Zealot: First Impressions

Having achieved my one Lenten commitment, which was to update my cultural literacy by reading Aslan’s Zealot, I wish to note the following reactions during reading. Please attend to my wording: these are reaction notes, not scholarly considerations. My goal is to list sensations based in previous eras on my scholarly journey.

1) Positive sense of affirmation in rejecting, or at least limiting, the radical pacifism ascribed to Jesus, and contradicted by two key scriptural passages.

2) Sadness at the rigidly sectarian boundaries placed on Jesus’s intentions.

3) Alarm bells that scholars of modern Iran’s radical Shi’a moment are not looking at how his family’s flight from that revolution affected his imaging of religious rebels. Judging from descriptions of his three books so far, this will be where the ultimate examination of his scholarly agenda will come to rest.

4) Lots of warning signals about his huckstering agenda: slippery self-description of his academic credentials; book titles re-jiggered for marketing pop; the choice to be interviewed on Fox News (as well as NPR and other more comfortable venues).

5) And the reverse: sympathy for someone who keeps having to keep looking for a new place in the world because the places he finds don’t meet his needs, and yet, somehow, his being resonates with the query: “I feel God here; why can’t I see and hold onto Him?”

Church Budget on Parade

I am a community-based minister, Unitarian Universalist, in what Pew Research calls “the least religious state in the nation.” Hello from Vermont.

Here’s an explanation, from one of our professors (yes, we have universities and colleges up here, and they are good ones) about why Pew is wrong.

If Professor Parini is right — and most of us suspect that he is — then Vermont is just the entering wedge of a new era in religious history. From a religious point of view — “religio” meaning “bound” — it’s a disaster. From God’s perspective –whatever you make of that term — new streams flourish, new fountains dance. The Living Water now rises in such volume that the old pipes and vessels for channeling, reserving, releasing, have vanished under the flood. States and cities deputize uncles and best friends to perform weddings; crematoria deliver ashes in cardboard cartons to potlucks spread in brightly decorated homes, where friends drink toasts and share movies about the loved one they’ve lost. Major media carry advertising aimed at families of various configurations, hues, ethnicities; even species equality has crept into programs with major ratings. And all of these families spend time inventing their own rituals, defining sacred time in personal ways.

What frustrates Unitarian Universalism is that ours is the religious leadership that visualized this era. Our rebels laid its foundational theories, our theologians advocated these tough transitions. Now it’s drowning us, imposing a fragility that doesn’t seem fair,

This past Sunday, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, joyously installed our fifteenth settled minister. We have historically been a large congregation in a small city, and so we remain. We are also a large congregation in the denomination, which means we’re on a level with sibling congregations in cities much larger than our own. So what are we doing right, and how is it working?

The first thing I’ll say is the we have NEVER relied on only one minister, because our male-only legal leadership, within our first quarter of life, had acknowledged the minister’s wife as an independent congregational servant and leader. But rather than shackle ourselves to married ministers, when the candidate we preferred had no wife, we fostered women lay leaders for leadership in congregational work: this congregation has had three unmarried male ministers, including the minister who served us the longest, in the gender-obsessed Victorian era. We maintained strong male participation in activities men found congenial: mostly the building and grounds, but also adult religious education and community outreach. We had a community-open Boys Club through much of the twentieth century. Far from being a place where people sit neatly in rows on Sundays, these interior groups have repeatedly come together to enlarge and reshape our meetinghouse for diverse kinds of activities. The Meetinghouse Bicentennial, in 2016, will be a story of diversity bursting out of every seam.

What the men of the Prudential Committee (now the women and men of the Board) did NOT do, until the 1970s, was control the budgets of these various internal organizations. Religious Education, Women’s Alliance, the Library, Boys Club, the youth group — all had their own fund-raising and bank accounts. The Society did not give to them, but on the contrary, it was they who rallied to purchase furnishings and even infrastructure for the Meetinghouse. Each group arranged for its denominational leadership to visit them, and each voted on its denominational outings. There was one exception: from the first year of the May Meetings for Unitarian ministers, the Prudential Committee paid at least some of what it cost for our minister to meet with his colleagues in Boston.

