Pauses, Grace Notes and Gratitude

Growing up, my family only said grace at special occasions, meals that the whole family was there for. We might have said grace at other holidays, but it was consistently said every Thanksgiving. Because of the nature of the holiday, a meal eaten with thanks, it would have all seemed rather hollow had we not paused before the turkey was carved, the feast of vegetables and sweet potato and stuffing and cranberry sauce spread before us, and actually given thanks. This was usually a perfunctory, rote prayer uttered by one of us children.

In the years that followed, I’ve noticed a space at the front end of every meal, every social occasion that included sitting down together to eat. There would come a moment, as everybody was assembled and seated, before the food was served. Everybody settles in and a quiet, a hush, comes to rest upon the assembly, an expectant pause, a breath, a glance around the table. Often, somebody would cheerfully say, Bon appétit! Or lift their glass and say, Cheers! Something needed to be said in that silent, ceremonial moment. It was only as my social network began to include more churchgoers that somebody might suggest, Shall we give thanks before beginning?

Give thanks. Those are the words of the wordless pause, the voice of the silent moment before the meal. As you regard those gathered around the table with you, as you look at the food and drink, the bounty of labor and love, delight and delicacy, even if you don’t have the words, or are not in the habit of saying grace, there is that space that is filled with gratitude, a breath of satisfaction and contentment. I’m so grateful we could all be here. I am grateful for friends and family and food, that I have enough, that I have what I need. I am grateful for these necessities of life, for life itself.

I think of those moments as grace notes in the unending musical score that is life. In music, a grace note is ornamentation, an unneeded or unnecessary embellishment. It’s not essential to the melody or harmony. It’s a little addition that enhances the beauty of the unfolding sequence of events. The grace note sounds as glasses clink in a toast to life, as the host thanks you for being present, in the hushed recognition of the holy moment before you dig in. There are other decorative moments that come unbidden, times of wonder and a sense of peace, times of clarity, when the mind unwraps the vivid sense that all of life is a gift.

Pausing to give thanks in the face of our blessings is an essential religious act, an essential human act. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. If only that recognition could be more frequent, more regular, how our lives would be filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace!

The word grace comes from the Latin gratia, which means favor or charm as well as thanks. In the Romance languages, the words for thank you echo this origin: gracias, in Spanish, gratzie in Italian. To say grace before a meal, then is to say thanks, affirming that our daily bread is a gift. Yet the word grace is resonant with meaning. The reverberations of its roots—gratia—are found throughout our lexicon. We are grateful for what we have, we are gratified by good news, congratulated when we have achieved something, a grace note, as we’ve already observed, is gratuitous, we leave a gratuity when a person’s service has pleased us. Something given with no expectation of repayment is gratis. We’re sometimes given a grace period on paying bills. A generous, accepting sort of person is gracious, an unthankful person an ingrate.

Echoing through this vocabulary of grace, those parts of our speech that ring with “gratia,” is an essential religious affirmation. Theologically, grace is the unmerited, freely given mercy and kindness of God, a gift of divine favor and love. It is universal and unconditional, given to all who are aware it is available. That love is so persistent, so generous, so overflowing that it offers forgiveness to all who ask. Wholeness, integrity, and peace are the gifts of being in right relation with God and one another and all we have to do is open ourselves up to it, acknowledge our shortcomings and brokenness and give ourselves over completely to the justice-making, relation-repairing power.

Have you ever experienced a kindness from somebody that came out of the blue? An act of generosity that you did not expect? When somebody did something for you that they did not have to do? Remember how that made you feel. Imagine how that might make you feel. Gosh—thanks! What a wonderful, wonder filled occasion! I feel blessed or fortunate or special.

Such acts may also stimulate an aspiration to go and do likewise. Such generosity gives us permission to do something similar for somebody else. We can add a gratuity to everyday acts—being friendly to strangers, sincerely thanking a cashier at the grocery store, a gratuitous kind word to a co-worker, making small talk to one who everybody passes by. Sending a handwritten note to somebody just because you were thinking of them with fondness. Listening patiently to one you find dull and usually interrupt. It doesn’t take much to produce this sort of grace among people. It doesn’t take much to add such ornamentation, such grace notes to our daily lives.

The thing about grace is that the more it is offered to us, the more we offer it to others. The more space we make in our lives for grace, the more gracious we become to others. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have been offered and blessed with, then we become more generous. When we realize how far we fall short of our potential, and humbly understand how much we are loved and forgiven despite our shortcomings, when we comprehend how much we have been forgiven, then we become more forgiving, more charitable. The one who has been forgiven little loves little, Jesus says.

When we have experienced loving acceptance just as we are, when others are gracious with us, we are more likely to look kindly on our failures, less likely to beat ourselves up over them. When we can be at peace with our own inadequacies and limitations, holding them lightly, we can be more generous with the inadequacies and limitations of others. Recognizing that no one is perfect, of course, one wants to work at perfecting what we can. But we do so with a sense of ease, of compassion with ourselves, and we extend that compassion generously with others. It is in knowing how much we have been forgiven for our failures that we can forgive others.

It is possible to reflect on all that constitutes one’s life and think of what we have as unexpected gifts, and not necessarily from a divine source. No one is an island entire of itself, to paraphrase John Donne just a little. We are all connected. Much of what we have we received with somebody’s help. Recognizing how dependent upon others we are and how others depend on us, how our lives are sustained in a network of mutual relation, how our very lives are interrelated in a common life larger than our own individual, we receive and give such gifts thankfully.

