Friday, February 28, 2014

Today in the Michigan Same-Sex Marriage Case...

Today I went along with the Hanover-Horton High School Gay-Straight Alliance to view the historic trial going on in the federal court in Detroit that will potentially overturn Michigan's constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.  The GSA group walked proudly and peacefully past the protestors for "traditional marriage" outside as we came into the federal court building.  Judge Friedman greeted us warmly as we came into the courtroom, asking if we were the high school group that he had heard was coming, giving the group president a moment to introduce the group, and saying he would stay around afterward to share some information about how the courts work and answer any questions excepting that he could not answer questions pertaining to the case.

Today in DeBoer vs. Snyder there was one witness on the stand.  DeBoer's team called their Harvard's Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Dr. Nancy Cott.  In addition to being a professor of history at Harvard, Cott was an expert witness for the federal case Perry v. Schwarzenegger against Proposition 8 in California, and is the author of the book Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation

Hearing Professor Cott was like getting to go to a Harvard lecture on the subject.  She deftly covered the history of marriage and explained that those who would uphold "traditional marriage" are aiming at a target that's always been moving.  She explained three main ways in which marriage has changed in the course of American history: asymmetrical (gender) roles, divorce, and race, and explained how each was relevant.  To Michigan's credit, she noted, we were one of the first to, early on, get rid of laws banning interracial marriage (which she made a point of showing were always about whiteness, and never about two other races marrying).  An interesting example of women's roles in marriage changing that she gave was that earlier in history women who married men from other countries automatically lost their American citizenship, because their identity was assumed to be subsumed under their husband's.  She described how marriage in America has been increasingly moving in a direction of equality and openness.  She cleanly swept aside religious concerns explaining that in America marriage had been a civil institution from the beginning, citing a statement by William Bradford defining marriage as a civil institution in America and a critical distinction from England.  She explained that clergy performing legal ceremonies are doing so because the state has entrusted to them and loaned to them its power.  And she clarified that clergy could impose additional restrictions on marriage to what the state imposes, such as a Catholic priest requiring people to be Catholic or not divorced, but that those additional restrictions did not, in turn, affect the state's qualifications for marriage.  As a Massachusetts resident, she said that same-sex marriage had had no discernible negative impact on heterosexual marriage, and that, to the contrary, there were younger people who had been uncomfortable with the institution because it was discriminatory who now felt more comfortable with the institution.  Overall, she nicely laid out that the arc of our nation's history bends towards marriage equality. 

The state in their questioning of Professor Cott, the state looked foolish and awkward to this decidedly biased viewer.  The lawyer for the state began by stating that she was going to be asking yes-or-no questions and asked Professor Cott to restrict her answers to yes or no.  Judge Friedman told Cott that she could also state if her answer could not be restricted to yes or no, and so Cott managed to give a more nuanced answer to almost every question.  It was clear from the questions that the state's case will rely on the importance of binary gender, on the importance of the state upholding a model of biological mother and father as ideal in childrearing, and the idea that the state has an interest in procreation.  The state's lawyer tried to pin her down on the idea of gender being binary as important to the state's interests, and Cott responded that so far gender had been understood as binary, but that was changing as we understood and included transgender as a category.  They managed to pin Cott down as saying that the state did have an interest in procreation, but then Cott was able to explain that as she had thought about it further, she would have to qualify it, because that was such a vague statement.  She explained that the state had an interest in procreation occurring, because we need people, but that as to whether or not marriages were procreative ones or not, the state had never expressed an interest, such as in limiting marriage to those within ages where procreation is possible.  The one point at which I think she floundered a bit was in making the case for why we shouldn't also allow polygamy, which the state's lawyer defined as something that "fundamentalist Mormons" believe in.  Cott chose to address this by denying that any religious group existed that believed in polygamy, and that, rather, those Mormons who did believe in it were not only doing something illegal but something that went against their religion.  I think this was a weak argument for why same-sex marriage is different than polygamy, and a narrow understanding of Mormonism as monolithic and not viewing fundamentalist offshoots as valid religious organizations. 

The one awkward moment for DeBoer's attorney this morning came when he compared Michigan's case to the other states where Federal judges have overturned same-sex marriage bans.  Judge Friedman quickly pointed out that those had been summary decisions, not full trials like this one.  The lawyer quickly regrouped and said not that those were pointing for how this should be decided but rather that when the lawyer found in DeBoer's favor, as he surely must, that the Michigan decision would show that those decisions had been correct and uphold them further. 

