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.


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.

The Liberal Way in Religion

I attended and graduated from an alternative high school, which meant I went to a secondary school predicated upon youth empowerment and student-directed learning. We didn’t sit in rows, move between classes at the sound of ringing bells, or defer to a hierarchically ordered system of control. We sat in circles, called our teachers by their first names, and voted on which novels to read in English class. When I graduated high school, my friends and I had a choice. In the province of Quebec, there is the institution of CEGEP, a junior college that has both three-year vocational studies and a two-year pre-university certificate. There were alternatives within the CEGEP system, such as the New School at Dawson College, a humanities-based program of study based in the theories of humanistic psychology. This is where many of the students from my high school ended up. But there was also Reflections, a liberal-arts program where it seemed the students sat around on pillows and talked about how they felt about reading Shakespeare. Some graduates from my high school entered this program at Dawson College. Well, I couldn’t decide, so I enrolled in Social Sciences, a catchall program of arts and humanities courses. One of my classes my first semester at Dawson College was an introduction to English Literature with a professor who started us off by making us read stories from the King James Version of the Bible. At some point during the semester, she took me aside and said to me, “You’re wasting your time here. You’re going to get an A in this class and I suspect in every other class you’re taking. If you’re going to learn anything while you’re here at Dawson, you should be in the Liberal Arts Program.” Now, the Liberal Arts program was an honors program; you were supposed to be an A student and maintain an A average. I hadn’t even considered it. My English professor, on the other hand, had arranged for me to interview with the dean of the program, who (though the year had already started and I would have to make up some of the classes I missed the first term) was ready to accept me into the program based solely on my English professor’s recommendation. And so it came to pass that I became a Liberal Arts program student. We were a cozy group of a dozen students. We studied logic and epistemology and the ancient Greek philosophers. We did courses on the novel, poetry, drama, the history of Western art and architecture. We had regular graduate-school style seminars where we discussed Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Machiavelli’s The Prince and John Locke and Thomas Paine. The program was designed to get us to read widely and think critically, developing our skills at both written expression and oral argument. “The liberal arts,” the current program description reads, “are based on the belief that disciplined learning is the road to freedom in one’s personal intellectual life and career.” When we speak of a liberal arts education, what we mean to say is learning within a broad spectrum of subjects that ground a student within Western traditions, a broad knowledge as opposed to learning a specific skill or craft or vocation. A liberal arts education, it has been said, is the study of useless things. There is no use to the liberal arts except the broadening of the mind. Based on ancient Greek thinking about education, the traditional liberal arts were opposed to the servile arts. It was what free men (and only men) studied, as opposed to skills that tradesmen and servants learned.  In medieval Europe, there were seven arts that freemen pursued the practice of: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. Universities educated elite men in these practices and in the era of the Enlightenment more disciplines were added. Language, literature, religion, philosophy, the classics, visual and performing arts expanded the curriculum in what came to be known as the humanities. The humanities are those disciplines which study the human condition and that do so in ways that are investigative and speculative, as opposed to empirical, which is the domain of the natural sciences. Some of my friends, after CEGEP, wound up in the liberal arts program at McGill University, which was called “Humanistic Studies.” A humanist is a person schooled in the humanities—language, literature, religion, philosophy, the classics, visual and performing arts—a person inspired by the study and celebration of the human condition. A humanist, says George Santayana, is a person “saturated by the humanities.” Humanism is not a doctrine, he says, but an achievement. Liberal, from the Latin liberalis, meaning, “Appropriate for free men.” Liberal, from the Latin liber, meaning “free.” Our words liberty and liberation also have their roots here: freedom. The freedom to decide for one’s self what to think, the freedom from coercion in matters of thought and expression, the freedom to browse books in the library and hold them in your hand and decide whether or not to read them. The cornerstone of liberalism, whether it be political liberalism or religious liberalism, is this freedom, this individual liberty. You will recall that liberalism is the ideology of the modern Enlightenment, the rationalist and anti-monarchical movements of eighteenth century Europe. The class of city-dwellers, who were merchants and traders, rather than aristocracy or peasants, emerged as the medieval feudal system broke down. This class of people, who came to be known as bourgeois, from the French word for “city dweller” (think borough or burgher), demanded the freedom to trade unencumbered and with it the freedom from all forms of despotism, monarchy, clericalism. Political liberalism sought civil liberties for individuals, government that ruled based on a contractual consent of the people, a social system of free individuals voluntarily cooperating with other free individuals. Thus was born modern democracy and with it “free market” capitalism and in this changed and changing worldview, religious liberalism. Religious liberalism, too, values the individual and the individual’s ability and responsibility to make his or her own choices. Conscience and reason are hallmarks of liberalism in religion: an individual must never assent to belief in a creed or dogma that he or she cannot in good conscience go along with, using his or her powers of reasoning to sift through the wheat and the chaff of religious ideas, keeping what makes sense to him or her individually and discarding the rest. Religious liberalism celebrates the human person’s autonomy and the person’s autonomous reasoning powers. Ideas can be accepted or rejected based on their inherent ethics and reasonableness and not simply accepted because they are handed down from upon high from an historic authority. Authority is located within. Paralleling liberal ideas in the political sphere, in which authority shifted from kings who ruled by divine right to individuals who ruled by their rational choice of who should govern them, so too religious authority shifted. New structures of church governance were formed, such as congregationalism, which stated there is no church but the local congregation, with no outside authorities to govern over it. The liberal spirit in religion cherishes fresh thought and scholarly inquiry. The liberal spirit in religion