Posts Tagged singing

From Where I Stand

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 2nd 2013.)

There’s a story about someone who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one Sunday morning and immediately starts complaining.

“I don’t feel like going to church.  The hymns are always boring, the readings are so pedantic, the sermons are too obscure, and then, after it’s all over, I get the feeling that nobody there really likes me.  That’s it, I’ve decided: I’m not going to church today!”

“But sweetheart,” her spouse gently replies, “the people do like you and the service isn’t all that bad.  Besides, you’ve really got to go: you’re the minister!”

Well, though I need to get up extra early on Sundays — and though I’ve never been a morning person — I always look forward to being here.  I might be tired or sick, I might not feel as on top of things as I’d like, the weather might be dismal and dreary or swelteringly hot, but I look forward to seeing familiar faces, meeting new people, singing our hymns and sitting in silence together, and always noticing, as if with fresh eyes, how much of a difference this community makes in so many people’s lives.  (And, as much as it’s important for me to practice good “self care” by honoring my Sunday off each month, I freely admit that I am sad to miss the wonderful services that are offered on those Sundays.)

It’s hard to believe that I’m coming to the end of my third year here, my third year as minister to this Fellowship.  The time has gone by very quickly, but it’s been very fulfilling, and I feel privileged to be serving such a congregation with so many wonderful people and with such tremendous promise for the future of our faith.  With Olivia’s birth, of course, my own life has changed considerably, and so I’m particularly glad of the support that Allison and I have received from Fellowship members as we’ve fumbled our way into parenthood.

Now I’ve realized — as have others — that in reaching this three-year point, I will soon have been at the Fellowship as long as any previous minister.  Your last settled minister, Buffy Boke, was here for three years, and Paul Boothby was interim minister before her for two years.  So moving into the fourth year of my ministry will be a new experience for all of us, and I’m excited that we get to navigate this uncharted territory in the life of this congregation together.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that there’s been just a bit of anxiety as we prepare to cross this threshold.  Some of that comes from a general fear of the unknown, and perhaps there’s some worry about what changes might come from a minister who’s been here more than a few years.

Some of the anxiety is more specifically based on the Fellowship’s history, manifesting in concerns that I might be planning to leave.  I remember the song written by Joanne, and sung by our children and youth to the tune for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, that lists the many part-time ministers that the Fellowship had before finally making the leap of faith to full-time ministry, and then lists the settled and interim ministers who followed: this congregation has had more than enough practice saying goodbye to its ministers.

So let me put your minds at ease.  I have no plans to leave.

It’s said that there are two mistakes a minister can make: first, staying too long; second, not staying long enough.  Over the last decade, the Fellowship has known life as a church in short cycles — the usual one or two years for interim ministry, but only two or three years for settled ministry — and though there have been major accomplishments — such as buying the office building and funding the mortgage for it ourselves — it’s hard for a congregation to feel like it’s making much headway when the clock keeps being reset on ministry.  (It’s really hard on the Fellowship’s savings, too, when it keeps being spent on finding a new minister.)  So, as I shared with the Search Committee when I first met with them a little over three years ago, I am a firm believer in the transformative effects of long-term settlements.  After all, I’ve seen first-hand the power of Christine Robinson’s twenty-plus year ministry in Albuquerque, something that has transformed First Unitarian there into a thriving, dynamic, boldly imaginative, willing-to-stretch-itself congregation, making it, in fact, one of our faith’s flagship congregations.

I also shared with the UUFP Search Committee that I was looking for a congregation that would grow with me at the same time that I grew as a minister.  And I was told — by the Search Committee, by your former ministers, by other local ministers and by district staff — that this was a thriving, growing congregation with the potential to do great things, by itself as well as in cooperation with our sister congregations in Norfolk and Williamsburg.