Of course, it is entirely possible not to accept a gift. It is possible to choose to turn a blind eye to the blessings that surround us. We are endowed with freedom, including the freedom to reject what is so generously offered. It is possible to be ungrateful, to look around at all that we have and see only what is missing, to look at all that we have been given, and be unappreciative. It is possible to focus only on the wants, the unmet desires, and blot out everything else. Indeed, there are things in our lives that we’d just as soon not have. There are needs that go along with this gift of life. We may look to tomorrow and wonder how they all will be met. We may worry. We may be afraid. Gratitude for what we do have dispels fear. When we cultivate an awareness of what we are thankful for, we see what a treasure trove our lives actually are. Listing what we are grateful for is taking inventory of the treasure we do possess.

And in gratitude, we share that wealth with others. There are others who can benefit from your gifts, even if you would never think of yourself as “gifted.” When we can finally see that we possess something valuable—a specific skill, particular knowledge, money or time—we are free to offer it to others for whom it is useful. As we learn to share what we have, we begin to have enough. As we give, so we receive. The greater generosity of spirit we cultivate, the more we are fulfilled and gratified.

Awakening to the movement of grace in our lives might need some practice. Awakening to our daily life as a precious gift can take practice. Listing what one is grateful for is such a practice. Time can be taken at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect and review the day. What good thing happened that day that you could not have accomplished on your own? What elements of your day can be savored—the fresh air, the beauty? Did somebody—anybody—show you compassion or hospitality or kindness? Did you to do so for others, maybe being patient and friendly with a slow cashier, even though you were in a rush, or a giving money or time to a charitable and just cause, or not raising your voice or getting angry with a family member. Were there times of serenity or joy or laughter or peace? Be thankful for those moments. Be thankful for the good things that happened that you did not create.

If you’re too busy to make lists or sit quietly, there’s always saying grace. It’s a spiritual practice that connects us with our families, sitting together for a meal once every day. If saying grace before that meal is awkward, simply holding hands around the table for a moment of thankful silence might work. Pausing before a meal whether one is alone or with others, whether silently or aloud, and being mindful of what we have to be thankful for is a form of grace. Remembering that the meal itself involves the work of many hands both within our household and beyond it, and that the Earth itself sustains us. We need to eat in order to live, so hopefully the thankful pause will happen daily.

Awakening to the holy in our daily lives, listening for those grace notes, produces in us the fruits of a gratified life. We become artists of grace, giving freely of ourselves to others and creatively standing in the way of anything that detracts from the blossoming of love and mutuality in the world. We become change agents for others, for the social order, helping to shape a more gracious world grounded in the values and practices of kindness and generosity. Hospitality toward those in need, reaching out to the hungry and lonely and marginalized—these are precisely the ways that grace is felt in our world. We do it not out of duty, but because we are participating in an endeavor to humanize our world.

We would be aware of our dependence on the Earth and on the sustaining presence of other human beings. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. As we intentionally take time to recognize this, as we develop practices that bring us to recognize this, our lives are filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace. We are showered with sacred blessings that cause us to blossom and grow in thankful, expansive ways. We are bathed in grace and we in turn become gracious.

There are moments when we survey the banquet of our lives and are thankful. We have what we need. There are times in our lives when we are given exactly what we need. We cannot command them or produce them, but there are moments of pleasure and delight that grace our days unexpectedly. A sense of serenity, that all is well; the comforting silence between companions. The special quality of such moments is that we don’t bring them about by overachieving or being perfect. We don’t bring them about at all. They are given freely, gratuitously. In such moments of clarity, we understand that all of life is a gift.

It comes as simply as the quiet, sacred moment before a meal.

Recommended Reading: Prophetic Encounters

Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition by Dan McKanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011)

In most of the radical social change movements I’ve been a part of or otherwise come into contact with, there has been the distinct idea that “religion” is part of the problem. More often than not, you’ll usually get an ill-informed tirade on how oppressive “religion” is. When pressed, one hears the usual, though clumsily given, examples of crusades and witch trials, the purportedly universal homophobia and misogyny among the religious. All important, of course, and much of it true. But what about the religious impulse to make the world more just? And what about the longstanding place that religion and spirituality have had in radical movements—movements that fought for human dignity and racial reconciliation and peace among nations?

Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters is a good antidote to contemporary progressive activists’ antipathy toward organized religion and spiritual movements. Anyone whose view is that religion’s role in public life is necessarily conservative needs to read this book. In it, McKanan sweeps across US history with an eye toward exploring the relationship that religion and religious traditions have played in movements for radical social change. Indeed, that there is an unbroken radical tradition in the US with a religious element.

Beginning with the anti-slavery movement and moving through the women’s, labor and civil rights movements, Prophetic Encounters documents and discusses the active role that religion has played in each. Key players in each era are considered, from William Lloyd Garrison to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King to Starhawk.  McKanan introduces or re-familiarizes readers with historic figures, painting a biographical portrait as well as a chronicle of their contribution to the American radical tradition. Their relationship to each other and following generations is also outlined. The picture that emerges is of an ongoing radical movement, rather than sporadic organizing around disparate issues.

For readers already familiar with the territory covered here, this history will read like a brief overview without much analysis. The author’s organizing principle is that of encounter—the encounter of white activists and Blacks, activists from the urban North encountering poor Southerners,  among others—and the transformative energy that is created in that mutual encounter. “When human beings encounter one another deeply,” McKanan writes, “in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is unleashed.”

Prophetic Encounters can read like a history of the American Left from a religious perspective and it can also be read as a history of organized religion’s radical stream. McKanan is dismissive toward the critiques of the secular left by Rabbi Michael Lerner and evangelical pastor Jim Wallis. In the journals that each founded (Tikkun and Sojourners, respectively) each has been critical of secular leftists and opportunistic Democrats who either deride or try to manipulate religious constituencies. McKanan describes these as “straw men” for Lerner and Wallis to knock down; he finds the antireligious attitude of leftists to be far more benign.

