Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Here's what I shared at the interfaith Thanksgiving Eve service in Jackson...

In Unitarian Universalism, we’re a blend of loving and embracing tradition, coming out of an American Christian tradition, and a blend of beliefs from different world religions, cultures, and some we’ve come up with on our own. When it comes time for the holidays, therefore, we balance doing the traditional, customary American and Christian rituals with bringing in new ideas, older ideas from other places, and, always, a focus on justice. Thanksgiving is a time when we celebrate togetherness and thankfulness and abundance, but also mourn the brokenness, the brokenness of our connection to the earth, the brokenness of peace, the brokenness of our relationship to the First Nations people on whose land we stand.

I want to share with you a short reading from my colleague the Rev. Chris Buice. He speaks humorously about the dilemma we in a pluralistic faith encounter. He writes:

(See his words here.)

His question of who or what do I give thanks to is not one I can answer. I don’t direct my thanks to another entity. I am simply thankful, grateful for what I have received. And I remember that gifts have to keep moving—if you save it, store it, lock it up, it ceases to be a gift in your life. So I believe when we are grateful, we must pass on our blessings.

I want to conclude my words with a prayer that was sent to me by the Unitarian Universalist campaign for justice called “Standing on the Side of Love.”

(Sorry, folks, I couldn't find the prayer to link to directly, and didn't want to repost without permission.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ministerial Formation

There's a discussion going on in the blogosphere about the costs of ministerial formation, and I was going to jump right in, but realized it's hard to do so without first describing what goes into becoming a minister in our denomination. So this is a description of that process. The UUA describes the process here. I'll go into some detail in a way that will hopefully be shorter and easier to follow. I may mix things up a bit, because the process has substantially changed since I went through it. You go through three stages with the UUA in becoming a UU minister: Applicant, Aspirant, and Candidate.

As an applicant, one applies to the UUA to be in the process of becoming a minister, and starts theological school. UU ministers may attend any accredited theological school. I went to one of the two UU schools: Meadville Lombard Theological School. The standard path to becoming a UU minister right now is a four-year process, although some manage to do it faster and some take longer. This involves three years of theological school, which is a graduate degree program, and a year of internship, and a semester of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which is a pastoral training program that is usually in a hospital setting, although there are other settings. Aspirants are eligible for $1000 in aid from the UUA. The CPE program that I went to cost about $500. One also had to go through a formal career assessment from a specifically approved center before being a candidate. That was, when I did it, a three-day session of group discussions and taking a battery of psychological exams. The result is a long report from the center assessing one's psychological fitness for ministry.

Becoming a candidate opens the ministerial student up to more scholarships from the UUA, although they are not terribly substantial. Also in candidate status one can, and should, join the UUMA (the minister's association). To become a candidate, the major things one needs to do are to complete a year of theological school and be approved by a Regional SubCommittee (RSCC) of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). In every year of the process, the average ministerial student is not only doing the work of seminary or internship, he or she is also compiling a bunch of paperwork. In this first year, to become a candidate, that includes applying to see the RSCC, getting letters of recommendation from the required sources, writing a sort of "why I want to be a UU minister" essay, signing a statement of disclosure about any criminal history, and completing a financial planning worksheet. One is also probably applying to do the CPE program in the summer following the first year, if the usual pattern from my theological school days holds true. That CPE application in itself is a monster, asking for a complete personal biography; four other long, in-depth essay questions, a resume, and more.

In the second year, having gotten a green light from the RSCC, a candidate continues theological school, hopefully now with a little more (maybe a thousand or two) in financial aid. This year in the model I was in during theological school, one typically applies for a year-long internship to be held in one's third year. Candidate status is required for the internship, and having completed CPE is usually encouraged.

Following internship, the ministerial student prepares to see the MFC. A final evaluation of the internship is required to see the MFC, and passing the MFC is required to go into search for a job, so the timeline is tight to try to see the MFC in the fall to be cleared while the search process that begins in the fall is still young. The paperwork for the MFC is, therefore, being worked on during this third internship year. That includes the internship evaluation, the CPE evaluation, sponsorship from a UU congregation, a biographical form, five letters of recommendation, completing a reading list, and filling out a long form (at least this is what I had to do) about one's competency in various areas of ministry, such as worship, religious education, UU history, pastoral care, theology, anti-racism, etc.

Let me just say that one cannot start the reading list too soon.

The fourth year of seminary, if one sees the MFC in the beginning of that year, is spent finishing seminary and applying for ministry positions.

