Aug. 4, 2019.
By Rev. David A. Miller.
On election night in November 2008, I, like most of the world, watched as the U.S. elected its first black president. I was also in my final year of seminary and as I stood there I thought, “Oh my god, does this mean we are in a time of prolonged progressive change and decreasing racial division? What will I do now for my social justice ministry? Will I have things to do as a minister?” Well, as we now know, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I have had plenty of social justice ministry opportunities. In fact, more than plenty.
Honestly, ministry has never been an easy profession and it has been almost impossible to know the right path for ministry over the last couple of years. At this point, I wouldn’t even begin to know how many conversations I have had with friends, colleagues, staff, lay leaders, board members and others about what needs to be done to minister to the events in the world, the struggles in this generation of religious life and the issues, divides and polarization taking place in our country as a whole.
Whether we like it or not, we face a wide variety of generational challenges and changes as we move from a post-World War II-influenced world order and the society norms of social media age. This is characterized by the movement of generational control from the baby-boom generation to their offspring, much like the way baby boomers took control from the Greatest Generation in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
This is a challenging time marked by what seems to be an ever-present American struggle with the issue of race that, like rainwater on a leaky roof, finds its way to do the most damage it can.
While not true in all cases, this generational shift seems to have some defining characteristics: It is often said that many who came to Unitarian Universalism in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s – those sometimes referred to as “come-outers” – came from a place of religious wounds – other dogmatic faiths, other religious traditions, folks who often had “allergies” to religion as it had been known or practiced in our country for many years. This manifested itself in many of our congregations as allergies to religious language, use of the concepts of God or vestiges of our Christian roots.
Many of you may have heard me tell a story from my previous congregation when a guest speaker used the word God and someone stood up in the congregation and said, “You can’t say that word here.” There was a desire in these times to focus on what often has been called “intellectual stimulation” – where the sermons more often than not talked about books of a field of academic study and could carry the feel of a college lecture. Unfortunately, what I recently realized is that we have noted this culture phenomenon in our UU congregations for years, and although there has been an occasional adult class or sermon about recognizing and healing those wounds, we have far too often just moved on without doing the healing work it requires. And not doing that work has contributed to our allergic reactions to the beneficial aspects of religious practice.
This era in Unitarian Universalist life was also heavily characterized by a culture of white liberalism that centered white, well-educated liberals with a utopian vision of what could be if we all just did the right things the right way and if people would just listen to the overabundance of logic and reason that could be brought forth.
My friend Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd has written an excellent and engaging book about this that I highly recommend called “After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism.” There are so many things in this book I would like to discuss with you, but for today – in talking about this time we are in not just in our faith, but in many progressive faith communities – Nancy writes, “This exact forward-looking modernism of human uplift was among the things I loved about my Unitarian Universalist Tradition when it scooped me up and gave me a home 20 years ago. It was still basically working then. Our churches were still on a general trend of upward growth. The good news that modernism existed to counter fundamentalism was still a prophetic word that some people hadn’t heard before. Some shadowed corners of superstition within our broader religious culture were still waiting for the light of reason to shine through. Those shadowy corners exist even now, and the modernist/fundamentalist sparring match that has been afoot for the past hundred years is not altogether over. The problem, however, is that the sparring match is no longer an adequate reason for liberal religion to go on existing. If, even after the turn of the 21st Century, we were still striving to be the very best early 20th Century modernist progressive we could be, clearly there were voices we were not yet fully listening to.”
Yes, very challenging and very confusing. So who are we if we are not the alternative to mainline traditions? Who are we if we are not the anti-religion religion? Who are we if we are no longer centered in the white liberalism of the 1960s that has become such a defining identity for so many of us and our congregations? And, most of all, what is Unitarian Universalism supposed to be, not in the 1960s, ‘70s or ‘80s, but moving forward into the 21st Century, and who has the right to determine that?
A question that weighs heavily on my mind is, “What are these times calling us to?” On days like today, punctuated by such deep sadness over another example of the forces of the disease of hate loose in this country, I am on a continuum between business as usual with all the committee meetings, potlucks, classes and membership issues – in other words the normal business of the congregation – and wanting us to march in the streets like the people of Puerto Rico or Hong Kong. Last year at UUCF’s beginning-of-the-year leadership summit, I asked a question of the 30 or so congregational lay leaders gathered: “How many of you believe that the current political situation in this country will end up with violence in the streets?” About 95% of those attending raised their hands. That response influenced my thoughts on ministry all of last year. As we enter a new congregational year, I wish I could say that I can’t even imagine what people are thinking now, but actually I can. I hear about it all the time through social media and in conversations with so many of you, and once again I am trying to discern what that means for ministry and the role of this congregation in the lives of people in these perilous times.
