UUA: Association of Congregations or UU: Religious Movement

January 28, 2012

When can you say you are a Unitarian-Universalist? The UU blogosphere has been buzzing over that question, in part spurred by a blog post by UUA President Peter Morales which he titled Congregations and Beyond. In his essay, Rev Morales points to some statistics which show that many more people consider themselves to be Unitarian Universalists than the UUA counts as members of a particular congregation. He hypothesizes on the reasons for that fact, and also what we may do to minister to keep our faith vibrant outside of the traditional parish model.

Just one blogger to respond to this post was Christine Robinson, whose writing I’ve admired for some time. Rev Robinson shares some statistics showing that less and less people in each successive generation since WWII have chosen to actually join a congregation – UU or otherwise. The figures she quotes show that the percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation has changed over this time “From 3% to 26%…and rising.”

Others have come away from Rev. Morales’ statements with the conclusion that “you can’t be a UU if you don’t belong to a congregation.” I’m not sure where they’re getting this from the essay I read, and am not convinced he ever said anything of the kind. But the truth is that the UUA counts members of individual congregations and the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is open to all who don’t have a “local congregation.” From those fact, I suppose you could argue that membership in a congregation is the only way to be counted as a UU.

So what does that mean? Is Unitarian-Universalism, and all religion headed toward a certain demise since less people are interested in joining a congregation or claiming a religious affiliation? Or, is the definition of religion changing? Does belonging to a faith mean something different today than showing up at a certain building at a certain time each week and giving a certain amount of your time, energy and money to the organization that keeps that building?

By the way, you know all those great posters and T-shirts they sell at the UUA bookstore online, or at conferences? The one that lists famous Unitarians and Universalists? It doesn’t take much digging to find a name on that list of someone who would not fit the definition that some ascribe to what makes a “real UU”:

  • Albert Schweitzer – He accepted an invitation to become a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, but remained committed to his Lutheran faith.
  • Susan B. Anthony – raised a Quaker, for a time attended a Unitarian Church, and later moved beyond organized religion entirely.

There have been at least three times that I felt like I did not belong to a congregation, but I still considered myself a Unitarian-Universalist:

When I was seventeen. I had taken a part-time job which involved working after school, and often Sunday mornings. I didn’t have time to attend services. But, in truth, I wasn’t that upset about it because I had always felt pressured in that congregation to do things other than what I wanted. I wanted to listen to insightful sermons and perhaps work on some social justice programs. The ruling thought was that as a seventeen year old, I belonged crammed into a small church office with others of around my age talking about drugs, violence in the media, sexuality, and whatever other topic was “important to us.”

When I was twenty. I stopped attending services once again because I had begun to feel like I had begun to feel very unwelcome in the congregation I was attending. There were many reasons for this, but mostly it was because every time I had a conversation with another parish member, they would ask about my family or my boyfriend. When I tried to talk about my life or my theology, they would change the subject. Besides that, as a college student, I didn’t have the time or financial resources to give every time it was asked. The leaders of the church made an effort to assure me that it was okay, but individual members would walk over to me and remind me that everyone else was paying, and so should I.

Recently, when I was thirty. The small parish that I belonged to no longer felt like home, for a variety of reasons. The sermons no longer resonated. The congregation and leadership became involved in a necessary building project which unfortunately left little room for other types of building: spiritual or community. And, I had financial setback that meant I couldn’t pledge. After several conversations, I realized that I was doing more harm than good by showing up on Sunday morning, so I stopped.

The point I want to make her is that in between those times I was much more involved in congregational life. I can see the point that some are making when they say you need to belong to a congregation to be a UU. But, I also see the complete falsehood of that statement. I am no less a UU now than I was when I served on the Board of my congregation, or when I was a lay leader giving sermons every other week.

Why? Because my spiritual belief are still what guide every decision I make: from what to wear to breakfast, to whether I will take a vacation day to spend on the beach or attend Town Meeting. If I were to become famous, eventually my name would appear on a UU T-shirt.


The Tragedy of Entitlement

January 21, 2012

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a person? More and more, I’m convinced that the worst thing that can happen is for a person to believe that bad things happening entitle them to more than others.

