Sunday, November 30, 2014

Off The Record

I have been reading the posts from the anonymous UU seminarian, and the many comments that have come in.

I wish people who claim that "we" can't deal with "anonymous" statements could see themselves from afar. It's such a transparent avoidance technique and misdirection. The article has no specific criticisms of specific individuals. There is no healthy person to person alternative.

I myself, don't think that anonymity is warranted. I have not seen overt retribution and retaliation in the process that the author thinks is present. But sitting where I sit, there is a lot that I don't see.

How would you deal with this criticism differently if it were not anonymous? Well, you would know who is making the criticism, and you could offer them pastoral attention. But why assume that they need it from you? And you could evaluate the criticism based on who is making it...

Anonymity negates one defense against criticisms of the formation process: that the critic is angry at the system because they are being deservedly weeded out. After all, the system rejects some people, and of course, those people are angry about it. Criticizing the process can, in itself, become evidence that one is not measuring up to its demands.

I know that because I have thought that myself about people critical of the MFC, or the seminaries, or other aspects of the formation process.

We can't write off an anonymous critic so easily.

I stand by my decision to publish these postings on the basis of anonymity.

Canaries in the Coal Mines of Ministry

Seminarians are the canaries in the coal mine for the professional ministry. They give an advance warning that the atmosphere in which professional religious leadership is performed is growing toxic.

One toxic atmosphere is the economics, which many have pointed out already. Ministry is dependent on congregational stewardship. Congregations are being squeezed by lack of income growth in the middle class. The people are taking on big debts to become ministers are going to be among the first to notice what a risky proposition it is.

The second toxic atmosphere is the system of personal judgment and evaluation that governs our ministerial careers. The Commission of Appraisal in its study on authority pointed out that ministers have very little positional authority in our congregations. (Positional authority would be authority that comes with the office, no matter who is the minister. No, ministerial authority, as we now conceive it, is relational authority that is earned by personal behavior in the relational system of the congregation.)

Ministers, in other words, are evaluated constantly by people who are judging them on the most vague, personal, and undefinable standards. The RSCC and the MFC start the process of vague personality evaluations (the question in my day was whether we had "ministerial presence") and then hand the work of making these judgments off to search committees, committees on ministry, and governing boards of congregations. For many on those bodies, the evaluation is not much more than whether they "like" us, or remind us of people they don't like.

The canaries in the coal mines of our seminaries are telling us that this is crazy-making. It's making them crazy with anxiety and paranoia. And it's not just the problem of the formation process.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Fear Vs Boldness", Part 2 by an Anonymous UU Seminarian

I was offered a chance to publish this 2 part essay on the anxieties and fears that are felt by those preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. The first step is to listen. The author and I welcome your comments and feedback. 

How to Grow Ministers Who Will Maintain the Status Quo 
Part Two: Fear versus Boldness 
by Anonymous

As I said in Part One, I hate that this post has to be anonymous, but there is a sense of mistrust and struggle that prevents me, and my fellow seminarians, from speaking in the open. I know this bothers some, as we say we are open and honest in our covenants with one another, yet I fear that by speaking out, I am putting my career in jeopardy. 

To many, this may seem odd; how can well-educated, articulate, passionate people feel so scared in a denomination that prizes prophetic witness?

It isn’t any one thing. But just as the crow in Aesop’s fable gets the water to rise by adding a bunch of pebbles to the jar, so too the many pebbles – including a long formation process, financial concerns, lack of guidance along the formation process, and recent evidence of retribution at our flagship seminary – build a culture not on trust but on fear.

It is true that we signed up for this – a process that involves a rigorous three-year Masters of Divinity program, psychological and career assessments, a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, mastery of an 84-item reading list, and two meetings – 45 minutes with the Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy (RSCC), and finally an hour with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC), who then determine if we indeed have what it takes to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.

This process isn’t new, but the requirements have been growing more demanding over time, causing many of us to wonder if we’ll ever be good enough when we watch well-prepared members of our cohort to fail to meet the MFC’s requirements. Professional and financial support has been diminishing, to the point that I have wondered aloud whether the UUA wants new ministers at all. I’m told by those in final fellowship that the UUA wants lots of ministers, even knowing there aren’t enough congregations to go around. But we are told as we prepare for ministry to expect to be “bi-vocational” – in other words: keep your day job. What should be a supportive, encouraging process to nurture the next batch of ministers is instead a nerve-wracking, discouraging process, with several key issues:

Funding: It is more expensive to go to seminary, yet the number of scholarships and amounts have decreased, thus preventing those from less affluent socio-economic communities being able to consider even taking the first step toward ministry. We recognize that the UUA is struggling financially as well; this isn’t a complaint – just noting a reality that seminarians face as they take out more loans in order to complete their education.

Access and Support: In an effort to supposedly streamline the process, the RSCC now meets twice a year in just two cities – Portland, OR, and Boston, MA – expensive places to visit, especially for those who live more than a few hundred miles from one of these two cities. This is hardly “regional” and most assuredly not hands-on like ordination committees in other denominations. While we are told that we can always ask questions of the process and just “call the credentialing office,” the director is just one man, with one administrator to help wrangle the more than 500 people currently engaged in the formation process. It is only in the last few months that the UU Ministers Association has considered a mentorship program for candidates in process – as it stands now, we only get assigned a mentor after we’ve been granted preliminary fellowship. 

Fair wage: Many ministerial internships pay less than minimum wage. Most interns either rely on a partner who has a full time job or go on some sort of public assistance. These interns have masters’ degrees but are on food stamps. They are not neophytes; rather, they are serving our congregations as ministers, much like medical residents serve hospitals as doctors.  And the burden is largely on the individual congregations, who are following guidelines that promote a less than fair wage – with limited subsidies from the UUA, paid to the congregation. By the way, those subsidies limit the funding interns can receive; one intern minister, seeking assistance from the UUA, was told point-blank, “We already subsidize your stipend.”

