Click to listen here (as delivered in Nantucket on February 18, 2018).

I first learned the word “transmogrified” from Calvin and Hobbes.

You may remember the comic strip by Bill Waterston, which ran from 1985 to 1995. Calvin, aged 6, was part Christopher Robin and part Dennis the Menace, and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, regularly came to life in Calvin’s active – and sometimes too mischievous for his own good – imagination. Together, Calvin and Hobbes went on adventures around the universe and considered the big philosophical questions of the day. And occasionally annoyed the crap out of his neighbors and his exasperated parents.

One day, Calvin built a transmogrifier. To us, it was just an upside-down cardboard box with a dial drawn on the side. But to Calvin and Hobbes, it was a machine that could turn them into whatever they wished to become – eel, baboon, bug, dinosaur, tiger, toad, and even worm. While everyone else still saw a little boy and his stuffed tiger, Calvin and Hobbes saw themselves – transmogrified – transformed in a surprising manner.

I think sometimes we forget that we can transmogrify things – especially in religious communities. We often joke – because otherwise we would cry – about the seven deadly words of the church: “But we’ve always done it this way.” That can be about everything from how the coffee is made to how the hymns are sung to how we understand the principles and ethics of our faith.

In fact, let’s look at our principles for a moment. Do me a favor and turn to the page of principles in the hymnal – in STLT it’s about 8 pages in, in STJ, it’s about 11 pages in. There they are, our principles. Our organizing statements of who we are and what we believe. Nicely laid out, in a list. We even tend to number them, and quote them by number – our fifth principle calls me to fight for responsible gun control legislation, I’m doing third principle work in learning about Hinduism, I’m a seventh principle guy so I invest in renewable energy.

A nice, handy, step by step list. Heck, you could even do a seven step program, isolating each principle and focusing on them one at a time. Many congregations – maybe this one too – have experienced seven principles worship series.

There they are. Nice. Neat. Ordered. Isolated. Each principle, an individual.

But that was bugging my colleague, the Reverend Ian Riddell. Ian wrote “I’m in a bad mood that our principles are in a list. So I transmogrified them.”

And this is what he devised.

Instead of an ordered list, we have a wheel…no numbered principles, but rather a different pattern of organization. A surprising way to see them.

As you can see, I hope, the center – the axle – is the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s where we start, where everything else moves from. Then encompassing it, as the rim, is the interdependent web of which we are all a part. And the spokes are the other principles, the ways we understand ourselves in the world, the ways we act in the world because of who we are and where we are.

So what does this mean? How would we approach our faith, our work, our connection to other human beings, our sense of the divine, if we were willing to transmogrify how we think of them?

Let start with this section – the spoke calling for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Alone, it sounds pretty good; it’s the cornerstone of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and of every social justice action we take, both within and outside Unitarian Universalism.

We take this call on faith, surely. Those things all sound good, are all preached by the major religions, and who doesn’t want justice, equity, and compassion? As a bullet on the principles list, it’s positive and a bit of an ‘of course’.

But there’s something missing.

Unitarian Universalists are so good at questioning things, but often we forget to question what’s underneath our own principles. They’re written on the page – literally – and so they are there, set in stone as it were. Often we ask “What” – what do they mean, or “How” – how do we affirm and promote them. But rarely do we ask “Why” – why are they important for us to affirm and promote. When we change how we see them, we suddenly have a way to question the ‘why’ of our principles, to interrogate the deeper meanings, to see the connection between the individual and the world.

Why is justice, equity, and compassion so important? Because if I as an individual am inherently worthy of dignity, then so must every other individual. And if we are all connected, how can I be like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm and say some animals are more equal than others? How can I not see that the compassion I hope you’ll show me might be worth showing to someone – everyone – else? This principle calls us to be in that state of becoming just, equitable, compassionate – we are never JUST just, but if we remember who we are and where we come from, we are BECOMING just. The justice, equity, and compassion we get from the world and see in the world helps us become more just – to others, but also to ourselves.

Now I will admit something here – a bit of my own theological struggle. I don’t always believe that the things I know are true also apply to me. In other words, sometimes it is easier to declare that the inherent worth and dignity of every person in this interdependent web of all existence means that there must be justice, equity, and compassion for other people… but it’s hard to accept for myself that I am part of that web and am as inherently worthy so that justice, equity, and compassion should also be for me. For you, absolutely. For everyone in the world who faces injustice, oppression, and hatred, absolutely. For me, eh…

And when the principles are in a tidy little list, it’s easy to dismiss myself as not really part of it. It’s easy to apply these things to the people I love, the congregations I serve, the larger community.

But this wheel…Ian’s pesky new way of looking at things… well, it’s not letting us off the hook. Instead, it is reminding me of what David Bumbaugh wrote: “In this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny.” In other words, y’all can’t grow into harmony with the Divine without me, nor I without you, nor all of us without each other.

We aren’t isolated – while Paul Simon’s line “I am a rock, I am an island” is more singable, John Donne’s poetic “no man is an island” is actually much more accurate. We are not islands. We are all part of what James Luther Adams called the brotherhood of man, but which I prefer to call the family of humanity. (It’s usually at this phrase that I start singing the disco tune “we are family…I got all my sisters with me…” but I’ll resist…oh wait.)

