Posts Tagged spirituality

Open Doors to Many Rooms

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardLighting the Flaming Chalice

One of the activities that’s part of our quarterly Orientation to Membership workshop is the “values continuum”.  Laying out a piece of string on the floor, we describe a number of scenarios where one end of the string represents somebody holding one set of values and the other end represents somebody holding contrasting values.  For each scenario, we ask the workshop participants to place themselves on the string based on how their own values align, and then we invite them to share their reasons for where they’ve placed themselves.

For example, one scenario might have “Interior Isabel” at one end of the string and “Ollie Outreach” at the other.  Isabel believes that Sunday services should be primarily occasions for spiritual growth; she likes quiet sermons on pastoral topics and plenty of time for silent reflection.  Ollie, by contrast, believes…

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Soul Repair: a Social Practice of Love

(I preached this sermon for Memorial Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 26th 2013.  Other than where indicated, my source for this sermon was Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini.)

Shortly after the end of World War II, United States Army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall published a report claiming that, of the U.S. troops engaged in actual combat, a full three-quarters of them never actually fired their weapons at the enemy, even when their own lives were directly threatened.  Marshall concluded in 1947 that “the average and normally healthy individual — the man that can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat — still has such an inner and unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility. […] At a vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector, unknowing.”

Marshall recommended to the Army brass who were understandably alarmed by his conclusions that they should develop new training methods to overcome their soldiers’ reluctance to killing.  In the following decades, such “reflexive fire training”, as it is known, raised the percentage of soldiers willing to fire directly at the enemy from twenty-five in World War II to more than fifty in Korea to almost ninety percent in Vietnam.  In that sense, the training program was very successful.  Some veterans, however, have noted that reflexive fire training bypassed their’ own moral decision-making processes — and did so without providing any preparation for dealing with the emotional and spiritual consequences of having killed another human being.

While there is training to prepare for war, there is no equivalent process for returning to civilian life.  In generations past, going home would be a long process; today our soldiers go from active combat to the civilian world in fewer than three days — and then only to be deployed again.

During our Ministry to Military Families potlucks, this was a frequent topic of conversation. It’s also the subject of the book Soul Repair by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, which brings together the stories of veterans who experienced what they call “moral injury”.  Different from post-traumatic stress disorder, which “occurs in response to prolonged, extreme danger and is a […] reaction to danger [that] produces hormones that affect [the parts of the brain] that control responses to fear, as well as regulate emotions and connect fear to memory”, moral injury “results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they can no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.  They may feel this,” Brock and Lettini explain, “even if what they did was warranted and unavoidable.”  “Seeing someone else violate core moral values or feeling betrayed by persons in authority can also lead to a loss of meaning and faith.”  As combat-trained U.S. Army chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. discovered when ministering to soldiers in Vietnam, he would sometimes hear what amounted to confessions of “profound, searing shame” as well as feelings of betrayal by senior officers and the government.  “From these conversations, Herm concluded that something profound and soul endangering was the source of their suffering, not just ‘shell shock’ or what was later called PTSD.”

Let me back up and saying something about why I’m preaching on this topic.

Two years ago today, this pulpit was filled by Pat Owen, who is herself a twenty-two-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.  She is currently Director of Membership for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond as well as a student at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, which is our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  Pat is amply qualified, then, to preach on the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and the military, and in her sermon she specifically charged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  As Pat said, with so many military facilities in this part of Virginia, not to mention the shipyards, “this congregation finds itself in the perfect position to create an exemplary program connecting with service members.”

We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to begin figuring out how to do that.  One of the first things we did was bring together a number of veterans, active duty personnel and military spouses who are members of the Fellowship, to ask them what they need.  A safe place to share stories and memories and experiences with others who would understand was one of the needs that was expressed, and so we began a series of regular potlucks to try to meet that need.  Something else that was mentioned was being better understood by members of the congregation who have no military experience, so last Veterans Day I invited some of our members to speak to us on what it means to be an enlisted UU, what it means to be a UU military spouse, what it means to be a UU and a veteran.

Now in that Veterans Day service I mentioned a program developed by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is the three-and-a-half-thousand member “congregation without walls” that includes Unitarian Universalists who have no local church to attend as well as many UUs who are serving in the military.  At first glance, this program seemed ideal, offering a way to bring together our members both in the military and not and engaging them in mutually enlightening conversation around topics of military service, peace, war and ministry.  As we took a closer look at the program, though, we realized that it was really intended for congregations experiencing conflict around these issues, and that’s not us.  One of the things I very quickly realized about this Fellowship is that while it certainly includes people holding widely differing opinions on matters of war and peace, there is a deep atmosphere of respect and appreciation and love that makes this, unlike some Unitarian Universalist congregations, a place where all of us can be proud of our military personnel and veterans and their spouses and families, where we can thank them for their service.  And it’s not hard to see how much these military families add by being here, so it’s always sad to see them go as and when they are transferred to other posts elsewhere in the country.

The question remains, then, as to how we can respond to Pat Owen’s charge “to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  There’s no one way, of course, but I was struck by something that came up at that first meeting — and came up again and again at the subsequent potlucks — namely the fact that the move from active duty to veteran — from the structure and discipline of military life to the uncertainty and ambiguity of civilian life — can be one of the hardest transitions anyone is ever expected to make in their life.  It’s tough for those of us who have never served in the military to understand that, but journalist Sebastian Junger provides one insight we can appreciate.  He writes, “The classic story of a man throwing himself on a hand grenade — certain death, but an action that will almost certainly save everyone else — is neither a Hollywood cliché nor something that only happened in wars gone by. It is something that happens with regularity, and I don’t think it can be explained by ‘army training’ or any kind of suicidal impulse.  I think that kind of courage goes to the heart of what it means to be human and to affiliate with others in a kind of transcendent way.  Of course, once you have experienced a bond like that, everything else looks pathetic and uninteresting.  That may be one reason,” Junger concludes, that “combat vets have such a hard time returning to society.”

So how does the U.S. Army, for instance, help prepare its personnel for going home?  Well, here’s one comment on a debriefing as experienced by Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía: “A twenty-minute session centering on the admonition Don’t commit suicide doesn’t do much to ease the anguish of a soldier dealing with the horror, for instance, of having killed a child, just as a group session with a combat stress team isn’t much help if your life is at risk twenty-four hours a day.”

And how well do such debriefings work?  Consider the fact that veterans make up about seven percent of the U.S. population but represent twenty percent of all suicides.  The Veterans Administration estimates, in fact, that veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes.  And between 2005 and 2007 alone, the suicide rate among veterans under thirty increased by more than a quarter.  Veterans are also disproportionately divorced, unemployed, homeless and imprisoned.

Now while this is known to VA researchers, getting to VA services and benefits is another matter.  Brock and Lettini open their book by telling some of the story of Clay Warren Hunt, the “twenty-eight-year-old former marine corporal who earned a Purple Heart serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  In 2009 he was “a model to other veterans of a successful return home”, married, taking college courses, advocating for veterans’ rights and working in disaster relief.  In 2010 “the VA lost his benefit application papers and [his] payments were delayed for ten months.  Frustrated, he lobbied Congress on behalf of veteran’s benefits:  ‘You fight for your country,” he said, “then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised.’”  Then “his marriage ended, he left school, [and he] went into treatment for depression”.  In 2011 Clay killed himself.  “Over a thousand people attended his funeral.”

Clay’s experience with the VA is far from unique.  Pamela Lightsey spent time in the military, worked in civil service positions associated with her husband’s continued career in the military, and her son, Dweylon, joined the Army and was posted to Iraq.  Eight years after coming home, Dweylon had still not received the help he needed, and Pamela worries about him as only a mother can.  “What he has achieved at home,” she explains, “is especially miraculous in the face of VA services that are not only just awful but also require veterans to have to fight their own government for the disability support or financial compensation owed them from serving in war.  It can take many years going back and forth filing and responding to documents for disability pay. Some even have to hire an attorney to help them back their way through all the red tape.”

