Thursday, May 15, 2014

Who Needs Us?

So… Here's a question I've been dancing with lately: Who needs us? Who needs Unitarian Universalism?

There are several things I don't mean by this question.  I don't mean -- who would enjoy our wit and our wisdom? I don't mean -- who would appreciate our grand ideas and are soaring songs? I don't mean -- who would enjoy our affable company? I mean, simply, who needs what it is we have to offer?

Of course, that raises the question, what is it that we have to offer? And that's a question that, no doubt, could engender much discussion. For now, though, let's leave that discussion aside. Let's agree that you may have your idea, and that I may have mine. They may not be the same, and that's okay.  You answer with your understanding of what our "good news" is, and I'll answer with mine, but let's each look at the question:  who needs Unitarian Universalism?

I'd answer:  lots of people!  Here's a partial list:

People who've been told that they're not enough -- not smart enough, successful enough, straight enough, white enough, neurotypical enough ... you get the idea.   Unitarian Universalism affirms that each of us has inherent worth and dignity, just by breathing air on the planet!  We don't have to be anything enough to earn it. 

People who think they are, or have, enough -- well-educated, made-in-the-(suburban)-shade, with the resources to remedy most any problem, and the confidence that comes from having "made it" (in some sense). Or, at least, thinking they have.  Confident. Comfortable. Complacent, even. To them Unitarian Universalism announces that none of us is, on our own, the be all and end all. Each of us is tied, as Dr. King said, in a single garment of destiny. We are interdependent, not just with our own species but with all that is. 

People who were taught to believe things they no longer can, people who don't know what to believe, and people who are so sure of what they believe that there's no room to grow and no ability to expand. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to keep both our heads and our hearts open sand to not only accept but embrace the changes that follow. 

People who see all too clearly -- and, so, hate or fear -- the Other, and people who've been "othered."  Unitarian Universalism teaches that "there is no 'us and them,' there is only us."

I could go on. (And probably will at some point.). Let's let this suffice for now.   So what is it that I think Unitarian Universalism has to offer?  This truth:

We are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.

Okay ... now it's your turn.  Who needs Unitarian Universalism?

Pax Tecum,


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Moment of Ministry

As I was walking in to the hospital this morning to visit a parishioner, my mind flashed back to a moment during the early years of my first settled ministry -- a moment when I felt I really was a minister.  

I was serving a congregation in southern Maine, and there was a family in the congregation that consisted of a mom, a dad, and two kids -- a son and a daughter.  The son was, as I recall, in late elementary school, and besides being a really smart and likable kid, he had real issues with angry, defiant behavior.  Angry's too euphemistic, actually.  It was rage.  Being a little flip, I'd say that this kid could make the Hulk look like Hello Kitty.  He was, as I said, a really great kid, I liked him a lot, but he had a real problem.

So did his family.  This boy had hit and hurt his mom on more than one occasion.  He'd broken things, too.  And he'd been in trouble with the police.  And on the occasion of this incident he'd done all three.  He'd hit his mom, he'd bashed a huge hole in his bedroom wall, and when he ran away his mom did the only thing she could think of -- she called the police.

And then she called me.

I arrived after the police.  When I got there the parents were standing on their front steps.  The police were standing by their cruiser.  And the boy?  He hadn't run far, it turned out -- he was sitting near the top of one of those large Maine pine trees that was in their front yard.

Getting out of my car I took all of this in and started going through all of my seminary training and, no, nothing in any of my classes or practicum had prepared me for this.  What could I possibly do?  The police, clearly, had decided to wait the kid out.  They'd tried to cajole him, but he wasn't budging.  And all the threats and pleading of the parents didn't move the boy either -- physically or emotionally.  Finally, since the he didn't seem at all likely to come down, I decided to go up.

As I began to climb the boy climbed a bit higher.  I told him that I'd follow him as far as he wanted to go.  So he started lobbing pine cones at me, and since they hadn't yet opened they were solid and hard.  They hurt as they hit my hands and my head.  But I told him that he couldn't do anything that would stop my joining him.  Yet I also told him that I wasn't coming up to try to get him to come down.  I was coming up, I said, so that he wouldn't be alone.

I told him that I knew he was really angry about something, and that I imagined he might be kind of scared as well.  That kind of anger can be really scary, I said, even when you're the one wielding it.  And the police were sitting down there ... waiting for him.  He denied any feelings but righteous anger, but he also stopped dropping pine cones on me.  And as I got closer and then settled in, he lost some of his bravado as well.  Oh, he kept challenging me, but I kept responding that I was going to stay with him for as long as he was up there because I didn't want him to be alone.  No matter what he'd done, no matter why he'd done it, no matter how he was feeling about it now, I didn't want him to be alone.

