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I keep trying to write long pieces about this and feeling like others have said the same thing better. So I will just put it in two sentences.
I am thrilled that the UUA Board has committed significant money to Black Lives of UU (BLUU); identified white supremacy as one of the biggest challenges facing us, and the dearth of leadership by people of color in high positions in the UUA itself as one of the expressions of that challenge; and chosen a three-person, all-people-of-color team for the acting presidency. This direction not only seems wise, prudent, and moral, but it gives me a surge of hope for the future of our faith.
For me to rest and renew during this sabbatical, I need not to be in regular contact with my congregation. I just don’t have the ability to turn my concern on and off; if I knew what was going on with them day to day, I would worry and plan and respond and, in short, work. So we are incommunicado except in the case of an emergency. The election is one such emergency, and I wrote and sent this letter this morning:
Dear wonderful people of UUCPA,
My heart is with you so much today. In times of trouble I want to be at home with you, and the distance between us feels very long right now. Whatever your political views, I know there was plenty that happened over the past 24 hours to discourage you. I am aching for the hugs and conversation we’ll share when I’m back.
Did you ever hear this from Mister Rogers?: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’ve observed (maybe Fred Rogers did too) that if we really want to transform our fear into hope, what works wonders is to become the helpers. That’s why our life as a congregation is so important.
We at UUCPA have been forming relationships with Muslim communities in our neighborhood. We will ask these vulnerable communities what we can do for them, and do it. We have been striving to be a sanctuary for people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities, immigration statuses, and religious backgrounds. At a time when our country needs those kinds of sanctuaries more than ever, we will offer the welcome that this country is meant to offer to everyone. We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be among the helpers.
We’ll have to be gentle with each other. This has been a harsh election, and when our feelings are raw, we seek someone to blame. Let’s promise each other: there is no one beneath our notice or excluded from the circle of dignity and worth, no matter who they voted for or what they believe, and no matter how afraid, hurt, or angry we are. Just being there for each other is another way to be among the helpers.
Friends have been joking (or maybe not joking) about how California should secede from the rest of the country. But we are one country, one world, bound as closely to those on the other side of the planet as to those across the street. There is no elsewhere to run to. Like many people, I spend too much time in an echo chamber, and for me this election chides us to practice dialogue instead: in other words, truly to listen to people with whom we disagree. Not in order to change each other’s minds–maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t–but in the faith that if we approach one another with curiosity and openness, it can only be an improvement. As a politician has been telling us recently, we really are stronger together.
I’ll be back in Palo Alto on January 2, and spending as much time as possible hearing how you have been feeling and what you need. I’ll have hugs and tea for you in my office. And then together, bit by bit, we’ll build a promised land that can be.
With love and blessings,
During one of our weekly staff meetings several months before my sabbatical began, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, said, “Well, not that you’re looking for another sabbatical project, but if you were . . . ” It turns out that he sees a real need for a book of stories from the Bible for Unitarian Universalist kids around nine or ten years old. There are UU curricula introducing kids to this heritage (e.g., Timeless Themes), but he would love to have a volume to give each of our Religious Education students at that age. We could publish it ourselves, as he has done with his early history of Unitarians in Palo Alto and the Yuletide Song and Carol Book. In fact, we have funding for such a project thanks to a memorial book fund generously created by the family and friends of Sherwood Sullivan, a former president of our congregation who died late last year.
I wasn’t particularly in search of a project. Living in another country, learning Spanish, making lots of art, meeting regularly with my spiritual director, and expanding a program to teach Unitarian Universalists about modern slavery seemed like enough to grow on for six months. However, this idea sparked my imagination. The book Bible Stories retold by David Kossoff was a staple of my childhood, with its beautiful painted illustrations by Gino d’Achille and the writer’s vivid, down-to-earth voice. For example, when I think of the story of Absalom, who was killed as a traitor in the civil war he’d launched against his father King David, I always, always hear how Kossoff prefaced the famous passage:
The news was brought to David, and the people saw no triumph, no elation. Just a heartbroken man who’d lost a son. “O, Absalom,” they heard him say. “Would to God I had died instead of you. O, Absalom, my son, my son.”
(You can actually hear Kossoff himself, who was an actor as well, reading some of these stories on YouTube–see link below.)