As the court day concluded, Judge Friedman asked the state's attorneys how long each of their witnesses was likely to take, so that they could all have a sense of the timeline for the case.  It sounds like there will be another three days, roughly, of testimony as the state now brings their witnesses.

Afterwards, Judge Friedman did indeed come talk with our GSA group.  He seemed quite delighted in having us there, and introduced us to various people, including Judith Ellen Levy who has been nominated as a U.S. District Judge by President Obama and is currently the Civil Rights Chief of the US Attorney's Office in Eastern Michigan.  Levy is an openly gay attorney and was very friendly to the GSA and told them what the state of gay rights was like when she was in college and what her own marriage ceremony was like (in DC, if I recall correctly) -- her family sat in the jury box and gave her a "life sentence."  It was great for the GSA to get to meet this great role model in the legal and judicial field.  After that, Judge Friedman returned and told us about how the district court works, explaining with great enthusiasm the different types of cases and giving examples of a drug case and a case against Winnebago that he had judged, since he happened to have their displays hanging around and could use them as examples.  He steered clear of talking about the DeBoer vs. Snyder case except to say that he had left time after the case before his next case, as he intended to issue the decision right away since it was such an important case, and that there had already been groups, such as the county clerks association, asking for a stay, and it was common in cases like this one.  He didn't outright say that a stay would be issued immediately, but it certainly sounded likely. 

After today, my hopes are even higher than ever that equality will prevail soon in Michigan.  And when we do, we'll be the first state to have struck down a same-sex marriage ban with a full trial, making our stand even stronger.  I'm thankful the GSA invited me to attend with them today, and glad I did.  It was an uplifting day, full of hope and possibility.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tips for Preaching from Tablet

I've been using my tablet (a Nexus 7 Android tablet, and before that my Kindle) to preach from rather than paper-printed text as of late, something that I know some of my colleagues are doing but some are hesitant about.  There are some good reasons for doing so:

1.  It saves paper.

That would be enough, but here are some more:

2.  I can move around with it and am not tied to the pulpit, even if I want to preach from a manuscript.
3.  It cuts down on clutter and filing. 
4.  No shuffling or sliding or flipping paper noises.
5.  Nobody accidentally walks away with part of my manuscript.
6.  I never lose a page.
7.  I never get to the middle and find out that the ink ran out midway through printing.
8.  I never leave a page on my printer.
9.  I never grab the wrong folder.
10.  For Christmas Eve and other dimly lit services, it's back-lit.
11.  Color doesn't cost more!  

For people worrying about technology failures, I can say that I've never had the tablet or Kindle technology let me down, but I've had a number of paper-related problems, including running out of ink, a printer that fails to communicate with my computer, and #5-9 above.  But I have taken to sending the file to both my tablet and my Kindle and bringing them both, just in case, so if the tablet had failed to charge fully the night before, for example, the Kindle would be ready to grab.  I've never had the electronic technology fail me, though, whereas I've had numerous problems with paper, from text where the ink ran out to grabbing the wrong folder, to leaving a page on the printer. 

There are some things that are different about the tablet, however, so here are a few tips:
  1. Experiment with font sizes.  I have good eyes and normally preach with a 12-point font.  I find that if I set the font to 26-point, it's the right size for me on the tablet and Kindle.  Another way to do it is to set the font to what you would normally use, and then manipulate the paper size to be tablet-sized.  Both of these formatting options work with the Kindle.  I've only used the former with the tablet, but I assume the later would work. 
  2. Lock the screen rotation, so that if you're walking around and hold it at a little bit of an angle, it doesn't keep flipping back and forth in orientation.
  3. Experiment with different apps to read it in.  I was using the Adobe app, but have found I prefer to read it in the Kindle app.  The reason is that I like to tap on the corner to turn pages rather than swipe, as I find the motion both less distracting and better for keeping one hand free while preaching.  An advantage of the Adobe app is that you can make hand-written notes on the document if you want.  Sometimes I open the file in both so that I have this choice.  If I want to use the Kindle app, however, it's better to e-mail it to my Kindle (using your Kindle or Kindle app's e-mail address, which you can find out in Amazon), rather than just e-mailing it to myself and opening in Kindle. I find if you just open it using Kindle, if you close the app it loses the file and you have to do it again. 
  4. Find a good cover with a strap to slip your hand in on back.  My tablet's cover isn't optimal, and I like my Kindle's cover better.  It's this one, which has a strap to slip my hand in, so that I don't have to be holding on to the tablet, and frees up the thumb to flip pages.  I plan to get essentially the same cover for my tablet soon.  Whatever your choice, make sure that cover looks professional enough that it wouldn't be out of place at a wedding or funeral, and that the tablet doesn't slip out of it easily, which is the problem with my current one. 
  5. Make sure your tablet is set so that it won't time out and shut down during the meditation or hymn, especially if you have a password on it.
  6. This is the one I've just learned.  You don't see as much on a page, so your page breaks are very important.  It may seem at first like you want to have a page break at the end of an element, but if you can't tell it's the end of an element your voice won't have the right inflection as you end the reading.  So put some sort of symbol at the end of each element -- maybe a little chalice -- so that you know the reading has come to an end.  And go through and make sure that all your page breaks are not at places you'll find jarring.  
That's really all there is to it -- it's easier than it seems.  And if you're still asking why you should do this, go back to reason #1.  That's all you need. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What's In a Name?