It is this kind of questioning – asking the Why of our principles, and seeing this deep human connection –led our organization Standing on the Side of Love to realize that the words of its name actually did not show compassion to every person – especially the person who cannot stand and finds it difficult to be included in the activities of an organization that insists on the metaphor of standing. Thus, the organization changed its name to Side with Love. And while they were making a shift, so too did composer Jason Shelton, who has officially changed the name and lyric of his song, #1014 in our teal hymnal, to Answering the Call of Love. And in changing those lyrics, the song becomes more active, more engaged in the work of the second principle.

It is this connection– from the individual to the collective and back again – that helps answer why. Why do we affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? Because it’s about me and it’s about you, neither of which can stand alone, so it becomes about us. As Frederick Buechner famously said, “It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

I think you can see how this begins to work together.

Now if we interrogate the goal of world community, it has a similar sense of connection – how can we have a world community without all the individuals? As Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley writes, “if in recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our own salvation… if we join spirits… the pain of our aloneness will be lessened, and that does matter.”

I think about the table blessing that calls us to be thankful for the many hands make a meal possible – the farmers who grew it, the workers who picked it and packed it, the truckers who transported it, the grocers and stock boys and cashiers who sold it, the cooks who prepared it, the waiters who served it. Our food comes from all over the country, all over the world. We cannot know for sure where the orange I have in my hands has been, who has handled it. So how can I not want to affirm and promote a world community, when that world community feeds me?

And that’s just one example. When we see ourselves as both an individual and part of something bigger, we begin to see others the same way. And that’s not always easy. Sometimes we get too self-focused and see every act, every word, every decision just about ourselves. Or we get too outwardly focused and feel lost and used and burned out. Our transmogrified principles – looking the same on the outside but feeling new and different on the inside – reminds we are both-and.

So we can see how many of these might work. But how might we understand some of the more individualistic principles, like encouragement to spiritual growth? That seems awfully individualistic. And on one hand, it is. My spiritual path is not your spiritual path. As we like to say, we need not think alike to love alike. In this room, I suspect we have Jews and Christians and atheists and pagans and who knows what else? But even this principle – a vital one to be sure – both benefits from the going out and the coming in and strengthens both.

It is your path; but this religious community – this congregation – encourages you to this path. The path you choose is modeled by others out there – those who have gone before, those who are going along it now. Their wisdom informs yours. And here’s a secret: your wisdom informs theirs too.

Why do we affirm and promote this? “Why”, of course, being the question this wheel seems to ask of us over and over. And I think the answer is in the fact that humans have been ritualizing in both solitary and communal ways since humans started doing rituals, and healthy spiritual exploration contains both. I like what Parker Palmer says about this:

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people – it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people – it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”

And so on. Each principle, connecting the self to the interdependent web and back again, in areas of truth, justice, community, connection, process, growth, and compassion. Leading us from the familiar form that says “what” and to the transmogrified form which asks “why.”

Once you see it, it can’t be unseen. Now we can’t think of the principles without thinking about the wheel and the spokes and the interconnectedness. We have transformed our way of thinking about it… we’ve transmogrified our principles, our ethics, and our faith.

And maybe that’s the real message – not that we become something new overnight, but that we – and our world – and how we act in it – is deeply and inexorably interconnected, interdependent. And that’s not just about how we act outside these walls but how we act inside them too – how we are with each other. Some of us can be too inwardly focused, or outwardly focused, and we forget the gifts of both receiving and giving love, compassion, energy, encouragement.

There’s a lovely Buddhist meditation that bring this home; and you may be surprised that it was set to music by the guy who started this all off, Ian Riddell.

Huh. It really is a circle.

A Time for All Ages

John Murray and The Winds of Change by Christy Olson and Jessica York

Sermon

True or false: In April of 1775, Paul Revere rode through the streets from Boston to Lexington yelling “The British Are Coming”.

True or false: The Declaration of Independence was signed by everyone on July 4, 1776.

True or false: A Civil War general named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, NY.

Myths, one and all. Fabrications, shifted narratives. It seems silly to tell these falsehoods, and yet… throughout human history, legends and apocryphal stories have sprung up – often not to obscure the truth (although there is plenty of that – a topic for another day)… but often to tell a story about a people. In the case of some of the great American legends and tall tales, they were told to enhance the reputation of our new country – greater, bigger, smarter, more unique, rougher, tougher, more fabulous.

American Unitarian Universalism is not immune from this propensity – and in fact, the story I shared in a time for all ages has much in common with the story I told last week, about the three little pigs, from the viewpoint of the big bad wolf. In that story, the truth wasn’t very interesting – wasn’t sexy and newsworthy – so a story was created to make it seem special.

Yes, John Murray was a Methodist minister from England who left the ministry when he discovered he believed in the doctrine universal salvation, much to the dismay of his fellow Methodists. Yes, after his wife and newborn child died, Murray spent some time in a debtors’ prison; his brother in law rescued him and helped him pay off his debts, and firm in his resolve to not preach again, Murray announced that he wished “to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I ne’er had been.” In 1770 he decided to quit his life in the old world and start fresh in the new.

He boarded the brig Hand-In-Hand, which grounded on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey.

Yes, it is true Thomas Potter had built a chapel for itinerant preachers, and yes, Potter invited the reluctant Murray to preach.

