Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day: Every Body’s Got Some Body

Memorial Day/National Day of Remembrance in the United States arises from remembering the losses every town and most families suffered during the American Civil War. Across the Southern United States and across the Northern United States people paused to remember those they had lost. Let's not lose the value of mourning together as part of making peace.

Sometimes these national holidays become occasions to feel good and superior – or martyrs and superior. Memorial Day invites us to remember all those who sacrificed for their country. We honor those who’ve fallen in battle. We honor those who’ve lost loved ones. We honor those who’ve sacrificed, and I’ll include conscientious objectors in that group. Remembering the right of conscience is part of who we are and what others will fight to protect, we can also remember that conscientious objectors serve the whole in vital peaceful ways.

Sometimes we have enemies. Been there. Sometimes we are the enemy. Yes, I've been that. Jesus asked us to love our enemies, which is a mighty difficult thing to do, but for which we have plenty of opportunities to practice in our lives. One of the ways we can engage that practice and strengthen our abilities to love our enemies – that is, not to have enemies, no matter how we might be cast – is to honor their losses, mourn, and remember alongside them. It does no credit to the sacrifices of those who’ve died for values they hold dear and because sometimes they were given no choice, to dehumanize and demean each other.

It makes a difference to remember the people who’ve died that once or are still your enemies. When we share grief, we open our hearts a little to one another, and we can cross that river of tears to meet alongside it, learn more about each other, and discover and create new commonalities. We need great courage to meet each other in the raw and troubled space of grief, to acknowledge the sacrifices each has made, to be with the enormity of losses created by violence.

As a Universalist, I believe we’re one humanity. We have different cultures and beliefs and values. We have different experiences of oppression and freedom. But we’re still one humanity. I also believe God loves every one of us, not some of us particularly over others. When we emulate God’s yearning for us to love each other, when we gather up the courage to remember and mourn and be vulnerable together, then we’re living well in that image of the holy, and we’re also serving well the memory of those who sacrificed, those who were conscripted and forced to fight, and those who sacrificed for peace.

Wear a red poppy, plant flags, remember those who’ve gone before us. And also take the time this Memorial Day to reach out and share with someone who belongs to that group called “enemies”, doing your part for cultivating a world of peace.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Universalism & The Fourth Smooth Stone

I’ve been working with James Luther Adams’ Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion every week-night now for five months as part of my spiritual practice. Peering at and studying the world through these lenses has been enlightening. For one thing, it is a whole lot easier for me to find things to share in the first four stones than the fifth one. I can find something to learn or some reflection of wonder (the first). I can easily find things about free associations and democracy, which underlies the second stone (we choose [how] to be in relationship with one another). The third stone, a moral obligation to create a just and loving community, is probably the easiest for me to find. And the fourth stone hauls in pretty close to numbers one and three: good must be consciously given form and power in history. The fifth stone is a stretch – meaningful change directs us toward an outlook of ultimate optimism. But I do it.

Adams’ five stones are connected to the tradition that David required five stones to slay Goliath. I connect those five stones mythologically to struggles common in our own selves and the world at large: (1) ignorance, (2) individualism, (3) selfishness, (4) apathy and (5) cynicism.  By focusing on a different stone each day, I’m confronting my own entanglement with those five monsters, each of which can be enormously seductive and powerful.

I’d been uncomfortable with the language of the five stones, largely because they reflect an ethic of obligation. This became even more apparent to me when I sat down to translate the stones into language that could be used in a children’s chapel or classroom: (1) We’re always learning. (2) Being together matters. (3) How we are together matters. (4) We have to do good to be good. (5) We always hope. In writing these, I’m trusting that the religious leaders who’ll be using them have a greater understanding of Adams’ original language and a gift for sharing the joy of free religion which so strongly undergirds the use of these principles.

But my Universalist spirit is pretty uncomfortable with that fourth stone. This past weekend at Universalist Convocation, Unitarian Universalist minister and historian, Rev. Richard Trudeau clarified that discomfort for me. One of the distinct differences, he told us, between Unitarianism and Universalism is in this notion of why we do good. Unitarianism would be wholly comfortable with doing good to become good. Universalism, on the other hand, would argue that we do good because it is satisfying to do so – that even when doing good is difficult and the rewards are few, knowing we are giving goodness power and form in history is reward enough. Our inherent goodness celebrates creating more good in the world.