celebrates thinking and learning for their own sake, for the sake of the free soul’s edification, the free mind’s expansion. The liberal spirit in religion is not constrained by tradition, but is informed and shaped by tradition, and free to move beyond tradition if necessary, free to move within tradition creatively if desired. The liberal spirit in religion is a seeking spirit. Unitarianism has long embodied the liberal spirit in religion; indeed throughout the history of modernity it was the defining embodiment of it. When Unitarianism began on this continent, it was not as a sect or denomination, but rather as a movement, a style. It was a movement within the established Protestant churches of New England, a liberalizing style of Christianity. The original spokesmen for the movement were not at all interested in launching a separate denomination. They were interested in breathing a spirit of freedom and broadmindedness into the Protestant Christianity of their day. When the American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825, it was not as a denominational body but rather an organization devoted to the spread of liberal Christian ideas, and the supplying of qualified liberal ministers to pulpits that sought them. Today, our Unitarian Universalist movement and congregations represent a broader diversity of theological worldviews. As the main stream of twentieth century Unitarianism moved further and more decisively away from Christian faith, the consensus that remained was no longer a theological one, but rather a commitment to individual freedom of conscience in religion. The individual’s free and disciplined search for truth is the sine qua non of contemporary Unitarian Universalism. There are Unitarian Universalist congregations where it is understood that being “liberal in religion” simply means that those who are politically liberal go to the same church. This is especially true in those parts of the continent that are politically conservative. I have met quite a few Unitarian Universalists whose understanding of our movement does not distinguish between politics and religion. When they say they are liberal, they mean politically liberal, left of center with liberal views on social issues. While there is certainly a connection between commitments to freedom in both society and religion, something is lost when we don’t remember the authentic religious spirit that has enlivened our liberal movement for so long. Today, whatever our personal theologies or worldviews or politics, the animating spirit within each of them is an openness, an openness to new truth, to new understanding. And open to each other and the world. No Unitarian Universalist’s individual worldview or theology is closed off, fixed upon an unchanging and rigid creed. I think this is hard for many Unitarian Universalists to understand when they encounter other Unitarian Universalists who walk a particular path or affirm certain truths. Which leads us to the crux of what it means to be a religious liberal, of what our liberal religion is all about. Liberal is defined as meaning ample, abundant, giving freely, generous, not sparing. Liberality, the dictionary tells us, means: “generosity; respect for political, moral, or religious views which one does not agree with.” To be a religious liberal is to be generous toward those who do not hold our own views. To be a religious liberal is to practice generosity, to create a community of abundance, a wealth of differing perspectives and backgrounds. Being liberal means being open-minded, broad-minded, not prejudiced in advance against certain ideas or people. It doesn’t mean you have to accept everything or believe everything. Ours is a thinking religion, and thoughtfulness is something we value as we discern for ourselves what we think is true. But thoughtfulness is also a value in our relationships with one another. Actions can be thoughtful, too, like acts of kindness and care and concern. It is possible to be thoughtful toward the person who does not believe as you do; to be generous; to be liberal. Religious liberalism. We’ve considered liberality and being liberal in spirit. I wonder what it means for us to be religious. Liberal, as we’ve noted, comes from the Latin word for free; religious comes from the Latin word for bonded, connected, tied together. Words like ligature and ligament have the same root, connective tissue binding together. Re-ligio, then, is to reconnect. In the heart of who we are as a community is both freedom and connection. There are some inherent contradictions in religious liberalism, tensions that we will never resolve. Liberalism asserts that each individual is free, and freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, are cornerstones of religious liberalism. At the same time, however, there is a simultaneous need for community, for connection, for relationship. We all want to be free to pursue our own truth–together. We each want to be free individuals–together. We try to be a community of people going in their own spiritual and philosophical direction. Freedom and connection, liberty and relation: we find ourselves in the gravitational pull of both freedom and connection, liberty and relation. Our task is to live graciously in this tension. Our calling is not only to embody the liberal spirit that cherishes fresh thought and scholarly inquiry, but that also is generous to others. Our task is not only to celebrate thinking and learning for their own sake, for the sake of the free soul’s edification, the free mind’s expansion, but to live charitably toward others. Our task is to practice a generosity of spirit with those whose views differ from ours, not to confine others to our own stereotypes about them. Our task is to practice an openness of spirit with those whose views differ from ours, for in so doing we ourselves might be given new insight, new understanding. Our task is to cultivate a mind and heart for learning something new, to cultivate a mind and heart for inquiry, openness, generosity. Our calling as a faith community devoted to liberal religious witness is to be a school of the spirit, a classroom and workshop in the arts of liberalism. The disciplines of creating a free mind and open heart are what we practice here. A disciplined search for truth and meaning is the road to freedom, the way to freedom. A broad knowledge is essential to walk this way to freedom. Indeed, it is a broad way of life and not a narrow one. The point of such disciplines is a broadening of the mind, a broadening of the heart, a cultivation within the self of inquiry, openness, generosity and no small measure of honesty. The point of such disciplines is broad-mindedness and open heartedness, to the end that we create a community at home in the tensions of being different from one another and related to one another. Our body politic and civic discourse is in sore need of openness, inquiry, curiosity. These are essential values to we who form liberal religious communities; this is our essential witness to the world. Our spirit is a generous spirit, calling diverse people to be in relationship to one another. Our generous way of relation, holding in tension the free individual’s connection to others, holding in tension freedom and community, can be an example for a divided nation, a divided family, a tension-filled workplace. The generosity of spirit that is our legacy and witness can be a balm for the divisions we see in our world.

