Defending the Faith (or at least trying to explain it a bit)

It’s not simple to explain Unitarian Universalism. When explaining it to the theist, the clearest route to reaching understanding is to relate it to the listener’s spiritual traditions and emphasize our historical routes. We gather (often) on Sunday mornings to share our joys and sorrows, listen to stories and sermons, sing songs that unite us, and enjoy coffee and conversation. Similarity to other traditional church structures established, one can move to a brief history of UUism and through in a few principles. Followers of liberal religious traditions will generally be satisfied. Conservatives may be raising their eyebrows, sensing the presence of trouble, but at least the presentation of UUism in the context of traditional religion offers something familiar.

It’s harder to sell the agnostic or atheist. Especially the life-long type, who has no yearning for a community of similarly minded people who gather Sunday morning to sing, share, and learn something new. In fact, presenting Unitarian Universalism to the devout nontheist is decidedly dicey despite the relatively large number of non-theists in the pews of UU churches on Sunday morning. Obviously they come from somewhere, seeking something not found at home with a cup of coffee with the Sunday New York Times.

I’ve recently befriended one of these devout non-theists who spend their Sunday mornings at home, and I’ve been asked a rather challenging set of questions that often render me temporarily speechless. That’s hard to do. Here are a few of the questions I’ve received, along with somewhat cleaned-up versions of the fumbling responses I’ve given:

Why would you want to go to church on Sunday morning if you don’t believe in a deity?

Good question. The answers are many: joining with community of like-minded people, participating intelligent discourse, and confirming that I’m not alone in being a liberal thinker who feels deeply that we are here to love and respect the paths of all with whom we share the planet. I go because there I feel at home. Not jammies-and-the-NYT at home, but my church is a place I feel warmly welcome and utterly accepted.

Well, couldn’t you do that other ways, ways that aren’t “church”? Like gathering with like-minded friends while having a beer?

Yes, that does sound quite fine, but it’s not enough for me. I enjoy the bits of ritual we have at church — singing hymns, lighting the chalice, sharing joys and sorrows, and just listening to the same message with people. (By the way, this is NOT sensical to many a nontheist, who will quickly point out that this is sounding very much like a theist church. For me, however, it’s integral to my search and then settling in a UU church.)

What we do as a church is more than what I could do on my own, or at least more than I’m likely to do on my own. At my UU church, my children receive instruction in the religions of the world, are challenged to define their own beliefs, consider ethics and morality in the light of respecting the worth and dignity of all, and enjoy the company of other liberal thinking children and their families. I have the chance to work within an organization that I think could make a positive difference in the world, both in word and deed. Could all that happen at home? Sure, but I’m just not that motivated.

Hymns?! A chalice?! Wait a minute, aren’t hymns religious songs? And what about that chalice?

Some of our hymns are older Unitarian, Quaker, or other liberal Christian hymns, which reflects our roots. Others remind us of our other sources of wisdom, such as humanism, other world religions, and even the reasoning mind. Yes, some mention God. And, yes, some people edit that word out mid-song. That, along with so much of Unitarian Universalism, is a personal choice.

The chalice has its roots in World War II, starting as a symbol of those willing to help and sacrifice (see UUA: The Flaming Chalice for more information). What started as a seal for papers for the USC (Unitarian Service Committee) became a the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. The lighting of the chalice signifies the start of our time together whether in a service, meeting, or other gathering.

Religions hold a particular set of beliefs, welcoming those in agreements. How can you claim to be welcoming to all AND be a religion?

(This one gave me serious pause.)Whether Unitarian Universalism is a religion, faith, spiritual path, or a philosophical way of life is debatable. It is neither credal nor doctrinal, and what even binds us together as UUs is a serious question. The UUA sites seven principles, but these provide neither creed nor doctrine and could easily apply to any person living an ethical life, theist or not, religious or not. We say we welcome all. We are also made up of fallible and opinionated humans, and therefore we fail to walk the talk at times. No, there is no hierarchy to UUism, although many congregations are voluntary members of the non-authoritarian but often handy Unitarian Universalist Association. There simply isn’t a single set of rules. And, yes, this causes trouble defining our identity, growing our membership, and explaining what Unitarian Universalism means to those who ask.

I’m sure I’ve missed some questions that have arisen during this on-and-off dialogue between quizzical stay-at-home agnostic and Sunday-morning-church agnostic. I’m equally sure there are more questions to come and that they’ll cause me a moderate amount of psychic discomfort and require serious contemplation. That’s okay, since we are the church/association/religion/faith/philosophy where “answers are questioned.” Yes, I’m more comfortable when I’m on the questioning end, but answering these common questions demands a rigorous look at what we’ve accepted previously. Defending a faith (or whatever) as nebulous and diverse as Unitarian Universalism leads to careful consideration and not a small amount of introspection and critical thought.

This ongoing process has left me wondering what brings some nontheists to our doors while so many see no need for that community. I’ll admit I wonder myself at times, a fact I’ll freely share. In our busy lives, Sunday morning can seem like just one thing to do. But somehow, I keep finding the time, so there must be something there. So I’m welcoming the questions and continuing the conversation regardless of my own consternation and occasional quiet. It keeps me thinking, a desirable state of being, and encourages me to consider again what I’ve embraced these past several years.

Notes from a Once Catholic

I’ve written about having been Catholic. I’ve written a touch about being Methodist and Episcopal and much more about being UU. I’ve written about agnosticism and atheism as well, in both broad strokes and brief bites. What I’ve not said much about is the leaving of the faith that was with me in some form from ages 5 to 35. And I’ve said little with what I retain from that faith that filled almost three-quarters of my life.

