Posts Tagged culture

The True Measure of Our Gifts

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 17th 2013.)

The King James Version has been the most influential English translation of the Bible for most of the four-hundred-and-two years since it was first published.  During that time it has contributed hundreds of proverbs, sayings and other phrases to the English language, more than any other single source, including Æsop’s fables and the complete works of Shakespeare.  When someone claims that “the writing is on the wall” or asks if “a leopard can change its spots”, when they describe something as “a labor of love” or say that their “cup runneth over”, they’re actually quoting the King James Bible.  (If it has a “thee” or a “thou” or a verb ending in “-eth”, that’s usually a clue.)

Now there had been a couple of earlier English translations but some mistakes had been pointed out by the Puritan wing of the Church of England.  The Puritans were concerned with the purity of their faith, after all, so they wanted any version of the Bible to be as true to the original as possible.  (Not that anyone at that time had the originals of any of the Biblical texts, but never mind.)  So when King James took the throne of England, one of the first things he did was convene a conference of scholars and clergy of the Church of England, charging them with the task of producing a new, more authoritative English version.  He also gave them specific instructions to make sure that certain Hebrew and Greek words were translated in ways that matched the organizational structure of the Church of England, so as not to give the Puritans any further fodder for their complaints about how the church wasn’t doing it right.  For less political reasons, it also used contemporary weights and measures in place of ancient terms that were unfamiliar.

For example, there’s a story told in both Mark and Luke where Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple and sees a poor widow donating a couple of small coins.  In the Greek, both Mark and Luke use the word “lepton” to name the type of coin the widow is donating, the lepton being the smallest unit of coinage in the Greek-speaking world at the time.  (If you know your particle physics, you’ll realize this is the origin of “lepton” as the name of that class of fundamental particles which includes the electron.)  Of course, the scholars working on the King James Bible needed a word more familiar to their contemporaries, something even smaller than the farthing, which, at a quarter of a penny, was the smallest coin in England.  In the end, the translators went with the name of what was then the smallest coin in Europe: the mite of the Netherlands.

Here, then, is the King James Version of that story, as found at the end of chapter twelve of Mark.

“And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.  And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.  And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:  For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

The last sentence can be a little hard for us to grasp when written in the over-punctuated and spelling-optional English of King James, so here it is again in the modern English of the New Revised Standard Version:

“This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When it comes to sermons on generosity and giving — particularly in congregations that have some sort of annual pledge drive in order to fund the next year’s budget — the story of the widow’s mite is an obvious text.  I first heard it as a child, in fact, staying in services one time rather than going to Sunday school, my sister and I asked by the minister to help illustrate the point of her sermon.  One of us got what looked like a big bar of chocolate — it was actually made of cardboard, which was probably just as well or it wouldn’t have lasted until it was needed in the service — and the other got a considerably smaller fake bar of chocolate.  The minister’s point was that even if we each gave away the same amount of chocolate, whichever one of us had the smaller amount to begin with was actually being more generous.

And that seems to be implied message in the words attributed to Jesus.  “Look at this poor widow,” he says to his disciples.  (And according to Mark in particular, Jesus is constantly pointing out even obvious things to the disciples, since they otherwise spend most of their time clueless and confused.)  “Look at her,” Jesus says.  “She only has two coins to rub together — literally! — two practically worthless copper coins, but she gave them both to the Temple anyway.  There are all these rich people making a big show of putting lots of silver coins into the treasury, but this widow — disowned by her family after the death of her husband and living without any income — she puts in all that she owns.  She’s actually giving more than they are.”

It’s certainly a story that’s tempting to preachers who want to sway the hearts and minds of their congregants, at least in those traditions that proclaim the importance of what is known as sacrificial giving.  But is that really the point of the story, that church members should give until it literally hurts?

I was recently introduced to a method of trying to figure out what is going on in a given situation, particularly the context is an unfamiliar culture.  It’s natural, of course, to view any situation through our own cultural lenses, so it requires a lot of intention to not do that, whether it’s something that we see happen between two people across a room or something reported to have happened almost two-thousand years ago.  The method is known as Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, or D.I.E. for short, and those name the three stages.

