Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Most Accessible and Holistic Movement -- what would it take?

UU churches and congregations should devote their energies and resources to caring for the hundred of thousands, if not millions of people who hungry to participate in  social movements for radical social transformation.

There are people who want to be a part of the anti-racism movement, the environmental movement, the LGBTQIA movements, the reproductive justice movement, the immigrant movement, the movement for poorly paid workers. They are lots of people who see these things on TV, or online, and they want to do something.

But, it's a sad fact that most people do not have access to these movements. Not only do they not have access, they have other responsibilities in their lives that stop them from locking onto an anchor chain of a Shell Oil rig. They can't relocate to Cambridge to sit in at the Harvard alumni office for divestment.

For most people their only avenues for justice work are to send money to someone, sign an online petition, and share particularly insightful bits of content with their friends and family on social media. Does anyone cares that they desire a great social transformation?

What if our public ministry was to care for all those who want a great social transformation?

What do I mean by "care for"?

I read a report about a small Obama office in 2008, somewhere in the midwest, which had a sign on the wall: RESPECT, INCLUDE and EMPOWER. That's a start.

We should RESPECT the desire expressed by any person for social transformation. We should respect them for having it. We should respect the reasons they have for it. We should stop judging its sophistication. We should not disrespect it, laugh at its naivete, dismiss it as white guilt, or hypocrisy, or being faddish, or inappropriate to their experience. We should meet them where they are.

We should INCLUDE all those folks in some form of public programming. The main focus of our ministry for the next 5 years should be the creation of public events, organizations, occasions which include all those who want a great social transformation. We should be partnering with those outside of UUism to create these events, and we should be mobilizing clergy and lay people, both UU and non-UU to be the leadership of these forms and activities. There is a place for everyone, even if it just to sing along with the songs.

Here's the hard, yet liberating, part: The place where that public ministry happens should not be our Sunday morning worship services. Sunday morning has another purpose.

One example: UU churches could host on Saturday morning, a weekly or monthly Community Justice Forum, where all the groups, organizations and individuals who are engaged in social justice work in the community can come, talk with others, and share their stories. Everyone is invited. Where do the people who want social transformation come together in your community?

Example  #2: Imagine Standing on the Side of Love as a broad-based independent community movement for justice. Yes, it was created by Unitarian Universalists, but we turned it over so it can genuinely belong to all. It was our gift to all those who want justice now: the gift of an organization when it was rare.

And, we should EMPOWER people to do the work and get involved. Use our assets, our buildings, our connections, our power, our access to information to build the social movements. Grow and develop leaders. Teach people better songs and help our justice communities find their voice. Develop and promote the leadership of young people, people of color, and those who are not at the negotiating table.

One of the ways that we empower people is that we care for them. Building personal relationships.  Help them think about these commitments in the context of the totality of their lives. How to live in right relationship with others, including their life partners. How to pass these values and life perspective onto the next generation. How to maintain a multi-generational circle of life. How to carry on after great disappointment, or grievous error. We care for people, not as cadre in the progressive cause, but as persons.

And we offer them the chance to worship. Worship, not community organization, is the work of Sunday morning. Worship, not community organization, is the primary work of our ordained parish ministers. Sunday morning (or any worship time) is for those who want to go deeper into the internal work of living and dying in the world as we know it.

Friday, May 29, 2015

"the most holistic and accessible movement for radical transformation"

"Unitarian Universalism should be the most accessible and holistic movement for the radical  transformation of our culture."

Start with the goal: we want the radical transformation of our culture. Just read our Seven Principles; they are a description of a social order that is very opposite of what we got: a democratic world community of justice, equity and compassion, peace, liberty and justice. We've wanted that for decades; there are strains within us that have wanted it for centuries.

There are many organizations who share those goals; but they are not like us. The progressive organizations and networks in this country are usually small bands of professional staffers who lobby, litigate, campaign and fundraise off a passive membership on a mailing list. Most have no public meetings and are almost impossible to participate in with your body. Even political parties have very little actual activity going on. People can't reach them.

We are accessible: we have 1000 organizations who conduct weekly events open to the public. They are all across the country, in most cities and and many towns. While some have poor practices of welcoming and strong cultural traditions that can be off-putting to some, we are learning to be more welcoming.

