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.

 

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Does Pentecost Have a Role in Unitarian Universalism?

Pentecost — all of us liturgical Christians know its meaning on the calendar.

But what does it mean to us Unitarian Universalist Christians who understand Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure… a rabbi, a role model, a prophet… anything except a risen Saviour?

For Trinitarian Christians, Pentecost stands as “the birthday of the church.” It marks the empowering arrival of a Holy Spirit among a finite group of apostles and friends. Fortified after ten days of devastation – the second devastation, for prior to Ascension they’d been seeing their executed friend in familiar places, doing his comforting things – this time the Apostles experienced the implanting of a formerly exterior power –a Holy Spirit. As if someone had clothed their feet in winged shoes, as if someone had wrapped their spines in solid steel, they ventured forth at last, ready to fulfill his mandate to go forth and baptize the world in his name.

Speaking for no Unitarian Universalist Christian except myself, I admit this year – after decades of trying to pretend – that nothing about that story works for me.  Entering my tenth year in a wonderful home – Vermont – which nevertheless is not the home of my heart – Cambridge and greater Boston, MA – I’ve finally got the words to express my Pentecost sadness.

When I was nine, my father got an excellent job in a different part of the country. It happens to a lot of people; this is the time of year we see relocation industry ads on tv. Your parents carefully hand you the toy your best friend gave you ten days earlier, when she swore she would love you forever. When her parents took her away for her own vacation.

She would return to familiar haunts, beloved places and people that you would not see again. There you sat in the back seat, clutching the toy and knowing it could never be enough. This is where a Unitarian Universalist Christian parts company with Partialist Trinitarian co-religionists.  The Holy Spirit for them is no mere replica, no image, no doll, no ethereal being.  For them it will make sacred the place they arrive, without which it lingers in danger of death eternal.  Not only will it find them friends, but open the eyes of those friends to what makes  a newcomer special, elevates her  even beyond all the friends they’ve had before. At least when they sit in the back seats of their Father’s car, that’s what they firmly believe.

My Unitarian Universalist theology has no part in that.  Believing in One God who lives everywhere and finds something worth saving in everyone, I come to the new scene with eyes not so much open as empty. Yes, we’re supposed to call it spiritual curiosity and rejoice that it broadens our being, but that’s not how it often feels to me.  Because why, if the new place is already sacred, if the new friends are already special, should I think we have anything to add? Not for Unitarianism the planting of churches, the preaching of good news. What is the value of our testimony—the testimony, anyway, that I came here to bring? If we come to hold up a gilded mirror, as so many deride us for doing, then why should we bother with Pentecost’s most basic mission, the founding of a church? Why should we offer support and nurture to folks already living someplace special?

After ten years in one of America’s most beautiful cities, I’ve come to learn that a new place that does not feel like home to me doesn’t even feel like home to everyone who already lives here. There is no heaven on earth, and for that reason, our gilded mirror, our open and empty eyes are just the good news  that many folks need, want, hunger, crave to receive. For the good news we bring – self-affirmation – has been denied to them despite their natural birth there.

Emerging adults need our support when they want to leave the ways and homes of their parents and grandparents to choose their own life partners.  Huge swaths of the planet deny this right not only to homosexuals, but also – maybe even more so — to heterosexuals. People cannot choose their parents, but lots of aspiring grandparents want to correct that lack of power in reverse. The world is full of parents and grandparents putting property rights and social status ahead of personal fulfillment for their own young.

Some otherwise happy families need our support as they fight to assert the value of personal and planetary health ahead of rigid economic and social structures built on unsustainable extraction.

Unexpected folks – every age, every gender, every location — need our open eyes and gilded mirror when inner energy drives them to produce new forms in music, of words, by movement, with paints and found materials.

And then are those who need our gilded mirror to fight a culture which despises or derides their very being.

It doesn’t help me much, this gilded mirror and open eyes, when first encountering some unfamiliar place and different people. Unfamiliar voices too often send me back to a corner, a book or movie that brings back memories of joy. Nothing is going to lead me anywhere. No one is going to hold me up, at least not for a long while. Maybe that’s why we’re such a performance-oriented religion: for some among us, the moment is always Pentecost, that empty, lonely interlude when nothing we can clutch or imagine will bring back the one place we’ve always called home.

 

 

 

Insults and Violence: A Scholar’s Analysis

The wife and I have been glued to the television this week, indeed this month, watching what were once civilizations degenerate into adolescent self-promotion networks. All I can say is that when Wayne LaPierre attempts to cloak extremisms of weaponry in Second Amendment altar cloths, he makes much less progress than do the insult-slingers who have monopolized our attention for an entire month, in the name of a sadly-embarrassed First Amendment. I neither agree nor disagree with the content of the movie called “The Interview,” nor with the little bit of Charlie Hebdo available to me. What pains me is that these two purveyors of insult and iconoclasm have been mistaken for art, for journalism.

