Ensure Firm Footings

This is part two of reflecting further on my sermon, “Creating the Future that We Want.” The previous post I wrote about having a clear mission statement.  Where do we go from there?  What else do we need to have in place? 

“I like many of you have been watching the Olympics.  I happen to enjoy the skating competitions.  I noticed that the speed skaters before they began their race to fulfill their personal best positioned themselves with a firm footing.  This was essential to their performance.  The skaters that did not have a firm footing on the ice simply were not able to cast off with the speed that was needed.  It is the same with us.  We need to have a firm footing on which we can cast off.  We need to prepare the conditions of our moving forward first so we will be off to a good start. 

To switch metaphors a bit, any architect will tell you that a solid building needs to have firm footings in order to support the roof.  Without such a firm footing, the building will not stand but collapse upon itself.  So what things do we need as our firm footing in building our community that will enable us to make a difference for the better in the world?” [from “Creating the Future that We Want” sermon delivered by Fred L Hammond on February 21 2010 (c)]  

Whatever a congregation decides to do it must ensure that it has firm footings in order to support the outcome desired.  Our congregation in Tuscaloosa wants to grow its membership in order to sustain a viable presence in Tuscaloosa County as a liberal alternative to the conservative religious voice that surrounds us.  In order to do that it must, absolutely must, be consistent in fulfilling its mission across the entire congregation.  There is that mission word again that I stated I refer to a lot.  How are we fulfilling our mission to be an open and nurturing community?  What activities would indicate that we are headed in that direction?  These are the firm footings in the congregation. If you liked the skating metaphor, these are the activities that help us cast off with the right speed and form.  If you liked the architect metaphor, these are the activities that ensure the roof doesn’t collapse around us.   

Children’s religious education (CRE) is the first firm footing that needs to be ensured.  There needs to be sufficient funding not only to support this program but also to grow this program.  If CRE is dynamic, approaches learning from as many learning modalities as possible; meaning auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities, then the children in attendance are going to want to be there every Sunday. If the children want to be there, then the parents will be there as well.  In order to have all of these learning modalities covered the director of religious education needs to be putting in the hours in preparatory time before Sunday morning to come up with the various lessons to cover these areas. 

Many of our congregations in Alabama and Mississippi, the two states I serve in, are small congregations.  The UUA defines small as under 150 members.  I define small as under 60 members.  Having a fully staffed religious education program is difficult to say the least because the numbers of families with children just aren’t there.  But for congregations that do seek to have a paid religious education program then they need to be ensured as a firm footing for growth and not status quo.  That means ensuring that there is money in the budget to enable the Director of Religious Education to plan, prepare, and to teach the lessons to the volunteer teachers.  

If the congregation does not have sufficient numbers of families to have a consistent religious education program then there are still footings that need to be in place to get the congregation ready for such a program.  The worship service can be developed in such a way that engages all ages in the service.  Learning modalities are still operative even in a worship service. 

I remember as a child sitting with my grandparents during a worship service, singing the hymns, doing origami with the Order of Service, and more importantly perhaps, learning how to behave in a worship service.  Some of my most favorite hymns are those that I learned as a child because in part of the warmth of the worship experience with my grandparents.  Not only was the church providing a firm footing for their own meeting of their mission but a firm footing was being developed in me that has lasted a life time. 

Engaging the children in the worship service is vital.  In Tuscaloosa, after the offering plates have been passed around the children bring up the offering plates to the worship leader.  The age limit to do this is three years old.  They love doing it. It is an important function that needs to be done and the children do it with such joy.  The children could also be involved in lighting the chalice, offering a reading,  playing an instrumental piece, and the possibilities are endless.   All of these examples would be enjoyed by the entire congregation. 

