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.


A Book I Wish I Wasn’t Happy to Have Read- Elite by Mark W. Harris

August 21, 2011

Sometimes we make bad choices from the wide array of information and entertainment we can receive.  My mother loves to share the story of how much scarier the film Alien was when she watched it 9 months pregnant.  Most people know better than to watch movies about plane crashes or shark attacks right before a vacation on the sea side.  But what about those more common and less obvious mistakes?  How often have you found yourself yelling at your car radio because you just couldn’t resist listening to the talk host you always disagree with for a few more minutes, just to see how wrong he/she is this time?

Why do we do things like that to ourselves?  Do we think we’re testing our emotional or moral mettle by ingesting media that is almost assured to trigger an intense response?  Do we seek some kind of enjoyment for the adrenaline rush that comes with getting angry?

Perhaps.  Perhaps that’s why the media has become so fractured between extreme left and right politics.  Perhaps that’s why only religious extremists seem to get any notice.  Perhaps we occasionally need to try to prove to ourselves that we don’t just seek out the messages we know we’ll agree with, which is it’s own kind of sin? That was the kind of trouble I knew I was headed for when I found myself reading a book called “Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History” by Mark W. Harris.

Harris has written a fine book, which is obviously well researched.  If the end result of his work doesn’t quite seem balanced, than it is at least fair. He does not condemn our faith’s followers who in retrospect said and did things shockingly out of line with our principles in the name of “bettering” society. He asks the readers to ask themselves the tough questions that are demanded when our history is examined a little more deeply than an impressive list of names of famous Unitarians and Unversalists or brief quotes from any of these people.

Take, for example, some of the historical facts presented in his most disturbing chapter, “Scientific Salvation.”  In this, Harris outlines the sad history of “eugenic science,” which taught that for humankind to progress, less desirable people should be prohibited from having children.  He described the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell in 1927 which upheld a Virginia law that allowed the state to have a seventeen year old girl sterilized because she was, according to case documents “shiftless, ingorant and worthless class.”  (pg 85) This case was overseen by two Unitarians, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

Unitarians, the faith that say all people have inherent worth and dignity, voting for a woman’s right to bear children to be taken from her because of her social status?  Yuck.

Why hadn’t I ever heard about this I wondered?  Sure, it makes sense that our youth curriculum is more focused on the positive like Susan B. Anthony speaking for her rights to vote while on trial.  But, why even in my more in-depth research of Unitarian and Universalist history had I never even come across the word eugenics? Especially when, as Harris notes, “Chief Justice Taft, who would soon serve as president of the National Unitarian Conference, … played a prominent role in the publication of How to Live, a booklet that … recommended every state have eugenics boards with the goal of preventing ‘reproduction by the markedly unfit,’ and the sterilization of ‘gross and hopeless defectives.’ “(pg 85) Double yuck.

Reading about this dark time in our nation’s and our faith’s history in some ways gives me previously unknown sympathy for the Right to Life campaigns.  It also shows how danagerous the human language is when we try to use it to describe things as indescribable as the value of any human life and the morality of any choice. I suppose there is a bright side that even the most extreme of the “shock talk” radio folks out there would dare to use such language as “hopeless defective.”

There is a bright side, too, in that, even if it may not have been assigned reading for me, I had the choice and the ability to read Harris’ book because Skinner House Books, an imprint of the UUA, was bold enough to publish it.

However, it is unfortunately ironic that likely the only ones who may read it are those who want to delve most fully into both the positive and negative of our faith’s history.  And though his book is written to be as accessible as possible, it’s highly unlikely that anyone without an advanced education would give it a try.  That’s ironic because Harris himself argues that we may be inflicting potential damage on our denomination by making our services and congregations unwelcome for anyone without an advanced education.

I am encouraged that there is at least one UU voice asking the important questions that Harris poses, “Can we change? … It will require personal connections. It will require sharing power and control. It will require changed perceptions of status and education.” (pg 128) He argues effectively that congregations made up of comfortable and well-to-do parishoners are the most difficult to change.

I would go further that it will require a majority of UU’s to fully accept that we have not been fully accepting.  We have made and continue to make mistakes in our efforts to live up to our principles.  Too often, we (and I include myself here) unconsciously tack on a few conditions when we say that all people have inherent worth and dignity.  We love to say that you can believe whatever you want to be a UU, but really we mean that all UU’s can believe what we believe.  And, in the process of putting on the blinders to the conditions that we put on our theology, we also allow ourselves to blithely ignore how unwelcoming our congregations are to those with perhaps less education, less access to transportation, less mobility, and less money (Harris’ arguments, but I agree whole-heartedly).

So, in a way I am grateful for Harris raising these important issues in his book.  I am grateful that we are not to the point of having prominent members of our faith arguing that portions of our society should not have the same rights as others in the name of the betterment of mankind, as there in fact were less than a hundred years ago. But, I wish I hadn’t read it.  It plays to my deepest and most primal fears in a way that we still bolt their doors against Norman Bates before entering a hotel shower.

Harris’ is one voice asking us to face a dark time in our history and continuing trends that make our congregations only welcoming to a certain type of societal group. Perhaps the other questions about how we worship, and whether anyone is interested in church of any type are the more pressing.  But, if the question of whether all are truly welcome is not addressed by every congregation and every member of the UUA, then our principles are hollow, and whatever we build our churches on, they are likely to fall away as so many have.

Like I said, sometimes we make bad choices.  Perhaps I should be focusing my extra-curricular reading on more sunny messages about the past and future of my faith. But, our fears haunt us for a reason (ask my therapist). Anger can be a valuable tool if it provokes action.  If you are reading this you may be angry that anyone would have bothered dredging up such a dark time in our faith’s history as when such prominent Unitarian and Universalists promoted eugenics.  I guess the tool I’m trying to pass on is the knowledge that sometimes an idea that makes perfect sense at a point in history, is downright shameful in retrospect.  The greater shame, however, is to keep on making similar mistakes for lack of perspective.

We thankfully do not have any prominent UU’s telling society who is fit to have children. But do we, quietly or subtly, tell visitors, friends and neighbors who are “fit” to be UU’s?  Will that definition be worth defending a hundred years from now?

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?

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.

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.