Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A church for atheists...

The title of this post is taken from a sign outside one of our congregation’s buildings, where it is followed by the words ‘and everyone else.’ I have found people staring at that sign. I have even caught two people snapping photos of it. Apparently, the idea of a church where you don’t have to believe in god is a bit surprising to many.

I am the minister of New Unity - a Unitarian congregation with one site on Newington Green (the Newington Green Unitarian Church) and a second on Upper Street in Islington (Unity Church).

To me, including atheists in a church community doesn’t seem strange at all, but then, Unitarians do religion rather differently. We come from a long line of people who stubbornly refused to check their brain at the door when it came to religion. Some of them were burnt at the stake or subjected to other rather less than hospitable treatment as a result. Unitarians started out nearly 500 years ago as Christians who rejected the doctrines of the Trinity and original sin. They arrived at these heresies (a word derived from the Greek for ‘to choose’ - a label I wear with pride!) by studying the Bible and applying their own reason. 

In time, the successors to these early Unitarian heretics put aside the notion that the bible is the only book that includes wisdom and inspiration. They opened themselves up to Hinduism, Pagan traditions, Buddhism, Humanism, and more.

This may seem like a ridiculous kind of religion to some - but that’s only if you think that religion has to be defined by the arcane structures that most religions build up over time. Instead, I evaluate beliefs by their effects. If a belief makes people more loving, compassionate, and justice-seeking, I welcome it. If a belief makes one a selfish, oppressive jerk, it’s a belief I can’t support.

My goal is to create and nourish communities where people are loved, accepted, and encouraged in their growth and where people are empowered to work for a world where everyone can experience such an embrace. 

My own beliefs are very simple: Every person is sacred. We are all connected one to another. 

Is this literally true? I don’t know and I don’t care. It is not meant to be a statement of scientific fact, and I’m sure it would be untenable by those standards (with a Ph.D. in biology, I should know that better than most). In the religious sphere, we choose what to believe and my beliefs impel me to see all others as valuable and worthy beyond measure. These beliefs force me to work to see and treat others and brothers and sisters. They lead me to understand that gay and lesbian people are sacred. That transgender and bisexual people are sacred. That disabled people and people of all ages and colours are sacred. And because we are all connected, I’m certainly not going to put up with any of my sacred brothers and sisters being treated unjustly.
So, let’s not wait for the world to change. Let’s work together against oppression and injustice and - if you’re an atheist (or not) - you might just want to consider coming to church!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

What do the riots mean?

Mindless yobs? Social unrest? A lack of morality? A need for more discipline? More hugging? Class war?

There has been rioting and looting in England for the past four nights. It began and has been most intense in London - sparked by the police shooting of a young black man, but has spread to other cities, notably Birmingham and Manchester.

The understandings of the unrest have been many from all directions and perspectives. Blame has been directed at the Tories for their draconian cuts, but also at Labour for somehow creating the conditions for this in the first place. People on the right blame a lack of discipline and morality in "those people" and blame the left for coddling "them." They want to see plastic bullets, water cannons, tear gas, and generally stronger law enforcement.  The left blames the right for insensitivity and destruction of the safety net that gives the poor opportunities and hope. They want to see more programmes and resources for the poor.

These differences echo George Lakoff's model of the difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives hold a world view that sees a need for government taking a "strong father" role; what's needed is greater discipline. Liberals go for a "nurturing parent" perspective where underlying motives are considered and actions are directed toward supporting and changing based on the understanding that we are all essentially good and need to be nurtured toward greater goodness.

I'd like to avoid that usual left-right dichotomy, although my thinking certainly leads to a liberal approach.  My take is this: Class Division + Materialism = Trouble

Modern Britain is a society with an enormous class divide. The disparity between rich and poor is said to be the greatest it has been since the second World War. The economic climate, the severe cuts to benefits, the increases in the cost of higher education, and the numbers of poor youth growing up in dysfunctional families leads to a sense of hopelessness and lack of ownership. In other words, they feel that they have very little to lose.

People who feel they have nothing to lose are dangerous indeed.