Other firm footings include how the congregation integrates new members.  What activities are being supported in the congregation that new members and guests can participate in?  How the congregation supports hospitality, congregational care, adult religious education are all very important in creating the future desired.  Yes, it may be true that many of our adults do not want adult religious education, but some may and if it is offered others may join in.  Resources need to be set aside for these activities.  There is nothing more discouraging than to have a member or several members come forward to support a needed service and then find out that they cannot do it because the money in the budget is not there.  Or to find out that the previous chair donated out of their pocket to have this activity done and it got assumed that this was the way it was to be done.  Who wants to volunteer for a committee and find out that they also have to fund that committee too?  This becomes a recipe for burn out, discouragement, and going someplace else to serve. 

Firm footings means that the pieces are in place to do the work of the church in the direction that the church wants to go in.  If increased membership is one such direction, then the church needs to support wholeheartedly (in spirit and in behavior) those areas that will enable membership growth to occur.    Blessings

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 2:20 pm  Comments (1)  

Having a Clear Mission Statement

This past Sunday, I delivered the annual stewardship sermon to kick off our pledge campaign.  The sermon was entitled:  Creating the Future that We Want.   I have in the past posted sermons here but I decided to do something different.  I am going to expand on some of the points that I made in the sermon into a series of posts discussing what we need to do in order to create our future as Unitarian Universalist congregations.   I begin with having a clear mission statement.

The mission statement of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa is succinct and clear.  We are an open and nurturing community of Unitarian Universalists made visible by our actions for a better world.   I mention our mission statement every opportunity that I get, not because I think people have forgotten it but because I believe that we must always have our mission before us.  All of our actions need to be consistent with our mission and embody it.  Every person needs to be able to either recognize the mission statement from the activities or be able to quote it.   Every person, from the most veteran member to the person who walks through our doors for the first time, should be able to tell another person what the mission statement is. 

“Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of the Little Prince, is quoted as saying “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”  It is the same with a community that seeks to make a difference in the world; we must be looking outward together in the same direction.  This does not mean that we all see the same things in the horizon nor does it mean that we understand everything at the same time or in the same manner. It certainly does not mean that we will always agree with one another.  It does means that our intention for what is best for the community is headed in the same direction.   One way of ensuring our intention is to remind ourselves daily of what we have stated our mission to be here in this time and place.  The intention of this congregation could change, but for now, in this time and place, our mission is to be an open and nurturing community.  Everything that we do from greeting people at the door to our sermon topics, from the artwork we display on our walls to the religious education we teach our children, from the leaders we elect to the landscaping outside need to be reflecting this mission statement.  Together, we gaze our eyes in the same outward direction.” [From the sermon Creating the Future We Want by Rev. Fred L Hammond, given February 21, 2010 (c)]

So many congregations have mission statements that are too long, too convoluted, too verbose for any one to really take the congregation seriously.  They read like they were trying not to offend anyone and in the end become unable to offer direction to the congregation.  Mission statements are not about stroking anyone’s egos or intellect.  They are about purpose.  The best mission statements are succinct and many of these are under twenty-five words.  The best mission statements are easily memorable.   

The guide then to any action that is proposed by the congregation is the question: How does this fit the mission statement?  How does this action that we are proposing advance our mission statement or purpose?   Here are some mission statements from corporations.  Some are good,  some are very revealing.

Citigroups mission statement reads: “Our goal for Citigroup is to be the most respected global financial services company. Like any other public company, we’re obligated to deliver profits and growth to our shareholders. Of equal importance is to deliver those profits and generate growth responsibly. “  I think this a very telling mission statement.  It states clearly that the shareholders and not the investors come first.  It explains why Citigroup could agree to bad decisions that resulted in their investors defaulting and eventually their bankruptcy.  Profit for their shareholders was their primary aim and ultimately their downfall.  Yes, I am revealing a personal bias here.

Compare this with HEW Federal Credit Union’s mission statement:   “Exceed our members’ expectations in our commitment to their financial success.”  Enough said. 

Darden Restaurants,  which include Olive Garden and Red Lobster, is “to nourish and delight everyone we serve.”  This is a mission statement that every employee can participate in.

These mission statements point to who is the primary focus of the mission statement.  To whom does the congregation belong?  Is it the board of directors?  Is it the matriarchs or patriarchs of the congregation?  Is it the shareholders or the investors–metaphorically speaking?  Is it everyone in the congregation? 