It’s not an angry tale. It’s not filled with pain, shame, or fear. I was brought up in what I’d maintain is the best sort of Catholicism at one of the best possible times for a faith with a checkered history. From the mid-seventies through the mid-nineties, my Catholic base was at the University of Detroit. Until my undergraduate and graduate days, noon mass in the St. Ignatius Chapel — located in the Commerce and Finance building — provided my spiritual sustenance. Once ensconced as a student at U of D, I moved to the nighttime student mass. Aside from the latter having a bigger crowd with younger people, there was little different about the experiences. Both services were led by the same Jesuits, men of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola almost 500 years ago. Both boasted  guitar-based music that was singable and relatable.

And, notably, neither were representative of what Catholicism would look like in the suburban parishes my then-husband and I would sample.

We tried. We tried half a dozen parishes over the next ten years, looking for a place that resonated. Since I was the family Catholic, I suppose much of that resonance centered around me, but we left each place in agreement — it just wasn’t working. I don’t imagine it helped that during that same decade, the Catholic church was swinging towards conservatism, perhaps the inevitable backlash against the liberal shift a few decades before. But not having lived the history of a more conservative Catholicism, I’d naively assumed that the accepting, loving place of social justice and radical inclusivity was a mature church — one that would never, in my mind, move backwards.

We baptized two children in two different parishes that felt entirely alike. There was a homogeneity to the Catholic experience of these decades. Families — mostly Caucasian — filled the pews, those with children in any associated Catholic school seemed to belong a bit more than those of us that didn’t. Laity seemed to play little role in the everyday workings of the church and almost none in the Mass. Gone was a message of social justice and inclusivity. Gone were women in the pulpit. And gone was a sense of belonging.

And so it went. Gradually, attending Mass became more habit than heart. I was growing uncomfortable with the Catholic Church as a whole and with the response of our parish and the larger Church to the ever-increasing number of cases of sexual predation within the Church. While that was not why I eventually left, the lack of seriousness which that continuing scandal received left me wondering why I was there. We could have just stopped going, drifting away, and had not one sermon on one Sunday been given, that’s likely what would have happened.

The priest was not our usual priest but rather an occasional giver of sacraments and sermons. He began urging us to think of the wonderful people we knew. The people who gave willingly of their time and talents to friends, family and the world. The people who focused love on their families and lived with integrity and love. All that was fine. And then: “If only they were Catholic.”

That was the end. We never returned. None of our parents were Catholic, at least at that point. Certainly they were fine people, devoted to their families, some within other faith traditions and some without any at all. Our friends certainly weren’t all Catholic. And as far as I could see, it didn’t matter. And why should it? Why should having selected (or having been born into) a particular faith tradition make you better than those from another tradition? The sermon wasn’t why we left the institution, but it was the gust that took me out of an institution that, for a decade, had increasingly been a poor fit for me.

It was more than intolerance of difference that was nagging at me. It was more than the minimally acknowledged pedophilia. It was more than the disappointment that the rest of the Catholic church was not what I’d thought of as Catholic — liberal, loving, accepting, and working towards greater inclusivity of women. All that was bothering me, but I was also tugged by the nagging doubt that all the rules and rituals that had attracted me at thirteen were not going to bring me any closer to meaning and truth. Not that they’d been completely meaningless all those years. Comfort came from those, and the sameness of the rites was an anchor when everything else around me moved.

So I left.  I moved to a less-restrictive faith, where I spent a few years allowing myself to sort through questions about prayer and about the nature of God. And I came out quite whole and quite agnostic. But decades of Catholicism left their mark, with the liberal leanings of the Jesuit Catholicism of my youth leading me towards what is inclusive, loving, and open to growth. It is what was planted in my youth, starting at five or six, that led me to the Unitarian Universalist church I cherish today. It is what showed me a faith community could be, illustrating the support, compassion, and quest for meaning and knowledge a spiritual home could provide. Without that upbringing, I’m not sure I’d have bothered to search for church after leaving theist traditions. I’d likely have been happy to stay home in my jammies with a paper and coffee.

I know many previous Catholic who looks back with mostly anger at the church of their youth. Some have been hurt by the church they encountered; others, excluded; still others, just disenchanted. Many remain angry, even years later. While I don’t understand the Catholicism I saw as an adult nor the conservative, myopic, male-centered view from the Vatican that is seeming to wrap itself tightly around the Church of today, I don’t revile it either. Where we’ve been informs where we are, and the person I am today — some of the best parts of who I am today — was forged in the Catholic Church.

You Don’t Get It

You don’t get it.

These four words make me cringe. They’re rife with intolerance and condescension. I’ve read them several times this week, sometimes aimed at me and sometimes at other groups. I’ve heard them in religious circles, including UU groups. Those four words have left my mouth as well, never with favorable results.

You don’t get it.

After a rather (surprisingly, to me) controversial post on my homeschooling blog, Quarks and Quirks, I received these words in my inbox. They were written by well-meaning mothers who carry somewhat different beliefs about parenting than I. They seemed to be written to shock me into understanding how fundamentally flawed my reasoning was. I could see the sad, disapproving look and slow shake of the head that accompanied the authors of the words. One writer added she was sorry I missed the bus, since not getting it didn’t seem to elicit enough contrition in me. I told her I’m enjoying my walk.

They don’t get it.

This week, I stumbled over that phrase while perusing some blogs and online articles.   I regularly take time to read what “the other side” is saying to their inner circles, with the intent to better understand their point of view. This can be a frustrating process, leading to frequent despair.  I try to keep an objective eye, looking for they “why” behind the opposing point of view. But that distance is hard to maintain when I trip over that phrase: They don’t get it. In both cases, the phrase was aimed at those for free choice, specifically at Catholics for Choice. Catholics for Choice a group of Catholics who believe issues of conscience (contraception, abortion, reproductive technology, etc) are just that — issues of conscience that are not to be dictated by hierarchy of the church. “They don’t get it” was written by pro-life Catholics, over and over, sometimes with the sad shake of the head tone and other times with scorn. I sadly shook my own head, befuddled that any group would use that belittling phrase to convert the opposition, especially when the opposition shares the same faith.

