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Archive for the ‘Congregational Life’ Category

Parting the Veil: Lessons from the Threadbare Season


Camping, Records, and Community

Sunrise at Roosevelt State Park

Sunrise at Roosevelt State Park

I was surprised! The night was actually cool as I drifted off to sleep in my tent. I arrived at Roosevelt State Park for a camping trip at about three o’clock in the afternoon. I found my space and set up my tent. Then, covered in sweat, I sat down in front of the Gaudet’s pop-up trailer and relaxed. We sat, talked and during conversation we would drift into silence, then back into conversation. Simply put, it was a relaxing day.

That evening we had dinner with other campers from church and then moved to Paul’s campfire. We all agreed that the fire was a beautiful centerpiece but the warmth of the Mississippi summer did not require it’s necessity. The small group of us sat around in chairs refreshed by wonderful beverages, telling stories, laughing together, and like typical UUs, we discussed politics.

As usual when I camp, I woke early the next morning and made coffee and breakfast over a small camp stove. I burned my biscuits but had the best coffee and eggs a man could want.

That morning, I marveled at the sun’s rays coming through the trees and the lake–so much so that it seemed that the lake was on fire. After breaking camp, I returned to where I started–sitting with Ross Gaudet–this time, through a delightfully cool morning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay another night. Work was calling, so I chose to leave before other church members arrived causing me, for sure, not to want to leave. But as I left, I felt the calm and peace of the morning settle into my soul and the heart of community beat within my chest and I drove in the noon-day sun ready to finish my work.

We often talk about growing our church and building our community. As UUs, we know that means we will struggle and fight together for equality. Our members may work day-to-day in their jobs but often in their spare time, they struggle with building a more just and fair world. We see each other throughout the day supporting fair-minded local businesses or demonstrating in front of the Capitol building. This work is part of what makes us a thriving church. We read about the issues we fight for, we talk about them in forum and service, we organize around them, and though we tell ourselves we can do even better, at the end of the day we are tired and filled with exhaustion.

But the day is filled with more than just work and activism. During the day we have conversations, break bread together, and sometimes just eat good cookies together. These other things are also very important in community building and church growing. In fact, events like the church camping trip can help create strong bonds of friendship.

In my personal music blog Friday Vinyl I recently posted about my acquisition of the reissue of the vinyl version of Led Zeppelin I. As I walked out the door to pick up my record from the door-step it occurred to me that there is a core part of community building being laid asunder by technology. I remember when the last locally owned record store in Jackson (that actually sold vinyl records) closed its doors. I know the owner didn’t feel good about it and neither did I. I had made stopping in to buy records part of my normal Friday schedule and that was now gone. Don’t get me wrong–I love technology and am a big supporter of social networking online but I will always prefer walking into a store to buy a record (even standing in line on its release day) instead of walking out my front door seeing that it has been delivered by the postal service. When I walked in the door of Morning Bell Records, I was part of the community. When I walked out my front door, I was just the weirdo who doesn’t think mp3s are good enough.

Led Zeppelin I: Friday Vinyl

Led Zeppelin I: Friday Vinyl

There is an important theological concept where these two stories cross–community. When we sat together at Roosevelt State Park, we weren’t overrun with work or church business. We simply sat–enjoying one another’s company. The bonding that took place in the park is different than the bond that takes place over online social networks. Don’t get me wrong–the latter is important but the former is key. This concept is the same with my favorite shops. I don’t mind going online for some things, but there are other purchases that are more fun to make in person.

Fun helps build community, coming together to laugh is what strengthens us so that we can come together to act. We may not all want to go camping but we may love karaoke. We may not care for drinks around a fire but we may love coffee and poetry. I know that if we come together for fun it will help us build a bond of love, so that when we stand together we will not be moved.

In Defense of Religon

Since coming to the Unitarian Universalist Church I have meditated often on reclaiming theological language, I have enjoyed getting to write sermons and blog posts about things like faith, hope, redemption, and salvation. These words have deep theological history and meaning but over the years have been overwhelmed by religious baggage. At the end of the day these ideas are still relevant but we have to be responsible about the way we use them. For me reclaiming a theological heritage that has been hijacked by one group is paramount in the study of theology. And though I would never take away their right to use these terms narrowly it doesn’t mean I have to give them up either.

