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Showing posts from January, 2014

A New Conversation about Contemporary UU History

There have been a lot of reactions to my post yesterday about the differences in UU ministerial reactions to the death of Pete Seeger. Conversations always wander, and that one wandered off pretty quickly into the subjects of generational generalizations, American communism, and our favorite, critiques of the insufficiencies of Unitarian Universalisms of the past.

I wrote about Pete Seeger because I am trying to start a new conversation about contemporary Unitarian Universalist history. Because Seeger was a presence in so much of our history, and because there were differences in how ministers I know were responding to his death, talking about him illuminates some of the complexities of our history.

Why do we need a new conversation about our history? Because as secret Calvinists, we have a understanding of history that is first, self-centered, and two, moralistic.

Self-Centered: we believe that everything that happened in the past is the result of the drama of our internal struggle w…

Civil War breaks out among UU's over Pete Seeger

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OK. I'm kidding.

Pete Seeger's death has precipitated a storm of grief among most UU's, especially older UU's who remember his music and participation in the great movements of their lives. A lot of UU churches and congregations will be celebrating him this weekend in their services.

But some GenXer's and Millennials push back saying that we should be careful not to overdo it. A lot of GenXer's and Millennials are not especially fond of Seeger's style of folk music, don't share the complicated memories of the 60's protest movements, and are generally unemotional about the baby boomer experience. They are repelled by Boomer nostalgia. There is a hashtag that occasionally surfaces: #notjustboomersinthepews.

The key to understanding contemporary UUA history and culture (from merger until now) is the marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces between 1968 and 2008. I call it the Nixon-Reagan Reaction.

We have just now emerged from a cultura…

The Rising Multi-Racial Electoral Majority, Economic Justice, and the Spiritual Challenge.

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Obama's original vision that was a multi-racial electoral majority could be formed, and that it could
break the rightwing grip on power that Reagan had consolidated. When he compares himself to Reagan, that is what he has meant: that he would be the next President who establishes a new electoral configuration that lasts.

Obama is now understanding the glue for a multi-racial electoral coalition together will be policies that protect and lift up the poor and the increasingly desperate working class. The only way to keep the GOP from completely defeating him is to mobilize all of his coalition. He is like Lincoln, who fought a war to keep the Union from dissolving over slavery, and ended up understanding that the only way to win the war was to abolish slavery. The hand of a President can be forced by the people in action themselves.

Lincoln saw that African Americans were flocking to the Union lines, and wanted to get into the fight. Either he would let them, or he would have to dri…

Life lived according to Love..

A fragment of another poem by Philip Larkin: "Faith Healing"

. . . In everyone there sleeps
a sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
by loving others, but across most it sweeps
as all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. . .

Larkin, Hotchkiss and Wilson on the Church and Time

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Philip Larkin wrote a poem called "Home is So Sad" and I think he describes the situation of the declining church well. Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16659#sthash.VkdAOqh1.dpuf While the poem is literally about the old home, it is also applies to the church and congregation. "It stays as it was left, shaped to the comfort of the last to go as if to win them back."

Dan Hotchkiss, writing in an essay published by Alban Institute, describes a meeting of a church in decline:
As I looked around the room, I saw a familiar mix of people: long-time memb…

Conformity 1954 and 60 years Later

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My good friend, Carolyn Patierno sent me her Martin Luther King sermon from this year.

She took as her text a 1954 sermon from Dr. King, delivered to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In this sermon, the 25 year old King, posed the question before his congregation as the choice between conformity and creative maladjustment.
Millions of people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The great ambition of the average person is to take a position that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. And:
Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church.
The church has often been an institution serving to crystallize and conserve the
patterns of the majority opinion. We find it all too often blessing a status quo
that needs to be blasted and reassuring a social order that needs to be
reformed. 
Conformity was the presenting s…

Who Sees the Ministerial Qualities?

A recent post (Authority in a Post-Denominational, Post-Congregational Age)
has inspired some comments and responses. Check all the comments on that thread, but I wanted to respond to these two.