Still, shoddy stuff gets published, printed, projected all the time, and as an ordained minister, there is no question that insult and iconoclasm push my buttons. Imagine, then, my relief, to discover, on C-Span, a scholar who dives into the cold, hard framework of communal identity-building to categorize various forms of insult that play a role in the process. Karina Korostelina comes from the Crimean Ukraine but now holds forth at George Mason University, in the field of International Relations. IR was my field before ministry, but never did I approach her analytic prowess.

So here’s the link to her 90-minute seminar at the Kennan Center at the Woodrow Wilson School. Her examples don’t mean that much to me, because she feels for the former Soviet Union in a way I have never tried to approach through study or friendship. Her questioners include challengers who disagree with her characterizations of certain disputes, which shows that they do not challenge her fundamental framework. She puts insult into six categories according to the needs of the insulter, and cautions — correctly in my view — that insult forms, shapes and can direct a dynamic relationship between two parties, groups, nations. In some cases, she says, insults can substitute for violence, but in too many, insults escalate –deliberately — the pace of impending violence. Her talk was taped on 17 December 2014, and refers to the Sony film, “The Interview,” which was, in that week, being suppressed by its corporate sponsors. But somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, the assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket were taking final form. Her book, her work, could not be more topical, more vital.

So, in the spirit of David Brooks, and other folks venturing cautiously to say, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” — and hastening to add that insults should not be capital crimes — I commend this scholar to you. Her new book appears to be coming soon, and she includes, in a portion of the book covered only briefly in the question-and-answer, a first attempt to distinguish between satire and insult. Being an academic tome, this book costs $50+ on Amazon. I hope that by calling attention to her work — not endorsing every word, but by offering her clear, comprehensive framework as a starting point — we can knock down its price and lift up our public conversation.

Happy New Year. Let’s see if we can correct its errant launch.

I would argue t…

I would argue that almost all of the internal developments within UUism, both in local congregations and as a larger institution are the expression of differing strategies for surviving the political and cultural wilderness.

I am writing this on the day of Barack Obama’s second Inauguration. His election confirms my suspicion that 2008 marked the end of the cultural hegemony of conservatism in the politics and culture of the US. Our wilderness days may be coming to an end.

It is time to consider new possibilities.”

Tom Schade in “The Lively Tradition.”

At The Lively Tradition, Tom Schade has been rocking the question of what lies ahead for Unitarian Universalism, if we have, in many ways, won some significant victories in making our vision more widespread and even incarnate in the world we inhabit and our offspring will inherit.

On his particular points, I have posted several comments, along with other valuable thinkers. My function here is to raise the question to which this blog is dedicated: “What is the best polity for us to achieve our fullest potential?” For if Tom is right, and our fullest potential has expanded so very much — a suspicion born out by all the talk about Free Range UUs and lapsed UUs, etc — then the question is not 9to use my old language as a military analyst)  “what are we here to deliver?” but “what is the best system or structure to deliver the payload we have chosen?”

I have come to believe that antiquated polity is the greatest danger to ourselves and to what we care about. Nor am I alone: the denomination is regionalizing, the Society for Community Ministers and UU Ministers Association have held talks about how to expand our vision and missions for ministry, and ministers with parishes are displaying websites that offer independent consulting or other services. Some folks conduct their ministries completely on line, and others are still making do with old-fashioned word-of-mouth connections and anchoring services such as books, classes, chaplaincies.

I believe we have a fundamental stumbling block, with an history of deliberate origins and therefore, an option for us to choose differently. I’ve been doing lots of scribbling at home to figure out how to talk about it.  There’s a role for history, there’s a role for debate. But Tom has achieved the fundamental first step: he has pointed out we stand at a moment of existential crisis, and asked us where we want to go from here.

Unpacking the “Free Range” Label

Well, we’ll see how long things live in the blogosphere, because after only a few hours I regretted posting intemperate remarks about the congregation I currently belong to. They are good people, and our interim minister is fantastic. It pains me that they would be hurt by what I wrote there.

But I did have a couple of points, so I’m gonna follow the lead of Patrick Murfin and try to focus on a theme here. For my starting place, here’s the part of that post I want to lift up:

“Free-Range UUs” is an attractive phrase (it attracted me), but from a ministerial and denominational level, it needs a little unpacking.

Genuine free-rangers just don’t resonate to weekly, even twice monthly, attendance at congregational worship. I number among those who believe there are other forms and times of ministry and community that could bring more of these folks closer.  Up here in Vermont, as the nights get longer and colder, farmers are starting to talk about where their free-range chickens are going to spend the winter: barns, coops, etc. Out in the drought and heat, large animals have limited their wanderings to convenient reach of the watering and feeding supplements. Our denomination needs to think like these farmers, and get more living water and daily bread out to where the animals want to wander.

Not to be confused with free-rangers are the folks taking fallow time to renew themselves, after tons of time teaching RE, chairing some committee, serving on the board.  I believe that this, too, is a neglected ministerial field.

And then there’s the group in which I put myself yesterday, the “pissed off.” Sometimes we’re just disappointed, but we’re alienated. The denomination’s current approach to this group is to just wait for it to go away. No standardized exit interviews, no workshops like the “Coming Home” series run by Roman Catholics. Either they come back or they don’t.