So when did the unified budget come into effect?

It is a credit to the congregation’s legal leadership that they recognized, very early, the need for paid staff members; they grew positions around competent but ethical individuals. The first group to have its own budget and staff, about 1848, was the Singing Society, which consisted of four singers and an organist. The Religious Book Society had already set up its own budget for books, but the minister was the librarian; by 1848, a parishioner was occasionally paid to keep track of the books when the minister was ill, too busy, or absent. The Sunday School Society arrived in the 1850s, but the ministers preferred to lead and teach in person for the next 75 years. The ministers’ wives or daughters usually participated in this group, but not as directors, until the twentieth century. The Women’s Alliance, begun in 1826 as The Sewing Society, fostered most of this and made donations when groups needed extra assistance. Not all these women were wives of leading men, and in at least one case, a husband’s trouble encouraged the group to support the wife in her leadership, as a comfort and identity for herself.

There has not been an incident of embezzlement in these 214 years, so what led the congregational leadership to move to a unified budget? When did it happen, and why?

Without doing a whole essay on the philosophy, I place the blame squarely on “modernism.” That marvelous conviction, which set in at the end of the 19th century, held that we all, under our diverse surfaces, consist of the same interchangeable units of life and energy. This radical universalism lent itself perfectly to the totalitarian model of social organization, for what, beyond pragmatism, could justify limitations? If the units are interchangeable, who determines where they go? Surely the larger purview available to the decision-makers, the more resources for nurture and celebration can be shifted where they’ll do the most good.

The Society called in various checkbooks at the tail-end of the the neo-Victorian 1950s and early 1960s. As I sat in the installation on Sunday, watching our past, present, and impending board presidents process with the clergy, what came to mind was that Cold War addition to our national sloganeering: “One Nation, Under God.” There they were: our representations of God’s presence among us. And not even so much a representation of God as of the “One Congregation Under One Power.” There might have been many people, various genders, various affectional preferences, but the offices were few. Even stripped of requirements for superficial identity, the processional reinforced the bottleneck design for managing power.

In Vermont, where monoculture has long been an enemy, we know there’s something wrong with this kind of image. So the Program included our Ministers Emeritiea, reading and speaking from their own words and perspectives. Our Council President marshaled the whole production, and our Director of Religious Education opened the service, even though little children had conducted a separate service earlier in the day. Vermonters know that when water pours down the hillside in over-channeled torrents, as has happened too many times, the over-swollen river or hillside sweeps everything away.



Spiritual Practices for the Homebound during a Long, Hard Winter

One of the essentials for a healthy soul is regular contact with nature. When a series of polar vortices assaults a household living with Huntington’s Disease, this calls for a little creativity. It’s a long time since my beloved has been able to traipse around the marshes and woodlands as she did for so many decades, attending to the birds and things that swim, so we had a head start on this problem. 

We read nature books aloud. Geological histories, topographical studies, the kind of stuff that sends teenagers screaming into the parking lots.

By “read nature books” I do not merely refer to the speaking of words. When the authors launch into a list of species — any kind of species: trees, moss,flowers, mammals, fish, whatever — we pull out our Field Guide and look at these little creatures in vivid color photographs. Trees are a particular passion for me, so for those sections (quite abundant in Vermont, and doing something interesting every week of the year), other books might be in order. Pruning guides, for instance, have become quite exciting during this winter of ice and snow, as we compare what happened in previous natural disasters with what we are doing to cope with this one. Wildflowers have their own large, separate book, full of glorious and detailed photos, allowing us to ask whether we have seen any examples in our yard or neighborhood, which we then compare to the science in the field guide and the nature text. Lots of stuff like this is also explored on the local weather broadcast we prefer. That meteorologist gets out in all kinds of circumstances to look at all kinds of details, and sometimes these are part of what we talk about at the close of a particular paragraph.

This is one of our favorite shared experiences. And my beloved, who was a veterinarian technician during her able-bodied years, has laboriously shaped her longest and most passionate vocal offerings to tell me stories about the highlights of her years engaging nature in its own realm.

