More Love Somewhere: The unedited hymn

I have long been uneasy with a recent practice among Unitarian Universalists of singing changed words to a particular song in Singing the Living Tradition, the hymnal published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Granted, we are always changing words to make them more palatable and therefore singable in our congregations. We free original hymns of their sexism and God-talk, for example, in an effort for our worship to be more inclusive.

The changed lyrics I am thinking of are to the old African American song, “There Is More Love Somewhere.” I have heard it sung by UUs as “There is more love right here.”

And as much explaining as I have done from the pulpit about understanding and respecting the history and context of the song, I field questions from congregation members who protest the song’s words when we sing it as is.

There is much to be troubled by this, and not merely annoyed that, yet again, Unitarian Universalists know better than less enlightened people what they should have been singing.

People who have everything they need don’t understand why they would sing about love and hope and joy being somewhere else.

People privileged enough to not want for many of life’s blessings can be incapable of hearing the yearning of those who go without.

Lament is a misunderstood and unappreciated form of prayer. We can be grateful for what we have, we can ask for what we need, we can admit when we’ve made mistakes. To cry out “Why? How long must I endure this?” does none of these things, yet is as authentic a prayer as any.

Longing for what is not yet, yearning for what is absent ultimately affirms hope. Not optimism, hope. Happiness and love and joy and peace are attainable, even as they are not yet attained.

Expressions of aching desire do not merely allow us to wallow. It is not an admission of defeat. Calling out for what is missing is ultimately an affirmation of resolve and expectation: “I’m going to keep on till I find it.”

“There Is More Love Somewhere” is among that repertoire of African American songs from the time of slavery. Spirituals give voice to the experience of slavery, the African American experience of survival and resilience. These songs give theological voice to those who endured slavery, making meaning and spurring resistance as they are sung. When (in my case) white people ask for word changes in such a song, my alarm bells start ringing.

Are white Unitarian Universalists not capable of identifying with Black experience? Not willing, perhaps, to imagine the context out of which this song originated?

Glibly rewriting a slavery-era African American expression of hope and determination should give us all pause.

There’s an air of hubris in this wordsmithing, and a lack of insight.

Joining together to sing “there is more love right here” to me smacks of self-satisfaction and self-centredness. In a world filled with have-nots, the haves glorying in their wealth, their abundance of blessings. We have hymns of thanksgiving. Can’t we sing them, instead of this awkward revision?

It’s been my experience that Unitarian Universalists shy away from sharing experiences of loss and suffering, and are uncomfortable with needing or wanting or asking for help. I think many UUs don’t like to publicly admit that we are anything but autonomous, self-determining masters of our own destinies.

In the public privacy that is worship, can we admit that we are sometimes in need? Can we pour out our desire for what is lacking in our lives?

We look upon the misery of the world but don’t always see. We look at the misery of the world and see what we are going to do about it. This laudable desire to improve the world, to make our social order more fair and equitable, to build an environmentally sustainable and just economy is to be celebrated.

And the practice of compassion must go with it, or we become clanging know-it-alls and a sounding cymbal of self-righteousness. Compassion, as the word’s Latin roots suggest, is the ability to suffer with. To enter into the suffering of another is to acknowledge and accept their subjectivity. To attempt to understand what it feels like, to feel their pain.

Can singing a song do all this for white Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps. But not if we erase the words we find uncomfortable. Not if, in so doing, we erase the history and experience—the story—of a people.

Unitarianism and Universalism each began as religious movements grounded in an optimistic religious philosophy. The world, and humankind within it, were imperfect but perfectible. A loving God conquered all.

This theologia gloriae has been the dominant mode in Christianity. (Which is supremely ironic given that Christianity has at its centre a suffering God, a God who suffers-with the world and all its creatures). Uncertainty and ambiguity are pushed to the side. The via negativa, the way of negation, gives up certainty and the positive affirmations of who and what the divine is, in favour of humility and honest questioning.

A theology of glory is triumphalist. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes:

“Triumphalism refers to the tendency in all strongly held worldviews, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting adherents unflinching belief and loyalty. Such a tendency is triumphalistic in the sense that it triumphs—at least in its own self-estimate—over all ignorance, uncertainty, doubt, and incompleteness, as well, of course, as over every other point of view.”

Theologia gloriae is the theological underpinning of American Christian triumphalism, the bright light of rightness that allows for no shade or shadow, no ambiguity or doubt. Stumbling around in the dark, crying out for light, is not the American Christian way. Our God triumphs and the anguish of the world will be conquered.