It’s perhaps a natural instinct in all of us – unavoidable for our souls to desire help when we fall on bad times.  We want our lives, and especially the tragic moments of our lives, to have meaning. That’s why “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is still a best seller.  It’s why the story of Job in the Old Testament is still puzzled over by those who want to believe in a compassionate higher power. But, just because it’s natural to hope for help, doesn’t mean its good to think its owed to you.

It used to be that we asked ourselves “why me?” when tragedy struck.  Now it seems the question is “what can I get out of this?”  I know I’ve even been victim of this way of thinking.  When I recognize it, I try to change the direction of my thoughts. Personally, I see that as a major problem for anyone who desires to grow as a compassionate human being, and especially harmful for a society that might encourage that point of view.

Does our society encourage it?  Well, consider TV shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”  That show started from a well-meaning concept.  Roll the big fancy TV bus into a town, chose a family that’s had some hard times, and make their lives easier by making their home more livable. And, rather than just put them back on their feet, the show could up their rating and the “oohh” “ahh” factor by giving these forsaken folks a home even better than the one they had before.

There have been plenty of articles written about that particular show, which I realize is old news now.  My point is, it’s a large-scale example of a dangerous feeling that can exist in any soul.

Eastern philosophy teaches that karma may result in you being punished for something in your past – whether it was this life or another.  It’s not a far philosophical jump to then say something bad happening to us cleans our slate, or perhaps even earns us something good happening.  Or maybe that’s just a typically misconstrued western-interpretation of karma.

Here are two stories that weren’t broadcast on national television.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many cities saw an influx of people who had been rendered homeless by that tragedy of nature. Even a faraway small town in the northern state of Vermont had folks looking to resettle and rebuild. Coincidentally, the small apartment above my husband and my home was vacant, and one of the applicants was a woman who until recently had called the Crescent City her home.

When she told us this, we naturally had sympathy for her.  That sympathy may have even affected our decision to rent to her over another candidate, even if our better instincts told us she might not be a long-term renter since she had no roots in our area.  However, it quickly became apparent that she expected a little more than a bump on her application.  She not-so-casually brought up stories of other “refugees” who had been given the first month’s free rent and had their security waived because of what they went through. When we asked about her possible references and housing history, she didn’t provide names of people who could vouch for her as a good tenant, she named family and friends that could tell us more about the horrible experience she had gone through.

What this woman didn’t realize is that my father and his family had also lost their home and almost all of their possessions to Katrina.  Perhaps if I hadn’t had their example of quiet gratitude rather than hands-out expectation, I would have treated her as I’m sure she expected to be treated.

What was particularly irritating was that she seemed to be completely ignoring the fact that by our giving her free rent or furniture, or so on, we’d be making sacrifices.  There wasn’t a tone of “I would be so grateful if you would help me,” and definitely not “I will find a way to make it up to you,” it was “I’ve paid my dues by living through a hurricane, someone’s got to pay up, and you’re standing in front of me, so it might as well be you.”  She saw us as potential benefactors, as soulless as a TV corporation.  She didn’t care enough to even consider the fact that we would have troubles of our own, because what could our troubles be compared to hers.

That’s the problem. We’ve stopped having sympathy and compassion for another, and instead it becomes a mathematical type of equation to determine who gets to be the center of the pity party, and who gets the booty.  We don’t see each other as neighbors who should help each other out because of a sense of community.  We see each other as competitors in a good or bad luck lottery, and everybody’s got to put into the kitty because those are the rules.

There are a few other, more recent examples I am tempted to share, but I’m honestly afraid to.  I know it’s not nice to kick someone when they’re down.  And pointing out negative behavior in someone who is having a hard time does feel like kicking them while their down. Unfortunately, negative behavior has negative consequences.  Just ask any of the people who’ve lost their homes after ABC left town.

A Tale of Two Confessions

January 14, 2012

I started my life as a Catholic.  Aside from the fact that I don’t agree with most of the doctrines they teach, there were two events that proved I didn’t belong to that faith:  my first and my last Confession.

