Evanston4All = Evanston for All!

I want to tell you about Evanston’s Sanctuary Resolution that we will vote on next Sunday at 10:00 a.m.

Last year, after the presidential election, interfaith clergy in Evanston gathered for our monthly luncheon. For years we have talked about how to work together for the common good. The election hit us, as a group, hard. We knew there was hard work ahead.

We asked, “What can we do?” So the Evanston interfaith community “gathered on the side of love” at Fountain Square to commit ourselves to action—to side with, as the Hebrew Scriptures teach, the “orphan, widow, and stranger.” In the Bible, the idea of stranger specifically includes the immigrant, the stranger to your land who brings both discomfort and gifts.

We said that very cold November day we would consider the ideas of sanctuary and solidarity, and at the next clergy lunch up went sign-up sheets for what would become three “Evanston4All” teams: a Faith Resource Team; a Solidarity Response Team; a Uniting Voices Team.

Rev. Eileen has been working with the Evanston4All Solidarity Response Team, which would respond to events like immigration raids or hate-based acts in non-violent ways. I have been co-leading the Faith Resources Team to provide theological grounding, speakers, and liturgy for Evanston faith-based public rallies and solidarity gatherings. Finally, there is our Uniting Voices Team to educate and rebuild through non-violent communication, cooperation, courageous dialogue, and shared action.

Dozens of congregations and community organizations have been participating, learning, and training—and now it is our turn to respond as a leader institution in Evanston. From Evanston4All’s work, the interfaith coalition has written a Community Sanctuary Resolution for us to adopt. A team of lawyers with specializations in immigration law has vetted the language, and the document’s brilliance is that is does not dictate how UCE, or any individual congregation, will be a “sanctuary.” Instead, it offers many choices on ways we can live into our aspirations to comfort and aid the most vulnerable among us in these times. There are far more choices in the document than any one congregation can implement, but that is the point. We must work together.

We held a rally on November 12 to introduce the resolution to the community. You can read about who showed up here.

On December 17th UCE will have a special Sunday of Solidarity. We will begin with a short service at 9:15 where we will sing, reflect on the Christmas message as it relates to our times, and celebrate as always our commitment to justice. At 10:00 we will gather to vote on Evanston’s Sanctuary Community Resolution, which, again, says not what actions we will take (that comes next!) but that we will work with other communities of faith in Evanston to do all we can, in our own ways, as a community of solidarity, strength, and hope. Evanston’s mayor and police chief have both spoken in support of this resolution. I hope that you, too, will vote “yes” on this resolution for which Evanston’s entire interfaith community has worked for a year. It is a gift to our congregation and all our neighbors.

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Frogs in a tank

Many years ago I enjoyed keeping a fish tank which I would stare into mindlessly whenever a bad case of writer’s block would hit. My last one was like a little Zen water garden with exotic, slow moving goldfish and delicate plants that invited me into a mesmerizing little 10-gallon world. After an unfortunate tank accident, the goldfish and I parted ways.

I kept the filter and gravel for a long time, and during a slow writing time in seminary I decided to jump back into keeping fish.  at a garage sale I found a tank, so it was off to the fish store where I purchased two fancy goldfish, $2.50 each. Before leaving the store I noticed some tiny frogs which were playfully darting up to the top of a tank for air. The store attendant said the frogs wouldn’t grow much larger than an inch and could live with goldfish, eating whatever food floated to the bottom of the tank. I wanted them.  I had to have them.

At $3,50 each, they were mine!

For the first several weeks the two frogs lived in a tiny conch shell at the bottom of the tank. They always seemed to be hungry, and I called them my hungry ghosts after the Buddhist beings with throats so small they can never be satisfied. By the time the frogs had doubled in size, they started lunging after the goldfish, which I discovered on the Web is a favorite food.

I also discovered  that my new pets were African Clawed Frogs, and like the store attendant said, they live their entire lives, up to 15 years, completely submerged. That’s where truth-in-salesmanship ended. Small? Full grown they would reach the size of a fist. Scavengers? No, completely carnivorous, preferring to gulp down small goldfishes whole. To dissuade them from eating my other pets, I fed them minnows, which they considered appetizers. My goldfish were in a constant state of panic, my peaceful underwater Zen garden now a zone of carnage.

I had a decision to make: goldfish or frogs. I thought about all the personality my frogs had:  Their favorite pose was to float on top of the water, arms outstretched, as if in meditation. They often snuggled next to each other in the little hallowed out log on the bottom of the tank. Other times they swam playfully in long arcs from one end of the tank to the other. When I cleaned the tank they grabbed my fingers and harmlessly nibbled on me. They were actually trying to eat me but I’m bigger than them and they have no teeth. I finally gave the slow swimming fancy fish to a neighbor’s kids, bought some faster swimmers, and settled into the idea that I would own my Clawed African Frogs for a very long time.

A shorter version of this story is to be my “story for all ages” on Sunday, for I’ve always thought of this story as a good illustration for the phrase “you might not get what you want, but you get what you need.” Over the years (many), my frogs did give me much to think about. They opened up spiritual work for me around animal totems. They reminded me on a daily basis of the spiritual trap of unfulfilled hunger and consumption — and the myth of the hungry ghosts. The illustration isn’t perfect, but it does make me think about the difference between what I think I want and the different outcome I often get. My life has many times been blessed in that tension.

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A Week In the Life of a Working Pastor

People know ministers as busy people, but what our weeks look like is shrouded in some mystery. With so many pulls on our time, attention, and hearts, carefully compartmentalizing tasks is essential to serving you well. Here is what a typical week in ministry looks like.

Monday

My work week begins on Tuesday morning since I take my “Sabbath” on Mondays. I’m careful not to schedule anything on the Sabbath because I’m fitting most of a regular two-day weekend into one day. Sometimes I have to spend Monday reading in preparation for the Sunday service if I know the week is going to be a demanding one, but I keep things on a quiet level.

Tuesday

On Tuesday morning, I usually spend between two and four hours catching up on your e-mail from the weekend, as well as making phone calls. By Tuesday afternoon I’m focused on worship service planning. This includes picking hymns and readings, coordination music or special tech elements, and making sure the time for all ages is squared away. The staff often needs my attention on Tuesday to debrief things that came up on Sunday morning or to ask for assistance with their various goals for the week. I have five “reports,” and I love working with staff to make sure they are supported. Once a month the Chicago-area minister’s Tuesday meeting is scheduled, so on those weeks I usually prepare the order of service on Monday.

A typical week might start like this, plus Sunday.

Wednesday

Wednesday usually sees me meeting with congregants and congregational/community leaders. Pastoral calls come up throughout the week, but if I can, I try to do them Wednesday morning. I often have community meetings as well. I focus on office and administrative work in the afternoons, which includes filing, report writing (generally two or three a month), financial matters, and wrapping up my email backlog.

In a recent study by LifeWay research, ministry-related meetings and electronic correspondence can drive the number of hours a pastor works beyond the median of 55 hours, with 42 percent of pastorals now working 60 or more. 70-80 hour weeks are not uncommon. E-mail and other electronic correspondence eat up between two and six hours a week for half of these pastors surveyed, while 14 percent indicate they spend at least 10 hours a week in electronic correspondence. I would definitely be in the latter group; this is a very communicative congregation, and I’m involved with various activities at the local, regional, and national levels.

Thursday

Thursday is “staff day.” It begins with an Executive Team meeting at 9am followed by a general staff meeting. In the afternoon, I meet with individual staff and our intern to provide weekly supervision as her “teaching pastor.” Thursday afternoon I’m blessed to be able to play trombone for an hour with our three other church trombonists, and then I try and tie up my week so I can focus on the sermon on Friday.

Friday

Friday is my writing day if I’m lucky. According to church consultant Thom Rainer, most pastors spend 10-18 hours a week preparing the Sunday message. The UUA recommends that churches allow ministers to devote 30 percent of their time to the Sunday service, or 15-20 hours. My average, I would say, is 16 hours to research, organize, coordinate, write, and rehearse—so my writing “day” always stretches into Saturday. Friday is also when I write newsletter articles and finish board reports that may be due that evening.

Saturday

Saturday is time to catch-up on email from Friday, more writing, and time for workshops, weddings, memorial services, local events, and congregational social activities. I almost also conduct a service run-through or rehearsal on Saturday afternoon to make sure everything reads the way it should and to check the tech.

You’ll notice I have left out a few things: evening meetings, emergency visits to the hospital, church crises that need immediate attention, social justice events and outreach, and some of the many things we share in our church life. Welcome to a week in the life of your ministers.

And then it’s Sunday once again!

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Call the Minister

In the PBS show Call the Midwife, it’s usually clear when to call the midwife. Nature is pretty good that way. “You’ll know when to call,” the professionals tell expectant mothers, and they do!

Getting in touch with a minister is very much the same process, when you want us, just call! You’ll know when.

There are so many reasons to call: You or a loved one find themselves suddenly in the hospital, wanting a visit. There is something in your life that has thrown you off balance, and you’d like a listening ear or spiritual support. You’ve experienced a significant loss, or are having an experience you don’t feel you can tell anyone. Maybe you’d like to let the community know what is happening in your life and don’t know how to get it into “Joys and Sorrows.”

Sometimes people don’t call because they think the minister knows, or should know, what is happening, or they hesitate calling because they don’t want to be a bother. First, it’s never a bother. Second, when a community grows to a size like ours, it’s impossible for any one person to track all the individual needs of our church. We are making changes to do better, and in the fall we will have a more robust, and of course secure, database system to tracks calls.

My heart breaks when I learn that someone wanted a call or visit and I didn’t know until it’s too late. Unless you call the church and speak with a staff member, don’t assume that information has been passed along, or that I know how often you’d like to talk or visit. I, or someone on our lay or professional pastoral support team, do try and call when we suspect there is an issue. But it’s true: In a church, ministers are the “first or last to know anything.”

Sometimes there are good reasons members don’t want calls or visits, so I never assume anything. They may be private people, or there may be an overwhelming amount of covenant group support (I hear this a lot, and it’s a good thing), or they prefer quiet to conversation. I never take it personally when people don’t want to see me.

Sometimes things fall through the cracks. I might miss a Facebook post, or a Caring Bridge post winds up in my spam folder. Both of these have happened this year, and connections were missed as a result. Please, if you want a minister or pastoral care team member to call or visit, do let us know.

How? For a response within 24 hours, you can call the church office or my Google voicemail, 773-800-9550, which sends me your message. If you want to call my cell phone for immediate contact, the front office can provide that information to members of the church. A note: I usually have my cell phone in sleep mode after 9pm (which automatically drops calls to voicemail), but if you call twice in three minutes, you get around that feature and can reach me 24 hours a day. I trust you’ll use that feature mindfully. I have had to block one or two folks over the years who’ve repeatedly used that feature to call me about church business at 11pm. Nope. It’s there for when you need it.

Once we’ve made contact, we can arrange for a hospital visit or pastoral counseling in my office. I’m often asked, how does pastoral counseling work? Pastoral counseling is different than therapy or clinical counseling in that ministers don’t diagnose mental health concerns. A minister is trained to listen and be a spiritual guide. Sometimes that means we may be more direct than a therapist when you ask for advice. Sometimes our role is less direct than a therapist when you tell me you just want a listening ear—someone with whom you can share a story. Pastoral counseling is also not on-going. The expectation is that after three or four sessions, a member is ready to move on or be referred to a clinical therapist. During grief work following a trauma or significant loss, care might extend for a longer period—but always with the expectation that the member will be getting “therapy,” if needed, by a mental health professional.

The bottom line is this: If you want a minister to call or visit, just let us know. So … coming this fall to PBS … It’s “Call the Minister!” (Not really…)

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Tell me all your thoughts on God

The one-hit wonder band Dishwalla’s song “Counting Blue Cars” might be an anthem for all who wonder about the big question of “God?”:

Tell me all your thoughts on God
‘Cause I would really like to meet her
And ask her why we’re who we are.
Tell me all your thoughts on God
‘Cause I am on my way to see her
So tell me am I very far, am I very far now? …
And ask many questions
Like children often do

On Monday, I decided to ask about a few of your thoughts on God with an online “flash survey,” which if you’d like to take, is still accepting submissions:

https://goo.gl/forms/nMaasSohRW9tciej1

The result has been fascinating, and a little unexpected. Although I asked in the survey for folks to try and pick one guiding theology, many ignored that advice and picked a few. I’m glad you did, because I saw three overlapping theologies that seem to have captured our imaginations. I’ve learned that most of us identify as agnostic (we don’t know if God exists or not), humanist (whether God exists or not doesn’t influence our behavior or commitment to human progress), and transcendentalist (we see the idea of God represented throughout Nature). We have a few avowed atheists who believe that God does not exists, and a few theists, who believe in a traditional notion of God. But that’s not most of us. So much for the so-called atheist/theist divide of yesteryear. Today, we’re clumped up much more in the middle. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for atheist or theist beliefs in our community. Our commitment to diversity of belief guarantees a place in the conversation for all who attend our church. What this survey insight suggests is that we must be more gentle in our assertions of “who we are,” for we aren’t as we’ve always been — and probably never have been.

This middle path sets us up for productive conversations around the issue of the concept of God. Thinking of God as a person creates all kinds of theological problems. What kind of person would do bad things to good people? What kind of person would create a world of inequity and suffering? What kind of person would treat their children with such indifference?

On the other hand, thinking of God as a process, concept, or framework for understanding the whole of Nature can be productive—and is really how progressive theologies approach the “big questions” of how to make meaning in a world as complex and paradoxical as ours. These are the religious ideas that have always excited my search for truth and meaning.

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Entitlement

People often struggle with the word “entitlement.” What does it mean? Do I have it?

Here’s an example. I was investigating an online eyeglass store this week and looked at the reviews. It seemed like all the reviews were either five stars or one. That didn’t make a lot of sense, so I started reading the one star reviews. Most of them read something like this:

  • “I’ve bought ten eyeglasses from this company and they’ve all been great. My most recent pair had a screw missing. These people stink!”
  • “I’ve been buying glasses from this company from the beginning. I didn’t like my last pair. So uncomfortable. Too much bother to send them back and wait for a new pair. These people stink!”
  • I bought glasses from them and they broke. I called customer service and even though they were out of warranty, they said they’d replace them. But they say I have to pay for shipping. I’m not going to do that. These people stink!” 

So many of the reviews were from people expecting to pay super discounted prices and get absolute perfection, even though the company has a liberal return policy. Many of the reviews were for people who thought they deserved a longer return policy, or didn’t think the rules were fair.  Not perfection = one star.

These are some hallmarks of entitlement:

  1. The rules don’t apply to me.
  2. If it’s not perfect, someone needs to fix it.
  3. Someone owes me something I assumed I deserved.

But I sure hope the glasses I ordered are perfect. My entitlement isn’t entitlement. I deserve only the best, but I shouldn’t have to pay for it.

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If you’re not a woman, it’s a pink hat

Men. Stop calling the wonderful pink knit caps donned in the women’s march, and everywhere it seems, using the p-word. It’s not our word. They’re not our bodies. It’s not our oppression. We don’t get to use that word.

As allies, men, we can show respect and solidarity by donning our kitty hats, pink hats, women’s march hats, whatever-you-want-to-call-them hats—but not with a word that has long been offensive to women when used in public.

Often oppressed groups co-opt words used to denigrate them as mechanisms of empowerment. But for the same reason that I, as a White person, am not going to use the n-word to refer to a Black person, I’m not going to use a word just because women are choosing to use as an act of public resistance. It’s just not our word to use. We might be reminded, also, that the word was chosen because it’s the specific word our president used  disrespectfully toward women.

This is about the common conditions into which some people are born in our society, and others aren’t. In the words of Marc Lamont Hill, Professor of African American Studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, “I might see Trinidad James on the street and call him ‘my nigga.’ You know why? Because he is my nigga. And the difference between Trinidad James and you, is that Trinidad James has to deal with the same oppressive situations. He was born into a world where anti-black racism prevails. He lives in a world where police might shoot him on the street no matter how much money he has. We share a collective condition known as ‘nigga.’ White people don’t.”

Women are born into a patriarchy where misogyny, glass ceilings, systemic oppression, and violence against their bodies are real threats. That they took to the streets this week wearing pink hats, in such numbers, is an inspiration. That men joined them is also inspiring. Just don’t call it that. Show some respect!

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Dog posts and Facebook

IMG_0705A while back, someone gently nudged me about my political inactivity on Facebook. In other words, why am I posting about things like kitchen updates, musical and technical curiosities, and my dog (especially my dog) when the country is going the way it is and there are so many ministers publishing beautiful manifestos via social media. I’ve been thinking about this situation since it was brought to my attention. Why don’t I publish manifestos, daily lamentations about the state of the union, and articles supporting my precious views? Let me count the ways: 

1. Most of those who follow me agree with my politics. Why waste time telling you all what you already know and feel. If you want to know how I feel, and what we can do about spreading peace and love in the world, come to church on Sunday. We’ll talk at coffee hour.

2. Pay attention. I do share interesting articles when I don’t see them being picked up EVERYWHERE else.

3. Since I do have many conservative family members and uniformed colleagues, maybe I should post incendiary material to change their world views. Yeah, right. I love a vigorous discussion when I’m with my beloved family and friends, if the politics of the day come up. However, I have no illusions that social media does anything other than erode relationships. In a bigly way, if you need an example.

