Unitarian Universalism

Energy Appreciation

Author: 
Kat Liu

These "appreciation meditations" can be as quiet and introspective or as energetic and interactive as you desire.  The aim is cultivating gratitude.  Gratitude is the starting point for generosity and action.  (This exersize is best performed after dark.)

 

May the light we now kindle
Inspire us to use our powers
To heal and not to harm
To help and not to hinder
To bless and not to curse
To serve you, Spirit of Life

- Adapted from Singing the Living Tradition, #453

 

Turn on a light.

Think about what a difference it makes in the room, how much easier it is to see.

Open the refrigerator door.  See the little light turn on, allowing you to easily view its contents.  Feel the cool air.  (Close it.)

Open the freezer door.  Hear the hum of the compressor.  Feel the even cooler air.  (Close it.)

Think about what life would be like if you had no refrigeration.

Turn on the stove.  Hold your hand a safe distance from the burner.  Feel the heat.  (Turn it off.)

Think about what life would be like if you had no way to cook your food.
(If doing this with kids, ask them to name their favorite foods that they wouldn't be able to eat any more without energy to cook food.)

Turn on your favorite form of viewing entertainment (tv, internet videos, etc).

Access the internet.

What are other things in your home that require electricity to operate?

Almost every convenience that we have in life requres energy.  Give thanks for the energy you have and think about how to make sure everyone has enough.

 

Water Appreciation

Author: 
Kat Liu

These "appreciation meditations" can be as quiet and introspective or as energetic and interactive as you desire.  The aim is cultivating gratitude.  Gratitude is the starting point for generosity and action.

 

Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains us all.

- Thich Nhat Hahn

 

Pour yourself a glass of water.
(If doing this with a family or group, use a pitcher to pour each person a glass of water.)

Look at the glass of water.  Hold it up to the light.  See its clarity.

Sip a mouthful but do not swallow.  Feel the coolness roll over your tongue, the roof of your mouth, through your teeth.

Swallow.  Feel it moisten your throat as it goes down. 

Imagine the water trickling into your stomach, and from there moving to every other part of your body.  Into your limbs.  Seeping into every cell.  Bathing each cell with life.

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Think back to a time when you were really hot and thirsty.  Remember how good it felt when you finally got to drink.
(If doing this with a family or group, encourage participants to briefly share their memories.)

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Where did your water come from?  Did it come out of the tap?  Did you buy it in the store?  Did you get it out of a well?  Imagine what it would be like if you could not easily get water. 

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

As our climate changes, it becomes harder to get clean, drinkable water.  Some places have drought, which means there isn't enough water.  Other places have floods, which makes clean water dirty.

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Despite the increasing scarcity of clean water, some companies still gather up water in order to make money from it - they may bottle the water to sell, or use it to grow water-intensive crops to sell, or use it to force oil out of the ground to sell - and do not let the people who live nearby have clean water to drink.

Drink another mouthful, gratefully.

Water is a precious gift.  Water is life.  Give thanks for the water you have and think about how to make sure everyone has enough.

Climate Justice Month 2015

March 22nd, World Water Day, to April 22nd, Earth Day

Climate Justice Month 2015 was organized around the (Western) Four Elements.  We started with water (World Water Day), then fire, then air, and finished with earth (Earth Day).  Resources were provided for Appreciation, Education, Reflection, Interconnection, Action, and Celebration of each Element.  

 

Water - Celebration and Revelling  

Sunday, March 22nd - World Water Day

Worship: Resources from UU Service Committee

Monday, March 23rd - Saturday, March 28th

Mon: Appreciation - Water
Tues: Education - Learn Where Your Water Comes From
Wed: Reflection - Calculate Your Water Footprint
Thurs: Interconnection - Water
Fri: Action - Join UUSC'S Blue Bucket Campaign
Sat: Celebration -

Fire - Grief and Reckoning  

Sunday, March 29th

Worship: Resources from UU EJ Collaboratory

Monday, March 30th - Saturday, April 4th

Mon: Appreciation - Energy
Tues: Education - Learn Where Your Electicity Comes From
Wed: Reflection -   
Thurs: Connection - Meditation on Energy
Fri: Action - Switch to Clean Energy
Sat: Celebration -

Air - Reconnecting  

Sunday April 5th

Worship: Resources from UU EJ Collaboratory

Monday, April 6th - Saturday, April 11th

Mon: Appreciation - Air
Tues: Education - Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
Wed: Reflection -   
Thurs: Connection - Meditation on Air
Fri: Action - Urge Your Senators to Support Clean Air
Sat: Celebration -

Earth - Committing  

Sunday, April 12th

Worship: Resources from UU EJ Collaboratory

Monday, April 13th - Saturday, April 18th

Mon: Appreciation - Food
Tues: Education - Learn Where Your Food Comes From
Wed: Reflection -   
Thurs: Connection - Meditation on Food
Fri: Action - Pledge to Eat Locally
Sat: Celebration -

Sunday, April 19th, Earth Sunday

Worship:  Resources from UU Ministry for Earth

Monday, April 20th -Wednesday, April 22nd

Mon: Appreciation -
Tues: Education - Watch "The Story of Stuff" (20 minutes)
Wed: Reflection -   

The Imperfectionist

Author: 
Forrest Church

The reason I’ve been able to produce

so much is that I’m not a perfectionist

– I’m an imperfectionist.