As a religious educator, Unitarian Universalist, minister, parent, and lover of literature, I also have a voice to bring to these ancient, abiding, disturbing, inspiring, confusing tales. When Dan mentioned the idea, I immediately thought of some of the religious questions and ideas I’d developed around the age of nine or ten, and the stories that inspired them. I’d have to tell the story of Jonah, who is one of the most humanly flawed, and thus one of my favorite, characters in the Bible: a prophet, called to summon people to repentance, who is angry and disappointed when they actually do repent and gain forgiveness. And the story of Abraham bargaining with God to gain mercy for the people of Gomorrah and Sodom, which our Hebrew School teachers taught us as evidence that Jews’ God does not desire unthinking obedience, but respects a principled argument–in other words, that we are meant to use our reason and conscience to challenge even the God who gave them to us.
The fact that the same God, four chapters later, told the same man to sacrifice his beloved son like a sheep, and honored him for being willing to do it, raised so many painful questions. Were we supposed to be obedient after all? What the hell kind of God would ask such a thing? How did Isaac feel about it?
How will I introduce “texts of terror” like this? . . . that’s one of the many questions before me. But however I manage it, encouraging children’s questions and independent thinking is one of my goals for this book. Whether they’re UUs or just curious, engaged thinkers, they should wrestle with the text and the tradition, just as the Biblical Jacob wrestled with his brother, God, and himself–another story that will probably need to be included.
And I’ve got a reader on hand to raise questions and give me feedback from the target readership: a bright, questioning Unitarian Universalist nine-year-old. She’s also interested in creating illustrations, which I have promised she may do. I might do a few of my own as well, if the spirit so moves.
What stories would you include?
I read your very thoughtful blog entry, UUA, Why Aren’t You Nurturing My Spirit? right after General Assembly. I hadn’t attended, myself, and I had plans to listen to the Service of the Living Tradition and Sunday morning service and Ware Lecture and other treats from the week. As a humanist, I read your piece with growing trepidation, especially when I got to your characterization of Marlin Lavanhar’s sermon in the Service of the Living Tradition.
In Marlin’s story . . . I am the oppressor. I am his oppressor because he did not feel comfortable being open about his authentic self.
After that, I was braced for a rough half an hour watching his sermon. But instead, in what I agree with you was a wonderful sermon, I didn’t hear “you are the oppressor” at all. I heard his discomfort, but I didn’t hear him blaming it on anything but his own failures of courage and integrity. I do think, and it’s clearly implied by Marlin’s sermon as well, that there is some blame to go around. It falls on each of us when we let it show in our faces: “you believe that?”
We are each other’s oppressors. We can try to stuff each other in the closet with a look, with a roll of the eyes, with a “maybe you should try the UCC church down the street,” or “the Buddhist temple,” or “the Unity church,” or “the Humanist community.” There’s plenty of blame to go around, sadly. But I was looking hard for a finger pointing at humanists for shooting down theists, and what I saw was a little different from this:
What is wrong with Unitarian Universalism and what is holding us back from growth is our failure to embrace those who embrace God.
I really tried, I really expected it, but I didn’t see quite what you saw. Marlin did focus particularly on how hard our congregations are for those who embrace God; we do focus on it quite a bit these days, and there’s a good reason for that. If I may use an even more loaded metaphor than the closet (Marlin used it glancingly also), affirming God-believing UUs is like affirming the value of black lives.
“Black Lives Matter!” a person declares.
“Why do you say ‘black lives matter’?” the reply shoots back. “Don’t all lives matter?”
Yes, all lives matter, and since our judicial system and so much else about our country keep saying that black lives don’t count in that “all,” I’m gently, persistently pointing out that they do. And I am saying “We need to embrace those who embrace God” (lovely phrase, by the way) because in my congregation, although we say all theologies are welcome, we do convey, too often, that theist theologies, in particular, aren’t included in that “all.”
Thus the pendulum. Though I’m pretty tired of it too. I agree that it would be lovely if the pendulum were to stop swinging. Where would we like it to stop?
When I discovered Unitarian Universalism after decades of being a “None”, I was amazed and happy. It truly was amazing to this former Catholic — a place where I could take my authentic self and my Humanist family and be loved and supported in ways that I thought were only available to theists or others who could accept the supernatural.