I’ve heard from some of our own members here about the problems with the Veterans Administration, particularly our local VA Medical Center in Hampton.  It’s even been a recurring segment on The Daily Show, which is not known for taking current events entirely seriously but has been reporting on the horrendous backlog of benefits applications at the VA, to the extent that the weight of hundreds of thousands of paper claim forms is buckling the floors of the building where they are waiting to be processed.

Unfortunately, even if the VA were able to process the applications in a timely manner, it is “not prepared to help [those] in emotional pain and deep anguish.”  As discovered by U.S. Marine veteran Mac Bica, “about all the help the VA offered [him upon his return from Vietnam] was some group therapy and heavy medication like Thorazine to ease depression and anxiety.”  Recognizing that he could not simply put the war behind him, as some well-meaning friends advised him, Mac found himself challenging “modern therapeutic approaches to the suffering of veterans as afflictions of stress and trauma, clustered under the umbrella of PTSD[, approaches that deem] moral and spiritual considerations irrelevant, or even a hindrance to restoring psychological health.”  As Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía explains it, “PTSD and moral injury are two different hidden wounds of war.”  “PTSD is a breach of trust with the world” — he found he could no longer trust roads not to explode nor trust children not to throw grenades at him.  “Moral injury, however, is the violation of a moral agreement he had with his own internal world, his moral identity.  Camilo broke that inner agreement by violating his most deeply held moral beliefs”,  killing unarmed civilians and allowing prisoners of war to be tortured.  The fact that he did those things under orders is of little comfort.

Now some of you may know that the Army has attempted to address the impacts of combat on its soldiers’ health and well-being by instituting a program called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”.  Primarily directed at helping its soldiers to be resilient — in other words, to be able to “bounce back” after trauma and stress — the CSF program identifies five dimensions of resilience, which are physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual.  The spiritual dimension of fitness is defined as “strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength”, which makes it little more than an “everything else not included above” category.  Furthermore, the spiritual fitness part of the program has come under criticism as a back-door means to promote Evangelical Christianity, with non-Christians and particularly atheists experiencing discrimination.  And as Brock and Lettini note, the Army’s definition of “spiritual [fitness] fails to contain any moral content or to acknowledge the basic existence of moral conscience, which is the key to distinguishing a healthy person from a sociopath.”  The irony, in fact, is that the CSF program seems to promote a spirituality that would rule out empathy and ethical concerns, meaning that veterans with moral injury are actually stigmatized as being spiritually unfit.

What is to be done about all of this?  Well, there’s what might be called the “top down” approach, but that’s problematic.  Iraq veteran Kevin Benderman originally chose a career in the Army in order to defend his country, but, horrified by what he had already witnessed, he refused to redeploy as a way to uphold “the honor and integrity of military service, which taught him to respect the truth.”  His application for Conscientious Objector status was supported by a chaplain but was eventually denied, and he was court-martialed, demoted and sentenced to fifteen months in a military prison.  Studying the politics — and the economics — of war, “Kevin believes that ‘protest demonstrations to stop wars are useless.  People are still driven by their fears to believe propaganda rather than to challenge the lies that send people to war.”  Rather, the civilian public needs to “demand justice for those who fought and those who died.”  “Until the public demands an accounting, Kevin is certain that the country’s leaders, trusting in military power, mesmerized by weapons systems, and oblivious to the cost of war on ordinary people, will fail to use intelligence, moral reasoning and common sense in dealing with international problems.”

But there’s also a “bottom up” approach.

My reading this morning came from Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, a work of fiction that described a nonetheless real Navajo practice known as “the Enemy Way”, an extensive, difficult process to purge the harmful effects of war, fatal accidents and other encounters with death from the soul.  VA hospitals in the Southwest even promote ceremonies such as the Enemy Way to help Native American veterans, so there’s some hope on that front.  Along the same lines, “Christian churches in the first millennium required anyone who ‘shed human blood’ to undergo a rehabilitation process that included reverting to the status of someone who had not yet been baptized” and required them to spend at least a year re-developing their faith.

Whether we consider the extinct practices of primitive Christianity or the continuing practices of the Navajo Nation, the work of soul repair is a deliberate, arduous tasks.  As Brock and Lettini note, “We must resist offering hasty forgiveness to absolve ourselves and others.  If we can take the time, instead, to listen to what veterans say to us, to befriend them as we journey together toward a different world, we can together discover how deep transformation leads us toward the moral conscience that is the deepest, most important dimension of our shared humanity.  In doing so, we can come to understand the honor and integrity of military service and the importance of the moral criteria for war, which the military itself teaches, and what it would require of everyone one of us to send any one of us to war.”  I think this is getting at what Pat Owen meant when she challenged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.

Now Soul Repair is not a “how to” manual.  There is, unfortunately, no program in here that we can simply adapt and adopt.  This is new territory — one barely appreciated by the Veterans Administration and still essentially denied by the military hierarchy and the government.  The Soul Repair Center, of which Rita Nakashima Brock is co-director, at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth is working on programs and materials for congregations, theological schools and community organizations that want to support the recovery of veterans and others from moral injury, but it’s still very new.

But I really dislike, if I can at all help it, ending a sermon by having described a problem and yet offering nothing about what we, as a congregation, might do about it.  To even frame the topic of moral injury in terms of the phrase “soul repair” is to imply that there’s a significant spiritual dimension to it, and that ought to align it with the bread-and-butter of every religious organization.

More veterans look for help from ministers than from psychiatrists, and it’s no accident that many of the veterans whose stories are told in Brock and Lettini’s book sought to deepen their faith as a way to repair their own souls, some becoming ministers.  Moreover, there’s clearly an important rôle for non-Christian faith communities, particularly Unitarian Universalist congregations when it comes to pagans, humanists, atheists and so on who feel excluded by the military’s capitulation to Evangelical Christianity when it comes to matters of spiritual fitness.

For example, Army veteran and chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. wants religious communities to create, in his words, “a place of grace” that supports recovery from moral injury.  When few “social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives others better than” — no, not churches — but the military, then “people of faith [are called] to wade into the complex moral questions of war and social responsibility and discern the meaning of spiritual life after war [so that we] can engage the conversations that matter deeply and, in doing so, save lives.”

So what would characterize “a place of grace”?  What is needed to support soul repair?  Brock and Lettini do describe a few requirements, and they fit right into the mission of any decent church.  First, there needs to be friendship.  “Friends,” they explain, “probe and question and challenge each other to make each other more complete.”  “With friends, we discuss intimate questions, hold each other’s confidences, learn to tolerate disagreements, support each other through life’s struggles and joys, and explore the profound questions of life’s meaning.”

Second, “conversations about moral injury require deep listening.  In being open,” they write, “we must be willing to take in what we hear as part of ourselves, to be moved, even by what is difficult or painful to hear, and to struggle to understand profound questions about moral conscience.”  “Deep listening requires us to set our own needs aside and to offer, simply, respect.”

Third and fourth, “recovering from moral injury also requires a renewed sense of life purpose and service.  A society that ends a war with a parade and returns to its entertainments, consumerism, celebrity worship and casual commitments in order to forget its wars offers no purpose worth pursuing,” they argue.  “Whatever we think of a war, the crucial responsibility is to accompany the journey home of those who return and remind [ourselves] that, as a society, we don’t just leave wars [or our warriors] behind.”

First, friendship.  Second, deep listening.  Third, life purpose.  Fourth, service.  We enjoy and promote those here, don’t we?