They don’t get it.

I’ve heard and read the phrase within Unitarian Universalist circles as well. We’re a varied group, welcoming all, so we say.  Given that commitment to radical inclusivity, I’m always surprised to find that rather condescending statement come forth. I’ve seen these words written and heard them said in print, in conversations, and from the pulpit. They’re object is varied, generally pointing out to other groups but occasionally aimed at others within our tiny movement who believe differently about God or the way things work. The former is condescending. The latter is divisive in an already-small group of people working to forward an agenda of love and tolerance. We can’t afford that, folks.

You don’t get it.

I’ve shouted that statement to my loved ones. It’s trite but true that too often those we hold closest see the worst of us. I’ve help up my hands in frustration as those words rolled off my lips to one of my unsuspecting children. I’ve watched their faces fall, full of confusion about what the “it” is while stinging from words I’d never throw at a stranger in the street. These have been moments about which I am not proud. They’ve occurred when I’ve felt panic about some issue that did not deserve panic and frantic that my point needed to be understood NOW. I’ve let out an unholy, “You don’t get it!” at the children I love beyond all reason. I leveled it at my ex-husband (and he to me) too many times, and while I generally feel less remorse at that, I don’t doubt that the attitude that accompanies those words was some part of our undoing.

You don’t get it.

Whether written in an online rant or spoken aloud to another passenger on our planet, this phrase creates a hierarchical relationship where there shouldn’t be one or expands the gaps that naturally are between us. Between people in a friendship or partnership or even between debaters over a hot topic, “You don’t get it,” assumes that the speaker is privy to superior truths the listener or reader does not hold. The statement assumes a universal “it”. Add to that an innate desire to be understood by others, and it’s no wonder those words come out in times of stress and conflict. Perhaps what would be more true would be to say, “You don’t get me,” but that’s just too painful often to say. We want to be gotten, to be understood. And we’re often lousy accepting when what we understand to be true isn’t what another holds as true.

They don’t get it.

While the statement in the singular is a skewer designed to single out an individual, in the plural it’s a blunt tool designed to unite those who are already united and deepen the divide between “us” and “them”. Its hierarchical nature occurs on a larger scale, creating levels of understanding of the world (ours being better than theirs) rather than just circles of understanding coexisting side by side. When plural, this statement is almost never seeking greater understanding by the “they” but rather bemoaning just how dumb/incompetent/misguided/lost “they” are. There are no hearts, minds, souls, or votes won with those four words.

Here’s how I see it.

It’s time for a change in language. If you want to be understood by those around you, if you want your (limited, subjective) point of view out for others to consider (and accept or reject), face a few facts and change your language. My “it” and your “it” aren’t universal. My version of “it” is just that –my version. If my “it” is my theology or philosophy, that doesn’t make “it” any more irrefutable or holy to anyone other than me. “It” is most often is subjective and often bound by time, location, and the ever-changeable mind. Rarely is the “it” in “You don’t get it,” an irrefutable fact (as in “You don’t get it! Your shirt is on fire! Act now or die!”). It’s almost always subjective in nature. Changing language when communication would help. Use those ever-helpful “I” statements. “I feel/think/believe…” put the focus on the subjectivity of the “it”, which is appropriate. It decreases the pulling of rank that happens with “They/you don’t get it.” Owning beliefs is fine. Foisting your beliefs on another isn’t.

And that’s how I see it. 

Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs

Principles under construction — somehow it seems fitting.

I’ve sat in the pew of a Unitarian Universalist for nearly five years. I’ve been a member of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington for about the same amount of time. I can’t recall a point in those years where growth hasn’t been part of the conversation at that church. Even before I took a seat at the Program Council table (a group of committee chairs meeting monthly to accomplish tasks requiring cooperation), I was well aware that promoting growth of the church while retaining members was considered a top priority. I’m just as aware that we’re not managing to meet that growth goal, a quandary which we share with other congregations and the faith as a whole.

So when released the news that Unitarian Universalist membership dropped to 161,502 from the previous year, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve largely lurked on a Facebook page dedicated to discussing growth strategies, lurking because after only five years in this faith tradition, I don’t know what to add. I read the ideas others post, follow links about the general decline of adherents to liberal religion, and wonder about what it means to try to grow a religion.

I’d love to see Unitarian Universalism grow. I have absolutely no idea how to do that. In theory, a creedless religion open to those on any path up the mountain should pull from a large swath of humanity. We are the “come as you are” denomination, theoretically welcoming the marginalized, the uncertain, and certainly not conservative religious. I’ve already mused that we may not be as welcoming as we say we are, with theists taking a hit in some congregations while, if the comments to my blog posts are any indication, atheists feeling squeezed out by other congregations. But on paper, we should draw a large group.  But we don’t, not as an individual congregation and not as a faith tradition.

What gives? I’ve joked that we lack the threat of hell. Without eternal damnation or heavenly reward, Unitarian Universalists lack the stick and carrot that accompanies much of our competition. Okay, so religious conservatives aren’t the most likely bunch to show up on a Sunday morning, where the sermon may revolve around marriage equity, interfaith work, or illegal immigrant rights. That saddens me as a citizen of this planet, but it’s not exactly surprising that we’re not drawing that crowd. The liberal adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the like are often discussing the same issues from their pews, pews filled with people who hold to more common theological ground than that found in any UU gathering.

But what about the fifteen percent of Americans who identify themselves as nonreligious? Half of those people count themselves as theists but don’t identify with a particular religion. The other half are agnostics, atheists, secular humanists, and all those who answered “none” when asked their religion. Those in this sizable portion of the religious belief pie seems to hold the greatest potential to be drawn to Unitarian Universalism. (UUs, however, fall into the “other” category on this chart, with 500,000 claiming it as their faith, a number more than three times the number of members on the books at UU churches. This is significant.) We are at once a religion of those with faith in humanity and the workings of the universe, with beliefs ranging from nothing to science, the self to God, nature to the atom.