The Unitarian Universalist gloss on this theology of glory which we inherited, is that we ourselves are the source and power of the world’s redemption. We ourselves are capable of putting an end to suffering. Racial and economic injustice, sexism and homophobia, climate change and other evils will be vanquished by our advancing guard of yellow-shirted UUs, marching as to war.

Can we take time to acknowledge that we are not there yet? That we are powered by our love for the world and our compassion for those who suffer? Can we take time to lament? To grieve that there is not enough goodness and trust and solidarity in the world? To grieve that there is not enough love in the world?

That there is more love somewhere? And that we will keep on until we find it?

When I sing “There Is More Love Somewhere,” I enter into that inward space of not-yet, of acknowledging that the way things are is often unjust, unkind. But justice and kindness will be ours. Peace and joy will be ours.

Knowing that what I am singing is the hope and yearning of people whose traumatic and brutal circumstance I can only imagine, when I sing this song, I lament for the way things are. I lament the current social order.

I lament my present circumstances that are incomplete. I long for more love, more joy, more peace and I lift that longing up in an act of worship, an act of prayer.

Will you please join me in singing hymn #95, “There Is More Love Somewhere”?

Religion Without Mythology

All around me this week, people are attending religious ceremonies.

Passover began on Monday night, and Jewish households gathered around a festive table to ceremonially tell the story of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Western Christians similarly are retelling the story of Jesus’ last week, beginning with his entry into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The events of the last week of Jesus’ life are told ritually in worship services that reenact his last meal, his washing his disciples’ feet, his arrest and trial, his execution and reappearance.

Myths, in all cultures, find their living expression in liturgical drama. They are told and acted out by participants. Processions, costumes, songs, symbolic foods and meals, the burning of fires, being plunged into darkness—the stories of the gods and goddesses and spirits and ancestors come alive in real experiences in the here and now.

Mythology isn’t something that happened, an historical occurrence from many years ago, it is something that happens. It takes place in the present-tense of symbolic life, the life of the psyche.

Myth is something that occurs to participants in the liturgical drama. It is happening to us. We are slaves in Egypt, and we witness the saving hand of God at work in the world. We walk along the dry bottom of the sea, and are redeemed to a life of freedom. We shout Hosanna! and wave palm branches in the air to herald the arrival of a donkey-riding king. We sit at the Passover table with him, break bread and pass the cup, have our feet washed, sing lamentations at the foot of the cross.

The mythic is not historic. It’s not even always theological. It’s theatrical.

It’s always a mistake to read myth as history or science. Though it seems to be telling the story of, for example, how the universe came into being, or how human life began, this is neither history or science. It’s drama. It’s the theological poetry into which listeners (literally, an “audience”) are meant to enter as participants.

And so I am feeling a little bereft this week. My Unitarian Universalist congregation has nothing going on this week.  We will acknowledge a liberal, vaguely Christian, vaguely Pagan, form of Easter on Sunday, but that’s it.

As a religion, we don’t have myth. This is meant to be liberating and modern, but it is feeling a little soulless and disenchanting to me this week.

Many of us like to hear mythologies and ponder their meanings, but in our common worship life we never enter the darkened theatre of sacred story as actors, participants. Most keep a critical distance, sometimes pooh-poohing “superstition,” sometimes romanticizing other people’s religious practices.

This experiment in religion divorced from sacred story is relatively new, even for us. Two generations ago, Unitarians and Universalists had biblical mythology as their foundational sacred story. Some still do.

And even then, our historic traditions were low on the drama scale, at most reenacting Jesus’ table fellowship with an occasional communion service. Our worship has always focused on the word, spoken and written.

UUs have lots of sacred stories (usually our own, usually individual first person stories) but no sacred story that is ritualized in worship.

UUs have rites of passage, ways of marking individual journeys through time and life’s transformations.

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have rituals, ceremonies that usually enact or affirm our own sense of our own selves, our own community. A ceremony in which participants pour their personal portion of water into a common font to symbolize our coming together in community, for example, or a ceremony of shared flowers to symbolize the gifts we offer and share in community. Sometimes there are stories attached to these symbolic gestures—Norbert Capek and his first flower ceremony in Prague in 1923, for example.

We have the symbol of a flame within the common cup. We have heroes and heroines of our history, and retell their legends. Somebody has apparently even invented a seven-day UU holiday in December—focused on principles—principles we ourselves establish as an association—not on a story.

All this, we have. But a mythology we do not.

I suppose this is a trade-off in having a religion that is entirely self-derived. What rites and symbols we do have point to the ultimate source of the religion—our selves.

