Posts Tagged salvation

Bring a Friend to Church!

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 3rd 2013.)

A few years ago I did an internship as a hospital chaplain.  With some regularity I visited hospital patients who were quick to assure me, once I’d introduced myself as a chaplain, that they were already saved.  I guess they assumed that that’s the only reason I was there: to “save” them, to “convert” them, to “evangelize” them.  Perhaps they thought that telling me they were already saved was the quickest way to get rid of me, this stranger intruding upon them when they would have much preferred to be left in peace to recover from surgery.  I didn’t feel any particular animosity from any of them, and if I were in a similar situation today, more experienced and self-confident than I was then, I might respond by asking something like “Would you be willing to tell me what you mean by ‘saved’?”  I’m pretty sure I’d quickly find that what they meant by it, or what they thought I’d assume they meant by it, wasn’t the same as what I meant by it.

Our culture, of course, has a simple idea of what it means to be saved, namely that the person who has been saved will go to heaven after they die.  That’s actually a gross oversimplification of Christian theology — quite apart from the question of how it’s supposed to apply to members of other faiths such as Judaism and Buddhism — and it comes to us in large part from televangelists and television shows about televangelists.  When you’re trying to distill two thousand years of tradition into a few sentences that’ll fit between a praise song and another plea for money, I guess that’s what happens.  (Outside the United States, by the way, in places like England where I grew up, that’s what people think religion in the United States is actually like.)

So it’s not altogether surprising that most Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about being saved.  But that’s not because it’s a foreign concept, as it is in other non-Christian religions.  Rather, it is actually part of our theology, and it’s a big part of our history, but it’s been hijacked and abused to the extent that UUs don’t talk about it for fear of being misunderstood.  But this morning I do want to talk about it, because it’s time for us to reclaim it for a healthier and more spiritually mature cause.  Since our culture does have this simplistic idea of what it means, we really ought to know what we mean by it.  So I want to talk this morning about salvation.

Our religion gets half of its name, Unitarian Universalism, from people who had a very particular idea about salvation.  They were the people who believed in universal salvation.  This was a belief that was present in the very earliest days of Christianity, a belief that people didn’t need to do particular things or satisfy particular requirements or be chosen in some particular way in order to reach heaven; no, everyone, in the end, reached heaven.  As the early Christians organized themselves, the belief in universal salvation was deemed a heresy, and the people who believed in universal salvation, who came to be known as Universalists, were cast out as heretics.  And yet Universalism persisted, cropping up here and there throughout Christendom’s extent in space and time, and does so even today, whenever people stopped to think about what it really means for God to be capable of infinite love.  As the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou put it some two hundred years ago, “Your child has fallen into the mud, and her body and garments are dirtied.  You wash her and dress her in clean robes.  The question is, do you love your child because you washed her or did you wash her because you love her?”

Universalism was not, of course, without its critics.  One story about Hosea Ballou comes from the days when he rode between towns on horse-back, preaching at a number of churches on a circuit.  One day he was riding with a Baptist minister, and they were arguing theology as they traveled.  At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven.”  Ballou looked back at him and said, “My friend, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”

There were, of course, more serious objections to the idea of universal salvation, such as the question of how to reconcile it with justice.  As UU minister Mark Morrison-Reed puts it, Universalism proved to be a hard sell to African Americans, for example, because its theological promise seemed to be so at odds with the African American experience.  Where was the justice, they asked, in slave-holders being ushered into heaven right alongside those upon whom they had visited such degradation and suffering?

Though there were African Americans who had been part of even the oldest Universalist churches, and indeed the first three African Americans ever to be ordained as Universalist ministers — Joseph Jordan, Thomas E. Wise and Joseph Fletcher Jordan (no relation) — served right across the James River from us, in Norfolk and Suffolk, universal salvation was simply a theological absurdity to most African Americans.  White ministers could joke about assault and robbery, but African American Universalists faced persecution for both their faith and their race.  Thomas E. Wise, for instance, who in the 1890s was only the second African American to be a Universalist minister, was undermined by the white members of a commission appointed by the Universalist General Convention to oversee his ministry to the extent that he quit Universalism and became a Methodist, taking eight members of the Norfolk church with him.