And that’s the problem. How do you bring together people of such diverse paths to truth and meaning? How do you connect the liberal theist with the staunch atheist? Where does the Wiccan with Buddhist leanings fit into a church with contemplative Christians and abundant agnostics? In short, what is our common ground, and is that common ground firm enough to support a religious movement?

Bound up in this line of thought is the question of what Unitarian Universalists believe. In the past, I’ve admittedly given the rather flippant and unfortunate answer I’d heard others give: “Whatever they want.” It’s shorter than listing the seven principles, which don’t actually bind us together in any formal sense anyway.  Here they are, as listed on the UUA website:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

I like the principles. All seven. They’re hardly objectionable, even to many belonging to liberal religious theistic traditions. But they are not a creed, and being creedless is perhaps key to what sets Unitarian Universalists apart from other faith traditions. I think it’s also key to our dwindling numbers. A faith community, be it church, coven, synagogue, association, congregation, or gathering, needs an overriding agreement to bind the members together. While the UUA offers the seven principles as a list of what UU churches affirm and promote, these are not a creed nor faith statement. They are a guide, a suggestion, and apt to be revisited and revised in years to come.

And perhaps that’s the dilemma and blessing all wrapped up in one. We’re a church of change, growing and shifting as the world shifts. We are not static and therefore hold to no static truth. As a faith that encourages seeking for religious truth, we are unique. I’ve often wondered if with all our openness to the many paths of truth that lead to meaning if we don’t chase many of our members and potential members out the door, encouraging them to scurry down those paths that pave a more definable route up the mountain. In contrast to the clear paths laid by Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammad, Bertrand Russell, and other, Unitarian Universalism provides a Hogwart’s-like maze of moving staircases. I can see why many are drawn to the clarity of a faith with a proscribed path.

I’m not alone in preferring the Hogwarts model, however. I have at least 161,501 companions on those staircases. I enjoy walking a flight of stairs with others on my journey and yet revel in the freedom to separate my path from their when we differ in opinion. While I’m not a fan of writing mission statements or any other writing done by committee, I understand the purpose of revisiting and revising these individual church pieces as well. We are a faith open to the realities and quandaries a changing world present, and this requires a willingness to look again and again to what we hold — even loosely — to be true.

But as far as winning and keeping members, I think this openness to change and lack of creed shoots us in the proverbial foot. It’s hard to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is about and impossible to answer the question, “What does a UU believe,” with more than the flippant response noted earlier. Few elevators are long enough for a concise explanation of Unitarian Universalism, and frankly, most people have short attention spans.  I’ve often joked that as an aspiring writer, I would have done well to pick a faith with more adherents if I planned to write about religion. But here I am, and I plan to stay with the loose, gossamer confines of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Like many here, I find comfort in elusive, evolving nature of this faith tradition. I remain concerned about our future and uncertain what I or anyone else can do to present Unitarian Universalism to the wider world in a way that makes it appealing for more than a quick stop on a road up the mountain. I don’t have answers. Fortunately, that fits my faith tradition perfectly.

Peace, Namaste, Blessing Be, Amen, and all of that.


For more on the principles:

Jane Schaberg: Friend, Teacher, and Mentor of Mentors

Jane Schaberg died this week. I didn’t take one of her classes during my years at the University of Detroit. I haven’t read her books. And yet, her life left indelible marks on mine. She was, as my mother wrote in her email to me, my mom’s “friend, teacher, and mentor of mentors.” She was part of my mother’s life throughout most of mine, thus she shaped my life as well.

Jane was a professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, where she was on faculty since 1977. My mother began course work at UDM soon after, attending classes of Jane’s. Jane’s liberal feminist interpretation of the Bible and often eyebrow-raising theology opened my mother to new ways to read and understand the scripture. Many people were instrumental in my mom’s passage through UDM as graduate student then instructor, from U  of M Near Eastern Studies doctorate student and recipient, then to Edgewood College, where she served as a professor until recent retirement. Jane, however, stood out.

Jane’s teachings and theology followed my mother home, and I was raised with an understanding of Jesus as a historical being and taught when quite young to read the Bible with an eye to history and a mind wide open. As Jane wrote and published her first and likely most controversial book, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narrativesmy mother listened, learned, and thought. She also passed on Jane’s research and thoughts to the family, and before I finished high school (and just a few years after joining the Catholic church myself), I was steeped in the world of biblical exegesis and non-canonical gospels. I also understood that faith could stand the scrutiny of sacred texts.

Thanks to Jane’s work and teaching, my mother passed on another research-based understanding of Jesus’s infancy narrative, one where God takes Mary as a poor woman who has been wronged — raped– and intercedes. Jesus, whether as historical or divine, was so much more to me after that point, as was God. How much more of a statement is it to take what existed — what is sometimes dirty, messy, and even inhumane — and lift it up and make it holy. This resonated far better with me than a story of virgin birth. Further home exposure and a very small amount of formal study (in a class taught by my mother) brought me more understanding about the remarkable work of literature and history the Bible is. Study of the synoptic gospels and non-canonical gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, brought me deeper appreciation for the remarkable book that is the Bible.

Jane touched my life via my mother in less intellectual ways as well. Jane was a dear friend to my mother, welcoming her and other students, colleagues, and friends into her home. When I was young, that home was in an ailing neighborhood of apartments near the old Tiger Stadium.  On several occasions, we trekked to Jane’s house, which was often filled with other people from the University and other parts of Jane’s life. It was in that neighborhood that I first became aware of Jane’s compassion and dedication to the poor and marginalized. It was there that she befriended, supported, and began a lifetime of care for a few of the children in need in that area. She maintained that support and care for decades, never giving up and persisting as I’d imagine Jesus would have done. She lived the Gospels which she studied.

