Sunday, November 05, 2006

With profound regret...

I'm enabling moderation of comments.

Robyn Edgars has chosen to spam this blog, as with so many others, with off-topic remarks which revolve entirely around his bone-bruised ego and a run-in with a number of UUs years ago.

When I can figure out how to filter just his comments, I'll do so. And as long as they're on-topic, and not part of his dog-returning-to-its-vomit routine, I won't filter out those.

Censorship!, I'm sure Robyn will cry. But this isn't a public place. This is my semi-public, private space, and people who misbehave get chastised for it. I don't let guests come and insult me in my home--and if they do, I'm more than willing to show them the door and invite them not to return.

Robyn can have his own blog and complain all he wants to all who want to come listen there.

At this point, he's so abused the patience of a number of bloggers that I have trouble mustering up concern about his complaints.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Vote for God

(What the...?) I hear you cry.

That was my reaction. I even stopped and re-read the sign.

There it was, your standard American election sign, the kind that litters the side of every major street and every median, repeating the name of the same candidate 17 times in a row (taking up space to keep competitors from edging in, I guess). Just like those.

This one looked just like one.

White background, red ink, nothing else--an inexpensive sign. The graphics depicted a waving American flag. And the text read;

Vote for God

Oh dear. It didn't say what office she's running for; I'm going to have to look very carefully at the ballot to make sure I don't screw up and vote against her, because... well, you know, some candidates can be a mite vindictive about these things.

Vote for God?

I can't even begin to fathom the kind--or state--of a mind that would suggest such a thing, much less print it and post it. Right there, by the YMCA.

It kind of worries me. I mean... almost all candidates are members of a party. And this party would obviously be the Party of God. Which would be the same as Hezbollah. But that means that voting for it might get me in trouble with the feds, because that's a terrorist organization and I could find my butt in Gitmo doing serious, indeterminate long-term waterboarding at the president's pleasure.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Elephants' Graveyard

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy...

I am no great fan of modern American journalism, its practitioners oft seem to have fallen to such a shameful state that it seems one could start stacking sins (venal and mortal, both) on their doorsteps. Slothful, proud, greedy, they have prostituted themselves and dragged a profession, once held in high regard, to the level of public esteem generally reserved for used car salesmen, IRS agents, divorce lawyers and politicians.

Thus it is with hesitation that I put much weight on the Washington Post's articles on the woes of the GOP in the Northeast and the Midwest. But I see signs of the same thing in other parts of the nation, as well as in other media. The Mountain West is restive; when Idaho Republicans (elected Republicans, too!) are out badmouthing the GOP incumbent in the 1st District there... there's blood in the water. The Democrats have been capturing governorships, state legislatures, house and senatorial seats in those states; the leave-us-alone little-"l" libertarians have started to abandon the GOP in a big way. When some of the most popular governors in the nation are in places like Montana and Kansas... the GOP's in trouble. When Kansan moderates have given up their marriage of convenience with the far right, and are leaving the GOP to run for office as Democrats... well, we're not in Oz anymore.

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

The GOP claims to stand for things like patriotism, states' rights, the Constitution, small government, fiscal conservatism, low taxes, and keeping the government out of people's lives. It's never made any secret of being cozy with big business, but the rest of that platform has real appeal to many, many Americans.

However, the long, promising fan dance seems to have failed. What was hinted at, promised teasingly... turns out to be a fraud. In every case, what the GOP has delivered has been--at best--a shoddy imitation of the real thing, a Wal-Mart version of some public good. All too often, it's been an outright fraud.

GOP patriotism has turned out to mean flag waving; as if to prove the bitter observation that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, the GOP's loudest voices in favor of asking Americans to make the ultimate sacrifice for their nation--to put their lives on the line and volunteer for military service during wartime--belong to a cadre of gutless cowards. Almost to a man (and woman) they've never served in the military; not even in peacetime. Young Republicans, the ones being groomed (and grooming themselves) for power, are studiously avoiding service. When called on it, their feeble excuses range from having more important things to do, to having families to support and raise, to being busy fighting the culture war. Those are stained banners, borne by small, craven men and women. Anyone who would ask, encourage and expect their countrymen to take up arms, and not be willing to do the same is simply yellow, despicable, and a disgrace.

States' rights turns out to have largely been a code phrase, a tip of the hat to the trailing edge of open racism that the GOP embraced in its "Southern Strategy." When put to the test, the GOP has been more than willing to blow hot and cold about states' rights, depending on no principle more substantial than convenience and opportunism. If it might buy votes, then states' rights was a cause to uphold. If it cost votes, it was to be ignored. Hypocrisy, pure and simple.

GOP support for the Constitution has been similarly marked with a lacksadaisical disregard. There's barely an amendment in the Bill of Rights that the current administration hasn't trampled, and the GOP Congress has not only ignored that, it's proposed laws to approve--ex post facto--the violations. The fundamental concept of our form of government, dividing power between branches consciously and willfully set somewhat at odds with each other, in order to impose limits and constraints on each other, has been assaulted. The presidency has claimed legislative powers with its signing states, the authority to ignore laws passed by Congress (on the grounds that the presidency has vast, inherent powers that the Congress may not infringe--and interpreting that in ways that might shame even a Caligula), and has generally abused the judiciary, essentially ignoring it when decisions were inconvenient and even running media campaigns to discredit judges and decisions not favorable to the administration.

Small government? The GOP doesn't believe in that. Under Reagan, it bloated. Under Bush II, it's ballooned.

The idea of fiscal conservatism is, I believe, dead. Or rather, it's been done to death, most foully. It's a phrase that's now mostly bitterly ironic; if someone talks about fiscal conservatism... grab your wallet and start actively protecting the well-being of your children... and grandchildren. The numbers simply don't lie; fiscal conservatism has meant the open plundering of the treasury for private gain, massive transfers of wealth to the already very rich, and running up debts at a rate that is simply staggering. It's hard to remember that only six years ago, the federal government was running a surplus and paying down the debt. Debt, deficit, credit spending and profligate borrowing turns out to be the definition of "fiscal conservatism." It's a phrase to avoid for future politicians. It sold the idea that conservatism was good and responsible... and reality has shown otherwise. Americans wanted fiscal responsibility, and got sold a bill of goods.

Low taxes. Ah, yes, low taxes. This is the best example of bait and switch in a long time. You see, taxes were lowered mostly on the very rich and the merely rich--and particularly on the staggeringly rich. For the middle class, a three-card monte game was played. The numbers were fudged to make it look like there were tax breaks--but what was given with one hand was taken by the other. Worst of all, since the idea of a balanced budget was being gleefully raped by the GOP at the same time, the reality is that taxes were merely delayed. We'll still have to pay them. But we'll pay later, with interest. And so will our children. Claims that the economy would magically improve from all the careful GOP tending have panned out with the weakest "recovery" in modern times. Wages for the average worker are flat after taking inflation into account, even while profits are up... and corporate executive salaries are up strongly. The idea that tax receipts would be made up by a booming economy turns out to have been nothing but the blandishments of snake-oil salesmen.