During the late 90’s into the 2000’s the statement I’m not religious I’m spiritual became popular. The goal of this article is not an incitement of the people who make this statement but to ask the question what is religion? It is an important question because within the culture the terms religion and religious are often spat out like bad fish. So this post will ask, what is this religion we do not want to associate with? It is important to explore this because the current aversion to religion makes clear one basic truth religion is failing people. The second question we will discuss in the latter half of the article is, what is spirituality? Finally we will explore a different understanding of true religion.

I find it easier to understand the negative usage of the term through a series of basic images. The first that comes to mind is luxury. The preacher makes six figures and has even more hidden off shore. The church has an IMAX Theater and gift shop that sells little crosses that say things like Faith, Hope, and Love, with the name of the church printed on the stand. This church, feeding off of its congregants, looks beautiful, and makes us feel even better while we are inside, whether it positively effects and represents its community or not doesn’t matter, but it sure is sparkly.

The next Image is described by the word Mask. The preacher, the elders, the staff, they are not what they seem to be. They all have their own sins that stay hidden. The congregants are the same. They act one way in church and a different way at home or at work. They talk about helping the poor, but take few actions, they mention freedom but rest in control. This church is not about making the community better, but about making its members look better. In fact they all live somewhere else and drive in. They revel in the theology, “Do what I say not what I do.”

The last image I will use is described by the phrase, out of touch. This gospel was for another time. It doesn’t take into account the world in which we live. The congregants aren’t part of the neighborhood like they were when the church was founded, they rest behind gates both in their communities and the church itself keeping the neighborhood from finding its way in. The curriculum screams 1972, and the music no longer has depth. And if you don’t like it they will be happy to quote Hebrew 8 that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Their god doesn’t like you, and chances are they don’t either, just keep walking.

I suspect there are many people who would not feel accepted in the places I just described. These places are unfeeling, disconnected, and unaccepting. They only care about their issues and they don’t want to change anything because they are afraid of change. These churches are all about what they look like, not what they do. They are luxurious, out of touch places where people where masks. And these practices have been the defining factor of religion for a few decades now. So prevalent in fact that people stopped using the word all together.

But what I find most important about these images is that they are caricatures not real. Don’t get me wrong there are some frustrating churches out there but most churches I walk into, even the out of touch ones with which we don’t agree, are full of people who struggle with life and do the best they can. The descriptions I have given, I do not believe. In fact, I would call them inappropriate and judgmental. If I were to explain them to a copy of myself seriously I would respond with the statement, “Who made you their god, and who gives you the right to judge them?” Though it is these images we use to describe religion as “everything that is wrong with faith.”

Now we have to look at the other side of the matter, spirituality. Merriam Webster defines the word spiritual simply as relating to a person’s spirit. That’s a nice definition and I like it, but will expand on it because I am a minister and that is what I do. Spirituality relates to our individuality, it is a part of who we are as a people. It is our communion with our spirit, and it relates to our core. We all have spiritual practices, many of them are personal, and they all help us understand our meaning and purpose. We do not seek to infringe on someone else’s spirituality with rules and regulations, they can be as orderly or chaotic as one like. Being spiritual is freeing, no one else can say how it should be done for you, but sometime we need others.

Spirituality is very personal, and we choose how much of our personal spirituality to share, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be spiritual together and when we are spiritual together we have to talk about guidelines and basic rules that help us treat each other with respect, which brings us to religion. Religion, when appropriate, becomes a vehicle for spirituality, it is a part of but not the whole. However, religion cannot exist without spiritual people. Religious practice then offers an opportunity to be spiritual together. When we light the chalice, sing together, share joys and concerns, and listen to a sermon, we are being spiritual and since we are doing it together we are being religious too.

Originally the two words were synonyms, but the movement to be spiritual but not religious changed that. I don’t think that was a negative change I think it better helps us understand who we are and our part in the community. It helps us bring a very personal thing into our relationships with others in a way that benefits everyone but protects who we are. Because of this multiple decade conversation I can say very clearly I am a religious person, but I could not be one if I was not first spiritual.

Religion doesn’t have to be close minded, hateful, and set in the old ways. Religion should be as vibrant as the people who practice it, and we as UUs are a very vibrant people, with many different traditions. But when religion becomes a negative force I question then whether it is truly religion anymore. The book of James describes true and faultless religion to be one that looks after orphans and widows. We expand this as UU’s but keep the core of the verse, religion should be about the things we do to make the world better not about making us look better. Once it stops being that it stops being true.

