Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Change — Ambivalence and Commitment

By Rev. Kenneth Gordon Hurto

Imagine a world where nothing ever changed. Can you think of a better definition of hell?

Imagine a world where change is constant. That should be easy; that’s our world. Long ago, Zeno quipped you cannot step into the same river twice. The Buddha spoke of the impermanence of all things. Singer Carole King wondered if anyone stayed in one place any more. R.E.M. proclaims apocalyptically, it is the end of the world as we know it.

Ok, I’ll grant the premise. Change is a given; cope! But now and then, keeping up with all the change leaves me longing for some stability. Sometimes change itself feels hellish.

In a recent conversation with a congregational leader, we discussed all the huge structural changes affecting ministry today. “It’s all too much,” she sighed.

Here’s just a few changes: The undeniable decline in church participation rates across all faith communions — with men withdrawing even more so. The fastest growing “religious” group is called “The Nones” by the researchers. Church is becoming an also-ran among the competition for people’s time and devotion. 

Some truly wonder: Does anyone have interest in what we have to offer?

Well, yes. There is a great spiritual hunger across the land. People seek to understand the huge cultural shifts and the increasing polarization of our politics, the coarsening of entertainment, and the ugly resurgence of racism, replete with its violence and dehumanization. There is ministry here — a place for a safe, inclusive, respectful community conversation, learning, and service. There is a ministry for these days: to bring more hope, more joy, more love, more courage, and more truth to the world. The the way we do church, however, has not changed enough to address today’s questions. 

Nimbleness, resilience, flexibility are all required for success in all walks of life today — not just the church.

While feeling overwhelmed by the many changes taking place within our UUA and its structures, this leader did say:  “Did you have to do it all at once?” Well, maybe yes, maybe not.

The UUA Board has been reduced to a more manageable team of nine. Next year’s contest will be the first in we elect our President from two nominees recommended by a search committee.

Closer to home, we’ve reorganized our Southern field staff consultants into a team of ten serving the entire Region of twelve states and working closely with an appointed Advisory Council and the UUA Director of Congregational Life — rather than four separate governing Boards. Just two months ago, delegates to our four Assemblies voted to turn all governance of the Districts to the UUA Board and to have the UUA serve as a “home office” for the field service staff team. 

Added to that was GIFT — a new single Ask for the UUA Annual Program Fund and financial underwriting for the Districts’ program. As UUA President Morales noted, we thought it a simple change, but it is … well, complicated.

Each, by itself, is an understandable, even compelling change. But it has generated anxiety and confusion. It has all come at once, making it hard just keep track of it all. Living in the middle of it, I confess that I too wonder if we know who’s on first, so to speak.

Well, like it or not. Change is the constant. The good news is that we are stretching to think of new ways to share our good news to the world. This, at least, constant: Love and justice are the ministries of people, by people, for people (and our earth), covenanted to be stronger together than apart.

Summer’s here. I urge us all to pause for a bit. Take stock of how far we have come before we move headlong into the next moment. Keep the faith, we will live our way into a better day. Breathe!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Seeds of Change

Okay, I admit I don’t know a whole lot about gardening! While the women of my family seem to be able to grow an entire tree from a single leaf, my paternal grandfather was a farmer, and my great uncles still farm and raise cattle, those green thumbs did not land on either of my hands. I do get inspired about once a year, make my yard look beautiful, then step back and say to myself, "Uh! Now I have to weed these things too?!" Three weeks later, I am looking for a neighborhood youth who would like to make a few bucks pulling weeds. The best of intentions, right? I am a believer that it takes many hands to do the tending of our gardens, both metaphorically and literally.

What I am good at, though, is a different kind of gardening; the kind that starts with sowing the tiniest of seeds of Love, Hope, Justice, Courage, and Joy. They go with me everywhere. If you have been to one of our Southern Region Leadership Experiences (for which we are currently accepting nominations: http://www.uuasouthernregion.org/suuledble.html), you might be familiar with these as our Five Smooth Stones. 

Many years ago, while in deep discernment about my ministry’s path, I was asked something akin to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I replied, “I want to be Johnny Appleseed!” 

Now, the legend of Johnny Appleseed and the real life of John Chapman are quite different, so I will stick to the Disney version of the legend, as it tells more about faith and the love of service. Yes, this is a very dated cartoon and it shows attitudes we Unitarian Universalists actively work against. It does also seems to favor Manifest Destiny and this is NOT a value I, or our Faith, can support! This legend is in contrast to the actual life of John Chapman, who planted seeds on indigenous soil which did not belong to him for land grab purposes, or the actual use of the apples mostly being for alcohol production. Though on the flip side, he was a man of strong faith, a dedicated vegetarian who believed in animal rights and wished no harm on any of god’s creatures to the point of not grafting trees in case they could feel pain. If you'd like to refresh your memory of the 1948 Disney version, take a trip in the way back machine by clicking here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xi99je_johnny-appleseed-1948_shortfilms

That might sound like I gave a flippant response I gave, but it was deeply felt in my heart, it was true to my nature and a model I thought to be easy and hard simultaneously, kind of like Zen. I say easy because giving away seeds of love and joy feels good and is usually welcomed all along my travels to the congregations of the Southern Region. Spreading seeds of hope gets a bit more difficult as looking around our states, country, and, indeed, the world, it seems like hope is a fool's errand on some days. Even our congregations can become hopeless with the economic disparities, justice inequities, political posturing, etc. We step into deeper territory with seeds that can be challenging to sow, especially if there is an absence of hope. The seeds named courage and justice go together as they are partners; courage is always needed to help create the justice that is so desperately needed in our times. I said it was hard because even on the days I feel a lack of those inspirational and foundational values, I still have to muster the ability to spread those seeds far and wide. It is, after all, Johnny Appleseed’s job! All of these metaphoric seeds I carry in an eco-friendly, repurposed burlap pouch I call Faith, which helps immensely to sustain me on those low energy days!

I share these seedling thoughts with you today as I see the Southern Region, and, indeed, our Faith as a whole, moving into unknown territory, not unlike Johnny and his satchel of seeds did back in the early 1800’s. As the cartoon angel reminded us, “There’s a lot of work to do!” Though the forest may be ‘dark and wide’ with ‘wild critters’ on every side, we must continue on in to the places we are needed. Some of the people we will encounter on this journey won't know what to think of us, as the forest critters didn’t know what to think of Johnny. We will encounter obstacles and some not so friendly folks, like the cartoon bear, and it will be our jobs to ‘pay them no heed’ as we set about our work to spread the seeds of a more just and equitable world.  Perhaps the fruit of our labors will bring all kinds of folks together and make them good neighbors as the cartoon theorized. It will take many hands to do this work of unearthing and discovering our gardens. Spreading hope and spiritual nourishment is tiring work, and I am grateful to have partners such as you, your congregation, your cluster, our Region, and our entire Association. 

So maybe we will all meet someday, seed satchel across our shoulders, cooking pots on our heads, spreading the values of Love, Hope, Justice, Courage and Joy in a place called the Beloved Community, but first we must build a new way to that land. I invite all of you who will be attending our GA in Portland this month to stop by the Congregational Life booth, say “Hi” to your Primary Contact along with the whole Southern Region team, and collect some tangible seeds to go with our metaphoric ones! Let us sow our seeds of change far and wide, and let us do this thing together - starting now.

With a grateful heart and busy hands,

Maggie Lovins