With General Assembly coming to Portland, OR next year, we are hoping to bring a large group from the UUCP. Of course, a lot of people have no idea what general assembly is! And so, I will blog several times to give you a window. You can also download the free GA app (go to the app store and search for “UUA General Assembly 2014”) or catch some of the highlights, which will be livestreamed.

Let’s begin with the basics: General Assembly is a national gathering of Unitarian Universalists from all over the world. There are literally thousands of UU’s here, which is a big part of the experience. We can often feel as is we are small, almost insignificant. But the tangible power of being in a huge stadium that is filled with people who are grounded in our values and fired up by our faith gives me a giant infusion of hope.

Before the thousands descend, the religious professionals gather. For me, that means the UUMA…the UU Ministers’ Association. The UU Musician’s Network, the Association of UU Administrators, and LREDA (Liberal Religious Educator’s Association) meet concurrently. Because of my doctoral work, I haven’t been able to attend GA for the past few years. Ministry days, then, offered me a chance to reconnect with friends from seminar days and beyond. We all have a lot more gray hair than we used to. As one colleague put it, “We are not the young turks anymore.”

I arrived at ministry days early in order to attend a training for Good Office Persons. GOP’s work with UUMA members who are in conflict with their congregation or the organization they serve, with one another, or with the staff members of the UUA. We accompany, advise, and, if the worst comes to pass, help to negotiate a separation. The training focused on NVC, intercultural conflict styles, and covenanting. However, for me, the most interesting part was a conversation with UUA leaders.

The director of ministry, the director of congregational life, the settlement director, and others generously gave us a good chunk of time and brought us up to speed about some pretty big changes at the UUA. The biggest is regionalization. For years, we’ve been organized into districts. However, scarce resources mean that each district has a limited capacity to support staff. By combining districts into regions, teams are formed, and members of these teams have a greater ability to specialize.

This sounds very logical…in theory. In reality, though, as part of the “Western Region,” our team is expected to cover everything West of the Rockies. The boundaries for the regions were based on number of congregations rather than geographical distance. I imagine it will be very hard on Western Regional team members to travel such huge distances, and so they’ll be forced to conduct most of their business via Skype, phone, etc. And personally, I think nothing takes the place of face to face interactions.

It feels like unequal distribution of resources, and suddenly, I understand where the Canadians were coming from when they broke off from the UUA. Meanwhile, it also had me wondering why there are comaratively few congregations on the Western side of the country. One colleague offered an explanation: many of our Western congregations were planted at a time when there were limited numbers of Unitarian or Universalist clergy willing to move to the “wild west.” Apparently, there used to be far more, but when the original clergy person moved on, no one was available to take their place, and so the Methodists quite helpfully stepped in. Huh.

On Tuesday, we typically have a keynote speaker followed by collegial conversations. Our keynote this year was Marshall Ganz, a community organizer and social scientist from the Harvard Kennedy School. He was fabulous, and gave us some tips on more effective advocacy. On Wednesday, we begin with the “25/50 Service,” which celebrates ministers who have completed 25 or 50 years of service. Each “class” chooses a speaker. The 25-year speaker was Victoria Safford; the 50-year speaker was Judith Walker-Riggs. This was the first year both speakers were women. And both speakers brought me to tears.

Wednesday afternoon brings the Berry Street lecture. This year’s lecturer was Lindi Ramsden, the minister who founded the California Legislative Advocacy Network. She also gave us some incredibly helpful ideas on how to be more effective in our social justice work. Weekend long trainings for activists on specific issues? What a great idea! A youth corps, like AmeriCorps, but just for UU’s? Even better! With a child considering options for a gap year, I thought that suggestion was particularly brilliant.

And then…the crowds arrived, including my family. I’ll share more in my next post.

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So about a week ago, UU’s were buzzing about the article “Selling God” in Boston Magazine:  http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/05/27/unitarian-universalism-selling-god/

I chose not to share it because it made me pretty uncomfortable, and I felt like it required a longer and more thoughtful response than I could offer on Facebook.

The article describes an attempt to “re-brand” Unitarian Universalism with the help of professional marketing consultants. Pointing to a decline in numbers, the author implies that religion, itself, has become a ‘bad brand,’ and shares the attempts of recent seminary graduates to be religious in new, experimental ways, as well as the work done by UUA leadership to create a new logo and, perhaps, a new slogan for our faith.