The Describe stage requires naming what happened as clinically and objectively as possible.  In the case of the story of the widow’s mite, that’s done for us: Jesus sees people putting money into the treasury; some rich people put in quite a lot of money; a poor widow puts in two tiny copper coins.

The Interpret stage asks us to name how we understand what happened, based on the assumptions arising from our own experiences.  That’s done for us, too, in Jesus’ words interpreting what he saw: the widow put in all she had, and so in relative terms was giving more than the rich people.

What is not in the Bible’s text is the Evaluate stage, where we are called to bring our own sense of values into play and arrive at a value judgment based on cultural expectations.  If we’re only focused on making sure there’s enough money to pay the bills and employ enough staff to run programs and fund committees sufficiently for their work, then it’s natural that we’d evaluate the story as meaning that people really should give until it hurts, that there’s virtue in someone giving away more than they can really afford.  If, on the other hand, we’re focused on making sure that everyone has enough to live on, that the people who don’t have a lot to begin with aren’t expected to give beyond their means, that the people who have more can make correspondingly bigger contributions, then perhaps what Jesus was actually doing was criticizing a corrupt system where poor widows were expected to give up everything they had in order that the privileged could maintain their status in an unjust society.

(Immediately before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus tells the people listening to him in the temple: “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”)

So why am I talking about the story of the widow’s mite this morning?  We are, after all, heading into our annual pledge drive, the weeks each Spring when we canvass our members and ask them to pledge their financial support to the congregation for the next church year.  The story of the widow’s mite is, as I say, a common text for sermons on generosity and giving, but I’ve just explained why any preacher who uses it really should stop and re-evaluate it.  What’s more, I realize that while many Unitarian Universalists may have some academic interest in better understanding a well-known Bible story, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be convinced to behave one way or another just because somebody behind a pulpit quotes chapter and verse — even if it’s one of the stories that Thomas Jefferson left in his version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, when he took a razor blade to the Gospels and cut away anything he considered unnatural or miraculous.

No, I chose to talk about the story of the widow’s mite for a couple of reasons, one pretty specific and one more general.  The specific reason is easy to put into words: I want to note that generosity is relative.  The usual understanding of the story is correct in that sense, at least.  That’s why the pledge card that we ask all of our members to fill out at this time of year has a handy chart on the back that describes different levels of “fair-share” pledging in terms of percentages of income rather than absolute numbers of dollars.  And, of course, how any individual or couple defines their income is completely up to them — we’re not in the business of expecting to see anyone’s tax return form 1040 so that we can check what’s on line thirty-seven!

But this does take us to the more general reason for talking about the story of the widow’s mite: we need to take a look at the fact that the Unitarian Universalist relationship with money is, well, weird.  And it’s weird — even, some might say, dysfunctional — for reasons that have little to do with whether we’re good, well-meaning, hard-working people or not, but have a whole lot to do with our culture.  For just as the poor widow’s behavior had been conditioned by her culture, so has ours.

In the case of Unitarian Universalist congregations, in fact, we’ve been conditioned by two cultures.  The first is that of being middle-class.  Most people in America think of themselves as being middle-class, even if, technically, they’re not, and an even higher proportion of Unitarian Universalists claim a middle-class identity.  Why?  It’s safe to be in the middle class.  It comes with a built-in modesty where we don’t talk about money because it’s considered, well, rude, somehow.  Members of the poor and working class, on the other hand, have no choice but to talk about money because it’s a constant concern.  When you have to decide whether to pay the heating bill or buy food for your child, modesty kills.  And members of the owning, ruling class are expected to talk about money because it’s the way they assert their place in the socio-economic hierarchy.  But for members of the middle class, it’s simply not nice to talk about money.  We’re certainly conflicted about it.  The middle class looks up and wishes it had more, but then looks down and feels guilty about what it already has.  Or feels angry about not having more.  Either way, it’s just better not to mention the subject in the first place.