Time and again I hear in the testimonials that our own members give from this pulpit how much they value the friends they have made here.  And many of our members enjoy the opportunities offered by Fellowship Circles to deepen existing friendships and make new friends through the practice of deep listening.  And if there’s anywhere that we can talk about life’s purpose and the values claimed and manifested by our society, it’s in church.  And as part of being people of faith, we encourage one another to engage in service, whether it’s within the congregation by being an RE teacher or by offering hospitality or beyond our walls by volunteering with LINK or St. Paul’s.  We may not have them perfectly, but all of the aspirations and skills we need are already here, gathered up in our Fellowship’s mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, bound together in our Unitarian Universalist covenant to walk together in the ways of love.

Addressing moral injury is a religious task and as a religious community we have a vital role to play in helping even those who may not consider themselves religious to find healthy ways to express themselves and engage in the arduous work of soul repair.  There’s important outreach we can do — that we must do — as part of a non-dogmatic faith tradition that speaks up for the rights of religious minorities and encourages the covenanted social practice of love.  For it is our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans, to military families and to everyone who seeks spiritual wholeness, who seeks to transform themselves and one another such that this world may be filled with beauty, and we the fortunate souls who walk together in it.

So may it be.

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Together We Are More

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 19th 2013.  The first service that Sunday featured a “traditional” format based around the sermon, while the second service was “multigenerational” with the three stories told interactively as bracketed by an introduction and a reflection.)

Introduction (multigenerational service)

This morning we’re going to hear three different folk tales from around the world — one from Africa, one from India and one from Japan — as well as a song based on a saying from China.  All of them provide us with some different ways to look at what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Now all of us are part of something larger than ourselves, often more than one thing.  We’re part of our families, part of our communities, part of our society, part of the human race, part of life on this planet.  And all of us here this morning are part of this congregation — even if you’re visiting us for the first time, we welcome you into our religious community for the time that you’re here.

One of the reasons to choose to be a part of something larger than ourselves is that it allows us to do things that we cannot do by ourselves.  In the first story, we’ll meet Hare, who realizes he must ask others to help him if he’s to do what he promised Hyena; in return, Hare gives the others a couple of marvelous gifts.

Often we’re part of something larger than ourselves because there’s some bigger goal we’re trying to achieve together.  In the second story, when a fowler or bird-catcher is trying to trap some quail so that he can sell them at the market, we find out what can happen to a community when it loses sight of its own goal.

And our third story is short but makes a simple point about the importance of how we are together making all the difference.  We’ll go with a woman who wants to see both heaven and hell; the monks at the local temple show her two scenes that are exactly the same except in one particular way that turns one scene into hell and turns the other into heaven.

~)<

Anthem: “Where There Is Light in the Soul” by Elizabeth Alexander

Sermon

[“Hare’s Gifts”, a story from Africa, told by Kenneth Collier]

It wasn’t until I’d completed about a year’s worth of seminary classes that I realized that one of my main interests was in the subject of community.  And this wasn’t just an academic interest in building and sustaining community, I knew, but a deep, personal need to be a part of something larger.  I’ve always been a “joiner” — by which I don’t mean a carpenter who specializes in assembling woodwork but somebody who becomes a member of organizations — and where they was no organization to join, I would create one.

As a young child, for instance, I rounded up the other young children who lived on my street, starting with my sister and one of the neighbors, to form what I naïvely called a gang.  Rather than going out and getting into trouble, though, we met in a shed in my parents’ back yard and held committee meetings.  I guess I was destined for church work.

Twenty years later I was living in San Diego and had become part of an on-line community that was forming under the name of Scientific Pantheism.  I’d been attracted — in spite of the bizarre-sounding name — on the basis of a web page that asked questions such as:

“When you look at the night sky or at the images of the Hubble Space Telescope, are you filled with feelings of awe and wonder at the overwhelming beauty and power of the Universe?

“When you are in the midst of Nature, in a forest, by the sea, on a mountain peak, do you ever feel a sense of the sacred, like the feeling of being in a vast cathedral?

“Do you believe that humans should be a part of Nature, rather than set above it?”

Well, my answer to all of these questions was “yes”, just as it is for many Unitarian Universalists.  Only I hadn’t heard of Unitarian Universalism at the time.  Even though there were active, healthy UU congregations in the towns where I’d lived since moving to the United States, none of them offered a campus ministry that had reached me at the universities where I studied and worked, so I was left to my own devices to find religion on-line.

Of course, that wasn’t very satisfactory.  So, discovering that there were a number of other people living in Southern California who had also found that on-line group, I suggested we get together.  Apparently other people felt the same need for seeing one another, as I found that I was welcoming into my little apartment not only people from San Diego, but from Orange County, from Riverside, even from Los Angeles.  To give you an idea of the time and distance, that’s like someone coming here from Fredericksburg, only with much, much, much worse traffic, as well as immigration check-points.

We started meeting every month, for picnics and potlucks, for meditation and story-telling and drumming, to go hiking or to visit places like the San Diego Zoo or the La Brea Tar Pits.  We called ourselves the Pantheists of Southern California, and I even have one of the surviving mugs that I had made for us.  It was community at its most instinctive, its most informal, as is entirely appropriate for a small group of a dozen or fifteen people, but it met a real, human need — our need — for community.

[“The Fowler and the Quail”, a story from India, told by H. T. Francis and E. J. Thomas]

Even before I officially began here at the Fellowship, I received a message from someone who wanted to start what he was calling an “Interfaith Communion” to bring together liberal churches around issues of LGBTQ equality.  The inaugural event was to be held at Hilton Christian Church, with a potluck and a showing of a documentary about California’s Proposition 8.  A number of you here attended, and there seemed to be interest in more such events that would bring together Unitarian Universalists, Congregationalists and Reformed Jews as well as some of the more progressive Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists.

I suggested that it would be good for the ministers from those churches and other clergy to meet, to figure out what we might do next as well as to support one another in our own social justice efforts, and very quickly we got together and started meeting once a month.  Now after a few such meetings, the original organizer of the potluck and movie event told us about a distinguished sexuality educator he knew who’d be willing to visit Hampton Roads to do a weekend workshop for us.  We reasoned that a lot of homophobia, for instance, is rooted in ignorance about human sexuality, so anything we could do to educate people would be a step in the right direction.  We readily agreed to organize the workshop and even received a grant from the Advocacy Office of the United Church of Christ to help with costs.  Again, a number of you here attended that weekend workshop.

Not long after that, though, the group fell apart.  That’s not because we started arguing, but we did stop cooperating with one another.  Those of us who were ministers found ourselves too busy with other things.  A couple of people were ill and for some reason just about all of the Congregationalist churches in the area seemed to be having problems of their own.  We found it harder and harder to keep a regular meeting time that worked for even a few of us, and eventually the attempts to re-convene the Interfaith Communion simply ended.

[“The Difference Between Heaven and Hell”, a story from Japan, told by Elisa Pearmain]

I think that’s the difference between what I experienced with the Pantheists of Southern California and what I experienced with the Interfaith Communion: in San Diego, we figured out how to feed each other.  I’m not talking about actual food, of course — there was always plenty of that, and none of us were hindered by only being able to use three-foot-long chopsticks to pick it up.  No, I’m talking about feeding one another spiritually, something that very few people can do — or at least do for very long — all by themselves.