Several other UU bloggers were faster off the starting blocks than I was. The Rev. Tom Schade at “The Lively Tradition” (http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/the-thanklesstask-of-re-branding.html) and the Rev. Cynthia Landrum (http://revcyn.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html) both shared their responses and reactions. Sometimes I wait a while to see if what I have to say is going to be said by someone else. So far, I haven’t seen it.

Here’s the thing. I am an institutionalist, and will likely embrace whatever logo, slogan or ‘branding’ they come up with– mostly because I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference one way or the other. What drives growth isn’t advertising, or slogans, or cool logos. That might get people through the doors, but it doesn’t lead them to stay.

People stay when they find what they need.

Media coverage being what it is, I have hopes that the conversation which the article reports on isn’t really about marketing strategy, but an attempt by our national leaders to thoughtfully discern what people need from us as a faith. It’s good and appropriate for the folks at headquarters to be asking the question, “Who does the world need us to be” on a bigger scale. Meanwhile, every congregation needs to ask itself “Who does our community need us to be?”

The folks who have joined the congregation I serve in the past two years talk about appreciating the music, the sense of community, and the way we step up to the plate and work to make the town we live in better for everybody. They appreciate the fact that we give our plate offering away to local organizations, write letters to the editor, show up at demonstrations and forums, and generally live our values in the wider world.

My folks are proud of the way we accept a wide variety of beliefs and choices, and don’t judge one another. They like having support in being good parents and good people. One member says she comes on Sunday for her “hit” of good energy, inspiration, and love.

In other words, people are looking for places to be healthy, kind, human, and aware together. In a time when any number of things are falling apart, our job is to hold on to what is good and valuable in religion and the wider culture, and to lift those things up, sort of like finding jewels or time capsules in the rubble of building that is being demolished. The world needs us to be honest and real, and to respond compassionately and pastorally to the challenges of being alive in this era.

Several of the folks who have found a home at our congregation report leaving other congregations, unhappy about conflict, dysfunction, and having to deal with people who don’t practice what they preach. And yes, some have complained about former ministers; apparently, we have some mediocre ministers in our denomination. I believe that the folks at the UUMA are working hard to provide resources to help with that.

There is a strand of UU lay identity that comes across as, “This is a church where I can do whatever I want, and no one can call me on it.” This is not attractive. There’s an equally unattractive strand of UU clergy identity that is defensive and unwilling to do the work necessary to answer our calling with skill and excellence. I had to pluck that strand out of my own identity, so I know how difficult it can be. These are deep issues that won’t be impacted at all by the work with the marketing consultants. Until we address them, our numbers will continue to decline- so perhaps another question worth asking would be, “How do we hold both dysfunctional congregations AND mediocre ministers accountable?”

I say this as the (I hope) non-mediocre minister of a healthy congregation. We are not in decline; quite to the contrary, the place feels alive and vibrant, and we’re starting to have crowding problems in the sanctuary on Sunday. Not only that, but a large portion of our new members are Millenials, who seem to appreciate our fairly traditional protestant-type worship service. It’s not that I don’t appreciate experimentation and new forms of religious gathering. When it comes to healthy religious community, the more the better. But I am saying that it’s the function, and not the form, that matters.

We need to stop focusing on growth and just do church well. Do community well. Do worship well. Do religious education well. Do social justice work well. Do governance and stewardship well. Do fun well. Do church well, and people stick around. They want to be a part of something that works and feels good and makes a difference.

No doubt many faiths around the world and in Idaho have longstanding traditions of man-woman marriage rooted in scripture. But not all religions share the view that opposite-sex marriage is a theological imperative. In fact, some of the Plaintiffs actively worship in faiths that recognize and support their unions. To the extent Governor Otter argues that Idaho has a legitimate interest in validating a particular religious view of marriage, that argument blithely disregards the religious liberty of congregations active in Idaho. “By recognizing the right to marry a partner of the same sex, the State allows these groups the freedom to practice their religious beliefs without mandating that other groups must adopt similar practices.”

This is my favorite part of Judge Candy Dale’s ruling which struck down Idaho’s DOMA and mandated that marriage licences be granted to all committed couples. Why? Because it is proof positive that it makes a difference when we stand up as people of faith.

