Archive for July, 2011

Impressions of a Renaissance

One of the highlights of my Summer as a Unitarian Universalist is General Assembly.  This “meeting of congregations” brings together thousands of people representing hundreds of congregations around the country as well as members of other liberally religious traditions from around the world.  I go for many reasons: to reconnect with friends and colleagues; to worship with thousands of other Unitarian Universalists; to hear inspiring sermons and stories — and the Ware Lecture; to sing in the ministers’ choir; to enjoy workshops on useful and motivating topics; to be a part of the public witness for justice; and much more!

This year, of course, was the fiftieth General Assembly, a full half-century since the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association consolidated.  We spent some of our time together looking back over those fifty years, remembering the highs and the lows — how we stood up to the FBI following the publication of the Pentagon Papers, how we failed to embrace racial diversity and power-sharing, how we led the way in advocating for civil marriage equality — as well as the hymns we’ve sung and the people who’ve served us.  We spent more of our time looking ahead, considering the continued challenges of our non-creedal theology, of race and class, of generational changes.  Since we were meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, a significant thread addressed Unitarian Universalism in the South, celebrating our vitality and projecting a hopeful vision for our entire denomination.

My primary impression is that Unitarian Universalism is enjoying a renaissance.  From superficial indicators such as membership numbers this may be hard to tell, but it’s clear from the culture itself.

For one thing, there’s a wealth of new music being created right now.  Singing the Journey was, in 2005, the first supplement to Singing the Living Tradition in over twenty years; since then, a Spanish-language hymnal, Las Voces del Camino, has also been produced.  The 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale included the premiere of “Sources: a Unitarian Universalist Cantata”; based on the six Sources that inform our living tradition, it was created by Jason Shelton, a former Franciscan and composer of many of the new hymns in Singing the Journey, and Kendyl Gibbons, one of the leading Humanist ministers within Unitarian Universalism.  This year’s General Assembly saw specifically commissioned pieces by music professor Tom Benjamin and by rock guitarist Bob Hirshon.  There’s all sorts of new UU and UU-friendly music being created by plenty of other people, too, from Judy Fjell and emma’s revolution to Wally Kleucker and Amy Carol Webb.

At the same time, there’s an increased willingness to take another look at Universalism, the half of our faith that was often overshadowed by the louder, more argumentative Unitarian half of the last century.  Modern Universalism seems to be finding its expression in a greater tolerance for poetry and metaphor and ambiguity, recognizing that reason and spirituality are not at odds with one another, but are in fact each other’s essential partner if we are to avoid “idolatries of the mind and spirit”, as our Fifth Source puts it.  Literalism is, after all, a form of extremism; whether religious or anti-religious,  literalism is the enemy of compassion.  Universalism reminds us that salvation — in this life, on this Earth — is something we must all achieve together, or not at all.

Next year’s General Assembly will take place in Phoenix and is intended to focus almost exclusively on issues of justice.  Given the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in Arizona and elsewhere, a large part of that will be in terms of advocacy for humane immigration reform.  More generally, though, we’ll look at why and how Unitarian Universalists engage in justice work, both here in the United States and overseas, as well as within our congregations and within ourselves.  I know there’ll be lots of great music and singing; my hope is that we’ll also approach this work while remembering that, no matter our disagreements and the range of petty human hatreds, there is room for all of us at the well of life.

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Summer Serenity

Summer tends to be a time of transition and replenishment.  One year of school has ended and another has yet to begin, and though work continues through June, July and August, almost all of us feel the change of pace, the shift in activities.  More than in other seasons there are camps and conferences, picnics and parties, visits to friends and family, weddings and vacations.  The sunny splash of the beach beckons, as does the coolness of the forests and the mountains.  Weekday work may not be so different, but regular schedules are relaxed, the precision of the kitchen replaced by the carefree delights of the grill, the glow of the television abandoned for the shade of a porch or a tree, the electric hum of air conditioning silenced on cooler days when open windows invite in gentle breezes.  There is a sense of lull but also of activity — of pausing, but also of anticipation, enjoying the season for itself but also looking ahead to the Fall.

Churches tend to go through their own time of transition and replenishment during the Summer, too.  Spring elections are behind us and new leadership roles are taken up; ministers and staff review, regroup and make plans for the coming year; formal religious education classes are in recess and instead there are camps and retreats for children and adults alike.  Those who have studied such things tell us that most “church shopping” takes place during the Summer, when families in particular look for spiritual homes where they can feel part of a supportive community, where their questions can be answered and their answers can be questioned, where they can join with those of like heart and mind to give thanks and build the common good.

Sometimes Summer’s transitions are bigger than usual.  There may be a new school, a new job or even a new career, perhaps accompanied by a move of many miles.  Such changes, even if deliberately chosen, are often bittersweet, the promise of the new offset by the absence of the familiar, the excitement of possibilities for the future dampened by the distancing of the comforts of the past.  If unchosen, they bring with them feelings of loss and regret, perhaps fear of the unknown, and usually anger at the causes of the unwanted changes.  Change, though, is inevitably a part of life, and there is no escaping it; indeed, it is a major part of life and since most changes, large or small, are not chosen, it is in how we respond to change that we do our living.

The Serenity Prayer is a well-known expression of what it might take to do that living, appealing as it does to “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  I have kept a copy of this prayer pinned to the wall above my desk since I was a child, finding in its simplicity a deep wellspring of hope that I had not encountered elsewhere.  As an adult, I have come to recognize and appreciate the power of being in community that brings life to that hope, that fosters in us wisdom, builds in us courage, and nurtures in us serenity.  We do our living in response to change to the extent that we are resilient — able to bounce back from all that our world throws at us, able to give thanks for the simple gift of life and all its challenges and graces alike — and we are so much more resilient when we are, as individuals, joined in community with others.  Families and friends, colleagues and congregations, all can offer us the love we need in our daily lives to not just survive, but thrive.

May you enjoy replenishment of life and the spirit in these Summer months, in yourself and in the company of those who bring joy to your heart.  If you are in transition, may you find those who will comfort, support and encourage you, never able to do your living for you but still accompanying you on this journey of faith, hope and love that we call Life.  And, with a song in your soul and a smile on your lips, may all your days be glad.

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