Send us a Minister! (reporting live, from Unitarian Universalism’s Big Dance)

One of the sole romantic stories that Unitarian Universalism allows itself is that of English minister John Murray’s arrival on this continent. Widowed and heartbroken, Murray gave up preaching to sail to America and begin his life anew. However, his New York-bound ship became stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey when winds died, and Murray was sent ashore for provisions. There, he came across one Thomas Potter, who, as the story goes, had been waiting for him. For ten years. Potter had built a church, in fact, believing that God would send him a minister to preach the radical message of universalism.

Potter makes a deal with the reluctant Murray that if the ship cannot sail before the sabbath, Murray will come ashore and preach Sunday morning—and ultimately, the American era of Universalism is born.

 

A miracle, it hath occurred. If this had happened in any other faith, there would be a shrine and a pilgrimage route.

As befits our faith, however, the question I want to consider belongs purely to the pedestrian side of this equation:

Where was the putative congregation in all this?

One assumes that Potter’s offer is predicated on the understanding that there were people, come Sunday, who would wish to be preached to. If so, these people had been waiting for years for the arrival of their minister.*

Possibly the early universalists were more patient than the modern UUs I know. Imagine us, sitting ever so quietly in our pews. Praying, “Send us a minister!”

I have been thinking about this because we modern Unitarian Universalists are in the midst of the season known as “the search process.”

This is where, and how, congregations and ministers find one another.

And for the first time ever, I am a participant. (A player? A pawn?)

White chess pawn standing on chessboard

 

The whole baroque process is frequently compared to dating (read: group blind dating, with the intent to marry—it’s more like The Bachelor than dinner with the guy from next door), and there are certainly analogues. A focus on photogenic details. Will-they-call anxiety. Casual social media stalking. The occasional messy breakup. And delightful pieces as well—the unanticipated giddy joy, the previously-uncontemplated attractions, the writing of names, together, for effect.

There are modern sandbars, to be sure. Unexpected blizzards, Skype mishaps, and missed connections literal and figurative have all played a role this season.

And like their early American counterparts, the people are waiting. Have been waiting, in some of these congregations, for years. Finally, we are ready to call a minister.

And yet, unless we plan to put a level of trust and patience in divine providence that would be—let’s say unusual—in this movement, the truth is that “Send us a minister” is not what this process looks like.

Go fishing for a minister, maybe. Purchase a minister on the commodities market, if we forget the deeper call of our theology. But not, generally, “Sit here and wait patiently until someone else sends us one.”

And each year, participants on every side of this expensive and convoluted process lament that. If only God (actually no one says that) If only Keith Kron/the transitions office/the UUA/somebody would just “do the matching for us.”

Send us a minister.

Or send us a sandbar on which we might catch one.

SUDBURY, MASSACHUSETTS:  18th century First Parish Unitarian Church

SUDBURY, MA- First Parish Unitarian Church Not currently in search, friends.  🙂

I wasn’t sure when, after months preparing to interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I’d ever voluntarily read the Cambridge Platform again.

But friends, the answer is now. I am reading it again now, and am considering the magic and miracle of a history that believes that our congregations—that our people—know best.

And so, we don’t “send” ministers.

We cultivate faith and hope . . . and then we send packets. We send paperwork. We send greetings to the people who are themselves the deciders, and thus we decide, with every e-mail, which send-off to use.  Sincerely? Too cold. Fondly? Too warm. Warmly? What are we talking about, here? Blessings! (I have “blessed” more people in the past six weeks than in the whole of my life before this. )

And eventually, if things progress to the point of “serious relationship,” we send ourselves, in person.

We ministers in the congregational-polity tradition claim a significant amount of agency over our own futures. Over the spaces in which we will live into our calls. And this is true not merely incidentally, but because the freedom of the pulpit–and the pew–that inheres in our covenantal theology requires this. We choose freely and discern together at every step of the way, practicing and modeling exactly those skills we will need for our journey together in shared ministry.

And yet we grasp, sometimes, for something easier, and there is a reason for that.

Because this is hard.

This year, I’m engaged in this process as a minister, but the truth is, search is also very difficult for our congregations. It’s expensive, and there may be budget worries. It’s time consuming—four hours per week, on average, for an entire year (and that “four hours” gives little perspective; try 20 to 30 hours on precandidating weekends; more if you happen to be the committee chair and de-facto “host”), and everyone is busy.

And yet, these people do this on volunteer hours. They are keeping the faith and communicating a theology of people and place out of love for both. I think we forget this sometimes, both as ministers and as a denomination: that what happens in our congregations—that they exist in the first place, and that they continue to thrive–is a beautiful miracle.

This truth, that we are covenanted, not legislated, holds deep import for how we will search for an engage our ministers.

And yet there’s another piece of this that deserves mention: the heartbreak. This process is a path to heartbreak.

This is true because we meet each other in the same spirit of voluntary openness required to forge true partnership. Our communication happens tentatively at first, and then with greater and greater openness; the kind that leaves hearts on the line. The kind that demands risks, individually and together.

Tears will be shed this spring, my people. They already have been, and what I hope we understand is that this is not a bad thing.

Depositphotos_28703711_s-2015

On the contrary.

Because what happens, underneath it all, is that our ministers and our search committees use faith—their own, and our collective assurances—to hold ambiguity, so that everyone else doesn’t have to.

In a free faith, creativity and self-determination are key, and to allow those to be part of the selection process, someone has to tolerate the uncertainty. The search committees, and the candidate ministers: We are the designated feelers in this process.  Not to appease the demands of hierarchy, but as a function of democracy. Because our history and our hope are staked on the radical notion that congregations know their needs best and must chart their course freely—and that ministers must be equally free to follow the dictates of their own call and consciences.

A process that takes this equation out of our collective hands, while administratively neater and in many respects, much simpler, would bear little resemblance to what ought to be our touchstone: life in our congregations.

An uncomfortable truth lurking within the 1646 text of the Cambridge Platform is that our congregations do this—hold, know, and care; preach, teach and lead—they do all this—with, and also without their ministers.

We ministers can help hold a vision, but it is unto the members of our congregations that the container for it is entrusted. We ministers can speak to the spark of our highest aspirations, but is our congregations who must keep the literal fires burning.

We remember this at pledge time. But how deep is our consideration of congregational ownership and the sacred demands of a shared ministry in the moments that are mere precursor?

As we send pieces of ourselves—and then our bodies, our families—across the country, repeatedly, in the name of call?

We Unitarian Universalists affirm the democratic principle: one person, one vote.  We carry forward the sacred trust of our history. We believe in the bright magic of our dreams.

And so, what other process could there be?

We need a bishop.

It is true, friends, that this process is hard. Holy moments hold space with disillusionment and sometimes, with betrayal. Thousands of dollars are spent, and more are promised. Hopes have grown large, and hearts will yet be broken. But where else, I wonder, are hopes and hearts and dollars on the line? For what larger dance are we rehearsing?

I want, even now, to be making ready for it.

But it would be so much easier if we had a more formal matching process, with fewer choices.

Just send us.

Brown mail delivery package with tag

No.

I beg to differ.

This has been an awesomely challenging few months. We are all tired. And certainly, we and this process need both pastoring and guidance from the larger denomination. Beyond Categorical Thinking is a key example of input-from-above that shapes a process with more fairness, and more joy, available for all.

But in the end, I have to cast my lot with the committees and the quorums.

I choose this process for the same reason I choose our congregations, and I hang in when it’s hard for the same reason that we come back to the table, and to our covenants, time and time again.

I have, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, no choice but “to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

Those are my people.

And this is all of our process.

Not from a ship, then, and not from denominational authorities, either, but from this long and sometimes awkward dance— from these very committee meetings, these phone calls, these e-mails, these questions and answers and these half-articulated hopes . . .

There is appearing, already on the horizon, the future we have dreamed of.

It is our ministry.        

Together.

Amen.

j

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*Fun fact, as best we can tell: The “congregation” was composed of Potter’s friends and neighbors, and they had indeed been waiting for 10 years—because they thought he was an idiot, and that Universalism was a heresy. Our sermon illustrations are at times imperfect. Wrestle with this as you will.

It’s Not About You: finding slow church in a quickie culture

church bank

My husband and I fumbled toward regular church attendance like awkward teenagers might feel their way to third base. We were shy and shamefaced, almost desperate to connect with the larger something we’d heard through the grapevine that we might find here. But we wanted to find that something without attracting attention or admitting ignorance, and certainly without rearranging anything else in our lives. And so, on certain Sundays, we tended to fall into the event, crashing through the doors late, without planning or ceremony, and often still arranging errant pieces of clothing.

