Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Showing Up is Way More than Half the Battle

by the Rev. Susan M. Smith
In one of those Unitarian Universalist joke books I’m quoted as saying, “I live in a town with only one Unitarian Universalist church. Everyone I’ve ever hated has come here and forced me to reflect on their inherent worth and dignity.”  It’s all too true. All Souls here in Shreveport, LA was where I found Unitarian Universalism about 30 years ago. When I sing in the choir on Sunday, I’m standing where Robert and I were married, where I was ordained, and where I performed the wedding of our eldest daughter. Before I went off to seminary, I started my training here as youth leader and newsletter editor and church administrator. For all that I visit dozens of congregations and other Unitarian Universalist gatherings each year, it is in the church where I am a member, attend services and make my annual pledge that the heavy lifting in my spiritual life gets done.
Our Unitarian Univeralist faith is not something that you can think your way through. It’s not something private to your own soul and your own heart. Rather it is about how people who differ about the nature of reality itself come together to form the just and loving community. It is practiced day to day by living in idealistic covenants, screwing up royally and getting ourselves back in right relations. Rinse and repeat. World without end.
In my work with leaders I often find that those who are giving the most of their time and treasure in service to Unitarian Universalism have become disconnected from day to day congregational participation. The president who does not have time for retreat or small group ministry, the search committee member who stops attending worship, the district board member who is seldom seen at that home congregation are all familiar figures to me.
“To keep a lamp burning,” Mother Teresa said, “we have to keep putting oil in it.” So that is the first reason that I encourage everyone to maintain their congregational ties. Lest we do our work begrudgingly, we must be feeding that chalice that burns in our hearts. Yes, I know that many a Sunday morning dawns when it seems like the “oil” is to be found in sleeping in and skipping services, and I like to sleep more than most people. But there is nothing like gathering on Sunday morning with differently-minded people who I appreciate anyway. Nowhere else will they be singing “Go now in peace…” or declaring together “Love is the doctrine…” or enjoying the beauty of this particular holy ground or the warmth of this community.
According to something called “The Oscillation Theory” of religious life which was developed by Bruce Reed of the Grubb Institute, the wellbeing of society itself is dependent on most of us gathering together in our respective houses of worship on a regular basis. It keeps us sane in a profound way. The theory says that we go about our weeks in an intra-dependent state. We are self-sustaining, interacting with others, expending injury and fulfilling our responsibilities in life. Along the way we come up against a world that stresses us, presents values that are quite different than ours and pummels us with doubts, micro-aggressions and criticisms.
During worship, we have the opportunity to enter an extra-dependent state of rest and renewal. We literally lay our burdens down if we are willing. Our deeply held values are honored and our souls are reconstructed and strengthened. We are repaired and sent back into our lives with confidence and new energy. The oscillation between standing on our own two feet and resting in the care of our community and our higher power is necessary for mental health and societal health.

The second reason that I encourage everyone to find their “church home” and stick to it no matter what happens or who shows up is that it is easy to love people in theory and harder to do it in practice. Our Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities provide us with innumerable opportunities to hold our tongues, to support our elected leaders, to give generously, to forgive and actually forget, to sing someone else’s favorite hymn and to consider the greater good. That is the heavy lifting of our faith, to be with people as they really are and to reflect on their inherent worth and dignity anyway.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Love and Relationship

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith

I was very grateful to be among those participating in the Living Legacy Project's conference in Birmingham last month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, which were so significant in the struggle to secure voting rights for all Americans. Each of the speakers at the conference added something to the conversation that left me moved and inspired. 

There were two ideas that resonated with me most, which I believe have particular relevance to our work in the Southern Region of our UUA. One was the primacy of relationships in the struggle for civil rights. As Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed emphasized in his keynote presentation, the people who responded to Dr. King's call to come to Selma were not simply compelled by the horrific televised reports of black people being beaten back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The deeper truth was that there was a network of well-established relationships and friendships that led people take to time out of their already-full lives to march for justice and peace.

The other idea that remains with me is the importance of love as a source of power. Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian reminded the 450 of us gathered for the conference that loving people as they work together toward justice was critical to being able to sustain a movement over time. 

I had the opportunity to talk with some young activists who are doing some very visible and meaningful work to protest the killings of African Americans by officers of the law and vigilantes. A recurring theme I heard from them had to do with burnout -- the sense that they were working so hard for change and with such commitment to keep the focus on the issue that they were spiritually depleted. I wondered with them about the place of love in the midst of their efforts. How were they sustaining themselves and each other? Is there a role for allies and comrades from older generations to play in helping them stay healthy and whole? The quest for justice is a never-ending one, so our approach needs to be one that safeguards the well-being of each of us on that journey as much as we can. The experience of love has a lot to do with well-being.

The relationships I've developed over many years within Unitarian Universalism are what have kept me grounded in our liberal religious tradition and in our work for justice. Within it, there are people whom I love dearly and who love me that I can call upon in times of need, and who have also reached out to me when they needed support. 

A few years back when General Assembly delegates voted to go to Phoenix for GA 2012 rather than to boycott the state of Arizona, my friend Gini Courter, then the Association's Moderator, challenged all of us to make 'Justice GA' the most well attended GA ever. I took my friend's challenge to heart, and that opened a world of possibilities in my life and in the congregation I was serving at the time. Many of us had that background of relationship that made our witness in Arizona powerful. Because of it, we were willing to try new things and draw attention to the hardships of immigrants and immigrant families. 

This month, we have the opportunity to let the power of love and our trusting relationships guide the way. As we come together for our Annual Assemblies, we will take the next step to renew our governance, by voting on whether to dissolve our District governance structures under the larger umbrella of our UUA. The intention is to provide for more effectiveness and impact in the sharing of our Unitarian Universalist values. As with the civil rights pioneers of generations past, there may be differing strategies as we look to our ultimate goal. However the vote goes, I am confident that the love that moves among us and the strength of the bonds between us will continue to make a difference in the world.

In faith,