I’ve heard a number of ideas about the origin of the word “religion”, but the one that seems to make the most sense — at least to me, particularly as a Unitarian Universalist — is that it comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind together again”.  I don’t recommend looking it up in any dictionary, though, given that a lot of overly specific theology tends to get inappropriately included.  As I said here one sunny Sunday morning a little over three years ago, there’s a dirty little secret about religion that I learned while I was in seminary:

Religion isn’t really about belief, at least not for most people, even in main-line Christian denominations.  Rather, religion is about community.  It’s about family and friends and feeling connected with other people, being a part of something larger that gives us a sense of purpose in the world, that challenges us to be more than we are, that asks us to help make the world a better place, for our children and for one another.  It’s about feeding one another spiritually.

And here’s what happens when we do that: unlike physical food that’s consumed, when we feed one another spiritually, we end up with more, not less, and we find that we are more together than we are as a mere collection of individuals.  When we come together with our preoccupations with time and who’s responsible for what, with concern for who’s getting credit and unresolved disagreements over what we’re going to do together, it’s easy to be less.  That’s not to say that there’s never a group that’s free of such problems.  Chances are, if it’s doing worthwhile work, there’ll be different ideas about the best way to do that work.  But if the people in the group are feeding one another spiritually, those differences are a source of strength, not weakness.

As I bring this sermon to a close, let me give you an example.

The Fellowship’s Finance Committee is responsible for preparing the congregation’s annual budget.  Though the budget is actually approved by voting members at the annual meeting, as will happen following services today, the budget obviously needs to be developed before that.  That’s not something that happens in a vacuum, though.  For one thing, we can’t assume infinite pledges.  Much as our Canvass Chair cooked up all sorts of creative ways we could raise more money — though I’m not sure how fracking in the Sanctuary’s back yard was ever going to work — we can only work with the pledge commitments we actually receive, modestly supplemented by reasonable estimates of income from fund-raising events and things like the re-sale of the books that many of you donate.

On the other side of the balance sheet, we have a lot of known expenses.  Much as we might plead with them, Dominion will not keep the lights on or the air-conditioners running unless we pay our bill from them each month.  We are similarly committed to pay back our own members who bought bonds to help us pay off the mortgage on the office building.  Then there are the congregational goals and priorities for which the Policy Board is ultimately responsible, from being a “Fair Share” supporter of the Unitarian Universalist Association so that it can continue to offer programs that are of benefit to us, to ensuring that our own dedicated staff are at least better compensated than if they were employees at Walmart.  Finally, there are common-sense requirements, including that the budget should be balanced.

Now all of that can seem like a pretty tall order.  As anyone who has been a part of it can tell you, it takes many meetings, poring over spreadsheets, looking at past budgets, calculating and re-calculating estimates of this year’s actuals, moving numbers around to try to make it all work.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  In that ideal universe with infinite pledges — or, perhaps, an enormous and somehow completely non-polluting source of crude in our own back yard — it’d be easy.  In the real world, it’s not.  What’s more, it may not even be possible to satisfy all of the requirements at the same time.

But here’s the thing.  When the members of the committee are there not just to do the job, but to be in community with one another while doing that job, not just to complete a far from easy task, but to help one another bring their best selves to that task, then they are not just a committee, but are also a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

~)<

Reflection (multigenerational service)

So heaven and hell turned out to be pretty much the same, except in heaven the people were helping one another and in hell they forgot that they could do that.  It seems like a small thing, but even the simple ways in which we work together can make a big difference in the end.  Sometimes we think that helping one another makes things too complicated, that asking for help from somebody else is being a bother to them, that we should be able to do everything ourselves, but we can only be part of something larger than ourselves if we’re willing to help one another, and be helped, too.

Now in the story from India, do you think the quail ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in hell, too.  And really, it was a hell of their own making.  They forgot that they needed to work together, and their own quarrels with one another became more important to them than the larger goal of saving all of the quail from the fowler’s net.  Okay, perhaps there were some quail who were sometimes working harder, either because they were naturally stronger or because they happened to be in just the right place to do more.  But those quail wouldn’t always be as strong and they wouldn’t always be in a good place, and the time would come when they wouldn’t be able to do as much to help with the net, so really they should have counted their blessings rather than complain.  Perhaps then the fowler wouldn’t have been able to trap them.

And in the story from Africa, do you think Hare and the others ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in heaven, too.  Even Hyena, once he’d realized that Hare had done what he promised fair and square, probably had a good time at the feast and enjoyed the music as much as everyone else.  Maybe, when it was time for him to rebuild his hut, he moved into the village along with everyone else, too.  That’s not to say that nobody in the village ever disagreed with one another or got into arguments.  But keeping in mind the promise of the village — that it really is good to live together, sharing, helping and knowing each other — they’d find ways to resolve their disagreements and settle their arguments so that they could continue to enjoy that heavenly promise.

So the next time you find yourself part of a group of people with a particular job to do, think about how you can be in community with one another while doing that job.  Suppose you’re part of a class project or a team with some task to complete, try to find ways to help one another bring your best selves to that project or task.  Like the people at the feast in the temple, it’s important to be there not just as a group of individual people, but as a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

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Harry Potter and the Standardized Test

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 7th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

During the fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, the Ministry of Magic tries to take over the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.  Some of this is driven by the supporters of the evil Lord Voldemort who work at the Ministry of Magic; they create a smear campaign to discredit Harry, who personally witnessed Voldemort’s rebirth, as well as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.  Some of it is driven by the personal paranoia of the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who refuses to believe that Voldemort is back and is instead convinced that Dumbledore is raising a secret army to make himself the new Minister of Magic.

The agent of interference at Hogwarts is Fudge’s Senior Undersecretary, Dolores Umbridge, whose pinkly saccharine manner belies a cruel and vindictive soul.  At first she is on the staff as a teacher, but then becomes acting headmaster when Dumbledore is removed.  Through an ever-growing number of Educational Decrees issued by the Ministry of Magic, which are framed and hung on the wall outside the Great Hall, Umbridge imposes her draconian rule over the students, the teachers and all other aspects of school life.

In the end, though, it is the students themselves who fight back, with Harry secretly training the others in the defensive spells that Umbridge refuses to teach them, and the Weasley twins Fred and George generating mayhem where appropriate.

In this scene from the movie, things come to a head during an “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exam that Harry and the other fifth-years are taking under Umbridge’s watchful eye.

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Standardized Test”

Some of you may not know this, but I actually went to school at Hogwarts.

Oh, I don’t literally mean the magical castle with its animated paintings, fantastic creatures, shifting staircases and energetic ghosts.  But from the age of seven until I was eighteen I did attend British boarding schools, with big halls where we ate our meals and took our exams, dormitories where we slept, and even houses into which we were sorted, though instead of being named Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, they had names such as Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans.  Such schools were, of course, the basis for J. K. Rowling’s creation of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry which in a 2008 survey was, in spite of its fictional status, voted one of the best schools in Scotland.

And, of course, the British educational system generally was part of Rowling’s inspiration.  When I was in school we had two sets of nationwide exams that students took at the ages of sixteen and eighteen respectively.  At sixteen we all took the Ordinary or O-Levels in just about every school subject, which Rowling turned into the “Ordinary Wizarding Level” or OWL exams.  How each of us did in those determined which three or perhaps four subjects we might study for the next couple of years before taking the Advanced or A-Levels at eighteen, to which Rowling’s equivalents are the “Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests” or NEWT exams.

Now when I was working my way through the O- and A-Level system, there were, of course, other end-of-year exams, designed within the school, to test us on what we were supposed to have learned during the course of each school year.

Few of those exams, I should note, involved questions with multiple-choice answers.  Other than the occasional essay question, most questions required long answers, where we students were expected to provide not only an answer but to demonstrate the reasoning that went into figuring out that answer.  In fact, it was possible to get partial credit even for an incorrect answer, if some of the reasoning that went into it was still valid; on some exam questions the reverse might even be true, that a correct answer all by itself with no demonstration of how it was obtained would not receive full credit.