Other weeks we didn’t make it at all; we’re not exclusive, you know? We have lives. You understand. Also, we had very little stamina for a long and slow build up. Give us what we want, now, so we can get out of here.

And yet eventually, we became one with that community anyway. They were just so . . . loving. But the blending, on our end, was mostly incidental and accidental—because our focus, of course, was on meeting our own needs.

And the weeks and months passed. And sometimes: we felt satisfied.

Mostly, though, we didn’t. Something is missing, we began to whisper to each other.

And since we knew that something wasn’t in us, then the problem, clearly, lay with the church.

Something was wrong with this congregation. It’s you, church. It has to be you.  

And so, we did the rational thing:

We prepared to leave.

Goodbye

We attended even less, checked out emotionally, and pulled back on our financial contributions. We talked about alternatives, and began, slowly, to scope them out. Neighboring cities? Neighboring denominations?

Somewhere, there has to be a match for us. A soul mate. A congregation that’s going to understand us, and put our needs first.

And yes, while the breakup felt inevitable, we admit we did feel a tiny bit resentful. We tried hard, you see. A restaurant that provided unsatisfying service might not even earn a second visit, but you, church—

You’ve provided partial satisfaction and incomplete joy for years and we kept giving you another chance. I mean, if anything, you owe us.

We travel a lot as a family, and during this time, going to church in the cities we visited became a guilty pleasure. Each congregation visited was a fling before the final separation—walking in to those new spaces was unfamiliar, sometimes a bit uncomfortable—and also, exhilarating. The world was full of so many possibilities, many with features we only dreamed of back home.

Which is how we found ourselves in a spare white chapel in St. Louis. The minister, herself a visitor to the congregation, paused in the liturgy to raise a hand heavenward, then sweep it from side to side, insisting that the assembled congregation take note of the many still-standing visitors gathered at the back of the chapel, scoot away from the aisles to make space, and then raise their hands, fingers extended to indicate how many seats for newcomers they had adjacent.

See?  We thought. You can do these things better.

Thus accommodated, we settled into our seats and awaited our portion of self-satisfaction.

And received, instead, a smack upside the head. Figuratively, of course.

Because the Rev. Margret O’Neall was there to speak to us about consumer culture, and what it looks like when we bring it to church.

Vintage gumball machine

We are steeped in something that is the very antithesis of an authentic religious experience. It is invisible, and it is everywhere—as seamless a part of our daily lives as the air we breathe.

That something is consumerism. In fact, we might even go so far as to call consumerism a national religion (establishment clause notwithstanding) in this 21st century moment—and we carry its sacred expectations right into our faith communities.

And friends: it doesn’t work well.

I hope that in the course of your own religious life there are at least a few sermons that you gratefully carry—the feelings, the moment of awakening—for years after hearing them.

This was one for my family; the moment when we realized that we weren’t satisfied because we cannot consume community.  That we were unsure where else to turn because we can’t purchase wisdom and depth. And that we need the flawed, frustrating collective because as humans, we are not wired to individually find our way to gratitude, love, or healing.

No Sale

And yet, if we’re not self-reflective about our intentions in our communities of faith, we are likely to approach our churches like satisfaction vending machines. And in so doing, we deny ourselves and our communities the opportunity for real change.

The thing is, transformation doesn’t always feel good. Sharing time, space, and resources often isn’t a warm and fuzzy experience in the immediate moment. Further, growth is hard, and maturity is demanding, and our dreams are expensive—and in ways that exact costs from each of us.

In consumer culture, when things get tough, we learn the lesson; we don’t buy that experience anymore.  We simply vote with our dollars and with our feet. Society says that’s the rational response, and mostly, it works ok.

But it doesn’t work in our faith communities.

We are used to being handed things in exchange for payment. So how should we be when we are instead in a place that focuses not on serving us, but on seeing us?

Friends, we need to give more, come always, and ask less. And then—amazingly, countintuitively—then things get magical.

My people, what is happening—what is on offer in the smorgasboard of plenty of your local church—is nothing short of transformation. You will be nourished. You will be changed. And eventually, you will grow, and in ways that will add richness and depth to your life, even as you help to add those qualities for many others.

But, get this: like the watched pot that never boils, this alchemy cannot happen while your focus is on YOU. On what YOU need. On what YOU get.

sulky angry child

So what might an alternative look like?

Let’s consider one example at issue as our churches work to expand Sunday morning programming, that we might do more than merely scratch the surface: our time investment on the Sabbath.

A quick in-and-out Sunday experience may be our goal . . . but why? And what happens if we take a deep breath and lean in to experience Sunday, at least the mornings, as a time FOR church? As a day in which church is not standing between you and your lawn, but a covenantal gathering standing for something larger, and of which we are gratefully a part?

I have many friends active in the LDS church, and recently, one of them posted on Facebook about having had “2-hour church” that day—a rare event due to severe weather. Usually, you see, they stay longer. Of this particular event, my friend shared, “I’m a fan, but it did feel like a waste of mascara.”

I laughed . . . and then I thought about us. By which I mean the Unitarian Universalists I know and love, and also quite a few others of us who hail from the mainline Christian tradition.

I thought about our tendency to literally watch the minutes tick by anytime we’re approaching the one-hour mark in a worship service. And about our sense that, “It was too long” is meaningful feedback for a minister—or for ourselves—in reference to a worship service that took 15 hours to create, and which lasted for one hour and five minutes.

Orange alarm clock 3d. Icon. Isolated on white background

Friends, we think two-hour church is a waste not of mascara, but of our morning.

Why is that?

Because we are so unbelievably overscheduled that adding even one more hour will tip the balance of quality of life for the worse?

Because we can be certain that we will get nothing of consequence out of the worship or religious education being offered during a second hour?

Or is it, perhaps, because we believe both of the above propositions because of a third thing: because in our minds we have walked not through the door of a church, but a vending machine. Church is a spot for a quick hit, one we can attend without breaking stride in the rest of the weekend.

And thus, we’re here for this food and that sermon and this nursery and that group but not this other stuff. Don’t make us touch these things. Don’t ask us to sit through them, or think about them, and heavens, no, we’re not going to pay for them.

GIVE US WHAT WE WANT, OR WE’LL GO SOMEWHERE THAT WILL.

Angry boy screaming, demanding something

Here’s the thing. You can approach church that way. Also, parenting—I read an essay recently from a mother and father who, before the birth of their son, signed a contract with one another dividing up nights and duties and days off, treating their child like a job. (Unsurprisingly, that approach turned out not to be great for their child or their marriage.) But my people, the satisfaction you seek will not be yours. Not at church, not on the “give me what I pay for” path.

When we begin our church journey convinced that we don’t have enough of what we need, and proceed by trying to stake a claim to whatever that is, and then by grabbing as much as we can, we are indeed indulging in worship.

We are worshiping scarcity.

And that falls right in line with that dominant culture, the water in which we swim.

As long as this is as close as we get to sacrificial spiritual practice, our church life is a waste . . . and not of mascara. It is a waste of potential. A squandering of days. A sacrifice of life-force.

Do you want your faith to be something more than a fashion statement?

Then your church needs to be more than a vending machine.

And so I invite you, as a spiritual practice, to try a different way on Sundays.

Show up. Breathe. Be.

Demand less.

Relax more.

And know that together, we are preparing to change the world.

Because we’re not making transactions.

We are making commitments.

Amen.

j

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You’re In the (Lord’s) Army Now! UU ministers on moving from “congregant” to “seminarian”

This series of posts arose from a discussion among  Meadville Lombard students about  surprises (some lovely; others less so) that “seminarian” status has brought to our relationships with our home congregations.   The churches we belong to are often full of beloved friends and mentors, and the place where a call to ministry was first voiced and nurtured.  Must we lose our home churches?  These first thoughts are from a minister fresh out of this process: the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin.
Stay tuned for more perspectives.  In the meantime, whether you are a minister, a layperson, or a seminarian yourself, I’d love to hear your take.
-j
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Your relationship with your home congregation starts to change the moment you announce to them that you’re stepping over the congregant-minister line by beginning seminary.This can be strange and unsettling.

I was the newly-former president of the board, deeply embedded and well thought of. I was still on the board, given the governance model (that I helped design and led the implementation of).  In the service where I revealed what I was doing, the reaction was very positive and affirming, but one of the elder members, on the way out through the line, grumbled, “Well, don’t get a big head…“. That was when I started to realize that everything had changed.

