The Real Problem We Face This Easter

April 24, 2011

Easter.  A day that would strike a little fear in my heart every year that I had to lead a service on this particular Sunday.  It never seemed to fail that no matter how small or large the congregation, we would be visited on Easter Sunday by someone who had decided “to give church a try today.”  As with any time a new comer entered a UU church, they came with expectations that would almost certainly be dispelled by the time they either left the building shaking their heads or they were smiling over a cup of coffee talking to their new friends about this amazing faith that did not preach that God had to die in order for mankind to be saved.

But, perhaps the greater difference between Unitarian-Universalists and more mainstream Christian denominations isn’t that you’re highly unlikely to hear a passion sermon on Easter, but that you’re likely to be just as surprised by what you hear the second time you decide to give our services a try.  Even though most ministers do tend to preach a similar message week after week, it takes more than one eye-opening experiences to “get it” about what any of our churches, or our larger denomination is trying to accomplish.

Perhaps that’s why our faith is in so much trouble.  We are trying to grow in a society where the attention spanning is waning.  We are trying to define ourselves in a society that can’t focus on factual evidence enough to have a reasonable and intellectual debate about who our next president should be.  Is it any wonder that those looking for a church experience are hoping for simple answers or familiar stories they can relate to?

Try getting a Unitarian-Universalist to answer any of these questions, and you’ll likely get be rewarded with an off-the-cuff joke or a response so convoluted you won’t know whether to laugh or cry:
What is God like?
What do you need to do to go to heaven?
What makes someone “good”?

Meanwhile, according to Time Magazine, there has been an interesting development on the other side of the American religious landscape.  This week’s cover story asked the question that first divided our Universalist forebearers from their Christian brethren: “What if there’s no Hell?”  The article’s author, Jon Meacham, highlights Rob Bell, a pastor whose book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” has conservative Christians in an uproar.  I will disclose up-front that I’ve only read Time’s article, and cannot therefore offer a review of Pastor Bell’s book.  But, it sound like one that is definitely worth reading.  I was heartened that there is a voice preaching about a truly all-loving god that is getting some national attention.

But, I was disheartened that Bell was met with such harsh criticism by those who still believe a child who dies before being baptized will be punished by the Creator they chose to worship. And, on a more selfish level, I was dismayed that an article that described such theological questions as universal salvation and traced the history of “the church’s” relationship with hell did not once mention Universalists or Unitarians.  I kept waiting for the merest mention of John Murray’s arrival to our shores, or even an aside about the UUA.  But, there was nothing.  I can only gather that the author felt the context of evangelicals was so assumed, he did not need to mention that there are others who believe god is good and would not punish any human for choosing one religion over another.

I applaud Pastor Bell for challenging his own denomination’s rigidity, but I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if this apparently smart, well-spoken, and challenging pastor had started in our faith.  Would he be getting any attention at all for these “radical ideas”?  Or, is our current fate Pastor Bell’s future?  After his time on the cover of national magazines and the best-seller lists for his book, will he too will fade into a relative oblivion, either within his current denomination or without?

All this makes me question the assumption I made before the election of our current UUA president.  While comparing candidates Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales, I came to the conclusion that I wanted the UUA president to be an organizational leader, not a religious leader.  After all, we count on the individuals and congregations and ministers for spiritual guidance.  What we need from the national organization is support when things go wrong within those congregations, for communication and educational tools between the various churches and regions of the country, and for public relations to show the broader world what we are all about.

Is that the only way for a denomination to get any attention these days to either: a. ensconce itself in a divisive political debate, or b. engage in an all-out fight within our own ranks to redefine ourselves?

Option a has been done, of course, but it only seemed to get people outside our denomination to notice for a little while.  I, personally, was proud of the job Rev. Sinkford had done on this regard. I was especially proud when Rev. Sinkford appeared in photographs with the first same-sex couples to be legally married in Massachusetts. And, it had the perhaps negative side-affect of making religious UU synonymous with political liberal.  Even if statistically our members do lean to the left, this label can scare away potential new members and doesn’t do much to help us spiritually.  It gives us some basic guidelines on how to live our lives (which explains why UU’s seem to be identified by their choice of hybrid vehicles and organic food stores), but doesn’t tell us anything about why we should make those choices.

Does that mean we have to resort to option b?  Do we need a minister to write a best-selling book, with a message outside the ranks of UUism to get us all fired up and willing to say what it is we do or do not believe?  If so, that minister would have to be willing to offend some people, maybe even members of his or her own congregation.  He or she would also have to be meticulously clear about their message, and be willing to stand behind their own convictions and beliefs.  They’d have to be willing and able to say, “I’m right about this, listen to me.”

