Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mr. President, Tear Down This Wall

by The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
The New Colossus, 1883;  Emma Lazarus (1849–87)

In her 2012 UUA GA Ware lecture in Phoenix, NPR journalist Maria Hinojosa spoke movingly of “two Americas,” one which moved about freely and another always in fear of being detained, harassed, or arrested because of color or accent. A Mexican born American, she noted having a New York drivers license was not sufficient to prove her citizenship. She then asked the assembled whether we felt the need to bring our passports to travel to Arizona.

A line stayed with me: No human being is illegal. Entering our nation without a visa is an illegal activity; it violates our law. However, she warned, breaking a law is an action, not a state of being. To say you are an “illegal” means you have no dignity, no rights. Hinojosa spoke of Nazis declaring Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals “illegal” to provide legitimacy for hatred, violence, and murder. She warned this was happening in our immigration debate.

“No human being is illegal.” I confess: I am no expert on immigration. I respect the notion that a nation ought to have borders that ensure its integrity. Yet, seeing the faces of thousands of children yearning to be free of violence or poverty, risking death in the desert — truly the wretched refuse of central America’s dysfunction — troubles my soul. These are kids, not “illegals.” Truly, these are the huddled masses? Do we welcome them to our shore?

Our nation’s immigration history has always discriminated as to who is “ok” and who is not. Immigration quotas are biased toward white, northern Europeans, less welcoming of southern Europeans, let alone Africans. If you are Cuban, you are granted amnesty the moment you set foot on US soil; if you’re from Haiti, you’re sent back asap.

We value people differently. No doubt, this is a sign of “my tribe” in opposition to yours. At its best, “my tribe” is a source of identity and pride. At its worse, “my tribe” leads to spiritual xenophobia and justification for treating those different as of less or no worth. Our immigration policy is driven by such fear.

President Obama has deported more people than any other President, ever. The pressure to seal our borders with a ghastly, thousand miles long fence is immense. But it does not address the problem of global inequality. My ancestors left Norway in mid-19th century seeking a better life on the prairies of the Dakotas. So, too, today, with any poor and oppressed. As long as we are a free people, others will want to come here.

Secure borders, compassion for the poor? There are competing goods in this debate; it is cheap grace and cheaper law to ignore that. Finding a balance is what we all must seek.

Immediately, Unitarian Universalists can stand on the side of love and argue compassion as a first value in the immigration debate. We should work to ensure those who cross our border be treated decently. We should confront the oft-repeated, obfuscating use of “illegals.” Our compassion should include those trying to cope with the immense challenge of what to do with the over 50,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived in Texas.

Good news, if there is such, is that faith-based groups from around the country are pulling together to lend a hand and a heart. True reform of our fear-driven policies will not come soon or easily. I have no “do this now" prescription for my fellow Unitarian Universalists, save to encourage your engagement in the debate and to lend a hand where you can.

In her 2014 Ware lecture last month, lawyer, poet Sister Simone Campbell — organizer of the “Nuns on the Bus” protest decrying the effects of the so-called “Ryan Budget” on people in need — called us to “walk towards trouble” as a core part of our spiritual life. She offered this poem to encourage us:


Let gratitude be the beat of our heart, pounding Baghdad rhythms, circulating memories, meaning of the journey.
Let resolve flow in our veins, fueled by Basra’s destitution, risking reflective action in a fifteen-second world.
Let compassion be our hands, reaching to be with each other, all others to touch, hold heal this fractured world.
Let wisdom be our feet, bringing us to the crying need to friends or foe to share this body’s blood.
Let love be our eyes, that we might see the beauty, see the dream lurking in the shadows of despair and dread.
Let community be our body warmth, radiating Arab energy to welcome in the foreign stranger—even the ones who wage this war.
Let us remember on drear distant days, we are a promised Christmas joy we live as one this tragic gifted life— We are the Body of God!

