Why Would God Kill a Good Religion?

Once again, the number of official Unitarian Universalists has declined.   As the Board of Trustees shrinks its mission (congregations only), I wonder whether I even belong here myself.  Most of my spiritual life comes not through a congregation but through several Formerly Affiliated Independent Associations.   As a community-based minister, I tend to do a lot of overflow services — the weddings and memorial services for people who suddenly find themselves called to us, not for congregational covenant, but for a major event that needs open-minded, faith-and-ethics-based pastoring, for a moment along their journey.

This would be true no matter where I lived; it’s not a Vermont thing any more.  I read the New York Times Ceremonies and Weddings pages every Sunday to see whose officiating, and Universal Life ministers, “friends designated for the day,” “rabbi who is also an uncle of the bride” are winners, hands-down.  Young adulthood is not a settled life phase anymore, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.

This abandonment of the new young adulthood is a major reason our religion is dying off.  We are reaching out instead to the poor, the imigrant, the imprisoned, because they are in one place, in a long-term situation, conducive to congregational connection.  But the verdict is in: this will not build our faith community.  Once these people get into the same peripatetic search for meaning in life, they become as irrelevant and inconvenient as our own young adults — in a sense, regardless of age, young adults at last —  and they, too, disappear from our lives.

And yet, my weekend is filled with an ancient function of our Unitarian Universalist faith — uniting in marriage a Jew and a Roman Catholic who want to start a new life together combining the best of both faiths, examined through the lens of their life experiences.  The clergy they wanted wouldn’t touch it.  For me, it was a transformative invitation — to study more deeply Jewish marriage theology and ritual, to rejoice in the Unity Candle next to the Ketubah as I officiate.  And their first real connection with our faith was that they got to see and approve the whole ceremony text in advance, selecting writings and naming particular priorities.  That is our hallmark –to seek and give voice to the authentic spirit of the worshipper, as they bow before that which they allow to be larger than themselves.

God is killing what our religion has become, not what it was in its prime.  It was, itself, a young adult — wandering from place to place, carrying only its search for meaning and its educational enthusiasm for gaining supportive skills.  It was poor in possessions, but it did not care.  It wrote and preached and sang with an ageless enthusiasm, drawing freely from all it encountered, and asking only to have no door shut behind it too soon.

Scott Wells, at http://www.boyinthebands.com, pondered long ago the value of the Master of Divinity for those who would lead our faith in service.   At the moment, I can’t help noticing that the religions which are dying off — the mainline Protestants — are those who use the M. Div. for preparing and credentialing their clergy.   It’s a wonder to read how the exploding evangelical faiths educate their clergy through networks, basic texts, hands-on mentoring ladders — all the stuff we did until the early twentieth century.   I suspect they maintain clearer boundaries between Continuing Education in Skills of Ministry, and Continuing Education to revive the minister’s sense of purpose or enthusiasm for this life.  They focus on numbers, yes, but they also add clergy much more quickly for specialized functions.  These adjunct clergy were a major casualty of the recession, but I do not doubt they will be back as soon as the megachurches can afford them.

I find my faith being revived outside the congregational setting this fall, in ways too numerous to mention.  There is a congregation in my life — and there will be more — but as a community-based minister, I cannot make myself too available to it.  We have our terms of relationship, we have our purposes for each other — more like merchants than spouses.   This, too, is a killer of our faith, for they only have access to my Formerly Affiliated Faith Life in highly defined ways.

I have ideas of what we can do… but that’s for another time.  Right now, I can only comment that God is killing this religion — this way of being bound together — but never has the Spirit of this Faith Process been in better health.

A Good 9-11 This Time

So good does still come from evil — and patriotism, in the best sense of the word, is what we got.  Thanks to an egotistical leader of “a microscopic cult of idiots,” leaders from all sides of the political aisles spent the week fulminating against burning someone else’s scripture.  Media figures shone their spotlights on this evil, that it might wither, as evil does best, under the glare.   Non-Muslims have made a point of opening their own Q’rans, and finding readings they can use in this morning’s worship.  Liberal religious scripture societies are offering Q’rans alongside Bibles, for sale or distribution.  One in five of us Americans might believe that our president is a Muslim, but our real grievance seems to be that he’s not doing enough for the economy.   How long has it been since I have heard so much talk about the real American way, the way of tolerance and leaving each other to worship in peace and freedom?  Utopian dreamers will argue that there is still dissent against that Islamic Center going up near Ground Zero — but that is not the majority view now, and in the long run, theocracy-based opposition will not best the First Amendment.