 

I’m confident that everything I say

can be improved upon by others,

and that’s my great strength,

because I know that it won’t been improved upon by others

unless I take the first step.

 

When we only do things which please us,

or don’t frighten us,

after a while fewer and fewer things please us.

 

Over time, our circle of options diminishes

until we are prisoners in gardens of our own making.

 

The more decisions you make in your life,

the more times you act,

the more certain it is that you will be wrong.

 

To be fulfilled we need to recognize,

all of us,

that the world doesn’t owe us a living

– rather we owe the world a living.

 

And in the brief time that is given us,

we must somehow learn to give ourselves away.

A Winter Solstice Ritual for 2014

Calling the Directions Spirit of the East Spirit of air: wind and sky, the breath of life. Spirit of possibilities with each morning sunrise. Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Spirit of the South Spirit of fire: heat and sunlight, electricity energizing life. Spirit of passion as we seek justice Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Spirit of the West Spirit of water: quenching, drenching, and dew, the fundamental molecule of life. Spirit of perseverance in the face of difficulties. Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Spirit of the North Spirit of Earth: dust and mountains, in which life teams, and from which life springs Spirit of becoming, that each moment we may start again Please join us and bless this circle as we celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

Introduction On this eve of Winter Solstice, this longest night, let us acknowledge that the time has come for the Earth to rest. Just as the earth needs to rest, fields lay fallow, and seeds need the richness of the earth to seep in giving sustenance in preparation for germination, so we need a time to rest and restore. Just as our body needs sleep to rejuvenate us in daily cycles, the earth gets the rest it needs in the yearly revolution around the sun. The earth is furthest from the sun in our hemisphere, and low in the sky. Although Northern European winter is not evident in Southern California with it's nearly perpetual sun, vegetable gardens lie fallow, or freshly seeded in anticipation of the coming spring. Thus the nights have grown longer and longer until tonight, the longest night, and then the days will instead begin to lengthen.

We acknowledge pain and suffering in the world, especially the killing of innocent black men as a result of systematic racism, and the two policemen of color murdered yesterday. In this world these and other tragedies are traditionally associated with darkness. Instead of perpetuating the false association, we pray that the darkness bring healing and restoration to our broken world. May the new sun illuminate the interconnected web of life that more and more are beginning to realize.

StoryThe Rebirth of the Sun" by Starhawk

Giving Thanks Let us give thanks for that and whom we are grateful.

Prayers Let us pray for those in need.

Making Merry Feasting and Pagan Carols from Moon Path CUUPS

Dismissing the Directions Spirit of the East Spirit of air: wind and sky, the breath of life. Spirit of possibilities with each morning sunrise. Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless each of us as we part from one another.

Spirit of the South Spirit of fire: heat and sunlight, electricity energizing life. Spirit of passion as we seek justice Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless each of us as we part from one another.

Spirit of the West Spirit of water: quenching, drenching, and dew, the fundamental molecule of life. Spirit of perseverance in the face of difficulties. Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless each of us as we part from one another.

Spirit of the North Spirit of Earth: dust and mountains, in which life teams, and from which life springs Spirit of becoming, that each moment we may start again Thank you for joining us and blessing this circle. Please bless us as we part from one another.

Our ritual is ended. Merry meet and merry part until we meet again. Image: Victor Hanacek Directions and Introduction: Kathleen McGregor

The Interdependent Imperative

Author: 
Rev. Fred Small

Delivered on October 26, 2014

at First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist

 

As a boy, I was a prince of independence.

White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, tall, raised in middle-class affluence, I was living the American dream. 

I worked hard in school, got good grades, made the football team.

I thought I was pretty cool.

Whenever I helped myself to some ice cream from our freezer, all my mother asked when I was finished was to leave the empty dish in the sink with just a little bit of water in the dish, so the thin sweet film in the bottom wouldn’t harden into an indestructible incrustation. 

If I would just leave some water in the dish, I’d be a good boy!

So I did.

And then the dish would disappear!

Not right away, but pretty soon, when my mother next swept through the kitchen, tidying and cleaning up.

That was her job, right?

My job was to eat ice cream and leave a little water in the dish.

Never gave it a second thought.

Until I was 18. 

When I was 18, I went on Outward Bound in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario.

The very first time we paddled away from our base camp and pitched our tents on an island, we cooked our meal, we ate our meal, and then . . . and then there were all these dirty dishes.

And no Mom.

I was flabbergasted.

All those years I thought I was independent—I was a fool.

All those years I thought I was standing on my own two feet, I had no idea I was being lifted up by others.

The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

It was not always so.

When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America combined in 1961, the new Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws said nothing about interdependence. 

They proclaimed “the supreme worth of every human personality” and “the dignity of man”— singling out “the Judeo-Christian heritage” of  “love to God and love to man.”

By the 1980s, led by members of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, the groundswell for change had become unstoppable. 

Amid growing concern about environmental degradation, the draft presented to the 1984 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, included a new seventh principle affirming “respect for Earth and interdependence of its living systems”—a formulation ecologically correct and spiritually arid.

