General Assembly – From the Outside, and Not Able to Look In

June 26, 2011

I find myself outside and not quite able to look in this week.

Today is the final day of the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I had planned for a few weeks now to fill this blog space with my personal impressions of what I guessed was going to be a deluge of information through the Internet.  This once-a-year denomination-wide event would surely spur enough onsite coverage, mainstream news reports, and full-text versions of speeches that my difficulty would be in narrowing down what I wanted to reflect on and respond to.

I was therefore a little shocked and disappointed with the results of my googling.  Wednesday, the day GA opened, my news search results yielded only 6 results, four of which were from UUWorld.

It’s okay, I told myself. GA has just started, if a reporter were there it will obviously take a while for the article to be written and published.  So I checked back Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday.  Not until this morning did my Internet searching yield any significant results.

Perhaps I am being unfair with my definition of significant.  There was, the entire time, UU World’s event coverage and streaming video.  Unfortunately, my years-old computer is not quite able to handle streaming video.  I was rewarded by a minute or two of shaking footage of typical-UU-looking, white, middle-aged, folks wandering around an exhibit hall with the kind of audio my grandfather’s camcorder picked up when he was in a crowded room or a light breeze.  There were also plenty of blogs written by folks in attendance who were rapturous about the event: that they were amazed by the crowds and how important our faith was, how moving GA was, how they were blessed to witness… and I couldn’t quite understand what they were talking about because the writing I was able to find focused on their emotional reaction, rather than describing what they were reacting to.

So, there is the crux of my difficulty.  I am a Unitarian-Universalist in her early thirties who has always come from a family of limited means and almost non-existent time to travel.  Ours was never a choice of touring Europe or spending a week in Charlotte to get connected to our national faith organization.  Ours was the question of whether we could afford a week camping.  Ours was also the typical UU experience of members of a congregation that shuts down for the summer.  For late June through early September, church did not exist. Out-of-sight and out-of-mind for three months of the year.

So, I try to imagine what General Assembly must be like, and I can’t.  I try to understand my minister description of worshiping with thousands of Unitarian-Universalists together, and I lose her on the word worship.  I’m distracted by my question of how many in the assembly hall would describe what they were doing with the same phrase.  I suspect it’s fewer than half.

But what if almost all of those people lucky enough to go to GA do indeed feel the way my minister does about those heady things like “great spirit” “connecting power” and so forth?

Maybe my real fear isn’t that I will never be able to experience General Assembly.  Maybe what I truly worry about is that if I did, it would show me that I don’t really belong there.  Maybe it would be the final experience that proves I’m not really a Unitarian-Universalist after all.  Or at least, that my religion is not the same as those who call themselves Unitarian-Universalists.

A few weeks ago, I realized that part of why I couldn’t sit through services in my local congregation anymore is because I was consistently feeling like I was being told how to feel.  And, what I was being told I “must” see and was “absolutely universal experiences” just didn’t match what I saw and experienced. I thought that being a good Unitarian-Universalist meant allowing every individual to decide for themselves what the greater truths were, and that our individual beliefs and experiences were valid fodder for our faith. But, maybe my questioning humanism is so ill-matched to other individual’s definition of UUism, that it’s really me that’s deficient somehow.

Aside from what I want to classify as the spiritual reports from this event, which I know I will probably never understand, there is the few mainstream media reports, which focus on where our faith stands on politically polarizing issues.  These I can read and breathe a sigh of relief, for they affirm my self-definition of being a UU.

This morning, I found two brief news article from the Charlotte Observer.  The first reported “Liberal denomination stands up for its causes.”  It went on to give details of the march to the statehouse in support of same-sex marriage.  Another was titled “Imam: ‘Dream still alive’ for Islamic center”.  It described how our denomination has reached out to the Imam of the so-called “ground zero” mosque and invited him to speak about religious tolerance.

Yes, I think.  This is my church.  This is the faith I chose that demands equality for all who love, and who think listening to the other point of view is a sacred duty.