What should be plain from this description is that the life of a seminarian is one of not only full-time theological school, but also one where there is a whole extra level of work required by the formation process. And this is probably as it should be for a number of reasons. However, we also do not fund our theological students very well, leaving them with three years worth of graduate school debt. Government grants are not available for theological school students, although loans are, so other than what individual congregations give (which is not very common) and the small amount from the UUA, the rest is usually paid for in three ways--from a student's prior accumulation of wealth, if applicable; from part-time jobs, if possible; and from student loans.

During my second year of ministry I tried to hold down three part-time jobs in an effort to keep my debt load down. I did manage to go a whole semester without taking out student loans. The result was that I was sick for most of the semester, as well. My physical health paid the price for that increased level of stress.

The result of all of this is that many ministers graduate with the level of debt that our doctors graduate with, and make the salaries our teachers make.

More on this and on what can be done next time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reimagining GA

A popular UU blogger asked recently on Facebook what we think of this preliminary and much-changed GA schedule. Some of the reasons for the changes are explained by the fact that they are working towards some goals outlined in this document from the Fifth Principle Task Force. Here's my response, which I posted on Facebook.

I think the advantages of this schedule are outweighed by the disadvantages. The main advantages I see is that people who are not delegates can leave early and people who are only focused on business can arrive late if they have no pre-GA events to attend. Also, if you're primarily focused on either workshops or plenaries you have big blocks you're not focused on where you can skip out to go sight-seeing.

Disadvantages: ***People really do start leaving early by the droves on Sunday. They have to get to work on Monday, and their flight leaves early, etc. You're going to lose huge amounts of involvement in the plenary Sunday afternoon. Also, I think this model really invites burnout. That Sunday plenary schedule is going to leave people burned out in their interest levels and dropping like flies. The break schedule is also not adequate. If people go to the Sunday morning worship, they have to have breakfasted around eight, and then they don't get to break for lunch until 1. It needs to be around noon. I also worry that the drop we've seen in the Living Tradition Fund and the drop in attendance after moving the Service of the Living Tradition to Friday will be made worse if a substantial percentage don't arrive until the business part of GA starts.

I like the goals of moving to an every-other-year GA, making GA smaller (and thereby more affordable), and making it more possible for people to vote electronically from far distances. If this gets us there, then I'll willingly (and hopefully cheerfully) go through the awkward interim stages towards that goal. If it doesn't, however, I think this has more problems than solutions.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The column "Annie's Mailbox" appears in our daily paper, and the column yesterday got me irritated enough to write a response.

Dear Annie,
I usually enjoy your column, but you missed the mark in your 11/18 column in two very significant ways.
First, your advice to "Frustrated" urged a parent to talk first to the teacher. I agree. The problem comes with your next piece of advice, which was that this was an opportunity for the son to learn how to deal with difficult people. Annie, the letter said the teacher "is mean and degrading and belittles the children on a daily basis." She also said, the children "are tormented each day." While this may be hyperbole, it's possible it's true. And if it is true, it is absolutely unacceptable, and she needs to remove her child from that atmosphere immediately. Too often we let things that are outrageous pass because they are done by authority figures. Being in a position of authority does not make tormenting children acceptable. No child should be subjected to this treatment.
Secondly, your advice to "Husband of a Sudden Bisexual" included this statement: "If your wife is bisexual, your marriage may not be reconcilable." While it is probable that this marriage is not reconcilable, the problem isn't bisexuality, per se, and your answer reinforces a false stereotype that says bisexuals are inherently promiscuous and can't be monogamous just because they're attracted to people of both sexes. To the contrary, bisexuals absolutely can be in faithful, committed monogamous relationships. Please be more careful about spreading these stereotypes about bisexuals! The Husband of a Sudden Bisexual's problem that may make the marriage irreconcilable is his wife's desire, which is she is acting on, to have sex with other people. The sex of the people she is having it with is immaterial.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Spiral Dynamics

So right now I'm struggling with the concept of Spiral Dynamics. I've encountered this before, but it's interesting to right now consider how it applies to ministry and our movement. Look at Table 1 in this paper for more information. What meme/worldview do you see Unitarian Universalism as operating from? Where do you see yourself? Where do you see your congregation? What are the limitations of the worldview from which you operate?
Meme 1 - Beige: SurvivalSense - survival, protection
Meme 2 - Purple: KinSpirits - tribalistic
Meme 3 - Red: PowerGods - Power, ego
Meme 4 - Blue: TruthForce - Authority, one right answer
Meme 5 - Orange: StriveDrive - Success
Meme 6 - Green: HumanBond - caring, community
Meme 7 - Yellow: FlexFlow - flexability, adaptability
Meme 8 - Turquoise: WholeView - spirituality, wholeness
(And do be polite in your response, even if you struggle with another's worldview.)