Love is our core teaching. It calls us to tear down walls, to reach out. May we do so.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Looking for Those Lazy Days of Summer

by Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Staff

When I was a kid, summer meant long days of sunshine, spending time exploring the great outdoors, reading trashy novels, sleeping in as late as I wanted, and, most of all, being really, really bored. I remember hours and hours of lying in the back yard or on the floor of my bedroom, just staring into space. Not really thinking, not really day-dreaming, just BEING. As my family used to say, “You're just up there occupying space.” I could not agree more; I was practicing the fine art of resting. I was really, really good at it, too. I also spent time painting, writing, exploring, learning, and becoming more myself. It was an incredible luxury to have such time.

I seem to have forgotten how to rest. Over the years, I have become haunted by my never-ending To Do List. It lurks in every corner of my house, it finds me in the shower, it even chases me in my dreams. I can't get away from it, no matter how many times I try to slay the beast. There is always an email to answer, a phone call to make, a teleconference to participate in, an event to build, or travel arrangements to make. I also have a toddler screaming “MAMA!” in the next room, and a baby who has yet to come out and greet the world (who somehow manages to take a lot of time and energy, anyway). I pass a guy I once knew as my husband in the kitchen occasionally. And friends? You mean those people to whom I send thank you notes? I sure hope they remember me fondly.

Luckily, I have a plan. When I was pregnant with my first child, Ian, I was in the middle of changing jobs and moving 2500 miles across the country. My To Do List could not have been longer. I wanted to make sure I had everything written down before I left my old position while preparing for the new one. I also had a house to pack and clean. My due date came and went. A week passed, then two. I continued to scramble to get all of my work done, thinking I was being gifted with extra time. I also started to think I was never going to have that baby!

One day, though, I just stopped. I just stopped working and went into my bedroom. My husband asked if I was going to come out, and I just said, “No.” I had no intention of coming out. Four weeks past my due date, I was done. I surely wasn't finished, but I was utterly and completely DONE. So I allowed my body to remember those lazy days of summer (it was June, after all), and I went into my bedroom, laid down, and just stared at the ceiling. I just rested. I let go. I became more me. And then a miraculous thing happened: I went into labor! Soon I had a beautiful baby boy in my arms, and everything melted away but him and me. It was a blissful, lovey, exhausting, beautiful time. He and I spent tons of time just lying around, staring at the ceiling or at each other, and it was perfection.

All of that work I had to do was magically finished somehow, at some time. Some of it waited weeks, and some of it waited months, but it all got completed in a satisfactory fashion. And no one was seriously hurt in the process. The world did not end, and even though I had a newborn to take care of, somehow I felt like I had more resources than I did before. Once I rested, the tasks seemed smaller and more manageable. More importantly, even without regular sleep, my creativity returned in ways I couldn't have imagined before.

Now it is July, two years later. Again, I am in the same position. The due date of my second child is approaching in a few weeks, and I continue to struggle with my To Do List, making sure every item is crossed off, forgetting completely how to rest. Every night I wake up in the middle of the night remembering something I didn't have time to get to, not to mention the dirty dishes in the sink and the laundry that needs folding. I also know that soon, it will be time to be done, and I will stop working and let the labor begin. I will trust that things will get done, and I will rest.

A few weeks ago, I put these questions out on Facebook: How do you rest? How do you rebuild? How do you gather your resources for work? Among the most common answers were sleep, art, music, or exercise. All wise choices. By far, I believe we all need spiritual practices in our lives---those activities we do with intention, regularity, and depth---to give our brains a chance to rest, to stare at the ceiling metaphorically (if not actually), and to gather our internal resources for the work that lies ahead of us.

We tend to vilify idleness by saying that it is laziness. As the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil's playground.” Science has shown, however, that taking time to rest and rejuvenate regularly and often actually improves our productivity and our creativity, allowing us to be better problem solvers and stewards.

Soon, I will be resting and I hope to rest very, very well. From July 7 (at the latest) until September 1, I will be taking maternity leave (list be done or not!). During that time, any congregation or leader who is used to working with me can contact The Rev. Susan Smith, whose contact information can be found on the Southern Region website. I will be using those weeks to lie in bed with my new family and wonder at all the work it took for them to get there. I promise to return to you having slept much less, but rested much more.