Talking about staying out of people's lives is bitterly ironic. Even without dipping into the repeated efforts to turn homosexuals into offically second class citizens, the hypocrisy of this claim is apparent. The administration, openly abetted by Congress, has violated the privacy of millions and millions of Americans, spying without warrants and without cause, blatantly violating the Constitution as well as FISA.

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people

Still, much of the above seemed obvious to many of us before the 2004 elections. Were it not for watching GOP candidates, including incumbents who've lived in Bush's bed, running to get distance from his leaden polling numbers, I would doubt. Were it not that leading behind-the-scenes arch-'conservatives' like Richard Vigurie are counselling a retreat; retrenchment in their think tanks and bastions, hoping that somehow the people will turn back to the GOP after a few years (for what?), I'd worry even now.

It's a bitter thing to recognize that what one has put one's trust, faith, belief in is a lie--and that's kept many Repoublicans from looking at the performance of the administration and the GOP Congress and recognizing it for the disaster it is. WHen that faith shatters, the price paid by the GOP will be high, very high.

You were a stranger to sorrow: therefore Fate has cursed you.

The GOP has played politics ruthlessly and with only one objective--power. To a degree, that's the nature of politics; it's not a gentle sport, nor a genteel one. But it does have certain fundamental rules, the foremost of which is that it has to be practiced with the public good foremost in mind. Were the economy glorious and diplomatic success crowning the laurels of military adventure, the people would forgive, forget and ignore a lot--mulcting the public treasury, sex scandals, etc.

But the economy isn't good. Diplomacy appears to have been made a prostitute for military and political short term objectives, and military adventures are... well... just this side of disasterous--so far. All the evidence tends to suggest that the sacrifice of American lives (not to mention the long civilian casualty list in Iraq), treasure, and international stature will have been for nothing. In terms of history, this administration promises to be the Ozymandias Administration; nothing but vainglorious boasts inscribed... surrounded by vast wastelands.

And this will all have been done under the rubric of "compassionate conservatism," in an era where the GOP has had almost unfettered control of the entire apparatus of government.

Fate will not be kind to such incompetence and failure. It's that which leads me to think that the near future holds an elephant's graveyard. Better to fashion a new party, devoid of the baggage and evil-reputation staining the GOP, to forge new alliances, than to try to persuade people who remember just how bad conservative control of government can be.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Tar Baby War

It's August... ok, so it's not August, yet. It feels like it here, and it feels like it on the world stage; August 1914, that is.

One small bit of local stupidity, and then, like watching a glacier calving, everyone's sliding into the water. Only it's hot; very, very hot water. Every act seems to be the conjoined twin of some historical action of necessity; we can't stop the mobilization scheme while the diplomats try to sort it out and restore peace, that would bollux everything up completely, and the enemy would race ahead and invade while we're still getting our switching signals figured out again.

Of course, it's better these days. The logistical planning involved is computerized, and fast.

Unfortunately, it appears that stupidity has kept up with intelligence in the psycho-emotive arms race. All those tools seem to do is allow the minuet of death to be played staccato, accelerando.

Escalation is something to be struggled against, not embraced. One wonders what Israel might have done if a dozen soldiers had been captured. For that matter, what the US would have done if there'd been a really serious terror event--the kind that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the Cannot Tell A Truth gang have warned about in almost every speech they've given, you know, a nuke, a real WMD. Given that we've destablized large swaths of the Near and Middle East, killed a hundred thousand people, and opened the gates wide for terror recruiting and training, it's hard to imagine what could be worse.

Which doesn't mean that it can't get worse. It can, certainly.

In 1914, no one envisioned trench warfare. Gas. The Somme. Gallipoli. Just as when war broke out in 1939, no one imagined entire cities obliterated, whether by firebombings creating an inferno or a single atomic bomb.

Hamas has goaded Israel into reacting--in a way that strengthens Hamas. So has Hezbollah. In the same way, Osama goaded Bush into doing exactly what he wanted--an invasion of an Arab, Muslim nation. That it was as secular a state (anathema to Al Qaeda!) was gravy. That it delivered hell to a nation with a Shi'ite majority (anathema to Al Qaeda!) was dessert. Israel is smashing Lebanon, ensuring a failed state on its northern border--which is the thing it needs least.

We're watching the world act, repeatedly, in its own worst interests. No one seems to be able to stop; they've touched the Tar Baby, and they're stuck. Unable to find the calm to actually figure out how to back out of a bad situation, they're... escalating.

I'd like to think that it won't get that bad. I'd like to think that there's more sanity out there. But we have the drumbeat of the neocons, calling for a quick, fun, happy, lightning strike to take out Iran, too. Like Iraq, Iran will greet Americans with open arms (as they have since 1979) and flowers. Their evil oppressors will be driven howling by American arms (pace General Van Riper), and the real Iranians will take power. Just like in Iraq.

Somewhere, some young poet is honing skills, to write the 21st century's equivalent of Wilfred Owen's lines;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

From the cluttered desk and mind of a historian, I have just one warning. It won't work out, that shining fantasy. Bitterness and desolation will be coupled with national bankruptcy and the loss of another generation--to war, to depression, drugs, disbelief.

I'm not suggesting that just stopping will magically make it better. Just that I see nothing that anyone is doing that will, that can. Every action seems an opium dream. Hezbollah will be shattered by Israel's attack--save that the last time that Israel attacked Lebanon like this, they succeeded in creating Hebollah. So it really is an insane act. And so are the others....

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Semper Reformandum

Over at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist, Dan Harper (what is this with bloggers who don't at least have a nom de plume--even if they're not really blogging anonymously?) offers... no wait. Mr. Crankypants, Dan's smart alter ego (ok, so maybe this obviates my remark...) promulgates a revision of the Seven Principles.

Knowing that no words shall ever be used as a creed among us, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association do enter into covenant together to uphold these religious principles:

That every person is worthy of love; and therefore we shall treat each other, and all human beings, with justice tempered by love and compassion;

That we shall remain religious seekers all our lives, acknowledging that as individuals we are finite beings with limited understanding; and therefore we acknowledge that we must remain responsive to the insights of other human beings, particularly those within our covenanted religious community;

That we shall depend on love, reason, and liberty in the day-to-day and year-to-year running of our religious communities, making them an example to the world of the best in human communities;

That we shall promote openness, fairness, and honesty in in our own communities and in all human interactions, living out the highest democratic principles to the end that we shall resist authoritarianism wherever it springs up;

That we shall extend morality and our love to all living beings and Earth’s entire biosphere.

Ongoing revelation continually opens new insights to humanity. We acknowledge the beauty and insights present in all great world religious traditions; we recognize that as a religious movement we are rooted in the Western religious traditions, though individuals among us may be rooted in other traditions; and we recognize our responsibility to re-interpret Western religious traditions in light of the lives we live in the present.

As free, but mutually interdependent, congregations we enter into this covenant; we promise to one another our mutual trust and support; and should we break this covenant with other congregations, we shall accept the guidance of, and appropriate discipline by, other congregations within this covenant.

