Summer salon: Universalist theology

It's that time again. For our third summer since becoming a full-year church, our popular program of readings and discussion starts this coming Sunday. Like the first year we did this, someone will present a sample of the original writings of a personage of note, and then the audience will respond with their thoughts and ideas based upon what they've heard.

These salons are a return to our Transcendental roots of the early 1800’s, when “Many of the country's smartest thinkers, for example, were calling for the U.S. to finally establish an artistic and philosophical community for the first time -- to start really beefing up our school and university systems, stop automatically shipping off all our children to Europe in order to get a decent education, actually publish literary magazines and hold discussion salons and all the other things that at the time you literally had to sail all the way to London or Paris to find.” [Excerpt from a review by Jason Pettus of the book American Transcendentalism: A History, by Philip Gura.]

We've got an interesting line-up this year so we can hear, in detail, some examples of Universalist thought dating all the way back to Origen Adamantius of Alexander, c. 250 C.E. We'll hear how Clarence Skinner redefined Universalism in terms of the social gospel in the early 1900's; hear about Forrest Church's conversion from Unitarianism to Universalism late in life; and get a taste for the radicalism of Judith Sargent Murray.

Also on tap are readings from two local area preachers: Asa Saxe representing the late 1800's and Richard S. Gilbert from the late 1900's. And as a special treat, we'll have a presentation from the current editor about The Universalist Herald journal - "The Oldest Continuously Published Liberal Religious Periodical in North America."

It's church in the summertime - a more relaxed atmosphere but just as engaging for the mind and the spirit. Why not join us for a Sunday morning? In fact, why not bring along a friend, too? The coffee will be brewing.


The gun cabinet in my office

Subtitled: Long time peace activist installs gun cabinet in the minister's study.

No, I haven't lost it (my mind). Rather, I've found it (my heritage).

I remember the tall pine cabinet from my youth. It lived in the basement and held a variety of long-barrel weapons, including two .22 rifles, a shotgun, and one or two others of unknown caliber. When I was old enough, I was allowed to use the .22 for decreasing the population of woodchucks (groundhogs, whistle pigs) around our property, just as my father had done in the fields of his farm.

My father died before I was three years old. Everything I know about him is hand-me-down knowledge - stories learned from my family, and a few physical items that he constructed in his woodshop, most likely made in the winter when the demands of a farm are somewhat lighter.

Upon my mother's death (more than 40 years ago) I inherited a piano bench and a crudely made chair for dolls (my dad had made for my sister). Just last week, I inherited this gun cabinet. My brother had it for many years, and he'd added interior shelves, turning it into a display cabinet for his collection of smoking pipes and assorted trinkets. Now, in my writing room, it is filling up with Sun, Humanist, and UU World magazines, plus various antiquarian books useful for my sermons.

So this wooden case with glass door, which once housed weapons of destruction, has a new life housing words that I hope will be absorbed into my psyche and regurgitated out in sermons that may hopefully sway others into abandoning their weapons of destruction. Turning an item related to violence into a cache of thoughts and ideas for the betterment of humankind.

Lofty thinking, for sure, but I think my dad would approve.


Encounters of the weird, aka POV

Our church was open for touring and meditation this morning, as it is each Wednesday in the summer. As it happened, a tour bus of Southern Baptists had stopped in town, and several saw our "Open House" sign and came over to look around.

In our gift shop, a gentleman picked up a greeting card and asked, "What does this mean?" The card (illustrated at left) shows two stick figures holding hands with a child inside a heart floating above.*

Before I could answer he asked if it was about divorce and had something to do with custodial visitation rights, or some such thing.

Well that idea completely caught me off guard. In fact, even the idea that someone would have to inquire what the card's message was about caught me off guard because it seemed so obvious to me. My POV - Point of View - just ran smack up against a POV from the South so completely different from my own that each of us was wondering where the other was coming from.

I proceeded to explain it was a "Gay-friendly" card, meant to approve of two men raising a child as a family. His reply, "So it's not about divorce?" indicated he was struggling to grasp the intent, and then a moment later it must have sunk in. Instead of challenging me on selling a greeting card that might indicate divorce was somehow OK, he now wanted to elucidate me on why it would be wrong for gay people to have children.

I'd like to tell you that the headline of this story should read "Southern Baptist meets Unitarian Universalist and Love wins" but I can't. No minds were changed this morning, and no more people from the tour bus came into our church, either (I think he gave his fellow travelers a heads up to stay clear after he left our building).

Still, I can smile about the encounter because for one brief moment I had a bible-thumper in my church who wanted to correct me in my God-forsaken ways while standing in front of our exhibit of Victorian art prints of Jesus. WWJD, I wonder.

* Like the card? It is was created by Sara & Julia of Papersauruscreative and is available on Etsy, or in our gift shop at church.