We have 1600 professional religious leaders who perform public acts and are a strongly trained, vetted, leadership body.

We are a holistic movement. We are for every age, every lifestage, every level of commitment, and concerned with every issue in people's lives. The people in our movement visit the sick, teach progressive values to children, study together, companion each other in times of grief, befriend each other, make music and art together, and participate in social movements together. There is room for the child, the young family, the midlife person, the young adult, the elder.

We are a holistic movement. We recognize that the society we live in defined by a series of interlocking and intersecting oppressions and systems of exploitation. Because our work for the last decades has been about welcoming people into our congregation, we understand intersectionality and the range of oppressions that people suffer.

And most of all, we are holistic in our work. We understand that social justice and personal transformation and spiritual growth are all connected. Social justice is not achieved just by external political struggles. Participation in social movements requires internal work, facing up to one's own social position and presumptions. It requires a willingness to change oneself. And we know that to engage in that kind of internal work requires a spiritual foundation: a looser grip on the ego, a willingness to be confessional and vulnerable, a faith in forces and powers not under our control and which we can only dimly perceive. And that spiritual depth is built and fostered by the practice of worship, song and word, and deep speech, together. We know that social and cultural transformation happens through Love, by people who have opened themselves to Love and can Love others in return.

This should be our vision of the next stage of Unitarian Universalism.

by Tom Schade

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day: Expanding the Circle of Grieving

This is the sermon that I delivered at the First UU Church in Toledo, Ohio.
May 24, 2015
Memorial Day

Reading: From Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David Blight

African Americans founded Decoration Day at the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers labeled "Martyrs of the Race Course," May 1, 1865, Charleston, South Carolina. 

The "First Decoration Day," as this event came to be recognized in some circles in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable

Monday, May 04, 2015

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

 Unitarian Universalism backed into a type of moral reasoning based on principles when we adopted the Seven Principles.

A "principle" is a formalized abstraction. "The inherent worth and dignity of every person." The moral reasoning that follows the promotion of a principle is discerning what they principle means and how to apply it to real life situations.  Because we have seven principles, we have to also reason through how this principle relates to others. (Should the first principle be first, or should the last be first.?) And finally, because principles are generalizations, they can be tested by trying to find the boundaries and the exceptions, which leads to a lot of discussions about Hitler. Did Hitler still have worth and dignity?

"Virtues", in contrast, are character traits, habitual behaviors, and a mixtures of emotions and rational thought. A virtue is a way of being human. I have my list of the virtues of liberal religion: self-possession, honesty, humility, generosity, reverence, openness and solidarity. They are not impersonal beliefs but inclinations. You may have your own list; the words are not that important.

The moral reasoning that follows when I commit to these virtues is how do I best exercise these aspects of my character in the situations I find myself.

I think that our 7 principles are useful ways to summarize #uupublictheology.

But our ministry with persons made impersonal and stunted by our focus on principles. It reduces our challenge into invitation to join us in a conversation about what our principles mean and how should they be worded and then applied.

Better that our invitation and challenge to persons should be to grow in the virtues that we seek to embody in the world.

We have the fear that Unitarian Universalism suffers from being too abstract and impersonal. That it lacks a profound personal dimension and does not inspire, but only educates, stimulates and convinces.

I would really like it if we stopped trying to explain ourselves and struggling the words that will cover all that we believe. I would like it if we stopped saying that our communities are somehow super special, and that our way to being a religious institution is so much better than every other kind.

What I would like for us to say: we are trying to grow into the virtues we need for the lives we now live in. We are trying to be better people, because it will bring us more health and happiness and it will make a better world.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

From Principles to Virtues

This is the sermon I preached at the First Unitarian Church of Toledo on May 3, 2015.

I was at one of those many conferences about growing Unitarian Universalism, 10 years ago, when it came to me to ask the question: Why would someone want to be a UU? Actually, the question was a little more sharply focused. For what purpose would a person be a Unitarian Universalist? 

What’s our invitation? 

That question led me to today’s reading: William Ellery Channing’s I call that Mind Free.  (#592 in the Singing the Living Tradition.) 

William Ellery Channing
[WEC was the founding theologian of American Unitarianism: a Boston minister, active from about 1819 to somewhere in the 1840’s) The reading is an excerpt from a much longer sermon: Spiritual Freedom, which Channing gave in 1830. So, this comes from the very earliest days of american Unitarianism.

