A Halloween Love Letter to my Youth Group’s Haunted Basement

October 29, 2011

“The great end in religious instruction, is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth; not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs; not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision; not to burden memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought.”
– William Ellery Channing (American moralist, Unitarian Clergyman and Author, 1780-1842)

Halloween was perhaps the most important date on the church calendar when I was growing up. Every year my congregation would host a great Halloween party, almost bordering on a festival.  There was food and costume parties, and of course a ghost-inspired sermon.  The main social hall would be split into various fun stations for the younger children to bob for apples, eat donuts on a string, or have their face painted.  And as soon as I joined the church at around eight, I knew the people who had the best time at our Halloween was the youth group: the pre-teens and teenagers who designed and took part in the centerpiece of the celebration: the Haunted Basement.

One year, once it was finally my turn to be the spooker rather than the spookee, I borrowed my mother’s chef’s uniform and covered it with all sorts of goop.  I played the “mad chef” led the kids through a feel box of my gruesome ingredients. (Cauliflower for my victim’s brain, spaghetti for guts, peeled grapes for eye balls, etc.)

When I’ve tried to explain these memories to those from other faiths, I get the usual mix of puzzled looks and incredulous questions.  (Kind of like when I try to explain anything UU to someone who has not witnessed it first hand.)  I, fortunately, haven’t ever got into a confrontation with anyone accusing us of witchcraft and devil worship.  But, most people can’t understand what any of that stuff, especially designing something to scare little kids, had to do with church.

I’ve also heard criticism’s from those who DID grow up UU that they were only given a constantly rotating list of history stories and classes that ended with something like “These people feel this way, other’s think this, you should make up your own mind what you think.”  I’m guessing that their R.E. experiences were shaped by someone who believed in Channing’s quote above means that religious instruction should be based on a socratic method of intellectual exploration. As I’ve shared in previous blog posts, I absolutely value intellect as a way to enhance my religious and spiritual life.

I wasn’t reflecting on the seven principles or any of the great spiritual questions posed by UU’s like William Ellery Channing on the Halloween’s at my church. This great event was focused on fun, not moral lessons or fund-raising. But I think they gave me an invaluable church experience. For one thing, it left lots of long-lasting memories.  I remember not only the first time I wandered the haunted basement as a younger child, fresh from my break with the Catholic church which probably would never have allowed such desecration in their sacred buildings.  I also very fondly remember the years that I got to live out the wish to be part of that “cool gang” of older kids spooky out the little ones.

Despite how much fun that was, I think the most important thing was the knowledge that we were doing something for our community, even if it was only giving them a small scare and a little fun.  As I’ve gotten older and our country has for the most part abandoned old traditions like neighborhood trick-or-treating, I realize how valuable it is to have an organization, or even a one day event, devoted to fun.

With the fun comes all sorts of invaluable secondary benefits – like giving us in the Youth Group a feeling of accomplishment after our hands-on planning, design and execution of that haunted basement.  Maybe the day wouldn’t be too exciting for everyone, and maybe our tricks and scares were hopelessly amateurish.  But, we also weren’t judging ourselves against some standard of cool or professionalism.

As the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that in place of neighbors giving out candy, more and more trick or treaters go to malls or wander from shop to shop in their quest for a All Hallow’s Eve sugar high. This strikes me as a tragedy to be mourned.  These childhood holidays should at least have some resemblance to the holy days they evolved from.  Even if as a UU youth I was always much more focused on the fun of Halloween rather than the solemnity of All Soul’s Day, the point is I had a reason to feel like a part of my religious community.  I had many positive experiences in a place that was devoted to principles like the worth of every individual. So what if some of those experience may not seem to have anything to do with religion on the surface?

We need to show our youth all the various ways humankind can think differently, but love the same. But, we also need to give them experiences that remind them that church isn’t an obligation to be met for an hour or so each Sunday.  We have to make them feel connected, and show them why it is important for our congregations to continue to exist.  We need youth to look forward to the day that they can scare the “little kids.”

Along the way, we also need to let them know that the community is there for them when things get really scary: like when they are struggling with decisions about school, family, sex, and faith.

At some point in our lives, we will all need a place of comfort and solace.  When the next generation considers times where they felt connected to a community and experienced a joyful celebration, do you want them to think of a mall or a community like your church?  And, that was always the point I think.