There is much in the world and in life that is good, abundant and being created. But goodness frequently does need us to intentionally practice and make it happen. We are transformed in the creating of goodness, just as we transform the world by creating goodness. I’m a Universalist. I don’t believe we do good because it adds to our spiritual bank accounts determining entry to heaven or admission to saintliness. I believe we do good because we live into a better world that way and it is joyful to be able to contribute to that end and to the goodness in the very moment of action (even if there is no end). We often still have to choose making more goodness, and to keep making that choice. Every time we choose goodness, some part of our spirit sings in recognition and rejoices in the labor.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Heart of Universalism 2011

Every year the Universalist Convocation recognizes someone who’s labored long and vigorously for Universalism, spreading the happifying news that God is Love. They call it the Heart of Universalism Award.

Linda Foshee is a Lay Minister in Mississippi, who travels all over the area to small congregations who need some encouraging words and some loving presence. Linda vowed as long as she had the power to be present, no Universalist need fear being buried without the presence of the faith that had sustained them in life.

I had the great joy of meeting Linda Foshee at the Universalist Convocation in Newberry, South Carolina this past weekend. Her enthusiasm and encouragement – from singing joyfully to sharing the adventures of our faith journeys – encouraged me, too. The spiritual gifts Linda possesses and uses are vibrantly and visibly present.

If you ever come across Linda, you’re likely to be drawn to her by her great heart of love, her laughter, and her passion for helping people live with justice, love, and joy. Here’s her picture, next to the symbol of Universalism created by the Humiliati, the off-center cross (rooted in Christianity, with all kinds of room for everyone in the One Love):

Linda Foshee has a heart for Universalism. She’s living Unitarian Universalist good news, living her faith in ways that daily change the world  in spirit and in human ways, toward greater love.

How are you living faithfully in a way that’s changing the world today?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Generosity Past Fear

From the keynote address I delivered at Universalist Convocation May 21, 2011 at Clayton Memorial Chapel, Newberry, South Carolina.

True generosity calls us out of fear and past our resistance and resentments.

We cannot be held captive to our fears, or our resentments, or the resistance to the idea that we don’t have what is needed to haul grace into a terrible situation. God already loves us. That’s what we affirm as Universalists. And we, in the image of God, in that unbroken circle of abiding love, get to risk generously making love real for this world, in this world, in the middle of terror and obstacles, in the middle of resistance, in the middle of our captivity.

We live the generosity of Universalism when we move out of our resistance and resentments and take down the barriers, do the hard work of not holding a grudge or clinging to the insolence of expecting praise as well as acceptance. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love holds peeps accountable, and Love also embraces all – just and unjust, kind and unkind, chained and free. Love takes the risk to be generous because the cost of not risking generosity is known and terrible and damns people in misery every single day.

We do not count the cost of every alleluia on our lips; we count the costs of failing to risk faithfully enough to bring every child of God safely in, so every being knows they have something good to give and has a real, free choice in giving it. We do not count the costs of our past miseries and the ways we’ve been bruised and battered and disrespected; let our scars be badges of honor. Only living tissue makes scars. Only living faith takes courageous risks and counts failing as victory for we at least were not bound in captivity. We do not scrimp and squirm and make bargains about some compromise in faith; faith doesn’t have anything to bargain with. Faith can only be in how we give, how graciously we receive, in our gratitude to the prime Giver, in our joy that we have something to contribute to the greater good.  We are not called here to be a safe and prudent people. We have been sung into being to be the love people, to be people of radical generosity, bearing witness minute by minute and hour by hour in and to God’s transforming grace.

What fears, resentments, and resistance will you choose to have transformed today?
How will you risk practicing true generosity?
How are you being transformed by courageous risk?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Risking Transformation Through True Generosity

I grew up in the age of arrogant exceptionalism, where paying taxes is a personal imposition rather than a common good, where every person of real merit is visible by real wealth and roaring success and splendid health, where the God who matters is the God who blesses me and not my neighbor. The arrogance is in not expecting to have a portion of troubles, or be able to appreciate our particular blessings and accidents of circumstance that give or take opportunities, that grant us gifts and talents, and the ways our lives depend on so many others, on a healthy earth, on the giver of breath. The exceptional part is the idea that I am so unlike you I am special enough to not be among those who struggle, who suffer, and somehow I am meritorious enough or sinful enough to deserve the blessings or curses I live. Arrogant exceptionalism encourages us to live in ungenerous way, to be exploiters and takers and to insist on bargains and contracts that, if we the exceptional are shrewd, will take you the unexeceptional for more than I have to give you. It is a stingy and ugly way of being, and it is destroying people and this world.

If you’ve long lived in this culture of arrogant exceptionalism, then you, like me, might sometimes have trouble with what faithful generosity means. Our relationships have become governed by two of the three basic models of being together. Humanity has relationships based on force – taking what we need or exploiting others. We have relationships based on buying and selling – contracts and markets, which presume equal opportunity but are often in fact intertwined with coercion. We human beings also have relationships based in giving. Giving and receiving creates meaningful, rich communities of connection, based in mutuality. But those communities are torn apart when the mutuality is lost, when in the name of giving we’re actually coercing someone, or in giving we actually have implicit or explicit contractual expectations.

