The UUA Presidential Election and The Point of Our Faith

June 3, 2009

Well, it is a rare case when I read the always thoughtful and usually (self-proclaimed) conservative UU blog of Joel Monka and agree with it. I learn a lot, but at the end of most posts I am thinking, “Wow, I so don’t agree with that.” But, his most recent post on the UUA Presidential Election has really helped to clarify a lot for me. Interestingly, his post is titled “Something Clicked,” and it helped something click for me. I shall explain.

For the few short years that I have been giving sermons (and blogging), I return to one theme over and over. You know, they say that each preacher has one sermon that he or she preaches over and over in different forms and this is SO true for me. In large part, it is because it is the struggle of my life.

The gist of my sermon that I give repeatedly in different forms is that we (and I very much include myself in this) don’t live out the values that we proclaim in our own lives. We say we believe x, y and z, but our actions don’t often enough reflect this when it gets really hard. My sermons are not so much about “do better” (although that is part of it) but more “how do we come to terms with this?” since, by my estimation, we are (I am) never going to do THAT much better at living out our values. Part of this is that we must necessarily focus our energies of love and justice at the expense of letting other injustices stand. We cannot do it all – we cannot save the world. How do we learn to live with this, and choose how and where to put our energy? (I won’t expand on this, but if you want to read my writing about this you can go here, here or here.)

Back to Joel’s post, he quotes UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski in her post about why she supports Rev. Morales for UUA President. She writes,

I believe we do offer much to a hurting world, and through working with like-minded individuals and alliances can be part of “saving” it — and in the process save ourselves and this faith we love.

Joel argues that this is backwards. He writes,

Religion isn’t about changing the world; it’s about changing the man in the mirror- if you can save him, the world will follow.

Gender exclusive language aside, I think this is what I am often getting at in my sermons and blog posts. It helps me clarify to me how I understand Unitarian Universalist faith, and also helps clarify to me an underlying current I was working against in my sermons and blog posts: that somehow the world needs what we have to offer it. Rather, I would like to reorient our reflection to how WE come up short far too much and it isn’t a matter of “fixing” ourselves and our world, but that we need to be more honest and real about coming to terms with the fact that we are not ever able to fully live up to our values.

While I tend not to be a fan of the idea of original sin, or talk of sin in general, I hear Joel’s point about how it might make sense to focus on living our lives better – dealing with/coming to terms with our weaknesses, imperfections, and brokenness (that some might call sin) – rather than always looking “out there” in the world and thinking WE can save THEM or IT. It reminds me of charismatic ministers that think they have so much to offer the world and their church that they don’t deal with their own life and end up making huge public, damaging blunders because they thought the good they do in the world/church somehow makes up for not doing such a good job in their own lives.

I often feel so frustrated at the sense that we (Unitarian Universalists) somehow have what the world needs – like, somehow Christianity or Islam or Buddhism isn’t cutting it. For me, it is that Unitarian Universalism is where I need to be. And I welcome others in joining me and my fellow Unitarian Universalists in the journey to try to do the hard work of love and justice. This is where I am, but it isn’t because other religions somehow aren’t good enough. I could digress on this, but, bringing it back to Joel’s post and the post by UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski about endorsing Peter Morales, I can see how this relates to Morales’s take on things and the tone and approach he may bring to our association. In the sermon announcing his candidacy, (click here for a pdf of the sermon) he said:

We live in a new world, a world in which once isolated religious traditions are in constant contact. We desperately need new religion for a new world. The old religions lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. We need a religion that transcends divisions, religion that unites enemies, religion that points to a new future that includes everyone.

While I have no doubt that he did not intend any harm by this statement, I really feel rubbed the wrong way by the idea that “we need a new religion for a new world” (which is, apparently, Unitarian Universalism) and that the “old religions” (by which he seems to mean Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) lead to tribalism, violence, suspicion, hatred, and oppression. Like somehow we’re going to get it right whereas others just don’t have what it takes. He writes

Today Judaism, Islam and Christianity, especially the more conservative parts of them, have become what they first opposed: narrow, rigid and reactionary. They look back and seek to recapture a fantasy of the past instead of embracing a vision for the future.

Aside from the fact that I am not really sure that all three of these religion “first opposed” narrowness, rigidity, and being reactionary, I feel very uncomfortable with the idea that we are what the world needs – at all – and especially over and against “old religions.”