Criticisms offered (there, in the comments, not here):

Too wordy. Now, while I am fond of gnawing text (yes, yes, other people's text) down to its juicy marrow and discarding all the useless gristle, I want to at least start by observing that the Principles in their current form are pretty damned spare. In fact, that may be part of their problem; there's really not any poetry to them. So breathing some spirit into them may require more words.

Quibbling about "finite" and "earthbound." Would that I could channel Peacebang's gentle deflation here. Look, these are going to be reviewed again in 15 (if we remember to fulfill the requirement of the bylaws) or 20 (ahem) years. Now, I grew up with the space race, and visions of exploring Mars and settling the Moon danced in my head growing up.... But yeah, finite and eathbound. I don't think there's really any argument that suggests we're infinite, boundless beings. And I see no plausible case that we're going to be unbound from Earth within the next 20 years. To quote Bill the Cat, "Thbbbt!"

To update and freshen the Principles.
To rescue them from the oft-heard complaint that they're dry as pretzels.
To see if the spirit, as well as intellect, of UUism--as currently understood--can be poured into them.

With that, I offer an effort at editing and amending Mr. Crankypants' offering. (There are a couple egregious grammatical violations I ache to bite off....)

Affirming our faith's rejection of creed, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to uphold these religious principles:

Every person is worthy of love; we shall treat each other, and all beings, with justice tempered by love and compassion;

We remain religious seekers; acknowledging that we are finite beings with limited understanding, and that therefore we must remain open and responsive to the insights of others, particularly those within our faith;

We shall depend on love, reason, and liberty in governing our religious communities; offering an example to the world;

We shall promote openness, fairness, and honesty in in our congregations, and in all interactions, resisting authoritarianism and living out the highest democratic principles;

We shall responsibly extend our love and care to all living things and all the Earth.

Ongoing revelation offers new insights to humanity. We acknowledge the beauty and wisdom present in all the world's religious traditions; we recognize our religious movement's roots in the Western religious traditions and the rich inspiration many of us find in other traditions; we affirm the value and need for mystery, wonder and reason, and we recognize our responsibility to re-interpret religious traditions in light of the present.

As free and interdependent congregations we enter into this covenant; we promise to one another our mutual trust and support; should we break this covenant, we shall listen, accept guidance and appropriate discipline by other congregations within this covenanted association. This is our bond of union.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's never that easy

So, there I was, chirping along that doves had come to nest in our doorway. Peace had fluttered in and settled in a silly place....

Last night I got home late, the kids had been up late too and were just in bed (the lights on in their rooms). As I came up the path... I saw feathers.

In that instant, I knew some animal--probably a cat--had been into the nest. I looked more closely; there were a fair number of large feathers and some fluff. It didn't look good. I peeked at the nest, and in the half light could see more fluff hanging on a bit of dead grass sticking up from the nest... and nothing. The nest was empty.

I was crushed, and I knew that our sons would be too. I knew my younger son would be just devastated... and that he'd be on himself because he's befriended one of the cats that cruises through our yard. No, he's more or less tried to befriend every cat that does. He's not alone in that, we're on good neighbor terms with all the cats that wander through and those that come calling. But I knew he'd focus on the fact he'd been friendly with a nice, fluffy cat that's been around lately....

I chose to say nothing to them last night; the trauma and angst would be a lousy way to end the day, and he'd probably have lost sleep, too. And there was nothing to do about it. It was bad news that could wait.

So after my wife went to bed, I kind of mulled over my own stupidity in adopting the doves as some sort of mythic symbol, peace come to roost... and the grimness of it being butchered there. (How apt. How often peace does settle in and then some self-centered cat comes along and makes a snack of it?)

I told my wife she could just make a break for it in the morning; I'd deal with the boys, the trauma. Go on, flee; it's ok, I'll deal with it.

But she didn't get away before my son went out to check on the doves. (thud)

So when he called for her from the front entry, we knew...

I followed her out, all primed to talk about it... nature... and he seemed sad, but calm, and started to talk about how it was probably the cat that he'd been visiting with, that had been around. His brother trooped out, having heard the hubbub, to see.

He's now as tall as I am, so he just peered into the nest--and spotted still there, the color of the potting soil and dry grasses of the nest, a remaining chick. Alive, unharmed.

Well, we couldn't leave it there.

We'd researched, and we knew that doves share sitting on a nest, so there was probably still a parent around--but it hadn't been there last night, and wasn't there now. It seemed quite likely that it's been scared off, and with all the evidence of feathers... not likely to return.

So we're fostering a dove. Feeding, every half hour. Messy thing, peace.

It's not something that just descends upon you and settles in the dooryard. No, you have to tend it with an eyedropper, every half-hour.

Monday, May 22, 2006


My little baby younger brother's supposed to be calling me right back. I'm not sure I liked the tone of his voice... and no, that's not whining about his tone with me.

He's got a tentative diagnosis of sarcoidosis; the initial biopsy was inconclusive.

Now they want to do serious exploratory surgery to get a bigger tissue sample to determine what's going on with his lungs (he's down to 50% or less of lung capacity). Assuming it does confirm sarcoidosis, it can be treated--and sometimes it responds after six months of Prednisone or something similar.

Or not. If it responds, he's told he could recover up to 70% of lung capacity.

If not, he'll be a candidate for lung transplant surgery.

Doves on the Doorstep.

To really appreciate this, you need a little more background; not only is the dove a symbol worldwide for peace, life and innocence, our UU Fellowship is named in honor of the Palomar Observatory… and Palomar means place of the dove.

So about a month ago, racing in and out of the house with my teen and near-teen sons, I began to notice birds in the patio by the front entry. It’s not unusual; we’ve intentionally planted things that attract hummingbirds and provide food and shelter for a number of birds. But this was odd, because these birds were in the central area of the patio; always fluttering away from the table there, and the umbrella over it.

Eventually, it dawned on me that they were building a nest in one of the hanging plants that had been hung under the umbrella to get them out of the sun (so we could nurse them back to vibrancy after being sadly neglected). Only now there was the beginning of a nest in one of the pots.

At first I thought that they’d rapidly decide they’d moved into the wrong neighborhood and give up this spot. There’s no other reasonable way in and out of the house and with all the comings and goings… they were getting disrupted constantly. I considered just moving the pots under the eaves in a less trafficked spot….

And then they started sitting on the nest.

Indeed, there are now two eggs there, and one or the other of the doves sits on them all the time. They ignore us only two or three feet away, zooming in and out of the house (though we’re all trying to be considerate…).

We’ve got doves being raised essentially right in the entryway.

The symbolism’s marvelous; now all I need is to figure out how to get beyond the symbolism...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sermon: "Don't Rock the Boat"

I promised a number of people I'd post the sermon I gave this morning... so here it is without ado or modification. I've been urged to extract part of it and turn it into an article for The World; we'll see...

Today I hope to give a sense of where I see our movement—UUism—and where our congregation, Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, is within that movement. It’s my intention to point out a blind alley I see too many people barking up, and to offer and explain an alternative path which is fundamentally consistent with what our faith is about. I’m also offering a critique of our behavior and an appeal, an invitation, to begin to correct that.