Hence, this, my latest letter to the editor:

The Idaho Defense of Marriage Act impinges on my religious freedom. I am one of the many faith leaders who feel the bible’s many references to justice and mercy far overshadow the seven, highly disputable passages that are used to attack the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. My own denomination (Unitarian Universalism) has been performing religious marriages and services of union for same sex couples since the seventies. I assure you, we haven’t seen any lightening bolts or other signs of divine displeasure.

We’ve also been providing pastoral care and support to people who have been bullied and abused because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We’ve walked (and cried) with people who have been shunned by their families. We’ve consoled people who have been banned from the bedside of the person they have loved and lived with for their entire lives because of the bigotry of the technical ‘next of kin.’ We’ve empathized with folks who have had to spend thousands of dollars to create and protect their family in ways that heterosexual families take for granted. We’ve borne witness to a tremendous amount of pain.

Because of that, I was elated when Judge Dale declared DOMA unconstitutional and issued the order mandating that marriage licenses be granted to same-gendered couples. And I am sick at heart and disappointed that the emergency stay was granted. I feel confident that eventually justice will win out; DOMA is basically legalized discrimination, which is contrary to our laws and our constitution. In the meantime, though, I bear witness once again to the pain of the gay and lesbian couples who dared to hope, only to be denied once again the 1,138 federal rights that come along with a marriage license.

Sincerely,

Rev. Elizabeth Stevens
UU Church of the Palouse
Moscow, ID

Luker Laws

February 11, 2014

Here is a letter I am sending off to Rep. Lynn Luker, with copies to Rep. Dan Schmidt, Rep. Lucinda Agidius, and Rep. Shirley Ringo.

Dear Representative Luker,

I am adding my voice to the hundreds of people of faith who are requesting…begging, really…that you reconsider your support of HB427. My primary concern is that it will undo the protections recently extended to my gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors by the Moscow city non-discrimination ordinance.

Many scholars believe that there is no biblical basis for homophobia, and that the homophobic lens is one that was superimposed over the text many hundreds of years after it was written. This is true in my tradition, but also in many others. I’ve studied with Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, and even Evangelicals who believe wholeheartedly that gay and lesbian love is as sacred and precious to God as heterosexual love. A closer look at the bible passages that people typically use to make a case for the sinfulness of homosexuality reveals an extremely shaky case.

The first passage is, of course, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea that God punished Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality didn’t enter Christian discourse until medieval times. In fact, there are several passages in the bible…one in Ezekiel, one in Jeremiah and one in the gospel of Matthew, that point to pride, excess, lack of care for the poor and needy, and lack of hospitality as the ‘wickedness’ that angered God- not homosexuality. The event described in the text is about as far from a loving, committed same-gender relationship as you can get: basically, we’re talking about gang rape. It’s a huge step to get from “God considers gang-rape a sin” to “God considers same-gender love a sin.”

The other passages that are frequently quoted are in Leviticus- 18:22 and 20:13 to be precise. A close reading of the text makes it clear that they are not referencing loving, committed same-gender relationships but designed to warn Israelites in exile against adopting the Canaanite practice of temple prostitution. Read in context, these two verses are part of a long list of rules that make up the ‘purity code.’ According to the code, adulterers and men who sleep with menstruating women are to be put to death, tattoos and piercings are forbidden, and all people should keep kosher. There are also rules governing the taking and treatment of slaves and concubines, and the passing along of widows to ensure a clear line of succession. To lift up just these two verses and to ignore the rest seems disingenuous, to say the least.

That’s it in the Old Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, we find absolutely NOTHING addressing same-gender love or sex in any of the four gospels. Paul has a few nasty things to say in Romans and First Corinthians, but again, careful reading shows that they seemed aimed at sexual excess and dishonesty (unnatural lusts) rather than committed same-gender relationships.

It begs the question how did people get the idea that the bible is ‘against’ homosexuality?

In the years leading up to the reformation, what is now the Catholic church (but which was then just ‘the church’ was full of corruption and nepotism. The way to get ahead, to get a desirable posting, was to have an affair with somebody above you in the hierarchy. In an act of blatant hypocrisy, the church launched what was basically a propaganda campaign, introducing anti-homosexual interpretations of the texts I just referenced, and imposing celibacy on priests. (Marriage among priests was common and accepted until 1129.)

