Human Relations, Spiritual Growth, and Beloved Community

Unitarian Universalism is about relationships. At their core, all religions are. They tell us how to react to the universe, to the divine, and (possibly most importantly) to each other. Many outline proper relationships to animals or to plants, both how to raise them and how, when or if we should eat them. Unitarian Universalism isn’t so much different in scope, though we don’t the same level of detail about any of it that some other religions provide. We have ideals, and it is up to each person to live up to them the best they can in their own way. We focus almost exclusively on positive outcomes.

We don’t feel that almost every person is born with some sense of community. We have an inherent sense of self worth and dignity, and we are driven by a need to have that recognized by others. We feel that when we honor that worth and dignity, we give a person the freedom to be who they really are, and we encourage them through positive relationships and encouragement.We try to lead them to understanding, though no one can hand spiritual growth over to another; it must be sought and earned individually.

In much the same way, no one can tell you what your relationships ought to mean to you, or how to create or maintain them. You have to choose the people who support you. You have to build the life that makes you happy. You are responsible for your love, your fear, your anger, and your sense of responsibility. There is no better judge of who and what is important to you, and you have to form personal relationships with each person in your life, and no one else can dictate who they are with, what they are, or how they make you feel.

Your relationship with each person is different than the relationship that person has with anyone else. You parents don’t have the same relationship with you that they have with anyone else. Neither does your significant other or your boss. You are such an essential part of each of your relationships that you make them each personal for the other person, or you choose not to.

The same principle holds true for your relationship with the congregation as a whole, or the grater community. You have the right to share your time and talents in a way that is fulfilling to you. You also have the right to withhold your contributions if you don’t feel that they are appreciated or if you just would rather not do the same thing for the church that you do for a paycheck. It is up to the congregation and the community to value you. They have a responsibility to communicate their needs and to give you positive feedback and respect. You have the responsibility to stand up for yourself when they ask too much. No one else can know your limits as well as you, and you can reasonably expect to have them honored if they are clearly communicated. That give and take is what makes a good community work in the long run.

Your relationship with the divine is also personal, and no one can feel the pull on your heart and mind. You know what name feels right on your tongue and what rituals calm or excite you. We can help you explore the possibilities, but you have to know God on your own terms. Just as your relationship with each member of your family and community reflects your contribution to that relationship, the divine relationship is tailored to your gifts and your perspective. No one can tell you how to feel about the rest of creation or our mutual source.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation has pledged to encourage your spiritual growth, and to aid you in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in your life and in the world. We want to be good for you. You deserve to have your worth and dignity acknowledged and nurtured. We are a better community when you are a healthy part of our community, and that can only happen if there is honest communication about your needs as well as what is needed of you.

There are oh, so many, who say that the 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism are only a covenant between congregations, and need not mean anything to individuals. I strongly disagree; we need to understand that some of them are clearly promises congregations make to members, and thus that members make to each other. A congregation is, after all, only a group of people who share a covenant with one another. If we do not believe that those Principles have value in our lives, to help us create healthy and enriching relationships, then what purpose do they serve? If they are simply a promise from one non-profit corporation to other corporations, then doesn’t that reduce our churches to mere office buildings?

Unitarian Universalism is a religion, or it is nothing at all. If it is a religion, then it must advise us in our relationships. It must direct us to create relationships that improve our communities. It must inspire us to reach out to one another, in times of trouble and triumph, and support one another in our quest for truth and meaning through encouragement to spiritual growth. Our heaven is a community, here on Earth, where there is justice, equity, compassion, and peace; a beloved community that includes every person and values every living thing.

How can we better support college-aged Unitarian Universalists?

I am posting this as a place holder, to give people a place to make comments on the topics of campus outreach and ministry and how we can better support our young adults emotionally and spiritually.

Please post your thoughts and ideas and any experience you have. Please tell us a bit about yourself and where your opinions and ideas are coming from.

Where Ego and Community Intersect, We are Exposed

I have many Unitarian Universalist themed projects going on. I am a stay-at-home father and caretaker of my disabled mother (which isn’t as much work as many others face in light of aging parents). I have a few hours a day to be writing and creating images, doing research. I am currently working up a few new projects, in fact. My name isn’t on most of them, because I am not doing it for personal glory, but because I want to help Unitarian Universalists understand our tradition, get invested in our movement, and be comfortable sharing their faith with the world.

