[ Rev. Ian White Maher, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens delivered a ministerial charge at Jason Lydon’s ordination ceremony on September 19th, 2010. He has given me permission to re-post these words here to enable a larger audience to receive them. ]
I hope I don’t offend you by saying, we are cut from the same bolt of cloth. We are both dedicated to the Unitarian Universalist movement, we are both passionate about social justice work, we have both taken non-traditional, somewhat irregular paths to our ordinations. It is an honor to share this ceremony with you and to call you a colleague.
Jason, you are now part of the institution, as horrific as that might sound. You have worked hard to earn this mantle. It is time for you to assume all of the responsibilities that go along with it. We welcome you. Indeed, you are needed.
We are the inheritors of an anti-institutionalist strain of Unitarian Universalism which traces our rebellion back to Emerson’s Divinity School Address, perhaps even earlier, which says the church isn’t necessary. All you really need is to appreciate the snowstorm that is rages outside the window, he says. But this is not true. The church is necessary. Institutions provide opportunity as much as they negate opportunity. For you and I, and for many of the people who have gathered here to celebrate with you, the question we wrestle with is, who will control the institution?
Speaking to you as a colleague, what I would hope most for you, perhaps selfishly, what I need most from you, is a willingness to move the culture of Unitarian Universalism from the inside.
There is a whole new generation of young ministers. I’m not exactly sure why this generation of young ministers has stuck with the movement, but I do feel a groundswell. And now is the time to position yourself for an appropriate assumption of that power. Now is the time to cultivate the spiritual tools so that you can speak clearly and respectfully and honestly to those who are less radical than we are, both politically and spiritually.
The church has to change. We are insular and often irrelevant. Many members in our older generations are plagued with resentments of how they were raised and the younger generations, well, they leave largely because these resentments have impoverished our spiritual life. I am tired of the young generation leaving the movement, because we are not fed here. A colleague calls us the exodus generation wandering without a home. So many of us who came to see you ordained here today grew up with people, friends of ours, who are no longer churched because there is no place for them. There is no place for spiritual adventurism. I don’t think the older generations are trying to trick us into believing that the seven principles are actually theology with this Build Your Own Theology crap. I just think they don’t know any better. The seven principles are not theology. They are a substitute for theology. They are for people who want talk about theology rather than live it. It is not necessarily their fault, but we must get inside so we can change that.
I have never seen so many people travel so far for an ordination. We came because you have a bright future. You are dedicated and passionate, willing to sacrifice. But the question is, are you willing to sacrifice that part of your ego that stands you in opposition to the institution, so that you might find a way to change it from the inside?
My ego wants me to be a great prophet. My ego loves seeing pictures of me getting arrested posted on Facebook. My ego loves battling ministers on the interwebs as they tell me I didn’t show Sheriff Joe enough love or that my actions violated the concept of love. And I cherish the opportunity to chant down these ministers who I see in the tradition of the gradualists and anti-abolitionists. But that is just my ego. My ministry is to create the spaces so the prophets can come. I’m not the prophet. My ego would wish that I were, but I’m not. And that is okay.
I believe that Unitarian Universalism is a saving faith. That it has the power to create authentic and life-changing experiences and rituals for atonement, redemption and celebration of this very miracle that we experience called life. But we need to create a larger circle so that others may be able to step in. In many ways our work is not glamorous work. Fighting from the outside is sexier, but it will not change the culture nor stop the hemorrhaging of the exodus generation.
There is a Baptist church near my house that offers weekend classes for children. Their sign says, we have Bible lessons, music, art, games, lunch and fun. And there is a young boy with a pair of dark sunglasses and his arms cross his chest showing off a big James Bond style watch with a caption that reads: Agents in Action: challenging kids to live courageously as God’s special agents. Now, the last thing I’m interested in is some undercover Christian working for God.
And yet I look at this sign and I say, Why don’t we have that? Not that I want to win people over through subterfuge. The truth is more often than not all you need. As Stephen Colbert has said, reality has a well-known liberal bias. But why don’t we have a sign inviting young people to follow a prophetic faith which cares for this planet and its people and animals? Where are our classes to train our agents for God?
We don’t have these classes because we don’t have the people to teach them. And we don’t have the people to teach because we haven’t done the work to make those teachers. Sometimes is takes years, sometimes decades, sometimes generations for the great prophets to come. The great prophets will come if we create the space.
There is a ministry to your church. This is primary and most important. It is the source of your authority. A minister with no church has very little authority. You must always tend this community. Love them sincerely and with all your heart and they will support you through thick and thin.
And there is a ministry to our larger community particularly those in the exodus generation who need young ministers to demand the older generations deal with their damaged religious pasts so we can have a vibrant and accepting church.
All of our actions are done for the next generation and the generation after that. Do we change some of our language so that we are not discounted? So that we are heard? Is that selling out? Is that being strategic? Only your still small voice can tell you if it is authentic. Do not listen to the ego. We do what we do to put a stop to the hemorrhaging of the exodus generation. We do what we do to create legions of young Unitarian Universalist who live in the world as agents for God.
Your ministry is bright, brother. It is a blessing to know you.
[Rev. Christana Willie McKnight is the colleague who shared the term exodus generation with me]