Some might argue that it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Universalists would grow bigger than Christianity, to grow bigger, even, than theism, in order to find a way to resolve the theological conundrum of universal salvation, to find a way that love and justice might work together rather than in opposition.  When this finally happened in the 1940s and 50s, when the Universalists recognized their call to be a truly universal religion, they found a kinship with the Unitarians, who had long since evolved to be broader than their exclusively Christian origins.  And the result of that partnership was Unitarian Universalism.

But what of universal salvation?  What of that core belief that had fueled a persistent faith for close to two thousand years?  Well, in some ways it caught on, even beyond the Universalists.  Many Christian denominations now proclaim, as part of their good news, that “God is love”, though they don’t take it quite as far to its logical conclusion as Hosea Ballou did.  But over the same time that theological Universalism was becoming a part of other denominations, the Universalists themselves were focusing more on this world rather than on any world to come, just as the Unitarians had.

This, too, was perhaps inevitable.  To be a truly universal religion means welcoming everyone, or at least everyone who is willing to be a part of such a religion and keep it welcoming for everybody else.  But there will always be differences in belief, differences in opinion, differences in personal world-views, that must somehow be accommodated.  It’s a simple fact that not everyone agrees on the idea of life after death, for example.  Amongst today’s Unitarian Universalists, some believe in a fairly traditional idea of heaven.  Some believe in reincarnation.  Some believe in a spiritual energy or a cosmic consciousness from which we came and into which we are reabsorbed.  Some believe that, when we die, our consciousness simply ceases to exist.  In spite of those differences, however, we can all agree on the idea of life before death.

Every religion seeks to make this life better in some way, though for many it’s really only a means to another end.  For both the Universalists and the Unitarians, though, it became an important end in and of itself.  Many religious traditions as well as science tell us that all life is interdependent, that we’re all in this together.  Whether viewed out of enlightened self-interest or pure altruism, this means that we are all called to build a better world for everyone.  This is salvation that isn’t just a matter of an individual promise concerning something in the future; rather this is salvation that’s a matter of a common commitment in the here and now.  Rather than salvation in another life after death, it’s salvation in this life.  So when, in our Principles, we affirm such values as “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” and “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”, we’re not just saying, well, that’d be nice, and hoping they magically show up; rather, we’re making a commitment to work for them and realize them together.

That’s what salvation means in Unitarian Universalism.  It has nothing to do with heaven or hell or other metaphysical realms separate from our lived reality.  Rather, it has everything to do with choosing to build heaven here on Earth, with choosing to redeem ourselves — all of us — from what is, for too many people, altogether too much like hell.  It’s a theology that puts love and justice on the same side, that draws a direct line between the best love of which we human beings are capable and a world in which everyone is treated fairly and compassionately.

Now Unitarian Universalist congregations can offer a taste of that.  At their best, UU congregations are a sign of that salvation in this life, a promise that different people can come together in community, that our common humanity is a strong foundation for celebrating our differences, rather than being afraid of them.  Building within our walls even an imperfect miniature version of the heaven on Earth that we know is possible, a UU congregation can be a place, in the words of Rebecca Parker, President of the (Unitarian Universalist) Starr King School for the Ministry, where joys are celebrated, were injustices are confronted, where difficulties are overcome, and where hopes are shared.  So why would we keep that to ourselves? As Parker put it, “The progressive church holds a feast of life spread for all — it is ours to share with any who can find nourishment within our walls.

This is our good news: that such a community is possible.  That it starts on a small scale, that it flashes fitfully here and there, that there are set-backs and disappointments, that it picks itself up and tries again, well, that’s life.  It’s part of being human.  So it’s good news with a dose of realism, and that’s something that we need to share.  If it’s good news for us, then it’ll be good news for lots of other people.  And the more people who have heard that good news, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s certainly the good news of this congregation, as we’re coming to realize.  At the Board’s Retreat back in August, in fact, one of the goals that emerged, something to which the Board will bend its energies as this congregation moves forward, is to build a new narrative for this Fellowship, to tell a new story about ourselves.  Or, at least, to take the stories we already tell about ourselves and bring them together in celebration of the sort of abundant congregation we aspire to be.