It isn’t that I don’t have an ego. I am a ham and an emotional wreck who loves to be validated a little more than might be healthy. I have learned to channel that in a way that I can feel good about by putting my ego into a worthy project, and being validated by the success of the project. I’ve done that with Facebook pages and with Tumblr blogs. Most importantly to me, though I’ve done that with the community that is my congregation. I let my sense of self include my membership in the congregation, and I let the people of that community fill in for the extended family that I don’t have in my life.

These are the people who called to check on me while my mother was in the hospital, and even visited her, knowing that she didn’t have a lot of personal friends anymore. These are the people who were there for me when my estranged father died, and I had to cope with never having closure. It wasn’t even the minister, or the newly installed Director of Lay Ministry, but the people of the church, passing the need among themselves, and making sure that I knew I wasn’t alone. I let myself truly be part of this community, and the community has become a part of who I am in return.

It was a risk that, while it was happening, I never really considered risky. How could this place, full of these people, ever let me down? I knew there would be disappointments and disagreements, but when we work towards the same mission in love and respect, how could it ever hurt?

It hurts now. And I don’t know how to move forward.

I have, at times, given until I had nothing else to give. I have occasionally asked my family to make sacrifices for my faith in the congregation. I found a faith I could embrace because of them. I am a better person for that faith and the sense of shared purpose. It hurts to doubt that purpose, now, and how evenly shared it is. I am not committing to someone else’s personal vanity; I joined to be a partner, not a pawn and not a patron.

I’m waiting on some replies that will shape my continued involvement, or lack there of.

Loving the Hell out of the World

I was not alive, much less active, for the “Consolidation” that created the UUA. I have read a lot from those who were, trying to understand where we are heading. I may have some insights: The Unitarians won the culture war, but Universalists won the theology of the UUA. This is a terrible combination.

The Universalist theology is that God is a being of love, who would never create all of these living, breathing, feeling creatures to populate the Earth with the intent of punishing some of them, eternally, for thing they do in their short time on Earth.

Human power structures have been built on rewards and punishments for thousands of years, and the idea that the gods would also punish us for our transgressions seemed so very obvious for so very long, but it doesn’t fit with our concept of a god worthy of worship and reverence: powerful and all loving.

This has been rejected in the hearts, if not the heads, of most people. That is why it is so easy for evangelical Christians to believe that, while they know that their past actions are sins against their dogma, all they have to do is say that they are sorry and ask to be forgiven, and it will be done. To oversimplify: they know that God will not damn them to eternal suffering as long as they believe that he won’t. There is a gap there, though, in believing that God can do anything except forgive, and that anyone will be made to suffer eternally. Almost no one on Earth believes that they will be damned, including, I would bet, all the dictators in history.

This is the mission that the UUA needs to take up, then: Informing people that God loves them, just like they are, even as he wants them to be better and fulfill their potential. We need to convince our membership, and then send them out into the world. We need them to love, radically, and act on that love to change the world. When you love the world, you can’t help but be hurt by the pain of others. When you love the world, you won’t need to be part of the parade to be an ally. You won’t need dozens of other people dressed like you to feel brave in the face of injustice.

A while back, I found an image about Church being a hospital for broken people. That is partly true. We Unitarian Universalists need to take up the mission to literally Love the Hell out of the World. With this in mind, love really becomes a battle field, and we are fighters in a sort of war against fear, hate, and ignorance. It gets us hurt, to open our hearts to others. We really do share the pain of those who are suffering. Our churches need to be field hospitals. We need to focus on healing people, however large or small their hurts, and sending them back into the world to share love.

It is a radical mission, and one that we already pay lip service to. We need to embrace it. We need to make it personal. We need to focus on the people who show up on Sunday, or any other day, who are injured from loving too hard. When we heal them, they will be able to go out and love more, and when they hurt, they will come back. When they  find others injured in the act of love, they will invite them back, too. When we are doing the spiritual work, we will see the kind of growth that will really sustain us.

We don’t need creeds. Creeds do not save people. We need dedication and love. We need Principles that mean something in the hearts of those who embrace them. We need to be willing to let love guide us to justice and peace, because that is the only way those ideals will last. Love is how we soothe individuals, the salve that they use to heal others, and the salvation that we bring to the world.

This is our fight for the future. This is our world to minster to and make whole. Go, love the Hell out of it.