If you spend time in fundraising, as I do, it is now the unusual major gift that comes from joy and without strings attached. It is the usual so-called-gift that writes new policy and is laden with expectations of adherence that is the standard major gift in philanthropy today. Even in annual giving drives in congregations, we’ve seen this shift to contractual and coercive “giving”. It isn’t generosity. There’s no faithful risk there. I describe the consolidation in 1961 of Universalists and Unitarians as an incredible act of faithful generosity, where we gave ourselves to each other without really trusting, without really knowing, with some agreements – quickly, for the most part, set aside – but without really knowing or expecting how it would be together, but that we would find a way that held onto and was faithful to and lives faithfully into both our heritages for the future. That’s faithful risk and generosity in action. We have no real guarantees for how we’ll live in these promises. We give ourselves to one another in love and love and we have to figure out how to make it through.

But in what is often called giving today is about demanding and expecting outcomes and it is the same kind of attitude that has people praying to be blessed with a new car if they just give up sex their adulterous relationship, or at least one of them, Lord. That kind of giving is all about fear and it saves a few who can give that way and damns the many who cannot. It is anti-Universalist, anti-love, and anti-generosity.

Risking true generosity changes us, because we have to hope and trust and practice humility. Risking true generosity means we receive, too, and we accept that’s part of the way grace shows up, not by a convenient catalog of hyperlinked options in our email, but with lumpy stew when we’re sick and with people helping us when we’re overloaded and with healthy cities and towns and with clean water and air we can breathe. There is no paying it forward because there is no receiving measure for measure in true generosity. True generosity has no quid pro quo, no do ut des. There is, instead, a generosity that enlargens the circle of care, connection, and concern, a generosity that loves tenderly and curiously and forgivingly, that gives because someone asks, not because they’ve passed a worth check, that gives out of gratitude for the wonder of life, into the not knowing what happens next. That kind of generosity happens with money and with other resources and with time and with talents, but it all begins and is related to generosity of spirit.

Where can you practice true generosity today? How do you feel when you do it? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why UU Good News Day Matters

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta (@UUCA) lead the way, suggesting that we celebrate good news of congregations and Unitarian Universalists (UU) acting faithfully on Tuesdays.

What’s up with Tuesday?

The UU World puts out most of its news stories on Mondays. Many people in the UU blogosphere post on Mondays. Podcasts and sermons hit the web on Mondays. Monday can be a contentious day of the week, as one might expect from folks who engage free inquiry. The news that gains our attention is frequently framed in the most argumentative way possible. Criticism is necessary, fun, and also, once competitive, dessicates the spirit. Unitarian Universalism is more than a debate society and criticism.

So what are Unitarian Universalists doing that isn’t debating or discussing – good things to do, but not everything our faithing is about? How are you living a witness each and every week that shares a faith of love, responsibility, hope, wisdom, generosity, compassion, justice, and thanksgiving? What’s your congregation doing this week? Or next?

Here’s the challenge for next week:

·      Bloggers, blog your good news faithing on Tuesday.
·      Congregational websites, post your good news faithing on Tuesday.
·      Unitarian Universalists and congregations on Facebook share your good news stories on Tuesday and invite people to participate in living good news for next week.
·      Unitarian Universalists and congregations on Twitter, share your stories, invite people, and use the hashtag #uugoodnews
·      Religious professionals, lead the way: how are you actually living the good news of Unitarian Universalism?
·      Small group leaders and service teams, what good news will you share as examples of your faith community?
·      Unitarian Universalist Association focus on sharing some inspirational good news on Tuesdays – you encourage by example.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

UU Culture, Doctrine & Identity

Any repeated statement in religious life has a tendency to become tests (creeds) of how a religious community particularly faiths (doctrine) – whether you are naming “God is love”, “deeds not creeds”, or “service is our law”. Why? Because when people are asked how they believe, a great many will respond using a formula of faithing, and it will become shorthand mission testing in leadership.

Doctrine – the explanations of why and how a particular religion is lived and evidenced in the practices of the religion -- does not have to be compiled into a single body of teaching and taught explicitly from generation to generation. There are religions that do that and you’ll find variations within those religion – sects or denominations – that end up coming into being over arguments of what to emphasize in what is typically a pretty large body of doctrine. But you’ll also notice how those sects and denominations usually have a different culture than the one(s) with which they disagree in emphasis. Culture teaches doctrine – how we particularly faith – just as much, if not more, than explicit education does. Homogeneous and unhealthy heterogeneous cultural religious institutions teach one cultural way of faithing as the assumed “right” way. Healthy heterogeneous cultural religious institutions will teach many cultural ways of faithing and a wider and deeper understanding of explicit and implicit doctrine.