The concept of telling someone that you’d done something wrong and asking for their forgiveness was a novelty when it was introduced to me in CCD class.  I was blessed with a very loving and fairly permissive family and was somewhat of a teachers pet in school. I remember that my Sunday school teacher struggled a bit with the pre-Confession talk about sin.  She didn’t seem comfortable referring to us as bad or tainted by sin, but obviously needed to make the idea of being made clean understandable and desirable. So, she explained the kind of things we might want to have blotted from our soul’s record:

Maybe you were mean to your sibling.  No good for me, as I was being raised as an only child.

Maybe you cheated at school.  Not a chance.  The biggest problems my teacher’s had with me was getting me to play at recess instead of finding a quiet corner of the playground where I could stick my nose in a book.

Maybe you stole something. Well…

It’s been over 20 years since that First Confession, and this is the first time I’ve admitted this, but… There was one time in a convenience store when I noticed a package of “Bonkers” candy that had been ripped open.  That brand has long been defunct, but it was basically a Starburst with two different flavors on a single piece.  I had seen the commercials and was suckered like many a child who watched the Trix Rabbit into thinking that a sugar-laded substance could bring me to a higher place.  I knew my mother would never buy me the candy, and I rationalized that the store couldn’t sell it ripped anyway.  So, I took one of the pieces that was about to fall on the floor and ate it.

I was instantly guilty about it and even tried to confess to my mother in a round about way.  “I feel bonked out,” I said to her on the car ride home, echoing the tag line of the commercial that had led me astray by giving into temptation.

I had hoped she would instantly understand that I had a piece of that brand of candy and demand to know how I had gotten it.  Instead she said, “What are you talking about?”

That was probably two years before my CCD class was preparing to clean our souls, and I still would occasionally lie awake at night, guilt ridden over my pilferage.

So, you’d think that I’d jump at the chance to be forgiven, right?

Nope.  When I found myself face to face with the “good” priest – even at age eight we knew which of the Father’s in our church was the forgiving one and which was more the fire and brimstone fan – I chickened out.  I wasn’t afraid of god punishing me.  I just couldn’t handle the possibility that an adult would be disappointed in me.  No amount of prayers would ever take that away.  Perhaps I didn’t care or didn’t believe that God already knew my sin; it was much more important to me that no human did.

So, eventually I had to find a way to forgive myself.  If I could go back in time and speak as an adult to that anxious little girl with such low self-esteem, I would tell her that the action was bad, but she was not.  I’d try to find a way to let her know that it was okay to not be perfect, but the way to get closer would be to make up for what she had done.  I would encouraged her to do chores to earn money to pay the convenience store for the candy.  Or, if they wouldn’t take it, buy some food for the local food kitchen.  I would tell her that it’s okay to mess up ever now and then, and it’s even okay to be afraid to admit it when you do, but what makes you a good person is admitting when you mess up and putting in a good effort to be better.

Would the priest I gave my Confession to have said as much to me?  Probably.  But, he might have thrown in more about the fact that God loves me and forgives me even when I did bad.  That probably would have been the main point of his message, and the making up for my crime would have been secondary.  I’d likely have missed the part about penance beyond prayers because I’d be trying to get my head around who God was and how his forgiveness worked.  I’d have been too confused by that part to hear the message that would have made a difference to me.

Which brings me to my last Confession.  It was a few years later, and it may have been the only other time I pulled back the curtain to that little room with the expectation that I would unburden my soul.  What I went to confess then was that I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore.  I can’t remember exactly what the response was, but the priest did his best to be reassuring that God would find me, and if I prayed it might be easier.

The Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s didn’t work.  A few months after that, my mother and I went to local Unitarian-Universalist church for the first time.  As I’ve shared in other blogs, that first visit didn’t go particularly smoothly, but it was the first time I didn’t feel like I was missing something that everyone else could see, hear, or feel.  No one there claimed to know with certainty the presences of an-all powerful God, so I felt less angst about not being able to find Him myself.

There were no Confessionals, either.  Over time I would come to understand that forgiveness was for everyone, and if prayers didn’t work for you, that didn’t mean anything was wrong with you.