Various seminarians have raised these questions with people who have access and standing to address them. We hope that these issues will be addressed, knowing that our concerns are not the only ones our very busy UUA staff is tackling. Often, however, we are told to keep our heads down, to toe the line, to not complain, to wait until final fellowship to raise questions. And yes, the current crisis at SKSM brings this to the fore; we are struggling to find our prophetic voices within a broken system laced with dismissal, isolation, mistrust, and one-sided covenant. And this scares us.  

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be hard. It should. But maybe it should be just a little easier, so that the ministers coming out of the process are the bold, whole, compassionate beings they were when they entered. In our discussions in the private group for seminarians on Facebook I see a cohort that is full of life, spirit, excitement, energy, and prophesy. We recognize our call to nurture a hurting world. We embody our call to deepen our thinking, our spirituality, and our actions. We are wildly insightful and intelligent, well organized and motivated. We are pushing the boundaries of what it means to do church and where we do it, what it means to be queer and trans* in non-heteronormative ways, what it means to be on-the-ground activists in the face of clear and present danger, what it means to be religious leaders in a country full of “NONE”s.

Yet what I fear is that the systematic atmosphere of mistrust will not create the ministers we need but instead will continue to create the ministers we are comfortable with. Karl Barth said our role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable;” we need to be uncomfortable with what’s happening inside our walls and willing to talk about it. We need to make this covenantal faith as good a community among ourselves as we are a prophetic witness to the world. 

This post is anonymous because we’re not there yet. Maybe one day a Unitarian Universalist seminarian with concerns can raise them without fear. 

May that day come soon.

Friday, November 28, 2014

"Fear versus Boldness" by an Anonymous UU Seminarian

I was offered a chance to publish this 2 part essay on the anxieties and fears that are felt by those preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. The first step is to listen. The author and I welcome your comments and feedback. 

How to Grow Ministers Who Will Maintain the Status Quo 
Part One: Fear versus Boldness 
by Anonymous

I hate that this post has to be anonymous. We are taught to be bold and confident. In fact, one of the centering qualities of our new UUA brand is “Boldness.”  Yet for people who have been called to ministry and are still in the formation stage (somewhere after our saying yes to the call, and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) saying yes to our right to be ordained and later granted Final Fellowship), boldness is simultaneously encouraged and punished. And so in order to both be bold and avoid possible repercussions, this post is anonymous. 

As the most recent news about the present controversy at Starr-King School for the Ministry (SKSM) makes a splash in the New York Times, several people have asked “why are the seminarians so quiet?” Under the blessed cloak of anonymity (and many thanks to Tom Schade for both publishing this and keeping anonymity), I can answer this question with three words: We are scared.

Yes. We, who have taken the boldest step a person can take – to enter the ministry – are scared.
As seminarians (a general term for those of us in this state of formation), we are – as all of our denomination’s ministers will tell you – in a tenuous space. We’re leaving behind a safe life and going back to school, discerning what it means to feel a call to ministry, wondering what it means on the other side of the degree, and knowing that something within us and beyond us – to use the words from the Service of the Living Tradition – is calling us forth from the congregation. 

We then face a reality of struggle – not uncommon to any ordination process – but which in the last few years has become seemingly more difficult. In Part Two, I will address some of the concerns we bring to the table, but for now, I will say that anyone who feels called to Unitarian Universalist ministry runs through a gauntlet that is more wounding than it was even ten years ago.

But still, we pursue the path in good faith. But even as we are encouraged to speak with a prophetic voice to injustice and intolerance (and name a book on prophetic witness as our Common Read), even as we are led to read the inspiring words of our own prophets and exemplars, even as we are encouraged to speak truth to power – when two of our number actually do speak truth to power at our flagship seminary, they are met with what can only be described as punitive retribution and coercion from administration and board of the very institution that trained them to be prophets.

Why is it that we can speak truth to power outside our walls but can’t stand it within our walls? 
If these two strong SKSM students can be denied their degrees for saying no to an infringement of their right to privacy, what kinds of retaliation is out there for others who speak up? Seminarians are afraid to speak up because we want to be granted preliminary fellowship. Those ministers in preliminary fellowship are afraid to speak up because they want to achieve final fellowship. And once ministers are in final fellowship, they are so deeply immersed in their careers, the plight of struggling seminarians falls down the list of priorities in the face of the sheer volume of things demanding immediate attention.

We talk a lot about being in covenant with one another; in fact, we had an entire General Assembly devoted to that theme. Yet covenant is both a blessing and an obligation: we agree to be on a shared journey where some of us will sometimes stumble and fall short, yet covenant keeps us bound together. Covenant asks us to be in ‘right relationship’ with each other; that means we show each other mercy when things go awry. Mercy. Not retaliation.

Seminarians are silent right now because we are scared. It is possible that some of the fear is greater on this side of the MFC than on the other, but with the SKSM crisis still looming large, we sense a strong level of distrust. We are unsettled. We are wounded. 

And for now, we are anonymous. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

It's Not a Principle; It's a Covenant

It starts: "We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations covenant to affirm and promote: 

and the first thing that we agree to affirm and promote is

"the inherent worth and dignity of every human being."

Our congregations have made an agreement that we will act together to affirm and promote, which are "doing" words: verbs.

At this point in time, saying "Black Lives Matter" is the cutting edge of our first principle. The status quo assumes that they don't, in any meaningful way.

I am calling upon our congregations to fulfill the obligations of our mutual covenant: to act visibly to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, by proclaiming that "Black Lives Matter" to the wider communities where they are.