Steve writes:
We have lived with this tension between an individual’s call from beyond and congregational polity for a long time, but I am not sure we can survive unless we begin putting the call from beyond before the congregation. Polity and governance are important, but they should not block our mission to help people find a religion of their own. By maintaining the centrality of congregations, we are saying the same thing to kindred souls who are seeking a religion of their own as we said to Community Ministers. As long as we affirm the centrality of the congregation we will not attract those kindred spirits. Paul Dodenhof writes:
An interesting post for me and a growing number who minister to UU congregations but who are not in fellowship with the UUA. I was ordained in a non-traditional se…

Commercials

I watch cable news, so I am learning about erectile disfunction. No, not electoral disfunction: but erectile disfunction. The cable news watching audience apparently suffers from this disproportionately, at least the guys who watch MSNBC. I have never watched Fox long enough to get the pattern.

There are two brands of medications for ED advertised: Cialis and Viagra. And they each have a play a different tune in advertising their product.

Cialis commercials are cute.
Cialis commercials are about that moment when a couple pass from doing something together to that moment when they are deciding to have sex. Some are playing touch football; another is refinishing lawn furniture; still another is cleaning the attic. I think that this is a very tricky moment for many couples, especially for day-time sex. Hey, we are all busy people and we're not cavemen anymore. Libido is declining as we age, and men and women relate to sex differently, or so I am told. For most middle-aged couples, un…

the Goofy Thing about Wealth Inequality

You saw it: 85 individuals own as much wealth as the combined fortunes of the bottom 50% of the world's population.

The goofy thing is that it is both not as bad, and worse, than that.

A lot of that wealth is in the form of stock in publicly traded companies, often founded by these individuals.  Bill Gates owns a lot of Microsoft Stock, probably worth billions, if you multiply his share holdings by the stock price on the current "ticker tape." The problem is that if Bill Gates decided to turn that stock into cash, the price would plummet and his networth would too. He might have to go sit at a lesser table at Davos. The goofy thing is that these wealth figures are exaggerated; all of them are largely based on what other members of the financial elite appraise their worth. When someone buys a share of Apple at $500, they aren't really buying $500 worth of actual Apple assets; they aren't even buying a good shot at earning $500 worth of future Apple profits in the …

Maple Trees and Squash Plants

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I heard a terrific sermon yesterday at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, delivered by Rev. Dr. Cynthia Landrum, who serves the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.

She took as her text the Marge Piercy poem "The Seven of Pentacles" which is #568 in the Singing the Living Tradition.

She used this line as her jumping off point:

"Spread like the squash plant which overruns the garden."

Rev. Cyndi contrasted the squash plant with the Michigan maple tree, as metaphors for horizontal and vertical growth in UU churches.  Many churches grow vertically, being passed down from parent to child to grandchild. Some of oldest and some of our smallest churches grow like maple trees.

But many churches grow like squash plants, horizontally, spreading laterally. Many of our UU
congregations grow this way exclusively. People leave the church they grew up in to become UU's. And sadly, many of the children of UU's leave to find another religious…

Response to Fred Wooden

In a recent post I listed several ideas that are prominent among Unitarian Universalists that I think need challenging. One was this, and the my challenge to it in italics.
The political polarization in America is a problem that Unitarian Universalism is called to try to bridge, or overcome, or ameliorate.


The present political polarization is the result of long-standing conflicts coming to the surface, sharpening and intensifying. The reason why political conflict is so heated now is because these issues are approaching a resolution. The majority of the population want a society governed by principles that reflect the basic assumptions of liberal religion. There is tremendous resistance to this by a coalition of forces that do not respect the worth and dignity of all people, who do not favor equity and justice, who are empowered by undemocratic practices, who are willfully blind to the effects of our economy on the planet. The political polarization of the country is uncomfortable, but…

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Each year, on this date, I point people again to a sermon that I wrote for a King Day service several years ago. The sermon reminds me that even persons of world-historical significance travel a difficult path into adulthood. Even great ministers struggle to find and define their call among all the expectations of others. I offer it as a parable that might be comforting to the young seminarians, the aspirants, the candidates, the interns, the colleagues in search for the first time. You are trying to fit yourself to the ministry, but a big part of that is the act of self-definition.  The line that I am most proud of in the whole sermon is:
"It is the faith of liberal religion, in all its forms, that world-changing energy is released when men and women [sic] free their minds, and claim them as their own." May this day be one of reflection, inspiration and dedication for all.

Authority in a Post-Denominational, Post-Congregational Age

Let's just stipulate that the future of Unitarian Universalism will be in non-congregational settings. The future of liberal religion is post-congregational, or "Beyond Congregations."