It’s much easier for me to believe in human compassion and forgiveness as something that comes from within yourself and others.  It didn’t need to come from heaven through a special middle man. Forgiveness from god still doesn’t work as I’m not sure god exists and if there’s such thing as an all-knowing higher power, where does his/her/it responsibility for my actions end, and why do I need to ask for forgiveness – doesn’t love mean never having to say your sorry?  And if he/she/it isn’t all loving and forgiving, then I don’t really want to worship him/her/it anyway.

However, I realize that there is something I miss about the ritual of Confession.  It isn’t the idea that the sins can be washed away.  It’s the reinforcement that we should act like we’re absolved, even if we don’t truly believe it.  C.S. Lewis once wrote that acting as if he loved his fellow man helped him actually love his fellow man.  Perhaps acting like I am forgiven would make it easier to forgive myself – for that stolen Bonker and for any other little sin that weighs on my soul.

I don’t know if I’ve sinned against Unitarian-Universalism, but I’m obviously struggling with feeling like I am good enough to belong in church. My soul still craves a path to take to reach forgiveness.  I need a task to feel I have earned it. I’m just not sure what that task would be or who to ask for it.

New Year – New Homes? New Challenges

January 8, 2012

So the holidays and my vacation are over.  Though it was thankfully a short first week back, I’m now facing months of the usual grind ahead of me:  40 hours at one job and about 12 at the other, plus all that “work” that I have myself and not a boss to answer to: keeping the house passably clean, acquiring groceries and turning them into meals, writing to keep myself reasonably spiritually centered, paying bills, and oh yeah, looking ahead to finding a new place to live.

Last week our landlords visited the U.S. and visited with us to let us know that their planned 3-year stay in China is going to be cut short.  So, come June, they’ll be moving back to the house we’re renting from them and my husband and I will need to be somewhere else.

When I bought my first home, my uncle shared some sage words as he was helping me shlep my stuff into the new place. His comment as he carried the last box from his pick-up over my threshold:  “This is why you buy a house – so you don’t have to move.”  It’s been eight years since then, and I have moved twice.  So, according to the statistics the “experts” like to quote about why home-ownership may be an antiquated notion, I’m right in the mean.  My husband and I have both changed jobs in that time, which of course went hand-in-hand with having to find a roof to put over our heads reasonably close to where we try to earn our bread.

Have I mentioned I hate moving?  I hate change in general, but change to my home is excruciating.  I feel like I just got used the various creaks and groans of the plumbing and heating in our latest rented space, so I don’t jolt awake in the middle of the night when the furnace kicks on.  I know we have way too much stuff, but I can’t think of a thing that we could put into boxes and not have to pull out in the next week or two.  We have a lot of stuff, but we use it.

And then there’s that nagging question of what to do with the home we still own.  Given the nightmares we’ve had with trying to “hold on to it,” all logic says to cut our losses and run.  But then there’s the illogical side of me that thinks it wouldn’t be so bad if we had to commute over an hour each way (in good weather).  There’s the running soundtrack of It’s a Wonderful Life that goes through my head, as I hear Jimmy Stewart extol the benefits of home-owners,

Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You…you said…What’d you say just a minute ago?…Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”

Meanwhile, our congregation will soon be moving back into the historic building that has undergone much needed renovations.  It would be a good chance for us to try attending again – a fresh start on many levels.  But, the problem with trying to make a fresh start in an old place are that there are so many reminders of what you’re trying to leave in the past.

And I know that I haven’t done enough work to get past the feelings that I just no longer belong at the church I called home. I still feel don’t belong because I can’t get comfortable with the spirit talk and meditative direction of services that is just as uncomfortable for me as an angry patriarchial god whose dogma states I am not a good person.  And, even if I could get past that larger hurdle, there’s still the problem that we can’t afford to give the kind of money we’ve been asked to.  Especially now that we have to start saving again for moving expenses and have no way of knowing what our next rent will be, or if we’ll be filling the gas in our car every day just to get to our jobs.

I guess the larger problem is that I don’t feel I can bring these concerns, or any of the others about how I feel about the world, into my congregation.  I feel I can only go and pretend that I have no worries.  I must pretend that being in a pretty room with pretty organ music is all I need to feel centered again.  Do that for an hour a week, pay my fee, and maybe I can have access to the parts of the congregation that still are positive for me: my friends in the congregation and the (very) occassional social justice project that involves more than writing a check.