In the congregation’s eyes, you have stepped over the line (a line that may have been invisible to you as you started seminary), and are now becoming a minister. You are now an alien creature. And in short order, more and more of the congregation lose track of the becoming part of that. You are a minister. Even if you’re all at sixes and sevens about it, and your grip on your ministerial identity is sketchy, the people who were your fellow congregants don’t necessarily see that, at all.

Seminarians are urged by the UUMA and MFC processes (and even by the demands of seminary) to disengage from lay leadership. You will still engage in work that a lay person might do… but you will do it as a minister. And as you do that, you naturally start to slide out of leadership, and ultimately out the life of the congregation.

Soon, you begin to inhabit a space where the members of your home congregation just experience you as minister. Thus, what you experience is distancing, because you’re encountered and embraced differently. Only your real, personal friends are still (mostly) there as they were before.

“Do you have advice for aspirants/candidates navigating between their home congregations (from which they were called into ministry, usually) and internship and seminary experiences?”

My first advice is to mourn. You’ve just lost your church. Really. In ways that are almost irrecoverable, you’ve lost the church, and in any church you belong to in the future, you’ll always be different from the rest of the congregation. You’ll belong to it, in ways that are deeper, but you’ve lost it, mostly.

You can’t speak freely. And your minister (who is now also your ministerial colleague) is aware that you need to finish crossing the Rubicon. That minister will insist that you live into this new role plus expect you not to “misbehave,”–not to do those things that a lay person might do and get away with, but which are now violations of professional guidelines and codes about how we ministers act and how we treat one another. And so, in a variety of ways: you’re pushed, pulled, dragged, and thrown over that congregant-minister line.  And there is no return.

Do you remember how the process of stepping away from your home congregation worked for you?  How have you honored or maintained a connection with “the place that you came from”?  

Every case is unique. I’d been one of the most active of lay leaders. Search committee, Welcoming Congregation Committee, Building Chair, Committee on Ministry, Board of Trustees — and more. My wife was Worship chair for nearly six years.  So, stepping away was slow, and it was challenging. The first year, I was finishing out the term I’d been elected to on the board. And then, I took on nothing else except what I did as a ministerial student. My family was still very active. I was… there. I’d find myself invited in as a ministerial presence for various functions—but mostly, my task was to figure out how to NOT be an active lay leader, even when and where I so wanted to be. My fingers are flat to this day from sitting on my hands.

Because of the flexibility of Meadville’s part-time program, and my family’s situation and engagement in my home church, we stayed. I just stepped farther and farther away .  .  . and finally, I stepped back entirely. Sort of. With the minister’s support.

This meant more preaching as a minister— and the church made a point of paying me. And later, when my son became the de facto leader of the youth group, I kept the utmost distance (This was not because of him, per se—he was active in urging me to be chaplain for the YRUU summer and winter camps at de Benneville–which I did, and I strongly encourage anyone to do some of that sort of thing at any of our camps). I kept my distance because I didn’t think the congregation could handle and understand the fine lines there. The family remained very engaged, while I became “the minister they were helping grow,” who in the end, would go away.

There was a lot of work involved in educating our congregation around that, as I am the first person to go from that fellowship to seminary, and to be ordained by them. My ordination was one way I honored my congregation. In the meantime, it was a ruthless process of education. By the time of my ordination, we all knew I was going to New Hampshire, so my leaving was part of the charge to the congregation: “Good job. Congratulations! Now let go of this minister, and start the process again with another. That’s your job now.”

It is sometimes said, perhaps with just a bit of wistfulness, that ‘ministers don’t have ministers.’  Is there a congregation in which you participate in worship or other aspects of congregational life?  Who or what ministers to your spiritual needs?” 

Ministers DO have ministers; it just doesn’t look quite the same. First, there’s the minister of my home congregation.  Although she’s now a colleague and equal, and there are places I don’t fully agree with her… she’s going to be “my minister” for a long time, in many ways.

I have others who fulfill that role, too. My internship supervisor will remain a mentor. She is someone who’s invested in me, but who I had a more equal relationship with as the intern—that person is a minister, and I was a minister-in-training.

And there are others, some of them retired colleagues—in fact, this sort of support may be their real role now for many of us. They’ve been through all this, and can sit back, chuckle, offer some sage advice–and some utterly obsolete, dated, useless advice, too. But these experienced ministers are utterly capable of embracing the hurt, loss, confusion, success, and joy experiences and understanding them. Of soothing. Of cheering.

Finally, there are a handful of collegial friends one turns to, in part to kvetch and be kvetched to. “You will never believe what my Committee on Ministry chair has done…”.

On the whole, we don’t “have ministers” in the same way, but we have ministers, still. And in some ways, the relationships are deeper.

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

Rev. McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School and the newly settled minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, NH. He is a life-long UU who grew up all over the western United States, as well as in Australia and Belgium. He attributes finding the right congregation to good fortune, a red clown nose, and a warped sense of humor.

rocks, rivers, and rough transitions

Tonight I attended an incredibly inspiring presentation from our church’s Lifelong Learning Task Force.  Together, a diverse team of leaders shared a vision of religious education–for kids, for adults, for youth, for seniors.  It was articulate.  It was moving.  And, hopefully only for me, it was sad.

After sharing what religious education could look like, and why it matters, a team member invited us to close our eyes as she led us through a guided meditation and visualization.  She instructed us to reflect on the messages we had just heard, and then to envision our own piece of the puzzle–where we might fit in this beautiful picture of the future.

I followed these instructions.*  And as I did I realized, with a knife-edge of sadness, that my own answer is:  I don’t.

Not really, anyway.  Not for now, and less with every passing month.  My job in the next year is to love, to learn . . . and to let go.

I don’t have to do this without support, fortunately . . . and what deep gratitude I feel for those around me who can help.  It–apparently–takes a lot of self-reflection, discussion, and of course, meetings, to be formed (to form oneself?) as a minister.  To that end,  I have, or soon will, a minister, a therapist, a Spiritual Director (wondering what that is?  me, too–I’ll get back to you on that), an In-Care committee, a teaching pastor, an academic advisor and a chaplain.  And probably, somewhere, a large partridge in a pear tree.

What I no longer have . . . what I’m trading in a deal that has never felt transactional in nature, but nevertheless has some of the steepest costs of anything I’ve ever attempted . . . is the security of the covenantal relationship with my fellow congregants.

Our job is to build the future, but my own days within that future, at least in this congregation, are numbered.  Of course, that’s true for all of us–we take a break, we move, we have a change in life circumstances . . . and someday, certainly, we die.  May the spark continue, though we ourselves will not.   I embrace this message, painful though it is; the work we are doing together is simply too important not to.  And of course it’s because I believe so very deeply in the importance of this work that I feel called to further it.

It’s just that I naively did not realize that this call, not merely to ministry, but to die, in part, to my previous congregational life, meant me–or that it meant now.  (Seminary is long, I can’t even imagine the person I’m going to become, and I’m not sure I want to do parish ministry, anyway . . . surely I can just stay happily ensconced in my safe space through this entire process?)

News flash to the willfully blind among us: nope.  In my case, my newly-designated teaching pastor–from whom I am so very honored and excited to have the opportunity to learn–was the one to break the news.  I had asked her, and quite chipperly, I’m sure, what I needed to be aware of in balancing my lay leadership roles with my internship in her congregation.  And gently, but mincing no words, she answered: You need to put your time and your heart into the place where you learn; let me know if you need guidance as you let your other roles go.

I will spare you my mental process as I have worked the past two weeks to understand what this means–with apologies and thanks to those people, and there are several, who merely wish I had spared them.  I will tell you a bit about how I feel now, though, starting with: unmoored.  After all, this place, more than any other, is my rock–a source of stability through the changes of life as a young parent.  I don’t know what it means to live in this town as a grown up (we lived here as college kids before this, but totally different story) without this church.  And guess what: I don’t want to know.

I also feel envious.  This evening I looked upon my beloved community, knowledge weighing on my heart, and I felt pride, love . . . and something rather like jealousy.  Why do YOU get to stay here?  Nevermind that I’m the one who made this choice; I feel, inexplicably and indefensibly, a bit piqued at everyone else who didn’t.

And I feel bewildered: I saw the faces of my friends, supporters, challengers and provocateurs–we who have grown together, we who have changed ourselves and changed one another–and wonder, again, in what possible universe it makes sense to be so deeply in love with the transformative power of church that you lose it.

And this, inevitably, brings me back to the $64,000 question.  Which is: have I lost my everloving mind?