My experience too! It sounds to me like we’re in a pretty good stopping place for humanists. What else do we need to do to nurture your spirit? Well, you spell some of it out.
So, where are the GA sessions on Grief Beyond Belief? Where are the services that take their inspiration from our creation story, the universe story, and the truth that we are star stuff and part of a grand, magnificent, messy, wondrous, interconnected world? Where is the advice for what to tell my son when he can’t sleep because he’s afraid that he is going to die some day, or that I might die and leave him alone? Where is the training in UU seminaries of how to minister to people like me who need to rely on human hands and human love to find hope and purpose? Where is the sense of mission to reach out to people like me who have nowhere else to turn for solace and inspiration and community because we don’t fit the religious norm? Where is the joy, and the celebration of life and love from a humanist perspective?
I know the answer to your question, and I hope it makes you happy: these things are to be found in UU congregations. I don’t know about the GA workshops—I haven’t done more than scan those for a couple of years—so maybe we do need more distinctly humanist presentations at GA. But the rest? Either I am particularly lucky, or you are particularly unlucky, because I have found those everywhere. Not only in my own congregation, not only in my collegial gatherings with ministers whose theologies do not all agree with mine by a long shot, and in the nondenominational Christian seminary I attended, but in every UU congregation I’ve belonged to. In fact, I’ve never attended a UU congregation that made me feel as if my theology were unwelcome. They might have said the Lord’s Prayer or mentioned God, they might have sung a hymn whose theology I find irksome, but I’ve always found lots of room for my beliefs and my preferred language and symbols. And I know for a fact that the ministers were not always of my theological stripe.
In fact, we have very few congregations in which the dominant theology is liberal Christianity. I’m glad they’re there, anyway—King’s Chapel should remain its badass high-church Christian self—even though I wouldn’t want to attend every week and they would certainly not want me as their minister, nor would I want to serve there. It’s fine that we have a few congregations that are explicitly atheist, pagan or Christian. But all in all, I much prefer the ones that try to be a home to all of those folks and more, and that is the kind in which I always hope to serve.
Will all humanists feel welcome in such a multitheological congregation? I fear not, because what I hear from a few humanists—not most—is that what they need for their spirit to be nurtured is to be in a place where everyone appears to believe as they do. I’m sorry to report this, because I’m a humanist myself, I don’t believe in God except in the sense of religious naturalism, and I most emphatically do not want people like us to die out. But from a few, particularly outspoken folks, I hear: “You have to stop using that ‘language of reverence’ or I don’t feel welcome here.” “Why use words like ‘God’ or ‘spirituality’ at all? Why not just use words we can all agree with?” “That was a great sermon except for the bit about Indra’s net. I don’t know why you need to talk about gods.” In other words, in order for these folks to feel “nurtured” in our congregations, we must all act like humanists all the time—and, more than that, we must act like a very particular strain of humanist, one who does not use any term that sounds “religious,” including the term “religious,” and also “sin,” “grace,” “redemption,” and indeed, “spirit.”
Like the great humanist Universalist Kenneth Patton, I like all those words and find them deeply meaningful. Others, I would rather leave out. You may not like any of them, and I’m not going to compel you to. But Maria, when you ask, “Where is the nurturing of my spirit that is in my language of poetry and nature and human relation that isn’t based on traditional religious words and symbols that have no meaning for me?” I have a question to ask you in response. It is “Why is your spirit only nurtured when you are spared all words and symbols that have no meaning for you?”
See, I get the nurturing of my spirit in the language of poetry and nature and human relation in a place where it’s mixed right in with the traditional religious words and symbols that have meaning for other UUs. That mix is how it has always been—which doesn’t mean it’s how it has to remain, of course, but let’s not rewrite history. The mythical time when you could spend a lifetime in Unitarian Universalism without ever hearing the words “Jesus Christ” except when the sexton tripped over his bucket, is just that: a myth. It never happened.