And, I can’t do it. I can’t stifle the longing for more.  I can’t stop thinking about the first time I talked about my religion with my husband (then just my friend).  I told him there was never a moment in my life when I didn’t feel like a UU.  I stopped attending services when I realized that I didn’t feel like a UU for the hour + I was in that building on Sunday mornings.  Now, I’m starting to feel like a spiritual fraud with no faith to claim whenever I’m asked about my faith.

I realize I can’t even write in this blog all the reasons why I’m not attending church services.  I may have to write off-line to get it out of my system.

New Year’s – Blogging Like No One’s Reading

January 2, 2012

The few weeks of using recycled material gave me some time to think about why I want to blog, rather than what I want to blog about.  It was a nice break, and even more useful for me to consider my abysmal statistics.  I certainly can’t fool myself into thinking that I’m blogging in order to share great wisdom with the world.

So, why am I blogging, rather than just keeping an off-line journal?  Do I want to continue writing about Unitarian-Universalism?  If not, where does that leave the estranged relationship I now have with my chosen faith?

The months of writing this blog have cemented a few truths in my mind.  Things that I already knew, but it was good to be reminded of:

  1.  I am a Unitarian-Universalist.  Even if I never again find a congregation I feel at home in.  Even if Peter Morales himself were to write me a personal letter asking me to stop trashing the faith and that I have no claim to it (which of course I’m a 100% certain would never happen.)  Even if the UUA were to rewrite all the principles and ask for anyone who wanted to belong to the faith to sign a credo I would never agree to.  I am a UU. It’s history grounds me and for all it’s ambiguity and flaws of its current practice, I know that the aspirations of this faith are my own aspirations for myself as a person and for the world as a whole.  Nothing would make this fact untrue.
  2. There are some things about belonging to a church that I can’t recreate while sitting in front of a computer with a cup of coffee for an hour or two once a week.  I can’t duplicate the feeling of connection to something larger than myself – I guess because I don’t feel connected online, which is linguistically ironic.  I have no hope of doing good on a scale that a small group of committed people can do together.
  3. Nothing moves or motivates me spiritually like stories – whether that means telling my own or listening to someone else’s.

I’m still deciding what to do about #1 and #2, but the third lends itself to pointing me in a clearer direction for this blog, and perhaps even a broader spiritual practice for the coming year.  Call it a resolution, if you wish.

I will pay greater spiritual attention to the stories I encounter in the week.  It may mean seeking out the stories from writer’s I admire on a religious basis.  It may mean taking greater care to capture the stories of my own life and wrangle them into words.  The blogs I’ve best most proud of so far have been little episodic vignettes from my life.  These have also been the easiest to write.

So, with that resolution in mind, I want to describe how my husband and I spent our New Year’s.  It probably has nothing to do with Unitarianism in the broader sense, but I feel I need to stop looking for the broad and start paying a little more attention to the small and the immediate.

I’m not a fan of crowds or pomp and circumstance, so New Year’s Eve hasn’t ever been a holiday I look forward to.  I’d much rather fall asleep before ten in the quiet and warmth of my own home than be showered with confetti in a great crowd somewhere like Times Square (shudder).  So, it was an act of love for my husband that we planned a trip to another fairly large city to ring in 2012.  I agreed that we could go to First Night in Boston, not entirely but in large part because the great soul singer Mavis Staples was going to be part of the festivities there.

This would of course required planning.  I had been to First Night as a teenager and learned that although it sounds amazing to be have dozens of acts to chose from, if you don’t make those choices ahead of time and pay close attention to where you need to be when, you’ll spend the night wandering around the crowded streets, which is fun in a way, but you don’t need to buy a button for it.

I’m not a good planner.  In fact, plan is the dirtiest of four-letter-words in my vocabulary.  Most often for me, the definition of plan is: (verb) to think things are going to work in a way they will definitely not work, thereby creating a headache.  

Fortunately, however, my husband is very strategically minded, and forced me to narrow down the events I was most interested in from the little booklet we received in mid-December when we ordered our tickets online.  He also made sure that I sent a message to some friends who still live in Boston asking if they would join us.