Now add to that picture the fact that everyone is bombarded in nearly every waking moment by the advertising message that "you are what you have." Our value as human beings and our happiness - we are told - depend on having the newest smart phone, the right trainers, the most stylish jeans, a big flat-screen TV and on and on. We begin to learn this message before we can speak. Everywhere we go and whatever we do, the adverts are there to keep that message firmly in place.

When people who have nothing to lose understand that material goods are the only thing worth striving for and have no hope that they can reach a place in life where they can obtain them legally, criminality seems certain to be the response.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one. Materialism is the very basis of our capitalist economy. Unless capitalism falls entirely and something takes its place that nurtures good values rather than materialistic ones, the materialism factor will remain unchanged.

The class divide has grown and continues to grow. The levers of power are preponderantly in the hands of the rich who find rather little motivation to seek greater equality. They can simply build higher walls, invest in more police and prisons and simply keep this untidy little problem under control.

We need change. We need to invest in programmes that will provide real hope and opportunity for those at the bottom. We have now begun to see - once again - the results of neglecting whole swaths of the population. It is time to break down the class oppression that is built-in to our culture.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A letter from a new member

I am posting a letter I received (with permission) from a relatively new attender at my Unitarian congregation in north London. She has come to us after years of trying to find her place in the Church of England. Now, she travels two hours to get to us, passing by a vast number of Anglican and other churches along the way.

My pledge today is to do all I can to make the author's vision of New Unity increasingly real...
I had a thoroughly inspiring time today - thank you. I'm looking forward to the 3 facets course and to coming to services whenever I can. 
The journey itself is becoming something I enjoy - it gives me 2 hours of reading time- and I am looking forward to what will happen when I get to you, as there is usually something to challenge, inspire, move or enthral me, and sometimes all of these at once! 
People here keep asking me what it is that makes you so different to normal church that I'm willing and keen to travel this distance for it, when I constantly refuse to go to regular church services.To answer this would require an essay! But words like 'freedom' 'space' 'encouragement' 'respect' 'vision' 'energy' 'a sense of adventure' 'trusting people' 'belief in goodness' and a hopeful mood of 'we can' all convey what your community says to me.
Though Jesus is seldom mentionned, I find more of his spirit amongst you than I ever did in 20 years of attending an Anglican church. 
I like and respect everybody I have so far met and talked to in your community; they are all so intelligent and caring and thoughtful, and a privilege to know. I can honestly say that I have never before felt this in any church, and it is a healing experience for me, restoring something that got broken and jaded through disappointment and disillusion. 
Your leadership is in such a contrast to the paternalistic and often suffocating authority of priests, who treat their congregation like children. It feels like all things are possible here; that everyone has faith - in themselves and eachother - and that nobody is afraid to take that first brave step on a long journey towards a better society. 
I think that the only reason your church isn't packed on Sundays is that people don't like 'church'. That word gives the wrong idea and puts people off. Your community is nothing much like any church I've ever been to in my entire life, and that is its strength and 'selling point'. We need to spread this around. Something very good is going on here and a lot more people should come in and benefit from it...

Monday, 1 August 2011

Should worship entertain?

In a 2010 paper on UU Worship, Mike Mallory asks us to consider the value of "entertainment" in worship services:
...we should be willing to include “entertainment” as a purpose in the Sunday morning experience. Entertainment is not a religious function. Then again, while community building is a secular function, it is vitally important for a religious community... 
The term “entertainment” is often viewed as cheap or superficial... However, if asked to name your favorite film or play, the answer, I suspect, will include a work of artistic merit, which produced insights into the human condition in a way, which was engaging, dramatic and memorable. “Entertainment” is not an antonym for “Authentic.” 
...evangelical mega-churches are serious about entertainment. I hesitate to point this out, because I am certainly not suggesting that entertainment in a UU congregation look like the entertainment that happens in an evangelical mega-church. Nevertheless, I am claiming that the presentation of the Sunday morning experience in UU congregations should be entertaining.  
Entertainment can be serious or lighthearted, tragic or comic, emotional or conceptual. Entertainment is a way of planning a presentation by focusing on the quality of recipient’s experience. Entertainment may not make a message more important, but it can make the recipient more engaged and the message more memorable. An entertaining message can inspire people to commit their time and energy into social justice, allow people to understand the inner reality of someone very different or lead a person into a moment of ecstatic presence...
Mallory goes on to question the typical UU anti-entertainment rationale and dares to suggest that our reasons may be more like excuses for an unwillingness to tackle the hard work of creating worship entertaining enough to reach the modern, plugged-in, worshipper:
I believe there is a sentiment that religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular should rise above the profane of entertainment and that a UU minister who stands and delivers a sermon, plainly and unplugged, is a living testament to honesty, genuineness and authenticity. I believe this sentiment springs from a na├»ve mythology and conveniently excuses the hard work of reimagining the Sunday morning experience. 
I find myself persuaded by Mallory's argument. The form of our worship should be among the transient elements of our faith, but has tended to be treated more like the permanent! In fact, the deep, permanent, elements of our faith may be ineffective because we fail to embed them in a form that touches people as and where they are.

