Everyone else is doing it: Logo edition

This is a short post with my fairly unrefined thoughts on the new UA Logo.

Firstly, it is the corporate logo of the national organization. I like it less than the current logo, which I like less than the previous one. It feels like we are visually moving further from the Universalists, which is where our core message is these days. I do appreciate that it looks less… forced than the last logo, which seemed like someone was told to take the Flaming Chalice and Circles and make it look “clean”. It wasn’t at all inspiring to me. This one isn’t either, but it at least looks like this was designed from the start to look like a logo, rather than taking the existing image and making it look corporate. It isn’t moving, but it is eye-catching.

I wish it looked more like a chalice (I see a torch) and the circle was our nod to the Universalists old image, and I will miss it. I do like the font, and I like it in red, though I am not sure how I feel about the fading color gradient. It was pointed out, and I cannot now ignore, that it looks rather like a tongue.

There has been much made that this is just the first release in a wave of new outreach. We are targeting the millennial generation and those who have never been part of a religion before, to tell them how we are different. That is a good thing. They need to be told, and I’ve devoted a LOT of my time over the last few years to trying to get the word out. I am eager to see what else they have planned. I hope it is more inspiring than this image is.

Finally, though, I worry about the text. Not the font, but the actual words. It says “Unitarian Universalist Association” down at the bottom. That, to me, misses the mark in one very real way, and one that is complete fantasy. First, the organization that this new image represents is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. That last part matters. The UUA is not the leading end of Unitarian Universalism. Our religion starts in the hearts of the individual, is shaped in the congregations, is mobilized by the covenant between the congregations, and the UUA is there to moderate that covenant. Without those two final words, we miss the chance to tell people that their involvement at the congregational level is the driving force behind Unitarian Universalism. We miss the chance to make it clear that our congregations each have their own way of doing worship, and just because you didn’t like one 5 years ago shouldn’t stop you from visiting another, or even the same one again, because they are each empowered to find their own tone and tempo, and to change it as needed.

The other thing that I wish they had spent energy and money on, which they have no real power to do (as outlined in the last thought) is to look at the real hurdle we face in communicating who we are. The real albatross is that name; those two long, technical sounding, non-descriptive words. What does “Unitarian Universalist” mean to us at this point? We need to either take the time to define that term, or to come up with a new name that can mean something to the movement we’ve become. It may take some time before we can find words that fit well enough to please people, but maybe that would have been a better use of resources if our goal is being approachable and inviting.

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.

Parades, Protests, and/or Prayer

“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”
John Piper

This is how I sometimes feel about the Unitarian Universalist involvement in Pride Parades, protests, and “volunteer opportunities”.

I went to Pride Day once before I joined my Congregation. It was fun, though I spent a good portion of the parade tying protesters up in discussion, telling them things they needed to know about their Bible. I enjoyed the festival after and got a lot of really great information at the booths. More over, I was there as an ally, and a person who wanted to be around other people who were, at least for the day, unashamed of who they really were and what their families look like. I wasn’t part of a group or movement; I was just a friend who wanted to celebrate their lives with them.

I’ve been to Pride Day 3 times since joining Horizon, and each time I was a participant in the parade, and I spent at least a little time in our booth, telling people about who we are and what we believe, and mostly handing out free water, because it is really hot in Texas in September. It is fun, and it does lead to some good conversation, but I’m not gay. No one in my immediate family is gay, or even bisexual, as far as they are telling. I’m not active in an outreach program. I’m not an official member of any kind of political organization. I just go to a church; a welcoming, Universalist, liberal church, but that earns me a place in the parade. We march, as a group. Why?

Are we really there for support? Are we there to tell the LGBT community that they aren’t going to hell? If they were worried about it, our simple presence in the parade isn’t likely to assure them. Are we there because LGBT church members want to show off their community? If so, why aren’t they our organizers, and why are they outnumbered? Are we just there as part of our ongoing membership drive? It certainly seems like this is at least part of the reason we are handing out fans with the 7 Principles printed on them.

Why do we celebrate civil disobedience? Is it solely because we want to see people moved to do brave things, or is it because it means a headline now and then? Headlines aren’t bad things, mind you, but they aren’t missional. They are sound-bites; the snack cake of wisdom: sweet, but void of nutrition. They don’t feed the intellect or the soul.

We do a lot of work, which is right for us. We are a humanist faith, as much as we are any other type, believing in the necessity of action. One of the 5 Smooth Stones, which form the bedrock of our faith, is the need to manifest goodness, creating it in the world around us. James Luther Adams tells us that a liberal faith, sincerely held, must “express itself in societal forms”, creating institutions to enshrine liberty, education, and justice in our nation. Still, he says of “individual virtue” that it “is a prerequisite for societal virtues.” I will go a step further, restating the theme of my last post, and say that sincere individual virtue obligates us to manifest social virtues. In short, if the church were helping us to be spiritually healthy, then the protests and the celebrations would come as naturally to us as showing up on Sunday or calling a friend on her birthday. It would be an obligation of the spirit and of our sense of community, rather than a commandment from the pulpit or the newsletter.

