It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

Today I did something I haven’t done for a year or more — I read the UU (Unitarian Universalist) World soon after it landed in our mailbox. I did not read it out of duty or professional commitment; for the first time in months, it beckoned my heart. Strange confession from someone officially categorized as a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, but an honest marker that perhaps my life has completed this latest circle at last.

Just over two years ago, as the sun marked its longest day in the northern hemisphere, I sat in front of an invited congregation and altered the very polity of my life. In short, I got married. Till that moment, polity changes were something I suggested, cajoled, imposed on others from an autonomous and somewhat superior detached position. From that moment on, polity changes rewrote my life so radically that for most of the time I wondered who I would be when the ride was over. for in taking the spouse my heart chose, I surrendered my life not only to her, but also to whatever her Huntington’s Disease would cast upon us together.

Marriage has been a wonderful polity advancement, except for this disease. She galloped up the aisle already in the grip of Stage Four, but with disciplined athleticism has pounded into every achievement physical therapy can offer. She doesn’t speak much these days, and not clearly when she does, but her mind and guts ring as strong as ever. Yesterday she reminded me that I had promised to take her to see the latest Star Trek movie in a theater. We spend lots of our time consuming news stories and listening to author talks and history lectures on C-Span, which ramps up my long ago international studies pursuits.

Pouring myself into her care, in order to continue enjoying her companionship, redirected the polity of my life into the community of people struggling with this and similar movement disorders/neurodegenerative diseases. For a long time, this diversion scared me. Could I retain my ties to UUism — especially without the means to attend Sunday worship (which I deeply, passionately miss)? If I spent so little time discussing UUism, imbibing its culture and habits, would it fall away from disuse?

Much to my amazement, UUism retained its ties to me. The Care Network checks on us regularly, and can be relied upon to keep her cheery and valued on the few occasions I tear myself away. Our contact visitor even came over and weeded one of our gardens one hot summer day, asking nothing in return! Meanwhile, a project I worked on years ago has become relevant again, and a small self-appointed subcommittee of the Women’s Alliance (my chosen small group ministry) has rallied to keep me either motivated or urged, while still respecting the challenges of the disease.

What completed that circle has been the addition of a marvelously self-reliant and highly-trained caregiver. My wife plans to stay at home for her entire journey with the disease, but having 34 hours a week of support and even replacement lets me get out of the same house. Mostly I just go into a separate part of it and read catalogs, watch Netflix documentaries and BBC murder mysteries. These I choose for their filming locations, and call them “scenery stories.” It turns out that lots of people do this, because you can go online and find out exactly where these places are, should you choose to visit. What I like is being able to visit them by going into another room, bringing my wife along, as it were, without leaving home.

But in this, our third year of marriage, when August brought its turn toward autumn and the back-to-school sales splashed over the screens, something familiar connected inside my circuits. Our Huntington’s Disease Support Association Walk takes place October 1, which means I have work to do in my new community. But there’s a Women’s Alliance meeting the first Wednesday of September, and this year, that feels like another place my new/old self belongs.

 

w

A Death in Summer

Last week a colleague I knew in seminary took her own life. She was younger than I, ministering steadily in stable congregations, but beyond that, I knew nothing of her life since graduation. Mostly, those who knew her are declining to speculate what might have happened, draping her death in the dignity it deserves.

My new wife and I are having a blissful first month of marriage (one month today), but my colleague’s death prompted me to reflect on what July has been at different stages of my life. As an elementary school child, I remember looking forward to summer vacation because school had not provided me with the hoped-for playmates. My family’s intellectual focus meant we did not — and do not — play well with others. We ask too many questions, most of them being, “Why?” But during long summers on our little foothill in Colorado we could indulge in all manner of history-based fantasies. We reenacted novels and movies, sang along with our mother at the rickety old basement piano. It is this epoch of life that my current newlywed July brings most to mind; it goes far to explain why Vermont felt so instantly like home.

Around ten years of age something inside flipped this formula of program-year agony, summer bliss. School got better that year, fourth grade, thanks to a caring teacher and a solid friend. When classes ended, my parents consented to my first self-initiated foray into the outside world: Vacation Bible School at a nearby Methodist church. Then we moved to a more congenial neighborhood and I began making friendships that sustained themselves twelve months a year.

After two years of this came magnet school. Once again, social isolation cloaked summers in pain and dread. Until I could drive (I hated bicycling, and it would not have supported my careful fashion statements anyway), the days dragged in hours of reading, listening to records. My father took us on long camping trips in places I treasure, but “roughing it” was never my style. Mostly I counted the days until I could reconnect with friends. It is instructive that on our camping trips,I would be looking as much at the other campers as at the scenery. What I remember most from those years is a night some strangers invited me to join them at their bonfire, and we laughed into the night.

