own might lead to a person’s being good, happy, and fulfilled. I hope every Unitarian Universalist who ever meets an ex-UU will do likewise. “Not all those who wander are lost,” we seekers like to say. And not all who choose a different path than ours are heading in the wrong direction.
A colleague just asked me if a sermon I gave to our chapter two years ago is online. It wasn’t, until now. I sent the text to chapter members right after the retreat at which I gave the sermon, but it felt too tender at the time to put on this blog. Now I’ve added it to the sermons page.
What can’t be conveyed is the joy of singing “Rocky Ground” with a band of colleagues on that occasion. I gave another, very different sermon in my congregation two months later, using the same song, which several members of my congregation, and guest musicians Be’eri Moalem and Yuri Liberzon, performed beautifully.
Renee Ruchotzke wrote about them well: services that cruelly promise inspiration but deliver a lecture and inexpert music instead. People come seeking spiritual sustenance and, after hearing an address on beekeeping, “cross this church off [their] list.” Unitarian Universalist congregations have a bad habit of giving people time in the pulpit as an act of kindness–kindness to the speaker, but not to the listeners–and letting their concerns for quality go by the wayside, especially in summer.
This summer, I was a spiritual seeker far from home and eager to go to church while on vacation, and from that experience I gained a nugget to add to Renee’s wisdom. It isn’t enough to offer a service full of inspiration; you have to make it clear, from your publicity, that that’s what it’s going to be.
I was in a city where I know nothing about the congregation, and what I saw on the website was an address by the director of a local community organization, talking about . . . the work of his organization. The title didn’t pose a question or suggest that the sermon was going to try to answer any. Now, it’s possible that his address was deeply spiritual. The blurb describing the service said something about the way we all need the arts, and that could be the heart of a heart-centered sermon, but it sounded an awful lot like a standard spiel by a passionate advocate of a good cause. We all know them. Once in a while they are terrific, which is to say, they think about the audience and address their needs. More often, they are barely disguised appeals for funds, or just general support for their cause. No matter how excellent the cause, this is not the kind of thing I want to hear at the best of times (just send me your brochure, please; I can read it in two minutes, rather than listen to the 20-minute equivalent), and certainly not in lieu of spiritual reflection and guidance for my life. There is a time and place at church for community organizations to talk about their work: Wednesday evening, in the Emerson Room. Not Sunday at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary.
If I’d been a few minutes away, I might have risked it. But to get there, I was going to have to negotiate the bus system of an unfamiliar system and travel 50 minutes each way, and I just wasn’t willing to put that kind of effort into attending a lecture. So if it wasn’t a lecture, I’m sorry. I hope whoever writes the newsletter the next time will remember that what they are about to write is all their visitors know about that Sunday’s service. Ask yourselves: is this really a worship service? If it isn’t, please reschedule it for a different time. If it is, make sure it sounds like it from the publicity. Because if it isn’t enticing, many of us are just going to stay home.
When the new College for Social Justice (CSJ) was announced, a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), I was wary but hopeful. Wary because the “Just Works” program, which sent UUs to do short-term volunteer work, had already dwindled to “Just Journeys,” which sounded like tourism with some education and a bit of charitable hammer work thrown in, and the prospectus made the CSJ sound likely to be more of the same. Hopeful because new initiatives sound, well, new, and I was even more hopeful when the Rev. Kathleen McTigue became its first director. I have a lot of respect for her, as well as an affection and gratitude that will be with me always because of her compassionate care for me one time when I was a stranger and in great distress.
(Note: I have written a private letter to Kathleen telling her the same concerns I share here. We’re all part of one small faith and we can talk directly to each other, not just send our missives out onto the internet as if there were no real people concerned. I sent it a little over a year ago; she wrote back within two days and was gracious and thoughtful in her response. I’ve written to one of the program leaders of the least expensive youth justice trainings to ask how many youth get financial aid and what percentage does it cover, so I will edit this entry if I am being too pessimistic. I’m also a big supporter of the UUSC and urge every UU to join and give generously; I am speaking here of a particular program.)