I am not endorsing a candidate in the election. For me, this isn’t about Peter Morales, but rather about how we envision our faith: are we Unitarian Universalists because it is the context in which we can connect with the divine, become the people we want to be, serve humbly, doing the hard work of love and justice or, are we Unitarian Universalists because we think it is the best religion for our time – because it is what the world needs – what they need. Of course, for me it is the former. Unitarian Universalism is what I need. I think when it becomes the latter we fall prey to the very better-than-thou-ness of other religions who think that they have “it” and others don’t – one of the qualities that so many Unitarian Universalists do not appreciate from other faiths.

I think if we are so worried about growing and being “the religion for our time” we lose sight of the forest for the trees. We are not saving the world. We are not in a contest for the best or fastest growing faith. We fail so often to live up to our visions of our own best selves. Rather, I hope that before we go about telling other people that they need what we have, we take the time to attend to ourselves, our congregations, our hearts, our lives. I think when we do this, we will create healthy congregations and a healthy association that will draw in others who wish to join us on the path.

(Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that we somehow descend into deep navel-gazing. The point is that the outreach work of love and justice grows out of coming to terms with our own lives and grows out of community and spiritual practices that we do in our congregations. It is not the point of our congregations or faith, but some of the the fruit of it.)

Edit: I just want to be really clear here that I am not endorsing – or somehow campaigning against – a particular candidate for the UUA Presidential election. I just don’t know enough about each of them to feel like I can make a good decision – I have been too caught up in pregnancy, birth and raising our new sweet baby to give this election the attention it deserves. There are a lot of issues at hand – many angles to consider – and this is just one of them. For all I know, I have totally misread Morales’s overall thrust and vision – this is just a little sliver of a big and complex picture. If you are going to be voting or endorsing, I encourage you to do  more reading at many different sources and talk to others you trust about this. Peace, E

GA ID Issue Round-Up

February 9, 2008

I will be posting about this myself in the next day or two. In the meantime, while you breathlessly await one more opinion on this matter, you can read other takes on this issue at the following UU Blogs: Philocrities, Trustee Talk, UUA Politics, iMinister (and here), RadicalHapa, The Chaliceblog (here and here), the Yes Church, Boy in the Bands, Ministare, Transient and Permanent, and Making Chutney. Feel free to add posts I’ve missed. You can also read about it at UU World here and here. Finally, see the memo from UUA President William G. Sinkford, Moderator Gini Courter, and GA Planning Committee Chair Beth McGregor, where they respond to concerns about security checkpoints at the 2008 General Assembly here, and have your Frequently Asked Questions About Security in Fort Lauderdale answered on the UUA website.

Doing the Hard Work of Love and Justice: Where is energy best spent?

June 24, 2007

I wrote meditations and prayers for my internship congregation each week when I was the intern minister there.  One theme that came up over and over, for me, was to remind us what was involved and pray for what we needed to “do the hard work of love and justice.” The idea that it is important for us to remember that if we are going to talk about love and justice, as most UUs like to do, it is important to remember that it is about hard work and not just righteous talk or token actions. As I think about what it means to do this in my own life, I often wonder where my energy is best spent to bring about the most good. I know for me, it is often easy to convince myself that what I want to do, or what appeals to me the most, is the best use of my time, especially if what is appealing can seem righteous or really worthy.

All the hub-a-bub about General Assembly, and the not too distant brown bag controversy as had me thinking about what it means to be part of a faith, part of an association, and just what I want my life to look like and where I want to put my attention – how to live out my own call to do the hard work of love and justice.

I think it would be really easy for me to get involved in UUA politics (by this I mean both the important, good work of our Association, and also the somewhat jaded, gossipy politics). I could very easily be a snarky blogger making fun of all the unique and maybe less than common-sense seeming things that happen at GA and in UUism in general. In fact, I do this in my head more than I want, but I try to stop myself.  I think I could have written a scathing post on the whole brown bag thing. But I’m trying not to do this, and put my frustration, anger, and energy into those parts of my life and my faith that seem like they will make the biggest difference.* The question of course is what the best allocation of my time and energy is.
Not that General Assembly or language issues (how we talk about things, for instance, lunches where people need to bring their own lunch) aren’t important, but I am feeling more and more like there are a lot symbolic politics that I could really make a lot out of and that would be sort of fun and feel really important, but I’m not sure if that is where my time and energy should be spent.  And of course, there is the important question of being able to discern symbolic politics from actual important stuff that makes a difference in people’s lives (and makes a difference big enough to be justified, relative to the time and energy spent on it, since time and energy, institutionally and individually, is limited).