Haven't we have all ready promised each other we would do so?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Darren Wilson saw a "Demon"

Essential to the worldview of conservatism and racism is the reduction of "the other" to a malevolent, almost superhuman, force.

Re-humanization is re-claiming the humanness of conservatism's victims. Michael Brown was a human being, not a cartoon running in the head of Darren Wilson.

Deconstructing the "All Lives Matter" Response (by Rev Cynthia Landrum)

Monday night I posted on Facebook "#blacklivesmatter."  No sooner did I post this, than someone commented, "All lives matter."  And it was no surprise.  No sooner did the slogan "Black Lives Matter" start getting used in Ferguson than the response slogan "All Lives Matter" came back.  And on the surface of it, this seems completely reasonable.  All lives do matter, right?  Here's why the "All Lives Matter" slogan is a problem.

First of all, there's the context it is being used in.  A Saint Louis-area minister, for example, wrote of a "Black Lives Matter" sign being defaced with "All Lives Matter" written on the front and a racial slur written on the back.  The fact that "All Lives Matter" is being used to argue against the idea that Black lives matter is proof that (1) People spreading that slogan don't really believe Black lives matter, at least not equally, and (2) It's therefore not true that all lives do matter equally in their eyes.  The statement's use belies itself.  If all lives matter, then black lives matter, so why the argument?  Why the comeback?  The comeback proves that statement false, and proves it for what it is -- a response born of fear and racism.

Secondly, rushing to proclaim equality in the face of a stated injustice is a gross minimization of the very real struggles and injustices faced by African Americans in our country.  To respond to "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter" is a response that minimizes, with its proclamation of equality, the current inequalities experienced. 

We've created a culture that says that if you're scared, it's okay to kill somebody, and it's completely reasonable to be scared of a black man, because all black men are scary, therefore they're at fault when they're killed, and the fact that they were killed while unarmed doesn't really matter.  In our culture, black men are routinely killed for being scary -- scary because  they "look like a thug," scary because they're wearing a hoodie, scary because they're holding a toy gun or a BB gun, scary because they might have stolen some cigarettes.  The response to this culture has to be to begin by proclaiming that these lives matter -- Black lives matter. 

Lastly, the "All Lives Matter" response has been used specifically in rallies organized to support Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown.  On the surface, that seems to be a statement just supporting that police lives matter, too.  And the lives of our police officers do matter.  But use of the slogan in support of someone who has killed another person again supports the idea that some lives matter and some lives don't, like the one that was lost.  Use of the slogan in this context says, "There's no way that this officer could have done wrong.  We support him without question."  And to say that there's no way in which this could have been anything else other than an officer doing his job takes us back again to the idea that black men are scary, bad, and if they get killed, it had to have been their fault. 

In short, the "All Lives Matter" slogan, with every usage, contradicts its message.  If one truly believes that all lives matter, then what's important right now is to proclaim loudly that Black lives matter.  Michael Brown's life matters. 

Photo from mid-day 11/24/14 of the location
where Michael Brown was shot -- by Tom Schade.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ministry and Beyond* [by Rev. Cynthia Landrum]

 Our UUA President, Peter Morales, wrote a well-known position paper titled "Congregations and Beyond," in which he talked about how our Association can cultivate organizations beyond congregations that share and spread our Unitarian Universalist message.  Scott Tayler, Director of Congregational Life, has been talking about congregations and between, or about connecting congregations to share important staff and resources.  These are two important approaches for our association and our churches facing the "new era" (as we like to call it in MidAmerica).

 What I want to address is a third area: ministry.  Now there is much implication for ministers in Scott Tayler's work, in particular.  Ministers are freed up and allowed to focus in areas of excellence by working in ministry teams across congregations.   So this goes hand-in-hand with that vision, and is not contradictory to it. 

But what I want to suggest is that we need a new understanding of ministry, shared by our congregations, that includes as a major part of the minister's work two things: (1) working with the larger movement in some way, whether through our association, regions or districts, or the ministers' groups, and (2) working outside of our church walls to spread our message and work for social justice.

There's good work out there about the missional church.  (See Red Pill Brethren for some examples.)  But only a percentage of churches really want to be missional.  It's often fighting the culture of a church, and taking people away from what they really wanted in the church to begin with -- a safe space of like-minded people, a family, warmth and connection.  What we need, then, is for the non-missional church to understand that part of what a church does is fund a missional ministry, not for them, but for the world.

We are already do those things as part of our ministry, but it's not what congregations are often conscious of looking for, or wanting.  And so sometimes doing those things can feel like taking time away from our "real work," or taking time away from time off and family.  This is what needs to change.  We need congregations to embrace the idea of a missional ministry even from a sanctuary church.

 I often get questions from colleagues about how I manage to do as much as I do for our larger movement.  I'm one of three Good Offices representatives for our UUMA chapter, I"m on the MidAmerica board, I blog and write occasionally for other sources like the UU World, and I'm in a study group.  And the real reason I can do all this is perhaps because I have an awesome church, that over the years has come to understand that one thing a small rural church can be, other than a small rural church, is a position from which a larger ministry beyond the church can be funded.  It's true, they don't think I do everything perfectly, and they think I could spend a lot more time in pastoral care.  But they also do really get how their role is to not just provide a liberal religious presence in East Liberty, but to be a part of our movement.  And while they're not fair share, one way they can give to our movement is by giving some of me. 