Jane remained a friend to my mother long after my mother left Michigan to teach at Edgewood College. Jane’s teaching and passion for learning and writing about the Bible as literature and history was firmly implanted into my mother’s own teaching, writing, and study. They continued to attend conferences together, and on many of her visits back to Michigan, my mother would visit Jane or meet her for lunch. Jane lived with breast cancer for decades, and for some of these visits, she was quite tired, ill, or in obvious pain. Occasionally, I’d visit along with my mother and Jane, but generally, I was the chauffeur, either taking my mom for the visit or taking them both to a local eatery. When I was in Jane’s presence, her wisdom, kindness, and compassion always impressed me. To be in her presence was a joy.

Over the past few years, I often wondered upon each visit if it would be the last. Time after time, year after year, Jane would rebound from a relapse, sometimes appearing stronger than she had in many of the previous visits, sometimes seeming more frail than the last visit. Her life seemed precarious, and yet she seemed to live so fully, continuing to write, publish, and teach. On April 17, 2012, she could rebound no more. Her wisdom and compassion live on through decades of students, colleagues, and friends.  And if I’m any indication, she’s reached a step beyond, touching those who know those students, colleagues, and friends. Jane has certainly shaped my life, including my appreciation of Jesus, and for that I’m thankful.

Peace, Jane Schaberg. Thank you for the gifts you’ve given to me, my mom, and the world.  In the words of my mother, you were “friend, teacher, and mentor of mentors.”


Lent and the Unitarian Universalist

Helleborus orientalis, commonly knows as the Lenten rose.

Lent is here, and plenty of Unitarian Bloggers are writing about it. More than writing about it, they’re participating in it, giving up alcohol, changing diets, learning new instruments, forgoing lunches out, and even giving up Unitarian Universalism for the forty days that began Wednesday, March 22, and continue until Easter.  I’m doing…nothing.  At least not yet.

Despite being raised in both Methodist and Catholic churches, the concept of giving something up for Lent didn’t reach me until seventh grade, not coincidentally my first year in Catholic school. I was familiar with Ash Wednesday and all of Holy Week (an extra-long week if you belong to two faith traditions and attend services from both), but the idea of setting something aside for those forty days was new to me. I was a child of the Catholic church of the 1980’s, attending Mass in a liberal, Jesuit chapel. Giving something up was okay, but taking on a new endeavor — a positive habit — was considered just as worthy Lenten commitment for the season. Over ten years of Catholic education (not including graduate school), I gave up pop, swearing, chewing my cuticles, and, if memory serves, chocolate. The cuticle-gnawing habit was no doubt the hardest and most frequently broken.

The particulars on the positives I adopted are fuzzier.  Perhaps that suggests that deprivation leaves a stronger mark than taking on something new, or perhaps simply it’s easier to recall failures involving a habit enjoyed over failures missing a new, less exciting habit acquired. For at least one year during Lent, I committed to daily flossing. I didn’t see it as a world-changing or even faith-shaping event, but my dentist had made it clear that it needed to happen. Lent seemed as good a time as ever.

At the height of my Catholic years, I made other attempts to touch the holy and stay in closer touch with my faith.  In college, I attended daily Mass more often (although never daily), prayed more, and read my Bible more. I can’t say I developed any new permanent spiritual habits during those Lenten seasons, but I can say I thought more about my faith. Perhaps the clearest way to put it is that I lived a bit closer to what I said I believed.

My Catholicism is almost ten years in my past, at least that’s how long it has been since I believed with sufficient force to have my younger son baptized. As I moved through the Episcopal church, to no church, to the Unitarian Universalist tradition, my Lenten and Easter practices gradually dropped away. Ash Wednesday goes unmentioned in my church, although it originates from one of the many traditions from which UUs draw their understanding of the world. With so many sources  from which to find truth, it’s no wonder Lent didn’t make the sermon circuit at my UU church this year.

Perhaps it should have, though. A time of repentance and of turning thoughts to right relations with others is a theme in many religions. Lent shares a focus on atonement with Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year where fasting and prayer accompany atonement to God and others. The Islamic Ramadan, a month of fasting by day with time to spiritually reflect, pray, do works of charity. Atonement is part of Ramadan, but the main focus is on a right relationship with God. Eastern religions prescribe atonement and repairing relationships, too.  Hindu teachings address atonement and penance rituals and practices, including charity and fasting. Buddhists focus on atonement to others and forgiveness of others with a focus on loving kindness and compassion. If we claim to take our sources as routes to truth, we’d be remiss to ignore the themes of these religions’ opportunities to do both inner and outer work.

I see two paths for the UU and Lent. The first follows the traditional fasting paths. Use Lent to rid one’s self of a bad habit. Six weeks without meat, processed foods, coffee, multitasking while eating, or multiple hours in front of the computer or TV could make for long-term changes to one’s life. Or, they may not. That time away from something desired, however, does remind us that we can take more control our minds than we often think we can. Our minds are slippery, wily things, and the act of stopping an habitual action, over and over, can be a step to a bit more mastery of our ever-wandering thoughts.