And, perhaps in a day or two, there will be more coverage of the Imam’s speech to this funny little denomination that is guided by seven principles that next to none of it’s members can recite.  Perhaps it will inspire more Unitarian-Universalists to put down Thoreau for the summer and spend some time with the Qur’an in order to truly understand what so many fear.  Perhaps we can fight our political battles for same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, and freedom of religion with the same religious fervor that those on the extreme right do.

But, then there’s the internal struggle I referred to earlier.  The fight that is not with other faiths or political agendas, but the fight for our spiritual homes.  Surprisingly, I’m not alone in being anxious over it.  The GA blog page (http://blogs.uuworld.org/ga/) includes Daniel Harper’s musing on music, in which he quotes UU composer Nick Page: “The huge epic battle” in Unitarian Universalism, said Page, “is between those want to feel something, and those who want to think.  And the other battle is liberal fundamentalism, where people believe that they are right, and everyone else is wrong.”  The blog went on to focus on liberal fundamentalism and music, perhaps because that first question of feeling and thinking was too frightening to consider for more than a moment.

So, there it is again.  The ahh… and the aha… the quieting and the questioning.

I wonder if the real struggle is that when we want to think, we more readily understand that others may not think the same.  But feelings are so bone deep, we are not as willing to accept it when others don’t share our feelings.  Or perhaps that feelings are so individual it is difficult for those like me to see feeling as a group activity – whether it is in a congregation of twenty or a GA hall of thousands.

If you tell me what you think, I feel invited in to your mind, whether I agree or not.  When you tell me how you feel, I can sympathize and understand, but if I do not feel the same we are separated by the barriers of our consciousness. It is more difficult to give each other the necessary space to feel differently, because our feelings are so important to us.  The great cliche UU’s like to repeat is that we need not think alike to love alike.

But, what about when we just don’t love alike?

Am I allowed to love as I do, with my analytical self, while you feel love is beyond thought?  Are these distinctions more polarizing than whether I believe in a Christian god and you believe in a pagan great spirit?  Can we hope to support same sex marriage and the Islamic center if we can’t agree on how we know our own souls – what paths lead us to what we know is right and wrong?

Perhaps if I were at GA I might have been able to track down Daniel Harper and explain how I enjoy his writing and ask him these kinds of questions. Or perhaps I would have gotten into a great conversation with someone in the convention hall which would crystalize some of these thoughts that are still not fully formed in my own mind.  Perhaps if I had been able to hear the Imam speech in person, or had walked through the rain in Charlotte promoting love and marriage equality I would have some clue as to what most of the bloggers about GA, as they describe their transcendence but not the details of the actual experience.

Perhaps if I were there, I would look as happy as Peter Morales did when he held up a hard copy of the Charlotte Observer with a photo of that rally on page one.  But I am here at my computer, in my little office.  My church is closed for the summer, and even if it were open, I don’t know how many members and friends would have the slightest idea or desire to know what is happening at GA.

And, with the help of my computer, I can see that it was only the Charlotte newspaper that covered our little rally.  Our national convention is a local interest story.  When I type ‘Unitarian Universalist’ into a google news search, this morning, I get 576 results.  Most of them aren’t about General Assembly.

And maybe I have to be analytical when I consider my religion.  Because if I allow myself to feel rather than think, I feel lost.


So Disturbing We Should Have a Picnic

June 18, 2011

Just a quick one this week.

Our weekend has been overbooked with travel and visiting with family, including the happy celebration of my cousin’s graduation from college. Graduations are always nostalgic, and since my extended family of aunts and cousins see each other very rarely, there is an added pressure to make this a picture-perfect reunion of sorts, which may mean some telling of old stories and smiling sadly about those who are no longer with us.

It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, My-So-Called Life. Claire Danes as Angela Chase explained why she didn’t want to be on the yearbook committee anymore: “It’s like, everybody’s in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting book.”

So it is with other events that we turn into backyard barbecues. We tell the funny stories about family members, and avoid eye contact when we unwillingly think of the heartbreaking ones. We ooh and ahh over pretty fireworks, putting aside the thoughts of the real explosions they commemorate that left thousands dead. Even the event of becoming a father, or having a father, is so wrought with pain and loss and confusion that we dare not even admit it to ourselves unconsciously, let alone put it down on a greeting card.