Unitarian Universalists, as I’ve said before, are in the midst of naming and discerning the various teaching traditions within the wider religious arena. These are friction points in the wider movement and in congregations. Those friction points are where the learning’s at – from healthy multicultural, multiclass, multigenerational congregationalism, to full accessibility across the range of human disabilities, to the more traditional doctrinal differences over the meaning of Unitarianism, Universalism, and UU-ism. Eventually, in say a century or two, those schools will be much more apparent, because they’ve very different cultures of emphasis. The refusal to accept the fact that we teach by how we live is a denial of how human beings learn and live faithfully. How often I’ve been told I don’t belong – explicitly, implicitly, or even more forcefully while explicitly saying I belong and everything in the culture telling me otherwise (the null curriculum is the otherwise) – and that I’ve heard the same story from others, some of whom sweat it out in congregations and others who live their free faith outside of congregations, tells me there’s plenty of creedal testing going on. The disappointing and non-liberative aspect of that testing is that so many of our communities and their leaders may deny that it is happening. It is incredibly difficult to change what we refuse to recognize. How many American congregations today are captive to consumerism? Who’s only measurements of success are how big and how wealthy they are? So too with things that are less personally troubling to some of us.

What leaders say is the explicit teaching of the religion. When I hear other leaders say things like the Universalism of Edwin Hubbell Chapin is no longer relevant or who we are, yet E.H. Chapin’s teaching of Universalism forms my faith to the core, I’m being presented with a creedal test that says, “your school no longer belongs to this faith.” The same is true if I don’t witness people like me in respected leadership, sing the songs of my culture and tradition, or do any number of other things that healthy multicultural religious communities do. Otherwise, the culture is asserting doctrinal cultural assimilation – explicitly, implicitly, and via the null curriculum of assumed culture homogeneity. Fortunately, thanks to changes in social media, more leaders can teach traditions that may be marginalized and connect with others who resonate with those changes. The biggest fear I hear from leaders about social media and congregational life is the lack of control on teaching and transmission of message. The culture of savaging leaders that is widespread in the United States is one of the reasons for that fear. But so is the challenge to what we teach.

I’m an institutionalist because I know religious community is necessary for deepening faith and because my teaching tradition within Unitarian Universalism insists that no one is to be excluded from the circle of love, nor does any one have to give up who they are in their essence to be there. Congregations are where we can learn and test and practice that kind of faithing so we’re better equipped to practice it at large in the world.

I’m also a seeker of new associationalism precisely because there are people being left out or being kept out by expectations of radical change in their essence or loss of their religious teaching tradition in order to belong. I’m a seeker of new associationalism because the social media allows leaders to practice co-creative faith and liberative theology with and as one of the people. New associationalism will take place – and is already taking place, just without any official way of talking about it or recognizing it – via the social media, bringing people together in real ways to make real world faith. And who’s heavily involved in this new associationalism? The people who’ve failed the null curricular tests of their former religious homes, the people who can’t access the narrow window of their local congregation’s time they’re open, and the people who love the faith so much they’re going where there are folks seeking companions on the journey.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Unitarian Universalist Identity, Creeds & Covenant

Many thanks for the on-going Twitter #uuidentity coversation – learning and reflecting much on what my aforementioned peeps (one post ago) have said, and also what @MikePlays @sarahnapoline @MDMallory @Tagitsune @TJUCDRE @BCollado @mattkinsi have been sharing.

@thisisworker asks via blog, what does it mean to be Unitarian Universalist (UU) without congregational covenant, since there’s no creedal test?

Let’s recognize the reality that many UU congregations do exert creedal tests – they’re just, at best, implicit curricula (known and crafted by some in leadership, but not put out at large in an explicit way) or, more frequently, null (no intention, but an exerting and defining force in the culture). Just pause for a minute and consider honestly what beliefs you can’t imagine being expressed in your community.  Within that outer boundary is your creed (accepted beliefs). At that boundary line is where your creedal test is.

Since each congregation is self-governing, there’s no way to enforce a lack of creedalism. Also, because UUA-affiliated congregations have tended toward monoculturalism, that homogeneity tends to support cultural creedalism of the variety called “things commonly shared among us.” Some UU communities actively teach and promote the principles and sources named in the covenant of associated congregations as a central belief expression, turning a set of promises into a creed. Others formulate it within a particular song or affirmation. Look to what elements of worship are repeated every week. That’s where you’ll find the curricular bones of an implicit creed; look to who fits in and who doesn’t and you’ll find the tracks of a null curricular creedalism. Look back to my last post or to the Twitter conversation on #uuidentity and notice how often lived creedalism plays a role in people faithing Unitarian Universalism outside congregations: very often.