The second path looks outward as well as inward. It could bring us out of ourselves in into deeper connection to the world. Perhaps this season can offer a chance to reflect about then act on the principles we hold as true. The seven principles offer fine guidelines for living in this world and are well worth forty days of consideration and conscientious action. Here’s the list of what UU congregations (and, I would hope, individuals) affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. (UUA)
What would this second practice look like? Think of Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues. Franklin didn’t try to address them all at once.  Rather he took one per week on which to focus his thoughts and actions.  He admits he often fell short, but he continued to try. Seven principles in six weeks provides six days per principle.  Six days to reflect on a particular principle and to watch one’s thoughts actions during that time, working to act in the world in ways more in concert with the values of our faith.
So how to I as a UU respond to Lent?  I’m taking the second path, a reflection on each principle in turn with a focus on acting on each principle in the world. I’m sure I’ll stumble plenty of times along the way. That’s okay. There’s a reason seasons of atonement return year after year. We have short memories and revert easily to old, comfortable ways. Perhaps, I’ll find a bit more peace within myself, for that would be sweet.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to touch the world a bit more softly along the way. Now that would be divine.
For some other views on Lent, see the following:

Prayer Problems

This week left me ragged.  It left me exhausted, depleted, and shaken.  Full of personal and interpersonal trials, it tried my mind and spirit dearly.  It’s the sort of week that turned my thoughts to prayer.

That’s a problem.  Concerns about prayer contributed substantially to my conversion from liberal Christian to spiritual seeker and Unitarian Universalist. (Note:  Not all UUs agnostics or atheists.  Some are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, and/or something else.)  I’d prayed for years.  I can’t recall a dinner at home that didn’t start with grace: “God is Good” or “Come, Lord, Jesus” were standby rhymed prayers in our home, with freestyle grace led by Dad on special occasions. Thanking the divine for was the first purpose of prayer I learned. Other rote prayers followed.

In my Methodist Sunday School class, The Lord’s Prayer was a third-grade memorization task.  While I wasn’t in the sanctuary much at that age, I had plenty of seat-time invested in the Jesuit-led, Catholic community that made up church part two on most Sundays, and I’d long learned their version.  My challenge in 9 a.m. Methodist Sunday School was to stick the ending, since that was different from what I heard each Sunday at noon.  Aside from the sung Doxology, the Protestant portion of my spiritual life provided only prayer as soliloquy, with the minister at the pulpit delivering it.

As I moved to Catholic school in my middle and high school years, continuing my religious formation there more than in the Methodist home of my elementary years, I picked up the other Catholic basics.  It was, however, a prayer class in high school that was instrumental into shaping my perception of prayer and its many roles.  We were taught that prayer had four forms:  giving thanks, intercession for others, praising God, and petitioning for one’s own needs.  We examined Catholic prayers, which promptly went from rote and empty to filled with purpose.  We meditated to mantras, focused on candles, reflected to music, studied the Psalms, and wrote our own prayers.   A year or two later, a Catholic youth group furthered that understanding, expanding my understanding as prayer as conversation with God.  Prayer moved from rote to intentional.

I believed deeply.  Not in a punishing, restrictive God, but rather in a loving God, one who wanted the best for us but left the details of that up to us.  God as father and mother appealed to me, perhaps since 19, I’d lived without parents in close proximity.  My view of God offered me the intimacy and security of a relationship with a being who would never abandon me and loved me despite what I saw as innumerable, fatal flaws (at least fatal to human relationships).  And, for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t.

Somewhere in the last decade, I started to question.  Not profoundly, but just in the usual ways that people question when they ask hard questions that are no longer satisfied by short answers.  Specifically, I questioned petition and intercession.  Why would a loving deity — unconditionally loving and forgiving — act for someone for whom I prayed?  What about all the people in hard times who had no one to pray for them?  Why would this loving deity only act for those who others remembered first?  What was the purpose of praying for what I wanted or needed — or even for guidance — if we have free will?  And again, where did this leave those who didn’t pray?  What kind of divine being would only respond and comfort those who contacted him/her first?

Prayer fell first.  The rest of faith soon followed.

Old habits die hard, however.  While my understanding of what exists beyond the individual human is still in formation, my long-held view of the divine no longer remains.  But in times of extreme stress, I often myself starting a prayer only to find myself stumped after the salutation.  Do I address my plea to the universe?  Do I take my delight in the sleeping form of my son  or the setting sun to the wheel of chance or to the universe?  How do I take another person or nation into my heart with love and wish them well?  And does any of that matter?  How do we reach out of ourselves to that which is bigger than the individual?  How do our depths touch those when we cannot actually reach out and touch them?   It’s intercession that, as much as it troubles me in theory, that tugs at me the most.

This week was one of those weeks, a week where I wished I knew how to make this part of my agnosticism work.  Plenty of my ilk rely on social action, on any scale, as the answer.  It certainly play a leading role.  It does not, however, answer every concern of this heart.  Sometimes there isn’t an action to take, aside from in our own hearts.  I’m playing with voicing concerns and intentions in two-word mantras, matching the words to my breath.  With this modified meditation, I can later bring those two words back in a stressful situation.  “Pause, praise,” increases my ability to not chew a child to bits during a rough homeschooling moment.  “Live love” is another pairing that focuses my intentions.

That’s not the whole answer, but it may be a start. Directing the heart and mind may be the bulk of prayer, creating a space within where one can listen to more than the firing of one’s own neurons and find meaning beyond the confines of the body of one.  I’m a big logic and reason fan, but loving isn’t about logic and reason, and neither is prayer.


UUs, Theology, and Dear Old Dad

I think I unnerved my father.  On our last visit out to see my dad and stepmom, I mentioned, offhandedly, that at least half the congregation at our Unitarian Universalist church identified themselves as atheist or secular humanist.  After a pause, he asked, “But don’t the Unitarians and Universalists believe (before they joined hands in 1961) in God?  Weren’t they both Christian denominations?”

Well, yes.  But by the 1830s, both were studying the texts of other religions as well.  And so it went from there.

I’m not sure how we’d missed this conversation topic before, my Presbyterian father and I.  We certainly discuss church life from our respective positions, and I was certain he knew the boys’ stance on God’s existence (firmly in the atheist camp, at least right now).  My heart tugged, seeing this issue bother him.  We discussed it a bit more on a denominational level, and he issued a thoroughly triune-God based grace at dinner.  My own theology didn’t come up.

