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.

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Why Unitarian Universalist Must Embrace Evangelism

My normal blog entry works up to a point. I spend time on the facts and details and build my case before making the statement that I am trying to convince readers of. Not today. Today, I think my point is pretty clear, and while I will back it up below, I want to make it now and tell you exactly why Unitarian Universalists need to create a form of evangelism that works for us:

People need us to tell them about our loving, inclusive faith communities. We need people to join us in our work to create and expand our beloved community.

I recently took the time to again listen to a presentation that Peter Morales and Don Southworth gave in 2000 about Unitarian Universalist Evangelism. It is a great presentation, and I highly recommend listening to it. There is an MP3 for it, which can be found on UUA.org, near the top of an article entitled “Evangelism: Letting Our Love Reach Out“. In this presentation, Rev. Morales say that he feels shame when he hears people say things like, “I was a UU for 20 years, but didn’t know it.” He says, rightly in my opinion, “…it means that we haven’t done the very simple thing of communicating who we are.”

On that same page, the UUA itself claims that we have a responsibility to reach out to others, and tell them who we are while we are working to improve our communities. As they put it, “Evangelism is the natural result of a deep belief that we Unitarian Universalists have something important and precious to offer. Evangelism is founded on the beliefs that people have a need for religious community, for deep relationships, for spiritual exploration, for social involvement.”

That is the first half of my claim: People need us. They need to know that they can be loved for who they are, even as we encourage them toward spiritual and personal growth. There are people looking for what we provide. They want us to find them, and we should want them to find us.

I feel like the second part of my thesis shouldn’t need to be defended, but I’m not known for being brief.

We need to share our Principles. They are 7 imperfect statements that form a very functional framework for how humans can share our planet and its limited resources with the rest of creation. If we agree that we should “affirm and promote” them, then we should be eager to tell people about them and how they shape our lives, individually and as communities who gather around them. Certainly, not everyone is ready to embrace them all, but if we can find even one that a person agrees with, then we can find problems that we can agree to work together on.

More over, I firmly believe that people who are exposed to diversity learn to see it as a positive thing that makes a community more adaptable and capable of addressing a wider range of problems. I believe that an educated person will see that a rational approach to the world, as opposed to one guided primarily by superstition, will see that reason and scientific study have solved many more problems than has faith alone, and I hope they will see that science and religion do not have to be at odds when each is given its proper authority. Crucially, I believe that a person who has embraced both diversity and education will find themselves more drawn to liberal religion. It is a position held by a great many fundamentalist, too, who denounce reason and learning, lest their flock find their teachings too constrictive.

If we share, we will grow. Even those who do not join a UUA-member congregation will still be better allies for our social justice and outreach. Our willingness to speak up and define ourselves will help us find partners, and it will help those who already embrace our values become members of our communities and our movement.

We have to be willing to speak of the salvation we offer; salvation from oppression and self-doubt. We need to believe that we have a message worth sharing. We need to stop being embarrassed by the language of religion, and start challenging ownership of ideas like God, Sin, and Spirit.

We need a Unitarian Universalist form of Evangelism that involves more than protests and Pride floats. We need to wear our affiliation proudly when we go out in the world and do good, whether it is volunteering at a food bank or just giving a tourist directions. We need to let the world know that our faith shapes our lives, and that there is a faith for those who want to bring a type of heaven to everyone here on Earth.

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.

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.