You may be familiar with some of those stories, particularly if you’ve been through a membership orientation recently.  There’s the story of how this congregation was founded in the late 1950s by a handful of local residents who sought, in their words, to “foster liberal religious attitudes and living through group study, worship, service, work and recreation.”  It was chartered as a lay-led fellowship at the height of the twenty-year program that founded hundreds of new congregations around the country, many of which no longer exist, and within a year not only had its own building but hosted a conference for all of the then-Unitarian churches and fellowships in Virginia.  From the start, and in defiance of prevailing social attitudes, the membership was racially integrated, thanks to a close association with Hampton University.  Then and in the decades since, members of the Fellowship have demonstrated for civil rights, for women’s rights and for LGBT rights, and the congregation is home to the oldest pagan group in Virginia.

In 1979, the Fellowship’s building burnt down, but three items survived the fire: the original membership book, which includes the names and signatures of the charter members on its first page; the charter itself, issued to the congregation when it was founded; and the chalice, which was given by former youth Keith Dixon and which we continue to light at the start of every service.  A little over a decade ago, the Fellowship took the plunge and called its first, full-time, settled minister.  That didn’t go so well, but rather than give up on professional ministry, the congregation made a commitment to try again.  And three years ago, you decided to buy additional property, a decision made at the worst time in the Great Recession, when banks were imploding and realtors were finding other jobs.  My colleague Jeanne Pupke, minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, says that buying our office building was something we had no right to do, but we did it anyway.  What’s more, we paid off the mortgage just after Thanksgiving last year, having raised the funds to finance it ourselves rather than paying a private lender.

Board member-at-large C— came up with the perfect name for the new narrative we’ll build for the congregation, a story that celebrates our achievements and inspires us to be bold in our vision-making.  C— suggested that we build this narrative of the UUFP as “the little church that did” but it didn’t take too long for other Board members to add to that, making it “the little church that did… and can… and should… and will…”

This is our good news: that different people can come together in community, celebrating our differences on the strong foundation of our common humanity.  And this is our good news: that we are here as a place where joys are celebrated, where injustices are confronted, where difficulties are overcome, and where hopes are shared. And this is our good news: that we have hands that lift us up when we’re down and help to make the world better for everyone.  And this is our good news: that we are “the little church that did… and can… and should… and will…”  But this also needs to be part of our good news: that we have hearts that open doors to everyone who would choose to cross our threshold.  For I believe that many people are aching to hear our good news, but it can be very hard to hear it in our culture.

Today is “Bring a Friend to Church” day, our first here at the Fellowship, so far as I know, and something suggested by the Religious Education Committee.  (Our children’s RE program here, as those of you who are parents already know, is another big part of our good news, so why shouldn’t we share that with more people, too?)  Last Sunday, and in our various communications, I invited you to bring a friend or a relative to services with you today, somebody you know in your life who might be interested in being part of this community, who might benefit from being here and belonging here, if only they knew about us.

I also made the claim that there was almost certainly someone in your life like that.  How could I know?  Well, the people who study such things tell us that four out of every five people who don’t currently go to a church would do so if they were asked by a trusted friend or relative, but only two percent of church-going people actually invite anyone else to come with them in a given year.  And although the people who study such things almost always do so from a Christian perspective, I have no doubt that something equivalent holds for people who would be a part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation if only they’d heard of Unitarian Universalism.