Fortunately, the Rev. Paul L’Herrou rose from the floor to propose instead “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” 

With this change, the seventh principle was transformed from an environmental plank into a spiritual truth with roots in ancient wisdom traditions. 

With this change, reflects my colleague the Buddhist Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford, “We stopped merely being concerned with a description of what we tend to think, and called ourselves to something sacred.”

Our interdependent web evokes Buddhism’s jeweled net of Indra.

Stephen Mitchell describes Indra’s vast net this way:

at each crossing point there is a jewel; each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the net, the way two mirrors placed opposite each other will reflect an image ad infinitum. The jewel in this metaphor stands for an individual being, or an individual consciousness, or a cell or an atom. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.

This is a vision of radical interdependence.  Radical only because we so often forget it, and even when we remember it, we fail to live by it.

This is the interdependence taught by the Buddha, who explained that “This is like this because that is like that.  This is because that is.”

This is the interdependence divinized by the Jewish sage Martin Buber in I and Thou.  Restarting Genesis, Buber declares: “In the beginning is the relation. . . . Relation is reciprocity.  My You acts on me as I act on it.  Our students teach us, our works form us. . . . Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You.  Every single You is a glimpse of that.”

This is the interdependence proclaimed by Dr. King when he wrote from Birmingham Jail of

the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  [We might substitute Cambridge for Atlanta and Ferguson—or Roxbury—for Birmingham.]  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This is the interdependence ecologist Barry Commoner articulated in his First Law of Ecology: “Everything Is Connected to Everything Else.”  (I would call this, as well, the First Law of Congregational Life and the First Law of Spiritual Life.)  The more complex the ecosystem, Commoner points out,

the more successfully it can resist a stress. . . . Most ecosystems are so complex that the cycles are not simple circular paths, but are crisscrossed with branches to form a network or a fabric of interconnections.  Like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands, such a fabric can resist collapse better than a simple, unbranched circle of threads—which if cut anywhere breaks down as a whole.

This is the interdependence described by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff  as “the infinite web of all-inclusive relations.”  “[E]verything that exists, co-exists,” Boff reminds us. “Nothing exists outside of relationships.  Ecology reaffirms the interdependence of beings . . . and repudiates the so-called right of the strongest.  All creatures manifest and possess their own relative autonomy; nothing is superfluous or marginal.  All being constitutes a link in the vast cosmic chain.”

This is the interdependence that inspires feminist theologian Carter Heyward to name God as “our power in mutual relation. . . . in which all of us, not just a few, are empowered to live more fully just and compassionate lives.  Injustice, or oppression,” she asserts, “is both source and consequence of evil—non-mutual power relations of domination and control.  We are urged in and by God to struggle for justice, peace, compassion, and liberation.”

This is the interdependence the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City, addressed last month at the Religions for the Earth interfaith service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine just hours after more than 300,000 demonstrators jammed the streets of Manhattan in the People’s Climate March.  "I see God as relationality itself,” this Christian preacher told us, “connectedness itself."

Interdependence means that there is no Other—no them by which to define us.  There may be opponents but not enemies. 

Interdependence means seeing opponents as teachers and potential allies.  Even Republicans—if you’re a Democrat.  Even Democrats—if you’re a Republican.  Even Republicans and Democrats—if you think party politics is a waste of time.  Because the person who opposes you on one issue may join with you on another—if you don’t write them off or alienate or demonize them first.

Interdependence means that means and ends cannot be separated, because what we do to another we do to ourselves.  When we’re all in the same boat, torpedoes become weapons of suicide.  The drone that kills one terrorist creates three more.

Interdependence means we see ourselves reflected in the eye of the oppressed and the oppressor alike.  Some of us would say we see God reflected there.

Interdependence means that each and every one of us is immortal, because the impressions we make on other people’s souls ripple outward to infinity.

Because everything is connected, we can never anticipate the impact our smallest gesture may have upon our family, our neighbors, and strangers we will never know.

A high school teacher says a kind word to a discouraged student, and instead of dropping out, she stays in school, graduates, and eventually becomes a teacher herself. 

A researcher toiling in a lab discovers that a plant extract has a unique property without any apparent benefit until another researcher on the other side of the planet realizes that that property is the missing piece in a cure for a killer disease. 

A folksinger writes a song so inspiring it saves a life. 

The songwriter was Stan Rogers, the burly Canadian baritone best known for “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a rousing ballad about a fishing boat sunk in a squall only to be raised from the sea bottom and salvaged by her determined crew.

In the winter of 1983, a ship called the Marine Electric was carrying coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Somerset, Massachusetts, when it ran into the worst storm in forty years.  Pounded relentlessly by massive waves and shrieking winds,  the Marine Electric sank at 4 o’clock in the morning.

59-year-old Bob Cusick, the ship’s chief mate, made it clear of the wreck but found himself all alone in the frigid water, grasping a partially deflated lifeboat as waves crashed over him.  Each time he went under, he wasn’t sure he’d make it back to the surface.  As hypothermia set in, all Bob really wanted was to let go of the lifeboat and slip beneath the surface. 

But he remembered “The Mary Ellen Carter.”

Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken

Or life about to end.

No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,

Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

Barely clinging to life in the churning Atlantic in the pitch-black night, Bob Cusick began to sing.