A Congregation is a Covenant

I had an interesting conversation this weekend about the workings of  Unitarian Universalist congregations, and my congregation specifically. It seems that, at times, people in positions of responsibility feel obliged to pressure members to do things, give things, or accept things that would be good for the Congregation. At other times, I have seen, people who have some authority forget how it feels to be a lowly member with some knowledge or skill that is under valued.

What bothers me about this is the idea that this is someone speaking to another person for the congregation, as though the Congregation is an entity that exists separately from them and is bigger or more important than one or both of the members in this conversation. Officers and staff have appointments, but they must answer to each and every member, because that is where the congregation’s true authority is.

It bothers me because the congregation, to my mind, only exists as the covenant between individuals. There is no promise made to “the congregation”, but the promises made to these people is what makes us a Congregation. If it seems like a small difference, then let me assure you that it completely changes the intent and the tone of conversations when members are addressed as equals by officers and as managers, or even customers, by staff.

If someone comes to me, as a person whom I share a covenant with, and tells me of a need in the community that they think I can help meet, it gives me a  chance to talk to them, tell them what commitments I have that might conflict, or reasons why I may not be able to do the thing that needs to be done. We can talk as friends, or at least as partners in a mission. If I come to them with a concern, and we see each other as equals with a common goal, even where we disagree on the means to move forward, we can operate out of love and respect.

If, instead, I am approached by an officer, letting me know that there is a concern that I am not giving my best to the Congregation, or that they simply need more from me, because I have made promises to this entity that we both serve, there is an uncomfortable pressure, as though the community may look down on me; as though my superior might dole out some consequence. This is how people are coaxed into giving too much, and are burnt out: The Congregation becomes an entity unto itself rather than being built on the covenant between people. When the Congregation is seen as bigger than the members, it becomes easier to forget that covenant must go both ways.

The Congregation is the community, and the community has shared resources that allow us to achieve things together that would be hard for any of us to accomplish alone. It matters that we articulate goals that we all agree to support. It matters that we support each other and that we work together to better our lives and our neighborhoods. The covenant to come together to advance certain goals, to respect one another, and to live out our values in the rest of the world are all promises we make to each other and to ourselves. They should not be pledged to an organization, be it the by-laws of the Congregation or the UUA. These are corporations, inhuman and unfeeling, and we cannot let them have power over the people they were created to serve. We need to remember that, and to treat each and every member as an equal partner, according them the respect and deference that they earn. If it is truly believed that they should give more, talk to them as partners in need. If it is simply that they have a talent or resource that no one else can offer, then negotiate with them to insure that they don’t feel put-upon unduly.

Covenant is a verbal contract. It calls on all parties to uphold certain duties in the promotion of an idea or the progress towards a goal. This is where the congregation should exist, serving to guide us in our covenant. Each person in the congregation needs to be encouraged to take ownership and to feel responsible for the outcomes of projects and fruits of our labors. We share in those outcomes, and we need to feel a call to give, to the best of our ability, to see our mission at work. This isn’t best achieved  through shame or directive, but by working as a community and living up to our covenants.

What we are, what we are not, and what we could be:

We have a name that has never, in our 52 years, spoken to who we are.

We have a dysfunctional claim to Congregational Polity, though some of the membership accounting and so much of the business is dictated from Boston.

We have congregational authority to ordain ministers, granting any sage or fool the title of “Reverend”, yet the UUA sets a high bar for “fellowship” that ensures that only the politically savvy and financially committed receive the blessing of medical care and the chance at a secure retirement.

We have several national campaigns with political focus that, while reflecting our values in general, take the focus off the congregations and the individuals and put them on “issues”.

We have 7 Principles that have no spirit in them, and sound like a UN resolution.

We have 6 sources, but no one cares if you ignore any of them, unless the one you ignore is the one they take personally.

We have 5 “Smooth Stones” which have depth and meaning, but aren’t all that accessible without interpretation and aren’t officially part of the bylaws the way the Principles and Sources are (though they are folded into the sources and they are cannibalized for the Principles.)

What we don’t have is an identity.

What we don’t have is unity of purpose. (Is it possible to be a Unitarian Universalist without “humanist”, “Christian”, “Pagan” or some other modifier?)

What we don’t have is a focus on personal growth and development.

We have a problem, and we keep trying to act as though it is the solution.