Sharing Space as Part of a Different Polity Model

Sitting in our beautiful meetinghouse this morning in Burlington, Vermont, sun streaming in, great new minister, strong choir, the whole nine yards… and remembering back to the so-called Golden Era, aka, late Victorian-Edwardian hey day of Unitarianism and Universalism. Tom Schade has us (those of us who care about institutional Unitarian Universalism) imagining a single movement-wide denominational database of members/friends, etc. The key to making this work, in my mind, is the counterintuitive management tool, which is, offering all these people loyalty to more than one board.

That’s how this congregation got and stayed large, in the midst of a small general population. Unity (Young Adults), Women’s Alliance, Sunday School Society, Men’s Group/Laymen’s League — they didn’t just have their own committees, they had their own bylaws, budgets, and bank accounts. They had their own national staff consultants. They published their own worship materials (copies of which are in my library upstairs, this is neither wishful thinking nor undocumented rumor). They kept their own records, published their own calendars, worshiped and ate as part of festive, demanding meeting sessions.

They were not fragmented, but interconnected, mostly by the Executive Committee of the Women’s Alliance (which also handled Membership for the Society until WWII). It is possible to see the Parish Committee as detached and aloof, but it’s also possible to see the oversight of the pulpit and meetinghouse as having their own safe space, where programmatic and generational wars had only visiting privileges. Usually, what is now “the executive committee” was in those days the minister’s family. The wife was not optional, but, in effect, the associate minister who spent most of her time with the Women’s Alliance and maybe the Sunday School Society (although most of the male ministers here in Burlington preferred to maintain Sunday School Society leadership themselves, especially in its ties with The Religious Book Society, aka, the Library).

From a building point of view, something similar happened in many rural towns, where several denominations would go together to build a town church. Each would have their own itinerant minister in on a somewhat regular basis, agreed among themselves. But across interfaith lines, the system failed. The animosity among the co-owners ranged from vague dissatisfaction to outright horror that “those sent by the Devil” were preventing the growth of the saved. So while it might be useful to have separate boards, separate theologies are not productive. 

This, however, is precisely where the separate boards within a single larger Society can promote lifespan ministry and religious education. Everything about each generation is different from those who went before and those who are coming after. And within each generation — which is, in effect, a geographic interest group — there are individuals whose primary personal vision is not about where they are at the moment, but some particular interest, some primary calling or skill. This is why the calling of any new parish minister is usually attended by the loss of established members: those who were down have been brought up, while those in the leadership have been urged to consider stepping back.

Up here in Burlington, having various leadership nodes and gathering cultures meant everyone got used to coming together in one space from time to time, and the rest of the time, feeling strongly supportive of your sibling groups in the same Society. And we’ve very seldom had only one minister (again, counting the ministers’ wives as unpaid, full-time, under-discussed professional-level ministers). 

I’ve been up here ten years now. I arrived as one of the staff members, and now am one of the objects of pastoral concern, both supporting and celebrative. Both my fiancee and I have been able to navigate the changes in our circumstances among the various pools in the Society. But we’ve only got one Board right now, and we’ve only got one parish minister. The DRE is, in effect, a full time minister, and the Administrator and Facilities Manager have major ministerial presences as well. So in a very real sense — and recognizing the incredible class prejudice this religion maintains on who gets ordained and credentialed as an official “minister” — our functional areas of ministry are staffed.

But what about other congregations? And what about the UUA? What about the formerly-affiliated interest communities? There can be too many boards and budgets, but there can also be too few.

Religious TV Day

It’s World Water Awareness Day, a fact brought to my attention by some mega-programming from a new tv channel called Pivot TV. Pivot came to my attention because it carries one of my favorite Canadian series, Little Mosque on the Prairie, in the morning hour I get to sit alone with a good cup of tea. But it’s also doing the kind of documentaries one associates with Free Speech TV and even PBS. Today’s offering was a huge series from a water professor in Norway, with detailed region-by-region history and foreign policy info from all around the world. It’s been on the entire day, with occasional breaks for HGTV (we have house renovations looming this spring), and totally transformational. If the goal of religion is to call us to better selves with wider information, they hit my sweet spot today. And since I was cooking, cleaning, and packing, there is no time lag, no distance gap. I watch a little and wash the dishes more carefully.