Now the legend says Murray and Potter struck a deal, and the weather played in Potter’s favor. Legend also says that that first sermon, delivered September 30, 1770, was the start of American Universalism.

But what we know is that German immigrants who believed in universal salvation had already established themselves in the mid-Atlantic colonies. We know that Potter himself was connected to a group of Baptists who were open to universal salvation.

And we know that Murray’s first sermon had very little to do with Universalism, as he was, admittedly gunshy.

But does all of that matter? The UU mythos tells a narrative of a miracle for people who don’t often believe in miracles. But the miracle was a lot less headline-grabbing – the miracle was that he preached at all… and subsequently, he got his confidence back. And, finding that there were places he could explore and expound upon his own rather Trinitarian theology of Universalism.

Now the fact that Murray started preaching again at all is important, because he struggled to find a place but kept at it…. And he eventually founded a meeting house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he established the first Universalist Church in 1780. Subsequently, Murray worked through legal channels to ensure Universalists were protected under Massachusetts parish laws, and by 1785 had helped to establish the Universalist Convention. This was important – Massachusetts was a hard place to be a preacher if you didn’t follow their orthodoxy – just ask Anne Hutchinson. Murray had taken up quite a fight.

Now I tell you the less sexy side of the story – not to knock Murray off a pedestal, but to point out how important the real pedestal is… if not for Murray, Universalism would not have taken root or been legitimized. And if not for his travel to ensure our faith’s success, his pulpit wouldn’t have been open to a more radical Universalist named Hosea Ballou.

You see, Murray’s Universalism was of the restorationist variety – Murray believed that those who died impenitent would be punished in the afterlife until the Day of Judgment, when all would finally be saved – or restored, while bad angels, devils and demons would be condemned – a belief reinforced by the parable of the sheep and the goats in the gospel of Matthew.

Meanwhile, Ballou, a Baptist preacher’s kid from New Hampshire, saw universal salvation differently – that hell was here on earth, and that once we died, we would all rest in the glory of God – “death and glory” it was called.

Now the controversy between Universalists was hot and heated – so much so that one time when Ballou preached, Murray’s wife, Judith Sargeant Murray instructed a choir member to stand up and declare, “The doctrine which has been preached here this afternoon is not the doctrine which is usually preached in this house.” To his credit, Ballou’s respect for Murray and his knowledge of their theological incompatibility meant that Ballou did not attempt to settle in Boston while Murray was alive.

Which was also a good thing – because instead of settling in, Ballou spread his message farther and wider, taking advantage of the administrative work that Murray had done to legitimize Universalism.

Now it’s not a surprise that Ballou’s universalism was more popular than Murray’s – Murray’s was still heavily tinged with the hellfire and damnation of the Calvinists.

Remember – this is a time, the late 18th/early 19th century, when hellfire and damnation in the style of Jonathan Edwards was still in vogue; it was still common to hear passages like this, from the famed sermon “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”:

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder!

I suspect good church folk were more scared of their minister than they were of God Almighty.

So then, imagine hearing Hosea Ballou. He’d preach in small, temporary pavilions, with the words “God Is Love” painted on a crossbar at the top of the stage.

And he would preach not of hellfire, brimstone, flames of wrath.

No judgment.

Just love. God as love.

Ballou would talk about a God who, as a Father, loves all his children:

“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”

God is love. We are all saved.

Ballou’s message was full of wholeness and worth, love from a loving God. And unlike restorationist Universalism, you don’t have to wait – you don’t have to worry whether you got it all right so you don’t have to suffer when you die. It’s salvation, right off the bat.

It’s a message people are still waiting to hear.

It’s so radical, the Universalist church almost pulled apart because of it.

It’s so radical, it was vilified by even Universalist-leaning Unitarians – William Ellery Channing said he had never seen a more irrational doctrine.

It’s so radical, Calvinists are still up in arms. For proof that the landscape hasn’t changed, consider the story of evangelical pastor Rob Bell. In 2011, Bell wrote a NYT bestselling book Love Wins, where he suggested there might be something to the universalist argument, even though he refused to call himself a Universalist. And still he was vilified by the evangelical community, with conservative leaders like Albert Mohler assserting that Bell’s book was “theologically disastrous.” Controversial pastor Mark Driscoll took Bell to task on Twitter and his blog, calling Bell’s ideas “completely absurd and unjust.”

And that’s just over a general assumption that maybe there’s wiggle room in the New Testament for something that might resemble universal salvation.

Universalism becomes even more radical when you follow it, as we do, to its natural conclusion… that if all souls are saved by the simple fact that God loves us, then Universal Salvation must extend beyond Christianity, to literally ALL SOULS, whatever they believe.

We are inheritors of something incredibly radical. To many, it’s heretical.

And the fact that John Murray – who was ready to fade into obscurity and never preach again – stepped into that pulpit and could not help but preach and promote Universalism – that to me is the miracle.

Thanks to Murray, we had space for Ballou. And thanks to Ballou and his evangelical prowess, Universalism as we know it today began to spread and change history. We count among Universalism’s exemplars and pioneers Olympia Brown, the first woman welcomed into full ordained fellowship in 1863; Benjamin Rush – signer of the Declaration; scientist Joseph Priestley; Red Cross founder Clara Barton; newspaper magnate Horace Greeley; Abner Kneeland – the last person to be tried for heresy by the government in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; industrialist George Pullman; showman PT Barnum.