Rise again, rise again 

Every time a wave broke over him, he’d hold his breath.   When the wave had passed, he’d sing again.

Like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again

Over and over and over.

At seven o'clock in the morning Bob was spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter and rescued—one of only two survivors among the 33 crewmen who went into the sea.

When he’d recovered, Bob wrote a letter to Stan Rogers thanking him for writing the song that saved his life.  At the folksinger’s invitation, Bob joined Stan at his next concert.  It was the next-to-last concert Stan performed.

A few weeks later, after headlining the Kerrville Folk Festival, Stan boarded an Air Canada flight in Dallas bound for Montreal.  When fire broke out on board, the airliner made an emergency landing in Cincinnati.  As dense smoke filled the cabin, passengers were evacuated.  Stan was near the front of the plane, and some people later said he had a chance to get out but stayed behind to help others. 

Within minutes after the doors were opened, the rush of fresh oxygen triggered a flash fire that raced through the cabin, killing all 23 passengers still on board.  Stan was among them.  He was 33 years old.

The accident led to tighter aviation regulations around the world, with new requirements for smoke detectors, emergency lighting, and increased firefighting training and equipment.  Air Canada has not had another fatality since.

A song. 

A life saved when others died. 

A life lost when others survived. 

Lessons learned to save other lives.

Ripples of care.  Ripples of courage.  Ripples of love.

We never know the impact we have.

Because we’re all connected.

We are never alone.  We are part of one another.

Each of us in every one of us.

Unity in diversity.  Diversity in unity.

Todos juntos para siempre.

One people.  One spirit.  One love.

Amen, Aché, and Blessed Be.

UUism and Social Justice: Don't Make Me Choose

This morning UU World announced that the sale of mineral rights, donated over two decades ago by a generous Texas couple, will net the UUA close to a million dollars, and that money will allow the UUA to close its large budget deficit without borrowing from the Endowment.  I read the news with ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the generosity of the Carpenters, which shines through in the article.  And it is a great relief to not have to dip into the Endowment.  Otoh, selling mineral rights that allow companies to drill for oil means more carbon that is taken out of the ground and burned into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Moreover, such drilling always comes with other ecological damage - pollution of the land and water.  These things directly contradict our values and numerous social witness statements that we've passed in recent years about moving away from the use of fossil fuels, combatting global warming/climate change, and care for the interdependent web of all existence.  The UUA supported civil disobedience at the White House to stop approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011 and more recently supported the People's Climate March in NYC this past Septemeber.  What's most puzzling is that this obvious conflict wasn't even mentioned in the article.

(Perhaps it should not be surprising since previous decisions such as the sale of 25 Beacon and the redesign of the UUA logo were announced similarly - with onesided positivity and no acknowledgement that some folks might find the decision troubling.)

I could go further into how the sale of mineral rights allowing oil companies to drill is so problematic and at odds with our stated values, and perhaps if necessary I will at a later time, but the thing that motivated me to write today is this: Every time the UUA does something controversial the same general pattern of conversation occurs.  Party A points out that that there is something wrong with the action.  Party B criticizes party A for being critical, suggesting that party A is (pick one or all of the following) judgemental, ungrateful, lacking joy, unwelcoming, making a mountain out of a molehill, and "no wonder we can't grow." 

It doesn't matter what the issue is, whether it's a moral/justice issue or something to do with internal organization, this pattern happens within our UU community.  And I've already seen this pattern emerge within the conversation/comments following the UU World post. 

There is some truth to the claim that we make mountains out of molehills.  For example, the mini firestorms that erupted when someone created "Standing on the Side of Love" stoles and clergy shirts.  And I totally recognize that it's hurtful to start one's objections off by attacking fellow UUs who are trying to do something for the community, no matter how vehemently we may disagree with their actions.  Assumption of good faith needs to be the foundation of our conversations with each other.  There are ways to point out how an action is problematic while still honoring the inherent worth of all parties involved, and as people in religious community we should always remember that.

That said, it is irksome to read statements suggesting that any kind of disagreement is unwelcome and/or that such criticisms are the reason why our congregations are lacking joy and no one wants to join us.  The implication being that we should never offer critique, no matter how tactfully stated, no matter how important the issue, if we want Unitarian Universalsim to be vibrant and growing, even if the criticism is that we are violating our stated values, as is the case here.  First of all, let me say that I don't believe that's true - I don't believe we have to choose between critique and healthy, happy congregations.  That is a false choice.  Secondly, even if it were true (which it's not) that one has to choose between pointing out how an action does not align with our values and growing Unitarian Universalism, I will choose the values.  Every time.  If we don't live by our values, then I don't care if we don't grow.

That last sentence should not even be considered a controversial statement.  It really shouldn't. So finally the reason for this post: Growth for its own sake is not inherently good.  Unitarian Universalism for its own sake is not inherently good.  These things are good only in so far as they promote the greater good, for humankind, for our sibling sentient beings, for our Mother Earth. 