After all, we know that the religious landscape of the United States is undergoing some huge demographic changes.  With every new generation, there are more people who do not identify with any particular religion.  On surveys asking about religious preference, they check the box marked “none”, so they are known as the “nones”.  (Obviously that’s different from the nuns who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.)  About a fifth of the population now says it has no religious preference, and the nones make up about a third of all young adults born after 1985.  Now this doesn’t mean that there are a whole lot more, say, atheists out there.  In terms of beliefs, the nones aren’t that much different from the church-going population, whether they believe in a personal God or see divinity in the Earth or consider themselves generically “spiritual but not religious”.  The main difference is in terms of values: they’ve given up on religion because they dislike and actively distrust what they see as authoritarian and anti-egalitarian, from attacks on women, LGBT people and the environment to meddling in education and undue influence in politics.  Well, they’ve only given up on religion because they haven’t heard about Unitarian Universalism yet!

So to those of you who brought a friend or relative here today, I say thank you.  Thank you for helping to shine the light of our liberal faith.  And to those of you who were invited here, as well as to those of you who just happen to be visiting for the first time, I say welcome.  I look forward to meeting you and getting to know you.  For this is work that we are all called to do, applying our hearts and minds and voices and hands to the building of a better world.  It isn’t easy work, but ours is no caravan of despair.  For all of us, whether we’ve been here for decades or for years or have only just crossed the threshold for the first time this morning, all of us are invited to this feast of life that is spread for all.

So may it be.

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How to Disagree

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 18th 2013.)

People’s Parable: “The Argument Clinic” by Monty Python

Aria: “Let the Goodness In” by Tret Fure

Sermon: “How to Disagree”

I’d like to begin my sermon with a very quick show of hands.  Please raise your hand if you’ve ever disagreed with somebody else.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have all experienced disagreements in our lives.  Many of them were mild differences of opinion that didn’t really matter.  Some of them led to arguments that hurt feelings and changed relationships, at least for a while.  And a few of them led to greater conflicts that — in the absence of any other way forward — ended relationships.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of “how to disagree” for a while now.  It’s relevant to all of our personal lives, of course, but it’s particularly relevant in the context of a religious community such as ours that makes the breathtakingly stunning — and thoroughly counter-cultural — claim that in spite of differences in belief and differences in opinion we can nonetheless be in community with one another.  After all, we don’t have to pay for a session at an argument clinic to find somebody who’s going to disagree with us on something.  When it does happen, though, it’d be nice to think there was something constructive we could do instead of sinking to the lowest level of flinging “Yes, it is.” and “No, it isn’t.” back and forth, even though that’s apparently the approach to national governance that Congress thinks is best.

We can, of course, try to avoid disagreement altogether, and it’s actually not too hard to do that these days.  After all, whatever your position on almost any issue, you can choose to tune into the radio and television stations that seem to endorse similar positions.  And you can do that even more effectively on-line, frequenting those websites and blogs and following those people on Facebook and Twitter whose ideas and values match your own.

It’s natural, of course, to be most comfortable around people with worldviews and opinions that are similar to our own, but it’s not healthy — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — to be entirely surrounded by people who agree with us.  It’s to live in a fantasyland that drifts further and further away from reality, floating off in an ideological bubble that will inevitably burst with severe if not devastating consequences for those inside it.  It feels good to be safe and secure in that bubble, right up until the moment when reality intrudes and we realize that our safety and security were only illusions.  No matter how good it feels to be Emperor, none of us wants to realize, in the end, that we actually have no clothes.

So I’m convinced that, given our Unitarian Universalist declaration of our commitments to diversity and pluralism, we have an obligation to do better ourselves, and to take what we learn here and help the wider world do better, too.  After all, knowing how to disagree is essential for the healthy functioning of a congregation.  Knowing how to disagree means that we understand that the democratic process does not mean that we’ll agree all the time but rather hinges on our willingness to remain in loving covenant no matter our disagreements.  Those holding minority opinions have the right to be heard expressing those opinions, for example, but once a decision has been made, they also have the right to be just as much valued members of the community as they were before.