4. Facebook, aside from what I post on the church page(s), is to me primarily a way to connect with friends spread around the country, even world. They want to know about my new kitchen.

5. And my dog is awesome and worthy of daily posts.

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Visiting the yUUrt at Standing Rock

img_1023-jpgThe Bismarck North Dakota Unitarian Universalist Congregation has been the only Bismarck community of faith that has publicly supported the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. It was an honor to visit the main camp yesterday to see the ongoing witness of the hearty Water Protectors who are weathering sub-zero temperatures over the winter. Tribal elders has asked for no more responders to come to Standing Rock. Our UU Trauma Response Team is here in Bismarck to support the congregation and to facilitate some conversations around its role. The Fellowship has done some amazing work transporting and housing supporters, moving supplies, and building an interfaith shelter for religious leaders.

Photo: Bret Lortie and Rosemary Bray McNatt at the Interfaith yUUrt at Standing Rock. 
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Care for the Caregivers

Once or twice a year I am asked, as a member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Ministry team, to assist a congregation dealing with extraordinary events. Often it is a disaster or tragedy. For example, the last two congregations to which I responded were dealing with the aftermaths of a tornado and a murder-suicide, respectively.

This time I’ve been asked to come to Bismarck, North Dakota, to assist our congregation that has been supporting the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. It’s a unique “deployment” for a few reasons. First, the action isn’t over, and while the Standing Rock camp has asked for out-of-town campers to disband for the winter, or when called back, it doesn’t feel like the last activity here has transpired. We are clearly in the middle of something that is ongoing.

Second, the feelings surrounding this action aren’t all negative. There have been small victories, such as halting Army Corps plans, and many connections have been made between the indigenous peoples of this area, mostly Lakota and Dakota, and residents of neighboring communities.

My role here has been primarily to help the Bismarck congregation understand the lifecycle of a critical incident such as this, to provide some pastoral care to the caregivers, and to support the minister with whatever she might need. Sometimes that’s lending a listening ear. Sometimes that’s just working side-by-side on stuff that’s fallen through the cracks. Today I did pastoral counseling, picked up lunches, measured shelving for a library that’s been turned into logistics storage, and led a workshop.

img_1018-jpgIt wasn’t clear if I would visit the primary camp during this visit. As an ally I’m here to support those supporting the Water Protectors in whatever way they ask for assistance. The minister, here, let camp leadership know our of team’s presence and what we might offer. An invitation for us to come visit the camp came this morning, and tomorrow we will facilitate some conversations, meet leaders, and (most importantly) listen to the stories of this campaign to protect the living waters that sustain life from here to the Gulf coast. I am honored to be invited into that circle.

The messages of Unitarian Universalism are spreading: we act for justice and love conquers hate. When we show up — ready to listen, hungry to learn, eager to contribute as asked — we leave a mark of faith behind that is so much larger than our numbers. Of all the congregations in this capitol city, the UU church is the ONLY one that has responded to the situation at Standing Rock, just an hour south of town. I am proud of this congregation, as I am to the Unitarian Church of Evanston for allowing me the time to come here and contribute in whatever small way we can.

Photo: The site of the sacred fires that burned 24-hours a day when the camp was active. They were extinguished only after Tribal Elders asked for supporters to leave camp for the time being. Many outside supporters found themselves unprepared for the sub-zero temperatures and deadly wind chill. 
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I want my Christmas Presence!

Yes, I meant to write presence and not presents. This month’s Soul Matters theme asks, “What does it mean to be a community of Presence?” As a Soul Matters congregation, each month we ask ourselves to look at our relationship to a different spiritual theme.

The idea of “presence” is an apt one for the holiday season. We may idealize the time of Advent, for example, into a pastoral scene of quiet nights and sheep covered hills. Not even close. It reminds me of a trip I took one Christmas to the beach in Texas, where a “White Christmas” means heading to the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast. Cindy and I had peaceful images in our minds of walking along chilly winter sandscapes, skipping stones on waves, and watching pelicans hunt for fish and crabs. As we walked down to the waves, we asked, “now what’s that smell?” We began to see a few dead fish, not that unusual, until the single fishes turned into piles, then mounds, then literally small hills of dead fish. Some large fish were half embedded in the sand, just their fins exposed or tails protruding. Others were just heaps of bones. It turns out we had arrived just after the largest red-tide fish kill in known to the region: some 8 million fish were estimated by the Fish and Game Department to be taking their final rest on our beach.

Well, I thought, at least there was to be a starry night. We returned to the campground, but everyone in the campground was coughing. It sounded like some kind of outdoor tuberculosis ward. The winds had shifted, the campground host told us as he noticed me now doubled over next to the picnic table, and the wind was bringing in the red tide, specifically, the neurotoxin produced by a phytoplankton called Karenia brevis. It was one of those “you’ve got to be kidding” moments. The best bet, he said, was to retreat into our camper, close all the windows tight, and stay under the blankets until the morning. There was toxicity, literally, in the air.

In the ancient Near East of the Christian birth story, it was also a messy time. Political upheaval in and around Jerusalem made both the city’s inhabitants and its Roman overlords anxious and edgy. Perhaps it was something like today, with our political tensions and uncertainties. Many of us feel anxious and edgy. There is certainly a toxicity in the air.

The word “presence” in this context might take on two meanings: How do we feel a holy presence in our lives that might calm us; How do we remain present to those most vulnerable to the political outcomes we see arising in xenophobic and racist rhetoric and action. Just this week, in Evanston, an African American candidate for City Clerk was arrested while gathering names for his petition to run for office. His offense? After providing the officer his name and stating his intentions, he refused to provide his birthdate, which was his right to refuse in the absence of any suspicion of illegal activity. After he had been slapped in cuffs and hauled down to the police station, he lodged a complaint with the sergeant on duty. The sergeant asked why he hadn’t complied with the unlawful request.

We are not immune to institutional racism in Evanston.

We must cultivate ways both to find “spiritual presence” and “to stay present” in these times. To stay present to those most vulnerable we must keep showing up and doing the justice work to which we are called. To invite the holy presence that renews and soothes, we must return to the spiritual practices that sustain us, such as prayer, meditation, connection, and contemplative activities.

May you have both this holiday season: the presence of Spirit in your life and the ability to stay present to suffering of our times.

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What is a Mosaic Maker congregation?

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 12.45.08 PMThat’s what the church staff and key leaders from our Racial Equity Action Leadership team went to Saint Paul last weekend to learn. We were joined by about 90 other leaders from a dozen congregations spread throughout the region, from Louisville to Minneapolis. We all wanted to know the same thing. What is a Mosaic Maker congregation?

A Mosaic Maker congregation is one that puts everything it does through a multicultural, anti-oppressive lens. It asks a lot of questions: What are the cultural backgrounds of our members and what assumptions do we make about how the world works? What is our relationship to people from other cultural backgrounds in our larger community? Are there universal “norms” underlying all cultures, or does each culture’s histories, traditions, language(s), and people(s) by its very nature have a distinct set of understandings and communication styles? If there aren’t universal cultural norms (and I would say there are not), what does that mean when we encounter others?

One prerequisite of the workshop was that each participant take something called the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). The inventory was based on fifty questions that revealed how we understand culture. We learned that there are stages to intercultural competency, from denial of culture to having an ability to adapt fluidly to others.

The six stages along the continuum are:

  • Denial that difference exists at all
  • Polarization of “us” versus “them”
  • Minimization of difference with the general understanding that all cultures are essentially the same
  • Acceptance that genuine patterns of difference and similarity exist to challenge us as we reach out across cultural groups
  • Adaptation where we can shift our own cultural perspective and behaviors in authentic and culturally appropriate ways

Most Unitarian Universalists might think they (we) are in at least the “acceptance” stage, but that’s not the case. The IDI does have the ability to reveal where an examinee or group thinks they are and wants to be. The inventory reveals that Unitarian Universalists mostly believe they are in the acceptance phase, but also reveals that we are mostly in minimization.

One reason for this is that our values, as reflected in our Seven Principles, suggest that minimizing cultural difference is something to lift up. After all, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity, and even universal salvation, of all people. These seven aspirational statements are cast as affirmations, so we might think we’ve arrived and the work is done. We are geared in many ways to minimize difference with the intention of universal acceptance. But minimization takes two forms. In one case, dominant group members favor commonalities over differences because of a limited cultural self-understanding. In the other case, non-dominant group members highlight commonalities as a strategy for navigating the values and practices largely determined by the dominant cultural group. We UUs can also have a limited understanding of culture, often focusing entirely on race, and other times minimizing racial different to focus entirely on class or even politics.

That UUs land in “minimization” but aspire to “acceptance” is a great place to be. It means that if we are curious and self-reflective, we have an opportunity to expand our understanding of how culture works, and that will lead to progress in the areas that matter most to us — appreciating others for who they are; loving ourselves despite our failings and though what we offer the world; embracing the interconnections of culture; honoring the fabric of our human family as a mosaic of color and creativity.

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Unitarian Universalism in Africa

Last year, a study group in which I participate each fall chose African theology as its topic for 2016. We will meet in November to discuss our findings. I was asked to research the state of Unitarian Universalism in Africa. Did you know we have Unitarian Universalist congregations in Africa?

There aren’t many, but there is an emerging interest and enthusiasm for our faith. Perhaps it is our liberating theology that affirms that all are loved. Perhaps it is our inclusive culture of acceptance. Whatever the case, these churches are interested in being in partnership with the North American UU community. It is time we get to know them as well as they know us.

Perhaps not surprisingly, historically the strongest cluster of Unitarian churches is in South Africa, with congregations in Cape Town, Duban, Somerset, and Johannesburg. It’s also not surprising that the congregation in Cape Town was actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and its previous minister, Rev. Gordon Oliver, had been the mayor of Cape Town in the final days of apartheid. Two days after Oliver was sworn in, police killed dozens of peaceful Black protesters, and Oliver responded by attending the memorial service and pledging to join Archbishop Desmond Tutu on a banned protest march. Oliver was often a liaison between the African National Congress and the national government of South Africa.

Emerging clusters of Unitarian Universalist churches are springing up in other parts of Africa. In East Africa, there are 12 groups of Unitarian Universalists: nine in Kenya; two in Uganda, and one in Burundi. In West Africa, there is a strong congregation in Lagos, Nigeria, with roots going back almost 100 years.

My exploration will reach out to the ministers and organizers of these diverse congregations, and I will be sharing some of the results of my research, and the fruits of what African Unitarian Universalists bring to our larger movement, during the service on August 21.

 

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“A love that casts out fear”

Like most of you, I suspect, I’ve had many emotions this week. Anger at the gunman who killed so many at a Florida nightclub — and ideologies of hate. Frustration over how this shooting is being spun. Sadness knowing this will escalate racial, ethnic, GBLTQI, and religious tensions. Lamentation over the unbearable weight of empathy for the families and loved ones of the victims. Prayers for those recovering and fighting for their lives. Prayers for our families. Prayers for our country, our world, ourselves.

In times like these there is no escaping the heat of our emotions. Yesterday, a friend reminded me that the most we can do is “seek out the coolest place in the blast furnace” and allow the heat to be what it will be. We can’t escape the furnace right now; all we can do is allow the emotions and feelings to surround us and penetrate our hearts to the deepest levels. 

In this moment, there is little we can do to change the world. There are things we will do for each other. We will console friends who are in turmoil. We will be gentle with ourselves knowing that a natural response to violence is anger, and we know healthy versus unhealthy responses toward anger. We will turn off the news when we become overwhelmed. We will turn on the news when we need to know what is happening.

We will filter everything this day through the lens of compassion. The day will come to turn toward solutions, action, and brave words. The day will come, soon, for us to stand on the side of love and be counted among those who will counter irrationality with reason, violence with peace, and fear mongering with truth. The day will come to fight for reasonable gun laws.

Today, we may only be able to feel, reach out to those closest to us, and mourn the great loss of brothers, sisters, cousins, and kin who are lost now to the world. Today we dedicate ourselves, again, to our way of being in the world that says “not again will such loss be for nothing.”

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The year past, the year ahead

I continue to be overwhelmingly proud to serve the Unitarian Church of Evanston. It is a lively, growing, and vibrant community. I brag about you (perhaps too much) to colleagues, friends, family, anyone who will listen. I just think you should know that. We are socially engaged and interested in deepening our connections with one another. My dream for the coming year is that as we continue to work on our mission of creating “a world made whole,” we focus equally on “nurturing the human spirit” (your spirit) to enable the spiritual growth for which I hear you hunger — in your individual lives and relationships. Sermons will be a start, but another way to accomplish this is to be more intentional about the theological affinity groups we have in place, or could have in place. For example, we already have a strong humanist group active on Sunday mornings (a.k.a Crackerbarrel), as well as budding Buddhist and Pagan groups that meet on Thursday evenings and Earth-centered occasions respectively. These, along with our dance and movement groups, offer participants a place to go deep with their spiritual practices (of intellectual engagement, meditation, chanting, movement, prayer, etc). A few of you have approached me about starting a Christian group, which I believe is long overdue in a congregation with such diversity. If you are interested in any of these, please let me know and I’ll connect you to an organizer.

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The opportunity we’ve been waiting for! 

On the Table Potluck Dinners, Tuesday, May 10

I’m so excited to share this opportunity. Since UCE planted its Black Lives Matter sign a year ago, we’ve had workshops, conversations, discussion groups, and other ways to build understanding and wisdom around issues of racial equity and privilege. And we’ve been looking for opportunities to reach out to our neighbors in the larger North Shore and North Chicago areas to connect and grow together in unity.

The On The Table Project is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for. On Tuesday, May 10, 2,000 people will gather to talk about how we can help “unite the place we call home.” As it says on the website: “In today’s world, this act of coming together has never been more important. On the Table 2016 will connect individuals and communities of diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Talking – and listening – to our neighbors is an important first step toward creating a more unified Chicagoland region.”

Here’s how it works. Congregations and institutions sign up to host. UCE has already done this by setting aside room 3 in our church for 40 people.

Here’s what you can do: Sign up! Part of the process is sharing a little bit of your identity, including age, race, neighborhood, congregation, gender, etc.—whatever you’re comfortable sharing. Then we will create groups of diverse people who usually might not have the opportunity to interact, meet and know one another.

It’s important to remember that when you sign up, you most likely will NOT be coming to UCE on May 10th. You will probably be invited to a neighboring congregation where you will meet people from a variety of other congregations in our community.

Click here for more information.

Click here to register.

See you in church, 
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Keep UCE?

Many of you have asked why I haven’t shared my opinion, which you suspect may be a strong one, about the proposed church name change. In a word, curiosity. Despite my own feelings, I have wanted to remain curious and sift through all the questions this discussion brings up. (For a quick unofficial poll, see the link at the end of this article.)

I have heard some questions that I can address:

1. Why is this conversation happening now?

This conversation was not generated by the ministers, other staff, or your Board of Trustees. A signed petition asking for a church name change was delivered to the Trustees last year, which per our by-laws requires a congregational vote.

2. What is lost by changing the name? 

Some of you are concerned that our name has special, positive meaning in our larger community. Changing the name of an institution, when it has a strong public presence, runs the risk of diminishing the reputation and power of that name. For examples from the tech industry, consider how many of us know Google (which is everywhere) is now a company called Alphabet? Or that IBM personal computers (which used to be everywhere) are now Lenovo?

3. Who is harmed by not?

Some of you don’t resonate with the word “church,” feeling it too exclusively Christian. Others want to add the name “Universalist,” which reflects a theology of boundless love as well as our denominational affiliation.

4. What is the proposed name?

That is still 100 percent up in the air. The original petition suggested “Unitarian Universalists of Evanston,” but other names have been put forward and are being discussed prior to the May congregational meeting. Another name is “The Unitarian Universalist Church of Evanston.” A few have even suggested returning to our original church name, with updated denominational affiliation: “All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Evanston.” We don’t have to change the name, so no name change is also something you can vote for. I’ve seen “Keep UCE” popping up on Facebook, so I know there are some who are interested in the “no change” option.

The above queries are four I could address, but there are some I haven’t yet been able to answer. For example, there are semantic questions:

If church is both the place we gather and the community, what is a better term for both? In other words, I belong to a congregation (community) and go to a church (place). What about other religions? Jews belong to congregations and go to synagogues. Muslims belong to communities and go to mosques. Buddhists belong to sanghas and go to temples. Where do UUs go if they don’t go to a church? It is funny to think of saying “I am headed to the community tonight,” or “on Sunday morning I attend congregation.” Even if we change the name on the sign, we will not stop saying “church.” I say this from experience. I attended a UU “congregation” for 15 years, and we almost all called it church when we talked about the location we gathered. The first church (I mean congregation) I served was actually a “society.” We called it church.

And historical questions:

Unitarians and Universalists have been going to churches for hundreds of years. Why are we, rather than those who have misused the name and power of religion, the ones who have to give up this awesome word, “church”? By awesome, I mean awe-inspiring. Perhaps we are the ones doing “church right” and everyone else has drifted from the true meaning of the word. Of course I don’t believe that. I believe there are many ways to do church right. Ours, too.