The College of Social Justice has now been in place for a year and a half, and I am really disappointed. One of the slogans is “Don’t just learn about justice–do justice!” but the people being addressed are only the wealthy, because the least expensive learning opportunity being offered costs $525 plus airfare to the location. I had hoped that UUSC was finally getting away from its justice-tourism model, and Kathleen urged me to be patient. I do hope that things will change. However, along with “organizations have to begin somewhere, and can branch off from there,” a sound principle, there’s also the principle “begin as you mean to go on,” and things look pretty much the same as they did a year ago. The College of Social Justice appears under “Take Action” on the UUSC’s website, but in what way is it action? There’s some, sure, but that’s a lot of money to spend on something that is a tiny part action, a big part education, an even bigger part tourism. After all, isn’t that why people sign up for a program in Seattle or New Orleans instead of staying home where there are plenty of places to do and learn justice?
When I heard of a college of social justice, other than cringing slightly at the privilege suggested by “college” (“school” would be preferable), I liked the sound of a program that would teach me and other UUs what we really need to know about organizing and advocacy if we are to turn the world around. I understand that one can learn a lot in a week of service and listening. I’m not dismissing it; it’s better than going to Cancun for a week on the beach or staying home for a week in front of the telly, and I applaud those who do it. But I also know that those experiences are easy to come by for America’s wealthy, who already get all, every single one, of the unpaid internships and justice-tourism experiences on offer, because only the rich can take off for a summer and work for free, or travel at their own expense. Most people have to work.
There are things I need to learn, but I’m not seeing them at the CSJ. Is this the organizing model we want to teach to another generation of UUs, in the 21st century: noblesse oblige? I am here in wealthy Palo Alto, slowly helping my mostly-upper-class, mostly-white congregation to organize with poor communities, communities of recent immigrants and undocumented immigrants, communities of people of color. I could use some help. We are trying to learn to follow the lead of our less privileged partners, such as only happens when a variety of people is in the room. How is a young person to learn that lesson when everyone in her program can afford a $1000+ summer program, and most, who are not on scholarship, can afford much more, and not a single one has to earn some money that summer?
Here’s what we offer in the way of internships. Emphasis is mine.
Internships are unpaid, but interns are eligible to apply for a cost-of-living stipend from UUCSJ, intended to cover basic living expenses and local public transit. However, availability may be limited. Housing is also available, subsidized by UUCSJ and/or the partner organizations. Interns must cover the cost of travel to and from their internship location, and in some cases are asked to share in the cost of room and board.
Prospective interns are strongly encouraged to explore funding opportunities from other sources, such as their colleges and faith communities. Many colleges offer grants for summer internship placements, or the opportunity to receive academic credit. UUCSJ will work with applicants to accommodate outside guidelines for funding.
For most locations, interns will be scheduled to work no more than 25 hours per week, to allow the option of seeking an additional part-time job. (from the page Global Justice Summer Internships)
Contrast the Changemaker Fellowships offered by the Pacific School of Religion, which I probably couldn’t even receive because at least 2/3 of the spots are to be taken by people of color. We white people are, after all, well under 1/3 of the world’s population. So this program and its membership sound exactly right.
This Fellowship provides a full-tuition scholarship for the new Certificate of Spirituality and Social Change, an immersive course of study, integrating theological reflection and spiritual formation with leadership for social change. It also covers expenses for exciting immersion opportunities, leadership retreats, spiritual formation, and faculty mentoring. Changemaker Fellows are talented individuals who have demonstrated their skills to lead justice-driven change in churches, organizations, communities, and individual lives.