Well, all of that is still true. And we’ve seen that it’s not just a matter of potential for some imagined distant future, either.  At the end of February we held the first Hampton Roads Unitarian Universalist Revival, using every chair that Christopher Newport University could give us and filling the CNU Ballroom with fabulous music and singing and speaking and fellowship.  We caught the attention of the Unitarian Universalist Association, too, with a write-up in the latest issue of UU World.  We’re also poised to make ourselves known in Richmond, since, after taking the lead in getting the Tidewater Cluster started, we’re now building a progressive legislative advocacy network amongst Unitarian Universalists in Virginia.

speakingSo, coming to the end of my third year as your minister, and looking forward to the possibilities of the years still to come, this seems like a good time to reflect on where we are and where we’re going.  I’ll touch on a number of different areas, so keep in mind that all of these interlock with one another in many different ways, but of course I can only speak about them one after another.

Something I’ll mention first is that, after a year’s dedicated work to seek out, gather, process and refine an incredible amount of information, the Planning Committee has issued a report that I ask all of you to read.  It’s on the UUFP website and it’ll be sent out by e-mail next week, too.  Soon there’ll be a survey to collect your opinions about the Fellowship’s future, to help us craft a vision and a plan for the next five years of our congregational life together, so please take a look at the Planning Committee’s report when you can.

Well, the place to start, I guess, is with Sunday morning worship, what we’re doing right now.  It’s most people’s first chance to experience what this congregation is really like in the flesh.  Oh, they know what we claim to be, because almost everyone who visits us for the first time has already seen our website and our Facebook pages and our blog, but there’s no substitute for actually walking through those doors and seeing the people who are already here.  From the friendly smiles of the greeters to the smell of coffee and snacks, from the helpful guidance of the ushers to the uplifting music, we try to make people feel as welcome as we can.

And just as the movement from front door to Sanctuary seat is a unified whole, so are our services, with hymns and readings, music and spoken words coming together to support the message.  Sometimes, a traditional sermon is not the only way to get that message across, or even the best way, so when appropriate I like to share the pulpit or include multigenerational dramas, or tell a story or project pictures or invite you into a hands-on activity.  Sometimes I don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out, but Unitarian Universalism is an experimental faith, after all, and if there’s anyone who should have faith that things will go well, I guess it’s the minister.

This Summer, by the way, marks the latest stage in the evolution of this congregation from where it was — and where most other UU churches were — not all that many years ago, namely being closed on Sundays, with no services, during July and August.  This year, as has been my intention since starting here, I shall be doing services in the Summer months just as if they were any other month.  It’s well known that a lot of people, particularly families with young children, do their “church shopping” during the Summer, and I want to be here for them.  The religious need inherent in being human, the need of people for community and transformation, doesn’t take the Summer off, and neither should ministers.

Next we come to lifespan faith development, which is a fancy way of saying religious education for children, youth and adults.  This is, frankly, an area in which I’d like to be able to do more, but since my place is here on a Sunday morning, I can’t also be part of Adult RE or Spirit Play or the Youth Group.  Of course, for the last ten months I’ve found that I’m doing a lot of another sort of teaching at home, though I think I learn more from Olivia than she’s picking up from me, something I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks’ time.  In any case, I particularly treasure those opportunities I do have to lead classes or offer workshops or participate in youth and young adult events, whether it’s working with and supporting our Fellowship Circle facilitators or helping our Coming of Age students put their faith into words and write elevator speeches about what they believe.

Now when it comes to Unitarian Universalism as a faith, you’ve heard me say before that it doesn’t really matter what we believe; rather, what matters is what we do with those beliefs, in other words how we behave toward others and the world we share.  A good number of my sermons touch on issues of social justice, and this congregation has a long and proud history of good works.

Recently we’ve gone through a transition with a restructuring of the Social Justice Committee to be more of an umbrella group, bringing together task forces and groups working on different issues from hunger and homelessness to LGBTQ equality to environmental stewardship so that they can encourage one another and share ideas and resources.  I think that’s great, and I strongly support their efforts to develop more ways for people to get involved with the sort of well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities that prove consistently popular at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry and the PORT Winter Shelter Program.  Given the busyness of life today, most people aren’t willing or aren’t able to commit themselves to the on-going requirements of committee work or organizational responsibility, but offer them a chance to spend a couple of hours making a tangible difference in the lives of others, and they’ll be there — and they’ll bring their children and their friends to help, too. That’s how we show what our faith means.