In college, too, there were similar exams, the final results of which were considered in regard to admission to graduate programs in the UK and by many potential employers, too.  But when I started down the path of applying to graduate schools in the US, I was told that I needed to take the Graduate Record Exam or GRE as part of the admission process.  The GRE, I discovered, was nothing but multiple-choice, with the answers marked by filling in these little circles on a computer-readable form using a number-two pencil.  Oh, and I’m guessing that part of the pretty high fee we had to pay to take the GRE went toward shipping those number-two pencils from the US because that’s not how pencils are categorized in the UK.

Now fifteen years after I went down to London one very cold October morning to take the GREs, I found myself teaching other college graduates how to prepare for the exams.

I worked for one of the big test preparation companies, which the legally binding agreement I signed to get that job prevents me from mentioning, and during my time with them I helped people prepare for a number of the standardized tests that are used to help determine admission to higher education in the US.  I got to revisit a lot of grade-school math and English, though I was disappointed to discover that essays had replaced the abstract reasoning section that had been part of the GRE when I had taken it.  More than that, though, I felt like I had become part of a privileged inner circle that had been given the secrets to unlocking these standardized tests.  And I guess that’s part of the reason why people who can afford to do so — or whose parents can afford to do so — pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to take such test preparation courses and why the content of them is proprietary.

Now that’s not to say that being comfortable with arithmetic, algebra and geometry and having a good vocabulary and a good grasp of grammar aren’t important in these exams.  They certainly are.  But for most of the multiple-choice questions created for such standardized tests, being proficiently literate and numerate is very nearly besides the point.

For instance, knowing how to do long-division is actually a handicap on questions that look like they need long-division to answer.  Now I learned how to do long-division when I was eight, and I was so proud after the class where our teacher taught it to us, that I went back to my teacher from the previous year and showed her.  (Obviously she didn’t already know how or she’d have taught it to us herself.)  I remember whole sets of questions we were given for homework that involved doing long-division, as well as a more general emphasis in all of my school science classes that precision was something to be valued.  I don’t remember ever being taught with equivalent dedication about how it’s sometimes okay to estimate the answers to some long-division problems as opposed to calculating them, that in some circumstances estimation provides an answer that is good enough in its imprecision — or, as an old colleague of mine used to say, “close enough for government work” — but will at least do so faster.

So one example of a standardized test question is to find the answer to some horrible-looking division problem, like 2,393 over 607.  (I don’t use math to illustrate my sermons too often, and I hope this doesn’t induce any traumatic flashbacks in anyone!)  Now this problem is specifically designed for the student who knows how to estimate: that student quickly rounds the top up and rounds the bottom down and concludes that the correct answer is a little less than four, which of course matches just one of the possible answers on the test.  The student who knows how to do long-division, on the other hand, ends up with a more precise answer of 3.94…, which of course also matches just one of the multiple-choice answers, but they spent so long doing the long-division that they’re now four questions behind the student who estimated.  There’s also a bigger chance of making a mistake in calculating than in estimating.

So what is such a question actually testing?

In most situations in real life where long-division is actually needed, chances are it won’t lend itself nicely to estimation.  Remember that a problem like this is intentionally designed to benefit the student who knows how to estimate.  It’s an artificial problem in another way, too. Real life problems do not come with a pre-determined set of possible answers, one of which is guaranteed to be correct.  So the question is not testing the student’s ability to solve such a problem in anything like a realistic situation.

In these and all other such questions where there are tricks and tools for taking shortcuts to the correct answers, and even for improving your odds of simply guessing if that’s all you can do, the questions aren’t really testing students on what they appear, at first, to be about.  Most of the questions, in fact, are testing how well the students have learned to use the tools and the tricks, which means that what standardized tests are really testing is how good the students are at taking standardized tests.

Now I maintain that it is important for schools to assess students on what they’re learning, and when students from all over the country, even all over the world, need to be evaluated on as level a playing field as possible, it’s clear that tests that influence college admission decisions, for example, need to be standardized.  But let’s not kid ourselves that what standardized tests are really testing is anything other than the ability to do standardized tests.

And as a tool for evaluating teachers, when there are so many other factors at play such as the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students, the amount of support and encouragement that they’re getting from their families, standardized tests simply do not yield the accountability that was promised of them.  It’s not surprising that people have taken to referring to “No Child Left Behind” by other names such as “No Teacher Left Unshamed”.

All too many public school teachers find themselves “teaching to the test”, because that’s what matters most when it comes to their continued employment as teachers or even when it comes to the continued existence of their school.  Some school districts report that their teachers spend as much as forty-five days, in other words a quarter of the school year, in preparing and administering tests, even at the same time that the curriculum is dumbed down to be more suitable for standardized testing, sending higher level reasoning and critical thinking into the trash can right along with art and music.

Now in spite of the fact that there is no evidence of success when it comes to either student improvement or teacher accountability, the US relies upon standardized testing far more than any other economically developed nation.

The Texas program that was the prototype for “No Child Left Behind”, for instance, only appeared to be successful at the time because districts were fudging their numbers, such as by under-reporting dropout rates.  What’s more, reducing both students to test scores and teachers to test score producers gives the students incentives to cheat and gives the schools incentives to dump hard-to-teach students.  The culture of testing, in fact, enables what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline”, where once again students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income families are disproportionately impacted.

So the fact that Virginia’s testing regime is known by the initials S.O.L. is little more than a cruel irony.

Now I could continue by talking about how much standardized testing costs school districts, which now pay over a billion dollars a year to for-profit companies for the creation and administration of tests.  I could talk about how such tests fail to be teaching tools because they provide no evaluative feedback that closes the didactic loop in order to reinforce the original learning and guide continued improvement.  I could talk about how, with my daughter’s first birthday less than two weeks away, I’m conflicted about sending her, as and when, to public schools, given the culture of testing, and yet I believe supporting public education is the most important way we can resist the systematic destruction of the middle class that’s been taking place during the last two decades.

But I want to change gears and talk about how we, as Unitarian Universalists, do children’s religious education.  Aside from the fact that, right now, we’re doing a Summer RE program specifically based on the content of the Harry Potter stories, how we do RE may have more in common with J. K. Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts than with what goes on in public schools, even if that’s the parallel we tend to draw.

For all that we’ve embedded what we do for children in the larger process that has been named “life-span faith development”, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we do may be better termed religious exploration.  But there’s one aspect of the word “education” that still holds value, if only we can remember to hang onto it, and that’s because it comes from the Latin “educare” which means “to draw forth”.

While secular education consists, at least in theory, of the imparting of the facts and skills deemed necessary for life in today’s world, religious education is a drawing forth of one’s inner being, building upon personal and shared experiences to grow a soul that is capable of shining life into today’s world.  It is, as poet William Butler Yeats noted, “not the filling of a [bucket], but the lighting of a fire.”  Or in the words of Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, “The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.”

It’s certainly important for religious education to include some didactic components — drawn, for example, from Unitarian Universalist history and theology as well as from the wisdom of the other faith traditions of the world — but they serve to support faith development in its largest sense, namely the formation of Unitarian Universalist identity at its best.  So within our Sunday school classes, we aim to give our children a basic understanding and appreciation of many different forms of spirituality and many different ways of approaching life, encouraging in them a respect for religious difference in general and for their own religious heritage in particular.

Religious education also needs to take place in age-appropriate ways and should take into account different learning styles.  I projected that long-division problem on the screen, for instance, because most of us are visual rather than auditory learners.  As Confucius is reputed to have said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember.”

Of course, Confucius completed that saying with “I do and I understand.”  We can’t just teach UU theory: we must teach UU practices, too.  Thus religious education extends beyond the congregation itself to the family setting as well.