There just isn’t a creedal test to become a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which has permitted the varieties of Unitarian Universalist teaching traditions to come into being together (e.g. earth-centered, humanist, Christian, Jewish, Universalist-exclusive, Unitarian-exclusive, Buddhist). Of course, together we carry the practices and beliefs of our separate communities, so there’s not infrequent jostling where the unspoken creedal tests are in the shared life of the association of congregations.

Lots of existing UU congregations don’t have a covenant beyond the one in which they’re a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) – not even that watered down thing some of us like to call covenant that’s really a posted rules to be allowed on the playground. Not uncommonly when people are practicing UU faith outside of UU congregations, their faith promises and sense of covenant is what is drawing them outside of the local faith community. We discern our promises together in congregational life and we live out some of those promises together, but we also ask people to live those promises every day individually. Many of our UU faith building curricula also assume people will not only name their own creed, but also their own promises within the larger, often unnamed, covenant.

How can you have an unnamed covenant? In theory, one can’t, but in practice, when people in relationship with one another do something that some in that relationship will experience as betrayal, there were unspoken promises and expectations holding that relationship. Covenants are simply the promises we make that call us to a way of life. Violating those promises causes internal commotion and external trouble. The more diverse the society is, the more it needs to speak those covenants aloud, translate and negotiate them. The more monocultural the society is, the more an assumed set of values and promises can be in place and enforced. I meet people all the time who feel they have messed up with God because of assumed promises and values they grew up with (e.g. “to be a person of merit, I had to be employed/married/silent/happy/submissive”). I meet people regularly who feel their home religious community broke covenant with them or with the holy over some named or unnamed promise that was part of the culture of that place.

It is healthy practice for congregations to have explicit covenants – big promise covenants, not playground rules – and to intentionally name every year how the community is living that covenant and living into the covenant it holds with the UUA, if they’re a member. It is healthy practice for congregations to know their explicit, implicit, and null creedalism and ask how well that’s fitting the congregational and associational covenants. That's why I propose associational membership based on faithful risks and stewardship.

But it is also healthy faithing for folks who practice UU faith outside of congregations to know their own big promise covenant and beliefs, and to keep looking for ways to share those big promise covenant and beliefs with others.

That’s another reason the UUA – including all the existing member congregations -- needs to embrace new ways of associationalism – so that people have places to make and hold each other accountable to living in those big promises, to deepening faith, and to working for healing and hope in this world. If folks already are able to do this alone – and given the large number of unaffiliated Unitarian Universalists, the indications are affirmative for that – just imagine how much more hope and healing, justice and compassion, and drawing the world into greater love might happen when we have meaningful religious communities of promise, accountability, aspiration, and practice.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Faith Is Not Membership

There was a conversation on Twitter Sunday and Monday of this week that started me on this post. Many thanks to Peter Bowden (@uuplanet), Ila Klion (@pokemom20), Andie Arthur (@AndieArthur), Scott Wells (@bitb), New Unity Congregation (@newunity), @barbarellasteve and @thisisworker for sharing.

Is there a faith apart from associationalism? That’s the question raised by those who would limit the numbers of might call themselves practicing Universalists, Unitarians, and Universalists to those who belong to member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Presumably those same folk would also recognize the members of duly constituted Universalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist churches around the world, who might not practice an English-history-influenced congregational polity, although how either the International Council of Unitarian Universalists (ICUU) or the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should admit new congregations if faith and associationalism are the same is a pretty problem.

Yes, associational embodiment can shape and encourage and develop that faith. But one can be Unitarian Universalist, Universalist, or Unitarian without being a member of a so-associated religious community. At least in the United States, one could also be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and not consider one’s self a Unitarian Universalist (UU) – people do it all the time, in interfaith marriages, in appreciating the gathered community, in loving a religious education program. Recognize that most congregations in the UUA have under 150 members. Even mid-sized congregations (200-500) have limited resources and programming. The UUA has to realize that our congregations often enough do not house all our people of faith, for many reasons, many of them because of congregational limitations, some of them because of faith journeying.