So check them out. And since they advertise themselves as “TV for Passionate Millennials,” maybe someone at 24 would want to check into them. They only have 9 likes on Facebook — a good sign that they are not being overrun by pesky boomers like me.

Over on The Lively Tradition, Tom Schade has opined that it’s time for us Unitarian Universalists to completely restructure our organization. He proposes a central database of UUs, lodged not in a building but in the e-cloud that anyone can access from anywhere. This database would embrace all kinds of expression of UU affinity. Not just congregational membership, but camp attendance, participation in the former affiliate organizations (UUs for Economic Justice, Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Association, etc), and, presumably, just people who write to 24 Farnesworth Street and say, “Sign me up” but do not choose to join the Church of the Larger Fellowship. To Tom’s post, I responded that this used to be Unitarian polity, prior to 1925. Congregations joined their local chapter of a separate but linked organization, the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Churches, while both individuals and congregations signed up to support the American Unitarian Organization. Until 1899, the AUA’s function was producing Unitarian materials for reading, reflection, discussion, worship, and personal spiritual growth, and providing these products to individuals or congregations who requested them. Naturally, a lot of congregations wanted this information packaged in a human minister, so the AUA helped them obtain ministers known to them through participation in the production, examination, and dissemination of AUA materials, particularly through graduation in certain schools for ministry.

To Samuel Atkins Eliot II and his modernizing allies, this bicameral structure was not just cumbersome, it diluted the message and decentralized control of adherents. When the AUA redid its bylaws in 1899, casting itself as an activists corporation with an executive president and advisory board of directors, it set the goal of linking all congregations through a single hub, and connecting all individuals through their local, hub-linked, hub-approved parish minister.

Many Unitarians — often with Universalist comraderie (Universalism did not require congregational membership) — preferred to forge, improve, and employ connections around primary interests other than congregational worship and polity. What used to be “the affiliate organizations” developed large constituencies, many of whom cared nothing for congregational life. I spent my most active, most stable UU years not in any one congregational setting, but in two affiliate organizations, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. To this day, I have more active religious conversations with folks I know through these affiliations rather than those I know through congregational ties. Most of us in these groups believe that the UUA Board of Directors voted to jettison the affiliated organizations because they envy their vital, mostly self-sustaining communities. UU camps, scholarly groups, social justice networks — all demoted, until such time as we rearrange ourselves according to UUA instructions. 

Instead of re-fighting those battles, let’s walk back those paths a bit, to see how much can be recovered as a foundation for what Rev. Schade proposes we do. Our denomination would have massive separate subsections, with mission-focused publications and ministerial credentialing criteria (Eliot was big on all ministers fitting his model, which was male and hyper-academic, faithfully served by devoted wives and children. Can you say “Victorian Era”?) Ministers like me, whose primary gifts lie in areas of content, would be accountable to examining boards who can judge what we say we know and what we do with it. Our products would be workshops, ministerial tutorials, guest preaching gigs — and management of the materials in which our content appears, such as libraries and media channels. Ministers whose primary gifts are pastoral and administrative would nurture, educate, and credential in their own streams, again according to what they covenant to prioritize. 

And who would locate individual UUs within these complex networks? Let’s jump the rail here, to the Universalist State Convention structure, the very first target of Eliot’s streamlining enthusiasm. Universalists belonged to state conventions, which had diverse manifestions, only some of which were congregations. They met in various ways for various purposes, and sometimes the folks who met for other purposes chose to link into congregations and call a ministry. The state convention owned the church building, so that if this node of congregational enthusiasts dissolved, died, or went broke, the building became an asset for other folks ready to make themselves vessels of the fundamental faith.  Several of the state conventions marshaled their forces to plant major congregations in major cities, but again, these were state convention projects until the hope of merger with Unitarians led to congregational bylaws and covenants.