I haven’t read the whole bylaw change on virtual congregations, but they seem like a good idea. As someone who has spent the last two years finding spiritual community primarily on Facebook, I can testify that in the end, a computer isn’t enough. You start to want to see people, to hear their voices. Facebook friends now figure in my travel plans, and I hope my hospitality for those who want to cool off with a summer week in northern Vermont.

Which means that, in the end, there’s no substitute for ministering to the various groups currently sheltering under the “Free Range Label.”  And happily, there’s a survey asking “Free Range UUs” to take a few minutes to describe ourselves to the denomination. I hope Free-Rangers will do this. Our denomination is taking some courageous steps forward, away from what now turns out to have been the mistaken effort to redefine ourselves as only “an association of congregations.”  Both Unitarians and Universalists achieved their greatest growth and prestige in an era that made provisions for individual as well as communal covenanters.

I took the survey, even though I don’t really qualify as free range, because I pledge to a congregation and worship there regularly.  After all, two out of three types of free-rangers — the fallow and the disappointed — are sitting in our pews right now, trying to strategize an exit that isn’t a total severance of ties.

Applying the Lens of Congregational History to the UUA-UCC Meeting

One way UUA President Reverend Peter Morales explained his recent meeting with his UCC counterpart was by rightly noting their continuing presence with UUs in various social justice campaigns. The UCC caught a lot of UU attention with a television outreach campaign that welcomed same sex couples, and got censored in several major markets. They’ve also taken the most fundamental theological tenet of the Reformation “God is still speaking” and made it look, to our ignorant eyes, like some special form of religious progressivism. As a lover of the Reformation, and living in a same-sex couple, these are certainly good things.

But here at the local level, in 2012, we’d be sadly remiss in believing that the UCC is unique among Protestant faiths in either of these positions. I bowed for ashes last night at the local Episcopal Cathedral, where the homilist was a victor in the long, slow legal campaign for the right right to marry the man he loves. Just as we do at the UU congregation, they include on their order of service — even on Ash Wednesday — a reminder of what they’ve committed to provide for our local food shelf. When I went down to chaplain after a shooting at our Occupy Vermont-Burlington camp last autumn, my call came from a Lutheran Youth and Young Adult Minister serving a coalition of liberal Protestant congregations: Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian. As both our state mental hospital and prisons reach out for spiritual support in new locations, we get updates and plan responses in large part around our local interfaith clergy table.

Which brings us back to the question, in these hard but hopeful times: If God is still speaking, is the voice coming into each humble local heart and ear, to be shared by reaching out and reaching up — or is it being parsed out in scant, broad instructions, vouched safe to special leaders for us to carefully handle with the guidance of these leaders’ most trusted emissaries?

Local history teaches that there’s a bumper sticker truth for our religion as well as our society:

If the People Lead, The Leaders Will Follow.

And maybe that’s why the Association’s top levels don’t invest in lots of academically solid congregational histories: the evidence suggests liberal religions doesn’t really need with a Moses or a College of Cardinals. God is still speaking, and the Universalists were right: God speaks to everyone, with clarity, energy and an emphasis on local practical service to neighbors.

 

Rethinking the Post Office Mission

One of the most important papers I ever heard through the UU Historical Society had to do with Sallie Ellis of Cincinnati, who founded the Post Office Mission. This has usually been cited as the forerunner of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and that would not be wrong. CLF serves many folks who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot attend a local UU congregation. I will be eternally grateful to them for helping me, halfway around the world, link up with other UUs in Singapore in the days before the internet. Even though we only met twice, for the incredibly cautious purpose of discussing a book, in Singapore’s legendary censorship, even obtaining a book we could read intact was an accomplishment. It was the CLF, the old Post Office Mission, that gave this tiny haven to our quest for the right question.

But records in the Women’s Alliance archives in First UU Society of Burlington suggest a different dimension to this ministry, one of significance to the current discussion of “free range UUs.” As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth unfolded, the ladies of the Society helped their minister with pastoral care by reading and responding to hundreds of written communications seeking written responses to some query. They took this work seriously. It began under a minister who had no wife, continued when ministers had wives sharing their labors and then allowed the congregation to confidently call another minister who had no wife.

I didn’t see the letters themselves, which seem to have been disposed of, but I learned of their diverse nature when the Women’s Alliance presented a series of programs to help their members distinguish among the various types of pastoral correspondence. It may or may not be the earliest care network training I know of (I’m not a conclusive resource on this), but it remains one of the best.

You can read details when my book comes out (funded by that same Women’s Alliance), but the point  want to put out there is that the Post Office Mission did not compete with congregations, it supplemented them. So while I applaud the work of the Church of the Larger Fellowship for UUs without local gathering options, I hope the current movement to draw in more UUs via internet access will help invigorate our congregations and districts rather than building a two-tiered system of local and denominational relationships. The youth movement tried that in the late twentieth century, and it was not considered successful.