One secret of this is that in the small church they understand that they really do know how to run the church and keep it running, even if I'm away.  Take, for example, last weekend.  Our church service is at 11:00 in the morning.  At about 10:15, my husband got a phone call from our guest speaker, saying he was very ill and couldn't make it.  At some point prior to the church service, our Religious Education Coordinator found out from both of our RE teachers that they were also sick.  And I was gone for the MidAmerica board meeting and couldn't rescue them.  And none of them called me in a panic.  They organized quickly and found a lay member who had a sermon he'd been thinking of, and my husband and the RE Coordinator stepped in and led RE, and many people in the church had no idea what all had happened until afterward. With less than an hour preparation, they pulled off Sunday morning. 

I'm not saying that ministers should give up doing Sunday morning.  What I am saying is that we should cultivate in our churches, particularly our sanctuary churches, an understanding that we are giving up some of the work inside our four walls to go serve either our larger movement and/or our social justice calling.   Our movement, our calling, needs us to be ministers in our congregations and beyond

*This post comes out of a conversation that was held with Tom Schade, Nic Cable, Yvonne Shumacher Strejcek and myself this week, so I want to acknowledge that while words here are my own, and this is building on something I've been saying in other places, I would not have put it in this way without this group, particularly Tom, helping to shape my thoughts.  

What I Want in a UUA President [Landrum]

The call for applicants for the next UUA president from the Presidential Search Committee is happening, and it has a lot of people talking about who should throw their name in to the PSC, and what things we're looking for in our next UUA president.

I took a little time recently to crunch some numbers.
Name Birth Year Start Year of Presidency Age at beginning of Presidency Years in Ministry Prior to Presidency Years at UUA Prior to Presidency Total years UU prof. experience
Bill Schulz 1949 1985 36 3 7 10
John Buehrens 1947 1993 46 20 0 20
Bill Sinkford 1946/7 2001 54 0 7 7
Peter Morales 1946 2009 63 8 2 10

The last four presidents were all born at the beginning of the Baby Boomer era.  By the end of Peter Morales' presidency, they will have governed for 32 years.  And they are all men.  We've made great strides by having our first African-American president, and our first Latino president.

I think it's time for a woman or transgender president, and it's time for Generation X to step up to the lead.  Generation X ministers now have 10-20 years of experience, so we're right in the bracket of what we expect from a UUA president.  The oldest Gen-Xers are now turning 50; with ages in our thirties and forties now, we're the right age to govern, if our history is any marker of what we're looking for. 

Of course we should look for the right person with the right experience and a sense of vision and ability to govern and a deep theology and deep social justice commitment.  We should look for a president who can lead.  But there's no reason why this person can't be a woman, or someone gender-queer.  And there's every reason why it might be a Gen-Xer. 

I'm clear that this is not something I'm looking to do personally, and least in this stage of my career.  I have too many holes in my skill set -- soliciting large donations, just to name an obvious one that this small country church pastor lacks.  But I still hope it's a Gen-Xer, and am ready to think outside the male box of what president looks like.  I'm looking to my cohort and seeing who inspires me, challenges me, and who has shown leadership already in my generation.  They're out there; they're ready to lead; and they will be amazing. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Direct Democracy in the UUA? by Rev, Dawn Cooley

Assumption #1: That we want to bring more diverse voices to the table of governance at General Assembly.

Assumption #2: What we have been doing is not working.

Assumption #3: Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

In a previous post (both on my blog and on the Lively Tradition), I wrote that we may want to consider moving toward direct democracy (rather than indirect) in regards to who has a vote at General Assembly. In the thought experiment I proposed, some wise folks (tbd) would decide what UUA “Citizenship” means, and then everyone who meets those requirements would get a vote.

There were a variety of different responses to the post. Some people shared they like the delegate system as it is. To those of you in this camp, please refer to the assumptions above.

Other shared that they thought that when covenanted communities are given the right to vote, that this will bring more people to the table. This may be true, but I can't help but wonder about scalability in this situation. If a covenanted community of 10 people gets 1 delegate, then a congregation of 1000 would presumably get 100, at which point it seems as though we might as well just give everyone the franchise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"This Changes Everything"

says the title of Naomi Klein's book, subtitled Capitalism vs.The Climate.

"Universal Salvation" is part of the everything that it changes.

Framing the goal of life as "salvation" comes from the Apocalyptic era, when people thought that God was about the destroy humanity, because the human world was so screwed up. After all, when things are terrible, and seem to be getting worser and worser, just follow the trendlines to God's all-consuming fire.

To be "saved" was to be set aside at the end of time and spared.

When the apocalyptic age ended, the focus of death and salvation was moved to the afterlife: God's all-consuming fire was the fire of Hell and salvation was Heaven.

When the afterlife ended as a governing religious concept for religious liberals, salvation became an ironic joke. "Why do I need a savior? After all, what do I have to be saved from?" After all, our goals are nothing more than a long life of love and a good death.  And the satisfaction of knowing that we will be remembered well.

But Capitalism versus the Climate has changed everything, including salvation.

We now measure the "fire next time" in annual average temperature increases. The scientists say that an increase of 4 degrees centigrade means that human civilization will be dramatically degraded.

But not everyone will die. Some will survive; human beings are adaptive.

So, who survives the apocalypse? Who are going to be saved?

The global elite will survive. When resources necessary for survival, like water, energy, dry land, food, clean air, get scarce, they will be priced according to the market. Those who hold the wealth that humanity has heretofore created will have access to those resources.

We are on a course in which the global elite will survive while most of the world's poor will die premature deaths amidst squalor and suffering.

It's a process already underway and it is the very opposite of universal salvation.

Universal Salvation has a new meaning in the 21st century. It now means that we try to save everyone. That the power over our future is dramatically restructured and everyone has a place at the table. It means the death of black children is an important as the death of white children. It means that we fight Ebola in Africa, and not just wall if off from North America.

Universal salvation is not just a goal; it is also a spiritual awakening to the reality of interconnection. It asks of us to develop an emotional commitment to match our reality: solidarity with global humanity, an all-consuming love.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What I Want in A UUA President Part 2

I said this elsewhere, but I want to get it here.