I will say this, even if the current name change conversation does not end in a change, I think we should put “A Unitarian Universalist Congregation” under our name — especially on our sign. Such a change would not even require a vote. After all, it is merely a better description of who we are, our denominational affiliation, and hints at our congregational polity.

Would you like to take a quick poll? Click here. 

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Spiritual but not religious?

I hear this quite often: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” When I first started hearing this a few years back, it took me by surprise, for I’ve always found the two — being spiritual and being religious — to be bound together. For me, being spiritual is the feeling of connection you get when you’re “flowing” with life and an understanding of the Divine (call it God, Nature, Spirit, etc.). Being religious, for me, is grounded in the root meaning of the word “religion” which is “to bind together.” Being religious includes all the practices that help me connect to that which sustains my life, including being in a community of like-minded individuals, intellectual stimulation, and spiritual practice.

I understand the sentiment “spiritual but not religious” better and better as I talk to people about what they mean by it. I’m finding in those words a hunger for connection and meaning-making without other trappings of religious life they have experienced, which may include hypocrisy and judgement as well as burdensome commitments without apparent purpose.

The challenge is this: It is difficult to grow spiritually without other people’s encouragement, wisdom, and presence. There are a few enlightened yogis who may be able to grow spiritually by sitting alone in a cave, but for the rest of us, we need each other’s energy.

That’s why a healthy spiritual practice includes three components: individual work, small group participation, and periodic in-depth work.  The beginning of a new year is a good time to review the features of a spiritual life, or a life of spiritual practice. Everyone needs a spiritual practice!

Let’s take meditation, for example. A good meditation practice includes a few minutes a day of individual work, a weekly session with others, and an annual period of getting away to study and reflect at a retreat or conference. This “formula” works for a variety of practices, including yoga, contemplative prayer, or labyrinth walking. Many pagan practices have individual, group, and in-depth experiences built into the liturgical calendar of observances. I know quite a few UUs who engage in deep reading practices of a favorite author that includes daily readings, book discussion groups, and an annual conference to go deep.

What all these have in common is the combination of individual work and opportunities to connect with others.

As you move into this new year, consider the practices that feed your soul. There are many opportunities at the Unitarian Church of Evanston: from Thursday night Insight meditation to Tuesday and Saturday Zen practice; from our budding Pagan group to the many covenant groups. Each Sunday morning a group gathers to share yoga together. There are so many ways to practice, and forming a new group only takes your interest and the interest of a few others.

On January 23rd, starting at 9am, the Thursday evening meditation group is sponsoring a special opportunity for in-depth practice as they welcome Santikaro who will lead a “day of mindfulness.” Whether you’re starting a new meditation practice, continuing an existing one, or re-igniting the fire of a past practice, please feel welcome to join me for a day of practice at UCE.

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It’s getting cold out there

interfaithactionlogo

It was getting cold out there, at least. Then the temps crept back into the 70s and it feels like spring. Or dead of winter in Texas.

As the cold, at least, approaches, I’m thinking about the many residents of our community who are without overnight shelter. I’ve become more active this year with Interfaith Action of Evanston (IAE), specifically with its Advocacy Committee. More on that in the last paragraph below.

Currently, the IAE emergency overnight cold weather shelter opens its doors when the temperature drops to five degrees, not counting wind chill. For years St. Paul’s down the street on Greenwood has been shouldering this burden for our community. We can do more in a couple of ways.

First, St. Paul’s can’t do it alone. We need volunteers.

Second, as a community we need to think about the temperature guideline. Five degrees is life-threatening, but it’s awfully cold at ten. I’d hate to be on the street in an emergency when it’s below freezing. Right now there are initiatives in the works to address this deficiency. Ideas range from creating a year-round emergency shelter to raising the temperature guidelines. Both of these are going to take more volunteer support.

The UCE Board and staff have also begun talking about opening UCE’s doors to assist. Beth Emet, across the street, is also willing to open its doors when the cold weather becomes deathly cold. If this happens, we need UCE volunteers to be trained.

Luckily, IAE is recruiting volunteers right now to learn the ropes. There is a system in place to assemble cots, prepare sheets for its laundry service, and greet and welcome guests. It’s an opportunity to be engaged with the community and to hear the amazing stories that shelter guests bring in from the cold.

The training is going to be held Thursday, 11/12 from 7:00-8:00 pm, or Monday, 11/16, from 7:00-8:00 pm. The location is St. Paul’s at 1004 Greenwood. If you want to know the requirements, please contact me by clicking on the link above (or, if you’re reading this in PDF form, go to www.liberalfaith.org). 

Regarding advocacy for housing rights in Evanston, the Evanston City Council has the inclusionary housing amendments on the agenda for consideration on Monday, November 9, 2015. The meeting starts immediately after the Planning and Development Commission, about 7:30. I was there last week as we pushed the amendment through, but will be out of town next week. It would be wonderful to have a sea of people wearing “yellow Love shirts” in attendance to remind the council of how important this is for Evanston.

See you in church,
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Practices for letting go

Our theme this month is “letting go,” and what strikes me first is not why this is a worthy practice, but how it’s even possible sometimes. We all realize that letting go of things that no longer sustain us, or that are doing us harm, or that disconnect us from others are worthy of being released from our lives—but how we go about doing this is the more difficult question.

Spiritual practice is a key to unlocking the “how” of letting go. I’ve just started an after-work meditation group on Thursday evenings, and this month we are exploring the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. At the core of the Noble Truths, which explore why we humans have anxiety and stress in our lives, and how we can have less anxiety and stress, is the notion of letting go of the fixations and attachments that weigh  us down. We cling to all sorts of stuff that is often harmful to us: difficult pasts; haunting stories; losses, hurts and disappoints. Even the good stuff in life, when we cling to it, can lead to suffering because the good stuff can be taken away and cannot last forever. We lose (or fear losing) our friends and loved ones, we lose (or fear losing) our youth, we lose (or fear losing) the status and fortune we mistook for happiness.

When we learn to take the “our” out of these phrases, and realize that pasts, stories, hurts, and disappoints aren’t actually “ours” but are universal human experience, we can let go more easily and move along to the good stuff in life: cultivating compassion and connecting with others to start.

Knowing these facts of human existence doesn’t help us unless we have a system for identifying, being with, and helping us to let go of hindrances. Everyone needs a spiritual practice. Most religions offer them in some form: prayer, chanting, meditation, rituals, movement, daily devotional, the list goes on. This is one shortcoming of our tradition. Unitarian Universalism has been light on giving people spiritual tools for helping us deal with life’s impermanence and difficulties. Ralph Waldo Emerson told us to go out in the woods and experience God directly. He was light, unless we actually read deeply an abundance of his writings, on what we should do once we’re out there on our own, how we can hang up the to-do list and really notice our connection to the “Oversoul.” What a beautiful word he coined to describe the universality of experience and divinity of All.

Considering another transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden went to the woods and built a cabin to live deliberately and fully. How many of us remember not only that he did it, but how?

Identifying a spiritual practice is somewhat easy. Are you doing it for the physical exercise? For intellectual growth? To perform? To lose those last 10 pounds? These may be beneficial, but they aren’t truly spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is about the intention behind why you are doing the practice. On the other hand, are you doing a practice to calm the mind so that you gain insight into what’s happening in your life? To sit (literally or figuratively) with the difficulties and anxieties of life? To turn off the monkey mind and observe the deeper workings of thought? To give the mind a backseat for a few minutes a day, or several minutes a week, in order to allow the deeper pieces of yourself to come to the surface? To find radical acceptance of life as it is?

I encourage you this month to find a spiritual practice that works for you, or to go deeper with the one you have. There are so many: sitting or walking meditation, yoga, creating music, chanting, communing with nature, sitting and listening to others. The trick is two fold. First, to identify it as a spiritual practice and not merely a self-help exercise (the two are not mutually exclusive, neither are they synonymous). Second, to cultivate and grow within your practice, whether newfound or longstanding.  If you don’t have one, you’re invited to join us Thursday nights after work. Regularity of practice is also of great benefit to your spiritual path.

Spiritual practice is about cultivating quiet space in our lives where we can identify and accept the totality of our life experience, its joys, sorrows, transcendent moments, disappointments, and so forth. As we learn to sit with them in complete acceptance, we gain the ability to let go of our attachment to their holds on our lives. We learn to “be with” in order to “let go of.”

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My laundry list

There’s so much information to get out this month that I’ve decided to provide a run down of what’s on my mind. Prepare for brain dump!

PHOTOS FOR INGATHERINGScreen Shot 2015-09-02 at 3.04.37 PM
Please, send me a photograph from your summer, with name and location taken, for the Ingathering slide show. Even if it’s from your Evanston “staycation,” I’d love to include you in the service. My e-mail for sending pictures is: Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 11.14.09 AM

MEDITATION GROUP
A weekly “after work” Thursday meditation group will be starting September 17th, 5:30-7:00. To start, we will have a 20-minute sitting meditation,Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 4.20.36 PM followed by a half-hour discussion on a short provided text, and then a second sitting meditation. I will lead the group at least twice a month, with members of the group leading on other Thursdays. Generally this will be led in the Insight (or Vipassana) tradition, but other traditions will be respected and perhaps explored by participants. We’ll give it a three-month trial period and see where we go from there.

TINY HOUSE
Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 3.07.43 PMHey, where’s my tiny house? The short answer is that sometimes I just can’t do all the things I want to do, and this year is ramping up to be a busy and exciting time, with energy needed for the music program, the spiritual life of the church, community outreach, and other areas. My co-conspirator, Green Sanctuary Committee, has its priorities rightfully focused on climate change initiatives this fall, so our Tiny House (which would be a living workshop for voluntary simplicity, alternative energy sources, composting technologies, etc.) must wait for better timing. We did get clearance from the city to build, so when we’re ready, it can be a go.

MUSIC, AND MORE MUSIC
The Music Committee, working closely with me, chose Vickie Hellyer as our Interim Music Director. I’ve gotten many questions: How long will she be here? [Most likely this church year.] Can she apply for the permanent position? [Yes.] When does she start? [October 1.] What about Ingathering? [Our own Nick Wallin has graciously donated his time to get us through Ingathering.] If you have more questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

THEMES
Last year we had a theme each month: To be a people of… (and then a spiritual quality). This year, we will continue our themes, each
phrased like this, between September and June:

Our Congregation of Invitation
Our Congregation of Letting Go
Our Congregation of Ancestry
Our Congregation of Expectation
Our Congregation of Resistance
Our Congregation of Desire
Our Congregation of Liberation
Our Congregation of Creation
Our Congregation of Blessing
Our Congregation of Simplicity

This is certainly going to be a year many things, most of all a year of memories, service to the greater good, and the fine fellowship of UCE. See you in church,
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Building relationship

A few weeks ago I received a funny chain mail message in my e-mail.  It was titled, “The Perfect Rabbi.”

The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.

It was told to me in seminary that the first year of a ministry is, when you’re lucky, like a honeymoon. Many feel they’re gotten “the perfect rabbi/minister/pastor,” or at least that most of the bases will be covered at long last. It’s a happy time, but also a time when you get glimpses of what you’re in for over the long run. If the congregation and minister made good choices, those glimpses into the future will be hopeful and promising. Overall it is a year to celebrate a new beginning in the life of a congregation.

It was also told to me in seminary that during one’s second year with a new congregation, the idiosyncrasies and personalities of a church and a minister begin to bubble up to the surface. You realize that the small irritations of life together aren’t going away (such is life!) and that there are places where you disagree. Done well, however, a second year of ministry together strengthens the commitments to which we covenanted. We begin to realize that we share similar aspirations not in word alone but in action. We begin to see each other’s strengths and limitations for what they are, places to collaborate and play to each other’s strong suits. This is good and healthy.

Finally, it was told to me in seminary that one’s third year is when it gets real. Really real — and that there will not only be conflict, but some significant disagreement that challenges the relationship. This is a healthy, final part of the transition because now we get to see how we deal with conflict. Are we capable of being angry or hurt, of feeling disappointed or let down, and returning with open hearts to one another? Can we listen to hurt or disappointment and respond with honesty and forgiveness? Can we not only tolerate one another’s idiosyncrasies but learn to laugh and play with them?We never talked in seminary about what happens in the fourth, fifth, or sixth year. The assumption is that if you survive the first three you and the church you serve will have a pretty healthy run. Sometime between years seven and ten we will assess where we are together and figure out together what a next chapter looks like, or so the literature says.  That’s a long way away.

In the “now” I’m simply grateful for the commitment I feel within this congregation to our covenant of right relationship and to the vision we share for this institution of beloved community. We will nurture the lives of members, friends, and all who enter our doors. We will take our passion for a just and green world out into the community. We will thrive because we know the world needs places like UCE.  For me, that is quite enough. It is all I need.

What’s the alternative to our strong commitment to right relationship? That chain mail letter had that answer as well:

If your Rabbi does not measure up, simply send this letter to six other synagogues that are tired of their Rabbi, too. Then bundle up your Rabbi and send him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 Rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure.
I’d rather just keep on keeping on. How about you?
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Moving Forward

As many of you know, there are some significant changes to our music program. This article will explain  how we will move forward in the fall.

The choir will be on hiatus in July and August as usual. My hope in September is to have an Acting or Interim Choir Director who will begin the church year with us. There have been many questions about why this change took place now. There was no one event that precipitated this decision, it was not made in isolation, and June is the time of year to renew contracts. I decided that to accomplish our goals and ends, the worship service needs to go in a different artistic direction — in a climate of joy and cooperation.

In mid-July, when I’m back in town, I will do two things. First, my hope is that the music committee can help me organize our talented musicians, both vocalists and instrumentalists, and have them contribute to the worship music. Next, we will form a search committee to begin interviewing potential candidates. I already have some great ideas about how to pull you into the process as well. This search will NOT be as secretive as a ministerial search, and certainly not as long. I’m hoping that by the beginning of 2016 we could have a new choir director. Don’t hold me to that date since I will work collaboratively with the search committee to come up with the best process and timeline possible. I know there may be questions and frustrations that cannot be answered. We will need forgiveness, hope, and patience. I know we are able to move forward together.

Bret

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Boston & Cabaret Church

I will be away from Evanston the next two weekends. It always makes me sad when I’m not at church on Sunday — but there is work out there in the world to be done, and I will return home soon.

BOSTON
I’m currently in Boston with our Journeys Class. I cherish these few days spent with our UU youth every few years, having led several of these pilgrimages. I will be preaching on the experience when I return. Over the years I have noticed that these trips cement my relationship with our youth group in a way that carries through their high school years. I cannot spend a lot of time with the youth group week in and week out, so this concentrated time is something that is valuable and precious for all of us. Thank you for sharing me with our youth every couple of years in this way.

CABARET CHURCHScreen Shot 2015-05-20 at 1.42.48 PM
Next week, on May 31st, I will be participating in an experiment creating spontaneous church community based on art, revery, and celebration. Since our theme in June is “what does it mean to be a people of revery,” it will be another worthwhile preaching topic that I hope to bring back.

I also want to invite you to join me in McHenry on May 31st at noon. You could attend the first service here at UCE, and then drive out to Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation to join in the afternoon festivities. You can learn more about Cabaret Church here: http://www.cabaretchurch.org

Says Cabaret Church creator Rev. Sean Parker Dennison: “I will be a secret agent in this world… quietly instigating a revolution to destroy the machine that is trying to make us all the same. I will leverage every bit of my respectability to help create a world that is more loving, more creative and more beautiful. I will spend my life creating communities where all of us are encouraged to be ourselves and no one else. And when we do, we will unlock this crazy deep well of joy that will make us laugh and cry and scream and dance and be in love with being alive, even when it is excruciating. And I will find comrades, partners, lovers, friends and I will tell them: Your only mission is authenticity. Your only job is to be yourself. Your only vocation is to look inside your soul and see what’s there and bring your amazing, wonderful, beautiful gifts into this world. Bring yourself to life!”

There will be musicians, a circus tent, circus performers, maybe even a petting zoo. I still am not exactly sure what my role will be in this mad experiment that Rev. Sean has cooked up (except that I am bringing a costumed brass band to the party). I know that I am going to be a secret agent out there, taking notes and making connections so that, perhaps next year, Cabaret Church will come to Evanston.

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Will the senior minister get arrested?

I was going to write about Cabaret Church (below) for this newsletter column until Ryan Wallace from Community Renewal Society (CRS) called me this morning. Now I’m going to write about the possibility of getting arrested on Tuesday, and what you can do to help the effort, so to speak.

As you may know, members of UCE are traveling to Springfield on Tuesday (4/12) to support three primary issues:

  1. Additional state revenue to stop the devastating budget cuts proposed by Governor Rauner;
  2. HB494 and SB42 to remove absolute bars to employment for people with felony records in the education industry and increase access to employment for people with records in healthcare;
  3. Comprehensive police reform to establish clear guidelines for police body-worn camera programs, end stop-and-frisk discriminatory tactics, and improve police accountability to our communities

We will be training and briefing on the bus, lobbying in teams until noon, meeting in the Rotunda for a vigil and march inside the Capitol, and then marching to the Lincoln statue before boarding return busses at 3:00 pm. If you’ve never participated in anything like this, and you have Tuesday free, I encourage you to join us. It’s never been easier. Since there are so many UCE’ers participating already, CRS has hired a bus to load in our parking lot. It’s never been easier.