But congregations are the source of ministerial authority.

In days of yore, congregations themselves ordained ministers; now ministerial authority is bestowed by the fellowshipping process. In practical terms, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee says who is a recognized and legitimate UU minister. But by what authority? By the authority granted to it as a body of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In theory, congregations have created a common system for doing what they each used to do on their own.

Our congregationally based system of conferring authority will be called upon to credential lots of ministers for post-congregational settings. It does that now, (community ministers), but awkwardly, and in small numbers. A system that is designed to produce and evaluate…

Some Ideas that Are Past their Expiration Date

Political Practice and Spirituality are two separate spheres.
The liberal critique of orthodoxy was that it valued creeds over deeds.  We countered with "deeds, not creeds." Somehow, that turned into a creed itself: a belief that liberal religion had no particular political or social implications. Nice thought, but untrue. Our spirituality is expressed in what we do, how we act, who we see as friends and allies, and who we see as adversaries. Our spirituality is embodied; we are people living in bodies, in a particular time and place, among other people. Our spirituality is how we deal with those people, just as much as how we relate to flowers, plants, stars, the invisible and the infinite. 
The imbalance in Unitarian Universalism is that we are too political. 
Not quite true. The imbalance is that our political thought is not spiritual enough. We have not thought through the political implications of the basic tenets of liberal religion, so our commitment to political causes …

Mass Moral March in Raleigh, NC -- Why I am Going...

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I am joining a significant number of my colleagues in Raleigh, NC, as the Unitarian Universalist contingent of the Mass Moral March on Saturday, February 8, 2014. 

Peter Morales has responded to the invitation from the leaders of the North Carolina movement to assemble a UU contingent. His statement is here.

The NC NAACP, led by Rev. William Barber has pulled together a powerful coalition of African American organizations and white progressive organizations to oppose the imposition of Republican governance on their state:voting suppression, drastic cuts to the safety net for the poor, draconian restrictions on abortion,  and regressive taxation.

It is the same GOP agenda that is being implemented in many states, including Michigan where I live, Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

But in the North Carolina, a vigorous movement has been mobilized to take a stand against it, using some of the protest tactics of the Civil Rights Movement: repeated mass marches, and civil disobedience.

It is n…

The Lens

In my last post, I wrote:
The demobilization of reform forces is the historical context in which we have to look at UU history since 1961. By "demobilization of reform forces," I mean the Nixon-Reagan Thermidor, the mobilization of a conservative counter-movement to all the reformist movements which surfaced in the 50's and 60's.

To tell the story of Unitarian Universalism since merger is to tell the story of the many UU strategies for resisting, escaping, accommodating, subverting and ignoring this counter-revolution.  It is the most useful lens through which to view this now 50+ year history, just as we now view the story of Unitarianism in the antebellum period through the lens of abolition and slavery.

It is not our preferred lens. We tell other stories to organize our history. We tell the story of our ever-increasing inclusiveness and openness, as women, gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans people entered our ministry and congregations. We tell how we created a…

Too Political and Not Spiritual Enough

Clyde comments on the last post:
When we [were] new to the ministry some said we were too political and not "spiritual enough." I am not sure each of the "we"s were that Clyde is talking to, but I read the first one as Clyde himself, and maybe me, (although I came in later than Clyde) and the second one as all of us in the UU movement.

But I am sure that he would be correct in including me, Tom, in the "some said".  
I was one of those who was convinced that the UU's were terribly weakened by too much political activism. Not enough spirituality. Too much anger. Too much blaming "the other" for everything that was wrong with the world. All because we had no theology of evil that recognized that it existed in us, as well as others. All because we had no faith, except faith in our own works. 
I also thought all the indignation and earnestness so tiring, and embarrassing, and hopeless. and kind of pathetic. I had been that person and I didn'…

The Pastoral Side of History

Darryl Dyke comments on facebook:

My tiny campus-town back in Maine has a transient population of young people and a well-educated, stable group who stay in the frigid North for what can only be called spiritual reasons (it certainly isn't the money or the growth potential). It is a warm-hearted place to both raise a family and to retire.
When I ask, I'm told they want that covenant of extended family, as Louise says, those instant families, Sunday dinners and warm memories for their kids. Throw in social witness and some after-school homework, etc, and maybe we can forget some of the old-school metrics of success. I've seen enough growth-for-growth's sake.
Tell me more, before I return, I will listen and learn.