What story could we enact together liturgically? If we were to create ritual around some universal story, some collectively meaningful story, what would it be? The great Flaring Forth at the beginning of the universe? The pageantry of the emergence of life on this planet? In other words, the story that science tells?

What else?

 

Guided by the Light Within

In medieval Judaism, in the esoteric tradition known as kabbalah, the story is told of the beginning of humanity, the beginning of the universe. In this story, only God existed. God was pure light, Divine Light. Wanting to understand himself better, God created the universe by contracting into a tiny seed of burning energy, withdrawing in order to make space for creation, and then exploding in a cosmic Flaring Forth.

In the process of this flaring forth, the emanating bits of Divine Light broke up into shards. These broken splinters are what constitute the material world. Within everything that exists, there is a broken off bit of Divine Light. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy.

When God then created the primordial human being, God was gathering bits of luminous dust in an attempt to reintegrate and bind together broken pieces of the Divine. The human person, then, represents the intention of integrity and wholeness. When Adam disobeyed God, his divine essence sank to a lower realm of existence and with him, all of humanity fell and falls.

Religious practice, in this Neo-Platonic Jewish version of Gnosticism, is a matter of collecting shards of Divine Light. Through prayer and study of scripture and worship and ethical action, the broken bits of God are joined. The cosmic Humpty Dumpty is being put back together. The work that people are called to is the binding together of a broken universe, the recollection of the divine particles into an integral whole.

Myths, and especially myths that tell of the universe and humanity’s origins, are valuable in that they describe a particular culture or religion or worldview’s anthropology. These stories are saying something about the nature of humanity and human life. I find a number of things compelling in this mythic story of the origins of the universe.

Human beings are made of stardust, bits of what exploded out of the origin of the universe, and so we are related to all that is. And the stuff we are made of is sacred, literally godly.

A God who is not omnipotent, and which needs humanity in order to exist is a contradiction of mainstream Jewish thinking about God, and indeed to many monotheists is pure anathema. God cannot mend the world on his own, in this worldview, but needs humankind to do it with and for him. Salvation, creating an integrated whole out of what is broken, is human work, not divine work. It is human beings, through our actions, that mend the broken world. This is the meaning of tikkun olam, literally the repair or mending of the world. Contemporary liberal and progressive Judaism has taken this notion of tikkun olam and applies it to the work of social justice, helping contemporary Jews and others understand the work of making the world a better place as a sacred calling.

And finally, I find this myth compelling in what it says about human community. It is when we gather together that our tiny sparks unite to make a divine fire, a collective godly blaze. Inherent godliness, action in the world and the importance of community are the parts of this myth I find captivating.

The traditional, accepted version of how the world came to be in Judaism is found in the Bible. There are actually two creation stories told there. We find in the book of Genesis a basic affirmation echoed throughout the world’s monotheistic religions.“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” so that humans can rule over the rest of God’s created order, to be, in some sense, God’s representatives in creation, God’s agents in creation.

“So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

In this cosmogony, God distinguishes between the human race and the rest of creation. God made us in his own image—we bear a family resemblance to our Creator. We have capacities beyond those of other animals, including, as it turns out in the second creation story in the book of Genesis, the capacity to choose.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands.” (Psalm 8:4-6)

This celebration of the human has frequently been misinterpreted as a divine permission to do whatever we want with the natural order. Or that we are over and above the rest of the natural world rather than embedded within nature as creation’s self-reflective agent. This story calls us, instead, to act within the creation as God would—creatively, caringly, with a sense of balance and order and rightness.

In this worldview, we are given abilities and responsibilities in order to reflect God’s own nature in the world. Our task, our calling, as human creatures, is as bearers of the divine image in the ongoing and unfolding drama of creation, to participate in restoring the world’s balance, saving the world’s integrity, and savoring the world’s beauty.

The human person, as a living icon of the divine, is sacred. The worth and dignity of the human person is inherent. We are not intrinsically wicked or depraved or flawed. We are not the unwilling heirs of an original sin committed by primordial humankind. We are inheritors of divine consecration, born into original blessing. Our dignity and worth is not something that we have to work at, it does not accrue to our personhood through acts of righteousness.

Nor, conversely, can it be taken away. I remember participating in a ludicrous online discussion among Unitarian Universalist ministers who publicly pondered the inherent dignity and worth of the terrorists who committed the unspeakably horrific acts of September 11, 2001. Could these terrorists’ inherent dignity and worth be denied because of their heinous crimes against humanity? these ponderous theologians asked, as if the meaning of the word “inherent” had escaped them and as if they had forgotten the witness of our movement’s most basic theological principles.