In other words, they’d have to be decisive and divisive.  I’ve yet to meet a Unitarian-Universalist who is willing to do this without adding the umbrella caveat apology “Of course, you are free to believe whatever you want to believe.  That’s what makes our faith so special.”  Is that the real problem?

After hundreds of years believing that all people are good, do we no longer have the ability to tell someone they’re wrong?


In Search of a Little Human Touch – Pass the Peace

April 17, 2011

So, I started this blog to help me remember my spiritual side.  As a substitute for the experience of actually going to church, I decided to send my words out into the abyss of cyberspace because I know I need something, though I’m still not sure what that is.

This week, I asked myself when I felt I had “it.”  I tried to bring back one memory of feeling spiritual, or connected, or whole.  I tried to come up with a memory of when I felt religion worked.  Oddly enough, I kept coming back to one of my earliest religious memories.  It is a memory of another faith I have almost written off completely: ritual in the Catholic church.  I remembered being a little girl and attending Mass with my grandparents.

Catholics can do somethings right.

Like most children, I saw attending Mass as a tedious exercises that one suffered through in order to be rewarded.  Usually the reward was a trip to the family’s favorite restaurant for Saturday night dinner.  So, I would sit as still as I could while the priest’s words went over my head – literally and figuratively, since at the time I could barely see over the wooden pew in front of me.  I would sit through what seemed like hours of talking, broken up by times where you had to stand, or kneel.  I would do my best not to fidget when the adults that accompanied me took turns getting in line to take communion.

If anyone had bothered to explain to me why the adults squeezed past me to stand before the man in the long white robes and take those little white things with their hands or open mouths, I would have thought it was ridiculous, even then.  Why would anyone want to eat God?  Eating the cheese pizza or spaghetti at the Chateau made a lot more spiritual sense, even then.

But there was one part of the Mass that I could participate in.  Years after I left Catholicism, it was something that I still found joy in when I would occasionally accompany my grandmother to church so that she wouldn’t have to be alone.  It was that magical time when the fourth wall was broken.  All of a sudden the church wasn’t just numerous congregants facing the priest, who was himself not really supposed to be looking at us, but looking toward God for us.  It would start when he would bestow his best blessing on all of us: “peace be with you.”

And then the real magic would begin.  My grandmother who for the rest of the mass was focused on making me sit still and do nothing would take my hand in her iron grip and bend down to kiss me, saying “Peace be with you,” and I would response with I my line: “And also with you.” And the game would start, the bubble of voices would raise up to the great ceiling as those two simple phrases were repeated over and over from every corner of the congregation.

I used to challenge myself to see how much peace I could gather.  First, with each member of my family that were within the same row, then turning backward to as many strangers as I could reach in the pew behind me.  They would keep to shaking hands, of course, but somehow my grandmothers kiss seemed to flow from my lips as I said either the passwords or counter sign.  “Peace be with you,” “And also with you.” again and again.  Sometimes when I turned back toward the front of the church I would find others still sharing peace with my grandparents, and they would shake my little hand and bend down to say the magic words to me, as if I couldn’t hear, or if it mattered whether they heard my little girl’s voice giving peace to them. And if you got through those people within reach and there were still the sound of peace sharing in the air, you could participate in the beautiful dance of sharing peace through eye contact and reading lips and head nodding across the pews. The cacophony of all those simple blessings were at once dischordant and perfect harmony.

It was the best three minutes of the week.

Is there still some magic to be gathered from those memories?  Or is there a lesson in that experience that I might still apply to my spiritual life today?

On the one hand, the fact that this is my happiest memory from my Catholic past tells me that I really was a Universalist all along.  It was when we the lowly sinners blessed ourselves that I felt holy, not when the authority figure in the pulpit told us what we should think and what we should feel.  And, perhaps I would not have had such an emotional reaction if the words were different.  We were promising each other peace, not holiness or forgiveness, or some special status of being god’s chosen people.

Though there are a million different definitions for peace, the one that always seemed to be in play during those moments was simply this:  acceptance of who you are and every other being in the world.  Peace be with you didn’t mean some foreign substance entering your soul, or that your life be free of violence or strife.  It meant innerpeace.  That even when things went horribly wrong, you may be able to access that inner spark in yourself that would give you hope.  And when you don’t have the strength to find that on your own, perhaps the best way is to long into another human’s eyes and have them tell you that it is still with you.

I miss that experience.  And, through all my wanderings of UU churches, I have not found anything quite like it.  Occasionally you may share a conversation with someone at coffee hour that connects you to a particular individual.  Or, your congregation may be blessed with a particularly special person who can serve as greeter and make you feel truly welcome as you pass through the vestibule before services.  I’ve never felt peace pass through me and rebounding from every corner of a UU sanctuary.

