Category Archives: Unitarian Universalism

We Are Not Better II: Retaining Our UU Youth

UU center of the world

I have been asked a lot of follow-up questions about my last post entitled “We are Not Better” (found here: https://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/we-are-not-better/). Melissa asked me the following question, and I wrote her a novel of a response that probably deserves it’s own post, so here it is.

Melissa writes:
Can you speak to how the subtle or not so subtle messages of “better” and “not better” may be impacting retention of young (second generation, perhaps?) Unitarian Universalists?

This is a really important question that everyone has been talking about in my circles for the 15 years I have been an adult hanging around the UUA. We know that our retention rate stinks, right? 10% of kids who grow up UU remain UU and we are all dying to know why our churches hemorrhage kids so we speculate a lot about why.

I think it’s a really complicated subject, and I have attacked it from many different angles because there just are a lot of different angles. I think a lot of things impact retention of young Unitarian Universalists, not the least of which is the culture that impacts all Mainline Protestant churches in the United States. The Church is quickly losing its status as the voice of human religion and spirituality. This isn’t Unitarian Universalism’s problem alone, nor is it our fault. I think this problem/opportunity in American religion right now (the loss of our cultural status) very largely impacts UUism. It impacts UUism because UU churches used to be the place where you went because it was the only alternative–-because there was nowhere else to go on Sunday. Now there is somewhere else to go! It’s called Sorella’s–the best brunch place in all of Jamaica Plain, MA–for delicious ginger bread pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream following your kid’s soccer game. Church-going used to be seen as normative and “what one had to do to be a good person,” and so all boats rose together, including ours’. But now church-going is counter-cultural, especially where we live in the Northeast. Now we have to give our children, youth and adults reasons to choose church over other things they could be doing, and that’s a hard task for us.

Many have posited that Unitarian Universalists have a hard time, like all liberal mainline churches, compelling people to choose us over pancakes for the same reason why we have trouble retaining our youth. We churches in the mainline ask very little of our members, and the overwhelming message children receive is that you can “be good” without (God, church, religious community), you fill in the blank. So I think churches like ours ironically contribute to our own demise.

And then there’s this issue of hypocrisy.

We keep hearing that the Christian Church is dying because of hypocrisy, right? Millennials are done with church forever because we all know “those” Christian churches that claim to want to follow Christ and tell us to “love our neighbor”, and then they turn around and have very loud and public fights about who is and who isn’t our “neighbor.” Like the poor United Methodist Church that is being torn apart right now on the gay marriage issue, for instance. We all know that the younger generations just think that’s all a load of baloney sauce, and so they are leaving church in droves. They can see the hypocrisy dripping from it all like syrup on their gingerbread pancakes they are choosing to eat instead of going to church.

Then when you add in the liberal church’s very human tendency toward our own brand of hypocrisy, we have our very own recipe for disaffected youth. Our hypocrisy comes in when we start to self-congratulate ourselves for being the “better” choice: the less oppressive, less offensive, more justice-oriented choice. There are many people who say and think that the reason why we don’t retain our young people is because we haven’t given them the message that we are the “better” choice. That we haven’t cheer-leaded for our own faith enough. That we’ve equated all the world’s religions to the point that it doesn’t matter what religion they choose when they grow. I used to be one of those people, truthfully, and I think this is true in the sense that we don’t do the best job at giving our kids a religious narrative and symbols to use. You know this, because I say it all the time.

But in addition to handing down a sacred text, a theology, and some symbols to engage, I think we would do better retaining youth and adults if we were a little more humble. If we didn’t scoff at the religion of our ancestors so much, or the religion of other people so much. (See my post “Children Will Listen” for more of my thoughts on this subject.) Because overwhelmingly what I find is that people (especially our own kids) can sniff out hypocrisy in churches really, really fast. Just the other day I was over at a colleague’s house with our spouses, and we were voicing frustration about other people who were driving us crazy. My 7 year old daughter whispered in my ear the following: “Mommy, Jesus said to love your enemies. You’re a minister now.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Oh good GOD, who told you that?” She’s right of course. Kids are so, so good at telling us the truth. So is Jesus.

AND if we say we are a liberal religion that honors all paths to Truth, and then a visitor comes in and asks for a prayer, and we scoff and say “we don’t do that supernatural mumbo jumbo here,” (and don’t think that doesn’t happen in UU churches because I’ve heard that story too many times) we are falsely advertising. People have to figure out the orthodoxy of our church after they get here by saying or needing the “wrong” thing, rather than just reading our creeds, beliefs, etc. on our website. We need to recognize, with humility, that we are not better than any other church, nor are we less orthodox. And we need to find freedom and forgiveness for ourselves in that. THIS IS THE AWESOME THING ABOUT BEING HUMAN! We aren’t God! We get to mess up all the time and then ask for forgiveness, and then get it, overflowing, back in our laps. But we also need to say it out loud so our kids know that we see our own tendency to fail to live up to our ideals. We are human just like everyone else, and we create in-groups and out-groups and cultural norms, and “right belief” and “wrong belief” just like any other group of humans. The trouble happens when we self-righteously advertise something we can’t actually deliver.