The Church of No Offense

A couple of years ago, I was considering coming to a certain church to do ministry with the congregation there. I came to the town to visit for a weekend, look at places to live, and speak with the committee that was searching for a minister. It was an established church in a lovely small town. I was shown around town by various members of the committee and at one point, walking around town, one began telling me the story of how he had come to this church.

“My partner and I were new in town,” he said. “And we didn’t know anybody in the area and we wanted to get better connected in the community. We figured joining a church was a really good way to start networking. So we looked around and decided on the Unitarian Universalist church in town because of them all, it was the least offensive.”  I enjoyed his frankness. This thoughtful man was a leader in his congregation, had found a home there. People join congregations for all kinds of reasons–advantageous business networking, finding a date, finding a job, developing a real estate practice. These are some of the real, practical reasons that people affiliate with communities of faith. They’re no better or worse than wanting a religious education for one’s children, exploring questions of meaning, comforting during a time of transition.

And the fact that this congregation didn’t promulgate anything he and his partner found offensive was the clincher. No hellfire and brimstone, no judging LGBT people negatively, no political positions, no onerous requirements intellectually, financially, or in any other way.

All kinds of people, in all kinds of conditions gather together in congregations for all kinds of reasons.

We need different things from church at different times in our lives–comfort, guidance, edification, challenge. When a local congregation is at its best, it is offering these disparate things simultaneously through its programs–its ministries–and its worship. We are also called upon to offer different things to our co-congregants and the institution at different times.

Sometimes, the church is a refuge, a haven, to gather in the brokenhearted and despairing. We gather for healing, to be strengthened, to be renewed in hope, to be reminded of our deepest convictions. Ultimately, we are gathered in this way in order to be sent back to the world. Our broken hearts are offered balm in order to go back to a world (a workplace, a family, a neighborhood, a nation) strengthened if not completely made whole. We are offered hope and courage in order to return to a world in which we strive to create justice and peace and a sustainable future for the planet.