I want a UUA President who will say forthrightly that she (presuming a younger, female UUA President) is unable to fix the problems of the local congregation.

Mostly our local congregations need money and members, and the UUA is not going to be able to supply them.  Yes, some need advice and training about  church governance, membership policies, and creating spiritual development programs. The UUA staff does a good job at providing these, and there are lots of other sources for that information.

And I agree that the UUA should provide more administrative support for local congregations through a centralized service bureau for fees, and the UUA President should be committed to making that come about.

That said, I don't the UUA President is the key to success in those efforts.

I also don't think that the UUA President will ever be a source of theological clarity. Theological clarity will arise through the common discussion of UU thinkers, writers, ministers, lay people and even humble bloggers. It will be a long slow messy process. So the many UU's who believe that we will not succeed until we "have a theology" will not have that issue settled in the UUA Presidential election.

The Presidency of the UUA is the supreme #thanklesstask.

What the UUA President can do provide religious leadership: indicate to people what is most important in life and living, what is of ultimate concern.

UU's believe that living ethical, moral, virtuous lives is the most important thing that a person can do. We also believe that ethics, morals and virtues have particular meaning in the world as we now understand it. We use to call it "salvation by character" -- not that we had good character and others did not, but that developing the habit of doing the right thing was our best hope.

We are called to live ethical, moral and virtuous lives in a world that is divided by oppression and privilege, where the material necessities of life are distributed unfairly, where the basic humanity of most of the planet's people is ignored, and where the basic life support systems of the planet are being willfully destroyed for short term profit.

Those that have power today are proceeding on a path that will result in the premature death of much of the planet and its people. The powerful are counting on the fact that they, their families, and their class will survive nonetheless.

Their vision is the very opposite of universal salvation.

What I want from the UUA President is leadership: a skilled effort at persuading by deed and word what is important and what is necessary to do now. I want to see the UU President preach universal salvation in today's context. Our nation needs visionary leaders and progressive religion is one of the few places where that leadership can grow.

Friday, November 14, 2014

First Response to "Normalized a Vision of a Nation at War."

The premise of the Ian White Maher's essay is our internal focus. When I say, "internal focus" what I mean is the assumption that what matters to Unitarian Universalism is how each of us responds to each other: how each of us experience our work together.

The hook of the essay is Ian's response to the 2014 Service of the Living Tradition. The tension in the piece is between the strength of his antiwar commentary and the honor and dignity of the UU ministers who serve as military chaplains.

As I read it, I held my breath, fearing that somewhere Ian would go over some undefined line and devalue our colleagues' ministries and work. And you can see his earnest effort to avoid that, as well.

Is that what is most important now?

Part of why we are happy to honor our military chaplains is because having them shows that we are recovering from an earlier period of class-based moralistic judgment. It seemed that for many years, we thought, "People like us don't do things like that." We are pleased that we seem to be becoming people who do.

And then along comes Rev. Maher. The question raise make us ask, "Are we managing this transition well?" and  "Is he just being resistant to change?"

That's how all of this looks inside the "internal" frame.

But look instead at the whole subject with an external lens.

Yes, we have military chaplains, who do their work.

What's going on though, out there, independent of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is that the US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan appears to have stalled, because of the perceived threat of ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State. The US is sending more troops back in, rather than pulling them out.

What do we think? What do you think?

People, both within and beyond our congregations, look to us (of course, among others) for a signal as to what is important about question like this. It is not clear-cut.

We bring our history and tradition to it. We have been mostly anti-war since Vietnam; we have lineage of more conscious pacifists as well, as well as pro-military folks. Now, there is a more highly developed anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism worldview that some bring to bear. It is the latter that Ian represents.

So what guidance can we offer? Out of our mixed and contested history, what wisdom do we have to share? How is our tradition alive now?

An external focus makes us think about what message we are sending to the people out there.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Normalized a vision of a nation at War" [Ian White Maher]

The Rev. Ian White Maher, who serves the new congregation "Original Blessing" in Brooklyn, New York, sent me the following essay. It's important, but irritating in a good way. Let's say challenging and prophetic instead. 

So read it carefully yourself. I am still trying to sort out my response. 

Ian White Maher
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I walked out of this year’s Service of the Living Tradition in order to play with the cute two-year-old sitting next to me. Like my young friend, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the ceremony, and finally I decided that playing with this bundle of joy was more in line with where my life is these days. Although I really love playing with children and will take just about any opportunity to do so, this was not a decision I took lightly. I believe in the ministry and, more specifically, I believe in our ministry as Unitarian Universalists. Serving as a minister in our tradition is one of the great honors of my life, and I am proud to stand in what I consider a beautiful and noble lineage. 

Each year, as we welcome new colleagues into the fellowship and say goodbye to those who came before us, the sermon outlines a vision for Unitarian Universalist ministry. No single sermon can hope to capture the depth and meaning of the ministry of our movement and every preacher will always encounter criticism for what they say (or don’t say) during the service. We accept this limitation when we get up to proclaim a vision. However, this year’s sermon, mostly through omission, normalized a vision of a nation at war that is inconsistent with who we say we are as a religious movement.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Before the Storm

The announcement of the Grand Jury in the case of Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, is due any day now.

Everyone is getting prepared. The Ferguson community and activists are conducting direct action trainings and recruiting medics, and clergy, and legal workers.

Governor Nixon had a press conference promising state violence and repression if private property is threatened.

The police are training and gathering the weapons of war around them.

Around the country, solidarity networks are being strengthened and actions are being planned.

How should I prepare my heart?

My fear is that I will be driven by my fears, and not by my resolve for justice. 

