Posts Tagged theology

A Joy to Be Together

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Gathered here, in the mystery of the hour;
gathered here, in one strong body;
gathered here, in the struggle and the power:
Spirit, draw near!

I’m writing this column at The Mountain, a Unitarian Universalist retreat and learning center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, here to participate in the Spring meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the UU Ministers Association.  It’s my first time back in more than two years, and it’s been great to catch up with colleagues both old and new.  I’m also excited to be here this week because the Rev. Thandeka is leading us in a seminar on what she names Affect Theology, “the study of the human emotions and affective states that guide, direct and prioritize religious beliefs, liturgical structures, religious education programs and pastoral practices by members and leaders…

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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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How Spirit Mingles

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 10th 2013.)

Even the great Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Rumi, had to admit that mere language is sometimes incapable of expressing all that can be felt and experienced and dreamed.  “I am out of words,” he wrote, “to describe how spirit mingles in this marriage.”  And so composer Eric Whitacre’s setting of Rumi’s poem ends without words, just sound.

I’m not nearly so good a mystic, though.  Plus, I have almost a whole sermon still to go, and I don’t think that simply humming for fifteen or twenty minutes would cut it.

Marriage is, I think, one of those things that we, as a society, like to think we understand — or, at least, we like to think we have the theory figured out.  Even if that were really true, of course, the difference between theory and practice still provides an awful lot of fodder for television sit-coms.

And if there’s anyone who really does understand marriage, surely, we tell ourselves, it’s our religious professionals: priests, pastors, and the like.  Never mind that those of us called to the life of ministry have the same foibles and failings as the rest of the general population.

Still, the Unitarian Universalist Association recognizes that the ministers it credentials need to be prepared in at least the rudiments of counseling, even if that’s only sufficient to be able to figure out enough of what’s going on to be able to make a reasonable referral to a professional counselor or therapist.  And in recent years the UUA has taken the additional step of requiring credentialed ministers to have some level of competency in matters of sexual health, sexual boundaries and sexual justice.

As the requirements for credentialing explain, would-be ministers “are expected to be knowledgeable about sexuality issues in ministry, including sexuality education, LGBTQI issues, sexuality concerns of adults and adolescents for pastoral care, and public witness.  Candidates are expected to demonstrate a commitment to sexual justice in our Association and in society.”

This requirement was added shortly after I had been credentialed, so I made up for that recently by taking a course on “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals”.  This was offered during the Fall by an organization called the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing.  These days, actually, they shorten their name to the Religious Institute, but their mission is the same: “to change the way America understands the relationship of sexuality and religion.”

Now since I’m going to be using the word “sexuality” quite a lot in the next minute or two, I need to explain what is mean by it.  It’s actually a very broad term that covers a lot of our identity as human beings.  That’s because sexuality is more than just sexual behavior and generally includes our understandings of our gender, our sexual orientation, our relationships with others, and the ways in which we express and respond to intimacy.  There’s agreement amongst professionals from the Surgeon General to the World Health Organization, in fact, that human sexuality is just as much about psychology as it is about physiology, just as much about the mental and the spiritual as it is about the physical, and just as much about culture as it is about biology.  When we run the “Our Whole Lives” program for our middle-schoolers and others, for instance, we’re not doing sex education so much as sexuality education.

So, under the leadership of Debra Haffner, who is both a sexuality educator and a Unitarian Universalist minister, the Religious Institute is “a multifaith organization dedicated to sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society.”  It works, for instance, with “clergy, religious educators, theologians, ethicists and other religious leaders committed to sexual justice.”  It also works with lay people “who share a commitment to comprehensive sexuality education, to reproductive justice, and to the full inclusion of women and LGBT persons in congregational life and society.”  And as well as “helping congregations, seminaries, and denominations to become sexually healthy faith communities”, the Religious Institute is committed to “educating the public and policy-makers about a progressive religious vision of sexual morality, justice, and healing.

As you can imagine, there was a lot for us to cover in a course on “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals”, and much of it concerned the work of being a minister in a congregation, from preaching on these issues and doing pastoral care around them, to providing LGBT ministries and engaging in public witness.  Now at the beginning of the course, we each took an assessment about the various areas we were going to cover.  We took the assessment again at the end, with the intention being, of course, to recognize what we had learned.  So we assessed ourselves, for example, on “theological reflection regarding the integration of sexuality and spirituality”, on familiarity with “sacred texts and theological affirmations of sexuality”, on “preaching about sexuality-related issues” and on “speaking out for sexual justice”.

One of the course’s modules, in fact, specifically asked about how we might integrate some of what we were learning into our sermons and services.  I knew that I was going to be here in the pulpit the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, so I looked back at what I’d done in previous years.  Last year, for instance, I shared the sermon with a member of the congregation who has faced and continues to face discrimination due to her sexual orientation; we described how the UUFP became a Welcoming Congregation and we talked about the importance of continuing to be intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ people in congregational life.  And the year before, I preached on how so many Unitarian Universalists have taken up the cause of marriage equality, describing my own history of involvement and explaining why the Virginia Tourism Authority’s slogan that “Virginia is for Lovers” is a flat-out lie.