And that’s important not only for the health of the people within these walls, but for how we relate to — and hope to make a difference in — the world beyond our walls.  As a warning against the temptations of trivial disagreements, for instance, Unitarian Universalist minister Dick Gilbert relates the traditional anecdote that “while [the] revolution was raging in St. Petersburg in 1917, a convocation of the Russian Orthodox Church was in session a few blocks away, engaged in bitter debate over what color vestments their priests should wear.”  That’s a pretty egregious example, but there are a few similar stories from Unitarian Universalist history, too.

So I’ve collected a few guidelines for how to disagree.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about social justice issues, where it’s definitely not acceptable to merely agree to disagree with people promoting homophobia or restrictions on women’s reproductive rights or environmental exploitation.  Rather, I’m talking about the majority of disagreements that most of us encounter here or at home or at work as we go about our daily lives.  And my emphasis will be on staying in relationship with one another in spite of our differences.

Now my default position here comes from the claim that, as human beings, our identities are defined by our relationships.  I don’t just mean our ‘intimate’ relationships, of course, or family relationships, but also varying degrees of friendship, from the people with whom we work and serve and volunteer to the people we encounter at the supermarket or the gas station or the airport.  Thanks to the Universalist side of our tradition, I take as an article of faith that it is possible to be in ‘right’ relationship with anyone.  But there does appear to be an exception, and, since I continually try to come to terms with the fact that I am limited and mortal, I’ve had to accept that that’s okay.

Here’s why there’s an exception — or perhaps it’d be better to call it an escape clause.

Researchers at Baruch College in New York recently published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that showed that “not only is ignoring obnoxious people more effective at silencing them than actually speaking to them or engaging them in discussion, it’s healthier and less mentally draining on you as well.”  As one reporter titled her article about the research, “Ostracism worthwhile when dealing with jerks”.  To quickly summarize the results, the participants in the study were each asked to either interact with or ignore another person for a few minutes and then perform a task requiring mental effort.  If the other person was likeable and engaging, the participants who interacted did better at the task.  But if the other person was rude and offensive, the participants who used the silent treatment did better.

Now this study really just quantifies something we already knew: being around good people makes us better, while being around jerks makes us worse.  Still, it has some implications for us.  First, yes, removing ourselves from interactions with obnoxious people is a tool of self-preservation.  Second, we need to be aware of when we’re becoming rude and offensive ourselves, or we’ll deserve the silent treatment, too.  But third, and this is where Universalist faith re-asserts itself in the face of our human limits and frailties, we must leave space for the person who used to be obnoxious.  It may not be possible to always be in right relationship, but we can remain open to trying, to the possibility of being in right relationship.  After all, sometimes we’re the ones being jerks, and we should always be able to hope that, once we snap out of it and shape up, there’ll be a place for us in community again.

I know there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been the rude and offensive person.  Looking back I usually realize it was because I was under stress or grieving or, less acceptably, because I was tired or hungry.  In most cases I was able to apologize afterwards and right relationship was restored.  Recognizing my own failings, I try to be more understanding when it’s the other person who seems obnoxious, silently offering them compassion for whatever trials they might be encountering in their own life.  It might not improve their behavior toward me, but it helps prevent the deterioration of my behavior toward them.  As author — and creator of Peter Pan — J. M. Barrie put it, “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.”

Another piece of wise advice comes to us from psychologist, author and dating coach Mark Mason.  At the top of his list of “Six Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal” is keeping a scorecard of the other person’s past mistakes for the sole purpose of dredging them up as ammunition in the current disagreement.  (Related to that is the use of words like “always” and “never” to make sweeping generalizations about the other person’s misbehavior.)  The scorecard is toxic because each person ends up spending more time reopening old wounds to prove that they are less wrong than in finding the right answer to the current situation.  Rather, says Mason, unless there’s clearly some recurring problem, each issue should be dealt with on its own terms.