Given my background, if I give myself over to fear, I will drift into being more afraid of the anger of the protestors than the violence of the police. I will end up wanting things to get back to "normal."  I will be motivated by a desire for peace and reconciliation and what I call "love."

I am preparing for the storm by reminding myself that:

The anger of people of color over police killings is a good thing, not an unfortunate event. The more forcefully, persistently, and insistently it is expressed the better it is.

This is a time when there will be clear choice: Conservatives will demonize the protestors as thugs and rioters. Our mission will be to "re-humanize" them. They are ordinary people angrily fighting back against injustice with great bravery and resolve.

I have to remember that the only things that will stop police killings are anger, protest, and resistance. The only things that will motivate politicians to implement those first steps toward controlling police violence (things like a national database of police killings, Justice department reviews of every such case, vigorous prosecution of killer police) are, again, anger, protest, and resistance.

I have to remember that I don't have a satellite observation platform, where I can stand and look down on what is happening from a safe distance, detached and objective. My distance from the communities where the fear of being killed by police is ever-present does not make me more objective about what is coming, but it actually makes my perceptions less trustworthy.

I don't know what is coming to St. Louis. I pray that no one is harmed. But mostly I pray that this can be a turning point for our country, a time when forceful anger, persistent protest, and insistent resistance compels real change and a new system of justice.

We who believe in freedom must carry the flame.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

It's a Little Late

for an All Souls Day meditation, but here is one from 2003.

Rev. Thomas R. Schade
First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA
All Souls Sunday, 2003

One of the old confessions of the Universalist Church of America was their belief that, eventually, there would be a "a final reconciliation of all souls to a loving God."  

With that deft phrase, our Universalist forerunners cut through centuries of doctrine, dogma and speculation about heaven and hell, and purgatory, and predestination, and salvation.  They affirmed that for which we all hope -- that in the end, all of us will be gathered into the loving embrace of God who, at the end, will be more a loving parent than a stern and vengeful judge.  "A final reconciliation of all souls to a loving God." 

It is a good-enough answer for the question of what will happen to us after we die.  It is modest, and does not specify any particular scheme, but it states our hopes, that all of this will have somehow, a happy ending.  And is not God the name we give to our hopes that there shall be somehow a happy ending to passage of humanity across the eons?  Is not the truest object of our faith our hope that there is a great unavoidable goodness at the heart of all creation ?

But it is not only the souls of the dead, our dear and departed dead, that must be reconciled to God's loving embrace.  It is us, too, the living.  For every unwelcome and bitterly mourned death drives a wedge between us and God.  Every child that dies in suffering, every man or woman struck down in the prime of life, everyone who leaves survivors struck dumb with grief and longing, every person who dies in loneliness and lovelessness, makes us doubt, even if for only a short while, that life is worth living, that love is worth giving, that this Universe is a hospitable habitation for humankind.   

It is death, especially when it untimely, unjust or unexpected, that brings us to doubt, and to despair and to hopelessness.  If we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we can come to think of the Universe as sound and fury signifying nothing, a random sequence of encounters and accidents and happenstance.  

But if death is the father to doubt, grief is the mother of faith.  For grieving leads from mourning a particular death to remembering one special life.  We start by weeping at the death of one we love, but in our weeping, we turn naturally toward remembering not just their death, but all the life that came before: All their beauty, all their courage, all their grace, all their love.  

For if the deaths of the ones we loved makes us want to turn away from this world, this life, and this universe, it is the memory of the lives they lived that leads us to embrace our lives more fully, to be reconciled. 

Is there anyone not carrying the heavy burden of grief? Who does not harbor resentment and bitterness, at some unfair, unjust death?  Who does not need to be reconciled to the realities of human life, with all its pain, and all its joy?  
So, cling to the memories of those you have loved and lost!  Pray that they might stay with you, and abide with you.  Take the occasion of anniversaries, of birthdays, of All Souls' Day to flood your heart with memories. Let your heart be broken again and again, so that it might be healed again and again, for from death, and the memory of death, will come new life and love.  


MidTerms Show Need for Progressive Religious Leaders

Lots of people want change, progressive change. They come at it from different experiences, but the desire for real reform is ever present.

What Have We Learned?
For the most part, people hope that a political leader will lead the way. Barack Obama rode our Hope for Change to the White House. Now, that hope is looking for a new vehicle. Will it be Elizabeth Warren?

The walloping that the Democratic Party took in the mid-terms shows how weak it is as a voice for our aspirations. While one or two of its leaders invoke our desires some of the time, most of its leaders cannot. Their role is to seek 51%, and that necessity means that they will, in most cases, be uninspiring.

There is no way that someone running for the Senate in Kentucky or Georgia is going to take us to the mountain top and show us the promised land. But if they cannot do it, they cannot win, because people who want change will not turn out for them. Al Sharpton: "You have to turn them on, before you can turn them out." But if they do it, they cannot win, because that is the stage of history we live in.

In Presidential years, we are inspired by a presidential candidate. On the off-years, we are left with Michelle Nunn or Allison Lundergran Grimes.

So who will take us to the mountain top and show the route to the promised land? Who voices the vision without compromise? Who calls out the resistance to change? Who challenges those who vacillate on the sidelines? Who looks beyond the next election?

Kay Hagan almost retained her Senate seat from North Carolina.

Doesn't Need 51%.
I am sure that she would not have even come close if it had not been for the strong moral leadership of Rev. William Barber preparing the way. And the Moral Movement in North Carolina will continue after Kay Hagan moves on to her next career.

Strong, progressive religious leaders make the difference. But they are now weak. Theirs is the missing voice. And we are left with the occasionally visionary politicians, comedians like Jon Stewart, and TV commentators instead.