The radical and distinctive testimony of Universalists and Unitarians throughout history has been precisely that the most wicked of men and women are still made in the image and likeness of God, and are therefore redeemable. Every person, no matter how lowly or uneducated or misguided, is salvageable and will be saved. Every person, no matter how imperfect, can be perfected. The torturer and the terrorist, the dictator and the demagogue, share with the entire human family the divine likeness.

Hangings and lethal injections, torture and war, hunger and injury are all desecrations. They desecrate the holy image of God. Any threat to the health, wholeness and integrity of the human person desecrates what reflects the divine. Unitarians and Universalists, and contemporary Unitarian Universalists are inheritors of this worldview. Our heritage is rooted in these stories of original blessing, though today we no longer have a common theological language—or indeed much of a theological language at all.

We speak in secular terms of the inherent dignity and worth of every person. We speak of the inherent dignity and worth of each individual person as an a priori philosophical assumption. These words flow glibly off the tongue—inherent dignity and worth of people—and we don’t always wrestle with the radical, deeply profoundly radical, implications of this affirmation.

Are we really able to recognize something divine, something precious and holy, in the most despicable of individuals?

To have forgotten the divine imprint, to have forfeited God’s original blessing, is to deny the responsibility of being divine agents in the world creating the social order of justice, peace, and wholeness. The work of making justice is therefore work that needs to call to mind “that of God” in every person. Justice making is work that reminds torturer and tortured, terrorist and terrorized alike that we each bear the image and likeness of our Creator. The work of tikkun olam, the mending or repair of the world, happens only as the divine light within each person is acknowledged and honored. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy, an Inner Light.

Our vocation as contemporary religious liberals is to act in the light of our affirmation that there is something precious about each individual. There is something unique and indeed sacred in every person.

And that includes people we don’t like. That includes our enemies.

It is our calling, through our actions, to mend the broken world, to create a social order grounded in justice, equity and peace. What story do we tell today about the how and why of this high calling?

The Tattered Web of Life: Individuality, Autonomy and Liberalism

Here in Massachusetts, a question on our ballot on election day would, if a majority votes yes, make it possible for a physician licensed in the state to write a lethal prescription for a patient suffering from a terminal illness and deemed to have fewer than six months to live, which the patient could then self-administer to end their own life.

This “death with dignity” initiative is highly favored among Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals. Most of us are probably going to vote for it.

My congregation this past week sponsored a week of programming around this question and more broadly around choices at the end of life. Last Sunday, I participated in a panel discussion of local clergy on these issues. In that conversation with my colleagues from across the religious and theological spectrum, something came clear for me.

Autonomy is a cherished value among Unitarian Universalists, as well as among other religious liberals. Political liberalism, too, is founded on individual freedom. The ability of the individual person to make and affect choices in their life is paramount. Any interference in an individual’s ability to choose for him- or herself is anathema.

I certainly affirm the basic principle of having control over my own body and life. There is no way I would give the state more power to regulate what I can and cannot do with my own body. It is a basic freedom for every citizen and person in a democratic society.

Who we have sexual relations with, whether to get pregnant, whether to give birth, whether to eat your broccoli, whether to drink 28 ounces of soda all at once… the state may have an interest in the choices we make in these and other regards, but ultimately the choice is ours to make. And ought to be ours to make.

Autonomy and integrity of the individual person are the starting point for much liberal theological ethics. While I am not interested here in defending or promoting the death with dignity initiative (and certainly not in denouncing it) I do want to reflect on this enthrallment we have with autonomy as the foundation of our ethics.

One of the arguments for physician-assisted dying is the loss of dignity a person experiences when ill or disabled. In a culture like ours that prizes individuality and autonomy, disability is stigmatized in very particular ways. Disability, and people with disabilities, are thought of as a burden; others need to help care for them, sometimes even to do routine functions for them.

Temporarily able-bodied people fear this loss of autonomy and consider it undignified. Impairment, pain, incontinence, lack of control, not being able to feed ourselves—these   are conditions many temporarily able-bodied persons want to avoid.

In states where physician-assisted dying is legal, patients often cite “feeling like a burden on others” as one reason for wanting to end their lives. In the name of our dignity, we would rather have the ability to end our lives than endure these circumstances.

And yet people do. Many disabled and elderly people do live with these conditions.

And often enough, they depend on others.

And they do so with dignity. And insist on the dignity and worth of the lives they are living. This insistence, this living with dignity rather than dying for lack of it, rubs against the grain of a culture that does not see, let alone affirm, the worthiness of their lives.

The biblical affirmation (one of my co-panelists reminded us) is that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. As such, the human person is a reflection and icon of the divine. The sacred worth of the person is intrinsic. It cannot be granted or withdrawn, given or taken away.