Ask Not What Your Church Can Do for You, but What Can You Do for Your Church… Just Be Prepared for an Honest Answer

July 24, 2011

I almost was pulled back into my congregation this weekend.

A few weeks ago my minister e-mailed me about coming to a Board Retreat to share some of what I’d learned at the UUA’s “Harvest the Power” leadership training. This was the most recent of several questions about this great program, all of which seem to have led to misunderstandings between my minister and I. After much inner-turmoil and angst which involved a lot of me bombarding my poor husband with retellings of the many ways I felt both myself and this worthy program had been demeaned, it naturally came to nothing.

In many ways, I was relieved to not have to do it. For one thing, it meant I had more time to enjoy a nice summer weekend. For another, I really felt it was unfair to the people who has designed the Harvest the Power program to try and squeeze even a piece of the training into a day of other events. But perhaps most of all, I was afraid that if I tried to teach my congregation’s leadership anything, I would be marginalized by them. I was afraid they would go through the motions and pretend to listed to what I tried to share from the program, but all the time they’d be looking at the clock and waiting for when I was finished so they could get on to “real business” or go home.

Was this an irrational fear? Well, I do have some history to make me feel as though this was to be exptected. First, there was the way in which I first became involved in Harvest the Power. In the Spring of 2010, a friend I had known as a teenager in my first Unitarian congregation visited my present one. She pulled me aside and asked if I would consider attending a leadership training program that had been recently developed by the UUA. It was called “Harvest the Power” and was designed to give lay leaders the spiritual and practical skills they needed to be more effective through a variety of workshop experiences.

She explained that in exchange for the training I would receive, I’d be expected to work with a smaller group and lead the workshop for others. I had a few trepidations, as I’d had some negative experiences with the UUA, mostly around what I felt was disapproval from some higher-ups there of my serving as an interim / lay speaker while we were without a minister. My friend assured me that I would be a great candidate and that she’d check with my minister to fill her in as well. A few days before I went off to the training, I called to touch base with my minister and we were both surprised to find that she knew nothing about my attending the training. Whether it was just her surprise and my less than clear explanation of what I was doing and why, I got the feeling that she had some misgivings. Unfortunately, we were never able to communicate our feelings clearly to each other, and to this day I don’t know if I have been able to explain Harvest the Power to her. (More on that later)

When I arrived at the conference center, I was energized by the people I met and the information I received. Though I was kind of the oddball of the group, coming from one of the smallest congregations with the least developed organizational structure, I felt I did have a lot to offer and a lot to gain from the curriculum. I was impressed by the range of workshops, some based on story telling or watching a DVD, others on crafts, others on writing, others on games, etc. The material was dense, but accessible, covering spiritual and ethical development, Unitarian-Universalist identity, and all different approaches to leading and facing the challenges of leadership.

The entire program is online at the UUA: http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/tapestryfaith/harvestpower/index.shtml

Perhaps the only negative moment of that first weekend spent with leaders of other congregations came when one of the attendees questioned whether they could fulfill the promise of leading the workshop themselves. One of the UUA staff responded to their fears by saying “all of you are here because you are already leaders in your congregation now. You are here because your ministers believed in you and sent you here because they know you can do this.” At those words, I was so struck by my not belonging under those terms, having stepped down from leadership a month or so before to take a second job to pay bills, and having my minister if anything vaguely aware of my attending the conference, I burst out into a brief laugh. It was either laugh or cry, so I chose the option that was easiest to stop and least embarrasing.

After that exhilarating but emotionally draining weekend, the small team of lay leaders in my cluster got together a few times to plan our own training. The major obstacle, we felt, was that we hadn’t had enough time when we had done the training ourselves. We decided to spend two weekends on our event, and split up all the workshops and activities to play to our individual strengths and interests.

I spoke to my minister about it and we tried to think of ways to get a group from the congregation to attend the cluster training. She wrote a brief piece for the newsletter and I made a few different announcements during services. My minister also passed the official invitation/letter from the district to the congregation’s board president, but he didn’t remembering ever seeing it. One person approached me that she was interested, but ended up not being able to go.

Later that fall, those of us who had trained to be facilitators had two successful weekends. Several different congregations sent teams, though they were all larger than mine. We the leaders continued to learn and hopefully extended some useful lessons to the attendees. We hopefully pushed just enough to get those who signed up for the training to work out of the comfort zone and reconsider how the structures of their own church functioned. I was struck by how even the “story” type activities worked differently there compared to when I read them to myself. It was our willingness to admit when we didn’t understand something, or when we saw something in a different way than others that the material came to life. In other words, it was the diversity of the group that made the most learning possible.