Then there’s the fact that Unitarian Universalism was profoundly shaped by an experiment in growth that took place in the 1940s and 50s and 60s.  That experiment was the Fellowship Movement, which birthed hundreds of small, lay-led congregations across the country — including this congregation — as a way to spread the good news of our liberal religion.  What was, at the time, the American Unitarian Association hired a man by the name of Monroe Husbands to travel the country, visiting cities that fit a certain profile, advertising in the newspaper for people who might be interested in forming a fellowship, and then bringing them together to try to get them to agree to start a new congregation.  One of the points that convinced many potential lay-leaders to commit, in fact, was that, though they would, as volunteers, need to give quite a bit of their time, they were promised that they would not need to give much money since their new congregation had neither a minister to pay nor a building to maintain.  This played right into the ideals of the modern middle class that was emerging after World War II, in large part thanks to the GI Bill, and it probably explains a lot of the success of the Fellowship Movement.

We’ve been conditioned, both by the wider American culture and by the organizational DNA of our own congregations, to feel shame when it comes to talking about money, particularly when it comes to talking about the money we’re personally pledging in support of those very congregations.  Unfortunately, it is absolutely essential that we do talk about money.  While we exist as a religious community in order to fulfill a particular mission — celebrating life together, growing a caring community together, searching for truths together, making the world a better place together — doing so is something that takes money.  Having staff to help fulfill that mission — because there are limits to what volunteers can and should do — that’s something that takes money.  Owning grounds and buildings as a customized space where we can fulfill that mission, that’s something that takes money, too.

So, inquiring minds want to know, how much money?  Well, about $1,200 per member each year.  I generally avoid stressing numbers in sermons, but let me repeat that one: $1,200 per member.  And I don’t provide that number to make anyone feel guilty, but because I think you should all be aware of it.  Obviously not everyone can pledge that much, given their own household financial realities.  Most members pledge less than that.  Some pledge more.  And generosity is relative, remember.  We also hold a number of special fund-raising events like the Casbah and we have a few other sources of revenue such as re-selling used books through Amazon, but the vast majority of what it takes to support the congregation in fulfilling its mission comes from pledges.

But, the inquiring minds continue, fulfilling a mission like ours is rather hard to quantify; what is that money actually doing?  Well, it’s giving us fabulous music on Sunday mornings, with more musicians and singers of all ages and abilities.  It’s giving us a better sound system in this Sanctuary, enabling more people to hear rather than being left out.  It’s giving us a variety of Sunday morning Adult RE programs that fill the room.  It’s giving us excellent children’s RE programs from Spirit Play to Our Whole Lives.  It’s giving us more programs at other times and on other days of the week, and space to hold those programs.  It’s supporting ministries to military families and LGBTQ individuals and college students.  It’s bringing families and young adults and our elders together in community.  It’s helping us care for our own members and their families through surgeries and other challenges.  It’s helping us to help the wider community, from our involvement with the PORT Winter Shelter to our responsibilities at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry.  It’s giving us greater visibility, too, from our sign on Warwick Boulevard to the service we’re doing at Christopher Newport University next Sunday.  It’s making us known as a powerful voice for Unitarian Universalism, within the Tidewater Cluster, within the Southeast District, and within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In doing all of that, every pledge counts.  Every pledge matters.  The Children’s Focus this morning nicely illustrated how even apparently small amounts of money can make a big difference in the life of this Fellowship.  We certainly need large amounts of money for the more costly parts of running a congregation — things like electricity bills and insurance premiums that are harder to have on hand to show the children than a bottle of glue or a roll of toilet paper — but the good news is that every pledge, big or small, goes into the congregation’s budget in exactly the same way.  Remembering that generosity is relative is one way that we can affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as is thanking one another for whatever we are able to do, for whatever we are able to give to make this Fellowship such a special place.