A good mission statement for a congregation should empower every member to participate in the fulfilling of that mission.  The most senior  to the youngest person should be able to participate in the mission statement being acheived.  If this is not true, if there are areas in the congregation where the mission cannot be fulfilled then this is the area that the congregation has work to do.  The mission statement can point out where the growing edges within the congregation lie. 

Alice Blair Wesley in her 2000-01 Minns Lectures entitled Our Covenant, summarizes the classes she took with James Luther Adams thus:  “Strong, effective, lively liberal churches, sometimes capable of altering positively the direction of their whole society, will be those liberal churches whose lay members can say clearly, individually and collectively, what are their own most important loyalties, as church members.”

A mission statement should be able to point towards those loyalities.  Everyone should be able to articulate this clearly and with conviction.  Where our loyalities lie will also indicate where our energy is going to be for the growth or status quo of the congregation.  Having a clear mission statement is a step towards being able to grow a congregation.  Blessings,


Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm  Comments Off on Having a Clear Mission Statement  
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Born to Be Good

“Born To Be Good” By Fred L Hammond Delibvered to the Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville, MS on February 7 2010 ©  in participation with The Clergy Letter Project  for Evolution Weekend. 

We preach it every Sunday.  We sing it in our songs.  We write covenants around it.  And we have even been willing to die for its ideals.    

In our weekly affirmation we state that Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth its sacrament and service is its prayer; to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.  Thus do we covenant with each other and with God. 

We even have the audacity to proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of all people and many of us are even beginning to expand that proclamation to all living creatures.   This claim goes against the orthodox doctrine that we are born in sin, that the heart is more deceitful above all else; a claim that is widely accepted in this nation but one I believe is a falsehood that is not serving us very well.   

The notion that we are loving people who seek to serve human need that will eventually result in humanity’s harmony with the divine is no longer just a fanciful pipe dream made up by religion. There is actually something hard-wired into our genetic code that elicits these actions on behalf of others.  

It is important for us to continue to foster these genetic codes within us not only for the betterment of humanity, a lofty ideal hardwired within us, but also for the over all general well-being and happiness of each of our lives.  A sort of salvation, if you will allow me to use that conservative religious phrase, that will if we nurture it within us, transform our lives into better human beings with a higher ratio of having a fulfilled life.  

Dacher Keltner in his book: Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life outlines how evolution, that ol’ survival of the fittest notion, has hardwired our humanity with the drive towards compassion, towards love, towards awe in our relationships with each other and with the universe.  We are in short, born to be good, born with inherent worth and dignity, born without sin and born with the capacity to be loving, nurturing, compassionate, happy individuals.   

There is a relatively new science that is looking into the effects of positive emotions.  Some of those emotions studied are compassion, love, and awe.  If we are a species that evolved on this planet, as opposed to being placed on this planet, then what benefits did these emotions have in our survival as a species that would encourage our species to develop them?  And are there ways to increase the presence of these emotions and the subsequent actions they induce?  

This new science, Keltner tells us is Jen Science, named in honor of Confucius concept of the same name.  He defines “Jen [as] the central idea in the teachings of Confucius, and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people.”   He adds, “a person of Jen ‘brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion.’ Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in others.” 

So I would assume we all have had that jen moment when we did something for another person, not because we were told to do it, but because we wanted to do it, and felt upon completion of that task, a feeling of well-being flood over us.  It might have been something simple like bringing some fresh cut flowers to someone who has been ill or just because and their surprise and joy fills you with jen—a feeling of well-being.  Or perhaps you decided to run a marathon and raise money for cancer research.  The feeling you have in completing the marathon and more importantly the moment you give the money to the organization, you feel a moment of jen—a warm feeling of satisfaction.  

Jen science looks at the study of emotions such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment, and amusement and how they bring to completion a positive transaction between people.  The studiers of this new science have come up with a formula to determine the one’s sense of a meaningful life through what they call a jen ratio.  It is a fraction with all the positive interactions in the numerator position of the fraction and all the negative interactions in the denominator position.  The resulting number is a jen ratio.  