The news of my colleague’s death, at the height of a beautiful summer, thrust me back into the longing, the dread, the agony of the decades when the waning of school and church opened into a dark season of loneliness. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I did my part in a strident group of UU Christian leaders who insisted on holding worship every Sunday in summer. We couched our commitment in theological terms, insisting that God does not take summers off. Many UUs heard it as liturgical arrogance, and on some occasions, I’m sure that’s what I intended. But the underlying purpose was pastoral. All summer long, there are people whose personal lives deplete rather than restore their hearts and souls. Economic and social dislocations often erupt in summer, as northern hemisphere families use the long, warm days to move house. Many of those moves are unhappy ones: divorces, job loss, house loss. These things might actually feel worse when flooded with sunshine, surrounded by flowers and green leaves.

In that long-ago Vacation Bible School, I learned to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a moment I needed a friend. For decades, that conviction was enough to console me in hours of loneliness, not because of the song, but because I could open one of my Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount and recover that blissful personal presence. The volunteer ladies who taught us, fed us, played piano to our scraggly singing. The minister whose own kids probably wished they were on a camping trip like the ones my father arranged. These are the sacrifices of faith that brought a real Jesus into my life.

Where were we, these emissaries of that Jesus and his community of healers, prophets, teachers, when our colleague needed someone for a summertime vacation? Where were we, these friends and classmates, when her soul hit its long, dark night on a bright summer day? My Facebook feed reminds me that UU clergy treasure our summers as “time away.” We need tp recharge our batteries and our families need our undivided attention. But with the oversupply of trained and credentialed clergy, with the difficulties of our downwardly mobile, planet-grieving social milieu, may her death call us outward, a second, deeper layer, ready to steady those whose pain increases when regular — rhythmic — life subsides.

(I notice I cannot bring myself yet to say her name; it is too painful to shift her identity away from the bright young woman I knew to the one she must have become. RIP.)

How Dandelions Changed My View of History

Image

When Unitarian Universalists sing our beloved hymn, “Spirit of Life,” one of the lines of its prayers is, “Roots, hold me close.”

And what we’re probably picturing is the shallow, wide-reaching structure known as “Grassroots.”Image  Note that the fibrous, or grass root, system spreads widely, equally, but also, fairly fairly close to the surfaces. Its new growth springs up pretty readily on a side-by-side basis. That explains why my recent lawn-recovery technique, of raking out all the old dead blades, leaving aerated soil bare to the sun, has resulted in fresh patches of cheery green.

Note, also, that this is completely different from a tap root. At first glance, of course, if you’re working at shallow depth, you can’t tell one from the other. But any lawn-keeper can tell you that pulling up a dandelion from just below the surface doesn’t work. Removing the branch roots is at best, temporary, and at worst, productive of new growth.

One of the first gardening jobs my father ever taught me was to get a pitchfork, or a taproot trowel, and dig them out, one by one, from way deep inside the earth.

Watching the news lately, as certain patterns of both oppression and response spring up from place to place all over the landscape, I got to looking past evil gardeners (the Koch brothers, the NRA) and asking if Aljazeera was showing me tap roots. They crawl along under ground, unseen, drinking from deep layers, and popping up where no one realized conditions might apply.

And the only conditions that apply is a soil, light, air, and water combination that suits this tap root.

What are the tap roots of our oppressions and responses?  My first thought was, “family systems.” Generation after generation doing what it learned as grandparents played with new babies.

And where did the grandparents learn it? Of that, I am not sure. But my guess is this: the original culture from which your grandparents issued. My fiancee and I get along so well in part because we both come from the Germans and Quakers of a certain part of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We don’t spend a lot of time explaining ourselves to each other, we just naturally tend to do the same thing. She loves the leaven of my English paternal line — but that, in itself, reflects a Germanic outgrowth.

So here’s my curiosity: where have German roots — the largest, and least discussed part of the US European mosaic — blossomed or poisoned (it depends on where you try to poke through) our regional patterns of behavior?

Lessons from Paul About Successful Branding

Personal note:

When people reference your response as an example of overreaction to a proposed change, and you are in covenant with those people, you pay attention. When people in this same covenant show you alternative views of the proposed change, you look it again through their eyes. These things I have done. As to someone who said of complainers like me that we are just angry not to have been consulted, I reiterate that that is the essence of the Radical Reformation: the leaders look for God by listening to the people. But yes, it is probably harder to listen to someone who yells at you.

That said, I woke up this morning with one of my favorite books of the Bible open before my sleep-encrusted eyes. Not a physical Bible. Some words that I treasure, read, preach from — and criticize — so often that apparently they pop up in my dreams:

Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Paul spent his life arguing about the image and form of a religion that was just arriving on its cultural landscape. One of the most amazing, and frankly cheering, developments in my lifetime is that Unitarian Universalism has now arrived on the national religious and cultural landscape. We have outlasted the better branded Unification Church, for which we used to be mistaken. Other liberal religions and interfaith-minded clergy include us without the long debates that mattered so much as recently as the 1980s. So, in effect, we are in the stage that Paul faced after the death of Jesus: a crisis of opportunity. Not “how shall we get started?” but, “which direction shall we go now?”

When liberal Christians talked about following “The Religion of Jesus,” they did not just mean, “not Islam” or “not Judaism,” they also meant, “not the religion of Paul.” But whatever you may think of him, Paul succeeded at what our denomination is trying to do: He stamped his brand on a religious movement in rapid ascent. That doesn’t mean he captured all of it, which was his intent. He did not win unquestioned adoration, either in his time or through the ages. Rather, he proclaimed some particulars that have stood the test of time. Some of his particulars were liberal, expansive, inclusive, and others were particular, judgmental, organizational.