It is true that the division of Religious Right and Secular Left is too simplistic, and the fertile ground tilled by religious leftists and leftist people of faith is demonstrated in this important work. But the hostility toward faith among leftists is real and often spiteful.  Participants in organized religion in the US will benefit from reading McKanan’s history whatever their politics; the recovery of this tradition within American religion is important, if for no other reason than to recognize themselves, their forbears and their coreligionists in movements long stereotyped as militantly secularist.

For those people of faith who are interested in social justice and the progressive tradition in American religion, along with those interested in the story of US radicalism but who lack knowledge of the country’s religious history, this is the ideal book.

Provoking the Powers: The Palm Sunday Action

The Canadian journal Adbusters is known for its provocative design. It makes use of a technique known as détournement—literally “derailing” or “turnaround.” The Adbusters artists call what they do “culture jamming.” They take familiar media figures, like Joe Camel, the cartoon promoter of Camel cigarettes, and put him in a hospital bed, redubbing him “Joe Cancer.” The logos and campaigns of Nike, Coca-Cola, and Shell Oil are similarly subverted in ways that highlight those companies’ labor and environmental abuses. Sometimes, the likeness to the actual media campaigns of these corporations are so realistic, viewers are fooled.

That’s the point. Not to fool viewers, but to mimic the propaganda of the powerful and so unmask their motives—is this really an advertisement for pollution and the exploitation of workers?

It was Adbusters that provided the spark that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last spring, it published a call for protesters to flood lower Manhattan and camp out on Wall Street until a federal investigation of the corporate influence on US politics was begun.

Wall Street is a street in New York City, yet when we say “Wall Street” what we actually mean is: the finance industry, the banks, the stock exchange, the market. The location is highly symbolic. Protesters have taken over Wall Street in the past, of course, and for this very reason. On the 50th anniversary of the stock market crash in 1979, protesters occupied Wall Street, blockading traffic to protest the nuclear industry and arms manufacturing.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I was involved in an activist group that was famous for its graphic designs and theatrical actions to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the political crisis surrounding it, including the slow governmental response. It was called ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  It began in New York when playwright Larry Kramer called for direct action to pressure governments and drug companies into acting. The first protest was on Wall Street on March 24, 1987 and was dubbed No More Business As Usual. Activists protested the unholy alliance of the Food and Drug Administration with the pharmaceutical companies producing the only approved HIV treatment at the time and the profiteering of Big Pharmacy.

Certain symbolic actions work in a similar way. Gandhi marching to the seaside to make his own salt. People of different colors sitting together at a lunch counter to be served. Michael Moore escorting youth who were shot during the Columbine massacre, with the bullets still lodged in their bodies, to the corporate headquarters of Kmart, which sold the ammunition to the Columbine killers, in order to give those bullets back. The agitprop gesture itself is speaking to much larger issues in the society—salt tax and empire, segregation and institutionalized racism, gun violence and access to firearms.

Dollar bills, piggy banks, Monopoly playing cards are some of the visual cues that protesters on Wall Street have used, along with costumes—the mask from the graphic novel V is for Vendetta, a banker with bowler hat, monocle and cigar. Without ever being granted an interview by the media, these protesters effectively get their point across. Without ever being granted the ability to explain their demonstration protesters use images with which most people are familiar. This is a form of protest known as guerilla theatre.

Using familiar images, easily recognized characters in costumes and masks, and symbolic actions, guerilla theatre is able to summarize, in a few short visual bytes, an entire political position. In quickly understood symbols and gestures, guerilla theatre summarizes whole economic and social analyses. Through enacting and ritualizing power relations in dramatic forms, the powers that be are provoked, the effects of their power unmasked.

Guerilla theatre, détournement, symbolic actions are practices of those who would protest systems of domination and exploitation. Imaginative and humorous use of images, characters, and stories are practices of those who would bring about a change in awareness, consciousness, who would transform the political, social, cultural and economic landscape to be more just, more peaceful, and more equitable. Satire, parody, irony simultaneously make people laugh and question the powers that be.

The Jewish prophets knew something about guerilla theatre. The visionaries of ancient Israel, they were constantly using attention-grabbing antics to convey God’s displeasure. Hosea marries a prostitute, symbolizing the people’s unfaithfulness to God. Jeremiah burns a linen belt, he smashes a clay jar in front of the priests, to illustrate God’s coming punishment of Judah; he puts on a yoke and parades around with it on, to illustrate living under the oppression of Babylon. Isaiah goes naked and barefoot for three years. Ezekiel lies on his side for 390 days and eats only measured amounts of food, food cooked over human dung. (When Ezekiel protests, God relents and lets him use cow dung, but the message is the same: the people will be restricted and defiled when they are in exile).

Jeremiah stands at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem and yells at everybody going in. “Don’t think that you are safe just by being in God’s temple and praying. Only through social justice, not oppressing the marginalized and not shedding innocent blood will you be close to God.” The prophets in general targeted the elites in Jerusalem and their association with the Temple. Since the beginning of the monarchy in ancient Israel, God called upon certain visionaries to proclaim an alternative vision of the social order free from the abuses of hierarchy and domination. The prophets rose up to proclaim the alternative to monarchy. So when we read the prophets, we find Jerusalem and the Temple targets of their wrath as well as hope for the redemption of Jerusalem and the Temple.