I encourage you to take a little time this summer to find those Lazy Days. We all need to recognize when we are DONE, if not finished, and when we need to end our work so the real labor can begin, whatever that labor in your life may be. The importance of stopping the day-to-day business in order to give birth to more creativity cannot be overstated. The To Do List will, in fact, wait.

***Editor's note: Ayla Rose Briscoe was born this weekend! The Southern Region staff sends wishes for rest and every other blessing to Natalie and her family.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Same-Old-Same-Old Is Different Every Time

by Rev. Susan M. Smith

I’m about to say the same things that I’ve said before and yet I don’t know what I will say. It is summer in the Southern Region which means that we will be having some of our biggest events. Volunteers are lined up and being oriented. Boxes of books have been shipped. The online registration system is buzzing. We’ve got multiple online work platforms where we are storing and refining documents. Every day someone asks me to look over just one more schedule or packet. I understand the need to plan and prepare, but I know deep in my bones that we will not know what we will do until we get there.

We don’t call Dwight Brown Leadership Experience and Southern UU Leadership Experience “experiences” for nothing. I will embark on that very first lecture about the historic roots of our covenantal tradition as I always do but the spirit of the moment, the spirit of inspiration, perhaps even the Holy Spirit will ultimately determine what happens when we are gathered there together as part of the living tradition which is being co-created in so many extraordinary ways in our time. Along the way, congregational teams will bond and relationships will be formed among leaders of very different congregations. A shy leader will step up. A less confident leader will be strengthened. Someone who is mourning will be comforted, and more than one “Aha” moment will occur about something going on back home that now makes total sense with new tools in our leaders’ tool belts.  And who knows what amazing things these leadership teams will create once they go back home?

We’ll hold four simultaneous Presidents Convocations, and at the one in Dallas I will again say that your regional staff has resources to help these presidents, president-elects, and vice presidents as they serve. But only as the year progresses will these leaders work with us by phone or Skype or in person on stewardship or growth or professional transition and see that we are willing to be right there beside them time and time again. Moreover, as we convene I will learn things myself and see more clearly the concerns and inspirations of these leaders once they are all together sharing their challenges and their joys.

As usual at our Southwest UU Summer Institute, I will provide the Monday morning worship looking out over a sparkling Oklahoma lake nestled in the heart of Native American nations. And as usual, I will tell those UUs of literally every age that this is a week to rest, to play, to create and to revel in being together. And too many things will be going on at the drumming circles and the workshops and the shared meals and around the jigsaw puzzle and bridge tables for me to possibly know how the days have been used to nourish souls, bond families, and create new friends.

UUs are theologically unique in our insistence that revelation is not sealed. The true, the beautiful, the inspirational springs out of us constantly if we will but make the time for it, gather together with others and take the risk to make a start and see where we will go.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Becoming a Keeper of the Questions

by Kathy McGowan, Congregational Life staff member

Several years ago I ran a program in which I trained and supervised citizens to advocate for children involved in abuse and neglect proceedings in family court. The volunteers needed to interact with many different types of people and various large systems. These advocates had the most challenging volunteer job I have ever known. They had to collaborate with lawyers, judges, social workers, foster care parents, parole officers and psychologists, in addition to the parents of the children, who were usually poor and often had mental health and/or addiction problems. The extensive months of training I provided were often inadequate.  When they were struggling I often found myself saying to them, “Remember, you are the keeper of the questions.” As long as they kept the long term health of the children in mind and kept asking the important questions in a timely manner, they were doing their jobs; they were keeping others on track.

I like the title, "Keeper of the Questions." In the fantasy world of Kathy McGowan, the Keeper of the Questions has a place of high status. It is a position to be respected and honored. In our congregational lives, this role falls to our leaders. In order to be a Keeper of the Questions in our Unitarian Universalist context, we are required to get up off the dance floor, so to speak, and move onto the balcony where we have a better view of what is happening. Once we have acquired a balcony view, we can then find out which questions need to be asked.