Many things went “wrong” on this trip:  we initially planned on saving some money by crashing at our friends place, but a few days before ended up getting a hotel room instead.  The restaurant I had chosen and planned our schedule around while drooling over the online menu ended up not being open for dinner on New Year’s.  The subway tickets we purchased after planning our routes, counting the number of rides we would need, mostly went unused, therefore wasting more money.  The midnight fireworks we waited for turned out to have been scheduled for 9:30 pm, when we were in an entirely different part of the city.

But, then, many things went right. Beginning with our decision to just walk away from the House of Blues, which was black, cold, and absolutely lacking the scent of the barbeque we’d been hoping for.  That walk through the unseasonably mild night gave me a chance to point out some of the places I remembered and share stories that wouldn’t have otherwise come to mind.

Though we had no particular dinner destination in mind, and knew that options were probably getting slim as the evening got later, we ended up getting the last table without a wait at a Pizzaria Uno’s.  This particular location turned out to serve the original style of deep-dish with a buttery, pastry like crust that I hadn’t had in years thanks to the homogenization of the chain.  My husband had never had pizza like it, which led to more conversations about our various gastronomical travels.  Food is one of our favorite topics of conversation, yet we haven’t run out of things to say about even the subcategory of pizza.

We got lost on our way to finding the comedy Improv show we wanted, somehow walking through a back door I’m sure we weren’t supposed to.  As we tried to figure out where we were and why there were so many chairs in the warehouse-like room we found ourselves in, we noticed the stage on one side of the hall and about a hundred or so people walking agressively toward those chairs.  “Do you think this is it?” I asked, then pulled my husband into a seat without waiting for his reply.  As we settled in, I overheard those seated around us griping that they had been in line over an hour hoping for a good seat.  But, there were still quite a few empty chairs around us, so we didn’t feel too guilty about “cutting the queue.”

The comedy show was decent, but also showed the risks of working too hard for the pleasure of seeing anything improvised. Many of the grumpy folks remained grumpy, which is somewhat detrimental to a comedy show.

After that we made our way to Symphony Hall, which I had never been inside, to catch the last couple songs of Mavis’ opening act and the soul legend herself.  At first the ticket taker was discouraging about the possibility of getting a seat, even though we had preferred tickets.  So, we contented ourselves with going up to the balcony, where there was ample room, great accoustics, and a fabulous view of the oppulent sculputures and filligree lining the walls of the Hall.

The highlight of the evening was another surprise.  A few songs before her finale (“I’ll Take You There”) Mavis broke out into “our song”: We’re Gonna Make It  It was a song that has defined our relationship since we first started dating, and every time “life seems so hard” we play Taj Mahal’s version to remind ourselves of what’s really important.  Since I didn’t know much about Mavis, aside from her big bullet, I hadn’t realized she recorded this song as well.  It was completely unexpected, and the first time we had ever heard the song performed live.

After that amazing show, we wandered some more, kissed on Boston Common at midnight and managed to get on a surprisingly uncrowded train back to the hotel.  Again, that hotel had been a last-minute arrangement, but it worked out perfectly.  We fell into a wonderfully comfortable bed in the wee hours of morning.

Later, after not quite enough sleep, we were trying to come up with something to do to kill a little more than an hour before heading off to our friend’s for a New Year’s Day lunch.  The little book of amenities mentioned the hotel had a pool table, so we grabbed some cues and balls from the front desk and played five rounds of some of the worst pool any of the amused passerby’s probably ever witnessed.  Again, my husband and I learned more about eachother, as we both shared that it was a game we loved despite being horrible at it.

The perfect little getaway was topped off with several hours of conversation and laughter with my friend and her wife.  Resolution: make greater effort to see or at least talk to people who make you laugh and smile.

As we were driving home, I realized that the vacation was over, not just from our work, which was waiting for us Tuesday, but also from my blogging.  Maybe it doesn’t “fit” to describe this in a blog that is supposed to be about spiritual searching as a Unitarian-Universalist.  But, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that life and religion have something important with writing.  It’s all about the details.  Even when they don’t seem particularly relevant, they make it richer and more worthwhile.