By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was the center not only of Jewish aristocracy, but also of its collaboration with Roman imperial rule. The Romans, in acquiring lands for their empire, generally allowed local customs and religion to continue, as long as tribute was paid annually to the emperor in Rome. The Romans commonly used local wealthy elites to rule on their behalf and collect the tribute. Jerusalem and the Temple, then, had become symbols both of domination by elites and by foreign powers. The people were being increasingly forced into debt, their land confiscated outright or foreclosed upon, all in funding the payments to Rome, and the payouts in land to the Romans and their local collaborators.

What’s more, faithful pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem needed to pay for the animals that were to be sacrificed for them by the priests. They had a store of such sacrificial animals for those traveling from far, which could not be paid for with Roman coins. This secular money had forbidden images on it, and so the money was exchanged in the Temple for Temple currency. And in so doing, the Temple charged a fee. Because the celebration of Passover necessitated the ritual sacrifice of an animal in the Temple at Jerusalem, the faithful multitudes, already overtaxed and indebted, were further gouged.

Passover was a tense and turbulent festival in Jerusalem. It was, after all, a celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery, a fact not lost on either those who wanted to be liberated from Roman rule or on the Romans themselves, who tightened security during the weeklong observance. The city became crowded with pilgrims and large crowds could easily become mobs in rebellion against Rome. This had in fact happened within memory at the time of Jesus’ arrival to the city.

The Roman governor of the region, Pontius Pilate, made sure to come to Jerusalem with reinforcements. Usually stationed on the seaside Roman city of Caesarea Maritima, Pontius Pilate and his soldiers paraded, in a show of force, from the east up to Jerusalem. Banners emblazoned with Roman symbols of empire and might waved as the procession marched along. Legions of professional warriors, helmeted and heavily armed, were surrounded by lightly armed auxiliary forces. Shields, swords, javelins, bows and arrows, slings were all on display as the army made its way on horseback to the Roman fortress on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. People no doubt gathered along the way, watching, in awe, in fear, in resentment.

Jesus, too, paraded into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In what I suggest to you was an act of guerilla theatre, Jesus and his fellow protesters staged a mock military parade parodying the Roman one. The Roman governor and his army arrived through the east of the city, Jesus and his followers from Bethany and the Mount of Olives, from the west. Jesus did not come riding on a horse, but unarmed and without armor, rode a donkey. Jesus likely entered the city by the Golden Gate, where it was believed the messiah would appear. Protesters waved branches, palms according to John’s gospel, symbols of triumph and victory. They covered the path before Jesus as he went along, a sign of honor and homage.

The donkey added humor and pathos to the parade; the humble, stubborn beast made a mockery of the Romans with their horses. It also harkened back to the messianic visions of the prophet Zechariah, who saw the coming ruler of Israel “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah continues: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:9-10) Banishing weapons and war, this king would usher in peace. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose a donkey; the messianic vision would have resonated with the crowds, a king of peace. Jesus’ followers shouted out that he is the son of David, the heir of the David’s throne, also political and messianic affirmations. The rule of the Romans will end and the messianic era, the rule of God will begin. The kingdom of Caesar will fall and the kingdom of God will be ushered in. And systems of domination will fall as systems of right-relation, justice and righteousness will prevail.

Imagine the laughter and excitement at this demonstration, the astonishment at this act of provocation, this détournement of a military parade. Imagine the underlying sense of awe and hope.

The Romans rode into town from the east. Jesus rode in from the west. One procession represented the force of empire, the rule of military might, the powers of domination. The other represented the force of love, the rule of peace, and the powers of cooperation. One way of life was based on power over others, on exploitation, on the hoarding of resources. The other way of life was based on power within, on equity, and the sharing of resources. One a social order of fear and scarcity, the other a social order of faith and abundance.

Which of these two parades do we, today, find ourselves in?

The next symbolic act of guerilla theatre that Jesus performed, in his campaign to highlight the incoming rule of God, was to target the profiteering of the Temple elites. He came into the place in the Temple where secular money was exchanged for Temple currency, and where animals such as doves were being sold for sacrifice. He drove them out. He upset their tables, scattering their coins as he dumped everything onto the floor. Jesus and his followers then blockaded traffic in that area of the Temple, not allowing anybody to carry anything through. It was a sit-in, this blockade. No more business as usual! Jesus condemned the Temple elite as thieves, robbers who were hiding out in the Temple. Like Jeremiah before him, he decried those hiding in the Temple, thinking they were holy, when in fact they sanctioned injustice, oppressed the marginalized, and turned a profit from people who simply wanted to get close to God.

This event is frequently misrepresented as Jesus “cleansing the Temple,” as if the Temple needed to be pure and this purification meant ridding it of money, filthy lucre. It should be a house of prayer, not a house of commerce. This obfuscation of the gospel spiritualizes this action, and in so doing drains it of its import and power. Jesus was making a point about the power relations of his society, how the Jewish aristocracy had acquiesced to Roman power, allowing the Romans even to appoint and remove chief priests at their will. Jesus targeted the Temple in this way to highlight this situation.

In quickly understood, dramatic, symbolic gestures Jesus summarized his whole economic and social analyses. Using familiar images and easily recognized characterization, Jesus was able encapsulate, in a few short visual bytes, his entire program and mission. A social order based on compassion, forgiveness (including the forgiveness of debts), and peace was at hand. This was to be God’s imperial rule that stood in opposition to Roman imperial rule and all forms of rule that included domination, exploitation and inequity.

Jesus made his message known not just through his words, his stories and parables. He also enacted his message, choosing actions that would convey more than words could. His détournement of Pontius Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem is a good case in point, using humor and song and parody and symbols that readily conveyed his message that there was a more powerful ruler in the world than Caesar, and this power flowed with grace and humility and peace. Referencing the prophets, using messianic symbols, everybody watching would get the point even if they never heard of Jesus or heard him speak. His interrupting business as usual in the Temple was another case in point, gestures that conveyed his message of judgment against the unfair powers that be.

Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment reserved for insurgents and those guilty of sedition. It was a gruesome form of public execution meant to quell any further forms of dissent. When I hear the mission and teaching of Jesus characterized by people as: “Jesus taught his followers to be nice to people,” I always laugh. Be nice to each other? You do not get executed by the Roman Empire as a political criminal for walking around telling people to be nice to each other! You get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for antagonizing their interests, for challenging the legitimacy of their rule. You get crucified by the powers that be for suggesting that another world is possible.

I can’t help but think of all of those who have stood on the side of love and paid for it with their lives. Who have told the world that another way is possible—individual lives rooted in the practices of kindness, forgiveness and empathy, a social order rooted in the values of compassion, mercy and mutuality. I can’t help but think of all the other protest movements that have stood on the side of love, on the side of peace, on the side of justice. I can’t help but wonder if the powers that be will always win, if domination and war and wastefulness are the fate of human beings and human communities.

Which procession do we, today, find ourselves in, which parade up to the Passover feast, the celebration of liberation? The military procession of empire or the protest march of freedom?  Are we following the processions of militarism and money or the procession of prophecy and peace? We can stand by the side of the road in fear or jump in to the laughing, dancing throngs that are hailing the news: another world is possible. 

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.

40 Days of Vegan: Giving it Up for Lent

Most world religions, it seems to me, have spiritual practices centered on food.

Often it is refraining from eating certain foods, or eating only foods raised, prepared or blessed a certain way—vegetarianism, hallal, and kashrut come quickly to mind. There are also ritualized meals, such as the Passover seder and its transmogrified stepchild, the Eucharist. Food and drink frequently follow worship in many traditions.

And, of course, there are fasts—abstaining from all food or certain foods for a set period of time—the Day of Atonement, the month of Ramadan, or the season of Lent.

Religious liberals are not without food practices. Many of us seek out locally grown or organic produce, refrain from eating food produced by corporations or food that is highly processed.

Religious liberals, of course, are free to keep a fast or not. Often, our food practices (like much of what we do) are what we choose for ourselves.

The discipline of fasting has a bad reputation among religious liberals, as overlayed as it is for many with uncomfortable memories of headaches and stomach gurglings during endless Yom Kippur services or the guilt and temptation of restrictive Lenten practices or dying for a sip of water during Ramadan. We were supposed to feel bad about ourselves somehow, something that goes against the grain of liberalism’s spirit.

There are some things that religious liberals don’t do well, and penance is one of them. Discipline is another. While preparing for a Sunday morning service on forgiveness, my congregation’s music director and I reflected on the dearth of materials about being sorry and confessing one’s wrongs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. There were readings and songs about forgiveness, of course, but none that explicitly ask for forgiveness for missteps. The music director said: “It’s as if UUs are always forgiven, but never sorry.”

Because fasting is associated with penance and forgiveness of sin in the Abrahamic faith traditions, many religious liberals reject it. We’re not big on including in our religious life admitting we made a mistake, got something wrong or did harm to others—and saying sorry. We’re not big on guilt, often because we confuse guilt with shame. Guilt is the sign that one’s moral conscience is alive and well, and is triggered when we realize we have caused harm; shame is the pervasive sense that one is worthless or unworthy.

Liberal Christians have reinterpreted Lent as a season of introspection and spiritual discipline. “You don’t have to give anything up,” they cheerfully say, “take something on instead, like daily prayer or meditation or Bible-reading.”

As a religious liberal myself, I also object to the mortification of the flesh implied in many forms of fasting. It is the body that must be disciplined, in this view, because it is the source of sin and wrongdoing. One must rise above the flesh to be more spiritual, more like God—dispassionate and bodiless. I disbelieve in this willed opposition of body and soul, earth and spirit.

So with all of this in mind, I have decided to give up meat and dairy for Lent. (Or, for the cheery positive thinker, I have decided to take up veganism). Well, vegan until dinner, as Mark Bittman advises. For personal reasons, I choose not to deem entire food groups forbidden and off limits, so I may eat limited amounts of meat and dairy at my evening meal.

Abstaining from meat and dairy has been the traditional practice during Lent, of course. Interesting that what we now call veganism has been embedded in the practice of many North Americans by another name for so long. I’ve been eating less and less animal products over the past several years, and have become more conscientious about eating locally produced and whole foods. Often, I have been enjoined to try going completely vegan for a limited time—forty days or a month is often suggested—and I kind of put two and two together: vegan for forty days during Lent.

Because food is so daily, cooking and eating so regular in my day, I like having a spiritual practice associated with it. It creates an atmosphere of mindfulness. The routine and mundane take on significance. There is a sense in which I am somehow participating more consciously in the rhythms of the earth. My daily choices have an effect on animals and farmers and climate change and natural resources. It reminds me that I am connected to something larger than myself, that I am a strand in a vast interconnected living web. Care of the body and care of the larger earthbody are simultaneous.

For those of you who observe Lent, however you mark it, may it indeed be a time of introspection and prayer, mindfulness and preparation for the coming banquet to which all are invited and nobody turned away hungry.

Are You A Practicing Unitarian Universalist?

If Unitarian Universalists don’t have a creed or one statement of belief that we must all affirm, what holds us together? What holds a local congregation together? What do its members share or have in common that make it a community?

In the broader religious culture in which we find ourselves, there is an emphasis on beliefs. “What do you believe?” is the usual question that comes up when one identifies oneself as a member of a faith community.