What arises for me is not at all a feeling of revulsion at the concept of "entertaining worship", but a deep discomfort about my own inadequacy for the task and the lack of resources at my disposal.

I would love to hear how others engage with these ideas...

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Top ten tips to find meaning and contentment in life

When I reached what felt to be about the middle of my life, it finally hit. No, I really would *not* live forever! There would be no exception made in my case and a time would come when I neared the end of my days and thought back over my life with one question in mind: "How have I lived the one and only life I was given?"

I realized then that "I sure attended a lot of meetings" or "I really helped make a lot of rich folks richer" or "I got the nice house and the nice car I wanted" were not answers that would satisfy. I realized that I wanted a life that was meaningful, purposeful, and connected. I think we all do.  Here are the 10 easy [not really] ways to have the life that will allow you to live and leave your life with satisfaction:

  1. Strive to appreciate every bit of beauty, kindness, good fortune, and warmth you can find
    It is far easier to complain about what's wrong but it makes you far happier and nicer to be with if you are a person that is grateful for everything. If you can rejoice in a good cup of tea, you will be happy often.
  2. Assume the best of people
    You may be wrong sometimes, but expecting the worst makes you fearful and shrivels your soul. Expecting the best often brings out the best in others around you - it is a gift that blesses them and you.
  3. Don't play it safe all the time
    Take some risks with your life. It is better to have tried and failed than to carry deep regrets in your vocation, your avocation, your connections, or your love.
  4. Persevere
    Nothing worthwhile comes without effort including growth, change, skills, learning, and especially the strength of relationships. If you give up at everything that does not come easily, you will have nothing worthwhile.
  5. Give generously with your heart, your hands, and your wallet
    In serving others, we soften our often hard isolated selves and become part of the larger whole.
  6. Remember every day that your life is precious
    Can you really afford to waste this day?
  7. Let yourself be vulnerable 
    Love can be both exquisitely wonderful and exquisitely painful. We can't have the former without risking - and often suffering - the latter.
  8. Don't take yourself too seriously - laugh!
    Laugh at yourself, your situation, and the whole tragedy of life. Take it all seriously and it will crush you. Take it lightly and you may find burdens floating away like clouds.
  9. Have fun - it's not a crime
    If you have only one life to live, must you really spend it being serious all the time? 
  10. Forgive easily
    Carrying anger harms both you and the target of your resentment. If it is possible, let it go.
No, they are not easy. Every one of these takes work and takes practice. That's life!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

What business is your congregation in?

My background is in business. One important question for businesses - a question which, when answered unwisely, has meant the demise of many businesses - is this "What business are you in?"

In the US, there was once a massive and thriving ice business. The clever and industrious organizations in this industry harvest ice from fresh water sources in the winter and stored it until the warmer weather when it would be delivered to households around the US - and even overseas - where it would be used to keep food from spoiling in the heat. There was, of course, no mechanical refrigeration at the time.

When refrigeration was invented and began to be commercialized, it was not initially the smooth, quiet, reliable, and adjustable appliances we now know.

It was noisy. It was large. It was very expensive. It was easy for the ice producers to laugh it off as no threat.