Although this has begun to change in the last couple of years, for the past few decades the functional Unitarian Universalism motto seems to have been “Don’t rock the boat.” Well… hold on, because by that standard… I aim to misbehave. Lest you panic, I’ll remind you, it is customary for Unitarians and Universalists to rock the boat. Our movement’s heroic figures are people who were boat rockers. They critiqued their religion. They criticized each other’s failings. They expounded in print and in lectures against the errors, failings, and corruption of government, religion, and society.

And they won. They won. Over and over, people and institutions changed their ways.

How did we get afraid of having the boat rocked? I don’t know. If I figure it out, I’ll report back. But that’s not my objective today; I’m not offering an illuminating discussion of how Unitarian Universalists got afraid of rocking the boat.

First, I’m going to pop some popular balloons.

You may have heard at some point that here you could believe anything you wanted. Maybe you heard that when you became a UU—a Unitarian Universalist—or maybe it’s why you came in the first place. Or maybe you just heard it in conversation. I tell you, Nonsense.

We won’t tell you what to believe, but we really do expect that UUs will believe something; something they’ve worked hard at finding—something, in fact, that they find they must believe. However, it’s more than that.

If you didn’t believe the world could be changed, you wouldn’t be here. If, despite what sometimes seems like overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you didn’t believe that if we actually love and respect each other, the world will change, you wouldn’t be here.

Maybe you heard it’s easy to be a UU (if it were so easy, there ought to be lots of us!). Maybe you’ve heard that this is a comfortable little religion that won’t ask much of you; a faith that doesn’t care if you show up or don’t. No. We expect you to work hard, to search hard, to sweat bullets to figure out what it is that you believe, and we expect you to stand up for it. Easy to be UU? Baloney. It’s not easy, but it is profoundly liberating.

We won’t tell you that sleeping in on Sunday imperils your immortal soul. We won’t tell you that God is angry. We won’t lie to you to get you to act in your own best interest. But we are asking you for things that discomfit you. For starters—and this is the easy part—it takes money to run this place, to run our movement. Compared to almost all other religions, UUs are notoriously tight-fisted. Not simply frugal—that’s a good thing, but frugality has to do with not wasting money, not spending it carelesslynot with not providing enough to get things done. We’re notorious, despite the fact that most of us are better off than average, for not funding our religion. Just recently, I was looking at surveys done here three years ago. There were significantly fewer of us here then. Only some of the members returned surveys, and only some of them answered questions asking them to anonymously identify what broad categories their incomes were in (there is some awkward truth to the joke that the religious conservative will talk about money, but not sex, and the religious liberal will talk about sex, but not money). In playing with that data, I had the startling discovery that if just those members who answered that survey question were to pledge three percent of their incomes then (that’s the target that our national association has been encouraging), it would more than cover the entire pledge which we’ve budgeted for this coming year. That ignores the fact that there were many other members then, and it ignores the fact that there are even more members now.

How embarrassing. Our faith—what we believe in—is of such importance to us that we grudgingly provide enough money for it to scrape by. Not all of us; some are giving all they can afford. But not most of us; let’s not delude ourselves. Those great social justice projects we’d like to see supported? It’s rather hard to do when we have to strain—and beg—to get the bills paid. Are you squirming yet?

I know I am. I’m up here preaching this… and I am as much its target as you are.

The world could change—a glorious aspiration, and one we’re afraid of, or we’d put our money where our mouths are. Both here, locally, and in the nation, we could have vastly more impact. We could apply our wealth and energy and intelligence and have much more leverage in addressing social needs, economic justice and the problems of our political system.

To those of you who give generously—and that’s not a measure of how many dollars you give, but a measure of what you can afford to give—thank you. I am grateful for that, and I know that the board and others, laboring on all our behalves, are as well. To those of you who have dug deep and stretched to fund the needs here and all the urgent needs of social action and crises around the world, thank you. I do understand if you feel a bit weary.

I’m not done though; I’ve hardly begun (and I still have… oh, another 15 minutes or so). It’s not just our money that this movement needs. It’s our time and commitment. This fellowship survives because of a fairly small band of people who go out of their way to make it survive. Some have been coming for years, for decades, several days a week, to do the sexy jobs like being in charge of a committee or being on the board. (Yeah, if you’ve done those things, you know to laugh….) Those folks also come to do photocopying and folding and stamp-licking and mailing, to mow the lawn, repair the sprinklers, clear blocked sinks and toilets, and so on.

To those who’ve been doing this work, thank you. Thank you for your time, energy and devotion. To those who didn’t realize, there are plenty of opportunities to help carry the load, to help make all this happen. I invite you to volunteer.

So, we want a faith that’s going to change the world? Well, I will be blunt; it’s impossible to do on a little time and a little money. To change the world, we need more people to step up, to help make things happen.

Don’t rock the boat. Where that idea came from, why it took root, I have no idea. But the Unitarians and Universalists who were bedrocks for abolitionism rocked the boat, and they didn’t do it on modest donations and convenient commitments of their time—of their lives—to their faiths. We’ve rocked the boat so successfully that other folks have changed to get us to stop doing it.

The wildly heretical Universalist idea that everyone would be saved scandalized America when it was preached as doctrine. Today, according to a Pew research study, three-quarters of Americans say that many religions can lead to eternal life, and only 18 percent regard their own religion as the “one true faith.” Do you hear that? A message our movement proclaimed for generations is now held by most Americans—and it’s held despite the fact that some of the churches those people attend actually teach otherwise. Most Americans adhere to this Universalist teaching, despite the fact that their faiths reject it, and despite the fact that they don’t even know where that teaching came from.

We know that the world can be changed, and changed radically. Our tradition—our rich traditions, for we inherited more than one tradition—tell us this. Our histories offer us examples of thriving in hard times, and under oppression, surviving. Our histories show us that we can reach out and inspire others; we can reach out and find other hands, attached to other minds that share our concerns and goals, and we can change the world. But we can’t do it by not rocking the boat.

Right now (this is my considered opinion), our movement is caught up in the most annoying navel-gazing—not that a little reflective navel-gazing is a bad thing. But we’ve done it for too long. Everywhere among UUs in conversation, and in the deep, weighty, ponderous considerations of our national association’s independent appraisal body, there’s this question. It’s “that question.”

That question—the one that we’re afraid of being asked—is “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” I believe many of us are so afraid of it that it’s a key reason we’ve stopped evangelizing (yeah, I saw some of you cringe. That’s one of those words many UUs don’t use comfortably). But all evangelizing really means is spreading good news. And as uncomfortable as I am with the word… we do have something that I believe the world needs to hear.

That word. Belief? We stop dead in our tracks. Egads. Deer-in-the-headlights looks and stumbling for some explanation. Too long we’ve defined ourselves in negative terms… “We don’t believe that…”. Guess what? No one much cares what we don’t believe, and that’s not the question they ask. They want to know what it is we believe. What makes us tick? What’s the fire of our faith? What makes those of us who get it—even if we’re unable to articulate it—open our wallets and spend our lives to make this continue? What’s it all about, why is this faith so important?