Should a person disagree with these arguments, instead clinging to a belief that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, it’s still a very big leap to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The teachings of the bible on how we are to treat one another are too numerous to list…think of the golden rule, the great commandment, and “As you do unto the least of these….” Jesus led by example. He broke almost all of the purity rules. He deliberately sat and spoke and ate with prostitutes and lepers and others considered ‘unclean.’

Nowhere in the bible does it say, “Thou shalt deny sinners health care,” “Thou shalt not sell sinners a wedding cake,” or even “Thou shalt not interact with people whose beliefs or sexual practices you find distasteful.” Who wants to open that door? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Would it be okay if doctors refused to treat addicts or even people who are overweight? After all, they’re guilty of gluttony, and that’s one of the seven deadly sins.

I know that some people are afraid that priests might be forced to perform a wedding, or sued for refusing. To be clear: there is a difference between religious sacraments and business interactions. Different faith communities have always had the ability to choose who can receive sacraments: we get to decide who gets served communion and who can’t. We get to choose when and how to baptize, and who we are willing to marry. I myself have refused to marry people when I felt their relationship wasn’t healthy. I wouldn’t want Native Americans to be sued because they limit participation in one of their rituals to members of the tribe. That would be a violation of the freedom of religion. However there is a huge difference between being allowed to participate in a sacrament or a religious ritual and having access to a basic service like housing or medical care. Everyone has an equal right to buy a cup of coffee, or go see a movie. This is what our ancestors intended when they declared the separation of church and state.

I am not as familiar with your faith as I’d like to be, and I’d be interested to learn why it is that you feel so strongly that businesspeople shouldn’t have to provide services to people whose lifestyle they see as sinful. One can believe that homosexuality is a sin and still learn and grow from the experience of treating someone who is different with kindness and compassion. I have had many former Mormons in my congregation, and I’ve seen the way the teachings on the sinfulness of homosexuality can rip apart families and damage people’s spirits. I confess I have a hard time believing that this kind of pain is part of God’s plan. Everything that I know of God points toward a desire for healing and love rather than discrimination and pain.

The anti-discrimination ordinance was a welcome step forward here in Moscow; I know people who have been denied service at local restaurants, as well as people who have had a harder time finding a place to live because of their sexual orientation. My faith teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with respect for their inherent worth and dignity. HB 427 runs counter to my faith and my conscience.

It hurts my heart to even think about it becoming law, thus rendering our local ordinance unenforceable. I know of a lot of good people…both gay and straight…who are ready to leave the great state of Idaho over this. I am not one of them; I will stay and become more active in the “Add the Words” campaign instead.

I appreciate your willingness to serve, as well as the time you have taken to read this letter. I would welcome a response, and would also be delighted to meet with you in person. I will be holding you and your fellow Idaho legislators in prayer as you consider this issue.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Elizabeth H. Stevens

In July, I’ll take one last summer intensive class, and then I’ll be officially “ABD”…just a dissertation away from my Doctor of Ministry Degree. I’d like to have my dissertation design approved before I start that final class, which means working with my advisor to clarify and focus my ideas and divide them into chapters. (I find it really helps to think of writing eight 20-40 page chapters rather than one 150-250 page dissertation.)

So what is my dissertation going to be about?

These days, our subjective experience is that we are swimming in rough seas…bombarded by a constant stream of traumatic and tragic news. This experience is based on an objective reality. The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) maintains an International Disaster Database, in which they’ve tracked the number of natural disasters since 1974. The globe has seen a dramatic eight-fold increase in the number of natural disasters. The scientific consensus is that this change is caused by human patterns of consumption and habitation. That means that in the years to come, things will get worse before they can even begin to get better… even without factoring in human-caused tragedies and disasters.

As if it that weren’t bad enough, we all have a front row seat to each disaster and tragedy as it occurs. A hundred years ago, if there had been a school shooting or a natural disaster somewhere in the world, we might hear about it several months later if it made it into a newspaper…but most likely, we would never know. Editor Harold Evans of the London Times reportedly said that “a single copy of the Sunday Times covers more happenings than an Englishman just a few hundred years ago would have been exposed to in his entire lifetime.”

Most of us don’t get our news exclusively from the paper, though. Between television and the internet, we are watching live footage of tragedies as they unfold and recorded footage afterwards…over and over and over again. Watching images is different than reading words. Studies have shown that our biochemical reaction to watching this footage is the same as if we were there—there’s only a slight difference in scale. So everyone who watches the news responds as if they are being traumatized.