The dignity and worth of every person is inherent–inherent in being human.

What is anathema, if we truly affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every person, is to claim that some lives are worth more than others, that some persons are more worthy than others, that dignity accrues to some individuals and not others.

That some lives are not worth living.

I used to be a bookseller in a large bookstore in downtown Toronto. One busy evening, a cyclist came to the cash register. I was training a new cashier and she greeted him and began ringing up his purchase.

She noted that he didn’t have a bike helmet with him, and made a lighthearted remark about biking without a helmet.

This customer answered, “You know, I’m a physician. And I’ve worked in the emergency room. I see what happens to people who survive a car crash on their bike because they were wearing a helmet. Believe me, I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be dead than quadriplegic.”

He took his purchase and cheerfully left the store.

That casual remark has stayed with me all these many years. Partly because it was a customer service training moment (“Just keep smiling!”). Mostly because of the chill it gave me.

My bicycle was my primary means of transportation and I always wore a helmet.  I had never thought seriously about surviving a collision with an automobile. Of course, I would get rushed to the hospital and they would do everything they could to keep me alive. That’s how it works. But what if the pain was unbearable? What if I survived but was severely disabled? Would I rather be dead?

His remark was chilling also because this was a physician who had been and would be called upon to treat people with disabilities. What might his attitude with these and other patients be?  What level of care would he offer to patients he might think would be better off dead?

If I had a disability or a chronic illness, would I want to be treated by a doctor who thought of me as a waste of a human life?

Would my life, in fact, still be worth living?

Why is depending on others considered undignified? Are we not part of an interdependent cosmos—isn’t all of existence an interrelated network of relationship?

What might our vaunted autonomy and radical individualism look like refracted through the lens of an essentially social reality? Does our affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of the person come at the cost of recognizing that individuals are social beings, socially constituted and interrelated with our social and natural surroundings?

The heroic self, rising above entanglements with others, is not a natural and universal understanding of the human person. It is the heritage of Western, male-centered hetero-patriarchy. (Oh that!). The rhetoric of “being who I am” and “becoming my own person” and “forging my own path” is expressed in everything from artistic sensibility that favors uniqueness and novelty, to psychology that stresses individuation over relation.

It has been, and can be, very liberating.

It can also lead to a distorted individualism that breaks down community. When there is only “me” and no “we,” a commitment to human solidarity and environmental responsibility breaks down. Greed and narcissism, self-indulgence and covetousness, flourish.

What kind of ethics and theology emerge when rather than the radical autonomy of the individual, the individual’s sociality takes center stage? What kind of ethics and theology emerge when the interrelated, interdependent nature of all existence is affirmed as a first principle?

Liberal Religion: Temporary Stop or Permanent Home?

Observers of the religious landscape are noticing that it’s not just liberal and mainline denominations that are declining in membership.

After the heyday of organized religion in the post-World War Two era in North America, it was a truism that the liberal and mainline churches were bleeding members. Everybody talked about mainline decline and evangelical ascendency. Liberalism was out and conservatism was in. We were all assured that fundamentalist religion was the way of the future.

Now the religious conservatives are losing members.

And the category of “Nones” is growing exponentially. The “Nones” are so called because that’s how they respond to the survey question of what their religious affiliation is. People are leaving organized religion in droves. (This, we are now being assured, is the way of the future).

Our losses were bigger and came earlier, I believe, because religious liberals were closer in spirit and outlook to the secularity of no religion at all. And if that’s where North Americans are moving to—no religion at all—then we’re already halfway there.

When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, more than twenty-five years ago now, my minister at the time described the religion as a spiritual vestibule. It was a place between. Many were on their way in from the secular world and going to some place more orthodox. Others were on the way out from some place more orthodox to a completely non-religious place.

We were a way station, as the old joke goes, between the Methodist church and the golf course.

I really didn’t like this characterization of my newfound faith at all! I loved my new church and everything that it stood for. Didn’t we have a compelling message and way that were worth being committed to? Why would anybody leave? I wasn’t going anywhere. If only more people knew about us, we would swell our ranks.

All these years later, I’m much less sanguine.

We talk a lot about the spiritual journey, but sometimes forget that being on a journey implies movement. People grow and change, and oftentimes what they initially found compelling in their faith community no longer speaks to their condition. And so they move on. Sometimes they need to leave our congregations for pastures that really are greener from their new and evolving perspective.

In the congregations I have served, I’ve made it my practice to have a pastoral visit with those who are withdrawing their membership. Sometimes these are folks we hadn’t seen in a while who, when asked, want to be dropped from the rolls. Other times, these are more or less active members who had made some kind of decision. Non-member attenders are a little more slippery and harder to track.