Comedy, not creeds

Qualifications for membership: Comedy not creeds. A sense of humor. Wit with a funny bone. Guffaws, chortles, titters, grins and smiles most welcome.

I firmly believe that to be a Unitarian Universalist one must absolutely have a sense of humor. Being able to understand the absurdities in most major religions, to be both critical and comical, to take derision from others who don't get it and judge us negatively, to recognize the human condition as fallible and thus prone to mistakes, to understand satire as both a coping mechanism and wisdom... all the many things that our world throws at us require a sense of humor to avoid being emotionally and intellectually crushed.

A really good church will be one filled with laughter, one where a person goes for relief from the worries of the world in order to be recharged and able to leave uplifted in spirit. Art Linkletter used to say, "Laughter is the best medicine" and I say it is a medicine that touches, and heals, the soul.

We are the church that laughs. Of course, we can also be deathly serious at times, but it is laughter that saves the day and keeps us sane. Need a good laugh to help face reality? Come to my church!


Saying what needs to be said, naming the membership beast

Full Fair Share - the "gold star" on a report card handed out by the mother ship, the UUA. Every Unitarian Universalist congregation or society is strongly encouraged to identify and list every member, and then pay an annual assessment to the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston.

It is a system designed to both reward and punish societies for how they count membership. Of course, every congregation wants to appear healthy - growing year by year, or at the very least, maintaining a steady number of members. Societies are not easily judged on the work they do, the effect they have on people's hearts and minds within their walls or within their local communities outside the church. Such effects are too difficult to quantify, but membership numbers can be counted.

It doesn't matter if those members contribute financially, or participate regularly in their congregation. The UUA wants to keep their numbers up, and their flow of dues constant and growing.

At the local level, each church (under congregational polity) decides how they determine who is an active or inactive member, or just a "friend." Most congregations have policies or bylaws that specifically deal with how such a determination is to be done. In the church I currently serve, inactive membership is defined as a member who has not attended a worship service or function, or contributed financially, within a period of three years. Note that they are still considered to be a member, but their voting rights have been rescinded for matters at a congregational meeting, and they are not counted for the purpose of determining a quorum at such a meeting.

While there is little hardship for the church to continue sending newsletters to inactive members as a means of maintaining contact, paying dues to the UUA for such people can be a hardship, especially for a church with limited income from pledges and donations. But moving someone from the category of active to inactive member, and then removing them from the reports to the UUA in order to save on that annual assessment, results in the UUA contacting those inactive members and informing them they are no longer members of their local church, and if they want to continue receiving UU benefits such as The World magazine then they need to deal with the UUA directly.

This was done to members of our church a little while ago when we moved them to inactive status. The letter they got from the UUA totally incensed them - and why wouldn't it? They felt they had been abandoned by us, maybe even thrown out of our fold, when all that had been done was to change their membership status. They had, rightly, felt that we were their church whether they attended regularly or not. We also felt they were our members whether they attended regularly or not. Our doors are always open, and they are always welcome. But honoring our bylaws regarding voting status and removing them from our report of active members to the UUA generated major hard feelings in these long-term members.

I want to be completely clear about this. Once a member always a member until requested otherwise. If someone does not darken our doors for ten years we are still here for them, our doors are still open, and we'd love to reactivate their voting privileges. In fact, in the three years I've served this church, we've reactivated at least four members who had stopped attending. What grates on me is the bind created by our denominational headquarters which creates a financial hardship to continue reporting inactive members and paying dues on them vs. having the UUA interfere and create confusion and bad feelings with their communications.

Our denomination is often portrayed as having a membership of upper middle class people of means, or at least, who have a comfortable income. But the truth is that many smaller churches, especially rural churches, have members who are struggling in their day to day lives. Older members may be on limited retirement incomes, or have healthcare costs that restrict their ability to donate to their church. The costs of a congregation, however, just continue to rise - the price of energy to heat or cool a building, staff salaries (or the price of pulpit supply), postage, etc. Making ends meet for the members in their own private lives, and for their church community as well, can be a real challenge.

The UUA needs to know this and understand the quandary they create. While their assessment per member seems low, it is per member and not per pledge unit. The total can add up quickly. Indeed, for my congregation, the dues to the UUA approach 10% of our annual income, with another 4% of our income going to the regional district on top of that (the assessed regional fee is based on a percentage of our operating budget). Skimming 14% off the top of our annual income for denominational dues has a significant impact on our ability to do programming, or to do the outreach and mission work so important to being a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

If you've read this far I congratulate you. This is a much longer rant than I like to make but my frustration just wouldn't allow a shorter post. My members can only contribute so much toward their church, and by the way, they do a tremendously fantastic job of being generous with their limited resources. However, I am seriously considering advising my board of trustees to reconsider paying the full fair share assessment while we work to grow our church. And I want the UUA to back off on contacting those we identify as inactive members.