This brings me to another area, starting with my take on the “hospitality teams” idea that many of you heard about at last month’s annual meeting.  To quickly summarize, the idea of hospitality teams is that the entire congregation, plus any non-members who want to be involved, is divided up into groups of forty or so people.  These teams take it in turn being responsible for everything that happens each Sunday morning between the front door and the Sanctuary doors — from greeting to ushering, from getting the coffee brewing to putting out snacks, from unlocking the doors and setting up the social area to cleaning up after everything’s finished and making sure the building is closed and locked again. There’s something for everyone, since the tasks — which are not always to be done by the same people: well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities work best, remember — the tasks range from simply making sure there’s a fresh carton of half-n-half in the fridge to preparing an entire spread of baked goods, since I for one am not willing to get in Sandra’s way of doing that for us.

I’m excited about the hospitality teams idea for a couple of different reasons.

First, when Cyndi Simpson, who has been minister to the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, offered a workshop to our UUFP leadership a few months ago, she talked about the needs that people have to connect with one another at a variety of levels.  (It’s important to know this, because one of the fears that people often express when talking about congregational growth is that they won’t know as many people or won’t know them as well.)

So people need to connect with one another individually, which is one of the reasons why, over the last three years, we’ve been trying to implement a new way of doing congregational stewardship, where every member or couple or family has someone assigned to them to at least check in with them a few times a year.  People also need to connect with one another in small groups of about a dozen people, which is one of the reasons we offer Fellowship Circles in particular and other programs such as the Book Club and Goddess Circle and Resist Apathy and Fifty and Better in general.  But people also need to connect with one another in larger groups of about fifty people and, other than perhaps EarthRising’s most well attended rituals, we don’t really offer anything that meets people’s needs for connection at that level.  Hospitality teams would do that, and do it intentionally, with each team getting together regularly for purely social events.

And I’m excited about hospitality teams for a second reason, and for this insight I’m grateful to Joanne.  Up until last year, we had a Nominating Committee that, just after New Year’s, would start talking to the UUFP leadership about who was willing to continue serving on the Board or as a committee chair and who wasn’t.  They’d figure out which positions needed to be filled by election at the annual meeting and who they had as potential candidates for those positions.  Then they’d panic, and they’d continue in that state of panic for about two months, and that’s why a large chunk of the UUA ministers’ retirement plan is invested in the companies that make Tums and Pepto-Bismol.  The problem is common not just to churches but also to almost every volunteer group, namely that it usually comes down to re-electing the people who’ve already served many times before or the people who’ve just joined the congregation and made the mistake of telling us that they’re good with numbers or words or plumbing.

That’s why we now have a Leadership Development Committee rather than the old fashioned, gastrically ulcerated Nominating Committee.  I’ll come back to this at the end of the month, but leadership development ought to start when someone first walks in that door, continuing with everything they ever do as a member, and rather than culminating in their election to some leadership position continues after that, too, since the primary responsibility of anyone in leadership is to train their own replacement.

Obviously it’s much easier to find people willing to be elected if they first have some positive experience of the work that’s involved, and it’s much better to have people on a committee organizing some program if they first have some positive experience of participating in that program.  Hospitality teams can do just that, helping people who may well be brand new to the congregation to immediately make a difference in the life of this community, putting them on the very first step of the path toward bigger leadership responsibilities in the future, if that’s something that, in time, they choose to pursue.

And this gets to the heart of what I want you to take away from here this morning.  This community is built by all of us.  Our lay leader wasn’t exaggerating this morning when she spoke the usual words to introduce our offering, that “All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  Growing this beloved community is a ministry in which each and every one of us is involved, a ministry that is found whenever we bring our best selves, whenever we share our joy at the good we find here, whenever we boldly grasp the imagination, whenever we lift up the inspiring work that we’re doing together.