Now looking back, I realized that, in these and other services, I have often picked the low-hanging fruit of criticizing many of the arguments against marriage equality and LGBTQ rights.  Frankly, many of those arguments are so absurd that it’s not only easy to ridicule them, but doing so is a easy way to add humor into a sermon, too.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times reported just a couple of weeks ago that the lawyers defending both the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court are now trying to make the case that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples given, in their words, “the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies.”  The lawyers have apparently realized that homophobic arguments against same-sex marriage aren’t going to do them much good — November’s victories in favor of LGBTQ rights at the ballot boxes of Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington show that that ship has sailed — so they’re reduced to claiming that hetero couples need marriage — in other words they need to be bribed by over a thousand federal statutory provisions that give special benefits, rights and privileges to married couples — or else they’ll go around breeding all over the place.  When gays and lesbians want to have children, one of the lawyers claims, “substantial advance planning is required”, so society only really needs the institution of opposite-sex marriage to protect itself against the rest of us engaging in wanton procreation.

Good grief.

So, rather than picking apart the arguments against marriage equality, I want to make a case for marriage equality.  And that, of course, means trying to figure out what marriage is.  It means, since I am a religious professional, figuring out my theology of marriage.

Some places are more helpful starting points than others.  The Bible, for instance, is singularly unhelpful.  Amongst its many different stories, the Bible describes at least eight different forms of marriage in families.  And one of the more common Biblical forms of marriage consists of a man and his wives — plural — and, if those aren’t enough, some concubines, too.

Zach Wahls’ testimony to the Iowa Legislature is rather more helpful.  “[Our] sense of family,” he explained, “comes from the commitment we make to each other to work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones.  It comes from the love that binds us.  That’s what makes a family.”

I don’t think it’s been particularly well publicized, in amongst all of the newpaper and television interviews that took place after his testimony, but Wahls is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  In an article published in UU World about his experience testifying to the Iowa Legislature, he explains the role his faith played.  His church in Iowa City, by the way, became a Welcoming Congregation in the mid 1990s, when he was only a toddler.  Wahls says the religious education program there taught him about thinking outside the box, about putting others before himself, and about religious pluralism.  More important than these, however, were the Unitarian Universalist values that guided that religious education program, and thus shaped him, too.  “It was these values and these lessons,” he explained in his UU World article, “that led me to speak before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee on that snowy January night.  They stilled my shaking hands and gave tenor to my breaking voice.  They shaped my words and my character and where I go from here.”

So whenever we are tempted to complain about how religion is so often used to support bigotry and prejudice, I want us to remember Zach Wahls’ testimony and know that religion is also a powerful motivator for working for justice, for ending exclusion and discrimination.

Take Unitarian Universalism as such a religion, for instance.  It’s not a religion that is based on creed but a religion based on covenant.  We do not require people to believe certain things or to not believe other certain things in order to become members.  Rather, we ask them to join with us in offering a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.  Nor do we have some select group of church elders issuing dogmatic statements to which we must all assent.  Rather, we welcome anyone who shares our values into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

Now accepting the fact that, given our different life experiences, we inevitably believe different things, and even as we encourage each person to figure out what it is they believe for themselves, we nevertheless recognize that something holds us together as a community.  That “something” is covenant.  It can take many different forms in many different words, but at the heart of covenant is a commitment to speak and to act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind, and a promise to one another than when we fail to keep that commitment, we give each other permission to begin again in love.

We often think of a covenant as a set of promises that we make to one another, and for the most part that’s the case.  Covenants are often created as lists of promises to behave in certain ways and to not behave in other certain ways.  Most of our Fellowship Circles, for instance, create covenants for themselves that include something about keeping confidentiality within the group.  “What happens in the Caum Room stays in the Caum Room,” a covenant might say.  For Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, though, that wasn’t quite enough.

For Adams, something larger than the people making promises to one another was also required.  “The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality,” he wrote.  “It is not merely a covenant between human beings; it is a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.  […]  The covenant is with the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.

Now what he means by this is, I think, open to interpretation.  Someone who believes in the typical idea of a personal God would say that Adams is talking about God.  Others, and probably many of today’s Unitarian Universalists, would say that Adams was talking about the Universe itself.  I’m less interested in the various possible theological interpretations, though, than I am in how it’s implemented.  After all, in most of those theological interpretations, it’s pretty hard to say how, exactly, “the face of reality” or God or the Universe is actually, actively involved in the covenant-making process.  If it was easy to identify that involvement, frankly, there’d only be one intepretation because we’d all be in agreement.

So while we might be content with Adams’ metaphysics, when it comes to actual practice we usually invite human surrogates to stand in for God or the Universe or whatever Adams meant by “the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.”  And we do that, I have come to believe, so that we can be certain there are witnesses to the covenant, particularly in those cases where we think the covenant has some special significance.