So you add up all the negative events that happened recently.  A driver cut you off in traffic, a person shoves you while waiting in line, hurtful comments from a friend.  Then add up all the positive events that happened recently.  A group of kids offered to rake your lawn, a stranger picks up a package you dropped, a delightful phone call from an old friend who had moved away, a friend picks up the tab of your lunch.  The three negative things go into your denominator or bottom position of the fraction and the four positive things go into the numerator or top position of the fraction and you reduce that down to a number which is 1.33.  That is your jen number and the higher it is, the likelihood of a rich and meaningful life.  

This has been used to gain a perspective on the health of marriages, of communities, and even of nations.   Healthier societies have higher jen scores. A study in 1996, after accounting for appropriate variables, such as economic development, revealed that for every 15 percent increase in trust of a nation’s citizens, their economic fortunes rose by $430.  Would it surprise you to note that the US has lost trust in its fellow citizens by 15% over the last 15 years according to Keltner?  Just look at the recent financial scandals of greed and people’s anger regarding these events.   

However, what makes us happy is not money and material gain but rather “the quality of our romantic bonds, the health of our families, the time we spend with good friends, the connections we feel to communities.  When our jen ratios are high in our close relations, so are we.” 

There is a reason behind this statement.  At one point in time, our very survival as a species depended on these factors.  It may still today.   While in our pursuit for happiness we have sought to have the niceties of life, what we are missing, Keltner suggests “is the language and practice of emotions like compassion, gratitude, amusement, and wonder.” Increase these and our enjoyment of life will also increase immeasurably.  

How do we do that?  What in our genetic make-up pre-disposes us to experience these emotions?  Like our distant cousins, the primates and even other mammals, when we offer care to our children a chemical in our bodies increase, known as oxytocin.  This chemical is a pleasure producing chemical.  It was vital in our survival as a species to care for our children in a communal setting. This chemical is important to our emotional and mental health.  When it is present, our moods are elevated.  When it is not, our moods are depressed.  

Imagine what is happening in our society where more and more people are having fewer interactions with one another because we are sitting behind the computer, or Xbox, or TV and not in the company of people, where we can laugh, hug, play with one another. 

Keltner writes, “The emotions that promote the meaningful life are organized to an interest in the welfare of others.  Compassion shifts the mind in ways that increase the likelihood of taking pleasure in the improved welfare of others. Awe shifts the very contents of our self-definition, away from the emphasis of personal desires and preferences and toward that which connects us to others.  Neurochemicals (oxytocin) and regions of the nervous system related to these emotions promote trust and long-term devotion.  We have been designed to care about things other than the gratification of desire and the maximizing of self-interest.” 

What triggers these neurochemicals to aid in the development of trust and other positive emotions?  Research has shown that when a person smiles a warm smile, a region of the frontal lobes, that is also the center for processing rewards and goal directed action is activated.  It feels good to smile and it feels good to be smiled at.  

When receiving a smile, our heart rate lowers, our blood pressure lowers, and people receiving smiles are more likely to smile back.  These smiles trigger the release of another chemical, dopamine, another pleasure producing chemical in the brain.  Smiles elicit approach behaviors between people; they invite warmth, calmness, and intimacy.  People who receive and give smiles evoke a sense of trust and social well-being. 

Don’t believe me?  Let’s see what happens as you turn to the person sitting next to you and you give them a warm smile. 

Did I hear some laughter?  Laughter is an older behavior than language.  It is seen in our distant primate relatives.  The chimps and gorillas laugh when they play and tickle each other but humans laugh not only in play and tickling but in situations that need resolutions. Laughter in humans creates opportunities to see what is possible or what is absurd.  

It is another piece in our genetic make-up that enables us to be good with one another.  Laughter signals the brain to experience mirth and amusement.  It rewards mutual exchanges of collaborations.  It signals appreciation and understanding.  Each of us have our own unique laugh and therefore when laughter is evoked in the other, it is a building of trust.  Keltner suggests that laughter early in a business deal allows for mutual bargaining.  Co-workers use laughter to defuse tense work situations.  Friendships enjoy a sense of closeness when laughter occurs.  