Interestingly enough, when we look into the neuro-biochemistry of PTSD, what we learn is that images of trauma enter our brains through the amygdala (the reptilian brain.) Makes sense, right? If big bad things are happening, we want to respond with that fight-or-flight intensity. From there, they must pass through the hippocampus and into the neocortex. PTSD occurs when the pathway between the amygdala and the hippocampus gets flooded. The official name for compassion fatigue is “Secondary Vicarious Traumatization” or “Secondary Vicarious PTSD”…and I sometimes think that our entire society is suffering from it, simply by virtue of watching the news.

Then there’s the flip side of the coin: it turns out that tragedies can bring out the best in the human race, allowing people to cross boundaries of class, race, nationality, and religion and to embrace our common humanity. (Try reading Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell” if you don’t believe me.) Stories of loss and tragedy capture people’s attention and elicit an empathic response. We wind up caring deeply about people we’ve never met before, and that is a good thing.

This subject has been an interest of mine for several years, and I’ve taken trainings and classes as well as reading everything I can get my hands on. Yet still, I sometimes feel confused, overwhelmed, and inadequate when it comes to responding to traumatic events as a spiritual leader in the context of the congregation. I know I am not alone. Traffic on the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Chat message board after a natural disaster or other tragedy regularly reflects similar confusion on the part of my colleagues. My hope is that I can create a resource…possibly a rubric or a decision flow chart…that might help us know how to calibrate our response appropriately.

To some extent, I see our congregations as lifeboats. It’s our job to provide a place where people can rest for a while, experience kindness, reclaim a sense of agency, and turn again toward beauty, life, and hope. We all get knocked off the boat once in a while, and flounder in the grief and the helplessness and the anger. But we need to keep on swimming (“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”) and then climb back in. In the meantime, we are among the keepers of what is good and right and beautiful. It’s our job to foster in ourselves and in one another compassion and empathy and connection and a sense of responsibility and accountability, all of which is needed if our lifeboats are ever to land someplace stable and sustainable.

When I was in seminary, I spent some time doing street ministry with drug-addicted teenagers. We brought them sandwiches, clean socks, sterile sharps, and hot chocolate. In return, they offered their stories.

One young man in particular has haunted me ever since. Beautiful, intelligent, and articulate, he shared that he had a typical upper-middle class upbringing. He’d done well in school, and had gone on to get a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture. It was while he was working on his Master’s degree that someone slipped him some Heroin. Unfortunately, it only took once for him. Now, his good looks made him popular with the men who looked to hire him for sex. He had enough cash to keep himself in drugs, but he no longer had any hopes of making it out of his life. “I expect I’ll die fairly soon,” he said, with very little affect. “I’ve got to be HIV positive by now.” As I prayed with him and then later for him, I noticed that in the midst of the grief and sadness, I felt a healthy dose of fear. It hit me hard: there was really very little difference between his story and mine, right up to that pivotal moment where he became addicted. It gave the phrase, “There but for the Grace of God go I” a whole new resonance.

This experience became the seed of a key realization for me. When we hesitate to interact with the homeless, the disenfranchised, the suffering, it’s not necessarily because we are afraid of ‘the other.’ Rather, we’re afraid we’ll realize that ‘they’ are just like ‘us.’ We cling to an artificial sense of safety that depends on our ability to blame people for their misfortune. “I would never behave that way, and so what happened to them would never happen to me.” When we get to actually know the stories of the people who are suffering, that sense of safety falls apart, and we who are ‘successful’ realize that we were, in so many ways, simply lucky.

I offer this as an example of the way we are transformed and enriched by our experiences out in the ‘real world.’ As we allow ourselves to come into contact with suffering and loss, misfortune and injustice, our intellectual defenses are shattered, and we must embrace a more complex and realistic world view. Our hearts are broken, and we become more compassionate and empathetic. Our spiritual understandings are challenged, and in response, we reformulate them to be wider and deeper.

Meanwhile, people who spend all their time out in the world can easily burn out, or become overwhelmed by their feelings of grief and impotence. Spiritual practices that enable us to process our experiences are essential to our survival. We need the clarity and focus that can only come out of slowing down and breathing deeply. Our spiritual practices empower us to serve the world in the right way, and for the right reasons.