And thanks to Murray, I stand here today in a Universalist congregation, as a Universalist. Although raised by Unitarian Universalist parents, as a child, I attended a Methodist Sunday school – because the UU Society in Albany was much too far to drive on a Sunday morning. Sometime around age 9 or 10, I recall a discussion about who is saved, and wondering about the poor communist kids in China who had never heard of Jesus – were they saved? No matter what the class was teaching, I decided YES, because otherwise, what kind of God was this?

I didn’t have the words for it, but the idea I now know as Universalism made sense to me then, and it still makes sense to me. It makes me feel loved, and worthy, and part of the interconnected web of all existence.

But Universalism doesn’t just make me feel good. It makes me want to DO good. As the great showman and notable Universalist PT Barnum remarked, “a comparatively small portion of scripture bears on immortal life and the great end of our course. Conduct is three-fourths of life. This present life is the great pressing concern. This is precisely as it should be.”

As UU minister Forrest Church writes, Universalism encourages us to “pitch ourselves into the very midst of life’s teeming questions.”

And those teeming questions send us headlong into the centerpiece of Universalism: that Hell isn’t where we try to avoid going after we die – Hell is on Earth. Here, and now. Sin isn’t inherited from some ancient creation myth, it’s manifest in those times when we act inhumanly. Evil grows when we forget that we are part of this huge planet, with all its beings and the very planet itself.

Hell is on earth…and it is easy to see:

  • Man-made climate change is causing massive disasters, unwieldy temperature fluctuations, species extinctions, and a pile of consequences we can’t imagine, yet live with on this island that may be gone before the turn of the next century.
  • There is a clear and present danger to women’s health, women’s rights, and women’s dignity, with a shocking growth in the culture of misogyny and violence, and more draconian laws being passed to turn back 100 years of progress.
  • As a country, we have failed the First Nations miserably, and continue to do so – taking their lands, destroying their water, sidelining their rights, legitimizing their slander, refusing to recognize their place as the original Americans, and recently – the near complete media blackout of the huge protests to protect their rights in the Dakotas.
  • Clean energy solutions are being sidelined in favor of outrageous greed and ill-advised big oil interests, with some green initiatives held so in contempt there are laws against implementing them.
  • The Borderlands continue to be a crucible for racism, poverty, oppression, and violence – with buses of immigrant children besieged by snarling mobs, with political candidates crying out for walls and deportation.
  • Veterans are being slighted – they are homeless, suffering with PTSD and often addictions – and are trapped in a failed system with years-long delays for treatment.
  • Income inequality isn’t just a catch-phrase but a horrific reality that is causing starvation, homelessness, disease, and unease.
  • Anti-union sentiments assault workers of every stripe, from teamsters to hotel workers, from teachers to firefighters.
  • Anti-education sentiments are destroying primary and secondary education – and student loan burdens threaten to bury a generation in inescapable debt.
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity are being so demonized, our LGBTQ youth are killing themselves. And many trans people are being murdered.
  • Gun violence thrives with Caucasian people walking through malls, rifles slung over their shoulders, daring someone to take issue.
  • Racism thrives, with black people constantly afraid to walk through the streets, even when their hands are empty and open and in the air… with a growing list of names of people dead, with a growing realization of just how hard it is to be black in America.

That is evil.

That is Hell on earth.

 

We aren’t loving each other; we are hating each other.

That is hell on earth.

But we are not called to hate – we are called to love.

In love, there is justice.

In Universal love, we must do justice. Universalism is more than comfortable seats and no damnation. As Lewis Beals Fisher says, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer is that we do not stand at all; we move.”

The real call of Universalism is social action – around the world, in our communities, and right next door. The call of our faith says we must listen to our neighbor, who may be different from us, or have needs we cannot know just by looking at them. Who are they? What do they struggle with? How can we help? How can we make life more just, more loving, and less like hell on earth?

love-the-hell-out-of-this-world-tshirtThe call of Universalism is palpable. Our open minds and hearts cannot help but hear the call. And it’s simply put; my t-shirt proclaims it: Love the Hell out of this world.

When we love one another – when we follow the golden rule and do unto others – we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we hear each other’s stories, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we honor each other’s lives, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we lend a hand to help, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we ease another’s suffering, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

When we stand with one another, we Love the hell OUT of this world.

So let us go forth and honor the miracle that is Murray’s first sermon and do as he asked, to give them NOT hell. Instead, let us Love the hell OUT of this world.

 

You never know what a casual, off-handed comment will lead to.

Three times on Saturday, I made a casual comment about who I am, where I work, and what I do, and three times, I found myself sharing the good news of Unitarian Universalism.

The first was outside our congregation’s yard sale. I must have looked like I belonged there, because a man stopped me and asked “what is this place?” I replied, it’s a Unitarian Universalist church. He seemed hesitant at first, and then said, “Wait, are you the love people?” I smiled as he explained he’d been to a marriage equality rally in another state and saw our big yellow Standing on the Side of Love banners. He said “Y’all are all right. I will definitely buy something.” I smiled again and said, “if you’re around on Sunday, you should come to a service.” He frowned for a moment, and I followed up with “we are all about love here. Doesn’t matter what you believe, only that you act in love.” He smiled finally and said, “now this is a church I could dig.”

I don’t know if he came on Sunday (I had a rare Sunday off), but I know he bought something.