Music to My Soul

Today is my last morning at the UUMA Convocation in Ottawa. This morning Meg Barnhouse provided worship. Her song "All Will Be Well," in which she struggles with the words of Julian of Norwich, was amazing. Her storytelling was intimate and funny and deep with meaning as well. What a joy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Smallest Thing - It All Comes Together

The other day in a workshop on environmentalism, we heard about how people feel confronted by the overwhelming amount of what needs to be done, so they push it all away and do nothing.

Last night our UUA president was talking about how UUism can become more ethnically and racially diverse. He said that we don't get from here, where we are, to there, the true reflection of the diversity of the world, in one step. What we need to do is take the first step, perhaps the easiest step or perhaps the hardest.

Today Thomas Moore is talking about where we start in soul work, and he said something similar. We need to whittle it down to the smallest thing, the smallest change we can make. That's the change we need to make. That's a big challenge.

All too often in our lives we avoid doing anything because the task is too large. The truth is we need to take the small step. Letting ourselves be overwhelmed by the big picture gives us the luxury to not act at all. What we need to do is much harder: take the small step.

Strangely enough, this also relates to what I tell me English composition students. Too often they try to tackle a big subject, particularly in descriptive papers, and what I get is a shallow analysis. What is much more powerful is to take the small subject, and then really do it justice.

It all comes together to this: find the smallest step towards your soul, towards justice, towards your vocation, and take it.

The Way of Emptiness

Thomas Moore began his lecture at the UUMA Convo in Ottawa today with a story about emptiness. Nazruddin went to preach to a group of people, and when he got there he asked, "How many of you have heard me preach before?" The excited group of fans all raised their hands. He said, "Very good. You've heard me before, and so you already know what I would say." And he left. The next day he came back and asked the group, "How many of you have heard me preach before?" They'd learned their lesson, so none raised their hands. Then he said, "Well, if you've never heard me preach before, you won't understand what I was going to say." And he left. The next day he came back and asked, "How many of you have heard me preach before?" This time the confused crowd was split, and half raised their hands and half didn't. Nazruddin said, "Good. Those of you who heard me preach before, explain what I said to those who haven't." And he left.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Canadian Concert

Today we had a real treat at the UUMA Convocation. There was a concert of great Canadian performers. I didn't stay until the end, but I think I caught the real highlight: two Inuit throat singers, Becky and Kendra. They did a wonderful job explaining how Inuit throat singing is done in pairs with one person leading and the other person following, copying. It's a contest to see who can make the other person laugh, so it always ends in laughter. (Here's a link to a page with a video of throat singing, and I think it's the two of them. Sorry I couldn't embed it.) They performed a number of songs, explaining each one, and then had all of us try throat singing. If you can imagine a hall full of Unitarian Universalist ministers, paired into two teams, throat singing and trying to make the other team laugh, well, you're likely to laugh yourself at the image. But even funnier was the sight of UU ministers trying to do the dance... Now that I wish I had the video of to share with you. While there's a great deal of humor in it, and it's wonderful to see a cultural practice so full of joy like the Inuit throat singing, there's also beauty, grace, talent, and a deep and rich history. We were priviledged to have Becky and Kendra share such talent with us.

International Perspective

Here at UUMA Convocation 2009 in Ottawa, we are, necessarily, more aware of our international relations with other Unitarian and Universalist associations. The UUMA is our professional association for ministers serving or affiliated with UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) congregations, but also for ministers serving or affiliated with CUC (Candadian Unitarian Council) churches. We are not, here, the ministers of one religious organization.

At the ICUU (International Council of Unitarians and Universalists) workshop this afternoon, the point was really brought home that Unitarian Universalism is not a global religion. To paraphrase the ICUU president, we (the association of churches that is the UUA) are a global collection of religions that express liberal religion.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thomas Moore vs. the New Atheists? Buy Me Tickets!

So I'm here at the UUMA Convocation, and the keynote speaker this morning was Thomas Moore.