What many—including UUs!—don’t get is that ours is not a religious movement that is about common beliefs. It is not that we have no beliefs individually or even collectively–we do–but that these are not what unify us. As individuals and congregations, as a movement, we do have some basic theological and philosophical affirmations in common; they’re just not the singular organizing principle around which we gather.

We also unite around an attitude toward the world, people and the great questions of meaning. We share a constellation of traits—openness, generosity, and inquisitiveness, among others. Our attitude includes how we are held together in community—equal parts freedom and commitment.

We are bound together as a community by the promise we make to each other to be there for each other, to help each other through life’s transitions, to listen respectfully, to edify lovingly. This promise a congregation makes is known as its covenant. A covenant is more than a contract; it is a mutual agreement beyond the words on the page. It is a moral agreement, the shape and parameters of the relationship it describes. We freely enter into this covenant, even as doing so requires something of us.

And being in covenanted relationship does require something of us. Like other intentional relationships it requires patience, affection, listening, attention, acceptance. Among other things, it includes our commitment to the wellbeing of our congregation spiritually, organizationally, and financially. And a covenant is based in mutuality; if a person takes and takes but never gives, we are not in right-relation.

I think it’s a fine exercise to write an “elevator speech” describing what Unitarian Universalist beliefs are in such a pithy way that it can be said between floors on an elevator. However, that keeps us in the realm of defining our religious movement in terms of belief. What we are about is relationship—the covenanted relationship of being together in a mutually sustaining way.

I find inspiration from the experience of our Jewish neighbors. Among Jews the question isn’t “Are you a believer?” but rather, “Are you observant?” Similarly, what UUs believe is not as central as what we practice—both as individuals and as a community. We don’t commit to beliefs, but rather to practice, including the practice of cultivating our common life.

Our practice includes creating and sustaining communities of mutual relation. Our practice includes meeting regularly together for worship. Our practice includes ongoing open-ended conversation on theology, morality, and philosophy. Our practice includes acts of care and compassion for others. Our practice includes working on the broader social order to reflect the values of our communities of mutual relation: democracy, fairness, peace, freedom, thoughtfulness, compassion, responsibility and interdependence.

So, you’re a Unitarian Universalist. Are you observant?


Nurtured by a Living Tradition

I love when the young people at church complete their “coming of age” year and stand in front of the congregation sharing where they are in their spiritual journeys. Most often, this includes a faith statement, a credo. I am never unmoved by their insight, brilliance and humor.

And I love it when they say things they think or hope the congregation will find shocking. You know, like “I don’t believe in God,” or “I think church is for losers.”

At one coming of age worship service, a young man got into the pulpit and began talking about original sin. This youth had been born and raised in this Unitarian Universalist congregation, so I’m not at all sure where he had encountered the concept, but it soon became clear that it was his understanding that it was a widely held notion.

In our congregation.

In our Unitarian Universalist congregation.

We were being excoriated by a youth of the church for our purported belief in the fallen nature of an inherently depraved humanity.

We don’t have our children and youth in our buildings for very long if you think about it. They come to Religious Education and youth fellowship for maybe an hour or two a week. The rest of the time they are immersed in a culture that is full of all kinds of religious, moral, and spiritual ideas, stereotypes and half-truths. When trying to convey the historic testimonies of Unitarianism and Universalism, there’s only so much that is going to stick in the tiny amount of time we’re allotted in their busy lives.

So I understand that his formation as a Unitarian Universalist was both incomplete and ongoing, as it is with all of us. Yet somehow one of the most essential of our most basic theological and philosophical testimonies, what distinguished us from other religious traditions, had not been communicated to or remembered by him. After a year of intentional study of such questions, no less.

There was a time, thankfully a time that has passed, when a young person’s religious education in a UU congregation barely touched on Unitarian Universalist history, identity, and religious ideas. A friend my age (we’re Gen Xers), who was brought up UU, reports that his religious education consisted in learning about a variety of world religions. Other religions. The idea seemed to be that Unitarian Universalists presented their children and youth with a menu of options and the freedom to choose from them when they were grown up. And Unitarian Universalism was not on the menu! My friend’s siblings all became something else as adults

We are much better now at presenting Unitarian, Universalist and UU personages and their stories for all ages. Newcomers and new members are treated to encapsulated treatments of the stories of the traditions’ forebears (though—and this is my pet peeve—Emerson, Clara Barton, Hosea Ballou, and others are frequently and anachronistically referred to as “UUs”).

How deep do we go with knowing the stories of these foremothers and forefathers? Does the gathered congregation impart to children, youth, newcomers and others what compelled these people, what the nature of their faith was? Tell the story of our movement, its heroines and heroes, and the shape of our faith and testimonies—our theology—becomes clearer.

In their 2005 report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity, the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations observed:

In the process of data collection, we noted that few laypersons, when asked about influential teachers in their lives, mentioned Unitarians or Universalists beyond their own families and ministers. Instead, they turned to Eastern-influenced popular writers and popular psychology. Beyond Emerson and Thoreau, UUs do not know our own exemplars and what they thought about theological questions.

As I say, I believe this is changing, but I wonder how many Unitarian Universalist congregations present themselves to their children, youth, and newcomers as a freeform religious open space in which you are free to search for truth and meaning without any reference to our history, historic testimonies, to any of the dignitaries of our illustrious past. Do we say, “We are not united by doctrine,” and then leave it at that, without pointing to the theological and philosophical affirmations that have been constant in our movement, and that shape our present context?

We institutionalize narcissism in our congregations when all we do is hold up a mirror and ask them to gaze deeply into their own eyes and call that a “search for truth and meaning.”  What do you think about humanity? What do you think about God? As if the journey ends there. Experience is but one aspect of a disciplined search for truth and meaning. And tradition is another.