So when you get that e-mail or that telephone call from another member of the congregation, when you’re asked to meet with that person as part of this year’s canvass, please don’t be shy.  Please don’t succumb to that middle-class modesty that merely serves to stifle the splendor of this tapestry of life.  A canvass visit is a special opportunity to better know a kindred spirit, something that is to be embraced rather than feared.  Being canvassed, in fact, is a right of membership as people who have committed to grow this beloved community together.  When it comes to your pledge, of course, I urge you to be generous, but remember that you’re the one who gets to decide what generosity means for you.  If you can pledge a four-figure amount or more, thank you for your leading support of the congregation.  If you can’t pledge as much as you’d like, thank you for what you can pledge.  If you can only pledge what seems like a small amount, thank you for your steadfast willingness to be part of a larger community.  And whatever your income, I hope that, unlike the poor widow, you won’t pledge until it hurts, but until it feels good.  Whatever it means to you, your generosity will be received most gratefully, and may your giving bring you joy!

So may it be.

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Finding Our Purpose

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 30th 2012.)

Kwanzaa was created, in the words of its creator, Dr. Karenga, as “an expression of the recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s.”  Celebrated as an African-American cultural holiday between December 26th and January 1st, it fits nicely with the other seasonal holidays that occur at this time of year, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations have a kinara with candles that they light just as they do an Advent wreath or a Hanukkah menorah or a miniature Yule log.

There is, of course, much more to Kwanzaa than lighting candles, just as is the case for those other holidays.  A table is to be set with a beautiful piece of African cloth, on which is placed a straw mat and the kinara as well as a bowl of fruits and vegetables, particularly those that are native to Africa.  Also on the mat are one ear of corn for each child in the family, a unity cup used to pour libation to the family’s ancestors, and other African art and books and heritage symbols, including gifts for the children.  There are ritual greetings and responses, and a big feast is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa which coincides with New Year’s Eve.  The seventh and final day, on New Year’s Day, is devoted to meditating on where we have come from and where we are going; it is, in Dr. Karenga’s words, a time for courageously asking the questions:  “Who am I?”  “Am I really who I say I am?”  “Am I all I ought to be?”

Now as Kwanzaa approaches its fiftieth anniversary, just about everybody in the United States has heard about the holiday.  If nothing else, the US Postal Service has been issuing Kwanzaa-themed stamps for fifteen years now.  There are, however, a number of myths about the holiday.  One of these I heard, not long after coming to the US, is that Kwanzaa was invented out of whole cloth, without any real historical basis or validity as a holiday.  Well, such a claim is obviously intended to question the legitimacy of this celebration of African-American culture, and it’s a claim that we as UUs ought to regard with suspicion, given that the same sort of thing is said about Unitarian Universalism, which technically came into existence in the 1960s, too.  Just as our faith has roots going back hundreds of years, however, Kwanzaa has roots in African traditions, particularly harvest celebrations known in ancient, classical and modern African cultures.

Three other myths about Kwanzaa are addressed by actress and producer Masequa Myers, in a series of videos she created on the traditions and customs of Kwanzaa.  The first myth is that Kwanzaa was created to replace Christmas.  This may have come out of the idea that Euro-American culture goes hand-in-hand with Christianity, which is unfortunately a common assumption even today, as shown by the unfounded arguments over President Obama’s religion and nationality.  Still, Dr. Karenga has clarified that Kwanzaa was not intended to be an alternative to Christmas, much less a replacement for it, and many Christian African-Americans celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas and, for that matter, New Year’s, too.

Myers’ second myth is related to this, namely that Kwanzaa is a religious holiday.  She responds to this one quite simply: “No, it is not.”  Though it has some of its roots in the religion of Yoruba, which provides some of Kwanzaa’s ethical positions, it is a non-religious holiday.  Or perhaps inter-faith would be a better word: Myers remembers with fondness a Kwanzaa celebration in Phoenix that was well attended by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Jews, because it’s a cultural holiday that cuts across all religions.

The third myth Myers addresses, then, is, the obvious one: that you have to be of African descent to celebrate Kwanzaa.  Well, looking at the annual messages that Dr. Karenga sends out, it is clearly a holiday lifting up African culture and traditions, particularly as it is remembered, reflected upon and recommitted to by African-Americans.  Myers makes the point, though, that not everyone who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day is Irish, not everyone who celebrates Cinco de Mayo is Mexican, not everyone who celebrates Chinese New Year is Chinese.  Myers concludes by noting that “Kwanzaa is based on seven principles that anyone from any walk of life, any race, ethnicity or religion can benefit from.”