Cynicism is Obedience
Look at the famous Tobin Grant chart: the laity of most of the more liberal mainline denominations are quite conservative when it comes to economic and social policy. They differ from the conservatives only on the questions of traditional morality.  (You have to go to the chart; RNS does not allow me to show you the graph itself. It's VERY INTERESTING !!!! )

The mainline clergy are not going to be brave voices for social justice, or reproductive justice, or for global environmental justice. Look at where their laity is.

The laity of the African American denomination will support the demands for social justice and economic change. And African American ministers have often been in the role of moral leadership. But the success of leaders depends on the contributions of "first followers."

Oh, if only there were a denomination where the laity was as progressive as their clergy, a denomination unencumbered by a large and noisy rightwing. A denomination where religious leaders could step out into the society and give voice to the hopes of the people, amplify the stories of their struggles, and be the missing leaders and their first followers.

Oh, wait.......

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Long Arc [Landrum]

Yesterday marriage equality momentum was halted in four states as the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  I hear friends talking about moving out of state, and I don't blame them for wanting to live somewhere where their families are acknowledged, and, even more importantly, protected. 

Amidst the grief for my friends and congregants and colleagues affected by this, I keep repeating to myself, "the arc is long, but it bends towards justice."

We don't know that it does, of course.  This is a matter of faith.  But I believe it.  And the nature of an arc, is that if it is very long, and if you are standing on it, it will feel flat.  And you will not be able to see at times how it is bending toward justice.  It may feel like it is in fact not at all bending toward justice.  It feels like it's bending the other way in Michigan and Ohio and Kentucky and Tennessee right now. 

Theodore Parker spoke to this.  Our eyes can only see a little ways.  We cannot see the whole curve by sight -- we have to see it by conscience rather than sight, he explained.

It doesn't make things any better for the people whose daily lives are affected right now.  That is still painful, and still unjust. 

But I remind myself it took a hundred years for women to get the vote, and Susan B. Anthony didn't live to see it.  It wasn't by one march that civil rights were were won.  It was 95 years from the fifteenth amendment to year that saw the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, and then saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  

I can't see the arc right now very easily.  My eye reaches but little ways.  But I am sure it bends toward justice. 

Taking the Offensive Against Voter Suppression

Article 1, Section 4 of the US Constitution says:

SECTION. 4. The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Why does the Constitution of the United States give the responsibility for conducting elections to the states?

For the same reason that Article 1, Section 2 says:

SECTION. 2. The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

So why does the Constitution give the power to set the qualifications for voters to the US Congress to the states?

That's the way it is; but it doesn't make any sense. Congressional Representatives and Senators and the President are officials of the Federal government. Why wouldn't the Federal government establish the qualifications of voters electing Federal officials? Why wouldn't the Federal government run its own elections?

But the answer is simple: the price of the slave-holding states for participating in the new government established by the 1789 Constitution, was that the new Federal government would not have the power to even potentially interfere with the institution of slavery. What if the Federal Government made a law permitting slaves to vote?

The Constitution leaves the qualifications for voting and the administration of elections to the states so as to not potentially threaten the systems of oppression in effect in the states.

The state administration of federal elections, and the state determination of the qualifications for voters in federal elections serves no other purpose and is now a source of partisan mischief. We have seen it in denial of African American voting in the South, and in the all the efforts for voter suppression now.

Taking the Offensive against Voter Suppression is demanding that Federal Government establish a National Elections Administration, under the Justice Department, which establishes a single national voter registration list, and uniform elections rules and schedules across all fifty states.

All citizens should be registered once at age 18, and that registration stays valid forever. A person's registration follows them as they move. All they have to do is to update their address with the elections administration. The Brennan Center proposes a more modest plan, which they call Voter Registration Modernization.

The same procedures, machines, and rules for voting should apply everywhere, from Massachusetts to Texas. The same procedures for early voting, absentee voting, mail-in voting should apply everywhere. Standard voting machines in use everywhere, specified, programmed, tested and tabulated by federal employees. Federal law should govern convicted felon voting. There should a national right to vote, enforceable in federal courts.

This may not be possible now. Political power now resides in the beneficiaries of the current system. But we the people should start demanding it now. Religious leaders, especially those who champion "the use of the democratic process ... in society at large" should be not only protesting voter suppression, but going on the offensive against it.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

What I Want in a UUA President

The UUA Presidential Search Committee is doing their work. They have published a job description and established a nominating process. People can nominate themselves or others. So, people are starting to talk about what qualities and skills a UUA President needs to have.

Liz Jones, Michael Tino, Joanna Fontaine Crawford, Wayne Arnason, Matthew Johnson, Elandria Williams. Not pictured, Jacqui C. Williams.
From the talk I see and hear, people think it is time for a younger woman, which is great and overdue. But what do we want her to do?

My opinion: 

I go back only as far as John Buehren's election, so my memory is not comprehensive. One persistent criteria for the UU President has been the "public leader": the spokesman for our faith who makes a fine statement on public issues and is occasionally arrested for our commitments, in some sort of ritual of substitutionary sacrifice. 

I used to scoff at this understanding of the role. I was more apt to think of the role in terms of institutional leadership: managing staff, making budgets and that all-important fundraising. The shift toward policy governance made that part of the job more visible, because it reminded us of the accountability of the President to the Board of Trustees. 

But now, I think that maybe the role of public leader and spokesman is more important than before, because the times that we are living in are different than before. 

We need leadership that pushes us toward relevance. Unitarian Universalism will grow to the extent that it is relevant to people who are not now UU's. Relevance does not grow out of intent, but impact. So, a criteria that we need to expect from our new younger, female President is: Can she lead people who are not UU's?