There are plenty of Unitarian Universalists who have absolutely no interest in mission or outreach, let alone evangelism, and don’t think their congregation ought to be mission-driven. The purpose of the church, for these folks, is to gather the likeminded together for comfort and solidarity. Or simply gather the likeminded together. The shadow possibility of this, however, is that such congregations become ingrown, inwardly focused clubs that focus only on participants’ perceived needs and wants. If we gather together for the sake of gathering together, without a sense that we have work to do on ourselves or in the world to which our faith sends us, we risk ossifying into a cozy self-congratulatory group of likeminded people that is guarded, suspicious of others, and openly derisive of those who are not like us. Hardly in keeping with the liberal spirit.

There are also plenty who do not want to do or say anything that will offend anyone. Sermons that convict (to use an old Calvinist expression) are abandoned in favor of talks full of information or ideas that most will agree with. Certain words and expressions are informally (or explicitly) banned–you know, like God or sin or death or repentance–effectively blotting out exploration of major religious concepts. And nothing that will challenge anyone should be done or said or imagined. Because that might offend.

It is fine to offer respite to those working the vineyards of liberal political causes and social change movements, but respite cannot be the only purpose of a liberal religious faith community. Gathering together for the sake of creating a congenial environment for oneself is fine, but cannot stop there if we are talking about a church. I believe we need to also be upheld and challenged by the liberal gospel and so compelled by it to  go make a difference for it in the world.

The way I see it, the church exists for gathering, supporting and sending its constituent members. All three. When one of these gestures is lacking, something vital is missing.

Supporting or upholding members of a liberal religious community, as I see it, is in part to sort out not only how we are going to be the best of who we are called to be as individuals, adequately equipping participants for a robust ethical and spiritual life, but also discerning what repercussions our ethics and spirituality must have beyond ourselves. Going deeper ultimately equips us for going farther. The search for truth and meaning produces results which require something of us: how am I going to live my life in the light of this truth and meaning? What demands of me does this make on how my life and my society are to be ordered? Our congregations exist to help deepen our spiritual and ethical strength, renew our commitment to basic liberal principles. And it is not for our own sake only, but for the sake of a world (household, neighborhood, city, nation) that needs what we have to offer.

Not only does a liberal religious community empower and inspire its participants, sending them to the world, but our congregations at their best offer spaces for reflection and contemplation upon one’s experiences of tending the vineyards of a broken and hurting world. Or just living a life. We offer analysis in the light of faith for what we have experienced in our workaday world. Transformation and transcendence can and frequently do occur when a person is engaged in mission outside the confines of the church. The local gathered community offers a context in which to make sense of those experiences. It’s an interpretive circle of action and reflection, not only being sent but also arriving (wounded, inspired, vexed). Making sense out of our experience–making meaning of what we do in our day-to-day lives–is the task of theological reflection and is a discipline of the local church.

Theological reflection among us is hardly the memorization and study of a common catechesis–a body of approved doctrines. Saying we need more theological depth–more soul–in no way means “We all have to believe the same doctrines.” Peacebang puts it this way: “And I want someday for those of us who want to cultivate reverence, humility and soul to stop being categorized and dismissed as pissed off Christians who want to take over the UUA.” Amen!

Not everybody who is a member of a congregation is interested in theological reflection, developing a spiritual practice or pondering the meaning of life. That’s as it should be. These are not for everybody. There are also times in our journeys when we need them more than others. But for those who are looking for something more, a church ought to be offering it.

Signing up for an inoffensive club that has benefits for oneself can’t be the final word in what it means to be a community of faith.

The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You

Recently, a fellow who does some work for my congregation was in the building. We had never met before, and so we introduced ourselves and chatted for a while in the church office. At one point he said to me, “You know, I should tell you this story. I have a thirteen-year-old son who has been asking a lot of religious questions lately. I was raised Catholic, but we’re not involved at all, and haven’t really given him a religious education. One day, my son was with me in the car when we drove by another Unitarian Universalist church. He asked me, because he knew that I had done some work for them, what kind of a church it was. When I told him, he asked what Unitarian Universalists believe. So I told him, ‘Well they don’t really believe anything specific. It’s a religion where whatever you think or believe or feel is what the religion is all about.’ And my son said, ‘That’s the kind of church I want to go to!’” And the fellow chuckled and we had some pleasantries about his teenager being a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.