Now, we can question what it means to celebrate these holidays, particularly in terms of being authentic and respectful as opposed to what little most of us actually know about them.  Drinking green beer doesn’t mean you’re actually observing the Feast Day of Saint Patrick any more than commemorating the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on 5th May 1862 is merely about having dinner at Taco Bell.  And, as I said, Kwanzaa is about much more than lighting black and red and green candles.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, for instance, are at one level, as Masequa Myers says, broad enough that anyone can benefit from studying them.  Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are universal values of communitarian ethics that parallel our own UU Seven Principles, for instance, as well as the Humanist Manifesto.  At another level, however, Dr. Karenga makes clear that each of Kwanzaa’s principles has a specific rôle in “building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community.”  When it comes to his description of the fifth principle, Nia or purpose, for instance, which is “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness”, Dr. Karenga’s use of “our community” and “our people” is clearly in reference to “the world African community” and “people of African descent”.

Now I know that studies of mitochondrial DNA that trace the maternal ancestry of modern humans show that we are all descendents of a single woman who lived, most likely in East Africa, around two-hundred-thousand years ago.  There were other women who were alive at the time, of course, but Mitochondrial Eve, as she has been nick-named, is the most recent ancestor from whom all humans living today are descended.  There was, similarly, a Y-chromosomal Adam, who probably also lived in Africa, though — in a blow to anyone who was itching to claim the Garden of Eden story was literally true — he was alive tens of thousands of years after Mitochondrial Eve was alive.  In any case, if you go back far enough in our family trees, we are all, in that sense, of African descent.

That, of course, is not at all relevant to the celebration of Kwanzaa, and to claim that we are all equally and identically entitled to the holiday is to cruelly discount many hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, exploitation and oppression committed against Africans and African-Americans by Europeans and Euro-Americans.  Since most of us here are in the latter ethnic group rather than the former, we cannot participate in Kwanzaa’s call to Nia in the way that it is intended for members of the world African community.  We can be allies, though, and make sure that we have our own sense of purpose than includes regard for the value of cultural diversity even as we strive to remember that we are all part of one larger human family.

And purpose, I think, is one of the critical aspects of our lives as individuals and as communities that gets taken for granted, or forgotten, or left behind.  It’s very easy, when struggling to keep up with our ever-growing “to do” lists, to forget why we even have those lists.  The phrase “rat race” has been part of our vernacular for at least fifty or sixty years, describing in particular the life of working for other people in stressful jobs to get enough money to buy things that we’re too stressed out to enjoy.  But that’s not living, and it’s the opposite of having a purpose, having a goal to achieve something meaningful.

Our society’s apparent sense of purposelessness may, in fact, be part of our fascination with the end of the world, whether that’s a religiously ordained judgment day or a zombie apocalypse, as I mentioned last week.  After all, if you believe the Rapture is coming, you now have a very clear purpose: to be ready for it and to make absolutely sure that you’re amongst the elect who will be taken up to heaven.  Or, if you prefer the idea of a plague of the living dead, your purpose is to stay alive while taking out as many zombies as possible; the advantage there is that you can quantify how well you’re achieving your purpose by keeping score, just like in a video game.

Now another part of our fascination with the end of the world, I believe, comes from our ability to try to make sense of the world by looking for patterns.  In fact, we’ve become so good at that, thanks to our evolutionary history, that we insist on looking for patterns, for order, when there is only randomness, whether that’s natural or the consequences of illness or selfishness or bloodymindedness.  Even if no order, no rhyme nor reason is apparent for given events in life, we convince ourselves that that’s just because we can’t see it, and so we come up with conspiracy theories.  And if we don’t seem to have much control over what’s going on, we tell one another, then surely the government or a secret society or space aliens or some supernatural power must actually be running the show.  The end of the world as a satisfying conclusion to that reality is one consequence of such thinking, but so is the idea that we need someone else or something else outside ourselves to tell us what our own purpose in life must be.