I was also struck by how the lessons built on each other. For example, telling your own story of how you became a UU was useful when later you were looking at the bizarre diagram of how people are directly and indirectly connected to each other in a congregation. You realized that we all have our own stories, our own strengths and weaknesses. Your realized that it’s not only okay, but natural when things don’t run smoothly. Those who came were very positive in their reviews, but still complained that they didn’t have enough time to really get all they wanted out of the materials we presented to them.

So perhaps I was unfairly frustrated when I received an e-mail from my minister the week after the training, asking if “the information and materials were something I might want to share with the congregation and leaders at some point.” I realized that she couldn’t be expected to understand what I had experienced, not being part of it herself, but I was still hurt by the implication. I felt as if I were being asked to share a text book, as if the materials were what had been valuable, and I could hand them off. It wasn’t as if I, or any of the others I had worked so hard with to prepare a program were necessary at all.

I responded in that I would be happy to lead some activities if others wanted me to, and reiterated that the entire program was meant to function as a workshops that built on each other. My minister replied that she and the President would talk about it and see if there were any workshops that were of interest. The next two board meetings went by (November and December) without anyone talking to me about Harvest the Power again. In January I received a thank you letter for the District, which reminded me of the e-mails and I followed up to see what they had decided. My minister wrote back that they wanted to ask someone else, and then sent another message that said they thought it would be better for the summer retreat. In June my minister let me know they were putting together the agenda and asked if there was “a particular piece” I thought would be good. I still had misgivings about doing only a single piece given my own reactions to and others feedback to the program, but I made a few suggestions. I also noted that in the agenda my minister had sent my “sharing” Harvest the Power was one of six items in a two-and-a-half hour time slot and asked how much time I could expect to have.

The retreat was supposed to be this weekend. Needless to say, I never heard back on whether they wanted me to present the activities.

I know from many church experiences that you are most rewarded when you try to give something back. The only problem is, what if  it feels like what you have to give is not considered of any value?

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.

Why Attend Sunday Services? The Ahh… and the Aha!

May 22, 2011

Sunday morning and I am sitting alone in my office.  A copy of the latest edition of UU World lies next to me and a cyber-universe of sermons, blogs, message boards and more is at my fingertips.  Plenty to help me feel connected to my chosen faith.  Yet, I feel a pang of longing and loss for what I am missing.

Across town, the church that was my spiritual home is probably starting to fill with the scent of fair-trade coffee as my minister’s service winds down.  I am not there for a multitude of reasons I’ve alluded to, but have not yet come to terms with enough to blog about. Across the country, there are people who have also received the Summer 2011 copy of UU World and are using it and a plethora of other information to prepare for General Assembly, an event which I have never been able to attend.

And here is the crux of the questions that led me to start my blog:  What’s a UU to do to stay true to her faith if the experiences that define our faith just don’t fit into her life?  Can I be a UU if I don’t go to church or any UUA event? How does Unitarian-Universalism fit into my life?  Is it a luxury I can treat myself to when everything else is taken care of?  Or is it the essence of my day-to-day existence, impossible to relegate to just a few hours on Sunday or a trip to some event that I may never be able to make?

Back in April I pondered why any of us go to church.  There are plenty of sociologists, psychologists and church consultants who will tell you that the best way to build a strong community is to recognize that individuals will have varied needs they want met by that community.  A 2007 gallup poll asked people of various spiritual traditions who attended church regularly why they did so.  The responses were:  For spiritual growth and guidance: 23%; Keeps me grounded/inspired: 20%; It’s my faith: 15%; To worship God: 15%; The fellowship of other members/The community: 13%; Believe in God/Believe in religion:  12%; Brought up that way/A family value/Tradition: 12% Other: 4%; No reason in particular: 1%.
See the poll here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/27124/just-why-americans-attend-church.aspx

Right off the bat we can see that over a quarter of the respondents may have difficulty in a UU congregation since they are looking for some connection to the “g” word. There is also a reason conspicuously absent from this list that is often stated as reason for UU’s to attend services: intellectual stimulation.  But, perhaps I should examine the laundry list from gallup to see if I can better understand my own spiritual needs.