I was actually stunned a few years ago when I realized that Sunday school alone only represents about forty hours of religious education each year.  That’s the equivalent of just one regular work week — fewer hours than were part of last week’s GoldMine youth leadership school — and yet we somehow think that that’s enough to teach our children about our faith and to help them grow up to be the sorts of adults we can only wish we were.  So no, the religious education of children and youth that takes place on Sunday morning should serve to support and enhance the religious education that they are receiving at home, rather than the other way around.  Parents are thus the primary religious educators of their own children and the congregation should provide them with the tools necessary to responsibly and successfully take on this role.  And, frankly, secular education should be viewed more like that, too.

Now I want to note that DRE Joanne does include activities for her RE classes that allow the lessons to be taken home and continued.  I’m pleased to know that many of you who are parents of children in RE here have used those activities at home and have given Joanne positive feedback on them.

A lot of how we do religious education ultimately comes back to the nature of Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition.  While most religions have a basis in creed, which is a particular statement of belief, Unitarian Universalism inherits from its religious forbears a basis in covenant, which is a particular standard of behavior.  As generally interpreted for the purposes of religious education, this means that the way of approaching belief is more important than the content of belief. In other words, while we have a vision of ourselves as a community that “offer[s] a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education”, we nevertheless strive to place the pursuit of truth within a context of respect, kindness, responsibility and fairness.  As Universalist minister and educator Angus MacLean put it, “The method is the message.”

Weirdly enough, that’s actually one of the philosophies of standardized test preparation.  One of the things we teachers tried to get our students to remember was that it wasn’t the content of the example problems we worked through with them that mattered.  Rather, it was the tricks and tools we used for tackling the problems that we wanted them to remember.  Any specific problem, after all, would probably never come up in a test in that exact way, so it was the general means of solving the problem that needed to be remembered.  We assumed that higher level of reasoning as part of preparing for test questions that didn’t require it!

And in the Harry Potter stories, what matters to Harry and Hermione and Ron throughout their seven years of battling Voldemort and his minions isn’t really the specifics of the spells and the potions that they learned at Hogwarts, though they certainly help.  What made a difference definitely wasn’t the narrow curriculum approved by the Ministry of Magic.  What did make a difference to them were the resources for courage and hope that they found within themselves and within one another, and the love that made them and their friends stronger together than they would have been alone.

And in the religious education we do here, what matters isn’t whether we know all the details of Unitarian Universalist history or can recite by rote the words of all Seven Principles and all Six Sources.  What matters are things that can’t possibly be evaluated by multiple-choice problems: that we bring a willing spirit; that we offer one another an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand; and that we engage together in this religious exploration by building upon our personal and shared experiences and dreams so that each of us may grow a soul that will shine life abundant into the world.

May it be so.

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A Hampton Roads UU Revival!

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the “nones”, the growing numbers of people, particularly amongst the younger generations, who are not affiliated with any religion.  Given the changing demographics of our nation, that’s not really surprising.

For when the “nones” reject religion, they’re rejecting rigid hierarchies that tell people what to believe, they’re rejecting gender roles that demean women in order to protect men’s egos, they’re rejecting antiquated dogmatism that’s at odds with what they know about the world, and they’re rejecting all manner of bigotry against their lesbian and gay friends, their multiracial friends, their Muslim friends.

And yet at the same time that we’re witnessing the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, Unitarian Universalist congregations are also growing.  And that’s because Unitarian Universalism rejects those rigid hierarchies and gender roles, the antiquated dogmatism and all manner of bigotry, too.

But don’t take my word for it!  You have an excellent opportunity later this month to see for yourself.

On Sunday February 24th, the Fellowship of Campus Unitarian Universalist Students (FOCUUS) at Christopher Newport University are hosting a worship service that will revive, refresh and re-energize our spirits.  There’ll be fantastic music, combining the choirs and musicians of the Unitarian Universalist congregations of Newport News, Williamsburg and Norfolk, and we’ll hear uplifting messages for all ages.  Starting at 11am in the David Student Union Ballroom at CNU, we invite you to join us to sing, to listen, to laugh, to give and to worship with us, as we build our common vision of a world where the circle of love is drawn ever wider.

For our Unitarian Universalist congregations in Hampton Roads, FOCUUS is bringing us together so that we can recommit to a faith that is radically inclusive, spiritually alive and justice centered.

Ours is, first of all, a religion that asks you to bring your whole self into the Beloved Community — your heart, your soul, your mind and your body — and whoever you are, whatever your spiritual path, whomever you love, wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome.

And ours is a religion that nurtures rather than hinders spirituality, recognizing our individual struggles with the mystery of being and yet affirming that we can still walk together in the ways of love, inviting the spirit to move in our hands and give life the shape of justice.

And ours is a religion that has long sought to grow the soul of humanity, from fighting for the abolition of slavery to campaigning for women’s voting rights, from protesting economic injustice to demanding same-sex marriage equality.

For residents throughout Tidewater, then, FOCUUS along with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists and the Unitarian Church of Norfolk invite you to gauge the boldness of these religious aspirations for yourself.  Whether you consider yourself one of the “nones” or a spiritual seeker or a recovering church-goer or a parent wanting helpful rather than hurtful religious education for your child, we invite you to be a part of drawing the circle of love and life and hope ever wider.

So we warmly welcome you to join us on February 24th, at 11am in the Ballroom of CNU’s David Student Union, to revive, refresh and re-energize our commitment to the promise of religious community: that we are different people with different life experiences and different understandings of the world and our place in it, and yet we can nonetheless come together in a boldly shared endeavor to grow the Beloved Community not only for ourselves but for our whole world.

Let us live the promise of people coming together in common spirit, learning from one another, helping one another, sharing with one another.  Let us bring our open minds, our loving hearts and our helping hands together and rediscover faith set free from fear.

Drawing the Circle Wide

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When the Spirit Says Do!

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 13th 2013.)

Reading: from “Get Religion” by Peter Morales

Anthem: “When the Spirit Says Do!”

A year or more ago an article by Congregationalist minister Lillian Daniel went viral amongst ministers on Facebook.  I saw it reposted by a number of my fellow graduates of all denominational stripes from the Iliff School of Theology as well as by Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Apparently she hit a nerve.

Daniel had evidently been on one too many airplane flights where the people sitting next to her had found out she was a minister and immediately needed to explain to her why they don’t go to church.  Now I can imagine this sort of thing happening to people in other professions during air travel — doctors who are asked to look at suspicious lumps, stand-up comedians who endure bad knock-knock jokes, and so forth — but perhaps it doesn’t happen in quite the same way — and quite so predictably — as it does to ministers.

As Daniel explained in her article, “when I meet a math teacher, I don’t feel the need to say I always hated math.  When I meet a chef, I don’t need to let it be known that I can’t cook.  When I meet a clown, I don’t admit that I think clowns are scary.  I keep that stuff to myself.  But everybody loves to tell a minister what’s wrong with the church — and it’s usually some church that bears no relation to the one I serve.”

In many cases, Daniel observed, the precursor to someone’s non-church-going testimony is a declaration of an identity that has become so well-known in the last few decades that it has its own acronym: SBNR or “spiritual but not religious”.  And while, perhaps as recently as fifty or sixty years ago, it might have been genuinely countercultural and shocking to any religious professional to encounter someone openly declaring themselves as spiritual but not religious, that’s hardly the case today.

After all, what religious group is the fastest growing in the United States?  Anybody know?  Yes, it’s the “nones”, by which I do not mean women who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.  The “nones” are those who have no religious affiliation and today they represent about a fifth of the American population.  And, as those of you who took part in last Sunday’s Adult RE discussion know, there’s a strong correlation between age and religious affiliation.  For instance, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the “nones” make up between a quarter and a third of the generation known as the Millennials, who were born after 1981.