I believe there is a feedback loop that happens when we embrace both service in the world and a spiritual practice. Our experiences in the world give us fodder for growth in our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives provide us with sustenance and focus for our continued efforts out in the world. Meanwhile, spirituality without service is shallow and brittle, while service without spiritual grounding leads to burnout and cynicism.

I’ll be preaching on this topic on May 19th. Please share your thoughts, feelings and reactions!

This morning, I spoke at a rally sponsored by the Palouse Peace Coalition on responsible gun control.  Here is a draft of my remarks.  Let me know what you think!

Remarks for the Rally Against Gun Violence

March 23, 2013

 

Good morning.  Thank you to the Palouse Peace Coalition for organizing the event.  Thank you to the people who took time out of their day to be here and reflect on this important issue.

On Sunday, July 27, 2008, a man named Jim David Adkisson walked into the Tennessee Valley UU Church (a church not that different than the church I serve, right up the street).  He carried a twelve-gauge shot gun in a guitar case, and partway through the service, he pulled it out and started shooting.  Why? In a statement to police, Adkisson said he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.  Out of work and out of luck, he blamed the Democrats, asserting that they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets.   Members of the congregation immediately responded by tackling Adkisson and taking his weapon away.  Two people were killed, and another six were injured. 

It was a horrible tragedy.  But it might have been much, much worse.  The service that day was a play put on by the children.  If Adkisson had been carrying an assault weapon, like, for example, a Bushmaster AR-15, the gun used in Sandy Hook this December, who knows how many casualties there would have been?

Gun control is a hot topic here in Idaho and across the nation.  Less than two weeks ago, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a law making it a crime for state and local police to enforce new federal firearms restrictions.  (The senate has tabled it.)  There’s a paranoid fiction that the government is going to come and ‘take people’s guns away.’  Nothing could be farther from the truth. 

The current conversation on gun control offers a golden opportunity for people to come together and address this complicated issue.  Together, we can find some common sense measures that will make our country safer.  

This is a state chock-full of responsible gun owners.  I know a number of people who hunt, who like to go target shooting or skeet shooting.  I know people who carry guns for protection.  They are law abiding citizens.  It is already a crime, here in Idaho, to carry a weapon ‘with intent to assault another.”  It’s also against the law to carry a concealed weapon while intoxicated or on school property.  The gun owners I know have no problem abiding by these laws.  None of the additional gun control measures we are proposing here today would interfere with responsible gun ownership.  They are designed simply to make it harder to perpetrate a mass shooting.

15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place here in the United States.  In second place was Finland, with 2.  Even one mass killing is too many.  We know that in our bones.

While it is true that guns don’t kill people…people kill people… guns do change how people kill people.  Guns make it a lot easier, and that is not a good thing.  The choice to aim a gun at a human being and pull a trigger might need to be made quickly, but it should never be made lightly.  Human life is sacred. 

Reinstating the ban on military style assault rifles and ammunition magazines with more than ten rounds would make our country safer.  Both of these proposals enjoy wide-spread support, including among responsible gun owners.  Let’s be honest:  short of military combat or a zombie apocalypse, can any of us come up with a scenario where one person would need to pull that trigger more than ten times in a row in self-defense?

Polls show that the third proposal, universal background checks, is supported by 80% of the people in this country.  These days, can you think of any other issue that 80% of us can agree on?  Other ideas that have been proposed include safe storage laws, requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance (similar to car ownership.)  “Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence” (a group of 24 different national religious bodies) recommends that in addition to the restrictions on high capacity weapons and ammunition magazines and background check, gun trafficking be made a federal offense.

The power of the democratic process is that it allows everyone a voice.  I can’t figure out on my own which measures will make the biggest difference.  But together…that’s another story.  Harvard ethicist Arthur Dyck, in analyzing both law and morality, emphasizes the relationship of rights and responsibilities.  For every right we have…including the right to bear arms…we must be willing to accept responsibility.  The freedom to bear arms carries with it the responsibility to make sure that those arms are not used to harm innocent people.

The shooting in Tennessee Valley UU Church in 2008 was a tragedy; no one wants anything like that to happen here.  The shooting in Sandy Hook in December was an even greater tragedy, in part because of the kind of weapon the shooter used.   We owe it to the victims and families of the fallen to do everything in power to keep this conversation open and moving forward.  We owe it to the victims and their families to make this country a safer place for our children and our children’s children.  Thank you.