People expect religious leadership to signal to them what really matters. And we believe that love, a broad, generous, embracing and including love, an agape love, is what matters most, for us as individuals and as humanity. Religious leadership invites people to enter into that life of love, even though it sets you at odds with the social order. Relevant religious leadership points out how and where that love can make a difference now.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Dems Can't Put Off The Work They Need to Do.

The GOP made the midterm elections about President Obama, and they won big. Yes, the field was on their territory, but still, Obama-baiting was the core of their message. Red State Democrats recognized this and ran from the President. Issue-wise, Republicans were incoherent--for the repeal of Obamacare, yet in favor of keeping its benefits. The voters voted liberal on ballot measures on the minimum wage.

From North Carolina
The power of Obama to frighten people is still potent. It is testament to the power of racism as an semi-conscious ideological force for many white voters. Fear of black power is what makes white voters hate Obama. Increasing African American participation in the political structure, including the development of black political leaders, has precipitated more white backlash. 

This has to be confronted and resolved for progressive change to happen in the United States. It will not go away with the passage of time, although it may get better. (Millennials' racial attitudes are less overtly prejudiced, but closer examination shows that they are on the surface, and not well thought through.) There is no path to a better future around, over, or under racism. The only way is through. 

The progressive movement must become a fully anti-racist movement. It has to be able to hold together a coalition that can win elections and govern. A daunting task. 

Unitarian Universalists committed to becoming an anti-racist religious movement years ago. It has been very difficult and slow work. Many UU's of color have become discouraged over the course of this work. 

But what we have been doing is only a tiny experiment in what needs to be done in the country at large.  In order to win a better future, more white people have to be changed. 

Shaping History needs to be Our Goal.
So, what have we UU's learned since Selma? How do we apply those learnings to the transformation of the nation? 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Predictions for the Future

Dawn Cooley made a general prediction that 50 years from now, a majority of people will be conducting their spiritual and religious life outside the structures of congregations. I don't think it was the point of her article, but it was interesting to think about.

I think 50 year predictions are pretty dicey. While 1965 can seem like yesterday to me some days, it's actually quite a long time ago. No one then would have predicted the present to be as it is.

But five and ten years are more predicatable.

I think that in the next decade, we will see more of what we see going on now. The line between the spiritual/religious life and ordinary life will continue to blur. The distinction between "spiritual" and "secular" is becoming obsolete.

The secular has become spiritualized. In the words of songwriter Peter Mayer, "Everything is Holy Now." As we become conscious of the incredible series of chances that make the natural and human worlds what they are that consciousness fills us with awe and gratitude. We are amazed at the intricate patterns of interdependence in all realities.

On the other hand, the ordinary workings of the secular world, markets, trade, the production of food, the acquisition of the energy to make human life bearable, have brought us a global existential crisis, which places upon on all of us, even the most devoted atheist, an infinite demand.

In our present context, what is the "spiritual?" How does one find balance in an human order so out of balance that it is threatening communal human life altogether? How do you save yourself from God's world-destroying wrath, when it is human error that will destroy the world? No individual will "get right" with God, or the Universe, except through common human work, done in solidarity with all the others.

If, in the next decade, religious institutions assume the distinction between the spiritual and the secular as their reason for being, I predict they will become institutions of escape and enclosure: escape into a stress-free zone of personal life, and enclosure in a small safe community.

For religious institutions to survive, I believe that they must be the places that connect people to the larger realities: the global crisis, the lack of justice, the ideologies that oppress and exploit. For religious institutions to survive, they must challenge people with an infinite demand that is appropriate to the times: Can you summon up and live out the universal solidarity that is necessary for our future, when all shall be saved, or none?

Monday, November 03, 2014

The UU Voting Guide

Step 1: Plan to vote
A commitment to the Democratic Process is one of our UU principles.  Know where your polling place is.

Step 2: Encourage others to vote
Do you know someone who needs a ride to the polls?  Ask around at your church.  Help others research their polling place and understand their ballot.

Step 3: Study your ballot
Find out what's on your ballot and study the small races, too.  They're decided by fewer votes, and yours matters.

Step 4: Vote the whole ballot
Most Americans don't vote their whole ballot.  And more Democrats than Republicans don't fill out the whole ballot.  That's what I recently heard, although I can't find a source to cite.  Believe it's true, though, and let it motivate you to look up those judges, regents, school board candidates, and ballot initiatives.

Step 5: Avoid the Straight-Party Voting Option
Believe it or not, there is a lot of confusion out there about straight-party voting.  There is confusion about which races it covers, whether or not if you mark one item separately that will override part or all of the ballot, and other issues.  It turns out, SPV works differently in different states.  In Michigan, for example, you can vote straight-party for Party A and then override it with Party B in a particular race.  In other states, you cannot override the SPV.  In North Carolina it used to be the case that the SPV vote did not include the presidential race (this was recently eliminated).  Unless you have a lot of confidence you understand the idiosyncrasies of your state's SPV system, avoid it.  In addition, it often leads people to forget about the non-partisan ballot items.  Take your time, and mark things one at a time.  

Step 6: Bring Your Principles into the Voting Booth
There are issues that UUs care about -- anti-oppression, anti-racism, multiculturalism, reproductive freedom, immigration reform, LBGT rights including marriage equality, the environment, peace, escalating inequality, and religious freedom, just to name a few.  Know where the politicians stand on the issues and vote your UU values.

Step 7: Share Your Beliefs
I always bring my child into the voting booth with me.  She's often heard me talk about the candidates, or even knows the candidates herself in the case of school board and other local races.  I let her mark in some of the bubbles, and share with her why I think voting is important.   Prior to the election, I almost always talk with my extended family about who we're each supporting and why. Voting isn't a personal matter to me -- it's an expression of values and beliefs, and my UU principles.

Post by: Cynthia Landrum