This, my people, is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.  Is “Dear God, I hope you know what you’re doing” a prayer?

How about “I hope you know what you’re doing, because it turns out I don’t, and I feel smaller than I ever have and am hoping there’s something out there I can count on?”

Still no?

How about this:

And so I found an anchor, a blessed resting place
A trusty rock I called my savior, for there I would be safe
From the river and its dangers, and I proclaimed my rock divine
And I prayed to it "protect me" and the rock replied

God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is the river, swimmer
So let go

--Peter Mayer, "God is a River"

(just a little message last Sunday from the church I’m trying to fashion into a rock.  I do see that what our faith–what my church–needs to be is the river.  Unfortunately, I also see that in trying to become a person who can remember that continuously, and even celebrate it, I am in for a VERY long three years.  Somebody please go find my partridge; I probably need it.  In the meantime . . . one more step.  Which means Buddhism seminar notes.)

goodnight from my confused, envious, wistful heart,

j

*point of fact: I helped write them.  and this vision.  and mission.  and these goals.  I knew at every point during this yearlong process that we were writing them to give away . . . it’s just that it turns out that it’s one thing to think it, and another to do it.  so is life, no?

don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)

Last month I took an intensive course in Unitarian Universalist Congregational Polity–and heard something from our instructor that frightened me: “Unitarian Universalism as we know it isn’t going to be around 50 years from now.”

Single grave stone

Design Mandie McGlynn 2013

He went on to say, however, that “just because our current association goes away doesn’t mean that our work will.  Individual congregations will go on, and the task is to work together as part of a meaningful movement.”  Then, in closing the course, our professor shared another thought, this one from Rev. Abhi Janamanchi: “The center of Unitarian Universalism lies outside of itself, in the stranger, in difference rather than in similarity. . . . We are called to create holy communities where strangers are not only welcome but where all are enjoined to do the work of healing and transformation by wrestling with the strangers within themselves.”

I found this interesting, because in building community, welcoming the stranger, and beginning that process with ourselves, we just may have the tools to ensure that UU is around for future generations of seekers.  Naming this work, however, isn’t the same as doing it.  We are indeed fighting for relevance–for survival–and the challenge facing us is not about recruitment.  It’s also not about social justice, at least not in the issue-driven terms in which we currently frame it.

Let’s go back to Rev. Janamanchi’s thoughts.  Welcome the stranger, he says, and start with the stranger within ourselves.  I think we have all heard this; it may even speak to us in a powerful way.  Yet very rarely do we tie our words about radical hospitality to a set of concrete actions, or even to a larger applied theology.  In fact, I wonder if “welcoming the stranger” is perhaps Unitarian Universalism’s “Sunday-only” theology.

Friends, are you familiar with how this works?  In my ELCA days, week after week, I’d find myself in the pew listening to “lamb of God” and connecting deeply with the communion ritual. Brought up short by Christ’s sacrifice, I’d reflect passionately on my own need to practice a little self-sacrifice for the good of others, wondering how I could put something so momentous out of my mind.  And then, washed of my sins–and of the annoying burden of thinking about them–I stepped out into the bright sunlight, resumed my life, and forgot about it until the next Sunday.  Then, there I’d be, reciting the Kyrie and thinking, again, “Oh, crap.  This.  Why can’t my wayward heart remember?”

I didn’t beat myself up too much, though; I had the doctrine of original sin on my side.  (Heck, it was right there in the liturgy.)  I don’t think about these things, or change my actions, or change my heart, because I can’t.  I will never remember.  Only here, on this hard bench, can I  hope to become a better person–and even then, not through my own efforts.

You can probably tell: one of my favorite things about UU—one of the things that makes this faith a living and meaningful part of my life—is that the message only starts at church.  It is never intended to stay there.   And it’s clearly and immediately applicable to my life.  There’s no fire or brimstone, yet our pulpits pack quite a punch: here’s the vision–now get off your rear ends and make it so.  Thus, I find myself continually afflicted, with an urgency isn’t washed away by our rituals.  Rather, it bleeds into my daily life, and it compels me to action.

In this way, I am invited to think differently about money, challenged to live into greater generosity, encouraged to help create a just distribution of resources.  I am pushed to consider how my actions affect our neighbors and the larger world.  I am called to strengthen my relationships, accepting and celebrating that we are held together in the bonds of covenant.

Yet there remains an issue around which I do not see much action.  I hear the call sometimes, and I feel it in those moments . . . and then I return to complacency.  And in fact, I think complacency is where many of us are on this challenge: the call of radical hospitality–the relentless demand that we welcome the stranger.

And how, as a movement, do we justify our ongoing failure (refusal?) to do the deep work to find the strangers within ourselves and to recognize, hear, and welcome the unfamiliar in others?  Forgive us, Lord, in our amnesia and blindness, which are not at all willful, as we are deeply flawed people and simply cannot do any better. . .  that doesn’t work here.  We don’t have original sin.  We have humanism.

What if we treated that humanism less as a license to believe nothing and more as a set of goalposts?  What if we saw ourselves in the waning minutes of the first half (or of the game, if you want to get apocalyptic in your atheism) and looking to advance the score?  We are responsible for our actions, and equally so our inactions. . .  there’s nobody here but us chickens, so let’s get our behinds in gear.

And so I’m asking: why don’t we act on this piece of what we believe?  I’ve been wondering about this for months, and I have a theory.  Are you ready?  It’s deep: I think we don’t know what to do next.  And in the meantime, concerned for our very survival as a movement, we are arguing amongst ourselves about a “bottom line theology” (can I interest you in a creed, anyone?  How about some dogma?), and chasing willy-nilly after a group of largely, almost definitionally, uninterested people.*

Frankly, whether Unitarian Universalism exists in the next century depends on our community-building skills.  We must construct the beloved community, and, having built it, we must dedicate ourselves to its care and feeding.  We must know and value our freedom, and the individualism that demands it—and, holding that freedom, we must nonetheless choose “we” over “me.”  And friends, building a “we” is going to start, end, and move forward by truly learning to listen to one another.  

We will transcend boundaries, build coalitions, overcome the petty differences which block the way to meaningful agreements, and care more, and more deeply, for one another, simply by learning to close our mouths and open our hearts and our minds as others speak their truths.  I don’t mean “we need to listen” as a platitude.  I mean WE NEED TO LISTEN as a set of skills.  This means something we might teach each other in small groups, practice within our own congregations, and then model within our wider communities.  

What does this look like?  It’s a set of values and goals, and also a set of procedures.  Both can be modified; the overall objective is to elicit, recognize, and respond to the humanity in everyone we meet. Every single person.  Does that jive with our deeply held beliefs?  Does that sound like inherent worth and dignity?

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Listening skills aren’t a new-age, ethereal concept—we needn’t be suspicious.  And we needn’t reinvent the wheel; there are a number of highly effective models for learning to listen deeply, even around highly polarized and sensitive issues.  The novel thing is bringing it to church.  The revolutionary thing is taking it from there out into our communities, and doing it as part of the movement.

This is hard work—the hardest work we will ever do.  In listening, we take the exhortation to love one another and we make it manifest; it’s the task of an entire lifetime. But there is nothing more important, and we have everything we need to begin this process.  And friends, it is urgent.   We want to bring healing to our fragmented neighborhoods, to our hurting communities, to our stratified and unjust world.  I agree with all of our noble goals—it’s just that all of our efforts are tilting at windmills until we truly learn to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whom we see as “other.”

Amy has a different dream for the capital campaign.  Adam thinks that a personhood standard for making abortion decisions best fits the ideal of honoring inherent worth and dignity for all.  Jared is gay, and a member of Log Cabin Republicans.  I know this, but do I know why?  Do I know how to find out?  Do I even know how to start a conversation that acknowledges and honors difference?  Maureen has a child with a diagnosed mental illness.  Anna was briefly homeless last year after a job loss.  Jason’s wife died by suicide.  Do I acknowledge this?  Do I avoid certain subjects?  Do I create a space where it’s safe to talk?  And if someone does begin to speak, do I listen?  What value do I place on listening as a personal ministry, or as a ministry of the larger church?

CS Lewis advises, “If you’re seeking comfort, you won’t find truth.”  In these uncivil, fragmented times, what might happen if we stepped out of our comfort zone with a sense of curiosity and a true zeal for our mission to build community?  It is possible that the answers would amaze us all.

Consider the following.