What about our rich, vibrant living tradition? Including, of course, our historic rejection of Calvinism and its belief in the inherent depravity of human beings. This is our story—and a central, animating theological affirmation among us.

Unitarian Universalists would do well in remembering who we are. Not searching frantically for a “center,” but rather acknowledge the basic testimonies that we have born witness to all along and to which we continue to bear witness. The DNA of our liberal religious movement continues to express itself, sometimes in new ways. It continues to be, I believe, a basic message that can transform lives and save the world.

Our movement continues to evolve and as we move forward, new insights illumine our way. The basic materials, however, we have inherited, and change only insomuch as we reinvent and reinterpret them for a new generation.

And then actually offer them to a new generation.

Becoming a Religious Movement

The Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) has written a statement describing a strategic vision for the future of Unitarian Universalism. He envisions a Unitarian Universalism grounded in congregations, while creating a movement outside of the local church. He describes various extra-congregational aspects of our movement, and the fact that many more people identify as Unitarian Universalist than are actually in our churches. Rev. Morales calls for us to become a religious movement.

Many more people identify with a particular religious group without ever being affiliated with a local faith community. Unitarian Universalists are not unique in that. People will identify themselves as Episcopalian, Congregationalist or what have you, without ever darkening the door of a local house of worship—even on Christmas, Easter or high holidays. Many will come to be married or bury a loved one. My guess is that these are people raised in these traditions, who themselves were married by one of their clergy people, who have been to a rite of passage or high holiday service, or who have friends who are involved. The identification is strong enough that they self-report on the census.

Reaching this identified-but-not-affiliated population is a good strategy. Why not reach out to those who already say they are part of us? The Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby has contributed some important work to this idea. The churches’ response to his work in Canada, not surprisingly, has been to strategize how to reach out to those people and draw them into the local congregation.

Coming up with new sites or modes for those (and other) people to affiliate with the movement is also a good if inventive strategy. What those sites or modes turn out to be may or may not work, but it’s well worth a try. The nature of church—of organized religion—is shifting. I am thankful that Rev. Morales envisions the continued central place for congregations and is imagining other experimental forms.

I wonder if what he has in mind are phenomena like the Lucy Stone housing collective here in Boston or A Third Place worshipping community in Turley, Oklahoma. What could a national ecclesial organization do to support or initiate such expressions of religious community?

If Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement, then the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is its institutional expression. What is the relationship between movement and institution?

Many of us have long spoken of Unitarian Universalism as a movement, perhaps only to avoid the misnomer “denomination.” We are not a denomination, that is, a sub-sect of a larger religion. Once upon a time, Unitarianism and Universalism were Christian denominations, whatever the Church Universal may have thought of us. There is no larger religion to which Unitarian Universalism now belongs (the way the denominations of Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics belong to the religion Christianity, or Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Conservative belong to Judaism). For better or for worse, we have evolved into our own sui generis.

It is not accurate, then, to describe Unitarian Universalism or the UUA as a denomination. Organizationally, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is, well, an association of congregations. What else would it be?

“Movement” harkens us back to when William Ellery Channing and other early US Unitarians were preaching and advocating for a unique liberal Christian perspective within the established churches of the United States. Unitarianism was a liberalizing movement within American Protestantism. It was not even a denomination at first. Responding to Calvinist orthodoxy, proponents of Unitarianism had a distinct theological voice. They were proposing theological alternatives, as were the Universalists (who were more denominationally minded, though not entirely well organized about it). Unitarians and Universalists had theological distinctives that soon began to move through the broader religious culture—the inherent worth of the human person, the benevolence of a loving God, the use of reason in religion, the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth, and self-culture being some of the major ones.

What are contemporary Unitarian Universalists proposing that could move through the broader culture? What is our distinctive message, around which we are building movement?

There is a distinction to be made, I believe, between religious movements and their institutional expression. For example, religious feminism is a movement. Arising with the second wave of feminism, religious feminism has questioned (and questions) traditional assumptions about the status of women in organized religion, and with this questioning reformulated religious discourse on God (and the Goddess), gender, the body, and hierarchy with implications for ministry, ecclesiology, liturgy and much more. Religious feminism has been a major movement within Judaism, Christianity and Goddess religion and in each of these contexts is unique, even as each strand shares distinctive values, principles, and insights with the others. Ecclesiastical structures have responded to this movement; women’s ordination to ordered ministry and the rabbinate, inclusive language in liturgy and in scripture, and the dissemination of feminine images of the divine are some of the major ones.

The relationship between an organized religion and religious movement, it seems to me, is one of grassroots momentum and institutional response. How does a religious organization spawn a religious movement? There is no such thing as an Association of Religious Feminism, which is promoting religious feminism. There are, of course, women clergy groups, conferences, publishers and writers, local leaders and scholars who give lectures, workshops, publish books and blogs, and so on. This is the nature of a movement. It is an open field of thinking, writing, talking, organizing and meeting.

Organizations form around religious ideas and movements. I’m thinking, too of the new monastic movement and the emergent church movement. These are two, not unrelated, movements in contemporary US Christianity. A denominational head office did not think these up, then strategically plant and nourish them. They emerged from below, the winds of the zeitgeist delivering pollen from one area of growth to another. The conferences, writers, blogs, and so on both gave rise to and cross-pollinated the essential theological and ecclesiastical ideas of new monasticism and emergent church.