There are other generational correlations, of course, some of which are amplified by whether people have a religious affiliation or not.  Adults born before 1928 are almost twice as likely to pray every day as Millennials, for instance.  Now the Pew Forum found that age doesn’t make as much of a difference as religious affiliation in some things, such as whether someone believes that the Bible is literally the word of God or not, while on social issues such as prayer in public schools and LGBT rights there are very big differences.  If you enjoy survey statistics, by the way, all of the data is on the Pew Forum’s website.

Now it’s interesting that there’s no particular correlation between the “nones” and those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religions”, and for that matter there are more SBNRs tend amongst Generation X and the Baby Boomers than the Millennials.  Of course, while the SBNRs tend to be, as indicated by Lillian Daniel’s article, something of a source of frustration for religious professionals, the “nones”, within liberal religion at least, tend to be viewed more positively, as potential new members, particularly the younger “nones”.  I know that this is a conversation that’s been going on within Unitarian Universalism — just look through some of the recent issues of UU World, for instance — and I’m pretty sure our cousins at the United Church of Christ have been talking about it, too.  To my mind, though, both the “rise of the religiously unaffiliated”, as PBS titled their three-part program about the “nones”, and the popularity of SBNR, to the extent that it’s become its own cliché, are symptoms of how most people understand — or, perhaps more appropriately, misunderstand  — religion.  And, not to be accused of promoting religious exceptionalism or, for that matter, jumping on the “the nones will save us” bandwagon, but I believe that there’s an emptiness in the soul of our society that Unitarian Universalism is especially well qualified to fill — in part because we’ve become aware of that hunger within ourselves.

Let me back up a bit before I explain what I mean by that.

When someone calls themselves “spiritual but not religious”, what do they really mean by “spiritual”?  I think it’s generally implied as being whatever life attitude is diametrically opposed to organized religion, particularly if organized religion is solely characterized by its worst excesses, such as rigid hierarchy and gender roles, antiquated dogmatism, and all manner of bigotry.  Well, there are plenty of things that are the opposite of the worst features of human nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re spiritual.  In her article, for instance, Lillian Daniel jokes about some people’s claims to be spiritual by seeing God in the sunset or in small children, at least when they’re saying cute things about God.  Her point is that spirituality isn’t just a matter of aesthetics or parental oxytocin.

Twenty years ago I may well have identified myself as SBNR.  I came to the United States with a suspicion of religion, not that I really knew anything about religion beyond the vague Anglicanism we’d been taught in school, including the distrust of Catholicism we’d been taught in history classes.  I had a similarly low opinion of what I considered to be religion in the US, which wasn’t based on much more than what I’d heard in the UK about American televangelists.  Similarly, if I had claimed to be “spiritual but not religious”, I’m not sure I could have told you what spirituality was either.

During the five years I spent in graduate school, though, my education included a lot more than physics.  From my Indian class-mates I learned something about Hinduism and Buddhism, and from a girlfriend I learned about Judaism.  Somewhere along the way I realized that maybe religion was bigger than what I’d been taught.  That by itself wasn’t enough to make me want to join a church, but it was at about that time that I converted to environmentalism.

Starting with the Sierra Club I learned about the problems afflicting planet Earth — by which I mean the problems facing human beings, because the Earth, by and large, would do just fine without us — and it quickly became overwhelming.  I couldn’t understand why more wasn’t being done about pollution and species extinction and climate change, and then I learned about the political process in this country and I just got angry.  I shared what I was learning with friends and co-workers, but few of them seemed to care much.

I realized I needed to find people who were motivated to really work on these problems at the same time that I needed to find people, a community, that would help me withstand the weight of my growing awareness.  Actually, I’m giving myself too much credit.  I never articulated such needs to myself, but looking back, I realize they were there, and in my searching there were  two different paths — one following environmentalism and one following science — that both ultimately led me to Unitarian Universalism.

I was skeptical at first.  I never thought that, as an adult, I’d choose to join a church.  (I certainly never anticipated becoming a minister, but life’s funny that way.)  But the people I met at the Unitarian Society of Hartford were generally friendly, they certainly seemed to think and care about the same sorts of things I thought and cared about, and I really was looking for a choir where I didn’t disagree with the words we were singing too often.

After being there for a while, attending services, going to a few potlucks and committee meetings, it was time for me to go deeper.  I became a facilitator in the Small Group Ministry program, which is like our Fellowship Circles program here.  The topic of the very first session was “Spirituality” and one of the first questions asked the people in the group what spirituality meant to them.  It quickly became apparent that most of them were thinking about it in similar terms, describing spirituality as a deep sense of connection: to other people, to community, to something larger than oneself, to something within oneself, to the natural world around us.  Spirituality as a sense of connection to the natural world was mentioned more than once, perhaps because we were in a chapel with large windows overlooking the woods behind the church building.

I’ve since realized that a deep sense of connection to either — or both — something larger than oneself and something within oneself allows for a broad spectrum of personal beliefs, including a variety of worldviews based in theism and atheism, naturalism and dualism.  Beyond any deliberate attempt to be theologically inclusive, which I don’t think was the case in our small group, everyone talked about spirituality in ways that focused on human awareness as a subjective experience.  We talked about the basic human urge to take our experiences and find ways to describe them so that we might understand them and make sense of the world around us, something that precedes any particular set of beliefs or ethical prescriptions.

Okay, so that’s one way to think about the “spiritual” part of being “spiritual but not religious”.  To claim to be SBNR, then, is to express a distrust of so-called “organized religion”, something that might be based on personal experience or on an awareness of other people’s experiences, where such religion has inhibited spirituality by stifling that sense of deep connection to something larger than oneself and/or within oneself.  Step back for just a moment, though, and it’s obvious that any true religion ought actually to foster spirituality.

Let me give you a couple of different analogies, then, as to how I think about this.

In the language of my past career as a research scientist, for example, our lives are like experiments, constantly generating results that we’re challenged to interpret and explain.  It’s nice when those results confirm the theories we’ve already developed, of course, but it’s only the unexpected results that have the potential to lead to new ideas and the growth of understanding.  A congregation, then, should be like a laboratory, providing the equipment needed to conduct those experiments, the tools to analyze the results, and the co-workers who help one another figure it all out.

The other analogy for the relationship between spirituality and religion occurred to me a few years after that small group ministry experience, when I was in seminary.

I imagined a tree, perhaps an ancient oak that had witnessed the passage of centuries.  I could see its roots, sunk deep into the fertile soil of the Earth, and in the folds and crevices of its trunk and branches I knew that it was providing shelter to countless smaller creatures.  Its limbs stretched toward the sky so that its leaves could better drink of the sunlight that shone upon it.

I considered how spirituality might be like that oak tree.  Growing forth from the eternal mystery of being, spirituality expresses our yearnings toward transcendence, all the while nourished by powers beyond our understanding.  Spirituality does not demand recognition for what it does or is, but quietly encourages wonder, reverence, gratitude, creativity and imagination.

Since I was in seminary to become a minister, my task was clear: to carefully and diligently tend the tree of spirituality.  It would be necessary to fertilize it and water it, yet also prune it as necessary, honoring it even as I remained aware of the limits of my comprehension.  And while some religion might be as mistletoe, sucking the life out of the tree on which it grows as a parasite — effectively creating people who are “religious but not spiritual” — I realized that the task of true religion was quite clear: to be a splendid garden in which magnificent trees of spirituality might flourish.  Those who dwell and work in that garden, then, are both “spiritual and religious”.

Looking back to that time when might have identified myself as SBNR, I recognize now that I was, in fact, neither spiritual nor religious.  I was waiting for the laboratory of a congregation that could provide me with the equipment, tools and co-workers to help me interpret and explain the experiment of my life.  I was looking for a religious garden that could provide the shelter and the nourishment and the tending that my fragile sapling of experience and yearning needed to grow into a real tree of spirituality.