Change is painful. That old line about high school being the best years of your life, is of course completely untrue for anyone who actually became an adult. Even college, which is better, doesn’t compare to all that comes after.

However, they were the years that we were blessed with the blinders of limited experience. They were the years that we thought the biggest change lay ahead on a day that would be marked with black robes and pomp and circumstance, and in the end we’d get cake. Most of us didn’t realize that much more radical changes lay in the pre-morning hours of some unforeseen day that would bring our assumed reality to a shattering end. If only we could celebrate that, we might have a better chance of learning from them, as we try to learn from Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.

Meanwhile, churches are closing for the summer and we look forward to General Assembly.

For a story of change and the complex emotions that go with it that is particularly important in our heritage, I recommend the Unfulfilled Dream by David E. Bumbaugh, which was published in the last issue of UU World. As he described the moments after the merger which we “celebrate” as the beginning of Unitarian-Universalism: “When the moderator announced the result of the vote, I should have been among those who stood applauding. It was, after all, an outcome for which I had vigorously campaigned. Instead, I stood at the side of the hall, weeping. A great sadness swept over me as I witnessed the end of a separate history of Universalism in America. I felt that I had just voted away my only religious home.”

Try fitting that on a sheet cake.


Do you need church or are you needed at church?

June 12, 2011

I went back to my congregation this Sunday.

For the most part, it was out of an obligation not so much to the small church I am still a member of, but to the fifth of the seven principles of the Unitarian-Universalism, which I still covenant to affirm and promote on an individual basis.That is to say, I felt an obligation to play my part in the democratic process in the congregation that no longer feels at home to me.

There was a congregational vote and I couldn’t live with myself if I missed it, because I still care about the future of my church, I want it to be there for others as it was for me in hard times. And, I truly believe that committing to be a member of any democratic society isn’t measured by how much you pledge or pay in taxes, but how much you participate in that society. I know there are many ways I can’t participate, but I knew that I had to educate myself and vote if I wanted to be a part of the congregation in any way.

So, my husband and I timed our trip so that we were able to slip into the sanctuary just as the prelude was starting and save ourselves from whatever possibility there might have been of being asked why we hadn’t been around much. I promised myself that if I found the service hard to sit through I would grit my teeth and bare it, use whatever acting skills I possess to pretend to participate in the reverent atmosphere that the minister tried to create.

Luckily for me, it was an unusual Sunday in that there was so much going on there was little to no time for a “sermon.” We had new members joining and sharing a little bit of the stories of how they came to this faith. We had an unusually long time of sharing joys and concerns. We also had a short play from the religious education class, followed by a flower communion ceremony. All that busyness left little time for quite breaths or calling out names or being told what to feel, so it was easier for me to enjoy than the many services earlier in this church year that had led to my decision to stop attending most Sunday mornings.

I felt that it “worked,” and I had to ask myself what were the qualitative differences.

First, there was the variety of voices that took part in the service. The voices of the children as they spoke their parts in the script, often forgetting to speak slowly so they could be understood. The even younger voices of the babies in their parents arms as they squirmed. The calm and professional voices of the Board President and leader of the building committee who took us through the required vote after the chalice was extinguished. The tight voice of one member who will be leaving and shared her joy and concern on the verge of tears as she spoke of missing this community. The rambling of another who clearly hadn’t thought through what she wanted to say, but was sure it needed to be said in front of the congregation.

All these pieces resonated with me. They made me glad that I had dragged myself out of bed to be there to experience them. Not one of these voices told me how to feel or how to be. They only gave me a small window into another’s experience of the world.  They didn’t demand that my experience be the same. I could feel what I felt and not be awed by anything that didn’t strike me as particularly awesome. They only asked that I listen and witness, but I felt that they were grateful for the attention I could give.

Most joyful were the parts of the service was that it didn’t quite work in the predictable sense. For instance, the children’s play that proceeded despite prop malfunctions and the children themselves. They all either forgot when to speak or spoke to fast or got the giggles. When we are young enough, we know that a building can’t make you solemn. People looking at you can’t make you talk a certain way. It is only later that we start trying to contort our natural selves into expected shapes to fit the occasion.