Leaders are often involved in decision-making that requires this kind of exploration. It takes a solid leader to be able to stop and say, “Are we asking the right questions?” Often we come to the decision-making process from something that happened on the dance floor. It can seem like a logical next step to make a decision, but if we have not gotten that “bird’s eye view,” it is likely that we have missed a key element about how this decision might effect the entire system of the congregation.

Once the good questions have been asked, you might be surprised at the answers you get. If the questions are strong enough, and the process clear and thorough, the thinking generated can take you far. Do not be afraid of the creativity that is unleashed. Embrace the Keeper of the Questions.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Greatest Gift of All

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
I don't cry often while watching television, but this morning the tears fell as I saw the dedication of the 9/11 Museum at the site of the World Trade Center Towers. Hearing and seeing the survivors and the first responders, listening to the last voice messages of those who perished in flight ... I was moved beyond words.

If I were certain my life was ending in a few minutes, who would I call? What would I say? If someone I loved called to say they were about to leave forever, what would I say? What would I do? I ask these questions, then multiply them times the hundreds and hundreds of lives lost on that clear September morning.

I was living in Boston at the time of the attacks. My partner called me from his office and told me to turn the television on. I watched transfixed until both of the towers collapsed, then I was completely overwhelmed and turned the news off, feeling the weight and the loss of those lives that day.

Seven years later, I began an interim ministry at the Central Unitarian Church of Bergen County in Paramus, New Jersey. It was there that I met long-time members Herb and Andrea Ouida (oh-WEE-da), whose 25-year-old son Todd died at the World Trade Center. As a child, Todd suffered with debilitating anxiety disorder. After his death, his parents founded The Todd Ouida Children's Foundation (www.mybuddytodd.org), a nonprofit organization that supports psychological services for children from low-income families and works to end the stigma of depression. The Foundation has raised more than a $1 million to date for projects such as an art-therapy center and a summer camp for children who lost loved ones on Sept. 11.

Some of the conversations that take up our time and energy seem abstract. As we debate about the value of a new UUA logo or the advantages of moving our Association's offices off Beacon Hill in Boston, the work of saving lives, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and loving beyond belief goes forward. While we attend our meetings, join together in worship and advocate for justice, may we remain aware of the fragility of each of our lives. Every day, we have the chance to radiate as much love as possible to each person we meet. When tragedy strikes, may we follow the example of the Ouidas and reach out in love to others who are in need, just as we are.

Life is the greatest gift of all the riches of this earth

Life and its creatures great and small, of high and lowly birth

So treasure it, and measure it, with deeds of shining worth*

In faith,

*Singing the Living Tradition, #331

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Racism = Bigotry + Power

by the Rev. Kenn Hurto, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff Lead Executive

The infuriating news regarding the LA Clippers basketball team owner's racist remarks combined with the ranting Nevada rancher -- the one with perverted notions of freedom for poaching on public land -- who argues that slavery was a good thing is an appalling insult to human dignity. The bad news is that this is old news. The good news is it’s not being put up with.

We Unitarian Universalists are sometimes glib when we invoke our 1st Principle regarding human worth. We should not be. This teaching is at the core of our theological commitment. It's the Universalist teaching: We are all -- all humans! -- children of the Divine and therefore worthy of being treated with respect. This stands in direct opposition to the Calvinist legacy, claiming that some people are saved (worthy) and others damned (unworthy).

Sadly, Calvinism, not Universalism, is the prevailing theology of American society. Everywhere you turn you can hear people dividing the world into two classes: those like me, who are good, and everyone else. I once knew a man who believed, "There are two ways to do things: my way or the wrong way." It is hard to know how to be in the same room with such folk. It is even harder to live in a society where the habit is to play "I'm OK, You're Not!" games at every turn.