I think retaining our youth starts with being honest about who we are. And our beautiful, fallible human enterprise of a religion blossoms with that honesty, as well. Now go and be good humans. ‘Cause that’s what Jesus would do (according to my self-righteous daughter, anyway).

Don’t Go To Church for Your Children

going to church

by Robin Bartlett

Many of you know that I go to church in the late afternoons in my neighborhood, and that I bring my children there with me. It’s too long a day for them here in Sherborn, so I don’t bring them here much. I’m here from 8:30 am-2:00 pm on Sundays, and I can’t mom and work at the same time. I’ve never been good at that. (Yes, I just made the word “mom” into a verb).

The church I go to is UCC. Theologically, it is both Unitarian and Universalist, in my humble understandings of those two theologies. These are two theologies that have taught me everything I know. They rest in my bones and in my heart as a life-long UU. That’s one reason why I love my UCC church, because it reflects the best of my own faith tradition and allows me to worship from that deep well.

And folks have asked me this before: “aren’t you worried that the church you are bringing your children to isn’t UU, so you aren’t, in effect, raising your children UU? Isn’t that a problem for a UU minister?” This is a good question. The question has many answers, but the first answer is this: I don’t go to church for my children. I go to church for me. Basically, as long as my kids are safe and there is sometimes childcare for the little ones, and there aren’t any sharp objects like rusty nails jutting out of the floor, and they are made to feel loved and known, that’s all I care about. I picked my church for entirely selfish reasons. 1) Because I need to worship on Sundays, and I can’t when I’m running an RE program. 2) Because this particular church gives me what I need from church: which is to say a reminder that I am not alone, that grace is real, that I am loved just as I am and that I am expected to repay the world with my love because I have been offered that grace. I am sure my kids get the same message, but they are completely secondary in my choice of churches.

And, as a long-time religious educator, the following is a conversation I am very accustomed to. Does it sound familiar to you?

Robin: So, Jane, why did you start coming to this church? What led you here?
Jane: I came to this church originally because my children started asking me questions about God;
or
I came to this church because my child’s grandmother died, and she started to ask me about heaven, and I didn’t know what to say because I don’t believe in heaven;
or
I came to this church because I wanted my children to have a good understanding of Unitarian Universalist principles and the world’s religions in a high quality, well-run religious education program with lots of other kids in it.
or
I came to this church because I want my kid to have a religious education without being indoctrinated into a specific faith.
And so on, in different variations.

“I started going to this church because it is good for my children.” I think that’s one reason why churches like ours’ stay in business, or at least one important way we attract newcomers. And I’m not knocking it, because as parents we are accustomed to considering our children first.

A lot of what we do with our time is “for the children.” We enroll our children in private music lessons and drive them there every Wednesday after school, ensuring that we won’t be able to eat dinner at the appointed hour. We stand in the freezing cold on the soccer field clutching our coffee and yelling enthusiastically for our not- particularly-sporty 8 year old. We bring our children to the doctor to get shots, to school to gain knowledge, to our parents’ houses so that they might know and love their extended family. We even go to the germ factory that is Chuck E. Cheese to kindergarten birthday parties on the weekends, and God knows that’s not good for us. These things are all “good for our children”, and so we do them regardless of whether we’d rather be doing something else.

Therefore, it makes sense that we go to church simply because it will be good for our children, too. We want our children, after all, to know themselves beloved, to know themselves as part of a community in which their doubts will be cherished, their questions will be encouraged, their mind will be broadened, their spiritual explorations will be nurtured, and their friendships will be predicated on shared principles and a deep sense of purpose. Church is good for them, and so we take them with dogged determination, regardless of whether we’d rather be home reading the Sunday paper. I admire that determination.

But I’m going to say something I think is important. I don’t want you to come to church if you are only coming for your children. That’s a fine reason to come in the first place, to get in the door, but I don’t want it to be the reason you stay. Go to church for you. Go to church because of your own needs: for community, for learning, for solidarity, for a good word, for love, for hope, for comfort, even for salvation. Go to church because you can’t imagine not going. Go to church because your church claims you and demands of you. Go to church because you cry in the worship service at least once a month. Go to church because you look forward to seeing the people. Go to church because your church forces you to put your money where your mouth is–to use your financial resources to make a statement about what has worth. Go to church because you are known here. Go to church because you want to be known. Go to church because you pray for this same imperfect, rag-tag group of people all week until you meet again. Go to church because you need to in order to get through your week. Go to church because if you miss a week, you feel like something was really missing in your life. Go to church because your church community helps you to go deeper; to risk transformation; to yank you further down a path–to ultimate reality, to truth, to God–kicking and screaming. Go to church because it is a statement to yourself and your children about what has value and meaning. Go to church to find your purpose and live it. Give yourself the gift of church.