The Forgotten Virtue

There are a number of standard answers from all the variety of traditions within Unitarian Universalistism in regard to the number of individuals it takes to change a light bulb.

One tradition says that we should accept the light bulb as it is, another that we think the light bulb if it desires to change should change itself. One tradition calls for a quorum, which is 5 or 6 – wait, how many are in a quorum, and did we call Paul who is in charge of buildings and grounds . . . oh God, wait, no, hold on . . . never mind – what was I talking about?

Oh yes, as to light bulbs, my favorite response is:

We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if, in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

I remember when I first came to the UUCJ one member offered a new UU joke every week. This never offended me, it actually kept me coming back. In fact, the light bulb joke helped me decide I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist. Being able to laugh at myself has always been important, I do many silly things, and though sometimes I am being serious when they happen, learning to laugh at them helps me realize not to take myself so seriously. I find I often take myself way too seriously, and most the arguments I get into are when I am doing that very thing.

Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher, makes the point that we should be okay with laughing at ourselves while discussing beginning meditation. He states that one of the first things we learn is that our minds are never quiet, and we must learn to laugh at our Monkey Mind, always jumping from topic to topic, and never being still. He doesn’t call upon us to lament our inability to be light-hearted about it.

In the Hebrew Bible we read about the story of Isaac. Angels came to visit his parents before he was born. They said to Abraham, who was 100 years old, that his 90 year old wife, Sarah, would have a child in the next year. Sarah, over hearing this laughed, but the angles never condemned her lack of faith. Maybe they understood the silly notion of a 90 year old woman giving birth, and they probably also understood that her first 90 childless years had been very hard on her. The angels said, because she had laughed, she would now have to name him Isaac, to which the root word in Hebrew means laughter. Nine months later she never complained about naming her child Laughter, because now her laughing was not in derision but in joy.

The seven heavenly virtues go like this:

  • Chastity
  • Temperance
  • Charity
  • Diligence
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness
  • Humility

Granted, we have not had the opportunity to discuss these in forum or during a board meeting because we don’t consider these words dogma, but they come from one of our sources. Of course, if we were to take these into conference, I would make a point on one very important forgotten virtue–humor. If humor was added, I would be alright with the Heavenly Virtues. It is important to have a good sense of humor, especially when we work so hard to do important things. As UU’s we are often working toward very lofty and difficult goals and we face a lot of discouragement. Sometimes we just need to have a good laugh.

Many times Jon Stewart has been accused of being too light-hearted about serious subjects–making jokes about important issues. To this, Jon Stewart generally reminds dissenters that he hosts a comedy show on a comedy network. He does take very important issues and relate them to us in a way in which we can laugh, but he has found this amazing middle ground where we can laugh, while at the same time look upon these topics seriously. That is the gift of comedy, the gift of humor.

Why don’t we take some time and give that gift to each other this week, either in the comments here or on the facebook page? Just remember to keep it positive and PG-13–after all, we are Unitarian Universalist–what would people think?

Reflections on Being an Ally

“In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.”

-Anne Braden

Anne Braden was a white civil rights activist in Louisville, Kentucky; one of very few white American’s Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoted to say that he trusted to have his back. I was introduced to her legacy while attending the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2013. Her story quickly began to weave its way into my soul. If you don’t know much about her there is a wonderful documentary about her life. This post is not about Anne Braden, but her life story is very important when we consider what it means to be an ally.

Sadly, in our generation being an ally is a learned ideal. With the recent news from Arizona, Kansas, and a myriad of other states our ability to stand with others will become very important. Civil rights leaders have fought a long embittered struggle through the latter half of the 20th century to end one form of segregation only to be met with segregation anew in the 21st. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have been fighting an uphill battle for many years and they must be gaining ground because opposition to equality has really kicked into overdrive. In the United States we look to Arizona reinstituting Jim Crow. Russia now makes demonstrating for the LGBTQ community a crime, and different countries in Africa calling for prison and death–all for people who just want the right to be themselves. Now, this new segregation is making its way into Mississippi.

When I was a child I never understood why two people of the same sex couldn’t be married. When I was in high school very brave friends starting coming out, and as I grew to be an adult I found that I knew more people in the LGBTQ community than I had imagined. Human beings–not faceless masses huddled in alleyways–but friends, family, and loved ones. I noticed that when I needed an ear, they listened; when I needed a shoulder to cry on, they offered; and when I needed support, they provided. They are different than me, but not really. Our hearts beat the same, our blood pumps the same, and when it comes down to brass tacks, we want the same thing– love. In fact I find the continued use of the terms they and them in this post problematic. I feel limited by language, but then in reality isn’t that just a reflection of the privileges I am granted automatically by being white, male, and heterosexual?