I think that if you ask lots of UU's, you would hear the same thing. What they want is actually quite modest -- a warm and comfortable circle of friends, a good place to raise children, enough shared values and perspectives to make social interactions suppor…

Theological Dispute and Institutional Distrust

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The image above was on a UU Holiday card sent out en masse through social media.  It has come under a lot of criticism for being classist and ableist. Much commenting has gone on, including the escalation to the argument about who is too easily offended and who is being defensive.

My comment on Facebook:
Leaving aside the question of offense, inclusion and exclusion; is the sentiment a transformative spiritual message? There is a strain of liberal spirituality which is argues that what already is is good enough, and that our spiritual work is to unlearn dissatisfaction -- to wake up to the wonder that is, and let ourselves be happy. Think of that Julian of Norwich fragment that says "all will be well." Julian placed her trust in God, but the humanist variety is that WE humans have all that we need to do whatever we define as our "salvation." But in the late 20thC, liberals also asserted that oppression/privilege was pervasive to the human condition. The two thought…

Question for 2014

Is Unitarian Universalism exhausted?

I don't mean without energy, because that is clearly not so.  There's lots of hustle and bustle, meetings, trainings and conferences. Most local congregations are busy places, maybe even too busy. And, I am sure that there some exhausted people out there: staff people, over-committed volunteers, religious professionals.

No, I mean exhausted, as a seam of coal might be exhausted in a mining operation. No more coal there to profitably dig. Or exhausted, like a topic of conversation; nothing more to be said on that particular subject.

Are we drifting? UU leaders have identified some of the great issues before us: we are organized into autonomous local congregations, which do not serve many of the people who might be  sympathetic to our opinions and work. Many of our local congregations have no real possibilities of growth; they are aging, not attracting new and younger members, and they are financially stretched. From the stories I hear, many …

Checking the Time: The Clocks of the World

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What time is it on the clock of the world? (Grace Lee Boggs)

Politically, in the short term, it is high noon.  Today, as I write, the Senate is considering the most basic measure of anti-recessionary stimulus, and simple human decency: the extension of unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed.  If it can pass the Senate, its prospects are still doubtful in the House.

National policy is being fought way over in conservative territory (should we have unemployment insurance?) because of the power of a very conservative faction of the Republican Party.  This is what we see every day: government shutdowns, abortion restrictions, voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, the Koch brothers and the superwealthy creating political power whole cloth with money. Everyday, somewhere it is a showdown.

But in longer term politics, it is the dark before the dawn. The demographic base of this ultra-
conservative movement is rapidly declining. The young are more liberal; the nation is less whit…

The Continuing Saga of the Sunday Assembly

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"The continuing saga of the Sunday Assemblies"

Really, people should talk to Unitarian Universalists before they try to do what we have been trying to do for decades.  We might have something to teach, you know.  On the other hand, there are things that we UU's can learn from their experiments.

The Sunday Assemblies growth strategy is a franchise model.  Local leaders apply to become part of the Sunday Assemblies, get the rights to use the name and the materials, and are expected to use them.  This is quite different than Unitarian Universalists which used a locally autonomous affiliation model, where each new local group is free to shape itself however it wishes, as long as it has a democratic structure and conducts regular "religious services." Within those very broad guidelines, a new UU group can choose its own liturgy, theological perspective, and style.

A group in New York has sought the Sunday Assembly franchise but disagrees with the London leadership ab…

Turn Your Hand and the Flow is Changed.

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Happy New Year !

Where I am, it is a cold and somewhat snowy day.  A good day for a special breakfast, and staying inside, except for a trip to the gym, as I do almost every day now.  We stayed up late last night, laughing.

If you are the sort who likes to read something a little longer on a day like today, can I recommend one of my own posts? I wrote it a couple of years ago when asked to respond to Kim Beach's book about James Luther Adams.  There were about 75 people who heard the essay as read at the forum.  Less than 100 have read it since on this blog. If you are trying to figure out where I am coming from, it will tell you.

I think that we UU's should be reading James Luther Adams these days.  I think that we need to re-ground ourselves in the present moment, when the larger society is changing inexorably.


You have put your hand
 in water flowing
have you not?
Water from a pump gushing, 
muscled up from the Earth, 
or magically flowing in the kitchen
when you were learning to…