On any given Sunday, I know there are people here who feel like they really need 60 minutes of quiet and contemplation. It may be the only peace they get all week and, trust me, I get that. I know that some people come to hear music that will feed their souls, soothe their broken spirits and help them re-center. I know that a couple of you come to hear what you hope will be wise and thoughtful words that end with messages of hope and transformation. And, I know that some of you want to be inspired to leave here right now and march side-by-side to the NRA or the White House to protest the atrocities we are experiencing on a seemingly endless, daily basis. In fact, I sort of look at this as also being on a continuum going from peaceful contemplation to something more akin to a high-energy inspirational rally. There is just no way to know who feels like what on a weekly basis and how to design worship and programming to meet each and every need each week.
So we have had to make some decisions. For now, what we mostly try to do through the ministry, programming and worship of this congregation is to help us be good people and to tap into what I am calling the river of goodness, or what some might call the river of god. It’s all about helping us be people who are willing to take risks and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes with minimal amounts of defensiveness. To center ourselves in the values of this faith tradition and to use those values as we move through the world. At least here at UUCF, our ministry is trying to help us all transform from what historically has been a come-outer, white-centered, Protestant-rooted, ‘60s liberalism-centric faith tradition to one that recognizes the enormously complex and rapidly changing needs of an ever-evolving world. This includes the messy, difficult and sure-to-be uncomfortable conversation about race – race in our lives, race in our congregations, race in our country and race in the systems in which we all swim.
If that is what we are attempting to do with the ministry of this congregation, what does this mean for the world in which we are now living? Well, just like the various needs that we may all have on a Sunday morning, there are numerous opinions on a continuum about the current state of our union from “Oh, it will all be fine, we are going through a cycle that happens at least once in a generation,” to what one colleague recently wrote on social media that was something like: “looking for places in their house to hide people when things further break down.” This goes hand in hand with some not wanting to bring politics into this Sanctuary and others feeling like if we don’t bring politics in this sacred space we are abdicating our moral duty at the core of our principles.
This is an incredible balancing act that our clergy, our staffs, our members and our congregations are navigating in an unbelievably difficult and anxiety-filled cultural milieu. This leads me to another thing that I have said from any pulpit I have occupied at one time or another: If you are for everything, you are for nothing. As your minister, I want to enter this year being clear about what I believe, so here I go:
- I believe that our congregations need to change and do the hard and messy work of examining where systems of white supremacy exist and how we can confront them and try to change them in ourselves, our congregations and society at large. This is not only vital to the future of this faith tradition but also to the future of this country. I know there is a lot of natural resistance to this right now and yet I think the need for reflection and change is especially true for those of us who are white and specifically those of us who are white males. It is time for those of us in these categories to step back more often as we increasingly center voices from the margins.
- I believe that we can’t just profess who we want to be through our principles and our mission statements. We have to try to practice and live these ideals, for that is what religious practice is and I believe we are called to do as members of this faith. As Unitarian Universalist Association President Susan Frederick-Gray says, “This is no time for a casual faith.” This is hard, deeply spiritual work and calls us to go deeper and be more intentional than ever.
- I believe that we can’t make changes in the world without being willing to change ourselves and that we all need to reflect on our own certainties. No one is right all the time and humility is a spiritual discipline that is part of a more intentional religious practice, a practice that we need to make a part of how we live our lives every single day.
- I believe that since there is no way to meet all individual needs and preferences, we have to be here for each other even on the days when worship doesn’t meet our specific needs. That also calls us to practice being in right relations and to offer and participate in spiritual practices that integrate the body, mind and spirit and that help, ground, soothe, bolster and sustain us.
- And, finally, I believe the present administration and its enablers in Congress are dangerous to people of color, to common decency, to our democracy and to the survival of this planet and we need to speak out and take action as people of faith as much and as often as possible. Although I will never support a specific candidate or party from this pulpit, we cannot avoid politics in this Sanctuary, for it is our moral obligation and our religious calling to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all through our words and, more specifically, our deeds.
So what does this all mean when it comes to the famous quote “give them hope, not hell,” sometimes attributed to John Murray, the founder of our brand of Universalism?
For me, I can’t just blindly preach hope every Sunday because that wouldn’t be honest, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it or will never preach it. However, my concept of hope is changing. It isn’t about some utopian dream of what we have thought we could be – some far-off vision of something called beloved communityMy evolving vision of hope is tethered to the incredibly challenging work of practicing goodness, the small acts of being open to change, the risky work of being vulnerable and filled with humility when appropriate and called for, the needed sacrifice of comfort I am starting to see from people with the comfort and privilege not afforded to so many now in danger. Or as the Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen says, to be “willing to live our lives in the shape of what is being asked, not hope that what we are asked to do will fit the shape of our lives.”
In her book, Rev. Nancy quoted the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs who in writing about the purpose of the church and of ministers said, “I believe the church is in the world to engender the unmediated experience of the holy in the real lives of real people, our people … I believe that the primary duty of a minster of religion is to design and produce trustworthy rituals that help us to be more loving, more effective human beings.”
For me this is the absolute bottom line. This is the art form of ministry and there is no one right way to do it. We will fail, succeed, learn and continue moving forward. This thing we are here to do together: we have come to the end of the road map and there is no clear playbook. The common thread will be our ability to roll with it, together, as we head into an uncharted future. Doing this together with all of you is my new definition of hope.