There are so many admonitions within Buddhist traditions about confusing the vehicle for the destination.  Zen warns us to not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.  The Buddha warned us not to hold tightly to rafts that might have safely carried us across waters but then become burdensome to carry on dry land.  The point is that we need to always be aware of what the true goal is and what are just vehicles that can carry us to that goal.  For me, the goal is the Beloved Community, or as my family's Buddhist tradition would put it, the Pure Land.  The Land where systemic oppression does not exist, exploitation of the Earth and her children (both human and otherwise) does not exist, where beings are unencumbered by the suffering caused by injustice and thus can reach their fullest potentials, whatever those potentials might be.  That is the goal (for me).  Unitarian Universalism is a vehicle to help us reach that goal.  A worthy vehicle that I love, filled with people whom I love, but still just a vehicle.  (The Buddha said the same thing of Buddhism, urging us to even let go of his teachings if they get in the way.)  I believe that Unitarian Universalism can help us reach the Pure Land, which is why I am a UU. And despite occassional missteps, I have faith that we will eventually always do the right thing.  But if it comes down to having to choose between UUism and a just, sustainable world where our Earth and her inhabitants are not exploited for profit, then yes, I choose the latter.  I would hope that after careful consideration, no UU would ever really demand such a choice.

Ministering To and With Young Adults

Author: 
Alex Haider-Winnett
Members of UU Oakland Young Adults

Ministering To and With Young Adults
Sermon by Alex Haider-Winnett
Delivered at First Unitarian of Oakland May 25, 2014

Friends, it is so very good to be here with you today. It is always a pleasure to worship with you. As our dear Rev. Jacqueline would say, “There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place” and it feeds my soul. Today’s theme is on “Ministering To and With Young Adults”. You have already heard from some of our congregation’s young adults. The love and support you give this community helps grow strong leaders who are changing the world. Present in our group are peace activists, veterans, civil rights lawyers, teachers, seminarians and ministers, artists, tech professionals, non-profit administrators, social workers and entrepreneurs. But we also have people struggling to find work. People working hard to figure out how to make ends meet or looking to find work that is meaningful. And your love supports us all.

I am familiar with the topic both as a young adult and also because I served this community as the coordinator of the Young Adult Ministries for two years. I am grateful for the opportunities this position has given me, all the friends and connections I have made and the ways it has fed my soul.

Last weekend, we bridged six youth into young adulthood. It is one of my favorite parts of the church year. The bridgers--who are usually, but not always, high school graduates-- take a moment to express their feelings about bridging to the congregation. They often share a fond memory through a short reflection, singing a song or reading a poem. Then we extend a blessing to the bridgers as they move toward the chancel where the church’s young adult community is waiting to welcome them into our circle. The bridge is an apt metaphor. Not only does it represent a transition from one stage in life to another, it also has another meaning. In recent studies, we see that churches in our faith community are doing a poor job at retaining our youth. As many as 90% of our youth will leave our churches somewhere in their late teens and twenties. Combine this with the fact that 1/3rd of people currently unaffiliated with a religious community are under the age of 35, it points to a growing population of young people whose needs are not being met by our congregations. This period of young adult non-affiliation is such a common occurrence, we have term for it: “The Gap”. The theory of The Gap states that our youth leave when they are in their late teens and come back in their 30’s, when they have some stability; when they have a job, are married or have kids. Hence the strange lifespan of UU Young Adult Ministries: 18-35 (Spanning 17 Years). And so, the Bridging Ceremony is one way that we have been working over the years to “Mind The Gap.”

When we think of our Bridging Ceremony, we usually represent it with a large, sturdy bridge. One like the Golden Gate Bridge which has lasted for decades and has thousands of cars, trucks and buses go over it each day. One that needs repairs now and again but pretty much stands the test of time. In reality, our bridge is perilous. It is a rope bridge. It sways in the wind. Some of the strands are loose. And there are crumbling and missing boards. The Bridge is difficult to cross. It takes faith to believe that every step of the way will be supported. And not everyone makes it. Try as we might, there are times when young adults need to take a step back from trying to cross The Gap and move away from UU community for a while. It is common. And I bet that if you ask any young adult here, you would find stories where they took some prolonged time away from church.

I could tell you some of my stories. Stories of making difficult choices between work, school and church. Stories of being in rural Indiana, hours away from the nearest congregation. And stories of over-committing to the point of burnout. I could tell you the things I told myself that made it easier to walk away from church: That I needed some time away for self care; it was a compromise until I got a different job; or, that things would be different if I went somewhere else. And stories of working odd hours which made it impossible to attend church during program hours. Stories of feeling pushed out or underappreciated; of having my voice and experiences silenced and ignored.

I could tell you how since I turned 18, I have lived in 10 different houses in eight different cities. That I have worked at least a dozen jobs. I have attended services at numerous UU churches and also Quaker Meeting Houses, Catholic Parishes, Jewish Temples and a whole slew of other ad hoc, multi-faith communities. My twenties were a lot of things but spiritually-stable wasn’t necessarily one of them.

And I would be happy to tell you those stories some day. But all of those stores pale in comparison to one thing: we have covenanted to be a multi-generational worship community. If we are truly to live up to that promise, that means creating authentic intergenerational relationships and being willing to be changed by the new experiences we share. Creating a multi-generational community does not merely mean taking a few minutes out of worship to have young people participate. Nor does it mean having a few token young people on committees. It means getting to know people all along the age spectrum and making honest, thoughtful and transformative relationships.