Being told what you are and how you should be is, perhaps unfortunately, at the essence of all religion. We seek out organized faith’s answers to questions that we can’t puzzle out on our own. But I think we sometimes forget that most of us came to Unitarian-Universalism because we couldn’t live in the boxes of another faith. Why then, do we so often make the same mistake of trying to live in a new box, even if it seems a little closer to our shape? Why does a faith that promotes acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth ever make its members feel like they have to be a certain way or follow any script too closely?

Which brings me to another detail of this morning. During one of the new member’s talk of how she had discovered our congregation, she described being stranded with car trub. The gentlemen who found her by the side of the road to help was our now seven-years-retired minister. And, as she told her story, I felt that uneasy mix of anxiety and nostalgia. Anxiety because I have been told that I shouldn’t feel nostalgia. I lived through years of interim ministry and congregational changes since that minister decided to step down from the pulpit and over and over again the UUA’s advice was: don’t keep talking about the old minister, let him go, don’t compare, yadda yadda.

And, here years later was a story that not only perfectly represented why I loved that minister but also what he did for our congregation. Years later, we are still reaping the rewards of his association with the congregation by having people join who were originally introduced to us by him. I realize, of course, that our present minister also had a great deal to do with the now-members decision to join. But, that angst-filled time when I found myself moved by the story required me to look more deeply at my own feelings for the person I was told not to think about for so long. I was proud that we had been led by someone who would not only find it natural to stop and help someone with a dead alternator, but who had so many interesting things to say that he could attract someone he met casually to come to services and keep coming. I realized that the biggest difference between that minister and others I have witnessed is that he had the great gift of making you feel like he needed you (and by the extension the church he led needed you more than you needed it). His services never seemed to revolve around what you needed in the direct way. He never began with the assumption that he had something we were looking for, or that there was some magic ritual that would make the world right or bring inner peace to the monkey minds chattering in all of us. Instead, he laid bare his own questions and puzzled through what answers he could find in what I can only classify as the six sources of the living tradition. That is to say, a little bit of everything.

More than that, he had a gift for making people who entered the church feel like they were needed, even when, like myself, they were so much in need. I’m sure that meeting over a disabled car left my fellow congregant feeling like they could contribute something to a small community of spiritual seekers by learning more about the minister’s congregation – my congregation. That’s what made her come to a service rather than mailing a check to the church as a token of her thanks. She wasn’t left with the feeling that she needed to thank someone, she was left with the feeling that she was needed. That something was happening, but it wasn’t complete without her. That was my former minister’s greatest gift, though I didn’t realize it until now, since it’s so easy to assume his intellectual abilities and sermon-writing were his greatest tools. That’s what I’ve been missing from the church experience. I feel like I’ve been told too often since he left what I need, and the only time I felt needed was when my pledge card was mailed to me.

Somehow the perspective had changed from a community working together to a fee-for-service church: you need somewhere to go on Sunday mornings, here’s what it costs to keep the building up and the professionals paid – pay your part. Those Sunday morning experiences have felt hollow and unrewarding because they start with the assumption that I’m there to receive spirituality, when really I want to give. I realize I bear at least half the responsibility for that feeling, but the fact that it was different before makes me think there’s more to it than just me.

So, I’ve been blogging instead of going to church. I know I’m not really needed out here in cyberspace – there are plenty of other spiritual questioners out there. But I need myself. I need to meet the conditions I’ve set for this experiment. I need to come up with something to think about and write about. I’m needed in a small way, and the only one telling me what I need is myself.

Still not perfect, but better.

Meanwhile, my congregation is shut down until September, so for the summer at least, all of us are inconsequential.


Our Publicity Problem: Message or Media?

June 5, 2011

This week in Dublin, Ireland, the World Atheist Convention was held. In some ways a European counterpart to the upcoming UUA General Assembly, the event appears to have focused around the question: If one doesn’t believe in god, what does one believe in?