Of course, refrigeration began to improve. And as refrigeration improved and become more competitive, the ice producers had to respond. They did so by finding ever better, more effective ways to harvest and store ice. They invented great equipment for transporting and cutting blocks of ice. They developed every more efficient ways of insulating the ice in storage.  They were certain of one thing - they were in the ICE BUSINESS and they needed to remain competitive.

Well, you know the end of this story. You are unlikely to run into someone at a cocktail party today who proudly announces "I am in the ice harvesting business." Refrigeration won.

The ice business was successful in continuing to improve what they did in the face of the threat from refrigeration. They failed to make a key shift however that could have made them business titans still today.

They concluded that they were in the ICE BUSINESS rather than the COOLING BUSINESS.

What business is your congregation in?

Many congregations would produce answers to this question that reflect what they do today - such things as sermons and hymns, committee meetings, church buildings, members, pledges, organ music. They have been so resistant to change that I can only guess that they firmly believe these ways of doing things to be their "business."

What business is your congregation in?

Is it not in the "life transformation" business? The "meaning-making and purpose-finding" business? The "gratitude-building, connection-revealing, justice-seeking" business?

If we come to these kinds of answers and we begin to think beyond our equivalent of the ice business, how then do we do things differently?

Look around your world. Who is doing your business well? They may be at early stages and still be noisy and inefficient, but this may be tomorrow's sleek stainless steel refrigerator!

What business is your congregation in?

The answer to that question and your response to it will determine the fate of your congregation.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Top ten tips for congregations that don't like change

Judging from the behaviour of congregations of many faiths here in the UK and elsewhere, there is a strong desire to avoid growth and vitality. As you know, I am ever obliging, so I want to offer such congregations a few tips to really make sure they are headed quickly to their goal of irrelevance and a slow conversion to historic relic status...

  1. Be sure to consider the tastes and needs only of existing members when planning
  2. Subject any new idea to tremendous scrutiny and give all members a veto - let old ways and programmes continue indefinitely
  3. Have more committees than you can possibly manage and make sure they talk a lot and do little - people just love committee work
  4. Let existing members be as disruptive as they like, but criticize newcomers for the slightest foibles
  5. All concerns and disagreements should be addressed by talking behind peoples' backs
  6. It is always a bad idea to spend any accumulated funds - money is for saving
  7. Don't ask members to give generously to the congregations
  8. Make sure you keep expectations of commitment to the congregation as low as possible
  9. Hide the building as best you can and keep things in poor repair - you want to make it look like it went out of business years ago. "The smell doesn't bother us, why should it bother anyone else?"
  10. If new people turn up, make it clear to them that they will be considered "new" for at least five years and will be welcome to have a say in "how we do things here" after ten, but they will always be considered new if they are not just like "us"

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A Unitarian Ten Commandments?

It was not the Biblical 10 commandments that got me thinking about this. In fact, I've always thought that a lot of the Bible's big 10 have become either so obvious or irrelevant or even offensive that they need a great deal of reinterpretation to be at all useful. (George Carlin's dissection of the 10 commandments is always worth revisiting!) A few thoughts on the 10:

  • Honour your father and mother - how about honouring everyone? What about abusive parents?
  • Have no other gods before me - that's what ALL the gods say!
  • Do not take the lord's name in vain - oh, for god's sake...
  • Do not make any images or likenesses - has been pretty well ignored from day one
  • Do not swear falsely - this is not strictly about lying, only about lying when you swear in god's name...
But it has been discussion in the Introduction to World Religions class I've been leading that has made me think more seriously. In particular, it was the Buddhist take on ethical rules that struck me for it's clarity that the rules are intended for personal transformation. The fact that these come not as commandments from on high, but rather as a system for becoming enlightened raises the interest for me. (I am not saying that there is anything wrong with rules for living in society - I'm a big believer in the importance of laws!) 

This led to an attraction to the idea of a Unitarian set of ethical guidelines - something that the class has begun to discuss at least briefly.

A quick Google search showed me that Rev. Michael McGee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington VA was way ahead of me with his 2010 sermon series on A Renewed Ten Commandments.