The UUA is the  descendent organization that formed around nineteenth-century religious ideas and movements. The purpose of the UUA—as an association of congregations—has been to serve the health of the local church. With a reformulation of the UUA’s purpose, what would its relationship be with other, non-congregational, modes of this “movement”? It seems to me that such an organization would be hard-pressed to initiate something that is actually a religious movement. Unless, perhaps it is responding to or attempting to harness a movement that is already bubbling up. Is that the case, and if so what are this grassroots movement’s features?

Something is missing for me in this picture, and perhaps I am just not seeing it. Should that turn out to be the case, please point me to it: where is the movement on the ground that the UUA will respond to? What are the theological and ecclesiastical distinctives among us today around which a movement is moving?

I like to think one of them is our way of being in relation: covenantal, mutual, democratic (more on this later). I have been thinking that this is best expressed, best lived out and embodied, in a congregation. What other forms can this take? I’m curious and interested in finding out.

Without some sort of distinctive message or proposal (thinking, again, about religious feminism, new monasticism, emergent church) a movement does not move. Without a burning coal at its center, a compelling vision, message, or idea a “movement” will not move.

Recommended Reading: “Healing the Heart of Democracy”

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, by Parker J. Palmer. (Jossey-Bass, 2011)


You may remember the huge electrical blackout a few years ago that shut down nearly half of the continent. I was living in Toronto at the time, serving a congregation there as its summer minister and living a block away from the church.  When the hydroelectric power in the city shut down, something interesting happened at the intersection where the church and I were located. It is a major intersection of two avenues, which are main arteries of city traffic. The blackout struck just as rush hour was starting up. The traffic lights at major intersections throughout the city suddenly went dark. There at this intersection, two pedestrians leaped into the middle of the intersection and began directing traffic. I watched them, gesturing first one way and then another, choreographing getting cars to stop, pedestrians to cross, motorists to turn left and so on. I watched them do this for at least half an hour before an emergency vehicle arrived on the scene and an official took over. I saw in the actions of these two citizens, actions that were repeated, apparently, across the city that afternoon, a parable. A parable about what it means to be a citizen.

Do we believe we have the power, the responsibility, and do we act accordingly? When the public culture has a need for us, do we jump in to help? Or do we remain a cynical or passive bystander? What gives us permission to jump in and help? What prevents us from doing so?

Freedom – the spirit of democracy – is a way of life, an attitude, an orientation toward the world. It is the spirit of active participation and participatory action. Democracy is the self-rule of equals, free from coercion, tyranny, violence and the threat of violence. Leaders and decision makers do not draw their power from the gods, wealth, or tradition, but rather the will of the people. Institutions and habits keep this system running in a healthy way: a free press, an educated, informed, literate electorate that is ready to exercise its power. And we are responsible for exercising our power.

In his new book, Parker Palmer moves in the space of these queries about individual participation in democracy. He writes eloquently about the heart of democracy, and picking up on Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century essay Democracy in America, on the “habits of the heart” that sustain a democratic polity.

Chutzpah and humility are two such habits Parker enumerates. It takes chutzpah—a spicy blend of courage and moxy—to know absolutely, I am needed here, I better jump in and make something happen. It means “knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.” This personal sense of agency in citizens is essential for a polity that puts the power in its citizenry. Politics cannot be a spectator sport.

Humility involves “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all—so I need to listen with openness and respect…” This is particularly true in the encounter with those who are different from us—who hold political views that diverge from our own, who are from class, cultural or sexual backgrounds that are different from ours, or whose life experience and social location differ from that of our own.

Parker advocates persuasively for the virtue of hospitality which “rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive…” In democratic societies, in which diversities abound, being actively engaged with one another across differences is absolutely necessary.  Diversity (ethnic, political, etc) flourishes in the democratic ecosystem; only totalitarian régimes enforce uniformity. Openness to the other is a practice that makes civic dialogue and collective decision-making by the people possible.

This means, of course, be committed to the greater whole and being able to hold tension in life giving ways. It means be dedicated to the practice of community.

Too many citizens have become dispirited about our common life, turning away from politics in cynicism and despair. Palmer describes his own heartbreak about the situation in the United States. He uses that experience of a breaking heart for his discourse about the human spirit in politics. Hearts can simply break, or they can break open, and when they break open the longings therein are set free. Approaching the landscape of US politics, littered with the debris of a once-vibrant democracy, with a heart for human wholeness, empathy, accountability and other virtues absent from political discourse, is the path to social transformation.

Of particular interest to me is the chapter on the classroom and congregation as sites that could cultivate the habits of the heart needed in a democracy. I have long felt that the practice of democratic, covenanted congregational communities of faith can be schools of the spirit for an engaged involvement in the social and political order.  Any religious community worth its salt is cultivating in its adherents hospitality, empathy and accountability.

The danger of focusing on the habits of the heart, on the behavior of the individual citizen, is that the value of collective action gets lost. Changing our personal lifestyles can be satisfying, as it is largely within our control when so much of what’s wrong in this world is not. Individual lifestyle changes may have an impact. But it is not enough. Cultivating these habits is only a prelude to bringing them to bear in the practice of democratic politics and pro-democracy movements. The means must justify the ends, and activists seeking to renew American democracy must surely embody democratic values in our organizing and in our lives.

Larger forces at work in the body politic call for motivated citizens to act en masse. Democracy—people power—is citizens taking collective action, using social, political and economic leverage for social change. Though Parker never takes us there, I trust that this work can be thought of as a primer for pro-democracy activists, the personal and small group work that would sustain a larger social movement on behalf of democracy and not an end point in itself. It is certainly a useful resource for people of faith concerned with the renewal of democracy.

I’d be gratified if Healing the Heart of Democracy produces more individuals willing to take over, to jump in, when the traffic lights go out. Those kind of empowered citizens, acting on behalf of the common good, are needed in abundance.