If church is not a gift for you, it won’t be a gift for your children. You know that old trope that we borrow from plane instructions we hear read by flight attendants–that you have to apply your own oxygen mask first before you apply your child’s, right? Well, you are your child’s religious educator and oxygen mask. Not me. Not our UUA’s religious education curricula. Not our volunteer teachers. Not even our minister. You. That’s a big responsibility, and I know you don’t feel up to the task because none of us do. But if we aren’t getting our spiritual needs met–our religious yearnings satiated; our deepest cries in the night soothed; our need to serve and be served; our God-sized hole occasionally filled, emptied and then filled up again– then we are never going to be up to the task of helping our children do the same.

Don’t go to church for your children; go to church for you.

You deserve it. Your children deserve it. And this brutal and beautiful world needs you to.

Children Will Listen

children-will-listen

by Rev. Robin Bartlett

I want to talk about growing up UU since our kids are growing up UU, and I know something about it. Not many of us adults know about growing up UU from experience. Apparently, 90% of our congregants in UU churches weren’t raised in our churches. I like to think that my rare experience gives me an interesting perspective on the children entrusted into our spiritual care.

And I want to urge us to be careful with our children’s souls.

I grew up UU in the very late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s in a church where, as the old joke about us goes, the only time you heard the word “Jesus” was when the minister tripped on his way into the pulpit. I knew very well what words we weren’t allowed to say from a very early age (God, Jesus, heaven, hell, sin, salvation, Ronald Reagan). My mother was the music director, and she would always get complaints if she programmed, say, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. “Too much God talk,” people would protest. “We may offend someone,” or, “I am offended.” We were an Orthodox church.

I want to be very clear that I think Unitarian Universalism has changed tremendously since that time, but we still have a lot of work to do holding our orthodoxy up to the light, examining it, naming it, and critiquing it. This matters particularly for the children in our churches, because they listen to us. They listen to what we say, what we don’t say, and what we’re not allowed to say.

And I want to tell you the message that was given to me, both implicitly and explicitly, because I believed it with a fervor based on what my church taught me:

People who believe in God and Jesus are stupid. They aren’t as smart or well educated as we are, so they haven’t figured out that God can’t possibly be real. Either that, or they are poor (and that’s not their fault).

I believed this as a child. I also evangelized this. I was an evangelical atheist UU child. And it wasn’t because I was a jerk. I was precocious, but not a jerk. I earnestly believed that if enough people knew there wasn’t a God, the world would start to be a better place because people would be smarter like me, and stop believing in magic and fairy tales that weren’t real. It took me a long time to deprogram myself of this belief that Christians are stupid…to unlearn it. [It’s easy to unlearn this misconception fast if you have the privilege of going to a hot shot Christian seminary like I did. These people–my professors and my colleagues–were all smarter than me. Philosophers, theologians, scientists. Some of the smartest people I have ever met.]

And friends, as an adult I understand that the message I received as a child–that “real” religious people are stupid–was a defense for all sorts of religious woundedness. There were all kinds of hurts happening in that UU church of mine. Former Catholics who were kicked out of the church after a divorce. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people told they were going to hell. All kinds of people done wrong by Christianity; done wrong by God. It was real; this pain. Christianity has hurt a lot of people. So has bad theology. So has God! Unfortunately, kids don’t understand that negative messages get conveyed because there is woundedness and nuance and loss in the religious stories of the adults trusted with their spiritual care. They just hear “religious people are stupid. And dangerously stupid, to boot.” That’s all I heard, anyway.

So I went to school, walked around in the world, interacted with the diversity of humankind, all with the underlying belief that religious people–theists, especially Christians–are stupid. Not educated. Not sophisticated. I don’t think that message I received from my church helped me to be kind or loving. I think that message undermined the real message of Unitarian Universalism: that we all come from the same source, are fated to the same destination, and we are loved beyond belief.

This is why I am very intentional about talking about God and Jesus with our children in my ministry. I worry that we adults will quash their growing spirits by what we refuse to say. Just imagine what ills the message I received might unleash in the hearts of our UU children–when they experience their first yearnings for God. Imagine what ills that message might unleash in the hearts of our children when they experience their first desire to pray, or to make sense of death by imagining another world. “I must be stupid.”

Let’s focus on healing our own religious wounds fast and often so that we don’t keep unintentionally passing this message down through the generations, my friends. Our religious wounds deserve our attention, and even our fury. But our children need our healing message: that Love puts flight to all fears; that God is love; that there is no “stupid” and “smart” in the beloved community–there are only different, unique people in the form of good gifts; that we are more alike than different; members of the same human family.

Be love.

Destroying Hells

good samaritan

SERMON “Destroying Hells” (preached in Brookline, MA, October 2011) by Rev. Robin Bartlett

In October 2010, our neighbors in Boston experienced one of the most heinous massacres in Boston’s history. In Mattapan, four people were shot and killed, including a mother and her two year old boy in her arms. The victims were then dragged out into the street, naked, where they were left lying for their neighbors to see. The incident, it is reported, was likely the result of gang and/or drug violence. There have been numerous murders—too many to mention—in Boston for the past few years…some of the bloodiest in recent memory.