In my proposed list of commandments below, (ten, of course!) I have borrowed and adapted from McGee. I have also taken a cue from the theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, and taken a great deal from my own congregation's input in a recent service where we explored the ethical foundations of our actions in the world and participants wrote their own short suggestions for the underpinnings of their best action.

For discussion, I offer the following. They have not been inscribed in stone tablets. They have no miraculous origin except for the not inconsiderable miracle of the human mind and heart!

A Unitarian Ten Commandments

We will strive to:
  1. understand the original experience of others
  2. treat each person gently and with respect
  3. take care of the earth and its creatures
  4. speak the truth with honesty and respect
  5. act with and work for justice
  6. value meaning over materialism and life over things
  7. cultivate appreciation for all of life’s gifts
  8. give generously
  9. cultivate joy and wonder
  10. be slow to anger and quick to forgive

Friday, 1 April 2011

A whole life

If I were to summarize what I understand to be the most faithful way of living, it is to "embrace life whole."  I mean to say that the world is a very messy place - not in any sense the stuff of sit-coms and other fairy tales. 

Our lives are sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrible. Sometimes life treats us with apparent kindness and generosity and other times it seems we can't catch a break. Even so, being complete and living fully means being present to all of this - the joys, the sorrows, the births, the deaths... everything. Holding back from any one aspect of life creates distance - not only from what we wish to avoid - but from everything.

Three weeks ago, my mother died. Hers was not a death that could easily be dismissed with "she suffered so - she is finally at peace."  My mother, though in her late seventies, was vibrant, energetic, mentally sharp, and physically fit - fit except for a heart valve that had leaked for decades and was now becoming worse, leaving her short of breath. It was time to have that repaired so that she could have a shot at another decade or two of the kind of vibrant living to which she was accustomed and committed.  A botched surgical valve replacement led not to a better quality of life, but to her death after three very bad months.

Well, here it is. The storms have come again to my life. The emotions swirl like cows, bicycles, and houses in some enormous Kansas tornado: 

Flying by over there is my sadness - a feeling of loss - an aching in my gut for all the things I will never be able to say, for the phone calls that will never come, for the moments when I think how pleased she will be at some bit of news and realize that I will never be able to share it with her and hear and see her enthusiasm.

And my anger goes whipping past the window now - a surgeon who couldn't be bothered to visit his failing patient in her suffering goes on making his fortune through a rushed series of surgeries that are not always as careful as he advertises. (A subsequent surgeon discovered that the first operation was badly botched in several ways). I want some kind of apology, if not full out vengeance!

Oh no!  There goes my compassion for her husband - my step-father - who is too deep in dementia to be able to cope with this, but sadly, not deep enough to be unaware of the tragedy that has befallen him. He weeps and I comfort him. 

But it is not only the debris of misery swirling around in this great wind. Over here is the love and support I feel from so very many people - people who come and call and write and email and make their care visible. It is a warmth and a sense of connection that has become to feel so much stronger in sorrow than in better times.

And over there is the joy of the deepening of my bonds to my family - the bereaved. I am especially grateful for the way suffering has brought a deeper connection with my beloved sister. Together, we cry and laugh our way through darkness into light.

And there are the memories that float past whenever I take a moment to look... With a sense of any true life after death coming to me only in my most sentimental moments, the life that continues is what we carry in our minds and hearts. My mother brought a tremendous love and energy and connection and beauty to her world. I know that I can carry these wonderful facets of her life with me for the rest of mine.

On and on the harsh and gentle winds of life blow. We spin and swirl. We laugh and cry. We live and die.

Mary Oliver asks "...what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Live it. Live it fully and wholly. 

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Metaphors matter

Human beings need images to think about complex things. We need to simplify and compare and picture in order to hold a multifaceted concept and we need these images even more if we are to successfully communicate such concepts to others.

Peter Bowden, a Unitarian Universalist congregational growth guru, recently started a fascinating thread in the UU Growth Lab on FaceBook by asking about metaphors for Unitarian/Unitarian Universalist congregations. The question is not about how to market our faith - it is much deeper than that. It asks about the essence of our congregations. What images most closely captures the central purpose and identities of the transformative communities of faith that we aim to create and sustain.