But my pleasant façade betrayed the bomb that had just gone off in my head. Oh dear God, it’s true. We have institutionalized narcissism. Here was a person that was not involved in a Unitarian Universalist church, and yet knew something about us. As an outsider, the message he received about what we stand for is: It’s about whatever you want it to be about. It’s all about you.

This man did not invent this perception of Unitarian Universalism. He got it from somewhere. He got it from us. It could be posited that many thoughtful UUs talked to him about our creedless religion, our covenanted communities in which one is free to search for truth and meaning. It’s likely that thoughtful UUs explained being gathered around basic principles and values rather than beliefs and doctrines. But what he heard was: We don’t believe anything. We’re just making this stuff up as we go along to suit ourselves. Of course, it’s also possible that this is precisely what he was told.

There’s a difference between a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning, unencumbered by doctrine and “a religion that’s all about you and whatever you want.” How does, “You are responsible for discerning your spiritual path” become “Whatever you think, believe, or feel is what the religion is”?  How did we become the religion that puts its faith in you (to quote an ill-conceived denominational slogan)?

A good deal of this slippage comes from a lack of opportunities for faith formation in our congregations, especially among adults. A disciplined search for truth and meaning takes effort; it takes discipline. Being unencumbered by doctrine ought not imply that doctrine is not examined for the truth it may contain. Indeed, not being constrained by creedal formulations seems to have been translated into an abandonment of theological reflection altogether.  We offer a non-dogmatic approach and context to religious inquiry without equipping members of our communities for the search. Discerning your spiritual path is difficult without tools, without support.

Faith formation is not simply adult religious education. Run a couple of classes on building your own theology and spiritual practice and then you’re done. Formation involves worship and preaching, mission work and governance. It’s the work of the entire enterprise of being church together. It takes place collectively, mutually as well as individually. We are also formed as people of faith in conversation with the tradition, with our historic testimonies. The tradition speaks to us and we respond. We respond lovingly, critically, thoughtfully–but recognize that our historic context has a voice shaping today’s conversation about who we are and what we’re about.

And it takes discipline. It is telling, I think, that the 1961 principles of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association speak of a “free and disciplined search for truth and meaning” and the statement’s revised 1980s version is, “a free and responsible search.” I also find it telling how Unitarian Universalists like to speak, when they do at all, of “spiritual practices,” but almost never “spiritual disciplines.” Being together in community takes discipline and effort. I think we have become lazy and simply tell each other, “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. You have your spiritual practice and I have my book discussion group. Whatever.”

Engaging one another in a spirit of curiosity, openness and humility, with the recognition that one might be mistaken, or one’s own perspective might be partial, is the opposite of institutionalized self-involvement. The practice of hospitality is the antidote to self-centeredness. The ever-present narcissism enshrined in our congregations spawns entitlement and complaint rather than engagement and curiosity because, well, you’re not giving me what I want!

There is a contradiction inherent in liberal religion. We are free, autonomous individuals in community with one another. Tension exists between freedom and connection, autonomy and community. There is no getting around it. Our calling is to live gracefully in that tension, holding them with equanimity, without being weighted as we are now toward individual freedom and autonomy. Our capacity for being a transformative presence in the world is diminished when we neglect the communal, connected, covenanted aspect of our life together and when we focus primarily on the individual and their freedom. Our institutions suffer.

When my congregation was in search for a new minister, they conducted a workshop on welcoming their new settled clergyperson with the district executive. When she asked, “What is the minister’s primary job,” somebody answered, “To make us happy.” “To serve our needs,” somebody else chimed in. The DE replied, “Guess what? The minister’s job is not to make you happy. The minister’s job is to serve the mission of the church.” There was a sharp intake of breath in the room. That moment was such a shock of recognition that the people who were there remember it still. It’s not all about me. It’s not all about my needs.

At church these days, and in our movement more broadly, we are having conversation about mission. What are we for? What are we called to do? Where are we being sent? In a collection of individuals, each on their own responsible search, these questions are impossible to answer. There is no “we.” There is no shared identity, let alone shared sense of purpose or vocation.