Perhaps it is a symptom of our first principle.  We focus so much on the individual that we have lost the ability to lose ourselves in a communal ritual like that.  Or, we’re too intellectualized to offer peace to one another without dissecting it to analyze the meaning of the word.  Like tearing apart a poem or dissecting a frog: we’ve lost the ability to just let peace be.  Or we’re just too diverse, with too many different ways of showing our desire to bestow peace upon each other.  It’s not the same if person a wants to share her peace via modern dance and person b would rather say the Lord’s prayer.  Maybe we do need to rely on a formulaic script to create real art of our religion.

Or, perhaps, Catholics can offer peace and forgiveness to each other in a way that Unitarian-Universalists can’t because they still believe in sin.  That religion has no problem telling people that there is evil, that we aren’t all just inherently good.  They believe there are things you must do in order to be closer to God.    On the other hand, most UU’s say that all people are good.  Does that give us too little incentive to be better?  Does that make us hesitant to bestow peace or blessing upon each other because we are afraid to offend others with the implication that they do not already have peace?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.  But I do know there is not enough peace in the world.  I know that even a young girl can bestow a small bit of peace on a stranger.  And I know passing peace on is a worthy activity.

Peace be with you.

What do we really need to be saved?

April 10, 2011

I keep thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago with a coworker of another faith.  She shared with me that her mother still sent a weekly pledge to her synagogue, despite the fact that she had not attended for years.  I at first thought it must be a story about a little old lady who could no longer drive, or who had moved far away from her “home” of worship, but wanted to stay connected, so sent her checks dutifully as a sign of her commitment to that particular place and the people who run it.
But no.  This was an unfortunately all too familiar story of a congregation that had its trust broken when it was discovered that their spiritual leader was guilty of abuse.  I didn’t ask about the specifics, nor are they really what is important.  What has stayed with me about her story was my friends description of her mother’s thought process.  She shared that there was nothing that the synagogue could do for her anymore, so alienated had she become, yet she felt she had to give what she could so that the building could remain open to others.  She could not face the reality that even an imperfect institution might not be there when a lost spiritual traveler went looking for it.  In short, she believed that her synagogue could provide a spiritual service for others, and that she bore part of the responsibility to make sure that it would.

Compare that to the dozens of times I’ve heard someone of my own faith say, “If the new minister doesn’t write good sermons, I’m withdrawing my membership.” “I’ll give money to this special project, but why should I give to the UUA?”  “I give to other charities, why does the church need my money?”

What does a UU church do that other charitable organizations can’t?  We do not offer a route to eternal life after death.  We do not offer forgiveness of sins.  We don’t even offer answers to life’s great mysteries, such as how the earth was created.  At least, we don’t offer easy, definitive answers.  Can someone truly be “saved” by Unitarian-Universalism?

The fact that I am sitting here in the sunshine of an April afternoon is proof that our faith can save a soul.  This theology saw me through my life’s darkest moments.  It was through studying the words of great Unitarian thinkers that I was able to find faith in humanity and my own life after stumbling through years of living without really knowing what I was living for.  I was lucky enough to join a congregation with a brilliant minister whose sermons pushed me to connect to my own life and the rest of the world after locking all those things away as a teenager.

So, yes, I believe this faith can save a person, even without the promise of heaven or easy routes to spiritual peace.

But, do I believe my story is one of the power of Unitarian-Universalism, or is the larger faith a red herring in the real story of two individuals, i.e.: myself and my minister?  In other words, if I had met the person who helped heal me, as well as his friends, the members of my congregation who also supported me in their individual ways, through a non-denominational group, such as AA or a post-traumatic stress support group, would my story have turned out much differently?
For that matter, is there any part of me that believes the congregation I joined could save someone else in the future?  The minister who helped me has since moved on, and, as I shared in an earlier blog, I no longer feel I “get anything” out of attending Sunday services.  Do I allow myself to imagine another human soul wandering through their life and somehow entering the same little historic building only to find exactly what they needed?  Or, am I too selfish to think that others could find something I couldn’t at this congregation?

Part of growing up is realizing how many different kinds of people there are in the world.  And part of the promise of our faith is that we need not think alike to love alike. There are such a diverse mix of clergy and congregations out there, yet all of them follow our principles in the best way they know how. So, yes, I believe our congregations should remain open so that others may find the light and peace that I once found.
We need our churches so that there is a place for searchers to find us.  We need the volunteers and clergy and lay staff to keep those doors open for others to walk through.  And they need us, but what can we do?
What if the choice of whether to write a check is complicated by other factors besides whether you plan to attend services at your congregation or not?  Even if you, like my friend’s mother, decide that supporting your congregation is something you need to do, how does it fall in line with your other needs?
What can we do, if the choices we face is whether to write your pledge check or whether to pay the heating bill or buy groceries?  Or, beyond that extreme, what if the choice is to forgo buying the organic, fair trade food that our principles suggest we should buy, or to scrape those pennies together, saving by purchasing factory farm meats and sweat-shop clothes, so that those savings can go into preserving your congregation?  Is the hypothetical soul that might be saved in your church building more important than the removed, but no less real worker who is mistreated to produce cheap goods, or the environment that is polluted in the name of high yield corn production?
In order to really give, you must sacrifice.  It may be some little luxury you’ve come to think of as a necessity.  Or, it may be your pride, or your sense of righteousness.  Which is more difficult, do you think?