The second was at The Gardens, where my friend Will Johnson plays piano on Saturday afternoons. I try to go every week, to have a glass of wine and listen to some wonderful music. It’s become a spiritual self-care practice for me and I miss it the weeks he’s not playing or I can’t attend. Because I am a Saturday regular, I have gotten to know some of the staff, including Amber, who runs the wine gallery. I came in to get some wine, and I said something offhand about how some weeks, this is as close to going to church I get, since I am a minister. Of course, she asked where, and then asked me what we believe. I got to share the good news of our non-creedal, covenantal faith. She smiled and said “I really miss going to some sort of church, but I am more Buddhist now and feel uncomfortable elsewhere.” I told her how we draw wisdom from the world’s religions, and how, as Francis David said, “we don’t have to think alike to love alike.” She hugged me with relief and said, “I’ve been looking for you for years… and you’re right around the corner.” I promised to meet her next Sunday morning for coffee and bring her to the service.

 

The third happened just a few hours later. Because I didn’t have to preach, I decided to stop by another local establishment to see some friends and have one more glass of wine. Shortly after I arrived, a 30-ish couple, Harold and Leann, sat at the bar near me. We chatted lightly as they ordered some unconventional cocktails, and in the “where are you from” part of our small talk, I mentioned I serve a congregation in Key West and am here for a year. That led to the inevitable “where” and “what do you believe” questions, as well as questions about how to be loving to those who don’t believe as you do. We spoke for over an hour, and they began to identify more than a couple of friends who attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation in their home town of Milwaukee. I found their friends’ congregation online and gave them the service information. At the end, Harold asked me for my card, and said “I’ll email you after our first visit.”

Evangelism isn’t difficult. People are longing to hear our good news – radical hospitality, freedom to search for truth, respect and regard for the earth and every living thing on it, space to explore and breathe and connect and do good in the world without threat of damnation. Almost by accident, I testified to our saving message to four different people, each of whom was hungry for us, searching for us, needing to hear about us. Sure, I didn’t start Saturday expecting to evangelize, but I am glad I did. I won’t know the long-term effects of these conversations, but it mattered in those moments.

Over at Quest for Meaning, David Breeden made the case for Unitarian Universalism being a Do It Yourself religion. He writes:

We do well to draw a sharp line between the subjectivity of religious experience and the objectivity of a congregational, corporate life together. Where I get my personal religious jolt is up to me—Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, paganism, pantheism, atheism, all of the above . . . Up to me. DIY. Where I find my meaning is up to me.

Where I go for my religious, corporate, home is up to us.

For those who will be following Moore’s advice on DIY religion, one of the best homes is a Unitarian Universalist congregation . . . If . . . we can awaken to how big the tent must be.

This is the wisdom of the idea of covenant embedded so deeply in Unitarian tradition. “We need not think alike to live alike,” is the sentiment, even if no one famous ever actually said it.

Breeden makes a good case for widening the tent, recognizing that as the more narrowly-defined mainline churches are declining, we have an opportunity (using his metaphor) to be the craft brewery in a sea of Budweiser. We should be, can be, must be the big tent of belief. Our third and fourth principles (acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning) demand it. And we have an opportunity as a non-creedal religion to make that tent as large as the world. And he even is clear that we’re not talking about congregational life, but rather individual spiritual growth.

But there is a danger.

As I read his post, Breeden seems to have forgotten the lessons we learned from Tim Taylor.

Tim-Al-home-improvement-tv-show-33059707-392-500The television show Home Improvement featured actor/comedian Tim Allen as the host of a DIY show called “Tool Time” – an expert on DIY, except an incompetent one. The running gag throughout the series was that Tim was constantly at the ER for various accidents, was always messing up a DIY project at his home, and relied heavily on the calmer expertise of his sidekick Norm. Without Norm, all hell would indeed break loose (and often did, to great comic result).

But amid the laughter, we saw Tim waste precious time and resources on ill-advised projects taken up without good support, guidance, or the right tools.

And that is the danger I see in the DIY model of religion. I should know. I was a DIYer for a long time.

Throughout my 20s and most of my 30s, I did it myself. I read books, I tried my hand at spiritual practices, I attempted to find communities of likeminded people to conduct rituals with, but my actual religious life was a mess. Even in those early years of attending a UU congregation, I was there mostly for the LGBTQ activism and the music. I was a DIYer, and I knew my path.

Except I didn’t. Contradictions abounded in my beliefs, in my practices. I felt constantly adrift, always looking for the next cool thing to feed my spirituality.

And then I began attending a UU congregation whose minister actually cared about our spiritual growth as well as our personal growth. Her gentle and calm expertise helped me, and others in our congregation, find and explore our spiritual paths responsibly and with great care. As a result, I stopped drifting and seeking aimlessly, and I began to not only understand my beliefs (which, as it turns out, is Universalism on a bed of Process Theology, seasoned with Paganism and a bit of Christianity on the side), but finally stop long enough to hear the call to ministry.

Breeden is right in that we have – or at least should have – a tent big enough for the wideness of spiritual understanding. But we should not be a place where folks wander aimlessly through the aisles hoping the right screw or angle brace jumps out at us. We should not be a place where a towering wall of microbrews beg for our attention with catchy names and striking labels. Let us instead be a place where each person is calmly and gently welcomed and guided by those who have been on the path before us and know the way. Just as home improvement stores hold classes and have experts on hand, so should we – courses like  Building Your Own Theology and Wellspring Spiritual Deepening, along with good spiritual direction, make all the difference.