Over the years, I have heard many congregational metaphors tossed about: A "safe harbour" is a common one that emphasizes shelter and protection - a sense of withdrawal from a difficult world into a safe place. Certainly part of the answer, but only one part.

Abigail Van Buren famously proclaimed "A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints", capturing another important aspect of congregational life: we are not here to create congregations of perfect people; we must recognize that each of us is wounded and in need of healing and transformation. Only when we come together in our vulnerability and acceptance can we be transformed. 

Other congregational metaphors speak to our acceptance of diverse ways of thinking and believing: we are a "mosaic" of many colors, shapes and textures but come together to create something of great beauty - to create an image that we can not see in our separateness. We are a "house" where we understand that the light of the sacred is the same no matter which of many windows it shines through.

"Family" is a commonly raised metaphor, although we should always remember how hard it is to enter a family! Does anyone really want to be the new brother-in-law that nobody trusts for the first 20 or 30 years?

There were many other responses in the Growth Lab which I won't repeat here as they may be original and I have not asked permission. Suffice it to say that they variously reflect the experimental, educational, and energetic natures of a congregation.

How about this: The ideal congregation is "a base camp for life's expedition." 

I understand Unitarian congregation at their best to be places for rest and for equipping and organizing the journey to the heights of justice and spirit.

Yes, there are times when we are exhausted and hurt and maybe ill, and our congregations must be places for rest and restoration. They must be a places where we can tend to one another in pursuit of healing.

But a congregation must be much more than a refuge. It must be a place that prepares us for the true work of our lives - the mountains we must climb to become increasingly full and whole souls. These are mountains of self discovery - of spirit and love and depth. And they are mountains of outer work - the work that we do to help make our world a place that is more accepting, more compassionate, and more just.

Come into the base camp. Whether you are sore and tired and need of rest or fully ready for the climb. We will tend to one another's needs. We will journey together. With dedication, compassion, commitment, and love, we will ascend life's summits.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

How crazy is that?

I received yet another notice today about a group where I can use past-life regression to explore my previous existences so I can better understand how to live well and happily in this life.

I declined the invitation. I'll work on one life at a time, thanks.

But while I do want to decline, I don't want to do so derisively - with a scornful laugh at "those foolish New-Agers." I find myself torn between having that dismissive reaction and wanting to keep myself open to all kinds of ways of thinking, believing, and practicing.

I am not surprised at all that the traditional religionists are ready to dismiss the New Agey stuff without a second thought. They don't have to wrestle with such questions. For them, it is either part of the accepted dogma or it is nonsense.

Now, let's recognise here that if anyone came to you with a modern day story of a god walking around the earth, getting executed as a criminal, and then coming back to life - and that believing the right stories will guarantee you a place in heaven - you would be at least as dismissive as many of the people who believe that story are of the healing power of crystals.

Just as the great age of a story should not make it more credible, neither should the newness or unfamiliarity of a story or belief make it incredible.

What is an open-minded Unitarian to do? By what standards are we to evaluate beliefs and practices, whether old or new?

Unitarianism has long placed a strong emphasis on the use of reason, but while this has been interpreted by many as a requirement that beliefs be scientifically and logically sound, this is neither historically accurate nor - I would argue - a spiritually helpful stance. Spirituality and religion are about having faith - about holding onto hope - about working for justice even when these positions are plainly irrational. We believe in love not because it is about to break out in the world and break in to our lives, but because we faithfully cling to our conviction that this is what the world needs and that we will do our part whether or not it is rational to do so.

In the UK, about five-fold more people say they are "spiritual but not religious" than attend any kind of traditional religious observances. Because they are exploring beyond the bounds of western tradition, some of us are ready to mock and dismiss them. If so, then we are the ones who will be relegated to history's vast dustbin.

The "spiritual but religious" are doing what human beings have always done - seeking new ways to make meaning in their lives. We ignore them at the risk of our own increasing irrelevance.

Let's return to the question I posed above: By what standards are we to evaluate beliefs and practices?