While it’s important to avoid making disagreements personal, such as in terms of the other person’s past and unrelated actions, sometimes it’s important to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that a disagreement is personal, at least in that it really has nothing to do with what the disagreement is supposedly about.  You’ve heard — or at least heard of — the cliché, usually in the context of break-ups, “It’s not you; it’s me.”  Well, no, sometimes it really is them.  It’s not helpful to point that out, of course.  But when another person has an unexpectedly strong disagreement or a difference of opinion that just seems to come out of nowhere or a piece of what seems like overly critical feedback, it may simply be best to listen to them, to reassure them that you’ve heard what they had to say, and to move on.  If it helps, you can say to yourself the mantra that I’ve heard Unitarian Universalist minister and Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen claim as an alternative meaning of “WTF”: Wasn’t that fascinating!

Another piece of wisdom I gained from Nancy is the importance of asking if the object of the disagreement is worth it.  Is your goal in disagreeing worth what it will cost?  Or in Nancy’s words, “Is this a ditch I’m willing to die in?”  And that’s a great question because it forces you to actually identify your goal, to figure out what you’re trying to achieve by disagreeing.

After all, when my wife and I are at the supermarket and talking about buying some ice-cream, we may disagree about what flavor to buy.  But if I want chocolate and she wants strawberry, it’s not a relationship disaster.  Perhaps there’s a “buy one, get one free” deal that would let us each get our preferred flavor without spending a lot.  Or perhaps we could just make do with Neapolitan.  There doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all argument over which flavor of ice-cream is better, something that is entirely subjective anyway, and the only purpose of our disagreeing is to express personal preferences that can readily be satisfied.

Sometimes when we stop and think about why we’re disagreeing, we realize it’s really about not much more than, well, which flavor of ice-cream we prefer.  About ten years ago, I was in an on-going argument with my boss — who was the professor of the research group I was in — about the experiments I was doing.  I was having the hardest time showing him that I was actually getting the results he was expecting, and it was stressing me out to the point that I developed my first bout of sinusitis and would break out into uncontrollable coughing whenever I saw him coming.  After redoing the experiments, and rebuilding the equipment, again and again, for weeks and then months, I finally realized that it came down to the colors I was using to plot my data.  He preferred a different color scale and he couldn’t see what I saw in the one I usually used.  Well, that was easy to resolve.  What’s more, once I’d used his preferred colors to show him my results, he was fine with me publishing them using my preferred colors.

Knowing what it is we’re trying to achieve — and being honest about it with ourselves — makes all the difference.  Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners, recently answered a letter from someone who was trying to get to a train but was stuck on the stairs behind someone who, as it turned out, was texting.  It was raining and it was rush hour, so the traveler asked if the texter would mind finishing at the bottom of the stairs.  Now the texter was holding up a lot of people who were also getting wet, so the traveler was surprised when the texter got angry and responded rudely.  Miss Manners answered the letter by first taking the traveler to task for wrapping the incident in selfless virtue.  After all, the problem for the traveler wasn’t really that someone else was texting, perhaps even for very important reasons, or that other people were getting wet.  The problem for the traveler was that the traveler couldn’t get past.  Being honest about that, Miss Manners pointed out, would have led to the traveler simply saying something like “I’m sorry, but can I get by?” rather than committing the first “rudeness” of the situation by criticizing the texter’s actions.  (This is actually one of the central lessons of Non-Violent or Compassionate Communication, something that two UUFP members are teaching us about this Fall.)

So, to recap: know your purpose in disagreeing; recognize when it’s not about you; avoid making disagreements personal; deal with each issue on its own terms; assume the other person means as at least as well as you do; walk away from obnoxious behavior, but allow for that behavior to change; and, beware the temptations of the trivial, because you might miss the revolution.

These are, of course, guidelines, not rules.  Human relationships being what they are, there are no simple, technical solutions.  And whatever anybody says, it’s always easier said than done.  All of us — you; me; even, I’d be prepared to bet, Miss Manners — have to work at it.  But it’s worth it, because here’s the thing about disagreement: it’s going to happen.  For a congregation or any other community to be healthy does not mean that there are no disagreements.  In fact, nearly the opposite is true: if there are never any disagreements, then that’s reflective of decadence, apathy and lack of purpose, which indicates only a worthless form of health.  Rather, a community that is dynamic, vibrant and mission-centered will encounter disagreements amongst reasonable, well-meaning and honest people, and the health of that community is measured by how well those disagreements are held, in love, by the community as a whole.