All that said, it also seems like one needs to keep one foot in institutional worlds, and bigger questions. I can be a bit leery of the potential for political correctness to run amok. But, then again, some people might tell me that using only male language for God is one of those areas, and what is all the fuss about? And of course, I would argue that it is an important area to be attentive to. Maybe all that happens at UUA headquarters in Boston is not earth-shattering, but certainly some things that happen there and some of what happens at our General Assembly is really important.  The question is how to manage my energy and time – how much can I/should I/must I give to these things that are sort of scarily appealing to jump into, yet at the same time, softly whisper to me that this is not where my energy should go? I think it is so easy to criticize what is not going right or well. It is so much harder to do something different that wouldn’t be make-fun-of-worthy.

Just some reflections on this. No conclusions yet.

*When I talk about making the biggest difference, I don’t mean to imply that UUism is some sort of big social service agency or something that is meant to change the world via our Social Action Committees. For me, I feel like my connection with the divine is, in many ways, through bringing about the kingdom of love/god here on earth. I feel a call to unconditional love, which in some way, I feel emanates from the divine to the world’s beings. This is not meant to be Elizabeth’s Spiritual Treatise on Divine love, but just to clarify that unconditional love is a guiding force in my spiritual journey, which, for me, translates to reducing the suffering of others in both spiritual and material ways, thus the whole thing about “hard work of love and justice.”

**Side note II: This is not to be some sort of broad criticism of snarky criticism or critique of things in general. I think sometimes it is good and needed and constructive. Sometimes it can just be too much, too frequent, and mean. This is mostly about my approach to things.

What makes someone Unitarian Universalist?

January 10, 2007

One part of my final papers involves looking at a lot of religious demographic figures. I was looking at Religion in a Free Market which analyzes the data from a survey of 51,000 U.S. Americans and then figures out what that means for the whole U.S. population. It is helpful in some ways, very unhelpful in others (but that is for another post).

The survey is based on self-identification. And according to the survey, there are about 600,000 Unitarian Universalists in the country (as of 2001). As many of us know, this is a tad more (like about three times more) than our survey of congregations shows. And this got me thinking. I’ve read where a UUA president (I want to say John Buehrens, but it could have been Bill Sinkford – I forget where I read it) commented on such a number and said that it was flattering that 600,000 people would identify as Unitarian Universalist, all those people don’t really understand what we’re about (or what it means to be Unitarian Universalist) because you have to belong to a congregation to be a Unitarian Universalist. I’ve also heard this by some of our ministers – “You can’t just be UU. You have to be active in congregational life and part of a Unitarian Universalist community.” And I see where this is coming from – the idea that we are not just some random collection of liberalish people with no core set of beliefs. We stand for something and we aren’t the catch-all for people who don’t know what else to be.

Yet. Imagine if a Christian church or denomination was like, “If you are not a member of one of our congregations, you do not count as Christian.” Or if a Buddhist group insisted that if you were not a member of one of their Buddhist communities, you were out. To me, Unitarian Universalism is not a club. It is a faith. And, for me, it is about how we live our lives, not if we are a member of a congregation. This does not mean I encourage people not to be members of a congregation. Like with Christianity, I believe that our faith is best lived out in community, but that the core of what it means to be Unitarian Universalism does not mean belonging to a congregation, but means living out the principles of love, justice, kindness, and equality in your everyday life.

So now when people ask how many of us there are, I won’t say 200,000-ish. I’ll say 600,000-ish, realizing that congregations count in many different ways and that many Unitarian Universalists out there – for whatever reason – are not involved in a congregation at the time. And, realize the work that we have to do to make our congregations feel like an essential part to our faith. Not because people “have to join,” but because they want to be part of such healthy and thriving community.