In fact, I’m still working out my own theology.  I spent my first few years of life in a Baptist church, the next few in a Catholic church, too, my school years attending both Catholic and Methodist churches, my high school, college, and newly married years as Catholic, two years in an Episcopal church, two years at home on Sunday morning, and the last four years in a Unitarian Universalist church.  Did I mention my mom is now a Reformed Jew?  Exhausted?  Me too.  Confused?  So am I.  Still.

I’m not sure I’m closer to an answer, even a long, meandering, book-length answer to the question of what I believe about God than when my journey away from Christianity began, more than half a decade ago.  By the time I left the Episcopal church my family had called home for the previous two years, I no longer believed in a triune god.  This is fairly significant barrier to feeling comfortable in most mainline Christian churches, since if you spend more time in a service rewording the prayers into something that fits your understanding of the divine, you have little time left to actually pray.  Academic head tricks aren’t worship. Add a heavy layer of doubt about why a loving God would require human prayer as catalyst to divine action to aid the poor, the sick, or Notre Dame, and the makings for a theological shake-up were on the counter.

So we left.  And those makings sat.

A few years later, the boys and I settled into our current spiritual home, a Unitarian Universalist church.  We’d vetted three over the course of a year, and this one struck me as most comfortable, one seeming too big, another too small, and UUCF being the proverbial just right.  It was (and remains) a friendly community with a well-spoken minister at the helm and a vibrant religious education department.  A church was found.  A theology was not.

Unitarian Universalists, being without creed and with dedication to a free search for meaning and truth, weren’t going to provide me with a preset path on which to ride through life.  Rather, these churches and associations provide the space to seek the truth as each persons sees fit and encourages spiritual growth (principles 3 and 4, for you UUs keeping track).  No answers.  Plenty of space for questions.  As a result, UUs and UU congregations come in a variety of flavors.  I’ve only sampled three congregations, so I can’t speak beyond that, but many UU churches contain a fair number atheists and agnostics.  I don’t have numbers (although I’ve certainly looks) on the numbers of UUs who are theists, pagans, Eastern based, Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, and so forth.  The closest I’ve come to statistics on Unitarian Universalists and their theology would be a number  from the summary of Faith Communities Today (FACT)  2005, a survey of 495 (about 50 percent) of UU congregations.  The 2005 study was an expansion of the first FACT survey, done in 2000.  The single respondent for those churches was either a leader of the church, lay leader, or paid staff person.

According to FACT 2005, 19 % of the minster responders and 11% of the lay leaders responding described their congregation’s worship services as “having a sense of God’s presence.”  Overall (and more lay responded to the survey than clergy), that put 13% of all responders stating God’s presence was at their services.  That’s down from 2000, where 26% reported having a sense of God’s presence at services (although a much high percentage of those answering that year were clergy.

Either way, either year, there doesn’t seem to be much God in the Unitarian Universalist church.  No shocker there, given my modest sampling.  I have no idea how many UUs would identify themselves as believing in something greater than themselves, whether that be nature, a communal spirit, the power of the universe, or the flying spaghetti monster.  Most of the statement of faith I hear and read from other UUs are more about what they don’t believe, and the atheists shout the loudest.  Our congregation boasts a moderate number of secular humanists, which at least says more about what they DO believe than what they do not (and that’s best saved for another blog post).

And many say very little.  Perhaps, like me, they are still working out their own theology.  Perhaps they have more certainty than I but prefer more privacy regarding their beliefs.  If the FACT 2005 survey holds any water, there’s not too much God to find in a UU service, at least according to lay leaders and clergy.

So here I am, working out my own theology.  Despite the dearth of theism in the UU world, part of being UU is encouraging spiritual growth and a free and responsible search for meaning (remember principles 3 and 4?). Our (often overlooked) six sources are the pool from which I draw:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.  (UUA website)
So the makings are there.  And I feel no press of time to resolve this issue today, tomorrow, or next year.  It’s a theology in progress, building bit by bit as I learn from experience and the other sources listed above.  It’s a process I share here, since writing helps my processing.  It’s a process I’m glad to share, with my readers, my congregation, and my dad, if he so desires.

When God Enters the Room

I don’t think a work day goes by without a patient referring to God.  Not in the form of, “Oh, God, not herpes?!”  No, when God comes into the exam room, it’s personal.

Sometimes, God enters the room by way of explanation, as in, “God healed me of my bunion.”  Other times, God is beckoned in:  “Lord, help me with this pain.”  Sometimes the reference to the Almighty seems to be a hint or prayer, “Well, I’ll be over this bug by the weekend, God willing.”   God gets the thanks for the good and exhorted for help when times are tough.  No response from me is required in these events, and I just continue on with the medical portion of the program.

I’m more stymied by the folks who enter longer conversations about the divine, assuming that my belief is like theirs.  “God is always testing us, isn’t He?  But the Lord would never give us anything we couldn’t handle.”  I generally listen quietly and nod a bit in a way that I hope shows I’m paying attention without having to enter the conversation.  It’s a struggle, and sometimes I err on the side of some false belief, if it seems an answer beyond, “Mmm,” is called for.  I don’t make up a faith statement or anything that deceptive.  Rather I try to frame my answer in a broader way. “The world is mysterious, isn’t it?” or “Life is challenging,” are favorite phrases.  “I’m glad your faith is supporting you in this time,” is another, although I pull that one our less often

I often wonder if folks notice we’re not connecting on the God issue.  No one has called me on it, although a handful have preached aplenty during those short appointments.  I doubt their preaching in response to my noncommittal responses, since during the more intense monologues, no response is sought.  I’ve never been asked directly if I believe in God, which seems fair, given I’d hope their interest is more about my credibility as their Physician Assistant.  About that, I’m glad to share.