In Defense of Congregational Life – Theory #1

April 3, 2011

So why do any of us go to church anyway? Statistical evidence that points to the conclusion that organized religion is a concept that has outworn its usefulness. It doesn’t take much digging around the web to find studies “proving” fewer Americans attend church services regularly or belong to a congregation of any denomination. The best-selling books on theology are split between tomes promising hope in the form of one religion or another and those by authors who claim that faith in god, and perhaps faith in anything, is something we as a species are starting to outgrow.
I’ve never been good at macro-level thinking. I have a deep distrust in market research and statistics, partly because I’ve spent some time working in those fields. And, to be fair, for every statistic about religion declining, there is another that “proves” it is a strong as ever, or growing. So, I can only rely on my own experience, supplemented by those who have managed to get their thoughts on the matter recorded for posterity. One of the most oft-quoted promises from Unitarian minister and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson is:
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming”
My own life has proven this again and again. Just when I think I don’t believe in anything, something happens, whether it be a death of a loved one, a national-level tragedy, or the scent of Spring on a still chill breeze over unmelted snow. And I feel it inside myself, the need to worship, whatever that means.
But, do we need church to worship? Even Emerson admitted that this need is something that occurs within the individual. And, eventually he retired from preaching. Who knows how he felt about his congregation, or organized religion at that point?
Why do we need buildings, governances, pledge drives, congregations of peers and/or clergy to lead us if this worship is inevitably stirring within us?
I used to feel that I NEEDED church. I felt off-balance or like I was floating through rather than living my life if I didn’t have the experience of sitting in a pew with like-minded individuals at regular intervals. The common summer-recess for the Unitarian-Universalist congregations proved just how much I needed these experiences. By September, I felt so empty that participating in a water gathering service was like touching my lips to something cool and wet after months of walking, lost and parched across a barren desert. It didn’t matter whether I had come to resent all of it by the previous June. Church life gave me something that I couldn’t find in any other facet of my life.
But what was it? And where did it disappear to? When did it disappear? I only have theories, and the perhaps silly hope that if I could make a strong conclusion about what I needed from church, I could “save” the faith that once saved me. Every time I try to grasp it, all the noise of other searches enters my head, and I think: “this is close to the answer, but no, not quite.”

Theory #One: The purpose of religion is to remind us of our connections to all that is outside of ourselves: human, natural, and supernatural. Congregations are a stepping stone to that goal, because at their best, they connect us to other people in a positive way.
Every facet of congregational life should work toward this goal: to remind us we are not alone. The sermon may focus on a question we have ourselves pondered, or connect us to the speaker’s own questions that may have never occurred to us. As UU’s, it’s not about having all the same answers, but having a somewhat equal respect for the process of questioning. It’s the search that is important, not the conclusion. We may all come to different answers through different means, but it gives us strength to keep on looking for answers, and not give up hope that there is a point to life.

Congregations and the individual members of congregations should perform good works to help those who need help.  They should be witness to social injustice.  They should feed the hungry and care for the sick in all forms.  Congregations should do all of this on a scale that is unachievable for an individual.  We as members should be stronger through our association with the congregation.  We should all be greater together than the sum of our social and spiritual parts.
This has a downside, because once you start looking at what needs your congregations efforts, you can get overwhelmed by all that is not right with the earth. If you can learn to believe that we are all in this together, its impossible to ignore another’s suffering. It’s at that point, when all you can comprehend is the savage way we abuse nature and our fellow human beings, that you have to fight the urge to just break the connection, to let go of all the pain you see in yourself and others.
You might say to yourself“There is no God, there is no point. We should just try our damnedest to escape the pain and not worry about the consequences.” You might give up on your fellow UU’s because you feel they are not living the principles, that they’re all filthy hypocrites. You become Holden Caulfield, wandering amongst phonies who believe they’re better than the unchurched or other churched because they drink fair-trade coffee with organic half-and-half. You see yourself as a phony for thinking you were ever any better than any of them, or even any better than a caveman shivering in fear at a shaman who promises there’s an evil spirit trapped in that cave.
All you want is to be disconnected from all of it. You want the opposite of what I theorize is the goal of religion.
You need something to believe in. But will your church give it to you? If not, what will?
Perhaps the answer will come to me in another blog.