In 1994, in the midst of a bitter local and national polemic on the subject of abortion rights (sound familiar?) five people were shot in Planned Parenthood clinics in the Boston area.  Recognizing that something needed to change—not in the law, in the clinics, or in women, in general, but in the conversation itself—the Archdiocese of Boston, together with the Public Dialogue Project, attempted something risky and innovative.  The plan: break the deadlock by changing the culture, through an idea so radical that the women involved truly feared for their safety should others find out what they were doing.  That idea, friends, was nothing more or less than intentional listening.

Six women–three leaders from each side–were recruited to take part in the project.  At first, they agreed to meet together four times for a series of moderated discussions.  The sole objective was to understand each other better.  What actually happened was that every one of the women held to their covenant to stay in conversation with each other over those initial meetings—and then continued to meet and to listen for a period of five years.

And in this time—not right away, but soon—things began to change.  Again, not the law, at least not because of anything these particular women were working on.  And not the underlying issues surrounding abortion.  What changed was the larger conversation happening in Boston.  It became less toxic.  It became less violent.  It became more personal, in the sense that those involved began to put down some of the accumulated armor and acknowledge the other participants as people.  As women, as mothers, as loving and beloved members of larger communities.

There is something else that I find fascinating about these conversations—an outcome-that-wasn’t: not one of the participants changed her opinion.  If anything, engaging in this sort of long-ranging, open conversation allowed each to become more clear about what, at the heart of things, she held dear.  Further, it didn’t matter that neither group changed its opinions, because in stepping back from the bitterness, the judgment, and the slogans, these women led their respective movements in doing the same.

With commitment and training to love by listening, we can create the safe space necessary to have the kinds of conversations that change things.  Safe space is required if we are to acknowledge the conflicts we feel around our own positions—this is the “stranger within each of us” that Janamanchi mentions.  These internal conflicts—our own strangers—are critically important, because in acknowledging them, we can reach a place of comfort in seeking compromise, a third way that makes life better for everyone involved.

Thinking about abortion, a third way might look like support for women around the challenges that make it difficult to choose to parent a child in all but the best of circumstances.  It might be ready access to birth control.  It might be excellent and early prenatal care.  It might be affordable and high-quality childcare and preschool.  These are not difficult points to agree on, but they are impossible things to talk about when we’re locked into a position—and an associated identity—and view listening as a show of weakness.

You want a message of hope and redemption?  This movement is as strong as the communities we build within it, and we have every tool we need right now to shore up the foundation.  What would happen if liberal religion listened?  


Image

We might just recognize that in love, there are no sides . . . just one very big table.  Welcome to it, friends.  Now what can you learn about the person sitting next to you . . .  and what tools are you going to need to do it?

with love,

j

*Would anyone out there like to see us talk less about the Nones—a group that, at the moment, has self-selected OUT of our sphere of influence, and more about the nuns—a highly energized cohort who might actually share our  social justice vision?  Would anyone like to see less questioning of the values and loyalty of those within the movement who reach different conclusions than our own, and more embracing of difference as an opportunity to grow ourselves?  Please–and please pardon me–for the Love of God?  Amen.

a $aving sort of grace (thoughts on shame and stewardship)

I love this post from UU Robin Bartlett Barraza, about how her family finds God and grace at a UCC church on Sunday afternoons.  Robin’s words evoke the loving embrace of community, a welcome extended not just to herself, but to her children–one of whom is (gasp!) a two-year-old.

How well I know the perils.  And how poignantly I appreciate the gift of welcoming love that my church has given my own family.  This is embodied by the people who talk with my five year old like he’s the adult conversationalist that he thinks he is.  It’s shown by the woman who smiles and laughs when Si, my younger, nitrate-addicted son, approaches eating as performance art–Cave Man Ingests Hot Dog.  It’s taking the time to give Ren the warning he needs to successfully transition between activities in RE.  It’s understanding that Si’s middle name should be Houdini, and taking steps to keep him safe where safety is not a high priority on his own list.  It’s welcoming our family of four with love and joy, even knowing that all of the above is part of the package.

These actions speak louder than mere words of welcome ever could.  And conversely, there are no words that could overcome the sense of not belonging we might have felt were church exclusive to children on their best behavior.  Yet the message, once again, is come as you are; you are welcome here.

I have known, deep in my soul, that this kind of welcome is critical.  As a parent of rambunctious children in a society where the unspoken expectation is constant control,* it is so easy to feel that we are failing where our children prove to be simply, irrepressibly themselves.  I recently read Dr. Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and I now suspect that what we parents sometimes feel in public spaces–and in the mental space between societal expectations and family realities–is shame.  This shame, and the mental and physical paralysis it evokes, can make it hard to even enter a space like church.  It’s hard to walk in the door the first time, and it’s impossible to return for a second visit but for perfection–or grace.  We give that grace through our welcome and our ongoing love, through our third principle commitment to open our arms to people where they are.

I could say more about parental shame and congregational welcome, but for now I’ll leave that to others.  I actually want to talk about another area in which the welcome of radical hospitality and the specter of shame are both at issue: our approach to congregational stewardship.

Money Tree (crassula) growing from a pile of coins.

According to Dr. Brown, we are vulnerable to shame anywhere there’s a gap between an ideal identity–the way we’d like others to perceive us around an issue–and an unwanted identity–the way we fear others may perceive us.  When shame arises, our physiological and emotional responses combine to create a kind of paralysis (with a heavy dose of psychological pain to boot).  This may seem overstated, or, where we acknowledge that it does happen, like an embarrassing overreaction.  It’s important to realize, then, that in our highly relational, wired-for-connection brains, an affront to our standing within social groups is processed the same way a physical threat might be.  Rational thought shuts down, the amygdala takes over, and we make instinctive choices between survival strategies (these are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight responses”).

In short, the pain of shame, and the underlying threat to our relational value, are likely to cause us to react rather than respond.  Our reactions may depend on the situation, but they generally involve moving against, moving toward, or moving away from, the person we are encountering as a shaming stimulus.  Moving against often involves anger, and our own use of shame to attempt to put the person in her place.  A person moving toward makes conciliatory gestures, hoping to be recognized as “same” rather than “other” by the person he’s feeling shamed by.  Finally, moving away from implicates the flight response; if you’ve ever responded to a disagreement by “freezing out” the party with whom you disagree, you may tend toward the “moving away” response.  (Personally, I’m more of a fighter than a flighter; the point of these distinctions, however, is that they are three unique, but equally unhelpful, responses to feeling shamed.)

drooping bud

These reactions can mask underlying feelings and motivations until they are hidden even from ourselves.  Unfortunately, they can also cause tremendous damage to our relationships.  Brown, however, argues that while shame will remain part of our daily lives regardless of the inner work we do, as humans we have the ability to develop “shame resilience.”  This set of strategies, and the self-awareness that underpins them, can allow us to free ourselves from the paralysis of a shaming experience, and to be intentional in our responses to it.

So what does all this have to do with stewardship?  Let’s explore that further; I’ll use my own ideal images around money and church as a starting point.  I want to be a contributor, to pull my weight, to be aware and considerate of those who cannot contribute at this time.  I also want to appear comfortable talking about money–and all of the above without exposing any vulnerabilities that I or my family may have around this issue.  In the area of unwanted identities, I don’t want to be clueless.  I don’t want to be a shirker of responsibilities.  I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize financial matters appropriately.  And I don’t want to be less fortunate.

In looking over this list, I doubt it’s extremely different from anyone else’s.  Depending on the amount of work we have personally done around this issue, though, and the culture of our individual churches, and our own specific financial circumstances and stressors, it may be difficult to talk openly about these issues without experiencing shame.  In fact, it may be a challenge just to be present while someone else deals with these issues.  I discovered this on a personal level just the other day.

I was preparing to lead a meeting when our minister and another congregant began to talk about their missed connection for their annual pledge conversation.  Quickly, the pair concluded that the best time to talk was right there, right then.  Thus, our minister–her name is Jill—filled out her pledge form there at the table—in front of God and everybody, as it were.  I was taken aback, but planned to politely pretend not to notice.  As it turned out, though, not noticing was not really an option.

Rather than doing the expected thing—no, the decent thing—and finishing the task as discreetly as possible, Jill took the opportunity to think aloud.  She shared the percentage of her salary she wanted to contribute, her intention to pledge at the level that would qualify for this year’s matching incentive, and her rationale for having the conversation publicly.  I asked Jill about that exchange before beginning to write this post; she confirmed that the structure and content of the public conversation was intentional.  Our minister is actively choosing to use and model the strategies that might allow us to have honest congregational conversations about money.