Keltner discusses about his experience in participating in a panel that included seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  He writes the following:  “I was the last panelist for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to approach.  From eighteen inches away I came into contact with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Partially stooped in a bow, he made eye contact with me and clasped my hands.  His eyebrows were raised.  His eyes gleamed. His modest smile was poised near a laugh.  Emerging out of the bow and clasped hands, he embraced my shoulders and shook them slightly with warm hands.  As he turned to the audience, I had a … spiritual experience.  Goose bumps spread across my back like wind on water, starting at the base of my spine and rolling up to my scalp.  A flush of humility moved up my face from my cheeks to my forehead and dissipated near the crown of my head. Tears welled up, along with a smile.  I recalled a saying of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s:  ‘At the most fundamental level our nature is compassionate, and that cooperation, not conflict, lies at the heart of the basic principles that govern our human existence.’” 

What exactly was Keltner describing?  His Holiness the Dalai Lama had found a way through the use of touch to raise the jen ratio of Keltner’s experience.  The use of touch, good touch, triggers the release of another pleasure chemical, serotonin and endorphins.   Serotonin reduces the stress hormone cortisol—which is why massages feel so very good to us.  And endorphins reduce the sensation of pain and increase the sensation of pleasure. 

Through touch, through laughter, through smiling, people tend to become more cooperative in achieving group goals that benefit the group as a whole.  They tend to become reciprocal in generosity towards others, in sharing resources, in sharing parental care of children.  These are contagious behaviors that tend to get repeated with others again and again. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a master in being able to engender these behaviors and feelings in others.  

It is well documented that infants thrive when touched.  One of the families I served when I did AIDS ministry was a mother who wanted to adopt an infant born addicted to crack and with several AIDS defining diseases at birth.   The doctors told her not to because he said the child would not live to see his first birthday.  Last I knew the child was 16 years old, living without any active immune deficiency diseases.  I am convinced he lived because his adoptive mother was willing to touch him, hold him, caress him, coo with him, laugh with him. Touch enhances the body’s ability to reduce stress.  

Touch is an important aspect to our daily lives.  Pats on the back, handshakes, hands resting on the shoulders, all impact on our nervous system and increase the good chemicals that we need flowing in our bodies. Touch as studies with chimpanzees and humans reveal, encourages sharing and generosity over hoarding. 

Touching, Keltner states, increases trust and one of the reasons why over the centuries all cultures have developed a ritualized greeting; it might be a handshake, or a chest to chest embrace or a kiss on the cheeks.  But in all these rituals eventually touching is involved.    

Now if I haven’t convinced you yet, of the evolutionary wiring of our beings to be good.  Let me tell you of one more piece of evolutionary wiring in a very literal sense.  Our bodies have what is known as the vagus nerve.  Now this nerve is the longest cranial nerve in our bodies and it controls our autonomic functions such as heart, breathing, and digestion. It also is vital in the functions of facial muscles, vocalizations, hearing, etc.  But recent research seems to indicate that the vagus nerve also has another role to play in making us wired to be good. 

It has been noticed by researchers that when we listen to people describing suffering, we tend to sigh which slows down our heart rate and elicits within us compassion and trust for the speaker. The vagus nerve in addition to its autonomic functions enables the person to shift their care from self to others by transporting oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin through the body.  

It was found that images geared to elicit compassion triggered the vagus nerve by slowing down the heart rate.  People reported feeling increased care towards the people in the images.   

Philosopher Peter Singer wrote, “evolution has bequeathed humans with a sense of empathy—an ability to treat other people’s interest as comparable to one’s own.  Unfortunately, by default we apply it only to a very narrow circle of friends and family. People outside that circle were treated as subhuman and can be exploited with impunity.  But over history the circle has been expanded… from village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to other races to other sexes… and other species.” 