What I took from what Thomas Moore shared with us is that there is a divorce in American culture between science and religion, which is the split between mind/intellect and soul. There's nothing surprising in that idea, of course. But Thomas Moore put it simply pointedly, saying (or this is my interpretation of what he said) that most people stop developing their idea of God as children, and the ideas of God put out there the most in our culture are essentially the God we learn at age 6 or 7. Now, reflecting a bit on what he said, imagine if you stopped your understanding of what math is or literature is or science is or medicine is at age 6 or 7. Why do we think that this childhood idea of God is sufficient? My own question is why do even ministers support, uphold, even preach this childish idea of God?

One question that was put to Thomas Moore in the question and answer time was about the New Atheists. People have probably heard me rant about the "New Atheists" before, as I beleive that they misrepresent or ignore the existence of liberal religion. Well, Thomas Moore said something very similar, which is that they haven't debated a worthy opponent. They only set up the straw man of fundamentalism and then knock it down. He suggested Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, as a more worthy opponent. But then, he said, atheism would just melt into God. Moore also suggested he'd be willing to debate them. Now that's a discussion I'd like to see!

Convo Stories

Here at the UUMA Convocation in Ottawa, Ontario, a continent-wide gathering of Unitarian Universalist ministers. The last Convo was in 2002 in Birmingham, AL, so it's been seven years since we've had this meeting. Our keynote lecture is from Thomas Moore.

Thomas Moore began our lecture today with a Sufi story: Nazruddin asked a couple of men, what do you want people to say about you when you're lying there in the coffin and people are talking about you. The first one said he wanted to remembered as a good man. The second one wanted to be remembered as someone with a big heart. Then they asked Nazruddin what he wanted them to say about him. Nazruddin said, "I'd like them to look at me and say, 'Look! He's moving!'"

Great story. Of course, Thomas Moore tells it better.

Friday, November 6, 2009

To Maine, with Love

Today in the English composition class I teach, we studied Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech, "What, to a Slave, is the Fourth of July?" In it he says he is not going to make an argument, which he proceeds to make:
Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it.
and then:
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.
and then:
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman cannot be divine. Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may - I cannot. The time for such argument is past.
After the vote in Maine this week, I ask:

Would you have me argue that gay and lesbians are people? That their families are families? That their partnerships are true marriages? That their love is love?
Would you have me argue that people are entitled to love whom they love? That they are the rightful deciders of whom they shall spend their lives with?
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that hate is not divine, that God does not hate? That whis is not love cannot be of God. Who can reason on such a proposition? The time for such argument is past.

Now I do believe we should stand with Bishop John Shelby Spong, who said:

Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Prayer

I was asked to give the prayer at the Jackson Democratic Party's annual dinner tonight. What follows is the prayer I gave.

We all pray in different ways, and we often use different words for God—God, Yahweh, Allah, and some of us pray to the Goddess, or to others, and some of us don't pray at all. But here, in this place, we all join in united hope for the needs of the people of our region, and of all of Michigan, this country, and this world, so please join with me in bowing heads or holding hands.

Spirit of Life:

Today, in this hall, we pray for the people of Michigan, this country, and the world. We pray especially for the people of this state of Michigan, whom we are all called to serve in different ways. We pray especially for those among us who are called to service in our government, that they might find the strength, throughout all the pressures they face, to follow their conscience. And we pray for Democrats and Republicans, for the rich and the poor, for gay and for straight. We pray for all races and religions, and those with no religion. We pray for the first nations people on whose land we are privileged to stand. We pray for voters and for candidates, that their minds may hear the calls of justice, and their hearts may hear the calls of compassion. We pray that those who we choose on election day to lead us will be those who can hear the voices of those struggling in our community, for jobs, for healthcare, for education.

A very wise man once told a story about a stranger, beaten, robbed, and left wounded and alone on the side of the road, and about people who passed him by without helping, and then one who did. That wise man asked those who listened to his story, who was this man’s neighbor? That man, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth, called the Messiah, and the message from that story that has lived for centuries is that we are all neighbors—not just to the person sitting next to us, with whom we might agree, but to all the citizens of our city, our state, our country, our world.

There’s a story about another wise man, one who was raised in privilege, raised to be a prince, protected from all the troubles of the world, until he went out one day and saw the suffering of the people outside the palace gates. That man left the privilege of the palace to go and seek the answers to suffering. That man, who was Siddharta Gautama, called the Buddha, and he, too, taught us about the importance of paying attention to the suffering of others, and dedicating our lives to ending suffering.

Gathered here this evening, we are united in our desire to become better neighbors to one another. We are united in our desire to end suffering. We are a people united in a common goal: to create a strong and thriving community. May we be true today to our highest callings.

Blessed be, Ashe, Shalom, and Amen