And I’m far from unique in that.  I’m a member of Generation X, rather than being a Millennial, but we Gen-Xers aren’t too far behind the Millennials in terms of being religiously unaffiliated.  And had I continued to think of religion only in terms of that vaguely well-meaning Anglicanism or that laughable stereotype of American televangelism, had I never managed to stumble upon Unitarian Universalism, then I would have continued to be one of the “nones”.

And, really, it’s not surprising that there are so many “nones” within Generation X and the Millennials.  For when they reject religion, they’re rejecting rigid hierarchies that tell people what to believe, they’re rejecting gender roles that demean women in order to protect men’s egos, they’re rejecting antiquated dogmatism that’s so clearly at odds with what we know about the world, and they’re rejecting all manner of bigotry against their lesbian and gay friends, their multiracial friends, their Muslim friends.  Well, guess what?  Unitarian Universalists reject those rigid hierarchies and gender roles, the antiquated dogmatism and all manner of bigotry, too.

So what’s holding us back?  Why aren’t the “nones” becoming Unitarian Universalists in droves?  Why aren’t our congregations booming the way religious scholars and even the leaders of other religions say we should be?

My friend and colleague, David MacPherson, who preached here a few months ago, has many stories that he loves to tell, but one of them concerns “the nineteenth century newspaper editor, reformer, failed presidential candidate and Universalist lay leader, Horace Greeley.”  I won’t attempt to mimic Dave’s style but Greeley, as he tells the story, “was asked to suggest to a group of fellow Universalists some new device for financially supporting their struggling congregation since the fairs, festivals and suppers they had tried did not succeed.  His answer to them was short but definitely not sweet: ‘Try Religion!’

Well, a century and a half later, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, is suggesting the same thing, that it’s time we “get religion”.  We have “to take ourselves seriously as a religion”.  We have to remember “that religion is more about what we feel and experience than about our opinions.”  And we have to understand that “religion is relational because we are relational beings”, that “religion is something we practice together.”

Fredric Muir, who is minister to the UU Church of Annapolis in Maryland, elaborated on that third point in his Berry Street Lecture, delivered last year to the UU Ministers Association and printed in condensed form in the current issue of UU World, when he talked about moving from being the church that worships individualism — or “iChurch” for short — to being the church that embraces deep relationality through covenant as the way to the Beloved Community.

Because, as paradoxical as it may seem, the single most effective thing we can do to appeal to the “nones”, to the religiously unaffiliated, to the “spiritual but not religious”, the single most important thing we can do for ourselves, is for us to “get religion”, to actually act like the religion we claim, at our best, to be.  The “nones” are already with us in spirit.  They just need us to show them — and, in many ways, to show ourselves — that religion isn’t only what they’ve rejected, but also what they hunger for.

Let me give you, as I bring this sermon to a close, one specific example of this: social justice.  Many UU congregations — and I know, because I’ve seen it first hand — have a social justice committee that is largely ignored by the rest of the congregation and is made up of a handful of people who each feel very passionately about their own particular cause and who are each trying to convince everybody else to give up their passionate cause in favor of their own.  Two seconds of thought will tell you how well that generally works, and I know because I’ve been there and done that.  And most of the time, attending a meeting of such a committee, you’d have no idea they were part of anything larger, let alone a congregation.  And yet social justice work — really anything we try to do within a congregation, but particularly social justice work — must be grounded in spirituality and nourished by religion if it is to be effective.  To do good social justice work, we need to get religion.

So I was delighted to see another article in the current issue of UU World, right after Muir’s article about escaping from the cult of individualism, about how social justice activism can only be sustained by community, particularly by religious community.  That article is by Tim DeChristopher, the member of First Unitarian in Salt Lake City who is now famous for bidding on federal oil and gas leases at an auction in Utah in order to protect lands near national parks and for that was sent to prison for two years.  DeChristopher writes that “By its very nature, activism is an act of faith in our fellow human beings.  The greater the risk and sacrifice involved in the activism, the greater the faith required in each other.”  “And I’m convinced”, DeChristopher explains, “that the spiritually grounded activism of Unitarian Universalism holds the potential to not only make the [social justice] movement more principled, but also make it more pragmatic.”

And that, if I may finish with a plug, is what J— and I will be talking about next weekend at the Social Justice Workshop we’re running here at the Fellowship.  I urge you to attend.  Why?  Because by our fruits they will know us.  For if the true purpose of religion is to nurture the spirituality of both individuals and community, and if spirituality is that deep sense of connection to something larger than ourselves and something within ourselves, then the result, the fruit of the trees of spirituality, the harvest of the garden of religion, is an active striving for love and justice, spreading the seeds of the spirit that will grow into the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

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Being and Doing

A few years ago I spent four months as a hospital chaplain, visiting patients and their families to offer spiritual support.  Some time in the middle of the chaplaincy I had a run of shallow visits, when it seemed that everyone I visited was fine, doing okay, looking forward to going home, all set and in no need of a chaplain.  They could have talked about whatever it was that had brought them to the hospital, but they had no particular desire to share those things with me.  After a while I started to wonder what I was doing wrong.

Reporting some of those visits to my supervisors, I realized something: I was repeatedly asking if there was anything I could do for the patients.  Perhaps that in itself wasn’t making much of a difference in how each visit went, but it said something about my attitude during those visits, and I really didn’t like what it said!

In my home church I led workshops on Voluntary Simplicity, a program of reducing clutter and distractions, resisting consumerism and cultural expectations, and rejoicing in community and the spirituality of everyday life.  We talked about saving our time and money for the things of real importance to us, considering such values as authenticity, mindfulness, gratitude and Sabbath.  In one workshop we asked ourselves: “Are we defined by what we do or by what we are?”  Making a point about the cultural emphasis on doing rather than being, someone in the group noted that we name ourselves human ‘beings’, not human ‘doings’!

In short, when it came to chaplaincy, I thought I had it mostly figured out.  I knew that there would be very little I could do for the patients and families I visited, and that the greatest gift I could offer was simply to be present, to be compassionate, to be myself.  I might listen to them or read to them or pray with them, but that would be secondary to the simple fact that I was there.  But then I realized that I didn’t have it all figured out, that I’d not fully embraced the concept of being and could slip back to an emphasis on doing at any time.

There’s a short movie that nicely demonstrates why we should struggle to be and not just to do.  It shows two groups of people passing basketballs amongst themselves and the instructions that come with it say to watch it twice.  The first time requires some concentration, counting how many times one group passes their ball, not counting passes by the other group.  The second time is just a matter of watching.  Most people are amazed to realize that, a little while into the movie, someone in a gorilla suit wanders in from one side, waves at the camera, and then ambles out the other side!

We can be so caught up in an ordinary task that we fail to notice the extraordinary that’s right in front of us.  And when stress, anxiety or looming dead-lines are involved, we’re even more distracted from being mindful, from being present, from simply being aware of being alive.  As a task-oriented person, I continue to be challenged to find a balance between doing and being, between ways of being in the world and ways of being with the world.  Supported through the spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, I recognize that sometimes my task is to simply be, reconnecting to myself, to others, to the world around me, and to see the spiritual in the everyday.

As we struggle with being and doing in our everyday lives, may we remain mindful that we are both embodied and spiritual, engaged in our tasks at hand even as we remain aware of ourselves as beings held in the web of life.  May we sense the sacred in the profane, finding that sacramental vision of being that centers us as both spiritual and embodied.  May we immerse ourselves in the spirituality of everyday life so that every breath is worship and every act is prayer.  So may it be.

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