The standard must not be scientific. And even though there is some truth to the notion that better systems survive the test of time, there are some truly awful beliefs and practices that have done so.

I would begin by looking at the organisations promulgating a particular path. Have they made themselves wealthy? Do they use coercion to keep people "in the fold"? Do they condemn those who believe differently? If yes, then run - do not walk - in the opposite direction.

My test has more to do with how a belief or practice leads its adherents to live. If the path makes its followers more loving, more connected, more respectful, and more ready to seek justice for all beings, then I'm ready to take a closer look.

Past-life regression fails many of these tests, but I will not assume that everything new is bad. And that - quite simply - is a part of my faith.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A liberal congregation grows in London

For the past four and a half years, I have been fortunate enough to be the minister - first student and then fully fledged - of the Newington Green and Islington Unitarians in north London. Each year over those years, I've had the pleasure of marking and celebrating the growth of this rapidly-growing congregation. The time for that tallying is always at the beginning of the New Year, when we honour and celebrate those who became members of the congregation over the previous year. So, here we are again!

I was sure that this year our growth would finally slow down. A month ago, it looked like it would, but a late swell of new members meant that we grew faster than ever before! Four and a half years ago, there were thirty-five members. This year, we are welcoming twenty-eight new members. After adding in the new members and removing a few inactive members from the roles - we have decisively broken the one-hundred barrier and reached 106 members. This is a congregation where - when my predecessor began some ten years ago - the total membership was about one dozen.

Each year, as we grew, we have heard comments from outside the congregation that the growth can not and will not continue. We have heard that our success is simply due to being in a good location. And most sadly, we have heard that with growth like that, we must not be 'authentic Unitarians.' Fortunately, that latter view comes from a small minority of very discouraged people.

Well, the growth has certainly continued. If I'm not mistaken, we are now the second largest Unitarian congregation in England as measured by membership.

Why have we grown? And why is our membership so young (we are at least half young adults, despite the minister being a decidedly middle-aged adult!)

As always, explaining congregational growth is extremely difficult - it is the result of so many factors. Some are the things we're doing right and others are simply the traps we've managed not to fall into.

Here are the factors I think explain our growth:

  • Our services are not bad... They could be a whole lot better (and they will be!) but they are good enough not to repel visitors!
  • We handle conflict reasonably well - people don't sense a lot of anger or hostility when they come in
  • We are visible in the world - with signs, articles in the local paper, our web site, Twitter, Facebook, etc. we make sure that people can find us easily.
  • We know what we're here for. My predecessor laid the ground work and a clear mission has emerged of a justice-seeking congregation that welcomes, accepts, loves, and thereby heals. 
  • We are not afraid. We've taken controversial stands on social justice issues and let the chips fall as they will.
  • We have good lay leadership. Our committee members and other volunteers understand our mission and put that ahead of their personal preferences.
  • We have focused on the people who need Unitarianism and are not yet among us. We strive to be conscious of their interests, tastes, needs, and ways of thinking. We have reached out to them with programming that addresses their life issues and interests.
  • We set goals and then keep our eyes on them and work to meet them. 
  • Continuous improvement - we never cease to ask how we could be doing something better
  • We are not afraid to fail - we fail often and know that this is the cost of trying new things. Experimentation is good!
This is the best I can do at this point in time. I hope it is helpful to others. 

I would just ask us all to remember that it is not only religiously conservative congregations that can grow. If we reach out to the millions who share the open-minded, open-hearted, justice-seeking perspective of Unitarianism, we will experience dramatic growth, we will transform lives, and we will make a better, more tolerant, more justice, more peaceful, and more loving world.