There are people out there desiring our community. There are people who are hungering for a community that is spiritual but not dogmatic. They want a community where their questions are honored and accepted. There are people who are looking for a place where they can explore new spiritual practices and find ways to commune with the divine. There are people wanting a community where we can do good works and strive for justice together. There are people who are wanting a community that will accept them for who they are; a community that will love them, cherish them and save their life. Because, if there is one thing I know about Unitarian Universalism--the one thing that helped me hang on when I was struggling with my faith--is that this church saves lives. I know that is what I want. And I think this is true for a lot of my peers my age. So, if we are going to uphold our covenantal desire to be a multi-generational community, how do we minister to young people?

There are a many ways we can do so. But it is going to take some work and new ways of how we we do church. I would like to first say, that our congregation does better than most. We have dozens of active young adults. And we are the fastest growing age demographic for the past two years. But there is still lots of room for improvement. And not everything is going to fit in the last few minutes of this sermon. So I want to look at three broad categories: Welcoming, Hospitality, and Mentoring.

First is Welcoming. In preparing for this sermon, I spoke with a lot of young adults both here and in the wider community. For young adults who tend not to go to church, they say that most congregations they have gone to were not welcoming enough. They went with the hope of finding a community that could be “their community” but in most cases, they found the welcome as well as their worship to be cold. As we know, our welcome and our worship at UU Oakland are anything but cold. But people will never experience the warmth of our community if they never come to the church in the first place. We need to have a visible and appealing welcome mat.

And in this day-in-age, that means a presence on the Internet.

Take for instance, our young adult page on facebook. Currently, we have 125 members (which is roughly half as many pledging members in this congregation) but according to a recent poll, only about 10-15% of members of the group attend church regularly. The others use it as a way to stay in touch with our larger community virtually. While virtual contact may not be the most ideal way of participating with a spiritual community, it is a valid one and, I believe, preferable to no contact at all. And while it is a start, there is much more we could be doing to be present on the Internet.

The next category is Hospitality: Churches usually seek out people who intend to be long-time members who will pledge. There is an expectation that people who come for a few months sign the membership book, pledge all they can and devote their time to the work of the church. I am an active, pledging, voting member. I am honored and pleased to be one. But this is also the first time in my adult life that I have been able to do so. As long as we continue to believe that membership means a long-term commitment, we are going to be convincing a lot of young adults that this is not a place for them. Due to fragile job and housing markets, young adults are reluctant to commit to any institution. We need to recognize that people who become members may only do so for a very short time before they have to move on. I am proud and grateful for any and all people who wish to hang their hats with us. But whenever I meet a visitor, my question is not “When can we get this person to sign the book and pledge?” it is “What does this person need and how can those needs be met?”. By focusing on hospitality over membership, we can make space for people to feel welcome for however long they may be with us.

And this, I think, is the crux of the manner. If we are to say that “All are worthy and all are welcome”, there should be no restrictions, caveats or parentheses. We don’t say “You are worthy if you have a certain net worth” nor do we say “You are welcome as long as you intend to stay.” And this is why I think young adult ministries are important, by working to make all feel safe to be vulnerable, intimate and authentic, we are working to build the Beloved Community. And young adults, who are coming with hopes of finding a supportive community will come as long as we continue to make room for them.

My third category is mentorship: When people join our congregation, we should foster a relationship of mentoring. People should be encouraged to join, learn and work for our common vision as best as each person can. New visitors and members should be able to explore and find which aspects of the church most serve their personal ministries. This may take a while. It could take months or even years. But the best way to help a young adult find their spot in the church is by building authentic interpersonal relationships by getting to know people, finding out what they are passionate about and how it overlaps with the work of the church. Doing so allows committees to pick new members based on their skills and talents rather than merely their age.

I have a story from about five years ago that I feel epitomizes how these three themes of Welcoming, Hospitality and Mentoring can either help or hinder a young adult fully participating in a church community. After the job market collapsed in 2009, I started waiting tables. It was what I was able to do to make ends meet. I would start work at 5 PM and not get off of work until 3AM. I would often be getting to bed when the sun was rising. I had been going to church down the street from my house but worship no longer fit into my schedule. I remember once running into a friend on the street. This friend said, “Alex. We miss you. Where have you been? Why haven’t you been to church?” And I told this friend honestly, “Since I got my job, church is just too early for me.” The friend said, “Too early? 11:30 is too early?” And I said, “Yup. 11:30 is too early for me. I don’t usually get out of bed until 1pm.” I told this friend, “You know what would be ideal for me? If church had a 4 AM worship service, I would be thrilled to go.” There was some nervous laughter and some awkward silence and then we both went on our way. But you know what? I wasn’t kidding. If I could have left work and gone to a 4 AM worship service, I would have gladly gone to it. But there was no late night worship. I never really expected there to be one. But it shows the way that Sunday morning programming just does not work for everyone.

I am thankful that here, our staff and clergy have created authentic relationships with young adults to understand that we desired an opportunity to worship in a different way and different time than we do on Sundays and have helped and empowered us to create worship on Tuesday evenings. It is quickly becoming an important worship space for people of all ages to come and be together in community. And we have found that people who do not come on Sundays have been coming to Tuesday evenings. By listening to the needs of our members and those who wish to join us, we have transformed the way we do worship in a way that makes it more accessible to people who had previously thought that the community was closed to them.