Reading "the Free Mind", and re-reading it, and reading it with the congregation I served in Worcester, MA, it came to me that when Channing described the Free Mind, he was describing the kind of person that he wanted to be, and the goal of the liberal religious life. Setting the mind Free was his understanding of spiritual growth. It is to grow into certain strengths, becoming a person of character, and developing a certain number of virtues. 

So I saw that “I Call That Mind Free” was Channing’s description of the the spiritual path of liberal religion. Of course, that is hard for us to see that because it is written in such lovely and complex 19th Century vocabulary and grammar and sentences. 

So one of my projects has been to bring this up to date — not to rewrite this, but to blow the breath of the 21st century into that 19th century language. I see seven essential virtues of liberal religion suggested in Channing. Why seven? You could slice and dice them differently and come up with different wording. But we have seven principles and so seven is our lucky, sacred, magic number. And because now with Facebook and the Internet, it seems that making a numbered list is the most common style of article.  So I could name this sermon: Seven shocking ways that Liberal Religion wants to make you a better person or “Seven secret UU tricks to becoming a better person"

I’ll tell you them now: Self-possession, honesty, humility, gratitude, reverence, openness and solidarity. 

The first virtue that Channing talks about is “Self Possession”. His final sentence talks of the Free Mind as being one “which is calm in the midst of tumults and possesses itself.”  Self possession is thinking for yourself, the ability to maintain your mental boundaries, to be what many today call self-differentiation.  Thinking for yourself is one of the cardinal virtues of Unitarian Universalism. Indeed, some think that it is the only virtue of liberal religion.  

But what stops you from self-possession? Channing shows some ways that we give up self-possession. 

Let me talk personally. What are the obstacles to my self-possession — my ability to think appropriately for myself. 

One is that our default way of thinking is what we get from our parents and families. Accepting uncritically what you get from your family and your people. Just to talk one small example. I grew up in a family where many men became ministers. As a result, none of my extended family lived in the same town as another. I assumed that was normal. My daughter married a man whose family all lives in the same town in Massachusetts, which confounds me. To have a free mind is to recognize that what I believe may be just opinions I inherited.

Channing says: I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith.

My thinking about where one should live is a passive and hereditary way of thinking. 

How else is my mind proven to be unfree? 

Today we talk much about privilege, or the relative advantages that some of have because we are
white. How much does that unconsciously shape our thinking? Many of you, like me, grew up in circumstances that made us see the police as friendly forces that keep us safe and that the worse they will ever do to us is sternly give us a speeding ticket. We are learning now, I hope, that for many other people, that is not their experience. We cannot change who we are, but we can become aware that how outward circumstances of our life can shape and control what we think.

Channing argues that to have a free mind, to be wise spiritually, is to free ourselves from such assumptions.

As Channing says: I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances. 

What else?

I know that I am an easily suggestible person. I follow fads and fashions. I like the pop song I hear most on the radio. I hit that like button a lot on Facebook. IF i see a sleek car advertised, I want to buy it. I like charming politicians that I don’t agree with. When I was working in the Information processing, my boss took me off the committees picked products to buy: He saw that I usually liked the last vendor I saw. I am easily persuaded. Left to itself, my mind is easily taken over.

Channing writes: 
I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion: which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few.  

Marilyn Mosby announcing the indictment of six
police officers in death of Freddy Gray.
Marilyn Mosby is the State Attorney in Baltimore. Her mind is free. Think of all the pressures on her mind as she made the decision to indict the police officers who killed Freddy Gray.  If she had given herself over a passive and hereditary worldview, her family history in law enforcement would ruled her work. If she cowered to human opinion, knowing that the police with whom she worked everyday might turn against her. She, on the other hand, “guarded her intellectual rights and powers” and saw her way to do the right thing.

Most people face a crossroads moment sooner or later in their life—a moment when they have to think for themselves and go against the crowd when the crowd is going the wrong way. Channing is saying that one of first goals of the liberal religious life is to train ourselves to do the right thing, even when everyone around is going the wrong way.

So the first strength that we need to cultivate is self-possession. 

What else? Self-possession is the path to living honestly. You need to be honest, and by honest, I mean that you have to live in the truth. 