The happiest day of my life was my wedding, and it is a terrible tragedy that weddings only come to those born within a narrow range of acceptability. Love shouldn’t be allowed only for the privileged. Over the years being an ally has meant different things, but the core has always been the same. People I love are being marginalized and mistreated because of who they are, and I find that unacceptable. Perhaps a better word is shameful. But we have to continue to work together with that vision of a different world– the one we write poems about, the one we sing songs about. Staying in the struggle and the power will enable us to get there together.


I have a Quick Question

When I was new to Unitarian Universalism a lot of my friends and family wanted to know more about the religion. After doing a fairly “shoddy” job of explaining it I would get the response, “So it’s not really a religion then.” I was always confused by that statement, because after my time with the UU church I came to see what many would call “true religion.” My Christian heritage actually defines true religion, and I have seen it as long as I have been a UU.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

-James 1:27

In fact there are two big things that strike me the most about this statement: first, UU’s do this without having to fear God will strike them dead or send them to hell–care is part of our nature; and second, we are not afraid to make it part of our politics. UU’s generally try, though partners and members, to make this list a little longer. We argue on behalf of those who are unable, and we help let others know their voice matters.

In fact, one of the most important things “religious” people do is practice their religion. Okay, maybe that sounds a little cyclical. Let’s take a look at it. Most people define religion very narrowly. I notice often that many have a hard time defining a religion to be a religion without invoking the name of Jesus. UU’s go one step further and don’t even require members to invoke the name of a god.

In so doing, we still use words like faith, communion, and even prayer. I believe UU’s do something revolutionary and extremely honest. We set a basic set of principles and ask that while we work together we abide by them. Religion for us then is not about belief or necessarily even G/god–it is about being part of community and our responsibility to that community.

For Unitarian Universalists, religion is about what we do. What does the existence of G/god even matter when we let children starve, prejudice to be defended, and the innocent die? What makes us strong is that we work together so we don’t have to be afraid, even though we rest in the minority.

Many religions are also defined by their daily practice–whether that practice be prayer, reading, or doing good deeds. Unitarian Univesalists do this as well. We just let others decide their own practice. While some may practice through reading or prayer, others do so through feeding the poor. Still others define practice through revitalizing their community. What is your daily practice, and why is it important to you?


Towards a Bruised and Hurting Church

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
                                                                                                                                                                            -Pope Francis

As a minister I tend to keep up on what other ministers are doing, I consider it not just part of the job but my duty. I have never been one to stay within the bounds of my own faith group either. I have always found it important to see how churches worldwide work, what their leaders do, and the effect the leadership has on the community around it.

This week Time magazine has named Pope Francis Time’s Man of the Year. I remember as a child watching the antics of Pope John Paul II who was called The Pope to the Protestants, I remember being given the gift of a rosary blessed by Benedict (who I haven’t heard really called anything), and my excitement concerning some statements of Pope Francis who is being referred to as The People’s Pope.

As stated above, Time has called him Man of the year! Jon Stuart hails him based on his economic principles, many Unitarian Universalists blog positively about him, and even one article in the satirical blog The Apocryphal Press stated that Pope Francis was actually applying to be a Unitarian Universalist Minister because “he is a very undisciplined person.”

Of course this pope has not changed his viewpoints, on many of the issues core to UU social justice work, like marriage equality, and equal rights for women in priesthood and health issues, but his focus on works and justice cannot be ignored. This pope has moved from the Vatican into a hostel, traded in his Mercedes- Benz for a Ford Focus, and pointed out that trickle down economics breed inequality. He has set an example for religious leaders all over the world, and not just religious leaders, but also those who belong to churches.

What can we learn from Francis? He has a lot of time left to make big mistakes and he even expects that he will, but can we learn from a man who is very adamant that he is not perfect? And will our differences of opinion over core issues stop us from growing because of his example?

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson is no stranger to social justice work. Within our walls meet local leaders in Women’s Rights, Marriage Equality, and Immigrant’s rights. We teach acceptance and work to empower the disenfranchised, and support human rights. But the question I am left with and the question I leave you with is this. As a church are we bruised, hurting, and dirty due to our work towards justice, or are we just clinging on for security?