During this conversation, I used some strategies of my own.  Shaming strategies, to be precise.  I used them to communicate discomfort, to place the blame for that feeling with someone else, and to attempt to relegate both the conversation and my feelings about it to some other space.

Just let me know when we're done talking about this . . .

Just let me know when we’re done talking about this . . .

A key component of shame resilience is compassion–the ability to extend grace to others and to ourselves.  In that spirit, I will share with you that I think my reaction was understandable: I had never seen a conversation like this take place, I had done very little work around my own discomfort with money, and the multiple boundaries and power differentials inherent in the group, and in the conversation, only compounded my unease.  In my anxiety–rooted, I now see, in shame, which I wanted to be on someone else’s plate and not my own–I laughed, teased, and then disconnected from the conversation, waiting for it to be over.  In short, I employed the “moving against” strategy–YOU are not normal; YOU are doing something wrong–followed by “moving away from”–disengaging to prevent the conversation from affecting me.

Understanding this doesn’t change my desire to do things differently next time; in fact, it’s the only thing that might make intentional action possible.  In the meantime, we, like churches everywhere, are in the midst of a much larger conversation, one that has the potential to be empowering, transformative, bold, missional . . . and extremely uncomfortable.  That conversation is the one we have each year at the whole-church level, and even denominationally, around stewardship.

What does this larger conversation look like in our churches . . . and how could it look?  Where is shame involved?  (Because it is, friends.  It is.)  And how do we offer grace in the stewardship context–to our fellow congregants, to our finance committees and our governing boards, to our ministers  . . . to ourselves?  How do we extend the same welcome to all, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that 1. it costs money to do what we do, and 2. that money is going to come from each of us unequally?

Perhaps it is a falsehood even to try to separate money and church; what we give and what we ask for are inextricably connected.  In American culture, we use money to value one another, which blinds us to reality–and we refuse at the same time to acknowledge the cost of things, which also blinds us to reality.  If money is simultaneously a gilded idol and the elephant in the room, it’s understandably confusing, perhaps nowhere more than within our sacred spaces, to talk about it openly.  And so, again, shame comes into play.  And in helping to frame the conversation, in choosing how we respond to it, we contribute to a culture of shame . . . or we help to lift it.

As with so many other things at church, I have mixed feelings about my own role.  Would I be willing to give a three-minute testimonial about what church–this church, my church–means in my life?  Absolutely.  And if I hear a whisper of “$ell it, girl!” in the request, does that change anything?  To wield my words with honesty, do I need to know–and do my listeners need to know–whether the directive was speak from your heart, or $peak from your heart?

Looking at more concrete questions, do we need to know, as someone recently posed in a congregational discussion of stewardship, what percentage of our members are non-pledgers?  We are also aware that a very small handful of families (and disclosure: mine isn’t one of them) are currently financially supporting much, much more than their “fair share”–do we need to know who those families are?  Do I need to know how my minister makes her pledging decision for the year?  Does she need to know how I reach my own decision?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we have big dreams–the kind that cost.  What I also know is that there is a great potential for shame inherent in every facet of this discussion . . . and that we must balance that with grace and compassion if we want to maintain church as a safe space.  This is true for our members, for our first-time visitors . . .  and for the family who’s afraid to come to church between March and May because it’s been a very difficult year and they’re afraid to say the words–to admit that this year, they just can’t.

As always, I’d love to hear your take.

j

*You perhaps question this. As an undergrad I studied abroad in Sweden; the differences in outlook are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, Swedish children make my sons seem sedate.  And despite the society having been structured with them in mind; despite being permitted to run amok on planes and trains, in IKEA, in the public squares, Swedish children grow up to be some of the most kind, considerate and well-mannered adults I have ever met.  In spending time with these children, and in this other society, I gained some perspective about our own–we are not, myself included, so removed as we may think from the “seen and not heard” vision of childhood.

in the little things, our love

Last night I sat in an old rattan chair in our church basement, feeling chilly and gazing up at the asbestos tiles on the ceiling.  The basement is an unprepossesing space.  It’s not scary–there aren’t dark corners or long cobwebs.  But it’s largely unfinished, painted concrete and cinderblock, humbly furnished, and just not a place we show off to visitors. Fortunately, we don’t have to love it; many among us ardently pine for more space for classes and meetings so the basement could be reserved for people–our youth?–who might “appreciate its charms.”  In the meantime, it gets the job done.

I was there for the final session of a small group series on Reproductive Justice, and I came to the basement, and to the assembled group, with something between equanimity and resignation.  This was the only class offered this spring, and for a variety of reasons, I was not willing to sign on with my whole heart.  I’m interested in the subject (as I have discussed–here, for example, and here; thoughtful guest response here); I wish we would talk more about this sort of thing, and that we’d do it in a way that acknowledges that there are a variety of viewpoints even among devoted Unitarians.  But I knew this class had an agenda from the outset, and it didn’t necessarily square with my own.  And I didn’t realize this consciously until now, but from the time I put my name down on the sign up sheet until the night of our last session, I had one foot out the door.

And yet, I returned.  And returned.  And . . . returned.  I came to check it out, and I stayed to say my piece, and I came back in hopes of learning more, until finally I attended because that’s what I did on Wednesday nights.   The group was well-facilitated, its members open and enthusiastic, and the material relevant and interesting.  That said, I did sometimes feel uncomfortable.  And I sat in silence with the things that bother me– it’s just not time right now.  But I learned a lot, and though I thought of myself as “dropping in,” I was there.  (And perhaps in this, a lesson: I don’t always have to depend on my confused heart to take me where I need to go, because I have my feet to bring me.  My heart can just follow along for the ride . . . and something might touch it anyway.)

And then last night in the cool basement, staring upward as chairs scraped and feet thundered above me, something happened.  One moment I was wishing I had a quilt or afghan to wrap myself in–I am something of a critic by nature, of the organization-reforming, process-refining sort; I was quickly developing a plan for a blanket drive to make our chilly spaces more hospitable for winter group meetings–and the next, I felt blanketed in love and joy.

What happened?  Our group was checking in, and I was listening . . . but without truly listening.  (I have some work to do around mental multi-tasking, or its opposite, which I believe is simply called presence).  Then one participant shared her gratitude for the simple comfort of being able to walk into our church building, home of our little community, and make herself a cup of tea amid the bustle of the Wednesday night kitchen.  We had what she needed.  She knew where to find it, and felt invited to do so.  She felt welcomed in the space, even given the busy-ness of those around her.  She found a place of ease and respite from the demands of the day, and settled with joy and peace into our company.

Wow.  Wow.  Sometimes the little things are the big things.  In my joy at seeing the improvement in an evening that this sort of gift can create–a simple thing, but a big one for quality of life–I smiled.  Then I settled in with joy and peace of my own, and sent a quick mental blessing around the circle to my fellow congregants, to the cheery light of the lamp in the corner, to the work that we had done together that day, and up to those faded acoustical tiles on the ceiling.  I snuggled into my chair, blanketed in the abundance of a community of here and now, and engaged in the work of our final evening together.

And later, much later, and then again this morning, I thought about the ways that this community provides sustenance for my body as well as nourishment for my soul.  I think about the big things a lot, but I tend to gloss over the abundance–and the importance–of the little ones.  So, thinking about the last few weeks, I made a list:

My church community has given me . . .

* a cheering section
* a hot meal cooked with love
* encouragement to grow
* a hug, a smile, a knowing wink
* listening–casual listening, deep listening, and the sort of listening (risky, across the lines of our own hearts) that for me mediates God as closely as anything I’ve ever found
* opportunities to be a listener myself, and to learn to do it better
* space to do things that scare me–and as much of a safety net as you can have while still doing something that’s real
* an abundance of grace in my mistakes (see above)
* smiles, hugs, and genuine love for my children, even when they are acting exactly like themselves
* and yes, a hot beverage on a cold day.  or many such beverages–this is probably my most-used feature of our kitchen.  Friends, welcome to the Minstry of Tea.

What a place, right?  What an unearned bounty . . . and what a difference it makes to my days and to my life.  It makes the sort of difference, in fact, that encourages me to tromp downstairs week after week, and open myself to things I don’t necessarily want to hear.  The accumulation of tiny loves and mundane comforts may be exactly what makes it feel safe to follow my feet even when my heart isn’t quite ready.

When we talk about finding a church home, connecting around spirituality is probably what we think of first . . . but is that ultimately why we decide to stay?  Maybe the decision to join a congregation has something to do with experiencing comfort–and perhaps it’s not just the church part we should focus on, then, when we talk about growth, but on how we offer those who find us a piece of home.  A home that is not the one we make ourselves and return to in the evenings, but the one from our dreams.