That is why we are a religion and not a collection of people who like some of the same things. Not because we believe the same things, but because we travel together with knowledge and the same kind of seeking hearts. Our tent is big, but our tent should contain experts and signs and guides and companions so that we don’t have to just do it all ourselves.

 

 

I recently studied American Theological Liberalism with Gary Dorrien, and was quite taken by a chapter (from Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology, Volume 1) on the social gospelers. As I read the chapter, I found myself saying “amen” to Walter Rauschenbusch’s understanding of Christianity, that Jesus’s message was that the personal and the political cannot be separated if we are to see the kingdom manifest ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ I was impressed that Walter could find his way out from under the abusive thumb of his father and find the joy and hope preached earlier by Bushnell – the very hope that seems truly absent in the orthodoxy of the elder Rauschenbusch.

And I found myself thinking this is remarkably familiar territory – I have never read Rauschenbusch or other social gospelers before, yet I had read these ideas, with a different spin. The light dawned when I arrived on the pages discussing the Federal Council of Churches. I knew from other study that Unitarian John Holmes and Universalist Clarence Skinner also wrote on the social gospel… yet they were absent. Mild curiosity turned to earnest consideration as I learned that the Unitarians and the Universalists were omitted from the Federal Council of Churches, all the while being frontrunners on the social gospel.[1] So I wondered: why might that be?

As it turns out, both Holmes and Skinner were critics of Rauschenbusch and the social gospel promoted within the Federal Council. So I turned to the more familiar of the writings, Skinner’s Social Implications of Universalism, for answers.

Written in 1914 while serving as Professor of Applied Christianity at the Crane Theological School of Tufts College, Social Implications begins with a flat indictment:

The fact is that the traditional Protestant Church is dying, dying hard with colors flying and battling heroically, but nevertheless dying. The theology upon which it is built is dying; the individualism which called it into being is dying; the social order which it expressed is dying. Why should it not also die? (pg 1)

Indeed, Skinner is going after orthodoxy; he spills pages of ink arguing against the “religions of authority…who render stupid obedience to the established social order” (pg 9). He notes with derision that the traditional churches have been “so feeble” in social action because of “inertia inherited from the medieval ages when humanity lacked social dynamic” (pg 42). He argues that given the new age, “only those theologies which frankly and persistently align themselves with the world, and openly champion its potential goodness, can logically enter the great reformation of the twentieth century” (pg 48).

Skinner-DrClarenceRussellAnd it is there where Skinner shifts his attention from only skewering the orthodoxy to also calling out the liberal church. Any theology that sees salvation as coming “by escaping from a world which is inherently unsavable” – even in part, as Rauschenbusch promotes – is “individualistic, anti-social, medieval faith” (pg 49). He suggests that because of the emphasis on the death of Jesus, the church has inherited vicarious atonement which “has no social dynamic in it” (pg 55) – and that it is the social dynamic that is the actual ministry and religion of Jesus. “No dogmatic theologies about Jesus ever saved any one in society or out of society” he writes (pg 57), wondering why personal salvation should be necessary if the core of Jesus’s teachings are about social salvation. Instead of salvation being found in a statement of belief, a rite or sacrament, salvation, and Christianity itself, is “life lived in the open in the midst of the push and pull of social forces, and thus implies and demands a social context” (pg 59).

Skinner continues his arguments against the liberal church (particularly the hopeful theology of Bushnell that many social gospelers found attractive) in his section on “Hell and Salvation;” on the plus side, “liberal theology has successfully driven these nightmares [of a wrathful God and a brimstone hell] from the minds of enlightened men” (pg 63). Yet he thinks they have whitewashed the story, doing away with “moral accountability”; rather, the ideas of heaven and hell essential elements of religion. He makes this clear: “Universalism has not abolished the idea of hell. It has humanized and socialized it” (pg 63, emphasis his).

It is because of the hell on earth, then, that salvation is purely a social act as well; Skinner argues that “there is no royal road to salvation…it is as much subject to the natural law of cause and effect as is punishment” (65). Old ideas of heaven and hell are anti-social; thus, the need for personal salvation is anathema to the real salvation: saving ourselves in the here and now.

Skinner’s book is of course, largely an argument for Universalism, suggesting that its long history of social consciousness, open arms, and trust in a loving God will one day be at the center of a unified church. He believes that others will come around when they realize the truth of Universalism and let the medieval faith fall away completely. And obviously, that has yet to occur, if ever.

But the Universalists wanted to be at the table with the other social gospelers; that they and the Unitarians were sidelined left these two humanity-centered denominations to flounder and eventually find themselves. As Unitarian Universalists, we work alongside modern social gospelers, gently reminding them that we’ve been here for a long time – and welcome to the party.

 

After the service Sunday, we had a small group conversation – what some congregations call a talkback but which Saratoga calls “church chat.” It was a lively discussion about the series of sermons I just wrapped up on God – over three weeks, I talked about the transcendent, the immanent, and the creating-creator aspects of the Divine as we see them in our principles and our hymns.