Most people have negative attitudes toward differences. Prejudice seems to come instinctively. Could it be, we are still very tribal creatures, easily frightened, thus threatened by difference? Although we are all pretty much the same, we make big deals of minor differences. For the most part, we still get along. It becomes a problem, though, when one group has or tries to have power over another and justifies that power in terms of differences. That is when bigotry turns to racism. It is said that slavery and its legacy is the great sin of American culture. These two news stories, as I say, are old news.

Most Unitarian Universalists are not glib; we do more than affirm, we seek to promote the worth and dignity of all. Many of our congregations are committed to being and becoming intentionally anti-racist and anti-oppressive. That's why our Standing on the Side of Love efforts are so appealing. Candidly though, we struggle to know just how to do that well. We have much to learn along the journey to spiritual, inter-personal and institutional wholeness.

One thing we have learned is that effective counters to racism require positive action. Writing off bigots as lost doesn't help (and contradicts our theology). Hence, more Unitarian Universalists have embarked on a deep exploration toward becoming multi-cultural. We need to learn how to deal positively with differences of attitude and values, of styles and manner to become interculturally competent. What is multi-culturalism?

"Multiculturalism means that we create religious homes where encounters between people of different cultural identities intersect with Unitarian Universalism to create a fully inclusive community where...all people are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled.” This definition comes from our UUA.

Embracing a multi-cultural ministry is the long-term corrective to racism: Together we can learn how to love the mosaic of diversity and to appreciate each other's life experiences and the unique gifts we each bring to the table. This is what we are called to do, to build the common good all the days of our lives. When we begin with self-awareness and self-examination, we nurture the beloved community. As we build the beloved community, we show our people how to engage difference free of prejudice. If we can be a highly functioning non-creedal faith community -- that humbly admits no one of us has all the truth and therefore we need to listen and learn from one another -- if we can do that, then we can also actively choose to learn from our various cultural identities and ways of being in the world. From there, we can then learn how to bear effective witness to our core values in our everyday actions in society at large.

Our UUA has wonderful resources to help. See: http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/index.shtml. The field staff are also ready to show the way. Please contact us directly if you are ready for this ministry.

May universal love prevail, every day in every way.

Blessings, Kenn

Monday, April 14, 2014

At the Core Is Love

by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Amid all the noise in our lives,
we take this moment to sit in silence—
to give thanks for another day;
to give thanks for all those in our lives
who have brought us warmth and love;
to give thanks for the gift of life.

It’s that time of year again! The flowers are coming out of their long slumber, the days are warming up a bit, the sun is sticking around longer in the afternoon... and one of the surest of signs to a Unitarian Universalist that it truly is spring - the annual canvass/pledge drive! This is the time of year, for many of our congregations at least, where we pledge financial support to our congregations, and they in turn pledge to our Association. I don’t need to go in to whys of the process, we all know why we need to pledge. Yes, the lights need to stay on, the mortgage needs to be paid, the Administrator, DRE and Minister need to be fairly compensated, but beyond that, our pledge is another aspect of our covenant to one another- we promise to help take care of our Faith in all aspects and to be good stewards of it for the next generation of Unitarian Universalists.

This is also the time for District Assemblies and Congregational Meetings. Time to vote on new officers, bylaw changes, new long range plans, for some it might be time to vote to call a new minister, but for all of us it should also be a time to remember why we come together “amid all the noise in our lives.” I mean, why do we give 2 hours or so most every, if not every week, to our chosen Faith? Why do we sit in committee meetings, board calls, canvass trainings and the like when our daily lives have become so hectic? Now in reality, some folks really do love meetings, the collaboration, the brainstorming, the governance, the challenge, and there are some that enjoy a good argument as well. Others are not so much like this, but they give freely and openly of their time, treasure and talents just the same. You all give of yourselves, you chair our RE committees, serve coffee on Sundays, edit newsletters, visit our members when they are unwell, and the list goes on and on. We need all of you and so many more to help move us towards the Beloved Community! But we still are left with the question of why we do it? Why do we come together as we do not have a guilt driven ‘do it or else,’ punishing type of Faith.