It is this belief that we recite every week in our covenant.   We echo the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha to love our neighbor as ourselves and to live with each other in loving kindness.   

One more study found that Tibetan monks’ brains after years of meditation on loving kindness had phenomenal activation in the left frontal lobes of their brains where compassion is thought to be supported.  Two researchers sought to have software engineers trained in meditative practices of mindfully focusing on loving kindness towards others.  After six weeks of practice, their brain scans showed an increase in activity in their left frontal lobes and an increased immune function.  Increased immune function apparently a side benefit.  

Compassion, trust, love towards others can be learned and developed.  It is developed in families where “parents are responsive, play and touch their children.”  I dare say it is developed in congregations where people enjoy each others company and come together to sing, to laugh, to hug, to dance, to share the fullness of our lives.  

The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy; practice compassion.”   Blessed Be.

All quotes are from Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner.

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm  Comments Off on Born to Be Good  
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Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community

“Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community” By Rev. Fred L Hammond  14 February 2010 © Delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

Over the last several months we have examined Unitarian Universalist Theologian James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.  We looked at the first two stones;  Revelation is Continuous—the idea that new understandings of the mystery of life are always unfolding; and Mutual Consent –the idea that relations between people ought to be free of coercion and rest instead on the mutual, free consent of each person.   Today we will explore the third smooth stone: A Just and Loving Community.  

James Luther Adams suggests that there is a “moral obligation to direct ones efforts towards the establishment of a just and loving community.”  He suggests that the meaning of life is found when one participates in the “processes that give body and form to universal justice.”   And Adams suggests that this universal justice is none other than what Jesus proclaimed as the reign of god, which can also be called the reign of love.  As Adams describes it, it is a “sustaining, commanding, transforming reality… a love that that fulfills and goes beyond justice, a love that cares for the fullest personal good of all.” 

He also states that it cannot be achieved through “exclusive devotion to rituals, or by devotion to blood and soil, or by self-serving piety.”  We see all these forms today.  

Devotion to blood and soil perhaps was most widely known as the ideology put into practice within Nazi Germany where there was an emphasis on one’s ethnicity / blood and homeland / soil.  The ideology celebrated a people’s relationship to the territory they occupied and the virtues of rural living.   We see this ideology surfacing in conservative political and religious circles when ever there is a statement along the lines of America for Americans first, or that cities are today’s Sodom and Gomorrah, or that disasters are god’s way of cleansing the evil from a region—think of the statements made about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Haiti after the earthquakes.  

So we have in our society today the rise of devotion to blood and soil in how certain groups want to handle immigration reform.  These groups believe that our nation would preserve its freedom, would save the economy and their jobs, would preserve the English language, if all immigrants were rounded up like vermin and deported, if they were denied basic medical care and housing.  The phrase “I am not my brother’s keeper” is sometimes heard from members of these groups who believe that immigrants should not only be stopped but shot at the border.  

Ironically, this phrase is from the Genesis story where God has heard the spirit of Abel groaning from the earth where his body has been killed by Cain.  God asks Cain, “where is your brother Abel?”  And Cain responds by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”   The answer to that question was an implied yes and Cain was banished from the land.  

The Jews who wrote this text had a law in Leviticus that went further than just being their brother’s keeper. The law declared that foreigners living in their land would be treated with decency and respect as if the person were them.  “The alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34)   Not every idea in Leviticus is irrelevant for today’s society.     

This particular passage points to the just and loving community and is referred to by Jesus in his teaching of loving your neighbor as yourself.  It points to a greater understanding of what is our moral obligation. Devotion to blood and soil states moral obligation is only that which serves a nation’s ethnic purity and in America’s case I would highlight its white heritage purity.  The rage against immigrants, particularly those immigrants from Central and South American countries, is racial rage.    

Exclusive devotion to rituals is referring to the shell of religious life.  I use the term religious in its broadest most generic sense.  The practices in and of themselves in a routinized fashion is not what gives life meaning.  It is not the measuring out of our lives with coffee spoons.  Rituals may give life structure and form but they do not give life meaning.  There are many people however that have given over their lives to the routines or the outward appearance of a particular lifestyle and believe that this alone will save them or preserve them as good people. Rituals may point to something greater than ourselves but ritual is not the something greater in and of itself.       