Liberal Religion and Unitarian Universalism call upon you to face the facts: our signature gesture of the 20th century was to insist on incorporating scientific knowledge into spirituality.  We said that you have to know the difference between a scientific fact and a beautiful, even life-giving, truth-revealing story.    

In the 21st Century, you have to face the facts of your social position -- all the ways that you social position has made your life easy and all the ways that it has not.  

But to live in the truth, you will have be humble.  You may be smart and you may be self-possessed but you don’t know everything -- and you certainly don’t know how other people see the world and how they feel.  You may see police as people who will keep you safe. You have to be humble enough to know that others see the world quite differently, and their perception is as true to them as your perception seems like “common sense” to you. So you have to be quiet and listen more times than not. 

Honesty leads to Humility and Humility leads to gratitude and reverence. For all that which is not you.  We sing an old hymn: For the beauty of the earth which talks about The beauties of the Earth, the splendor of the skies, and the love which from our birth, over and around us lies.  Each of us would be happier and healthier if we held that beauty and splendor with reverence and with gratitude. We should hold the world and its people with the all reverence and care with which we would wash your grandmother’s wedding china after the Thanksgiving meal.

Channing says it this way: I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse: which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.

Awwwwww !
I know that gratitude and reverence are about as controversial as fuzzy puppies and kittens with balls of string.  Nobody opposes gratitude and reverence.  But I have been in situations just this month when I saw no “radiant signatures of the infinite spirit” anywhere.

So where are we? I have taken from this text, five mental strengths, five habits of the hearts, five virtues, five goals that Unitarian Universalism asks you to work toward: Self-possession, Honesty, Humilty, Gratitude and Reverence.

 Do you see what I am getting at?  The goal of Unitarian Universalism  is not about building churches and congregations -- at least, it is not only about building churches and congregations.  It’s not only about building a religious community. It is about changing people, starting with ourselves.  It’s challenging others and ourselves to claim ourselves -- to lay hold of our own agency, our own to power to act, and live our lives with honesty and humility and gratitude and reverence. 

There are also two other strengths suggested by Channing. 

The sixth virtue is Openness. Channing says that those with a free mind “open itself to light whencesoever it may come, which received new truth as an angel from heaven” I love that word “whencesoever”. I doubt that I am the only one in this room, who has to struggle to open myself to new truth whencesoever it may come, while guarding against the mental usurpations of society. To be open to new ideas, and yet not follow every passing fad.

And the seventh strength we are called to develop is Solidarity:
(Channing) I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering: 

We may not use the phrase ‘sets no bounds to its love”, but isn’t what we hope to communicate with our yellow tee-shirts. We stand on the side of love.

Channing goes further on this theme: “[the free mind]…recognizes in all human being the image of God and the rights of God’s children, and offers itself as a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind.”

Solidarity, or Compassion, or Universalism !

I have come to the conclusion that this world is governed by exploitation and oppression, and that Life, including human life, is threatened by the imbalances of power; the decisions that will shape our future are being made by a few. If the future of humanity is at stake, the age-old question is again being raised: who shall be saved? Not from God’s wrath, but from but from human folly.  Right now, it looks who will be saved will be the wealthy and the elite. Our future looks a lot like a gated community.

We are called to “set no bounds to our love” and to “sympathize with suffering”.

We are here to challenge our friends and neighbors with our words, and our actions and our lives to embody compassion and fellow-feeling and solidarity.  To be sensitive to the one who is a victim in the situation, to watch closely and see the ways of oppression and privilege in the situations we are in. 

These seven strengths are what UUism asks us to develop and grow. They are an invitation to us, and an invitation to live in a different way. What we ask is not complicated.  It’s simple and pure and clean and beautiful.  It’s living another way, it’s living a better way.  It is dedicating one’s life to the virtues of honesty, humility, gratitude and generosity, reverence, openness, solidarity and self-possession. It’s putting aside cynicism, and cruelty, and callousness, and boredom, and self-absorption and narcissism. 

 Our message is not only for the middle-class; it is not only for those who think of themselves as white; what we ask of the old is what we ask of the young, the straight and the gay, people of all combinations of abilities, people of either gender, or both, or neither.

It is the work of lifetime, and the reward is your life well lived ------- and a better world.