Reason #1: Spiritual growth and guidance
This is right in key with the third principle of UUism: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations.”  However, what I feel is unique about the Unitarian-Universalism I want to practice is that spiritual growth does not just take place for an hour on Sunday.  The faith I want to live is present in every experience of my life.  For example, the fact that ethical eating is being examined at this year’s General Assembly confirms my belief that the hour I spend grocery shopping is just as spiritual as the hour I might have spent listening to a sermon and singing hymns.
The second part of the gallop poll answer is very tricky for UU’s: guidance.  When’s the last time you got a straight-answer from a UU on what you should do when faced with a prickly spiritual question?

Reason #2:Keeps me grounded/inspired.
Having a time every week set aside to centering yourself through worship, i.e. “worth-ship,” deciding what is important in your life, is vital to keeping your spirit healthy.  I know I need to take stock of what I’ve experienced in the past and what I want from my future. But, do I need church for that?  Certainly it helps to know I am not alone.  But, what if I don’t feel grounded or inspired by modern dance or breathing exercises, and that’s all that is being offered on a particular Sunday?
My first solution was to look beyond the sermon and seek out inspiration from my other congregants.  And for a while it worked.  I was awed by those who devoted themselves to their families or some social justice cause, which I learned about while sharing coffee and conversation after the “worship” service.  So, really, reason #1 came to me through another category of motivation for attending church.  This answer did not show up on the gallup poll, but is often quoted by UU’s as their reason for attending services…

The “Other” Reason: Intellectual Stimulation.
This reason has become somewhat of a dirty word in some UU circles.  Some see it as a sign that we are moving away from being a religious or spiritual organization, and instead become a country club of over-educated political liberals who think of themselves as a religious movement, but are not.  One of the most articulate arguments against intellectual stimulation came from Michael Durall in his book: The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian-Universalism.  In fact, he lists it as the first of his “five  helpful heresies” in which he questions the current path of our denomination.

Durall writes, in part: “intellectual stimulation from the pulpit…sidetracks the rightful purpose of UU congregations.  … Unitarian Universalism rarely views the congregation’s primary purpose as assisting people along life’s journey or deepening their faith.  Rather, Unitarian Universalism has focused on intellect, a method of information gathering that too often results in conversations about religion rather than defining a UU way of life by which people live in community.” [pgs 72-73]

I agree with almost all of Mr. Durall’s points and recommend his book to all UU’s (see note below).  However, I feel there is a flaw in his logic with this particular conclusion.  He suggests that intellectual stimulation moves us away from spiritual connection.  In my own experience, the intellect is the only way through all the blocks of disbelief that I encounter when trying to worship.  I can only experience the connection to others and decide what is worthy of praise in my life if I consider, ponder.  I grow my spirit by learning more about how the world works and different points of view.  Intellectual stimulation is my spiritual practice and I can only live in community when I challenge myself to understand that community more fully.

Case in point: I felt lost when I was spending an hour each Sunday listening to sermons in which the minister told me what to feel.  I am beginning to reconnect to my spiritual strength through the intellectual exercise of writing.  I feel greater joy and satisfaction from my life after I write this blog, because it forces me to use my intellect to examine whether my life’s journey is headed toward the correct destination.  I’m still missing that outside stimulation that will provide spiritual growth through broadening my mind, but I’m sure I’ll find something to fill that need.  And when I do, I’m certain it will be a spiritual experience for me, though some would call it intellectual.

For me, the “aha” of learning has always been hand-in-hand with the “ah!” of reverence.  I am more spiritually connected to the awesome power of a thunderstorm though my experience of learning about the scientific phenomenons of weather.  If you told me that a lightening bolt came from a god called Thor or even yahweh, that does not stir my religious passions the way descriptions of energy in air masses fires my brain and makes my heart race.

Perhaps someday I can recapture all those other pieces of the religious experience that I am still missing.  But, I’ll have to learn to worship side by side with those feel the “aha” is in conflict with the “ah!”  And, that will take some more pondering.

NOTE: If you Google Michael Durall, you will probably first come to the website for his CommonWealth Consulting Group: vitalcongregations.com.  If you didn’t already know that Mr. Durall was a UU, you might not guess this from his homepage, which features a picture of a sign post listing other Christian denominations. This is another sign that makes me worry about the future of our denomination, but that’s for another blog.

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.