The following particularly reflects the tweeted list of reasons given for folks not belonging to a congregation, but still being passionate UU people of faith (#uuidentity). People who love their UU faith are not part of UUA congregations because:
·      they’ve moved and there is no local congregation or one that embodies the faith they understand;
·      they’ve served their local congregation for years and been burned in leadership;
·      they age out of the congregation’s programming middle-aged and early retirement focused programming or become homebound and the community fails to connect with them anymore;
·      the facilities, worship, and programs aren’t accessible (whether mobility, sound, vision, or culture discriminating against folks with disabilities, including psychiatric and learning), sending the clear message that they are not really part of the circle of belonging;
·      they age out of the congregation’s programs and when they try to connect with a new community, they’re too young for anything and may be the only young adult there – or even person in their 40s;
·      the language spoken in the local congregation is not their mother tongue, which also sends clear messages about who is part of the circle of belonging;
·      their mother culture isn’t part of the circle of belonging as expressed in the local congregation, may be denigrated, and continues to be excluded from leadership and worship – and make that plural for the growing number of multicultural people who are not Anglo- blends;
·      the class assumptions of local congregational life exclude;
·      the congregation is Sunday- or weekend-focused and folks have to work on Sundays or all weekend, daytime or nighttime focused and folks work during those period of activity;
·      they’re so busy living their faith in the community through work and service that the narrow windows of congregational business hours;
·      the local congregation is adamant that the individual’s UU teaching tradition (humanist, earth-centered, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Brahmo Samaj, Muslim…) is not part of the circle of inclusion, to the point of being reviled and unwelcome;
·      they sojourned along their faith development journey elsewhere and when they returned found no way to reconnect.

If polling numbers and ancecdotal evidence are anything to combine, then there are a lot of folk out there who identify as Universalist, Unitarian, or Unitarian Universalist who are not members of any religious community. They’re still people of faith.

For Unitarian Universalists, the conflation of faith and associationalism arises from the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. But fifty years has past. There is a faith called Unitarian Universalism, rooted in the histories of both religions, and, like those folk before consolidation who held both religions true, there is a faith called Unitarian Universalism aside from the congregations of the UUA.

Yes, associational embodiment can shape and encourage and develop that faith. But one can be Unitarian Universalist, Universalist, or Unitarian without being a member of a so-associated religious community. At least in the United States – and New Unity confirmed this was true for their Unitarian congregation in the United Kingdom-- one could also be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and not consider one’s self a Unitarian Universalist – people do it all the time, in interfaith marriages, in appreciating the gathered community, in loving a religious education program.

The UUA Board of Trustees (UUA-BOT) is asking the UUA about expanding associationalism to better reach and serve the faith. That’s good mission living, because the faith does not serve the UUA any more than it is limited to UUA-affiliated congregations. The UUA serves the larger faith. The UUA-BOT writes,

<< Section C-3.1 of the UUA bylaws defines member congregations as "autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships." Does this four-walled concept meet the needs of young adults and historically marginalized groups who are seeking new ways to form faith communities? How else might we gather?>>

What kinds of associationalism beyond what’s practiced now would serve the larger Universalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist faith?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Redefining Congregations

The UUA Board of Trustees is asking Unitarian Universalist congregations a question about what it means to be congregation.

<< Section C-3.1 of the UUA bylaws defines member congregations as "autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships." Does this four-walled concept meet the needs of young adults and historically marginalized groups who are seeking new ways to form faith communities? How else might we gather?>>

The UU GrowthLab has been talking about what this means. I'm delighted to be part of that conversation, and I hope more folks will be having it. What I'm about to write, though, is my opinion, not that of the UU Growth Lab, or the UUA, or any of the number of other folk with whom I'm in covenant. 
We need a new way of defining what it means to be a congregation. Not only do we need to account for the meaningful spiritual growth, service, faith formation, and devotional life that can go on in the ethersphere, we need to recognize three other truths: 

  • practically, for people living near many of our congregations, if you work on Sunday morning you will never be able to become part of the community; 
  •  most existing UU congregations support a status quo of who they are now and that isn’t involving their wider community in age, class, or historically marginalized group;
  • our current definition is so focused independence that it fails to recall us to our wider covenant in which we are interdependent.

I’d like Unitarian Universalists to adopt a model of congregational life that doesn’t require a specific physical location, but does express meaningfully our larger covenant and our interdependence.

I’d like Unitarian Universalist congregations to:
·      name clearly the ways they participate in care of other UU congregations
·      name how they serve our wider communities in measurable ways, and who they are partnering with in various places (if ethersphere located) or local community (if physically incorporated)
·      give more of their annual budget to support of service and justice in the wider world and to our Association of Congregations – so it may in turn, encourage new communities & support those in crisis – than spend on their own congregational maintenance
·      name and repor out annually their five faithful risks to live out our covenant and calling, and encouraging other congregations to do the same
·      share weekly how they are part of and affecting their wider communities as the congregations live out that covenant and calling.

Thus a congregation would be defined by its faithful pursuit of the calling in covenant discerned together – with other congregations and wider community. 

A religious association of these congregations would be because of our shared covenant and calling, accountability and encouragement. 

What the congregation does for individuals and families, the association of congregations does for the distinct congregations and the teaching traditions within our faith and those who may wish to become part of it.