Both sets of particulars have adherents today. We liberals spontaneously cite his sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:19-32) when we speak of the “unknown God within… in Whom we live and move and have our being.” Conservatives cite his admonitions placing men above women, particularly in marriage, and try to reconcile his claim that “women should keep silent in church” with his praising salutations to female church leaders of various congregations.

Now THAT is successful branding.

Romans is pretty much the place where Paul established the Cross (‘all have sinned and have no righteousness except through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”) as the preeminent symbol for Christianity. Even today, liberals who prefer Matthew 25 (“you fed me, you visited me in prison”) lift up the symbol of the double fish; you might find this in your congregation’s stained glass sermons. Thre’s a revival these days also of the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s empowering visits to humanity in times of need or crisis. Old Christian tombs also had IHS (“In Christ is Our Hope”) and that fish with IXOYE inside it (also means “In Christ is our hope” but in Greek).

This is what the fight is really about: not whether Unitarian Universalists have a symbol that matters to the small groups who know it, but whether we can establish a symbol that dominates the conversation about the things we believe.  At this moment, the United Church of Christ and even the Vatican are “on top” of liberal religious imagery, with “Christ is still speaking” and the simple garb and life-shaping liberation theology of Pope Francis I. In the political arena to which Unitarian Universalism aspires, we already have launched “Standing on the Side of Love” as our contender in their league.

So who is this new logo addressing? Is Standing on the Side of Love going to be phased out or retired? Is this new logo going to compete with SSOL within our own houses and ranks? I mean, I don’t like SSOL, but I do recognize it, and it does seem to be popular with everyone but me, so I applaud that much, at least.

Although it has not set the world on fire, the flaming chalice has engraved itself on UU congregational culture far more than I ever imagined would be possible. If our current leaders have Pauline aspirations, perhaps they see the flaming chalice as a comforting message for house churches.

Does that mean they are going to keep trying logos on us until they come up with something that works like a liberal “Sword of Constantine,” in James Carroll’s immortal title?

If so, let me be the first to clarify: the problem with Constantine’s  Christian vision wasn’t the logo — which Paul accelerated and Francis is  trying to refurbish — it was the authoritarianism.  When Marxism landed on the trash heap of history, it was because Lenin had made of it an authoritarianism.

So before our leaders march one step further, let’s be clear about two things:

1) When it comes to cultural transformation, we are already far more successful than my generation of UUs ever dreamed would be possible, and

2) We are succeeding by participating in mutually respectful coalitions, not by taking them over.

Which brings us back to the question that plagued Paul’s ministry until the end, the issue his successors have not resolved yet:

How do you nurture, connect, but still coordinate the house churches?

 

Captivities at Sixty — and Releases

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel…”

So far this Advent I haven’t been called to join formal worship, but this song — and the prophecies of Isaiah — ring strong in my heart and soul. My life, as I turn sixty, has so many worldly captivities, but my soul finds freedom at this rickety old computer, where I connect with kindred spirits on Facebook and blog rolls, where I read newspaper articles, even where I yesterday had a pleasant day managing recent photos. No, my body may be trapped by my partner’s illness, but my soul is rooted, a firm, strong tree lifting wider and wider branches to greet the snow.

So why was this phrase coming to me? The captivities that bother me are those that bothered Isaiah: the poor, the disabled, the encumbered, all suffering rejection from those whose assets — financial, physical, social — could make them whole. No, those whom God has given the means to provide completion have instead diverted these gifts into a system for grotesque self-fattening. I get angrier and angrier about this; I hope Isaiah is right.

But at sixty, I’m well aware that I cannot save the world. All I can do is turn my waning talents to strengthen my own group of assets toward the stewardship for which God intended them. At sixty, I have put aside the lifelong demon of curiosity. My next transition will not be a new career, a new home, but, as this one has been, to deeper zones of soul, higher zones of relationship. 

The tree, in other words, has finally found its patch of ground. My crown will reach up to higher suns, but my roots with thirst or thrive with their current ground. That ground might not be physical, but rather, the family, the friends, even the congregations and cultures, that turn out to have been my succor these closing decades already.

So last year’s experimental abandonment of The New Yorker and The New York Times were failures; nothing replaced them, despite my good faith efforts to graft and fertilize. My research and writing will stick with polity, history, civil religion, and Unitarian Universalism. My centerpiece remains Christianity, although my branches have spread far past it now.

It is telling that when I sat down to plan the spiritual and social observances of this season, which for me now begins with Canadian Thanksgiving and reaches to Epiphany’s opened light, I could see themes for the first month — friendships — and the second one — closing the garden and changing over the fall clothes to deep winter warmers. And then I stopped. What comes next?

It was a Homer Simpson moment. Doh! 

That third month is December. Its focus is Advent.

And so, despite so many and eclectic faith sources, the trunk declares its species. 

The leaves trust in the warmth beyond the snow. We will all be free.