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. 

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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.