We have asked for a meeting with Governor Rauner to discuss his draconian proposed budget cuts. These cuts will do great harm to Illinois families by eliminating services for homeless youth, immigrant services, and after-school programs. Services for mental health, substance abuse treatment, Medicaid, and higher education will also be severely cut. All of this because Illinois faces a $6 billion deficit caused in large part by the failure to maintain 2014 income tax rates.

I’ve been asked to join a delegation of ten CRS leaders who will occupy Governor Rauner’s office until he agrees to meet with us. It’s a reasonable request from the faith community as hundreds from CRS converge on the capitol, representing thousands of Chicagoans directly, and millions of Illinoisans through our work. There is the possibility that we will be arrested for our action since we plan not to leave his office until we have a conversation.

See you on the bus Tuesday!

I will leave you with a word about Cabaret Church, which will take place on May 31st in McHenry. This is something that Rev. Sean Dennison, myself, and others have been talking about for more than a year. I lobbied to host it here in Evanston — maybe for Cabaret Church II? This time around, you can attend the early service at UCE and then carpool out to McHenry. What more can I say? It will be a celebration of religious and creative freedom — with circus performers, music, and cabaret.

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Black Lives Matter: The church banner discussion

There has been much discussion about why Black Lives Matter; one might even say it’s a “sign of the times.” As we become aware that a disproportionate number of African Americans in U.S. society are imprisoned, shot, harassed by police, and disenfranchised in alarming numbers, we are drawn deeper into the conversation by our commitment to stand on the side of love and to fight for the rights of all who are oppressed by injustice and for who they are. People of all races, genders, ethnicities, etc., experience oppression, but at this moment in history (and for much too long), African Americans are being discriminated against more than any other group. This racial bias spreads in conscious, unconscious, systemic, intentional and unintentional ways. It must stop.

All lives matter. This is undeniable. However, as I’ve listened to the stories told by my Black and Latino/a friends, I realize that society does treat my life differently. During traffic stops I’m treated with more respect and dignity. I’m not followed while shopping, even if I’m wearing sweats and a well worn t-shirt. In general, I notice how much freedom of movement and possibility I have in my life because I was born White.

The Black Lives Matter movement presents a statement so obvious that it is jarring. It gets our attention! That is why I support placing a “Black Lives Matter” sign on our lawn, through a congregational vote per our by laws. We have been asked by UU allies-of-color to place a banner outside our church to support this movement. More important, in the discussion taking place across the U.S., I want anyone walking or driving by our church to know which side of Love we stand on.

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Values into action

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 4.20.36 PMAt the Alaska State Museum in Juneau a few years ago, I came across a case of small figures that caught my attention. They were called “Billikens,” or “gods of the way things ought to be.” Each little figure had similar devilish features: slightly pointed ears, a wry grim, and eyes that seemed to say, “Are you sure you want it that way?” These are little gods to which we might all relate, for we each have an ideal of the way things ought to be.

It turns out Billikens were created by American art teacher and illustrator Florence Pretz of Kansas City, Missouri, who is said to have seen the mysterious figure in a dream. She obtained a design patent for his elephant-like face, pointed ears, mischievous smile, and tuft of hair on his pointed head. His arms were short and he was generally sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him.  For some time they were quite a fad. For some reason, Alaskan carvers began producing them en masse for tourists, and they have become so ubiquitous in souvenir shops there that today they’re identified with the state.

I began thinking of these “gods of the way things ought to be” in terms of how we create a congregation when so many of us have different ideas of “the way things ought to be.” The perfect size? How our children should be educated? What’s a good sermon? How do we spend our resources? It comes down to identifying our shared values and living into those, rather than our own personal needs.  Our Billiken is honored often enough, but over time, we learn to be generous and let other Billikens have some playful space and run a little wild. We all have a god of the way things ought to be!

Billikens make real trouble when we let them handle the resources. Rather than “hold a little back” for a project that captures our imagination (leading to a cycle of perpetual asking for money), we focus on pooling as much of our generosity as we are able once a year, and then trust our leaders to put it to good use as we’ve outlined.

Last year we had somewhat of a laundry list of exciting things we wanted to do with our stewardship drive. There were a lot of Billikens represented. This year, we’ve focused on a single thing we’ve heard you want most: have our justice outreach reflected more clearly in the budget. Moving to a full Share the Plate program will, literally, double the amount of funding we provide to our partner organizations through our weekly offering.

This year we’ve gone through an intentional process to identify the common values of our congregation — from which we’ve crafted poetic ends statements. From these ends, we are building the plans and programs of the coming year.  This is the time of year when we examine our hopes and dreams for the church, look at the vision cast by our beloved community, and give as much as we are able. No matter if it’s the widow’s mite or a king’s ransom, may what you give bring you joy.

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Vitality and growth

I write my blog this week from Asilomar State Park near Monterey, California. I woke up my first morning to what looked like snow on the dunes outside my window. It turned out to be sand so white it sparkled in the early sun. Not to rub it in (and by the time you read this I’ll be back in Illinois), but it’s a beautiful place to be in February. I’m grateful that my church gives me enough time off to be here to be renewed in our work. Thank you!

I’m not only here to thaw but to attend two back-to-back conferences. Last weekend for the UU Military Chaplain Conference, I was with almost all of the 15 UUs serving in uniform. We talked about how to extend our UU prophetic witness within the context of our service and how best to support this vital young adult ministry.

Now I’m at the second conference, the Minister’s Association Institute. Isn’t it thoughtful that our association ganged them up to be economical with local church funds!

I don’t necessarily believe in a deity that takes a personal interest in my conference workshop selection, but a strange thing happened. I signed up for a workshop on preaching, but the presenter at the last minute decided he wanted to teach mostly about church growth. Four days of church growth!

This was exciting because the board has been asking a lot about growth. After two days of talking about church growth, I’ve seen a LOT of statistics, have written down dozens of inspiring aphorisms, and have a few neat tricks we might consider. There are three take-aways that I’d like to share, and sum up what I’ve learned:

  • Attractive communities survive
  • Worship and preaching needs be vital and vibrant
  • Growth is a by-product of vitality

Tomorrow will be finally be a day of preaching instruction, then I’m back for worship on Sunday. See you in church.

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To be a people of integrity

My father could abide almost any transgression except for a lie. Knowing this, I definitely minimized the trouble I got into as a child by not lying. It was less about integrity than intelligence. I knew that the quicker I could fess up to something I did wrong, the quicker I got out of trouble.

What was integrity in those situations? The simple honesty that came from fear of punishment? I believe that integrity is more than being honest to avoid trouble. Honesty may, in fact, just by a byproduct of integrity.

“Integrity is like the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody knows what to do about it,” writes Stephen Carter in the Atlantic Monthly. “When I refer to integrity,” he continues, “I have something very specific in mind. Integrity … requires three steps: discerning what is right and what is wrong; acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and saying open­ly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong.”

In other words, integrity requires discernment, action, and openness. It’s not confined to an inner state of being but is a public manifestation of one’s disposition toward concerns that matter to them.

I’ve been contemplating what it means “to be a people of integrity” these past few weeks, not just a “person.” “To be a people,” means there is something to what we build beyond individual enlightenment or support. We gather to nourish the individual lives in our community, yet being a people of integrity requires more of us.

There is a lot we can do this month to express our integrity. We can show up to the Faith in Action Assembly on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — a public manifestation of our belief that showing up to learn, listen, and express solidarity matters. We can volunteer in the church or community because we know that for us integrity is enhanced by our collective outreach. We can be welcoming to visitors in an intentional way by seeking out newcomers, because we know that people don’t get connected by themselves. Somebody has to be that person of integrity who shares a story of hope and fulfillment. Why not that it should be you? A person of integrity.

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I long to be proven wrong

For the December newsletter article, please see my Dec. 12 entry.

This is something I posted in a Facebook comment that captures my understanding of how church giving in the future will play out, and some of the consequences. I’ve said this many times, but perhaps never so concisely.

“I think a lot of congregations in the future are going to need to make … decisions between buildings, staff, ministry. The old models of big giving and big churches are crumbling; they just aren’t the way our future will play out, I’m afraid. Boomers are retiring and going to fixed incomes. Gen Xers (my generation) don’t have the pockets and are still paying off student debt 10-15 years after graduation. Millennials have a different understanding of institutions, action, and philanthropy than the Boomers who currently support our churches. (Not wrong, just different.) Oh yes, and we’ve saddled millennials with six-figure debt coming right out of college, even more than Xers.”

Even churches that are able to “save” their buildings will need to make hard decisions about staffing levels and (more to my point) services. The staff at medium and large congregations not only provide professional ministry (pastoral care, worship services, prophetic voice in the community) but also services that are more general: answering phones, updating databases and calendars, coordinating pastoral care, leading committees, opening and locking doors, cutting lawns, even cleaning the church. The hard long-term decisions of our future will be: Can we transition from a comprehensive service-provider model to a volunteer staffed/professionally led organization? (such as most other non-profit volunteer organizations devoted to change); Can we shift from a spider web of often competing committee structures and political realities to a razor-sharp focus on the one or two things a church might be best to serve the world?; Can we let go of our expectations of perfection and let the church be the messy, imperfect, human and holy beautiful thing that it is in its most basic form?

I’m not ready, yet, to give up on our current model. I long to have the experts be proven wrong. But looking at the numbers, I see budget income lines dominated by a relatively small number of incredibly generous donors of the Baby Boom and Silent Generations. I see working families facing incredible tuition bills, from elementary school through college.  And I’ve looked at the future trends. Gen Xers are never going to have the capacity (in numbers or income) to replace the Boomers or Silent Gens. And Millennials, while considered another “Great Generation” by sociologists, are saddled by debt and tend to distribute their giving among a variety of organizations that support their values — not putting most in one church basket.

Ten years from now, what will our future church look like? I know the church and faith will prevail. History proves that. History also shows us that models for religious community shift over the decades, and our current model is rooted in the 19th century. What does the 21st century church look like?

I’m not trying to be a negative Nellie.
I just want to save the church.
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Meditation for a Mindful Midweek 12/17/2014

Not dawdling
not doubting
intrepid all the way
walk toward clarity
with sharp eye
With sharpened sword
clearcut the path
to the lucent surprise
of enlightenment
At every crossroad
be prepared to bump into wonder

by James Broughton

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Showing up

Convergences don’t happen often. We’re in the middle of one, now.
First, there is a national conversation happening about race and police brutality. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, as reported in the September 2014 Mother Jones, between 2003 and 2009 there were more than 2,900 arrest-related deaths involving law enforcement, and average of about 420 deaths a year. MJ reports that “A rough calculation based on its data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.” According to the Center for Disease Control’s cause-of-death data between 1968 and 2011, black people were between two to eight times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than whites. Annually, over those 40 years, a black person was on average 4.2 times as likely to get shot and killed by an arresting than a white person.
However, it’s rare that an individual officer goes on duty and makes a conscious decision to make life-and-death decisions based on race. Most are good men and women serving their communities and believing their actions help keep us safe. Therefore our conversation transcends individual racism and police brutality, which are certainly out there, to institutional racism and how police are trained to interact with the public. It’s a complicated equation of poverty, socialized fear, and training tactics. Technology is also a factor with the potential for body cameras and non-lethal weapons.
Second, there is a desire among congregations in our community to come together in solidarity. Among UU congregations, also, there is a desire to work together. Community organizations such as Community Renewal Society and IRON are both acting on prison justice issues. The questions is where can we leverage these convergences most effectively? As you’ve seen UU clergy are working across congregational boundaries, and there are more actions planned for late winter and spring. CRS is planning actions, including the important Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally in the city. Evanston clergy are reforming our interfaith organization to be a more effective agent of change and connection. What can your committee do to make a connection?
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Meditation for a Mindful Midweek 12/4/2014

Sometimes my “midweek” may stretch into Friday, but this is too good not to publish this week, our congregation’s first December week of exploring “what it means to be a people of wonder.” Blessings, Bret
_____________________________________

Wonder, by John O’Donohue

Each new day is a path of wonder, a different invitation. Days are where our lives gradually become visible. Often it seems that we have to undertake the longest journey to arrive at what has been nearest all along. Mornings rarely find us so astounded at the new day that we are unable to decide between adventures. We take on days with the same conditioned reflex with which we wash and put on our clothes each day. If we could be mindful of how short our time is, we might learn how precious each day is. There are people who will never forget today… The liturgy of dawn signals the wonder of the arriving day. Magic of darkness breaking through into color and light is such a promise of invitation and possibility. No wonder we always associate the hope and urgency of new beginning with the dawn. Each day is the field of brightness where the invitation of our life unfolds. A new day is an intricate and subtle matrix; written into its mystery are the happenings sent to awaken and challenge us.

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Meditation for a Mindful Midweek 11/26/14

Many peace vigils were held last night to continue the healing process so many months in the making. Questions remain about what next steps are necessary for justice to prevail. We grieve when we must, rest when we must, act when we must. We always stand on the side of love. Blessings, Bret.
_____________________________________

Reflection by Kathleen Rolenz

I am Michael Brown, young black and angry at always being seen as a threat;
and I am the store owner who watches a customer steal some cigars;
and who knows that every loss hurts his already fragile business;

I am the parents of Michael Brown, whose grief is unimaginable,
and I am the fatherless child of a police officer, slain by a bullet of a young man with a gun;

I am the shop keeper, whose life savings were tied up in that store
And I am the looter, whose blind rage launches the brick;

I am the black person who has been profiled and stopped more times than I can count;
And I am the white person who grew up believing that the police were there to help me;

I am the Unitarian Universalist minister who pounds out words and stands on the side of love;
And I am the Unitarian Universalist minister who abhors the posturing, the righteous rage, the
thousands of words spilled to no end.

How do we change the world?
By completely and utterly belonging to the world
Every part of it
The powerful and the powerless
The fearful, the racist, the white ally,
The raw anger and the carefully reasoned,
The self-righteous and the broken-hearted
The soldiers for justice,
The warriors for peace
The poets who find a way to refashion the world
One conversation at a time.

My only response to Ferguson has been praying without ceasing.
It’s what I can do right now.
When there is something I can do that might make a difference, I will.
But for now – I can pray – and call others together in prayer—
That may take us more deeply into the heart of what it means to be human;
because….
I am Darren Wilson.
I am Michael Brown.

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Maintaining a sense of grace

I write this month’s column from Pere Marquette State Park, near St. Louis. It’s one of my favorite places of natural beauty in the Midwest, and a perfect location for a minister’s study group retreat. This year we are studying the work of the “father of liberal religion,” 18th-century German theologian Frederich Schleiermacher. It’s probably why I’ve been peppering my sermons with stuff from his work this fall.

I attended school near here at Principia College, about five miles south on the “Great River Road” that winds along the banks of the Mississippi. I know these woods well. Here one finds in the fall hundred-foot bluffs, eagles, and trees still abloom with color. It is easy to feel gratitude for life and recognize a world filled with beauty. A sense of wonder and awe is just steps away from my rustic cabin door. I did nothing to deserve this feeling that I’m experiencing other than be alive. That’s what grace is all about.

This sense of grace can be a challenge to hold during the holiday months.  Every year in November and December I take a breath and keep holding it until January, or at least it feels that way. I love celebrating the holidays in my home and church — but do my best to stay clear of the malls. The messages still get through.

I like to pretend that the materialism doesn’t exist, but it does, and that requires accepting the world as it is—not cling to an ideal of how it might be were we to have a magic wand, but to accept those things we love as well as those things with which we struggle. This requires compassion and forgiveness. Can we forgive a world gone crazy with consumption and consumerism? Can we have compassion for others whose view of the holidays challenges our own? Can we even forgive ourselves when we get sucked, just a little, into the madness? The answer is yes, yes, and again, yes. In this way, we reclaim that sense of grace amidst the seeming chaos. These are some of the lessons the season holds.

Blessings,

~ Bret

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Reconciling war & peace

asset_upload_file291_293221Last month I wrote about our upcoming all-congregation workshop titled “What Makes UCE Thrive and You Come Alive.” (“The Thrive Workshop” for short.) I hope you’ll make a point of coming. It will be both personally meaningful as well as instructive for our leadership as it plans for the future.

This month I write about the curriculum I am co-leading with Chris Isely on Monday nights in October (10/13, 10/20, and 10/27), sponsored by the Peace and Justice Committee.

The curriculum is not only for congregations that seek to be more inviting and inclusive of military members, veterans, and families (although that’s certainly part of it), but also for wrapping our own hearts around the challenging spiritual issues of reconciling and forgiving the presence of war in our world. Participants will hear stories of both veterans and peace activists — and learn about issues surrounding military service. Together we will foster respectful and non-judgemental conversation about the ethical and moral dimensions of peace and war.

Our final steps will be to explore what reaching out might look like, and building a worship service for Veteran’s Day that shares this work with the rest of the congregation. If you are interested in participating, please sign up at the back table on Sunday morning. You can download the handouts here:

Handouts for workshop “Reconciling War & Peace”

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What makes UCE thrive and you come alive?

That’s the question I and our Trustees want to know—and hope to find out—in our upcoming all-congregation workshop on Oct. 18.

We are not a faith tradition bound together by creed or centralized beliefs. Instead, we are a people bound together by common values and aspirations. As an example, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Seven Principles are some values shared by UU congregations throughout North America.