Sometimes what they needed was a visit from the minister to voice some complaint, the color of the new rug in the parlor or the new order of service or to describe some interpersonal spat. After getting it off their chest with a sympathetic listener, we would frequently see them at worship the next week.

Yet at other times, folks leaving the church would share that they were seeking something deeper and richer for their spiritual lives.

These friends had spent time sojourning with us, discovering and discerning what fed their soul. This is something we do well, explore. We offer an open space in which to examine spiritual, religious and moral traditions without prejudice.

Many, having come from conservative Christianity, discover with us for the first time that there are liberal Christian alternatives. And, yes, then leave for those alternatives. I’ve seen this as well with UUs of Jewish heritage.

Over time, these friends realized that they were more nourished by their participation in yoga retreats or a Buddhist sangha or neo-Pagan ritual or Christian worship and with sadness, but without regret, it was time to move on. They were grateful to their liberal religious community for helping them find their way.

Instead of making “lifelong UUs” out of everyone who comes our way, what if we saw our mission as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self?

What if we understood the sojourn, the journeying with us for a while, as part of our ministry? What if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path? And if that means letting them go, doing so graciously?

And yet…

When I make these visits, I ask, “What was missing for you in your experience of this congregation?” The almost unanimous reply is: spirituality. When I explore this with them, it turns out this means a sense of depth or purpose other than mere community. Sometimes this means an aesthetic component to corporate worship. Sometimes it means prayer. Sometimes what’s missing is God or God-talk. “Spirituality,” they answer, as a kind of shorthand for all of this.

Diana Butler Bass suggests there is a grassroots revival and renewal of liberal Christianity that has been going on unobserved. Liberal Christians, she says, have had longer to figure out what faith and practice is going to look like for them in the twenty-first century.

“Some local congregations are growing,” says Bass, “having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”

The great awakening that she describes in her recent book is an open, spiritually vital religious movement that crosses religious and denominational lines. It is one that engages basic spiritual disciplines and theological reflection.

The “Nones” are not without spirituality or a desire for a spiritual life. Many of them believe in God. They just don’t believe in religious institutions.

What many are looking for (or have given up looking for) is a faith community that has spiritual depth and maturity, without dogma or rigidity. Many are looking for God or God-talk that is not doctrinaire but rather open ended.

Reading Bass’s book has given me pause. Would our local congregations experience growth if we lived into our own description of what we say we are and were unabashedly religious embodiments of the liberal spirit?

What would have to change if we understood our mission and ministry as giving people the gift of their most authentic spiritual self? What would we have to do differently if one of our great purposes as Unitarian Universalist faith communities was to help people discern their spiritual path?

I’m betting that in the answers we give to these questions are the seeds of flourishing liberal religious communities of the twenty-first century.

The zeitgeist currently seems to feature an interest in–and a longing for–what Unitarian Universalists offer when we are at our best. Can we offer our times and our world our very best?

We could be more than a rest stop on the way to the golf course.

Becoming Multicultural: What’s Lost in Translation

When I was growing up, my family went to church every Sunday. Squeezed into the car, we played a game as we approached Saint George Greek Orthodox Church—who was first to spot the steeple as it came into view.  We were not Greek, but of the two Orthodox congregations in the city, this was closest to us culturally. The other one was Russian and had a gilded onion-shaped dome. As Orthodox Christians from the Middle East, we had more in common with the Byzantine than the Slavonic tradition.

We were reminded that we were not Greek. My mother’s contributions to the women’s auxiliary cookbook were not included in the final publication because they were “not Greek,” though it did include recipes for things like pizza. My brother got bumped from playing the little drummer boy in the Christmas pageant in favor of a little drummer boy who happened to be Greek-American.

Despite our presence, and the presence of second and third generation Greek-Americans, worship was entirely in Greek.

When my family moved to a city that had more than one congregation in the Antiochian archdiocese, whose primary bishop, or patriarch, was in Damascus, Syria, the experience changed.  Made up primarily of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, we were no longer cultural outsiders. Worship was in English and Arabic.

Church was more than a congregation of the faithful. It was also a cultural ingathering of Arabic-speaking immigrants, many longing to recreate something of the old country on the cold and snowy shores of North America. One of the first institutions immigrants from Lebanon and Syria built on this continent when they began arriving at the end of the nineteenth century were churches, which aided new arrivals and provided solace for the homesick. Gathered together around shared language and culture, these churches were islands of the familiar in a strange new world.