The answer is that we’re being asked the wrong question, and so we can’t answer it—not unless we understand that the real answer is bigger, because what’s crucial about UUism is not what we believe. I’m not talking about the seven principles. I’m not talking about the values that we share. We know them, and we can articulate them. But when we go to answer “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” we look in… and can’t find anything.

There’s a reason. It’s not that we can’t put a finger on it. It’s not even that we’re incompetent and can’t figure it out. It’s that there really isn’t any “there” there. This faith is not like the others. It’s not about what we believe in.

Society in the West—and I mean “the West” in the broadest sense—has long been caught up in belief. Religious wars are fought over belief. The defenders of orthodoxy have massacred heretics and infidels and hunted unbelievers… all in pursuit of upholding orthodoxy, which means nothing more (or less) than “right belief.” So when we’re asked “But what do you believe?”, people are asking us what our orthodoxy is, what positions are we bunkered in, what theological fortresses are we defending, and who are the enemy? It’s not an unreasonable question. They’d like to figure out if they are the enemy, so that they can back away slowly, their hands on their scriptures…

Almost all of us grew up in that society. We’re so used to the idea of orthodoxy that we assume it, too—despite the fact that liberal religion developed in reaction to oppressive orthodoxy. There must be something we believe.

But we don’t. There. There’s the secret; I’ve revealed it. There is no UU orthodoxy. There is nothing that we, in that profound religious sense, believe. Not that individual UUs don’t. But the movement as a whole doesn’t. We have credos, individually; things we believe, but there’s nothing left of creed.

Scary, huh? Can you imagine the look on the face of the person in the elevator or grocery line—or your co-worker or family member—when you tell them that? “Oh, there’s nothing that our religion believes in.” I assure you, they will be utterly baffled; you’re not the enemy, you’re some kind of bug-eyed alien.

So, I hear you start to ask… “if there’s nothing that this movement is about, then why are we here and why is this so very important?”

That’s not what I said. I didn’t say there wasn’t anything we’re about, I said that there’s nothing that, as a movement, we believe. And yes, I’m repeating that, because it’s such an alien thought that I suspect that if it’s not repeated, it will leak out of our heads and you won’t quite believe that you heard it. There is something that we’re about. But it’s a case of religion, after a fashion, coming full circle.

The great monotheistic religions have all been caught up in questions of orthodoxy. Judaism, because of its roots, has been less so. But even so, the larger culture and its history has certainly created large movements within it and counter-movements about what is orthodox. Christianity is a posterchild for the study of obsession with orthodoxy, and Islam’s hardly been any better, as anyone can affirm if they understand something of the Shi’ites and Sunnis (just to name the largest sects).

But ancient religion usually wasn’t caught up in orthodoxy, in believing the right things. It was caught up in orthopraxy—in case that’s your new word for the day; it means “right practice.” It was perfectly acceptable, if a shade risqué, for a Roman to express disbelief in the gods of Rome. Others might chide him for saying things that would scandalize the lower classes, but that’s as far as it would go. What wasn’t acceptable, and was in fact criminal, was to refuse to participate, to not practice the religion. Roman religion bound their society together and provided critical underpinnings for the Roman state. As long as one participated and scrupulously observed the practices of the religion, all was well. One was, in fact, pious; even if one didn’t believe—and yes, I’m going to urge piety here too. You know what’s right; I want us to do it, each and every day.

Now, I’m not about to encourage you to undertake practices that don’t mean anything to you. But I wanted to help you understand how religion can be all about practice, and not about belief. In actual practice, the two are almost always somewhat mixed.

For us, as with the ancients, practice is what matters. Only we’ve got a religion that is sparing of ceremony and ritual, and there’s no pantheon we worship whose rites need to be observed. So… what is UU practice?

The axiom says… follow the money. People fund what’s important. Perhaps a reason we’ve not been rocking the boat and been so tight with our time and money is that we’ve lost sight of what’s important, particularly as our movement gave up the last trappings of being a Christian denomination, as we gave up our last tie to being a religion of belief.

Where is it we put our time and money? One place is into Social Justice work. We firmly believe that we can change the world, that we can fix it… somehow… one painful step at a time. This is not instant gratification work; whether we are feeding the homeless or walking for peace, these are things we do to—at some distant, unseen day—help heal our world. When the call comes for money to provide relief, or assistance, to feed the hungry and help them feed themselves, we step up. We step up and we commit amounts of money that amaze us. We commit time. We commit ourselves.

The other place we put time and money is here—into the intangible thing that we call community, that thing we believe is becoming the Beloved Community. I’ll remind you that it’s just a seed for that, because the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King, Jr described will be “a world whose people and nations had triumphed over poverty, racism, war and violence.” And we are not there yet. We’re not there, and we haven’t even met our pledge target this year.

(By now you’ve noticed that I’m urging you to stretch a little farther, if you can. I don’t want you to think that “you” doesn’t mean “us”—Barbara and I already made our pledge, as have most people here. We’re increasing our pledge by $1000… and the sound you just heard was our pledge chair going “ka-ching!”)

This place, this sacred place, is where we come to remember, to renew our hopes, to light our dreams anew. It’s where we plan. It’s where we work to overcome poverty, it’s where we try to understand racism and other oppressions, and move beyond them. It’s where we strain to understand how to make peace and live peace. It’s where we reaffirm our opposition to violence as a means and as an end. It’s where we find our community, where our children are raised and nourished. It’s where we challenge our beliefs. It’s where we come with wounds needing healing, where we come with sorrows that need holding, and with joys that demand sharing.

That is our practice; no small thing, because it demands attention every day. That is the heart and soul of our faith. It’s coming together and living the principles that we affirm, the ideals that almost all religions proclaim. But they don’t need to be proclaimed. They need to be lived. So we UUs undertake to live them, without imposing any additional baggage or complications that might get in the way of anyone else practicing with us.

That, I tell you, that is our common ground. That is our sacred practice. At our inmost core, Unitarian Universalism is about our bonds and ties to each other and to the rest of the universe; it’s about our commitment to saving ourselves—and all humanity, the whole world—from ourselves. We work out our own salvation, all of us, together.

That’s what we’re called to. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we must rock the boat, even when it feels very, very scary. It’s what justifies giving, and giving, and giving again of our time, our money, and our commitment. That’s the demand that this faith really makes of us, it’s nothing more—or less—than your soul and your life. We just expect you to have a damned good time while doing it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A Little Light Reading

I've been busy, and I've been ill. I've also felt that I didn't have much to write about--or perhaps it's just that my mental energies and writing have been directed to such entertaining projects as the search for a Director of Religious Education, a new building (we break ground in June), the progress of the pledge drive, worrying about my brother's health, and so on.

In part, I've been drained by the drumbeat for more war. I can't fathom going looking for WWIII.

Certainly my reading of late hasn't been light, fluffy and upbeat. I've been burrowing my way through Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, which makes a case that the nation's financially overextended already, among other things, in the kinds of ways that heralded the demise of Hapsburg Spain, The Dutch Republic and Imperial Britain. I'm not obsessed with the idea that the US needs to be the world's dominant power, but I'm enough of a historian to know how much discomfort and misery the decline of a great state means for its average citizens -- and for the citizens of other nations that get caught in the grinding of imperial transmissions revving up to impress everyone.