We know we are on our pilgrimage here but a brief moment in time.

I wonder, could it be as simple as Love? A little four letter word that I personally hold to be my only capitol ‘T’ Truth, could that be the unifying reason we gather? Our congregational and Associational polity declares we need not hold shared beliefs, but I would venture to say that this is something we all believe in. Not the pie in the sky,
Pollyanna type of “All you need is love” (sorry John, Paul, George and Ringo, I still love ya!) but one of the most basic elements necessary for a healthy human existence, the one thing everyone seeks and some are blessed to know, what I would say is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists.

So if Love is at the core of who we are, why we are, and what inspires us to gather, how do we enact that Love to reach out? Do we take it to the streets? Do we take it to our schools? Do we take it to our government? Do we take it to our prisons? Do we take it to every corner of the world and let everyone we come in contact with know that this is who we are and what we believe? YES! Yes, we do- we ARE the Love people remember?! Now, how do we give it away to every single soul in need, to every single person in pain, to every single human being paralyzed by anxiety? We do it together. One step at a time, one social justice outreach at a time, one food pantry at a time, one piece of legislation at a time, one humanitarian effort at a time.

Let us open ourselves, here, now,
to the process of becoming more whole—
of living more fully;
of giving and forgiving more freely;
of understanding more completely
the meaning of our lives here on this earth.

~Tim Haley, Worship Web UUA.org

To do this work will take the hands of many, and our continued gathering in and outside our congregations. Why the continued gathering of our congregations you ask? Because that is where we manifest and synthesize the Love to take to the world! That is where the never empty font of Love, Justice, Compassion, Equity and Interdependence lives, in our Unitarian Universalist communities! I invite you to summon Love in to your everyday life, in to your every action, in to your every word. I invite you all to be the change you wish to see starting now! I invite you all to gather in a spirit of “Love Reaches Out” and join your fellow Unitarian Universalists in our first ever simultaneous Southern Region wide District Assemblies starting April 25th. May you know Love, may you give Love, may you become Love.

Maggie Lovins

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Smart Church: All the Difference

By Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

I call that church free which enters into the covenant with the ultimate source of existence. It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.
- James Luther Adams

For a long time we thought that we should focus on how Unitarian Universalism was like other religions, what all religions had in common.  When we taught about our faith we looked for the likenesses we shared with other faith traditions.  For a long time people who came into Unitarian Universalism defined themselves by what they were not.  I am not a Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, or Baptist, or I am a recovering Catholic, etc.  For a long time we have been unable to teach Unitarian Universalism.  We suffered from the Buddhist idea that if you name something as big as God you diminish it.  So how could we say what Unitarian Universalism is without diminishing it?  And yet, how can we have deep discussions about our faith with one another, let alone with people of other faiths, if we cannot talk about what Unitarian Universalism is?

That is the struggle isn’t it?  What is Unitarian Universalism?  What is the truth, the wisdom and transcendent value at the center?  What makes it different?  What makes it great?  What makes it important?  What makes it worth your dedication?  What makes it worth sharing?  What is in Unitarian Universalism that we hang onto in times of joy and times of sorrow?

Ours is a living tradition. As a living tradition we are asked over and over again to reexaime our path, our faith, the truth, our assumptions and our work.  Do we love deeply enough?  Are we not merely tolerant but accepting?  Is our service to others or for our own glory?  Who cannot hear us because of the way we speak?  What is the next challenge, mine, yours, ours?  Are we supportive and not enabling?  Are we kind, trusting, forgiving, humble?  I know that can be exhausting because there is so much change.  I know there are times when we are tempted to look for what is sure, what is solid and never changing.  But - life is change, how it differs from the rocks. - Jefferson Airplane.  Because ours is a living tradition we must hit the refresh button often.