My coleague, the Rev. Barbara Pescan, asks in a poem, “Who are we at Easter?”  Who indeed?

Few Unitarian Universalists believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Christ. Even fewer see the resurrection as the most important part of the Christian story. We are far more likely to focus on (and learn from) the parables, stories, and lessons Jesus offered while he was alive.

Some congregations, then, celebrate Easter primarily out of habit. I’m not sure whether folks are nervous about the story of Jesus’ resurrection or simply uninterested, but I’ve attended (and even led) Easter Sunday church services that are basically generic spring celebrations, with Easter-egg hunts and de-Christified hymns and nary a mention of the risen Christ. One of my colleagues even asked his congregation if they’d like to skip Easter altogether.

I found my own perceptions about Easter challenged and eventually transformed by my participation in interfaith Easter Sunrise Services. We would gather at a memorial garden, sing the traditional hymns, and hear the traditional story and some stellar preaching from my (mostly progressive) Christian colleagues. In my fourth year, it was my turn to preach, and I found myself connecting with the Easter story in new and powerful ways. I find in it universal themes that are more than worthy of reflection.

All human beings fear death, and Easter invites us to face that fear and move beyond it.  All human beings spend time ‘in the tomb,’ trapped in grief or depression.  All human beings need help to ‘roll aside the stone’ and find their way back to joy and life.  And most importantly:  love lasts, even beyond death.

I also experience on Easter a sense of connection to- and gratitude for- our Christian roots, as well as the broader Christian community.  Though many of my co-religionists are ‘come-outers,’ I am a ‘stay-inner.’ Raised Unitarian Universalist, I don’t have a lot of baggage, nor do I suffer from ‘cross cringe.’  For me, Jesus’ legacy is a source of strength and inspiration.  It is not the only source, but a significant source, nonetheless.

I wonder sometimes if we do ourselves a disservice when we locate our faith outside of the broader Christian community.  Many of the mainline protestant denominations and many progressive Catholics are becoming more and more simpatico with Unitarian Universalism.  They are embracing world religions, free thought and other progressive causes.  There is more than enough common ground to hold us all.

What changes if we understand Unitarian Universalism to be on the leading edge of progressive Christianity, rather than a fringe faith that has largely rejected Christianity?  What changes in us?  In our congregations?  In our interfaith relationships?  In our world?

 

Faith and Doubt

February 25, 2013

Doubt plays an important role in intellectual and faith development.  As we receive wisdom (from teachers, scripture, etc.), we test it against our own experience, our own sense of what is right and true.  In this way, we create meaning for ourselves.  Making meaning is what humans do. 

 

An inability to admit doubt (aka fundamentalism) masks a deep fear of being wrong.  As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it, “Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.”  Fundamentalism comes in all flavors, including atheism and secularism!

 

In James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, doubt lives primarily in the “Individuative/Reflective” stage, though it stays with us as we develop and grow.  Individual Unitarian Universalists and UU congregations can sometimes get stuck here.  We can fall into a trap of defining ourselves by what we reject…what we don’t believe…rather than doing the work of articulating what we do believe. 

 

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is despair.  We all despair; there are times when we lose faith, lose hold of the thread of meaning in our lives.  And so we must articulate our deepest, most sustaining wisdom, and share it with one another, so that in those times, we can be reminded of who we are and why we matter.

Read the full text of the sermon on the UU Church of the Palouse website:

www.palouseuu.com

 

Resource List

 

Faith:  Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg

Faith without Certainty, by Paul Rasor

 “Faith and Doubt” in The Dynamics of Faith,  by Paul Tillich

James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” from Wikipedia: 

“Faith and Fiction” by Frederick Beuchner

“If I Were Asked” by The Rev. Victoria Safford:

The History of Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Dictionaries define love as “a feeling of connection and affection.” However, the word itself has very little power until and unless the feeling moves us to act in some way. Love inspires us to reach out to a friend or a family member we’ve not spoken with for a while. Love of the earth inspires us to live more sustainably. Love expects us to forgive, and not to forget. Love implies acceptance, or unconditional positive regard. And as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

What are the ways that you use your power to promote love in the world? What are the fears that keep you from loving more fully? What are the ways that love leads you to act?