Congregations would then annually be discerning, with the religious leadership of at least three other congregations as part of that process, what constitutes that community’s five faithful risks to live their covenant and calling. I’d hope we ask the same of every person and family within each congregation, also in discernment and accountability groups. We would hold one another, encourage one another, and sing one another along this path of faith, which is often ill marked, rough, and difficult. We grow weary. We get distracted. We hear alluring things that take us away from our promises instead of more deeply into our promises. And then we call one another back, acting together with and for the Singer of Life, adding our voices and our innovations to the song.

Faith of the Free Church

Our church doesn’t have to. We’re free church.

Doesn’t have to what? I’m always puzzled when I hear that claim, which is like the playground shout “you can’t make me!”

Unitarian Universalists are part of the free church tradition. So are a lot of other Protestant and Protestant-descendent churches in North America and the United Kingdom, because any faith in those traditions that isn’t and doesn’t want to be a state religion and doesn’t charge pew rent belongs to that term. The term “free church” originated as a legal and theological term against churches aligned with and stating belief in theocracy and supported by taxes from the state.

Being free church does not mean we are free of covenant, of accountability to one another, or of calling that is reflected in our covenant.

Being free church does mean things are never settled. There isn’t a once-and-for-all body, for “the church” is always coming into being in the ways we live our greater covenant (promises) and calling, in who’s here at this moment, in who will be here in the future, in who was here in the past.

Being free church means our covenant matters – our covenant with the Holy, our covenant with each other, our covenant with where we live. What’s a covenant? A covenant isn’t an A-Z listing of agreed-upon practices for a meeting. A covenant is made of sacred promises to which we are always holding ourselves and being held accountable. A covenant is inherently relational and hopeful, reflecting how we understand the Holy singing us into being and inviting us to live. When we place ourselves into a covenant, we are taking vows whose breaking has consequences, not just in the short-term, but for the essence of who we are and who we are to become, as individuals, as community, as a religion, as a planet.

Free churches come into being around an understanding of the promises we make with the Holy, with each other, and with where we live. We make promises and we hold one another accountable to those promises. Just because the promises might turn out to be difficult doesn’t mean we get to change them. We might have to change and be changed by living fully into those promises – which is why, when we make these vows, we’re promising to submit to transformation, not to back away on the playground growling you can’t make me!

You join the covenant when you join a free church. You are in that covenant every day, living into those promises – faithfully or unfaithfully. We are in that covenant together, with the Holy, striving and loving into faithful risk, accountability for living those promises, and answering the Song of Life with thanks, wonder, and service to it. We’re faithing – traveling in our promises to the Singer and the Song of Life, adding our voices to the journey, our hearts and minds to be changed, and our bodies for the work we need to do.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Healthy Churches Cultivate Humility

There’s a lot of talk about excellence these days. Unitarian Universalists are talking about excellence in ministry, excellence in breakthrough congregations, excellence in church practices, excellence in all things. We want to win. We want to be the best. We want to be a faith that matters, so we need reproducible, franchiseable, cookie-cutter-creatable excellence.

I’m all for excellence – for that work to live fully into the values we espouse, for risking faithfully and not always having those risks result in publicly laudable results, for the discipline of being wrong and learning from everyone we can. I am not about the mediocrity that results in one-way-to-do-things a-contextually plans, advice, and operations. There is a lot of arrogance and a lot of impoverished faithing going on in the name of excellence, because the dominant culture for my denomination and at large in our world is about winning, domination, being better than everyone else at the expense of others, and then looking down from our lofty achievements and opining fine words about how those folk down there just need to try harder, adopt our 372-point plan, and be more like us. 

I’ve read plenty of that point of view in history, in the news, in daily life, and in world religious texts and in both TNKH and Christian Scriptures. And while history, the news, and daily life may laud folks as “winners” in the short term, religious life, true and meaningful faith, calls us in the opposite direction: to excel with the oppressed, the rejected, the miserable, the hurting, the strangers, the exiles, the ones unlike ourselves, the lonely, those marked as failures – as though failure were always some moral condition. Religion used as tool of oppression and domination will be religion that enforces and emphasizes the separation of the good people from the rest of us. Faith recalls us all being in this life together, different, wonderfully different in experience, culture, class, gender, and sexuality, but one humanity sharing this one world, one heart for the holy with many, many ways of faithful expression.

Unhealthy churches get caught in the “how am I better than my neighbor?” way of approaching the world. Healthy churches are always asking, “how can I be with, learn from, and serve my neighbor?” I’m using that term “neighbor” in a Biblical sense --as I always do – meaning someone who is not of my family, someone who is unlike myself. If when you say “neighbor” you mean someone like yourself, who shares a fence and similar values, then we’re talking about two very different understandings of the word. What do you call people not like yourself?