As the UUA has rolled out it's new logo, I've seen a number of places where folks have asked if we should consider changing our name.  Unitarian Universalism is a mouthful.  And it refers to old theological arguments that don't have a lot of relevance to some of our members.  For example, Tom Schade asks the question: "The biggest question of our public presence is should we try to build new congregations and liberal religious communities under the name 'Unitarian Universalism' or under more post-denominational language?"

When I was in my first year of ministry, I arrived at a church that was in the midst of a discussion about name change.  It was a new church that had started with a name that many understood to be a temporary one, but others understood to be the permanent one.  The congregation met and discussed and polled and came up with some top choices that were names like "Harmony Church."  After much discussion, it was time for a vote.  And by a narrow margin, they kept their original name.

My own church has members who every so often remark upon the idea that "Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty" is a mouthful.  There are other problems with the name. "East Liberty" refers to a school district that no longer exists; our mailing address is Clarklake, and the nearest city is Jackson.  (Our former minister, the late Rev. Ruth Smith used to say "East Liberty is a state of mind.")  "Church" is a problematic term for some, and may turn away people from non-Christian backgrounds -- a reason why "Society" and "Congregation" are used by so many other UU congregations.  "Universalist Unitarian" is designed to highlight our Universalist heritage, but it confuses many people who are familiar with our denomination. 

I think it's highly unlikely that Unitarian Universalism will change it's name as a faith or that the UUA will change it's name as an association.  {And thinking about the term as both a faith and a denomination/association needs to be unpacked more than I'm doing here.  For many "Unitarian Universalism" doesn't describe their faith, only their association.  For me, it does both.  It's as complicated is untangling whether the flaming chalice is a religious symbol or a logo, or both, when used by the UUA and our churches.)

Back in 2012 Chris Walton did an analysis of UU congregations' names in the UU World.  At that time 756/1054 congregations used "Unitarian Universalist" in their name, and that wasn't counting the "Unitarian Universalists," Universalist Unitarian," just "Unitarian" or "Universalist" or other combinations.  These added more than 150 more.  So changing "Unitarian Universalist Association" to something else would create a lot of work for the individual churches, not unlike what we went through at merger. 

That being said, it's not impossible.  It could be done.  And I think it's the right thing to be asking the question about our denomination's name.  What does "Unitarian Universalism" mean to you?  Can you imagine a name that would be a better fit?  What would be your choice to name your faith?  How do we capture this free-thinking non-creedal inherent-worth-proclaiming love-affirming historically-rooted faith of ours in a phrase shorter than "Unitarian Universalism"?  The Standing on the Side of Love movement has captured our attention in a few short years -- are we morphing to identify more as "the Love people" than as Unitarian Universalists?  Does SSL mean more to some of us than UUA?  Back in that analysis by Chris Walton, the most common theological term in our church names was "All Souls," which was used then by 22 churches including three of our ten largest.  Is "All Souls" something that is meaningful to you? 