I am skeptical about Unitarian Universalism ever becoming the sort of missional religious movement that some of my colleagues and friends are imagining. A group of like-minded individuals doing community service together with no theology, no discerned sense of vocation, is not a faith community; it’s the Rotary Club. A group of people dedicated to liberal ideals with no (perhaps I should say) shared theology, shared sense of vocation is not a church. It’s a political club. The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force do a fine job of fighting for LGBT equality. Why would I join a church to do that? The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is doing terrific work (as are other organizations) defending the rights and freedoms of immigrants. I support the ADC. Why would I join a church to do that? Local service agencies alleviate suffering of all kinds and use my volunteer time. Why would I join a church for that?

Religious liberals, both within our movement and beyond it, dropped theology in favor of social action in the twentieth century. We are compelled to do social justice work, but we have little or no understanding of why this is religious. To base whole congregations around this kind of mission work without a clearly articulated theology is to reinvent the Rotary Club for religiously inclined political liberals. And a clearly articulated theology of social ministry is not possible as long as “theology” is whatever individuals happen to believe, think, or feel at any given moment.

Inasmuch as Unitarian Universalist communities continue to neglect discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition, we will never be a missional religious movement. As long as we are known as the church of individual seekers we will never have the kind of impact that a missional religion has on transforming the world. It should go without saying that the chronically self-involved have no interest in serving the needs of others.

What would it take for us to be known in the wider community for some of the traits, characteristics and perspectives we hold in common and that we continue to share with our historic legacy? What would it take for our communal calling as a faith community to become as important as our much-vaunted individual spiritual journeys?

What would it take for a parent, in the car with their thirteen year old, to be able to say, driving past a Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse, something like:  That’s the church where they believe you can hear God talking in nature. Or: That’s the church where they teach religious studies and make you think about what to believe. Or perhaps: That’s the church that says there’s no Hell. As well as: That’s the church that houses homeless people in its building in the winter. That’s the church that helps you recover from addiction.

What would it take for us to be the religion that puts its faith in something larger than you?

What Are We Being Sent to Do?

I was walking along the sidewalk to the gym in downtown Boston the other day. A young man wearing a dark suit, black tie, and large square name badge approached me. I forget what his opening line was to me as we passed, but I knew that he was on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or Mormons). I didn’t slow down, but did engage him in conversation. “What do you know about the Mormons?” he asked. I told him that I knew they almost singlehandedly funded Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative that revoked the right of same-sex couples to be legally married in the state. Of everything that I know about LDS, this is the thing that most sticks in my craw. Because the church leader demanded it, Mormons across the country saw it as their religious duty to send money to the anti-gay forces in California. As we know, Prop 8 passed.

“I was too young at the time,” my Mormon proselyte shared, which considering it was only four years ago belied how young he actually was. He handed me a business card with a Web address on it. “Would you like to know more about Jesus or Mormonism?” he asked. “Jesus, yes. Mormonism, no,” I said handing it back to him.

I then explained my conviction that homophobia is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. “Well,” he said, his pace slowing as he dropped back, “Jesus believed in standing up for what he believed in.”

I don’t begrudge Unitarian Universalists for not sending our 18-year-olds to the world to convert others to our way of doing religion. But I do wonder: Do religious liberals have any sense of being sent to the world in order to do something? What is our work to do outside of the walls of our church?  Is church a place we visit on Sunday morning that has nothing to do with our Monday morning? Are we formed in some way by an essential message, or core values, that shape all of what we do within and outside the congregation?

Churches that are thriving are not necessarily the ones with conservative theologies or who proselytize strangers. Churches that are thriving are ones that have a strong sense of identity and mission, of knowing who they are and what they do. Declining churches characterize themselves as “a big family;” thriving churches describe themselves as “a moral beacon in our community.” Declining churches wait for people to find them; thriving churches are known in their communities for who they are and what they stand for and they attract people. A church’s mission is so much more than its mission statement: it’s a sense of purpose, focus, and vocation.

The word mission, of course, is rooted in being sent. What are we religious liberals sent to do?

As I reached the door of the gym after my encounter with the young missionary, a breathless woman caught up with me. She had a twinkle in her eye. She said, “I just wanted to tell you that you made my week. I saw you talking with that Mormon kid and the only snippet of your conversation I heard made me laugh out loud. All I heard you say was, ‘Jesus, yes, Mormonism, no.’ That would be a great bumper sticker!” I laughed.

Or a great sermon…