Most of the murders have taken place in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Many have taken place in my neighborhood. The victims have been primarily youth and young adults of color. These incidents are reminders that evil exists in our world—in our backyards—…that people can callously take human lives as if they were meaningless, and throw them out on the street like trash. Like waste. Splayed out naked in our streets. Surely that is the very definition of evil—a callousness—a disdain for human life—that causes the degradation of bodies; of souls.

Evil is one of those things that we just sort of know when we see it, right? The kind of callousness that would lead someone to shoot a toddler in cold blood…that is evil. The kind of callousness it takes to murder 6 million Jews in the holocaust…that is evil. The kind of callousness that would cause someone to fly planes into buildings of working civilians. That is evil.

Yes, these events are our proof that evil exists in the world, no matter how optimistic we are—no matter how convinced we are in inherent worth and dignity of all human beings–no matter how strong our Unitarian “onward and upward” theology of the perfectability of the human spirit—no matter how sure we are of the Love that holds us all—no matter how fervently we hold fast to the belief that this love can conquer anything.

The fact is, we don’t see evidence of this love conquering all evil. As A. Powell Davies points out, “evil in human life is not a fiction, it is a very somber fact. Evil happens every day.” Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Sometimes, in our cleverness, we try to persuade ourselves that what we call evil is not real . . . but is only a condition of not enough goodness, even as ‘cold’ means ‘not enough heat,’ or darkness is a name we give to the absence of light.”

So though we believe in goodness, we know that there is not enough of it, and somewhere deep down we know that evil is real. And when things like this tragedy in Mattapan happen, we maybe think a lot about what might cause someone to shoot a 2 year old in cold blood, and we psychologize and we sociologize and we theologize. Some of us call the perpetrators “evil” or at least the crime itself “evil”, because we are sure that this kind of crime is the opposite of good, and that therefore, these kinds of people are the opposite of good. And, if we’re being honest we might admit that incidents like this help us to also do a little comparison that bolsters our own goodness; our own righteousness. We say to ourselves, “Well, I am not that. I am not them.” If evil is set up in direct opposition to good, witnessing this kind of tragedy is a way to feel like we are good. We are in opposition to that kind of killing; that kind of disdain for human life. We are not that. We are, therefore, good.

The thing is, we cannot separate ourselves from any of these incidents of human sin and evil, from the genocide in Rwanda to the predatory lending on Wall St. And we can’t separate ourselves from the murder in Mattapan. Sure, the surface-level message for someone like me after the murders was, “don’t worry, your kids are safe. These people aren’t like you. They are poor. They do drugs. They are involved in gangs. They are not like you. They are not like you.” It did feel oddly safe in my little car, driving down Blue Hill Ave through Mattapan on my way from Jamaica Plain to Milton, passing the site of the murders—so many murders—every day. My privilege allowed me to put on blinders like the kind they give to easily distracted horses so that I might ignore the carnage.

But the thing is, I am—we are all–part of this human collective. We are each other’s neighbors, both physical and spiritual.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, a lawyer pointedly asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer knew when he asked that the definition of the word literally meant “one who is near”, and therefore typically meant “a fellow Jew”. In other words, he wanted the answer from Jesus to be “someone like him.” Someone like me.

Worship services on Sunday mornings in our suburban Boston UU churches reflect the lawyer’s sentiment, don’t they? When I ask people what they appreciate about church, they often say that it is a place where they can find other “like-minded people.” This always strikes me as strange for the denomination that desires explicitly to be theologically diverse. The subtext is “I want to be worshipping with people from my culture”. White liberals. NPR listeners. White collar workers. The rich. People with college degrees. People who are quiet in worship. People who appreciate a good pipe organ. People who make me feel safe. As Jesus reminds us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, this safety is an illusion. And all of humanity includes our neighbors—the robber, the priest, the Samaritan, the murderer and the murdered, the poor, the rich, the Muslim, the Jew.

And because we are all neighbors, intimately connected, we all participate in the evil of the world. Those of us in the dominant culture benefit from the system of evil that helped perpetuate this crime in Mattapan—and others like it–against our neighbors—the cycle of poverty and violence born out of economic and racial injustice. We actively participate in this system of evil by using our privilege to ignore it; by not claiming our place within it. By speeding down Blue Hill Avenue as the priests and Levites did in the story of the Good Samaritan, ignoring the broken, naked bodies in the road. “They are not like me. They are not like me. They are not me.” We divorce ourselves from evil because we live so separately from one another. But because we remain separate, we each participate in this murder of bodies; of souls. Just as our salvation is wrapped up in one another’s, so are our sins.

And therefore, we have a job to do! As liberal religionists, as members of the human race…we have a job to do. And it is an urgent one. Henry Clay Ledyard said that “The mission of the Universalist church has been a double one, first to contravert the one-time prevalent idea of an endless hell. This part of the mission has practically been accomplished. . . But the second and more important one awaits fulfillment . . . a fight which shall continue until the real, actual hells, before our very eyes, are destroyed.”