During the conversation, one member asked me “did you put process theology at the end on purpose?” The question was probably meant to tease out my own beliefs, which I addressed – yes, process theology clicks for me, and it feels like a broader idea of God that encompasses the transcendent and the immanent.

But I think there’s more to it than that. And I have been thinking about it a lot. There are many reasons I put this  relational, creative, dynamic God at the end of the series – and what I keep coming down to is that this image of God – this ever-expanding, ever-changing Divine energy/spirit/infinite all – doesn’t coerce us but rather entices us toward beauty and goodness. This creating-creator God embraces us in the family of humanity and shows us infinite possibility in every choice we make. This way of being in the world, with each other, as artists of time and space, as painters of beauty and truth, as sculptors of dignity and justice, is what we are each called to be at each moment.

This calling vibrates through the hallowed halls of our theological house. Our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian-Universalist roots call us to choose, at each moment, a path toward goodness and healing, to create a community of well-being, to reach out.

This creator, creating, relational, dynamic God IS the God of Unitarian Universalism. This is the faith that calls us to action. This theology is how we make our way in the world. And we must make the choice, at every moment, to act. How will we act?

And more to the point, how will I act? What choices do I make? How am I an artist of creation, painting and weaving and sculpting my corner of the universe to make it more compassionate, beautiful, healing, just?

I put the God of process theology at the end of the series because we cannot just sit and sing and think about God. We have to do. We HAVE to take an active role. Life is not a spectator sport; we must all act in this participatory universe.

I attended General Assembly in Louisville last week, and I’m still high off the buzz. (Those who follow me on Twitter or are Facebook friends got quite an eyeful, as I joined many of my fellow attendees live-blogging our experiences.) In a nutshell, it is a transformative experience; I was an offsite delegate two years ago, but nothing beats being in the same space as over 3000 fellow Unitarian Universalists, seeing familiar and unfamiliar faces, hearing amazing lectures and sermons, listening to and singing tremendous music, being inspired by casual interactions and intentional conversations. Oh, and the shopping; there is nothing like walking into the Exhibit Hall the first time – I wanted to buy all the things! (I limited my purchases to a few t-shirts, some books, and a nice pin, but it was difficult at best!) While I am still processing some of the things I experienced and lessons I learned, I do wish to share some of what I gleaned with you (in no particular order):

  • Ellen Cooper-Davis’s workshop called “Occupy Your Faith” was one of the single most inspiring events I attended. In this session, she talked about ways to make our faith real and active and welcoming. Like Occupy, she said, our faith isn’t anarchical; rather, it is immediate and active, not an idea with manifestos and declarations. To help us get out there just DOING our faith, she gave us some great advice, using the acronym EAST(e)R:
    • E – Educate; we should know our history and our theology, and we should be religiously and Biblically literate so that we can talk to others but also within our communities.
    • A – Articulation; we must talk about our faith, but talk about them in the language of the culture we find ourselves in – in other words, we don’t automatically have a universal translator, so we must consider what our common phrases mean to others.
    • S – Service; not just ‘write another check’ service, but on the ground, present service to those around us. Who is next door? How are they hurting, and can we help?
    • T – Transformation; we are a transformative faith, and we cannot continue to be complacent.
    • R – Relocation, Redistribution, Reconciliation; it is actually inconvenient to live out our faith fully. It requires stepping out of our comfort zone, going places that are uncomfortable, living out our faith moment by moment.

 

  • Friday. Eboo Patel. Inspiring, brilliant, thought-provoking. Just watch.

 

  • Saturday’s Service of the Living Tradition was amazing; the music was led by the gospel ensemble at All Souls Church in Tulsa, and I can tell you the place was on fire. Add to that Rev. Vanessa Southern’s inspiring sermon. Add to that the experience of sitting in the audience and watching people around me being ‘called forth from the congregation’ in recognition of achieving ministerial fellowship or credentialing as a religious educator or music leader. Three of my friends from Union Theological Seminary walked, as did Schenectady’s Director of Religious Education, Melissa MacKinnon. What joy to see these leaders emerge from our ranks!

 

  • Sunday’s service was equally amazing; Rev. Dr. Bill Schultz preached an extraordinary sermon. He reminded us that we are fragile, but out of our fragility comes gratitude and trust – and we must thus act morally. I can’t do his words justice (they brought many of us to tears); go and listen. (Also, Meredith Lukow tweeted this:

“Blue Boat Home is like the Freebird of Unitarian Universalism.” – H. Roberts

…which led to a Twitter explosion of “FREEBIRD!” when we sang it during the service (and there is nothing like thousands singing with one voice a beloved song like that).

  • Youth! So many young people were there, so excited about being at GA but more importantly, about being Unitarian Universalist. These young people love our faith – we’re in good hands. I encourage you to look at the work the youth caucuses are doing, including campus ministry; I wasn’t able to attend the session on campus ministry, as it was during my own presentation, but there’s a real opportunity for us right up the street, and there are good materials to help make it happen.

 

  • Because I wasn’t sent as a delegate on behalf of my congregation, I didn’t attend many of the plenary sessions (where the business of the Association is conducted). However, that time was spent talking to people, hearing stories, learning about organizations like ARE (Allies for Racial Equity) and the Ministry for Earth. I ran into Rev. Sam Trumbore from FUUSA about a dozen times (who signed my copy of his new book during one of our encounters), but also had the opportunity to finally meet in person Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom, who – in addition to having written the beautiful book Simply Pray – was my spiritual director the year I decided to attend seminary. It was nice to finally give him a hug of thanks for being part of my journey.