However, for us to stay true to our congregational roots, what matters for us are our locally held values at the Unitarian Church of Evanston. Certainly there will be overlap between congregations, but our leaders to know where to shine our beacon of light into the world—and how bright you want it to shine.

Our workshop in October hopes to accomplish this. Through storytelling, sharing, and “appreciative inquiry,” we will look at what’s best at UCE, what inspired you to join, and what motivates you to keep coming. At the end of the day, each will have had an enriching personal experience, and we will have a start on our next step of planning our “congregation’s ends,” our goals for the upcoming few years.

Without a substantial number of members and friends participating (I hope for 2/3 of the congregation, or 300 people), the results may be inconclusive. Please join us and help us articulate how we will live out our vision and mission.

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The beloved community

I’m currently in New York City for a week of vacation following a week at the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Conference held each year in Radford, Virginia — also known as SUUSI. The theme this year was “beloved community,” and I gave a talk for the opening worship service. I was surprised they invited me to do the opening since it was my first SUUSI, so I focused on the question of what it feels like to enter into beloved community from the “outside.” What are the subtle and not-so-subtle cues for belonging, what are the written or unwritten rules? I think of these things when I consider how visitors and guests join our community.

We often look to Martin Luther King, Jr., as the originator of the idea of beloved community.  But King took his cue, or at least the language of “beloved community,” from the late-19th century philosopher Josiah Royce. For Royce, the formation of beloved community begins with loyalty, what he saw as the most universal interpretation of the Christian ideal of agapic love. As we mature and become more able to form loyalties, he proposed, we become more able to find devotion to things larger than ourselves, ultimately able to form what he called the Kingdom of Ends on Earth in the formation of “beloved community.”

But a “perfected” beloved community is not only about us. In our acts of loyalty to one another, the Kingdom of Ends is construed, in the language of Royce, not as regulative but operative—that is, as sustaining and useful.  I encourage us to his challenge: that despite our individual inner lives, can each of us extend our present self to include the present life and deeds of all around us—in our congregation, community and world?

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Meditations for a Mindful Monday, 6/30/2014

Today, after traveling for a week, we close on our new home. I love this poem.  -Bret

_______________________________

Why Bodhidharma Went to Howard Johnson’s

“Where is your home,” the interviewer asked him?

Here.

“No, no,” the interviewer said, thinking it a problem of translation,
“when you are where you actually live.”

Now it was his turn to think, perhaps the translation?

~ Jane Hirshfield  from The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry

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Why summer services?

Why do we come to church? Why do we bother getting up on a Sunday morning, especially in the summer months? There are many temptations: sleeping in both Saturday and Sunday; an extra few hours at the park; Starbucks. Why do we bother doing year-round church?

I remember a time, before I entered the ministry, when my church shut down for the summer completely. I’d take a few weeks off, then wound up attending the congregational church down the street, or others, from the end of June through September, when my UU church re-opened its doors. Why couldn’t I stay away from church?

The answer for me over the years has been a need for ultimacy and intimacy, which doesn’t take a summer vacation. It is also central to an understanding of the purpose of liberal religion. Ultimacy is the term Unitarian Universalist James Luther Adams used to describe a desire to be lifted up — beyond the mundane, ordinary, even human dimensions of our lives — and to have others recognize our inherent worth and dignity. Ultimacy is that feeling of wonder and awe.

We cannot make sense of ultimacy without intimacy, and we cannot recognize intimacy without ultimacy.  It is through connection with others that our lives strike balance between the personal and the universal, the concrete and the felt. In our church life, this is why we encourage new members to find a group to connect with. It is why our services are designed to encourage a sense of ultimacy. With the intimacy that small groups and gatherings provide, and the ultimacy lifted up on Sunday morning, we begin to make sense of the wonder of our lives. We create beloved community that reaches beyond ourselves, all year long.

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Meditations for a Mindful Monday, 6/23/2014

The truck just pulled up to drop off the “pod,” in which all our belongings will be stored for the next week or so. Tomorrow I journey to Rhode Island for an annual church conference, and the day after my return we move into a new apartment. A few weeks after that we travel to North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and New York City by plane, train, and automobile.

“Journey” is on my mind-and everything that goes with it. Here and there. Home and away. Taking only what you need. Seeking and finding.

Maybe you will be journeying this summer, too. This poem by Mark Strand might be worth packing.

See you Sunday,

Bret

__

A journey continues until it stops
A journey that stops is no longer a journey
A journey loses thing on its way
A journey passes through things, thing pass through it
When a journey is over, it loses itself to a place
When a journey remembers, it begins a journal
Which is a new journey about an old journey
A journey over time is different from a journey into time
An actual journey is into the future
A reflective journey is into the past

***
A journey always begins in a place called Here
Pack your bags and imagine your journey
Unpack your bags and imagine your journey is done

***
If you’re afraid of a journey, don’t buy shoes

~ Mark Strand from Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More

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Meditation for a Mindful Monday, 6/9/14

As I was sitting thinking about this coming Sunday’s message for Father’s Day, Horace Silver’s “A Song for My Father” kept running through my head. While the song’s iconic bass intro and quick 16th note turns are well know, the song’s lyrics are not. Even Silver rarely sang them when performing the piece. You can hear the instrumental on YouTube in this video made for Danish television in 1968.

Anecdotally, Silver was once asked if he really wrote the piece for his father, or to God. His answer was something like “yes.” I think it works either way.

If you are in Chicago, I hope you’ll join me Sunday as I share the story of my father’s life, and of the journey many of us make reconciling idealized images of fatherhood with the real men who did the best they could to raise us.
________________

“Song for My Father,” by Horace Silver

This little song for my father
Does things that no other can do
As I sing it to you

It has a rhythm and rhyme
That will fasten his memory in time
As his beauty shines through

All through my heart and soul
My heart will always hold
A special place for him, it’s true

We bow our heads and we pray
Every day’s Father’s Day
Let’s review all that he means to you

Our mother’s love is real nice
But old Dad sacrificed for us, too
We’re very proud to be in his biography
We sing this song for him
And for you!

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Remarks from June 1 marriage equality ceremony

When I married my wife, Cindy, in 1988, we could not imagine a world in which our gay and lesbian friends might share in equal protections under the law. Today, in Illinois, that dream has finally come true.

But it has been a long journey to marriage equality. The struggle arguably began in the United States in 1970 when Minnesota couple Richard Baker and James Michael McConnell were denied a marriage license by the Hennepin County District Court’s clerk. Their initial trial court dismissed their claim and affirmed that the clerk could refuse gay couples a marriage license. Two gloomy decades for marriage followed.

A hint of light broke through in 1993 in Hawaii, when the state supreme court ruled that if the state could not show sufficient justification for its denial of the freedom to marry, Hawaii’s ban would be overturned. Three years later Judge Kevin Chang ruled that the state did not have a legitimate reason for depriving same-sex couples of the freedom to marry. Unfortunately, on the national level, 1996 was the same year that President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which mandated unequal treatment of legally married same-sex couples, selectively depriving them of the then 1,138+ protections and responsibilities that marriage triggers at the federal level.

Since then legislators and courts have played ping pong with equal marriage. Granting it here, taking it away there. Of course, the first real victory may have been in 2004 when Massachusetts passed its freedom to marry law. The first same sex marriage in that state was performed by a Unitarian Universalist minister on the statehouse steps.

Since then ten years have passed, and 19 states (CA, CT, DE, HI, IA, IL, ME, MD, MA, MN, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, and WA – plus Washington, D.C.) have the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.

In eleven additional states —many of them southern states such as AR, OK, and TX, where marriage equality was thought never a possibility — judges have issued rulings in favor of the freedom to marry, with many of these rulings now stayed as they proceed to appellate courts.

With these advances, nearly 44 percent of Americans live in a state with the freedom to marry for all couples, and more than half of the U.S. population lives in a state that provides marriage, civil union, or protections for all marriages

There is still work to be done for the 66 percent who still cannot marry, and for the many who remain without any protections against unjust seizure of their children, denial of access to their loved ones when facing illness of death, and so many of the rights afforded to everyone standing here today.

As always, there is a choice. It would be easy to loose focus now that we are freed from the bonds of injustice. It would be easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal: the freedom to marry for all America. I know we will not do that, for the fight is in our blood. We have tasted freedom this day and our faith demands that we keep up our struggle until all have the same rights that we enjoy. We will all someday be free to marry the person we love and to whom we wish to commit our lives.

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For the beauty of the Earth

For some time the Green Sanctuary Movement has urged congregations to go paperless. Starting this month, we are taking a couple more significant steps in that direction.

First, you’ll notice a dramatic reduction in the number of inserts in the order of service. A couple of times a year the staff may include something for major all-congregation events such as our major fundraisers, but week-to-week we’re going to be taking advantage of our sanctuary’s projection system to highlight upcoming events. Events will be displayed on the screen before and after services, including throughout coffee hour. To have your event (an on-site church event open to all members) included in the Sunday “rotation” of events, please send to Carli the event’s name, date, time, a very brief description, and an optional graphic. We’ve found that more than a sentence of description gets lost on screen. These announcements are less for detailed information and more about getting the date and time noticed.

Second, the newsletter is finally going natively digital. Until now, we’ve designed a paper newsletter, turned it into a digital PDF, and then expected 90 percent of you (percent of members not getting a mailed paper copy) to read it on screen. Random polling at all levels of membership and leadership suggests that as many as half the congregation isn’t reading the newsletter. Starting with the August newsletter, we will cease monthly publication of the PDF version and go to a weekly electronic format with “live” links to columns (a.k.a. blogs) by staff and leaders, events, and all the information you’re used to getting from the PDF version. For those of you currently getting the newsletter in electronic format, the only thing that will change is that you’ll get more timely information in a format that is easier to read on screen.

For the very few people who are now getting the newsletter in paper format, we will have paper versions of major articles and columns available each Sunday — AND we will be offering classes in how to access the new online formats. We will also be teaching some general computer skills that will help get you up and running with all the congregation’s online stuff: the Website, Facebook, and the eNewsletter.

In short, these changes will help us serve you better in at least four ways. They will: – Allow the office staff to focus their time, training, and talent

  • Serve more timely information with weekly instead of monthly publication
  • Save vast amounts of paper
  • Give more groups the opportunity to get their messages out

The Earth thanks you for your support!

Rev. Bret

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The “G” Word

Last month, in a sermon exploring process theology, I learned a lot about how many ways people relate to what theologian Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being (a.k.a. the big “G”). Never had a sermon I’d preached agitated so much energy—some positive and enthusiastic, some questioning and curious, some a little upset. None of these were wrong reactions. Some told me it was the first time they’d considered what a postmodern idea of God might be—a finite Motive Power of Love that is limited by the bounds of time, space, even physics. Others said they were intrigued by the ideas within process theology and wanted to know more. Others said it was the most disturbing sermon they’d ever heard preached in a Unitarian Universalist church, because they’d never heard a sermon about God before within these walls. I was thrilled by all these comments, for you all shared your thoughts with kindness and a spirit of wanting to reconcile what you heard with your own experience. That’s one reason I have office hours—for you to come by and talk about what’s going on in your spiritual lives, even—especially—when the message of the week has agitated you to some epiphany or conviction about what you believe. Come by, sit, and tell me what you believe.

I’m not sure everyone heard what I said at the beginning of the sermon, and what I said is relevant to moving forward. First, I said that the primary gospel of that morning was the Gospel of Your Experience, which for us is primary in the search for Truth. That means that no matter what I say, on any given Sunday, if what I say does not resonate with your experience—you are required to do one of two things: reject it or be curious about it. As a free thinker you cannot in good conscience accept something that does not resonate with experience and life. Second, I said that I wasn’t telling you what God is. How could I know what the word, God, designates? God, in linguistic terms, is a symbol or signifier. But for what? A being? A paradox? A process? A set of mathematical constants and laws? Humanity’s been working on solving this question for more than 5,000 years. I said that I was sharing with you an idea about God that fascinates me, that has inspired my curiosity. Process theology informs my free search for truth and meaning, and I’m so excited about the ideas that I want to share them with you.

On any given Sunday this is what I am doing: Not telling you what Truth is, but lifting up the clues and sign posts that I have found for Truth along a spiritual path that is mine. Our is a unique form of religious thought that allows for this kind of back and forth between minister and congregation. My call is not to tell you the truth, but to encourage you to find it yourself. This is different than asking you to make up a truth. I do believe Truth is out there to be discovered—but each of us has to find it, and the language to express it, on our own.

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Meditation for a Mindful Monday, 4/28/14

It’s been said that one thing the scientific story of creation lacks is poetry, that all the good myths are written in ways that are evocative and dramatic, while the language of the Big Bang is analytical and precise. In this poem by L. Annie Foerster, she uses poetry to tell the story of the Big Bang in a way that I’ve never felt it told. Listen to the possibility in her words; she is not only speaking about the potential contained within the universe, but also the possibilities which exist in you.
________________

“Creation in Three-Quarter Time with Mixed Metaphor,” by L. Annie Foerster

There was space, but no beginning,
and in the space were spaces,
and between the spaces, stars–
a kind of celestial progressive dinner without food,
a kind of heavenly musical chairs without a loser.

And their movements made Music–
swish, and bang, and hum;
and their music made Dancing–
sway, and step, and bow;
and their dancing made Intimacy–
come, and stay, and join;
and their Intimacy made Possibility and Potential–
hmmmm, and Maybe, and Yes!

A kind of blind date between old friends;
a kind of dream without sleeping.

Possibility was Egg; Potential was Seed.
And the Possible Egg hatched, and spawned, and bore.
And the Potential Seed sowed, and sprouted, and bloomed.
And Egg and Seed combined and Made Creation.
a kind of Mardi Gras in July without Lent;
a kind of memorial service for Silence and Emptiness without Regret.

There was creation in space.
There was creativity in the spaces.
The stars blazed with creatures and creators.
And everywhere there was–and is–Music:
Listen within you;
And everywhere there was–and is–Dancing:
Look around you;
And Possibility and Potential are ever again Intimate:
Look between us.

And the eggs are within the male, and the female, and the other–
everything is Possibility.
And the seeds are within the female, and the male, and the other–
everything is Potential.

And the music is Dance,
and the Dancing is Intimacy,
and the Intimacy
is Song.
A kind of cosmic choir
in tap shoes
without program
or score.

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Another first

This is a year of firsts for us. Not for you. Not for me. For Us. In the fall we began our worship life together. In the winter we began two services. Now that spring has arrived we are talking about stewardship and generosity, together, for the first time.

Each of us gives as we are able. Giving more never feels right, and not something this church would ever ask. Giving less than we are able also fails to bring the joy that can happen when our generosity and values align.  The question is are we each giving in a way that truly lives up to our excitement about this saving faith of Unitarian Universalism – for it is a saving faith. It is saving people from the traps of materialism and selfishness. It is saving people from the illusion of alienation and separateness. It is saving people from the exclusion they’ve felt from other religions.

These are some of my passionate feelings about what we are doing. We all found our way to this church and have chosen to throw in with this diverse lot. There’s a reason for your choice of why you are here and not someplace else on Sunday morning. I’m grateful you’ve make a choice to be at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, as have I.

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Mission accomplished, so far!

It’s hard to believe that only a month has passed since UCE added a second service on Sunday morning. From my perspective it’s been a smooth transition, and I’ve gotten feedback that members are enjoying their church experience and are satisfied overall with the change.

There have been some surprises. One concern of mine was that the first service might not be well attended at first, and that it would feel empty. I’ve learned that “well attended” is subjective. While the 60 or so people who have regularly attended the first service certainly haven’t filled the room, a number of them have reported that the service has been special to them in other ways. First, that there is a sense of intimacy they didn’t expect. In a church our size, that feeling of closeness is something that is often lost. I’m glad that we’re able to capture that feeling for our early morning attendees. Second, several families have shared that they were able to attend church despite obligations that usually would have prevented them from coming. Third, more than a few Sunday School teachers have shared their gratitude for being able to serve in our religious education program and attend worship on the same Sunday.

The surprise of the second service is that it feels, for me, like nothing has changed whatsoever. The seats are full. The choir wows us with their beautiful music. There is energy and vitality before and after the service as members, friends, and visitors gather into beloved community — expectant and ready to be transformed by our communal experience.

In all, I complete this January with a sense of gratitude for this successful transition, but more, for your open hearts as we faced change together. There were questions, concerns, deep feelings and doubts — and throughout all of it we stuck together knowing that we all love this place and its work for a better world. We put our values of encouragement to spiritual growth and affirmation of the common good to the test. It’s good to know what we can do when we are curious, flexible, and focused.

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Installation choices

Looking ahead to 2014, one date in particular shines bright for me: the date I am formally Rev. Bret Lortie “installed” as your senior minister. I like that our process is such a deliberate one, from the search process and call, through our first “getting to know each other” months, and finally arriving at the installation ceremony to “cinch the deal.”

Some ministers like to schedule installations in the fall. I think waiting until after we have settled in provides a bet- ter perspective to truly savor the moment. It’s bucking convention a bit, but just a bit.