Ethnic and religious traditions were inseparable in our home. In addition to our birthdays, we also celebrated our “feast” day, the day of the year dedicated to the saint we were named after, complete with cake and ice cream. On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, in late June, we usually went to the beach to celebrate.

I used to think that we made special foods—a thick, sweet pudding of apricots, wheat, aniseed and other spices called bourbara—on the feast of Saint Barbara because my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, was named Barbara. I didn’t realize at the time it’s a major holiday for Arab Christians.

Saint Barbara’s day was followed by Saint Sabas the next night and Saint Nicholas the night after that. On each night, we left out a plate of sweets on the dining room table. The saint whose feast it was each night visited us. They left coins for us on the edges of the saucers. We were forbidden to touch the candy until the final night—Saint Nicholas Day—when we collected our money and ate the candy. At Christmas, we decorated an evergreen tree, and then sat around the illuminated tree in the dark singing carols in English and Arabic.

During Lent, there were meatless meals that seemed to always involve lentils. (For years Lent and lentils in my mind resonated together). Years later, as a university student with a limited income, I ate plate after plate of mjuddareh (lentils, rice, and onions) wondering when that particular Lent was ever going to end.

The fast of course culminates in Holy Week and Easter. On Palm Sunday, we brought home the palm leaves from the church service. I never could learn how to fold and tie them into the shape of the cross, but other family members could. They would be tucked behind the corners of the icons that decorated our home—images of Jesus, the saints, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer,” as Mary is known).

During Easter, everyone was greeted with the words: al-Masih qam! (Christ is risen!).  For Easter, we decorated Easter eggs and played a game of cracking them. You held your egg in your fist, and your challenger would tap their egg against the top of yours and the one whose egg cracked lost the game. And whoever cracked everybody else’s Easter egg was that year’s champion. Other foods we made (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) and ate at home included date-filled pastry (kaik) that, because it was shaped like a donut was said to symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear, and another nut-filled pastry (ma’amoul) represented his scepter.

The foods, habits, and traditions of my ancestors were inseparable from the religion they practiced. Our identity as Arab-Americans was expressed in cultural practices of both home and church. Church was the only place, outside the home, that I heard Arabic being spoken. Church, the religion, was the container for a great deal of our ethno-linguistic identity, the repository and source for our culture.

The Orthodox Church in North America is usually thought of as an “ethnic church.” Most Orthodox Christians trace their roots to Eastern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. Ethnicity, from the Greek church of my early childhood, to the Arab church of my later childhood and youth, was a central ingredient of who we were together as the church.

When I could no longer in good conscience practice the religion, I went about searching for a spiritual home. I landed upon my local Unitarian congregation because they promised to welcome all of who I was. Advocates for peace, social justice, inclusiveness and the dignity of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists were my intellectual, political and spiritual kindred. I joined as soon as I was able.

What makes an “ethnic church” an ethnic church? Is it when most of the people there share an ethnic or cultural or linguistic identity? Most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I have served and known are overwhelmingly white and Anglo Saxon. Why do we not imagine Unitarian Universalism to be an “ethnic church”?

The hegemonic culture experiences itself as universal. I am reminded of this when I frequent a supermarket full of food and then find the aisle labeled “ethnic foods.” Because Anglo Saxons don’t have an ethnicity, the way that heterosexuals don’t have a sexual orientation, and men don’t have a gender. At church, this can mean that Western European culture is simply “music” or “literature” or “hymns.” And not “European music” or “Anglo hymns.” But on some special Sundays, we’ll have Latino music or African-American hymns or South Asian literature.

The “universal” culture of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant and Anglo. This is an historical fact, not an accusation. There is nothing wrong or shameful about Anglo Saxon or Western European culture. Because I assumed this false universal, it took me a long time to even realize the translation that had taken place in my religious life, from a Mediterranean medium to an Anglo one. It just took me a while to recognize that I had in fact gone from one ethnic church to another. And that I had lost something in that translation.

It was only after I began to bump up against prejudice toward Arabs and Arab-Americans among Unitarian Universalists that I began to wonder about such things. UUs are not immune to the ignorance about (and even suspicion and hostility toward) Arabs and Arab culture that is ubiquitous on this continent.

(There’s no reason to rehearse all the hurtful and ignorant things UUs have done and said, but I want to mention my favorite. I’m often asked when my family converted to Christianity, which is particularly rich since we are from Palestine, with roots in Jerusalem that go back hundreds of years. Where do they think Jesus was from, anyway? Europe? I usually answer, “Oh about two thousand years ago!”)

