Good News, Bad News

It should have been a moment of joy, not of calculation. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and however much I do for her, she does as much or more for me.

So OF COURSE when she asked me to marry her the other night, I said yes.

That’s the good news: Lynne and I are engaged. Despite her Huntington’s Disease (she is about to enter her twelfth year of living with it since diagnosis) and our being both women, marriage is a real option in her mind.

But maybe, for me, not so much.

Not that I hesitate in making her my life partner, calling her “wife” to my “wife,” “spouse” to my “spouse.” For years now, I’ve been fantasizing more about what she would wear to our wedding than what I would wear. Would she put aside her deep aversion to jewelry and wear a ring that tells the world she’s mine? It’s almost as if I quit wearing any of my own rings until the day she puts one on my hand.

But, alas, financially, I can only do a non-legal blessing ceremony. Not because we’re both women, but because at low incomes, marriage gets heavily penalized.

I don’t often encourage UUs to study information from Sam Brownback, the socially conservative governor of Kansas, but he’s got my back on this one.  That was in 2008; the update on Obamacare is just as bleak. Small wonder that David Blankenhorn, long a pro-family activist, has abandoned the fight against marriage for same-sex couples like Lynne and me and begun asking how to support any couple, straight or gay, who wants to be married and poor.

Even the laughably left-wing state of Vermont, which is perfectly happy to let us get married with full equal rights, would then turn around and cut off the pay I get for staying home to take care of Lynne. What started out as equal rights has suddenly made me aware there are equal penalties.

These same penalties apply in Social Security and numerous other low-income supports. The Earned Income Tax Credit, the single largest redistributor of income into working poor households, is one of the worst offenders. If you thought America had long since accepted life without The Donna Reed Show, you haven’t been paying attention to these injustices, not based on gender, but on class.

So yes, do congratulate us, and celebrate our good fortune in so many ways. But if you really want to do something useful, to make this about more than just two women in a struggling once-middle-class household, put these injustices up next to your concerns about DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and devote yourself to any couple, straight or gay, who wants to get married — and simply can’t afford to.

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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.

Universalism: There Are Still Villages

Yesterday I had the great fun of doing a wedding for excellent First Universalist Church of Barre, Vermont (ministers please note, they’ll be in search this year or next).  Shawna and Daniel Badger — two of the world’s great people — and their two wonderful children already turning out well.

Of 183 people there, almost everyone had known each other for decades.  If they worked together, they had also gone to school together — not college, necessarily, but high school, elementary school.  The bride and her matron of honor have been best friends since age 2!  At dinner I sat with a couple who were no longer social with the same group — but they still lived on the same street, had worked with the groom, and amused themselves spotting people from the high school they had all attended together.  And nobody stood on ceremony.  The bridesmaid who was usually on the dance floor appointed herself to glide through the room and collect used salad plates so the Elks Hall staff could get the dinners out faster.  When the groom stopped by my  table, he passed along news of a new job opening which might interest my dinner mate — who said no, but he had a brother-in-law who might like to hear more.

What amazed me was the body language of the many babies and toddlers.  At my urban religious education jobs, I spent much serious time being sure everyone respected boundaries, touched carefully and with permission.  But here, any and every adult seemed happy to hold or dance with every child — who totally expected to be held by and danced with all around.  The babies could be seen eating, dancing or sleeping completely comfortably with anyone who held them.  These kids might not know the phrase “interdependent web,” but they are living it.

Yes, these village social circles can easily mask an abuser — which is why the  “Stranger danger” is such a dangerously wrong strategy for preventing child abuse.  But what struck me as I chatted with people over the rehearsal dinner (a huge backyard potluck and playfest) was that they have a culture which looks out both for trouble — and personal growth.   They were jocular about the new dent in somebody’s pick-up truck, but nobody drove away drunk from that picnic.  The bride teaches pre-school and knows how to organize a rehearsal when the minister fails to show up (missed a crucial turn and wound up in a different part of Vermont).  I chatted with a couple who have five kids under five in their blended family, and he couldn’t say enough good about his wife’s work running their home.   If anything appeared to bother any of these kids, this whole network appears ready and skilled to take an interest.

But no one is stuck in traditional roles.  My table partner also took a pay cut to work closer to home and now gets dinner every night while his wife commutes home from her job.  The matron of honor just had her fourth baby (first son), but her gift for participating in the wedding was a portable light backdrop for the photography business she’s planning.  One of the groomsmen is a Yankee fan, and he was given Yankee regalia, while members of Red Sox Nation got their preferred stuff.  The three year old carried the rings on a White Sox throw pillow, although no one can explain how he picked this team to admire.