A warm glow.

A space at the table, prepared for you.

A beloved community, making beautiful a humble basement.

You are welcome here.  Come in, and grow.  But first: make yourself at home.  

fewer lines, more listening, part II

It’s been a little while.  I had something I needed to say before embarking on this post . . . more on that here.  And then I took some time to simply sit with my thoughts, and those of lots of others.  Within Unitarian Universalism, there are many bloggers dealing with the same kinds of questions: How do we engage that which is outrageous?  What should we say when confronted with systemic injustice?  How should we be as a people committed to standing on the side of love, living in a country where standing on the side of fear is the most expedient way to policy change?

It is an act of spiritual violence to sit idly while oppression reigns.  Not talking is not the answer.  Shying away from hard questions for fear of making someone uncomfortable is not the answer.  Agreeing to disagree is also not the answer.

And so . . . be it resolved:

Let’s not be silent.

Let’s not agree to disagree.

Let’s not refuse to ask each other hard questions.

But what this post is about—my piece of this conversation, a thing I have been feeling the need to say for several months, and which, more than anything else, is the reason this blog exists in the first place—is that I’m also hearing other whispers.  Sometimes, they’re more than whispers, and they urge us toward something that looks less like standing on the side of love, and more like leading from our anger and our fear.  I hear this when we talk about—or refuse to really talk about—abortion, saying things like, well, if we really acknowledge that a pregnancy might amount to more than a ball of cells, we’re going to be exploited by the other side.  I hear this, and loudly, when we assert that merely remaining in relationship with someone identifies as an evangelical Christian is tantamount to allying oneself with a culture of violence.

Until (insert group) is ready to accept (insert deeply-held principle affecting the lives of real people), there’s simply no point in engaging with them, or so the argument goes.  It’s too risky.  It doesn’t feel good.  Listening only enables them.

Here’s the thing: choosing not to listen enables us.  It allows us to maintain the stories and images—of ourselves and of the other—that help us feel secure in our choices.  It allows our congregations to feel unified where we haven’t done the hard work to find something other than fear to rally around.  It lets us avoid the pain of growth and change, because neither is likely to happen where we build echo-chambers instead of houses of public worship.

Perhaps the questions we should ask in deciding whether it’s worth our energy to talk to the “other” should have less to do with what they, and we, believe, and more to do with the meta-level communication processes involved.  Instead of “Might she agree with me?,” or “Is his belief system offensive to me or even harmful in some way?” perhaps we should ask, “is he willing to engage in public dialogue?  Does she show respect for the goals of civil discourse?”  What we might move toward is a conversational covenant, a structure that might allow us to have true dialogue about things that matter—and with people whose views are very different.

Does this seem radical?  Impossible, even?  A dream so utopian that not even UUs can believe in it?

Friends, I have news.  I will refrain from calling it Good News, but I believe, and deeply, that if Unitarian Universalism is to be part of the healing process in the larger society, we must become listeners, first and foremost.  We must listen to ourselves, and that’s where a lot of the buzz in the blogosphere is being directed at the moment—are we hearing and honoring that still small voice within each of us, including when it calls us to speak?  However, we cannot stop there.  We must also listen to one another, and then we must take a risk and listen to “the other”—the voice of difference, of disagreement, of discomfort.  And we must do this not simply because it honors the inherent worth and dignity of each person to listen with an open heart—we have to do it because it will form the basis of our most effective social justice work.  An intentional, worshipful commitment to dialogue can change not only conversations, but people and ultimately political realities.  In fact, in our current era, listening may be the most powerful, most needed, and most under-utilized tool we have.

More soon.  In the meantime, a thought:

“Our job as churches is to learn to talk together again and to allow our conversation to spill out of our churches and into our neighborhoods, a stream of hope scented with the rich fragrance of the reconciliation, the shalom that God desires for all creation. May we abide faithfully in this calling!”

Christopher Smith, The Virtue of Dialogue

Peace, all.

j

note: a follow-up to this post can be found here, with “don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)”

fewer lines in the sand, more listening (part I)

Recently, the Rev. Tom Schade published a series of posts suggesting that today’s political conservatism is wholly inconsistent with the values of Unitarian Universalism.  To those who claim both allegiances, Schade says “Show your work”—how do you get from your faith to your politics?  I take issue with this, not because I don’t think the questions are valid, but because I’m not persuaded that it makes sense, given the number of ethical and practical conflicts that we all live with each day, to level these challenges at one particular group of UUs.

Maintaining right relations—with each other, with our communities, and with the broader world—is demanding, soul-searching work.  But it’s not work that belongs most particularly to one group or another—it’s the work of all of us.  And so, perhaps we can say, to conservative UUs, to liberal UUs, and to everyone in between: Tell your story.  Explain your reasoning.  Show your work.  And then listen, in a spirit of honest curiosity, as we consider the answers.  What does our religion require of us, individually and together?

As we examine these questions—stepping up to the plate ourselves–carefully and respectfully, freely and responsibly—we create the safe space that might allow others to do the same.  This is valuable, as those who choose to worship among us have self-selected, perhaps more than they consciously know, to invest some effort in the task of living spiritually-connected lives.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are not the Nones–those who have opted for a life of secularism–but a religious people who have entered into a covenant that includes invitation to spiritual growth.

So let’s provide that challenge to grow, and Rev. Schade has highlighted some areas where discussion in our congregations might be helpful and illuminating.  But let’s also accept that the invitation to self-examination, and the discoveries that follow, are going to change not just the one we think needs to be changed, but us, too.  In talking openly with those with whom we disagree, we will be made different, and we need to be.  Not because we need to believe in equality of opinion, as individuals or as a movement, but because we believe in the power of stories to shape the world–and to reshape our perceptions of it–and we each must tell our own.

On that note, here is a little piece of my story, as it relates to opinions, values, politics, and our relationship to and with the Infinite.  Our minister–let’s call her Jane–occasionally posts an article or meme related to a social justice issue on her publicly-accessible facebook wall.  One recent post was about abortion; I responded to it explaining that I don’t think the discussion needs to be all-or-nothing on either side, and that I, for example, am both pro-choice and a supporter of the codification of some fetal rights.  Conversation up to that point had been a range of “Amen!” and “Rah-rah!” comments about the original post.  After my response–cue crickets.  (Jane respectfully acknowledged my post and looked for areas of agreement, but the silence from other participants felt deafening.  On the whole, I wondered if it was perhaps shameful in UU circles to even frame the issue as two sets of rights to balance, rather than as an outrageous usurpment of one.)

Not long afterward, some members of my church were socializing together before a meeting, and the topic of the anti-abortion movement in the U.K. came up.  Opponents of abortion reportedly staged silent vigils across from women’s clinics, handing out leaflets to women who passed by.  “Those people are just crazy!” exclaimed one member, and the others nodded their agreement.  My husband replied that he didn’t think it was that the protesters were crazy, but that they were living their values—different, but strongly-held—in a way that made sense to them.  Crickets again . . . and then a hasty change of subject.

I share this example because it is one in which my husband and I hold what is—so far as I can tell—a fairly moderate view [namely, that abortion should be safe, legal, and an option of last resort, one particularly eschewed after the point of viability] in terms of the range of opinions in our society, but which is an extreme view in the context of Unitarian Universalism. I will share more about this, from a different perspective, in my next post.  For the moment, a few words about how my take on abortion fits with my larger faith—my response to the calling to account for which Rev. Schade speaks.

I arrived at this opinion—having spent much of a decade information tabling for Planned Parenthood—through my experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy loss.  It is a view dictated by my heart and my soul more than by my head, and it’s been both challenged and supported in my journey since then.  I have researched and written in the special education context in support of fetal rights—and the rights to life, dignity, and bodily integrity of all who cannot speak for themselves.  Far from conflicting with my UU faith, it is my deep concern for the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people that leads me to reflect upon and speak about my own views on abortion, counter to prevailing UU opinion though they may be.

Do my fellow congregants agree with my thoughts about this?  I’m not sure, as we haven’t found a space or format in which we can really discuss it [aside: this space is sorely needed, as are the willingness and practical skills to engage, and it’s not just UUs that are missing these–it’s our society], but my guess is no.  Should I be called to account for my reasoning should I decide to stand and speak for what I believe to be just and humane?  Definitely.  But do I have a higher burden of obligation to do that than someone speaking on the other side, simply because my opinion is less common in this faith?  What presuppositions do we make about the values and scruples of those who reach different conclusions—and what do those judgments say about us, as a movement?