And even if it had, all those words and symbols belong in our congregations because all of us belong in our congregations. Oh sure, there are theologies that will probably never belong there. But do you flunk the UU test because you believe that there is a creator of this universe who can appear to us in human form and save us from our worst tendencies? Do you flunk out for believing that there is some kind of life after this one? Do you flunk out for believing that the universe is just, an idea I criticized in no uncertain terms in my most recent sermon? I hope to _______________ not (fill in the blank with the term of your choice). I want to be in community with all those people. I’ll come back to why in a few paragraphs.
I love that you want an option besides “organs and pews, hymns and sermons.” We might need to set them aside for liturgical reasons—that they don’t resonate with the practices people find most inspiring. However, we don’t need to set them aside for theological ones. There is nothing, nothing at all about a sermon or a pew that is incompatible with humanism or atheism.
And I love this: “You are not serving my needs, UUA, by having the only two options be gospel or classical, speaking in tongues or reading a science journal, listening to a sermon or listening to NPR.” Amen! These wouldn’t serve my needs either. But are these really the only two options you’ve found at UU churches? Please, come to services at my congregation. But more than that, come to services in Santa Monica, CA, Brewster, MA, San Francisco, CA, Warrington, PA . . . all of them have offered me a third alternative.
Most of all, what they offer me is connection to other people, whose hearts are so close to mine even when their theologies, practices, and beliefs are not. There’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut—then honorary president of the American Humanist Association–that’s been rising up in my heart recently, and so when Marlin began his sermon, my eyes welled up as I recalled it again. It’s from Timequake, in which Vonnegut appears a great deal as a character—the author as Himself–and he is speaking of his real-life first wife, to whom he remained close all of their lives, even after their divorce. She was a devout Episcopalian and she died of cancer. He writes, “She died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.”
I am so glad Marlin walks with God. Why? Because I love him. I would like to hear about his experiences, his attempt to have just a closer walk with his god, for many reasons: because they would undoubtedly illuminate my own spiritual path, because I would learn so much to help me in my own struggles to walk more closely with my own deepest highest realest best thing (which I do not call God except when translating to another’s theological language). I hope he will preach from that experience and that longing, because when preachers preach from their longing, I hear my own and that helps me. But most of all, I want it because I love him. I want him to be able to bring his full spirit for its own sake: that he may thrive, that he may live fully, that our congregation may be a place of wondrous transformation for him.
Sometimes I don’t feel quite so welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with others’ longings. Oh dear. Marlin walks with God? Is he going to be telling me he speaks in tongues, too? Or believes that there’s a grand design to this universe and that there’s a starring role for our species? I worry that I won’t be able to listen to those cherished beliefs with an open heart. I worry that my inner judgment will appear on my face.
But there’s one thing I don’t worry about; I don’t worry that Marlin is going to tell me that I should believe in a God who walks with us, that I should speak of my longing for the holy with the anthropomorophic language that he uses himself, because it’s all over that sermon and his ministry that he doesn’t want to do any such thing. Bless him, he wants to welcome me exactly as I am. So what’s really uncomfortable is the challenge to me as a minister, as a Unitarian Universalist, as a humanist, as a person trying to live out the promise of love: will I do the same for everyone who crosses our threshold with a thirsting spirit?
Let’s keep talking. I hope to meet you in person sometime soon.
Sometimes when you plan for the Sunday service, you’re not thinking about the impact on Saturday night. I just went to an event at church (Mary Pipher speaking about how to do sustainable, hopeful, joyful citizen activism) and saw the brand new bulletin board–which I’d asked our administrator to create–in a new light. We’re going to fill it with our elevator speeches, so its heading is “Unitarian Universalism, Briefly,” and below that: nothing. Nada. That’s brief, all right.
The service came about because in last year’s “question box” service, someone asked, “Can you give your ‘elevator speech’ about Unitarian Universalism?–please don’t use the word ‘don’t’.” So that will be the bulk of the sermon: concise, positive answers to the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” or “What do you all believe, anyway?” or the like. Since I was brought up on poetry, of course what popped into my head was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Unitarian Universalism,” and that’s how many I wrote. We’ll end with many more than a baker’s dozen, though, because everyone present is going to have a chance to write down their elevator speech and take one copy home, and leave another copy on that board. That way, the people who come to the next event at UUCPA won’t think we have nothing to say about ourselves.
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 measured nor wise. 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.