Archive for December, 2011

The Power of Recognition

From time to time someone I don’t know figures out that I’m a minister.  This is most often in a setting where that’s a safe guess: someone in a jacket and tie asking where they can find a particular patient in a hospital is quite likely to be a minister.  Sometimes it happens elsewhere — at the counter of a fast food restaurant, for example — particularly if the other person has already guessed that the chalice design on my lapel pin is a religious symbol.

There are situations where it’s helpful to be identified as a minister, of course.  I’m more likely to be allowed into the Emergency Room to see a member of the congregation — or to be with the family of that member — if I have a badge with “clergy” on it.  There are also situations where it isn’t helpful, where the other person becomes painfully self-conscious or sees me as a challenge to their own faith or even feels the need to confess what they think are their sins!

Furthermore, there are situations where being recognized as a minister can make a big difference.  When you see clergy at protests, for instance, it sends a powerful message that this isn’t just a secular matter of unfairness but a religious matter of injustice.  My colleague Rev. Jeanne Pupke of First UU in Richmond shared with me her decision to wear a clerical collar at public witness events after seeing photographs of collared ministers at civil rights protests in the 1960s.  The media certainly pays more attention to the presence of people in clerical collars, particularly if they’re being arrested for civil disobedience!

In the July 2010 “Day of Non-Compliance” protests over Arizona’s SB 1070, for instance, many Unitarian Universalist ministers wore clerical collars.  Now few of them would wear such garb in their own pulpits — the stole is standard for an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, even more than the preaching robe — and yet there is power in being easily recognized as clergy, by the media, by those with whom we stand in solidarity, by fellow protesters of all faiths and, yes, by other Unitarian Universalists.  Some of those collared ministers also wore yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts on top of their clergy shirts — demonstrating a willingness to suffer for a good cause in the heat of Phoenix in July! — and helped contribute to the visibility of “the love people”, as the yellow-clad Unitarian Universalist protesters became known.

Given that the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will take place in Phoenix — and is specifically recast as a “Justice GA” — I’ve been considering buying a shirt with a clerical collar.  I’d wear it at public witness events, at GA and elsewhere, whether protesting racial profiling, worker exploitation, economic injustice or marriage inequality.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, I saw an announcement from the UU Ministers’ Association that a well-established outfitter of church supplies and clerical attire would be selling clergy shirts in the yellow of the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign and with the campaign’s heart symbol on one sleeve.  “What a great idea!” I thought.  “That solves two problems in one go!”

Not all of my colleagues agree with me.  Some dislike the shirts on aesthetic grounds.  Others object to what they see as the corruption of a religious message through merchandising.  Some complain about the self-righteous Unitarian Universalist sense of “terminal uniqueness”, that we’re entirely separate from “mainstream” religion.  Others argue that we are separate and thus have no right to a traditional symbol of Christian ministry.  (“Traditional” should probably be in quotes: the Church of England records that the clerical collar was invented by a Scottish Presbyterian minister in the 1890s, and was only adopted by Catholic priests in 1960s.)

On the other hand, I remember the story (as related by UU minister Dick Gilbert) that in 1917 the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church assembled in St. Petersburg, and while they were engaged in a bitter debate over the color of priestly vestments, the revolution was raging just a few blocks away.  So, I’m buying the shirt and I’ll wear it at protests and other places where I’m a minister who works for justice, because it’s the revolution that really matters, not the debate.


I hope you’re enjoying a happy and peaceful holiday season and I wish the best for you and yours in the new year!

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

As we enter the final weeks of 2011, stores are busy with last-minute shopping and post offices are crowded with last-minute mailing, and it won’t be too long before we’re into 2012 and life gets back to what, for most of us, passes as ‘normal’.  For the week and a half from Christmas Eve through to New Year’s, though, I am thoughtfully wishing (to use Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church’s phrase) for a time of happiness and peace, of precious respite from the busy-ness of our modern society, for you and yours and our whole world.

The end of each year is a natural time for looking back.  Much of what seems to be on television right now, for instance, seems to be year-in-review retrospectives, whether it’s the year’s most interesting people or the year’s funniest adverts.  It’s also a time for looking ahead, for thinking about what we want to do and who we want to be.  Imaginative dreaming lifts us up for the longer view, to see what seeds we might plant for the distant future while continuing to nurture the past’s growing seedlings so they may in time bear fruit.  New Year’s resolutions, of course, need to be specific, bringing creativity to bear on imagination and turning vision into action.  In a similar way, my congregation’s staff and lay leaders are preparing for the second half of the church year, planning meaningful Sunday services, fun-raising social events, informative and inspiring religious education classes and workshops, and prophetic work for justice, all of which are dedicated to our mission of creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

One of the questions that is occasionally asked about our congregation’s mission is where justice comes in.  After all, Sunday services, community events and faith development are clearly implicated, but what about our work in the wider world?  Indeed, as the great Unitarian (and then Unitarian Universalist) theologian James Luther Adams put it (in one of my favorite quotes!), “a purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion.”  Certainly prophetic action that speaks truth to power is one of the hallmarks of our faith, inherited from both Unitarian and particularly Universalist halves of our religious heritage, being integral to most of our Seven Principles as well as built into the very governance of the congregation.  From my perspective, however, our efforts to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice are represented — required, even — by all three pieces of our mission statement.

First, a community is dynamic to the extent it includes diversity.  Homogeneity breeds stagnation for if there is no difference or variation then there is no impetus for change or growth.  Diversity does not automatically lead to fairness, however, and in fact will only survive where there is equity, compassion and acceptance of one another.  Second, the celebration of life recognizes both joys and sorrows, lifting up the good times but not pretending that there are no bad times.  In this we honor everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and we work together to insure that everyone may speak their conscience and be heard, finding healthy ways to agree to disagree when necessary.  Third, we embrace a plurality of truths.  As a religion that helps us to figure out for ourselves what it is we truly believe, we actively encourage one another’s spiritual growth, providing a safe place for exploration and demanding a world where people are not treated differently just because of who they are or what they believe.  Our ability to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truth, then, depends intimately and necessarily on an orientation toward justice, both within our own walls and beyond.

I’m looking forward to seeing how we live our welcoming, worth-shaping, wondering faith in the year ahead, bringing our good news to those who so need to hear it.  My thoughtful wish is that 2012 may offer celebration where there is joy and comfort where there is sorrow, invitation where there is loneliness and generosity where there is fullness, great-heartedness where there is difference and strengthening hope where there is difficulty.  So may it be.

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