Monday, 17 January 2011

A prayer/meditation for the sacredness of community

I've never posted a prayer here before, and I thought I'd give it a try. If it flies like a lead balloon, it will be the first and last at the same time! (If you want to use/adapt these words, feel free! Permission granted!)
Let’s settle into our selves now for a moment, allowing the time and space we need to reconnect with the wisdom within, with the sacred as we understand it. 
Each day of our lives, we contend with challenges and we encounter wonders. We have our deep sorrows and our enlivening joys. And most of the time, we face life in our essential aloneness. 
We join together in community because we have come to know somehow that our aloneness is not enough. We have learned that the myths of individual self-sufficiency are false and toxic. We have learned that independence weakens us and our world while interdependence strengthens us all. 
Alone, we struggle to find the strength to cope with hard realities. We cast about for answers with nothing to hold on to. Alone, we fail to be present to life’s wonders and to know the deep satisfaction that comes of appreciation and gratitude. Alone, our perspective narrows until we can see little more than the inside of our own eyelids and our immediate frustrations. 
Together though, we find strength. At our best times, our togetherness brings a courage into our hearts that we could not have expected. It brings a force of love that threatens to burst from our usually tentative hearts. It deepens our longing for justice throughout our world. 
Together, a spirit emerges among us. We understand this spirit in so many different ways and know that no words are adequate – no images accurate – no understandings sufficient. 
And yet we know that the something that becomes present participates with us to recreate our lives and our world. It is to this spirit that we address ourselves now. 
Unnameable spirit, be in us and among us. May we come to open our hearts to all that is. May we be with one another in authenticity and in compassion. May we broaden our view to take in all manner of things without judgement. 
Help us to be a community of spirit – a community where love becomes real, where acceptance is unconditional, and where justice is a necessity. 

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

What about God?

To be completely honest, the word "God" does not have a lot to do with my way of being religious - at least not when I consider the word God in a traditional sense. So, when I was asked recently "what is your theology of God?" I fumbled around without a particularly clear answer. The question deserves an answer, even if only because God is the word that plays the central role in most traditional religion.

I find it easy to say what role God does NOT play in my theology. For starters, I am quite convinced that there is no God that controls our lives, unleashes natural disasters, or decides who will "miraculously" survive a terrible plane crash.

I also can not conceive of a God that needs my praise or supplication to encourage God do good in the world. If there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God, would this entity really have a delicate ego in need of human strokes?

I feel certain too that God is not an old white guy with a long beard and a golden heavenly throne. In fact, I can't accept any notion of a gendered God and I don't believe that using the kind of language we use to describe human beings is either helpful or appropriate. God is not the sort of thing we can fully describe or understand; after all, if God is beyond our full comprehension - as most traditions assert - it would probably be best if we could stop trying to do just that.

With all of those traditional images around, I'm inclined to say that the word "God" has more often been an impediment to my spiritual growth than a guide in that journey. After all, it is the prevalence of those views of the divine that kept me away from religion for so many years before I found that there are ways to be religious that don't depend on conceptions of the divine that I find so difficult and unpalatable.

But there have also been times when I have come across understandings of God that do indeed speak to me.

One of these is the conception of God as an intangible force or spirit that leads us toward the good. This God is a flow rather than a consciousness - a direction rather than an answer - a "way" rather than a rule-giver.

Another image of God is as a source - an infinite reservoir of hope and love and compassion upon which we can draw when our own stores have been depleted by misfortune, sorrow, and by the seemingly endless needs of a world in pain.

A third way of seeing God that appeals to me is God as action rather than as entity. This view sees God as the inspiration and revelation that come when we open ourselves to one another and expand ourselves and each other through a deep, authentic interchange. This "God event" brings understanding, compassion, and connection to our lives. God is - in this way of thinking - an action in which we can participate. It is a happening that brings love and justice more surely than any bearded, enthroned, divine ruler.

Can I really put together these loose ends to become a coherent answer to "what is your theology of God?" probably not, and in fact, a clear coherent view of what is essentially unknowable may be contrary to the ineffable nature of the divine essence.

But, a question asked awaits a response, if not an "answer." thus, I would say this:

I conceive of God as beyond understanding. God represents that which we can not prove, or grab hold of and which is yet central to living with wholeness and connection. The conception of God can serve us well if we are careful to avoid the trap of personification. With anthropomorphic images, understandings, and analyses set aside, the incomprehensible, intangible God becomes that which brings us back to the ways in which we choose to live faithfully: to reach outward and be filled when we are depleted, to find a way toward goodness when we are lost, and to participate in the expansive, life-embracing action that helps to create a heaven on earth.