I’ve loved every Unitarian Universalist church I’ve been in—even the ones that were hard to love. UUs are my people. And at the same time, UUs are not my people. My people are also ones who revere icons and put out saucers for the saints and eat lentils during Lent. My ethnos is made up of people who speak Arabic (and speak it loudly) and pepper their speech with references to God—God willing, God forbid, praise God.

Unitarian Universalists ask, “How can we become more multicultural? How can we attract more members of different cultural communities to our congregations?” These are good questions. Let’s also ask, “What do members of different cultural communities lose when they join a Unitarian Universalist congregation?” Because the losses can be significant and can include being cut off from a major source of ethnic pride, connection and identity—the “ethnic” churches from which we came.

At times I have felt at home among the Unitarian Universalists and at times I have felt exiled among the Unitarian Universalists. Following the dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit has simultaneously meant finding a community of faith and losing an important access point to the culture of my ancestors. I found a place that speaks my religious language but that only speaks it in English.

Of course, there are other ways of remaining connected to my ethnic community—none of them are woven as tightly or thoroughly into daily life the way religious traditions are.

Except for food! Have you noticed how much I mention food? The food I eat and make has become the carrier of cultural traditions. I don’t speak Arabic in my household, but I do often eat Arabic food—even when it’s called by non-Arabic names like pita or baklava or even Turkish coffee.

And I rest assured that should my Unitarian Universalist congregation ever put together a cookbook of parishioners’ recipes, my contributions will be welcomed and included.

Why Lent?

When I was growing up, Great Lent was a period of time that seemed to be primarily about eating. We “fasted” during Lent, which meant abstaining from meat, dairy and oil. Children were not expected to fast the entire forty days, but did so on Wednesdays and Fridays. This meant pouring orange juice on my breakfast cereal instead of milk, and eating various meatless, dairy-free Middle Eastern dishes.

My memories of Lent are not particularly unhappy, which is perhaps why, as an adult religious liberal I found it unproblematic to take up a forty-day spiritual discipline in the spring.

Indeed, I discovered Unitarian Universalism as a youth and signed the membership book as soon as I turned eighteen, as required by my congregation’s bylaws. And as the years went by, it seemed that seasons changed, the wheel of the year turned, and yet went unremarked in our worship life. There was Christmas and Easter. My home congregation celebrated communion twice a year, on the Sunday closest to All Souls Day and on Easter Sunday.

Aside from these occasions, and the eventual introduction of ingathering in September and a flower ceremony in June, there were no feasts, no seasons—not liturgically. It was the constant, unrelenting bright light of the rational, no shadows, no waxing or waning. We focused on ideas, principles and moral arguments, history and theology and ethics.

As exciting and as stimulating as this all was, a part of me left the table hungry. Something was missing. There was no enchantment, little poetry liturgically. What ritual gestures there were (this was, by the way, a very long time ago) were done awkwardly. I somehow needed to know that we were in sync with the rhythms of creation, that seasonal celebrations gave us insight into our place in the interrelated web of life.

For us rational Unitarian Universalists, as CS Lewis describes the Hundred Year Winter of the White Witch, it was always winter and never Christmas.

After several years as a UU, instinctively grasping toward something more Earth-centered and spiritual, I decided one year to observe Lent. There was something about this practice that spoke to my condition, wanting a spiritual discipline that connected me to a season.

It is interesting to me now, many years later, that this should be the case. Why Lent?

To be honest, I don’t know what I did that first year. I could have poured orange juice on my cereal for a month for all I know. But the point was that this season should have a different texture from other seasons, that time had different textures, that the movement of the Earth could be observed as meaningful.

The connection with healthful food was also a draw, of giving up something unwholesome. The memory of vegetarian and vegan eating drew me to my best intentions to eat in ways that were healthy for me and good for the planet.

There was something about my childhood experience that told me that this was a time of spiritual intensity, when one focused on what really mattered, on what was really real. What mattered during Lent was not the food that went into our mouths, we were told, but what came out of our mouths.

Fasting wasn’t the point. When Jesus was in the desert for forty days, fasting and being tested, the accuser tempted him to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. To which he responded: It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

So we were to be attentive, awake, listening for every word coming from God. Which meant stripping away the distractions, the noise. The simplicity of our meals, the mindfulness with which we were to bring to all that we did and said, created an atmosphere of attention, wakefulness and presence.

It is toward this that I move in my Lenten practice. (Which, by the way, has historically been practiced by Unitarians and Universalists as well as contemporary UUs).

I carry my religious past lightly—both my upbringing in a sacramental tradition and my young adulthood in the church of “intellectual stimulation.” As I’ve learned to do so, practices like observing a forty-day “fast” have enriched the journey.