In this year-long program, Changemaker Fellows will:
- Integrate formative theological study with a deeper understanding of their vocations as social change leaders or Changemakers;
- Develop a greater understanding of transformative leadership practices and how to integrate these practices into their own social change work;
- Take part in a variety of offerings including cohort and immersion learning experiences, faculty mentorship, and regular group meetings for engaged theological reflection and spiritual formation;
- Enjoy a richly diverse learning experience while enriching the entire PSR community with their unique perspectives, skills, and gifts;
- Earn the new Certificate in Spirituality and Social Change. (The Fellowship covers the cost of tuition for this exciting new course of study!
This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, obviously; the goal of the Changemaker Fellowship program is quite different from the CSJ’s. But despite a heavily academic emphasis, it sees the diversity of the group as absolutely essential. It sees its work as so important that it must not be directed only toward those who can pay.
I don’t expect or want the College of Social Justice to create a certificate in social change; I just wish it would put its resources into trainings that are accessible to most people instead of a wealthy few. In the past year and a half, under Kathleen’s leadership, the CSJ has taken some steps in that direction. When she wrote to me, she spoke of instituting domestic programs in Boston and New Orleans, and they have; there are others in the US as well, and they are less expensive than a trip to Haiti or India.
There are ways to reduce the costs by a couple of orders of magnitude, however, that are being neglected, perhaps because they just aren’t as much fun for those among us who can afford a $1000 vacation. Flying trainers from Boston to our own communities, for example, would open the door to hundreds of interested activists; the cost per person could easily be lowered to $20-50, making the job of finding sufficient scholarship money easier. Mark Hicks is involved in the creation of the curricula, I understand, and that’s wonderful news–but why not bring his teachings to us where we are, instead of reserving them for those who can afford a flight across the country or the ocean? (And consider the carbon savings!) Technology has enabled us to meet faraway people for the price of an internet connection and a computer, and such meetings could be very inspiring and educational. In the meantime, the activists themselves might be encouraged to put their money into justice-making, rather than a fun, albeit challenging, trip for themselves.
I know the hope is that when the participants come home, they’ll bring what they learned to their local community. The question is, what will they have learned?
S. is an electric-vehicle (EV) driver, builder of a platinum-LEED home, and all-around passionate environmentalist in my congregation. He lends his EV out to everyone who’s curious (Joy, my wife, calls him an EVangelist), and one Tuesday in October, he brought it to church for me to try it for a week. It’s a Leaf. It was lots of fun. And I promised I’d write it up, which I am finally doing now that I’m making myself blog daily (except for the Weekend from Hell, which we will ignore).
The first thing you need to know is that I have a serious commute. It’s 32-39 miles, depending on the route. A car has to get me that far in heavy traffic with lots of battery charge to spare, or I’m going to be very nervous. The car had plenty of charge for the job.
It did not always have as much charge as it said it did, or maybe it’s vice versa. For example, we took a seven-mile drive to a restaurant one day. The car said it had 35 miles of charge, so that seemed plenty safe. By the time we’d gotten to the restaurant, our cushion had dwindled; the car was reporting it had dropped 14 miles. Ulp. We made it home, no problem, but this erratic behavior could hamper travel.
Plugging into the 110 outlet in our entryway was enough to charge the battery overnight, but it meant running the cable over the sidewalk, which meant taping it down each time. If we owned an electric car, that would get old very fast. We’d need a charging station in the street, or in our garage, or at least we’d want to use the 220 outlet that’s in the garage. (Our garage is not presently accessible to any car that wants to keep its undercarriage attached.)
At work, I could fully charge in 4-6 hours, because our church rocks and puts its money where its Seventh Principle is by having a free charging station. If you had a commute of any significant length and didn’t have access to a charging station while at work, an EV would be pretty impractical; however, more chargers are popping up all the time, many available to anyone who wishes to use them, for free or a small fee. Mobile apps direct EV users to the network, and there’s a great community feel to it, eco-creative types helping each other out. Our church is on the apps’ maps, and we often have visitors who are there to plug in while they’re working, shopping nearby, etc.–or they live in the neighborhood.