And that brings me back to marriage.

In every wedding I perform, my opening words include some sort of greeting to everyone else who is present.  And, as part of that greeting, I specifically note that friends and family are not just there to enjoy a happy occasion, but to bear witness to the commitment, to the covenant that is about to be made.  Because that’s really what a wedding is: it’s the making of a covenant.  And here’s the mystery, the open secret that the people who have enshrined discrimination in laws saying who can and cannot get married simply don’t understand: the marriage doesn’t happen because the officiant utters those famous words, “by the power vested in me by the Commonweath of Virginia blah blah blah”; no, the marriage actually happens when the vows are made and when the rings are exchanged.  It’s the vows and the rings that make real the covenant of marriage, “a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.”  The rest is bureaucracy.

Now that’s not to say that the thousand federal statutory provisions that give particular benefits, rights and privileges to married couples don’t matter, because they do.  And that’s not to say that a covenantal theology of marriage makes easy the hard work, the soul work of marriage, because it doesn’t.  But that is to say that the gender identity and sexual orientation of the individuals getting married is utterly irrelevant.  If two people — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or hetero — are willing to make that commitment to speak and act in ways that are truthful, reasonable and kind, to promise to one another that, when they inevitably fail to live up that commitment, they will try to begin again in love, then their marriage ought to be equally entitled to the same benefits, rights and privileges, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  It’s love that makes a family, no matter how either church or state may try to legislate it otherwise.

The tide has turned, my friends.  A majority of Americans support marriage equality.  And while recognition of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage at the state level had only before taken place in the courts or in legislatures, and while state ballot initiatives have been used repeatedly in the last couple of decades to codify homophobia, last November’s voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington simultaneously chose equality over discrimination.  It really is just a matter of time until the twenty-first century comes to Virginia, too.

So may it be.

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The Pilot Light of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“I Want a Principle Within”, adapted

During his life as an Anglican and then Methodist minister, Charles Wesley wrote the words for about eight thousand hymns.  I’m not actually sure how that’s possible and still have a life.  In any case, many of his hymns are still sung in Anglican and Methodist churches, but perhaps not as he had intended them.

Wesley was a curious combination of somber seriousness and evangelistic pragmatism.  He preached and wrote hymns about sin and temptation and more sin and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, drawing upon and in turn feeding the message of the Great Awakening, the Christian movement that was then sweeping across the American colonies.  And yet, when he realized that his public sermons were competing with the popular but raunchy songs of the local taverns, he cleverly wrote new words, conveying his desired theology, that could be sung by unlettered sailors and farmhands to the already familiar tunes.

In other cases, though, Wesley fully expected that his serious words would be set to appropriately somber music.  A case in point is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, one of the most popular Christmas carols there is thanks to the fact that, over a hundred years after Wesley wrote them and in spite of his wishes, his words were set to the joyful and stirring music of Felix Mendelssohn.  I’m guessing that something similar took place for as hymn I recently discovered, too.

We’re singing it today because a few weeks ago, a congregant generously gave me a CD of instrumental arrangements of classic English hymns.  Looking down the playlist I noticed one called “I Seek a Principle Within” and the word “principle” caught my eye.  I hadn’t heard of such a hymn before, and I wasn’t familiar with the tune, but I loved it as soon as I heard it.  The music — which is in 6/8 time, so it’s essentially a dance — is by Louis Spohr, who was a great composer and musician in his own right but is largely forgotten today because he was so overshadowed by his friend and colleague, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then I looked up the words to this hymn and found that they’d been written by Charles Wesley, and written perhaps as much as a century before Louis Spohr wrote the music that eventually accompanied them.  Wesley’s words were, as usual, about the fear of sin, the pain of temptation, the ever-present danger of sin, and the need to return to the blood of Jesus.  Beyond his words — which for many of us in today’s world, whether we’re Unitarian Universalists or not, are rather a turn-off — I saw a message about the importance of cultivating something within ourselves that helps us figure out right from wrong, so I decided to adapt Wesley’s words for Unitarian Universalists, and adapt I did, heavily.

This is perhaps the longest introduction I’ve ever given to a hymn, for which I can only apologize by saying: I love hymns.

I want a principle within
that lifts my heart from fear,
a sensibility wherein
life’s goodness draws me near.
Discerning how I think and feel
in all things I require,
to guide the wand’ring of my will
and grasp that holy fire.

From trust that I no more may stray,
no more time’s promise grieve,
to hear that still, small voice, I pray,
to tender conscience cleave.
Quick as the apple of an eye,
that inner wisdom make;
bestir, my soul, when trouble’s nigh,
and keep my heart awake.

O source of life, of hope, of love,
to me thy pow’r impart;
the splinters from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may compassion now entrain
my re-awakened soul,
and lead me to that spring again,
which makes the wounded whole.

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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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