To those who would assert that this calling-to-account of some members is not because their opinions are different, but because the opinions conflict with our principles, I ask: how do we get from “our principles” to the intolerance of some theological beliefs within individual UU congregations?  How do “our principles” guide our blindness to the empty plate at our own congregational table, or inspire us to do first for ourselves and share with others what is left over?  They don’t, of course, but our congregations deal with both of these issues–or in some cases, choose not to deal with them–constantly.

I suspect that we each struggle, at least insofar as our eyes and hearts are open, to discern the meaning and the imperative behind our values, and to live in accord with that.  That’s part of why we need religion–it’s hard to live a life of worth and decency without examining our choices.  Thus, the hypocrisy we’re talking about today is just easy pickings–it’s visible, and it’s about “someone else.”  Just this once, let’s skip the low-hanging fruit and see if we can go deeper into what matters.

The reality is, those who disagree with us are, in general, not crazy.  They are people, often people who care deeply about the same sorts of things that we care about, who have arrived at different conclusions.  But a common reaction—perhaps even our default reaction, these days—is to view those people as “the other,” and to see them only through the lens of our disagreement on an issue.  And there are tangible benefits to doing this.  First, fear of the Other can unify a group into a cohesive Us like nothing else—for an extreme example of this, consider the instant national unity, from the mountains to the prairies to the halls of Congress, after 9/11.  Further, it feels good; righteous outrage stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains, and makes the complicated, headache-inducing dilemmas we face everyday seem much simpler.  And while it’s disappointing, we UUs are not immune to this simplification-by-way-of-Other . . . sometimes it is even preached from our pulpits.  (Perhaps this surprises you—I hope it does, actually, as that might mean it is rare—but I have seen it happen.  And friends, it is ugly.)

Drawing a line in the sand.  An old metaphor.

Why is this call to establish [and enforce?] a UU line in our politics happening now?  Is it necessary?  And where else might we choose to go in the call to deepen our commitments to living our spiritual principles?

More on that soon.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of this discussion.

j

“Recovering Christians”: a UU Minister Responds

Happy New Year, friends!  We are starting 2013 by looking back (but for the purposes of moving forward!) at an earlier post: this one, in which I wondered how we might move past the “recovery” stage in our approaches to religion.  Below is a UU minister’s response to that post.  Raising Faith is about exploring together through ongoing conversation, so I am happy to post this response–and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

Wishing you a blessed start to your year.

j

When I first joined a UU church in 1990, there was a popular curriculum called “The Haunting Church” used in an adult education class. That was replaced in 2006 by “Owning Your Religious Past.”  I don’t know how widely this curriculum is used, but wanted to point out that it does exist.
The aversion to all things Christian has been a much-discussed and debated part of UU culture, overlapping with the humanist-theist controversy, for at least as long as I’ve been a UU. Having studied in a UU seminary with fellow students from throughout the UU spectrum – both geographically and theologically – I’m aware now that these issues are moving targets. Some congregations are very open to Christianity and theism – maybe they always were, maybe they’ve actively worked on becoming more pluralistic, or maybe new generations have caused a cultural shift.  Some are still very predominantly humanist and proud of it (sometimes, the “us” vs. “them” mentality you mentioned) – but I have a sense that is changing. 
The congregation I serve was once nearly exclusively humanist, but has been in transition theologically and culturally during the past decade (a result, I think, of numerical growth – or maybe the growth is the result of the transition – probably both are true.)  I’d say about half would describe themselves as some form of theist, and half as non-theist. Doesn’t that make you wonder, what does “theist” mean to those who so label themselves?  Is it about the use of God-language?  Does it include earth-based spirituality?  Is the god/goddess in question naturalistic, immanent, transcendent, personal, anthropomorphic, or…?  Most importantly, what does that mean for how we live our lives?  I find myself wishing that we did have ongoing ways to engage these questions together.
I’ve had requests to use more biblical references in my services.  I’ve heard some wonder whether there’s too much emphasis these days on Christianity in our congregation, and will there be room for humanists? And vice versa.  Mostly I see a willingness to be open to exploring different religious ideas and traditions, and this certainly includes Christianity. Not every individual. But the congregation as a whole.
The willingness to let others engage, even in communal worship, is not necessarily a willingness to engage oneself.  I’d love to see a real interest in exploring together, in small classes or groups, our ideas of God or even religion.  We need to go deeper, in ways that speak to our own experience and open us to the experience of others – that’s where transformation becomes possible. Healthy UU congregations have evolved past the “knee-jerk reaction against” stage, to an atmosphere of acceptance and safety where people can say they’re Christian or Buddhist or theist or atheist and not feel marginalized, but embraced. But engaged/challenged/asked to elaborate?  Not so much. We’ve too recently achieved the “safe space” culture and are hesitant to mess with that.  So in talking about our different theologies (if we do talk about them), we engage in an adult UU version of the “parallel play” of toddlers. But “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” is all one principle – not two separate concepts.  Failure to engage, explain, question, discuss – for fear of lapsing into hostility or smugness – pretty much precludes encouraging one another’s spiritual growth. I think we can do better, and we should.
Reading your post, I’m pondering what it might mean to be a “practicing Christian” in a UU community,  and how that might differ from being a “practicing UU.”  Does “practicing” mean celebrating certain holidays, sharing the ancient stories, taking part in traditional rituals?  Does it mean intellectual adherence to certain dogmas regarding ultimate reality? And/or does it mean, living the faith?  In thinking about this, I’m remembering an article by the Rev. Victoria Weinstein.*  Rev. Weinstein identifies as a UU Christian; this article appeared in UU World in 2007.  
Rev. Weinstein wrote: 

But where was Jesus in our UU worship life? … Since Jesus’ radical inclusivity, love of humanity, and passion for justice was so harmonious with all the “good news” I was hearing in our congregations, why did our ministers and congregants so assiduously avoid the Gospels? … I could not understand why UUs would allow the perversions of the Religious Right to define the word “Christian” (or “religious,” for that matter), why they would concede religious language to the conservatives, and why they would go out of their way to construct a religion intentionally bereft of theology… where every spiritual path but the Christian path was considered valid and where all evidence of a Christian past was removed, revised, and painted over.

It took ten more years of committed Unitarian Universalist life for me to consider that perhaps my dear UUs were the most strangely faithful Christians of all. Having either intuitively or consciously embraced Jesus’ gospel of love, service, and justice, they could not stand to affiliate with any so-called faithful who claimed to have received their inspiration for discrimination, exclusion, superstition, and damnation from the same source. The well, for too many UUs, had been irrevocably poisoned, and they would thereafter drink of the living waters from another source. Any other source, it seemed, but the Christian well. I felt called to abide with my religious community, to remain patient with my own sense of religious difference among them, and to pursue the ministry.

That perspective resonates with my own UU experience (mostly!)  Particularly so as I’ve come to know this faith as not being defined by a set of intellectual beliefs.  It’s a way of living, of understanding life and love and our relationship to the mystery of that which is greater than ourselves, however we may each experience that. 
I’m aware that the members of the congregation I serve have a great range of experience with Christianity in their former religious lives.  Some have been viscerally, deeply wounded – by misogyny, homophobia, biblical literalism.  They’ve been abused by both church authorities and the teachings themselves.  Of these, some seek healing and would appreciate other ways to understand the Christian tradition.  Others want nothing to do with it, ever, period.  But there are many more who had a mostly positive experience with Christian churches.  They left because they stopped believing in the dogma, or wanted a greater (or different) emphasis on social justice, scientific knowledge, or freedom of conscience.  Their memories of Christian community are mostly fond, not traumatic.
So I think we need to tread lightly when we assume “woundedness” among our humanists (for example.)  For those who are indeed wounded, the church is here for healing, not to further deepen the wound or to give it more power among us. In our enthusiasm to get past our aversion to our own Christian roots, we’ve sometimes sent the message to humanists that, if only you’d get past your childhood trauma with religion, you’d see the light and be open to Christianity (or theism.) Of course, that’s not true and is as insulting as the implication that when you get over your old irrational superstitions you’ll leave Christianity behind.
What would it look like to build a Beloved Community where spiritual growth is actively encouraged?  I think we’d have active groups of members exploring the deep spiritual questions together, feeling safe enough to reveal their own ideas, willing to question and to be questioned, everyone humble about their own beliefs and curious about those of others. And open to being changed by the process. 

*Rev Dr. Victoria Weinstein is active in the blogosphere as “PeaceBang,” where she continues to discuss issues such as those she raised in the essay referenced above.