Our job, my friends, is to destroy hells. The hells that we encounter here on earth, before our eyes. The first step is to admit that we participate in a system of evil, and the second step is to admit that we need one another to fight.
And we destroy hells together by humbly getting out of our comfort zones. You know, those comfort zones where we separate by category—we separate into people who “think like us” and “look like us” and “act like us”. These comfort zones keep us in our separate neighborhoods; our separate political parties; our separate races; our separate churches, synagogues and mosques. These comfort zones implore us to define ourselves by difference—young, old, Republican, Democrat, Black, White, gay, straight, rich, poor, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist.

When the Mattapan murders occurred, my friend Matt invited me and my church’s youth and their adult mentors to come to Morning Star Baptist church in Mattapan–a large and influential African American church where Matt is a youth minister–for a peace vigil on a Friday night. Family members of the victims are congregants at Morning Star, and Matt invited me because I was a neighbor—a religious leader at a neighboring church in Milton, about a mile and a world away from his church.
I brought about twelve people from my theologically and politically liberal, predominantly white, middle to upper class Unitarian Universalist church, about half of whom were teenagers. We were the only white people there, and we were warmly welcomed like brothers and sisters. Our youth got right to work with the Morning Star youth, putting candles in milk containers so they wouldn’t blow out in the chilly wind outside. Truthfully, we felt nervous and out of our element. Our theological and cultural differences were vast. But, I brought my then 5 month old, and she was passed lovingly around the circle into the arms of people I had never met. We prayed a lot before we left to march, the UU youth completely taken aback by shouts of “Amen” and “thank you Jesus”.

We marched through the streets of Mattapan together that night—crying, singing, praying—finally stopping in front of the house in which the murders occurred. There was a makeshift memorial with teddy bears and pictures and flowers for the victims. At one point, Matt shouted angrily at giggling teenagers, lest they lose the somber, serious point of the event–referring to our work together as nothing less than a “spiritual war for our souls—for the soul of the city.” “People are DYING. Your people are dying,” he yelled over the crowd.

Now as UUs, we don’t use the term “spiritual warfare” all that often. Frankly, we don’t have to. Our rank and file is generally a privileged rank and file. Here in ‘burbs, many of us live far enough away—culturally, educationally, economically—if not by many miles—from Mattapan. Many of us don’t feel the same urgency my friend Matt does about taking up spiritual arms to fight evil. And it’s not because of our theological differences. Most of us aren’t being confronted on a daily basis with the degradation of our bodies with real, actual weaponry like our neighbors are. But as participants in a system of economic injustice, privilege, poverty and violence, we should feel the urgency just as keenly, as if we have the same need to protect our own physical bodies. Our people are dying. And please make no mistake about it: these neighbors are OUR people.

Universalist Mary Ashton Rice Livermore said that “As our [life] experience deepens, we realize that the whole world is one vast encampment, and that every man and woman is a soldier. We have not voluntarily enlisted into this service, with an understanding of the hardness of the warfare, and an acceptance of its terms and conditions, but have been drafted into the conflict, and cannot escape taking part in it. We are not even allowed to choose our place in the ranks, but have been pushed into life . . . and cannot be discharged until mustered out by death. Nor is it permitted to furnish a substitute . . . We may prove deserters or traitors, and struggle to the rear during the conflict, or go over to the enemy and fight under the flag of wrong. But the fact remains that we are all drafted into the battle of life, and are expected to do our duty according to the best of our ability.”

This battle is not easy, and it is so tempting to struggle to the rear during the conflict, or to go over to the enemy and fight under the flag of wrong because it is more comfortable. It takes vulnerability to stay on the side of good. It takes some serious guts.

We were freaked the day we went to Mattapan to march. We didn’t fit in. We spoke different languages. There was an ocean of hurt and guilt and separation between us. We needed a common language. We needed humility most of all. We also knew we needed something like the God who transcends all differences; the God in the in-between spaces–to help us form a bridge over the ocean.

Prayer was the language we could share to name the evil that needed to be destroyed; the hell we bore witness to. We all felt powerless in the face of unspeakable tragedy, but we were together. Healing happened in the passing of babies, in the sharing of pizza, in the lighting of candles; in the singing of songs. Spiritual warfare was being fought through the process of meeting one another across difference and allowing ourselves to be connected in shared humanity—in shared divinity.

We, too, can fight the systems of evil that maintain the separation between human beings based on ethnicity, race and social class for the benefit of keeping people powerless. We, too, can fight systems of evil that put profits ahead of human lives. Each of us, our community, our country—we can fight systems of evil—evil that has destroyed our land, evil that has led to health care being treated as a commodity rather than a basic human right, evil that has left us powerless as the gap between rich and poor in the richest country in the world grew to its biggest gap since 1915–rivaling the third world, evil that has left our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered neighbors in fear for their families based on the presence of large and rowdy crowds eating fried chicken sandwiches on a Wednesday in August.

We can fight this evil. We can take off the blinders born of privilege and complacency and feeling powerless and fight this. The world will be saved, Davies tells us, “by people who bring their sweat and toil, not just their tears.” Friends, as Unitarian Universalists—as fellow world citizens—we are called not just to despair of evil, but to fight it. Name evil when you see it. Don’t name it as “other”—but as a part of who you are as well—who we are. Once we recognize ourselves in one another—our good and our evil and all the gray area in between–we can save one another in the goodness we know can conquer all. But we need to be willing to stand side by side in the fight for the soul of our cities, our communities, our country and our world. May we have the courage to take up arms of love and justice in the fight.