Our young adults are looking for a spiritual community. Despite national reports that young people are rejecting worship communities and studies that say UU youth will leave us to find another home for a while, we know otherwise. We know that our congregation can be a life-changing community for young adults. We have already seen it happen. By supporting things like Tuesday night vespers but also individuals like Kyle (note to reader: Kyle is a young adult member currently participating in humanitarian aid in Syria who skyped in during the service to give a testimonial) and our bridgers last week and every one on the chancel today, you are creating a transformative multi-generational community. But our congregations are not doing enough to help make a safe space for them to explore. We need to widen our welcome, strengthen our hospitality and deepen our mentoring relationships so that those who come through our doors know that there is a place for them no matter how new they are to our faith, how long they intend to stay, and however hurt they have been from previous experiences. By working on these things, we can create a culture where all of our young adults and all people are willing and able to fully participate to the best of their abilities and feel proud to be part of our community. And together, we will transform ourselves, each other and the world.

Unitarian Universalism in a Nut Shell

One of the topics that comes up from time to time is how to describe Unitarian Universalism. The old elevator speech. I use a more abbreviated version of this, but I think I will try to use the whole thing.

Unitarian Universalism started as two similarly progressive religions that merged in 1961. The two incorporated by agreeing on a set of principles that included insisting all humans have worth and dignity, and searching for religious or spiritual truths with integrity. Individual beliefs are very diverse. Membership and, more importantly, participation in the church community calls us to practice right relationship with one another. We can better adapt, adjust, and minister to, from the Latin ministrare, “to serve,” our increasingly complicated world.

Addendum 5/1/14:

Unitarian Universalism started as two similarly progressive religions that merged in 1961. The two incorporated by agreeing on a set of principles that included insisting all humans have worth and dignity, and searching for religious or spiritual truths with integrity. Individual beliefs are very diverse. Membership and, more importantly, participation in the church community calls us to practice right relationship with one another. Thus centered, our beliefs best influence our work for the common good.

— Thank you to Pope Francis for inspiring me to update the last sentence. It needed that little something.

Ideally this is to invite questions. What do you mean progressive? What kind of beliefs? What kind of principles? Why would I need or even want to go to a church?

The challenge was to write something with no negatives, i.e. this, not that. You can write to me to request my more cynical explanation of the above.

 

On Logos and Symbols, and Marketing Our Faith

It's been about a week now since the UUA announced its new logo, resulting in many opinions shared and some hurt feelings. I've questioned whether the UU universe needs yet another blog post on the matter, but it's been a week and I am realizing that regardless of the answer to that question, I need to share one.

While I worked for the Unitarian Universalist Association I was constantly surprised that proposed initiatives were so often met with assumptions of ill-will, mockery and ridicule. People seem to forget that the UUA is made up of people, mostly fellow Unitarian Universalists, who work in earnestness for the benefit of our faith community and the larger world. At the time, the explanation that made the most sense was that our UU anti-authoritarian tendencies cause us to react reflexively to any new initiatives with suspicion and hostility.

Now, on the outside for over a year, I also realize how often one can feel blindsided by UUA decisions, and how hard it is to not react in frustration. Obviously, the administration has to make decisions and not every decision can be discussed and voted upon – that is part of leadership. But when these changes are announced in language that suggests that the only possible emotions are excitement and joy, and when many of us don't necessarily feel that way about it, the explanation that makes the most sense is that the UUA is “out of touch.”

Thus, when the UUA announced a new chalice last week, familiar patterns arose. Many who dislike the new chalice dismissively accused the administration (and by extension the staff) of lacking vision. Analogies such as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” spoke to that effect. And those who like the new chalice in turn dismissively accused critics of being resistant to change (ie – standing in the way of progress) and being hostile to leadership. Both of these types of responses absolve us of having to actually listen to the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, because we think we already have an “explanation” for the positions they hold. Of course it is not true that the administration lacks vision. It clearly has a vision and is acting on it. That vision just may be different from our own. Nor is it true that everyone who is upset by the new chalice is resistant to change and/or leadership. No one dislikes change in and of itself; what we dislike is change we don't agree with. Similarly, it's much easier to follow leadership when we agree with the direction it's heading; much harder to follow when it's not. So can we, on both sides, skip these particular kinds of comments and arguments.

One of the main lines of disagreement centers around whether the UUA chalice is a religious symbol or an organizational logo. If it's an organizational logo, then it stands to reason, why shouldn't it be updated every few years? And why shouldn't a marketing firm be hired to design it? And why would the UUA need to confer with UUs about changing the UUA's logo? Indeed, several people have pointed to the fact that other denominations such as the UCC, the UMC (Methodists), and the PCUSA (Presbyterians) all have their own organizational logos that get updated from time to time. They may incorporate versions of, yet are distinct from the Christian cross itself, which has remained a pretty constant symbol for Christianity.