Christianity and the UUA

October 11, 2006

So Shawn at LoFi Tribe (sorry, no time to link these – you can google them) has left the UU path and is going to be straight up Christian (he didn’t say what denomination he is switching to). I’ve read the blog some here and there and find it a fine blog to read. I just hate losing cool people. But, the main point of this quick post (I’m trying not to make posts need to be perfect and essay like) is that he writes:

The UUA is a new age smorgasbord that does not – and will not – resonate with the majority of people living in this country (especially young adult families w/ young children). It will appeal to a very small segment living on the fringes of our culture and society. That’s it.

Okay, so I don’t love my beloved denomination (with all its flaws) being called a “new age smorgasbord” and I would not say it appeals to “fringe” people (there are some, but not most), but the main reason this stood out to me is because it could come across that our faith needs to get with the program and resonate with more people… um, like, say, fundamentalism or evangelicalism? As CC says, if all the Methodists jumped off a cliff, would we? The thing is, Jesus’ message was not so popular in his day. Didn’t quite resonate with that many people. But a lot of people stuck with the Jesus tradition because they believed in it – they thought it was the right thing to do even when it was way unpopular and people called them weird. And when people tried to come up with new ideas, and they didn’t fly, they were thrown out or killed. I don’t want to throw people with new ideas out of our faith. Even if they seem new age-y to some. I think now folks might like to call us “new age” to say “Hey, they aren’t the real thing” and/or “Those people are WEIRD” (this may not be what LoFi Tribe is doing – but I’ve seen it done other places). And I think also people are called and have been called heretical or pagan or heathen over the years to say “Hey, they aren’t the real thing – We’ve got the answer. And it involves a particular path. That we set.” My point is not at all to pick on Shawn at LoFi Tribe, but just to point out this sort of criticism that takes place in multiple context, blogs and otherwise. I’m not saying that Unitarian Universalists in general cannot be a little cooky seeming. Okay, it happens. But it isn’t as if they Catholics or Baptists don’t have cooky people or institutional issues similar to those that the UUA might have. I think it is totally cool if someone feels that they need a Christian faith to be ordained in or attend church or be a minister in or whatever. But I reject that Unitarian Universalism is “new age” in a clearly not good way or that it is for people on the fringe and that (by implication) we need to get more mainstream to attract less fringe-y people. More people in general would be fine, but not if it means we have to tell the people with new ideas or less traditional ideas (those new age people) to get out. Oooo, I’m dying to write more and articulate this more clearly but I must must stop. Anyway, just some quick thoughts. Don’t yell at me if there are mistakes or this isn’t articulated perfectly. If I’m going to blog these days it must be fast.

What’s to come…

May 30, 2006

The next post will be of the foster kittens (finally!). I’ll link to it from Craigslist where we advertise for potential adopting families.

Otherwise, I have a few things I’ve been meaning to write about but thanks for a never-ending paper, it just hasn’t happened yet.

Here is what’s to come after the paper is done (or, should I say IF it is ever done):

In UU World Bill Sinkford writes about what he calls the central act of religious community. You can see the article here. He says that the central act of the religious community is worship. I’m not so sure.

I’m going to the reproductive rights conference sponsored by Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom in DC next week. SYRF is a subgroup of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. I’m interested to see what it will be like and to learn more.

Now onto the foster kittens. I hope soon I’ll be back to my regular blogging self.

It’s Here!

May 18, 2006

I’m sure, like me, you’ve all be waiting with bated breath for the GA schedule. And here it is! Aside from attending all sorts of exciting and fun workshops, I’ll also be volunteering at the UUFETA* (Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) booth and hocking, er, I mean selling stoles made by my mom! She has volunteered to donate part of the proceeds to UUEFTA (the booth is expensive – I think around $800!) and then she’ll keep the rest. This is her attempt at a post-retirement job. She retires in December. When I get a chance, I’ll post pictures of her wares. She is really an amazing seamstress (and I’m not just saying that because she is my mom) and has taken her stole-making career seriously and done all sorts of research about stoles and Unitarian Universalism. Need a stole? My Mama will make one of the most beautiful ones you’ve ever seen for cheaper than you can get them elsewhere. More on the stoles, GA and…. our new foster kittens (!!!) soon. Enjoy the beautiful weather. Elizabeth :)

*Officially, UUFETA is named UFETA. However, as one little way to guard against what I see to be an unfortunate trend of Unitarian Universalism being shortended to Unitarianism, I call it UUFETA to guard agianst the slippery slope of one U. Not that it makes a big difference – but it makes me feel like I’m doing my little part. :)