Recently my friend and colleague Leia Durland-Jones pointed me toward an extraordinary book -- Tattoos on the Heart.  It's written by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Gregory Boyle.  Father Boyle -- G-dog as he's more affectionately known -- has worked for decades in the area of Los Angeles that is notorious for the largest concentration of gangs.  (And that's saying something, as Los Angeles itself has been the city with the largest concentration of gangs.)  His work has been to address not the problem of gangs, but to try to do something about the problems of gang members.  He developed Homeboy Industries, and the work they do is absolutely astonishing.  (The author Anne Lamott says of the book, "... one of my favorite books in years.")

Again and again, both directly and more indirectly, Fr. Boyle reminds us that you can only go so far doing things for people.  Where the real beauty is to be found is in being with people.  In fact, often the being is more important than all the doing in the world.  That's what helped bring that boy out of that tree all those years ago; and that's what happens in those hospital rooms I visit.  And the families I sit with who've just lost a loved one.  And the folks who're wondering what they're going to do now that their job has fallen away, or their relationship, or their sense of self-worth.

And we can, each of us, practice this on a daily basis -- with the people we work with; the people we live with; the people who serve us in restaurants, or ring us up in the grocery store, or answer the phone when we call customer service.  We can practice this -- especially challenging and especially rewarding! -- with those people we're really rather not practice it with.  And, Fr. Boyle would no doubt remind us, we can practice it with those whom everyone else seem so quick to discard.  Now that would be ministry.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Freely Following Jesus

"Freely following Jesus."  That's the motto of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship.  But what does it mean?  What does it mean, in 21st century, to "follow Jesus," and what might it mean to people who've largely left behind them whatever Christian identity they'd had (and those who've never identified as Christian)?

"Christianity" has gotten a really bad rap in recent years -- especially among those who look at the world with liberal or progressive eyes and who fully embrace all the scientific discoveries and insights that cascade all around us.  Doesn't "following Jesus" require us to put our minds on pause, to align ourselves with some extraordinarily oppressive institutions, and to believe (in the words of the Queen's admission to Alice) "six impossible things before breakfast"?  And doesn't it, perhaps most challenging of all, require us to acknowledge Jesus as "our personal Lord and Savior" (whatever that means) and to worship him above all others?

Well, not necessarily.  The scholar and theologian Marcus Borg defines a Christian as someone "who takes seriously what Jesus took seriously."  None of that other baggage, just taking seriously the things Jesus took seriously -- justice, especially for the poor and dispossessed; the end of oppressions and those distinctions that divide us; to "to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."  (Luke 4:18)

Here's a way of looking at all of this that hit me one day -- when someone says that they are a Franciscan, it doesn't mean that they worship St. Francis.  It simply means that they see in the life of Francis of Assisi the kind of life they would like to live; they see the kind of commitments they would like to make.  It means that they want to emulate his way, his approach to life and to the world.  In short, to follow him -- to follow his example.  

And remember, this doesn't require a slavish attempt to "do what Francis would do."  After all, as he lay dying it is said that Francis looked at his friends and said, "I have done what was given me to do.  May Christ show you what is given to you."  How much like the Buddha's dying words of "be a lamp unto yourselves."

Could following Jesus, then, mean something very much like following Francis does?  I think yes.  In my book Serving With Grace:  lay leadership as a spiritual practice, I encourage church leaders to identify a "leadership saint" or two -- people they know, or have known of, who exemplify a leadership style or strength they aspire to.  I suggested even bringing a picture of this person to meetings and, whenever it seems needful or helpful, to ask yourself, "What would my leadership saint do in this situation?"  When you, yourself, don't know how to respond or what to say or how to act, it can be instructive to imagine what someone you admire would faced with the same thing(s) you are.

This, too, then is what it means -- or, at least -- can mean to "follow Jesus."  The WWJD bracelet fad is thankfully largely over.  Thankfully, because it far too often stemmed from the sense that we know exactly what Jesus would do in every situation, that he had laid down clear instructions that we needed to adhere to.  That's not what I mean at all.  Rather, I'm thinking about a matter not of "instruction" or "rules" or "specific answers" but, rather, "example."  What would a person like Jesus, or Dorothy Day, or Gandhi, or Malcolm X, or Mother Jones, or whoever you look to -- what would a person like that do if she or he were here.

Hopefully we're now a little more clear on the "following Jesus" part.  But what about that first word -- "freely"?  There are so many people who identify as Christian not because of any real, internal conviction but, instead, because of external expectations.  Never having really thought about it, never really questioning it, they simply assume their identity as Christians.  I think the gift of progressive Christian groups -- like the UUCF -- is that they encourage a "free" following of Jesus.  Let it be a choice -- an informed, an intentional choice.  Knowing what we know about Jesus -- from the Gospels, from history, from tradition, from our own intuitions -- and know about "the things Jesus took seriously," we make a conscious decision to take those same things seriously, to strive to live the same kind of life.

If this sounds interesting to you, intriguing, you might want to check out the UUCF.  (Or the Center for Progressive Christianity, as another example.)  You might want to read one (or both!) of the books below.  And, of course, you might want to engage in conversation right here.

Pax tecum,

Rev Wik

Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism                 Teacher, Guide, Companion

Monday, May 05, 2014

Try God

Yesterday I co-facilitated a service at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville that was entitled, "God is Dead, Allelujia!  (the faith of an atheist)"  If you want, you can hear a podcast of the two sermons at our website.