The answers, naturally, are not forthcoming in national headlines or from the attendees of the convention themselves. In fact, a Google search resulted in only one fairly factual blog about the event from Giles Frasier of UK’s The Guardian. It seems the debate that continues to rage is whether atheism is either optimistic or pessimistic regarding the nature of human kind, or whether even asking such questions is a betrayal of a faith based on lack of faith. Aside from the obvious connection that there are many atheist among the UU’s, I was sympathetic to those gathering in Ireland because the seem to have as much trouble with PR as we do. Mainly, because they’re not sure what their message is, and even if they could define what they are trying to accomplish, it’s uncertain whether anyone would listen.

When our historical forebears first raised the flags of Unitarian and Universalism, it was over a world defined by religion. Church and state were more tightly bond together than anyone could admit and the question of whether god existed was hardly debated. More so, the nature of that god and our own duty to Him was what was up for debate. It a word, it all boiled down to what does one do to keep oneself from going to the bad place after you die.

Many may argue with me, but I feel for the most part Thomas Jefferson’s 1822 prediction has come true:  “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”  Or, more to the point, there are very few people alive today who are not Universalists in the sense they feel a certainty that they, if not everyone else on the planet, is destined for the good place after they die.

Meanwhile there is the small faction that invested their life savings into spreading the message that May 22, 2011 was going to be the end of the world, and we should all accept Christ as our savior or face the consequences. This latest rapture prediction did not come to fruition, of course. Cue Michael Stipe of R.E.M.:

Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed dummy with the rapture and the revered and the right – right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

And speaking of vitriolic, we’ll see if even the desperate for any reason to attack liberals of any sort Fox News pays attention to our upcoming General Assembly. One reason they may: On June 24, Feisal Abdul Rauf will talk about “A Spark of Freedom in the Muslim World.” He’s the Sufi Muslim leader who’s chairing efforts to build Park51, an Islamic community center two blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. Since 1983, he’s been the imam of Masjid al-Farah, a mosque in New York City.

That’s right, the chair of the so-called ground zero mosque is scheduled to speak at the Unitarian-Universalists Association annual meeting. Should we prepare ourselves for finger-wagging and tongue lashings from the opinion-based news shows? Probably not, as I’m guessing they’ll have another pseudo-controversy to get themselves and their viewers up in arms about that week.

If you do a google news search for World Atheist Convention, you’ll be rewarded with 34 results as of this afternoon. If you search UUA General Assembly, you get five (two from UU World and two that have nothing to do with our denominational annual meeting). Pretty small measures of interest compared to the 4,560 results that come up when you search for Harold Camping, the man who convinced so many to put their life savings into his pr campaign to foretell the end of the world.

What does this tell us about the state of the media? About the state of our spiritual lives? About the state of our denomination? Perhaps just the fact that as many UU churches hold their end-of-year picnics and close their doors for the summer, a great percentage of people in the local communities won’t even notice they’re temporarily gone. Which makes me worry about what may keep them from being gone for good. So, why can’t we get a front page newspaper article portraying: “Heaven or no heaven, we’re all okay, and getting along despite theological differences.” Or, is the problem that so few feel we need a church to tell us that?

One thing seems certain, our national media attention can only be captured by the extreme and ridiculous.  So, maybe the fact that we’re not attracting much outside attention is indeed a good thing.

The other problem, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of attention on the important denominational issues on the agenda at General Assembly from the inside either.

Case in point: two years ago, before the election of our current president Peter Morales, I sat in at a board meeting at my congregation.  It was at that meeting that it was decided how our congregation would use its votes for the leader of our denomination.  I truly believe that only my minister and myself had read anything about Laurel Hallman or Peter Morales.  Instead, the president of the board asked for some information and my minister spent all of five minutes describing the two candidates’ platforms.  There was probably a few more minutes of discussion and then the board voted for how our congregation should vote.

Probably no more than ten minutes of half a dozen people listening to one person’s summary, and then the decision was made on behalf of the sixty-plus members of the congregation as to how they, and the rest of the member congregations of the Unitarian-Universalist Association should be led.  And we say we promote the principle of the right of conscience and use of the democratic process.  In my congregational Board’s defense, there were, of course, more important things to be discussed.  Like how to get new volunteers to help with refreshments at coffee hour.

Cue Michael Stipe again:

Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam book neck, right? Right.