As if to underscore the nature of this core value, President Obama praised his precedessor by name for making similar statements even as the World Trade Center and Pentagon burned and fell.  And what of that shadow in the earth of Shanksville, PA, where the heroic passengers of United 93 took down their own plane, rather than crash passively into one of the nation’s most hallowed shrines of democracy (White House or Capitol, either one irreplaceable in their symbolism)?  To avoid stealing the spotlight, or making a statement that could be construed as political, George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama dispatched their more-popular-than-their-husbands wives to make a joint appearance of praise and thanksgiving.  Wives: symbols of home and love.  Mothers: symbols of nurture and comfort.  Women: symbols of peace and justice.

It is fashionable on the far left to scorn patriotism as a shell, a hollow loyalty.  This week, nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Village, Unitarianism Style

Foster napping in the heat

Foster did not like being confined.

Well, it can’t be called pure Unitarianism, because despite their name, the First UU Society of Burlington has actually been Universalist in affiliation as well as Unitarian since 1867.   Universalist culture thus plays a big role in its culture.  But I ask myself, as I say hello to neighbors, is this a religion, or is it Vermont?  Because Vermont has made a commitment to preserving the kind of social assets that too many cities and towns lost or rejected in the mid 20th century.  We avidly maintain traditional neighborhoods, historic architecture, multiple transportation options, highlighted by a walkable Burlington

This month, I learned more about why we do this.  Our neighborhood has several stray cats, as well as other cats who live with their families but get to go outdoors.  The cat people know who is who, and one of them even trapped and removed the most aggressive stray.

So when I got curious about one especially friendly stray — and yes, I know he looks exactly like the cat I lost last year! — a lively conversation developed, both on Front Porch Forum and in person.  He turned out to roam a wide territory, on which several households — including me — were feeding him.   But if you left your door open, he’d come in immediately.  Turns out he had been living like this more than a year, including through the Vermont winter last year.  Lynne and I volunteered to take him to the Humane Society, to see if he could land a forever home.

But that was July and the heat broke nicely for most of the month.  I decided to give him more freedom, at least for awhile.  But two weeks ago, he showed up with a lame leg.  So we took him to the hospital, where both he and his leg were fixed.  He passed a few health screens, and life changed dramatically.  We brought him home and set him up in a cage in the garage.   As it got hotter, I let him out of his cage,to stretch his legs in that one room.  As we went in and out of the garage to care for him — or, in the heat, sat in front of its open door in our lawn chairs, keeping him in his preserve — people stopped to see how he was doing.   How we were doing.  To chat about the other strays and wanderers.  To cheer us on and thank us for taking care of him.

All this support and friendliness got me wondering about my constant call for a more connected pastoral network within our congregations.  Was it true, as people told me, that your main networks come from your kids, your neighborhood, the interest group you see once a week for bridge or to demonstrate against the wars?

But then, one of our neighbors distinguished herself.  We had mentioned our financial outlay to various people, especially the condo society across the street, who really wanted to get rid of this little home invader — but it was a co-religionist up the street who actually opened her wallet.  We know her because we have all, at various times, worked together on UU staff, making us, in effect, a small group ministry together.  We are not the same theology, but we share a commitment to — and gratitude for — the Society.  We were just talking as she walked by, when she took out forty bucks and put it in our hands.

This, I decided, is why religion still matters: when someone asks for help in a neighborhood project, it matters what stories we tell ourselves about the request.  The condo people were said to hate having this stray wandering in and out, but in the end, they seem to have just wanted someone else to solve the problem.  Our UU neighbors, on the other hand, immediately recognized that my roommate and I were taking on an unassigned challenge in the midst of our own busy lives.   To them, we are not “other people;”  our problems are not “someone else’s misfortunes.”

Most of all, our efforts to assist one little animal, right or wrong, was to them a living witness of the faith we share.  They joined us in choosing to participate, not just formally, in the pledge drive and Sunday morning show-up, but deeply, generously, spontaneously.  They agreed with the story we had told ourselves, when we extended ourselves to help one little stray cat move closer to his dream of a forever home.

Ministers are learning more and more about the importance of telling stories in bringing faith alive.  We have always listened to them as a way to help people feel better about their lives.  But this month I learned that these stories then give back to the faith, live after the unburdening moment.  They form that great cloud of witnesses by which we somehow define ourselves.  Emerson said, “As we associate, so we are.”  That cat introduced me to a lot of wonderful new neighbors — but he also deepened my gratitude that I have a religious community.