The other cool thing about UUCPA’s charger is that, like many Palo Alto locations, we opt for Palo Alto Green, which means that all our electricity is from renewable sources. So after I charged at work, I was driving a truly zero-emissions vehicle. Even charging at home, with plain old Pacific Gas and Electric, I’m running a much cleaner car than one with a gas engine. Joy, who is an energy analyst for the state of California, says that even if you use electricity generated in the dirtiest way available (that would be coal), driving an EV would still generate lower emissions than a hybrid, gas, or diesel engine. (S. takes care to say, “The manufacture of the EV causes emissions,” proving that there is such a thing as a rigorously honest evangelist.)
A factor that surprised me may be a major barrier to widespread acceptance of EVs around the country: they’re cold. A gas engine engenders so much excess heat as a by-product that when you want to warm the interior, you just run a little air off the engine. Okay, all that heat is part of the problem–but in Vermont, you need it. Heck, you need it in Palo Alto. You can turn on the car’s heater, of course, but making heat from electricity takes a lot of energy, and it cuts into the battery’s time quite a lot. The seat warmers, plus some old-fashioned approaches like a blanket over the lap, were good enough in this climate, even for an easily-chilled person like me, but in a cold climate, EVs will need more efficiency to get both a warm interior and a long-lasting battery.
On the other hand, S. is an early adapter and the Leaf has been around a while, so I was driving one of the least efficient EVs. I’m sure this aspect of the technology will keep improving, as will the infrastructure that is currently reminiscent of the earliest days of ATMs, when they were few and far between and of so many formats that most of them didn’t take your card. Standardization will come soon, as it usually does in technology.
Joy got to go on a tour of the Tesla factory last week–don’t ever let anyone tell you that the job of State of California Regulatory Analyst lacks in glamour and excitement–and reports that they plan to offer an EV for under $30,000 in 2017. Our Prius will be pushing 200k miles by then. Hmmm . . .
A homily given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Christmas Eve, 2013
What are we to make of these angels? What are we supposed to think about all these angels?
There’s a lot in this lovely little story of Christmas that is hard for the rational mind to believe. But you can explain most of it away—the miraculous birth, the amazing star. But not angels. They are a whole different kind of creature that populates the Bible, something between the human and the divine. People have invented a whole field of study called “angelology” and explained all the various ranks and types, which only makes it all harder to believe for me.
But the meaning of the word “angel” in the Bible that I was taught as a child and that means the most to me today is something very simple and grounded in our real lives. An angel is a messenger. Someone who comes from God to a person, carrying a message. Someone who tells us something we need to know about the holy.
What is the holy? Well, according to the Unitarian Universalist songwriter Peter Mayer, everything—and I see no reason to doubt him. Which would seem to suggest that everything is or can be a messenger of the holy also. Anything that helps goodness, wisdom, hope, get from out there to inside here, is an angel of a kind. Anything that brings us a message that the holy is the holy is an angel.
It doesn’t have to be a beautiful young woman straight out of a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings. When you’re sick and scared in the hospital, and an overworked, overweight, aging nursing assistant puts a reassuring hand on your shoulder and smiles, and you look into his eyes and feel a flame of hope come to life inside you—he’s an angel.
It doesn’t have to be a human being. When you are filled with despair and there seems to be nothing except barren ground and hard edges, and you stumble home and your cat rubs her cheeks against your ankles, and you remember that there is something soft and loving in the world—she’s an angel.
It doesn’t have to be alive. A shooting star, the Badlands of South Dakota, a sand dollar shell washed up on the beach, the ocean itself . . . these have all been known to whisper messages of hope, harmony, beauty.
Whenever a message comes that reminds you of holiness, you have met an angel.
The messages don’t always have to be pleasant, either. We may hear that people are dying in South Sudan (radio as angel). We may be informed that we have hurt someone’s feelings (angry friend as angel). We may suddenly grasp that we are going the wrong way and have been going the wrong way for years (road sign as angel). If these messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking to us.