To tackle something else, I picked up Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. I'm not even a quarter of the way through, yet, but it's an interesting read, both because of his personal tale (perhaps described best by suggesting that getting educated has a well-known tendency to bias one towards liberal views), and because of his bringing his education in things I'm never going to get around to mastering to bear on things like the origins of the Christian Scriptures. Fascinating... and not likely to make fundamentalists very happy.

The last one I've really barely cracked, Jon Meacham's American Gospel. But it's about the founding of the American Republic and the issue of religion then and since.

It hasn't been all work and no play--though the play has seemed to be of the hard work sort at times. A group of us got together and learned (or, in my case, relearned...) Morley's madrigal "Now is the Month of Maying," for a service. Trying to coordinate five voices and three instruments--with everyone having busy schedules, illnesses, surgery...--was a challenge, and the piece didn't really come all the way together until the day before the service. But the performance went off quite well.

The Fellowship has a choir, an ensemble, a house band, and sometimes a jazz quartet. We're not sure if we've just done one madrigal once... or whether there's now a madrigal group as well. Some lunatic suggested a barbershop quartet as well, and unfortunately, that seems to enthrall the minister. Meanwhile, my wife and a few others really want to start a UU Taiko group.

I begin to wonder who is going to sit in the audience while everyone's performing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Too Many Things

It's my favorite--and I mean favorite--whine. Naturally, I arrange my life so that I can indulge in it, frequently and legitimately.

The house is cluttered (and a mess), and there's just too damned much stuff. Everywhere. It's particularly easy to look at it and see everyone else's stuff that's strewn, abandoned, not put away. Or that is either part of the cause, or simply a symptom, of too many things that don't have a place they should be. Of course, there's mine, too.

Not, of course, that I purchased or permitted the purchase of any of that stuff. Or failed to purge my own.

The rest of life seems that way, too. The fellowship wants all the time I can commit. Not consciously, of course. It's in the form of "one more thing," and "since you're in charge..." (in charge? The idea that anyone is 'in charge' of a group of UUs boggles my mind. Leads, yes--that can be done, with a clever and idiosyncratic blend of goad, bait, humor and vision)... "could you...". Then there are all the good causes; all the things that I'd like to encourage to flourish, or just take root. New programs, special interest groups, and the like--some of which are things I might have committed myself to seriously a few years ago, when I (I like to tell myself) had more free time. Or things I might, in a few years, when I (I like to imagine) will have more time. Of course, I excuse myself. I have lots to do, so I'm making my presence known, showing that there's board approval (as if I embodied that...) for such things--and that's not really false. It's not necessary; none of these things require approval. In fact, the board's approval should be a moot point; as long as there's nothing that the board needs to formally disapprove, all's well.

So come July, I'll be able to withdraw from being a presence, because the new governance model is explicitly "permission-granting."

Right. Yeah, sure.

I have miles to go, before I sleep, as the poem goes. And a house I should really clean. No, more than that. I should make jihad, a great, personal struggle against the infidel clutter that's in my way, and the myriad projects I really need to complete.

But first... a meeting.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Milking Stones

It's budget time; we're taking on a DRE and a Music Director, along with all the normal "creeping costs" that help a budget to grow each year. We're also building a new building--and naturally--the first solid estimate came in way over all the carefully researched, conservative estimations that the project was approved on.

Another call for more money, piled on another.

To those involved in trying to make these things happen--the budgets that the congregation votes for, the building they approve--it feels like milking stones. They want it, but they don't want to pay for it.

Which is, of course, very human. Free would be nice, whatever it is. Of course, we don't really appreciate things that are free the same way that we appreciate and care for things that we really have invested in (money, or blood, sweat and tears. Or both). But we'd still like it free.

We shuffle figures. We find creative ways to spread the cost, to make clear how much we're getting for how very little. It's a shade embarrassing, somehow, in the midst of this, to look at some data from nearly three years ago. The large (but incomplete) fraction of the congregation that returned our survey indicating their income ranges; about 75% of households reported. Had only those folks donated 3% of their incomes then, we'd have exceeded our pledge target for this year by nearly 5%. But we've grown, and there's reason to think that the average and median incomes have risen....

I'm not sure where to go with this. I'm not interested in brow-beating anyone. But for all that "this" seems to mean to people, what they're willing to donate seems... well... painfully tight.

How much of this is the mindset of "no taxes" that the political culture's been aiming for? The idea that if we just cut the fat.... There's no fat. None. Amazing things are being done with absurd budgets. With $50 in the budget for Social Justice, we somehow raise and donate... oh, perhaps 20% of the actual operating budget to Heifer, to tsunami relief, to Gulf Coast relief, to flood relief in Transylvania, to supporting and assisting a New Orleans refugee family in resettling and transitioning out of poverty, as well as at least a dozen local charities.

But scraping up a few thousand dollars to pay for the music that's become so vibrant, that so many appreciate every Sunday (at least), that's hard?

What's it take to get people to pay to get what they really want?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

And now a word from our sponsor...

I'm sure that there are a number of posts I ought to have replied to by now.

I apologize for not having gotten to them, as well as not having pulled three neurons into a circle to try and say something cogent. Or clever. Or just mildly entertaining. Things have been more than a mite busy for the last few days.

Real world stuff. Fellowship stuff. Distractions like deciding to write a sermon instead of a blog post (mea culpa); maybe after I polish it up... I'll post it, after I preach it (May, I'm told).

But right now? It was meetings all day. Mostly Fellowship stuff, and all of it money stuff. My brain hurts and tomorrow I have to help figure out how to help spin straw into an extra half a million bucks.

So I'm going to bed.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Pondering a UU Theology

I look out, over the thin ice before me....

Having said already that I don't think we're a movement about orthodoxy, what's a common UU theology going to look like?

My guess is that there will be a core of work that deals with the implications of those values that we assert we have in common--the UU 7 Principles--and those that I've already pontificated about previously. Once that work's done, and we've described the implications, theologically-speaking, our various communities, the UU Christians, BUUdhists, etc., can wrestle with the specific concerns presented by the intersection of that theological work and their faith tradition.

Anyone else up for starting to gnaw on this bone? If so, I could post seven distinct posts--one for each principle--where we can discuss and contemplate them, and an extra one to handle anything extra that comes up.

Friday, February 10, 2006


I've seen talk of UU megachurches. First, let it be clear that there ain't none. Not at this time. The largest UU congregation last year (haven't seen figures for this year, yet) was First Unitarian Society of Madison, at just about 1400 members.

"Megachurch" is often defined as starting at 2000.

But I've seen a couple conversations around the web about the idea. And I spent a big part of a couple days talking with a friend about the idea of starting one.

Today, an AP article cited in my local paper caught my eye. It's talking about Protestant megachurches, and how they're still growing. They've doubled in number in the last five years. Average attendance is up.
"The main thing we work really hard at is having a good program for every age group," .... "We want the affluent to feel welcome and the hardworking, labor person, living payday to payday, to feel as welcome as anyone else."