I’m also bucking convention by who I’m inviting to preach and speak. The convention is to invite a lot of out of town preachers and speakers, even to “show off” all the people we know. I thought a lot about this and decided to invite all local folks in order to celebrate the Chicago area connections I hope to foster in my ministry. The Rev. Alan Taylor of Unity Temple will preach, and speakers from throughout our great city and region will share their local vision of Unitarian Universalism. This reflects the deep connections I will deepen in the coming years. The larger connections are essential, too, but March 15 should prove a true celebration of the unique traditions, challenges, and hopes we share in Chicago and the North Shore.

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The place and function of doubt

After four months, two newsletter articles, two town hall meetings, gatherings with various groups, and countless hours of staff time, the moment has come: in a month we move to two Sunday services at 9:00 and 11:00.

I’ve expressed a great deal of faith about how I believe in this plan begun by your leaders before my arrival, and I’ve been proud to take up the final phase of implementation. Yet just the other day, I was speaking with a member who mentioned some past doubts, and I said something like, “Of course I have had doubt.”

“Really?” she said with some surprise. “You have some doubts?”

“Of course,” I said. “And a healthy dose fear, too.” What kind of leader doesn’t have some inner fears and concerns in the face of great movement forward? You don’t pay me to be a cheerleader, but a guide along the journey. I think of a mountain guide who takes climbers through Nepal. It would be a foolish guide who, even though she has walked the trail before, isn’t aware that each trip is a little different. The roster of climbers is different. Weather changes. Established paths get rerouted around rock slides or collapsed ice. Ran- dom events could force us to adapt our established ways to new patterns. Even guides change over time, their ideas evolving with each journey.

I would be foolish not to entertain some private doubts. Have we gotten everything right in this transition plan? Have I presented it cor- rectly? Have I talked to all the right people and consulted all the experts? On the other hand, absolute certainty leaves little room for the kind of ongoing discernment, flexibility, and creativity that big change requires. The great theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

We go into this change together—not foolishly, not blindly, not rigidly. We entertain this change because we believe that as the last piece of a bold plan enacted by your leadership, if we don’t we will never know, really, the number of people with whom we might be able to share Unitarian Universalism. We entertain change because we believe that nothing we have proposed has the potential to divide a united people. We move forward with creative hearts, open minds, willing hands, and a resilience that has always been a great strength of this church.

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On the bus

As I write this I’m on the bus to Springfield. We pull onto Lakeshore Drive singing “We’re Moving Forward” and “Singing for Our Lives.” After the pastor from Broadway United Methodist church, which organized the bus, offers a prayer, a microphone is passed around so riders can offer testimony as to why they’re going to spend the next four hours traveling to Springfield. “To talk to my legislator about why a straight woman supports marriage equality,” says one rider. “So my moms can marry,” says another. “So I can marry my partner of 40 years,” says another. “To march for justice.”

As For the Bible Tells Me So plays on the bus’ VCR, I consider that members from more than a dozen congregations are represented here. We cheer at the high points in the movie when, for example, an interviewee reminds us that Jesus never said anything about who should or shouldn’t marry; or about how purity laws in the Hebrew scriptures are filled with contradictions and outdated ancient customs unfit for our millennium. I’m proud the Unitarian Church of Evanston fills half the bus — and we’re passing out snacks and coffee to our hosts. At the rally, we are the most represented denomination, by far. On stage, it is a reunion of UU clergy.

That marriage equality could happen next week in Illinois, after so many years working on the issue, is unfathomable. Whenever I consider that the waters of justice may flow, finally, not just down the mountain but toward a rainbow, I experience a moment of pause. What’s next? My mantra for the past decade, when asked “why are we putting the majority of our justice efforts into marriage equality?” is that “it’s the civil rights issue of our time.” In the past few years I’ve watched “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” crash and burn. I’ve witnessed “The Defense of Marriage Act” go down in flames. We’re on the eve of a new era where all loving couples can be affirmed in matrimony.

What’s next after marriage equality? I suspect we’ll be involved in continuing our work to make sure these “new” rights for GLBTQI persons are upheld, and I also suspect that we will continue to support the many other justice initiatives (prison, restorative, environmental, and economic justice, for example) in which we’re involved. I know that I’m also going to keep my eyes open for the next big civil rights issue into which we must invest our time and energy. Civil rights have always pulled Unitarians , Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists together in a common march for justice. Let us keep our eyes open!

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In-reach and Outreach

After a month of “hellos” and a couple of Sundays under my belt, I feel like things are settling down a bit. I’ve been seeing some of our programs in action, such as the Great Lakes outreach ministry that our congregation is proudly offering to Navy recruits. I was proud to assist Chris Isely with his on-base worship service a few weeks ago. Our Great Lakes ministry is outreach at its best: a gift to the world without the promise of immediate reward—except for those leading worship!  Just hearing the stories shared during joys and sorrows was worth the trip.

Cindy and I are grateful for the warm reception we have received, not to mention the fantastic gluten-free potluck on August 25. I had been told that summer services are sparsely attended. Apparently not many of you read the memo, for if the past several weeks have been any indication, we’re in for a crowded fall. (Look for info next month about a January transition to two services.)  Seats have been full, energy is up, and the spirit is certainly alive within our walls.

And so I turn my focus in September to what is outside our walls. I have a few relationship-building opportunities already lined up (one-on-one conversations and lunches with area pastors), and this coming Sunday I will be a part of Shared Streets Evanston’s “Ask a Minister” program. Apparently, I will stand on a sidewalk and answer questions to which a minister should have answers.

Our outreach push this fall is around prison and restorative justice. It’s a timely campaign with television shows like Orange is the New Black and books like The New Jim Crow both capturing so much public attention. Now is the time to act on this issue led by our Peace and Justice Committee. I invite you to attend a kickoff event on Wednesday, October 9, with a catered dinner (Lou Malnati’s pizza!) and discussion about employment issues faced by previously incarcerated people. I’ll deliver a sermon in late September on the issue, and together we can plan how to “stand on the side of love” on this important and contemporary concern. See you for pizza on the 9th!

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Scoping out the competition

“I’m just church shopping…” is what I said when asked what brought me to their church doors that morning. A more accurate response would have been, “I’m checking out how you do church.”

I spent every Sunday in July this way: walking into a different church to see and evaluate what the church “culture” is like in Evanston. I picked congregations that are similar to us in values, tradition, and outreach. I picked ones that I’ve heard are “pulling” members away from my new church home. I’m also coming from having served a congregation in the distinctive church culture of the South. Even though I attended and served congregations in the Chicago area before moving to Texas, I was curious to witness some other churches in Evanston, “The City of Churches.”

What I found surprised me in some ways, and didn’t in others. First, there was the superficial, like how the ministers at all the churches not only left their robes in their sacristies (apparently) but dressed incredibly informally — no ties, sleeves, or even (in one case) long pants! They all reflected a “come as you are” culture. Second, they all focused on outreach. The message in these liberal churches was clear: To be a good Christian, you have to get into the world and be present to its hurts, discomforts, and people. It was clearly a primary motivator for participation in these neighbor congregations. Third, I received a warm welcome at each place I visited and could tell there were designated staff and volunteers to hone in on me as a newbie. They did not take my presence for granted, as much as I tried to keep to myself and just observe.

Finally, the biggest surprise was that each sermon I heard dwelled, not superficially, on mindfulness. (Each congregation also offered yoga classes during the week, a coincidence?) One Baptist minister even read from the appropriate sutta/ra on mindfulness and quoted the Buddha before relating it back to the Gospel message of the morning.

This is where we have a true “niche” in the religious culture of Evanston: As open and affirming as each of these neighbor churches is, the goal of membership is to become closer to Jesus in some way — to become better disciples and servants of Christ. I am not one who would for a minute want to pull anyone from a church where they feel fed and alive. I celebrate when someone finds a path that speaks to his or her heart. Each of the congregations I visited offered a valuable path to insight, and I found people joyfully practicing faith. I also know there are countless seekers in our area who are hungry for the unique theology that our faith offers, and who might not be comfortable with a singular expression of the holy. Our tradition includes the teachings of the Rabbi Jesus, but it does not privilege them above words of wisdom from other sources. We acknowledge there are many teachings worthy of our attention.

Competition? There is none that I could find. I saw four vibrant congregations — each providing a unique approach and model for living that worked for its members. I was also encouraged to find there’s nobody offering what we offer with our pluralistic and radically inclusive approach to religion. From humanist to theist expressions of belief, we celebrate human religious imagination and the divine mystery without clinging to one particular set of words or symbols to describe our experience. Indeed, our church holds a unique and vital place in the religious culture of Evanston, the North Shore, and Chicago.

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Espresso in the basement and happiness

1016308_10151711929980266_140520285_nOur “stuff” is still in transit from Texas. Not sure how it takes three weeks for a POD to be moved from one location to another, but I’m told it has to go into limbo for two weeks between here and there.

This has led to an interesting lesson about “stuff.” We haven’t really needed it. With our laptops, enough clothing for two weeks, a carload of our essentials, and a pot borrowed from the church kitchen, I keep finding myself secretly wishing all that stuff would just get lost along the way. I imagine the 50+ boxes (not including my 20 boxes of office books) and I wonder, “what’s in them?” I can’t even really remember. We buy food at the grocery. We wash our clothes in the communal washers. Our apartment came with a stove, fridge, even a microwave. This morning, just as I thought I couldn’t take another cup of instant coffee, I found an espresso machine that someone had abandoned as they vacated their apartment. It all just comes and goes.

As a disclaimer, we did buy a table and some chairs at IKEA the other day—but as soon as the basics were complete, I found myself completely satisfied with life again.

By coincidence, we watched the movie “Happy” the other night. It explored people from all economic walks of life and reminded me that happiness has little correlation with material possessions, and that each of us has a “baseline” level of happiness built into our brains to which we return by default after a stimulus (negative or positive) ends. At least one thing rings true for me: with a bed, table, food, and my laptop (I am a creature of this century), I did quickly return to a state of happiness pretty quickly after the chaos and anxiety of moving. Another interesting fact from the film is that there’s a significant amount of happiness gained when one’s income climbs between  $0 and $50,000, but almost no happiness gained between $50,000 and $5,000,000.

Now that I think of it, there is one item I regret taking out of my trunk and putting into the POD at the last minute, “just to make a little extra room.” My trombone. (And I have friends who’re gathering to go busking tonight in the city. Alas!)

Add that to the list of essentials and I’m done.

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A time for goodbye

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”

—from “Burnt Norton” in The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot

I’ve puzzled over this poem many times, but especially this month. I understand the relationship between the past and present as both contributing to the future, as well as the idea that the future is always rooted in the past. What I think Eliot is getting at with the word unredeemable is that time cannot be claimed, despite our valiant efforts. Time isn’t just “always” (the limits of our comprehension) but the “eternal always” (beyond our comprehension). It slips by as we age. It shapes character as we live. It opens and closes chapters of experience despite our wishes. It cannot be claimed. In the primary inspiration for the poem, The Bhagavad-Gita, “life understood in its most developed state lies beyond the reach of time,” says critic Terry Bruntone. Without understanding time the world is lived, at best, fearfully — or as Eliot would have it, “fear in a handful of dust.”

This is certainly a moment for me where past, present, and future converge. I am cherishing this month, as I say goodbye to San Antonio, for the richness it has brought, especially the gratitude that people have expressed. For some reason, such gratitude can be difficult to share so openly outside of times of leave-taking. It is also a time of grief for I’m about to lose a community, in the way that I have “had” it for the past several years.  I’m trying to get my mind around what it means to say goodbye to 500 people who have made such an impact on my life, the dozens of community leaders with whom
I’ve worked, a squadron of pilots for whom I’ve chaplained, and a city of which I’ve become so fond. I truly don’t know how to do it, and so I just do — holding this present moment, the past, and my hopes for the future all in one
arm’s grasp of the “eternal now.” It’s like the Eternal has said, “this whole mountain is yours, but only what you can carry in your hands.” I will do my best.

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Religious Humanism and me

It’s about time I say it explicitly. Some of you have suspected, although when asked I usually just say, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist!” But the truth is, I am a religious humanist. It’s how I practice religion.

There are many “isms” that are a part of our tradition: theism, deism, humanism, pantheism, religious naturalism, paganism, agnosticism, atheism and too many more to list comprehensively. Then we have many devotions or ways of practicing faith within our tradition: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hindu, Earth Centered traditions, and more.

I’ve been accused of being a theist. [Simply put: belief in a supernatural God = theism.] I pray during worship, for example. That must be a sign of a theist. Yet prayer for me is no longer theist in understanding or practice. I pray to open myself to all the love and strength that surrounds me, seen and unseen. I pray to get beyond myself and my understanding of “how things work.” Some of the greatest religious humanists I know have prayed in such a manner (I learned from them), especially in our public worship settings where one’s understanding of what is “beyond myself” may be very different from another’s. Public prayer is for all of us, not just the service leader! I’m not a theist.

For a long time I thought I was a deist, or someone who believes reason and observation are sufficient to determine the existence of God, and that traditional religious explanations of miracles (or belief in such) are misguided. “God gave us reason, not religion,” as the World Union of Deists say. Deism has never been engaged enough for me to inform my character and action in the world. And I don’t believe in their God.

I’m certainly informed by Buddhism, but for me it’s practice, not religion—and I’m no more Buddhist than Christian or Jewish, the traditions in my family of origin from which I pull so many rich myths and stories—myths and stories which inform how I live in the world and touch an unconscious awareness that reason alone cannot reach.

Religion humanism fits well. While secular humanism (or pure atheism as it is promoted in many best-selling books) claims that humanity is better off without religion or ritual, religious humanism lifts up our human need to gather in beloved community for solace, strength, and solidarity with likeminded souls. It is based in reason and reverence, in the clear-headed language of science and the “night language” of myth. There are Jewish humanists, existential humanists, even Christian humanists. All humanists, to quote Bill Murry, one of my professors at Meadville Lombard Theological School, believe “in the worth and dignity of every person, a commitment to human betterment, and the necessity for humanity to take responsibility for themselves and the world.” Personal belief is therefore secondary to our responsibilities to the common good. Religious Humanism is a core of my religious faith.

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Atop the mountain

Screen shot 2013-01-31 at 11.08.34 AMFor three days we camped and hiked around the Chisos Mountains. Since I wound up not taking my usual July  vacation this year, it was a well needed study leave for me, a time to reflect on the months ahead and catch up on some reading and reflection. It was also a joy to share such beauty with Cindy and our son, Jevin, who had never seen anything like Big Bend. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, so experiencing the winter desert was an eye-opener. I have to be honest, since my cell phone sits in my pocket or by my bed 24/7 ready to let me know of congregational and pastoral emergencies, when I’m on vacation I tend to enjoy places out of cell phone range—like Big Bend’s Chiso Basin, or Alaska.

On our last day in the park, we climbed Mt. Emory, the highest point in Big Bend at 7,825 feet. At the top we found two surprising things: a radio tower and a solar panel. I wanted some pictures so I turned on my phone to take a picture. Suddenly, we had great cell reception, and the phone went crazy. Voicemail, e-mail, texts, all poured in with their requisite beeps and ringtones. Right there atop the mountain I learned that our beloved Mara Jewell had just died of cancer, and another member had been diagnosed with cancer. I learned that someone’s mother had died and another family was breaking up. There were urgent crises and cries for help. It was the curse of the cameraphone. You don’t get to turn on the camera without activating the phone.

I wasn’t sure if I was glad or sad that I had turned it on. On the one hand, it meant vacation was over. On the other, that I might be useful to others. Maybe you feel that way sometimes when you realize how much “heavy stuff” is contained in our community. Exposing yourself to community means you’re exposed to everything it offers, the joys and the sorrows: The joys of watching children grow and people coming to life around things that matter. The sorrows of loss.

For both, I’m grateful for this ministry. It’s hard work, and I realize all the time how important it is that we share it. There’s much ministry to do together.

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One very big word

Year two of theme-based ministry — here we go! We’ve already explored the themes of “Welcome” in August and “Covenant” in September. Since the beginning of this program I’ve heard requests for us to explore the concept of “God,” and probably an equal number of requests not to explore the word “God.”

I think this means we really need to explore the theme of “God.”

The challenge is that it means so many different things for so many people. One thing is certain, though: It’s the most universal symbol humanity has created to denote the sense of “ultimacy” (what Paul Tillich poetically calls “the ground of being”) that all humans feel when engaged in something so much larger than ourselves that it exceeds our capacity to describe it with language. Notice I said a feeling, not necessary a being, because that is the only way we experience ultimacy. Put another way, God is that which encompasses all, yet is fully contained in everything.

We have many languages to describe God: theology, science, music, and poetry to name a few. When we realize that the word God is shorthand for something unnamable, we are better able to break out of definitions created by others for an experience that is wholly (holy?) individual.

We just use that word because it’s powerful and universal, not merely because it’s gospel.

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A radical covenant

This month’s church theme is “covenant,” and as Paul Rasor writes in A People So Bold, there is something unique about our covenant: it is not closed but open.

Most covenants benefit only those addressed by the covenant. That is, a group of people make promises to each other to the end that they are mutually supported. Even in the Hebrew scriptures, the idea of covenant between Yaweh and the Children of Israel is for the benefit of the “signatory parties”; God help the people of Canaan or the city of Jericho’s walls.

Our covenant is radically different, for while we certainly do benefit and grow spiritually when we live into its promise, the ultimate beneficiaries are those outside our immediate circle. The traditional view of covenant requires that all parties agree to it. Our covenant includes people who’ve never stepped inside a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We make promises to the world never expecting the world to return the favor. That is generosity. Our is a generous covenant.