Everything is holy; anyone, anything, can be an angel.
And so the unknown writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
This, to me, means: be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the apparently uninteresting. It may be the messenger bearing a note for your ear. And we are reminded in particular to be open to those would-be messengers that we turn away because they bear messages we don’t want to hear. After all, when the holy breaks into our awareness, it can make us have to change our lives. It can turn everything upside down.
A message implies that there is something we now must do. Here’s a text message that says, “Call me, it’s urgent.” Here’s a messenger of God saying, “Joseph, marry your fiancee,” or “Shepherds, go to Bethlehem and look for the baby who will be King of the Jews.” Here’s an angel saying, “I bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Wait a second. As the first carol we sang tonight, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” says, there hasn’t been peace on earth. People have not extended goodwill to each other. What has followed that message has been “two thousand years of wrong.” That’s because the message is never just a point of information; it’s a command. Go and do something. Make this a world of peace. Make goodwill between yourself and your neighbor. Hear the angels sing and take their messages to heart.
So the messages that come our way can be disruptive, reassuring, joyful, scary, exhilarating . . . . it depends on what we do with them. One thing is certain. When the holy speaks to us, whatever form the holy takes, whatever form its messenger takes, that angel is always bearing good news.
Inspired by an exchange on the UU Growth Lab
We Unitarian Universalists sometimes assume that people in other religions are “more comfortable with hypocrisy” or “comfortable pretending to believe things they don’t believe.” That must be true of some people, but I don’t think that it is a fair or true way to explain why many people remain in religious communities where they don’t believe in the whole package. I stayed involved in Judaism for years after developing serious doubts, and I can articulate several reasons why.
The rituals were beautiful and still meaningful to me in many ways. Some of the meanings were about a vision of God or human destiny that I didn’t believe anymore, but many others were still consonant with my beliefs. Also, the rituals and practices were very wrapped up in family life. I hadn’t lighted the Shabbas candles with my family for all those years only because I believed that God commanded us to rest; I had done it as part of a treasured family gathering, a time of togetherness and mutual blessing. Absenting myself from that would have been removing myself from a special meal at week’s end lit by the glow of candlelight, the beginning of a day we committed to spend together and with gathered friends, instead of scattered all over town on various errands and activities. Dropping the practices that had lost much of their meaning was not as simple as “don’t go to services anymore” or “eat whatever you like.”
The things that I still did believe in, and the values that my religion helped me to practice, were so important to me that I was not willing to give them up just because there were also elements of the religion that appalled me. I knew of no other community that would support these values and beliefs–not yet. I certainly knew of no other community that would support these values and beliefs in the context of a culture that I had known from birth, that is shared by my ancestors, and that goes back thousands of years, and I still don’t. (I finally decided that I would have to do without that. It was a sad, painful choice.)
So there I was, going to synagogue, participating in many aspects of Jewish life. I was not pretending. All the people closest to me knew about my struggles with my faith. Some knew sooner than others, and of course the people sitting in the next row at shul might not have known at all, and might have assumed that because I was singing along with the service, I believed what they believed. That bothered me, but it’s not as if every person in a synagogue believes exactly the same thing even at the best of times. I’m sure some of them had similar internal struggles to mine.
I eventually left, but I don’t think that I am truer to myself than others who shared my doubts but chose to remain. People may stay for a lifetime in a religion that is not a perfect fit, because it’s the best fit. We don’t get to create religions from scratch, not if we want things like 5,000-year-old roots; we choose from a limited list of options. I’m really no different today than anyone who chooses an imperfect religion (or job or place to live or marriage or . . . ). Unitarian Universalism suits me very well, but not perfectly. Just the same, I’m staying here. Does that make me insincere? Of course not.
There are good reasons for people to stay in a religion with which they have profound disagreements. If that’s strange to us, perhaps instead of assuming that they are faking it, we could approach them with curiosity and compassion and inquire about what they seek and what they have found.