There's nothing in that which a UU congregation shouldn't want to achieve.
Well-stated goals for growth, including orientation classes for new members, and a slew of programming for many demographics were a pattern for megachurches in the study. They also commonly have contemporary worship services with electric guitars and drums and frequent use of overhead projectors during multiple services throughout the week.

Does your congregation have a well-stated goal for growth? Mine's worked at this... and I don't think I can say that it does. Oh, people are open, even enthusiastic, for growth. But the key point was a goal. I'll bet that if you asked our members privately, you'd hear that they envision anywhere from maybe... a membership of 200 to 550 in the next several years.

Programming? How's yours? Ours is a work in progress, with significant ideas... but it's damned thin on the ground right now. It's certainly not designed with a wide range of demographics in mind. I'm not even sure that it's designed with demographics in mind at all. It's still in the "If we offer this, will they come?" (I hold myself as accountable as anyone for that; it's a weakness).

Contemporary worship services? We're starting to break out on contemporary, I think. You? But throughout the week? Nah. Sunday morning. With a poorly advertised, weakly attended Vespers service one evening a month. Overhead projectors? Egad, no. It's pretty forward that we have a house band that is playing live rock. Guitar--not electric. Drums, check.
Their emphasis on evangelism, propelled mostly by word of mouth from enthused members, has been a constant, said researcher Dave Travis with Leadership Network.

Ouch. UU evangelism. Funny, the Universalists, in particular, had arich tradition there. We bobbled that somewhere....

About those megachurches;
... one-third reported they were founded 60 years ago or more. It also countered the notion that they are all independent congregations: 66 percent report belonging to a denomination — although most downplay this aspect in their church names and programming.

Interesting, no?
56 percent of megachurches said they have tried to be more multiethnic and 19 percent of their attendance is not from the majority race of the congregation.

I've yet to see a really good argument for why there can't be UU megachurches.

Some of our most noted clergy have, in the past, preached to what were very large congregations for the time. I think that there's still a message there today that could be preached to large (for today) congregations.


Update: On a closely related topic--reaching out to young adults--see this.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

So... what is UUism about?

Well, there are the Principles.

But, unless you're entirely new to this conversation (and to find this obscure corner of the blogosphere, with me trying to kindle a small fire here... it's not likely you are), you know that this is widely being discussed as insufficient.

So, I'll boldly offer an opinion or two, and see if anyone wants to argue--you'll have to bring your own coffee, I'm afraid.

We have, I submit, reached the end of one road that the Unitarians and Universalists pointed down; having abandoned creeds long ago and having displaced Christianity from a special place in the constellation of revelations, there's nothing that's easy to hand to a visitor or seeker who wants to know what it is we believe. We--as a movement, not as individuals--don't hold up Jesus as the Way any more than we hold up Buddha as the Way, or think that Lao-tze pointed to the (one) Way. So there's nothing that we've figured out that's the modern equivalent of the Winchester Profession, although it's worth noting that most of that profession is acceptable to most UUs--as long as one's willing to provide a lot of latitude about "God".

Despite being derided as insufficiently poetic (or is it sexy? I can't recall), the Principles do capture some fundamental features of our faith. Broadly depicted, there's still a universalism in these principles (although one that's lost much interest in the question of hell. Not surprising for folk who more or less concluded that they didn't believe in it); the 7th Principle affirms that we're all tied together, inextricably, and that whatever happens to us... happens to all of us, and to the rest of the universe. It's a statement that completely subsumes classical Universalist concerns; along with everything else, salvation would be something that happens to all or none. But it's more than that, since it also establishes a firm basis -- theologically speaking -- for a conservationist ethic of environmentalism.

Other principles (no, I'm not going to discourse on them all) affirm the rights and value of the individual, proclaim democratic values, and so forth. Through them, it's hard to imagine a UUism that isn't congregational or doesn't value and respect the individual.

The question keeps coming back to "what's at the core?" In the past, however perceived or thought of, Unitarians and Universalists thought of a singular deity, perhaps as Deists, and kept a hand on the Bible. So there was always the easy answer of "Christianity." I suspect that the answer was... easy.

But that's not really what those faiths were about, ultimately, nor is it what UUism is about.

What we are about is humanity. Whether there's a god or not isn't crucial; if there is, we've undertaken already -- those principles -- undertaken to take care of creation as best we can and to take care of human beings, individually and collectively, as we can. We affirm that to be... enough. Or at least, it's enough for the movement as a whole. Beyond that, we have undertaken to cradle and cherish each person's search for the truth.

Those are core values. And there's one more that's sometimes swept aside as just part of congregational polity. But it's more; our faith is truly all about what gets talked about as "Beloved Community." Community is at our core.

Sure, there are people who affirm that they're Unitarian Universalists, but who aren't part of any congregation (not even CLF), nor any of the organizations affiliated with the UUA. I don't buy that any longer. They're not UUs. They hold values and beliefs closely akin. But they're solo operators, and I think that UUs are only UUs in community.

No, that's not unique to UUism; every religion provides something of community. But what's different is that community is an adjunct to other faiths, it comes with the rest. For us, community is what lies at our core now. Over and around that, we layer the rest. Although the result can look an awful lot like traditional religion, it's not the same at all.

The same sort of conundrum exists for people who don't grasp the character of Judaism and ancient religions for which the crucial question isn't belief, but practice. People who grow up in and surrounded with faiths that practice and insist on orthodoxy, right belief, find the idea of a religion that's only tangentially concerned with right belief... and focused on orthopraxy, right practice, baffling.

UUism, however, is precisely that kind of creature. Stop asking what we believe. It's not the right question. We're not about belief; we're entirely in favor of you finding and having beliefs, but that's... secondary. Change them if you find you need to; that's great. We're about practice.

We dance up to this when we talk about "Deeds, not creeds." Then we lose sight of it and worry about what it is that we're about. Someone asks what it is we believe and we get intellectually antsy about belief. It's not belWe're about being in a community that is honest, caring, respectful and supportive. We're about being in a community that upholds, affirms and lives out the values that are in our principles.

It's about doing, being--not believing.

If someone asks you... "So what is it that Unitarian Universalists believe?" the answer is;

"We're not about what we believe; we don't even agree on what we 'believe.' We're about what we do. We share a set of values and principles, and those -- and our heritage -- call us to action, regardless of our belief, doubt, or lack of belief. We are UUs because we feel impelled to act, called to act, obliged to act--for good, for justice. We're about being and growing our community, and the community of all humanity, so that it can be, and is, a tapestry of people living in peace. We do not believe that we all need to believe alike. But we do believe that we can love alike, and that becoming that universal, loving community is what we must work to achieve. Ours is a religion that says 'You must do. You must act.'"

So... now I need to go and educate myself about the theology of orthopraxy.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Simple Desultory Considerations...

Perusing things written here and there (thanks to the various UU blogs I've been reading at) about what's wrong with UUism, where the movement's (not) going, what to do, I've decided to devote a blog to it.

I don't promise to stay on topic.

I will try to keep wandering back to it.