Yes, these kids undoubtedly get “whuppins” and the dads hunt and fish.  But they also model helpful reliability, especially this groom.   The three-year-old son, who was totally having trouble with the whole big event until it was time to help his adorable one-year-old sister scatter the flowers.  At that point, he took her hand and began repeating, as best he could, the simple instructions they had been given.   This is the first groom who has asked me to dance (I evaded it) and when we said good-bye, the bills long paid and the license signed, he asked me when he should schedule the renewal of vows.  I was stunned, and muttered, “I’m sure you’ll renew them every day.”  No, he wanted an anniversary.  I gave him “Twenty-five.”  “So we’ll see you then,” he responded.  He has full freedom to choose — and this is his choice.

These are not “stereotypical” UUs, according to the culture we bemoan — and yet this is exactly how Universalism got started in our part of the country: thoughtful clans who respect traditional religion, except for its judgmentalism.  Yes, these kids undoubtedly get spanked, and the menfolk hunt and fish — but does that really rule them out of our faith?  Danny and Shawna chose a ceremony which was thoughtful and prayerful but Bible-free– despite the presence of Catholic relatives.    They handed out wildflower seeds for us to scatter next spring, as a prayer against breast cancer, for which the groom’s mom has been in treatment (clear blood test just before the wedding, I thank God to say).

So what do we lose when we let traditional Unitarianism — urban and suburban– form our sense of UU norm and history?  What if we spent more time trying to learn from, and live up to, the rural village origins of Northern New England Universalism… with their circuit riding ministers and eminently stable social ties?  As corporate America loses interest in taking care of the majority of us, I can’t help thinking this might be our best hope of universal salvation.

Re-Reading the Cambridge Platform

So here’s about the only heresy it is possible to utter in today’s Unitarian Universalist Association.  These words fly in the face of the only thing on which we officially self-described UUs have agreed to agree.  They contradict statements I have made for most of my professional life.

In fact, I cannot believe these words are leaving my computer to enter the larger world:

What if The Cambridge Platform no longer provides an adequate definition for liberal congregationalism?

Okay!  Okay! Don’t all scream at once!

How DOES the Cambridge Platform define a congregation?

“A congregational-church is, by the institution of Christ a part of the Militant-visible-church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united into one body, by a holy covenant, for the publick worship of God, & mutuall edification one of another, in the Fellowship of the Lord Iusus.”

Let’s not parse the old definition of “Militant-visible-church: and “saints by calling.” 

Let’s not even quibble over whether the Lord Iusus needs us to call his name or just shows up and sits in a back pew like so many other anonymous visitors that we are free to welcome or ignore.

 Let’s get straight to the mission statement:

“Publick worship of God & mutual edification one of another.”

Nope — I’m still happy with it.  Here’s why it still works for me:

Nowhere does this statement include a mandatory Sunday morning show-up for the saints.

Nowhere does this statement exclude people whose worship and mutual edification occur at irregular moments.

When I look at it, I see folks who want this connection at life’s major milestones, even if they haven’t used it for awhile.

When I talk with them — folks trying to arrange a memorial service or wedding after decades away from Sunday mornings, they don’t seem any less *religious* — meaning tied to a sense of tradition.

When I explore their relationships and ethics, they don’t seem any less *covenantal* — meaning seriously and reflectively connecting themselves to each other and to folks who have already so connected.

In other words, maybe our private relationships really can be enough for the Cambridge Platform.

I have a coworker who went through a tough divorce and near-fatal car crash.  She only made it with the devoted assistance of a close circle of friends.  In gratitude, now that she’s back in the mainstream, she is slowly bestowing a piece of major jewelry on each one of them.

So here’s the heresy.  It isn’t about the Cambridge Platform after all.  The issue is how the Puritan culture continues to hang on around it.

Maybe it’s time to separate the Cambridge Platform out from its UU worldly accretions — the weekly Sunday worship of the Roman Catholic mass, the corporation laws of Massachusetts — and see if there’s anything left to serve the liberal religious seekers who petition for our community-based ministerial services.

These seekers describe their faith in terms in which they immediately recognize our principles.

They trace their spiritual imagery through wider worlds they find affirmed in our sources.

Why does the UUA somehow continue to regard their covenants — the meals cooked while exhausted, the bills paid in boring jobs, the vacation destinations enjoyed because their loved ones wanted to see them — why are these evidences of covenant somehow inferior to the covenant of folks who return to our pews, chairs and classrooms, Sunday after Sunday?