And what happened when a Universalist moved out of one struggling rural area into a more promising one in a different state convention? The state conventions had a national organization, whose function was not religious, but administrative. Scott Wells, at Boy in the Bands, is my go-to expert on Universalist polity, so he would be the one to ask about what the Universalist National Convention did prior to its reformulation as The Universalist Church of America — which it did, openly, as a requirement for consolidating with the American Unitarian Association into a new, superceding entity to be called the Unitarian Universalist Association.

My guess is that the answer to that question will show us powerful ancestral precedent for what Tom is proposing. But I would be untrue to my old mentor, C. Conrad Wright, and his faithful Universalist ally, Alan Seaberg, if I said that all we need to do is turn back the clock and lean more weight on the other of our two historical rails. Universalist polity had genuine problems that need to be thoroughly considered before we all burst into yet another chorus of, “It’s Universalist, It’s Okay” (to the tune of “He’s A Lumberjack,”) it’s time for our serious Universalist forebears and scholars to guide our conversation. Let’s get out those old copies of The Larger Hope, and countless editions of Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. Let’s dig into long-buried sermon collections in the various state convention archives, many of which are amazingly rich and well-tended, but not in or near Harvard’s UUA Archives. 

There are right and wrong ways to follow up on a worthy proposal. Maybe the UUA has taken the UUA model a step too far. But before we get all upset and call for firing somebody, let’s remember that Tom has identified a crisis of abundance. There are too many folks who want to be UUs, who want to be served by UUs, who want to hang out with UUs, to fit into what Eliot wanted to carefully manage as a tiny, elitist archetype. In a very real sense, the real reason to look at Universalist polity again is that Universalism has won the merger wars. More people nowadays identify with one of the Universalist theologies than with ANY of the Unitarian ones — if they even can separate the Socinians from the Arians from the pantheists. But the first time around, Universalism was also winning the theological competition: mainline religions, including Unitarianism, were dropping hell like hotcakes. So we need to remember that good theology did not, back in its heyday, overcome something terribly awkward and untenable in its polity.

Quick Notes on Lent and Facebook

Sometimes we know what we are supposed to do for Lent and sometimes God overrules our proposals. 

Like many, my thought was to give up Facebook, at least in the voluminous torrents I often enjoy. That didn’t last long. 

Instead, God has showed me how to follow these Facebook torrents into a deeper, richer life. Bear in mind, as a caregiver in an ice-encrusted freeze zone (that part of Vermont you see in the purple upper corner of your national weather map), Facebook has been my primary safe and reliable social realm for months now. So within the first week, I had signed back on, just because there was too much ice between my front door and my automobile.

And then, God opened the whole thing like a flower. Old friends who came back into my life via Facebook came up for visits. With one I attended a concert; with the other my beloved and I enjoyed an extended sleep-over. (Note to rookies: back when I lived in Boston, where there were more close-in options, people used to plan who to get snowed in with.) These visits, both with friends of more than three decades, acted more or less like fertilizing a scraggly plant.

But God does not plan for me only to enjoy this Lent, to pretend I need no real correction. Another long-ago co-religionist, not really a close friend, but a close co-worker, is using Lent to give up, and to lead others in giving up, personal plastics. And although I do not aspire to zero in this regard, just participating in this Facebook community has renewed some skills I put aside awhile ago. She’s got me schlepping my own containers and bags into the bulk department, instead of reaching for the easy roll-out. It takes time to mark a tare weight on each one, but once you do it, there it is. And setting the schlepp box on the counter means repacking the containers as soon as they’re empty and clean, rather than looking for them next time. This doesn’t just make me feel good. It makes me feel closer to someone who turns out to have been something more than a passing compatibility.

The sum total of this is more than any one relationship. My family culture tended toward what sociologists call “instrumental relationships.” That is, someone who is useful. Who is congenial in this particular task or pleasure. Facebook is helping me uncover all that snow, to find that some of what I supposed to be annuals were really perennials putting down roots.