The problem with that argument is that while the distinction between organizational logo and religious symbol works for other religious denominations, that line is blurred in Unitarian Universalsim for a number of reasons. For one thing, unlike Christianity, there aren't several denominations of Unitarian Universalists in the same country. Thus, functionally speaking the UUA is seen as the official voice of UUism in the U.S. Second, the UUA itself blurs that distinction in its own messaging. Look at this image taken from the front page of UUA.org. It uses the symbols for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Wicca, and in the center is the (old) logo for the UUA. So even the UUA uses its logo as the symbol for UUism. (Would the UCC or PCUSA use their own organizational logos to represent all of Christianity?) Lastly, even though we're told that this is the UUA's logo and congregations don't have to use it, clearly the hope is that congregations will. In fact, the success of the initiative depends in large part upon them doing so, for it would be very confusing to visitors if the UUA were “branding” Unitarian Universalism with its new chalice and yet UU congregations refused to use it. Functionally speaking, the distinction between corporate logo and religious symbol doesn't much exist in UUism.

So my initial reaction to the new UUA chalice, without even taking into account whether I "like" it or not, was to ask whether we would be getting a new one with each administration from now on. I have no doubt that the current administration thinks this new chalice as a vast improvement over the old, and I may even agree so far as corporate "logos" go. Regardless, it's distressing to see the image used to represent my faith to the wider world replaced about every eight years with each new administration. And from the looks of things that's where we're headed. I'm sure that the current administration thinks the new chalice will serve us well for a long time. But I'm equally sure that's what the previous administration thought too. Even if you point to the effectiveness of the iconic Apple or Nike logos in terms of “name brand recognition,” a large part of that is due to their having remained unchanged over the decades regardless of who is the CEO.

My second reaction to the new UUA chalice and particularly the language used to announce it was that the UUA and I are 180 degrees apart in how we view our shared faith. Let me be clear here that this complaint is not only with the current administration but with the last one as well – the latest “new logo” just brought up these issues once again. And it is nothing personal against either administration – I continue to respect both for other ways in which they've led us. Yet the very idea of hiring “a top-notch branding agency” to create a sleek new logo to attract new members, and proudly announcing it as if it was clearly the right thing to do, shakes my confidence in the Association's leadership. (I do not say that lightly; in fact I've wrestled for over a week on whether to say it at all.)

Let us look at the worldview and assumptions that we buy into when we talk about “branding” our faith and when we compare the most publicly recognizable version of our chalice with corporate logos such as McDonald's golden arches. The purpose of so-called “brand recognition” is to create a “story” that is associated with an easily recognizable image (the logo) so that when folks see that logo they automatically associate it with a certain feeling they get from the stories told about the product (advertising). All of which is to convince consumers that one type of sneaker or fast food is cooler than another kind of sneaker or fast food, when really there isn't that much substantive difference between the products. When we approach denominational growth with a marketing mentality, what we're saying is that: 1) Our religion is a “product” to be bought and consumed; 2) We think of potential Unitarian Universalists as consumers; and 2) Our product is really no better than any other product but we're hoping you'll be swayed by our marketing.

Not only do I disagree with all those assumptions with regards to our faith, but I reject the underlying mindset. Such a mindset reduces everything, even our highest aspirations, to a commodity to be bought and/or consumed. It views humans as consumers rather than co-creators.  In my view, the dominance of capitalism and the destruction it causes underlie many of our most important social justice issues, including environmentalism, immigration, sexism, and racial and economic justice. These are the things that we as a progressive faith community have been trying to engage in active resistance against. And yet we use this same type of thinking in our efforts to bring new people to our cause. 

Some people have asked: What is the difference between evangelism and marketing? (And don't we want to evangelize?) I hope from the previous paragraphs that the differences are obvious. The original idea of evangelism was to "spread the good news." The idea being that we actually have a “good news” to share, and that if we share it other people will recognize it as such and join us. I'm certainly not averse to that. But the most effective way to evangelize has always been by visibly living our values in the world, not by talking at people about what we think we stand for. Thus our Unitarian forbear William Ellery Channing said, “May your life preach more loudly than your lips.”

As I said above, this complaint is not new. I hated the previous “new logo” as well as the “Uncommon Denomination” campaign. But I was never prouder to be a UU than when the UUA took out an ad after the Knoxville shootings announcing “Our doors and our hearts will remain open.” The former is us telling folks how different (ie – special) we think we are. The latter is us demonstrating how we live in this world. Obviously, we do not wish for any more attacks against our churches, but there are any number of ways in which we can show who we are. I have never – not once, ever – met someone who said that they joined a religion because the logo caught their attention. But I have repeatedly heard folks say that they joined a particular congregation because they saw its members marching in a Gay Pride parade, and that's when they knew it shared their values. Or joined because the UU minister happily officiated over their interfaith wedding, and that's when they knew they'd be welcome. Or joined because the UU church hosted a local jazz concert for the wider community, and that's how UUism first picqued their interest.

Ironically, the new campaign of which the logo is a part is supposedly geared towards the Millennial generation. I'm not of that generation, but everything that I've read and personally seen says that the current generation, on the whole, is distrustful of advertising/marketing and relies on word of mouth from their peers. (Witness the popularity of sites like of Yelp.) Everything I've read and seen says that as a whole today's young adults are distrustful of top-down, hierarchical initiatives and value grassroots movements that spring up from local needs. Ironically, this is the very thing that our congregations (and other types of UU groups) should be good at – responding to the particular needs of the communities in which they exist, openly as people of faith. This is the kind of thing that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign was designed to help congregations do, and not-for-nothing that it's been one of our most successful campaigns.

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