Saturday, February 16, 2008

Role of the Church in an Intentional Community

My premise has been that America suffers under debilitating illusions and that our best solution is the creation of intentional communities seeking to disillusion themselves. These communities would model for others more just and loving ways for humans to live together. What role would the church play in such a community?

My answer involves the creation of a pizza, with the following ingredients:
  • recognition of ceremonies of human rites of passage common to most religious traditions (birth, mariage/union, death, coming of age, etc.);
  • celebration of an inclusive liturgy that honors the wisdom found in all religious traditions;
  • promotion of the principles that are the bedrock of our moral code, which again are generally common to most religious traditions;
  • education for all ages on spiritual practices and ways of understanding core elements of life and human relationships; and
  • empowerment of all citizens to pursue their unique ministries within the community.

All of these ingredients would be laid on a foundation that is noncreedal, yet open to the reverent language and imagery of all theologies. Therefore, this church will not require a belief in any supernatural being or forces, but will recognize that human knowledge is limited and that a commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning is essential.

Briefly, what do each of these ingredients of our religious pizza entail?

Rites of Passage - Every child is a holy child; love between people is our core principle; aging, life transitions, and death are natural processes.

Inclusive Liturgy - All religions derive in part from a shared foundational wisdom worthy of celebration; our church would honor all messages of universal redemption and commitment to a higher ideal.

Moral Code - Nontheism; the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods is not relevant to the creation of loving and just principles for living; as children of all universes, we are imbued with the ability to define a moral code and to live by it.

Religious Education - Science may never explain all that exists, certainly not in ways that help us here and now to deal with life's challenges; we can educate (not indoctrinate) people about the art of living and train them to use tools to cope and to aspire to greater consciousness.

Ministry - Ministry is not the task of professionally trained individuals alone; all of us have the capacity to minister to each other; each of us has gifts worth sharing that should be encouraged to blossom and grow.

Peter Morales, candidate for the Presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association has a short video on YouTube. While I have no position at this time on the election, I was moved by a sentiment he expressed relative to the need for this denomination to grow. He said that we must feed the spiritually hungry and house the religiously homeless if we are to heal and transform the world. I could not agree more. Our church, and the church I propose, would reach out to all people of every cultural and religious background - theist, atheist, deist, polytheist, pantheist, etc. - in recognition and celebration of our shared beliefs in principles affirming love, justice, and unity with all existence.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Illusions in America Today #7

I am dismayed to see this morning, yet again, that another tragic incident of mass murder has occured in our country. Sadly, the frequency of these events numbs us to their horror and paralyzes our collective action. Time and again, we read about the inability of our governments to address the issues and of our courts to maintain an equitable system of justice.

So, what is the answer? Do we lobby for tighter gun control? Do we advocate for more rational sentencing for violent crimes? Do we seek to ban televnision programming that glorifies serial killers? These are all potentially worthy responses. But, the root of the problem would remain. The root of the problem is the acceptance of violence as ever being a solution to our problems.

Now, you may immediately think, "But, what do I do when faced with the threat of violence, with the evil actions of I just roll over and let them win?" My answer is no. Does this mean that we let tyrants engage in genocide? Of course not. But, we must disillusion ourselves of the notion that in the long-term violence ever breeds anything but more violence. We must begin to commit to a societal course of nonviolence if we are to ever end the stranglehold it has on our lives. What would such a commitment mean?
  • We would strive toward a vision of national policy where every possible means is exhausted before ever considering aggressive military action.
  • We would plan for the eventual cesassion of the production and sales of all weaponry.
  • We would initiate curricular reforms in our schools to promote the principles of nonviolence and peace at every level of society.
  • We would craft more fair and constructive techniques to address criminal justice challenges, starting with the elimination of the death penalty.
  • We would migrate our investments in war to investments in domestic health and to ameliorating sources of violence, such as economic injustice, fear, hate, and poverty.
At the local level, what specific actions would an intentional community undertake to model a commitment to nonviolence?
  • All private ownership of guns would be banned. The founders of this nation never envisioned the society of today and would have been appalled at our allowing of a fringe misreading of the Bill of Rights to directly lead to thousands of murders each year.
  • Children would be taught conflict resolution skills and the community would openly and cooperatively resolve differences divorced from influences of privilege.
  • Punishments for crime would involve community service and constructive action rather than incarceration.
  • Physical and mental health provision would be a top priority for the community, to avoid the majority of problems that lead to violent behavior.
Like many of the illusions facing us today, the solution is about vision and finding the courage to name that vision and struggle toward its achievement. Prophets throughout history have taught us that nonviolence is the path to justice and the defense of human rights. Maybe we cannot achieve their dream in one lifetime, or even two or three. But, until we commit to achieving the vision, we will continue to read headlines about senseless death.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Funding for Continental Youth Programming

Apparently funding for continental youth leadership by the UUA will end in June 2008, according to a letter from the YRUU Steering Committee. As a former adult-at-large member of Youth Council with 15 years of experience in youth work in our denomination, I read this announcement with mixed feelings.