Ours is a pluralistic faith.  We do not believe there is only one way or one path to truth and goodness.  Rather all paths that lead to a loving heart are good paths.  There is no fundamentalism in Unitarian Universalism.  There is not one right way.  We covenant to walk  in the ways of love.  We covenant to uphold our values and support one another in the struggle.  We covenant to build the world we dream about.  We covenant to accept different ideas and theologies and to allow room for doubt.

In our living tradition there is no orthodoxy.  Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal not a creedal faith.  Therefore, there is no demand for people to adhere to one way of relating to the holy, the divine, or the wonder of creation.  Unitarian Universalism does not insist that to be a part of the faith all must be bound together by belief.  Rather we are bound by our deep and abiding promise to support one another and care for the world.  We are bound by love to serve.

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that teaches that revelation is open and ongoing  We do not believe that revelation is sealed.  We believe that each of us has a relationship with the divine and anyone can be touched by divine thought and inspiration.  We believe that all are worthy and all are saved.  We believe that life is sacred - all life.  We are not waiting to be saved.  We think that what we have here and now is important and that how we live together on this lovely little planet matters.  Everything is holy.

These four pillars of Unitarian Universalism (living, pluralistic, covenantal faith - that teaches revelation as open and continuous) speak to the difference between our faith tradition and some others.  While we have much in common with what is at the heart of all great religions (love), we differ with each on at least one of these Unitarian Universalist ways of manifesting love in the here and now.  Our good news of hope and love is worth sharing.  Our way of living out that hope and love is also worth sharing.  It needs to be given away with open and generous hearts. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring Cleaning!

By Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Staff for the Southern Region

Even though snow still blankets some areas of the United States, Spring is just around the corner! The Spring Equinox is on March 20th this year, which means warmer weather, singing birds, and beauty blooming all around us. We've already set our clocks forward, and the days will continue to get longer and longer as another sultry southern summer begins to wind its way into our lives. Spring is a wonderful time full of energy and new beginnings. Many of us choose to take advantage of this energy to do a little spring cleaning; it's time to wipe the dust off the furniture, shake out the linens, and let the sunshine in!

As I'm knee-deep in clothing for our annual give-away spree that our family does every spring, after a full day of digging in the closet (an aerobic activity on par with a triathlon, if you ask me), I started thinking about some of the ways in which congregations may want to go on a spring cleaning spree. In our home, we get rid of clothes that no longer fit or are no longer wearable, food that has expired in the pantry, and general clutter around the house. What are some things congregations might want to get rid of during Spring Cleaning? There are hundreds more that I can list in one article, but here are some ideas:

  • A mission that is uninspiring, inaccurate, or old. The mission statement of a congregation tells everyone who sees it just how that particular congregation has chosen to incarnate Unitarian Universalism on earth. The congregation is the means, not the end, so your mission must be inspiring as well as informative. Why are you here? What do you intend to do? How are you making the world a better place? If your mission statement doesn't answer those questions – in the span of one simple statement rather than a paragraph – then it might be time to throw it out.
  •  A vision that is too small, old, or doesn't lead you to where you want to go. If a mission is what you feel called to do, then a vision is what you feel called to be. How does the congregation see its future? Where will it be in 50, 60, 75 years? A vision should be grand and bold and big enough to include people projects you can't even imagine yet. It should be exciting and worth working toward. A congregation should be willing and able to update their vision at least every 3 to 5 years, with input from new members who have come to your congregation during that time. If you have a vision that isn't bold, big, and broad, it may be time to throw it out.
  • An old Covenant that isn't practiced in your congregation. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, not a creedal Faith. The covenants of our congregations should be rooted deeply in our shared core values, and we should know what it looks like when we make them, break them, and reaffirm them. Inviting newcomers into our covenant is how we extend our hand of fellowship to them, and knowing and living our covenants is how we practice our shared Faith. If you have a covenant that is old, dusty, ignored, out of sight, or obsolete, you may want to throw it out and make new promises to each other.
  • Processes that no longer serve the congregation. Has your congregation outgrown your committee structure, governance style, or communication processes? For example, a growing congregation can benefit from formalizing processes such as their path to membership and path to leadership or elderhood, which can clarify the ways in which new members can deepen their relationship with Unitarian Universalism and become integrated members of the congregation who feel their gifts and talents are appreciated, useful, and contributing to the fulfillment of the mission. In contrast, a congregation that has grown or has not evaluated its structure and process in a long while can enter what is called “maintenance mode,” where the focus is not on what the congregation can do together, but rather how it can survive through the next month. If you are experiencing burn out, problems recruiting volunteers, stagnant membership, a lack of enthusiasm, or the feeling that it takes quite a bit of work and time to get even the simplest ask done or the easiest decision made, it might be time to throw your old processes out!
  • Along with old processes, how about Old Technologies? Are you still using a membership database from 1994? Do you still have yahoo email groups for your congregation? Do you still print and mail your newsletters? Throw it all out! The internet, social media, and new database systems have infinitely streamlined our churches. We no longer need to waste our time with these outdated technologies. When we throw them out, we can get onto the more important business of saving the world.
  • Silence around financial issues. Does your congregation have anxiety when it comes to speaking about money? Is it considered impolite or uncouth to ask for pledges? Does your congregation conveniently leave the stewardship topic out of the conversation on membership? It's time to throw out the silence and start having honest conversations about what we can realistically do to financially support Unitarian Universalism in our communities. There are no tips or tricks; we just have to do it!
  • And finally, what about all that clutter? Clean out that office, those file cabinets, that RE wing full of dry markers and empty glue bottles! Let's make room for the sunshine, for the future, and for our good news to spread far and wide!

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Meaningful and Missional Life

by the Rev. Susan M. Smith

As I write, I’m preparing to fly to Tulsa for the second Life on Fire conference about “missional” ministry and sharing in the work of Rev. Ron Robinson at The Welcome Table. Last month, the North Texas UU Congregations had Rev. Nathan Hollister challenge that cluster to envision creating “missional” outreach such as his own ministry Mutual Aid - Carrboro (Unitarian Universalist), NC. What is “missional?” A group of people fully awake and making a real life and death difference in the world.

Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Revs. Daniel Kanter and Aaron White of First Unitarian Church of Dallas and hear some big “missional” dreams which could be supported by any cluster or congregation. What if some UU with a large and largely empty home invited a few people into covenantal community with her, and they all embarked on a life of ministry? What if those folks declared that in the six blocks surrounding that house, no child will be without a place to get a snack and help with homework after school, no elderly person or person living alone will go unnoticed, no trash will blow in the street, no neighbor will lack help to meet the emergencies of life and neighbors would have a place to gather in conversation and celebration? Now, what if a cluster of congregations could start one, six or a dozen such projects? Or what if your congregation itself was that place?

We often use the book More Than Numbers: The Way That Churches Grow by Loren B. Mead in our regional leadership experiences and presidents’ convocation. To be “missional” as that term is used today is part of what Rev. Mead calls incarnational growth – how are our congregation’s values are making a difference in the world.  What our neighbors can tell about us by reading the messages we post and observing our actions and interactions.

Many Unitarian Universalists are yearning for a life of more meaning and impact. They want to advance our values and make a difference. They want to live more deeply in our faith with others who are trying to understand and advance the religious legacy that we are carrying forward. The words we church folks use for this now are “discipleship” and “neo-monasticism.” When we talk about “elderhood” in our modern movement these are the callings and gifts that we mean to honor and support.

But here’s the tricky part, the “higher” you go in the pursuit of religious calling, the lower you get in the eyes of the world. It’s the paradox of servant ministry. Ministry is plumbing some days. It is picking up trash over and over again. It is dealing with people who are hard to love and turning once more the other cheek.  It is one more opening the building and turning on the heat and lights. The difference between ministry and drudgery some days is what you believe you are doing and why. Do not waste a minute grousing about what was or what is. This is the time for action and what we as individuals living in interdependent covenantal community can become. You (Yes! You!) are the light of the world.