I believe we are doing a good job living up to our outreach potential. Certainly there is more work to be done and more need to share the burden. Sometimes we get tired as we march for justice, and it’s helpful to be able to step out while others step in (or step back while others step forward). If you’ve hesitated in joining our outreach work but want to help, there is no time like now.

One area in which I know we can do better is our “in-reach,” and this does speak to the aspect of covenant where we promise to care for one another. In some smaller churches, the minister is the primary pastoral care “provider.” In a church our size, either a second minister for pastoral care, or a robust volunteer effort, is required to meet the community demands.

This is part of our covenant, but it’s not explicit. I believe the line “to dwell together in peace” is where this member-to-member care is addressed. How are we to dwell peaceably together when those among us are hurting? “To dwell together” is a hefty charge when you think about it. In this world of “me first” it is a bold statement to lift up the need to dwell together in a web of mutuality.

How can you help with our “in-reach”? Our Membercare ministry is currently in a state of re-organization. The Pastoral Associate Team (formerly a unique ministry focused on pastoral needs that require some special training to handle) has decided to, at least for the time being, fold itself into Membercare, where there is greater demand. For the most part, I’ve been able to meet the more acute pastoral demands — it’s the basic necessities that have been neglected for too long: reaching out to those who can no longer drive to church; sitting and listening to the stories of members who are now in nursing homes; being with those “routine” bumps and bruises of life.

This ministry re-organization is so important that our intern minister, Beth Dana, is foregoing the Worship Team’s monthly meeting and will be offering her assistant to Membercare (which is scheduled at the same time).

Membercare meets on the first Wednesday of each month on Committee Night. If you’re interested in joining our in-reach efforts, please RSVP to me so I can put you on the list for the evening meal. (Did I mention the glorious committee night dinner cooked for us each month by Shannon Hawkins?)

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Hungering for Renewal

A few months ago I got a message from my audio book club reminding me that I hadn’t used any of my “credits” in a few months. I had a cross-country driving trip scheduled, so I thought what a great opportunity to download some “reading” material for the road. I chose the Hunger Games series, thinking it would be a good opportunity to catch a glimpse of what’s capturing the attention of so many young adult readers. I say this with the admission that the last time I tried this I couldn’t make it through the first film of Twilight. I’m certain that there’s much depth to those books and films that I’m missing—but I certainly missed it.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, immediately captured my attention. Ever since discovering George Orwell’s 1984 (in 1984, my senior year of high school) I’ve been a fan of dystopian literature. Orwell’s book tuned me into geopolitics in a way that my politics and world history classes had not. It offered a narrative for me to contextualize what it would feel like to live in a culture that is only a few political events away from ours.

In The Hunger Games, we’re presented with a number of parallels to today’s world: unresolved environmental questions; a society gripped by fear, even terror; a dominant elite mesmerized by consumerism and blinded to the plight of the oppressed.

In many ways, we are living in a social scenario not far from that portrayed in The Hunger Games. In a month where our church theme is “renewal,” a good starting place may be to explore that which is in need of being renewed.

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Occupy Democracy

I was downtown riding my bike near the Federal Reserve building when I saw the protest. It was a small group of scruffy looking people, led by a woman with a megaphone. She was yelling a series of indictments at the imposing brick facade. I watched trying to figure out what they were protesting and moved on.

It was later that week that I realized I had witnessed the beginnings of the Occupy San Antonio group, yet unformed. The Occupy Wall Street protest was just getting ramped up, and a few forward-leaning people in other cities were seeing where it was going: a national outcry against greed, corruption, and unjust practices. A cry for justice!


We have enough to go around
, and enough for the risk-takers that drive our economy to be rewarded substantially for their investments. We must also ask, how much is enough reward? As much as can be taken? As much as legal loopholes allow?There are different kinds of justice. Social justice  refers to the extent to which society’s institutions ensure that benefits and burdens are distributed in ways that are fair and just. This is not to say that everyone gets the same compensation, but that everyone has enough when there’s enough to go around.

What we’re seeing in the Occupy movement is not protest in the traditional sense where we work to change one thing. The Occupy movement is an expression of national outrage for a set of unjust practices that need reform. What we’re seeing isn’t revolution but democracy in action. We are witnessing the heart of a nation that feels betrayed, and thank God, as the motive power of Love, we also live in a nation where we need not remain silent about that betrayal.

I also want to put out this invitation: If you’re willing to organize a congregational response, or are involved in Occupy San Antonio, I’m willing to support and participate in that action—in addition to work I’m currently doing to support the occupy movement.

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Vocation: Your Life Calls

In “Explore Your Vocation, Find Your Calling,” Ofer Zur, points out that the search for your calling or vocation is different from identifying an occupation. Occupation has more to do with earning money and paying the rent—or satisfying our pride. On the other hand, vocation is tied to one’s sense of meaning and life-purpose. If we don’t discover a sense of vocation, our lives can lack purpose and meaning.

The search for vocation invites us to look at four aspect of our lives: our gifts, talents and abilities; what gives us joy and satisfaction; where are we disciplined; and what, from our unique perspective, does the world needs more of and less of?

Asked another way, this is the same question we often get asked as children: Who do you want to be? Even as adults we may find that, as Parker Palmer puts it in his book Let Your Life Speak, the lives we lead are not the same as the life that wants to live in us. Discovering the life that wants to live within comes from listening. What is your life really about? What gives you joy? Seen this way, vocation is no longer a call from outside but something that emerges from within.

How we listen to our lives is also worth exploring. Our culture pushes us to cross examine and judge—but the soul doesn’t respond well to indictment. It speaks its truth under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.

Many of us have a vision of who we ought to be based on our parents, teachers, mentors, models, cultural impressions, media, and, often worst of all, our own internal critics. Our challenge then is to let ourselves grow gently into our own authentic selves. Have you ever tried to force a seed open before it’s ready? It just doesn’t work. On the other hand, as we continue our process of listening and listening some more, a sense of vocation that joins self and service will open. Fredrick Buechner calls this “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

This process, surprisingly, doesn’t start with the world’s need and ends with you. It starts with you and ends with the world’s need. And that place of intersection is different for each of us. It may not be something for which we’re ever paid, but the rewards are invaluable and enduring.

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Ten Years After 9-11

Moving away from tragedy doesn’t just take strength or brute determination. It takes vision — the ability to see clearly.

In the practice of “insight meditation,” also called Vipassana, the primary task is to cultivate what is called (no surprise) insight. In studying various meditation practices, I’ve come to understand that while the beliefs of various Buddhist sects may differ, the basic goals of meditation are remarkably similar. It’s no surprise that when you examine the Buddha’s earliest teachings, cultivating mindful attention is emphasized more than anything. The “object” of focus for meditation may differ among practices (the breath, a koan, a teaching or feeling), but honing one’s ability to see clearly, to examine the truth of situations and circumstances, to perceive illusions and falsehoods, all these remain consistent.

Our country was hit with the most significant tragedy of our time exactly a decade ago this month when two jets were driven by terrorists into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. Our country encountered true evil in those moments as we witnessed how far fundamentalist doctrines based on hate and misunderstanding can push individuals and groups. To call it anything other than evil avoids confronting the universal aspects of that terrible day, that the capacity to hate and to love are innate in all. Given the right circumstances would we be capable of committing atrocities? We think not, but the evidence contained within the history of human conflict says otherwise.

That is where cultivating vision and insight can save us. Our is a tradition of applying reason and understanding to all doctrines and teachings, including ours. This is our practice of insight.  Reason calls us to question freely that which does not feel right. Yet reason without insight is like weather forecasting without radar. A forecaster may have all the schooling and knowledge available, but without that clear picture of what’s going on and how systems are interacting with each other, predictions are made half blind. Insight lets us see what is actually happening. It is clarity of vision that will heal the wounds that have festered for a decade, leading us to perpetual war and fear of others. The scars will remain, certainly, for we cannot forget what has happened — but healing must be possible for the world to be right.

My prayer for our country is that the seeds of reason be able to take root in places where fundamentalisms have too long dominated, and that insight be the water that nourishes and quenches the ever growing spirit of humanity.

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Encountering the “Emergent Church”

For several years I’ve been reading about something called “the emergent” church, a flavor of Christianity that is striving to be more inclusive, accepting, and “back to the basics” of Jesus’ teachings of radical love and social reform. I’ll never forget the first day we broke bread together, actually hamburgers at Chris Madrid’s.

Gay and lesbian? No problem. Black, White, Latino, Latina? No problem. Doubters? Sinners?  No problem. Piercings and tattoos? All the better. We agreed that ours is not to judge, but to love and include.

Then I asked something like, “what about people who don’t believe in the trinity?” I could see the gears shifting. Now we were talking theology. Then I added,”like me”

Tell us more, they said.

“Well,” I replied, “when we stick to our guns about God being a very specific formulation (for example, the father, son, holy spirit), it’s hard to get radically inclusive.

Tell us more, they said.

“When God isn’t limited to the trinity, suddenly God can be found in the Buddha’s teachings, in the stories of Krishna, in the Torah – even in scientific understandings of the holy. We don’t even have to call God God. A God of oneness can be simply Oneness.”

I may have lost it there (but who knows), and after a few more meaningful meetings we lost touch with each other, more due to the transitory nature of emergent church circles than my theology. I hope.

Encounters like these cement my belief that ours is not only a religion (for those who have and will find their way to our church doors) but also a theology (which interacts with other religions and demands to be shared with the world). Unitarian Universalism is a theology of oneness, radical inclusion, and religious freedom. Don’t be afraid to preach it, for our story has legs.

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More on mission

Do we want to be a mission-based church?

Mission, for some of us, may be another of those challenging words, conjuring up images of “missions” to convert others to a particular faith, or of those big mega-churches which lay claim to the word “mission.” Living on the south side of San Antonio, so close to its beautiful missions, I’m also aware of the charged and complicated history of the European presence here during centuries past – all under the banner of mission.

Yet, not having a strong mission dooms us to a term from the world of Website development: “scope creep.” Scope creep is when what you’re doing expands and drifts because you lack a strong sense of purpose and reason for existence.

Leadership at First Church is dedicated to parsing everything it does – every activity, program, and outreach — through the lens of our mission to “Invite, Inspire, and Involve.” (See my August column for more on our new mission statement.)

The new Web design of uusat.org is one place both volunteer and paid staff have tried to pay attention to our mission. The new Website has a more simple design with a dedicated area right on the main page for newcomers to find the information they need right away. Technically it allows more people to become involved with developing and changing content, which will facilitate involvement, creativity and collaboration between all those involved.

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A pilgrimage to Walden Pond

“What are we looking for?” is one of the biggest questions along our religious journeys. There are many place to find answers: in conversation with each other; during Sunday worship; when we engage in lifelong religious education. One traditional way of seeking is through pilgrimage.

In a few weeks I will be leading some of our youth on a pilgrimage to the Boston area, the birthplace and center of Unitarian Universalism. All excursions will be related to affirming our Unitarian Universalist identities. One day will be spent visiting 25 Beacon (“UUHQ”) and the historic churches around Boston Commons. On other days we will visit Cambridge (and the site where Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address was delivered) and Concord (from where the transcendentalist movement was sprung).

One feature of a pilgrimage is being surprised by the unexpected. I will never forget my arrival at Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Instead of being greeted by the Wonder of Nature at the holiest of Transcendentalist ground, I was greeted by hundreds of BBQ’ers and swimmers running around Walden Beach. A Walden Pond police boat (labeled as such on its stern) floated nearby, keeping the masses under control. To even get to Henry David Thoreau’s cabin site you have to walk through a couple hundred yards of screaming masses. Along the way you can visit the Walden Pond Gift Shop.

That was certainly unexpected, and my walk around the pond and through the woods was filled with real agitation over the contrast between expectation and reality.

Then, another surprise. Just as I had written the day off as a disappointment, we came upon Thoreau’s cabin site. An archeology team had marked the corners of the cabin and placement of the woodshed, but the real epiphany lay nearby in a large rockpile where countless stones (thousands?.. tens of thousands?… ) had been left by previous pilgrims. It is a tradition, we learned, to bring a stone to Walden Pond when you visit, and many people write messages on them to honor a loved one or to express a hope or dream.  How many decades had people been bringing these stones?  What contrasts my pilgrimage held.

My hope for the youth we take to Boston next month will be that they have their unexpected moments of grace and awakening. Small or large, life affirming or life changing, it will be what it is supposed to be. That is the nature of a pilgrimage, so help me wish our young pilgrims Godspeed on theirs.

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Geocashing with friends

I only see my friend Rev. Craig a couple of times a year these days, and recently he’s introduced me to the sport of Geocashing. The first time we went on a Geocashing adventure was in Ottawa last October where we roamed the streets of Canada’s capital city looking for hidden treasure (and, incidentally, attended the septennial minister’s convocation). Last week we met up again in Oklahoma, and as we drove out to a lakeside conference together, we shared the capture of another couple of cashed treasures along the way.

Unfortunately, I’m bound by the code of geocashers not to tell you what we found – or where we found it!

As described by the official organization for Geocashing, Groundspeak: “Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online…. It’s a sport where ‘you are the search engine.’ ”

Imagine it: around the world people have filled (and hidden) Tupperware containers, film canisters, magnetic key caddies, and any number of watertight enclosures with treasures and gifts for you to find. Yes, you! The only rule about taking your treasure is that you have to leave something behind of equal or greater value for the next person. Many people just sign a slip of paper saying they found the treasure, which they leave for someone else to take home. Others carry bags of treasure with them with the intention of spreading their gifts around the world as they travel.

Could Geocashing be a metaphor for liberal religion? Where do I start? The first lesson I take away from my Geocashing experiences with Craig is that the world is full of surprise and treasure, most of it invisible to us as we walk about our daily lives, unaware of what someone has left for us. Yet as soon as we turn intentionally to the task of looking – and sharing – there it is: discoveries of grace left by fellow kindred souls. The only rule is that when you find the treasure, you have to leave treasure for the next seeker. Like modern day Thoreaus, we wander into the woods looking for the unseen gifts.

A second lesson is that it takes community. No God has left these treasures. Fellow seekers have reached out across vast distances thinking of how to bless the lives of others. May we all be Geocashers of the heart, thinking of how we might leave behind treasure and gifts for others.

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Religious imagination and Cosmic Jesus

I began writing this article while at General Assembly in Salt Lake City. A trip to this town wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Mormon Temple at the city’s center, a few blocks from the convention center. Apparently many UUs had the same idea and the visitor’s center was filled with people wearing General Assembly nametags. I felt a little sorry for the mostly teenage tour guides as I overhead some of our loaded questions.

The best exhibit for me is something I am calling Cosmic Jesus. As you climb a long spiraling walkway with walls painted with planets, stars, and galaxies, you come into a central chamber. There surrounded by the cosmos, a 20-foot statue of Jesus stands with outstretched arms greeting the whole of creation.

To me, it’s about religious imagination. I imagine the artist working to convince the center’s curator’s of his vision for the room. Then he arrives for the first day of work, arranging his brushes and assembling scaffolding, working to put what is in his head onto the 100-foot circular wall. Months later: Cosmic Jesus.  What fascinates me about the extraordinary facility the Church of the Latter Day Saints put together for us visitors is its scope: elaborate relief maps of the holy land showing Jerusalem of the early Christian; beautiful wall-sized paintings depicting the life of Jesus in America; expressions of a faith I do not understand but would like to understand better.

It made me wonder about our own capacity for religious imagination as we move into this exciting new year of growth for our church.

What will we build and in whose image will that be? Do we build for ourselves, our city, our world, or some delicate and deliberate combination? As the Board focuses on describing a mission and vision that will guide its decisions, this church year is certain to be filled with conversations about what this church means to you. Stay tuned; there is much to explore!

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Building the church of our dreams

I walked away from last week’s workshop with the Rev. Susan Smith, our district executive, energized and enthused about the coming church year, which begins in August. As I sat with the bulk of our First Church leadership—past, present, and future—I marveled at the dedication and talent in the room.

One thing Rev. Smith lifted up was some encouragement to affirm our maturity as a large congregation. Our growth has been staggering: Sunday attendance in the 2006/2007 church year was about 159. Last year that grew to 197, and this year we have averaged 234. Put another way, in the past two years we’ve added a small congregation of about 75 people to our worship each week. But rather than continue to fixate on numbers, we’re at a point in our growth to turn to deepening our understanding of what it means to be a large church: in the community, for the seekers who lighten our door, for our world and ourselves. It’s time for us to just “be” the church as it is right now, to celebrate it and find joy in all that we’re sharing and experiencing. As Rev. Smith noted, five percent growth in a congregation is reasonable (if not amazing). Ten percent is self-regulating and usually unsustainable. With our 16 percent annual growth in worship and 9 in membership, slowing down and assessing the meaning of our shared ministry—as it heals the hurts of the world!—will go a long way in the years to come. It’s time “to hold what we have.”