 

  • Though personally disappointed in the outcome of the moderator election, I know Jim Key will do a fine job. Meanwhile, outgoing moderator Gini Courter absolutely WOWED the crowd with her final report. It’s worth the watch.

 

I have so many more memories and lessons learned – from the Murray Lecture (sponsored by NYSCU) to the various worship services I attended – from seeing old friends from my UU Musicians Network days to the crowd of Union students/alumnae closing down a bar. I got to see good friend Reggie Harris, and emma’s revolution, and Brother Sun perform. I got to make new friends, like KC Slack, Nicki Drumb, Craig Rubano, and Elie Kirkpatrick. And I got to hang out with Union friends Emily DeTar, Valerie Freseman, Ranwa Hammamy, Sara Goodman, and Annie Gonzalez. And and and and….the memories and lessons are countless, but since this is already long, I will close simply with this:

GO.

Go to a General Assembly before too long. Next year, it’s in Providence, RI. It’s transformative and amazing and exciting and eye-opening and exhausting. It is worth it.

Multiracial Hands Making a CircleI’ve been reading with interest a couple of the recent Berry Street Lectures – Paul Razor’s from 2009, and Fred Muir’s from 2012. They both explore what the future of Unitarian Universalism can be – from finding ways to embrace multiculturalism to shedding the negative impacts individualism and a polity founded in the dominant European-American culture.

They both offer sage advice and good ideas; Razor’s examination of race and UU culture especially is insightful and challenging. He prods us our of our comfort zone, suggesting “we cannot become a multi-cultural faith – subconsciously or otherwise – continue to treat a particular mono-cultural lens as normative.” Muir wants to shake us out of the ill-advised individualism that keeps us from building beloved community, reminding us that “individualism will not serve the greater good.”

My problem with both of these lectures is simply this: we keep talking about what we need to do without recognizing what is already happening. They talk about the status quo – that environment that has been shaped and led by the Silent and Boomer generations – and ignore what’s bubbling up from GenX and the Millennials.

For the under-50 crowd, individualism is anathema to the great connection and community they already experience in their cohorts. They long for spiritual, heart-led experiences in worship, and are finding ways of creating it (or seeking it elsewhere). They love what UUism means and lives radical inclusivity. They aren’t trying to figure out how to be a multi-cultural, inclusive, radically beloved community of spiritual seekers – they ARE. The problem is that while GenX and the Millennials are heading for the 19th hole, Boomer and Silent Gen leaders are still hunting for the fairway.

Maybe I’m giving too much credit to the younger generations – or not enough to the older generations. But if we want to be the religion of NOW, of “the future”, we need to look at what our under 50s are doing and WANT to do…and not consciously or subconsciously perpetuate the mono-cultural lens that we’ve been looking through.

What makes me hopeful is the greatness of our current seminarians. They are young, energized, spiritual, passionate, and eager to live TODAY into the promise of who we are. They aren’t looking at who we CAN be in the future. They are living the best of UUism in their daily lives…and will bring it to their pulpits.

The future is now. Let’s not keep them from living it.

 

Civil War historian Bruce Catton once said that if people are going to agree on something, any words will do, but it is an infallible sign of a coming fight when people argue over the precise wording.

In Syracuse, in late October 1959, the UUA was very nearly an almost thing, simply because of a fight over the wording of the Statement of Principles. As Warren Ross explains in The Premise and the Promise: The story of the Unitarian Universalist Association, there were three factions: traditional theists, who wanted to include references to our Christian heritage; Universalists who wanted references to prophets and teachers from all traditions; and humanists who wanted no God language at all. The first draft from the Merger Commission included God, excluded Jesus, and sounded like a creed.

No one was happy.

And the argument over this one set of words nearly derailed the entire endeavor. Ross says that subsequent revisions were proposed and defeated during an unscheduled session that went late into the wee hours of the morning. Even in the middle of the night, delegates were knocking on each others’ doors with proposals and better wording – finally ending with a very particular, specifically-chosen pronoun: not “our Judeo-Christian heritage” but “the Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Because of a pronoun, the endeavor was saved and the consolidation went forward.

 

Is it any wonder there is still a great deal of contention within Unitarian Universalism over what seem to be key issues regarding theology? Is it any wonder one of the most painfully fitting jokes about us is that we’re terrible hymn singers, because we’re always reading ahead to see if we agree with the lyrics?

In some ways, Ross’s book points to the very truth Catton spoke of; we have spent the last 52 years quibbling over some pretty big ideas that we are trying to encompass within our expansive denomination… and those fights get expressed in semantics. I recall a floor fight on a motion during the 2005 UUMN conference that was all semantics and ultimately got shelved thanks to some fancy interpretations of parliamentary procedure. We see it all the time within our congregations (“sacred” is okay, but not “holy”).

So what are we really doing? Are we fulfilling Catton’s belief that we have more to fight about than agree upon? Or are we the example that proves the rule – that our constant and abiding fights over semantics make us stronger and more united? I’d like to think our quibbles over language reflect our deep care for expression and inclusion.

It’s not a bad reflection on us. Words matter; let us be masters of our words so we can nurture spirits and help heal the world.