Amen.

A 328 Year Marriage

god-is-love
by Robin Bartlett Barraza

Love is the spirit of this church. That is a true statement. Ours is a non-creedal church, meaning what binds us together–what connects us–is not a statement of belief. Rather, what connects us is a way of being together with one another in community. And, love, it strikes me, is a pretty fine way to endeavor to be together. We openly affirm that it is more important to love alike than to think alike. So, rather than trying to agree on a doctrinal statement of belief, we try to cultivate a loving community. As we embark on the pledge season, we have been reflecting on the nature of covenant around here.

We recite this covenant every week:
Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

We talk about covenants and covenanting a lot without spending a lot of time exploring what we mean by the word. We have a covenantal theology—a theology in which our commitment to the holy is lived out in relationship to one another. This is sustained through hard work, commitment, and with the need for a lot of humility and forgiveness.

Possibly the covenant that we are all most familiar with is the marriage covenant. We covenant with another person (and often, with God and all that is holy) to walk together in love for a lifetime, keeping promises to one another through the bitter and sweet things this world throws at us and our relationships. A lot of us know that this is intimate, back-breakingly hard work—living with someone who is not you. About half the time, it is actually unsustainable work, and some of us break our covenants irreparably.

Well, our church has sustained itself and its covenants for a long time—longer than most of us can imagine. Our covenants, I’m sure, have been broken and broken again, but never irreparably. Can you imagine? This community of memory and hope is 328 years old. Three hundred and twenty-eight years old. Pause with me to reflect on a 328 year marriage. Can you imagine being married—cultivating a relationship of love and compromise and hope and dreaming—for 328 years? Think about what this might entail; what relationship issues one might encounter; how one might weather all of those storms and sustain all of those good times. Imagine all of the leaders and the deaths and the births and the promises and the failures and the quarrels and all the soaring joys.

And then imagine trying to manage all of those relationship issues—together with people you would never choose—in a flawed institution you did not create. Imagine trying to negotiate and renegotiate your goals and marriage contract and vows throughout CENTURIES—helping one another try your best to speak the truth in love. Imagine trying to be a family for three hundred years—a family that quarrels and breaks up and comes back together, and changes and grows and almost dies, and is reborn again. A family who weathers storms and deaths and who creates new babies, and builds new homes, and tries to keep a roof (and a steeple) over its head. A family that raises its kids as best it can; figuring out new ways to be creative in that endeavor as the family grows or shrinks; or the times change, and new things have been learned. We are a centuries old church family, and we have only survived by acting as parts of one body—convinced of our ministry in the world, nurturing the uniqueness of each individual of the body, while remaining unified not in thought or belief, but in Love.

We have managed to do all of this while at the same time remaining deeply committed to the Democratic process; without centralized authority; without creedal tests. Our marriage is time-tested and strong, and like every good marriage needs constant creativity, re-negotiating, communication and a whole lot of fun to last and thrive.

May we affirm the Love that has sustained us in memory and hope, and may we honor our founding ancestors by committing to each other anew year after year. A toast to 328 more years together. Mazel tov!

Are you wondering what we *do* in Coming of Age class?

CHURCH!

Your fourteen year olds are geniuses. They are deep. They are astounding. They go to church services religiously (ahem), so you should talk to them. Look at them in the back on the left hand side if you’re facing the pulpit.

They are in Coming of Age class this year, a class that meets every week after church, grounds them in our Unitarian Universalist theological tradition and history, and asks them to add to that rich tapestry of revelation by adding their own beliefs to the mix. At the end, they will present their credo statements, which is just a snippet of what they are asked to do. So far this year they have tackled the subjects of sin, evil, forgiveness, prayer, God, death, after life beliefs, Unitarian Universalism, worship, values and more. And they have another 10 weeks or so to go!

Here’s their assignment for this week excerpted from the email I wrote them. Why don’t you ALL do this homework in support of our youth and mentors? Write your belief statements and favorite quotes in the comments…you might even help them out!

………

You may remember that for your “homework” you were asked to write 3-4 statements of *religious* belief that undergird the reasons why we come together as a faith community and share the values that we share.

Some guidance:

Remember that I asked you to dig deeper than using statements like “we believe in justice” because that doesn’t set us apart as a *religious* institution. The Human Rights Coalition works for justice. The United States constitution has belief statements about justice. Every church in America, on some level, cares about justice. Why do we work for justice *in this church*? What spurs us to work for justice in this particular context? Why do we come together at all? (Justice is just an example, but you get the idea). What is the theology that undergirds the value?