I’m also in discernment about the coming year of ministry, and I’m dedicated to slowing down so that I, too, maintain a sustainable pace. As I encourage you to live healthy and balanced lives, I realize that I haven’t always heeded my own words. That said, I’m excited about the Pastoral Associates program that starts officially in the fall—a program that will help us better share the work of pastoral care. I’m also energized around some recent opportunities for outreach to our military community, a ministry you’ve asked me to engage. Launching these initiatives will take some re-prioritizing on my part, and I’ll be pulling back some from activities —such as public witness and weekly interfaith work—where you, the congregation, are strongly engaged and effective. Of course, program areas that are my primary responsibilities—including worship, administration, vision/mission work, and spiritual development—will always be my highest priority, and I view that my role in secondary areas is to put energy into programs that are developing, and then refocus as they become successful. There are so many talented and creative individuals among us; our ministry demands to be shared!

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Caring for each other

As our community grows, so do the demands of caring for each other as we mourn, celebrate, contemplate, and explore our lives together. Such pastoral care exceeds a single person’s capacities in a church like ours (which serves between 400-500 members and friends), and there is a richness that comes when many work together to serve a church’s pastoral care ministry.

Since arriving last year, I’ve been extremely grateful for all the member-to-member care this community provides. From the too-many-to-count memorial receptions put on by our Membercare committee (as well as their attention to struggling and homebound members), to the informal networking often done without anyone knowing, this community knows how to care!

Soon, we’ll have another way to look after the needs of our beloved community: Our newly forming Pastoral Care Team. It’s not a committee; it’s not a council. It is a ministry team of specially trained members who have been asked to help in this work because of either a specific background (including hospice, education, mental health, addictions counseling, or active listening experience) or a special gift that calls them to this ministry.

Currently our pastoral associates are operating as a steering group to work out our vision and scope of practice. Although they’re already helping me with pastoral care, the program will officially launch in early fall when we commission this outstanding group during a Sunday worship service.

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Tending the garden: experiments in church

Spring reminds us of renewal, but in our busy lives there’s so much to miss: the first blue blooms of plumbago appearing in the park; the redbud’s pink flowers giving way to red-heart shaped leaves; yellow explosions of esperanza greeting us in the morning.

This is also the time of the year when we discover what didn’t make it through winter. What garden experiments didn’t survive? (My lavender are still just dry twigs.) What fall plantings didn’t bloom?
(Something ate all the ground cover I planted!) What trees are ailing in this drought? (Nope… not one plum on our Japanese plum tree.)  Spring’s renewal might also be a time to recognize what things we need to let go of.

We’ve been doing a lot of experimental plantings in our church life, and as I write this (attending the UU Buddhist Convocation at Mission San Luis Rey in California) I’m using some time to contemplate what things have bloomed and which haven’t yielded the promised fruit. For example, as much as I enjoyed projecting our hymns this past year, constant technical difficulties have me questioning if it supports the high-quality and consistent worship experience you have asked for. Rather than using a classroom projector, maybe it’s time to wait until we can do it right! On the other hand, the covenant group program has rooted itself firmly in our church culture and shows great signs of growth. Other plantings (such as jazz Sundays, the pastoral care team, and our expanded adult education classes) are sprouting up all over campus. What a garden we have to tend!

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Truth be told

Truth. This is the hard one. Unitarian Universalists are often cajoled into believing there is no truth, that it’s all relative. Actually, I believe in universal truths, just few that we can know – maybe gravity or the power of Love. Science gives us a good set of facts to work with, although even in science there are significant gaps. Religion gives us another set of resources, but the trick is that Truth affects us all differently. It affects cultures differently. That is why there are so many religions. They’re all worshiping, adoring, praying to, reflecting on, acknowledging the same Truth–but it’s manifested in ways that are appropriate to different times and places. Once in a while a great teacher comes along (such as Jesus, Mohammed, Zoroaster, or the Buddha) and a bunch of people get on a more singular track. That’s OK because the truth Universal can be felt in singular as well as plural ways. The trick is (and here’s our challenge) to allow ourselves to be open in ways that let us feel truth. If praying allows you to feel what you cannot know and express, then pray. If sitting in meditation allows you to feel what you cannot know and express, then sit on a cushion and let Truth flow in. If walking in nature is where the divine is known to you, then take the time to walk. The challenge is to open yourself up, to be receptive to the mystery, and to give up just a little of that control that our Western culture tricks us into thinking is control.  Truth be told: none of has much control. That’s one reason we gather each week in community to sit in the awe of the known and unknown.

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Regret according to James Bond



I enjoy James Bond movies. There it is. I know they can be sexist, violent, sometimes mindless – and I’ve seen them all. It started with Ian Fleming books (before I was allowed to watch the movies), continued with watching them with my Dad, and went downhill from there. Let’s call it a guilty pleasure.

Sometimes you find wisdom in the oddest places.

In the latest Bond film, there is a moment after the villain’s been foiled, after the car crashes, after America’s (arguably) favorite British spy has survived yet another global threat, where he and “M” (his boss) reflect on the morality of risk and regret. Bond asks M if she has any regrets, especially regarding mistakes she might have made in the course of fulfilling her duties to queen and country. She says: “Of course not, that would be unprofessional.”

In other words, it’s M’s job to take the risks, make the hard calls, even make the mistakes that are part and parcel of her position. Regret? No, that would be unprofessional. Sometimes there are risks one needs to take.

In Fleming’s book Goldfinger, Bond calls regret the “death-watch beetle in the soul. In our own lives, regret exacts a high toll. While remorse for one’s actions can be turned into reflection, redemption and reconciliation, regret just sits there like a bad fruitcake. You don’t want to eat it but you can’t turn it into anything useful. Life is filled with inevitable losses, mis-actions, and mistakes. In the coming year let us look together in all aspects of our lives – in our church life, in our personal connections, and with our community and global responsibilities – for those places where we are stuck in regret, and where a dose of action might move us and our world toward reconciliation.

Regret. Unprofessional. Unproductive. In such light I look forward to a year of spiritual growth and continuing connection.

 

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Religion and politics

Yesterday I went to the polls to vote. I’ve been waiting months to take that tangible step of punching my straight [********] party ticket. I love how at the end of the electronic ballot a bright red flashing button lights up that says “Vote!” Of course, I voted for [********] in the presidential race.

[And of course, I’ve taken out proper nouns to protect our status as a non-partisan religious institution—and to keep you guessing!]

While we aren’t partisan in our politics as a church, it is our duty to take stands on important ethical issues of our times. We do take political stands. We are interested in reproductive rights, immigrant issues, and challenging oppressive economic policy. Our first principle calls us to support equal marriage rights, just as we challenged “don’t ask, don’t tell” which is now a thing of the past. Some Unitarian churches have spoken out against particular military conflicts, others on gun control or drug policies. These issues are inherently political, just not partisan.

One great sadness in our nineteenth-century Unitarian heritage is how most of our Boston ministers and churches did not speak out against slavery. One notable exception was Theodore Parker, who kept a gun in his desk in case he needed to defend an escaped slave. Boston’s elite Unitarian churches, whose financial resources were bound up in the slave trade, turned their backs on him—but Parker stood by our tradition of a free pulpit and spoke out on the most important and difficult political issue of his day.

To this day the freedom of our pulpit is absolute. Our covenental letter of call guarantees as a basic premise “that the pulpit is free and untrammeled. The Minister is expected to express his or her values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.” This freedom extends to those who take up the pulpit when the minister is away. Likewise in our tradition, what is said from the pulpit is not an official statement of a church position—only the view of the speaker.

In a few weeks, after the election, I will be preaching a “Dear Mr. President” sermon to lift up some of my hopes for the next four years, whoever might be occupying the Oval Office. Preaching that today would probably wind up partisan. In a few weeks, it will be a call for justice.

We need not believe alike to love alike, the old saying goes, and I hope that as we engage the hot political issues of our day we continue not to shy away from those which speak to our values. I hope that, for all of us, this process of wrestling with tough issues (political and ethical) affirms our commitment to our third principle: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” There will be times when we do not agree with a trend in the church or something being said, but we support and encourage each other by sharing our views and religious journeys. I value each and every viewpoint and person in this church, even when I do not agree with a position, even when I do not agree with a person. We value, we love, we grow. May we continue to be together in faith, reason, and community.

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The way things ought to be

At the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, I came across a case of small figures that caught my attention. They were called “Billikens,” or “gods of the way things ought to be.” Each little figure had similar devilish features: slightly pointed ears, a wry grim, and eyes that seemed to say, “Are you sure you want it that way?” These are little gods to which we might all relate, for we each have an ideal of the way things ought to be.

These ideals include our thoughts about church: the perfect size; suitable topics for the sermon; how children, and some adults, should behave during worship; how to spend our resources. Over time, we learn to be generous enough to let others Billikens have some playful space in our community alongside ours. As long as our Billiken is satisfied once in a while, we let other Billikens run a little wild. We all have a god of the way things ought to be!

One time when Billikens make real trouble is when we let them handle the resources. You may have noticed in the recent past there has been a shift in how we handle our resources. Rather than “holding a little back” for a project that captures our imagination (leading to a cycle of perpetual asking for money), we focus on pooling as much of our generosity as we are able once a year, and then trust our leaders to guide us through the year. We take turns carrying the mantle of leadership, and that is one of the beautiful things about a growing community. There is an abundance of time, talent and treasure.

This is the time of year when we examine our hopes and dreams for the church, look at the vision cast by our beloved community, and give as much as we are able. Gone are the days of asking as a continuous act, and of jumping in to donate only when one’s personal Billiken is appeased. Now, once a year we turn to you and ask you to support with as much as you are able the ministries of this church. No matter if it’s the widow’s mite or a king’s ransom, may what you give bring you joy.

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On the border

Last week I met up in Brownsville, Texas, with youth from our high school program and several members of our church. Our mission was two-fold: help the small Brownsville church with some necessary repairs and cleanup, and support a rally near the border protesting the wall being built between Mexico and the United States. The rally was held on the University of Texas at Brownsville campus, and if all goes according to “plan,” the campus, along with countless private farms and communities along the frontier, will be bisected by the wall!

Not by plan, I arrived just as the cleanup operation at the Brownsville All Souls Unitarian Church was ending. I was so proud of the work our youth did: power-sanding doors, pulling up ancient linoleum, filling a dumpster with debris. Someone told me that the church hadn’t looked that good in years. It was also a delight sharing worship with the small congregation on Sunday morning where I delivered the sermon and led the hymns on guitar. I was even invited to sing my favorite Peter Mayer song, “Everything’s Holy Now,” for the offertory, something I’ve not done in a few years.

 

At the rally I also spoke, but it was a deliberate political speech and not a sermon. It made me think about the interview I had had earlier in the week with some young filmmakers working on a documentary about the separation of church and state. Isn’t speaking out on a political issue mixing the two? Should clergy get involved with politics?

A. Powell Davies, an outspoken leader on the separation of church and state, made a clear distinction between speaking out on social injustice as a community religious leader and bringing partisan politics into the church. As a prominent social activist for civil liberties, government accountability, civilian control of atomic energy, family planning, and desegregation, he was never shy about jumping into the moral issues of his time. But bringing partisan politics into the church threatens to erode the moral ground on which the church must stand. That’s why you’ll never hear me asking you to endorse a candidate or party, or even talking about my own opinions on such, from the pulpit.

It’s every citizen’s duty to watch for the issues that will move him or her to action, and in the coming months — as our church deepens its commitment to social justice through house meetings, actions, and community outreach — I encourage all of us to pick one or two actions that stir compassion in our hearts toward others. Social justice is not just an option for our religious life, it is essential to it so that all people may have a chance to live in safety and economic freedom.

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Radical hospitality

I’ve used this term many times over the past few months but haven’t really explained it. “Radical hospitality” has become something of a spiritual buzzword lately as more and more congregations (in many faith traditions), struggle with what it means to be inclusive and welcoming. Within some Christian contexts, radical hospitality takes the form of the question: How do we connect with non-believers in our greater communities in true and inclusive ways?

For Unitarian Universalists (since affirming a plurality of belief is intrinsic to who we are), the question has become, How do we connect with those outside our circles, even when they don’t look like us? How do we make more room in our circles?

Near as I can tell, the term originates from the book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love, by Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Gollins Pratt. They write:

When we speak of hospitality we are always addressing issues of inclusion and exclusion. Each of us makes choices about who will and who will not be included in our lives…. Hospitality has an inescapable moral dimension to it…. All of our talk about hospitable openness doesn’t mean anything as long as some people continue to be tossed aside…. But calling hospitality a moral issue does not tell us the whole truth about hospitality either. A moral issue can become bogged down in legalisms, and hospitality is no legalistic ethical issue. It is instead a spiritual practice, a way of becoming more human, a way of understanding yourself. Hospitality is both the answer to modern alienation and injustice and a path to a deeper spirituality.

We are a very hospitable congregation. When I stand outside the door greeting on Sunday mornings, I watch what happens as visitors walk in. I watch as you enthusiastically greet them as new friends, show them to the visitor’s table, and introduce them to a few of your friends (who “might” just have something in common with them). I watch during coffee hour as you mosey up to new faces and ask them what brings them to our church. Frankly, I’ve never seen a church do this better.

Yet radical hospitality calls us to question even those things that we do very well. For example, what does it say to a visitor when they hear in the announcements that “coffee’s on us” for their first visit? Does that give the impression that we operate on a “fee for service” basis as many mega churches do, or that on their second visit they’ll have to start pulling their weight? What does it mean when they see us fund raising after church with Fuund Lunches to fund our programs? Does that give the impression that we’re not able to support our programs, or that they’ll be constantly asked to give money at this church? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but they are things that pop into my mind as a relative newcomer myself.

I’m not down on coffee hour and community lunches, for I wouldn’t want either to go away! They bring us together in community, conversation, and fellowship. I do mean to ask us all to take apart each of our practices to see the messages they communicate—for everything we do communicates our message. That’s always food for thought.

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Forgiving the holidays

I write this month’s column from the U-Bar-U retreat center near Ingram. This is the first time in many years where I’ve been in a t-shirt and shorts as the holidays draw near. I was a little sad about the absence of a snowy winter in my life until yesterday’s hike, which took me out to a large labyrinth at the top of a hilly overlook. As I walked the spirals and meditated on the slow movement inward toward the center, where two live oaks waited with their shade, I realized what a gift it is to live down here in the winter months, to have the freedom to go outside and enjoy the natural environment without the fear of freezing any of one’s extremities.

This sense of gratitude can be a challenge to hold during the holiday months.  Every year in December I take a breath and keep holding it until January, or at least it feels that way. I love celebrating the holidays in my home and church — but do my best to stay clear of the malls!

I like to pretend that the materialism doesn’t exist, but it does, and that requires accepting the world as it is—not cling to an ideal of how it might be were we to have a magic wand, but to accept those things we love as well as those things with which we struggle. This requires compassion and forgiveness. Can we forgive a world gone crazy with consumption and consumerism? Can we have compassion for others whose view of the holidays challenges our own? Can we even forgive ourselves when we get sucked, just a little, into the madness? The answer is yes, yes, and again, yes. These are some of the lessons the season holds.

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Small group ministry

Sometimes when I use a zippy story in a sermon, months later people only remember the story and not the message behind the story. “That was your sermon on almost crashing your airplane,” they might recall about my sermon a few weeks ago on “bright faith.”  Hopefully, last week’s sermon won’t be remembered as “Rev. Bret’s Burning Man sermon,” but rather, my sermon on covenant groups, small group ministry, and building intentional community.

Covenant groups are important to me, and my wildest dream for small group ministry at this church is that it might provide that “soulful connection” between members that I’ve heard a hunger for. Since preaching on the subject last Sunday, I’ve heard two questions recur several times: first, does a covenant group have a subject or theme; second, can’t we just turn our existing affinity groups (sewing club, Buddhist study group, etc.) into covenant groups?

To answer the first question, does a covenant group have a subject or theme? Yes: your humanity! There will also be a new theme each month on a variety of spiritual topics(healing, joy, grief, Unitarian Universalist values). I will distribute a monthly sheet with readings, guiding questions, and reflections, and the goal of these “session guides” will be to help you dig deep for those spiritual answers that are both individual and universal. I hope the themes in these guides will carry over into other aspects of our church life, such as sermons and newsletter reflections from members.

To answer the second question, can we just turn our existing affinity groups into covenant groups? Yes and no. Some groups lend themselves well to the covenant group format of check in, a program element on a spiritual topic, and deeper sharing. Some of our spirituality-focused groups have asked if they can join the program, and I’ve counseled each leader to look at the covenant group materials I’ve put in the foyer (or I can e-mail them to you) to see if they think they could accomplish both their existing goals and the goals of the program. To make an outlandish example, if we had a golfing affinity group, I don’t think such a group would make a good covenant group. It would be hard to keep a meaningful conversation going while driving around in those little carts, making tough puts, and digging out of sand traps. It’s not that golfing can’t or isn’t a spiritual activity for many, only that its practice interferes with some of the spiritual practice elements of small group ministry, such as active listening and speaking into the silence.

The best way to answer these questions will be in an information session to be held Oct. 9 between 7:00-9:00 pm for both facilitators and people interested in learning more. We’ll train and talk for  about an hour — then we’ll actually sit through an abbreviated covenant group session to experience one first-hand. You can sign up for a group that evening if you enjoyed the experience.

Covenant groups may not appeal to everyone, but if your hunger for spiritual exploration isn’t being met elsewhere in the church or in your life, they just might be the ticket to a new experience of meaningful connection. You might even make a new friend or two from church!

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