Self-serving piety would be holding a form of devotion in order to be perceived in better lights than others while not living out the basic values that piety belies.  We see it in TV evangelicals who have swindled millions of dollars from common folk by being placed on a pedestal of moral living and then crash with a scandalous affair.   We see it in politicians that proclaim and portray themselves as tough on crime and then are caught in embezzlement or some other illegal activity.  

This is the piety of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the time of Jesus.  Perhaps the best example is in the story of the Good Samaritan where the Pharisee and Sadducee crossed to the other side of the road so as not to be defiled by the wounded man left for dead.  Samaritans, as you may recall, were people who were born on the wrong side of the tracks. They were considered to be less than human in Jesus’ day.  To place this story in context it was told as an answer to the question, who is my neighbor?

All of these positions; the blood and soil, exclusive use of ritual, or self-serving piety, neither deliver a meaningful life nor assist in the establishment of a just and loving community.  So what would a just and loving community look like in the 21st century of the Common Era?  

We live in a nation where the white hegemony that has ruled this nation since its founding is coming to an end.  It is not ending willingly.  The force of institutional racism through partnership with its closely related cousin known as classism has in recent history done much to ensure its survival but it is and surely will be coming to an end.  In less than 25 years, European-Americans will be a minority population in this country. 

We live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.  It was a misnomer to call this nation a melting pot, if anything we have become a buffet table of a wide assortment of experiences.  And we tend to choose from that buffet table what we are most comfortable with rather than tasting the full range of delights.  Yet, if we are to survive as a nation of the people, for the people and by the people, we need to become comfortable with our neighbors.   We need to begin to see our neighbors as our selves.  

Ensuring that the freedoms, the privileges that white heterosexual males have in this country are extended to everyone becomes an imperative.  It means that the work that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., that feminist activist Gloria Steinem, that gay activist Harvey Milk, that worker rights activist César Chávez began in the last century; this work must continue to expand the recognition of rights and equality for all people in this century.  

James Fowler in the late 1970’s proposed a series of stages of faith much akin to Piaget’s theory of cognitve development or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.  It is important to look briefly at Fowler’s stages of faith as it pertains to the establishment of a just and loving community.  

Fowler posits that there are seven stages of faith that begin at birth and develop through out our lifetimes.  These stages begin with Stage zero or primal stage, and move through the Intuitive-projective stage, Mythic-literal stage, Conventional stage, Individual Reflective, Conjunctive, and finally stage 6 or Universalizing stage.    

The majority of adults appear to be somewhere between the Mythic-Literal and Conventional stages of faith.  These are the stages where literal interpretations and conformity are valued.  The person or group in these stages believe that their story is the true story. There is a desire to have others conform to their story. A transition to the conventional stage is where the conflict of the creation story and theory of evolution begins.  Throughout this country we have seen a legislative battle over whether or not to teach creationism in schools as a legitimate scientific theory.  I use this example as one indication of where many people are in their faith development.    

Stage Four: Individual Reflective is the stage where many but not all Unitarian Universalists may find themselves.   It is the stage where individuals begin to take responsibility for their own “commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.”[1]  The notion of individuality is strong. The recognition of one part of our congregational polity is understood in this stage and that is ‘you are not the boss of me.’ The other part of congregational polity may not yet be understood and that is the covenantal relationship with other congregations and with each other.   This stage contains a strength in critical reflection on individual identity and the world outlook but this can also be its weakness with an overconfidence in the mind and critical thought.  

Because many of our members are what we have called come-outers, meaning that they have come out of another faith tradition and found Unitarian Universalism, those Unitarian Universalists in this stage may also experience a disillusionment of symbolism that once held meaning and purpose.  