Shameless promotion

Regular readers of this blog know me as the part-time pastor of the wonderful Pullman Memorial Universalist congregation in Albion, New York, and also a part-time chaplain for Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY. What you may not know is what I do with the rest of my time when I'm not doing ministerial stuff.

Meet Lee Richards, entrepreneur. I have, for many years now, had my own business ventures. Indeed, way back in 1980 I started a woodworking business producing a variety of products from toys to kitchen cabinets to general house carpentry. That business generated income of varying degrees until I entered seminary. Since then I've utilized the internet for ecommerce and built several different websites - all based around paper - with help from lovely wife, Louise.

35mmBookshop is the number one resource on the web for publications about Leica cameras: out-of-print and current books, back issue magazines, instruction manuals, catalogs and sales brochures, and more. Leica Magazines in Detail is the associated blog.

MovieFanCollectibles.com features cinema memorabilia such as movie stills and photos, lobby cards, posters, press kit slides, and related items. This website is also supplemented by several blogs: Mexican & Spanish Movie Poster Art, Rubber Suit Monster Blog, Movie Fan Collectibles, and Movie Girls with a Gun.

Vintage Women's Books celebrates books by women authors, or books that have women as leading characters, from the turn of the century (late 1800's to early 1900's). This site's main appeal is the biographical material about the authors researched by Louise.

Model Airplane Magazines is my newest endeavor. Scale model planes are a popular hobby, and many people try to rehab old engines, or want to build their flyers from plans published in older magazines. I'm working to aggregate as many of the various titles into a one-stop-shop for folks so they can find their information easily and quickly.

All of these sites offer only a fraction of the material I have on hand. If you are searching for something in particular then shoot me a message - I very well may have it in stock but not listed on the site.

By the way, in addition to these "personal" websites I also maintain the PullmanMemorial.com webstore, the PullmanMemorial.org website, and, of course, this blog.

So I invite you to check out one or more of these online shops or blogs. Enjoy.


UU "Chicken Little" anxiety

[Guest blogger Louise Wu Richards]  Lee’s lending me his blog space this week to continue a conversation we were having about Unitarian Universalist writing.  I’m talking about essay writing, such as in the UU World, Quest (Church of the Larger Fellowship), and the wonderful proliferation of UU bloggers.  I love this stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, I love sermons, too, especially because they are a performance art holdover from an earlier time, which we all partake of together, like when we see a film, concert, or play.  I also love books by our venerable authors: those giant banquets of ideas to be savored.

As I age, what I’m noticing about UU essays is that their themes often repeat.  Each new essayist is struck by an idea for the first time, as if it were the first time, and makes it their own.  Sometimes they even advance the general UU discourse and deliver newly synthesized thought.  That is an exciting moment indeed!  A moment to be relished which makes all the mining of these essays worthwhile.  I am so indebted to all these thinkers and writers, because I don’t really do a lot of either of those.

If you read enough of these essays with repeating themes, they seem to sift themselves into genres.  I will talk a little more here about the genre of repeating UU themes which I have come to think of as “The Sky Is Falling” or a “Chicken Little” article.  What these articles have in common is anxiety about the state of UUism.  I have read many articles, for example, about the prematurely rumored death of Unitarian Universalism, our shrinking congregations, that we lack structure, and that we all don’t believe anything that can be enumerated easily.

When I read this anxiety, I just want to reassure the author with a motherly, “There, there now, it’ll be fine”  or  “Don’t panic!  Be calm and carry on!”  Because it has been quite alright with UUs for my lifetime, and if there still are thinking, independent, and spiritual people around, it’ll probably be okay in the future.  UUism has not died yet, and even has some congregations that qualify as mega churches.  Which kind of answers the second often repeated theme -- congregations (of every denomination, not just ours) cycle through birth, sometimes a “divorce” or schism, aging, sometimes rebirth or a restart, and death.  Congregations are living things.  That’s what living things do.

Finally, not having a formal structure, but instead having one we decide on in covenant with our intimate church community; or not having a set dogma, but rather deciding spiritual and moral matters according to our own consciences, are pretty much definitional to who we are.  If we start doing something else rules-wise, we will become something different than Unitarian Universalists.  Even people who belong to religious communities with a set dogma do not all believe the same thing when you get right down to it.  UUs at least are honest about that publicly.  Could any of us even imagine being in a congregation where we couldn’t talk about our beliefs openly? UUs have something very special.  We shouldn’t be too quick to give that up.  Not having a single theology doesn’t mean we don’t believe something, because we do.  The congregations I’ve been involved with, which grow and are lively, have deeply principled leaders and members who know their own minds and live as they believe.  That’s what liberal people of faith do.  We can’t help it.