Unhealthy churches can’t cultivate humility, because they’re too busy trying to be the best, the ones that stand out from all the others, the ones who will get to write the next playbook everyone will have to use in their lives, because it is the model of success.

Healthy churches are grounded in humility, with every person in the community having regular and good experiences of learning, teaching, trying, failing, learning again, sharing, and receiving. When we’re living faithfully in humility, we are changed by others at least as much as we change others, and we are transformed over and over and over again by the faithful risks we take and by God working in our lives. You might experience that working primarily through the prophetic social covenants in which live. You might experience God working on you primarily through doubts and internal discourse. You might experience God working on you in some ways you can’t identify. But cultivating healthy church life means submitting ourselves, opening ourselves, together, to be changed – by God, by our highest values, by our calling for goodness – and to be the imperfect agents of goodness we are. Imperfection is beautiful. It is out of our imperfections that we best learn. It is out of our imperfections that we most risk vulnerability and find connections with others. It is out of our imperfections that we are called to faith, to change, to being with others and not over others, to nurturing each other, to nurturing this world, to turning ourselves over to God as refuge and strength.

Imperfection. Submission. Humility. How often does your religious community invite each other into these practices of faith? Not just as individuals, but as followers, as leaders, as denominations, as change agents, as part of the wider diversity of humanity? There isn’t a useful multi-point plan for those three practices that transcends context and cultures. You’ll have to figure it out, with your religious community, with your neighbors, together, imperfectly, in humility, submitting to being transformed through messy faithful risk.

Liberation from Assumptions

Whenever I talk about intentionally shifting monocultural/monoethnic churches to multicultural/multiethnic ones, I meet assumptions. I meet assumptions in myself and in others. I meet assumptions about who is part of that “all”, what will be asked for folk to live faithfully, whether “we” can do it at all. What are the assumptions that you have about the movement of mono- or dominant-culture congregations to truly multicultural religious communities? What about the other folk in your community? Note them down. Sit with them. How do you feel?

There’s a lot of discouragement folks who’ve been doing the work can feel. There’s also a lot of discouragement in the cultures of separation we’ve inherited and worshipped in, the cultures we’re transmitting knowingly and unknowingly as we strive to pursue faith together. In that discouragement, sometimes we conflate possibility with probability. We can fall back on stereotypes, fall into self-comforting.

So pull back out that list of assumptions. Is it labeled assumptions? Or is your list labeled “truths”, even if only in your heart?

Trying is not failing. Failing is not necessarily a sign of moral loss. Often we have to try and learn from what hasn’t worked before. Telling ourselves we’ve tried that or we’ve done it before are ways of protecting ourselves from taking faithful risks – and that’s the big failure. When we fail to live fully into faith we become smaller people and let our souls be diminished. When we live boldly into faith, we know we’re risking our whole selves. We need courage for faith.

I know there are times when I’ve become comfortable, I struggle to actually live faithfully. I have something to lose that competes against the values I espouse, the wider calling of my faith. I also know there are times when I’ve found great comfort in living the difficult values our faith espouses, in the joy of integrity. Sometimes comfort is helpful; sometimes comfort is seducing us away from living faithfully.

How comfortable are you in how things are in your congregation right now? How difficult is it for you to live in the midst of the culture that is expressed right now? Is your comfort good for your faith? Is it truly living fully into the faith we voice together?  Don’t answer quickly. Let the questions trouble your spirit. Share them with others.

Unitarian Universalists are not called to live what theologian and ethicist James Luther Adams called a restrictive covenant, even if – and this will trouble those whose faith in democracy reflects their experience of being of the dominant culture – even if that restrictive covenant is fairly comfortable for many who are here now. Our faith is larger than just the folks right here. Our faith is grounded and called by a prophetic covenant, a social covenant.

Adams writes (emphases mine):
            The covenant of social responsibility…is one that is rooted in a historical conception of the meaning of human existence, and not merely in a conception of personal religion. Personal religion…gains adequate meaning only in relationship to the larger context of existence…We achieve authentic identity through an understanding of history, of our place in our institutions, and in the claim that this is precisely the essence of reality, of being itself or God. The divine power liberates humanity through this sense of social responsibility… (“The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern” in An Examined Faith ed by G.K.Beach, Boston: Beacon Press, 1991:241)

Or, as Clarence Skinner reminded us in the midst of the American Civil Rights movement: we are called to be universalists, not partialists.

Just because we’ve struggled on the journey is not a reason to surrender our souls. Indeed, that’s the reason we need to sit with, pray over, and confront our assumptions, and then get on with trying to change them and ground our knowing in meeting the divine power of liberation.