Stage five: Conjunctive Faith is the beginning of a re-integration and reworking of one’s past.  “Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.”[2]

And finally, Stage 6:  Universalizing is rarely realized.  “The persons best described by it have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.”[3]  Many of these people are killed for their universalizing faith, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or are honored and revered more after their deaths, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Mother Theresa.  These individuals may be described as simple and lucid in their presentation but also seemingly more alive, more human than the rest of us; Thich Nhat Hahn and His Holiness Dalai Lama. 

So what do Fowler’s stages of faith development have to inform us about the just and loving community?  First let me state that these stages can and have been experienced in any faith tradition.  But it seems to me that if Unitarian Universalists as liberal religious folk are going to seek to fulfill their unifying principles, including “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all,” then we need to willingly allow our development of faith to be stretched to our growing edges to enable more of us to enter Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith.

How can this happen?  I stated earlier that “we live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.”  I also stated that in less than 25 years the white hegemony that has ruled this nation will no longer be the dominant culture in this nation.  As a nation, we have been in transition for the last 50 years with the emergence of many leaders advancing many causes for equality and justice.  It has not been easy work. Our denomination has been on the side of love with each of these causes for freedom and equality and we can be proud of our denominations stance on these pluralistic issues.   But it is important and vital work that each one of us must undertake if we are going to not only survive but thrive in this major transition in culture.   

There is going to be, and I am making a prediction here, many, many people who have been in the second and third stages of faith development who are going to find their stage of faith no longer working in the coming paradigm shift.  Where will they go?  Will they simply drop out?  Will they come through our doors and find a place where they are accepted with their questions, their differing cultures, and their differing ways of speaking their truth? 

My hunch is that many will come through our doors.  Will we be ready to receive them?  Jacqueline Lewis in her ground breaking work, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” suggests that congregations need “to have in common some aspects of indentity, social and psychological factors, which make them resistant to the dominant culture’s views on openess and diversity.  They are able to be empathic, to fully welcome the other, to hold together cultural diversity to manage the conflict and change issues that often accompany difference, and to help others do the same.”[4] 

This means that we need to be able to speak to their cultural backgrounds;  have a “holding environment,” an embracing space for them to explore their faith and transition to another stage of faith development.  Jacqueline Lewis suggests that our faith communities / congregations can become places where our stories are told and re-told in light of the relations we develop with one another.  We shape each other with our stories. 

As of now, we are not predominantly a multi-cultural multi-racial congregation.  We need to begin to listen to others’  journeys of faith.   So one way for us to be ready for this increasing pluralistic society is to listen to each other’s stories.   We need to take seriously our denomination’s call to become a faith that is firmly committed to being a racially equitable, societally liberating, and  and multi-cultural faith.  We still have some barriers in our congregation’ s and denomination’s makeup that hinder this potential reality.   We have some Adult exploration of these issues to be done. 

One of the reasons why I am excited about our friendship with University Presbyterian Church is because it gives us a chance to practice in listening to their stories of faith and for us to tell ours in a relatively non-threatening environment.  We are both liberal religious congregations so there is already some common ground inherent in our make-up.  We are both designated as congregations that are welcoming and affirming of sexual minorities.  Yet, we have a diversity in how we make sense of our world.  It is vital for us to be able to listen to others that we may disagree with doctrinally but can whole-heartedly respect their integrity and expression of their faith. It is important for us to create a space for them here in this place.  This is a universalizing message. 

Can we welcome and embrace the family that arrives from a different faith tradition and perhaps even a minority culture and listen to their story and affirm where they are at in their faith journey?  I want to say yes. 

I want to be able to say that we have embraced the idea that the creating of a just and loving community begins with us here in this place, with one another.  It is our moral obligation as members of a liberal religious faith.  It is what makes us Unitarian Universalists.  Creating the just and loving community is part of our saving message to the world.   Blessed Be. 

Quotes from James Luther Adams are from his essay  The Five Smooth Stones Of Liberalism.  Leviticus 19:34 is from the New Revised Standard Version.

[1] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232

[2] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacqueline Lewis, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” locations 36-42 on Kindle

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 8:44 pm  Comments Off on Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community  
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