I’d like to finish, in fact, by doing just that, lifting up the good work that each and every one of you is doing, whether you’ve been here for decades or have walked in the door for the very first time this morning, for everything you do is helping to grow this beloved community.

So, if you currently serve in an official leadership position — whether elected or appointed — please stand.  Let’s give them a round of applause to thank them!

If you currently serve on a committee or a planning group or a task force, please stand.  Thank you for your service!

If you help with a program — being an RE teacher or a greeter or an usher or a lay leader or a steward or providing hospitality or music or items for the yard sale or being part of the Casbah or PORT or the buildings and grounds clean-up crew — please stand.  You are truly doing the work of this congregation, so thank you.

And if you are present here this morning, having brought yourself as you are, whether troubled or happy, whether content with your life or searching for something missing, whether curious or tired or hungry or lonely or at peace, please stand.  Thank you for giving us the biggest gift of all, the gift of your presence among us.  I invite you to look around at everyone else standing with you and to give yourselves a round of applause.

All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it.  May we always seek and find new and greater ways to live this gift and this promise.

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Multigenerational Worship

What did the mystic say to the hot dog vendor?
“Make me one with everything!”

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I attended church services of one sort or another.  As a young child I remember going to Sunday School — though I don’t remember much beyond crusty modeling clay and singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” a lot — but from time to time I also sat in services with my father.  During the week, at the schools I attended from kindergarten through high school, we’d begin each day with “assembly”, which was in large part a religious service that included hymns, Bible readings and prayers.  I was in every school choir and we would often sing anthems, too.  Morning assembly at my high school also included a sermon, usually by the school’s chaplains or sometimes guest speakers or even students; that’s where I was first in the pulpit, giving sermons on such topics as Albert Einstein and the Chernobyl disaster.

At some point, before reaching adolescence, I realized that many of theological specifics that were presented in those school assemblies simply didn’t mean a lot to me.  Lessons about treating other people with respect, sharing our gifts with one another, doing what we can to make the world a better place: sure, those made sense, and hearing them probably helped me to be a better person, too.  But there’s something about saying the Lord’s Prayer five times a week, ten months a year — and in “King James” English, no less — that soon emptied it of significance.

Nonetheless, I generally looked forward to morning assembly.  For one thing, I enjoyed singing, particularly, once my voice broke, singing hymn tunes in harmony with other voices.  Looking back, I’m also glad that it was part of my daily routine.  I was something of an unruly child and didn’t always treat other people nicely, so it was good for me to learn the self-discipline of sitting still and paying attention.  (That certainly came in handy during the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis when I found myself on screen for much of the Service of the Living Tradition, right behind the minister giving the sermon!)  It taught me the importance of what I would now describe in terms of the Third Principle — acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth — even, or perhaps especially, when another’s worldview didn’t align with my own.

For these reasons and more, I believe it’s important for children to experience worship with adults, to understand not just what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in theory, but in practice as well.  The first ten or fifteen minutes of our services are not just time to rush through so we adults can get to the “more important” parts, but offer real opportunities to show our living tradition to our children: sharing the significance of lighting the chalice, discovering what it means to raise voices together in song, and hearing a short story that celebrates life and our search for truths no matter our age.

Intentionally multigenerational services go one step further, from family-oriented rituals such as the Water Communion to services based around an extended story that is told or enacted by a variety of voices.  As was the case last year, my congregation is planning some of these story-based services, but we recognize that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.  So, though we’ve recently extended the capabilities of our sound system and are working on making it more hearing-aid-friendly, and will take into account issues of visibility, only the second (11am) service will feature actors, while the first service (9:30am) will follow the traditional format with a sermon.  On such Sundays there will be no Religious Education classes: adults are then free to choose which service to attend, while children can stay with their parents so that families as a whole can participate in services together.

Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, I look forward to seeing you on Sunday!

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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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