You can start with “I” statements, particularly since we are going to *work together* to make “we” statements as a group later in our Ten Most Commonly Believed Things Among Us statement. Please try to make sure your belief statements are grounded in our theological tradition(s). We are part of a long and rich tradition of saints whose shoulders we stand on. We don’t make this up as we go along, or “build our own theology.” We build on top of the theologies we have inherited, recognizing that “god is still speaking,” or “revelation is never sealed.” Remember that the humanist tradition is part of our historical heritage, so you don’t have to believe in God to have a theology. [For those of you who jumped up during “All my Friends and Neighbors” as out atheists, be sure to google “the Humanist Manifesto.”]

Here are some examples of belief statements:
“I believe that all people are children of the same God, and therefore I practice equity in human relationships.”
OR,
“I believe that humans are capable of both good and bad behaviors, therefore we need to atone for the ways in which we harm others.”
OR,
“I believe that this world is our paradise, and all we have, and therefore, we must work to make it peaceful, loving and justice-filled.”
OR,
“I believe that God is love, and therefore all are saved (no one goes to hell). Our job is to destroy the earthly hells we encounter every day.”
OR,
“I believe that prayer doesn’t change things, but prayer changes people and people change things.”
OR,
“I believe in the perfectability of the human spirit, therefore we are all capable of making the world a better place through progress.”

To make sure these belief statements are grounded in our vast and rich tradition, I’m going to ask you to look up quotes by Unitarian, Universalist and Unitarian Universalist theologians/ministers to support your statements. This will also help with your credos, and our “Ten Most Commonly Believed Things Among Us”. This may sound hard to you, but I don’t even want you to go to the library. Google “Unitarian Universalist quotes.” Google Forrest Church quotes. Google Rob Hardies quotes. Google Sophia Lyons Fahs quotes. Google Marilyn Sewall quotes. Google Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes. Google Theodore Parker quotes. Google John Dietrich quotes. Google Bill Schultz quotes. Google Bill Sinkford quotes. Google Marjorie Bowens Wheatly quotes. Google the Iowa Sisterhood. Google Hosea Ballou quotes. Google Mark Morrison-Reed quotes. Google Nathan Detering quotes. Trust me, this will be fun. Just pick one or two that really speak to you. Put it all in notebook paper to add to your journals.

This week, the whole group will be working on choosing a social action project for everyone to do together. You will use your quotes and belief statements to help prioritize which social action projects are most deserving of our time as a church. In other words, we will look at our values, how they are informed by our theology, and choose which projects are our way of doing our unique work of love in the world.

So bring what you have of your belief statements. Bring your hearts.

Bright blessings to all of you,

Robin

Can Unitarian Universalism be a “Religion for Our Time”?

nones

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

Have you all been paying attention to the NPR series on the rise of the “nones”? The “nones” are people who check “none” when asked which religious organization they affiliate with, and they are now famously growing like gangbusters spelling doomsday for all religion in America. The “nones” have some characteristics in common. The majority of them don’t claim to be atheist, but they do claim to be skeptical about organized religion. The other major commonality that they share is that most “nones” are in the younger generations. As people for whom church makes a difference in your life, I hope you are paying attention to this trend. It matters for us. It particularly matters for those of us who are attempting to shepherd the younger generations into faithful adulthood. The reality is this: most of our young people won’t choose to be participants in faith communities as adults. Not unless we can bring our churches into the 21st century, anyway. I think this is a thrilling challenge set before us that we need to rise to. Not for the sake of keeping our historic buildings and our historic silver and our historic hymns and our historic Sunday Schools and our historic ways of bickering about things that don’t matter. I think we need to rise to this challenge for the sake of the soul of our nation and world. Some people won’t agree with me that religion matters this much. But I think that religion offers us a sacred narrative to be a part of; a narrative that orders and gives meaning to our lives. I think that entering and continuing a story about humankind in unbroken line with our ancestors–a story that has more to do with Love and transformation than the story of empty consumerism–this matters a lot.

Listen to the series here: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/15/169342349/more-young-people-are-moving-away-from-religion-but-why?utm_source=NPR&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20130115.

So how does Unitarian Universalism fit into this trend?

We are in an era of Unitarian Universalism that is unprecedented. Church as we know it in our culture is declining. People no longer feel as though they “need” church in order to be good people, or to appear to others as though they are good people. We can all meet our needs for community, social justice organizing, consumerism, and moral discernment, at many different secular organizations. As a faith tradition, we are tiny and declining. We are finding ourselves at a crossroads and on the brink of survival, needing to reclaim and reposition our niche within the meaning-making spectrum. People aren’t coming to church simply to reject the church that they came from anymore. There is nothing in the broader culture to compel them to go to church on Sunday morning, particularly in our part of the Northeastern United States. Therefore, as a denomination, we are finding that people who come through our church doors aren’t just looking for a healing method of “doing church” anymore. In addition, they are looking for a healing message; one that says something about the nature of humanity, life, death, brokenness, God and suffering.

Angus McClean once said that our “method is our message.” It is true that the method we have used to organize our churches and our religious education programs was radical at one time, and even healing, to our adherents. In the past fifty years of our history, we have claimed our covenantal (not creedal) tradition as the message in and of itself. Our covenantal method, after all, is a departure from the orthodox and dogmatic traditions many of our congregants have come to us from.