One of the things I said is that we -- as Unitarian Universalists -- need to repeal the theological "don't ask, don't tell policy" as urgently as that other one needed to be ended.  We are often so concerned about potentially offending someone that we rarely share in any real way what it is that we, ourselves, believe.  And this, of course, makes it hard for anyone to trust that they can share with us.  How, then, are we to "affirm and promote" our Association's third principle -- "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations"  -- in any kind of meaningful way?

So, I said, there are folks who believe in God (which can take several different forms and have many different meanings).  And there are folks who do not (which also, actually, can mean different things).  If we don't say these things to each other then we can never get to the more important, more fundamental question -- what does that mean to you?  What does it mean to say that you believe in God, or don't?  That you believe that all things are manifestations of Buddha nature?  That you are a follower of Yeshua ben Mirian?  That you believe it's all up to us?  That's the conversation that can not only help me to understand you better, but that can also deepen and expand my own understanding of life.

On my office wall I have a framed image that I'd taken from the inside cover of the magazine Venture Inward (the journal of the Association of Research and Enlightenment).  Besides the beautiful painting of mountains there is a saying taken from one of the "life readings" of  Edgar Cayce.  The subject of the reading is identified as #1472, and this is an excerpt from their 12th reading.  It says:

"Then, in this era, this age of changes ... it behooves the entity (as everyone), in its relationships in any manner, to impress up others in every walk of life -- not impelling by force, but by love -- to try God; to listen to the voice within ..."
I've had this piece on the wall of whatever office I've inhabited for many years now, because I feel that it describes my calling -- to encourage people to "try God."  I will admit that I haven't always said that out loud to folks -- or, at least, not too loudly nor to too many, nor in those exact word -- but when I have those moments when I forget what it is that got me into this business in the first place, I find myself looking at that page.

But let me "unpack" that a bit, as we seminary-trained folk like to say, because, as Inigo Montoya said in a slightly different context, " I do not think it means what you think it means."

First, I think this, too, is an "era of changes."  Even if we only look at the religious landscape, things are changing tremendously. Increasing numbers of people describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious," and polls suggest that there are literally millions of people who say that they have some kind of belief in some kind of God, but who reject nearly all of the traditional dogmas.

Take a look, as just one example, at the incredibly exciting work being done in the so-called "new Christianity" by people like Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg, to name just too. This is a radically reimagined Christianity, and at this point there's no way of knowing how these changes will play out. So this is indeed, "a time of changes," and not just in the Christian, nor even just in the religious, world.

And what about the, "impress upon others… to try God" part? First note that the reading is quite clear that one should not use "force." This means to me, of course, not just physical force or coercion, but also an intentional attempt to convert by argument. I resonate with the idea that one should use love, and, I would add, example.

And that brings us back to the "try God" part of this whole thing. I am convinced, absolutely and utterly convinced, that there is a Sacred Something -- call it an energy, call it a spirit, call it what you will. And this thing, whatever we call it, whatever it is, is what I believe people have always been pointing to when they talk about "God."

And so many have been so turned off by the way "God" has been depicted.  (McLaren, I think helpfully, suggests thinking about how God has been portrayed in the Bible, for instance, through a character called God, or, actually, a variety of characters with that name.)  And given the reputation "God" has developed over time by the way he/she/it has been portrayed, many have closed their eyes and turned their backs on what I think of as the ultimate reality. And that, it seems to me, is a shame. It's like a tree refusing to nourish itself by the nearby stream because it had heard that streams were no good. It's like a flower blocking itself from the sun because it knew a plant that had once shriveled in the summer heat.

I have written elsewhere that I believe that "spirituality" has to do with living life "that is life."  Thoreau makes the statement in Walden that he wants to live in such a way that, when the time comes for him to die, he doesn't look back at his life and realized that he'd never really lived.  Spirituality, I've said, is about living life that is alive.  So, while I do believe it is my calling to encourage people to "try God," this could also mean, "try touching life at its depth," "try living the fullness of life," "try connecting to something greater than yourself," "try touching a deep and profound wonder."  When I say that I want to encourage people to "try God," and they tell me that they don't believe in God, I always ask, "tell me about this God you don't believe in ... I probably don't believe in that God either."  Then a conversation can begin ...

So why use the "G-word"? After all, for so many people this word is a stumbling block, and if I'm not
encouraging people to "try that old God we no longer believe it," then why use the old word? For me, the answer is simple.  There's so much literature, art, music which uses this word. Some of it, of course, is too deeply steeped in "that God we don't believe it," as to be essentially unusable. But much of it, I would daresay most of it, becomes not only more accessible but more profoundly meaningful when seen in a new way.  This is the work that McLaren, Borg, Spong, Crossan, and so many others have been engaged in so fruitfully.  It's the work I feel called to do.  It's the work I'd like to invite you to do -- not impelling by force, but by love.

Try God.

Pax tecum,