For as long as there have been beings with sufficient self-awareness to realize, first, that they exist and, second, that someday they won’t, they have been asking themselves questions such as, “What is the purpose of life?”  I’ve long thought that that’s not a very helpful question, and that if it has an answer, it’s something like “Our purpose in life is to figure out our purpose in life.”  I like that answer because it’s very deep while at the same time being very unhelpful.  I think we need to ask ourselves questions that might be more useful, questions such as: “Who are we?”  “Where do we come from?”  “What are we?”  “Are we really who we say we are?”  “Are we our best selves?”  We do need a sense of our own purpose as individuals, but we also need to figure that out for ourselves, based on who we think we are and who we want to be.

It’s a little easier to articulate purpose when it comes to free associations, communities that people intentionally create together.  After all, there must have been a reason for those people to come together in the first place.  Congregations are such free associations, and though we, here at the Fellowship, tend to lift up our congregational mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — most often, we also have a stated purpose, though it’s quite a bit more involved.  Here it is:

“The purpose of this Fellowship is to encourage religious tolerance and to support individual spiritual growth, further[ing] individual freedom, discipleship to advancing truth, the democratic process in human relationships, brotherhood and sisterhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to the cause of a peaceful world community.  Relying upon reason and compassion as our guide, and giving freedom to our method, we seek to grow in understanding of ourselves and of our world, to promote and serve the Universal human family.”

Obviously there’s a lot in there to unpack.  Congregations are multi-faceted communities and as such can be involved in a lot of different things at the same time.  You might also have been wondering about some of the wording, particularly the phrase “discipleship to advancing truth”.  As it turns out, that language was contributed by A. Powell Davies, minister to All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington DC, as part of the effort to reform and reinvigorate the American Unitarian Association in the 1940s, and he proposed five principles that were common within Unitarianism at the time.

The first was “individual freedom of belief”, which has long been a hallmark of our faith.  It goes back at least as far as the 1568 Edict of Torda which was a decree of religious freedom issued by King John Sigismund Zapolya of Transylvania that, in part, legitimized Unitarianism in that country.  Then there’s that “discipleship to advancing truth”, which combines not only the idea that “revelation is not sealed” but also the idea that, as people of faith, we should continually update our own religious views based on the best understandings of the world around us and within us.  Davies’ third principle was “the democratic process in human relations”, recognizing that people should be free to determine their own fate, both in society and in congregations.  The fourth was “universal brotherhood [and sisterhood], undivided by nation, race or creed”, recognizing that we are all one human family, and the fifth, which follows directly from that, was “allegiance to the cause of a united world community.”

For me, this is where the rubber hits the road.  What we believe and how we arrive at those beliefs are all well and good, but it’s what we do with them that really matters.  Even how we govern ourselves and make decisions together is, while a reflection of our beliefs about the inherent worth of the individual, a means to another end, though I would note that our UU affirmation of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” means that we should fully support Kwanzaa’s second principle of Kujichagulia, the value of self-determination that those of African descent may “define [them]selves, name [them]selves, create for [them]selves and speak for [them]selves.”

The rubber hits the road when we affirm universal brotherhood and sisterhood, for we are all children of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromasomal Adam.  And yet, the fact that we are all part of one larger human family does not erase our differences, any more than I am the same person as my sister.  We have all come to our places in the world by different paths, not just as individuals but also as the groups that we call cultures, and we need to respect not only the different roots that feed those cultures but also the different branches that will flourish if only we nurture them.  A united, peaceful world community, then, will not be like a single cup that holds us all within its bowl; rather, it will be like a tree, growing in many directions and all of us as leaves growing from it.

The New Year seems like a good time to think about purpose.  It’s a good time to remember how we got to where we are now, to thank the people who made it possible for us to be here.  It’s a good time to reflect on our lives, to be thankful for our blessings, to evaluate how we are facing our challenges.  And it’s a good time to recommit to a brighter future, to declare our intent to bring good into the world.  As we light our candles to mark the promise of lengthening days and the turning of the year, let us remember, reflect upon and recommit to all that is good and beautiful.

So may it be.

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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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