As someone born after merger and raised UU, I've been a Unitarian Universalist most of my life.  The term does carry meaning and relevance to me.  But UUism by any other name would still be my faith. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Open Letter to the UUA

I read the UU World article on the new logo, branding, and outreach effort with great interest.  The article tapped into some things I've been frustrated about and some things I've been excited about.  A couple of points in the article really resonated with me (the italics are mine):
The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s Program and Strategy Officer, said the new initiative developed out of a growing realization that the UUA and its congregations have been sending “inconsistent” messages about Unitarian Universalism into the larger world.
“We want congregations to think about the messages their congregations are sending out to the world that doesn’t know anything about them,” she added. “That includes thinking about how their building looks to guests, the structure of their services, their programs, whether they’re inward-oriented or serving the community, and what their online presence is like.
And the UUA is developing other resources for congregations, regional groups, and the national association to use. This effort is about much more than a new logo and a new look for the website, Cooley said. “We have to figure out how we live out this faith of ours, not just how to sell it. We need to get clearer about the ways the culture is changing and the ways we serve that culture.” 
Bravo.  Thank you for your vision.  Here's what I need to start.

I'm a minister who has been out in the field for over a decade, and is relatively technologically proficient for someone in the ministry with a liberal arts degree preceding that, but there are ways in which I was unprepared for the way ministry and church would change during my ministry.  And as a minister of a relatively small church, I see ways in which my church is unable to respond.  There are concrete things that the UUA could do that would make things easier.

In my situation, I'm a minister who is the person who creates our church webpage (and created our UUMA chapter webpage and the Ohio River Group webpage).  Nobody else in my church for a long period of time had the know-how (although this is starting to change).  A small, rural congregation, we had no money to pay a professional website developer.  The end result?  A webpage that is serviceable, but not a strong online presence.  It's been my opinion that there are a lot of small churches and even some larger ones with poor websites.  I can see two solutions to this.  One is churches grouping together.  But with our tendency to not collaborate well -- something I hope will change -- this kind of thing is hard to get going.  A simpler solution is for the UUA to provide a basic webpage template for congregations that is in keeping with UUA branding and customizable to some extent for our local congregation information, or for the UUA to create strong pieces -- graphics and videos, etc. -- that can be incorporated into our websites.

When you add to that the need to create church Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Google + pages, and more, this becomes even more impossible for many congregations -- small, rural, and aging ones, in particular -- to do well.  There's been a lot of good work from the UU Media Collaborative and UU Media Works and others online, but good-quality professional images that we can post and tweet are always needed.

When we were doing newspaper advertising, the UUA created professional advertisements, and congregations could buy the packet for customizing and using in our local newspapers. We still use print materials, and it would be easy to create all sorts of them to customize to a local setting and get printed.  I struggled this week with finding "Standing on the Side of Love" brochures that I could bring to a local event.  I had the choice of buying ones from the UUA Bookstore, which would leave anyone picking it up with no clue how to connect locally, or making my own from scratch.  SSL does have images that we can cut and paste, and thankfully tells us the hex code for the color and the font name (but not where to find Scala Sans for free), but whole brochures, business cards, etc., that we could then customize would be so easy to make available to us.  (By the way, could you provide the font name and color values for that new brand?  I also hope it's a font easily available.  I'm not finding what looks like an exact match.)  With no administrative staff in my small church, if I want to have a special SSL handout for our event Friday, it's up to me to make one, with hours that could be spent elsewhere if something was more grab-and-go online.  The end result will also likely be less professional.

Lastly, the biggest and most important issue I've struggled with.  To bring my 158-year-old congregation into the ability to podcast and post videos, we've encountered many barriers, from willing Sunday morning volunteers to people with the technological know-how to purchasing equipment.  We've been painstakingly putting the pieces in place -- ability to digitally record, a video camera -- but another barrier from the Association remains: our hymnal.  I know that I'm hearing that exciting, dynamic worship isn't always sermon-based, but the sermon is practically the only thing we have the copyright to.  The idea that we could at a local level track down the copyright permissions for any hymns we use is an obstacle we will never overcome.  I hear from my local Lutheran colleagues that they pay an annual fee to their denomination which covers use of anything in their hymnal for use in worship and using for videos, podcasts, etc.  What I hear from my UU colleagues is that they either ignore copyright or post only the sermon, or make the videos or audios only available to their members.  Having a hymnal where we know we can use anything in our worship service and still make that worship service accessible technologically is a must for our congregations going forward.  If we want to think about reaching out beyond our four walls, it would be great to be able to do so with music and worship.

In a nutshell, there are four technological obstacles that I see small congregations unable to conquer that our larger Association could help with:
  • Professional webpage templates
  • Professional graphics and videos
  • Professional downloads for customizable print materials
  • Copyrights for electronic transmission of worship
Conquer these, and you'll free us up to do that reaching out to our larger community and to the "nones." 

Thank you again for your vision.  I look forward to having the tools to address it.