However, as Unitarian Universalists, we are increasingly finding that our method is no longer particularly unique in the secular or religious worlds. Schools, social justice organizations, liberal Christian, Buddhist and Reformed Jewish congregations (among others) use similar methods to teach morality, justice, and the tenants of their traditions. For instance, there are UCC churches that use their own version of Neighboring Faiths. There are Episcopal churches that stress deeds rather than creeds. There are public schools that empower our children with messages of their inherent worth and dignity. There are Human Rights organizations that work for equal marriage and immigrant justice. And so on.

So, Unitarian Universalism finds itself struggling to answer the question: what is our unique, bold message? Our seven principles, a beloved covenant between our congregations written in the 1980s, are often held up as a statement of our shared beliefs. At the same time, they are criticized by some as too creed-like, or as a set of principles that could be appropriated for use in the American constitution or any human rights organization. “What makes them uniquely religious?” People have rightly countered.

I think our attachment to our principles, and the desire for our principles to be used as a catechetical tool within our own congregation, is indicative of a deeper search for truth and meaning by modern Unitarian Universalists. We crave a message, one that is inclusive, but still contains religious meaning; a message that says something about life, death, creation, human unity, interconnectedness, God, suffering, Love.

I believe that our method needs to be informed by our message, and not the other way around.

There is also a great fear in Unitarian Universalist churches of claiming a bold message of faith, one that includes a robust theology, or one that re-claims our Judeo-Christian texts, for fear of offending our current constituents. As a result, we remain timid in the effort to nurture the inherent spirituality of our children. We run the risk of becoming a mile wide and an inch deep because of this fear. I believe we hemorrhage our children as a result of this fear, as well. 90% of them do not remain Unitarian Universalist as adults.

But there is hope!

I believe Unitarian Universalism can, in fact, become a religion for our time. I see this era of Unitarian Universalism as an incredible opportunity for growth, if we are willing to be bold. Our historic theological traditions make bold theological claims. Our Unitarian tradition reminds us that we derive from one sacred source, therefore we are connected to one another and to the earth, and are capable of committing Godly acts of love in the world. Our Universalist tradition reminds us that we are fated to the same destination, and that our liberation is bound up in one another’s. We believe in this-earthly salvation. Therefore, it is imperative that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that we work for justice in human relationships—that we help save one another in Love. We believe that Truth comes in the form of sacred scripture from our own Judeo-Christian tradition, and from all of the world’s religious traditions. Therefore, we engage our Jewish and Christian scriptures and other religious texts, mining them for metaphorical truth. We believe that all people contain the spark of the divine. Therefore, art, poetry and our lives themselves are inspired texts. We believe that we must be stewards of this earthly paradise, which is the heaven we have been given. Therefore, we uphold the interconnectedness of all existence and take care of the earth on which we dwell. We believe that hell is also on this earth, and comes in the form of separation from our best selves and one another. Therefore, we strive to create Beloved Community wherever we go by loving one another with humility, curiosity and respect.

We have a message beyond our method, and our method is inspired by our message.

With an emphasis on the healthy, multi-faceted spiritual development of our children, the Religious Education Committee at UU Area Church in Sherborn embarked in December on the important project of boldly naming the fundamentals of our Religious Education program. The RE Committee seeks to create a statement of faith that might help provide a lens through which to interpret sacred story, evaluate curricula and write new curricula, develop programming and ensure excellence and depth of meaning at all levels of child, youth and adult religious education and faith development.

Below is a draft of the “message” the RE Committee would like to convey at all levels in our faith development program at the UUAC in Sherborn. While we have yet to develop this into a terse statement, I thought you might be interested in our initial brainstorm.

At the Unitarian Universalist Area Church in Sherborn…
• We have respect for minds, bodies and souls.
• We believe that grace is real, and that we must be grateful for unearned gifts.
• We believe that revelation is continuous. We are seekers, questioners and stewards of hope.
• Love is our religious ethic.
• We believe that the universe is benevolent. Love wins.
• We know that we are connected to one another in our humanity: in our celebrations, our capacity to love, our sorrows, and our brokenness.
• We believe that suffering is a part of life, not a punishment for living
• We believe that God offers us presence, not protection.
• We believe that God is bigger than any name we give God, and any religion or doctrine that tries to contain God.
• We believe that religion is horizontal, not only vertical. God is present in relationship.
• We offer a ministry of radical hospitality. We are hosts who provide a grand welcoming table for all.
• We believe that we must not think alike to love alike.
• We believe that to whom much is given, much is expected, and thus we use the gifts we have been given wisely – We believe that STEWARDSHIP MATTERS.
• Our task is to grow souls so that we may send forth visible saints into the world.
• We seek to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the Beloved Community. We come to church not to be a beloved community, but to practice the ethics of the Beloved Community for use outside our church walls. Practicing being beloved community means treating all people who we encounter as though they are beloved, unique, children of the divine.
• As such, we see church not as a sanctuary from the world, but as a training ground that helps us to live in the world in a way that transforms the world.

May we be a place where these truths are practiced and realized.