I’ve worked with practitioners with a more traditional sense of God, and some have shared their faith with their patients when their patients initiate the contact.  It seems to have comforted their patients to make that connection, even if it’s just a more enthusiastic response from the practitioner than, “Mmm.”  It’s a connection in the partnership of patient and provider.  It’s not necessary, and I’m pretty good at connecting with patients in other ways, fostering a therapeutic partnership, but it seems to occasionally be a nice extra.

I’m sure this is far more of an issue in my mind that it is in reality.  Most stuff is.  Some of my concerns have more to do with my own wonderings about the divine than any actual tension with patients.  I do want to support my patients’ faith even if I don’t share it.  That’s part of being a Unitarian Universalist:  acceptance of others and encouragement of spiritual growth. And since involvement in prayer and meditation may be an asset to health, I have a professional interest as well.  I’ve counseled many an anxious patient on mindful meditation with a focus on the breath or a single word.  A few have returned to tell me how that practice has been helpful, so those minutes haven’t been wasted.

Faith is a source of comfort.  Whether that faith is in an omnipotent God outside of ourselves, in the mysterious workings of the universe, or the best nature of the human self, having faith brings strength.  Over the years, I’ve mused here and in my head about the nature of God or whatever is bigger than our egoic self.  I’ve wed myself to no particular theology, but know that for me, God/ground of being/the divine isn’t the guy in the sky pulling the strings.  It’s not something or someone to worship and bow down to.  It may be the best in us when we bind together or some energy of the universe.  It may simply be our best self, full of unconditional love.  I don’t know.

For all my uncertainty about God and what to do when God enters the room at work or elsewhere, I know what I can do.  I can respect the other’s beliefs, as different from my own as they may be.  I can recognize them as valuable to and valid for them, knowing we can hold different views on faith and still be okay.  I can live my faith and honor theirs, despite our differences, and that’s all that’s needed.


A Step away from Gluttony (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 2)

Gluttony in America?  Yeah, we've got that.Part 2 of a series of posts reflecting on the Vice and Virtue series of sermons at UUCF.

Gluttony is not a regular word in my vocabulary. Aside from the phrase, “glutton for punishment” this word rarely enters my speech, and even then I use it facetiously. The second sermon in Alex Riegel’s series on Vice and Virtue, Gluttony and Temperance, led me to think beyond that pithy phrase and about the gluttony of my own life. Just as lust refers more than a desire for sexual pleasure, so gluttony refers to more than an excessive intake of food and drink. Certainly anything one lusts for can then lead to gluttony. One can overindulge in food, drink, sex, possessions, sports, TV, or (gasp) yarn. Basically, gluttony is the acquisition of more than one needs.

During the sermon, the congregation was asked to give examples of gluttony in the world. Congregants mentioned Dubai’s massive physical structures, big businesses’ feast on money,Wall Street, McMansions, and the auto industry, all places that certainly embody gluttony for power and money. My first thought was my own home. I live in a 70-year-old cape cod of about 1800 square feet. Its three bedrooms and four baths more than accommodate the boys and I, and there are far more places to comfortably sit than our three backsides can use at a time. Bookshelves in every room reveal a gluttony for books, despite a fine public library system in our area. Closets hold more clothes than we can possibly wear; cabinets, more games than we can ever play — you get the idea.

I doubt I’m alone in this form of gluttony. It’s little comfort to know that most of you reading this post own more than you need to be comfortable. In fact, it’s downright disturbing how much most of us in this country own, or at least the portion of us reading this on our home computer, iPad, phone, laptop, or netbook. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those devices, or anything wrong with clothing, books, toys, chairs, or cars. I’m far from an ascetic in philosophy or practice. But most of us have too much. We’re gluttons even before we tuck into the kitchen table three (or more) times a day.

Now, I come from a rather self-flagellating line on my dad’s side, so berating myself for owning too much, buying too big, or breathing more than my share than the air seems to be in my genes. I’m good at looking at my life and seeing upon what I could improve. I’m not so hot at making changes, but I do try. Several times a year I de-clutter with the aim of reducing the stuff in our lives. These binges usually follow tripping on one too many duct tape sword or noticing the size 5T shirt in my 9-year-old’s closet. Sometimes these sprees are the result of glutton guilt, but more often they’re just my way of bringing a bit of organization to my life.

But I don’t think those sprees of reduction are the point of this sermon topic. Gluttony is more than just having too much or eating too much. Gluttony occurs when our overindulgence steps on another’s right to have enough. It’s easy to absolve ourselves with gluttony on this front. After all, I’ve never taken food out of the hands of a hungry child or evicted someone from a home so I could have a place put my 54 inch flat screen (okay, we have a 20-some inch big boxy TV from some 10 years back).

Or have I?

It may not be the having that’s the gluttony for many of us but more what price others pay for what we acquire.  Picking the fairly traded blouse over the mass-produced name brand made-in-a-sweatshop shirt is a choice away from gluttony.  A move toward eating homegrown or very locally grown produce  and selecting other locally made goods saves fossil fuel for the next generation (although hopefully we find something better for them and the environment) because it doesn’t travel thousands of miles to reach our door.  Fixing a chair rather than ditching it and heading to IKEA for a new one keeps less out of the waste stream on both ends of the production cycle.  All are temperance in action.

So while my urge to move out the excess has its merits to my sense of aesthetics and aversion to chaos, it’s not actually the answer to gluttony.  Control on the buying end and making wise choices seems key.  These same practices help redistribute the wealth, decrease waste and pollution, and respect workers by buying from companies that provide a living wage.

I’m not there yet.  I try to think about purchases, asking myself a few questions:  Do I really need this?  Do I have something already that will do the job?  Who made this, and at what personal and ecological price?  Can I buy something similar with a smaller ecological and human price tag?  Can I do without?   Those questions slow me down, although they hardly stop every unneeded or careless purchase.  And that’s a step away from gluttony.