Reading a bit of the history of UU growth here, it occurs to me that the lesson learned may have been the wrong one. It's not that the fellowship movement failed. Monroe Husband's efforts got plenty of congregations started--and most of them in places where no one would have imagined them appearing on their own. I know; I attend one of them, now. Circumstances change; places that 40 or 50 years ago were the boondocks are now sometimes inner suburbia... the exurbs... flourishing small cities with neighboring cities. My own congregation was one of the fortunate ones; its founding members were a steady, sober lot who sank their teeth in and made it happen. They were fortunate again; an early member gave the fellowship land, and today there's a building and the congregation's been out of debt for years (it's about to go back in, but that's because it's growing, and has outgrown its building).

Reading the article, it's got a downbeat. Sure, a lot of fellowships were created, but a lot died. A significant number reached a nice, modest size of perhaps 100... and have stayed there. Some, of course, have boomed. The focus seems to have been on all the ones that failed.

That strikes me as... unreasonably negative.

Stop and look at it; these were high-risk plantings, mostly in areas where there didn't really seem to be the population for a congregation. They were given some support--but to expect a group of randomly selected lay folk to build and maintain a congregation from scratch, without a minister? That's not a small feat.

If there's an idea that had to have been in mind, it had to have been the Biblical parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-8);

Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them.
Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.
And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.
But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

I'm not suggesting that the program ought to just be restored and continued; programs ought to be reviewed and improved. But it seems to me that the success of the fellowship movement seems to have been downplayed... or forgotten and ignored.

From that same UU World article:
By 1958, Bartlett reports, 315 fellowships had been formed, attracting an estimated 10,000 members, of whom three-fourths were new to the denomination. Of that original 315, some 40 had already failed, while 26 had become churches (though not necessarily changing their names). No wonder she called the movement "the growing edge of the denomination."
Looking at the growth numbers Thom Belote posted at Philocrates, it's pretty clear to me that we'd... well, not kill... but be mighty excited by a program now that boosted UU growth by 10,000 members, with 7,500 of them new to the faith. Maybe that can be improved on. But the baby got thrown out with the bathwater.

It's clear to me that the UUA's scheme for planting new, big urban congregations that would be almost instantly large... has failed, and failed pretty miserably--particularly considering the amount of money spent to achieve its ends.

As a representative of one of the fellowships that's succeeded; grown, become stable and successful, called ministers, is building a new building, I find the conclusions of the sidebar assbackwards and offensive.
The lesson of the fellowship movement seems clear: Congregations that start small tend to stay small. Even those that experience a period of growth once they call a minister tend to hit a ceiling at the point where a larger staff is needed to maintain the growth momentum.
Just--as my son would say--duh.

Congregations that start small... in small, out of the way places... tend to stay small. Duh.

Bismarck doesn't have a small UU congregation because it's small. It's small--and it actually has a UU congregation because an effort was made to help create one there! Sure, sure, there are--sometimes--issues with fellowships where they don't really care to be very involved with the UUA, where some don't care to call ministers. So? The congregational model is bottom up; it'd be nice (and valuable, too, in my view) to get more engaged. With all the love I hold for several very talented ministers, one of the lessons is that it is possible to do our faith without clergy. That doesn't mean it's better, or easier. It's not. Not at all. But it is possible--and that's a good thing.

But notice this--having gotten a congregation to start... it was left more or less to its own devices. I know mine was. And when it finally got around to calling a minister... it had to struggle to do so. Having learned to pinch every damned penny until it screamed (thanks, we'll distribute most of our directories, surveys and other things in person, and only mail those we have to), having held bake sales and rummage sales to pay the mortgage (the mortgage that was backed with the personal assets of the founders!), there's a culture. And there's a real sensitivity to what money means, can do--and how hard it can be to get. In this, our fellowships are very close in attitude to our Puritan congregational roots....

No support.

Over time, people grudgingly accepted that a half-time office administrator was necessary, too.

We've no DRE. We've no Music Director. Not as paid staff. Fellowships learn--and live--the pick yourself up by your bootstraps and carry yourself lesson. We've done those things. Sometimes not so well, sometimes... brilliantly. We know we're at the point where our size really requires a DRE. A Music Director too--though we know we can't really do that at the same time.

We're growing. We've scraped up the money to build another building.

No support.

If the UUA had pursued fellowships as something more than seed scattered along the roadside; had come back, offered some gentle suggestions... offered, when the size and circumstances of a congregation needed, a leg up to get an administrator and a DRE in place, it would have been a god-send. (We needed that... three to five years ago.) It's no wonder that many congregations stall at a certain--small--size and struggle to get past it. It's been observed that the transition out of "small" is the hardest of them. For congregations in places that are outposts... it's a bit harder.

There's something a mite... bitter... in reading that the UUA has concluded that to launch a congregation, they need to set forth with a minister, a religious education director and an office administrator. I'm not saying they're wrong; it might work well (but it's not vital--look at the fellowship successes...). But I think that they've really done a disservice to the small congregations that are helping fund that effort. I'm glad that my fellowship, with its rather frontier "We can do it" attitude (and "We don't need Boston") isn't really aware of that program... because it would make it harder still to persuade the folks who are funding the operating budget and paying for a new building that they really have to stretch farther to afford a DRE right now. Consciousness that the current analog of the fellowship program plans to start with that support would really torque some people; particularly the ones who are Chalice Lighters, the ones supporting the UUSC, and so forth.

If the Association wants to help grow congregations past their current size, it needs to look at the circumstances of each one, and enter a dialog. Some don't care to grow--perhaps for good reasons. Maybe helping start a neighboring congregation would be a better project. Some would love to, but have a challenge. The funds spent on Pathways would have funded something around 50 half-time DREs. How many congregations could make some significant breakout growth if they just got a year's help over the hump?

I think it's time to undertake growth plans having already openly embraced the possibility--even the probability--that many of the efforts will fail. Some of the seed will fall on rocky ground. But scattering seed is opportunistic. Some will succeed. Some will find rich soil. It's a better scheme than putting all our eggs in one or two baskets.

Take another look at that article.

In 1974, someone asked at a General Assembly plenary session, "How many of you discovered Unitarian Universalism through the fellowship movement?" and half the delegates stood up. Twenty years ago, John Morgan estimated that a third of all congregations had at one time been fellowships — but he also noted that between 1937 and 1983, 300 Unitarian or Universalist congregations had closed.

So? Sure, it's sad that congregations close up. But if the price for adding a third more is that we have to accept that we'll see 300 not make it, that's a price I'd pay. If we have to see some of the seed wither, some of it eaten, some of it lost in the weeds--but we get half of the delegates at GA again members brought in through new congregations--it's worth it. There's nothing wrong with failures, as long as they're coupled with successes that justify them.

It's time for some risks, some gambles, some shots in the dark.

There are communities today that are big enough that they might just support one of those new, small, struggling fellowships. We ought to be fostering them. There are congregations now that could use just a small nudge to get over a threshold--and we ought to take the chance and see how many of them can stay over it. We ought to try seeding congregations in places where they clearly ought to exist, too. They don't need to start out as large or large mid-size. Given enough efforts... some will grow to that size--and some of them will be in surprising, wonderful places like Bismarck, and the movement will be better and stronger for it.