Two hundred years ago, this was part of the message of the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  Riding on horseback between churches to preach the good news of universal salvation, Ballou drew out the implications of his theology for what it means for how we treat one another in life.  “If we agree in love,” he said, “there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.”  It’s love, and what we love, that holds together a community, a congregation, a church, love that transcends differences of belief and differences of opinion, love that holds us together no matter our disagreements over the color of our vestments or our choices of vocabulary.  But Ballou went on: “if we do not [agree in love], no other agreement can do us any good.”  In other words, love matters most and everything else, if it is not in service to love, is for naught.

So here’s my final guideline for how to disagree.  Ask yourself what you love, and what the person with whom you are disagreeing loves.  Look at how that love holds you, both of you, in the space of disagreement.  Think about what you have in common, the values you share, and the goals to which you are working together.  Remember that no matter what, for this brief moment in time, might appear to be keeping you apart, you are held in love.

So may it be.

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The Pilot Light of the Soul

During his ordination examination, a Presbyterian seminary student was being questioned by an elderly and very conservative minister.  One of the exam questions was: “Do you believe in the Doctrine of the Total Depravity of the Human Soul?”  The student’s immediate smiling reply was: “Yes, but I find it very difficult to live up to!”

When the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association consolidated in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, they merged in primarily administrative and organizational ways, without much discussion about theology.  The consolidation made sense, of course, because both religions were on similar pages theologically, each having evolved beyond their Christian origins, but there were still differences, given those origins.

The Universalists had emerged from Christianity around the central belief in universal salvation: that God so loves every soul that everybody is (ultimately) admitted to heaven.  As Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou put it, “Your child has fallen into the mud, and his body and garments are defiled.  You wash him and array him in clean robes.  The question is, do you love your child because you washed him or did you wash him because you love him?”

The Unitarians had also emerged from Christianity, with their central belief being in the humanity (rather than divinity) of Jesus.  As such, Jesus was not somebody to worship so much as someone to emulate.  Indeed, the Unitarians put their hopes for the afterlife in “salvation by character”, that heaven must first be attained as an internal state of the soul, as inward goodness.

As Thomas Starr King — the Universalist and Unitarian minister who is credited with preserving California within the Union during the Civil War — drew the distinction, “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, whereas the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!”

Five decades after the consolidation that formed the UUA, today’s Unitarian Universalists are most often in line with the classical Unitarian position: even if we might slip up from time to time, we believe that people are intrinsically good.  This can be empowering, but it can also come across as too optimistic: we’re right to emphasize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but we can’t forget to acknowledge real brokenness and pain and how easy it is for us to cause brokenness and pain.

I know a Lutheran minister who says she tried Unitarian Universalism but found that our “high opinion of humans” didn’t fit with her experience.  “People are flawed,” she says.  Whereas classical Unitarianism has a high opinion of the human being — what is known theologically as a high anthropology — Lutheranism has a low opinion — a low anthropology — such that we are incapable of contributing to our own salvation and only through divine grace have any hope of being saved.

However, to pit Unitarianism’s high anthropology against Lutheranism’s low anthropology is to set up a false dichotomy, for Universalism offers a third way.  Arguing whether humans are intrinsically good or intrinsically bad is to miss the more important point: we are intrinsically human.  Yes, Unitarian Universalism affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect, that we never screw up.  Rather, it’s a call to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our actions.

Another way of thinking about this is that we each have a spark of the divine within us.  It’s the pilot light of the soul.  All of us, if we are being honest, are broken in some way, and sometimes — due to illness or terrible circumstances or simply the stress of today’s world — the fire of love and compassion and all that is good within us stutters or even goes out.  But the pilot light of the soul remains, ready to re-ignite only if we clean away the debris by holding ourselves accountable for our actions, only if we reset the system by earning forgiveness, and only if we provide enough fuel by treating ourselves and one another with tenderness.

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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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