We claim to want to be “A religion for our time”, while failing, by most standards, to be a religion at all.

I love the promise of Unitarian Universalism, but it is a promise that is not being kept; potential being squandered.

I am not alone in being disillusioned by the traditions and momentum of our religion. Most young adults seem to share some of these concerns. Some are content to wait until we inherit leadership. A few are trying to work with the system. There have been Unitarian Universalist, even among our clergy, claiming that we have no future. I refuse to just watch. I refuse to simply wait for my turn. I refuse to “work with” a system that clearly doesn’t work.

I am evangelical about my liberal faith, grounded in multiple sources and aspiring to create a kind of heaven here on Earth; a bloved community of equals. My faith is not what Unitarian Universalism is today, but what we have today won’t last another 20 years if we don’t find and embrace a center. We cannot be “a religion for our time” if what we focus on is politics. We cannot expect people to come to us if we don’t focus on people. We cannot expect spiritual leadership from politicians and “organizers”. We need to be bold in our faith, so that we can find it again, if we ever hope to make it into something we can share.

Metablog: Blogging for the Future of Unitarian Universalism.

I once had an idea of becoming a social media guy. Becoming an expert in an emerging field seemed like a good idea, and this was a field that I had both interest and relevant experience in. That was a short lived goal, as I saw that the only way to reach it was just to jump in with both feet. I quickly understood that you couldn’t become a social media guy; you had to just do it and prove yourself.

I’ve got a decent number of followers on Twitter, where I post a lot of links and quotes. My Tumblr is getting a fair number of likes with similar content, plus some observations that I intend to be thought provoking. I have 2 Facebook pages with several hundred fans each. What I am really invested in, though, has become content creation. I have started trying to create sharable images, with some success, that spread UU (small p) principles and ideas, helping others share those mutual concepts of faith. Most of my efforts, though, have been going into writing.

The fact is that this is what I am doing, right now. I don’t have a regular job. I take care of my mother and the kids and I write and “curate” links and, more and more often, create some visual piece that I feel should be shared. I’ve taken time off for other obligations, but I feel like I owe it to myself to come back to this and prove that my blog is a serious effort.

One thing I have learned about myself in this effort: I enjoy seeing other people respond to the things that I publish. I love seeing people share my thoughts and images on Facebook with their friends, knowing that I have given them a way to talk about their faith when they might not have done so otherwise. I love putting ideas in terms that people can understand, even when they disagree, because starting a conversation where there was none fosters deeper contemplation, which is the only way to build real understanding. I have seen how people respond when they find something that helps them say what has been in their hearts, and it is amazing.

In the information age, anyone can sermonize. There are millions of people now able to rant, rave, and ramble about any number of topics, and there are plenty of people blogging about religion. Most of them are just screaming into the aether. While I am not awash in comments, though, I clearly do have people sharing links to my blog and talking about the ideas that I present.

That interaction is what I work for. I’d love to find a way to monetize it at some point, but I am more gratified to know that people are thinking thoughts and pondering ideas in new ways because of what I have crafted. I am a blogger, and you, dear reader, make that a worthwhile endeavor.

The state of technology is that everyone can be a preacher. Everyone can be a journalist. Everyone can be an advertising agency. The only thing that differentiates the random weirdo from someone with real reach is the ability to incite conversation. That is also the state of religion and of politics. Being able to shape the conversation by creating the talking points and giving people the confidence to express themselves. It is only by recognizing those who have the ability to shape and stimulate conversation that we can ensure that people hear our message of salvation. We don’t need to sell it, but we need to make it accessible and we need to get people talking and asking questions.

I am proud that I am part of this movement, and that it still has life in it, despite many declarations from inside as well as out. We are still in a position to be part of the new awakening that America is headed for. If we choose to be faithful and bold, then we can ensure that love, acceptance, and respect win this time around. The world wants reason along side fulfillment. They want something that reflects how small the world has gotten and how connected the human race is becoming. We reflect that, already.

So I thank all of my readers and fellow bloggers. I thank those who are trying to create a missional form of Unitarian Universalism. I thank those who are participating in the discussion, and leading our congregations forward. I have often said that we have something great to offer. Now I am saying that we have a great opportunity before us as well. We have to use it by talking to people and making our message personal. Saving the world will come from the ground up, once we focus our religion on saving people from the culture that we hope to change. Culture is made of people, and saving the people will change the change the world.