At what point does our mission to gather after service and carpool to the Parade simply mirror the pilgrimage of the fundamentalist group, where members may not have strong feeling about the LGBT community, but feel compelled to protest the calls for equality as a sign of their faith?

We don’t need publicized missions. We don’t need uniforms. We don’t need national campaigns designed around visibility. We need people, moved by faith, doing good in every part of their lives. If we can inspire that, then we will already have changed the world.

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.

Unitarian Universalism: Cult of Rationality

A lot of people on the internet, and presumably in the real world, spend a lot of time denouncing religions. Some seem to make a career denouncing all of them, some a crusade of denouncing a particular one, and many make a personal brand by denouncing all but one. Religion is a very personal thing, and a very contentious issue.

Religion is nearly impossible to define. Almost all definitions will be seen by some as being either too narrow or too broad. Buddhism, for instance, encompasses many schools of thought, several of which teach little or nothing about “God” or the supernatural. There are many who argue that this excludes Buddhism from the list of religions, and many who argue just as passionately that it does not; and there are both adherents and critics of both sides on of that debate. There are a great many hours of reading to be done arguing about whether Atheism is a religious belief, going so far as to ask the judicial system of the USA for a ruling and the creation of denominations of disbelief.

I would like to avoid debating the word religion, so let me refer to Merriam-Webster:

1a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion>

 b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3archaic: scrupulous conformity :conscientiousness
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Now, Unitarian Universalism clearly has a set of Principles, though their status in the movement is poorly understood. It has many causes, which no one is required to take up to be considered part of the movement, so we likely fail that criterion. We have no universal practices (no pun intended). I would like to think that the one place where we currently meet the definition is that we do attempt to promote an attitude of love and gratitude. Still, I have my own doubts as to whether the UUA actually speaks for a religion, or is just an association of groups that want to feel like part of something bigger. The truth is somewhere in the middle, I am sure.

That being said, there is a movement that has formed around the UUA. There are people who believe in the 7 Principles as a guideline for sharing the world more peacefully. Groups are forming to spread the message that it is ok to be yourself, even if you aren’t everything you could be just yet. There is a movement, happening almost in spite of the traditions and leadership of the UUA, that wants to make the world a better place, and believes that Unitarian Universalism can help make it happen.

Like religion, “cult” is a hard word to define. Most of the places it appears on the internet seem to be using the definition “belief I find weird”, while others simplify it to “belief I don’t hold”. The original concept in anthropology was that of a splinter group within a broader religion that placed emphasis on a single figure or idea, giving it higher status than was orthodox, such as the Hindus who revere Krishna, or the Catholics who elevate Marry to near divinity. Unitarian Universalism has no position within a larger religion, ruling out this definition. The original sociological use of the word “cult” was to denote groups with limited structure and dogma, as opposed to those that were highly organized. These were often break-away groups that had fallen away from some more established group and had yet to find their own structure. This description fits Unitarian Universalism quite well. We broke away from our Christian roots, having given up the ideas of human-form deities and eternal rejection by a perfect, loving creator. We embraced those parts of other religious traditions which complimented the things we held on to, and we sought to understand what else they could teach us about the human condition. Being a collection of seekers, we have not spent enough time trying to hammer out a decent governing structure; if anything, we’ve invested a lot of work into making sure that the structure we have is inefficient and incapable of enforcing much at all in the way of standards. This, then, could make us a cult, though only in an archaic sense that few people intend when ascribing the word to Unitarian Universalists.

So, are we a religion? There is no way to build a consensus. Are we a cult? If so, it is only because we reject the idea that older ideas are always better as loudly as we reject the idea that there should be a mandatory retirement age on revelation; a maximum length of service, after which pearls of wisdom expire. We embrace science, while remembering that science is a series of guesses, constantly being proven incomplete and inadequate, constantly growing in scope and shifting in focus. We embrace the wisdom of ages and the teachings that have helped carry various cultures through history. We understand that there are needs in the human soul and that neither science or philosophy alone can fill those needs in all people.

We are a cult, built around the idea of love and respect for all of creation, of which we are a part. We believe that there is one human race, adn it is housed entirely on the planet Earth, and that the fate of each one of us, and our whole species, is ultimately bound to the fate of the whole planet. We believe that no amount of quiet prayer has ever achieved more than reverent action.

If we are a cult, then it is one dedicated to relationships and community. If we are a religion, then it is one that is still wrestling with its Principles and beliefs. If we have a future, it is because we understand that the universe is constantly being revealed to us, and that there is always more to learn. We are a young movement, but we have a lot to offer. Call Unitarian Universalism anything you like, but once we figure out what we really want to be, we just might be the religion for the new millennium.