Recent directions in Young Religious Unitarian Universalists at the continental level have distressed me. For instance, I have disagreed with the prioritization of anti-racism and anti-oppression work above all other objectives, particularly given the methodology used by the training during the late 1990's and early part of this decade. I have read with increasing dismay the conclusions of the Consultation to and with Youth on Youth Ministry, seeing between the lines a carefully scripted agenda.

Continental YRUU leadership was not perfect by any means. However, eliminating Youth Council and throwing the leadership of our movement to the district and congregational level is a mistake. Youth ministry depends heavily on the encouragement and sustaining of strong leaders, both youth and adult. A congregation can consider itself fortunate to have more than one such leader. Even districts can be challenged to find people willing to shoulder the burden of sustaining healthy and thriving youth programming.

I have been involved in the Youth Adult Committee of the Ohio-Meadville District for many years and consider it to be an example of a quality program of youth ministry. But, even our program has teetered occasionally, depending perhaps too heavily on the devotion of a handful of dedicated people who too often suffer burnout from the stress.

A key problem with this decision is that it disempowers a ministry that traditionally must fight for legitimacy. At the congregational and district levels, there exist too many people who fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of youth programming in our denomination and who constantly challenge our right to host conferences and other activities. Youth empowerment is not a universally accepted ideal in our denomination, even in a district with a solid record like mine. Continental Youth Council, even functioning less than effectively, provides a legitimacy -- a recognition that the denomination supports our importance and our philosophy.

One point lost in this decision are the indirect benefits of the existence of continental youth leadership. Let me provide a personal example. Right now, there are a significant number of students pursuing Unitarian Universalist ministry at Meadville Lombard Theological School whose call came through their work in youth ministry. One fellow student served on Youth Council with me. Another I met at a YRUU Chaplain training. Many of us have experience as advisors. Who knows how many youth who have served on Youth Council have gone on to positions of leadership in our denomination who might not otherwise have done so?

Another point is one near and dear to my heart. As a writer of religious education curricula, I have advocated for many years that churches provide junior and senior high youth with more educational opportunities. I wish I had a dollar for every youth or advisor who said to me how sick they were of just coming to church every Sunday and doing nothing but checking in. Without a visible force of youth leadership at the continental level, I cannot see this situation improving. While moving the control of youth programming to the local levels sounds noble on paper, I fear that for many churches, this means that youth programming will wither and die. This is one reason why a group of us recently proposed the establishment of a youth ministry course at Meadville Lombard.

At this point, all I can do is continue to advocate for stronger youth ministry programming whenever I can. Wherever I go as minister, I plan to be directly involved with the youth of my church. I strongly promote that all seminarians and ministers consider a similar commitment.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Preparation for the Ministry

Sitting in our service yesterday, my minister related the story of Hosea Ballou's ordination. At the convention held at Oxford, Massachusetts in 1794, Ballou was in the pulpit with Elhanan Winchester and Joab Young. At the conclusion of his sermon, without warning, Winchester held the Bible against Ballou's chest, crying out, "Brother Ballou, I press to your heart the written Jehovah!" Winchester then ordered Young to charge him. My minister quipped that he imagined that I wished it would happen that quickly.

Frankly, yes I do wish it would happen that quickly. Well, at least I wish that it could happen that spontaneously. I do fantasize that I will give a sermon so moving, that the congregation would immediately demand that I be ordained on the spot. Because I am, at heart, a preacher and I believe in the power of the sermon to move people and to change lives.

One conundrum that has perplexed me throughout my long journey toward ministry involves my Uncle Bob, who died about 10 years ago. You had to meet Uncle Bob to really appreciate him. He lived in Memphis and had that mild, slow Southern drawl that just lulled you to sleep. He loved telling whoppers. I mean, he never told little lies...he told massive lies. Uncle Bob's lies were never malicious. In ancient times, he would have been an historian -- never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. And, he did it so convincingly, so gently and sincerely, that you gladly swallowed everything he fed you.

The man also loved to horse-trade. He would be driving down the street and see a car he liked in a showroom window. Into the dealership he would drive and trade in his car. I don't think the man ever owned any car for more than a year.

Oh yes, and he was a Baptist minister. Now, my Uncle Bob never went to seminary or had any formal training. He didn't take college courses on the Bible, do a module of clinical pastoral education, serve an internship, or earn a degree. But, his small congregation loved him dearly all the same. He worked a full-time job selling linens during the week, but the man was a minister.

Do I wish a path like his was open to me? I don't know. I understand the purpose of all the rigorous training and assessment. But, sometimes, I wonder whether all of this structure around the preparation of ministers somehow shapes us a little too much into standard molds. Sometimes, I wonder if all this "discernment" is really more about conforming and less about finding a true self-identity. Sometimes, I wonder if we wouldn't be a little better off having a few Uncle Bob's in our ministry.

S0, that is my challenge. I will jump through all of the hoops and complete every requirement necessary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. But, there will always be a little Uncle Bob inside, yearning to tell the occasional whopper and able to adapt and change at a moment's notice if the spirit calls or the situation demands.